Archive for the ‘Eschatology’ Category

The Danger of Money

July 8, 2009

I have been thinking about money a bit lately, mainly because I don’t have much of it.  It’s funny how that works.  You tend to think that wealthy people are the ones who value money the most, but don’t underestimate the power that money holds over the middle and lower classes.  The guy who just won the lottery may dream about the possibilities that have been opened to him, but the guy who is living paycheck to paycheck may have nightmares about the possibilities that could be foreclosed on him.  And in their waking hours both men may focus on money most of the time: the one because he has so much, and the other because he has so little and wants more.

By God’s grace, we just came to the end of a home-buying process that began in March.  It ended happily for us.  We now own a home in Jackson, Tennessee (so if you’re wondering where our money went, most of it is invested in the house now).  For the first time in our lives, we own this little piece of the American dream.  And if I could go back, I would hope that I could have handled the whole process better.

Given the way the housing market has gone, credit has tightened up and lenders are becoming much more careful in the loan approval process.  The particular lender we were working with (a large company that specializes in mortgages) did not provide us with good customer service.  They were slow.  They were tedious.  They asked us for document after document and signature after signature.  They had to verify everything three or four different ways.  They forced us to push back our closing date two times, each time leaving us wondering if the seller (who had already been very patient with us) would finally decide to back out and look for another deal.  Because of our mortgage company, a process that began in March could not come to completion until June 30th.

That is a long time to live in limbo.  The house we are now renting in Louisville must be vacated by July 31st, and in any case all this time we have been planning our move for July 24th.  If the deal on this house had fallen through, we would have been left with very little time to find alternative living arrangements.  Numerous scenarios crossed my mind about what could happen to my family.  As a man, a husband, and a father, it is a hard to live in limbo.  You want to be able to point to the roof that will shelter your wife and children, the roof that you have provided for them, and when you can’t do that a sense of failure begins to well up inside you.

Living in limbo took its toll.  I allowed stress to get the better of me.  I found it hard to focus on anything else but the mortgage.  My prayer life took a hit.  My temper flared up on occasion.  I spent hours researching this mortgage company on the internet and agonizing over whether I should pull out and try my luck with another lender (but in the process risking an even lengthier process).  For a while there, I felt like I just wasn’t myself (or, perhaps I was more myself than I realize; sometimes external factors peel away layers of sin that we have never noticed before).

Toward the end, I think I reached a period of greater calm.  On the one hand, that may have been because we were getting some signals that we were near the end.  On the other hand, it may have been because I realized how much I had let earthly, temporal matters like money and the possibilities it offered to us (a new home) dominate my horizons.  I needed to be reminded of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31:

This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short.  From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as if they had no dealings with it.  For the present form of this world is passing away.

Obviously, Paul is not advocating a retreat from the world and its institutions.  He does not want us all to withdraw into convents and monasteries and other secluded, celibate communities.  He assumes that we will continue to be married.  We will continue to live in this world, do business in the world, buy, sell, apply for loans, etc.  But he calls us to do it with one thing in mind: the fact that this present world is already in process of passing away.  The resurrection of Christ marks the beginning of the end of this present age.  We cannot withdraw from a world destined to pass away, but we can relativize its importance in our own minds by a greater focus on the world to come.

When I allow things like difficult loan approval processes to get the better of me and overwhelm me with stress, I am communicating something that I don’t want to communicate.  I am saying that my hope is so bound up with the money that this lender can give me that, if I don’t get it, I will be undone.  How sad is that?  It is completely the opposite of Paul’s eschatological perspective outlined in 1 Corinthians 7.  If, on the other hand, I can take mortgage difficulties in stride and show an unshakable joy in Christ and in the inheritance I have in him, I can show the world something of how precious and wonderful he really is.  Just as faithful martyrs demonstrate that the steadfast love of the Lord is better than life, I recently had an opportunity to demonstrate that the steadfast love of the Lord is better than credit, better than houses, better than the American dream.  I don’t think I seized that opportunity.

I am so thankful that we have the house now.  God has truly blessed us.  But I am even more thankful that here, at the end of this process, my excitement about being a homeowner is a little more chastened. And that’s how it should be.

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The Righteousness of God and the Cross

October 4, 2008

The following is a sermon I preached on Romans 3:21-26 on Sunday, September 28th, 2008.

The French poet Charles Baudelaire once said, “If there is a God, he is the devil.” He said this in regard to the massive evil, suffering, and injustice that prevails all around us. In a world where the strong oppress the weak, where the poor have little or no recourse to pursue justice, where the innocent suffer because of the sins of others, how can we claim that there is an almighty, righteous God ruling over it all?

Dennis Prager recently gave a good answer to this question on his radio show. I love listening to talk radio, and I happened to hear Prager the other night talking about our current economic woes. He was talking about the fact that these corporate executives who have run their companies into the ground by making reckless decisions are making off with what are known as “golden parachutes,” severance packages of millions, or even hundreds of millions of dollars. And all of this happens while investors, who have played by the rules, are taking big losses, and honest employees are losing their jobs. This is not right, Prager said. Often times those who break the rules will prosper in this world, and those who live by the rules will have to pay the difference. And so injustice prevails. But then Prager went on to say that this is precisely why we must believe that there is a God and that he has a coming Day of Judgment when all the wrongs will be accounted for, when the scales will be balanced, and when justice will finally prevail. Every human heart longs for justice. We don’t want to believe that we live in a universe that is ultimately without any standards of right and wrong. But in order to believe that, we must put our hope for justice in God and in the day of reckoning to come.

Dennis Prager is right, but he is still missing something of massive importance. You see, Dennis Prager is Jewish. He does not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. And so while he rightly recognizes that a Day of Judgment is coming, he does not rightly understand what that will mean for him personally. God will demand not only that the corrupt executives answer for their sins, he will also demand that Dennis Prager answer for his sins. And for that matter, he will demand that you and I answer as well. So, in light of the unrighteousness that prevails now, we long for God’s righteousness to be revealed in the coming Day of Judgment. But that puts us in a predicament: if justice is coming, then it is coming to me too. How can I stand before the judgment of God? The Scripture makes it abundantly clear that no one is righteous, that we are corrupt to the core, rebels against God who have stirred up his anger against us. Dennis Prager longs for justice to come, but how will he himself escape when it does? The answer for him and for you and for me is that we will only escape if we cling to the cross of Christ.

The central phrase of Paul’s letter to the Romans is “the righteousness of God.” In 1:17 he says specifically that in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. Here in these verses he mentions the righteousness of God four times, two at the beginning of the passage and two at the end. What Paul tells us is that the righteousness of God has been revealed in the cross of Christ, and it has been revealed in two ways. On the one hand, it has been revealed as a gracious gift given to sinners whereby they are declared righteous before him. On the other hand, it has been revealed as judgment against sin, thereby vindicating God’s own character and showing that he truly is righteous, that the scales will be balanced, and that there is ultimately a difference between right and wrong. These two aspects of the revelation of God’s righteousness answer the two deep longings of our hearts: the longing for righteousness to prevail in the end, and the desire to escape the judgment of God that we rightly deserve when it does. What a wonder is the cross, that by it both God and sinners are justified!

Notice first
I. The Righteousness of God as a Gift to Sinners, 21-24.
This passage begins with two glorious words: “But now.” This signals a transition in Paul’s argument as well as a transition in history. Paul launched into an argument about the wrath of God directed against all of humanity beginning in 1:18, which reads, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” Paul goes on for three chapters about the wrath of God, arguing that it is directed not only against pagan Gentiles, but against the Jews as well. Collectively, all of mankind is under the power of sin and, therefore, under God’s wrath. Broadly speaking, you could say that everything up to this point has been bad news. And then Paul says, “But now,” and he talks about the cross of Christ, and everything that follows through the rest of the book is good news: good news about a right standing with God, about hope in the midst of suffering, triumph over sin and death, and the glorious hope of resurrection. This paragraph signals the turning point, the hinge of the whole letter. And the “now” signifies not only a turn in Paul’s argument, but a turn in history as well. It signifies that something major has happened, so that the time in which we live is a new time when things have changed. And what Paul means is that the death and resurrection of Christ has happened. Christ is the dividing point of history. It is in him that the great transition is made.

The rest of the verse fleshes out this transition: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.” Throughout his argument thus far, one of Paul’s major points has been that the Law, the whole covenant structure made with Israel through Moses, has not kept Israel from sin or from the wrath of God. It has been powerless to defeat sin. And that’s why Paul says in 3:19-20: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” In light of the law’s powerlessness to put anyone right with God, God has revealed his righteousness apart from the law. What is the “righteousness of God” in this verse and in the following verse? It is a gift of right standing with God. We have no righteousness before God on our own, and that’s why we are under his wrath. But in the gospel the righteousness that comes from God as a gift to sinners is revealed, and this righteousness is apart from the Law, apart from anything we could do to earn it. But even though it is apart from the Law, it is attested by the Law. When Paul says, “although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it,” he is referring to the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures. The Law covenant that God made with Israel always pointed beyond itself to a time when God would act in a decisive way to deal with sin and renew his people. So this righteousness of God that is now revealed is revealed apart from the Law, but that does not mean that God has changed his strategy. The Law itself has always pointed in this direction.

And then verses 22-23 expand: “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This righteousness, then, comes through faith. By “faith” here Paul doesn’t mean just any faith. He means a specific kind of faith: “faith in Jesus Christ,” or as some translations say, “the faith of Jesus Christ.” It is a faith that comes from what Christ has done on the cross and that is directed to him. It is not a general belief in God or a vague hope that things will be okay, much less a blind leap into a fantasy world that is detached from reality. It is a specific, directed trust in Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Savior. Those who believe receive the gift of righteousness from God. More than that, Paul says, all who believe receive the gift of righteousness. And when Paul says “all,” his particular focus is on both Jews and Gentiles. As he says, there is no distinction in this regard between them, for all have sinned. All descend from Adam. All have their origin in the same lump of fallen humanity. And, therefore, all have fallen short of the original glory in which Adam was created. Whoever you are and whatever your background, you are a sinner, and the promise of the gospel is that you may be made right with God through faith in Jesus Christ.

And this is what Paul goes on to explain in verse 24: “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” We don’t see it in English, but in the Greek the word “justified” is related to the word “righteousness.” To be justified is to be declared righteous, to have a right legal standing with God. And here Paul says that justification comes to us not based on what we do but as a gift. It comes as a gift because it comes from the grace of God. And the means by which we have it from God’s grace is through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. “Redemption” refers to liberation by payment of a price, a term that was often used in the slave market to refer to the purchase of a slave’s liberation. God has paid that price with the life of his own Son, out of the abundance of his grace, and that means that our right standing with him comes to us as a gift, not as a reward for what we have done.

There was a time when Martin Luther hated that phrase “the righteousness of God” as he read it in the book of Romans. In his medieval theology classes, he had been taught that the phrase referred to the righteousness by which God condemns sinners. And Martin Luther knew that he was a sinner. So he could not understand how the gospel could be good news if it meant that God would condemn him for his sins. But then he had a breakthrough. After much study and meditation, he came to realize that the righteousness of God is not the righteousness by which he stood to be condemned but rather the righteousness by which he stood to be declared righteous. In other words, the phrase refers to the gift of righteousness that comes from God and puts sinners in right standing with him. Writing later about this experience, Luther said, “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” And I proclaim to you that paradise is open through the righteousness of God given to us as a gift in the gospel, because of the cross of Christ. Trust in Christ; trust in what he has done on the cross, and you will be counted righteous now and forever in the sight of God

But another aspect of the righteousness of God is revealed in the cross, and that is, second,
II. The Righteousness of God as Judgment against Sin, 25-26.
We are not so eager to talk about the judgment of God, but Scripture is packed full of references to it. The truth is, without just judgment against sin, God would not be righteous. He himself would become complicit in evil; he would therefore be unholy, unjust, and ultimately unworthy of our praise, worship, and adoration. And that conclusion is simply intolerable. It is precisely because God is so good that we must acknowledge his holy wrath against sin.

And what we find in these two remarkable verses is that God’s righteous character is demonstrated through the cross. Having just mentioned Jesus Christ, Paul says in verse 25: “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” First we need to address that complicated word “propitiation,” or as some translations say, “sacrifice of atonement.” What does this mean? In the culture of the day, the word signified some kind of offering that makes the gods favorable. You see, the gods of the pagan world were a bit bad-tempered, but it was believed that they had authority over different spheres of the world and, therefore, had the power to make life good or bad for us. So, if you were scheduled to go on a sea voyage, you would offer some kind of sacrifice to Neptune, the god of the sea, in order to make sure that he gave you a safe trip. Or, if you were scheduled to give a speech, you might offer a sacrifice to Hermes, the god of communication. Or, if you wanted abundant crops or an abundance of children, you would offer sacrifices to the appropriate gods. The sacrifice offered is a propitiation, because it makes the god propitious, or favorable, to you. Now I don’t want you to get the idea that the one true God is anything like the gods of the pagan world. He is not capricious and bad-tempered, subject to our control if we only bribe him with the right gifts. But he is full of wrath against our sin, wrath that is his holy response to our wickedness, and unless his wrath turned away from us, we are doomed. Therefore, God must be propitiated. But how? Ah, this is where the difference between the one true God and the false pagan gods is most striking. Notice the one performing the action in verse 25: it is God himself! God put forward his own Son as a propitiation through his bloody death on the cross. God has taken the initiative to satisfy his own wrath against sin by directing it to Christ instead of us. And so, God has not simply swept his wrath aside in all this, which would compromise his justice and holiness. No, he has fully poured out his wrath upon sin, but he has done so in a way that has shielded us from that horrible plight. In his love he sent his Son to take our place.

Paul says that God did this in order to demonstrate “his righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” In other words, God’s righteousness, which here indicates his holy judgment against sin, had been called into question so long as he had not dealt with sin in a full and decisive way. And until the cross, he hadn’t. He had “passed over” sins, which in some cases meant allowing sinful rebels to go their own way, and in others it meant actually forgiving sins of Old Testament believers. But what about his justice? How can the justice of God be upheld in light of this passing over of sin? Only if, at some point, he publicly deals with sin in a decisive manner. And this he has done in the cross by delivering up his Son as a substitute for sinners.

In 1998, Karla Faye Tucker became the first woman executed in the state of Texas since 1863. She had been convicted of murder, an act that included repeatedly hacking away at a woman with a pickaxe. Her execution made headlines because she had appealed for clemency, claiming that her life had been transformed by faith in Jesus Christ. Clemency was not granted. But assuming that her conversion to Christ was real, then we must conclude that Karla Faye Tucker stood before God and heard him say, “Not guilty.” What would her victims think of that? What would their families think? If it were any human court, they would no doubt conclude that injustice had prevailed and that the judge was corrupt. And yet, Paul’s point here in Romans 3:25-26 is precisely that this judge who acquits the guilty, who justifies the ungodly, who calls the filthy clean, is completely righteous. God’s righteousness cannot be questioned in the least because it has already been demonstrated on the cross. Judgment was already handed out to Karla Faye Tucker—and to you and to me—on the cross, where her Savior took it in her place. Justice has prevailed. God’s righteousness has been revealed.

Paul then closes in verse 26: “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” God’s righteousness has been demonstrated now, at this point in history, through the cross of Christ, so that he is both “just” and the “justifier.” His character is fully vindicated even as he counts righteous those who are clearly guilty before him.

Unrighteousness is evident all around us. This creates a longing within us for a coming day of reckoning, a day when the wicked will have to answer for their sins. But unrighteousness also prevails within us, whether we realize it or not. And that creates a longing within us for forgiveness, for some way to escape the judgment of God that will certainly come. So the very Day of Judgment that we long for is the Day that will sweep us away with all the rest who have offended God by their sins. Is there any hope for God to reveal his righteousness and yet for us to escape his judgment?

Yes, there is hope. There is hope in the cross of Christ. For it is in the cross that the righteousness of God is revealed, both as a gift of right standing with God for sinners and as a vindication of God’s own righteous character. Take hold of the cross and of the Christ who hung there for you, and don’t ever let go.

What about Israel?

July 2, 2008

What should Christians think about ethnic Israel?  What does the coming of Christ mean for God’s relationship to the natural descendants of Abraham, and where do we as Gentile Christians fit into the picture?  Classic dispensationalists argue that we are two separate people.  According to them, the church age is a parenthesis in God’s plan of redemption, a time when his purpose for Israel has been suspended until the millennial kingdom.  Therefore, we must “rightly divide” the Scripture so as to relate Israel passages to ethnic Israel and church passages to the church.  For some dispensationalists, this division between the two peoples of God will endure through eternity, with the church inheriting the new heaven and redeemed Israel inheriting the new earth.  Covenant theologians have traditionally maintained the opposite view: the church has replaced Israel, and the Old Testament promises made to Israel are now fulfilled spiritually in the salvation that the church receives in Christ.  For many covenant theologians (but not all), there is no longer any significance for ethnic Israel in God’s plan of redemption.

I think both approaches are wrong.  My view is neither that Israel and the church are separate nor that the church has displaced Israel as the people of God.  It is, rather, that believing Gentiles become God’s people by being incorporated into Israel.  Conversely, ethnic Israelites who do not believe in Jesus the Messiah have been cut off from the covenant people.  However, ethnic Israel as such still holds an important place in God’s plan of redemption, for there is a coming day when the partial hardening will be lifted from them and “all Israel shall be saved” (Rom. 11:26).  Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11, particularly regarding the image of the tree, the broken branches, and the grafted branches, gives a hermeneutical key to the rest of Scripture on this subject.

Therefore, when I read the Old Testament prophecies about the restoration of Israel (e.g., Isa. 11:11-16), I try to understand them first as their original hearers would have understood them.  There can be no doubt that they would have understood “Israel” to refer to ethnic Israel, and thus I see the Old Testament hope relating to a future salvation for ethnic Israel.  And yet, there are also prophetic images of the Gentiles being part of this final redemption (e.g., Isa. 2:1-4).  And what the New Testament makes clear is that the Gentiles would be incorporated into Israel as true Israelites (not bound to the Mosaic Law, however, for the old covenant passed away with the inauguration of the new covenant).  Therefore, I also believe it is legitimate for us to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New, that is, with the understanding that the promised restoration of Israel includes the gathering of the nations, incorporated into a restored Israel, to Israel’s Messiah. 

The fact that Israel as a nation still exists and has preserved its culture, language, and heritage despite being hated and persecuted for centuries, is a testimony to the providential favor of God.  Though they are now, for the most part, covenant breakers, God has not fully and finally rejected his people.     

A New Kind of Pacifist

May 13, 2008

I am not a pacifist.  I don’t see how pacifism squares in any way with Genesis 9 or Romans 13, two passages that clearly indicate that God has delegated a measure of authority to certain people to use violence in order to restrain evil in society.  A denial of this authority results in a failure to employ one of God’s primary means of keeping sin in check, and the results of such a failure would be disastrous.

Having said that, I do want to say that I have a great deal more respect for the pacifism of old than I do of the new form of pacifism that has arisen in recent years.  Historically, Christian pacifists have grounded their opposition to violence in their affirmation that vengeance, expressed in terms of violent judgment, belongs only to God.  The reason we do not take up the sword is because the sword belongs to God, not us.  I see much merit in this view, and I believe in the realm of personal ethics, it is right on target (see Romans 12:19-21).  The place where this view goes wrong is in its failure to recognize that God wields the sword in part through the state, an authority he has ordained for the purpose of punishing evil and rewarding good (Romans 13:1-4). 

But the new pacifism makes a different argument.  Instead of saying that the sword belongs to God, not us, the new pacifist says that the sword belongs to no one.  Violence is inherently immoral, no matter what the context.  I don’t know the philosophical roots of this view, but I can say that it has no place in the historic teaching of the church (or, for that matter, in Scripture).  It has a lot more of Rene Girard in it than Jesus. 

Brian McLaren, in his most recent book Everything Must Change, espouses what sounds like the new pacifism: “Many of us have been increasingly critical in recent years of popular American eschatology in general, and conventional views of hell in particular.  Simply put, if we believe that God will ultimately enforce his will by forceful domination, and will eternally torture all who resist that domination, then torture and domination become not only permissible but in some way godly.”  Again, he writes, “The eschatological understanding of a violent second coming leads us to believe (as we’ve said before) that in the end, even God finds it impossible to fix the world apart from violence and coercion; no one should be surprised when those shaped by this theology behave accordingly.” (I do not have a copy of the book; I am quoting from an article that quotes from the book.  If it turns out that the article has totally distorted McLaren’s meaning by quoting him out of context, and that he doesn’t mean what he appears to say in these snippets, then I will retract these comments). 

McLaren’s error here is in thinking that whatever God does is okay for us to do.  Those who believe that God acts violently will pattern their behavior accordingly and will see violence in the human realm as a godly pursuit.  But that is simply not the case.  The absurdity of his argument may be shown with a human analogy.  Suppose a group of police officers receive knowledge about a meth lab in their jurisdiction.  At a particular time when they know the operators of the lab are at home, they bang on the door, identify themselves as the police, and demand to be let in.  When the perpetrators refuse to comply, they kick the door in and come in with guns drawn.  Still finding the perpetrators resistant, they wrestle them to the ground and forcibly cuff them before locking them inside their cars and driving them to the local jail. 

Now suppose that a mother with two small sons who lives across the street witnesses the whole episode.  What is she going to say?  If she plays the role of McLaren, she would say this: “I can’t believe the police acted so violently.  If my sons grow up in a world where this kind of violence is acceptable, they will feel that they have an obligation to invade the property of others, point loaded guns at them, and then wrestle them to the ground and bind them.”  But of course, no sensible person draws that conclusion!  The reason ordinary people don’t have a right to do that kind of thing, as everyone knows, is because the police are the ones who do that kind of thing.  The moment private citizens begin acting like police officers, vigilante justice takes over, and there is no more justice or stability in society.  Sensible people know that copying the actions that police are uniquely authorized to perform is wrong and illegal. 

In the same way, copying the actions that uniquely belong to God (and to those whom he has authorized specifically, i.e., the state) is likewise wrong.  The primary reason why I will not act violently toward those who persist in unbelief is because I know that is God’s unique prerogative, to be carried out in his way at his timing and discretion.  It is not because violence is inherently wrong.  If McLaren and the other new kinds of pacifists really believe that violence has no place in Christianity, then they will have to revise virtually every doctrine of the faith, especially the atonement.  But I guess they have already done that anyway.  After all, “everything must change.”    

(Finally!) Elements of a Biblical Eschatology, Part 10

July 7, 2007

Well, I apologize again for the delay.  The summer has been busier than I expected.  I have been trying to learn Latin, working through my reading list for school, pastoring a church, and spending some good quality time with my wife and son.  I hope to get back to a once-a-week post routine now.  Hope you’ll keep checking back in.

Let me wrap up this eschatology discussion by showing how this matters in real life.  What does an “earthy,” yet “apocalyptic” eschatology like “already/not yet” premillennialism have to do with the church in the here and now?  I have three points to make (and these would also apply to an “earthy” form of amillennialism as well, though postmillennialists would make some slight adjustments):

1. The Great Comission (Matthew 28:18-20).  If Christ is reigning now, then the church has been called to spread the good news of his death, resurrection, and ascension.  Evangelism is essentially a royal proclamation about a king who is already on the throne and who offers amnesty to rebels who have opposed him.  The promise of forgiveness is extended to those who repent and bow before him, and they will be welcomed into his kingdom when it comes in its fullness.  If they refuse, then they will be destroyed when the king leads the troops in.  This is not quite the same as “Here’s how to go to heaven when you die” evangelism.  Certainly, evangelism addresses questions of death and heaven, but it must be placed into a comprehensive story about a crucified and risen Messiah who now reigns over the cosmos and will not allow his rebellious creatures to persist in rebellion forever.  Likewise, a robust eschatology (with a robust Christology at its heart) will avoid the “Don’t make Jesus feel bad” kind of evangelism too that one hears so often.  Evangelism, as royal proclamation, is the center of the church’s mission. 

2. The cultural mandate (Gen 1:26-28).  If this creation is good, and God intends to renew (and not abandon) it, then there are certain implications that follow about the development of human culture.  Dispensationalism (of the old variety) tends to view this world as a sinking ship.  The only thing the church can do that is worthwhile is get people into lifeboats by telling them how to get to heaven when they die (or get raptured).  This is a slight caricature, I know, but there is a good bit of truth in it.  An earthy eshcatology will see things very differently and will affirm that, while evangelism is central, many other aspects of life are also worthwhile and can be honoring to God: art, music, politics, business, social action, environmental conservation, technology, etc.  By subduing the earth and creating a better society, Christians anticipate the new creation in the here and now.  Evangelism is central, but it does not have to be a part of absolutely everything the church does. 

3. Apocalyptic expectation.  Christians must live with a sense that the end is imminent.  The Kingdom is at hand.  There is an urgency to our mission, a demand for holiness, a pressing need for fervent prayer and proclamation.  The King could come at any time.  We don’t want to be found idle. 

Elements of a Biblical Eschatology, Part 9

June 10, 2007

What is the purpose of the millennium?  Why would God’s plan include an intermediate kingdom prior to the eternal state?  Here are a few answers that I can offer:

1. God’s design is for Christ to exercise a coercive rule over his enemies.  If amillennialism were true, then we would have to identify that period of Christ’s reign as the present time, during which Christ rules at the right hand of the Father.  I fully agree with amillennialists that Christ reigns from Heaven right now, but I’m not sure that the present reign of Christ constitutes the complete fulfillment of prophecies such as Psalm 110:2: “The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter.  Rule in the midst of your enemies!”  This and many other passages (Psalms 2, 72, etc.) seem to require an earthly reign of Christ over his enemies prior to the final separation of the righteous from the wicked.

2. The doctrine of the millennial kingdom helps us maintain an orthodox Christology.  I am not at all saying that Postmillennialists and amillennialists are not orthodox in their Christology.  But I do believe that one implication of the millennial kingdom is a greater focus on the humanity of Christ.  I joyfully proclaim that Christ reigns now as the God-man at the right hand of the Father.  But if he is truly human, why should we expect his reign to remain invisible until the day he hands over the Kingdom to the Father (1 Cor 15:24)?  (By the way, I don’t believe that Christ’s handing over the Kingdom constitutes the cessation of his reign; I believe it constitutes the cessation of that phase of his reign during which he subdues his enemies).  Jesus Christ, a real flesh-and-blood man will be clearly perceived as supreme ruler even over those nations and people who do not believe in him. 

3. In the book of Revelation, I believe the millennium serves in part to justify the eternal torment of unbelievers.  The fact that a vast multitude can still be deceived by Satan and led to rebellion against Christ at the end of a thousand years under his direct rule on earth is a testimony to the depravity of the human heart.  Ali made this comment a few posts back, and I agree.  Of course, I am not saying that the millennium is necessary to justify Hell.  Amillennialists believe in Hell too.  God would be just to send unrepentant sinners to an eternal Hell whether there is a millennial kingdom or not.  But the deep persistence of sin will be clearly exposed by the outcome of the millennial kingdom when multitudes rebel against Christ even after the greatest age of peace and prosperity the world has ever known. 

These are a few reasons for a millennial kingdom.  I would also like to point out (though this is not a reason, but just a biblical observation) that some eschatological prophecies seem to demand a millennial kingdom.  For example, Isaiah 65:17-25 describes conditions that will not take place until after the return of Christ.  Yet, sin and death are still there (v. 20).  Granted, Isaiah is using figurative language by saying that a young man will die at 100 years old, but is this the kind of figure of speech that one would use to describe a world without death?  One may object that Isaiah is talking about the new heavens and the new earth (v. 17), which, in the book of Revelation, clearly follows the millennium (Revelation 21).  But I would respond by saying that the prophetic outlook often collapses eschatological events together.  The new heaven and the new earth is a reality that has already begun now in the resurrection of Christ.  The return of Christ will bring us to a new phase when the new creation will become dominant over the old, but the old will still persist to some degree.  Revelation 21 describes the final consummation, when the old is done away with altogether.  The fact that Isaiah collapses these ideas into one should not surprise us, given the typical prophetic outlook. 

 I’m planning to wrap this series up in part 10 on why this matters. 

Elements of a Biblical Eschatology, Part 8

May 31, 2007

I would not be a premillennialist if Revelation 20:1-10 were not in the Bible.  This is the only passage where the millennial kingdom is explicitly taught.  Critics of premillennialism charge us with holding to a doctrine that is standing on the thin ice of one single passage, especially given the fact that Revelation is a highly symbolic and difficult book to interpret.  My response to that charge is twofold:

1. One biblical passage is enough to establish a doctrine.  I would not believe in the imputation of Adam’s sin to all his descendants if not for Romans 5:12-19.  I would not believe in the future conversion of Israel to Christ if not for Romans 11:26 and the surrounding verses.  Other passages speak to these issues indirectly, but these are the only ones that are explicit with respect to the doctrines that I have mentioned.  The same is true for premillennialism.

2. The book of Revelation is indeed highly symbolic and difficult to interpret at many points.  But it was also given to us by divine revelation for the purpose that we might understand it.  Specifically, it is a book that speaks more directly to eschatology than most others, and we should seek to understand it and take seriously what it teaches.

This post will address only Revelation 20.  The discussion will be more lengthy than my previous posts, but that is the only way I can do justice to the passage.  In the next post I will draw in some other passages of Scripture. 

Revelation 20:1-10 teaches a millennial kingdom on this earth ruled over by Christ prior to the eternal state.  If you really want to follow what I am saying here, then you should have a Bible open to that passage.  In this passage we have several elements that demand explanation:

– the binding of Satan for a thousand years (vv. 1-3)

– the first resurrection, namely, the resurrection of those who have been killed for their testimony to Christ as well as all those who had not worshiped the beast (vv. 4-6)

– the millennial Kingdom, during which time those who have been resurrected reign with Christ (vv. 4-6)

– differentiation between the first resurrection and the second resurrection: the first occurs at the beginning of the thousand years, and the second occurs at the end (v. 5)

– a final rebellion led by Satan at the end of the thousand years, which is quickly put down (vv. 7-10)

– Satan’s final destination: the lake of fire (v. 10)

Postmillennialists and amillennialists (hereafter POM’s and AM’s) usually argue that the binding of Satan refers to what happened to him at Christ’s first coming.  Specifically, they point to verse 3, which reads, “and he [the angel, which some say is Christ himself] threw him [Satan] into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he would not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed; after these things he must be released for a short time.”  Since the purpose of Satan’s binding is to prevent him from deceiving the nations any longer, POM’s and AM’s argue that the thousand years refers to the present age (or, for some POM’s a future “golden age” that will gradually develop out of this present age).  Prior to Christ’s first coming, Satan held the nations in darkness, but now that the gospel has gone out to all nations, he has been bound in this one respect.  The nations are no longer held captive to the darkness of ignorance, for the gospel has continually spread around the world.  This means that the present age is “the millennium,” and Christ is reigning over this world right now.  As for the distinction between the first and second resurrections, some argue that the first resurrection refers to regeneration.  Others (more plausibly) argue that the image of a first resurrection is employed to show that those who have died for their testimony to Jesus have not been defeated but reign with him in Heaven during this present age.  It is not a bodily resurrection that is in view but simply a symbolic reference to the ongoing life of the dead in Christ.  At the end of the thousand years (this present age, or for POM’s the golden age of the church), Satan will lead a massive rebellion.  POM’s and AM’s argue that the battle of Revelation 20:7-10 is the same as the battle described in 16:13-21 and 19:11-21, namely, the battle that occurs at the end of the present age at the Second Coming of Christ.  The final judgment and the eternal state follow immediately after Christ’s coming.

This line of interpretation requires that 20:1-10 be identified as a recapitulation, not a continuation of the story from chapter 19.  After all, most are agreed that 19:11-21 describes the Second Coming and Christ’s victory over his enemies at that time.  If chapter 20 simply continues that story, then the millennium comes after the Second Coming, thereby confirming the premillennial view.  But if chapter 20 is a recapitulation, going back and telling the same story in a different way, then either the POM or AM interpretation is correct. 

It would be foolish to deny that the book of Revelation contains a number of recapitulations.  It is not a strict, linear, chronological story laid out from beginning to end.  However, there are several reasons within the context of Revelation itself to reject the claim that chapter 20 is a recapitulation, thereby rejecting the claims of POM’s and AM’s.  When I began to pay close attention to the following details, I could not avoid the premillennial conclusion.

1. The purpose of Satan’s binding is to prevent him from deceiving the nations any longer.  While the POM and AM interpretation has some plausibility from a theological standpoint, how does the book of Revelation itself define Satan’s deceptive work, and when are we to suppose that it is operative?  I am convinced that Revelation has nothing to say about the Old Testament period but instead locates Satan’s deceptive activity in this present age.  In Revelation 12-13, we are introduced to three evil characters, a dark parody of the Holy Trinity: the dragon, the beast from the sea, and the beast from the earth (later identified as the false prophet).  The dragon (clearly identified as Satan) is the power that stands behind the two beasts, antichrist and the false prophet.  Revelation 13:14 speaks of the work of the false prophet by saying, “And he deceives those who dwell on the earth because of the signs which it was given him to perform in the presence of the beast. . .”  This is not a reference to Satanic deception of the Old Testament era that was curtailed by the coming of Christ.  It is a reference to the Satanic powers of deception operative in this present age.  But even nearer to the context of chapter 20, we read in 19:20: “And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast . . .”  Again, the false prophet (a puppet of Satan) is referred to specifically in regard to his deceptive work.  The most natural conclusion to draw only a few verses later at 20:3 is that when Satan is bound “so that he would not deceive the nations any longer,” the deception in view must be the deception that was operative through the false prophet and the antichrist.  Satan’s deceptive work ends when the two beasts are thrown into Hell (19:20-21) and he himself is bound for a thousand years (20:1-3).  The story clearly seems to continue at chapter 20 rather than recapitulate.  To suppose that chapter 20 is a recapitulation is to suppose that it the recapitulation tells the same story in a way that is almost diametrically opposed to the way it was told in the previous chapters.  Prior to chapter 20, Satan’s deceptive power is rampant.  How could this same period of time be described as a time during which he is bound so that he may longer deceive the nations?  The best conclusion to draw is that Satan’s deception in this present age is brought to a temporary end at the Second Coming of Christ, which begins the millennial kingdom. 

2. When you read about the Second Coming in 19:11-19 and then about the doom of the two beasts in 19:20-21, there is one glaring omission that every reader of Revelation should naturally focus on: what happened to the dragon?  We are introduced to the unholy trinity, the three primary villains, in chapters 12 and 13.  This trio wreaks havoc on the world in the following chapters, and then we come to the climactic battle of chapter 19, and the two beasts are sent to the lake of fire.  What about the other villain, the ringleader?  When I read 20:1-3 right after 19:20-21 (keeping in mind that there were no chapter divisions when John wrote this) I am naturally inclined to believe that John intends these passages to form one unit as part of the same story: first he tells us what happened to the two beasts and then what happened to the dragon.  It makes more sense to me that the binding of Satan is of a piece with the doom of the two beasts than the idea that the binding of Satan represents the beginning of a new recapitulation of the same story.  If this reading is on target, then Satan has to be bound at the same time the two beasts are judged, namely, at the Second Coming of Christ, not his first coming.  This reading is confirmed by 20:10, which speaks of the final doom of Satan after the thousand years: “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”  Sam Storms (who is AM), has rightly pointed out that there is no verb in the Greek in reference to the beast and the false prophet.  Literally, it reads, “where the beast and the false prophet.”  Storms argues that the implicit verb should be “were thrown,” indicating that the casting of Satan into the lake of fire corresponds in time with the casting of the beast and the false prophet into the lake of fire.  I disagree.  That idea would not suggest itself to me on a natural reading of the text.  Any reader who has read chapters 19-20 in order would assume that the beast and false prophet were cast into the lake of fire a thousand years earlier and that they are still there when Satan arrives after the millennium.  In addition, in Greek it is much more likely that when no verb is given, then the verb “to be” is the implicit verb.  Greek is much more likely to omit this verb (since it can be understood from the context) than any other verb. 

3. The two resurrections are best understood as bodily resurrections.  Almost everyone agrees that when it says, “the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed” (v. 5), this is a reference to bodily resurrection.  The same verb for “come to life” is used in the previous verse in reference to the first resurrection.  It is difficult to suppose that the same verb could be used in the immediate context to refer to something different.  In addition, the idea communicated here is exclusive.  In other words, if the second resurrection is the only bodily resurrection, then it would include all of humanity, not just “the rest” who were not participants in the first resurrection.  But John phrases it in such a way as to indicate that those who participate in the first resurrection do not participate in the second resurrection.  Therefore, if the second resurrection is a bodily resurrection, the first resurrection must also be a bodily resurrection, or else the category of people who were participants in the first resurrection would never experience bodily resurrection, a manifest absurdity.  I admit that it is difficult to understand how a portion of humanity that has been raised from the dead to an immortal life will share the earth with another portion that hasn’t.  But then we must remember that the Jews never expected that the Messiah would experience the resurrection before everyone else.  Dividing the general resurrection up into distinct phases is an explicitly Christian doctrine.  If Paul can divide it between Christ the firstfruits and those who belong to Christ (1 Cor 15:20), then why should we have any trouble filling in the blank and saying that the rest of the dead will be raised at a later time?  Jesus Christ appeared to his disciples over a period of 40 days after his resurrection.  The new age mingled with the old as an immortal fellowshipped with those who were still under the power of death.  This is how it will be during the millennium.  We already have a category for it in the resurrection of Christ. 

4. Those who participate in the first resurrection will reign with Christ for a thousand years (20:6).  When we read of other references to Christ and his people “reigning” in the book of Revelation, it is always on the earth.  See Revelation 2:26-27; 5:10; 22:5.  The latter reference is to eternity, but it is on a renewed creation.  My point here is not that every reference to the saints “reigning” is explicitly a reference to the millennium, but merely that nowhere do we read of a spiritual reign of the saints with Christ in Heaven.  Such an idea is not too hard to fathom, but it is not a category anywhere in the book of Revelation.

5. Finally, although I have not dealt with the sources directly, I have read in the works of credible scholars that some Jewish apocalyptic writings outside of Scripture envision a messianic kingdom on earth prior to the eternal state.  I do not cite these as religious authorities but rather as evidence that such an idea was not foreign to John’s context, thereby strengthening the plausibility of my interpretation of Revelation 20.

Yes, it is only one passage, but the explicit teaching of one biblical passage is enough to establish a doctrine.  The POM and AM readings of Revelation 20 are simply inadequate.  The premillennial reading makes the best sense of the passage within the context of the whole book.   

In the next post (which will be shorter, I anticipate) I will show how the premillennial doctrine illuminates the broader teaching of Scripture in ways that neither postmillennialism nor amillennialism does. 

Elements of a Biblical Eschatology, Part 7

May 30, 2007

At one time or another, I have been a premillennialist, postmillennialist, or amillennialist.  I believe all three positions have something valuable to contribute to the discussion.  Premillennialism reminds us of the “earthiness” of the Kingdom of Christ.  Postmillennialism summons us to confidence in our mission to reach the world for Christ and to develop human culture in a way that glorifies God.  Amillennialism draws our focus to the return of Christ as the only hope for this world. 

Growing up I was a dispensational premillennialist because that was what I heard from the pulpit at my home church.  I am now convinced that dispensationalism is basically an incorrect approach to Scripture.  The appeal by dispensationalists to a “literal” hermeneutic is inconsistent and unclear.  In any case, what they often mean by “literal” actually means “wooden,” which is not the correct way to read many passages of Scripture.  Traditional dispensationalism errs in its bifurcation of God’s people into two separate groups with two separate destinies, and I cannot make any sense out of a millennial idea that includes a rebuilt temple with a renewed sacrificial system.  I believe that idea tramples the book of Hebrews to the ground.

Toward the end of my college years and at the beginning of my seminary days, I was a postmillennialist.  I was attracted to the idea that one day the world would be redeemed by Christ (not in the sense that every single individual would be saved, but the world as a whole and in general).  But I have since abandoned that position for two major reasons.  First, there are a number of passages in Scripture that lead me to believe that ungodliness and tribulation will increase and intensify as we near the end (Revelation, Matthew 24, etc.).  Although I flirted with postmillennial explanations of these passages for a while, I am now convinced that they are simply inadequate.  Second, postmillennialism removes from theology the idea of the imminent return of Christ.  But I see that idea in the New Testament as the hope of all believers.  Postmillennialism cannot help but put something else (the golden age of Chrstianity) before us as our nearest hope for the future.  I find this inconsistent with the New Testament teaching about the return of Christ, which is our hope.

That leaves amillennialism and historic premillennialism.  Between these two, historic premillennialism must bear the burden of proof.  Amillennialism is the position with the fewest loose ends, and a number of biblical passages bring together the ideas of resurrection, the return of Christ, the final judgment, and the new creation (see, for example, 2 Peter 3:1-13).  Premillennialism carries a lot of baggage with it: two resurrections separated by a thousand years, a millennial kingdom in which some who have been resurrected live on the earth with others who live and die, a temporal separation between the return of Christ and the final consummation of the new creation.

Until recently, taking these things into consideration, I was an amillennialist.  But now I am convinced, after further study, that historic premillennialism actually does meet the burden of proof from Scripture.  I know that, as a premillennialist, I must affirm some strange things.  That made me reluctant, going in, to embrace this position.  But I am convinced that only the premillennial reading of Revelation 20 does justice to the text.  I will deal with that and with some other passages in the next post, but for now let me offer a brief synopsis of my eschatological position:

1. Jesus Christ inaugurated his Kingdom by his first coming, and he now reigns at the right hand of the Father over it.

2. The church is the visible expression of the Kingdom of Christ in this present age, which is actually a period in which the old age of sin and death overlaps with the new age of life and peace.

3. As we near the end of this present period in redemptive history, evil will intensify.  I believe there is no biblical basis to affirm a literal seven-year tribulation period prior to the millennium.  That is based on a misreading of Daniel 9.  I do, however, believe that this present age is “the tribulation” for God’s people, and that it will intensify as we near the end. 

4. Antichrist is a recurring figure in history, and the concept may include not only individuals but also nations, institutions, movements, etc.  I do believe that there will be one final climax to this recurring pattern, a final, personal antichrist who will wield massive power over this world.  I do not, however, believe that we should try to identify the final antichrist.  We may point to certain individuals and movements as antichrists, but I doubt that we will ever be able to say, “So-and-so is the Antichrist” until after the fact.

5. Jesus Christ will return at the end of the tribulation period.  At his return, all who have died in Christ will be raised, and those believers who are alive at the time will be instantaneously clothed with resurrection bodies.  The first resurrection is only for believers, and we will reign with Christ on the earth.

6. At his return, Jesus Christ will destroy the organized opposition to his Kingdom and send the Antichrist and the false prophet to Hell.  This does not mean, however, that the earth will be rid of all unbelievers (I will discuss this further in the next post dealing with Revelation 20).  The nations, as such, will still be here, and with Christ we will rule over them. 

7. This millennial kingdom may or may not last for a literal thousand-year period.  Given the way Revelation uses numbers as symbols, I am inclined to believe that the thousand years simply means an extended period of time.  But then, why not a thousand years? 

8. During this time the ages will still overlap, but the new age will become much more prominent and dominant over the old, though sin and death will still exist for those who were not part of the first resurrection.  However, due to the fact that Satan is bound for the duration of the millennial kingdom, these powers will be subdued to a great extent.  I think this means that there will be massive evangelistic success.  It may even be that during the millennium the number of the redeemed will finally grow to outnumber those who are unredeemed in the scope of human history. 

9. Nevertheless, as a testimony to the persistent rebellion of the human heart, Satan will still be able to gather a massive rebellion against Christ and his people at the end of this period when he is released.  This rebellion will be put down quickly and will be followed by the final judgment.  At this time the rest of the dead will be raised, including all unbelievers and those believers who, due to the circumstances of time, were not participants in the first resurrection. 

10. After the final judgment all unbelievers will be condemned to Hell forever, and all believers will inherit a new heaven and a new earth.  God will be all in all. 

I have not given the justification for this belief yet.  That would make this post too long.  But I assure you, I have thought this through very carefully and have tried to consider it from every angle.  In part 8 I will make a biblical case for this position. 

Elements of a Biblical Eschatology, Part 6

May 26, 2007

In recent years eschatology has come into much greater prominence among theologians.  It used to be just one more topic, or locus, that was addressed at the end of the discussion, and the substance of eschatological discussion usually pertained to sorting out millennial views.  But now eschatology has become central to the whole task of Christian theology.  As Michael Horton rightly argues in his book Covenant and Eschatology, eschatology should be considered a lens, not just a locus, of theology.  In other words, all of theology should be viewed through the lens of eschatology.  Eschatology sets the framework within which all of theology is done. 

What accounts for this recent change?  There are a number of factors, but I believe the most important one is the discovery of the “already/not yet” tension within the New Testament.  This is what is known as “inaugurated eschatology,” and I don’t believe one can understand the New Testament without, in some sense, understanding this concept. 

Here is a brief historical background.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, liberal New Testament scholars argued that Jesus was basically a moral teacher who went around throwing out one-liners and parables as timeless, pithy principles for living.  He did not believe himself to be the messiah or Son of God.  His main purpose was to teach people how to love each other.  The church later distorted Jesus and turned him into a messianic figure and then even a divine figure.  Albert Schweitzer came along in the early twentieth century and rejected this line of thinking.  Although he adhered to the liberal methods of study, he argued for a very different Jesus.  Schweitzer argued that the historical Jesus was an apocalyptic figure who proclaimed the imminent end of the world and the establishment of the Kingdom of God, and this was all bound up with himself.  But here’s the catch: Jesus was wrong.  He thought he was bringing in the Kingdom, but he ended up dying a martyr’s death instead.  In one memorable passage, Schweitzer writes this:

“In the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man He lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close.  It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it.  Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them.”

Schweitzer rightly identified the strong apocalyptic element in Jesus’ teaching, but his conclusion, one must admit, does not inspire much confidence in Jesus.  Schweitzer’s Jesus is a deluded failure, on par with Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite.  Is this the Jesus that we see on the pages of the New Testament, the Jesus who has been worshiped by millions around the world for two-thousand years? 

Around the middle of the twentieth century, scholars began to identify a theme in the New Testament that Schweitzer had not noticed: inaugurated eschatology.  This theme allows us to agree with Schweitzer that Jesus was a strongly apocalyptic figure who proclaimed the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God without following Schweitzer into the unfounded idea that the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed never materialized.  W. G. Kuemmel was among the first among non-evangelicals to argue for this theme, and George Ladd was the pioneer among evangelicals.  Today it has become a virtual consensus among New Testament scholars and theologians that through the coming, ministry, and redemptive work of Jesus, the Kingdom has come, though not in its fullness.  There is an “already” aspect to it as well as a “not yet.”  History is divided into two ages, and right now we are living at the point where these ages overlap.  The old age of sin, darkness, and death persists even as the new age of life, redemption, justice, righteousness, and peace has broken in on it.  The Kingdom of God was established at Jesus’ first coming, but we await his Second Coming for the fullness of it and the complete end of the old age. 

I believe the New Testament clearly teaches an inaugurated eschatology, in contrast both to the postponement theory of dispensationalism and to the “Jesus-as-deluded-failure” idea of Schweitzer.  Classical dispensationalists argue that Jesus offered the Kingdom to Israel but then postponed it when they refused.  I see no offer of the Kingdom in the New Testament.  I see an announcement of the Kingdom.  In Mark 1:15-16, Jesus’ message is summarized as this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe in the good news!”  Jesus does not say, “The Kingdom will come if you will have it.”  He says, “It is coming, and that places an obligation upon you.  Repent now and be a part of it, or persist in your sin and be consumed by judgment.”  The evidence of the Kingdom comes about through Jesus’ ministry of teaching, healing, and especially of casting out demons.  The powers of the old age are routed as the King comes to claim his throne. 

But Jesus did not establish the Kingdom the way Israel expected.  He came as a suffering servant, a crucified Messiah whose purpose was to redeem sinners.  Nevertheless, through his resurrection and ascension he has been exalted to the right hand of God, where he now reigns as King over all things.  Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15:20, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”  By calling Christ the “firstfruits,” Paul identifies the resurrection of Christ as the beginning phase of a much bigger event.  In the resurrection of Jesus, the general resurrection of the dead has begun.  The resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of all people are not two separate events but are two aspects of the same event.  They may be separated in time (already now almost 2,000 years), but in God’s timetable they are one extended eschatological event.  This means that the whole of the present age is eschatological, since Christ has already been raised.  We have been living in the last days ever since Christ came (Hebrews 1:1-2).  Eschatology must be the lens of theology because all theology must focus on the fulfillment of God’s purpose in Christ, which is an eschatological event. 

The framework that I set out in the previous posts now comes into play.  In recent years, as a result of the “already/not yet” emphasis of New Testament scholarship, different camps in the millennial debates have made significant progress in coming together.  Dispensationalists used to view eschatology completely as a “not yet” category.  The Kingdom was postponed and will not resume until the millennium.  Covenant theologians (amillennialists), on the other hand, used to focus almost exclusively on the Kingdom as “already,” and they tended to spiritualize it completely.  Now, with the virtual consensus of both “already” and “not yet” as major New Testament themes held in tension, progressive dispensationalists and modified covenantalists have come to a measure of eschatological agreement.  Now you will find both premillennialists and amillennialists arguing that Christ’s Kingdom has already been established, that Christ is now reigning at the right hand of the Father in fulfillment of the messianic promises, and yet that we are still waiting for the fullness of the Kingdom to come at his return, when the Kingdom will be experienced in much more than a “spiritualized” manner.  Amillennialists have become much more “earthy” in their views of the Kingdom, and premillennialists have become much more open to the present dimsensions of the Kingdom under Christ’s present rule.  I have not studied the history of postmillennialism enough to know whether significant changes have been made among postmillennialists in this regard, but I have seen postmillennial theologians making some of the same observations about the “already/not yet” dimensions of the Kingdom.  For a full discussion of this trend, see Russell Moore’s excellent book The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective.

So what does this all mean?  It means that we are seeing greater theological unity on the most important matters of eschatology, which in turn relativizes the elements that divide among different views.  What are these most important matters?  I would list them as follows:

1. The Kingdom of God was established through the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

2. Jesus Christ now reigns as King at the right hand of the Father; this is in fulfillment of the messianic promises that one of David’s descendants would rule forever.

3. The present rule of Christ has major implications for the way we live now on this earth; we are to seek to live out a Kingdom way of life in a world that is in rebellion against God.  This way of life consists primarily of gospel proclamation, but it also extends to all aspects of life including social ministry, economics, art, politics, etc.

4. While the Kingdom has been established, the present evil age continues to persist, and the two ages overlap.

5. This means that we are still waiting for Christ to return and gain final victory over his enemies.

6. The return of Christ is the hope to which we must look as we suffer in this present age, and we must be ready for it at any time.

7. The ultimate hope for believers is not a disembodied existence in heaven but a renewal of this creation. 

I believe that if one holds to these elements (of course, presupposing all the essential elements of a Christian eschatology that I outlined in part 1), then questions about the millennium tend to recede into the background.  However, I do believe that questions about the millennium are important and should be answered biblically.  In the next post I will finally reveal what position I hold. 

Elements of a Biblical Eschatology, Part 5

May 26, 2007

Among the varieties of premillennialism, the most popular variety in churches today is known as “dispensational premillennialism.”  Dispensationalism is a theological system that arose in the 1800’s, a major tenet of which is that Israel and the church are two separate peoples with separate destinies.  Jesus offered the Kingdom to Israel in his incarnation, but Israel refused.  Therefore, the Kingdom has been postponed, and God is now dealing with the Gentiles and building the church from among them.  This is a parenthesis in God’s plan.  In the last days God will remove the church from the scene and resume his dealings with Israel. 

Given this framework, dispensational premillennialists overwhelmingly adhere to the idea of a secret rapture of the church prior to the seven year tribulation that will mark the end of this age.  Christ will come for his church, call us all away to be with him, and then the world will experience seven years of chaos and turmoil precipated by the Antichrist.  This will also be a time of intense divine judgment.  At the end of the seven years, Christ will return to this earth to establish the Kingdom that he postponed at his first coming.  It will be a Jewish Kingdom, and Jesus will rule from David’s throne.  The temple will be rebuilt, and the sacrificial system will be reinstituted.  At the end of the thousand years there will be one final Satanic rebellion that will be quickly put down, and then the millennium will give way to the new heaven and the new earth.  Traditional dispensationalists have long held that these are two separate spheres, one spiritual and one earthly, and that the church will be in the new heaven while Israel will be on the new earth forever. 

In recent years there has been a new movement among dispensationalists known as “progressive dispensationalism.”  Progressive dispensationlists do not hold to the strict dichotomy between Israel and the church, nor do they believe that the Kingdom has been postponed.  According to progressive dispensationalists, Christ is ruling over his Kingdom now, which has already come but not yet in its fullness.  They tend to hold to a pretribulation rapture like traditional dispensationlists, but they do not see it as God’s way of getting the church out of the way to get back to his plans for Israel.  I have not studied this movement enough to know how they see the details of the millennial kingdom, like whether or not there will be a new temple and a reinstituted sacrificial system.  I would suspect some variety among adherents.  I do know that progressive dispensationalism is much more “earthy” in its view of eternity.  Israel and the church (which are not two distinct peoples but the one people of God) will inherit a renewed creation under their common Lord once the millennium has ended. 

Finally, there is a variety of premillennialism known as “historic premillennialism,” represented primarily by the New Testament scholar George Ladd and a number of theologians today.  This view is very similar to that of progressive dispensationalism, except for the fact that it tightens the connections between Israel and the church even more.  For example, whereas progressive dispensationalists see a future for Israel as a national, political entity, historic premillennialists would tend to deny any special role for Israel in the millennium.  Historic premillennialists certainly deny that there will be a reinstitution of the sacrificial system, and they also deny that there will be a secret rapture prior to the Second Coming.  On this view, Christ will return at the end of the tribulation period (which may or may not be a literal seven year period).  Even though he is presently reigning now from Heaven, he will at that time establish his rule on earth among his redeemed (who have been resurrected) and over the nations.  At the end of this period (which, again, may or may not be literally a thousand year period), Satan will be released and will lead a final rebellion.  After Satan’s defeat comes the consummation of the new creation, which the redeemed will enjoy forever. 

Now that we have a framework for the discussion, I will finally get around in the next few posts to making some arguments and drawing some conclusions.