What Difference Does the World Tomorrow Make in the World Today?
A Christ-centered eschatology grounds relevance in the person of Jesus Christ, the true telos and hope of all creation.
By Lance M. McKinnon
If the church were asked to be more relevant, connecting with the world in which we live, would eschatology ever appear on the radar of response? I suppose the answer to that would largely be shaped by one’s experience and interaction between the two. I grew up with a steady diet of “prediction addiction,” where the time of the world’s end and the return of Christ could clearly be determined if only someone could unravel the mysteries contained in the apocalyptic writings. That someone would always be able to produce a compelling argument for the secret identity of some ten-horned, multi-head monster while simultaneously convincing me that everyone was crazy but us. My powers of reason never raised an eyebrow, for the thought of knowing what no one else understood resonated well with my pride.
From this framework and belief system, relevance never concerned me. As far as I could tell, the church did not need to be relevant to the world when the whole message was when and how it would end. This lack of concern for relevance was also experienced personally as I lived with the thought that I wouldn’t be around long enough to finish high school, pursue a career, get married or have kids. But these were very early childhood formations of my thought. It didn’t take long to realize that I actually had to consider what I would do after high school. Questions and anxieties regarding what I wanted to do with my life were thrust upon me by the relentless march of time that I thought should have run out.
A good picture of the tension between relevance and my eschatological roots can be seen by my experience of watching the prophecy-bent World Tomorrow program that stressed the soon-coming end of the world and the good news of the establishment of God’s Kingdom. That thirty-minute World Tomorrow program on Sunday morning would be replaced with The Today Show for the rest of the week. That was the tension I had to grapple with day-in and day-out. What was I to do in the world today in light of the good news of the World Tomorrow? This is the dilemma that comes with an eschatological presentation that has at its center a proclamation full of speculation and dogmatism about end-time events. For many like myself, this led to a detachment from interacting in any meaningful way with the world around me. For others, major life decisions were made from a strong belief in end-time predictions that never came true.
Thankfully, for me this dilemma was removed when the Spirit moved in a mighty way to free our denomination and myself from such wrong-headed thinking. When the fog lifted, this senseless marathon looked more like a humorous attempt to go down in history as the one who successfully predicted the end of the world. Thanks to God’s grace, we came to see that this was not the “race of faith” the Apostle Paul was referring to. As we emerged from this thick cloud of self-focused prophecy, we also began to see that we were not the only participants running down this dead-end road. To my surprise, we had been hilariously outpaced by many others who were more fleet-footed than ourselves. I also noticed for the first time that we were carrying a baton that had been passed to us by a long line of previous runners. Not only did we learn that we were not the only true church, we also realized we were not the only church steeped in some deeply ingrained, off-center views regarding eschatology.
This experience may be common to many others who have lived under their own eschatological fog, obscuring any relevance it has for their lives in the present. For others, where eschatology has been relegated to the realm of fantasy, or minimized as some esoteric writings in
Scripture, this experience may sound foreign and farfetched. But eschatology’s true message is one of hope, with relevant implications for everyone. This relevance and hope is distorted when eschatology gets detached from its rightful center in Jesus Christ, the soon-coming King of the cosmos.
The cry for relevance from within and without the church is a challenge the pulpit and pew has met, in many circles, with introspective reevaluation of how the church carries out its purpose and mission in the world. The result of this inward self-analysis has produced, not surprisingly, a magnification of the already imbedded theological and biblical views of those doing the seeking. As well intentioned as these pursuits have been, they have not given us any breakthrough insight in which to engage our world, but only deeper ditches dug on different sides of the road. As we take seriously God’s revelation to us in Jesus Christ, we direct our focus on Jesus as the center of the road for our way forward. In taking our identity and destiny in Christ as the most fundamental center of our being (Acts 17:28), we move from a delusional, self-centered pursuit of self-actualization, to the reality of all things bound up in Christ (Colossians 1:17). From this center, eschatology serves as a revelation of reality, where the proclamation of the Gospel carries a relevance that resonates with the deepest truth of our existence.
One of the ditches we fall into with eschatology is a preoccupation with how and when
Christ returns, while paying little attention to who is returning. Detaching Christ’s return from his identity leaves us at a loss in our understanding of who God is and his good purposes toward us. The other ditch is to avoid eschatology altogether. In both approaches we lose relevance.
Stephen Seamands sees these two approaches as “two extremes” that have led to a neglect in preaching on Christ’s second coming.1 He poses for us the question that needs to be settled before launching into any eschatological message: “Faced with these polar opposites—obsessive
‘overbelief’ on the one hand, and skeptical ‘underbelief’ on the other—how should we preach the return of Christ? How do we chart a third way, offer a third option that challenges both extremes we have to contend with?”2 He goes on to offer an approach grounded on the nature and purposes of God as seen in Christ’s second coming.3 Seamands draws from many biblical scholars and theologians who have remained centered on Jesus. One such theologian is Thomas
F. Torrance, who provides a well-articulated answer to Seamands’ question:
It is the Word of God which is the third dimension between heaven and earth, between spiritual regiment and earthly regiment, and it is through that Word of God that the heavenly realm is made relevant to the earthly, and the last things are made relevant to the present, and the present things of the earth are taken in control and ordered in accordance with God.4
As we explore eschatology with this “third dimension,” we will find a more faithful way forward in understanding Christ’s return. We will also discover a message of hope that brings relevant implications for the worshiping church, informing its witness to the world.
Between these two extreme approaches to eschatology, the literature on the subject that remains faithful to the center is by those who remain faithful to the revelation of Jesus Christ.
I call this the “Good” of eschatology. Most notably in the arena of theology there is Thomas F. Torrance, from whom I will draw heavily. With an eye to the church being relevant, we will also add contributors such as H. Richard Niebuhr, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Oden and Donald Bloesch. Contributions from notable biblical scholars will come from Walter Brueggemann, George Eldon
Ladd and N.T Wright. Brueggemann and Ladd deal with the subject as seen in the Old and New
Testament respectively, whereas Wright’s contributions can be seen in his strong convictions of the Jewish understanding of God’s purposes in bringing heaven and earth together in Christ.5
As far as the two ditches in which eschatology can fall, we cannot expect any literature from the ditch of avoidance. We will call this the “Bad” of eschatology. But in the opposite ditch we find an overwhelming stack of writings that focus on end-time events. This is what I label as the “Ugly” of eschatology, a ditch I was deeply immersed in growing up. Today this approach to eschatology is well represented in the bestselling books written by authors such as Hal Lindsey with his The Late Great Planet Earth and the ever-popular Left Behind series brought to us by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. There are many others in this category, and this approach is not absent from many pulpits. Due to their speculative nature, these books are often found in the fiction section of bookstores. Faithful eschatology, however, is concerned with reality, a reality beyond our perception that gives hope in the present, rather than a doomsday speculation that leaves us fearful of the future. It’s in this way that relevance can be found. Paul Boyer, in his exhaustive survey of prophecy belief in America, makes an interesting claim about its attraction and following:
This belief system is also noteworthy because of the psychological and even ontological function it performs for those who embrace it. Prophecy belief is a way of ordering experience. It gives a grand, overarching shape to history, and thus ultimate meaning to the lives of individuals caught up in history’s stream. Here, I believe, is a key to its enduring appeal.6
Boyer is finding a correlation between eschatology and our search for relevance. If speculative approaches to eschatology can shape purpose and meaning, how powerful would an eschatology built on the foundation of Truth, the reality of Jesus Christ our Hope, be in providing us with relevant implications for living meaningful and purposeful lives of hope today?
In this paper, I will take a Christ-centered approach to eschatology, where understanding and living out God’s purposes begins with faith in Jesus, who reveals the Father’s love, bringing us into a living hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. A Christ-centered eschatology is a message of hope from the future that points us to Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension in the past as a reality to participate in today, through worship, discipleship, fellowship, service and sharing. In this approach, a Christ-centered eschatology grounds relevance in the person of Jesus Christ, the true telos and hope of all creation.
I will begin this exploration by wrestling theologically with the identity, character and heart of God and his purposes towards his creation as revealed in Jesus Christ. It’s only in this revelation that we have a true grounding for reality and therefore a realistic hope to live in during our times. This focus on God’s purposes for us will include his provision of redemption and salvation through Jesus in the Spirit. It’s in acknowledgment of this provision that we humbly must come under Jesus’ revelation to us rather than our own sinful and broken visions of reality.
Reality is established by God as he is the creator of all things. In this orientation, we rely on Jesus as the true telos, the ultimate purpose, and hence, reality of all creation.
Eschatology from this starting point ceases to be speculation and dogmatism about some future potentiality and rather becomes a glimpse into the very purpose and glory, the ultimate reality intended for creation. I will also hold on to the mystery of the already established Kingdom in Jesus even though we do not fully see or experience it in the present. This tension need not be released as we hold firmly to Jesus being the telos that is fully consummated at his return but at the same time a telos that can be participated in today. To guard against alien approaches to reading eschatological passages of Scripture, we will look at the Old Testament understanding of the role of the Prophet and the role of Apocalyptic language as it was understood by the Jewish mind. We will carry this backdrop into the New Testament to unpack the more fundamental aim behind eschatological teachings. This biblical survey will culminate in the Book of Revelation, where we will unpack Revelation 21:1-8 to see a picture of God’s purposes toward us. Out of this picture we can spring from the person of Jesus and his finished work into participation in God’s ultimate purposes for all creation. We will use Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension as our springboard to participate as a worshiping and witnessing community. It is in this Christ-centered approach to eschatology that the church has a relevant message to the world.
Chapter 2: A Theology of Eschatology
There can be two ways to discuss the end of time. One is simply to see time as we know it come to a halt or run out. The second way to look at it would be to use the word “end” as a way of referring to the aim of something, the “end game,” or what something seeks to achieve.
From that perspective, the “end of time” has a goal in mind, a purpose or a telos. It is in this second way we must carry into our thoughts when considering eschatology to reach a more faithful and Christ-centered understanding. The end of time is not for time’s sake but for the sake of the one who created time. As we come to wrestle through our eschatological thoughts, we must submit them first and foremost to the one who is transcendent over time. However, when the focus on eschatology is primarily on the when and how of end-time events, then somewhere along the way we placed ourselves in the center, with creaturely time being the framework of our thoughts.
When Jesus is the center point of all our eschatological presentations, then we have to take seriously that time serves the purposes of its creator. If we try to imagine reality before the creation of time, we run up against an impossibility, as our thoughts are linear and chronological in nature. We have run up against something other than ourselves. This “other” is the understanding established in the doctrine of Creation Ex Nihilo, which was formulated by early
Christian thought. The understanding that God created everything “out of nothing” highlights the transcendence of God over his creation. This transcendence must be underscored if we are to faithfully and rationally articulate a Christ-centered eschatology. It’s not from our side that we come to a proper understanding of the end of time, but rather from the side of the one who created time’s beginning. Torrance is clear where our understanding must start:
As the Creator of the whole cosmos out of nothing, God is the transcendent Lord over all space and time. He is not indebted to the universe in any way or bound to it…. The universe is indebted to God and utterly dependent on him, both in its origin and in its continuity. Its rationality…is indebted to his rationality, but God’s rationality is not indebted to the universe. He does not need the universe to be God.7
We must not assume that our logical bridges built from eschatological passages to modern-day events, as rational or convincing as they may be presented, is the primary purpose of eschatology. In seeking purpose, we need to ground our search in the Creator. We don’t establish any purpose from our side. In our culture this may be difficult to swallow. We have inherited a way of thinking that sees freedom as a course of self-realization, self-determination and selfperfection.8 The “prediction addiction” that characterizes many approaches to eschatology highlights our preference to have the last word over the Word from the beginning. True freedom can only be found and experienced in the one who created us for freedom (Galatians 5:1).
Springing again from the understanding of God’s transcendence over creation, Torrance locates true purpose and freedom in the character and heart of God:
The doctrine of creation out of nothing and of the continual preservation of creation from lapsing back into nothing, shattered the notion of eternal cyclic processes, with its built-in futility, for it revealed that the universe had an absolute beginning and thus replaced the idea of time ever turning back on itself with a linear view of time moving irreversibly toward its consummation or end in the purpose of the Creator. But it also grounded the ongoing order of the universe in the steadfast love and faithfulness of God, which gave it a stability as well as freedom in its contingency, for it meant that its natural lability was undergirded by God himself.9
It’s this “God himself” we must get to know if we are to find the purpose he intends for us and the “ends” of time he is working towards. It’s in knowing the heart and character of God that we find the deeper message, the primary message held out to us in eschatology. If God is taking his creation somewhere and has an end goal for it, we can expect that it will be consistent with who he is in his very being. It will be paramount here to not only have a Christ-centered eschatology but a Christ-centered epistemology in our knowledge of who God is. Jesus is the center of all our knowing of the character and heart of God (John 14:7). Building from the cultic practices of worship in Israel’s history, Michael Reeves articulates the intimate knowing of God that is found in Jesus. “The Word of God, then, is the one who belongs in the deepest closeness with God, and the one who displays the innermost reality of who God is. He is ‘the radiance of
God’s glory and the exact representation of his being’ (Heb 1:3). For he is himself God. He is
God’s ‘Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation’ (Rev 3:14).”10
It is not within the scope of this paper to establish the doctrine of the Trinity, but suffice it to say, when we center on Christ we not only come to a better knowing of Jesus but we will also come to know the Father and the Holy Spirit. As we center on Christ who is the full revelation of God, we come to know the true God who is. Out of God’s own initiative and grace he has given us his Son as the center of our knowing of him in the Spirit. This God has revealed himself to us as the Triune God. When we take this God seriously, then we are dealing with reality. Any other concept of God, unitarian or otherwise, is a starting block angled in a different direction.
Roderick T. Leupp, in his insistence of a renewal to Trinitarian theology, states, “The deep structures and pervasive rhythms of Trinitarian theology mean that no realm of Christian theology or spirituality falls outside of Trinitarian oversight and governance.”11 As we center on
Jesus, we are left no choice but to look at eschatology with the “oversight and governance” of the Trinity. This will help safeguard eschatological concepts from falling outside the confines of
God’s grace and love. Many of the eschatological writings in Scripture were written to encourage believers. How odd today that it is often these very Scriptures that are used to paint God as an angry and vindictive deity instead of the Triune God of love. If we are to have any relevance flowing from eschatology, it will only be as we operate from the ground of reality of who God is as Father, Son, and Spirit. Leupp is quick to point out this connection between reality and relevance in the church’s proclamation to the world: “Any ecclesiology that is both relevant to human needs and anchored in the reality of God must be triunely figured, constructed and realized.”12
As we return to God’s transcendence, we can now stress appropriately that it is the Triune
God who is transcendent over time. This helps us begin to see God’s purposes for time, his ultimate “end time” plan and goal, his telos. God is in no way dependent on time. For all eternity, God has existed in a relationship of love among the Father and the Son in the Spirit. But this eternity is not a chronological eternity. So, when God creates time, he is doing so with a purpose in mind, not out of some necessity. Although Torrance stresses creation being wholly other than
God, he does not imply an alien purpose apart from its creator: “While the universe might have been other than it is, it came into being not without divine reason. Far from being merely an arbitrary product of God’s will, the creation is regarded as having had its origin in the love of God and as ultimately grounded in the eternal truth and rationality of God.”13 Torrance goes further with, “The transcendence of God over all space and time implies that the interaction of God with the universe he has made rests on the free ground of his own eternal being.”14 Torrance helps us see that it is God’s initiative to create time, and it is an initiative of grace grounded in his own being as Father, Son and Spirit.
This is why eschatology must be a Christ-centered eschatology. Outside that center, we lose the revelation of God’s very being, creating confusion as to the purpose of his creating anything at all. Only from the ground of God’s own being and doing as revealed in Jesus Christ can we speak with any certainty to the question of “why” in regard to creation. Outside this revelation, not only are we left to entertain various mythological understandings of creation’s beginning, but we are also left to project a mythological end-time scenario that gives more weight to our creaturely confines of space and time, rather than the loving transcendent purpose the Father has for us.
In establishing God’s transcendence over our creaturely time, we have already begun our discussion of creation as a creation out of nothing. This way of thinking of creation is beyond anything we can grasp with our creaturely minds. Our only mode of “creating” is more accurately understood as integrating. We are not capable of creating something entirely new in the way God has created the cosmos. Even when considering our gift of reproduction, we are involved in a process of bringing something new into existence out of what already exists. Where we go wrong in our discussions of eschatology, the “end of time,” can be unearthed in our concepts of creation, the beginning of time. When we project our own limitations of creative expression onto God, we are left with a mythological god whose purposes are confined to our own projections as well.
The book of Genesis is a polemic aimed at correcting this mythological approach to creation. When Moses writes his polemic against the neighboring pagan nations, who hold such mythological understandings of creation, he does so out of an experience with the Lord, who has acted towards Israel not out of necessity, but out of freedom and love. Moses’ understanding of creation, as recorded in Genesis, is bound up in his understanding of God’s purposes towards
Israel, a nation whose purpose is bound up with God’s purposes to the entire creation. It’s noteworthy to see the bookends of the Bible, Genesis and Revelation, concerned with seeking expression of God’s purposes in his creation through imagery that stretches our minds to think beyond our created limitations. William La Sor, David Hubbard and Frederic Bush make this connection when discussing the literary genre of the book of Genesis:
Put another way, the biblical author uses such literary traditions to describe unique primeval events that have no time-conditioned, human-conditioned, experience-based historical analogy and hence can be described only by symbol. The same problem arises at the end time: the biblical author there, in the book of Revelation, adopts the esoteric imagery and involved literary artifice of apocalyptic.15
These literary devices are necessary when the writer understands creation’s ultimate purpose and reality to be bound up with a transcendent creator.
It’s unfortunate when the Genesis account gets limited to answering questions of “how” and “when” the creation came to be. Not only does this lead to very unhelpful and unnecessary conflict between science and Scripture, it also misses the point the author was aiming to communicate. The Genesis creation account is primarily concerned with the “who” of creation.
La Sor, Hubbard and Bush go on to say, “The author of Gen. 1-11 was not interested in satisfying biological and geological curiosity. Rather, he wanted to tell who and what human beings are by virtue of where they came from: they are of divine origin, made in the image of the creator.”16 This will be the same priority of focus we need to take into eschatological passages, where the concern is not about where we came from but where we’re going. Our reality is wrapped up in the “who” of this beginning and end of our time.
Returning to the identity of God as Father, Son and Spirit, who in himself is fully sufficient, in need of nothing, we are forced with a question regarding creation. Why? Why would this God choose to create anything at all? Springing from the teachings of the early Church Fathers, Thomas Torrance grounds the answer to that question in the intrinsic Trinitarian realities of God’s being. “The whole raison d’etre of the universe lies in the fact that God will not be alone, that he will not be without us, but has freely and purposely created the universe and bound it to himself as the sphere where he may ungrudgingly pour out his love, and where we may enjoy communion with him.”17 Torrance remains faithful to a transcendent God who does not create out of some need or deficiency within himself. Torrance sees creation as an overflow of the abundant life of loving communion taking place in the Trinity. God’s purpose for us is not to serve his needs in some way but rather to simply share all that he is with another.
Creation is the “other” whom God has chosen in his grace to share his life. From this perspective, the doctrine of creation out of nothing makes a lot of sense. First, we see that God creates out of the sheer freedom he has as freedom is understood within the being of God. Again, he was not obligated to create. His freedom is not a freedom “from” some hindrance or obstacle but rather a freedom to be who he is within himself. In this freedom, he creates us for relationship with him. Since creation is wholly other than God, we have the possibility for relationship. If we are created out of God or with divine “material,” then we are left with a pantheistic cosmos, leaving no real possibility of relationship. In this scenario, creation would have no purpose but to reunite with its own self, thus disappearing as a drop of water returned to the sea. For God to share his life of communion with his creation, there must be real differentiation between God and creation. We must be careful not to posit back into God some notion of differentiation that implies tritheism. God’s oneness is maintained in his being as Father, Son, Spirit, yet that oneness is a real and dynamic sharing of life between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. This is the life we were created to share in.
Many eschatological expressions that are not Christ-centered leave us with a sense that creation is done away with, spiritualized away so we no longer have our distinctive “otherness” as the creation God made and called good. We were created, as C.S. Lewis so eloquently expressed it, “To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.”18 This is what God made time for. We have been given time to participate in a personal relationship in the life that has been going on for all eternity. The end of time will in no way constitute a failure on God’s part to see through with his purposes for creation. The creation will not be absorbed in some spiritual fashion, denying its otherness and so denying it any real participation in the relationship God desires to share.
We have established the Triune God’s transcendence, but we must not think of this as a barrier to God being with his creation. Joseph Tkach on this subject reminds us, “Though God is not a part of his creation, nor is creation a part of God, God is not cut off from his creation.” He goes on to cite Karl Barth’s claim, “God is not imprisoned in his transcendence.”19 God created the cosmos out of nothing, giving his creation a distinction as “wholly other” than God, another historically orthodox teaching that Barth stresses. Creation may be different in being from God, but in no way is God indifferent towards his creation. He has created us and interacted with us to give us a share and participation in his divine life of communion. It is to this “way” that we now turn our attention. If God is fully transcendent over his creation and wholly other than his creation, then how can there be any possibility of knowing God from our side? On what grounds can communion between the Creator and his creation be established? It’s in our turning to the Incarnation of God the Son that we find the staggering answer of the Father’s abundant grace and unending faithfulness to his purposes toward us.
It was God’s initiative all along to share his communion with us. The Incarnation of his
Son, then, is a fitting response to man’s sin. With the provision of the Incarnation, the Father’s original intent to live in fellowship with his creatures is not thwarted. We can speak of the role of the Incarnation in a sense of carrying out double duty between mediating a revelation of God to humans and mediating a reconciliation of humans back to God. We will speak in this chapter primarily of the God-to-human movement where God provides the revelation of himself to us, a revelation that we could never come to on our own. We will reserve the next section to deal with salvation in terms of our reconciliation back to the Father. But let us say here that in both movements we see the amazing and determined heart of the Father to carry out his purposes for his creation in the Incarnation. Elmer M. Colyer, in unpacking T.F. Torrance’s teaching on the mediating role of the Incarnation, expresses Torrance’s unwavering adherence to the Father’s determination to have his children with him forever:
The incarnate assumption of that humanity in Jesus Christ takes an earthly historical form of a whole human life from birth to death and beyond death in Christ’s resurrection to the restoration of human life into union and communion with God in Christ’s ascension. For Torrance the incarnation, and the hypostatic union it entails, is not a transient historical episode forever past. In the
resurrection and ascension Jesus Christ remains forever the Son of God incarnate, God with us, God beside us and decisively God for us.20
Torrance does not let a dualistic understanding of God and Creation slip in the back door of the Ascension that would keep God and his creation absolutely apart. When Jesus ascends back to the Father, he does so as a human, as one of us, who is now in the presence of God. Jesus must not be spiritualized away at his Ascension — otherwise we reduce God’s work of mediation to a flash-in-the-pan event that has no lasting or relevant significance for us today or tomorrow.
Jesus’ Incarnation is the Father’s provision for us in knowing him in the same way the
Son knows him. Jesus tells us, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son.” This eternal communion is out of reach for a creation that is incapable of knowing God in his transcendence. But the Incarnation establishes a way of real knowing of God in our creaturely existence. If we are to have any hope of knowing God as he really is, that hope will rest only in knowing the Son who for all eternity has lived in this “knowing” relationship with his Father. It’s this communion of knowing and being known in the very being of God that Jesus was sent to share with us in the Spirit. The Apostle John sums up this relationship as eternal life: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
Here again we must hold fast to the identity of God as one who is Father, Son, Spirit. If Jesus or the Spirit is not fully God, then there is no possibility of knowing the Father in the Son through the Spirit. There can be no half-hearted revelation from the Father if we are to have a wholehearted life in him. Torrance sees that any slippage in this revelation to us amounts to a complete loss of our intended purpose that God holds out to us in his Incarnate Son: “What God is toward us in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit he is in himself in his own eternal Being as God. That is to say, any disjunction between God and his self-revelation through Christ and in the Spirit, could only mean that in the last analysis the gospel is empty of any divine reality or validity.”21 This has implications for what Jesus has done in his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, beyond just some historical example of God’s love for us. God, out of his love, has broken into our historical time and space through the incarnation of Jesus. As we look at the whole life of Jesus, from birth to ascension, we find the ground for the Father’s mediation of revelation to us in the person of Jesus. Darrell W. Johnson is very specific in this regard when he writes, “When we read the New Testament gospels we are reading the revelation of what goes on within the Trinity!”22
In Jesus’ Incarnation, God has entered our time and space to bring us into communion with him. This is a God-to-human movement staggering enough on its own, but for the sake of highlighting the Father’s determined heart towards his purposes for his creation, I would be remiss not to draw attention to what Torrance calls “the pre-movement of the incarnation.”23 Torrance brings up an inherent problem the Incarnation has in establishing a revelation of God to humanity with a series of questions:
Even if we were to be confronted with God, how could we know him, how could we grasp him, and assimilate his majesty to our knowing? Would he not transcend us so utterly that we would simply pass him by as a stranger? Would he not be quite incomprehensible? How can the finite grasp the infinite? How can mere mortals grasp and assimilate in their knowing the transcendent majesty of the holy and living creator?24
In response to these questions Torrance highlights God’s grace extended to his creation by God’s calling and interaction with Israel. He sees this relationship God forged with Israel as “the prehistory of the incarnation.”25 It’s in this history recorded in the Old Testament that we see the Father providing “conceptual tools” of the mind whereby he prepared his creation to be able to receive the revelation of himself given to us in his Son.26 The Old Testament is in continuity with God’s plan and purposes that are proclaimed in the New Testament as accomplished in Jesus. Although sin entered and distorted the good creation, the Father did not change his mind about us. God’s purposes for us are not set aside. But if there is to be any restoration of God’s intended purpose, it will have to be done by God for humanity. Torrance draws attention to this state of affairs while again emphasizing our identity as God purposed it: “Mankind is unable to re-socialise itself, unable to heal its internal rupture for that which really makes man man is the bond between man and God.”27 As Torrance takes us down the road of Israel’s stubborn history, we see the actions of a God whose heart is turned irreversibly toward his people. This is the heart of the Father that Jesus comes to reveal. It’s in this revelation that we have the assurance and hope that God remains faithful to his purposes for us. Our hope does not rest on our own ability to bring ourselves to know the Father in intimate communion. Torrance places the burden of revelation on God’s grace to us when he states, “In his purpose to reveal himself to mankind, and to enter healingly within human existence, God refused to allow our limitations and weaknesses to inhibit his purpose of love and redemption.”28 Our hope is in Jesus, the revelation of the Father who is forever for us—past, present and future.
We have established the movement of God to humanity with the revelation of God coming to us in Jesus’ Incarnation. Now we must take up the other movement of mediation that constitutes the movement of humanity back to God in the relationship of trust it once had with the Father. The Incarnation also serves to mediate this reconciliation of humanity back to God. The sinfulness of mankind would make the Incarnation a bloody and painful mess, but the plan was not abandoned. Jesus would be the Son of God made flesh for the purpose of “bringing many children to glory” (Heb. 2:10), but this flesh that he took to himself was fallen, sinful flesh and therefore also carried the curse— “in pain you shall bring forth children…” (Gen 3:16). Torrance, by highlighting the task of reconciliation the Incarnation would carry out, expressed God’s graciousness to his creation through the Incarnation:
When the word became flesh, he became all that we are in our opposition to God in our bondage under law – that is the amazing act of gracious condescension in the incarnation, that God the Son would assume our flesh, should enter a human existence under divine judgement, enter into the situation where the psalmist cried Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani, so that the Word or Son of God himself gave out the same cry when overwhelmed with the divine judgement upon our flesh.29
The need for Jesus to assume our fallen flesh in his Incarnation lies in the nature of the intended purpose of communion between God and humanity. For there to be true communion, there must be appropriate sharing between those in relationship. Otherwise we only have conflict. Torrance sees this as a basic principle inherent in all circles of knowing: “All genuine knowledge involves a cognitive union of the mind with its object, and calls for the removal of any estrangement or alienation that may obstruct or distort it.”30 In short, you can’t come to know people as they are if you think they are something other than human beings. Sin has so distorted our minds that we are incapable of receiving the revelation of the Father, incapable of knowing him for who he is in his intrinsic being, even when confronted face to face with the Father through the revelation of Jesus. We must at the same time be given a sanctified human mind and will that has been purified from all “estrangement” and “alienation” which distorts our view of him. This is the sanctified mind of Christ we can have (Phil. 2:5). Jesus has healed our blindness.
What we have lost sight of is who God is as Trinity, as loving communion, and who we are as his beloved children, created in his image to participate in his holy life of loving relationship. Jesus as Savior then comes into our space and time to redeem us back to the original purpose the Creator had for us all along. Michael Reeves pinpoints this reality Jesus came to restore:
Made in the image of this God, we are created to delight in harmonious relationship, to love God, to love each other. Thus, Jesus taught that the first and greatest commandment in the law is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself (Mt 22:36-39). That is what we are created for.31
This communion is what was lost to sin. Humans turned inward and instead of being lovers of God and others, “we turn to love ourselves and anything but God.”32 Redemption of creation would have to entail a reversal of this inwardness. Humans would need to somehow turn trusting eyes and willing hearts back to the Father. In the vicarious humanity of Christ, which includes his human mind, this turning of humanity back to the Father takes place. This will culminate in the death of Jesus on the cross, but Jesus’ whole life in every part is involved in the redemption of humanity. Torrance articulates the completeness of the atoning work of Christ in his union with humanity:
From the beginning to the end of his life, he submitted our fallen humanity with our human will to the just and holy verdict of the Father, freely and gladly yielding it to the Father’s judgement, and was therefore obedient unto the death of the cross. In all this the Son is wholly like us, in that he became what we are, but also wholly unlike us, in that he resisted our sin, and lived in entire and perfect obedience to the Father. And therefore, in Christ’s humanity there took place a vicarious sanctification of our human nature and lifting of it up again into fellowship with God.33
Torrance’s teaching on the vicarious humanity of Christ again highlights the stupendous act of grace on God’s part to carry out his purposes for us. Redemption in this light is wonderful good news indeed. We are not left to our own devices to figure out how to turn ourselves back to God. That would be an impossibility. Jesus, walking in our fallen nature, took all humanity, one step at a time, back to the Garden of Eden. After walking his entire life in our flesh and blood, he brings all humanity to the threshold of paradise, that blessed garden planted in God’s presence, and it is here that we find Jesus’ redeeming work culminate in the outpouring love of the Father to his creation. Torrance paints this primeval picture with, “Adam and Eve are thrust out of the garden of Eden, and the way back to utopia is barred by divine judgement.”34 Jesus must take all our sin, all our estrangement and alienation on his sinless back through the flaming sword of judgment – the cross. He is the only one who can cross the threshold, and he does so while carrying our humanity with him. It is here on the cross that we see the Gardener’s flaming sword of judgment cut down and burn away all that stands against his purpose of communion with his children.
In this act of redemption through Jesus, we are given not only the revelation that God is love, but we are reconciled with this God and brought back to a place where we can share in loving communion with him. Reeves captures well God’s purposes in the death of his Son: “On the cross we see the great holiness of God’s love, that the light of his pure love will destroy the darkness of sin and evil. On the cross, we see the intensity and strength of his love, that it is not an insipid thing at all, but majestically strong as it faces death, battles evil and gives life.”35 There’s no place further to look for the revelation of God’s heart of love than the death of his own Son. When we see Jesus on the cross, we see into the being of God and find that for all eternity God lives for the other. His life is a continuous life of service and pouring out to another. Michael Jinkins sees this revelation made throughout the entire life of service Jesus lived: “Jesus Christ, whose whole life was a sort of perpetual cross, shows us the character of this God whose power, whose wonder and glory, is revealed in self-emptying love. Christ’s life of complete trust in and utter dependence on God the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit reflects the very inner life of God, the communion that is God.”36 There is no selfishness or vindictiveness in the being of God. The reconciliation that took place in Jesus on the cross was the burning away of all the selfish and sinful predicament our pride produced in us. His death was the death of our death. In Christ, we are no longer turned inward upon ourselves and we have been freed to live the life of outward, face-to-face loving relationship.
The resurrection of Jesus is the event planted in our history that affirms that Jesus destroyed all that was alien to our intended life, and has crossed over the threshold of paradise, raising us back to communion with his Father. However, it’s not the event of the resurrection that makes communion with the Father binding, but rather it is the resurrected Lord of all time and space who has brought our creaturely existence irrevocably into his communion with the Father.
Torrance highlights the finality of Jesus’ reconciliatory work displayed in the resurrection: “The resurrection brings the contradiction between God and man to an end. The resurrection is the fulfilment of the divine judgment enacted in the crucifixion, and as such is the completed act of
God’s righteousness.”37 Torrance is always clear to show the unity between the “completed act” of God with who God is in his being. So, he goes on to say, “In the I am of the resurrection the atonement is not just an act of judgement, but active truth in the form of personal Being – Truth as the Lord Christ, Atonement as identical with his Person in action, Reconciliation as the living and everlasting union of God and man in Christ.”38 This understanding is why we can’t look to the past event of resurrection as what brings us into communion with the Father but rather we look to Jesus, who is the Resurrection and the Life and our continual mediator.
Here it is important to see Jesus’ work of mediation as a work complete within himself, not to be divided up as different parts of salvation that Christ did for us at different times.
Torrance stresses that “revelation and reconciliation belong together, so that we cannot think out the mediation of revelation apart from the mediation of reconciliation….”39 Since I have treated revelation and reconciliation in these two different sections, let me clarify here the unity of
Christ’s mediation that is grounded in his person as a whole. Otherwise we run the risk of placing our hope, not in Christ, but in some truncated concept of his “works” as if they stand over and against or apart from who he is in the wholeness of his person. We are not saved by the cross or the resurrection. We are saved by the person of Jesus who died on a cross and rose on the third day as the Son of God incarnate. All the historical events of Jesus’ saving work have been carried out by the person of Jesus who is, in his very being, God. That’s why Jesus is called Emmanuel,
God with us. The identity of Jesus as God’s Son is critical if his works of mediation are to have any significance for us. If God does not lift up the plight of humanity in himself to accomplish his purposes for us, then we are left with only a superhuman example in history that no one will ever live up to. Torrance can’t be more emphatic about this point:
Everything hinges upon the fact that he who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, he who mediates divine revelation and reconciliation to mankind in and through himself, is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God – that is to say, Jesus Christ is to be acknowledged as God in the same sense as the Father is acknowledged as God, for it is in virtue of his Deity that his saving work as man has its validity.40
What is critical about the resurrection is that Jesus is alive. Stephen Seamands lists for us some implications of Jesus’ resurrection that are often overlooked when our focus is primarily on the resurrection event rather than the resurrected Lord. “If he is alive, then everything is radically different. He can show up on our doorstep. Do new things. Surprise, confront, encourage, instruct us. Encounter us as one living person encounters another.”41 And when he encounters us, we can be sure that he encounters us with the life he wrought out for us in his atoning work in the flesh. He encounters us with his life of fellowship with his Father in the Spirit. Torrance grounds this reality in the person of Jesus: “Thus the resurrection is the final and eternal concretion of all that was done for us in the life and death of Jesus Christ, so that he is our peace, and he is our reconciliation. He is the living Atonement or Reconciliation in the form of personal
Being and Reality in God.”42 It is only in Jesus that we are forever freed for fellowship with the Father.
When Jesus was lifted up on the cross, we were lifted up with him in a forward, upward movement of reconciliation back to the Father. This lifting up on the cross cannot be separated from the lifting up that occurred in his resurrection, for we were included in that as well. There is also one final lifting up that occurs in his Ascension. When the Son ascended back to the Father to sit at his right-hand side, we were included in that ascension as God “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). Here again we must not spiritualize away Jesus in the ascension as if he returned to the Father empty-handed. Jesus returns as Jesus, the man who has assumed our human nature, while remaining the Son of God as he existed for all eternity.
To lose this understanding is to empty our eschatology of any relevance for today. Gerrit Dawson strongly argues the importance of seeing the Ascension in light of Jesus’ continuing incarnation while humorously illustrating its eschatological implications. “Moreover, our salvation depends on his continuing union with us. If the Son of God came to us where we are, but then left us, if he went away and did not take us with him, we would still be lost. In fact, we could then begin a whole new series of books entitled Left Behind, though with a decidedly gloomier slant!”43 When we take seriously as believers that we are the body of Christ, we see our freedom to participate in all the implications of being lifted up on the cross, in the resurrection and the ascension. We also see connected with the ascension the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. These go hand in hand. Jesus has now returned to the Father, sharing all things with him in the communion they have always shared throughout eternity in the Spirit—the same Spirit which is sent, inviting us through the Gospel, to share in as well.
When the Holy Spirit is sent, we are given a share in that sharing. The entire life and ministry of Jesus lived out in human flesh reveals to us that the life of God is an abundant life shared in the Spirit. Everything Jesus did was done in the Spirit. Luke’s Gospel account makes this point repetitively. Jesus never saw the source of his life coming from anywhere other than the Father. He lived in perfect trust and obedience to his Father, receiving from him and doing only what he saw his Father doing. As we see Jesus’ life lived out in our time and space, we find that the life between Father, Son, Spirit is a full life of abundant overflowing love. In the Synoptic Gospels, many of Jesus’ miracles point to this reality when out of trust in what his Father was doing, he would provide no small measure of sustenance, whether it be bread, fish or wine. In John’s Gospel, we have Jesus’ prayer in which this same measure of fullness is summed up as eternal life. Jesus’ life and ministry also mediates to us a reconciliation where we are taken up into his life in such a vicarious way as to be able to receive this abundant life flowing through him in the Spirit. Thanks to Jesus’ life of trust and obedience to the Father, we are freed to participate in the abundant life made available to us in Christ, through the Spirit. Jinkins sees the
Holy Spirit as a gift to us that comes from this union we have in Jesus: “It is the same Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, who shares with us that relationship of trustful reliance on God the Father that was the essence of Jesus’ human life on earth.”44 As we see Jesus’ life on earth lived out in the Spirit as a revelation of the abundant life in God, we can then also see the gift of his Spirit as his invitation and provision for us to live out this divine life every day. Life on earth has forever been heavenly affixed. Dawson draws from this reality established in the ascension and goes further in explaining its implications regarding our union in Christ:
The incarnation continues, and so we are included in the life of God. That is the essential meaning of the ascension. We are not left alone. Jesus has gone before us in a way we may follow through the Holy Spirit whom he has sent, because the way is in his flesh, in his humanity. Jesus is himself that new and living way. The fully human one has gone within the veil in our name and even in our skin. United to him by the Spirit, to the one who remains united to us, we may follow where he has gone.45
With this way open to us, let us not forget that the Ascension was also the crowning and anointing of Jesus as King. In highlighting this central understanding of the New Testament writers, Seamands goes on to say, “For Jesus is not only risen but reigning, not only alive but sovereign, not only central but supreme.”46 Jesus comes to us as King and therefore he is not neutral about us. So, in “following” him, we are not choosing one way among other options. Jesus is the Way (John 14:6). Not to follow him is only to go against the grain of his rule and reign, against reality, as established in Jesus’ finished work. It is here that any understanding of relevance is conditioned by faith. If we believe in Jesus as reigning Lord and Savior over all creation, then relevance is grounded in Jesus and the Father’s purposes toward us. What is most relevant to us is that which is grounded in reality – a reality that is grounded in what Jesus has already accomplished in his saving work.
C.S. Lewis is masterful in exposing the error of seeking relevance in relation to morality
(or the “good life,” as he calls it) on our terms rather than taking seriously the reality, or “facts” that Christianity proclaims in Jesus Christ: “The idea of reaching ‘a good life’ without Christ is based on a double error. Firstly, we cannot do it; and secondly, in setting up ‘a good life’ as our final goal, we have missed the very point of our existence.”47 It’s to this “final goal” that we look to find the fact of who God has made us to be. The ascension then brings us to our final stop in our theology of eschatology. It is in eschatology that we get a provisional and partial look behind the veil in which Christ has taken us. This is a peering into the ultimate reality of what it means to be human and therefore the most fundamental grounds for what is relevant for our lives in the present. As we peer behind the veil, we do so with eyes of faith, straining to see our true life
“hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). From this vantage point, our gaze is one of hope in the one who is our vision, the full revelation of God and the telos of humanity.
Gary Deddo provides a great segue from the culmination of salvation as seen in the ascension to the eschatological hope we have in Jesus Christ:
The ascension then reminds us that we should not expect Christ and his rule and reign to be entirely manifested, but remain hidden at some distance. His ascension signals to us the need to continue to hope in Christ and the future outworking of what he accomplished in his earthly ministry. It reminds us to wait and live now confidently and expectantly for Christ to return, bringing with him the fullness of all his redemption as Lord of lords and King of kings, the Savior of all creation.48
As we come to a final theological focus on eschatology, we do so staying centered on Christ. When presentations of eschatology deviate from this center, we move in distorted views of God’s identity and purpose for us. One such distortion is where God is conceived as a deity who is disinterested in his creation and benevolent only in saving us from it. This view seems to stem largely from a dualistic mindset where God is opposed to anything material. This conception of God discounts God’s loving purposes as Creator. Such a view runs counter to the revelation of God we see in Jesus Christ, who comes to redeem creation back to God’s good purposes. Extreme expressions of eschatology where the primary focus is on when and how the world ends has as its fuel this dualistic gap between God and his creation. Unfortunately, this gap is not confined to isolated pockets devoted to prophetic predictions. It is an expression more subtly found in life-after-death scenarios where all physical existence has been spiritualized away. N.T. Wright goes as far as to say that “most Christians today” are stuck in this thought world.49 Wright sees this as a deeply ingrained problem, distorting many Christian views on basic biblical teachings concerning the afterlife, creating negative implications for living in the present. “The roots of the misunderstanding go very deep, not least into the residual Platonism that has infected whole swaths of Christian thinking and has misled people into supposing that Christians are meant to devalue this present world and our present bodies and regard them as shabby or shameful.”50 Since the world we live in is a physical one, this type of understanding would be hard pressed to find relevant application other than some form of escapism.
If anything should make us raise an eyebrow to such phobias regarding our created physical existence, it should be the Incarnation of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Not only is
God able to mingle with the material creation, but his very will is bent toward being with us in it. Jinkins offers us the antidote of true Christian teaching to combat this distorted view of creation:
The Christian understanding of God as Creator is not of God the detached and uninvolved Watchmaker, as in classical deism and in much popular culture today, who only sees what we are doing from a great distance. God the Creator is intimately, passionately involved in creation continuously from beginning to end and at every nanosecond in between.51
It’s in the person of Jesus that we see this passionate involvement. And it’s in this passionate and redemptive involvement that we find God’s purposes for us have not changed. His purpose was, is and always will be to share with us his life of love. Jinkins adds, “All things spring continuously from the God who loves them into existence, loves them redemptively throughout their existence and loves them toward God’s final and full purpose.”52 We will not find ourselves on the other side of life having arrived in some alien world we were not made for.
We will find our Creator’s intentions for calling us into existence to be consistent with the existence he has brought us into. We will not feel like we finally escaped a world that was beyond God’s touch, but rather we will, for the first time, feel fully at home in a world filled with
Another distortion is seeing God’s purposes for us in the second coming of Christ as a potentiality rather than the reality established in Jesus’ rule and reign as King. This distortion, rather than minimizing God’s creation, has overinflated it to the point that God must take a back seat to his own purposes for us and give way to human will and might. Through this distorted filter, Jesus’ words “It is finished” are taken to mean that he is finished but the rest is now up to us. From this position, the Christian life becomes a burden of bringing the Kingdom to fruition. The message of the church from this mindset is devoid of good news and is replaced with a message of self-reliance and self-actualization.
Torrance highlights the eventual burnout this type of message will ultimately bring. “In far too much preaching of Christ the ultimate responsibility is taken off the shoulders of the Lamb of God and put upon the shoulders of the poor sinners, and we know well in our hearts that we cannot cope with it.”53 But it’s a message often used to motivate the troops to march to the beat of their own insufficient hearts. A heart of love becomes the battle cry for “building” the Kingdom for God. Love is indeed the ground upon which the Kingdom is built and sustained, but the source of this love flows from the Father’s heart, not ours.
If this source is not recognized and acknowledged, we are left to our own vision and expression born out of our own experience of what love is. Love may be the motivating force behind all Kingdom activity, but its source is the Father, revealed in Jesus Christ, and shared in the Spirit. From this perspective, love is a reality that flows to us as God’s gift of himself. We are not left to produce a love comparable to his in order to usher in God’s Kingdom of redemption that would otherwise be held off. The Father’s love has already come down to us in the incarnation of his Son, wherein we can participate in the Spirit in the Kingdom that will be consummated at his return. Torrance builds off Martin Bucer’s understanding of God’s love being the reality that is lived out in faith in our world:
This insistence upon true, faithful and active love and upon the works of love, without which faith is dead, is not reached by any kind of legalism or moralism. We are unprofitable servants even after we have done all our duty, and therefore the whole of our life, even in our deeds of love on earth, is seen under the impact of the coming Kingdom, so that we must daily pray for forgiveness and daily put our trust and hope in Christ alone, for He only is our sanctification and redemption.54
From a distorted view of Christ’s second coming, we miss the fact that the Kingdom comes to us from God. Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension wasn’t God’s way of giving us a blueprint to build his Kingdom, enabling us to have something to bring to him in the end. Rather, the Incarnation, and the full sweep of redemption wrapped up in it, is God’s immeasurable gift to us. Gary Deddo leaves no room for any self-actualized kingdom with, “A reading of the New Testament along with the Old Testament, which leads up to it, makes clear that the kingdom of God is God’s possession, God’s gift, God’s achievement—not ours!”55 This puts us in the position to receive God’s gift rather than trying to find a way to earn it.
Our obstacle in this position is the enemy of pride. Our pride doesn’t react well to a message that includes “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The deepest threat of pride is that it shifts our trust into something other than the One who is trustworthy. From here the Kingdom becomes an ideal born in our minds that we must strive to usher in. Our trust is transferred from Jesus to our own abilities, strengths and gifts. We lose the assurance and hope that comes from trusting in Jesus, the enduring Word, and find in its place a restless anxiety as we rely on the “glory like the flower of grass” (1 Peter 1:24). Richard Niebuhr sees this transference as a confusion between who Christ is in himself and who he is in our world: “Christ is identified with what men conceive to be their finest ideals, their noblest institutions, and their best philosophy.”56 This same confusion, when applied to the second coming of Christ, launches an eschatological trajectory from self-determination towards a self-defined destiny.
The story of Jesus coming into Caesarea Philippi provides not only a backdrop of building projects erected out of pursuits of cultural power and advancement,57 but a question
Jesus asked that gets to the root of our current concern. “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:13-15). The coming of Christ in our world, first and second comings, must answer this question if there is to be any relevant response to this reality. Who we believe Christ to be aligns our trust either in him and what he is doing, or in some projection we cast on him.
Niebuhr surveys many approaches to understanding Christ in our world and finds many of these projections underlying traditional schools of thought.58 But he finds the thoughts of the English theologian F. D. Maurice to be grounded in an accurate answer to the question Jesus put before his disciples. In contrast to other thinkers, Niebuhr says this about Maurice and his answer to Christ’s identity in our world:
He is above all a Johannine thinker, who begins with the fact that the Christ who comes into the world comes into his own, and that it is Christ himself who exercises his kingship over men, not a vicegerent—whether pope, Scriptures, Christian religion, church, or inner light—separate from the incarnate Word. Early in life the conviction had been forced upon him that Christ is Lord of mankind whether men believed it or not.59
Maurice helps us see that both distortions are results of being off center in our seeking understanding regarding eschatology. In the first distortion, the second coming of Christ can be seen as discarding the earth while waiting for heaven. The second distortion places the burden on us to make heaven a place on earth. But if we take a Christ-centered approach, we will find that throughout Scripture, including the eschatological passages, Jesus is the person where heaven and earth come together. In both distortions, we lose the relevance eschatology has for us in the present. When believers take their spiritual union with Christ seriously, then relevance gets grounded in the fact that God’s purposes for us have already been accomplished in Jesus Christ. The when and how questions become secondary to the who question, where reality is already grounded. In T.F. Torrance’s lectures regarding eschatology, he was devoted to this center in his teachings. Even with the prevailing mysteries that come with trying to grasp a veiled reality that awaits a future manifestation, Torrance insists we hold to God’s purposes for us in Jesus Christ.
“Throughout this the accent must undoubtedly fall upon the triumphant certainty of the finished work of Christ, for Christ is already the new man in whom all things are become new and in whom we have proleptically even now the consummation of the divine purpose of creation.”60
The “triumphant certainty” Torrance speaks of is hope. When centered on Jesus and his “finished work,” eschatology does not direct our hope to some distant future arrival of an alien existence, nor does it rest hope on our ability to usher in some utopian kingdom of our making.
Rather, eschatology becomes a tool in the Spirit’s hand to point us to Christ, giving us a “better hope” (Heb. 7:19) that is secure. It’s a tool often used in Scripture to build up believers living in difficult circumstances. Eschatology points us to Jesus, and it is in Jesus we have our hope. Through eschatology we are not just getting a peek into the ultimate purpose to which God is taking us, but we are getting a glimpse of a reality that has already been accomplished for us. This can be said only by seeing Jesus Christ as that ultimate purpose the Father has brought us into. The Father’s work of creation and redemption finds its goal in his Son, Jesus.
Torrance connects Jesus’ work of redemption with eschatology in such a way as to highlight that our hope in Jesus is not just for the future but available in the present:
That is what Christ has done by his redemption: opened up an eschatological vista for faith in which we are already planted in Christ, and with Christ already enter through the veil into God’s presence. It is because Christ ever lives as our redeemer, our surety, our atonement, that our life is set on a wholly and eternally new basis. As such Christ is the head of all things, the head of the new age, the messianic king, to whom the whole of the world to come belongs. That is an eternal kingdom that cannot be shaken, and that is the inheritance in Christ which is freely bestowed upon us. Through Christ…we enter already into redemption, tasting already the powers of the age to come, already in anticipation of…the final resting place that is the full and blessed enjoyment of the world to come.61
With an eye to living in the present, or “between the times,” Shirley Guthrie sees the Psalmist’s experience with the Lord to be the same catalyst that spurred the first Christians to engage their world in their time. “Memory of what God has done in the past and hope for what God will do in the future lead him to active service of God in anticipation of the liberation, justice, and peace that may not be here yet but are surely on the way.”62 This is also the same dynamic relevance we can have for our lives today. Guthrie is grounded here in the understanding that we are not experiencing the fullness of the Kingdom now but we do experience it in provisional and temporary “little victories.”63 He sees these experiences as
“signs” that remind us “that our memory is true and that our hope is not in vain.”64
Gary Deddo, building off the same understanding, extends this experience fueled by hope to the church’s witness to the world: “We are called to experience now the blessings of and embody a witness to Christ’s coming kingdom in partial, provisional and temporary ways.”65 Deddo goes on to highlight how each of these limitations help us define ministry and witness as signs that point to the realities of God’s Kingdom.66 When our effort in ministry and witness is a sign, pointing away from itself to the deepest reality of all creation, we are wrapped up in something far greater than ourselves. When we see the Lord, worship is drawn out of us, leaving no room for self-glorification or self-abasement. When we see him, we point to him, out of hope that in him there is no slight or scarcity but rather fullness of life. It’s here in this outward focus that hope fuels our efforts. There comes a joyful rest in participating under the light and easy yoke of Jesus’ ongoing ministry (Matt. 11:28-30). We can participate more fully knowing that
“hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5).
Deddo is clear not to minimize our ministry and witness in the Spirit: “Our witness then, is not absolute, not perfect, not total and not permanent, though it has great and even indispensable value just because its value is gained by being relative to the coming reality of the kingdom, which is absolute, perfect and eternal.”67 It’s this “coming reality” that gives the church its message of Good News. The church has the privilege to participate by pointing to those realities, Christ himself, which in turn breeds hope, faith and love, rather than fear, guilt and anxiety.68
Hope puts us in a different place. As Donald Bloesch says, “Hope places us in contact with realities we do not see.”69 These realities are hidden in Christ yet established in his redemptive work imbedded in our history and coming to us fully from the future Kingdom he is bringing us into. Guthrie speaks of these imperfect signs as giving us “courage and confidence…to keep up our struggle for the rule of God’s love and justice that has come, is coming, and is already on the way in our individual lives and in the lives of all people everywhere.”70 A Christ-centered eschatology becomes a powerful sign, pointing to a reality that creates relevance in the form of response, empowered and sustained by Jesus, our Hope in the present. With this conviction, Torrance goes on to make a strong statement concerning a relevant message to the world flowing out of a Christ-centered eschatology:
The proclamation of this new humanity is the most explosive force in the world not only because it is proleptic to the final judgement of holy love and proleptic to the new heaven and new earth, but because in it the last things actually confront people creatively here and now in time. It is therefore only as an eschatological community that the church can really carry out her divine mission in the world, to confront all humanity with the crucial word of the gospel and so penetrate every aspect of human life with the power of the resurrection, intensively as well as extensively.71
With Torrance’s lead up to this statement, I understand him to be saying that the end-time fulfillment of Christ’s death and resurrection, as consummated at his return, is a reality running throughout the course of history. This reality is a “veiled” reality but nonetheless the objective truth upholding creation. Because eschatology anticipates the reality of God’s judgment of setting things right and anticipates the “new heaven and new earth” that is presently hidden yet hiddenly present, we have a compelling reason to live out that reality now. Growing up into the purposes he’s bringing us into not only opens us up to receive his blessing life today but also establishes us as a blessing for others by being a sign, pointing them to the abundant life held out to them in Jesus. It is the only real and lasting thing we can do with our lives, since everything else will ultimately be burned away like chaff.
Chapter 3: Biblical Foundations of Eschatology
Eschatology is pronounced throughout the New Testament because the mindset of its writers flowed from the history of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament. Alan Johnson and
Robert Webber go as far to say, “In one sense the Old Testament is eschatologically (future) oriented from beginning to end.”72 Johnson and Webber’s survey of eschatology imbedded throughout the Old Testament writings highlights how people in that time were anticipating certain “realities to occur in the near or distant future.”73 These anticipations flow out of God’s involvement with his people. As God reveals his heart to his chosen people, they can move forward into his purposes for them. To respond as God’s people, they are reminded of who their God is as, “the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” (Exodus 20:2).
This reminder is repeated throughout Israel’s history as they journeyed with God. Without this revelation, Israel would be stuck in a history of failure. George E. Ladd links Israel’s hope with this dynamic relationship God has with his people: “The fundamental ground of the Old
Testament hope is its faith in God who reveals himself dynamically in history.”74
The deepest revelation to Israel of God’s character and heart is found after Israel’s most astonishing act of disobedience in building and worshiping a golden calf soon after being delivered from Egypt. Moses on the mountain is given a revelation, a word from God to his people, along with the two stone tablets which would describe the shape of the response from the people to their God. God’s word of revelation to Moses lets Israel know who their God is, over against their self-made idol: “Yahweh, Yahweh, El of compassion and favor, long-suffering, and of great grace and faithfulness…” (Exodus 34:6).75 These five deeply rich words, John Emory McKenna has labeled “The Little Credo” and constitutes the “Divine Perfections” of Israel’s God.76 Each word reveals who God is in his very being and forms the ground of hope for Israel entering the Promised Land. McKenna sees these words together as impinging on Israel’s full history: “The divine perfections read in the ‘Little Credo’ signify the relationship of the Eternity of the Great I-AM to time past, time present, and time future.”77
God has taken the initiative to call Israel out of his compassion and favor, covenanting himself to them out of his long-suffering, even in the middle of their disobedience, assuring them with great grace and faithfulness, that God will keep his promise of bringing them into his ultimate purpose of blessing for them.78 The emphasis of Israel’s story rests on the revelation of
God to the people. It’s God’s word spoken and heard that marks the ebb and flow, rise and fall of
Israel’s journey with God. McKenna sees, in the first five books of Moses, a centering on God’s “Word” to his people that governs and grounds hope in the reality of who God is as the one who is faithful to his promises to them. “What Israel once heard at Sinai, she must hear in Moab, but with assured eyes and ears that her Redeemer is indeed the Creator of all that is created reality….
She may rehearse her past, but only for the sake of her future with this Voice.”79
Rehearsing the past with an eye to the future brings us to live with hope in the present.
With eschatology as our focus, we can hear this “Voice” spoken in the Old Testament most forcefully in the role of the prophets and to some extent through apocalyptic language. The use of both prophecy and apocalypticism in the Old Testament not only shows the origin of their use in the New Testament but also challenges us to think through the tension between the two rather than filter all eschatological thoughts exclusively through one. Bloesch provides a concise synopsis of the two highlighting their distinctions as seen in both the Old and New Testaments:
The prophets generally envisaged the gradual triumph of the forces of righteousness over the powers of evil that would take place within human history. The apocalyptic mentality foresees a catastrophic intervention of God into human history that brings the latter to an inglorious end. Apocalypticism posits two separate and different ages: the present age is temporal and irremediably evil whereas the new age is filled with hope and promise.80
These two eschatological means of proclamation treated in isolation of each other, as is often done in “academic theology” according to Bloesch,81 possibly contributes to the two distorted paths of eschatology I referred to in the previous chapter. When Christ is the center of our eschatology, then both Prophetic and Apocalyptic find their fulfillment together in him. As we proceed to look at the role of the prophet and the role of apocalyptic language separately, we will keep in mind their function holistically. Bloesch’s assessment will be helpful to keep in mind as we continue: “While apocalypticism is evident in some biblical writings, particularly Daniel and Revelation, it can be shown that the overall biblical perspective combined the prophetic and apocalyptic hopes.”82 We can add Ladd’s observation as well: “As a genre of literature, apocalyptic is notable for several features which set it apart from prophetic literature. There is, however, no sharp break between these two types.”83
A prophet in the strictest sense “was one called by God, and as seen in the Old Testament, called to speak for God.”84 This description is more faithful to the biblical usage of the term and it helps safeguard us from the popular usage of the title that overemphasizes predicting the future.85 Some general characteristics of the prophets of old give us a little more insight into their role. They were not only called by God but they were also typically of high moral standing or “holy” representatives who spoke as the Spirit moved them.86 The words the prophets spoke were always a matter of the Spirit spoken through person that had been set apart. Often prophecy is understood to be only future oriented but, as La Sor points out, “Prophecy is
God’s message to the present in the light of his ongoing redemptive purpose.”87 A bent towards prediction-addiction will obscure the role of the prophet as seen biblically—and more alarming, can blind us to the prophet raised up like Moses (Deut. 18:15-19), Jesus Christ. When prophecy is used exclusively to focus on the future, we miss out on recognizing the true Prophet who is speaking to us in the present.
The prophets of old and the prophecies they were given had as their aim a relevant application for those who heard the message. Even when the prophecy had a rare specific future prediction attached to it, “the predictive element almost always is firmly attached to the present situation.”88 Prophecy understood as it was used in the Old Testament had a pointedly relevant message for its hearers. This relevance is grounded in the fact that the message of prophecy pointed to the deepest reality of their situation—God’s active presence.
La Sor speaks of this active presence as the redemptive journey he has with Israel: “The prophet speaks about what has meaning for his listeners. He does not suddenly forget them and utter an irrelevant ‘prophecy of things to come.’ Rather, he takes them from that moment into the sweep of divine redemptive activity and centers on a truth that will become a beacon to God’s people.”89 The prophet’s message from the Lord was a message that grounded their hope on the truth, a reality that God was revealing to them. This revelation of reality would have relevant implications for living in the present. This is how prophecy worked in the Old Testament. The loss of this purpose in regard to the prophetic passages naturally will result in a loss of relevance for its hearers. La Sor articulates a vivid picture of the role of the prophet as it applied in the Old Testament, carried on into the New Testament and holding true for us today:
Prophecy is a window that God has opened for his people by his servants the prophets. Through it one can see more of God’s purpose in his redemptive work than would be possible otherwise. It gives a better understanding of what he has done for and with and through his people in the past, and a clearer comprehension of his purpose in the present. And, while it may never satisfy insatiable demands for specific details of the future, it nevertheless gives a clear view of where God is taking humanity and what obligations therefore are laid upon his people.90
In this description, there are past and future aspects of prophecy that impact the present.
God’s active and redemptive work in the past reveals to us a new way forward into the future.
God’s voice that has come to us in history carries a word of truth that no other “voice” can deliver. The power of prophecy lies in the fact that the message resonates with the memory of those to whom it is spoken. We hear over and over the reminder to Israel of God’s character and heart toward them as well as his mighty acts of old. The prophets were always reminding Israel of who God was for them. In these reminders, correction would flow from the discontinuity that would be exposed between where they were in their relationship to God’s purposes and where God had promised to take them. But wrapped up in that correction was the fact that God was the one who had covenanted with them, promising that they would be his people and he would be their God (Ex. 6:7, Jer. 31:22, Ezek. 36:28, Hos. 2:23, Zech. 13:9). La Sor relays this double aspect of the prophetic message as “a message of judgment because God’s people are constantly in need of correction. At the same time, it is a message of hope, for Yahweh has not broken his covenant and will complete his redemptive purpose.”91
It is helpful to understand the gap of thinking between us in our time and that of the Jewish people of ancient Israel. We tend to think out of a chronological framework while the ancient Jews did not. Ladd explains, “The prophets have a single hope which encompasses both the immediate historical and the ultimate eschatological future. The reason for this (to us) strange lack of chronological concern is the theocentric character of Israel’s hope. Their hope was not in the future but in God…”92 Prophecy in the Old Testament was thought out of a center of God and his purposes towards his people. This is where many modern approaches to eschatology have departed, leaving us with very few implications for the present. Prophecy becomes impotent in eliciting a response of repentance or real lived faith when divorced from its center of God’s “Divine Perfections”93 (Rom. 2:4). The prophetic word spoken to us is one that engages our memory of this God who has revealed himself to us in our history as the God who is more “for” us than we could possibly be for ourselves. Ladd revisits this “prophetic center of gravity” that the Jewish prophets were concerned with and the implications it had for their experience. “God who will ultimately bring his people into the Kingdom is the God who is now concerned with them and their present sinfulness.”94 In this we can see that the role of the prophet is primarily to point to God. In doing so, there can be a response of repentance, turning away from that which is against us, and turning towards the good purposes God has for us.
Without this response, God’s judgment remains, as he will not cease being who he is toward us. The prophet’s role is carried out by speaking God’s word of revelation and redemption for us, reminding us of who God has revealed himself to be and where he is taking his creation. Prophecy is no different for us today except now we see that God’s Word and Will is his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of prophecy who comes to us today, bringing us into the newness of his Kingdom. With this Christ-centered approach, we can engage in prophesying out of the hope we have in Jesus. Walter Brueggemann, with an eye to Jesus as the ultimate Prophet, leaves us with this “new” approach to prophecy: “It is the claim of every would-be prophet that the newness is possible only because God is God, and God is faithful to the promised newness.”95
Brueggemann’s quote above serves as an important segue into the role of apocalyptic language. Although the prophet’s role is aimed at the present situation of its hearers, this must not be seen narrowly as a preoccupation with the present. Here is where apocalyptic language helps hold in tension the future “newness” that God is bringing into the present. Brueggemann relays with urgency the need for the church and the individual believer to return to the “tradition of faith” and the “memory” the prophets were engaged with —otherwise we will continue to live in the present, being “claimed by false fields of perception and idolatrous systems of language and rhetoric,” what he calls the “royal consciousness.”96 Brueggemann sees this crisis springing from a disconnect from the message of the prophets of Israel, disengaging the church from
“prophetic ministry,” and depleting its message of any “alternative” way forward.97 Brueggemann does not soft-pedal on his claim or the severity of what’s at stake:
The internal cause of such enculturation is our loss of identity through the abandonment of the faith tradition. Our consumer culture is organized against history. There is a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope, which means everything must be held in the now, either an urgent now or an eternal now. Either way, a community rooted in energizing memories and summoned by radical hopes is a curiosity and a threat in such a culture. When we suffer from amnesia, every form of serious authority for faith is in question, and we live unauthorized lives of faith and practice unauthorized ministries.98
Brueggemann understands that the “Voice” the prophets heard and relayed to Israel is the same voice we must hear today if we are going to live in the hope that springs from knowing
God’s heart and good purposes toward us. Brueggemann draws attention to the prophetic calling that still remains today: “It is the task of the prophet to bring to expression the new realities against the more visible ones of the old order. Energizing is closely linked to hope. We are energized not by that which we already possess but by that which is promised and about to be given.”99
To accomplish this task of expression, new language is required. The revelation that comes to the prophet is from God, the eternal and transcendent one. The prophet is not receiving a word he already knows or a confirmation of the old system around him. It is the word of a new Kingdom breaking into the old. Here is where apocalyptic language can serve to find a backdoor behind our imaginations. We see the same in prophetic language with the use of relatable symbols, but in apocalyptic language we are confronted with symbols beyond our normal mode of thinking and speaking. This is appropriate, seeing that the subject matter is beyond our comprehension. When considering the ultimate reality God is bringing us into, we find we’re deficient in fully comprehending it. Bloesch points out how the culmination of God’s purposes shapes the language that points to it: “The events that comprise the eschatological consummation can only be described in metaphorical language, for their glory transcends the human imagination (1 Cor. 2:9).”100
There is a positive aspect of this dynamic in apocalyptic language that can encourage us about the future reality God is bringing us into. However great a kingdom or paradise we can imagine, it will still fall embarrassingly short of the reality that awaits us in Jesus Christ. In other words, we will not be disappointed. This dynamic also buffers us against limiting our hope in what we can know, prove and measure through our experience. This is a caution C.S. Lewis had in view when he said, “We are far too easily pleased.”101 To read eschatology faithfully is to read it with a repentant mind, letting go of our preconceived ideas of what God’s Kingdom will be. When we abandon this exercise of faith, we will either minimize or avoid eschatology, or interpret it as congruent with our own rationality. But with the language of eschatology, especially in apocalyptic language, our minds are invited into another world to hear a voice other than our own.
Bloesch extends this dynamic to the entire biblical witness with an emphasis on eschatology: “Once we acknowledge that biblical language is for the most part poetic or symbolic rather than straightforward—yielding precise history (the view of naïve realism)—we must allow for a healthy dose of agnosticism in our assertions, and this is especially true in the area of eschatology.”102 Eschatology puts us in a position where we can wrestle free from the voices in our own head that try to silence the memory of our true identity as God’s beloved and adopted children. Instead, apocalyptic language can speak another word to us that comes from beyond, confirming the purposes God has spoken to us in his Word, Jesus Christ, from all eternity (Eph. 1:3-6). We would be remiss in not seeing the ministering power eschatology can have to people whose present circumstances surface their deepest longings that are connected to the One who fills them. C.S. Lewis connects with all people in linking memory with this deeper reality hidden from us: “Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.”103
The church, being faithful as an eschatological community, has a deeply relevant word to speak to those who are going through suffering, longing for an answer beyond what their present circumstances can satisfactorily supply. Trusting this voice beyond ourselves will often mean speaking a word that runs counter to the systems of this world in which we live. Apocalyptic language is a powerful lens for refocusing our faith beyond ourselves and onto the One who is our hope as the revelation of God’s boundless compassion, favor, long-suffering, great grace and faithfulness. Thomas Oden encapsulates an excellent reminder of faithful eschatology that serves well as we exit the Old Testament and enter the New Testament:
Faith is called to live by hope, content to live with what we cannot know by sight, searching the scripture for what has been graciously revealed. The study of the future holds extraordinary blessings…. The blessing does not consist in the fact that the human mind might certainly know what will happen, but in the living hope that amid not knowing, it may learn to trust the Giver of history…. The reasoning of the faithful about the future arises out of personal meeting with the risen Lord. The vision of eternal life is an expression of sharing in Christ’s own life, death, resurrection, and exaltation.104
As we move into the New Testament world of eschatology, we will see the full scope of thought from the Old Testament carry over, but with a distinctively narrow focus coming into view at one fixed point—Jesus Christ. Jesus taught this focus himself when he said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). The story of Jesus’ Transfiguration also conveys the same point where Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and Prophets, briefly appear on a mountain with Jesus before God announces that Jesus is his Son that should be listened to (Matt. 17:1-8). The writer of Hebrews aims to establish Jesus’ superiority over all that came before him and begins his letter with “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb. 1:1-2) Jesus and these New Testament writers did not understand this superiority as doing away with the history of God’s interaction with Israel, but rather as reaching the final goal of what God was doing all along.
The meaning of dabar in the Old Testament, which was part of the rich title of “Word of
God” (dabar-YHWH) helps us connect God’s speaking in the Old Testament with Jesus being proclaimed as the Word of God in the New Testament. T.F. Torrance condenses for us the understanding behind the rich meaning of dabar: “Dabar refers then to word not so much as expression but as the inner reality of the word, but it also refers to event, not so much to event as such, but to event with a hinterground of meaning…. It is in this way that the Old Testament speaks of the word of God as coming, as taking place, becoming event.”105
When John introduces Jesus as the Word of God from the beginning that became flesh among us, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-18), he is announcing Jesus as the fulfillment of the reality and purpose God had intended from “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). Jesus is to be understood as The Prophet and the fulfillment of all prophecy. This end goal reached in Jesus is the eschatological tension we see in the New Testament, where we must hold to the mystery of both a present reality of the coming Kingdom as well as to its future consummation. It’s in this tension that we find relevance coming to us by hearing the Word who speaks life to us today. George Eldon Ladd gives us a great lead-in for our discussion on eschatology in the New Testament by providing an overarching structure for us to keep in mind a we go forward:
In some sense the hour that is coming is already present and those spiritually dead may come to life by responding to the voice of the Son of God. This teaching of the present enjoyment of a future eschatological reality is another illustration of the basic eschatological structure that occurs throughout the entire New Testament in which this age and the Age to Come have so overlapped that people living still in the present evil age may enter into actual enjoyment of the powers and blessings of the Age to Come.106
The four Gospels’ primary message is about Jesus Christ, who he is and what he has done. The eschatological passages therein must be understood with this focus in mind. When we keep Christ in the center of our understanding of eschatology in the Gospels, we will not have to treat the various passages about the future in a rigid chronological paradigm. We need look no further than Jesus’ own approach to eschatology as seen in the Gospels. He does not hold any rigid time structure in regards to the coming of his Kingdom, but instead leaves us suspended in a tug of war between an immediate return and a delayed return. Ladd relies on Jesus’ own words to lay emphasis on the ambivalence of Christ’s return: “The strongest note is one of uncertainty as to the time of the coming of the Kingdom. Jesus flatly affirmed that he did not know when the kingdom would come (Mark 13:33).”107 For Jesus, time was not his concern. What he was concerned about is consistent with the approach of the prophets of old. Ladd goes on to say, “The predominating emphasis is upon the uncertainty of the time, in the light of which people must always be ready. This is the characteristic perspective of the Old Testament prophets. The Day of the Lord is near…yet the prophets have a future perspective. They are able to hold the present and the future together in an unresolved tension.”108
We saw in the Old Testament that the prophets were future oriented in such a way as it informed the present. This is what we see with Jesus not getting tied down to time scenarios. Whether the Kingdom comes soon or is delayed, we are left with the same response: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”109 The language of watching and waiting, as Ladd works through it, means that we are “to be awake,” which has a “moral quality of spiritual readiness for the Lord’s return.”110 A connecting link for this “spiritual readiness” is in
Jesus’ teaching of the Beatitudes. There we find that we are blessed when we are “poor in
Spirit”—coming with open hands, longing to receive the Kingdom from its generous King (Matt.
5:1-12). Being spiritually ready cannot be achieved by some self-moral perfection program, but rather through a humble acknowledgment of our moral and spiritual bankruptcy. It’s in this humble and repentant mindset that we are positioned to receive the Kingdom Jesus is giving.111
From this perspective we have some relevance to the here and now in regards to eschatology. This future coming Kingdom is a Kingdom full of blessings that can be received in the present—not in its fullness, but received and enjoyed nonetheless. Hope buffers us from seeing this in a health-and-wealth-gospel expectation and directs us to the One in whom we trust with our future. Even in the present, when life doesn’t feel very blessed, we can live receiving the Kingdom, living in hope, faith and love, which transcends our present circumstantial experiences.
Ladd sees a different emphasis in the Johannine account than in the Synoptic Gospels, but holds that the same eschatological thought runs through all four Gospels, leading to a common understanding of the Kingdom as “an eschatological blessing.”112 Here’s how he links the blessings of the future coming Kingdom with our lives today: “The Kingdom of God is a present reality to be received now that qualifies one to enter the Kingdom of God in the future.
Present and future are inseparably bound together.”113 The blessing of the Kingdom as seen in the Gospels is not presented as something out of reach or something to be earned. It’s a gift from the generous King who tells us to wait expectantly for his future coming in such a way that we can receive him today.
Trying to predict the timing of the Kingdom would not only be a pointless pursuit, but it would place us out of a position of receiving the blessings of the Kingdom given to us in the present. The Gospels also have a caution against trying to figure out the details of prophecy’s fulfillment. Jesus is clear that he is prophecy’s fulfillment, so to look elsewhere is to turn in the wrong direction.
When Jesus employs apocalyptic language, we do well to remember that this language brings us to contemplate realities beyond our reach, not to comprehend a kingdom small enough to get our hands around. For example, Ladd points out the poetic language being used in Mark
13:24-27, which “must be understood against its Old Testament background.”114 He is confident of his assessment of the language and concludes that it is “not meant to be taken with strict literalness, yet at the same time it is meant to describe actual cosmic events.”115 Here is another tension we must maintain within the Gospels’ eschatological presentation.
Although this language cannot be sifted to determine precise details of some actual future event, they do hold “realities” far deeper than what we can come up with. Ladd illustrates this by saying, “This language does not mean necessarily the complete break-up of the universe; we know from similar language elsewhere that it designates the judgement of God upon a fallen world that has shared the fate of humanity’s sin, that out of the ruins of judgement a new world may be born.”116
I think this understanding can also give us some common ground to walk on between the preterist and the futurist views of eschatology. Some prophecies can be seen as fulfilled in the past through events such as the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. But this does not mean its “ultimate” fulfillment is not still future, bringing implications for the present. Donald Bloesch observes that “biblical prophecy can have a double or even multiple fulfillment.”117 Both the preterist and the futurist are looking at prophetic “signs” as pointers to realities—only these “realities” are imbedded in terms that we can understand from our creaturely limitations. The common ground can be found when we hold to a deeper reality that can only be found in Christ.
We should be cautious of any rationalism in our eschatology that blinds us to the mysterious ways God works and the reality that lies beyond our reasoning. Bloesch sees this
“rationalistic bent” preventing the preterists and futurists from benefiting from apocalyptic language that points us beyond ourselves.118 He states the challenge the Gospel use of apocalyptic language may present to our Western minds: “Apocalyptic literature is not easily reconciled with the human penchant for orderliness and consistency in interpretation.”119 Jesus and the Gospel writers did not share this limitation. Their use of apocalyptic language and any other prophetic reference was geared towards faith. Eschatological signs pointed to Jesus and his
Kingdom. Ladd highlights Jesus’ intent in the Gospels when using eschatology: “It is impossible to construct an eschatological scheme from Jesus’ teaching. He is concerned with the certainty of the future and the bearing of the future on the present, not with apocalyptic schemata.”120
Although the Book of Acts is a continuation of Luke’s Gospel narrative, we can highlight a shift in the disciples’ understanding of Jesus, launching the teaching of the primitive church. This teaching, or proclamation, known as the kerygma, has at its focus the person and work of Jesus Christ. In the preaching recorded in the Book of Acts, we see a continuity between Jesus’ preaching and that of the early church. Both are concerned about the Kingdom of God as the good news that has “come near,” demanding a response of repentance in the present (Mark 1:14; Acts 2:38). Ladd points out other passages in Acts that lead him to say, “We may assume that such passages mean that the apostles proclaimed in summary form what had been the burden of Jesus’ message.”121 The shift of understanding that needed to occur before they embarked on the mission of being witnesses to the world was required due to their inability to fully grasp Jesus’ role as Messiah.
Acts begins with this shift as the disciples are still looking for Jesus to be their long-awaited nationalistic hero. Their eschatological hope hasn’t yet extended beyond the horizon of their present-day desire for deliverance from Roman occupation (Acts 1:6). It’s not till Pentecost and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit that the disciples become the apostles who understand
Jesus’ messiahship as wrapped up in his death and resurrection. The Spirit has now expanded their eschatological hopes to include the redemptive purposes of restoration, not just for Israel, but for the whole world. This deeper understanding of Jesus as Messiah now shapes their kerygma to include Jesus’ death, exaltation and return as an essential element of the good news to the world. This becomes a proclamation that demands a response of repentance, orienting a person’s whole life to a new reality established in the person of Jesus Christ.
The major adjustment for the early disciples was appropriating Jesus’ exaltation to the eschatological event of the resurrection of the dead on the last day. This appropriation led to a blurring of lines between present and future. Ladd articulates this as another “tension” the early church let stand as a mystery, but nonetheless a reality to be apprehended:
The resurrection of Jesus was a completely unexpected event. It means nothing less than that an event belonging to the Age to Come has occurred in history…. Thus, the resurrection of Jesus has indeed ushered in a new age — the messianic age — while the Age to Come remains future. While the resurrection of the dead remains an event at the last day, in the resurrection of Christ this eschatological event has already begun to be unfolded…. The early church found itself living in a tension between realization and expectation — between “already” and “not yet.” The age of fulfillment has come; the day of consummation stands yet in the future.122
As the apostles lived in this tension, their preaching reflected it. The message was not just a future good news for a select nation, but a message of hope for the whole world. Ladd sees this as a “radical reinterpretation of the Old Testament prophecies” as well as a “reinterpretation of God’s redemptive plan” that came from seeing Jesus as the Messianic King: “If the first stage of the eschatological resurrection has taken place, then the messianic age has begun and the messianic blessings have been given because the Messiah has already begun his reign.”123
Another shift we see in the kerygma of the early church is the acknowledgement that
Jesus is Lord. The language of Jesus’ lordship, with the title kyrios, is not absent from the Gospels, especially Luke and John, but there is a noticeable preference for this title in the book of Acts. It is only after the sending of the Spirit that the proclamation of the Kingdom centered around Jesus as Lord (1 Cor. 12:3).124
Ladd makes sure we don’t pull up short in what this title meant for the early church: “The impressive fact is that in Acts, kyrios is used simultaneously for God and for the exalted
Jesus.”125 Ladd locates this belief as the beginning of formulating the church’s teaching on the Trinity. “The early church worshiped God; it also worshiped Jesus as the exalted Kyrios. Here in the earliest Christology of the primitive church are the beginnings of Trinitarian theology, although they are not reflected upon. Implicit in the recognition of the Lordship of Jesus is the acknowledgment of his essential divinity.”126 Ladd is clear that, “This reign of Jesus as the exalted, enthroned Kyrios stood at the heart of the primitive kerygma.”127
This early teaching of the church must not be absent from our thoughts regarding eschatology. The soon-coming King who brings his Kingdom of blessing to us today, from the future, does not comply with foreign notions of how his Kingdom operates. Jesus as Lord is not bringing us into our kingdom where he obligingly lets us reign. We live in his blessing as we “reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:12). His reign conforms to his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. Any other kingdom only results in disappointment.
The Apostle Paul stands as one of the most striking examples of the shift the early church and its writers exhibited in their teaching, as well as the transformation God brings about for the world through the revelation in his Son through the Spirit. As a Pharisee, Paul was entrenched in the Jewish thought world and he sized up the threat the original apostles’ teaching would present to his deeply held convictions. He reacted violently by persecuting the early church. His reaction mirrors that of the people who conspired and carried out Jesus’ crucifixion. The message of grace being preached by the early church brought to a head Paul’s rebellion against God, whom Paul thought he was zealously serving. But his wrong view and evil ways came to a halt when confronted with the presence of Jesus on the road to Damascus.
This encounter often gets reduced to a personal conversion experience story, missing the ramifications of the impact that an encounter with a revealing reality had; this encounter set Paul free to serve God with a new heart.128 This story (Acts 9:1-19) is better understood as a revelation of Jesus to Paul, where Paul comes to see the risen Jesus as the Messiah, constituting a call on his life to proclaim this Jesus as the Good News to the entire world.
N.T. Wright counters the “conversion experience” approach with the reality reorientation that occurred when Paul came to grasp who this Jesus was and what God accomplished in him. “God’s Israel-purpose was fulfilled, and was transformed in fulfilment. Paul believed that this transformation, and this fulfillment, had been effected in him and was being effected through him. And all this happened through the revelation of Jesus on the road to Damascus.”129 From this totally reorienting revelation, all of Paul’s teachings take shape. He does not abandon his Jewish roots but rather begins to see them through the person and work of Jesus. Paul looks through a new lens, a Christ-centered lens, where God’s involvement with Israel comes into view as fulfilled in Jesus. Wright captures Paul’s commitment to this center, serving as a blueprint to understanding his teachings as well as an example of faithfully seeking understanding for us today:
He [Paul] has rethought monotheism, election and eschatology – and their complex interrelationships! – in the light of Jesus the Messiah and of the spirit, and of the ancient scriptures which he regards as having found their “yes” in Jesus. This is the coherent centre of his theological thought, upon which he draws in all kinds of situations to make points and develop arguments which deal with many different topics but which all relate coherently to this centre.130
With this center in mind, we will explore a few of those modifications of Paul’s Jewish mindset regarding eschatology. We will see some of the same themes from our study on the book of Acts as Paul and the other apostles preached the same Gospel.
Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” to wrap up the believer in the full scope of God’s purposes fulfilled in Christ. In Ladd’s observation, this term is seen eschatologically. “To be ‘in Christ’ means to be in the new age and to experience its life and powers.”131 Paul’s understanding of the “two ages” had undergone a radical modification. Ladd’s explanation sums up this change in thought with its present implications: “The events of the eschatological consummation are not merely detached events lying in the future about which Paul speculates. They are rather redemptive events that have already begun to unfold within history. The blessings of the Age to Come no longer lie exclusively in the future; they have become objects of present experience.”132
Paul also shares with the other apostles the tension believers must live in between the two ages. “The present ambiguity of the new life in Christ demands the return of Christ to complete the work of redemption already begun. The central theme of the Pauline eschatology is the consummation of God’s saving purpose. Apart from the return of Christ and the inauguration of the Age to Come, God’s saving work remains unfinished.”133
Paul’s understanding of God’s saving work placed great emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s vision of salvation was a holistic picture that took seriously Jesus’ bodily resurrection. This didn’t leave room for a mere “spiritual” consummation of creation and humanity. The bodily resurrection for Paul meant the redemption of all created matter. Ladd recounts Paul’s view on creation and narrows the scope of God’s deliverance from only that which is against it, not deliverance from creation itself or created being: “Creation is never viewed as something evil that must be escaped…. Humans are not sinful because they are creatures but because they have rebelled against God. In the final consummation, the whole person and the world of which he or she is a part will be delivered from the curse of evil.”134
In Paul’s view, redemption of the creation was accomplished in Jesus’ resurrection, while judgment of all that stands against it has been rendered in Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Ladd further explains, “This eschatological reconciliation will be accomplished through the blood of his cross (Col. 1:20). Paul sees in the death of Christ a triumph over evil spiritual powers (Col.
2:14-15)…and the final eschatological reconciliation is but the effective extension of the victory won on the cross.”135
For Paul, seeing the final consummation connected to Jesus’ finished work accomplished in history would lead him to see that the Kingdom was already established while a future return of the King still remained. The purpose God is bringing his creation into is not waiting to start at some future time but rather is a purpose fulfilled in Jesus that we can participate in today. Ladd is helpful in expressing the shift in Paul’s thinking that occurred when seeing Jesus as the Messiah:
“Paul sees Jesus’ messianic reign beginning with his resurrection and exaltation. His reign as King does not begin with his Parousia and extend to the telos; it began with his resurrection and extends beyond the Parousia to the telos (1 Cor. 15:23-25).”136 Since Jesus’ reign has begun, we are left with the King’s return, and all that comes with it, to be “objects of hope”137 that fuel and shape our calling to be signposts of his coming Kingdom.
For many people, the Book of Revelation has been a source of fear, gloom and doom when in fact it was written to be a word of encouragement. The first thing we need to remember is that the title is singular, not plural. Revelation is not to be read as a secret code unlocking numerous end-time details. The central focus of Revelation is Jesus Christ, the true King. The book was written to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia when Christian persecutions were ramping up at the hands of the Roman Empire. It was written to encourage and prepare them in their present circumstances, not to be a crystal ball for predicting the distant future. Ultimately, John wanted to remind his churches that Jesus (not the Emperor) was seated on the throne as the only Lord and Savior. This revelation is true for us today as well.
T.F. Torrance finds the Book of Revelation grounded in the language of the Old Testament along with the liturgy of the New Testament church. This forms a Christological demand of interpretation, which he underscores by affirming that, “Its essential scheme and content is taken from the evangelical records of the life and work of Jesus, from His birth to His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.”138 With this center in place, Torrance gives the meaning of Apocalypse as, “the unveiling of history already invaded and conquered by the Lamb of God.”139 This definition keeps the tension of eschatology having a future and present reality.
Torrance here has painted for us God’s Kingdom as ultimate reality. This is a reality that is present now in the rule and reign of Jesus, not simply as a potentiality for the future. We are unable to see this reality fully, as it is veiled behind the “forms and fashions of this sinful world.”140 So this “unveiling” of a reality beyond the grasp of our eyes must come to us in a language aimed at faith that comes only by hearing (Romans 10:17). Torrance sees the apocalyptic language as John’s tool to point to a world beyond our perception: “The Apostle reaches out after all sorts of symbols and pictures to try to convey the full reality of Christ, but in the end, he has to fall down as one dead…. Frail though the human language is, it bears to us here under the inspiration of the Spirit a sacramental description of Christ.”141
Two themes emerge from symbolic language that are both part of the blessing the author wants his readers to hear and take to heart (Rev. 1:3). Ladd pinpoints these two themes: “The coming of God’s Kingdom is pictured in two-tone colors: the destruction of evil and the blessing of eternal life.”142 Ladd doesn’t hold a negative picture of judgment that is often attached to Apocalyptic perceptions, but sees it as necessary to the full blessing of God’s coming Kingdom:
“The very destruction of all evil powers is one of the blessings of God’s kingly rule.”143 Ladd shares with Torrance the view that the realities of the Kingdom have already been established in the present through the Incarnation of Jesus. He applies this understanding to the judgment of God that amounts to the removal of all evil:
The language in which this victory over Satan is described (12:10-12) suggests that we should interpret this victory not as an eschatological event but as the victory won by Christ over satanic evil. When Jesus himself once said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Lk. 10:18), he was referring in symbolic terms to the defeat of Satan effected by his own presence among humankind and the powers of the Kingdom of God brought to them (Lk. 10:17; cf. Mt. 12:28-29). Because of this defeat of the Dragon, he is more infuriated and tries even harder to destroy the woman [church].144
This view of judgment as blessing is a more appropriate view for a book aimed at encouraging persecuted believers than would be a future cosmic war. If that were the only hope, we’d be limited to thinking, “That’s great for God and the future but in the meantime, I’m stuck here in a losing battle.” But according to this “unveiling,” what appears to be a losing battle turns out to be the rumblings of victory. Satan is not fighting for a victory against God’s people—he is pitching a fit over his own defeat. This is how Torrance interprets Revelation’s depiction of the
Dragon making war with the Woman’s children, God’s people. Torrance leaves us this gem of encouragement for times of tribulation: “Surely that is a sign of hope in our world. If there is a devil of a row, it only means that the dragon is angry and has lost his nerve. This is the beginning of the end. If the whole world is in confusion, it means that the Word of God is casting out
Satan…and the devil and all his legions are being defeated.”145 God’s victory in Christ, over all that is against us, turns our sufferings into signs pointing to our hope of glory (Col. 1:24-27).
As we follow the trajectory of those signs, we will end up at the second theme of blessing, often labeled eternal life. Ladd sees this blessing as the “final goal of redemption” that plays out in a new heaven and a new earth.146 Eternal life is best understood as a quality of life rather than just an extended “quantity” of life. When we reduce God’s purposes for us to something measurable on our creaturely measuring sticks, we fall woefully short of the high calling for which God created us. Living forever would be a curse rather than blessing if the quality of that life is anything less than God’s boundless life for us. The blessing life is the life that we are made for, the life God purposed for us from the beginning. Gerrit Dawson sees this blessing life as a life of “favor, vitality and provision” grounded in God’s purposes in creation and reiterated in his purpose for calling Abraham in a “re-blessing project to bring his lost children back into harmony with himself and one another.”147 A better measuring stick for this blessing life would be “the full measure of the blessing of Christ” (Rom. 15:29).
It’s in Jesus that we find the truly blessed life. He is the Eternal One who has brought us into his eternal life. That eternal life is a life of communion, knowing God in the fullness of Christ’s revelation (John 17:3). This is an important distinction to make, lest we think the Father has created us for one purpose but then saves us for a different purpose. The purpose of salvation is not that we can continually live a life in Adam under God’s favor. God’s favor is seen in the fact that he has brought us into the life of his Son, the second and final Adam. This again reflects the double movement of redemption seen in the Book of Revelation. Evil is destroyed, and blessing life is restored. God’s favor has brought us into a life that breeds life. We live forever not because we are immune from death, but because we are empowered by life. This is not a life we bring to ourselves but a life provided to us through the Son and in the Spirit. This is where the book ends, leaving us with apocalyptic visions of the grand purpose of blessing life for all creation. Ladd concludes his discussion on the Apocalypse with this note of finality:
When Christ’s redeeming mission is completed, the redeemed will enjoy the glory of the beatific vision. They will see God’s face. All else is secondary and contained in this greatest of all blessings. And so the Bible ends, with a redeemed society dwelling on a new earth that has been purged of all evil, with God dwelling in the midst of his people. This is the goal of the long course of redemptive history. Soli Deo gloria!148
Revelation 21:1-8: Jesus the Telos of Creation Brings the World Tomorrow into the World Today.
We now look at Revelation 21:1-8, where eschatology, with its apocalyptic language, strains to express the purpose of creation consummated in Jesus Christ. This will help us share in the vision of eschatology, which brings into view the ultimate end purpose of creation that is breaking into our world today in which we can participate in hope. The eight verses that begin the twenty-first chapter of Revelation serve as a condensed picture of God’s purposes to us as a completed reality in Jesus, who is the telos for all creation.
Gordon Fee captures the culminating effect this paragraph has for the book of Revelation and its final chapters: “The opening paragraph (21:1-8) appears to serve the twofold purpose of bringing closure to much that has preceded, and especially of functioning as a kind of catch-all introduction to the whole.”149 This “twofold purpose” takes in the two themes of removing evil and establishing the blessings of eternal life. We can see both themes fulfilled in Jesus, who is the telos of all creation, a telos that extends back to the beginning. To give some attention to Jesus as telos, T.F. Torrance includes these words to frame his comments on the final chapters of Revelation:
It has been said that the great purpose of God, which begins with creation, narrows down in a fallen world first to the people of Israel and then to the suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, but in Jesus Christ it widens out through the Church, the Israel of God, and at last breaks into a new heaven and a new earth…. At its centre is the Lamb of God, He who is, who was, and who is to come, gathering up in Himself the purpose of the original creation and fulfilling it by redemption in the new creation.150
Seeing Jesus at the center of this twofold purpose in the Apocalypse reveals his redemptive work, in death and resurrection, as the establishment of a “new” reality that runs through all history, culminating at his return. John shares with us, in images, what this reality looks like.
The first image is that of the sea that “was no more” (v. 1). Linking this image to the statements of the first heaven and earth that “had passed away,” we get introduced to the establishment of God’s new Kingdom by way of the old one being removed. For the original readers of the Apocalypse, the image of the sea would carry the full weight of evil and the demonic realm as well as the intense rebellion of the nations against God (Psalm 65:7). From the fullness of the image, Torrance extracts its personalizing effect: “It is not only that there is no longer a restless ocean of fallen humanity at the mercy of evil winds and tempests, but no sea at all! No unfathomable depth of the human heart…. The new heaven and the new earth are peopled with beings who derive their personal life…from God and walk with Him in loving fellowship and filial obedience.”151
On the heels of this image, we have the image of the “Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Rev. 21:2). God gives John a vision of his grand purpose for humanity. He does not do so by using the image of persons being taken up to heaven. Rather, this urban bride has been built and prepared by God to dwell with him here on a new or renewed earth. There is no need for a plan of getting to heaven on our own efforts. In our discouragement with ourselves, we can find hope as we cast our eyes upwards to the One who is not done in preparing us for glory. Torrance points out how the image of Jerusalem grounds the preparation of the Bride in the promises of
God: “By calling the holy city Jerusalem he declares that all God’s intentions and purposes, all his promises and plans which we discern in the Old and New Testaments, come at last to their perfect fulfilment.”152 These images are painted on the canvas of a heaven-earth reality. The coming together of God and his creation, in the incarnation of his Son, holds. John’s visions don’t include any everlasting destruction of God’s creation. God’s promises are kept.
These images are interrupted by “a loud voice from the throne” (v. 3). The voice that spoke in Eden is now heard in Paradise. The voice that spoke to Israel is the same voice we hear in the New Jerusalem. The Word of God spoken to us in Jesus Christ is now heard as the ruling voice speaking from the throne. That voice delivers three statements of togetherness communicating God’s desire to be with his people.
The full Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, “God himself will be with them and be their God.” Ladd sees these words as giving voice to “the central element of God’s covenant with his people throughout the entire course of redemptive history.”153 This is what makes “all things new” — relationship. In John’s vision, it’s after God dwells with his people that all tears are wiped away. Our deepest wounds in life are from our relationships that have been broken by death, sorrow and pain. It will be our deepest relationship with the Father that ultimately heals all these wounds, wiping away all tears, including the ones we caused in others. Life becomes what it was always meant to be, right relationship. Death, sorrow and pain are of the “old order of things” and so will not have a share in the new thing God has done.
The passage continues with the “trustworthy and true” statement that “It is done” (v. 6).
This new thing issues out of the one who lives as the “Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” Alpha and Omega were the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, which are being used here as a symbol of the beginning and end of all things.154 The full scope of creation and its history from start to finish is under Jesus’ rule and sovereignty. The cosmos has no intrinsic meaning or purpose detached from the One who gave it existence and sees it through to its end. Thomas Oden connects his understanding of Jesus as the Alpha and the Omega with salvation history taken up in Jesus: “The consummation brings to final fulfillment what was begun in creation and having fallen was renewed in the incarnation.”155
With the incarnation, the Son of God, who stands transcendent over creation and history as its originator, sustainer and terminator, steps into history to give it a new beginning and a new end. The original beginning fell into decay with the fall of Adam. The trajectory of this fall would ultimately lead back to non-existence, as humanity has now turned away from the “trustworthy and true” voice of its creator, choosing instead to listen to a lie. The natural cataclysmic consequence of creation’s ultimate destruction from this point on is now just a matter of time. But Jesus steps into time and becomes this “end” for his creation.
One chapter forward, the word eschatos is added to this title sequence for Jesus, translated as “last.” “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last [eschatos], the beginning and the end [telos]” (Rev. 22:13). Jesus is creation’s Eschatos. If we must have our doomsday destruction of earth and humanity (as depicted in many “end time” scenarios), we need look no further than the cross. Jesus wraps up all creation’s disorder, destruction and death due to sin and brings it to its decisive and deserved end, giving it a proper burial. We don’t have to rely on time to provide this in some future finale. It is done in Jesus.
The resurrection of Jesus lets us know that he is also our new beginning. With this new beginning, we now have a new “end,” which is expressed in our present passage. The Greek word for “End” is telos (v. 6). This essentially means the end-goal or purpose. This “I Am” statement of identification tells us that it is in Jesus himself that we come to the ultimate purpose for all creation. Jesus has assumed God’s creation at the depth of its sinfulness to destroy all evil and bring it to its full purpose of blessing life. When we look at Jesus raised and ascended, we are seeing what it looks like to be fully human, filled up and whole, as God intended.
This fullness or end goal, accomplished in Jesus, is a Kingdom to be received as an inheritance, not earned as a payment. It is to the “thirsty” that Jesus gives the “water of life.” Jesus is the water of life who freely gives his life to us. Being thirsty indicates the Beatitude position of a person who receives what the Lord gives (Matt. 5:6). Outside of this we have a list of characteristics that are distortions of right relationships. These distortions, in contrast to being thirsty, are taking up a posture of attempting to gain our own life and blessings through the old order of things that “have passed away.” This way of living is the surest way to death. The old order has passed away and has no future in God’s Kingdom.
The language of a burning lake of fire and a second death is strong imagery, aimed to warn against clinging to that which will ultimately let us down. We do not have to wait to receive this newness in some distant time in the future. This also falls under the “it is done” statement by Jesus. There is no need to hold on to things that are passing away. Sin, death and darkness have no future. Our future is to share in the divine relationship of grace. This is a future of new things, a new life, without cost, that God gives us today in Jesus Christ. As we center our hope on Jesus, the telos of all creation, our Eschatos, the Last One, we can participate in his eschatological Kingdom, knowing that Jesus lives, bringing his world tomorrow into our world today.
As we explore some relevant implications of eschatology, we do so with a specific framework keeping us centered on the person of Jesus Christ as the telos of all creation. This framework is the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:3-5). This is not to divide Jesus up into parts but to simply focus on specific applications that flow from the whole of God’s redemptive purposes in him. Although we can find much overlap in these specific events as it relates to God’s purposes toward us, it nonetheless gives us structure to help navigate the fullness of God’s purposes for us in Jesus Christ. T.F. Torrance uses these same divisions to connect our humanity assumed in Jesus with understanding the ultimate purposes God has for us:
In His birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension Christ is our only way to understanding the celestial mystery of the last things. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Elect One and the Final Goal of the Kingdom, but through union with Christ the Church becomes the Body of which He is the Head, so that whatever happens to the Head happens also to the members. Or, to put it otherwise, eschatology is the doctrine of the Spirit and all that union with Christ through the Spirit involves…. For Christ alone has all the parts of blessedness and eternal life included in Him, which He offers us by the Gospel.156
These “parts of blessedness” is the reality and life we were created for and brought into through the life of Christ. We can explore this life of blessing held out to us today in the Spirit as we see our identity fundamentally grounded in Jesus Christ. Stephen Seamands also sees, in the Apostle Paul’s teachings, the connection of Christ’s life and our life assumed in him: “As Paul repeatedly declared, now they were ‘in Christ.’ Therefore the major movements in Christ’s life were now movements they were caught up in too.”157 The assumption of our human nature in Christ sends us back to the story of Jesus as chapter and verse of what it looks like to be truly human. It’s in this story that we find a life of faith, hope and love, a life worth living today. Eschatology encourages us to see that the story Jesus lived out is a love story that continues and culminates with living in him “happily ever after.”
Gerrit Dawson helps us see that this story is one worth reading and making our own.
“Something arises from participating in the blessing story God is telling—joy. The joy of deep communion with the God who made us to relate to him. The joy of connecting to others in blessing love. When we engage in the blessing life, indwelling the blessing story of God and living it out, joy emerges in our lives.”158 He does not mean by this that joy is the goal of our participation, but rather joy becomes a messenger in our heart and soul that tells us we are caught up in the life we were created for. Joy calls out to us that we are made for something more, and joy confirms to us, in our participation with Christ by the Spirit, that we have been brought into this “more,” with hope of more to come.
The story of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels begins with the birth narrative. In this narrative, we have a running theme of worship breaking into our world. Most notable is the multitude of angels that praise and glorify God after Jesus’ birth is announced (Luke 2:8-14). After Jesus is born, we also have the recorded event of the Magi bringing gifts to Jesus as an expression of worship. When Jesus was born, worship broke in from above and broke out from below. These details in the birth narratives of Jesus convey the blessing life of worship the Father gave us on Christmas, wrapped in swaddling clothes. The worship relationship seen in Jesus is not limited to the birth narrative but is seen through the entirety of Jesus’ life as he lived in perfect communion with the Father, glorifying him in all he said and did. The birth of Jesus does highlight however “The Grand Miracle,”159 as C.S. Lewis dubbed it, of the incarnation.
In the incarnation, we find provision for our grand purpose of worship. All the implications we will discuss going forward fall under this grand heading of worship. Worship is all encompassing, a purpose that deeply defines what it means to be fully and truly human. Jesus spoke in terms of loving God where the entirety of our being is involved—heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27). Here worship is understood in context of communion with God, and then by extension flowing out towards others. This is what the birth of Jesus, the incarnation, brings to us. Jesus is where true worship takes place as the relationship of God’s love is lived out between God and humanity. Worship cannot be truncated to some specific activity taking place at some specific time or season. Jesus lived in a worship relationship with the Father every step of his life, from womb to tomb.
Worship is initiated by God revealing himself, giving himself to us, where we receive him and find him worthy of our whole-hearted response. This response of worship is grounded on knowing and trusting in the object of our worship. We do not praise that which we find unpraiseworthy, unless under compulsion to do so, or because we have some other end in mind. When eschatology loses its Christ-centered focus and becomes instead just a message of escape from our world, worship may get warped into an “activity” that is merely a “sacred” escape from every other facet of our lives.
In Jesus we find someone who knows the Father perfectly and therefore worships, or responds out of this knowing, perfectly, in all points throughout his life. Lewis sees God’s demand for worship not out of some arbitrary command to inflate God’s ego but a command that calls us to be who we were made to be: “He is that Object to admire which (or, if you like, to appreciate which) is simply to be awake, to have entered the real world; not to appreciate which is to have lost the greatest experience, and in the end to have lost all.”160 We experience truly and fully what it means to be human as we worship wholeheartedly our Triune God of love. Lewis goes on in the same essay to paint a picture of the delight held out to us in worship: “The worthier the object, the more intense this delight would be. If it were possible for a created soul fully…to ‘appreciate’, that is to love and delight in, the worthiest object of all, and simultaneously at every moment to give this delight perfect expression, then that soul would be in supreme beatitude.”161
This helps us see the immense beauty of perpetual worship that is played out in heaven as described in the Book of Revelation. The images of continual worship around the throne stretches our imaginative vision to see the immense and endless enjoyment we will experience in our communion with the Father. In Jesus, we already have the full knowledge of God by the man Jesus and the full and perfect responses of the man Jesus back to God. The worship relationship between humanity and God has been birthed into our world through the incarnation of the Son of God, who has always enjoyed the Father and glorified the Father in the Spirit. That worship relationship is held out to us now through the Gospel, to participate daily in the Spirit, with our whole lives. Where our worship falls short of the “supreme beatitude,” we live in hope, looking to Jesus to fill up what is lacking. James B. Torrance has these encouraging words on worship:
The good news is that God comes to us in Jesus to stand in for us and bring to fulfillment his purposes of worship and communion. Jesus comes to be the priest of creation to do for us, men and women, what we failed to do, to offer to the Father the worship and the praise we failed to offer, to glorify God by a life of perfect love and obedience, to be the one true servant of the Lord. In him and through him we are renewed by the Spirit in the image of God and in the worship of God in a life of shared communion.162
In the hope of Jesus holding us up in his perfect worship and communion with the Father, we can participate, engaging in the many opportunities of worship here and now. Whether it be prayer or reading Scripture, fellowshipping with other believers and praising God together, or in serving others and sharing with them God’s love, we can do so knowing that God is present, revealing himself to us in Jesus as he truly is in himself. As we come to know him, we will not be disappointed, and worship will flow as the fitting response to receiving his love.
Quoting the Westminster Catechism, Lewis reiterates this ultimate purpose of worship while clarifying confusion often brought to it: “The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever’. But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”163 A life of boundless enjoyment is where God has and is taking us in Jesus Christ. His invitation to this life can be accepted and participated in today, living in the hope that we will not be disappointed when we “dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Psalm 23:6).
The story of Jesus in the Gospels spends most of its pages on Jesus’ ministry culminating at the cross. The beginning of his ministry follows a story sequence that is similar in all four Gospel accounts. His ministry begins after his baptism and is then followed by his calling of disciples. This sequence can serve as a theological picture of discipleship made possible by
Jesus’ work in our flesh, which is then followed by the Spirit’s work of bringing us to participate in that finished work as disciples of Jesus. This same sequence culminates in the call for the
“disciples to make disciples” only after Jesus sends the Spirit to empower them to do so (Acts 1:8, Matt. 28:18-19).
A life of discipleship emerges as an eternal purpose of living in the Spirit, just as Jesus did throughout his life and continues to do as the Incarnate one. First, this life in the Spirit is lived out perfectly in Jesus’ incarnate life, where we not only see the inner reality of God’s being as a life of other-centered love, but where we see what it truly means to be human. When we see how Jesus received all things from his Father and responded in the Spirit with faith, hope and love, we are seeing the reality of how humans were intended to live. Second, through Jesus’ vicarious humanity, this reality is now made available by the Spirit to those who are receiving and responding to Jesus’ call to follow him.
Luke’s account is the most helpful in highlighting the first aspect of discipleship with its focus on the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life and ministry of Jesus. Mark L. Strauss states that, “A key theme for Luke is that the coming of the Spirit heralds the dawn of the new age”; he then goes on to highlight the Spirit’s activity in Jesus’ birth, baptism and ministry.164 The coming new age of living in the Spirit broke into our world as it was lived out in the life and ministry of Jesus from birth to death. Luke also gives us our only glimpse into Jesus’ childhood—as a child he “grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon him” (Luke 2:39-40).
This tapestry of Jesus’ life in the Spirit from birth to death is a life the Son of God lived out in our fallen human nature. Torrance sees the early life of Jesus as “a strenuous forward movement, a real battle of blows,” where Jesus emerges between his baptism in the Jordan and his baptism on the cross as a man who “was sublimely serene and tranquil in his repose in the
Father.”165 As Jesus grew, increasing “in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52), we see Jesus in his vicarious humanity turning “the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:6). Jesus has done the hard work of growing up in our human nature, as one who follows in love and obedience wherever his Father leads in the Spirit, even when following leads him to express God’s love by going to the cross.
Torrance makes an important connection of Jesus’ growth as it pertains to his baptism: “It is at the baptism of Jesus, when he was anointed for his ministry and consecrated for his sacrificial life and death as the suffering servant, that we are surely to think of this growth and increase as reaching its culmination.”166 Only after this point does Jesus call his disciples. With
Jesus we have one who followed the Spirit perfectly, becoming “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). We are invited by the Spirit to participate in following and learning from Jesus, who has done the hard work of carrying our heavy burden of sin (that is, not trusting the Father) so we may take on his easy yoke and light burden of living in obedience to the Father in the Spirit (Matt. 11:30). We now can be followers of Christ, who knows his identity as the beloved Son with whom the Father is well pleased (Matt. 3:17), rather than following our own wearisome and burdensome attempts to control and give ourselves our own life and identity. This does not mean following Christ will not be costly, but the cost is paid by the old sinful person, not the new person of glory we are growing up to be.
C.S. Lewis made the helpful analogy of tin soldiers being made into real men as a picture of growing and learning from Christ, where we find “The part of you that does not like it is the part that is still tin.”167 The cost of discipleship can be seen in the “turning” or repenting of all that is not fitting to our life in Christ. This type of growth is in one direction— “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). Randy D. Reese and Robert Loane, with an eye towards mentoring, highlight this aspect of turning that is essential in being disciples of Christ:
Jesus calls us to appreciate who he is to such an extent that we seek to turn from our own way to life in order to imitate him day-in and day-out. It requires getting out of the stands and onto the field to follow him. This is, after all, what the Spirit is doing in our lives—inviting and mentoring us to move beyond spectatorship and to live into Jesus’ loving way in the world (Eph. 3:16-17). And at the heart of this invitation is the person of Jesus, both our Savior and our Teacher, who is calling us to follow and learn and imitate just as he did with Peter and Thomas and Mary and Paul.168
Discipleship did not come to an end after Jesus ascended back to the Father—the giving of the Spirit brings the same call of discipleship to us today.
We can now talk of the second aspect of discipleship: Jesus calls us to follow him through the Spirit. Jesus’ vicarious humanity is not some automatic or built-in response from us where we are mere spectators of our own relationship with the Father. God did not create us to be robots or puppets on a string, but persons in a real relationship of love with him. This requires a real response from our personhood. Jesus’ vicarious humanity now makes available to us this proper response to the Father that he hammered out in our fallen and estranged nature. Ray
Anderson links Jesus’ life lived in the Spirit with our participation—we are offered “an actual growth into the reality of his own personhood, which is the capacity to live in love.”169 He goes on more explicitly linking this reality of Jesus’ life in the Spirit as a life of love:
Through the historical transcendence of the Son of God by which the appropriate human response is made from the furthest side of human estrangement, so that the weakest of human flesh already possesses a place of participation; and then through the Holy Spirit who takes each person’s actual life into fellowship with Christ. This life in the Spirit has its ground in the historical life of Christ himself, but has concrete expression in the life of the community itself—such as it is.170
Our growing, or discipleship, is a process that takes place in the Spirit. It’s a relational journey that is dynamic and unending. When discipleship is understood relationally, where we are growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), then we set aside the notion that there is some “arrival” point at which our growing ceases. Eschatology that has an “end of the world” slant may reinforce this type of thinking where discipleship becomes only a means to an end rather than a purpose to live out for all eternity.
Michael Reeves brings out this perpetual aspect of discipleship with, “Thus the Spirit is not like some divine milkman, leaving the gift of ‘life’ on our doorsteps only to move on. In giving us life he comes in to be with us and remain with us. Having once given life, then, he does not move on; he stays to make that life blossom and grow.”171 The life of Father, Son and Spirit, which has existed for all eternity, is the life the Spirit is bringing us into. We have all eternity to “catch up” on learning and growing in this divine life. Discipleship is not some burdensome class we graduate from after receiving a perfect grade. Rather, perfection is a process, an unhindered growing in the perfect relationship of love that is being shared with us in the Spirit.172 Donald Bloesch, citing ancient and modern theologians, understands perfection in such a way where discipleship is a way of life for today and forever:
To reach perfection means to be spurred on to even greater perfection.
According to Gregory of Nyssa “even in heaven perfection is growth.” A similar notion is found in Irenaeus: “God will always have something more to teach man, and man will always have something more to learn from God.” Eastern Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware envisages eternity as “unending progress, a neverceasing advance.” A life of perfect love is the goal of Christian endeavor; yet this is not a static perfection but an ever expanding and abounding perfection.173
With Jesus as the telos for our existence, we do not follow him to get to some other end.
Our following, or discipleship, is an ever-growing and learning into that very end itself.
As we move from Jesus’ life and ministry into his death and crucifixion, may we remember again there is no hard line of division. Michael Jinkins reminds us by quoting Calvin that, “The whole life of Jesus Christ ‘was nothing but a sort of perpetual cross.’”174 But the cross does stand out for us as that specific event in the history of divine revelation where we see the inner life of the Triune God. Stephen Seamands brings our attention to this dimension of the cross with, “To demonstrate the depth of God’s sacrificial self-giving love for humanity, the New
Testament writers always point to a concrete, historical event: Christ’s death on the cross…. But
Christ’s death not only supremely reveals the nature of divine love, it also discloses what is eternally etched in the heart of the triune God.”175
We find at the cross that God is a God who serves, and the life he shares with us is not devoid of this divine orientation. Seamands elaborates: “Each divine person is always denying himself for the sake of the others and deferring to the others.”176 It is highly countercultural to proclaim a life of denial and deferment as a divine life of blessing. Typically, serving others is engaged in with an end in mind. But, if God in his very being is a serving God and his life of service is a life we were created to share in, we must think of service as part of the eternal purpose we are created for. This means we are free to serve others today, without fear of missing out on life. As Jesus served by giving his life on the cross, instead of death being the end, it led to resurrection life and a new beginning.
Donald Bloesch draws attention to how this message is met with resistance in our world: “The Christian message, which announces victory over death, stands in palpable contrast to the verdict of philosophy that death is inimical to human destiny.”177 When service is equated with “death” or a hindrance to life, then there is a stiff current running against this reality of service as demonstrated in the life of Christ. Because of this resistance, engaging in service often leads to suffering. Jesus was the “suffering servant” because he invaded our self-serving world with his other-serving life of love. Suffering is a natural consequence of participating in God’s love to a broken world.
Jurgen Moltmann contrasts suffering between humans and God: “God does not suffer out of deficiency of being, like created beings. But he does suffer from his love, which is the overflowing superabundance of his being. And in this sense he can suffer.”178 To participate in
Jesus’ death and crucifixion is to exercise a life of love against the torrents of our world that live under the fear of death. Moltmann describes the implications of participating in Jesus’ life of service for us today: “So following Christ means engaging in the struggle of life against death, and against the people who spread death. It means engaging in this struggle in our own place and our own time.”179
Participating in Christ’s crucifixion and death through service is one of the ways we do this. This does not mean we serve in order to save the world, but rather we serve because the world has been saved in order for us to do so. Bloesch provides a clarification on our role of servanthood in our world: “The saints…play a pivotal role in the work of redemption—but as witnesses, not as redeemers…. The saints participate in the passion and victory of Christ through their words and deeds…. They do not complement or add to Christ’s atoning work, but they participate in his present passion as he battles the forces of evil in the world.”180
In our world today, serving becomes a sign that God’s Kingdom life of servanthood, which flows from his own heart, is breaking in. Serving others is then understood as flowing out of God’s love for his creation as seen on the cross. As we receive this love from the Father, we can then share it in our circle of relationships. When we take seriously that God loved the world on the cross precisely by waging war on the world’s opposition to him, we will have to allow service to escape the confines of being just nice little helpers.
Sometimes the best service that can be rendered is to stand up and speak up for God’s good purposes rather than let this present evil age be the only voice in the room. This may bring suffering, as the world may resist our service, but it will be accompanied with joy because we are participating in the reality of who we were made to be. This dynamic is seen in the apostles’ conflict with the religious rulers of their day. There was rejoicing because their suffering was wrapped up in God’s purposes being worked out in them.
As we serve one another and the world around us, we are not engaging in an activity that finishes its course in this life. It will be the course of life that runs through all eternity. When our eschatological message centers on escaping suffering to some “place of safety”181 or a rapture from a world falling apart, we run the risk of painting the joys of the Kingdom as a place to be served rather than a place to serve. We are invited to enjoy the Kingdom today through service even when suffering results. As we do so we serve in hope, knowing that for all eternity the joy of service will continue. Bloesch has this to say about service in the world to come:
As saints of the most high God we shall be engaged in active service to God…. Our holy vocation for service in the name of Christ will continue on a new level. Our motivation for service will be neither the horrors of hell nor the pleasures of heaven but the compulsion of love…. Its crowning evidence is the sacrificial love of the cross, the love that goes out to the lowliest of sinners, all of whom are claimed for the kingdom of God.182
Service without suffering will be the way of life in God’s soon-coming Kingdom. Service in joy and hope of this coming Kingdom is our way of life today.
The account of Jesus’ resurrection cannot be isolated from the cross or his ascension, where there is a total “lifting up” of humanity back to God. In the center of that upward movement is the resurrection, where Jesus becomes the new head of humanity. The resurrection of Jesus tells us that we are now part of a “new creation” headed up in Christ (2 Cor. 5:15-17). Seeing the resurrection as a new creation event helps us highlight the eternal purpose of fellowship God originally created us for. Darrell Johnson excitedly punctuates the eternal fellowship God intended for us from the beginning:
Here is the good news: The living God is not a solitary God. The living God is not a lonely God. The living God is the Trinitarian God. From all eternity the living God has existed in community as Community; in fellowship as Fellowship; in relationship as Relationship. From all eternity the living God has existed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. From all eternity the living God has been able to speak of himself as “we,” “us,” and “our.” And here is the incredibly good, good news. We human beings were brought into being to participate with God in that us-ness.183
It was the loss of fellowship between God and his creatures that marred his good creation, spilling out into broken relationships between Adam and Eve and the entire human race. Jesus becomes the new Adam, the new head of humanity whereby fellowship between God and humans is restored, a restoration that also creates a new humanity, a restored race, living together as God’s own people (1 Peter 2:9). The resurrection of Jesus is the “beginning” of that restored fellowship. C.S. Lewis emphasizes the scriptural witness of Jesus’ resurrection as new creation:
But there is not in Scripture the faintest suggestion that the Resurrection was new evidence for something that had in fact been always happening. The
New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe. He is the “first fruits,” the “pioneer of life.” He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so. This is the beginning of the New Creation: a new chapter in cosmic history has opened.184
With Jesus’ resurrection, we can now participate in Jesus’ own fellowship with his Father, explored and manifested in our fellowship with one another. Andrew Purves sees the resurrection of Christ as our provision to participate in this restored fellowship: “In union with the resurrected
Jesus we are brought to share in his communion or fellowship with the Father.”185
After Jesus’ resurrection, he remained forty days, appearing to his followers, bringing them together as a believing community. Just as God called into existence the creation, as recorded in Genesis, with humanity serving as “image bearers,” we see Jesus calling into existence a new creation, his church, which bears witness to God’s love for his creation. Ray S. Anderson recounts part of the resurrection narrative that brings attention to this purpose of the church: “On Easter day Jesus meets the same confused and confounded group and ‘breathes upon them,’ giving them his own Spirit, inspiring them with his ‘last breath’ so that they now become ‘his body’ in the world. They are not to be conformed to the world but transformed to conform to his own existence (Rom 12:2).”186 Anderson helps us see that the resurrection isn’t an automatic change in creation that is devoid of our participation. Transformation is a relational process.
This process takes place on a new road with other believers. Fairbairn reflects on our participation in fellowship in our world today: “If the seemingly individual task of cultivating one’s share in the communion of the Trinity is a communal activity as well as an individual one, then it should also be clear that reflecting the Father-Son relationship is necessarily a communal activity.”187 Fairbairn’s observation serves well to remind us that our fellowship is participating in the Son’s fellowship with the Father. Fellowship is not something we create. It’s a reality in the Triune God that’s being shared with us through Jesus in the Spirit. This is critical if we are to embrace one another in the grace and love of the Father rather than our own ideals of community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer issues a powerful warning:
Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams…. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world.188
True fellowship is not a utopian dream of our making. We can let go of trying to control and shape our community to fit our ideals and instead receive and participate in a reality “hidden in Christ with God” (Col. 3:3). An eschatology pursued as a means of affirming our own ideals and powers of reason and logic, rather than living in the hope of the hidden glory in Jesus, flows from the same thought-world that only sees fellowship from a self-preoccupied center. A Christcentered eschatology can free us from this self-imprisonment to enjoy a reality beyond anything we could dream up on our best day.
There is much freedom and wholeness to be found in our relationships as we see them through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection, a new creation that brings us to share in his fellowship with the Father. Bloesch alludes to this future glory of fellowship with the bodily resurrection of the Lord: “The body is necessary for a restored humanity as a means of fellowship, communication and identification.”189 In Jesus’ resurrection, God has given us a share in his life of fellowship, providing all we need to participate today in hope as witnesses of his soon-coming Kingdom of fellowship that will continue forever.
As we look at Christ’s ascension to discuss our final implication of eschatology, it will also serve as the conclusion to all that went before. The ascension of Jesus gathers up all God’s redemptive work in Jesus and seals it for all eternity. Patrick Henry Reardon discussing Psalm 47 articulates this climatic movement of redemption:
The Ascension of Christ is not, then, an afterthought, a sort of postlude to salvation. It is not merely an appropriate but optional parade celebrated in consequence of the victory. It is an integral part of the triumph itself; or more properly, it is the crowning moment of the Lord’s priestly offering…. The Ascension of Christ is the event where heaven and earth are joined forever.190
In the joining of heaven and earth, we now have the unhindered sharing of the life of the eternal Trinity being shared with us in Jesus through the Spirit. The Book of Acts helps us see a connection between the Ascension and the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost serving as a link to the gift of sharing poured out on his followers. Before Jesus ascended back to the Father he told his disciples, “‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:8-9). The two events of Ascension and Pentecost solidify God’s presence with his creation for all eternity. It’s out of this presence that mission to the world is engaged.
Jesus grounded the mission of the church on his authority “in heaven and on earth” with the reminder that he is with us always, “to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20). Gerrit Dawson shows how the seeming contradiction of Jesus “leaving” the earth grants us participation in his sharing of himself on the earth: “Christ has withdrawn from the world not to forsake the world but in order to give himself to the world in the mission of the church through the power of the
Spirit whom he continually pours forth.”191 God invites us to participate in his sharing of himself with his creation. This sharing, however, is the work of the Spirit, who unites us to Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father, sharing with us his Father-Son relationship in the Spirit. So, a Spirit-empowered mission to the world will have at its focus a sharing of Christ. This sharing takes many forms of expression in word and deed, but in the Spirit, all forms serve to point others to Christ and not to ourselves.
Graham Buxton draws our attention to participating in the Spirit if we are to be faithful witnesses of Christ: “We should bear in mind that mission cannot be accomplished through programmes, but only through participation in the creative ministry of the Spirit, who choreographs the steps of all who are called into costly identification with the hurting world.”192 When we see witnessing to the world powered by the Spirit, then we can participate freely, leaving the results to him. We can share Christ by living out the life he shares with us in the Spirit. When we live out the life of Christ that the Spirit shares with us, we become a beacon of light that cuts through the darkness of our world. Bloesch underscores the mighty work of God being done in the Spirit into which we are invited to participate:
Christ does not call us out of the world (Jn. 17:15) but invites us to join with him in bringing the world into submission to the will of God. The world is not the prison house of the soul but the theater of God’s glory (Calvin), and though ravaged by sin it is at the same time being converted and redeemed through Christ’s resurrection and ascension and the outpouring of his Spirit. The message of faith is one of hope and confidence that the One who incarnated himself in human flesh is coming again in power and glory to set up the eternal kingdom that is even now in the making.193
When this eternal kingdom is ultimately set up, we will not forgo being witnesses. The Ascension of Jesus holds true for all eternity and therefore our participation in sharing the life of the Trinity will always remain. Although our sharing or witnessing will no longer be a light shining in the darkness, it will contribute to others seeing a particular wavelength of light in the infinite spectrum of God’s glory. C.S. Lewis alludes to this aspect of sharing in heaven through a fictitious conversation between a Spirit, who is George McDonald in heaven, and a Ghost, who is trying to decide if he wants to stay. The Spirit informs the Ghost, “When you’ve grown into a
Person…there’ll be some things which you’ll see better than anyone else. One of the things you’ll want to do will be to tell us about them.”194 Having something to share about God’s glory with the rest of his creatures is not a prideful sharing, but a unique privilege of making a real contribution in God’s Kingdom.
God created us as unique creatures, which gives us a personal relationship with him that is meant to be shared with others. The Ascension tells us that we have an eternal purpose of living in the Spirit, sharing all that the Lord shares with us. God is thrilled to share, and as he shares his life with us, he does so in such a way that we have a share in the thrill of his sharing. We can participate in that thrill of sharing today, in the hope that we will never run out of something to share in the future. As we witness today, our sharing may not always be well received, but the blessing is the sharing, not the results. Here we can see how a Christ-centered eschatology frees us to participate in an ongoing reality of sharing, becoming witnesses fueled by hope, instead of doomsday dispatchers of dread.
So, in all our participation in Jesus, in his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, we see the glory of God a little more, growing in faith, and being compelled by love to share with others the hope that lies within (1 Peter 3:15). Graham Buxton provides a cumulative conclusion for us, where our grand purpose of worship, for the World Tomorrow, breaks into our World Today as a worshiping community, bearing witness to the world that Jesus is our hope today, who does not disappoint at his return tomorrow (Rom. 5:5): “So we call upon the world to participate with us in our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, to participate with us in our participation in the New Humanity, and to look with us beyond death to the fulfilment of God’s purposes for all creation in resurrection.”195
“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22).
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1 Stephen Seamands, Give Them Christ: Preaching His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Return (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 160-161.
2 Ibid., 161.
3 Ibid., 163-175.
4 Thomas F. Torrance, Kingdom and Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1996), 34.
5 N.T. Wright’s insights into the Jewish thought world will be the main emphasis for his inclusion throughout this paper. Any statements from Wright that may carry possible post-millennial leanings are not indicative of any adherence to post-millennial thought in this paper. Wright’s comments that are in any way postmillennial are taken only with modification.
6 Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1992), xi.
7 Thomas F. Torrance, The Ground and Grammar of Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark LTD, 1980), 57.
8 Ron Highfield, God, Freedom & Human Dignity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 91-93.
9 Torrance, 58.
10 Michael Reeves, Rejoicing in Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 14.
11 Roderick T. Leupp, The Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 136-137.
12 Ibid., 127.
13 Thomas F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Edinburgh: T&T Clark LTD, 1981), 2.
14 Ibid., 4.
15 William Sanford La Sor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), 74.
16 Ibid., 75.
17 Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark LTD, 1997), 94-95.
18 C.S Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York NY: Touchstone, 1996), 34.
19 Joseph Tkach, “What God Hath Wrought,” Grace Communion International Weekly Update, September
20 Elmer M. Colyer, How To Read T.F. Torrance (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 83.
21 Thomas F. Torrance, Reality and Evangelical Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1982),
22 Darrell W. Johnson, Experiencing The Trinity (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 2002), 77.
23 Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 45.
24 Ibid., 41.
26 Ibid., 40-41.
27 Ibid., 39.
28 Ibid., 41.
29 Ibid., 61.
30 Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1992), 24-25.
31 Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 65.
32 Ibid., 65.
33 Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation, 205.
34 Ibid., 39.
35 Reeves, 69.
36 Michael Jinkins, Invitation to Theology ((Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 134.
37 Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark Ltd, 1976), 67.
38 Ibid., 68-69.
39 Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 24.
40 Ibid., 54-55.
41 Seamands, Give them Christ, 99.
42 Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection, 69.
43 Gerrit Scott Dawson, Jesus Ascended (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2004), 6.
44 Jinkins, Invitation to Theology, 130.
45 Dawson, Jesus Ascended, 7.
46 Seamands, 141.
47 C.S. Lewis, The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis (New York, NY: Inspirational Press, 1996), 376.
48 Gary Deddo, The Kingdom of God, part 6, Grace Communion International Weekly Update, accessed
April 14, 2017,
49 N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2008), 19.
50 Ibid., 18.
51 Jinkins, Invitation to Theology, 90.
53 Thomas F. Torrance, James B. Torrance, David W. Torrance, A Passion For Christ (Edinburgh, Scotland:
The Handsel Press, 1999), 28.
54 Torrance, Kingdom and Church, 82.
55 Gary Deddo, The Kingdom of God, part 3, Grace Communion International Weekly Update, accessed
April 14, 2017,
56 H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1951), 103.
57 Ronald J. Kernaghan, Mark. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 157.
58 Niebuhr, Christ and Culture. Richard Niebuhr’s work is a survey of the church’s many attempts to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Like Peter, many answers were correct on the surface but underneath incorrect content was being projected on the subject.
59 Ibid., 220.
60 Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 407.
61 Ibid., 96.
62 Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 185.
63 Ibid., 189.
65 Gary Deddo, “The Kingdom of God, part 4,” Grace Communion International Weekly Update, accessed April 14, 2017, .
68 This juxtaposition of terms has been a steady teaching from Gary and Cathy Deddo that has influenced much of my thinking and articulation of the life we have been brought into as attested throughout Scripture.
69 Donald G. Bloesch, The Last Things (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 244.
70 Guthrie, 190.
71 Torrance, Atonement, 407.
72 Alan F. Johnson and Robert E. Webber, What Christians Believe (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989), 415.
73 Ibid., 423.
74 George E. Ladd, The Presence of the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 52.
75 John Emory McKenna, The Great Amen of The Great I-AM (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2008), 75. I’m using McKenna’s translation as found in his book to stick as close as possible to his efforts to be faithful to the original Hebrew words and avoid the confusion he cautions about concerning reading into these words what we think we already know them to mean.
77 Ibid., 86.
78 Ibid.. In McKenna’s discussion on each word, he links its meaning to God’s interaction with Israel.
79 Ibid., 169.
80 Bloesch, 64.
83 Ladd, 79.
84 William Sanford La Sor, David Allan Hubbard, Frederic William Bush, 299.
85 Ibid., 298.
86 Ibid., 300.
87 Ibid., 305.
92 Ladd, 65.
93 McKenna, 75. McKenna shows throughout the Old Testament story, not just the Pentateuch, that the reminders to God’s people were tied to this central revelation of God’s character and heart. The reminders of God’s mighty deeds of the past were in some way tied to his character as revealed in “The Little Credo.” Everything flows from that center. The prophets of old were not using random descriptors in pointing to God’s character, but a specific revelation that Israel was given and along the way forgot. It’s in the forgetfulness of this revelation to them that they often turned to idols and fell into judgment. I referenced Romans 2:4 here because it links some of these same words translated into Greek, and the connection to repentance and judgment.
94 Ladd, 66.
95 Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2001), 102.
96 Ibid., 1-2.
97 Ibid., 3.
98 Ibid., 1-2.
99 Ibid., 14.
100 Bloesch, Last Things, 131.
101 Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 26.
102 Bloesch, Last Things, 113.
103 Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 36.
104 Oden, Classic Christianity, 771.
105 Torrance, Incarnation, 58-59.
106 George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 341.
107 Ibid., 208.
108 Ibid., 210.
109 Ibid., 211.
110 Ibid., 208.
111 Cathy Deddo, “Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:1-12,” Trinity Study Center, accessed April 14, 2017, . This understanding of the Sermon on the Mount has been shaped by Cathy’s teachings found here, and I think it protects Ladd’s comments about spiritual readiness from being taken as a self-salvation scheme. So, I see in her approach to the Beatitudes another way of Jesus telling us to watch and be ready. This also links the blessings of the future Kingdom as a present reality that can be received while anticipating in hope the consummation of his Kingdom in the future.
112 Ladd, 339.
114 Ibid., 203.
116 Ibid. The “similar language” he refers to is from the book of Revelation.
117 Bloesch, Last Things, 81.
118 Ibid., 83.
120 Ladd, 206.
121 Ibid., 369.
122 Ibid., 368.
123 Ibid., 373.
124 Ibid., 374-376.
125 Ibid., 375.
126 Ibid., 377.
127 Ibid., 376.
128 N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Book II (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 1417-26.
129 Ibid., 1426.
130 Ibid., 1258.
131 Ladd, 596.
133 Ibid., 597.
134 Ibid., 613.
136 Ibid., 407.
137 Ibid., 409.
138 T.F. Torrance, The Apocalypse Today (London: James Clarke & Co. Limited, 1960), 5.
139 Ibid., 12.
140 Ibid., 13.
141 Ibid., 16.
142 Ladd, 678.
143 Ibid., 674.
144 Ibid., 676.
145 Ibid., 97.
146 Ladd, 682.
147 Gerrit Dawson, The Blessing Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 26-35.
148 Ladd, 683.
149 Gordon D. Fee, Revelation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011), 289.
150 Torrance, The Apocalypse Today, 175-176.
151 Ibid., 177-178.
152 Ibid., 179.
153 Ladd, 682.
154 Oden, Classic Christianity, 803.
156 Torrance, Kingdom and Church, 101-102.
157 Seamands, 142.
158 Dawson, 198.
159 C.S. Lewis, The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis, 354.
160 C.S. Lewis, The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis (New York, NY: Inspirational Press, 1994), 178.
161 Ibid., 179-180.
162 James B. Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 14.
163 Lewis, 180.
164 Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: Zondervan, 2007), 285-286.
165 T.F. Torrance, Incarnation, 106-107.
166 Torrance, 225.
167 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 164.
168 Randy D. Reese and Robert Loane, Deep Mentoring (Grand Rapids, MI: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 187188.
169 Ray S. Anderson, Theological Foundations for Ministry (Edinburgh: T&T Clark LTD, 1979), 311.
171 Reeves, 90.
172 Cathy Deddo, “Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:43-48,” Trinity Study Center, accessed April 14, 2017, . Her explanation of Matthew 5:48 locates this perfection in the future, when we will not be hindered from receiving and participating in what the Lord is giving.
173 Bloesch, 232.
174 Jinkins, 129.
175 Stephen Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 78.
176 Ibid., 79.
177 Bloesch, 125.
178 Jurgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994), 45.
179 Ibid., 48.
180 Bloesch, 168-169.
181 I’m recalling a phrase used in old Worldwide Church of God teachings where believers would be swept away to a place of safety, often said to be in Petra, where they would be spared the suffering of the Tribulation.
182 Bloesch, 231-232.
183 Darrell W. Johnson, Experiencing the Trinity, 73.
184 C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996), 191.
185 Andrew Purves, The Resurrection of Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 110-111.
186 Ray S. Anderson, The Shape of Practical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 116-117.
187 Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 219.
188 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1954), 26-27.
189 Bloesch, 123.
190 Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms (Chesterton, IN: Conciliar Press, 2000), 91.
191 Gerrit Scott Dawson, Jesus Ascended, 152.
192 Graham Buxton, Dancing in the Dark (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2001), 153.
193 Bloesch, 58-59.
194 C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York NY: Touchstone, 1996), 79.
195 Buxton, 152-153.