A Super Nerdy List of Old Testament References in Revelation

It’s a fact widely acknowledged that the book of Revelation contains more references to the Old Testament than any other New Testament book. Indeed, some scholars have found as many as 635 echoes and allusions in John’s apocalypse. 

As a Jew who was thoroughly versed in the ancient Scriptures, it seems that John couldn’t help but make associations with God’s previous revelations as he himself was given the climactic vision of God’s redemptive plan. Granted, sometimes those associations seem to be less of a conscious action on John’s part, and simply reflect the way his mind was furnished so entirely by Israel’s sacred texts. But sometimes his allusions do reflect a conscious parallel, calling on an OT passage in order to say “This is that!” in some way or another.

Whether conscious or unconscious, however, John’s many echoes and allusions constitute our single greatest aid in understanding the way that he, the seer, understood his own vision. If we want to see things through John’s eyes and understand his vision the way he understood it, therefore, we should pay close attention to the many references he has left for us.

I compiled the following list of OT references in Revelation by combing through G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, a fantastic resource that really should be in every Bible student’s library.

Read More

The Big Story (According to Luke)

We’ve been talking a lot about the “big story” of Christianity recently. Continuing in that vein, I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at the way that one New Testament writer tells that story. 

Luke has long been identified as the standout historian of the New Testament, often drawing comparisons to the works of Josephus. Many have inferred from this that, because Luke is good at collecting eyewitness sources, he must be less interested in theological or artistic expression than, say, Matthew or John. This misunderstanding stems largely from the naively positivistic split between history and theology in the Enlightenment, but another reason is that the canonical order of the New Testament has kept many readers from approaching Luke’s writings in the way that he intended.  

Recent narrative analysis of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles has shown that their author is a much better storyteller than is often supposed. Luke begins the book of Acts by referring to his earlier volume as dealing with “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (1:1), suggesting right away that the present volume concerns things that Jesus continued to do and teach. As I. Howard Marshall puts it, “The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were intended by their author to be regarded as Part 1 and Part 2 of one single work” (Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentary, 59). 

The narrative unity of Luke-Acts has huge implications for how the two books should be interpreted. Reading them together reveals the theological and artistic brilliance of their author. Luke was a historian, but he was also a literary artist who wished to present the founding story of the church in a particular theological light. One of the ways he does this is by presenting his story in the form of a giant chiasm, a type of inverse parallelism commonly used by ancient writers to highlight details of particular importance. 

It is widely recognized that Acts 1:8 provides a rough geographical outline for the events narrated throughout Luke’s second volume: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” What is less often recognized, however, is that Luke’s first volume follows the exact same geographical progression, only in the reverse order. This inverse parallelism, or chiastic structure, is apparent from the geographical references throughout each volume.

While the events narrated in Acts move outward from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria, eventually reaching “the ends of the earth” in Rome, the events narrated in Luke's Gospel move inward from Galilee, through Samaria and Judea, climaxing with the cross, resurrection and ascension of Jesus in and around Jerusalem.

Craig C. Blomberg explains the significance of this for Luke’s overall theological emphasis: “One expects to find the most important part of a chiasm, or inverse parallelism, at its center, and one is not disappointed. The resurrection and ascension, twice narrated, form the heart of the Christian ‘kerygma’ (proclamation) for Luke” (Jesus and the Gospels, 162).

Not coincidently, we find this same narrative emphasis articulated in the early evangelistic sermons which Luke records. There are ten or twelve evangelistic discourses in Acts, and in each of them the cross, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus are all central themes (e.g., Acts 2:22-36; 13:27-39; 17:18). And yet, conspicuously absent from both Luke’s larger narrative and the sermons which he records are many of modern evangelicalism’s favorite subjects, such as hell, penal substitutionary atonement, or the details of the end times.    

Returning to our larger point, however: Luke was not haphazardly writing two separate books with different intentions for each, but rather a highly sophisticated two-volume work of sacred history with one overarching goal. While Mark focused purely on the ministry of Jesus from his baptism to his resurrection, Luke’s aim was much larger. As Marshall puts it, Luke “gathers together the story of Jesus and the story of the early church, and sees these as forming together the foundational narrative of the church” (Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentary, 20).  

The story of Luke-Acts is our origin story. It tells us who we are. And at the center of this story lies the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. That’s the turning point of Luke’s whole narrative because, as far as Luke is concerned, it is the turning point of human history.

Recommended Resources In This Post

Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentary [TNTC]
Acts: Tyndale New Testament Commentary [TNTC] By I. Howard Marshall / IVP Academic

In Acts, renowned and ground breaking Evangelical scholar I. Howard Marshall has provided lay persons, teachers, and ministers with an invaluable and accessible resource for studying the book of Acts.

Readers will find that although Marshall is one of the most important scholars of the last 3o years, he delivers his insights and research in a clear and concise manner without compromising details or content. Prepare to be taken on an expert historical journey around the Mediterranean World in this informative and revealing study of the expansion and spread of the Christian faith. This series is an excellent resource for Christians looking to build a solid foundation in Scriptural knowledge.

Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, Second Edition
Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, Second Edition By Craig L. Blomberg / B&H Books

This second edition of Jesus and the Gospels prepares readers for an intensive study of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the events they narrate. Craig Blomberg considers the historical context of the Gospels and sheds light on the confusing interpretations brought forth over the last two centuries. The original 1997 book won a Gold Medallion Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, and this updated version, factoring in new scholarship, debate, critical methods, and the ongoing quest of the historical Jesus, ensures the work will remain a top tool for exploring the life of Christ through the first four books of the New Testament.

All You Want to Know About Hell by Steve Gregg: Buy This Book Now!

678302: All You Want to Know about Hell: Three Christian Views of God"s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin

As most of my friends know, I have been thinking a lot about hell and final judgment over the last year, reading as many books as I can on this controversial subject and having many of my former assumptions challenged by the evidence of Scripture. Of the dozen or so books that I've read over the last year, this comparative study by Steve Gregg, entitled All You Want to Know About Hell: Three Christian Views of God's Final Solution to the Problem of Sin, is hands down my favorite.

Gregg treats the subject with reverence and humility and he doesn't back down from asking the hard questions. At the same time, he takes great care to represent each view in the best possible light, something which many treatments of this subject fail to do. He brings together several decades worth of research and distills it all into an easy-to-understand introduction to the strengths and weaknesses of each of the major views (traditionalism, conditionalism, and restorationism) while at the same time introducing the reader to some of the best scholarship behind each position. The last few chapters dealing with restorationism (or universalism as it is sometimes called) are filled with some of the keenest insights I've seen. Those chapters alone are worth the price of the whole book. 

All of that to say, christianbook.com is currently offering this title at 70% off the cover price ($5.99 instead of $19.99), which is lower than the price Gregg himself has to pay the publisher when he buys copies. So if you are interested in familiarizing yourself further on the question of hell and final judgment, you won't find a better opportunity to get this outstanding survey of the debate. 

Here are a few quotes to whet your appetite: 

“The one fact, above all others, which I have desired to get across is that our view of hell is inseparably joined to our view of God. I believe that many Christians have simply assumed that they already know what the Bible teaches about hell, and have formed their notions of the character of God to accommodate their theory. My suggestion is that this is doing things backwards.”

“If we wish to criticize the reticence of modern preachers to place an emphasis on hell in their evangelism, we must first account for the same reticence found in the preaching of the apostles and evangelists of the early church.”

“All can see that these two sets of texts exist and that some tension exists between them, requiring harmonization. The traditionalist and the conditionalist take the damnation texts to be determinative, and seek to interpret the universalistic texts in harmony with each one’s respective take on that theme. The universalist does just the opposite, arguing that the sovereignty and benevolence of God are the primary themes revealed in Scripture and in Christ, in harmony with which the relatively few texts about damnation ought to be required to conform.”

Big Stories and Little Stories

“A learning space should not be filled with abstractions so bloated that no room remains for the small but soulful realities that grow in our students’ lives. In this space there must be ample room for the little stories of individuals, stories of personal experience in which the student’s inner teacher is at work. But when my little story, or yours, is our only point of reference, we easily become lost in narcissism. So the big stories of the disciplines must also be told in the learning space — stories that are universal in scope and archetypal in depth, that frame our personal tales and help us understand what they mean. We must help students learn to listen to the big stories with the same respect we accord individuals when they tell us the tales of their lives.” - Parker J. Palmer

This paragraph, which comes from Parker J. Palmer’s phenomenal book The Courage To Teach, has helped give language to something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last year. Palmer is talking about “big stories” and “little stories” primarily in the context of the liberal arts, but his insight here is just as easily applicable to the teaching of the church. What is the “big story” of the church? And how does that big story “frame our personal tales and tell us what they mean”? 

To become a Christian is to become enveloped by the big story of what God has done in Christ. The gospel is the universal, archetypal narrative of redemption through which all our little stories find their meaning. It’s not just a set of credal affirmations to which we give mental assent. It’s our origin story, like the story of the Exodus for Israel or the story of Romulus for Rome. It tells us who we are. Just as a bath in the Jordan means nothing without the journey through the Red Sea, so our personal testimonies mean nothing without the testimony of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As Palmer says it, when our little stories become our primary point of reference, disconnected from God’s big story, we easily become lost in narcissism.

This is the whole point of the creeds. To steal an image from N. T. Wright (as if I’ve never done that before): Just like a suitcase carries and protects our clothes while we travel, so the creeds are meant to carry and protect the controlling narrative of our worldview. But the whole point of traveling with a suitcase is so that you can unpack it and wear the clothes inside. You wouldn’t take the suitcase with you if you didn’t intend to wear the clothes. And yet that’s exactly what many churches do with the creeds. We carry them around, post them on the “statement of faith” page of our websites, and go on living in an entirely different set of clothes. 

My family has moved twice in the last year — from Portland to Virginia Beach and from Virginia Beach to Kansas City. That means we’ve visited a lot of different churches looking for a new home church, which has forced us to figure out afresh what we’re really looking for in a local Christian community. Becky and I both come from nondenominational charismatic backgrounds, so naturally we started looking at nondenominational charismatic churches. What I noticed as we visited various communities in that genre, however, is that there is often a very wide gap in charismatic circles between the “little stories” of the community and the “big story” of the wider Christian tradition. 

Such communities are often theologically conservative, having traditional statements of faith that closely echo the early creeds, but the emphasis on Sunday mornings is usually about finding your breakthrough, reaching your full potential, or what the Spirit is doing in our little group right now. In this way, the little stories of God’s presence in the community tend to displace the big story of the gospel and what God did through Christ already — and the result is that people get lost in narcissism.

Now contrast that with Paul’s words at the end of Galatians 2: 

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Paul didn’t just affirm the truth of Jesus’ story and then go on telling his own little story. Rather, he allowed Jesus’ story to completely transform the way he thought about his own story and the little stories of everyone else around him. 

I still call myself charismatic, and I think the rest of the church has a lot to learn from the Pentecostal and charismatic traditions. But what I’ve come to realize over the last year is that it doesn’t matter if I affirm a list of traditional beliefs. It’s only when I give those beliefs their proper place within the big story of my worldview, when I take the clothes out of the suitcase and put them on, that I am truly orthodox. 

Recommended Resources In This Post

96864: The Courage to Teach, 10 Anniversary EditionThe Courage to Teach, 10th Anniversary Edition
By Parker J. Palmer

"This book is for teachers who have good days and bad - and whose bad days bring the suffering that comes only from something one loves. It is for teachers who refuse to harden their hearts, because they love learners, learning, and the teaching life." - Parker J. Palmer in the introduction

Towards Truth And Reconciliation: My Time At IHOP-KC

“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.” - Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Cape Town and Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

“Loyalty to a ministry involves humbly challenging it when needed.” - Mike Bickle, founder and director of the International House of Prayer


I was on staff at the International House of Prayer in Kansas City from 2003 to 2011. During my time there I lead prayer teams, sang on worship teams, lead Bible studies, managed the bookstore, organized events, and of course prayed for hours every day. Like most people, the thing that drew me to IHOP was the prayer room itself: a place where Jesus is exalted in prayer and worship constantly, day and night, 24/7. It was like a greenhouse for spiritual growth. I wouldn’t trade my time at IHOP for anything — which is why it pains me to write this post.

About six years ago, after I had been on staff at IHOP for about 7 years, one of the senior leaders called me into a private meeting to address a theological issue that had raised some concerns amongst the leadership. The issue concerned a rumor that I had said something about being “functionally amillennial”. I explained that the rumor must have misconstrued my meaning, because what I had actually said (in response to an amillennialist friend outside of IHOP on my personal blog) was that I agreed with amillennialists on the subject of inaugurated eschatology, that the kingdom is both “already” and “not yet” — something which IHOP officially affirms.

Nevertheless, the leader said that in order for him to “call off the watch dogs” I needed to delete that comment from my blog and submit to a six-month period of probation. He mentioned someone who had recently left IHOP for another ministry as an example and said, “I don’t want what happened to him to happen to you.” He also told me that, contrary to the popular notion of what it means to be a “good Berean,” what the Berean’s actually did was accept Paul’s teaching by faith and then look to Scripture to find confirmation for what they already believed (cf. Acts 17:11-12). This puzzled me for two reasons: first, because he seemed to be addressing me as someone who hadn’t been at IHOP for seven years and who hadn’t already agreed with Mike Bickle’s teachings, and, second, because of the apparent disconnect between what he was saying and Mike’s public encouragement to test everything.

I submitted to the period of probation, which included attending an IHOPU class on the book of Revelation. In one of those classes, during a discussion period, I said something about how John alludes to some OT passage at one point. After class the teacher pulled me aside and instructed me to never use the word “alludes” again, because scholars who use that word supposedly use it because they don’t believe in the truth of biblical prophecy. I disagreed and said that an allusion was simply an indirect quotation. At this point he got somewhat heated, said “Do you know who I am?!”, and began listing his credentials. I then responded heatedly (which I’m not proud of) and said that his credentials didn’t really matter with respect to the meaning of the word in question — although I had a hard time communicating clearly at that point because I felt like I was on trial, which caused me to shut down to some extent.

I told this story and expressed my concerns to Mike Bickle via email last January, after Kendall Beachey published his infamous follow-up to the Rolling Stone exposé Love and Death in the House of Prayer. Mike said he was sincerely sorry that I “felt penalized” for holding different views, but assured me that IHOP leaders “honor sincere questioning” and “do not penalize” staff members or students for holding different views. My negative experience was a one-off anomaly, something easily amended. The only problem is that it was not my only negative experience.

Shortly after that episode, my wife and I were in an end-times Bible study lead by another senior leader. We were discussing Isaiah 7:14 and the way Matthew quotes it in connection with the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:22-23). I mentioned the way Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1, which is not a prophecy, and says that it also was fulfilled in Jesus (Matt 2:15). I suggested that maybe Matthew meant something broader with the word “fulfill” (Greek: pleroo, to fill to the full) than a simple one-to-one realization of prophetic predictions. It seemed like a minor point to me, but the leader shut the conversation down and later called my wife and I into a private meeting with him and another leader. They told us we needed to watch what we say in public and always present a unified front with the leadership of IHOP. But we remained confused about why we were being reprimanded in the first place.

About a year or so after this, after I was no longer on staff at IHOP, I was having a discussion with another senior leader about biblical prophecy on a public forum that he moderates, which is unaffiliated with IHOP. Instead of addressing the points I raised in that thread he started addressing me personally, saying that I was “blind to my own deductive reasoning,” that I had “trapped myself in a prison of my own making,” and that I was “content to pay the Holy Spirit lip-service”. I stopped responding at that point, but several other people reacted to his disparaging remarks, so he shut the thread down. I then emailed him a couple months later seeking reconciliation, but he didn’t respond, so I sent him a private message on the forum, and he said (apologetically) that he was too busy to respond at that point. This was in early 2011.

He finally responded and asked for my forgiveness a few months ago, after I shared my story along side dozens of others in a 75 page document presented to the IHOP leadership team last April. In response to that meeting, Mike instructed many of the leaders who were implicated in that document to apologize to the people they mistreated, and they finally established a standard grievance policy for staff and students. Mike adamantly denies, however, that there is a more pervasive issue in the IHOP leadership culture that might call for deeper reform, insisting in several public statements that “some” people had been hurt by “some” statements made and attitudes held by “some” of their leaders in “some” of their messages and conversations. Mike also insists that IHOP’s vision and values are not based on prophetic words. Both of these statements strike me as being extremely dissociative, if not disingenuous. The recent steps they’ve taken are necessary and encouraging, but they are treating a symptom while denying the cause.

In order to understand my experience at IHOP, you have to understand the role that Mike’s eccentric eschatology plays in shaping the shared identity and controlling narrative of the community. As Dr. Andrew Jackson observes, Mike places a huge emphasis on the idea that this is the last generation and that God is raising up an elite end-time army to prepare the church for the soon-coming great tribulation. Like many similar movements since the late second century, IHOP’s apocalyptic framework goes back to a series of ecstatic experiences, commonly referred to as their prophetic history. In one such experience, Mike believes God spoke to him about raising up “10,000 forerunners” to proclaim an “end-time revolution” that will confront the status quo and usher in the second coming of Jesus. In Mike’s mind, one of the primary purposes of the International House of Prayer is to function as a “spiritual boot camp” to train these end-time revolutionaries. To question that emphasis at any point, therefore, is to question a central boundary-marker of the community.

But things are more complicated than this. On one level, Mike is just trying to be faithful to what he humbly calls his “specific ministry assignment” — a vocation which he believes was given by divine revelation and which just happens to involve training thousands of young adults to change the understanding and expression of Christianity and usher in the second coming of Jesus. But on the other hand, Mike is acutely aware of the fact that this vocation, and the underlying narrative which supports it, is controversial and divisive on a number of levels; so he downplays the most controversial elements of that narrative, saying, for example, that it is merely his “opinion” that Jesus will return in this generation and that he does not base his ministry on prophetic words. He thereby commits himself to a kind of doublespeak: while placing the belief that Jesus will return in this generation on the lowest tier of his recent “Varying Importance of End-Time Beliefs” document, he still spends the first three chapters of his newest book (which bears the unassuming title 7 Commitments for Spiritual Growth) explaining why he believes this is the last generation and how forerunners should prepare for the years ahead by reading the book of Revelation every week. IHOP leaders are thus faced with the ambiguous task of enforcing this narrative while navigating the disparity between Mike’s two different modes of public messaging, which breeds a culture of dysfunction and control.

I would love to think that my negative experiences were isolated cases, but I’ve heard too many similar stories over the years to not believe there is a larger, more systemic problem. My story pales in comparison with many others I’ve heard. Many of my friends have spent years in counseling to recover from the trauma of their time at IHOP. Many are now agnostic or atheist. I harbor no ill will toward the leaders who mistreated me, which is why I’m not including their names. The real problem, after all, isn’t with one or two abusive individuals. The real problem is that IHOP’s main ideological boundary-markers are defined more by their “prophetic history” than by the clear emphasis of Scripture, the creeds, or even by their own statement of faith — and as long as Mike fails to admit this, the dysfunction and control will continue as people continue to trip over those unspoken boundary-markers.

I’m sharing my story because the problem has gone unchecked for far too long. I have such a deep love for the International House of Prayer and I want to see it grow and thrive into the next generation. But the leadership has made a lot of things central and nonnegotiable that really should be more peripheral and open to discussion. IHOP is at a watershed right now. If they continue to define themselves more by the private experiences of a few individuals than by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they will progressively lose influence and credibility in the wider church, and they will become increasingly isolated and sectarian. If the prayer movement wants to continue into the next generation of Christendom, it will have to rebuild its identity on the rock of the Christian story rather than the sand of its own special narrative.



The Proto-Resurrection: A Fresh Investigation of Revelation 20:4-6


Among the many questions that have puzzled readers of John’s apocalypse over the centuries, the meaning of the “first resurrection” in 20:4-6 is probably the most bewildering. Part of the problem is that the rest of the NT, in line with mainstream Jewish eschatology, seems to envision only one all-inclusive resurrection event at the end of the age, but John speaks of two — one at the beginning and one at the end of the millennium (e.g., John 5:28-29; 1 Cor. 15:51-55). This raises the question: Has John split the one resurrection event of earlier Jewish and Christian expectation into two, or is he using the idea of resurrection non-literally to refer to some other kind of life? Is the “first resurrection” the same sort of reality as its implicit follow-up, the first in a sequential series of events of the same kind, or is it something else? Central to the answer of this question is John’s use of the adjective πρῶτος.

Defining the Term

The BDAG defines πρῶτος as “pertaining to being first in a sequence, inclusive of time, set (number), or space, first of several, but also when only two persons or things are involved.”[1] The word appears over 90 times in the NT, most often in reference to time and number (e.g., “the first day of the Passover” in Mark 14:12 and pars.), occasionally in reference to rank or value (e.g., “the first will be last” in Mark 10:31 and pars.), and only once in reference to space (the “first section” of the tabernacle in Heb. 9:2, 6, 8).[2]

In other words, πρῶτος is a fairly mundane word whose semantic range is roughly equivalent to “first”. The two words are not entirely equivalent, however. In the Hellenistic Greek of the first century, πρῶτος often carries the same sense that πρότερος carried in Classical Greek, that is, “former” in contrast with “latter”, or the first of two.[3] This is the sense it carries throughout Rev. 20-21.[4]

Interpreting the Term

The appearance of πρῶτος in Rev. 20-21 is similar to the usage in Heb. 8-10 and 1 Cor. 15:45-47. Both of those passages employ the word in the contrasting sense of “former” or “preceding” in relation to “latter” or “new”.

In 1 Cor. 15:45-47 πρῶτος appears as the antithesis of δεύτερος (second) and ἔσχατος (last). Here Paul contrasts Christ, as the representative of the new humanity, with Adam, the representative of the old humanity. He uses this antithesis to emphasize the discontinuity between the exalted state of Christ’s resurrection body and the corruptible state of our present bodies. In this context πρῶτος carries the sense of something preliminary and inferior to what follows.

In Heb. 8-10 πρῶτος appears as the antithesis of δεύτερος (second) and καινός (new). Here the “first covenant” (8:7, 13; 9:1, 15, 18) stands in juxtaposition with the “new covenant” (8:8, 13; 9:15) or “second covenant” (8:7). In this context πρῶτος is the equivalent of old, incomplete, outdated.[5] Indeed, as the mediator of the new covenant, Christ “abolishes the first in order to establish the second” (10:9).[6]

The Term Used in Revelation 20-21

In Rev. 21:1-5 πρῶτος is employed in juxtaposition with καινός (new). After the final judgment comes “a new heaven and a new earth” (v. 1), and a “new Jerusalem” (v. 2); indeed, it is the time when God makes “all things new” (v. 5). Similarly to Heb. 8-10, when the word “first” appears throughout this passage, it is used to speak of that which is superseded by the “new”.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away... Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.... See, I am making all things new.”

In this passage, to be “first” means to belong to the old order of the world that will give way to the new when God brings heaven and earth together. In this context πρῶτος does not mean merely the first in a series of like kind; rather it characterizes this world as both different and lesser in kind from the “new” world of God’s consummate redemption. It shows the present transient state of things in contrast with the new creation that will abide forever, just as Paul contrasts our present corruptible bodies with Christ’s exalted body in 1 Cor. 15.

In light of this contextual meaning of πρῶτος, M. G. Kline contends that we should not understand the “first resurrection” in Rev. 20:4-6 as denoting simply the first of the same kind in a temporal sequence of two, but rather a preliminary and inferior sort of resurrection to the ultimate bodily resurrection of the new order.[7] It is a proto-resurrection, an advance coming to life of the faithful souls in heaven as they await the new life of the consummation.

This reading gains further support by observing the relationship between the first resurrection and the second death. The “second death” is not simply the loss of physical life which every person must experience, but rather a death after death, an ultimate death reserved for the wicked (20:14-15). Likewise, the “first resurrection” is not simply the return to bodily life which John envisions for all of humanity (20:12), but rather a resurrection before resurrection, a preliminary coming to life reserved for those who were faithful unto death, who are now blessed and holy because they are exempt from the power of the second death (20:6).

In other words, when John speaks of the second death and the first resurrection, he is in both cases explaining a lesser known reality (eternal punishment and the heavenly intermediate state) by the terms of a more commonly known reality (death and resurrection). In both cases the adjective modifies the noun as carrying a metaphorical meaning. In the case of the “second death” it lets the reader know that this is a more ultimate destruction beyond what we normally refer to as death. In the case of the “first resurrection” it lets the reader know that this is a preliminary stage of life which is anticipatory to what we normally refer to as resurrection.


Contrary to what many readers have supposed, John does not envision two separate bodily resurrections. Rather, his use of the word πρῶτος shows that he has something different and lesser than bodily resurrection in mind for the “first resurrection”. Thus a proper understanding of πρῶτος should put to rest one argument that still enjoys the support of many good scholars despite being far past its expiration date. Coming from Henry Alford’s classic work The Greek Testament, this is probably the single most quoted paragraph by modern commentators of Rev. 20:

“If, in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain ψυχαὶ ἔζησαν at the first, and the rest of the νεκροὶ ἔζησαν only at the end of a specified period after that first,—if in such a passage the first resurrection may be understood to mean spiritual rising with Christ, while the second means literal rising from the grave;—then there is an end of all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to anything. If the first resurrection is spiritual, then so is the second, which I suppose none will be hardy enough to maintain. But if the second is literal, then so is the first, which in common with the whole primitive Church and many of the best modern expositors, I do maintain, and receive as an article of faith and hope.”[8]

The way Alford uses the words “literal” and “spiritual” here is unfortunate, because it confuses the way that words refer to things (literal/non-literal) with the nature of the things themselves (bodily/non-bodily).[9] But given the fact that the “resurrection” of Rev. 20:4-6 is modified by the adjective πρῶτος as carrying the metaphorical sense of something preliminary and inferior to the ultimate bodily resurrection of the new order — just as the “death” of the same passage is qualified by the adjective δεύτερος as carrying the metaphorical sense of something greater and more ultimate beyond the initial loss of life — there is no more reason for following Alford’s law related to the “first resurrection” than there is for supposing that the “second death” must be the same sort of thing as the implicit first death. Unless a new generation of millennarians is willing to reduce the meaning of the second death to the strict literal sense that θάνατος by itself would normally carry, it must be conceded that ἀνάστασις does not in this case carry the normal sense of bodily resurrection.

The broader lesson here, however, is that every word of Scripture matters. At first glance the appearance of πρῶτος in Rev. 20:4-6 might seem to be of little consequence, but on closer inspection it becomes clear that this word carries considerable weight for the overall meaning of the millennium.


[1] F. W. Danker. (ed.). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 892.

[2] G. Friedrich and Geoffrey W. Bromily (eds.). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 866, 68.

[3] F. Blass, A. Debrunner, and Robert W. Funk. A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1961), 34.

[4] J. H. Thayer. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 4th Ed. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1901), 555.

[5] TDNT., 866.

[6] Unless otherwise indicated, all Bible references in this article are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[7] M. G. Kline. “The First Resurrection,” Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1974/75): 366-75. Kline has been justly criticized for collapsing the meaning of death and resurrection into one, but his excess in application does not affect his central thesis. The point is not that death equals resurrection for the Christian, but rather that these souls are seen as being alive in spite of having been killed by the Beast. Though they died, yet they live. Their fate is thereby contrasted with the fate of the Beast, who ironically went alive to the “second death”.

[8] Henry Alford. The Greek Testament, vol. 4 (Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, and Co., 1880), 732-33.

[9] G. B. Caird. The Language and Imagery of the Bible (London: Duckworth, 1980), 131-33.

Egocentric Eschatology and a Hermeneutic of Love

“We don’t yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.” - 1 Corinthians 13:12-13, The Message

Image courtesy of Amazon.com

Image courtesy of Amazon.com

I found an interesting book at Goodwill the other day. It’s a theological companion of sorts to the hugely popular Left Behind series called Are We Living in the End Times?. If you’re familiar at all with the Left Behind series, then you can probably guess how this book answers the question posed in its title. Thankfully, unlike their spiritual godfather Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins don’t try to set any firm dates for Christ’s return. They're content with the much safer premise that “we have more reason than any generation before us to believe He will come in our generation” (xi).

The argument LaHaye and Jenkins make in support of their premise is pretty standard fare. It consists mostly of cherry-picking prophetic texts like Daniel 12:4, Ezekiel 47, and Matthew 24:14 and relating them directly to contemporary events like the technological revolution, the reemergence of Israel, and the advance of the gospel. Unfortunately, little attention is paid to the authorial intent or historical context of those verses. They are simply lifted from their native environment and applied confidently, imperialistically, to our generation. “Hardly anyone doubts that ours is a day when people are ‘running to and fro’ and knowledge has increased” (x).

This is nothing new, of course. Ever since the late second century charismatic teachers on the fringe of the Christian faith have gathered followers by claiming that they were living in the last (and, by implication, the most important) generation in history. Only in the last two centuries has this idea come into the mainstream, however, thanks mostly to the influence of John Nelson Darby and the Scofield Reference Bible. Given that the Left Behind series has sold 63 million copies and is now a major motion picture starring Nicolas Cage, it looks like the mass appeal of this pseudo-biblical eschatology has yet to die off.

I might take a series of posts soon to address some of the most popular reasons for thinking that this is the last generation and why that’s not actually what the biblical texts are referring to. But first I want to address a larger problem which feeds and supports this booming industry of end-times speculation. This is the problem of egocentrism.

We all know what it feels like to talk to someone who doesn’t have the patience or empathy to hear us out because they think they already know what we’re going to say before we say it. If we’re honest, we’ve probably been that person on more than one occasion. It takes tremendous effort to step outside of ourselves, to lay down our own expectations and preconceived ideas, and just listen to someone on their own terms. But that’s what we do when we love someone. In the same way, when we come to the words of God in Scripture, our first priority should not be to get something for ourselves or to find confirmation for what we think it should say, but to simply listen, without agenda, to what the text says. Far from being a dry or clinical discipline, biblical exegesis should be the natural outflow of a loving heart.

If we come to God’s word on its own terms, however, we are bound to discover two hard but ultimately liberating truths. First, the Bible wasn't written to us. It was written to people who lived between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago in an environment very different from our own. Second, the Bible isn’t mostly about us—at least, not directly anyway. The Bible is mostly about Jesus, and it invites us to see Jesus’ story as our story, to reshape our lives around his life. Too often, though, we come to the Bible with the expectation that it should speak directly to us and about us, that it should conform to us instead of us conforming to it.

This is why there is often so much unhealthy obsession with biblical prophecy. If the last 2,000 years of failed end-time predictions tells us anything, it’s that we desperately want the Bible to be about us. As Andrew Jackson says it, "the topic of eschatology, especially when it is sensationalized and set as a backdrop to the daily news, can easily appeal to our unhealthy heart motives and ambitions, just as fortune telling, horoscopes, and even spiritual channeling attract non-Christians." We create new "signs of the times" to fit current events and create lists of reasons why our generation is the last generation, the most important generation, the generation the Bible talks about the most. Paul defines prophecy as peering through a glass darkly, but we somehow manage to find our own face on every opaque surface.

The only way to overcome our fallen tendency toward a self-centered reading of Scripture is to have our thinking renewed by the self-giving love of Christ, who “died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15). It’s no coincidence that Paul’s pastoral instruction regarding the use of prophecy is also the most extensive description of Christian love in the New Testament (1 Cor. 13:1-13). What does a mature Christian love look like when applied to the art of biblical interpretation? Answer: Love does not seek its own. As N. T. Wright says it, “Love is the deepest mode of knowing because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality” (Surprised by Hope, 73).

Behind all of this is the recognition that God didn’t speak in a vacuum; he spoke to real people in real time and space, and we hear his word by listening to their words. At its root, then, the act of reading Scripture is an act of empathy: it requires us to step outside of ourselves, outside of our own time and space and likes and dislikes, and into the time and space of others. This is hard to do, not because it requires a special kind of intelligence but because it requires a special kind of love, the kind of love that drives a man to lay down his life for his friends.

This self-giving, others-centered kind of love lies at the heart of the Christian view of everything, not least a Christian view of the future. We must replace our egocentric eschatology with a hermeneutic of love. We must write the words “love does not seek its own” on the doorway of our hearts so that every time we come to God’s word our ears will be open to the story he is telling, not the story we want to hear. Only by affirming and celebrating the “other-than-self reality” of God’s word, by counting everything as loss for the sake of knowing Christ and becoming like him in his death—only then will his story become our story.