NT Eschatology—Letters 07
In our ongoing look at the eschatology of the New Testament (which started here), we’ll continue our brief look at 1 Corinthians.
As we noted previously, 1 Corinthians was written from Ephesus in 55 CE, roughly twenty years after the time of Jesus and about ten years before the outbreak of the Jewish-Roman war (66 CE). Paul wrote:
Brothers and sisters, I want you to be sure of the fact that our ancestors were all under the cloud and they all went through the sea. All were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. They drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. However, God was unhappy with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. These things were examples for us, so we won’t crave evil things like they did. Don’t worship false gods like some of them did, as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink and they got up to play. Let’s not practice sexual immorality, like some of them did, and twenty-three thousand died in one day. Let’s not test Christ, like some of them did, and were killed by the snakes. Let’s not grumble, like some of them did, and were killed by the destroyer. These things happened to them as an example and were written as a warning for us to whom the end of time has come.
There are some really important points here. First, I don’t particularly like the Common English Bible’s translation of version 11. It doesn’t capture Paul’s words well (if at all). But, before we get there, let’s look at a couple of other things.
In the first few verses, Paul wants the followers of The Way of Jesus at Corinth to understand the time in which they were living—that of the “New Exodus.” Just like the ancient Hebrews who traveled with Moses and wandered through the wilderness, Paul, the Corinthians, and their contemporaries, were following Jesus and wandering through the wilderness. Being “under the cloud” and going “through the sea,” “baptized” the Hebrews “into Moses,” who, in turn was being led by Yahweh’s presence out of bondage and starting the journey into the Promised Land. Likewise, Paul, the Corinthians, and their contemporaries were baptized into Jesus (the new “Moses,” as Matthew’s Gospel makes clear), who, in turn was following Yahweh into the “new” Promised Land. However, like the ancient Hebrews, Paul, the Corinthians, and their contemporaries would have to go through a “wilderness” experience. This, Paul assured them, was their wilderness time.
Next, notice that, just because “all” of the ancient Hebrews followed Moses and were “baptized” into Moses, didn’t mean that “all” of them would make it to their destination — even though they “all” ate the same “spiritual food” and drank the same “spiritual drink.”1 Even though the were all together on this journey, “most of them” didn’t make it to their destination—“they were struck down in the wilderness” (verse 5). Paul brings this up so that the Corinthian followers won’t think they’ve got it made now that they are followers of The Way of Jesus; just because they’ve been baptized. They’re going through their own “wilderness” experience. Some of them might not make it to the other side. They must remain faithful.
Paul then states that those stories were recorded “as an example and were written as a warning for us to whom the end of time has come” (verse 11). Again, the CEB really drops the ball here. Paul was not talking about the “end of time.” The word he used is αἰών (aiōn) and means “age.” That’s what Jesus was talking about (Matthew 24-25; cf. Matthew 13.36-50). It’s what the disciples asked about (Matthew 24.1-3). That’s what Paul’s been talking about throughout this letter (as we saw last time) and what he’ll talk about in some of his other letters (Galatians 2.1-5; Ephesians 1.20-21; 2.1-7; etc.).
But notice the time table of this. Paul stated that he and the Corinthians (at least) were living in the “end of the age,” that it “has come.” This isn’t something that can be postponed into the indefinite future. Nor can it be supposed that Paul is here speaking about another “end” to a different “age.” No. The text is clear. As these other translations show, Paul believed that he and his contemporaries were living at the close of the then existing age. There’s nothing in any of his writing that indicates that he was looking forward to anything other than the end of the then existing age, the Jewish Age. The age Jesus predicted would end with the fall of the Temple in 70 CE.
Furthermore, the “wilderness” period that Paul parallels was a period of temporary testing. Would the people be faithful even in great trials? Would they really continue on and follow Yahweh when things got rough or would they return to their “old ways”? That’s the test. If they remained faithful, they would get the benefits. But if they failed, they wouldn’t.
Now, in the original Exodus story, those who made it, and, specifically, their offspring, were already in the Promised Land! They didn’t have to worry about being “struck down” in the wilderness. It wasn’t their time. Certainly, they had their own issues, and they would need to remain faithful, but that wilderness experience was for their ancestors.
Likewise, these warning or “judgment” passages are not for our time. Paul’s warning here is not to us. He wasn’t writing to us. We can learn things from them, yes, but they don’t speak to our time or any future time. We now live in the then coming age, the “Promised Land,” i.e., the Realm of G‑d.
Therefore, like we stated before, since the war between the Jews and Rome hadn’t happened yet (and, by the way, Paul was executed before the war began), it wouldn’t make sense to suppose Paul was referring to any other event. In fact, we would be well within reason to suggest he means the same event—the war between the Jews and the Romans within roughly ten years. That event would be the “end of the age” and the beginning of the “age to come.”
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In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
1. Here, to me anyway, there seems to be allusions to the Eucharist that Paul will discuss later on. It also addresses some of the issues regarding the “dangers” of partaking of the Eucharist inappropriately; 1 Corinthians 11.17ff.