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? Continue reading

Reading God’s Word and Seeing God’s World through the Lens of Two Biblical Ages

eyeglass with gold colored frames

For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.
Romans 13:11b 

Redemptive history has two overlapping ages. And unless you grasp how the new age brings the future into the present, without entirely swallowing up the old age—yet!—you will have a difficult time understanding how the Bible fits together and how God is working in the world. To say it differently, your doctrine, especially your eschatology, will shift off-center if you don’t consider both ages as described in Scripture. Either you will see too much of God’s kingdom present today, or you will withhold too much of the kingdom until some later time period. This approach to the kingdom of God is sometimes called inaugurated eschatology and I have discussed that here.

In what follows, I want to sketch out how necessary it is to see both ages and how the entirety of the Bible depends on rightly grasping this two-age perspective. First, we will consider how the Old Testament teaches us to look forward to a new age. And instead of considering this in the abstract, we will note at least twelve specific expectations given by the prophets, such that when the authors of the New Testament describe them as fulfilled in Christ, they are telegraphing the way that the new age has come. Continue reading

Reading Mark 13 in Context: Seeing 16 Connections between Jesus’s Olivet Discourse and His Death and Ascension

robert-bye-6PLB5SKWiIY-unsplashI saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
— Daniel 7:13–14 —

On Sunday, I preached a message on Daniel 7:13–14, how it is understood by the New Testament authors and why Christ’s ascension is such good news for us today. You can listen to the sermon here. And if you do, you will find that the longest part of the message is located in Mark 13–14.

The reason for that long meditation is that Mark cites Jesus referencing Daniel 7:13–14 in two places. First, answering his disciples’ question about the destruction of the temple and when these things will be (Mark 13:1–2), Jesus says, “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26). Second, after his arrest, Jesus is  interrogated by the high priest. In response to a question of his identity, Jesus again references Daniel 7, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:62)

Following the lead of Daniel itself, I interpreted these two passages as a reference to Jesus’s ascension in relationship to his impending crucifixion. Instead of reading these references of the clouds to something still future or his second coming from heaven to earth, I recalled the original meaning of Daniel 7:13–14 and explained how Jesus is speaking about his ascension and entrance into heaven.

As you might expect, this led to some questions. In our community group that followed Sunday’s sermon, there were more than a few questions about this reading, as it stands in contrast to more popular readings of Mark 13 and its parallel accounts in Matthew 24–25 and Luke 21. In what follows, I will restrict my focus to Mark and try to explain how we might read his Gospel with greater attention to his own words and the meaning of Jesus’s words in Mark 13. By paying attention to the literary connections between Mark 13 and Mark 14–15 (#4 below), I believe we can see how Jesus is preparing his disciples and Mark is preparing his readers for understanding a heavenly perspective on Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, with (perhaps) ongoing implications for the destruction of the temple in AD 70.

Continue reading

A Neglected but Necessary Doctrine: How Christ’s Ascension Clarifies Our Theology and Comforts Our Souls

clouds and blue sky

And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
— Acts 1:9–11 —

   He ascended to heaven
      and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
— The Apostles Creed — 

In Acts 1:9–11 Luke reports the ascension of Jesus from earth to heaven. This event has been a staple in orthodox confessions, as listed in the Apostle’s Creed, but it has also been spiritualized by some (like Origen and Rudolph Bultmann) and overlooked by others (too many to count!). But what about you, how do you think about the ascension?

Do you think about it all? Does it form your theology (especially your eschatology), or do you skip from Christ’s resurrection to his return? What about your daily life, how does ascension bring the good news of heaven to your earthly struggles? If the ascension is absent in your thoughts, you are missing a chief way that we know and experience the presence of Christ. For that reason, we need to go back and see what Scripture says about this  vital doctrine. Continue reading

Seeking the Kingdom of God with the Church of Jesus Christ

three kings figurines

Is the kingdom of God present or future? Is it now or not yet? Could it in any way be both? If so, how? These are important questions for anyone who has read the Bible, and for anyone who is studying the book of Daniel—a book that speaks of God’s kingdom throughout.

In evangelical circles the question of God’s Kingdom has been answered for the last half-century with a view called “inaugurated eschatology.” This view affirms Christ’s present royal position as seated at God’s right hand (Psalm 110), even as he rules the church by way of his Spirit (Matthew 28:20; John 16:7; Ephesians 1:21–23). At the same time, his kingdom has not been yet consummated, and the people who have believed the good news of the kingdom await the day when he will return to establish his rule on the earth.

Among the many names who have advocated this position, few are more important than George Eldon Ladd, the late New Testament professor from Fuller Seminary. During the middle decades of the twentieth century, his books on the kingdom of God engaged Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology alike. And in each, he provided a rich biblical exposition on the subject.

Ladd maintained that the kingdom of God is found in Christ’s reign more than the location of his rule (i.e., his realm).[1] He understood the kingdom as a future reality, but one that had broken into the present. Against a view of the kingdom of God as spiritualized in the individual—a view based on a poor translation of Luke 17:21 (“the kingdom of God is within you,” KJV; rather than “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you,” ESV)—Ladd centered the presence of Christ’s kingdom in the church, without confusing the church with the kingdom. In this way, Ladd opposed both the replacement theology of Covenant Theology and the radical division of God’s people (Israel vs. Church) in some forms of Dispensationalism.

Today, Ladd’s work remains invaluable for students of eschatology. Indeed, those who are unfamiliar with him or inaugurated eschatology, in general, are missing some of the best exegetical research on the kingdom of God for the last two generations. While certainly fallible—as Ladd’s biography shows—his studies have been a major catalyst in evangelical theology.

In what follows, I will offer a summary of five points from a chapter entitled “The Kingdom and the Church” in his A Theology of the New Testament.[2]. In these five points, he shows how the Kingdom of God does and does not relate to the Church of Jesus Christ. As we consider the kingdom of God throughout the book of Daniel, these basic points of theology can help us from going astray from Christ and God’s plan to unify all things in him (Eph. 1:10). Continue reading

The Last Days: What Moses Teaches Us About End Times

time.jpegWhat are the “last days”? When are the “last days”? Are we now living in the “last days”?

These are questions that students of prophecy like to ask. They are also questions that are often answered by looking to current events, world crises, and various “signs of the times.” Yet, what if the “last days” are actually something that began 2,000 years ago (see Heb. 1:2)? What if the Bible actually begins speaking about the last days in the first book of the Bible? And what if most of the events associated with last days find explicit fulfillment in the events of the New Testament?

While not denying the blessed hope of Christ’s return, students of the Bible must consider how the Bible develops its own terminology. And if “last days” are a technical term in the New Testament, we do well to consider where does that language come from and how should be understand the Bible on its own terms.

On this question, G. K. Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology is immensely helpful. In the third and fourth chapters, he surveys the Bible to show how the Bible introduces, develops, and fulfills the language of “latter days.” In what follows, I will outline some of his thoughts on the use of “latter days” in Moses. I’ll also add a few observations of my own. And in the weeks ahead I’ll circle back to trace the rest of the biblical theology through the Old Testament into the New Testament. So stay tuned. But today, we’ll consider what Moses says about last days Continue reading

The Significance of the Sermon on the Mount: 10 Reflections from Herman Ridderbos

sermon05What is the Sermon on the Mount about?

That question has puzzled pastors, theologians, and Bible scholars for centuries. While large volumes have been written on the subject, sometimes a slimmer response is helpful. On that note, one finds great help from the late Dutch New Testament scholar Herman Ridderbos.

Writing a chapter on the Sermon on the Mount (“The Significance of the Sermon on the Mount,” in When the Time Had Fully Come: Studies in New Testament Theology26–43), Ridderbos explains the eschatological nature of Christ’s kingdom and how the arrival of Christ’s kingdom as a fulfillment of the Law and Prophets helps us understand and apply Jesus’ famous words.  Continue reading

“I Will Shake the Earth”: Reading Haggai in Canonical Context

jay-dantinne-199087-unsplash.jpgHow should we understand the earth-shaking, temple-making promises of Haggai 2?

Twice in this short book, “Haggai the prophet” announces that heaven and earth will be shaken by the Lord (2:6–7 and 2:21) and that on the other side of this cosmos-shaking event (or events), the Lord will establish a greater temple (2:9) and restore hope for David’s throne (2:22–23). Because of the apocalyptic nature of these words, some have seen in them a prediction for a future millennial temple. For instance, Mark Rooker says when addressing the temple in Ezekiel 40–48, “Similar references to a temple in the messianic kingdom include Isaiah 2:2–4 and Haggai 2:9” (A Case for Premillenialism, 130–31). Likewise, David Turner writes,

The prophet Haggai alludes to the fact that this temple was unimpressive when compared with the first. However, the word of the Lord confirms to Zerubbabel the promise that God is with the nation. With words that anticipate Revelation 21:24–26 and 22:2, Haggai 2:6–9 promises that God’s judgment of heaven and earth (cf. Heb. 12:26) will result in the nations’ bringing their glory to the temple. Thus its latter end will be characterized by a greater peace and glory than that of the first temple. (David L. Turner, “The New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:1–22:5,” in Dispensationalism, Israel, and the Church, 269).

Interestingly, none of the big books of dispensational eschatology that I have on my shelf (e.g., Millennialism: The Two Major Views by Charles L. Feinberg; Things to Come by J. Dwight Pentecost; Christ’s Prophetic Plans by John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue; The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism by Robert Saucy) address Haggai exegetically. Pentecost lists Haggai 2:1–9 as one of the passages he will later expound on the concept of God’s kingdom in the Old Testament (442), but he never returns to this passage. In fact, the most comprehensive exegetical statement I’ve found on Haggai is contained in the MacArthur Study Biblewhere the comments interpret Haggai as testimony to a millennial kingdom with a rebuilt temple. Here are two examples.

2:6, 7 I will shake. The shaking of the cosmic bodies and the nations goes beyond the historical removal of kingdoms and the establishment of others, such as the defeat of Persia by Greece (Dan. 7). Rather, the text looks to the cataclysm in the universe described in Rev. 6–19, the subjugation of the nations by the Messiah, and the setting up of His kingdom which will never be destroyed (cf. Dan. 2:44; 7:27; Zech. 14:16–21; Matt. 25:32; Luke 21:26; Heb. 12:26; Rev. 19:19–21). (1334)

2:9 this latter temple. The Jews viewed the temple in Jerusalem as one temple existing in different forms at different times. The rebuilt temple was considered a continuation of Solomon’s temple (cf. v. 3). However, the eschatological glory of the millennial temple, i.e., the latter temple, will far surpass even the grandeur of Solomon’s temple (the former temple). I will give peace. This peace is not limited to that peace which He gives to believers (e.g., Rom 5:1), but looks ahead to that ultimate peace when He returns to rule as the Prince of Peace upon the throne of David in Jerusalem (Is. 9:6–7; Zech 6:13; Acts 2:30). (1335)

From these comments, we get a clear perspective of a dispensational reading of this passage. But is that the best reading? Should we conclude that Haggai, dated to 520 BC in the second year of the reign of Darius (1:1), is talking to the people of Israel about a future kingdom and temple that comes on the other side of the messiah, whose kingdom they have not yet seen or understood? I don’t think so, and in what follows I will aim to provide an interpretation of Haggai 2 that pays closer attention to the historical context of his message and the canonical message of the kingdom of God come in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

In other words, instead of constructing a brick and mortar temple in the future with the words of Haggai, we should see how his words speak to the remnant addressed in his book (1:12, 14; 2:2) and then how they speak to the people on whom the end of the ages has come (1 Corinthians 10:11). Continue reading

A Hole in Our Holy Temple? Toward a Whole Bible Vision of God’s Dwelling Place

david-rodrigo-336783-unsplash.jpgThe MacArthur Study Bible is a treasure trove for commentary on the Bible. Many weeks in preparation for preaching I look at its notes, and profit from its historical, grammatical, and theological observations. This week, however, as I read its commentary on Haggai, I couldn’t help but notice some biblical data missing from a table on the temples in the Bible.

While not expecting comprehensive commentary in a study Bible, I was puzzled by the way the dispensational theology of the editors may have led them to excise some key biblical data. For those familiar with Simeon Trust, this is a classic example of the framework running over the text—in this case, the text is the whole Bible.

From the looks of it, this otherwise helpful table on the temples in the Bible—well, except for the dispensational stuff, again—has left some significant holes in the Holy Temple. In other words, as the following chart defines the terms, a temple must be “a place of worship, a sacred or holy space built primarily for the national worship of God” (italics mine).

Italicized are two words/ideas that encapsulate the problem. Are temples only built for national worship? What about the heavenly temple where God abides and angels and all nations worship God? Also, must a temple be built with physical materials? What about Jesus’s words in John 2, where he said that this temple would be torn down and he would raise it up in three days? Does built apply to flesh and blood?

What’s missing in this chart are key elements of a biblical theology of the temple, which touches on so many other elements of Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Moreover, even within the chart the definition at bottom does not hold up for all the data given.

So, to fill in the holes, I’ve modified the chart below, explained the distortions in this table, and outlined why five additions should be included in any temple. From this modified chart, we do get a more complete sense of all the temples in the Bible, although I’m still not convinced about the two temples associated with the Millennium. But I’ll save that for another day.

For now, let’s consider all the temples in the Bible. If you can think of another one, please let me know. Continue reading

The Church as Christ’s New Creation: How a Multi-Ethnic Church Fulfills God’s Promises to Israel

tung-wong-70780This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
— Ephesians 3:6 —

In Ephesians 2 Paul spends a great deal of time explaining how the Jews and Gentiles are no longer divided by covenant or country, but instead have become in Christ ‘one new man in place of the two’ (v. 15). This “two becomes one” theme culminates and crystalizes in Ephesians 2:18–21, when he says that the temple Christ is building is comprised of Jews and Gentiles. He writes,

And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.

Amazingly, in these verses, Paul highlights at least three ways in which the temple is comprised of Jews and Gentiles.

  1. He says that Christ preached peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near (v. 17), which is to say Christ preaches peace by his Spirit to far off Gentiles and near(er) Jews. There is not a different message for each group and there is certainly not a different covenant. Rather, the same message of Christ-centered peace is offered by Christ to all people—whether Jew or Gentile.
  2. He says both Jews and Gentiles have access in one Spirit to the Father (v. 18). Indeed, in Christ those who were once near do not have a greater access than those who were far off. Like John and Peter (John 20:4), one may have arrived at the empty tomb sooner than the other, but the first one to Christ did not get a greater blessing. So it is with Jews and Gentiles in Christ—both have access to the triune God and neither have more access than the other.
  3. He says Gentiles, who were once separated from the blessings of God (Ephesians 2:11–12), and Jews, who once clearly had multiple advantages over the Gentiles (see Romans 3:1–2; 9:4–5) are now fellow citizens. Indeed they are fellow members of the household of God, such that only with one another can the temple of God be joined together.

In short, Paul’s explanation in Ephesians 2 of reconciliation makes clear that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, but instead there is one new covenant people who possess all the same blessings in Christ. Continue reading