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Theologizing the End: Frameworks Part 2

This post may seem out of place or irrelevant to the “End Times” discussion, but I believe our understanding of the Kingdom and the Gospel is central to having a consistent eschatology. Books have been written about the subject I am writing about. I do not intend in any way to provide a comprehensive overview of Kingdom Theology. I will simply share some of my own journey along with some basic, but important, concepts.

The Kingdom of God

“…vast majority of people say something like, ‘Jesus came to die on the cross to save us from our sins so that we can go to heaven.’ While this answer is true, Jesus’ message is an even more grand and sweeping epic than that: ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand. I am the King who is bringing healing to the entire cosmos. If—and only if—you repent and believe in me, you will someday enjoy all of the many benefits that my kingdom brings.'”[1]

Growing up, I believed the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of heaven were referring to the spiritual place we go when we die. I also believed the “Good News” or the “Gospel” was simply this: Jesus died on a cross in your place and was raised from the dead so that your sins could be forgiven thereby allowing you to go to heaven when you die. I want to clearly state that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are absolutely essential truths and I want to clearly state that our eternal hope/destiny matters. However, early on, I realized there were some problems with this version of the Gospel.

First, I noticed people could believe this and sort of get their “ticket to heaven” without it having any real implications for how they lived in the here and now. I noticed in my college days that there were a lot of people who were “saved,” but who didn’t seem to feel the need to embrace the part about actually following Jesus.

Then, I was reading in the Gospel of Mark and I noticed that Jesus ministry began with him preaching the “good news of the kingdom of God” (Mk 1:15). My knowledge of the cultural context of Jesus’ day raised some questions. Namely, what was the good news, or gospel, according to Jesus? What was he preaching? What message did the first disciples and earliest followers respond to? The first century Jews who followed Jesus most certainly did not respond to a message about his death and resurrection. For two reasons: 1) they had no categorical understanding for a Messiah who would die at the hand of Israel’s oppressors and 2) his death and resurrection hadn’t happened yet. Therefore, the “good news” Jesus was preaching was something other than the “good news” I had heard.

The next piece of the puzzle for me came together in my second semester of Greek. The same verse was being discussed: “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). I learned about the phrase “has come near.” The Greek word means “to bring near, to join one thing to another.”[2] I also learned that the verb was in the perfect, indicative, active tense. My Greek has fallen by the wayside since then (unfortunately), but our best English equivalent is to say “has come,” but our professor taught us that the tense was a little more complicated than that. It has a past dimension with present implications. Or, another way of saying it is this: it has come, is coming, and will come. The “Good News” Jesus was preaching was that the Kingdom of God had come and from that point on everything had changed.

This brought me to the place where I started to explore more thoroughly what the “kingdom of God” really meant. A kingdom is a realm where the effective will of the King is carried out, where the supreme authority of the King is acknowledged, and the absolute allegiance to the King is required. In the minds of the first century Jews, Jesus was preaching to, the Kingdom of God carried a number of ideas that were drawn from the OT prophets. At the most basic level, the Kingdom of God was believed to be the reality that would set Israel free from oppression and establish equitable justice (righteousness). They believed the Messiah would usher in and establish God’s Kingdom—a literal, nationally bound Kingdom.

So, when Jesus goes around announcing the Kingdom of God is near, his language conjured up all sorts of nationalistic hopes. The Kingdom of God also carried the idea of being the reality that would usher in God’s “shalom” or peace.

Isaiah spoke of a day when weapons would become gardening tools, when the oppressed would be liberated, violence would cease, and the whole earth would be full of the knowledge of the LORD. In Luke 4, Jesus is at a synagogue gathering. He is asked to read the Scripture reading for the day. He reads from the scroll of Isaiah quoting Isaiah 61:1-2:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

He then sits down and says that Scripture is being fulfilled among them. He then implies that this proclamation of God’s Kingdom is not just for them (Jews) but also for the Gentiles. After which, they try to kill him. They had a very “us” versus “them” mentality. A “we’re in” and they are “out” sort of mentality.

Jesus then spends three years proclaiming and demonstrating what it looks like when the Kingdom of God breaks into our sin enslaved world. Jesus also spends three years of his ministry inviting those who were believed to be too far from God’s grace to the table of grace. Jesus says over and over again to the prostitute, the pagan, the demonized, the unclean, the thief, the infirmed—“The Kingdom of God is accessible to you.” The Kingdom of God also overthrows the powers of evil thereby setting people enslaved to those powers free. Whatever else the Kingdom of God entails, Jesus says it was being inaugurated by him, and his life, death, and resurrection are seen as manifestations of that truth.

The “good news” is that the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated, but we await its consummation. The world is pregnant with resurrection hope, namely in and through the community of people who have been redeemed to reflect God’s image (the Church). The Kingdom of God is really and actually here just like my daughter was really and actually alive in the womb of my wife back in January of 2019. The fullness of the Kingdom is yet to come, but will come in fullness at Christ’s return. In the same way that my daughter’s life took on a new fullness when she was born in March of 2019. (This theme of pregnant life as well as the theme of marriage and the theme of life, death resurrection present in our seasons are nature’s way of proclaiming the Gospel).

Jesus’ death was part of the inauguration of the Kingdom because in his death he absorbed the weight of our collective sin. He absorbed our sin into himself and transformed it. He overthrew and confounded the powers of darkness.  I do not have space to address theories of the atonement, but I simply say this: part of how Jesus absorbed evil was by taking upon himself and forgiving rather than retaliating and leading revolution as his disciples expected him to do. His death also demonstrated the self-giving, sacrificial, fiercely passionate love of God for his creatures who bear his image. God loves the world (any theological paradigm that would imply God can’t stand us because of our sin or that God selectively loves some but not others is missing some crucial things that are revealed in the Scriptures).

Christ’s resurrection was the seal of victory. His resurrection was the death of death. David Bosch writes in Transforming Mission, “For the Jesus community…the resurrection of Christ and the coming of the Spirit are tangible proof of the ‘alreadyness’ of God’s reign. The future dimension of God’s reign and of salvation is nurtured by the present reality of that reign.” When Jesus walked out of the tomb, in my opinion, the “last days” or the inauguration of the “age to come” burst out of the tomb with him. His resurrection on the “first day of the week” correlates to the “first day” of creation signifying the “first day” of new creation.

As followers of Jesus we have been invited to repent and believe. Repent means to turn and go a different way. We haven’t been sold a ticket to heaven. We have been invited to follow Jesus, which means more than just embracing Western, Judaeo-Christian morals. Again David Bosch writes,

It is unthinkable to divorce the Christian life of love and justice from being a disciples… Mission is not narrowed down to an activity of making individuals new creatures, of providing them with “blessed assurance” so that, come what may, they will be “eternally saved.” Mission involves, from the beginning and as matter of course, making new believers sensitive to the needs of others, opening their eyes and hearts to recognize injustice, suffering, ooppression, and the plight of those who have fallen by the wayside. It is unjustifiable to regard the “Great commission” as being concerned primarily with “evangelism” and the “Great Commandment” (Mt 22:37-40) as referring to “social involvement.”

In other words, part of following Jesus as a disciple means that we actually try to live as he calls us to live (especially in regards to his teachings in Matthew 5-7). We are taught to live out the Kingdom ethics, pray the Kingdom of God comes and His will is done on earth as in heaven, and we are work towards being the present embodiment of God’s future Kingdom. We are sort of like the movie trailer that precedes the release of a movie.[3] We are to give people a foretaste. To be salt and light. Here and now.

The goal is that we will become the sort of people that can colonize the “New Heaven and the New Earth.” God’s new world has a certain kind of atmospheric pressure if you will. It would be wise to begin the process of acclimating to the atmosphere change now.

What Does this Have to Do with the End?

So, what is the point? I feel it is necessary that we have a cohesive biblical theology. I feel it is essential to begin with the inauguration before we speculate about the consummation. I believe it matters because I believe an eschatology that unintentionally inspires believers to disengage from this world rather than continue to live out the mission of the Church is problematic. I sympathize with this author who writes:

I have been long troubled by the impact that popular eschatological teaching has had on the body of Christ over the last two generations. Fundamentalist preachers have been zealous to whip the troops into a frenzy for that last hectic push of evangelism before the trumpet sounds. Unfortunately, their focus on the last days has had the unintended result of fostering apathy, making the Church seem irrelevant and causing tens of thousands of people to disengage from and adopt a defensive stance towards society. For the last 60 to 100 years (depending on your accounting of events) large portions of the Church have effectively been circling of the wagons rather than taking their role as world changers. I came to Christ in the mid 80’s and remember vividly the end-times fervor that seemed to pervade church culture. People seemed to hang on every headline in anticipation of the next prophetic milestone being fulfilled. Youth rallies would include fun and games, rapture themed t-shirts, bumper stickers and even raucous rounds of jumping up and down called “rapture drills.” As a teenage Christian I could never muster up much enthusiasm for these things. The vision in my heart to be a world changer seemed to chafe against these pessimistic and escapist forecasts. [4]

Our “End Times” views should keep two things in mind:

  1. We are not called to “circle up the wagons” or isolate ourselves in a “holy huddle” to await the “great evacuation (aka the rapture). Being “ready” for Jesus’ return involves becoming the kind of person that reflects the love of Jesus to the world. Keep pursuing Christ-likeness through engagement in the world. Keep reclaiming for the Kingdom of Light what the Darkness has stolen. You are salt and light. It is part of our identity.

  2. Any “End Times” views that demonize other human beings or nations (i.e. Russia, China, Iraq, etc.) will fundamentally miss the heart of God and produce unhelpful hatred for those different nationalities. Paul reminded believers that their fight was not against flesh and blood. Other people are not the enemy. God loves this world and he loves people. He is committed to their renewal and rescue. We should be too.

[1] Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkart, When Helping Hurts. P. 33

[3] I borrowed this analogy from Michael Frost

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