Tuesday, July 7, 2015

1 Corinthians 6:2 and the Location and Role of the Body of Christ During the Oncoming Eons

In 1 Corinthians 6:2, Paul writes that "the saints shall judge the world." In the context, the "saints" to whom Paul is referring are those who believed his evangel, and who are consequently members of the body of Christ. The word "judge" simply conveys the idea of reigning over, and making decisions concerning, those in a subordinate position. But to what does the "world" which the saints will be judging refer? 

We know that Israel's ministry during the eons to come will involve the nations on earth (Zech. 8:20-23). We're told that the faithful saints of Israel are going to be ruling over the nations as priests and kings, and "shepherding them with an iron club" (Rev. 2:26-27; 12:1-2, 5). Ever since God promised to bless "all the families of the earth" in Abraham's offspring (Gen. 12:1-3), and to give to Abraham and his offspring "all the land of Canaan for an eonian allotment," (Gen. 17:7-8; 48:4), the expectation of believing Israelites has been terrestrial in nature. With the only exception being certain prophecies concerning the Messiah in which an ascension to heaven is implied (Psalm  Psalm 16:10-11; 68:18; 110:1; Daniel 7:13), nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures is heaven ever said to be the future home of any human being. It is on the earth - not in heaven - that believing Israelites expected to live and reign during the reign of the Messiah (Jer. 23:5-6;  Jer. 31:1-40; Isa. 61:1-62: 12; Isa. 65:17-24; Ezek. 36:24-38; Mic.2:12-13; Zech. 14:8-20; cf. Rev. 20:6). We further read that the reign of the Messiah and of the faithful within Israel will be characterized by peace and harmony on the earth (Isa. 2:1-4; 11:6-9; 14:3-7; Isa. 35:6-7, 32:15, 35:1; Isa. 51:3; Isa. 65:25; Amos 9:13). 

When we come to the Greek scriptures, we find that this "earthly" thread continues: it was "the land" (or "earth") - not heaven - which Christ promised the meek they would enjoy as an allotment (Matthew 5:5), and it was over the twelve tribes of Israel that Christ promised his disciples they would judge after he returned to earth to sit on the "throne of his glory" (Matt. 19:28). Even when Christ speaks of rewards in heaven (Matt. 5:12), he doesn't say anyone will be going there to receive their reward. Rather, it is after Christ has returned to earth and begun his reign that the faithful will be recompensed (Matt. 16:27; Rev. 22:12). In Revelation, John also speaks of the saints as reigning "on the earth" (Rev. 5:9-10). Even the "celestial Jerusalem" that we are told God has made ready for the men and women of faith referred to in Hebrews 11 (see Heb. 11:10, 16; 12:22) - and in which faithful Israelites will be reigning as kings (Rev. 21:9-14; 22:3-5) - is not going to be in heaven during the last and greatest eon, for John twice describes the city as "descending out of heaven from God" (Rev. 21:2, 10).

But what about the saints in the body of Christ, to whom Paul wrote? What will we be doing during these future eons, while Israel is ruling over the nations on the earth? Although Paul doesn't provide us with much detail, the little that he does say suggests that our role will, in some respects, resemble that of Israel's. At least part of our role will involve ruling and reigning with Christ in the kingdom (2 Tim. 2:12). Reigning with Christ is likely the special "allotment" that Paul had in mind when he warned that some believers wouldn't be "enjoying the allotment of the kingdom of God," because of how they lived (Gal. 5:21; 1 Cor. 6:10). So again, reigning certainly seems to be part of what (at least some) saints in the body of Christ will be doing during the eons to come. But where - and over whom - will we be reigning? 

The Greek word translated "world" in 1 Cor. 6:2 is kosmos, and means "system" or "something ordered." A.E. Knoch defines it as "an orderly arrangement." Strong's Concordance defines kosmos as "the world, universe; worldly affairs; the inhabitants of the world; adornment." Although kosmos is often used in reference to the inhabitants of the earth, or to the constitution of human society (especially considered in its present, "fallen" state), the word does not, in itself, necessarily refer to the earth, or to the human inhabitants of the earth. In the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures), the word means the "host" (stars) of heaven (see Gen. 2:1; Deut. 4:19; 17:3; Isa. 24:21). In 1 Pet. 3:3, kosmos refers to a woman's adornment. Kosmos could also be used to refer to the entire cosmological created order (i.e., the universe), embracing both the heavens and the earth (see Isaiah 13:10 in the LXX, as well as Acts 17:24; Rom 1:20; Eph. 1:4; Heb. 4:3; 1 Pet. 1:20; 2 Pet. 3:5-7; Rev. 13:8). 

When understood in this broader, cosmological sense of the entire created order or "system," the earth is not the only part or aspect of the kosmosor world. It is only a relatively small part of it. So allowing the possibility that Paul had in mind  the "cosmological created order" (and, by implication, the beings who inhabit it) when he used kosmos in 1 Cor. 6:2 (as I think is reasonable), let's consider the following question: Did Paul have in mind the entire kosmos, or only a certain part or aspect of it? That is, did Paul have in view the terrestrial aspect of the kosmos, the heavenly/celestial, or perhaps both? To determine what exactly Paul had in mind here, we must consider both the immediate context of this passage as well as the larger context of Paul's letters. 

The Broader Context 

When we consider the larger context of Paul's letters, we find that the eonian expectation of those who believe his evangel and become members of the body of Christ is not terrestrial in nature. According to Paul, the eonian destiny of the saints in the body of Christ is "in the heavens" and "among the celestials," not on the earth. In 2 Cor. 5:1 Paul says to members of the body of Christ, "For we are aware that, if our terrestrial tabernacle house should be demolished, we have a building of God, a house not made by hands, eonian, in the heavens." Why would Paul specify our present body as "terrestrial" if our future home will be just as earthly as our present home? It seems clear that, by calling our present body "terrestrial" (earthly), Paul is drawing a contrast between it and our future body. By specifying our present body as "terrestrial," Paul is distinguishing the realm for which it is suited from the realm for which our future body will be suited. As if to make sure his readers "get it," Paul goes on to speak of our future body - and consequently our future life - as "eonian, in the heavens." This earth is the realm for which our present, mortal body is suited. But as member of the body of Christ, the realm for which our future immortal body is suited - the realm in which we will enjoy "eonian life" - is "in the heavens." Moreover, Paul writes that our future "home" is where the Lord is, presently (2 Cor. 5:8-9) - i.e., heaven. 

Consider also Phil 3:19-21, where Paul speaks of the "enemies of the cross of Christ" as being disposed "to the terrestrial." Paul goes on to say, "For our realm is inherent in the heavens, out of which we are awaiting a Savior also, the Lord, Jesus Christ, Who will transfigure the body of our humiliation, to conform it to the body of His glory, in accord with the operation which enables Him even to subject all to Himself." Could it be any clearer? "In the heavens" refers to an actual location, as is evident from the fact that it is the "realm" from which Christ will be descending when he comes to vivify us. The heavenly location in which Christ is now present - and from which we're told he will be descending (1 Thess. 4:16) - is the realm that the body of Christ is destined for, and will be brought to when Christ returns for us (and notice that nothing is said about us coming back down to earth in 1 Thess. 4:16-17; it is on the earth that God's indignation is going to be poured out during the "day of the Lord," and Paul tells us that the body of Christ is not appointed for this). We see a similar contrast between being disposed to the terrestrial vs. being disposed to the celestial (where our future home is) in Col 3:1-4. And earlier, Paul wrote that our expectation is "reserved for [us] in the heavens" (Col 1:5), since that's where our "realm" or "citizenship" is. 

We also read that members of the body of Christ are blessed "with every spiritual blessing among the celestials" (Eph. 1:3), and that we are to be seated "among the celestials, in Christ Jesus, that, in the oncoming eons, He [God] should be displaying the transcendent riches of His grace in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus" (Eph 2:6-7). Being vivified, roused and seated together among the celestials is our eonian destiny as members of the body of Christ. [Note: Paul's use of the present tense here is an example of the figure of speech known as "prolepsis." According to this figure of speech, something that is future is spoken of as though it has already taken place (or as if it were already present) in order to emphasize the certainty of its taking place. Other examples of this figure of speech can be found in Matt 18:17; John 14:16-17 (cf. 16:7); John 17:11 (cf. 16:28); John 17:24 (cf. v. 5); Rom 4:17; 2 Cor. 5:1; Eph. 1:22; 1 Thess. 2:16 (cf. 2 Thess. 1:5-9); 2 Tim. 1:10; 2 Tim. 4:6; and Heb. 2:8. In each of these verses, future realities are spoken of as if they had already taken place because of the certainty of their ultimately occurring]. Finally, Paul referred to the kingdom in which he expected to reign as being a "celestial kingdom" (2 Tim 4:18). Although this verse wouldn't, by itself, be conclusive evidence that Paul expected to be in the heavens rather than on earth during the eons to come, it does confirm what he clearly reveals elsewhere as being his expectation. Thus we see that, from the larger context of Paul's letters, our eonian life as saints in the body of Christ will be "in the heavens" and "among the celestials," rather than on the earth, and among terrestrial beings.

The Immediate Context

Having considered the larger context of Paul's letters, let's now return to Paul's words in 1 Cor. 6:2. Does the immediate context indicate that the "world" (kosmos) which the saints to whom Paul wrote will be judging (i.e., reigning over and making decisions concerning) is the heavenly/celestial aspect of the cosmological created order? I think what Paul says in verse 3 answers this question in the affirmative. There, Paul writes that the saints "shall be judging messengers" (or "angels"). What Paul says in this verse should, I believe, be understood as clarifying/specifying what he meant in the previous verse. Since Paul speaks of judging "messengers" (rather than, say, the nations), it can be reasonably inferred that the aspect of the kosmos he had in view - and which is in need of being "judged" by the saints in the body of Christ - is the heavenly/celestial realm, rather than the earth and its inhabitants (over which Israel will be reigning).

Scripture is clear that the heavenly realm  includes both good and evil celestial beings. We know that many of the celestial beings/messengers in heaven serve, obey and worship God (Heb. 1:14). And just as they are now subordinate to, and under the authority of, Christ (Heb. 1:4-6; 1 Pet. 3:22), so they will be under the authority of those who constitute his "body" during the eons to come (Eph. 1:20-23). But in Ephesians 6:12 we read of another class of celestial beings. There, Paul writes that "it is not ours to wrestle with blood and flesh, but with the sovereignties, with the authorities, with the world-mights of this darkness, with the spiritual forces of wickedness among the celestials." Thus, in addition to the holy celestial beings who presently serve and obey God, the "angels" or "messengers" that Paul had in mind in 1 Cor. 6:3 may also be understood as including those celestial beings who are, at present, hostile towards humanity, and aligned with Satan - i.e., the wicked, high-ranking celestial being whom Paul refers to as "the god of this eon" (2 Cor. 4:4). The apostle John even refers to the celestial beings who will be fighting alongside Satan ("the dragon") as his "messengers" or "angels" (Rev. 12:8). Thus, it would seem that one of the roles of the body of Christ during the eons to come will be judging this class of celestial beings. 

As noted earlier, Paul writes that, when we're seated among the celestials during the oncoming eons, God will be "displaying the transcendent riches of His grace in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:7). That is, God's kindness toward us during these future eons is going to be putting the transcendent riches of his grace on display. But for whose sake is God's grace going to be on display? Well, when Paul says "the celestials," he probably has in mind celestial beings here - i.e., the sort of beings mentioned in Eph 3:10 and 6:12. They're said to be "celestials" because of the realm for which they were created by God (i.e., the heavens, where Christ is now). These are likely the beings to whom God will be displaying his grace in his kindness to us during the eons to come. Paul also says that the body of Christ exists so that God can make known to "the sovereignties and authorities among the celestials the multifarious wisdom of God, in accord with the purpose of the eons" (Eph. 3:9-11). In other words, one of the primary reasons the body of Christ exists is so that the "celestials" may learn something about God's grace and wisdom that they (apparently) don't already know or fully understand.

Objection: After revealing that believers are going to be snatched away by Christ to meet Him in the air, Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:18, "And thus shall we always be together with the Lord." Since we know that Christ is going to be on the earth for at least some (perhaps much) of the time during the eons to come, wouldn't it follow that the saints in the body of Christ will be on the earth as well? Otherwise, how could it be said that we will "always be together with the Lord?"

Response: In response to this objection, let's first consider the word "thus" (houtōs). This word literally means "the-same-as." Strong's concordance defines it as meaning, "in this way." The word occurs frequently in the scriptures; one example is in Matthew 5:12, when Christ told his disciples, "For thus (houtōs) they persecute the prophets before you" - that is, in this way were the prophets before them persecuted. So Paul is saying, "And in this way shall we always be together with the Lord." So the question we need to ask ourselves is, "in what way shall we always be together with Christ?" Before we try to answer this question, let's look at the word translated "together with" (sun). Strong's defines sun as follows: "A primary preposition denoting union; with or together (but much closer than meta or para), that is, by association, companionship, process, resemblance, possession, instrumentality, addition, etc.: - beside, with." Similarly, A.E. Knoch says this word denotes "a more intimate association than that expressed by with." 

Now, let's assume that by "thus...together with" Paul is referring to our physical/spatial proximity to Christ when we meet him in the air. That this interpretation of Paul's words is untenable should be evident from the following consideration: if Paul had spatial proximity in view here, then he would be saying that, however physically close a person is to Christ when they meet him in the air, that person will remain in that same spatial proximity to Christ for the entirety of his or her existence! Given the absurdity of this conclusion, it's highly unlikely that Paul was talking about our spatial proximity to Christ here. It's more likely that by "together with" Paul has in mind our intimate, relational union with Christ, as members of his body.

Since it's unlikely that Paul is talking about our physical/spatial proximity to Christ, then in what way shall we always be "together with" - that is, in intimate, relational union with - the Lord? Well, we know Paul isn't talking about our remaining forever in the air/in the clouds after we're snatched away from the earth. This isn't our final destination, but simply where we're going to be meeting before continuing on to our eonian abode "in the heavens." Since we can rule out both spatial proximity and location, I think the most reasonable position is that Paul is referring to the event he just described involving the body of Christ. At the snatching away, members of the body of Christ are going to be changed into immortal, incorruptible beings, and will thus "wear the image of the Celestial" (1 Cor. 15:49-54). We can therefore understand Paul's meaning in v. 18 as follows: the vivified, immortal state into which we're going to be introduced when we're snatched away to meet Christ in the air is what will allow us to always be in intimate, relational union with Christ - a union which will never be broken by death. And this will be the case whether we happen to be in close physical proximity to Christ, or not.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Aaron. I've been wrestling with this question for quite some time. I can now put it to rest.

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