In a response to my article “Of ‘Morons’ and ‘Idiots’” Lance Conley claimed that I believe that the word kosmos in passages like Matthew 4:8, 14; 13:35; 16:26 refer solely to the Roman Empire. This is absurd. Lance Conley’s work cannot be trusted. I have never said kosmos only refers to the Roman Empire. Not once in ten books dealing with Bible prophecy and countless articles have I ever made such a claim. If he did not read what I have written on the subject before he made his absurd claim, then he is not to be trusted.
I and others have pointed out that the use of kosmos sometimes refers to events that are limited to the inhabited earth and/or the political boundaries of the Roman Empire, even when oikouménē is used in Hebrews 1:6 and 2:5. If the author of Hebrews wanted to make a world-wide claim, he could have used kosmos. Robert Cruickshank gets to the heart of the issue. His comments are typical of what many commentators have argued:
Considering the thematic context of Hebrews 1:6, i.e., Christ’s enthronement as king, the usage of oikouménē, rather than kosmos (as in Heb. 4:3; 9:6; 10:5, 11:7, 38), makes perfect sense. The writer chose his words carefully and for a specific purpose. He chose a word associated with the imperial empire to convey the regal and royal context of Jesus’ exaltation to kingship. Upon His resurrection from the dead, He achieved the status of the king of God’s new oikouménē. Hence even in Hebrews 1:6, oikouménē retains its normal meaning reflective of the time period in which the NT was written.
What we find among critics is that somehow oikoumenē in Hebrews 1:6 and 2:5 nullifies how the word is used everywhere else in the NT. This is much like dispensationalists who argue that the time texts (near, shortly, quickly, soon, at hand) when found in prophetic texts can have a more elastic meaning based on 2 Peter 3:8: “But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.” Here’s how Albert Barnes interprets Hebrews 2:5:
The world to come — The word rendered here “world” — οἰκουμένη oikoumenē — means properly the “inhabited,” or “inhabitable” world; see Matthew 24:14; Luke 2:1; Luke 4:5; Luke 21:26 (Greek); Acts 11:28; Acts 17:6, Acts 17:31; Acts 19:27; Acts 24:5; Romans 10:18; Hebrews 1:6; Revelation 3:10; Revelation 12:9; Revelation 16:14 — in all which places, but one, it is rendered “world”… The proper meaning is the world or earth considered as inhabitable — and here the jurisdiction refers to the control over man, or the dwellers on the earth. The phrase “the world to come,” occurs not unfrequently in the New Testament; compare Ephesians 2:7; 1 Corinthians 10:11; Hebrews 6:5. The same phrase “the world to come,” צולם ‛owlaam הבּא habaa’ — occurs often in the Jewish writings. According to Buxtorf (Lexicon Ch. Talm. Rab.) it means, as some suppose, “the world which is to exist after this world is destroyed, and after the resurrection of the dead, when souls shall be again united to their bodies.” By others it is supposed to mean “the days of the Messiah, when he shall reign on the earth.” To me it seems to be clear that the phrase here means, “the world under the Messiah” — the world, age, or dispensation which was to succeed the Jewish, and which was familiarly known to them as “the world to come;” and the idea is, that that world, or age, was placed under the jurisdiction of the Christ, and not of the angels. This point the apostle proceeds to make out; compare notes on Isaiah 2:2.
We should keep in mind that Hebrews was written to Jews who were living under the Roman Empire that was controlling the oikouménē, and they were subject to it. Jesus was the king and neither political zealotry nor revolution was the answer. The Greek in Hebrews 2:5 is decisive — τὴν μέλλουσαν to τὴν οἰκουμένην— “the oikoumenē about to come.” This is not a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The use of oikoumenē is not always about AD 70 when, as one writer dismissively stated in derision, “when Titus knocks down the temple in Jerusalem” in AD 70.
The point is, oikoumenē has a very specific meaning related to who controlled the world at the time the NT was written. While the Jews were looking for a political Messiah to overthrow the existing tyrants of the oikoumenē—their world—Jesus’ kingdom would be of a different order as Jesus made clear to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm” (John 18:36). While it would begin by impacting the oikoumenē of their day, the message of the King and His Kingdom would continue until “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14).
Dr. Simon Kistemaker in his commentary on Hebrews in the Baker New Testament Commentary series writes the following:
The reference to the world to come may surprise us, because from our perspective the Bible speaks primarily about the present world. When we think about the world to come, we imagine Jesus’ return and the restoration of the earth. The author of Hebrews, however, looks at the salvation that believers will inherit in the world to come and makes it part of the messianic age in which Jesus rules supreme. This age began when Jesus took his seat at the right hand if the Majesty in heaven (1:3). That is what the author is referring to when he says, “about which we are speaking.” (63)
We should keep in mind that Hebrews was written to Jews who were living under the Roman Empire that was controlling the oikouménē and they were subject to it. Jesus was the king and neither political zealotry nor revolution was the answer. Some of the best commentators get it right on how kosmos sometimes is used in a restrictive way. John Murray’s comments on Romans 1:8 is a good example:
“Throughout the whole world” [kosmos] has been regarded as hyperbole. This is not perhaps the most felicitous way to expressing the apostle’s thought. Paul did not mean, of course, that the whole world distributively, every person under heaven, had heard of the faith of the Roman believers. His terms could not be pressed into that meaning even if most literally understood. But the expression here witnesses to the extensive diffusion of the gospel throughout the known world during the apostolic age (cf. Col. 1:23; Acts 17:30, 31).
Consider the following comment from Henry Alford about Romans 1:8:
The Gospel had been preached through the whole Roman world, and every nation had received its testimony, before the destruction of Jerusalem: see Col. i. 6, 23; 2 Tim. iv. 17. This was necessary not only as regarded the Gentiles, but to give God’s people the Jews, who were scattered among the nations, the opportunity of receiving or rejecting the preaching of Christ.
Murray and Alford mention Colossians 1:23 in the above references. The following is from Norman L. Geisler’s commentary on Colossians:
to every creature under heaven. This is obviously a figure of speech indicating the universality of the gospel and its proclamation, not that every person on the globe heard Paul preach. In Acts 2:5 this phrase describes countries without including, for example, anyone from North or South America (cf. Also Gen. 41:57; 1 Kings 10:24; Rom. 1:8).
These are such common concepts that only someone who has an agenda would try to distort what I and others have written. I’ve spelled all these concepts out in detail in Last Days Madness and Wars and Rumors of Wars. If you want more information on my take on how the Bible uses the word kosmos, check out my book Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths.
Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths
Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths takes a closer look at God's Word and applies it to erroneous misinterpretations of the Bible that have resulted in a virtual shut-down of the church's full-orbed mission in the world (Acts 20:27). Due to these mistaken interpretations and applications of popular Bible texts to contemporary issues, the Christian faith is being thrown out and trampled under foot by men (Matt. 5:13).Buy Now
Let’s continue with understanding how the New Testament uses oikoumenē with a comment by James Jordan in his book Matthew 23-25: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary:
Jesus’ statement here [in Matthew 24:14] is quite specific, and if the translators had rendered it accurately a great deal of confusion might have been avoided. Jesus does not say that the gospel will be preached in the whole world, to the entire earth, but to the Oikumene…. Jesus’ statement is, thus, quite specific and would have been understood quite specifically by His hearers. The end would come after the gospel had gone to the entire Roman empire. The end would come after both the Jews and the Guardian Beast empire had received the witness…. It is right and proper that this message go to the Jews first and then to the Hellenistic Oikumene. (Remember that Rome was a Greek-type city-state, and that the language of the Roman empire was Greek. It was basically a Greek civilization.) God had established the Jews through Abraham and the Oikumene through Daniel. (113-115).
Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (1721):
“It is intimated that the gospel should be, if not heard, yet at least heard of, throughout the then known world, before the destruction of Jerusalem; that the Old-Testament church should not be quite dissolved till the New Testament was pretty well settled, had got considerable footing, and began to make some figure. Better is the face of a corrupt degenerate church than none at all. Within forty years after Christ’s death, the sound of the gospel was gone forth to the ends of the earth, Romans 10:18. St. Paul fully preached the gospel from Jerusalem, and round about unto Illyricum; and the other apostles were not idle. The persecuting of the saints at Jerusalem helped to disperse them, so that they went every where, preaching the word, Acts 8:1-4. And when the tidings of the Redeemer are sent over all parts of the world, then shall come the end of the Jewish state. Thus, that which they thought to prevent, by putting Christ to death, they thereby procured; all men_believed on him, and the Romans came, and took away their place and nation,_ John 11:48. Paul speaks of the gospel being come to all the world, and preached to every creature, Colossians 1:6, 23.
John S. C. Abbott and Jacob Abbott’s Illustrated New Testament (1878):
In all the world. Before the destruction of Jerusalem, the gospel had been preached through all the regions of the then known world.
B. W. Johnson’s The People’s New Testament Commentary (1891):
This gospel of the kingdom, etc. The gospel was preached throughout the Roman empire, ‘the world’ of the New Testament, before A. D. 70. Then the end shall come. Of the Jewish state.
Thomas Scott’s Commentary on the Bible (1833):
Not withstanding all these commotions and scandals, the gospel would soon be preached through the various nations of the Roman empire, and in the different parts of the then known world; for a witness to them, that the Messiah was come, to be ‘a Light to lighten the Gentiles,’ and ‘to be for salvation to the ends of the earth:’ and when this should be accomplished, the end of the Jewish church and state would come.
Philip Doddridge’s Family Exposition of the New Testament (1740):
This gospel—shall be preached in all the world.… It appears from the most credible records, that the gospel was preached in Idumea, Syria, and Mesopotamia, by Jude; in Egypt, Marmorica, Mauritania, and other parts of Africa, by Mark, Simon, and Jude; in Ethiopia, by Candace’s Eunuch, and Matthias; in Pontus, Galatia, and the neighbouring parts of Asia, by Peter; in the territories of the Seven Asiatic Churches by John; in Parthia, by Matthew; in Scythia, by Philip and Andrew; in the northern and western parts of Asia, by Bartholomew; in Persia, by Simon and Jude; in Media, Carmania, and several eastern parts, by Thomas; through the vast tract of Jerusalem round about unto Illyricum, by Paul; as also in Italy, and probably in Spain, Gaul, and Britain; in most of which places Christian churches were planted in less than thirty years after the death of Christ, which was before the destruction of Jerusalem.
Milton Terry’s Biblical Apocalyptics (1898):
It seems like the persistent blindness of a dogmatic bias to insist that ‘preaching of the gospel in all the world for a testimony to the nations’ must needs included all the missionary operations of the Church during the Christian centuries.… This ‘world’ did not signify to Galilean fishermen or to learned Jewish rabbis what it does to a modern reader, familiar every day with telegraphic communications from remote continents and islands. Nor does Paul’s comprehensive phrase, ‘all creation under heaven,’ require us to interpret it with any more rigid literalism than we do in the statement at the close of John’s gospel, that ‘the world itself would not contain the books that should be written.’ Such expressions are usually understood to contain an element of hyperbole and are common in all the languages of men.
R.T. France’s Gospel of Matthew in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (2007):
“In what sense, then, would the good news of God’s Kingdom be heard “all over the world” before that event occurred? The “world” here is hē oikoumenē, the “inhabited world,” the world of people, which at that time meant primarily the area surrounding the Mediterranean and the lesser known areas to the east, around which stretched mysterious regions (comprising much of our “old world”) beyond the fringes of civilization. More narrowly it was sometimes used for the area covered by the Roman Empire (as in Luke 2:1). The same phrase holē oikoumenē is used to describe the extent of the famine in Acts 11:28 and the extent of Artemis worship in Acts 19:27. Such uses suggest caution in interpreting it too literally, even in terms of the then known world. The point is that the gospel will go far outside Judea, as indeed it certainly did in the decades following Jesus’ resurrection, so that Colossians 1:6 can speak of the gospel already “bearing fruit in the whole world” (cf. also 1:23) and Romans 16:26 of the gospel having already been “made known to all the nations” (cf. 10:18); Paul can speak of the area from Jerusalem to the Adriatic as already fully evangelized in the mid-fifties, with the result that he has no more scope for mission there ans is already planning to on to Spain (Rom. 15:18-24). Unless one insists on a woodenly literal meaning of the phrase, the good news of God’s Kingdom was indeed being proclaimed “all over the world” before the temple was destroyed. The additional phrase “to all the nations (Gentiles)” draws attention here as in Mark 13:10 to the extension of the Christian mission outside Judaism, but does not demand a literal reading so that, for instance, the British must be included, let alone Americans and Australians!
The case can be made that oikoumenē is used exclusively for the geographical area generally limited to the Roman Empire of the first century and the territories immediately adjacent which were known and accessible to first-century travelers. When first-century Christians read or heard the word oikoumenē, they thought of what they knew of their world. Francis Sampson offers a concise definition:
The classic usage of [oikoumenē] gives the sense of “the inhabited earth,” especially as settled by Greeks. By people of the Roman empire, it was currently used to express the empire (as in Luke 2:1,…), by a sort of arrogant exaggeration, as though the empire embraced the whole world.
In time, the definition came to include the world in which people lived, the inhabited world. Its meaning did not encompass what we know of the world today. Henry Cowles, in his commentary on Matthew, explains how the oikoumenē definition developed in the context of the first century:
“All the world” is literally all the inhabited—i.e, to the extent of what is peopled. But in usage, “all the world” to the Romans was the Roman Empire: to the Greeks it meant the countries at the utmost where their tongue was spoken: to the Jew it was primarily Palestine; but ultimately became coextensive with the range of their dispersions. That is to say, the usage of the word made its scope rather national than universal.
The New Testament usage may be seen in Luke 2:1— “All the world enrolled for taxation”—which could not extend beyond the limits of the Roman Empire. Also Acts 11:28—”Great dearth [famine] throughout all the world”—foretold by Agabus. This was probably less in extent than the whole Roman Empire.—This restricted usage appears also in profane classic writers.
Thus we do no violence either to the sense of these words or to the historic facts, if we hold that this prophecy had its fair fulfillment before the fall of the doomed city.
This is generally the way oikoumenē is used throughout the New Testament. Given the above and much more, I’m proud to be in the company of these “morons” and “idiots.” Does this mean that that gospel proclamation was limited to that area and time? Not at all! God fulfilled His promises to Israel—“to the Jew first and also the Greek” (Rom. 1:16)—to the extent that the following came to pass: “And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written: ‘After this I will return, and will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up; so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles [nations] who are called by My name, says the Lord who does all these things’” (Acts 15:15-17 NKJV).
Matthew 23-25: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary
While many commentators argue in terms of historical fulfillment by appealing to sources like The Jewish War by Flavius Josephus (not in itself wrong), an eyewitness to the destruction of the temple and judgment on Jerusalem in AD 70, Jordan concentrates on the biblical literary connections. He does this by putting Matthew 23–25 in the full context of Matthew’s gospel and the rest of the Bible. This way, the forest can be seen within the context of the trees.Buy Now
John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959), 1:19. The one-volume edition was published in 1968.
Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, n.d.), 164.
Norman L. Geisler, “Colossians,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament (An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty), John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, eds. (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 675.
Francis S. Sampson, A Critical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1856), 85-86.
Henry Cowles, Matthew and Mark: With Notes Critical, Explanatory, and Practical (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1881), 210, 211.