Monday, February 13, 2012

Peter & The Temple (part 1 of 5)

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief; when it comes, the heavens will disappear with a horrific noise, and the celestial bodies will melt away in a blaze, and the earth and every deed done on it will be laid bare. – 2 Peter 3:10  (NET)

It should be obvious, from its central place in the synoptic Gospel narratives (Matthew twenty-four, Mark thirteen, Luke twenty-one), that Jesus’ assertion concerning the fall of the Temple and all that would surround that fall, occupied a prominent place in the message of the early church.  Is such an assertion in regards to the thoughts and concerns of the earliest Christ-followers, as they sought to present their Lord to the world, pure conjecture?  Is there any scriptural basis, or any evidence from the time period of the early church upon which to base this conjecture and its related assertions?  The second letter of Peter presents an interesting case.  Now, this will not be an open and shut case by any means.  This is conjecture, and we are far from being dogmatic, especially considering the questions that surround the composition of the letter itself. 

Second Peter is something of a mystery.  There are many that insist that it is a composition of the Apostle Peter himself, while there are just as many that insist that it is a composition by another individual, composed well after the time of his death.  If it was composed by Peter, then according to the traditions about the dating of Peter’s death, which is said to have occurred in the mid-to-late sixties, it had to have been written before the fall of the Temple, which took place in the year seventy.  If we adopt the mindset that the prediction about the fall of the Temple, which would coincide with the Son of Man receiving His kingdom from the Ancient of Days and which Jesus said was going to be seen by the generation to which He was speaking (the universal assertion of the synoptic Gospels), was a crucial component of the message about Jesus, greatly serving to validate the message about Him, then we are provided with an interesting backdrop by which we are able to view a portion of second Peter.  If our conjecture is not too terribly wide of the mark, this may actually perform a role in the ongoing debate about authorship and time frame for the letter. 

So, if the letter was composed by Peter before the fall of the Temple, and if we believe that the fall of the Temple (and all that goes along with that) is crucial to the message of Jesus, and if the ongoing presence of the Temple in the decades following the uttering of Jesus’ words, in light of the fact that the traditions about Jesus included His well-understood prediction that the Temple would fall relatively soon, the fact that the Temple remained standing would have been a major thorn in the side of the young church community.  The Temple would practically mock their allegiance to Jesus (who would be little more than a false prophet, perhaps rightly executed based on His words and actions in and around the Temple, not to mention His words to the high priest, if the Temple continued to stand). 

With that in mind, we make note of much of the third chapter of Peter’s second letter with a renewed interest and focus.  Beginning in the third verse we can read: “Above all, understand this: In the last days blatant scoffers will come,” understanding quite well what is meant by the “last days” (for a Jew, this is not the “end of the world,” but rather the days before the kingdom of heaven comes, essentially, the time before the Son of Man receives His kingdom according to a Daniel seven framework), “being propelled by their own evil urges and saying, ‘Where is His promised return?” (3:3-4a – this “return” would not be a return to earth, but the return of the Son of Man to the Ancient of Days to receive His kingdom, now having taken shape around the man that referred to Himself as the Son of Man, as it demands to be heard within what would have been the popular context of Daniel seven). 

Continuing the scoffing towards the claims of the Christians, and especially the claims concerning the Temple, with a still-standing Temple serving to counterfeit all other claims being made about Jesus, including His Resurrection, we hear “For ever since our ancestors died,” thinking about Jesus’ assertion (reported identically in the synoptic Gospels as part of Jesus’ answer about the time of the fall of the Temple) that this generation will not pass away until all these things take place, “all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation” (3:4b).  While the church claimed that God had acted dramatically within history to resurrect Jesus, to which the church then pointed as the evidence of the beginning of the renewal of God’s creation, even not-so-keen observers could scoff at this remark, offering up the insistence that things are continuing pretty much as they have always been.  To wit, the Temple stands and Israel is under foreign domination---Israel’s God has not acted decisively to put down the enemies of Israel, so Israel, and therefore all creation, continues to suffer under evil. 

In response to the scoffing, the author appears to remind them of the days of Noah, in which God initially warned Noah about the pending judgment (as we think about the judgment that Jesus pronounced in the Temple, the carrying out of that judgment by the Romans in the year seventy, and the judgment rendered in favor of the saints of the Most High God when the Son of Man receives His kingdom, which Jesus linked to the fall of the Temple), but withheld the watery judgment of the earth for what appears to be at least one hundred years (and possibly one hundred twenty years), writing “For they deliberately suppress this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water.  Through these things the world existing at that time was destroyed when it was deluged with water.  But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, by being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (3:5-7).  In this light, we can consider that Matthew, in the course of his presentation about the fall of the Temple that is linked to the coming (to the Ancient of Days) of the Son of Man, has Jesus speaking about Noah, with “For just like the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be” (24:37).  Thus, the link between the Peter letter and Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse and assertions about the fall of the Temple and the coming of the Son of Man (which includes thoughts about the establishment of the kingdom of heaven), gains significant plausibility. 

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