Why we need a sort of Pentecostal eschatology today

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I have been working through Craig Keener’s Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost (2016) to prepare some teaching materials on Pentecostal hermeneutics. It’s a fairly casual read, so far at least. I could really do with something a bit more technical. But it’s a good introduction, and the theme rather invites a bit of personal fervour. It’s a model of Theological Interpretation of Scripture with a strong emphasis on the experiential dimension that the reader brings to the work of interpretation.

A key element of a Pentecostal hermeneutic, Keener argues, is eschatology. I’d agree with that—in fact, I’d say that the key to any good New Testament hermeneutic is eschatology. But I have discovered to my surprise that I’m closer in some ways to the eschatology of old school Pentecostalism than to Keener’s rather moderate account of the place of the Spirit of prophecy in the life of the church.

Craig Keener’s Pentecostal eschatology

We live in the “last days,” Keener says, when the Spirit has been poured out on those who call on the name of Jesus Christ, and we learn from Peter’s Pentecost speech that “God is teaching a new messianic, and therefore eschatological, framework for conceptualizing Scripture.”

That’s Keener locating this section in a Pentecostal hermeneutics. I’m not sure how “new” Peter thought his use of Joel was, but he is certainly working with an eschatological framework.

The restorationist or revivalist paradigm of classic Pentecostalism, however, is faulty. Historical experience is uneven, but the Spirit was given to empower the mission of the church throughout history, not sporadically at moments of revival. That’s very evangelical, of course. Play down the enthusiasm, play down the disruption.

The church lives in the “already/not yet.” “Jesus not only announced the coming kingdom; his signs were a foretaste of the fulness of that kingdom.” Paul says that Christ has “delivered us from this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Our minds should be conformed not to the standards of this age but to the standards of the age to come (Rom. 12:2). “This approach reveals Paul’s understanding about the eschatological era impinging on the present, and naturally demands that we read Scripture from this eschatological perspective as well.”

Peter modifies the quotation from Joel, changing “after these things” to “in the last days”:

And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17–18; cf. Joel 3:1 LXX)

The restoration will be preceded by an “apostasy among the insincere” and a period of great suffering (Jer. 23:20; 30:24; Ezek. 38:16; Dan, 10:14), culminating in a final “day of the Lord” (Acts 2:20). In essence, the phrase “the last days” means “the eschatological time.” The “eschatological tribulation” represents “the entire present era, a period of birth pangs preceding the new world.”

Keener argues, lastly, that there is no reason to think that Luke expected the prophetic empowerment of the Spirit to end before the Lord’s return:

Luke would hardly emphasize that this era was inaugurated on Pentecost and then expect us to infer, without clear evidence, that the era would be phased out before its consummation at Christ’s return.

Let’s summarise. In Keener’s account, the “last days” begin with the outpouring of the Spirit of prophecy for the mission of the church and will continue through to a final climactic period of apostasy, tribulation, the return of Christ, and presumably the restoration of Israel. These are “last days” stretched out, like a piece of elastic, until the end of history as we know it.

But no elastic can be stretched indefinitely, and I would argue that we need to let go and allow the elastic to resume, if rather violently, its original historical reach.

The “last days”

The expression “last days” is found a few times in the New Testament. In Hebrews 1:1-2 the “last days” in which God has spoken to Israel by his Son are contrasted with the many times in the past when he spoke through the prophets. But there is a clear enough note of coming judgment on Israel in the letter (e.g., Heb. 2:2-3; 10:12-13, 36-39; 12:26-29) that we can understand the expression eschatologically as a reference to the period leading to the ruin of the generation which opposed Jesus.

Paul, or an associate, states that “in the last days there will come times of difficulty, etc., and that the apostolic team will have to deal with this after his death (2 Tim. 3:1; 4:1-8; cf. 2 Pet. 3:3).

James warns the unrighteous rich that their wealth will be of no use to them “in the last days”; they will soon face their judge (Jas. 5:1-3, 7-9).

In the Old Testament we have reference to the “latter days,” when Israel would be restored and Jerusalem would become a lively religious and political hub for the surrounding nations (e.g., Is. 2:2; Hos. 3:5; Mic. 4:1).

In the Dead Sea Scrolls and Pseudepigrapha the phrase refers—I think pretty consistently—to contemporary periods of religious crisis faced by the sectarians and other groups. For example, the Community Rule begins:

This is the rule for all the congregation of Israel in the Last Days, when they are mobilized to join the Yahad. They must live by the law of the Sons of Zadok, the priests, and the men of their Covenant, they who ceased to walk in the way of the people. These same are the men of His party who kept His Covenant during evil times, and so atoned for the land. (1QSa 1:1–3)

So in the Old Testament, we have an expectation of a resolution to Israel’s internal disorder and geo-political weakness that will bring to an end the conflicts with the Mesopotamian empires.

By the time of the New Testament, the focus has shifted to Greece and Rome, and in Qumran in particular we have an intensified consciousness of the “last days” as a time of internal disorder and geo-political weakness that will end with the spectacular defeat of Rome.

My question, then, is: why do we not hear Peter’s message in similar terms, as having much the same historical purview? The “last days” is, likewise, a reference to the same immediate experience of internal disorder and geo-political weakness, only a small prophetic community in Israel now understands the paradoxical means by which the crisis will be resolved.

I make the same point regarding Paul’s assertion that the Lord Jesus Christ gave himself for the sins of Israel “to deliver us from the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4) in my recent CBQ article.

The coming of the Son of Man

I would also argue that in the New Testament the vision of the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven very naturally has the resolution of a historical crisis in view.

In Daniel 7:13-27, the figure in the form of a son of man—in contrast to the savage beast-kingdoms—represents the righteous people of the saints of the Most High, persecuted in the early second century BC by the arrogant and blasphemous Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes. The Greek kingdom is judged and destroyed, and the people of the saints of the Most High are vindicated and become the new “imperial” power, served by the nations.

Jesus and his followers reappropriated this prophetic image to explain what was happening in the first century. It was first applied to Jesus, but he himself represented and embodied and identified with those who would suffer and be vindicated after him.

But the point to stress is that in the New Testament, as in Daniel, the vision marks the end of the historical crisis and the inauguration of a new imperial order.

So I think we can reasonably say that the “last days” are the period of eschatological disruption experienced by God’s people under the European powers, culminating in the spectacular conversion of Rome to the worship of the living God of Israel and to the rule of his Son, which was the public vindication of those who had faithfully born Spirit-empowered witness to Jesus throughout the period.

The Spirit of prophecy is poured out when there is something to say

If the scope of the “last days” is historically limited, however, there is some reason to question Keener’s contention that what Luke describes here has remained relevant in principle for the church at all times.

What the early church received collectively was the gift of foreseeing and prophesying the future judgment against rebellious Israel and, as matters unfolded, the rule of Jesus and the martyrs over a region until then governed by Rome.

The Spirit was poured out for the purpose of a specific historical proclamation or euangelion—like any other euangelion in the ancient world. When that outcome—or those outcomes—were realised, the vision and boldness to proclaim were no longer needed, and the church settled into the routine of priestly service in the Roman empire and under subsequent political systems.

In the past, YHWH sent a solitary prophet to proclaim to Israel what was about to happen—Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus. Following the death of the Son sent to the recalcitrant tenants of the vineyard, he appointed and empowered a whole motley community, young and old, men and women, even the slaves among them, to do the same thing, to perform the same type of limited prophetic task.

This does not mean that the church has not needed the Spirit at other times, just not the Pentecostal moment with its emphasis on eschatological witness. The church still lives according to the Spirit of a new covenant between God and his people, but the Spirit of Pentecost, drawn from Joel, not from Ezekiel (cf. Ezek. 36:36:26-27; 37:14; 39:29).

But then I also wonder whether we do not again need a grassroots outpouring of the Spirit in order to see and articulate more clearly where the God of history is, and what he is doing, at this present moment. It won’t look like classic Pentecostal revivalism, but it won’t be business as usual either.