Romans 13:11–14 has been taken in many ways by interpreters, and this can cause considerable confusion for those wanting to understand exactly what Paul was saying here. First, the verses in question read:
Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
As noted by N.T. Wright, “Paul does not say, as so many of his interpreters have supposed that he said, that the final end of which he speaks in Romans 8, I Corinthians 15, I Thessalonians 4–5, and elsewhere, will certainly come within a generation.”(1) That is, many have asserted that Paul believed with certainty that the “final end” of history would come to a close in his own generation. This is patently false.
First, Paul plainly expected many ages and “generations” to come: “to Him is the glory in the assembly in Christ Jesus, to all the generations of the age of the ages. Amen” (Eph. 3:21). Does this sound like a man that expected his generation to be the final generation? Hardly.
Secondly, the visions found in the Prophets concerning the massive expansion of the Gospel—not in just hearing it, but being converted by it—could have hardly been fulfilled within thirty or so short years. Paul had dreamed of reaching Spain, but never did, and Rome was spread throughout upper Gaul, reaching all the way to modern Britain, to the upper regions of Africa. These areas were not reached by the Gospel within a generation. Not to mention the fact that they knew of the Orient nations to the east, including China.(2)
So, what are we to do with the language of Paul in our text? The great Charles Hodge, in his still often referenced Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (1886), noted that in his day there were “three leading interpretations.”(3) The first is put forth by “Hammond” and “Whitby.” That is, Henry Hammond, and his famous Paraphrase and Annotations of All the Books of the New Testament. He took this to mean the persecuting powers of the Jews would be broken, expecting that what Paul is talking about here in his time was in reference to A.D. 70. Daniel Whitby took the same view. However, neither of these men understood Paul as referring to what Wright called the “final end.”
Hodge dismisses this view, as does Wright, but in doing so they both make interesting remarks that reminded me of what I wrote in Why I Left Full Preterism.(4) Hodge, remarkably, wrote, “We are not to understand the expressions, day of the Lord, the appearing of Christ, the coming of the Son of man, in all cases in the same way.”(5) And, then he quotes a long list of verses concerning the “days” and “comings” of the Lord from the Hebrew Bible. Wright even notes that “salvation can refer to saving events during the present course of history,”(6) as it so often does, again, in the Hebrew Bible. How many times was Israel “delivered,” “saved,” “redeemed,” and the like? Read your Hebrew Bible.
Note the word “times” (plural) in my question. Paul is speaking of a specific kairos (“time”). He is not speaking of all times. He is not speaking of all the times and seasons the Father has set for the future (see Acts 1:7, where kairos is used in the plural along with chronos, also in the plural). Again, Paul wrote, “Brothers, but of the times (chronon – plural genitive) and seasons (kairon – plural genitive) you have no need to be written.” Why? Because “the day of the Lord comes as a thief in the night.” Just one of the many comes like thief, or do they all come like a thief to those who cry “peace, peace”? These verses, taken from 1 Thessalonians 5:1 ff. also contain an allusion to Jeremiah 6:14 where the Prophet states, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (ESV). This is set in the context of impending judgment upon Judah.
Also, Ezekiel 13:10, “Precisely because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear it with whitewash” (ESV). Ezekiel is foretelling impending doom (see especially chapter 7, where the “day of the Lord” was “at hand” and “the end is near” and Yahweh is coming to “repay them according to their deeds.” Sound familiar?). Jesus plainly stated that “heaven and earth will perish . . . but about that day, no man knows” (Matt. 24:35, 36). That’s why there is “no need” for Paul “to write” to the Thessalonians about future times and seasons, future times, or even the “when” of the final time (1 Thessalonians 4:16 ff.).
Now, having said all of the above, could it be that Paul, using typical “day of the Lord” language was describing an event that was to appear on the horizon in their own time (with Whitby and Hammond)? However, understanding Hodge, that this language is not to be understood “in all cases in the same way,” are we not justified in taking a position that though Paul may have the dissolution of the Jewish nation in mind, he does not mean that the events of Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Thessalonians 4, and the like were to take place at that time. What I am positing is that the early Christians certainly expected a “day of the Lord” in their time. However, they did not expect the final day of the Lord in their time (as already pointed out), which would usher in the restoration of all of creation and resurrection of the dead.
Further, the “in between times and seasons” the Father has set for the future is known only by him, yet, would be characterized by the same historical revolutions and convulsions associated with “the wrath of God.” That is, God in history working all things to the good for those who love Christ Jesus up to the final wrapping up of the gift of creation itself and handing it to His people (Rom. 4:13). God alone knows the in-between times and seasons, and also knows the time when heaven and earth with perish (which not even the son of man knew), transforming them into the new heavens and new earth. This is where history is going, which provides us with the incentive of discipling nations under the heading of Isaiah 2:1 ff. The Church is given the task of bringing heaven on earth.
With this, the ethical injunctions found here in our text apply to every generation precisely because God, who comes in many ways(7) throughout history (personally, locally, nationally, globally), can, in these ways, come at any time in history. Always watch. Always keep on guard. “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” This last part, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” speaks of our present and ongoing sanctification, and is rooted in the ultimate putting on, or being transformed by the resurrection of Jesus, obtaining a body like his glorious one. “Put on the Lord Jesus” means put on the present, Risen and Reigning Jesus, the man who was dead, but who is now alive at the right hand of the Father.
With this understanding, we can dismiss the Dispensationalist view, that Paul was envisioning the end of the world only to have it “postponed” because of Israel’s non-repentance. This is based on the assumption that Paul here is envisioning the end of the world, and since that obviously didn’t happen, then this postponement theory must be rejected. We can dismiss the idea that Paul envisioned the end of the world, but was, quite simply, wrong. This floats the liberal-critical notion that is decidedly against the infallibility of the Scriptures.
We can also dismiss the recent idea, often called Full Preterism, that, taking its cue from Dispensationalism, Paul was indeed envisioning the end of the world. However, it was not postponed (against the Dispensationalist), and Paul was not wrong (against the Liberals). No, this view says, the “world” was the “covenant world” of Israel. The resurrection of the dead was “spiritual” only. The “final end” was AD 70. This view runs into problems when it comes to “putting on Christ.” The end result of sanctification (“putting on Christ”) is the manifestation of resurrection, and if that has already happened, then the ethical incentive is lost. The ethical incentive of “Christian living” has as its goal the final application of putting on Christ, and if that has already happened, then, post-AD 70 “Christians” are complete, perfect, even if they wallow in whatever sin they wish. One may tout ethical living, but it no longer has any further goal since the goal has been reached. This is just one of the numerous problems this latest innovation (which is beginning to show signs of fatigue) runs into.
With the dismissal of these views, we can move forward in such a way that we, today, can read the battle hymns and psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures in practically the same way. We worship the God who rides on the clouds of the heavens, hurling his arrows, repaying the wicked, rewarding the saints in time and space. He saves us, rescues us, delivers us, sets us on high mountains. Though we stumble, we yet shall not fall. Those psalms are our psalms and in those psalms God “comes down” (Ps. 18) many, many “times” and at many, many “seasons.” We know where we are going. We know where we have been. Let “maranatha” be said again!Endnotes:
- N. T. Wright, Romans, New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, 728(↩)
- C.P. Fitzgerald, China: A Short Cultural History, 197–201.(↩)
- p. 410(↩)
- American Vision, 2012, 42–46(↩)
- Hodge, 411(↩)
- p. 728(↩)
- see Kenneth Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion, “The Various Comings of Christ”, 278–281, Third Edition, 2009, Apologetics Group Media(↩)