Judgment according to works: a flawed paradigm

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I was hoping that at least one of the views expressed in [amazon:978-0310490333:inline], edited by Alan Stanley, would recognize that the theological problem looks very different—and frankly much less problematic—from a narrative-historical perspective. Sadly not. The four positions can be efficiently summarized using the chapter headings:

  • Robert Wilkin: “Christians will be judged according to their works at the rewards judgment, but not at the final judgment.”
  • Thomas Schreiner: “Justification apart from and by works: at the final judgment works will confirm justification.”
  • James Dunn: “If Paul could believe both in justification by faith and judgment according to works, why should that be a problem for us?’
  • Michael Barber: “A Catholic Perspective: our works are meritorious at the final judgment because of our union with Christ.”

Each chapter is followed by critical—and sometimes quite scathing—responses from the other three disputants. [pullquote]In my view the manner in which these four theologians tie themselves in knots trying to rationalize the data is pretty strong confirmation that the traditional paradigm is flawed.[/pullquote] What follows is a rough outline, with some exegetical illustration, of how I think the issue might better be approached.

1. All four contributors to the book assume that all statements about judgment or wrath in the New Testament refer to a final judgment of all humanity. By contrast, under the narrative-historical paradigm these judgment texts are mostly understood to refer to temporal events, according to a well established Old Testament pattern: God judges Israel by means of a foreign power, such as the Babylonians, then he judges this enemy of Israel in a similar fashion.

I don’t propose to defend the view in detail here, but in general terms, I see no reason to think that the New Testament fundamentally shifts judgment and salvation from the historical sphere to the supra-historical sphere, from religio-politics to metaphysics. The resurrection of Jesus certainly introduces a cosmic dimension, which must give rise to a new heaven and a new earth, but otherwise the eschatological narrative stays focused on God’s people and the nations. Although the language of New Testament apocalyptic is highly symbolic, it is at almost every point drawn from Old Testament texts (e.g., Dan. 7) which describe the outcome of a foreseen clash between Israel and one or other powerful nation. The premise of New Testament eschatology ought to be that this historical frame remains in place.

2. It is clear that temporal events of this nature affect people not simply as individuals but as members of communities. In my view, it is a basic failing of the book that the contributors attempt to solve the problem of judgment and works without reference to the story of the crisis of first century Israel in relation to pagan empire.

3. Temporal judgment has temporal consequences. When God “judged” Egypt at the time of the exodus (Acts 7:7), the consequence was the suffering caused by the plagues, the defeat of Pharaoh’s army, and the liberation of the Israelites from slavery. The situation in the New Testament is no different. Judgment on first century Israel would be a judgment of gehenna, when the Jews would be forced to throw the bodies of the dead over the walls of Jerusalem into the valleys because there was no place left in the besieged city to bury them. To be cast into outer darkness, where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth, was to be excluded from the future people of God, over which Jesus would rule as YHWH’s anointed king. Paul argues that those who sow to the flesh will reap from the flesh, those who sow to the Spirit will reap the life of the age to come. If they do not give up, if they do not grow weary of doing good, if they walk by the Spirit and do not “gratify the desires of the flesh”, they will reap the corresponding consequences of their behaviour, the future life of the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:16-24; 6:8-9).

4. The argument with respect to faith and works is certainly not that any particular individual can only be saved for eternity by faith and not by good works. But neither is it simply that membership of the covenant community is secured by faith in Jesus rather than by works of the Law. It is, I would argue, that only a community of faith—or better, faithfulness—would fulfil its eschatological purpose. If we delete this “missional” element from our account of judgment, we are left with no practical basis for an emphasis on works.

5. Such eschatological faith was not merely a matter of belief. It was inherently a matter of faithfulness, perseverance, endurance. A person was included in the people of God because he or she believed that Jesus had died for the sins of his people and had been raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God. [pullquote]But the resurrection of Jesus was also understood to have profound implications for the future of the ancient world.[/pullquote] It meant that he would come to judge and rule over, first, his own people and, secondly, the nations.

Faith was, therefore, a matter of participation in the whole eschatological narrative. It was the journey which Jesus’ followers had to make down a narrow and difficult road leading to the new and everlasting life of God’s people following judgment on Israel. It was a journey of faith or trust precisely because it was a controversial and risky departure from Jewish “orthodoxy”. Not every disciple or servant would complete the journey—the love of many would grow cold. Only those who endured to the end would be saved (Matt. 24:13).

Similarly, faith was the existential reorientation that would get the churches of the Greek-Roman world safely through to the parousia, when they would be publicly vindicated for their belief that the future belonged to the God of Israel. Paul commends the community in Thessalonica for their “faith in God”, by which he means that they had turned their backs on the idolatries of their culture to serve the living and true God and to “wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10).

6. The community of Jesus’ disciples and then the early churches of the Greek and Roman world would also be “judged” by these events—in the sense that it would become concretely and publicly apparent whether or not they had remained true to their calling. This is the point of the saying about the Son of Man coming within a generation to “repay each person according to what he has done” (Matt. 16:27) and of the parables in which a master returns and judges his servants.

Luke’s parable of the nobleman who goes into a far country to receive a kingdom ends with the slaughter of those enemies who “did not want me to reign over them” (Lk. 19:11-27). These opponents are the Jews who rejected Jesus as the Christ and Son of the living God. But the servant who feared the severity of the nobleman and failed to invest the mina which had been given to him suffers the disgrace of losing even what he had. In Matthew’s version of the story the “wicked and slothful servant” is cast into the “outer darkness”, where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:30). In other words, he will share in the fate of unrighteous Israel. The same point is made in the earlier parable (24:45-51) where the wicked servant is cut to pieces and put with the hypocrites, where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”.

The day of fire to which Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 3:13 is not—contrary to Dunn (60)—a “day appointed by God for final judgment”, but an impending time of suffering, persecution; it is part of the eschatological crisis of the victory of YHWH over the pagan gods, which, in quite realistic fashion, will test the spiritual quality of the churches. Or as Peter has it: “it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Pet. 4:17).

7. Those communities which successfully made the journey through to the eschatological climax—from Jesus’ perspective the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, from Paul’s the conversion of the empire—would be vindicated and rewarded. For the dead—or at least for the martyrs—this would mean resurrection to share in the coming reign of Christ over the nations. For the living it would mean a much more down-to-earth participation in the future historical existence of the people of God.

8. Because God is an impartial judge, those Gentiles who had in effect done the works of the Law would be “justified”. They would be found to have been in the right for having sought after the creator God, for not having been “given over” to sexual immorality and wickedness (cf. Rom. 2:14-16). They would be found worthy of the coming age, in which Jesus would be confessed as Lord by the nations, to the glory of Israel’s God. They would be justified by their works. Indeed, such righteous Gentiles would put unrighteous diaspora Judaism to shame on the day when God judged the pagan world by his Son, Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 2:27; Acts 17:31). Jesus makes the same point: at this judgment of the nations, Gentiles who had attended to the material needs of the disciples would be judged worthy of entering his kingdom (Matt. 25:31-40). They would find themselves on the right side of history.

9. Judgment on Israel followed by judgment on the pagan world brings us into the age when Jesus reigns, with the martyrs, from the throne of God, until the last enemy is destroyed. In John’s apocalyptic scheme this is a symbolic period of a thousand years. At a final judgment all the dead are judged “according to what they had done”, and anyone whose name is not written in the book of life is thrown into the lake of fire, which is not hell but a reaffirmation of the fundamental fact that the wages of sin is death. John does not address the question of whether Christians are included in this judgment, and I won’t attempt to second guess him.

As a former history grad student and avid reader with a literary bent, I am finding the narrative-historical approach incredibly enlightening and effective as a hermeneutical/exegetical lens.  And in reading the blog posts and watching the videos at Zondervan concerning this book, I found myself anticipating your responses or wondering what they might be.

Having read most of your books and a great deal of this blog, however, I feel some trepidation about embracing an understanding that seems so outside of mainstream thought. I am a traditionalist by inclination and personality and it is hard to have your system upended so completely.

I know you have addressed this some the past, but are there particular authors or books that have influenced your thinking and approach that might shed some additional light on the narrative-historical perspective?  I have read a few of NT Wright’s books and am currently reading How God Became King which I know you recommend.  Any other sources that line up well with your perspective? Any authors that you think provide a strong challenge to your way of thinking?

I do not have a background in biblical studies or theology although I have read a decent amount. I feel oddly like I have fallen down the rabbit hole and need to find my way back out or at least become comfortable where I have landed.

Feel free to point me to posts that I might have missed. Your family remains in my thoughts and prayers.

peter wilkinson | Thu, 09/05/2013 - 10:01 | Permalink

This is as clear an account of your unique narrative historical interpretation as we are likely to get. It’s very good; even I can follow it. I’ve a couple of questions here which arise almost incidentally, but for me, point to larger problems with the scheme.

The first is when you say:

The resurrection of Jesus certainly introduces a cosmic dimension, which must give rise to a new heaven and a new earth, but otherwise the eschatological narrative stays focused on God’s people and the nations.

This cosmic dimension introduced by the resurrection of Jesus is mentioned almost incidentally, as if it were remote and hardly relevant - at least to those in the narrative at that time. Maybe it’s of more relevance now to us, because we are closer to a cosmic denouement. Or maybe we are not?

The dividing off of one part of the story from another in this way seems suspect to me. (You do something similar in dividing “faith” from “faithfulness” when the word presupposes no such distinction). The reason Jesus assumed such a hugely significant place in the narrative is that he brought the whole story to its climax, on the cusp of which we have been living ever since. But this is the heart of the dispute over the difference between your interpretation and traditional interpretations, and will continue to be.

The second is when you say:

Those communities which successfully made the journey through to the eschatological climax—from Jesus’ perspective the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, from Paul’s the conversion of the empire—would be vindicated and rewarded.

As you interpret things, it’s all a question of surviving or getting through the difficult and perilous period to the point where God’s judgment on those whom He used to judge His people is demonstrated (“judgment on Israel followed by judgment on the pagan world”). Jesus is then ruler of the nations, and everything is OK. (You don’t actually say the last part of that sentence, but it’s where the line of thought is leading, in the religio-political sense).

The problem here is historical. What exactly did “conversion of the empire” mean, in any meaningful biblical sense? When Constantine was dying, he received rites according to Christian and pagan (worship of the sun god) procedures, so he was hardly converted himself, in a biblical sense. Unless you are saying that one can be converted politically and publicly, but not inwardly and personally.

What exactly then were the vindications and rewards which accompanied this supposed conversion of the empire? Another perspective would be that one perilous period was simply superseded by another equally, if not more perilous. We are still on a perilous journey, except with the confidence that the kingdom of God will continue to be powerfully demonstrated, positively by acts of God’s  power, negatively by judgments. These demonstrations may have the power to change nations, but the nations changed will continue to exist in an old creation order until the climactic universal appearance of the new creation at Christ’s coming.

But all this, which flows so easily off my keyboard, is fully known by you. It just doesn’t fit within your interpretation.

@peter wilkinson:

Jesus is then ruler of the nations, and everything is OK. (You don’t actually say the last part of that sentence, but it’s where the line of thought is leading, in the religio-political sense).

I didn’t say the last part because I don’t think it is true. I don’t think that is where the line of thought is leading. Christ coming to rule over the nations does not mean everything is OK. He rules precisely because everything is not OK. He rules until every enemy has been destroyed, including sin and death, judging his people and ensuring the integrity of their existence. If everything were OK he would have returned the kingdom to the Father so that God can be all in all, as Paul says. The church remains sinful, therefore Christendom was a sinful public embodiment of the sovereignty of YHWH with respect to the nations of the ancient world. But Christ has been given authority to rule at the right hand of God.

Doug Wilkinson | Fri, 09/06/2013 - 22:46 | Permalink

 Christ’s condemnation of the Jews of his day was patterned tightly after Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel (and others) who complained that the Israelites of their day had abandoned God and joined the pagans.  In the context of the quote, “In my view, it is a basic failing of the book that the contributors attempt to solve the problem of judgment and works without reference to the story of the crisis of first century Israel in relation to pagan empire”, I think it would have made sense to add that the Christian leadership in the New Testament realized that worship under the Old Covenant system was nothing more than idolatry in their generation.  So, the eschatological crisis of that generation was one where God was going to finally judge all of the idolaters, Jewish and Pagan.

Also, if the saints who were martyred were resurrected to rule with Christ (presumably based on Rev. 20:4-6), then I think it’s worth considering that the Daniel 7:18 version of this event has this reign lasting “forever, forever and ever.”  If you have the initiation of that reign in the past, the parousia in the past, the application of people going to gehenna in the past, what, exactly do you see as the future and what scripture do we base that on?  More importantly, if all of the above material related to the mere temporal destruction of Judea in 70AD, and God has a far grander plan of worldwide destruction and judgment planned in the future, don’t you think he will follow the modus operandi that he has always used by sending prophets who write scripture as warning before this happens?  God has always placed a premium on warning people unambiguously.  I don’t see anything in scripture as an unambiguous warning to a generation at least 2,000 years into the future.  How will we authenticate these new prophets and such?


@Doug Wilkinson:

Great comment Doug. You nailed the $65,000 question.

The New Heavens and Earth was shown by Isaiah to be the full consumation of the new covenant at the slaughter of the old covenant people in AD70 (Isaiah 65-66, full chapters, in context with the whole letter using a historical-narrative hermeneutic). That is the one John foresaw that would arrive at AD70 judgement. Peter also foresaw this same thing, and referred back to the prophets, and referred also to the transfiguration where Moses and Elijah (Law and Prophets) fade away and only the glory of Christ remained (foreshadowing his Parousia in AD70). Isaiah, John and Peter all saw the same thing, and that was the end of the old covenant world and consummation of the new covenant world, not the end of the physical universe/planet.


Jerel, I disagree with the Preterist view here. First, while Isaiah speaks of judgment and restoration of Israel as new heaven and new earth, he allows for the continuation of death and rebellion. John, however, insists that in the end both death and evil will be destroyed—and a long time after judgment on Jerusalem and/or Rome. It also seems to me important for the overall theology of scripture that the creator has the last say. Secondly, I don’t think your scheme takes account of the expectation of judgment on the pagan world in the New Testament—Acts 17:31 being the salient example.

@Andrew Perriman:

Andrew, your response to Jerel doesn’t seem to make sense when Judgment upon Israel at AD70 brought an end to “Death”: that is covenant death.  You have already amply described that those who rejected Christ will be cast out into Darkness which is none other than Covenant separation (2nd Death) from the presence and face of God. See 2Th 1:7-10.  While those in Christ have been made alive already coming out of the “death” of the first Adam into the life of the 2nd Adam.

Eph 2:5  even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—

Col 2:13  And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,

I also think IMHO that indeed judgment occurred immediately upon the pagan world as soon as the judgment upon Israel had been consummated.  Revelation 19 and 20 I believe reinforces that concept “if” we follow the “apocalyptic” language appropriately, IMO. I believe we see this with the fiery destruction of Gog and Magog when they surround the camp of the saints who have endured the first century New Exodus and reached the New promised land. (see Heb 4:1-11) This is not literal battles but it hearkens back to Rev 19 where the sword “word” of God is the instrument that will strike down the Nations  with fire and the Rider  on the white horse will rule them. Most have a tendency to over read this literature IMO and I think when those who have been trained in the OT language give pause they will start to see the problem of taking it at its literal face value. There is no more impending battle with Gog and Magog still to be expected as judgment has been inflicted upon them as well following the well-worn pattern of the OT of judgment upon Israel and the Nations.  No need to look to the future for what has been confirmed and established.

Rev 20:9  And they (Gog and Magog) marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them,

I think where we perhaps go wrong with Judgment upon the Nations is to think the pattern must be physical as it was on Jerusalem.  IMHO the judgment upon Jerusalem sets the governance away from physical Israel and places it in Heaven away from human interference. Therefore the new force (Government) is above the realm of the physical nations to interfere (See Rev 21).  Now if one wants an ongoing judgment against the Nations then perhaps that could be entertained as the Word of God eternally defeats if one wishes to pursue that concept. But Rev 20 appears to imply that the destruction was quick and immediate followed by judgment upon the Gentiles and the Jews as Paul lays out in Romans 2. Thus the consummation of the new covenant world has been confirmed and now is in force eternally.

@Andrew Perriman:

Hi Andrew. Thank you for replying to my comment. I do appreciate it. I also appreciate your blog very much, I thoroughly enjoy them and regularly share them on facebook or among friends via email. I’ve read all your books and enjoyed them too. I was introduced to your writings by Don Preston, I bought “The Coming of the Son of Man” from him. I appreciated that you commented and reviewed his book “We Shall Meet Him in the Air” even though you disagreed with his conclusions. I understand where you are coming from, and I appreciate that you are willing to entertain discussions that may not align with your viewpoints. I happen to think that the Preterist view is the most consistent application of the historical-narrative hermeneutic that you so strongly advocate. It’s just that I happen to see the fulfillment of all the law and prophets in the AD766-70 Roman War on Jerusalem and the surrounding covenant “world.”

Regarding your comments to me, I think the problem we are having is we are defining the death that the entire biblical narrative primarily discusses, differently. I propose that the death Adam brought in was covenant death, not physical death. Preston did a better job than I could in his book that you reviewed. I do not believe Adam was the first living human, but that humans and death existed for thousands of years before Adam, and that covenant death being turned over at the judgment on Jerusalem (at the full removal of the power of the sin, which is the law) is what Isaiah, Paul (in Romans and elsewhere) and John all have in view. The passages John quotes in Rev 21-22 are primarily from Isaiah, and that context is very directly, about the end of the old covenant people. Physical death itself was never the enemy of the believer in God (Psalms 116:15), yet only in the sense that the believer could not yet go into the presence of God but had to wait in Sheol (however we define that) until the Messiah finished the work of atonement.

Regarding Acts 17:31, I’m sure you know that Paul expected the resurrection of the dead to be immenent based on his use of the present active infinitive verb mellei which means “he is about to.” This to me is The Resurrection of Rev. 20 (whether one posits that there is a second one or not, the fact remains that Paul expected a soon to arrive resurrection based on the promises of Israel through the prophets such as Dan. 12, as we see from Acts 24:14-15 and 26:6-7). If it’s the martyr resurrection that happens at the fall of Jerusalem as you posit, that means that the judgment of the world also was at the martyr resurrection at the fall of Jerusalem. The conversion of the Roman Empire under Constantine does not fit any of the prophets or Rev 20, from what I can see (but I am open to correction on that).

I appreciate you taking the time to read this and consider it.


The kind comments are appreciated…

In Isaiah’s new heavens and new earth “the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed” (Is. 65:20). John’s vision undoubtedly owes something to this, but it seems to me that he goes out of his way to stress the fact that both death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire to be destroyed (Rev. 20:14).

So yes, I agree that in a provisional sense the power of death has been overcome for the covenant community—not even the gates of Hades can overcome the church that is built on the confession of Jesus as God’s Son. But John’s new creation is not an image of covenant renewal. The new Jerusalem descends from heaven—presumably because it is the place from which the resurrected Christ and the martyrs reigned—and it becomes a source of healing for the nations. Jesus literally died and was raised to new life. The martyrs literally died and were raised to new life. Their resurrection surely is a powerful argument in favour of thinking that John describes a literal new creation, not merely the renewal of the covenant.

According to Acts 17:31 Paul believed that God was about to judge the Greek or pagan oikoumenē. He is speaking to Greeks and he refers to pagan worship. He is not speaking of the judgment of Jerusalem. It then seems reasonable to link this with John’s account of judgment on Rome in Revelation 18-19, which culminates in a resurrection of the martyrs. It’s difficult to say just how soon Paul thought this would happen or how it was connected to judgment on Israel. I presume he imagined a narrative of judgment in which God used Rome to punish his people and then used the witness of the churches in the pagan world to bring about the fall of the blasphemous empire.

I think there is a strong Old Testament theme, amply reflected in the New Testament, of the hoped for rule of Israel or of Israel’s God over the nations, which is what Constantine came to represent. It is found in Psalms 2 and 110, in Isaiah, and in Daniel. Daniel 7 implies judgment on apostate Israel, but it tells the story primarily of God’s judgment of the pagan empire which persecuted the saints of the Most High. The outcome is that the nations which formerly served the beast now serve the people of the saints of the Most High (Dan. 7:27 LXX).

@Andrew Perriman:


I appreciate again you taking the time to reply. There surely are some very different perspectives you and I hold regarding the nature of creation, resurrection, and what all that entails. I see the healing of the nations, the river of life, the tabernacle of God, etc. all being the spiritual healing that comes after the removal of the illegitamate son (Ishmael, Gal 4) at the judgment in AD70 and full establishment of the new covenant arrangment where there is neither Jew nor Gentile. At that point the one body that Paul described in Eph 2-4, with the one new temple being built, was complete and open for business (the gates open always). The new temple construction was complete and now there is no hinderance from the old law and temple cultus to prevent entry to the nations. This seems to be what Ezekiel and Isaiah were seeing. I understand the dilimma you see in Isa 65 and death, but again I think that it is wrong to understand that “literally” when in fact it is OT apocalyptic languange that takes care in understanding. Norm and Rich both pointed out some excellent points on that imo. Isaiah 24-27 also shows the veil of death being removed at the destruction of the city which was none other than the judgment on the old covenant heavens and earth. I can understand you see this as beyond “covenant,” and I get that, because these words like covenant can sound limiting as if they have no other meaning or impact. Yes there is an affect upon us body soul and spirit, and it is a big subject and I don’t want to hijack your post.

Ultimately I really liked this post and I thank you for writing it, and hope you continue to write excellent material like this. Really liked your justification series too.

Have you heard of or read Beyond Creation Science by Martin and Vaughn? Though not a complete treatise on the subject, and likely will raise more questions than it answers, is an intriguing read.

Be blessed!


@Andrew Perriman:

But John’s new creation is not an image of covenant renewal. The new Jerusalem descends from heaven—presumably because it is the place from which the resurrected Christ and the martyrs reigned—and it becomes a source of healing for the nations. Jesus literally died and was raised to new life. The martyrs literally died and were raised to new life. Their resurrection surely is a powerful argument in favour of thinking that John describes a literal new creation, not merely the renewal of the covenant.

Rev. 21:1-3
1 And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth are passed away; and the sea is no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a great voice out of the throne saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall dwell with them, and they shall be his peoples, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God

Verse 2 tells us the city was made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.  Is this not a clear reference to the Church, which is clearly shown in the NT to be the bride of Christ (the husband)?

Verse 3 states that the tabernacle of God would dwell with men.  Is this not a clear reference to the new temple that God was going to create, which Paul says is the body of Christ (1 Cor. 3:16-17)?

Rev. 21:9-10
9…Come hither, I will show thee the bride, the wife of the Lamb. 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God,

Verse 9 states he was going to show him the bride, the wife of the Lamb (clearly the Church), which verse 10 says in the new Jerusalem.

Gal. 4:22-26
22 For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, one by the handmaid, and one by the freewoman. 23 Howbeit the son by the handmaid is born after the flesh; but the son by the freewoman is born through promise. 24 Which things contain an allegory: for these women are two covenants; one from mount Sinai, bearing children unto bondage, which is Hagar. 25 Now this Hagar is mount Sinai in Arabia and answereth to the Jerusalem that now is: for she is in bondage with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, which is our mother.

Paul is clear the two women represent the two covenants.  Hagar, physical Jerusalem in bondage to sin, and Sarah the Jerusalem from above (same one as Rev. 21).  There is just no getting around that the New Jerusalem is the Church, the Body of Christ, God’s new temple/tabernacle that He dwells within and is representative of the new covenant.  It is this city, who gates are always open (Rev. 22) for the unclean to come in.   This all came to completion – was consummated — in AD 70 when Ishmael, children of Israel according to the flesh, and Hagar, representative of the old covenant and Jerusalem, were cast out - Gal. 3:29-30.

The city is not some new physical entity, some new material creation.  The creation in view in the NT is Israel (Romans 8).  The new creation is Israel (according to the spirit) being raised out from covenant death where Israel, according to the flesh, dwelled.  This was the function of the first century Jewish remnant via dying and rising with Christ.  It was these Jewish believers that were waiting for the glory — and adoption (Rom 8:23; 9:4) — to be revealed in them (Paul’s “us” in Romans 8:18).  This glory was revealed in AD 70 when God vindicated (and resurrected) them showing them to be right while Israel, according to the flesh, was judged.

I would love to address Jesus’ and the martyrs’ deaths and resurrections, which in themselves show the transition from the temporal realm (which served as the type) to the spiritual, and in reality is a  powerful argument in favor of showing that John was not describing some physical new creation, but don’t want this to get too long.  I would highly recommend to you Max King’s 750 page theological master piece The Cross and the Parousia of Christ, which is far better than anything N.T. Wright could ever produce.


Is this not a clear reference to the Church, which is clearly shown in the NT to be the bride of Christ (the husband)?

It’s a reference to the church and it becomes the place of God’s dwelling in this new creation, but that doesn’t mean that we are still in the old world as we know it. In my understanding, the New Testament bride of Christ is not simply the church but the suffering church united with the crucified and resurrected Lord. It is the church that conquers the beast, that overcomes the hostility of Rome, the martyr church of the early centuries—people who literally died and hoped to be raised to new life.

The marriage supper of the Lamb comes at the culmination to judgment on Rome; the bride is clothed with the “righteous deeds of the saints”. This is the church that descends as the new place of God’s dwelling in this new creation. It comes from heaven because it is associated with the really dead martyrs who reign with Christ in heaven throughout the ages of the historical existence of the people of God from the defeat of Rome onwards. If you don’t take resurrection seriously, you don’t take death seriously.

@Andrew Perriman:


It also seems to me important for the overall theology of scripture that the creator has the last say

I would say that God did have the last say.  God judged both Jew and Gentile in AD 70 and created a “new heaven and earth”, one where righteousness would dwell (2 Peter 3:13) and be ruled by God.  A world God created by God that no unclean thing could ever enter.   One where only those in Christ would be found.  Those not in Christ, those “outside” the gates who continue to practice sinfullness (Rev. 22:14-15), would remain in the final judgement that was pronounced in AD 70.   They would remain out of covenant with God and thus in death.   Jesus was serious when he stated “My Kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36), and concerning the Kingdom of God, “nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:2-21).  Daniel was clear that in AD 70 all dominion over the Kingdom of God by pagan powers would be taken away (Daniel 7:12).  Sure their lives (the four beasts culminated in the 4th - the iron beast (Rome)) - was prolonged for a season (until the fall of Rome), but it no longer had any power over the Kingdom of God/Christ post AD 70.   This was because in the Resurrection Christ established a new heaven and earth and Kingdom where no man or empire could ever touch it.

To look for a future physical establishment of the Kingdom of God in some future physical world (your new heaven and earth — which would allow for one to say “Look, here it is”) goes against the entire Scriptural record.   The fulfillment and reality of all past temporal types and shadows are found in Christ (Col. 2:16-17).  As soon as Christendom let’s go of the physcial the sooner it will be able to see things as they really are.

@Doug Wilkinson:

Doug, there is something to your first paragraph, but I think it is overstated. It makes some sense in respect to Paul’s critique of the Jews in Romans 1-3 perhaps, but even there he does not appear to accuse them of literal idolatry. But elsewhere? Does Jesus charge Israel with idolatry?

With regard to the second paragraph, my view is the New Testament affirms a final judgment of all the dead, new heaven and new earth, and the destruction of death and evil. I base it primarily on Revelation 20-22, though Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15 point towards it. But when we read the biblical narrative as a whole, I don’t think that the end of all things is a matter of great concern. The emphasis is on the historical experience of God’s people and his faithfulness towards them under all circumstances.

I don’t see where you get this “far grander plan of worldwide destruction and judgment” from. The New Testament foresees temporal judgment on Israel and on the pagan world, perhaps as a single event, but I don’t think there is any serious problem with separating AD 70 from the later collapse of Greek-Roman paganism. By this event—or these events—the early church would be justified or vindicated. Beyond that the New Testament is silent except that it holds to the final renewal of all things. That doesn’t rule out the possibility that the people of God would face further crises after the victory over paganism—in fact, further crises are inevitable, and we are still dealing with the crisis of the collapse of Christendom. And as you suggest, it seems right to me that the church should address such crises prophetically.

@Andrew Perriman:

One example of how Paul considers Mosaic worship in the first century to be simple idolatry is his use of stoicheia for elements throughout the New Testament.  Few people realize that when Paul talks about those elements he is talking about Sabbaths, washings, etc., and using language about the worthlessness of them in parallel to how he’d refer to simple paganism.

As far as a “far grander plan of worldwide destruction and judgment” I was referring to what I assumed you were at least partially basing a future renewal of the world on, 2nd Peter 3.  If we say that 2nd Peter 3 is still future and is tied into the list of verses you mentioned then the future dissolution of the world is based on judgment by God.  That judgment is always (as far as we know) preceded by prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, Peter, and Paul.  The future judgment, then, would need to be preceded by bona fide prophets of the stature of those who write scripture (as opposed to everyday believers prophesying to each other under a sort of charismatic paradigm).  I’m wondering how we would authenticate those prophets without slipping into a Mormon-like crisis.

@Doug Wilkinson:

Doug, this may be a bit off topic, but do you consider the usage of stoicheia in 2 Peter 3 and Hebrews 5 to be similar to Paul’s usage?  The reference in 2 Peter would seem to refer to the heavenly bodies, but your comment causes me to wonder if there might be some association between them and the religious elements you mention.  Since the temple cultus was dictated by times and seasons associated with the heavenly bodies I suppose this could be possible.  But (assuming 2 Peter was written in the 60’s AD) maybe it could also be referring to the imminent demise of the temple cultus itself? The reference in Hebrews seems like it would be referring to the basic principle of the Christian faith, but might the phrase διὰ τὸν χρόνον possibly allow for some association with the aforementioned times and seasons and thus heavenly bodies again?  Or could the author be more directly referring to the ritual practices you mention?  This would be appropriate in the overall context of Hebrews.

I’m not sure I buy your claim that Paul means by stoicheia Sabbaths, washings, etc. as you say, but it is thought provoking.  And it appears that there is much more scholarly debate about Paul’s usage of the term than I was aware. Thanks for mentioning this.



Below are all of the uses of stoicheia in the Bible. In my opinion Paul sets the tone for every use of it before Peter (Peter’s reference to people not paying close enough attention to Paul in his arguments might be significant here). In my opinion, it’s only used one way in scripture, which is as a term to describe the building blocks of religious worship under the Mosaic system that is essentially idolatrous. There is no scriptural reason to think it is ever used otherwise. This should tell you something about what exactly is being melted in 2nd Peter 3 so that its works can be evaluated.

AV Ga 4:3 Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world:

AV Ga 4:9 But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?

AV Col 2:8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

AV Col 2:20 Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances,

AV Hb 5:12 For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which [be] the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.

AV 2Pt 3:10 But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.

AV 2Pt 3:12 Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat?