I am writing this article on Sept 20, 2017. If you are reading this article after Sept 23, 2017, then I am right again! The world did not end. I knew it! You can tell me later how smart I am! Ok. Just kidding.
In case you are not aware, the latest date for the end of the world is/was Sept 23, 2017. On this date there will be an alignment of the sun, moon, and certain stars that have led some to believe that Revelation 12 is being fulfilled. First off, let me say that Revelation 12 has nothing to do with astronomical features.
Secondly, when it comes to the issue of the Second Coming of Christ, the focus of the New Testament is not the timing of Jesus’ return; nor even, the signs that indicate that His return is near. Instead, the New Testament is far more concerned with: “However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). That is, will we be ready when He returns? So, we must ask ourselves: are we being faithful?; so that, if Christ were to return at this moment, will He find us doing the work of the Kingdom for which we have been assigned?
So, when is Jesus going to return? Well, I can’t actually tell you or I would have to. . . .
Let me just say that the Bible is far more concerned with the mission of God’s people in building His Kingdom. In fact, I would say that the message of the New Testament is clear: the return of Jesus is awaiting the faithfulness of God’s people in accomplishing His mission. Once we have completed such, by His grace, then Christ will return.
The New Testament provides three interrelated reasons for the delay in Jesus’ return. First, the delay in the return of Christ derives from the mercy of God, who is waiting for all men to be saved. In 2 Peter, Peter provides an explanation as to the delay in Christ’s return. Apparently, some skeptics were mocking the Christians because Christ had not returned. Peter replies, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). Thus, in His infinite mercy, God has determined that the climax of the Kingdom of God will occur when the nations have been redeemed.
A second reason found in the New Testament for the delay in the return of Christ is that God is awaiting the fullness of the suffering of the people of God. This might not come across as good news to the Church, but the Scriptures indicate that Christ will not return until the suffering of God’s people is completed. In Revelation 6, we see the souls of those who have been martyred for the kingdom of God crying out to God, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev 6:10). The answer to their prayers comes in the next verse: “And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, should be completed also” (Rev 6:11). That is, Jesus will not return until all those who have been killed for the gospel have been killed.
The third reason found in the New Testament for the delay in Christ’s return is that Christ is awaiting the holiness of God’s people. Second Peter also notes that, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat” (2 Pet 3:10-12). This is of great importance. Instead of focusing on the newspapers and the signs of times, the Bible exhorts us to live godly lives! In fact, Peter says that the return of Christ is not only awaiting the holiness of His people, but that such holiness among the people of God may even ‘hasten’ (or quicken) the day of His return!
Now, if the readiness of the people of God is understood as their doing the work of the Kingdom of God, then it should not be surprising that the New Testament asserts that the return of Christ is awaiting holiness of the people of God, the conversion of the nations, and the full number of martyrs. These three elements go hand in hand with the return of Christ. After all, the holiness of the people of God, cannot be separated from the faithful proclamation of the Kingdom of God, which will result in both the conversion of the nations and the full number of martyrs! Once all this has been completed, Christ will return!
Note: If the world really did end on Sept 23, 2017, please disregard this article!
Note: I discuss these issues in much greater detail in chapter 9 of my book Understanding Eschatology (which is just a fancy word meaning “the end times”)—available on Amazon.com
I was asked by a good friend to respond to the following:
“please respond to the those who are citing Ps 33:12 ‘Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, The people whom He has chosen for His own inheritance’ and claiming that God has chosen Trump to save America.”
The context of the Old Testament in general and this Psalm in particular suggests that the nation addressed here was Israel. The Psalmist was writing to encourage the people of Israel to call upon the Lord so that the promised blessing would come to fruition. Of course, one could hypothetically suggest that this promise of blessing applies to any nation. The reality, however, is that only ancient Israel was ever in a position to fulfill this command. For, it is only in the context of ancient Israel that the chosen people of God were essentially identified with a particular nation (of course there were exceptions, such as the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7); but such exceptions only prove the rule).
Once we reach the Christian era the people of God are now composed of individuals from many nations. Since no one nation today is composed wholly of the people of God, there is simply no way to receive the blessing of this Psalm on a national scale.
Could the blessing of this Psalm be applied to an individual? Sure. In fact, the focus of God’s blessings today applies to the people of God. Note that 1 Peter 2:9 even identifies the people of God in nationalistic terms: “a chosen people and a holy nation.” The NT application of Psalm 33, then, would be, “Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord.”
In conclusion, any attempt to apply this Psalm on a national scale in the contemporary world is simply anachronistic. No secular nation may receive the blessing of this Psalm.
Nota Bene: I was searching images.google for an image to go along with this post (as I usually do) and was surprised when Ps 33:12 showed up in the search box. I was more surprised when the page loaded and hundreds of images with the script of Ps 33:12 and the US flag appeared. I am sorry but in light of my post here I just don't see how this connection can in any way be supported by this text. (note there were also images of the Star of David--the Israeli flag. This has more potential to be correct. The problem here would be twofold: one the modern state of Israel is an avowed secular state. Second, the people of God are defined as those who follow Christ. And though some Jewish people indeed follow Jesus today, the essence of Judaism today is a rejection of Jesus as the Messiah)
“Seek peace and pursue it. The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous and His ears are open to their cry” (Psalm 34:14b-15)
My heart is broken.
I just returned from a dynamic conference hosted by the Telos Group in Wash DC focusing on bringing peace to the Middle East and the Holy Land in particular. The platform of Telos is to be Pro-Israeli, Pro-Palestinian, and Pro-peace. The gathering was of high-powered religious and political leaders from around the world along with social activists and human rights leaders.
During the three days we heard the heroic stories of the likes of Jeremy and Jessica Courtney who are risking their lives to bring life-saving heart surgeries to the children of Iraq. We listened to the cries for peace from Daoud Nassar, Roni Keidar, and Jamal Shehade; a Palestinian, an Israeli, and an Arab-Israeli who live out this conflict as a part of their daily lives and work tirelessly to promote peace across borders. We were inspired by the transformative work of Rev. Traci Blackmon who was instrumental in bringing diverse groups together to work for peace in Ferguson, Missouri. And we were briefed by high level world leaders on the status of peace in the Holy Land.
And my heart was broken.
My heart was broken because despite all the efforts of these dynamic people to work for peace, peace has not merely alluded us; it has fled. While families on both sides of this conflict, who want nothing more than what we have—namely, peace, safety, and opportunities of education, employment, and hope for their children—continue to struggle for daily subsistence, the powers that be continue to be thwarted when it comes to brokering peace.
My heart was broken because we were made all too aware that the sun is setting on the prospects of peace—in fact, it may have already set. And when peace fades, hope will soon follow.
My heart was broken because as I sat there those three days I knew deep within that this conflict has been exacerbated by the theological views of some within the western evangelical church.
My heart is broken because I know that a major step in bringing peace is to awaken the evangelical church and I worry that there is simply not enough time to arouse this sleeping giant. The fact is that the conditions on the ground are beyond desperate. When you remove the prospects of peace from this tinder box, and with it hope, the likelihood of an increase in violence, which tragically has already begun, increases exponentially.
The Role of the Evangelical Church
The evangelical church acknowledges that Jesus is the prince of peace. It affirms a call to advocate for justice and to love their enemies. At the same time, among some segments of evangelicalism, there is a running eschatological (“end times”) conviction, which has gained widespread traction, that actually promotes conflict in Middle East. They consider such conflict as evidence of the imminent return of Jesus. As a result, when it comes to peace in the Holy Land, many become apathetic.
“Why work for peace in the Middle East when the Bible says it won’t happen.” “Only the return of Jesus can end this conflict.” “The Bible says that there will be ‘wars and rumors of wars’ and that ‘such things must happen.’” From popular proponents like John Hagee and Pat Robertson, this rhetoric tragically pervades many communities within the evangelical world.
So, as I sat through session after session in DC, my heart was broken. I met people from both sides of this dreadful conflict who desperately want peace. And, yet I knew that one of the most significant obstacles for the peace that they so desperately need lies in the hands of the evangelical church.
(some of you may wonder what I mean by this comment, or question it outright. Simply put, politics always flows downstream from culture. I have attended a number of Congressional dinners as part of these conferences in Washington DC. Every time the congressmen who come let it be known that they cannot flow against the current of culture which staunchly advocate for one side and against the other in this conflict. It is not just that these political figures want to keep their jobs. They are often acting from a genuine sense of duty and a responsibility to be faithful to their constituents. As a result, if a large percentage of the voters who elected them favor one side over against another in the Holy Land, then their hands are somewhat tied.)
God causes the growth
So, is there any hope? Not as far as we can tell. The desperate situation on the ground appears to have moved beyond a political resolution.
But, then, I am reminded of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (1 Cor 3:6).
Maybe we are to continue to press forward all the while clinging to this truth. After all, He is the One who is building His church. He is the One who is the Prince of Peace.
So, I ask you to join with me in pressing forward and pursuing the peace that Christ calls us to. As the Psalmist says, “Seek peace and pursue it. The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous and His ears are open to their cry” (Psalm 34:14b-15).
You can begin by gaining an understanding of this conflict and the role of God’s people in bringing justice and crying out for the oppressed. For the sake of those on both sides, let us help to wake up the Church.
Blood Brothers, by Elias Chacour
Understanding Eschatology, by Rob Dalrymple
These Brothers of Mine: A Biblical Theology of Land and Family and a Response to Christian Zionism, by Rob Dalrymple
Revelation is arguably one of the greatest pieces of literature in the history of the world and certainly one of the great books within the Bible. Unfortunately, for many the book of Revelation remains a mystery, which few dare to explore. Ironically, the book opens with a blessing for its reader, hearers, and keepers (Rev 1:3). Which raises the question: How can one be blessed by reading a book that no one seems to understand?
This question troubled me for some time. For many years I concluded that Revelation was a mystery that would only be solved after everything was over. Therefore, I didn’t read it or pay attention to it.
Now you must understand that in my younger days I was fascinated with the ‘end-times’ and all of the hype that goes along with it. I grew up in the 70’s (I was born in 666; no really, June of 1966) when the fascination with world events and the apparent fulfillment of everything was right at the door. I read dozens of books as a youth and sought to inquire into the fulfillment of the book of Revelation and the end-times sermons of Jesus. I even spent hours in local library one day to determine if there was an increase in the number and frequency of earthquakes in the last century: after all, that would have been a clear sign of the imminent return of Christ.
Problems began to surface for me along two lines. First, I began to conclude that there were tremendous disagreements among the popular writers over the meaning of Revelation. And I felt uneasy in my heart as a grappled with these things. Who should I trust? I grew less and less confident in what I was reading, hearing, and believing.
The second problem was that by the mid-1980’s many of the prophecies that I had been confident were being fulfilled among us never seemed to actually come to pass. By the time 1989 came around, I was totally disillusioned. The Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain fell.
The problem was more than just certain prophecies were not being fulfilled as I had come to expect. The problem was that things were moving in the opposite direction. The Soviets were not about to invade the Middle East and start Armageddon as I was assured would happen. They were suddenly more concerned with feeding their own people than with starting a war.
It was in this mild state of disillusionment, that I came to the conclusion that the book of Revelation was a mystery not to be understand by mortal man. I decided that the book of Revelation needed a blank page before it (similar to what one typically finds between the end of Malachi (the last book of the Old Testament—OT) and the beginning of Matthew (the first book of the New Testament—NT). This blank page needed to read: Do Not Trespass.
My own conviction was, why bother?: no one can understand the book.
Mind you that my convictions about not reading or being able to understand the book of Revelation didn’t sit comfortably with me. For I knew that Scripture promises that all of it, which had to include the book of Revelation, was “profitable for teaching, reproof, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). And I knew that Revelation opens with a promise of blessing for its readers, hearers, and keepers (Rev 1:3). Somehow this book was meant to be read, studied, and used by the Church. Yet, it made no sense!
The Lord, of course, has a way of messing with us. He knew I had a passion for Scripture. And here I was so disillusioned with the book of Revelation things that I wasn’t even willing to study the book anymore.
Within a few years I found myself pursuing my passion as a student of Scripture. And I was forced back into a study of the book of Revelation. After all, one cannot prepare to be a professor of the NT and somehow act as though there were only 26 books in it!
I began my studies of Revelation by consulting several volumes within some standard, trustworthy, evangelical commentaries. I had utilized volumes in these series for other books of the NT, so I determined that this might be a good place to start.
It didn’t take long to fall in love with its message. This book is awesome! I quickly learned that there was actually significant agreement among scholars as to what the book of Revelation meant. Now they certainly do not agree on all the details, but overall there is tremendous unity on the core of the message.
Most importantly, the book of Revelation was beginning to make sense. Simply put, the book of Revelation serves as a climax to the entire Biblical story. It message is simple: it is “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1). The message is that Jesus Christ, the Lion, has “overcome” (Rev 5:5). And, what this means for you and me is of great importance!
Jesus is the center of the Apocalypse. Or, perhaps, it may be better stated—Christ is the Apocalypse.
The Book of Revelation opens with the words: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1).
The phrase is actually ambiguous, both in English and in the original Greek. The phrase can be understood to mean: “the revelation that is about Jesus Christ”; or, “the revelation that is from Jesus Christ.” When it comes to something like this the interpreter’s best option is to read the book and see which one makes the most sense. Is the book of Revelation about Jesus or is it from Jesus?
Even after reading the Book of Revelation, however, one is still unsure which option is best. This leads many to conclude, and probably correctly, that John was intentionally unclear and that he wanted us to understand the book of Revelation as both a revelation from Jesus Christ and one that is about Jesus Christ.
But when we say that Revelation is about Jesus what do we mean? Well, that is quite simple: it is about who He is and what He has done. Okay, but what is it that He has done?
Through the pages of the book of Revelation John highlights Jesus’ person and role in terms of three key features: 1) Jesus is God made manifest; and as such He is worthy of the worship due to God alone; 2) Jesus is the fulfiller of God’s promises in that He has accomplished the mission of God’s people; 3) Jesus, as the fulfiller of God’s mission, is the model for the people of God to emulate.
All three of these are vital and will be explored more deeply in future blogs. But for now, I will focus on one aspect of the third point. It is this third point that explains John’s somewhat surprising opening description of Jesus. For, instead of describing Jesus with all the glorious titles that He uses later in the book, John attributes three apparently mundane titles to Jesus: 1) He is “the faithful witness”—likely indicating that He was faithful unto death— 2) He is the One who has overcome death and is therefore “the firstborn from the dead”; 3) He is “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:5).
Of all the titles ascribed to Jesus in the book of Revelation, that these three are the first is somewhat astonishing.
The importance of these three titles, however, cannot be underestimated. They serve to highlight John’s message to the churches—as well as to us today. Namely, that, in the same way that Jesus did, so also the people of God must: 1) persevere as faithful witnesses—despite the fact that this may well result in death— 2) knowing that we will also be raised from the dead, 3) and through all this we will reign as the kings of the earth (as C. S. Lewis put it: “we are kings and queens of Narnia!”).
One of the first principles in understanding the book of Revelation is that the book is about Jesus. Knowing this will help us not only understand the book, but also its message for us today. Jesus is “the faithful witness” (Rev 1:5). And as such He is the model that the people of God are to emulate. If one gets anything from reading the book of Revelation may it be: “Go be faithful witnesses just like Jesus!”
We hear so much talk about the AntiChrist in certain circles of Christianity. He will come to Jerusalem and enter the rebuilt Temple, make a peace treaty with Israel, and then after 3 1/2 years he will break the treaty and force everyone to recieve a mark on their forehead or righthand with the number 666. Well, I would say that the devil, or the deceiver (Rev 12:9), is a lot smarter than this.
Paul, in a somewhat difficult passage (2 Thess 2), says that the 'man of lawlessness' enters into the "Temple of God" and proclaims himself God (2 Thess 2:4). Well, here's the key. The phrase, 'temple of God' occurs 11x in the NT and in every instance it refers to either the body of Christ Himself or to the Church as the body of Christ (Matt 26:61; 1 Cor 3:16, 17(2x); 2 Cor 6:16(2x); 2 Thess 2:4; Rev 3:12; 7:15; 11:1, 19; note the Matt 26:61 passage is not really an exception to this). This means that the 'anti-Christ/man of lawlessness' (assuming for now that they are the same) enters the Church and not a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem!
This accords with the rest of the NT. Jesus warned that “false prophets will come to YOU (not ewe) in sheep's clothing” (Matt 7:15). Paul, in what he thought was his last meeting with the elders of Ephesus notes, “savage wolves will come in AMONG you” (Acts 20:29). And we could go on, for throughout the NT we are warned repeatedly that false prophets will enter the Church in order to led astray “if possible, even the elect” (Matt 24:24).
This is precisely what 1 John is addressing in one of the few references to 'anti-christ' in the NT (the designation 'anti-Christ' appears 5x and only in 1-2 John). John notes that we know that certain people are anti-Christ's because they “went out from us” (1 John 2:18-19).
Thus, the anti-Christ is not some secular person who is empowered by a revived Roman empire or such. Instead, he is a false prophet who endeavors to spread his influence in the Church! This is the NT warning!
If we are looking to Jerusalem for a rebuilt temple, and especially if we think that the anti-Christ will not arise until one is built, then we are looking in the wrong direction! And we have been deceived by the devil!
The fabric upon the which the Bible was penned must be viewed as one garment. The whole Bible coheres and centers around the fact of God’s redemption and restoration of both mankind and the whole of creation.
The book of Revelation is Genesis fulfilled. The entire Bible, in fact, weaves a beautiful story of God’s work in creation and, because of the fall, His subsequent effort to restore His creation.
This is why the Gospel of John begins by quoting Genesis: “In the beginning” (John 1:1). Matthew’s gospel commences with a genealogy (Matt 1:2-17) that clearly serves to identify Jesus with the story of the OT. And why the Gospel of Mark opens with a composite citation (1:2; cf Isa 40:3, Exod 23:20, and Mal 3:1) that clearly intends to identify the coming of John the Baptist as the herald of the coming Christ in terms of the fulfillment of the great promise of the restoration of Israel. And Luke’s opening two chapters contain a plethora of OT citations and allusions.
In each instance, the Gospels are connecting their narratives with the OT story. John, however, takes us one step forward. For, he intends us to not only see Jesus in light of the OT, but also in terms of a new creation. That is, ‘in the beginning’ not only serves to connect the story of Jesus in John with Genesis and the OT, but it is also eschatological—forward looking to the new creation. That is, with the coming of Jesus we have another ‘in the beginning.’
What might this mean for us?
First, it means that in Jesus we have the fulfillment of God's covenant promises (2 Cor 1:20). And we must, therefore, read our Bible's in this light.
Secondly, it means that the 'eschaton' (the end-times) have begun in Jesus. We live in the 'last days'. The 'last days' then are not something to query about as though they are future and distant (or perhaps imminent) and potentially not important. Instead, they are something for us to presently endure.
Finally, the inauguration of the New Creation in Jesus means that our mission as God's people entails the bringing in of the New Creation. We are God's image bearers on earth: and as such we must reign! (of course, reigning in the New Creation is not like the kings of this world (Luke 22:25-30); but entails submission of our very lives to the Kingdom of our Lord (Rev 12:11)).
This year the session (ruling board) at my church has decided that we should focus our attention on “Thy Kingdom Come” (sometimes that King James English just needs to come out). Sounds great. I personally wish that Christ’s Kingdom were here. Now! I want it now! (reminds me of the girl in the new Willie Wonka Movie who bratishly—yes, that is a word: after all, I can make up words if I want because I have a PhD!—says, “but, daddy, I want it now”). That’s the point. We really want the Kingdom and we want it now!
What is God waiting for? Why is He taking so long? I mean it has been two thousand years (well, almost). One of the problems we have with this line of questioning (which many of us are guilty of) is that it begins and ends with a poor understanding of the Kingdom.
The problem is simple. Many of us have been taught that the Kingdom is wholly spiritual. After all, it is the Kingdom of heaven, right? Because of this we have concluded that the spiritual (heaven) is good and the physical (earth) is—well—not as good; or, for some it is bad.
This leads us to a problem. This sort of thinking tells us that only spiritual things really matter. Life itself, however, tells us something different. After all, we need to eat, drink, sleep, work, etc., in order to live.
What many Christians tend to do at this point is to try to live in these two worlds at the same time. One world is the Mon-Sat world. For many, this is the real world. We live, eat, and breathe in this world. The other world is then some sort of spiritual world—the Sunday world. This is the world of religion and spirituality. In this world, we pray and go to church. (Pastors often get befuddled as to how to get their parishioners more involved in the life of the Church: how to get them to pray more; give more; learn more; do more. This conflict will continue, however, as long as we allow ourselves to live as though there really are these two worlds).
The problem here is that this thinking stems from a poor understanding of the Kingdom. Think about it: Is it not true that God is the creator of ALL things (Col 1:16)? Is it not true that through Jesus God is reconciling “to himself ALL things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col 1:20)?
Here’s my point. If God is Lord of all, then the Kingdom of God is not some spiritual thing that is detached from the world. Jesus is Lord Monday through Saturday too! This means that working, being in fellowship with others, resting, eating, and praying are all spiritual acts. After all, Adam and Eve worked in the Garden (Gen 2:15); they had fellowship in the Garden; and, they ate in the Garden. Such acts, then, are part of God’s eternal plan. They are not just things we do in this world until someday we escape it. They are all part of God’s kingdom, which are in need of being redeemed and restored.
What does this have to do with Thy Kingdom Come? Everything. The ECO (which is our denomination) document on the Church says, “Before the foundation of the world, God set a plan of mission to reconcile the world to Himself and chose to use the Church as His instrument of reconciliation. It is incumbent upon all members of the body of Christ to participate in the work of building one another up in Christ and be deployed for His work in the world” (ECO Polity 8).”
Therefore, instead of us sitting back and waiting for the Kingdom of God to come, we have been commanded by God to be the agents through which God brings His kingdom. We must learn to view our jobs from a kingdom perspective. We must learn to view our relationships from a kingdom perspective. We must learn to enjoy our food from a kingdom perspective (a kingdom perspective with regard to food would begin by acknowledging God for His provision and would include our recognition of others who may be in need of food). As we do this, the Kingdom of God comes!
Next, we must begin to look at the world around us and realize that it too is in desperate need of being reconciled to God! For, the Kingdom of God comes when we care for the broken in this world. This includes the broken people who need to see that Christ loves them and wants to redeem and restore them. It also includes the brokenness of the creation. After all, God created mankind to care for His creation (Gen 2:15).
In one sense, we have no other options. We cannot say “Thy Kingdom Come” and do nothing. We must do something about the lack of peace in our church, neighborhoods, and the world. We must do something about the children starving in our church, neighborhoods, and the world. We must do something about the brokenness of families in our church, neighborhoods, and the world. And of course, we must do something about the lostness within our neighborhoods and the world.
Thy Kingdom Come is a charge for us to get busy!
Oh. One last thing. We must do all of this with joy in our hearts. After all, we are children of the King and we will get to eat at His table forever!
I wrote a book: "Understanding Eschatology." The subtitle was "Why it Matters!" Most people could seem to care less. I say it is vital, crucial, essential.
The Bible is an incredible and fascinating book. It is far from being merely a list of moral guidelines, or an instruction manual on ‘how to get to heaven in ten easy steps’.
Instead, when read in terms of the overall story of God’s work within creation, it reveals a depth and beauty that transcends comprehension. Unfortunately, for many Christians, the notion of reading and teaching Scripture in terms of the over-arching story of Scripture has been absent.
Instead of understanding the grand narrative and its majestic portrait of God and His redemptive activity, the Bible has unfortunately too often become the repository of ‘rules’ and ‘regulations’. This is not to say that the Bible does not have such an ethical code, but only that in failing to see God’s mission within creation as unveiled in Scripture, we have neglected this vital storyline that runs from Genesis to Revelation (from Garden to Garden!), and, in doing so, we run the grand risk of failing to comprehend our role within the story.
It is this story that we need to explore in more depth. For, a proper understanding of eschatology begins with a complete grasp of the entire story of the Old and New Testaments.
When we place the life and ministry of Jesus into the overarching story of God’s mission, then we may begin to discern the eschatological significance of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. And it is here that eschatology, mission, and the biblical story meet. That is, understanding Jesus, both His person and His work, eschatologically and in the context of the biblical story correlates directly to a proper understanding of the mission of God’s people.
And it is here that eschatology becomes relevant for the Church today! Our mission as followers of Christ is to carry forward the mission begun by Christ, which itself was an inauguration of the eschaton (the ‘end’). You see, eschatology is not simply a bunch of ramblings about the future and what will happen, but it is intimately tied to the life of the Church today!
I fully agree that we are supposed to bless Israel (Gen 12:3). And I do believe that God is faithful to His promises. And I think he has: In Jesus! That is, Jesus is Israel. This is fundamental to the NT and to the Bible. Let me make several points:
First, I am quite grieved by the fact that many Christians who engage in this debate are too often not willing to honestly look at Scripture. Regardless of what side we end up on, we must be viewed as people of love who are open and honest. Instead, this issue, perhaps more than any other issue, often engenders more narrow-mindedness and dogmatism among Christians. We as Christians must been seen as those who are pursuing truth in love. If we are found to be wrong on something, then we confess our wrong and move forward. But for some reason we don’t. We embitter ourselves towards one another and in doing so disgrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ; not only towards our brothers and sisters in Christ, but towards the world.
So I ask that you read and discern what I am saying. As I hope to do with any responses. To spew venom and hatred toward one another only makes a mockery of the Kingdom of God.
Now I understand that we have all learned to read the Bible in a certain manner. For those who are reading this and are holding to some of the mainstream views of evangelical Christianity, let me make a couple of opening comments.
I have great respect for much within evangelicalism (I am myself a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and count myself as one of you). Evangelicals tend to have a zeal for God that I wish were be shared by all followers of Christ. They often have a great heart for God, and a great love for Jesus. And they are deeply committed to the Bible. I affirm all of this myself!
My first point is that the manner in which many of you have learned to read the Bible (which is how I too was raised to read it) is not the historical position of the church, nor even the common reading among Christians today. With this in view, I am asking for you to understand this and to try to view things as I am presenting it. See if my approach, which is the traditional view of the Church, not only makes sense of the OT but the NT as well. That is, don’t assume your view for a moment. Instead, see if mine makes sense on the terms in which I am presenting it (i.e., don’t assume that you are right and thereby conclude that I am wrong. Listen to my side with an open mind and evaluate it on its own terms. Such is only fair).
Secondly, this is not simply a question of one person citing various verses and another citing others. Clearly both sides have their arsenal (such is true for most issues upon which Christians debate among themselves). The question is which paradigm (worldview; perspective; approach to reading Scripture) can account for all of the verses in question? This is the essential question! That is, I am not suggesting that based on my ten verses my position is therefore correct. For when we argue this way what is most often left out of the equation is the fact that you too have ten verses that support your position. Instead, I am suggesting that we have been reading the text with the wrong set of lenses. The lenses that we have been wearing make some sense of parts of Scripture but do not truly account for the entirety of the Bible. Furthermore, these lenses are not those that the Church has been using for the last 2,000 years. Instead, they are new, they are the product of a modernist worldview, and they are seriously deficient. So again I ask that you put them aside for a moment and try on this set of lenses and see if the biblical text does not come into clearer focus.
Reading the Bible in light of Jesus
When it comes to questions of prophecy and the fulfillment of OT promises I would suggest that the answer is found by reading the OT in light of the NT; and even more so reading the OT in light of Christ. Sure I believe that the OT stands on its own. That is, we study the OT in light of itself in order to determine what it meant to the audience to whom it was written. But if we want to understand what it meant in light of the whole of God’s revelation we must turn to the NT. For it is clear that Jesus read the OT and saw its fulfillment in light of Himself. This is what Peter was saying when he notes that the OT prophets didn’t fully understand the fulfillment of their prophesies (1 Pet 1:10-12).
Now when we approach the NT we notice that the fulfillment of the OT is not what was expected—especially from a straightforward reading of the OT. We recognize that the Pharisees and leaders of Israel did not accept Jesus. Part of the reason is that they had come to expect the Kingdom of God to look a certain way based on their reading of the OT. But their reading was wrong. It was wrong because they failed to understand that the OT was about Jesus! And since Jesus didn’t meet their expectations, nor their wants and wishes, they were not about to reread the OT in light of Jesus.
It is here that I think that many Christians do that same thing. For example, many of the OT promises to the people of God are clearly applied to Jesus in the NT. This corresponds with the NT’s emphasis that the entire story finds its fulfillment in Jesus (2 Cor 1:20; Luke 24). Jesus testifies to this fact to the two men on the road to Emmaus. For, according to Luke 24 the men were grieved because, as they said, they “were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Now we should note that Luke has already told his readers that Jesus is the one who will redeem Israel (Luke 2:25, 38—both Simeon and Anna were looking for this and Luke clearly wants us to see that the baby Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise). So we the readers already know that these two men are missing the significance of Jesus. Luke then tells us that Jesus replied to the men, “‘O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27). Thus, they came to understand that their hopes that Jesus was going to redeem and restore Israel have indeed been fulfilled. The fulfillment, however, came through Jesus’ suffering! This was the part they didn’t get. That the restoration of Israel must happen through suffering. And Jesus has done so. Note, Jesus doesn’t say to them: “I am not here to redeem Israel, but to die for your sins. I will redeem Israel in the future.” No, Jesus gently rebukes them for failing to understand that “all the prophets” have noted; namely, that the restoration of Israel comes through suffering!
Thus, a paradigm shift is needed. The paradigm shift simply necessitates making Jesus and his suffering the center of Scripture. If all is fulfilled in Him (2 Cor 1:20; Luke 24) then we too must re-read the OT. If the promises are fulfilled in Christ, then does this mean that we should understand the NT in terms of this fulfillment? Yes. And when we do so, the entire story of Scripture begins to make much more sense.
Thus, when it comes to particular questions such as who are the people of God, we must also ask, ‘how does the NT view such?; or what does the fulfillment of this in Christ look like?’ Here is where many get thrown off. For the fulfillment of these things in the NT does not mean that they have been fulfilled in all their fullness. For that we are awaiting the New Jerusalem.
For many evangelicals this is an ‘either’ ‘or’ set of propositions. That is, either the prophecies have been fulfilled or they haven’t. For them, since the fulfillment does meet their expectations, they have concluded that the fulfillment is still future. But, again, when we read the NT we begin to notice that Jesus has ushered in the beginning of the fulfillment and that He brings about the consummation of all things at His return (1 Cor 15:25).
When we look at the question of who are the people of God, we see that Paul clearly says, “He is a Jew who is one inwardly” (Rom 2:29). Later, Paul notes that Abraham is the “father of all who believe” (Rom 4:11). By any reckoning, that makes all Christians, regardless of race, the children of Abraham! Israelites! Jews! Paul goes on to say that, “if those who are of law are heirs, faith if made void and the promise is nullified” (Rom 4:14). Thus, Paul concludes, “For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Rom 4:16). Again, that makes all Christians the descendants of Abraham—including any Jewish person who has the faith of Abraham, which is in Christ!
Now let’s keep the question of whether or not there is a future for ethnic Israel also on the shelf for a moment. The point is that Paul clearly sees the people of God are included in the descendants of Abraham—this is what the grafting into the tree of Israel is all about (Rom 11). One only has to look at the word ‘inheritance’ in the NT to see that this word, which was central to the promises of the OT covenant related to land and family, is applied to the Christians in the NT. Paul, in fact, notes that the ‘inheritance’ cannot be based on the law (Gal 3:18).
Furthermore, note that even in the OT God’s people were never tied to a race. For, in the OT the race of Israelites were not all without exception recipients of God’s promises. Paul says this emphatically: “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; neither are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants” (Rom 9:6-7).
Such a reading of the OT also makes sense as to why Isaiah 49 (which is about Israel) is applied both to Jesus (Luke 2:32) and to Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:47). We see that the role for Israel in the OT was to be a light unto the nations (Isa 42:6; 49:6). Yet, we know that Jesus claims that He is the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5). And we see that Jesus tells His disciples that they are the light of the world (Matt 5:14). It is both. The fulfillment of the call and mission of Israel is first Jesus and then His followers. Now this may not look like the grandiose fulfillment promised in the OT. But Jesus Himself told us that the Kingdom of God will begin in an insignificant manner (like a mustard seed; Mark 4:30-32) and then will become “larger than all the garden plants” (Mark 4:32). Thus, the fulfillment has come in Christ, continues through the Church by means of the Spirit, and climaxes in the New Jerusalem. This mission will be accomplished only in the New Jerusalem; when those from “every nation, tribe, people, and tongue, stand before the throne” (Rev 7:9).
We can affirm this understanding throughout the NT. Thus, Ephesians 2:11-3:6 encourages the Gentiles that they are included into the family of God! Paul begins by equating the Gentiles with those who had no share in the land-kinship of Israel (2:12). Then Paul describes the work of Christ as breaking down the barrier between Jew and Gentile and its consequences: “You are no longer strangers and aliens, . . . but are of God’s household” (Eph 2:19; cf Mark 3:34-35). Finally, Paul summarizes their new position as ‘fellow heirs’, ‘fellow members’, ‘fellow partakers’ (Eph 3:6).
Peter, also calls the NT people of God, “a holy priesthood; . . . A chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet 2:5, 9). These titles are exclusively used in the OT for the people of Israel (Chosen Race: see Isa 43:16-20—text notes that YHWH provides for His people in the midst of adversity; Royal priesthood: see Exod 19:5-6—text also alludes to God’s deliverance of His people from bondage; People for God’s own possession: cp Exod 19:5; Isa 43:21; Mal 3:17). Thus, the NT views this as fulfilled in the inclusion of the Gentiles through the work of Christ by means of the Holy Spirit.
Conclusion: when we read the OT through the lens of Jesus, as I believe that NT writers did, then we can see clearly that the fulfillment of the OT begins in Jesus, continues through the NT people of God, and climaxes in the New Jerusalem. To suggest that the promises to Israel still apply to an ethnic race fail to understand the fulfillment in Jesus and the nature of the fulfillment. Yes, this may not be what we expected. But, we also see that the fulfillment transcends what we might have expected. Therefore, if the fulfillment for the call of Israel is in Christ, His people, and the New Jerusalem, and the promise was that those who bless/curse Israel God will bless/curse, then we should expect to see this principle carried forth in the NT. And we do. This is the essence of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where God rewards or punishes men for how they have treated “the least of these brothers of mine” (Matt 25:40, 45). And this theme runs through the book of Revelation where the judgment of the wicked is because of how they have treated God’s people (e.g., Rev 6:10; 16:5-6; 17:6-18:24).
Thus, to bless Israel means to bless the God’s people; and in the NT God’s people transcend any given race.
A few years ago we conducted a seminar on understanding the ‘end-times’ in Scripture, and why and how it matters for our lives. I opened the seminar by asking, ‘What do you suppose is the most significant question that Jesus asked regarding His return?’ The answer, I believe, is found in Luke 18:8: "When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the Earth?"
So, I wish to examine why an understanding of biblical eschatology (the ‘end-times’) is essential in the process of making disciples. You may already see the relationship. But in case you don’t, let’s explore.
First off, we must note that an important aspect of discipleship (which incorporated then what may now be understood as an apprenticeship) takes the form of imitating Christ. This is part of what is entailed in Jesus’ charge: ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me’ (Mark 8:34). But what does it mean to imitate/follow Him?
Here is where a proper understanding of discipleship must include a proper understanding of our mission. So what is our mission? Let us suggest that we find the root of it in Genesis, where we can summarize as follows: mankind’s’ mission includes ‘ruling over God’s creation’ (Gen 1:28), ‘caring for His creation’ (Gen 2:15-16), and ‘bearing God’s image to the world’ (Gen 1:26-27—though in light of the Fall in Gen 3 our bearing God’s image to the world now includes making Him known to our fellow mankind).
As we continue in Genesis we find that Abraham was called to be the means by which God would redeem mankind and bring about the promised restoration in order that mankind might fulfill God’s purpose (Gen 12:1-3). Now, we know from the NT that Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham (e.g., Gal 3:13-14; 2 Cor 1:20). We must also note that the commission to Abraham included blessing the nations: ‘. . . and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed’ (Gen 12:3).*
It was this failure to bless the nations that brought the condemnation of the prophets on Israel. And this was also the source of Jesus’ judgment on the leadership of His day. This was, in fact, a central reason for Jesus’ actions of judgment in the Temple (cf Matt 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-46). For, in the midst of His overthrowing the tables and creating a stir in the Temple Jesus cites Isa 56:7: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for the nations’ (Mark 11:17).
Yet, interestingly, when we look at the ministry of Jesus in the four Gospels, we note that He seems to intentionally limit His ministry to Israel. On one occasion, in fact, He states, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt 15:24). So, if in Jesus we find the fulfillment of God’s call to Abraham and the promised blessing to the nations, then why is it that He didn’t extend His ministry to the nations? Answer: because that is what He commissioned His disciples—and us—to do! That is, the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) calls the NT people of God to carry forward to all nations the mission that Jesus inaugurated.
Therefore, an understanding of Jesus’ fulfillment of the OT and His ushering in the ‘last days’ is essential for the understanding of our mission and what it means to make disciples of all nations! If we are His disciples, then we will follow Him. Among other things, following Him includes fulfilling the mission of God’s people to bear His image to the world.
So are we being faithful? Will Christ find faith when He returns? The answer is found by asking if we are making disciples in fulfillment of God’s call for His people.