Category Archives: Eschatology

Paul on Jesus: Part Three

[Texts:  Paul’s life and letters]

To wrap up my summaries of Paul’s teaching on Jesus (Part One and Part Two having covered History, Salvation, and Obedience), I’d like to focus on the Benefits delivered to believers in Christ and the new Realities of our spiritual location “in Christ.”  My comprehensive chart of what Paul had to say about Jesus can be accessed here, if you’d like to see these ideas in more detail.

On my chart, I am calling “Benefits” those things that are presently in our possession through faith in Jesus, as well as those things that are promised to us in the future (but are no less certainly ours!).* For the most part, these are intangibles; yet even as the bread and drink of Communion are physical reminders of a real but untouchably distant historical event, so are our physical bodies reminders of the real, material future blessings of resurrected life in the New Heavens and New Earth.  In other words, all that we are unable to experience with our senses now will one day be thoroughly realized in our bodies, relationships, and world.

Some of the invisible Benefits belonging to believers are improvements on the old order of things, as set out in the Hebrew Scriptures:  freedom from the law of sin and death; inclusion, if we are Gentiles, in the promises and family of the great patriarch Abraham; access to God in the first place.*  Other Benefits trump the oldest enemy of every human being, Death itself: for in Christ, Paul assures us, we have already died and been made alive with never-ending life; and though we will die physically, we shall yet hope to live again in our resurrected bodies.

Still other Benefits explain our present situation, however contrary to evidence these truths may seem:  we are adopted children of God; we are gifted by God for service and with the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit; and we have the blessings of comfort, joy and encouragement in Christ.  Truly, as Paul says himself, we by Christ’s poverty have become rich.

Finally, the Benefits of life in Christ include our salvation from judgment and extend to the formation of our characters into his likeness.  Righteousness and holiness, flowing from our deliverance from the power of sin, law, and death, will increasingly mark the people of God.  And in all of our challenges and changes, we are guaranteed to find ourselves safe in the love of our Father God.

Knowing these Benefits is the key to bearing the Realities of the Christian life, which, Paul does not hesitate to admit, will often be painful and sorrowful in our broken world.  Those believers whose political and social settings most closely resemble Paul’s own will best be able to appreciate the power of these truths for the shouldering of suffering.

While some of the Realities that I have listed on my chart rather cross over into the Benefits category (e.g., belonging to Christ, having already been buried and raised with him, being members together of his body), other Realities do not feel like Benefits at all.  Our close identification with our Lord, both individually and collectively, opens for us the possibility of suffering, an experience that Paul knew only too well.  He recognized in his imprisonment, maltreatment and hardships the fulfillment of a prophecy once made about him by the Lord himself:  “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name,” and he identified the same in the lives of his friends:  “For the sake of Christ you not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”

It’s the phrase “for his sake” that puts the Realities in perspective.  Since for our sake Jesus was condemned, bringing into being the Benefits that Paul celebrates, our temporary sufferings for his sake can be borne in grateful response and the confident hope of receiving unshakeable life at the end of our story.  Without this perspective, no believer over the whole course of Christian history could have withstood the cruel persecutions devised by the world. By God’s grace, Paul’s life and letters provide us with a verbal picture of the noble soldier who bears all for the sake of his Commander in Chief.  Let’s learn from him, and keep on standing firm.

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*It would actually make just as much sense to call these Benefits “Realities” of the Christian life; but here I’ve used the “Reality” category to collect those things that we experience in this life because we are believers, as well as for a few more invisible and intangible implications of belonging to Christ.

*I’m not going to give you the verse references in this post!  If I did, your eyes would skim these paragraphs and you wouldn’t really read these amazing statements.  (Am I not right?)  You see if you can remember the specific verses that I’m referring to.  If you can’t, look up these ideas under the Benefits and Realities categories on my chart “What Paul Said About Jesus.”

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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, Acts, Biblical Theology, Christ, Ephesians, Epistles, Eschatology, Historical Context, Jesus, Paul, Philemon, Philippians, Redemptive History, Romans

Paul on Jesus: Part Two

[Texts:  Paul’s letters and speeches]

In a previous post I shared some of the fruit of a year-long study with friends in which we read the NT books in chronological order.  As I went along in my perusal of the Epistles, I gathered answers to the question, “Who is Jesus in this letter?”  This resulted in a chart of Paul’s collective teachings on Jesus, which can be accessed here.  Earlier I surveyed who Jesus is across time; now I’ll take a look at some of Paul’s major themes as he teaches about the Savior.

What does Paul spend the most verses talking about, across all of his letters and his speeches in Acts?  Any guesses?  Three categories stand out to me as the fullest sections on my chart:  Redemptive History, Forensics, and words about the Commander-in-Chief and His Troops.  So, speaking broadly, Paul was apparently most concerned to communicate Jesus’ historical significance, the judicial aspects of our salvation in Christ, and the duties and experiences of the soldiers of this Kingdom.  Let me dive a little more deeply into the details of each of these subjects.

Paul conceives of Redemptive History in its full sweep, from past through present to future, and emphasizes always the accompanying revelation that makes sense of it all.  Jesus is the Long-Expected One, and Paul seems to delight in connecting the dots in Scripture and in human history to show that this is so.  Much of his apologetic speech to Jews in Acts is concerned with how Jesus fulfills Hebrew prophecy, especially regarding the identity of the anticipated Christos.  Though his letters to the churches no longer have this evangelistic purpose, Paul cannot seem to help mentioning Jesus’ historical connections; to him, they are part and parcel of Jesus’ identity and role as Savior.

Among the many details of Redemptive History, two receive special emphasis when Paul speaks or writes about his Lord.  First there are all the ways that Jesus fulfills prophecies and promises, types and signs that have appeared throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  He emphasizes Jesus’ connection to David’s line and Abraham’s family, showing how he fulfills “the promises to the patriarchs”; regarding Moses and the Law, Paul makes much of Jesus’ substantial embodiment of past “shadows” and hints, from the Passover lamb to the identity-marker of circumcision to the special Jewish holidays.

The second detail of Redemptive History that receives the most attention is the anticipation of Jesus’ return from heaven—a future event that has bearing on Paul’s (and our) present.  Again and again, Paul casts the behavior and hope of the church in terms of, and in light of, the expected reappearance of the Savior.  His “coming,” as Paul typically puts it, is as certain an event as his entrance into human history in the first place, and as certain as the suffering, death, and resurrection that form the foundation of our confession.  In his desire to persuade Christians to suffer faithfully, Paul continually returns to this certainty.  It is notable, by the way, that with one exception* he does not mention the Second Coming in his speeches in Acts: it seems that this information is most relevant to Christians who need reasons and reminders to persevere, but not yet to potential converts.

Forensics, or the judicial aspects of our salvation, comprises another major category of thought in Paul’s writings and speeches.  This theological topic is probably what usually comes to mind first when we think of what Paul had to say to the church, and with good reason.  Although not any more prevalent than the other two subject areas discussed here, Paul’s reasoning and teaching on forgiveness, judgment, law and faith, sin, salvation, and justification (to name just a few prominent terms!) certainly stand out as deeply important to him.

While there has historically been much debate over the exact meaning of some of Paul’s terms (especially justification), there is no question that he sees salvation in Christ Jesus as intricately bound to questions of sin and righteousness, wrath and favor.  The news in Christ is always good for those who have accepted him:  there is true and ultimate rescue in this Savior, a gift of innocence in place of guilt.  There are also wrong ways to go about solving the problem of our standing before the Judge of all—errors that have persisted since ancient times, and that still threaten to undermine the message of Paul’s gospel.

Finally, we could probably say that the relationship between a living and powerful Commander-in-Chief and His Troops is the topic at the forefront of Paul’s thoughts in his letters.  His own experience and that of his friends give Paul real-time illustrations of what it means to serve the Lord, and his explanations and exhortations provide a verbal framework for the embodiment of life as “good soldiers of Christ Jesus.”  Courage, perseverance, kindness, responsibility, generosity, and faithfulness to the delivered message of the Kingdom are qualities constantly reinforced in Paul’s epistles.  If you read through this section of the chart I created, I think you’ll get a sense of the nobility of our calling in Christ—something lovely to reach for, something worthy to strive after.  Paul’s many words still urge us on towards the finish line, so many centuries later.

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*The one exception is a mention in Acts 17 (in the Areopagus at Athens) of a resurrected man who will one day judge the world on God’s behalf.

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Filed under Acts, Biblical Genres, Biblical Theology, Christ, Epistles, Eschatology, Instructing the Body, Jesus, Messiah, Old Testament, Paul, Prophets, Redemptive History, Theology

“Hang on, ’cause Jesus wins.”

[Text: The Book of Revelation]

Here’s a modest New Year’s Resolution for you:  why not read (or reread) the Book of Revelation?  What’s that you say?  You’ve got reasons?  I think I may know them –

…If you’ve ever read (or tried to read) the Revelation of John, you know that though it begins in a relatively straightforward way that anyone can follow, it soon transitions into descriptions of events and creatures that surpass comprehension, if not imagination.  And while you might be aware of the different approaches that have historically influenced the Church’s reading of this book, the sheer number of interpretive options has likely overwhelmed you.  In this you are certainly not alone!

…And then if you’ve never read the Book of Revelation – perhaps because its reputation has preceded it – you probably aren’t even aware that its beginning, at least, is actually pretty accessible.

What I’d like to offer, both to those who have tried it and those who haven’t, is sort of a lifeline to hold onto as you make your way through the bulk of the book.  There are words and ideas in here that keep recurring, even in the midst of the wildly changing scenery, and watching for them will remind us that once upon a time this strange book was read by real people who needed encouragement to “hang on, ‘cause Jesus wins.”  It’s a timely message that you can catch hold of for yourself as you enter into a new year full of events that will be possibly as difficult to understand as some of the craziest passages in this book.

First off, a general outline of what you will encounter in John’s Revelation:

Chapters 1-3 establish the context and characters and directly address Christians on planet earth in seven different local churches.  This is the easy part.

Chapters 4-20 contain John’s description of dramatic visions involving heavenly beings, monstrous creatures, judgments, the saints at worship, wars and conquerors.  This is the confusing part.

Chapters 21-22 wrap it all up with John’s word-picture portraying the New Heavens and New Earth, where sorrow and sighing have no place and every tear is wiped away.  This is the beautiful part.

So in those first three chapters, we are introduced to the idea that John has been granted a heaven-sent vision while in exile on the island of Patmos.  His first responsibility (for of him to whom much is given, much will be expected) is to relay directly the personal messages that King Jesus dictates for seven specific churches in Asia Minor (that’s Turkey today).  Literally, John becomes the scribe who takes down letters to be delivered to these churches – so this part of the book is really a collection of mini-epistles.

And like any of the epistles that we encounter in the NT, these seven transcriptions are easy to follow in their outlines, if a bit mysterious in their details.  We learn that the churches vary in their faithfulness and their present challenges, and that Jesus holds them to high standards, commending those who have remained true to their high callings and warning those who are wavering or who have lost their way.  We don’t really have to know exactly who the “Nicolaitans” are, or the identity of the woman “Jezebel,” to get the idea that God’s people in these churches are beset with doctrinal and moral challenges and need to stay the course bravely.

Each little letter follows a pattern, with Jesus first introducing himself in a majestic way, then commenting on their present faithfulness (or not) and exhorting them to do what is right (or keep doing it, as in the case of Smyrna!).  And each letter ends with a promise made to “the one who conquers” (or in some translations, “the one who overcomes”):  fruit from the tree of life, escape from the “second death,” a white stone with a secret name, etc.  Some of these promised rewards are mysterious, but at least we can tell that they are marvelous, worth holding out for in a season of persecution and temptation.

Then as chapter four begins, John abruptly changes what he’s doing with his words.  Rather than taking dictation, now he is trying to describe a drama that is playing out before his eyes, beginning in God’s heavenly throne room and then eventually involving the stage of the whole earth and the created universe.  This is where we are most likely to lose our footing, as we scramble to understand the things he is reporting; and this is the part of the book that has lent itself to the most varied interpretations over the centuries of the Church.  Are the scrolls, bowls, trumpets, plagues, Beasts, and wars real things that will happen (or have happened) in real human and heavenly history, or do they merely stand for real (or spiritual) things?  How you answer will influence your interpretation of John’s words in these busy chapters!

But rather than struggling to answer those interpretive questions this time through, I suggest that you read the Revelation alert for the way that the direct address of the little epistles continues to run like a silver thread through the tapestry of the visionary drama.  Even though John seems to have done a genre-shift at chapter four, moving from epistle to vision, his purpose remains to communicate with the saints on earth something about their mission, the expectations their glorious Captain has for them, and the rewards that await them as they hold fast to their loyalty to their Lord.  His opening words in the first chapter capture his ongoing goal for his readers, that they keep the command to endure:

“Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.”

So as you read, watch for phrases that echo the promises at the ends of the mini-epistles of chapters two and three.  Look for further statements about those who “conquer” (or “overcome”), and for descriptions of saints who, like the believers in Smyrna, suffer faithfully even unto death and ultimately receive a heavenly welcome and reward.  Be reminded that those who first read the dictated letters to the churches continued to read the confusing part that followed, and that the whole thing was meant as an encouragement to endure, all the way home.  “Hold on,” Jesus continues to say through John, “because after even the worst of it, I win!”

Though I am not a prophet or the daughter of a prophet, I can say confidently that there will be events in this new year that will be as incomprehensible to us as some parts of John’s vision.  It’s inevitable that we will grieve and ache and worry and fear and wonder as we move through our next days in this fallen world.  But the gift of the Revelation is the persistent message of heavenly hope and reward that runs like a lifeline through the confusion and pain.  Hold on, believers, ‘cause Jesus wins.

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Quotations are taken from the ESV.  (ESV uses “conquer,” NIV & NKJV “overcome.”)

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Filed under Biblical Genres, Christ, Eschatology, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, The Revelation

Prophetic Puzzle Pieces

[NT Texts:  Matthew 24; Luke 21; Mark 13…OT Texts: Isaiah 13 & 24; Haggai 2; Jeremiah 4; Ezekiel 32; Joel 2 & 3 ]

Some of what Jesus had to say seems more cryptic than clear, like a jumble of jigsaw puzzle pieces minus their box-lid.  And it sometimes happens that, in trying to make sense of the mystery, one group of Bible readers will declare right-side-up what others insist is upside-down.

One such puzzling set of passages occurs in all three Synoptic Gospels, right as Jesus begins his final week of life in Jerusalem.  Perhaps in an attempt to make conversation, some of his disciples remark on the grandeur of the Temple, “how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings” (Luke 21:5).  Their offhand comment becomes the opening for a chapter-long discourse in which Jesus warns and instructs his followers regarding the alarming future facing both Temple and people.  The question for those of us reading these prophetic words today is – WHEN was he talking about?  Sometime historically imminent to that particular moment, or a time that is yet to come?

One way of arranging the prophetic puzzle pieces – probably very familiar to most of us – leaves us with a picture of the Ultimate End, a time characterized by unusual violence against Christian believers under a darkened sun, a blood-red moon, and  a shower of stars.  The understanding here is that Jesus was letting his disciples in on signs that would occur two millennia or more beyond their own day; in fact, he was not really talking to them, he was talking past them to the believers who would read his words far, far in the future.  Fitting the pieces together like this binds us to the dicey task of identifying  which current events are indications of The End, and what instructions like “let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” mean for, say, Protestants in the Midwest.

Others object that this eschatological view involves a good number of forced puzzle pieces.  Why, for example, does Jesus keep insisting that “this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (Luke 21:32)?  Does “this generation” mean something other than what’s conveyed by its plain sense?  And why would he give detailed, apparently comprehensible instructions to people standing right there in front of him, if he were really speaking beyond them to people who would have to perform some exegetical contortions before the picture made any sense to their situation?  Why not focus on events closer in history to that conversation, and see in the Romans’ razing of Jerusalem in 70 AD the fulfillment of Jesus’ frightening prophecies?

Neither view seems to do adequate justice to the pieces of the puzzle that we’re given – at least not at first blush.  After all, the Roman destruction of the Temple and City didn’t involve those apocalyptic signs in the heavens that Jesus described.  Even if the 70-AD explanation accommodates the strong “right-here-and-very-soon” emphasis of Jesus’ words, it has nothing to do with cosmic cataclysms, right?  Those puzzle pieces have to be forcibly made to fit, just as much as the “this generation” bits must be wrangled into the End-Times view.

But as a matter of fact, a big-picture canonical perspective suggests that those cosmic catastrophes may indeed have a proper place in a 70-AD puzzle.  Though we might be vaguely aware that such imagery is also used by the Old Testament prophets, we may not realize that, in context, nearly every prophetic mention of apocalyptic heavenly signs accompanies a description of a specific major political upheaval in the ancient world.  It would have been far less puzzling to Jesus’ disciples to hear words that called to mind passages from Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Joel than for them to get the sense that Jesus wasn’t actually telling them how to prepare to face something that would happen in their lifetime.  Perhaps some digging into the words of the Writing Prophets would help us to turn right-side-up some of the puzzle pieces we’ve long held upside-down.

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(For your convenience, I have listed below every reference that I could find to OT apocalyptic language – characterized by those heavenly signs and portents – and, where applicable, the earthly political turmoil that the prophet was attempting to depict with his universe-shaking imagery.  I’ll leave it to you to look up these passages and read them in context, as you consider how best to fit together Jesus’ prophetic puzzle pieces.)

Isaiah 13:10, 13

Cosmic Signs:  Stars, sun & moon darkened; trembling heavens and earth

Political Events:  Invasion of Israel by Babylon

 Isaiah 24:15b-20, 23

Cosmic Signs:  Foundations of the earth (land) tremble; earth (land) is violently split apart; moon confounded, sun ashamed.

Political Events:  Depending on the editors’ translation choice here, either the “whole earth” or the “whole land” (i.e., the land of Israel) is the subject of the prophecy.  (“Earth” is the usual choice in the main text, but the ESV includes a footnote indicating that “land” is a fair translation, too.)  If “land,” then this is a prophecy about the impending destruction of Israel for unfaithfulness.  I think this is a reasonable conclusion, given details in this chapter; see what you think.

 Joel 2:10

Cosmic Signs:  Earth quakes and trembles; sun, moon & stars darkened.

Political Events: Invaders from the North are poised to swoop down on Israel.

 Joel 2:30 (also Acts 2)

Cosmic Signs:  wonders in heaven & on earth; sun turned to darkness, moon to blood.

Political Events:  The restoration of Israel’s fortunes.

 Joel 3:15-16

Cosmic Signs:  Sun, moon, and stars darkened; heavens and earth quake

Political Events:  With the restoration of Israel, the nations that enslaved them will in turn be conquered and enslaved.

 Haggai 2:6-7 (also Hebrews 12)

Cosmic Signs:  Shaking of earth, sea, dry land

Political Events:  Restoration of Temple

 Ezekiel 32:7-8

Cosmic Signs:  Heavens covered; sun, moon and stars darkened

Political Events:  Invasion and defeat of Egypt by Babylon

 Jeremiah 4:23-24, 28

Cosmic Signs:  Earth w/o form and void; no light in  heavens; mountains quaking; heavens dark

Political Events:  God’s intention to punish Israel via Babylon

 

(I searched for heavens, earth, shaking, stars, sun, and moon.  I may have missed some, so let me know if you discover others.)

 

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Filed under Biblical Theology, Eschatology, Hard Sayings of Jesus, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Prophets, Synoptic Gospels