NT Eschatology—Letters 09
As we’ve been studying the eschatology of the New Testament (which started way back here), one thing keeps coming up: the events that Jesus predicted — the destruction of the Temple marking the end of the Old Covenantal age and all that it would entail — hadn’t occurred yet. The first followers of Jesus were still waiting for that to happen. Therefore, when we read about the then “present evil age,” for example, it was still pointing to that event. That is, the writers and editors of the New Testament wouldn’t be looking for the end of a completely different age, much less the “end of the world” as we understand it, when the age Jesus referred to was still existing.
With that stated, we turn briefly to Paul’s letter to the followers of The Way of Jesus in Rome.
I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice — it was the choice of the one who subjected it — but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free.
There are a couple of things here that are tied to one another. But first, we have to address the mistranslation of verse 18. The Greek text, taken from Mounce Reverse-Interlinear New Testament, is:
γάρ λογίζομαι ὅτι ὁ πάθημα ὁ νῦν καιρός οὐ ἄξιος πρός ὁ δόξα μέλλω ἀποκαλύπτω εἰς ἡμεῖς
gar logizomai hoti ho pathēma ho nyn kairos ou axios pros ho doxa mellō apokalyptō eis hēmeis
But even Mounce translates it poorly:
For I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us.
The reason I stress this is because translaters seem determined to mistranslate μέλλω (mellō). The word mello is best understood as “about to.” As can be seen here, several translations give an indefinite time for when they would be rescued from suffering and the “glory…[would] be revealed.” For example:
Complete Jewish Bible: “I don’t think the sufferings we are going through now are even worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us in the future.”
New Living Translation: “Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later.”
It’s like we’re saying to ourselves, “Paul just couldn’t have meant ‘about to’. Or, if he did, he was obviously wrong and we need to edit that into the text.” That sounds really familiar.
While some translations don’t seem to know what to do with mello, other versions translate it correctly:
Amplified Bible: [But what of that?] For I consider that the sufferings of this present time (this present life) are not worth being compared with the glory that is about to be revealed to us and in us and for us and conferred on us!
God’s Word Translation: I consider our present sufferings insignificant compared to the glory that will soon be revealed to us.
Young’s Literal Translation: For I reckon that the sufferings of the present time [are] not worthy [to be compared] with the glory about to be revealed in us.
Even the commonly used New Revised Standard gets it right:
New Revised Standard Version: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.
It does us no good to assume that Paul was wrong here. Or, more to the point, that he was actually referring to an event that was to happen in some future generation. Paul ties the “glory about to be revealed” to the release of their then present suffering. There’s no comfort in saying, “Yeah, I know you’re suffering. But don’t worry! Another generation of followers will be rescued from their persecution! Take comfort in that.”
Paul was writing to real people suffering real persecution in the first century. Whatever he’s talking about must, first and foremost, apply to them. That’s what biblical interpretation is all about — seeking to understand things from the perspective of the original audience. And this rescue is not only beneficial for those followers of Jesus. No. As the text points out, the creation itself is “on tiptoe with expectation”* for the revealing of G‑d’s children.
So, we have to ask ourselves, what happened that would relieve the suffering of these people — that would be beneficial, not only to them but for all creation? In other words, what “glory” was “about to be revealed?”
First a word about “glory.” It seems that we think that “glory” is some kind of utopia, of “heaven.” But that’s not quite right. Paul wrote about the coming “glory” in 2 Corinthians 3. Starting with verse 7, he wrote:
The ministry that brought death was carved in letters on stone tablets. It came with such glory that the Israelites couldn’t look for long at Moses’ face because his face was shining with glory, even though it was a fading glory. Won’t the ministry of the Spirit be much more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation has glory, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness? In fact, what was glorious isn’t glorious now, because of the glory that is brighter. If the glory that fades away was glorious, how much more glorious is the one that lasts (vv.7-11)!
Paul states that the two ages have “glory” — the Old Covenant age has one type of glory and the New Covenant age has another type of glory. The Old Covenant age “brought condemnation” and its glory was fading away. This is very important. Contrary to what a lot of people think, the Old Covenant didn’t end with the resurrection of Jesus. That’s when it started to fade away.
Parallel with that, the New Covenant age started with the resurrection and began to grow and would eventually be “more glorious” than the previous age. The New Covenant age would finally bring the “righteousness” that everyone was longing for. Paul could see the Old Covenant age fading away and the New Covenant age growing brighter because the veil had been removed by Christ. He could see the deliverance and righteousness coming. Because of that, Paul had hope.
So, since we have such a hope, we act with great confidence. We aren’t like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face so that the Israelites couldn’t watch the end of what was fading away. But their minds were closed. Right up to the present day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. The veil is not removed because it is taken away by Christ. Even today, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts. But whenever someone turns back to the Lord, the veil is removed. The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Lord’s Spirit is, there is freedom. All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (vv. 12-18).
The second question is, “Was the ‘glory’ revealed in the first century?” Since the “glory” is “righteousness” and reconciliation found only in the Realm of God (the New Covenant age) that continues to grow and spread — that is, once the old is removed leaving the new — then, yes, it was. As we’ve seen throughout this series, the Realm of G‑d was fully established when Jerusalem fell in 70 CE. The Old Covenantal age was completely removed leaving the fully established Realm of G‑d. From that time to the present and on into the future, G‑d’s Realm continues to grow and spread throughout all creation. This interpretation fits perfectly with Jesus’ proclamation that the first century generation would witness that event. Furthermore, since Jesus’ prediction was still in the immediate future from when Paul penned this letter, it makes sense that Paul would be referring to the same thing.
For Paul and his contemporaries, the close of the Old Covenant age was the beginning of the “age to come,” the Messianic age. The time when G‑d’s Realm would be fully established “on earth as in heaven.” But, since that didn’t happen the way we thought it should, we just write it off believing that it didn’t. And then we have to come up with all kinds of theories about what Paul really meant or just hold the view that he and the other writers were just flat out wrong.
Again, I think this speaks more to our own hubris than that of the biblical writers. As we’ve noted before, it doesn’t even seem to enter our minds that we could be wrong in our interpretations of what the New Testament writers meant when they wrote about the “end of the age.”
I believe that Paul’s referring to the full revelation of the New Covenant age, the Realm of G‑d. During the first century, as we’ve noted previously, there was a time when both the Old Covenant (referred to as “the present age”) and the New Covenant (referred to as “the coming age” or the Realm of G‑d) were overlapping. But there would come a time when the former would finally fade away and the latter would remain. For Paul, that day would not only bring relief from their present suffering, it would bring justice for them and all creation.
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In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
* The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation. Copyright © 2011 by Nicholas Thomas Wright. HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.