The Eschatological Hope of the New Testament
Mar 5, 2010 1215
The gospel is the good news that all the grand eschatological hopes of the Old Testament have met their fulfilment in the Christ event. In the Person of Jesus Christ the kingdom of God, the righteous judgement of God, the Yom Kippur and the life of the age to come, have broken into history. The New Testament everywhere proclaims that the last days have arrived, and the signs of the resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit are seen as full proof of this (Acts 2:16,17). It is this eschatological character of the gospel which makes it so dynamic and urgent. This is what explains the power of the early church’s witness to Jesus Christ.
But these mighty happenings in Jesus Christ are evident only to faith. The gospel interprets that this is what really took place in Christ’s death and resurrection. Faith alone can see it. When it is said that a believer enters the kingdom, or is justified at God’s tribunal, or has eternal life, this means that he possesses these glorious benefits only in faith. Christ has returned to heaven. The kingdom, the righteousness of God and eternal life, are all in him, and therefore, they are, as Peter says, ‘reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time’ (1 Pet. 1:4-5).
The New Testament, therefore, has two focal points—the first and second comings of Jesus Christ. At his first advent he inaugurated the blessings of the new age; at the time of his return he will consummate them. These two focal points may be clearly seen in the Synoptic message of the kingdom, the Pauline message of the righteous judgement of God, the book of Hebrews message of Yom Kippur, and the Johannine message of eternal life.
Jesus declared that his kingdom had arrived in his Person. His mighty deeds were the signs of that kingdom. Yet Jesus just as clearly spoke about a future consummation of the kingdom at the end of the world (Matt. 24). His disciples must pray, ‘Thy kingdom come’ (Matt. 6:10). They must preach ‘this gospel of the kingdom … for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come’ (Matt. 24:14). The setting up of the kingdom of glory is clearly future, for Jesus declared, ‘When the Son of man shall come in his glory and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations …’ (Matt. 25:31-32).
Paul preached that the righteous judgement of God and its acquitting verdict are revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ. Yet he just as clearly spoke of a future judgement at the consummation of the age. ‘… he hath appointed a day,’ declared the apostle, ‘in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom he hath ordained …’ (Acts 17:31). There will yet be ‘the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel’ (Rom. 2:16). Contrary to those who say that the believing community will not be judged, Paul declared repeatedly that there will be a final judgement according to works [judgement of rewards]. All will be included, ‘for we shall all stand before the judgement seat of Christ’ (Rom. 14:10).
The writer of Hebrews not only sees the Yom Kippur in the Christ event, but he also points to the certainty of the return of Jesus Christ. After the high priest offered the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement, he came out of the sanctuary to bless the waiting people. So the church is now represented as standing in the outer court, waiting for the glorious appearing of the High Priest who will return from the temple in heaven to bless his watching, waiting people with the actual possession of all the covenant blessings. The writer of Hebrews says, ‘… so Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look [Greek, eagerly wait] for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation’ (Heb. 9:28). Again he says, ‘For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry’ (Heb. 10:37).
The events of the Jewish seventh month, with its climactic feasts of Trumpets, Atonement and Tabernacles (Harvest), as well as the Jubilee, portray events of eschatological significance and therefore must be seen in association with events connected with Christ’s second advent. Sir Isaac Newton, in his Commentary on the Revelation, was one of the first to draw attention to the numerous allusions to the Jewish seventh month in the book of Revelation.
John declares that eternal life, the life of the age to come, has been manifested to us in Jesus Christ. It is already a possession of those who believe. The Synoptics speak of eternal life as future– that is, it will be granted on the future resurrection day. This is not a contradiction of John’s message. John also associates this gift of eternal life with the resurrection at the last day (John 6:39-44). He also cites Jesus’ promise, ‘… I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also’ (John 14:3).
Paul too can speak of eternal life as a future hope (Rom. 2:7; 5:21). In fact, he speaks of ‘the hope of righteousness’ (Gal. 5:5), ‘the hope of glory’ (Col. 1:29), ‘the hope of salvation’ (1 Thess. 5:8), ‘the hope of eternal life’ (Titus 3:7), and ‘that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ’ (Titus 2:13). Obviously, these are all aspects of the one hope which is consummated at the coming (parousia), or appearing (epiphany), or revelation (apocalypse), of Jesus Christ.
The two focal points of the New Testament (the first and second advents) are related to faith and hope. The message of the first advent creates faith— faith which sees that eschatology has already taken place in Jesus Christ. The message of the second advent inspires hope—hope that all the blessings which are now possessed by faith will become an empirical possession at the return of Jesus Christ. The Church must live in ‘the times between’, in the tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’, between having and not having. There must be both faith and hope. Faith in what Christ has already done inspires hope in the certainty of Christ’s coming again. Hope in the coming glory of God, both refreshes faith when it is tried by suffering and restrains faith when it would prematurely seize the glory that shall be.
The Epistle of Paul is about faith in ‘the times between’. Peter does not appear to present any distinctive interpretation of the Christ event (such as kingdom of God, righteousness of God, etc.). In his first Epistle he speaks of the trial of faith. In the second he warns against the perversion of faith through any form of careless or ungodly behaviour. Because the Christian’s faith is a holy faith, it will produce a holy life as the Christian is both ‘looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God …’ (2 Pet. 3:12).
James is not unlike Peter. He argues that a faith which does not work in godly behaviour is only the faith of devils.
THE SHAPE AND CERTAINTY OF THINGS TO COME
The desire to know the nature of future (lastday) events is deeply ingrained in human nature. Christians, too, want to know about the events connected with the age to come. God does not deny these anxious scannings of the future. He meets them in the last book of the Bible. The Revelation was written to inform the Church about ‘things which must shortly come to pass’, the ‘things which must be hereafter’ Rev. 1:1; 4:1). It tells the truth about the future. That future is ‘the revelation of Jesus Christ’ (Rev. 1:1).
Christ is the Truth. He is the truth about God, for all that we can know about God has been revealed in Jesus Christ. He is the truth about man, for he was man as man was meant to be. He is the truth about the past, because he is the mirror of election and the full disclosure of what God planned from eternity. And he is the truth about the future. What shall come has already been. Since eschatology has been fulfiled in Jesus Christ, the events of the last day can only be an unfolding of what has already happened. The Christ-event is not only the mirror of the past, but the mirror of the future. In the death and resurrection of Christ we see the outpouring of God’s wrath, the nature of hell, the righteous judgement of God, the Yom Kippur, the resurrection, the defeat and casting out of Satan, victory over sin and death, and the life everlasting.
The Christ-event, therefore, is the shape of things to come. Was the law brought forth and honoured in this Christ-event? So it will be in the events of the last judgement. Was the penalty of the law exacted in the Christ-event? So it will be in the events of the last day. Was the wrath of God a terrible reality at Calvary? So it will be at the end. Does faith tell us that we had an Intercessor and High Priest at Calvary? So shall we have One in our day of judgement. Was not Christ our Mercy Seat at the cross? So will he be on our day of final reckoning. Did not God’s reckoning with sin in Christ’s death precede the glorious resurrection? So it will be with our final reckoning and resurrection (or translation) at the end time. And so we could go on. Eschatology is the cosmic disclosure of what has already happened in Jesus Christ. He is the truth of the future. His redemptive act is the shape of things to come.
The Christ-event is also that which makes the future certain. The eschatological events portrayed in the Revelation ‘must … come to pass’ because in Jesus Christ they have already come to pass. The Christevent does not negate the necessity of a final judgement and its attendant events. It makes it certain. Paul declares that Christ’s resurrection from the dead is God’s ‘assurance unto all men’ that ‘He will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom he hath ordained’ (Acts 17:31). In Daniel 9:24-27 we are told that the redemptive acts of the Messiah seal up, or confirm and establish, the certainty of the whole vision of divine restoration at the end of the days.
This means that the two focal points of the New Testament—the Christ event and eschatology—do not compete with each other for our attention. Each advent highlights the other.
A reflection on the scenes of Calvary highlights the end-time events. The gospel is like a telescope through which we look at the final scenes. It brings them into sharp focus and makes them appear so very near that it seems as if we could reach out and touch them. That is why the apostolic church (and every church wherein the gospel is truly received) sees the end as near. It stands on tiptoe, awaiting the appearing of Jesus Christ and all the events of the age to come.
Conversely, a true reflection on eschatology will highlight the gospel. As we reflect on the great tribunal before which we must render account, on the holy law which is to judge us, and on the prospect of both the glory and the wrath of God, how this leads us to the comfort and assurances of the gospel!
We must press this point about the two advents, highlighting, rather than competing with each other. There are those of us who have presented the gospel in such a way that the events of the end time are negated. The judgement which took place in Christ has been used to deny that there will be any final judgement of the believer. The inauguration of the kingdom at Christ’s first advent has been used to negate the setting up of his kingdom of glory at the end. We have overlooked how the ritual of Yom Kippur also points to events connected with Christ’s second coming. Eternal life in the now has been used to empty the final resurrection of all meaning. On the other hand, there are groups who have tried to emphasize the importance of eschatology so much that they have been suspected of denying the finished work of Christ and the full reality of present salvation in him. They have been slow to recognise that the valid end-time events which they proclaim are not made unnecessary, but even more certain, when their fulfilment is seen in the Christ event.
It seems that the true biblical tension between inaugurated eschatology (the Christ event) and consummated eschatology (the end of history) has been as difficult for the church to maintain as the true biblical tension between law and gospel. We have before us plenty of examples of what takes place when Christians fail to look at the end-time events through the telescope of the gospel. The result is “eschatological legalism” of the first order. If anyone wants full proof of this, let him consider how many people have been “cast out of the synagogue” and treated as apostates because they failed to confess to some fantastic “dispensational” detail. That is legalism indeed! The church can hold to a true eschatology only as she tenaciously holds to the gospel.
It is equally true that the church can hold to the gospel only as she holds to her eschatological hope. The church is essentially an eschatological community which lives in ‘the times between’. Knowing that the last events have already been inaugurated in Jesus Christ, she looks for the speedy consummation at the return of her Lord. How can she view the events of the end as being far off when she not only sees that they have already happened in her Head, but that she herself, in the present gift of the Holy Spirit, has the down payment, or first fruits, of her inheritance? (Rom. 8:23; Eph. 1:13).
Believers have been ‘made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good Word of God, and the powers of the world to come’ (Heb. 6:4-5). They know that in Christ the world of the old order has passed away. The new has already come, and by faith they are part of this new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). Their justification is the assurance of their coming glorification (Rom. 5:1; 8:30). As they remember what has happened and what has been given to them, they eagerly anticipate the end and see signs of the end in many things. Because they are already in Christ and part of the new age, they cannot give ultimate allegiance or significance to anything of the old order. They cannot settle down here as if this world were their home. But as a true eschatological community, they, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, live in tents, having no continuing city, but seeking one to come. This eschatological hope characterizes all of New Testament ethics. If the Church loses her sense of the shortness of time and her expectancy of the end, it is proof that she has also lost the gospel of Jesus Christ.
* Used with permission of Present Truth Magazine: PO Box 7, Julian, California, 92036: www.PresentTruthMag.org