Putting First Things First in the Study of Last Things: Or, How to Find Eschatological Unity in Church

robert-bye-6PLB5SKWiIY-unsplashEschatology, by its etymology, is “the study (logos) of last things (eschatos).” Yet, when we let the Bible, instead of the Bible dictionary, define eschatology, we find a different priority and wider application than just fixing our attention on the end of time. As G. K. Beale helpfully reminds us, “The apostles understood eschatology not merely as futurology but as a mindset for understanding the present within the climaxing connection of redemptive history” (in Making All Things New: Inaugurated Eschatology for the Life of the Church, 4).

In other words, as I tell my theology students, eschatology begins in the beginning of the Bible and carries the storyline until the end. As Isaiah 46:9 says, God was planning the “final things (eschatos) before they happen” (LXX). And thus in Genesis 1–2, the setting (Eden), the commission (subdue and rule), and the command (be fruitful and multiply) are all realities that point to the end or goal of creation. Just compare Genesis 1–2 with Revelation 21–22.

As we know all too well, the First Adam failed in his duties, and set the stage for a long history of redemption. Into that history God spoke promises that would come to fulfillment at the end of time. And as most evangelical scholars agree, the end of time (i.e., the latter days) broke into the present in Christ’s death and resurrection. Accordingly, we who follow Christ, as well as those who currently reject him, live in a time between the times—the end has come, but the end is still coming. This is sometimes called the “already” and “not yet.”

Eschatology, therefore, is not just a study of what is going to happen in the future. As the New Testament shows again and again, the future has already begun (see Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:2; 9:26; 1 Pet. 1:20). At the same time, not all the promises of God have reached the final consummation, and so we await our blessed hope in the return of Christ and labor in his vineyard until he comes. And part of that labor includes studying the Word of God and understanding what eschatology is and is not. Yet, the study of eschatology often produces more heat than light, and local churches are often perplexed by how to best unite over the varied interpretations of the rapture, the millennium, the future of Israel, etc. What are we to do?

Letting the Main Thing Be the Main Thing

A few years ago our church tackled this question, and by God’s grace the elders (who hold different views of the millennium) came to the conclusion that the “last things” we hold in common outweigh our differences. And in that period time, we removed from our statement of faith, a definition of the millennium. In our church, we have premillennial and amillennial brothers and sisters, as well as quite a few pan-millennialists (i.e., “it will all pan out in the end”). For us, we want our common beliefs in eschatology, more than any single millennial position, to define our fellowship. This means we prioritize the following points of agreement. 

  • The bodily resurrection of Christ
  • The ascension of our Lord into glory
  • The present high priestly ministry of Jesus
  • The future, bodily, and glorious return of Christ
  • The biblical reality of a millennium (N.B. amillennialists are not (or should not be) anti-millennialists)
  • The bodily resurrection of the dead
  • The final judgment with the separation of the sheep and goats
  • The eternal realities of life in the new creation and death in hell
  • The need believe the gospel of Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, and return

This lists invites more definition and ongoing biblical exposition, but in keeping the main things the plain things, and the plain things the main things, we seek an eschatological unity centered on the message of the gospel. Prioritizing the eschatological realities of Christ, his resurrection, and his final judgment, we are able to join together in worship and move out on mission. Because these truths are the ones central to the gospel, we are able to find eschatological unity, even as we admit differences in how we read Mark 13, Revelation 20, etc.

Such an approach does not deny the importance of biblical interpretation, but it does emphasize the fact that when we talk about eschatology, not every facet of doctrine is equally clear and/or important. By God’s grace, this approach to eschatology fosters an environment where charity is granted in discussing Scripture and humility is cultivated as we consider our world and Christ’s return. Too many  extremes (and extremists) have resulted from an unhealthy focus on eschatology, and thus we want to give eschatology its proper place in Scripture and life.

Eschatology in the Biblical Storyline

To that end of properly ordering eschatology, I have found the book, Making All Things New: Inaugurated Eschatology for the Life of the Church, really helpful. Indeed, if you find a book on eschatology that is co-written by scholars who differ on the millennium, and they are not quarreling or focusing on their differences, you have found a resource worthy of exploration. And in their book, Benjamin L. Gladd (amillennial) and Matthew Harmon (premillennial) provide a rich reading of the Bible which is filled with practical ways to connect eschatology to the present life of the church. 

Here’s one example. In chapter 2, “The Nature of the End-Time Church,” they show how the people of God have always been an eschatological people—i.e., a people looking for the promises of God to be fulfilled. As I mentioned above, eschatology in the Bible is not restricted to the end of the world, it is instead, a facet of God’s history with his people. This history includes highs and lows, disobedience and obedience, promise and fulfillment; but always, it is a history looking forward to God’s promises. And while Israelites until the days of Christ thought of God’s intervention in history and the end of the world as one and the same, the first advent of Christ showed that the new age (i.e., the kingdom of God) would arrive, even as the old age continued. This idea is called “inaugurated eschatology” and has been depicted by many scholars like this.

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Agreeing on eschatology as “already and not yet,” Gladd and Harmon show how the church, as Christ’s redeemed people, is eschatological in nature. They begin,

In order to see how the NT presents the church experiencing the fulfillment of God’s promises of a restored and renewed people, we need to begin by tracing the consistent failure of God’s people under the old covenant. In the midst of that failure, God promised a day when a renewed and restored people of God would be marked by Spirit-empowered obedience. To accomplish this, God would raise up a Son who would obey where God’s people had failed and would take upon himself the punishment for their failure. All those identified with this obedient Son would become part of the end-time people of God who receive the promised inheritance. (16)

In this paragraph, they highlight four steps in God’s history with his people. And in the rest of the chapter, they give copious Scripture to prove these four points. 

1. The People of God Repeatedly Fail.

Some of the examples of Israel’s disobedience include Noah’s drunkenness (Gen. 9:21); the Golden Calf (Exod. 32:1–34:35); Israel’s sinning in the wilderness (Num. 14:20–38; 16:1–50; 20:2–13; 21:4–9; 25:1–18); the cycle of disobedience in Judges; and the downward trajectory of Israel’s kings. In short, the history of Israel shows that the first covenant is insufficient and in need of something better (see Heb. 8:1–13).

2. The Prophets Promise and Obedient People of God.

The entirety of the Old Testament is filled with promises. These promises are too,  but here are some of them: the first promise of a new covenant with a new heart (Deut. 30:1–10); the reestablishment of David’s tent (Amos 9:11–15; fulfilled in Acts 15); the promise of a new “people” (Hosea 1:10–11; 2:21–23; cf. 1 Pet. 2:10); the promise of a new covenant (Jer. 31:31–34), with the outpouring of the Spirit (Joel 2:28–32) and the promise of purification and a new heart (Ezek. 36:22–28). Summing up their findings, Gladd and Harmon write, “The OT looks forward to a day when there will be a new people of God that is not characterized by their repeated failure to remain faithful to the Lord” (21).

3. Jesus Obeys Where God’s People Have Failed.

Moving to the New Testament, it is not the church, first and foremost, who fulfills these promises. Rather, these promises are fulfilled in Christ. And Gladd and Harmon explain, the Gospels, especially Matthew, present Christ as a new and better Israel. “In a variety of ways, Matthew portrays Jesus as “recapitulating” Israel’s history. In other words, Jesus “relives” Israel’s experiences so that he can obey where Israel had failed and fulfill the mission that Israel had failed to complete. Although there are strong hints of this throughout Matthew 1:1-2:12, the account of Jesus’s journey to and eventual departure from Egypt makes this clear” (23).

Gladd and Harmon then cite Matthew 2:13–15 and conclude, “Matthew claims that these events [Jesus exodus to Egypt and back again] happened to fulfill what God had spoken in Hosea 11:1. Rather than being a a direct promise of a future event, Hosea 11:1 refers to the historical event of God bringing his son Israel out of Egypt” (23). From this introduction in Matthew 1–2, the Evangelist continues to identify Jesus as true Israel, and thus the true Son of God worthy to receive the kingdom and all its blessings (see Matt. 28:18–20). All in all, Jesus is the True Israel who obeys God and makes possible a new covenant.

4. The Church is the Eschatological People of God.

This new covenant is what his disciples receive and share with future generations. Gladd and Harmon, therefore, tour the New Testament to show how the Apostles apply the Old Testament promises to the New Testament people of God—Jews and Gentiles now united together in Christ. In particular, they show how Acts presents the Jews and the Gentiles as participants in the same covenant, the same Spirit, and the same church. Moreover, they invite readers to consider the ways Paul, Peter, and the author of Hebrews use Old Testament language to describe the New Covenant Church. By approaching the church redemptive-historically (read: eschatologically), they prove that the church (made of Jews and Gentiles) is the eschatological people of God. Or as Paul puts it, the people on whom the end of the ages have come (1 Cor. 10:11).

Here’s how they conclude,

Although more texts could be mentioned, the ones we have discussed are more than sufficient to establish that the church is the eschatological people of God. Through our identification with Jesus Christ by faith, we have begun to experience the promised blessings of the new covenant. Foremost among these blessings is the gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us to empower us to obey God. He is the “guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:14). As those who have this inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven” for us, we “by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:4-5). Because we have been rescued from the powers of this present evil age yet still live within it (Gal. 1:4), we experience trials and persecution that test the genuineness of our faith until the day when God consummates all his promises (1 Pet. 1:6-9). (32)

When we think of eschatology, it is important to get our language and categories from the Bible itself. And in their chapter, these two scholars who do not agree on everything, provide a faithful reading of Scripture to show how all the Old Testament promises are “yes” and “amen” in Christ (see 2 Cor. 1:20). Still, they have one more piece of wisdom to share, and this is perhaps the most helpful for fostering unity in the church today.

How To Foster Doctrinal Unity Around Eschatology

Identifying three implications of their biblical survey, they offer three corrections to common caricatures (32–33):

  1. The Church is not a parenthesis
  2. The Church does not “replace” Israel
  3. God is not done with the Jewish People

In doctrinal debates about eschatology, these three points are often mentioned. And they often come up in debate because inadequate attention has been given to the biblical storyline of Scripture or to the way that so-called “opponents” interpret the Bible. In brief, we can consider each point.

First, it is impossible to call the church an unexpected parenthesis when the apostles labor to show how the church, in union with Christ, fulfills so many promises to Israel. Likewise, when the New Testament uses the language of fulfillment, it is unhelpful to affirm or accuse others of replacing Israel with the church. That’s not how Scripture speaks. And last, Romans 11, variously interpreted, promises a future for Israel. That future is found in Christ and may be occurring now as the gospel goes to the nation of Israel, or there may be a future ingathering of the Jews in a particular way, or it may come in some combination. But differing views on how God will handle the ethnic people of Israel does not need to deny his grace upon the elect in that nation, nor does it need to divide the local church.

In the end, Gladd and Harmon model how to read the Bible and how to hold biblical doctrine. And for that reason, I think their book provides great wisdom for fostering unity in Christ, his resurrection, and his return. For indeed, these are the main things in the gospel, and we who preach the gospel and lead Christ’s church would do well to keep making them the plain things.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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