|Ethics and Eschatology|
Kingdom Living (15)
Already but not yet
Jesus has come, and He is coming again! This is the theological structure of the New Testament, the context of the Kingdom of God, the framework of the Christian life. Christ’s one key, redemptive work arrives in two stages that are, in fact, quite different from each other:
As Christians, we live in between these two aspects or phases of Christ’s first and second comings. We are right smack dab in the middle between what has happened already and what has not happened yet. We live “in-between-the-times,” as some put it. We experience a significant tension, as we enjoy our blessings now in part, and we look forward to their completion when Christ returns. Our hearts are thankful for what we now have, and yearn for what lies ahead. George Ladd is worth quoting to get this “already” but “not yet” point across as clearly as possible:
Before the apocalyptic consummation at the end of history, a fulfillment of the prophetic hope has occurred within history; that before the coming of God's Kingdom as a cosmic event, his Kingdom has come as an event in history; that before God acts as King to inaugurate the redeemed order, he has acted in Jesus of Nazareth to bring to people in advance of the eschatological consummation the blessings of actual fulfillment. The Old Testament promise of the coming of the Kingdom, fulfillment of the promise of the Kingdom in history in the person, world, and deeds of Jesus, consummation of the promise at the end of history — this is the basic structure of the theology of the . . . [New Testament as a whole].
Corresponding to this basic theological pattern, the New Testament places a balanced emphasis on how to live now as we await Christ’s future return. 1 Corinthians 16:13-22 is a good example of this. In this passage, Paul presents several important exhortations for believers to follow in the world today: “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” After a few more words of advice, he focuses on Christ’s return with this famous exclamation “Maranatha!” which means, “Lord come” (or “O Lord come,” or “Thy Kingdom come,” etc.). For Paul, then, believers have a present and future focus: walking well with Christ while waiting for Him to return. Consequently, what we find in the New Testament is an emphasis on both ethics and eschatology, that is, on how to live now and what to expect in the future. We would like to investigate these two themes a little for fully in this lesson.
Jesus’ ethics are best interpreted in relation to the Kingdom of God as the divine authority and rule already present in the world. His holy demands for our character and conduct are imposed on those of us who have submitted to His Kingdom rule as His disciples. God’s redeeming reign over our lives requires kingdom righteousness in our lives. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is the best example of Christ’s ethical teaching. Read it again and read it slowly in light of these three comments that put our Lord’s most famous sermon into kingdom perspective:
The Sermon on the Mount contains the unconditioned expression of God’s will for how the kingdom citizen is to live. It is a charter of conduct for disciples.
— David S. Dockery and David E. Garland, Seeking the Kingdom: The Sermon on the Mount Made Practical Today.
This Christian counter culture is the life of the kingdom of God, a fully human life indeed, but lived out under the divine rule. It depicts the behavior which Jesus expected of each of his disciples, who is also thereby a citizen of God’s kingdom.
— John Stott, Christian Counter Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount.
The presupposition of every saying in the Sermon on the Mount is the Good News of the advent of God’s new order of grace--the kingdom of God. The precepts of the sermon become illustrations and examples of the new quality of life which is the proper response to the experienced grace of God in Christ.
— A. M. Hunter, A Pattern for Life: An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount
Of course, we don’t have time to discuss the Sermon on the Mount at this point in our study. But I can offer a bare bones outline. Jesus’ great discourse teaches us about the character (beatitudes — Matt. 5:3-12), influence (salt and light — Matt. 5:13-16), righteousness (murder, adultery, divorce, swearing, revenge, love — Matt. 5:17-48), piety (alms, prayer, fasting — Matt. 6:1-18), ambition (money, materialism — Matt. 6:19-34), relationships (—to brothers, “dogs,” prayer, false prophets — Matt. 7:1-23), and commitment (sand or rock — Matt. 7:24-27) of kingdom citizens. One verse in this sermon is especially important since it gets at the heart of Jesus’ kingdom ethics. Matthew 6:33 is familiar to us all, but unfortunately it is often misunderstood. It reads as follows:
But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness;
and all these things shall be added to you.
The promise Jesus makes here, of course, deals with the priority of His kingdom and its righteousness. Make these matters your number one concern, Jesus said, and everything else will be provided for you. In context, He is referring specifically to food and clothing. For many Christians, this means that you must have a quite time in the morning before you do anything else. In this way, we show God that He comes first in our lives. If our Christian lives were a chest of drawers, God and His kingdom must be the top one. Open it first before you open the rest. Of the many compartments in our lives, the God compartment must be in first place. Give God His due and do your religious duty. Then the rest will work itself out.
But this perspective on the matter tends to isolate the kingdom and its righteousness from life itself. It segregates religious category from all the others, even if we do put it first. Let me propose a better way to read this verse.
If we remember that God’s kingdom is His rule and authority, then what Jesus is saying is that we must seek His rule and authority in every aspect of our lives as our top priority. We must discover and apply kingdom righteousness in all that we think and do as our first order of business. We seek the kingdom and pursue righteousness in life, not as a separate and distinct compartment before it. This means bringing God’s rule and righteousness to bear as our chief concern in areas such as our marriages, our families, our work, our education, our entertainment, our shopping, our friendships, our political involvements, our church life, our reading, our driving, and so on. When we make God’s kingly rule and righteousness most important in all aspects of our lives, then God takes care of everything else! This is the heart and soul of genuine Kingdom ethics!
Paul’s ethical vision is equally challenging. Of course, for him, we believers have already been justified through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. We have already received the gift of the indwelling Spirit who is our life and power. Because we are the recipients of these eschatological blessings even now, he calls up us to respond to them with a total commitment and a worthy life.
There is no way to even scratch the surface of St. Paul’s immensely rich moral vision. But one very important passage — Romans 12:1-2 — helps us to understand his expectations concerning the conduct of our lives in Christ who is Lord and King:
I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
Verse one challenges us to give ourselves totally and sacrificially to God, holding nothing back. The basis for this commitment is the mercies of God given to us in Christ (Paul explains these mercies in the first eleven chapters of Romans!) The result of this kind of total dedication is significant: our lives in their entirety are expressions of worship. Worship is not something reserved for church services on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights (or whenever). Worship is something our lives ought to be all the time in everything, holistically. All of life is worship, literally, if and when we have given ourselves totally to God.
Verse two contains three important insights. First, we should not let the world (the fallen, sinful, secular age) around us squeeze us into its own mold in terms of its thought patterns and values (as J. B. Phillips’ paraphrase puts it). If we do, we are worldly, even the enemies of God (see James 4:4). Second, God’s truth ought to renovate our minds so that our lives are transformed. An in-depth engagement with Scripture and good Christian literature pursued in the context of authentic Christian community is necessary for this to happen. Third and finally, we should not only know God’s truth but also do it, thereby demonstrating the excellence of God’s will of God in all things.
An obedient life, therefore, is the outcome of this transformation and renewal that has been made possible by the present invasion of the kingdom of God into our lives. As one New Testament interpreter says, “Paul’s eschatological vision (already/not yet) provides a critical framework for moral discernment: he is sharply critical not only of the old age that is passing away but also of those who claim unqualified participation already in the new age. To live faithfully in the time between the times is to walk a tightrope of moral discernment. . . .”
These moral precepts and their theological context supplied by Jesus and Paul provide the foundation for life now. We ought to be changed people, Christ-like in character and conduct.
But what about the future? What should we as believers expect when life and history finally come to an end? What should we know about the “not yet”?
Probably the most famous creed known by more Christians than any other is the Apostles’ Creed. It is a helpful summary of Christian doctrine, including several events associated with the end of history. I have reproduced the Creed below, and I’ve highlighted and numbered four eschatological themes in italics that I would like to discuss briefly:
I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried.
On the third day He rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven,
Sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty,
(1) From thence He shall come (2) to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic [universal] church,
The communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins,
(3) The resurrection of the body, and (4) the life everlasting.
Now I don’t want to get into controversies here by trying to tackle issues like the rapture, the tribulation, the anti-Christ, the millennial kingdom, and so on. Rather, I would like to discuss four classic doctrines that have been embraced by the Church historically, matters that have united believers throughout the ages, rather than divided them. These include (1) the second advent; (2) the final judgment; (3) the resurrection of the body; and (4) the eternal state.
The second advent. When Jesus ascended into heaven, two angels addressed His thunder-struck disciples who were watching His departure with mouths agape. They told them that Jesus would one day return to earth “in the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). From thence He shall come! Jesus had already informed His followers that He would return (John 14:1-3), warning them to be spiritually prepared for His any moment coming at which time the great judgments of God would begin (Matt. 24:32-25: 46 and parallels). The passages that address the return of our Lord are many and complex. When summarized, however, they tell this basic story.
(1.) That the Apostles fully believed that there is to be a second coming of Christ. (2.) That his coming is to be in person, visible and glorious. (3.) That they kept this great event constantly before their own minds, and urged it on the attention of people, as a motive for patience, constancy, joy, and holy living. (4.) That the Apostles believed that the second advent of Christ would be attended by the general resurrection, the final judgment, and the end of the world.
One other feature of Christ’s second coming must also be mentioned based on Revelation 19:11-16. When He comes, He will achieve the final victory over the powers of evil. As a commentator on Revelation says, “In his cross and resurrection, Christ won a great victory over the powers of evil; by his second coming, he will execute that victory. Apart from his return to purge his creation of evil, redemption remains forever incomplete.” By it, however, it is finished. Read and rejoice in the coming victory of God through the Warrior-King Jesus Christ!
And I saw heaven opened; and behold, a white horse, and He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True; and in righteousness He judges and wages war. And His eyes are a flame of fire, and upon His head are many diadems; and He has a name written upon Him which no one knows except Himself. And He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood; and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. And from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may smite the nations; and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, "KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS."
The final judgment. God is the moral governor of the universe, and He will judge the whole world in His righteousness. All men and women, and even the angels, will be subject to His analysis when He comes! He will determine their future destiny based on His omniscient scrutiny of their lives. He is, indeed, coming to judge the quick [the living] and the dead.
We can provide a succinct overview of this aspect of future eschatology in several principles. First, according to numerous texts, the final judgment is a certain future event when the eternal destiny of all people, as well as angels, will be determined and publicly demonstrated (Matt. 11:24; 13:30, 39, 49; John 12:48; Acts 18:31; Rom. 2:5; 1 Cor. 4:5, etc.). Second, Christ Jesus Himself will be the Judge. How appropriate this is since He is both God who is infinite in knowledge and justice, and Man who is exalted to this role since in His flesh He tasted death for all (John 5:22-23, 27; Acts 10:34-43; 2 Cor. 5:10). Third, this final judgment will take place at Christ’s second coming (Matt. 16:27; 24:29-35; 25:31-46; 1 Cor. 4:5; 2 Thess. 1:7-10; 2 Tim. 4:1, etc.) This judgment also takes place concurrently with the general resurrection, as 1 Corinthians 15:50-58 and Philippians 3:20-21 indicate. Fourth, the agents to be judged are both people, naturally, but also angels (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). Believers also have a role in judging the angelic realm (1 Cor. 6:3). Fifth, the basis for this end-time judgment is twofold: deeds done in the body (Matt. 25:31-46; Rom. 2:5-7; 1 Cor. 3:10-15; 2 Cor. 5:10), and faith in Jesus Christ (John 1:12; 3:17-18, 36; 1 Cor. 1 Tim. 1:15). Theologian Charles Hodge expands on this principle in these terms:
God’s judgment will not be founded on the professions, or the relations of men, or on the appearance or reputation which they sustain among their fellows; but on their real character and on their acts, however secret and however covered from the sight of men those acts may have been. . . . [Also], there is clear intimation in the Word of God, that, so far as those who hear the Gospel are concerned their future destiny depends on the attitude which they assume to Christ. . . . The special ground of condemnation, therefore, under the Gospel is unbelief. . . .”
Sixth, the final judgment is proportionate to the revelation people possessed (Luke 12:41-48; Matt. 11:21-22; Rom. 2:11-16). To whom much is given, much is required; to whom little is given, less will be required. Seventh and finally, at the final judgment, the eternal destiny of every man and woman will be determined. Each will be assigned to his or her final abode into eternal punish or to the life everlasting. As Jesus says in Matthew 25:46, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” In light of these six principles, two warnings are apropos: “Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour” (Matt. 25:13); “We beg you on behalf of Christ: be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).
The resurrection of the body. Contrary to popular Christian understanding, the immortality of the disembodied soul is not a Christian doctrine. Rather, this is a Greek doctrine, a teaching of Plato in particular. Contrariwise, the hope of the children of God is the resurrection of the whole person. We believe in the resurrection of the body! As Jesus was raised from the dead, so shall we be. Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection. We follow in His resurrection harvest at His coming (1 Cor. 15:20-28).
When will we be resurrected? Answer: at Christ’s second advent (1 Cor. 15:50-58; Phil. 3:20-21). What will our new bodies be like? Answer: they will be imperishable, glorious, powerful, and spiritual (1 Cor. 15:42-44). Who will be resurrected? Answer: both the righteous and the wicked, though their final destinations in their resurrected bodies are very different: “If anyone’s name was not found in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15). Our future, therefore, is a great one, restored as a complete person suited for an eternal existence in the new heavens and new earth.
The life everlasting in the new heavens and earth. Contrary to popular Christian belief, our final destination is not “heaven” as we typically think of it (a soulish existence in some non-tangible celestial sphere). Heaven or paradise may be the location of our “intermediate state” between our death and resurrection. However, at the second coming when Jesus judges the nations and we are all raised from the dead, at that time God will create the new heavens and the new earth, and there we will enjoy “life everlasting.” Revelation 21-22 are the key chapters that present the new heavens and new earth. Several points need to be made about this theme.
One, the judgment of fire preceding the arrival of the new heaven and earth does not result in its annihilation. Its combustion does not entail its destruction, but only a change of form, and its purification. Second, the scope of this conflagration is limited to the earth and not the entire universe since the earth alone was affected by human sin. Third, the outcome of this judgment is the creation of a new heavens and a new earth. God does not make new things, but He makes all things new! God will regenerate the earth itself (Matt. 19:28; Acts 3:21) and deliver it from corruption (Rom. 8:21). The new heavens and earth becomes the location of the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem. God occupies that city and will be with humanity forever (Rev. 21:2-3). The Bible also refers to this as Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22), a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:28), a country of our own (Heb. 11:14), a city which has foundations and whose architect and maker is God (Heb. 11:10). Finally, this place will be suitable for our resurrection bodies where we will enjoy the presence of God and the glories of creation forever. John describes the perfection of our eternal home in these comforting words.
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away. " And He who sits on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new." And He said, "Write, for these words are faithful and true." And He said to me, "It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. "He who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. "But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death." (Rev. 21:1-8
So it is that the Bible ends. It is a fitting conclusion for a book that began with the creation of the original heavens and the earth. It ends with their complete renewal. It ends with God’s people redeemed. It ends with God among man. This is our everlasting destination for which we wait. We live in between the times. While we wait we work. We occupy until He comes. We live in accordance with the charter for kingdom citizens, the Sermon on the Mount. We present ourselves as a living sacrifice so that our entire existence is an act of worship. We avoid conformity to the world. We are transformed by the renewing of our minds. We obey God in all things. This is kingdom living. This is a biblical view of life!
Coming up next: Christianity and culture.
Questions for Study or Discussion
 George Eldon Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 54.
 Richard Hayes, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation — A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), p. 27.
 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977, reprint), p. 796.
 George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), pp. 252-53.
 Hodge, Systematic Theology, pp. 849-50.
 These seven principles are taken from Hodge, Systematic Theology, pp. 845-51.