A Few Thoughts on the Revelation Letters

For my Revelation class this semester, I’m supposed to journal my way through Revelation, answering four questions for every chapter:

  1. What does the text say?
  2. What did I observe?
  3. How does this chapter fit in the context?
  4. What did I learn?

This is a fun, though not particularly professional, exercise. In any case, by the time I’m done I will have basically assembled an ad-hoc, very informal commentary on the whole book. I will be editing these together into an ebook and uploading it here in case anyone is interested in it.

In the meantime, I thought I’d go ahead and post my journal results from Revelation 2-3, the letters to the seven churches. Enjoy (and feel free to critique):

What does the text say?

At this point Jesus gives John letters to deliver to the seven churches. Each shall be addressed separately.

The Letter to Ephesus

Jesus addresses the angel (lit: messenger) at the church in Ephesus first. He identifies Himself as the holder of the seven stars (angels of the churches) who walks among the lampstands (the churches). He commends them for their works, endurance, and discernment with respect to false teachers. He then mentions one problem: they have abandoned their first love. He commands repentance to their original works, or else He will remove them. He then offers a second commendation specifically about their resistance to the heretical Nicolaitans. He then calls them to hear what the Spirit says to the churches and promises food from the tree of life in paradise to the victor.

The Letter to Smyrna

Jesus then addresses the angel at the church in Smyrna. He identifies Himself as the first and the last who died and rose again. He recognizes their persecution and suffering at the hands of Jews, but calls them rich and encourages them in their coming suffering. He tells them that they will suffer for ten days but to remain faithful even to death in that time. If they do they will receive the crown of life. Again, they are called to hear the Spirit, and the victor is promised protection from the second death.

The Letter to Pergamum

Next Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Pergamum. He identifies Himself as the bearer of a two-edged sword. He recognizes their location as under Satan’s rule, but commends their faithfulness in persecution. He rebukes their toleration of Balaam’s teachings with their idolatry and sexual immorality and the teachings of the Nicolaitans. He commands them to repent at the threat of war with His word. Again, they are called to hear the Spirit, and the victor is promises hidden manna and a white stone with a new, private name.

The Letter to Thyatira

Finally for the chapter, Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Thyatira. He identifies Himself as the Son of God with fiery eyes and brass feet. He commends their works of love and faithfulness, but He rebukes them for tolerating a heretical prophetess Jezebel, who leads people into immorality and idolatry. She was given time to repent, but He declares that the time is up for her judgment. Her and her children will be diseased and repaid. Those who resist her are told to hold on to their faith. The victor is promises authority over the nations with Jesus, and they are called to listen to the Spirit.

The Letter to Sardis

In chapter three, Jesus begins by addressing the angel at the church in Sardis. Jesus identifies Himself again as holding the seven stars but also this time the seven spirits of God. He does not commend anything but moves straight to a criticism of their false vitality. Their deeds are incomplete, and the church will soon die. Jesus commands them to repent and return to the word they have received. If they do not, Jesus will suddenly come and judge them. A few members, however, are noted as still faithful. Victors like them will be clothed in white and kept forever in the Lamb’s book of life. They are then called to hear the Spirit.

The Letter to Philadelphia

Next Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Philadelphia. Jesus identifies Himself as Holy and True with the keys of David. He commends their good deeds and endurance in weakness despite Jewish persecution. He promises that their love by Him will be vindicated, and that they will be protected from the coming trials as reward for their endurance thus far. He encourages them to hold fast, and the victor will be a pillar in God’s house with God’s name. He then calls them to hear the Spirit.

The Letter to Laodicea

Finally, Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Laodicea. He identifies Himself as a faithful witness and beginning of creation. He immediately criticizes their lukewarm deeds and threatens to spit them out in disgust. He mocks their self-sufficiency and encourages them to find their riches, clothing, and health from Him. Yet He affirms that He rebukes them out of love and encourages them to repent. If any repents, He will come in and eat with them. The victor will receive a throne with Christ, and they must listen to the Spirit.

What did I observe?

There is a lot going on here, but some repeated themes are prominent. Jesus stands as the all-seeing Judge, the one who rewards faithfulness and punishes heresy and wickedness. Truly He is seen to exercise the “all authority” He has been given by the Father, and the statement in John that the Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son is at least partially fulfilled. Jesus has taken the place of the name of Yahweh in the Old Testament, proclaiming His judgments on God’s people through a prophet. The Spirit is also important here, for Jesus identifies Him as the one who speaks to the churches rather than John, the appointed congregational reader, or anyone else, though He also identifies Himself as the speaker. The unity between the word of the Spirit and of the Son here indicates both the way that, through Christ’s Incarnation and exaltation, the Spirit of God has become more particularly for us the Spirit of Christ, and of course also the inherently Trinitarian direction of New Testament theology.

As to the particular letters:

The Letter to Ephesus

One interpretative issue here is the meaning of abandoning their first love, along with the corresponding works to which they are called to return. I find plausible the suggestion that the “love” here is primarily horizontal in nature. The Ephesians have forgotten to care for each other and the poor. This use of “love” in the New Testament is not uncommon. Taking their original love this way makes sense of the works they did at first: they were originally charitable and communal, but (perhaps in the face of persecution and in their efforts to combat heresy) they have come to neglect this essential practice.

The Letter to Smyrna

Jesus’ identifying Himself as the first and last, dead and raised, seems relevant to the harsh persecution the Smyrnan church is set to experience. Some of them will die, but they will be raised like and with Christ, and thus they will be spared the second death. This, in fact, seems to sum up the whole content of the letter.

The Letter to Pergamum

Pergamum is the first church mentioned to permit heresies, and they have permitted more than one. This is odd given their harsh persecution, which seems to have had a purifying effect on some of the other churches. In light of this, Jesus essentially upgrades the threat they face by adding His own sword if they do not repent. A church with Christ on its side will stand no matter what assails it, but a church with the world and Christ as enemies will surely die.

The Letter to Thyatira

Jesus intensifies His terrifying image here, apparently because of the seriousness of Jezebel’s heresy. Though the church has kept faith and love, they have (perhaps in the process) permitted a vile movement to go on too long and too far. Jesus will take this movement down, period, and it will not be pretty. Those who remain faithful appear to be promised a part in the same fiery, obliterating power by which Christ will judge the rest of their church.

The Letter to Sardis

What it means that Sardis’ deeds are incomplete seems unclear. Perhaps this simply means they had mostly stopped working, no longer doing the works of love and evangelism which many of the other churches were doing. This could well be because, with the lack of any mention of persecution, they had grown complacent and comfortable with primarily a self-incurved focus. The church looked like it thrived, but they did nothing and were serving themselves rather than God. This trap, of course, is one into which many churches today also fall.

The Letter to Philadelphia

Philadelphia is one of the two churches with no rebuke. Instead, Jesus simply promises their protection and vindication in light of their present endurance under harsh Jewish persecution. It is interesting to note the way that Philadelphia contrasts with the immediately preceding Sardis. No persecution is mentioned for Sardis, and they receive no commendation, whereas much persecution is mentioned for Philadelphia, and they receive no condemnation. This highlights the theme in Revelation of suffering for the Gospel as purifying and glorifying. Indeed, Jesus promises to exalt them above all their enemies when the coming day arrives.

The Letter to Laodicea

Laodicea is the second church to receive no real commendation, but Jesus’ tone seems more compassionate than His tone to Sardis. He specifically points out the loving nature of rebuke and portrays Himself as patiently knocking for entrance into their congregation. Laodicea being the last church, this serves as a compelling reminder of the abundant mercy of Christ even in His judgment. He does not want to punish them but wants to bless them and wants them to come to Him. The question of what exactly they were doing wrong, however, seems much less clear than many of the traditional interpretations of lukewarm-ness would indicate.

How do these chapters fit in context?

As the second and third chapters of Revelation, this passage immediately follows the introductory material and constitutes the bridge which is the collection of letters for the seven churches. The background, then, is the announcement that God is unveiling His plan in Christ to the churches through John. Something divine is afoot, and these letters are meant to give some of the initial warnings and preparations that the churches will need in order to play their part faithfully.

The revelation of Christ is powerful glory in the first chapter is also essential here. This glorified, risen, exalted Christ is the Judge of the churches. Again, this is important because of the way it links Jesus in the New Testament to Yahweh in the Old. Just as Yahweh spoke judgments on His people and their cities through the prophets of old, Jesus speaks judgment on His people in each city through His prophet John.

Finally, these chapters are important in setting the stage for the rest of the book. The eschatological sub-pictures given in Christ’s address to each of the churches will be integrated and transcended through the rest of the book in order to show the whole story. What Christ announces to each of these churches has a role to play in understanding the events coming upon the world. The themes will be extended and expanded, and the wider scope of what Jesus is warning the churches about will be revealed.

What did I learn?

Examining these chapters highlighted a couple of things for me which I had never really noticed. The most impressive to me is the way (as I mentioned twice already) that Jesus takes the place of Yahweh over the people of God. The parallels to Old Testament prophetic texts, especially those announcing judgment on Israel, are pretty strong. Just as God announced to Israel their judgment (and His mercy), often in connection to a coming judgment on the rest of the nations, through His servants the prophets time and again, so Jesus now announces to the churches their judgment (and His mercy) in connection with the rest of the book which addresses a judgment on the rest of the nations through His servant John. The message is clear: the role played by the name of Yahweh in the Old Testament has been given to the name of Jesus in the New. This unique conflation of the roles of Jesus and Yahweh certainly helps to indicate Christ’s deity, even if it is not alone sufficient to prove the matter. The human messianic dimension must also be regarded. Now a man judges the people of God, namely the man Jesus. God has exalted humanity in Christ as His covenant partner.

Going through these two chapters has also helped clarify the relationship between the letters and the rest of Revelation. It seems to me that the letters provide the particulars of God’s coming judgment on the world, which begins with the house of God. The churches will be judged first, all of them represented in these particular seven, and this judgment will then move into the nations. The judgment over the whole world system will carry on the themes found here in the judgment of the churches. Yet it seems that even these specific churches will be present during the coming judgment, and in fact it looms over their immediate future directly following their own judgment. This seems to protest against a primarily futurist reading of the judgment described in the rest of Revelation. On the other hand, that this judgment is moving to the world from the people of God indicates to me that it is not traditional preterism which is being described, for the focus does not seem to be on Israel. This suggests that the eschatological horizon here is a judgment on the pagan world in particular. Nonetheless, I could see support for traditional preterism here in the letter to Philadelphia, which seems to lend support to the idea that the Jews are in fact the subject of the coming judgment. Perhaps we should consider that, if Revelation is in fact post-AD 70, the church had begun to consider the Jews who persecuted them as bound up with the pagan world. This could have been traced back to their cooperation with Rome to execute Jesus.

We Are Not Ourselves

I am sinless. 

I am sinful. 

I am holy.

I am profane. 

I am righteous. 

I am guilty. 

What is all this babbling about? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Christian identity. People talk about how our identity is in Christ, but they rarely talk explain what that means practically. A lot could be said about it, really. But I’ve been thinking about one aspect in particular. 

In one way, we have two selves as Christians. There is the old man and the new. Often these are treated as simply two sides to your mind or heart, one good and one evil, but it’s really so much deeper than that.

The truth is that Jesus has actually and entirely remade us. We were one kind of person, one kind of human being, before, but He has broken that down into tiny pieces and rebuilt it from the ground up. He did this in His death and resurrection. When He died on the Cross, the humanity of our old, fallen, natural selves was crucified—brutally executed under the wrath of God—with Him. And then we were raised with Him to a new humanity, perfectly purified from sin and filled with the life and glory of God.

So where does that leave us now? In Christ, we are already perfected. I’m not talking sentimentally. I’m not talking about our legal status before God. I’m saying that the human life of Jesus in heaven right now is our life. He is literally our perfection, our sanctification, our regeneration, our glorification. Our redeemed selves are hidden with Christ in God 

But this hiding is, for now, essential to grasp. We can’t see our new selves but in glimpses, shadows, and holy moments by faith. Our new selves are in Christ alone, hidden in heaven, and the only way to see them in the present on earth is by union with Christ.

Because, the thing is, right now we are not ourselves. In a certain way we are, but in a more important way we’re not. The selves we experience right now—the ones deeply scarred by sin, guilt, confusion, insufficiency, fear, doubt, weakness, and death—are expired. We were crucified. Our flesh was mortally wounded on Calvary in the flesh of Jesus. Our existence as sinners is passing away, fading like a time traveler who has murdered his young grandfather.

So right now we are walking paradoxes. We are still our natural and decaying selves, but by grace the Holy Spirit has united us to Jesus, in whom our true selves are hidden. Although our new selves will have to remain essentially hidden with Christ until He comes, because of our present union with Him by the Spirit we can begin to live, inasmuch as we depend on Jesus in faith, as new creatures even today. As we draw nearer to Jesus, we become in this mixed present more like who we really are in the Savior. Yet because Jesus still remains hidden in heaven, we cannot yet fully escape who we have been, our old and dead selves. 

This, then, thrusts us back onto the practices that take us to Jesus. Our only way to be who we really are is to know Him, which means we are bound to pray, to read the Scriptures which testify of Christ, to take our place within His Body, the Church, to serve the least of these with whom He so deeply identifies, and to feast upon His new creation nourishment weekly in the Supper, to recall the promise and identity of our baptisms, and to suffer for the Gospel. These things deepen our union with Christ. Self-denial and cross-bearing connect us to His death, which killed our old selves. Likewise, the active life of believing, knowing, and loving Jesus connects us to His resurrection by the Spirit. And by this resurrection we experience in advance our new creation selves as pure gift in the person of Jesus.

So for now, we march on in tension. Our old, corrupted selves remain alive in this age but dead in Christ. Our redeemed and holy selves remain hidden in this age (they belong to the age to come) but present in Christ. Yet out of these two realities, this age and the age to come in Jesus, one is superior. Jesus is victorious, and all reality opposed to His is already defeated. This means that we, in our darkness and pain and struggling, are not ourselves. Our true selves are hidden in Christ to be revealed on the last day. That is hope and comfort, for the selves we see now obviously have no place in glory or eternal life. But if this isn’t who we are, if in Jesus we are something far better, then we know that there is real hope for us all.

To adapt something T. F. Torrance once said:

This Caleb Smith you see is full of corruption, but the real Caleb Smith is hid with Christ in God and will be revealed  only when Jesus Christ comes again.

Amen.

Illusions of the Times

“The end is near! Jesus will be back any day now!”

As Christians, not only do we hear this a lot, but very many of us say it a lot as well. If you look on Facebook or Twitter, or if you go to Bible studies or listen to people’s prayer requests, you find a common sentiment that finally, in the 21st century, we are living in the last days and Jesus will return probably in our lifetimes.

This sentiment is nothing new, of course. It has been around since Jesus ascended. But that’s exactly why we should be skeptical of it today. If 2000 years ago everyone thought Jesus would BRB, but He didn’t, I don’t know why we would think that our day has a significantly different chance than they did.

But many people think they have proof. After all, didn’t Jesus say that the end would come with signs of war, famine, earthquakes, and violence? Today is more violent, war-torn, and full of natural disasters than ever before, right? So Jesus has to be coming back especially soon.

There are two problems with this. Firstly, Jesus never said any of those things were signs that the end was about to come. Instead, He specifically said they are not signs of the end. Here is the relevant passage in Matthew:

Then Jesus replied to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and they will deceive many. You are going to hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, because these things must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these events are the beginning of birth pains.

“Then they will hand you over for persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of My name. Then many will take offense, betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. Because lawlessness will multiply, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be delivered. This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations. And then the end will come.

Matthew 24:4-14

Pay close attention. Jesus specifically lists all of these problems with the notice, “the end is not yet.” These wars, earthquakes, famines, persecutions, and lawlessness are all part of the beginning of the birth pains, not the end. These evils began even before the end of the first century. They began in full force ages ago. Jesus warned the disciples not to freak out or be confused by these signs. He told them, “All of this stuff will look frightening, but they don’t mean the end is here!” So the way people use these events today is in fact the opposite of how Jesus spoke of them.

The other problem with this line of thought is that it misreads the present. Even if these things were signs of the end, then we shouldn’t expect Jesus to come back now, because we have less of this stuff today than at almost any other time in history. These days out of the hundreds of countries in the world, only a couple of them, mostly in the Middle East, are at war. This is different from most of history. There is less war today than ever before. The same goes for famine. With modern technology, there is more food in the world than ever before, and even when prices have gone up a bit there has been no shortage of food in Western countries since the Great Depression (and even then, there have been many worse periods in history). Developing countries are actually developing and suffer less famine than they ever did in previous centuries (except Yemen, which is being systematically starved by the Saudi war and our abominable US support). Natural disasters don’t appear to have changed much.

Even violence hasn’t really changed. We think these mass shootings and terrorist acts are bad and new, but in fact they are tame compared to history. The Holocaust is in the past now. But even before that, constant tribal warfare, torture, brutal methods of execution, vigilante justice, and barbarian pillaging were all widespread for most the past. The idea of a landmass and population as large as the United States, for example, not being filled with wars and political murders and lynchings and human sacrifice is a novelty. Abortion, infanticide, and the rampant sexual immorality which have only in the past several decades infiltrated Western countries were already the norm in the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day. Overall, not much seems any worse than it ever has.

Thus, what many people see as signs of the times just really aren’t. They’re illusions. This doesn’t mean Jesus isn’t coming back soon. I think He may come back at any time, though to be honest I expect the Gospel to reach a lot more of the unreached world first, per the last verse in the text I quoted. But the point is we have no idea when He will come, there is no specific reason to think we are especially close right now, and we can only hope, pray, and evangelize if we do want it to be soon (which we should).

The truth is, as long as the Church is around, we will be waiting with the feeling that Jesus’ coming is right around the corner, and that’s honestly because He is. While the years may extend, Jesus is never far away. Heaven and earth are but separated by a thin curtain, a curtain Jesus has already opened, and in His Church Jesus constantly blurs the lines between this age and the age to come. So we will always feel the pressure of Christ’s coming on our time, and we will always long for His final day of salvation. But whenever that day will come, well, we can just have no idea.

My Stance on the Rapture

I just realized that I haven’t actually written about the Rapture on this blog at all since I began it. Yet the Rapture is a fun and popular debate, and it’s one of the few issues on which Christians can disagree without very many people getting angry or declaring you a heretic (though some still do).

So what do I believe about the Rapture? Before I answer, I’ll quickly survey the popular options. Here they are:

  • Pre-tribulation Rapture: The most common and popular view, mostly popular because of the writers like Tim LeHaye and the Left Behind movies (not counting the Nick Cage one). In this view, immediately before the 7-year tribulation period, Jesus will make something of a partial coming in which He will instantly gather all of His people from around the globe to Himself and take them back to heaven. After this the world will experience severe judgments from God for 7 years until Jesus returns and sets up His millennial kingdom.
  • Post-tribulation Rapture: Probably the second most common view, in post-tribulationalism the Church will have to live through the 7 years of judgment, though protected by God along the way, and after that Jesus will return, take His saints up to heaven, and institute His millennial reign.
  • Mid-tribulation Rapture: In this view (also called pre-wrath), the Rapture takes place halfway through the tribulation, prior to God’s pouring out of His wrath on the world. Mid-trib makes a distinction between the persecutions and sufferings of the first half of the tribulation and the eschatological outpouring of God’s wrath of the second half.

To jump right to it, none of these appeal to me. I don’t think any of them have sufficient Biblical grounding, and I think they all miss the important point of what the Rapture is. That said, I think pre-trib is the least likely of these, and in fact, I would go so far as to say that it has no Biblical evidence whatsoever and is every bit as much a sketchy extra-Biblical tradition as any Catholic innovation (no offense to my papist friends, of course).

So what do I believe about the Rapture? First off, I doubt that Revelation even teaches a distinct 7-year tribulation period. I agree with those who argue that the years, times, and seasons in Revelation are symbolic, and that the sequences of 7 (bowls, wrath, trumpets) are actually different visions which go back and refer to the same thing, much as Pharaoh had two dreams in one night with the same meaning.

This, of course, makes any of the popular views on the Rapture’s timing moot. The terms pre, post, and mid-trib don’t make sense without a specific 7 year tribulation. What does this do to the Rapture itself? In the eschatological timeline I find most convincing, the millennium is a reality for those who have died in Christ now, and it will end when Christ returns. When He returns, He will, as Scripture says, call His people together to meet Him in the air. Exactly what this will look like I do not know (is “in the air” a literal description, even?), but what comes next is the most serious departure from the other Rapture views.

I do not believe that we will be Raptured to heaven. That is where Christ is coming from, and in fact He is bringing heaven with Him to earth. Rather, our Rapture will be the time in which we are transformed by the sight of Him to be like Him, and then we will escort Him to earth. At this time all the dead are raised, the world is judged, and the entire creation will be recreated around Jesus Christ. Then heaven and earth will be one, with Christ ruling at the center.

So, specifically, I take the Rapture to be when we meet Christ in the air to be glorified and raised to resurrection life before escorting Him to His take rule over the kingdom, which now extends over the whole earth. 

Where do I get such an idea? The term parousia, used in the New Testament to refer to Christ’s return, means “appearing” or “presence.” In particular, it was used in the Roman Empire (under which, of course, Israel was ruled and against which Christ was proclaimed as Lord) to refer to the “appearing” of the emperor to a city or colony. When news of his coming came, the citizens of Rome would exit the city to gather around him and give him a royal escort into their city. It is not only possible but quite likely that Paul saw very much the same kind of thing going on when Christ returns for us.

N. T. Wright is the most well-known proponent of this view, so if you want to learn more about it I would recommend that you check out this brief essay he wrote on the topic, and perhaps also check out his excellent book, Surprised by Hope, which covers this and other issues related to heaven, the resurrection, and the new creation.

Hypothesis: The Church is Reborn Israel

One theological question which has been a fairly ambiguous realm for much of Church history is that of the actual relationship between Christ’s Church and the people or nation of Israel which came before it. The Biblical data on this is complex and apparently varied, and the historical issue of the Church as becoming predominantly Gentile doesn’t help. This has led to many different views which we might categorize under four basic approaches:

  • Two peoples of God: In dispensationalism, the Church and Israel are two entirely distinct peoples of God. God chose for Himself a nation and race, Israel, in temporal and physical ways, and He also created a chosen people for salvation, the Church. If there is a connection between the two, it is either exclusively or primarily a spiritual analogy or a historical accident.
  • Replacement theology: Various forms of what we might call “replacement theology” have also been generated, in which basically God rejects Israel after their rejection of Jesus, and He chooses the Church as a new people. A lot changes between the kind of people He chose the first time (ethnic, nationalistic) and the second time (spiritual, decentralized). In this case the Church essentially takes the place and role of Israel in a new way, and “steps into their shoes,” but is still a fundamentally distinct body.
  • One people of God but two Israels: In a third approach, Israel is viewed as having always been internally divided between “true Israel” and “false Israel,” those who were faithful to Yahweh and most truly His people, and those who were unfaithful. In views like this, the Church is to be seen primarily as a continuation of “true Israel,” but now expanded to include the Gentiles. The true Israel and the Church are essentially the same body but existing under different covenants (Old vs. New).
  • One people, period: Finally, there is the approach of direct continuity, in which the Church literally is the same people of God as Israel, only now expanded freely to the Gentiles and without all of the trappings of a nation-state or a ceremonial law. Membership is by faith or (depending who you ask) even also by birth. There exists even in this one body some true and some false Christians, but only one covenant people of God.

None of these approaches in their most basic and pure forms quite strike me as fully Biblical. If seems to me that if we are going to appreciate the full scope of what Scripture says about the Church’s place after Israel, we will need to combine some insights from more than one of these approaches, and they will need to be integrated around some kind of key concept. What key concept do we need? What is Biblical?

My own hypothesis is that the key is resurrection and regeneration. The relationship between Israel and the Church should be conceived in terms of the new birth, of the natural man and the man alive in the Spirit, even at a corporate level. It seems most Biblical to me to say that the Church is Israel born again.

The give a full Biblical defense of this position is beyond the scope of this post, which will be long enough. All I seek to do here is to give a narrative description of the hypothesis in the history of Israel, the covenant, Jesus, and the Church. Before I get into that, though, the first principle I should point out in my hypothesis is that regeneration, the new birth, did not ever take place until Christ’s resurrection.1 With this in mind, we follow the story of Israel.

Israel was began as a people created by God from His election of and covenant with Abraham. God promised Abraham descendants which would make up a great nation, which nation would bless the whole world. This was a unilateral promise. God would see to it that this would indeed be fulfilled, not just for the benefit of Abraham and his family but for the redemption of the world.2 

In the process of fulfilling this promise God called the Israelites out of Egypt and established another covenant with them, one which established Israel as a theocratic nation with a divinely provided system of law and worship. Part of the point of this endeavor was to make Israel into a light to the nations, an example of human life rightly ordered by communion with God and with each other. But Israel proved incapable of this task. Even with a God-given Torah they could not become what they needed to be, a true example of redeemed human existence. The deep and radical effects of sin made righteousness under the Torah impossible. And without a righteous Israel, God’s promise to Abraham also seemed in danger. Particularly, the terms of the Torah meant that God would have to undo Israel’s blessings in light of their disobedience, and the public corruption of Israel meant that the nations could not be blessed through them.

It is in the midst of this precarious situation that the prophets, enlightened by the Spirit, began to perceive the only possible solution. Humanity, in particular Israel, was too corrupt to go on in its natural form. The roots of sin were so deep that if purposes of creation and election were ever going to be realized, humanity would essentially have to be created anew. If Israel was going to live up to its calling, it would need a new heart and new spirit, indeed a radical new outpouring of the Holy Spirit who had been working in their midst since their birth as a nation out of Egypt. They needed nothing short of a new covenant and a new creation.

Alas, before this need could be fulfilled there was also the need to deal with the consequences of Israel’s sin. By the terms of the Torah, Israel was condemned. Abraham’s descendants were at risk of being cut off from the promise because of their status under the Law. Thus God appeared to be under two conflicting covenant obligations. The terms of the Mosaic covenant required Him to desolate the same people whom the Abrahamic covenant required Him to bless, and through whom He planned to bless the world. So how was God to be faithful to both covenants, restore Israel, and bring about a new creation capable of redeeming the world?

The answer to this dilemma left hanging at the end of the Old Testament is found in Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary, marking the emergence of a new creation out of the midst of the old one. He sanctified His life by sinless communion with God. By His baptism He identified Himself with sinful Israel as their Messiah and in that role took upon Himself the job of their repentance. He brought about signs and instruments of the new creation: healing, forgiveness, and other miracles of the Holy Spirit.

In the middle of this work Jesus also performed a major symbolic act. He appointed 12 disciples to participate in and carry on His work. They were to be apostles, authorized representatives of Himself and His ministry. Yet for Israel, the number 12 was of great significance. This was not just any number, but the number of Jacob’s sons, the number of the tribes of Israel. The Messiah who took upon Himself the identity of the people of Israel expanded that identity into 12 others. He was reforming, reconstituting, recreating Israel around Himself. With His baptism into Israel’s identity and His appointing of 12 new heads, a fresh life for Israel was in labor.

Yet if there was to be a recreation of Israel, there also needed to be a new covenant. The old had failed, and Israel was under existential threat because of it. So on one fateful Passover, Jesus broke bread and served wine as signs of a new covenant with Israel based on Himself, His life and, crucially, death. This covenant was, of course, for Israel and had been prophesied by Israel’s prophets years in advance. This covenant would establish forgiveness of sins and give Israel the Holy Spirit to finally destroy their sin problem even at the root. But how would it work? And how would God deal with the destruction coming from the old covenant?

For this, Christ was crucified. This was God’s solution to the covenant problem. The same judgment He had prophesied for Israel due to their unfaithfulness, His wrath poured out through Rome3, Jesus Himself experienced as their representative. One man gave His life in place of the nation, and in His dying flesh God condemned sin as was fit to His covenantal obligations. As Paul would later explain it, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.'”4 Jesus expiated Israel’s sin in His death and so freed God to proceed with His promise to bless Israel and the nations.

With Israel’s sin dealt with, and with a new covenant established by a sacrifice before God, it was finally time for God to bring about the new creation, the regeneration of human life. Three days after Jesus’ death, He raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating Him and making Him the “firstborn from the dead.”5 People are often hesitant (or call it heretical) to speak of Jesus as “born again,” but this means no more or less than to say that He was resurrected to incorruptible, imperishable, new creation life. In this Jesus still retains His identity as Israel’s substitute and representative Messiah. In Him Israel itself is born again into the new creation. His resurrection life becomes the ground for a new life for Israel. This new resurrection life empowered by the Spirit is the solution to the biggest problem of the old covenant: Israel’s ongoing sinfulness. Israel formerly consisted only of natural men, unregenerate and without the Holy Spirit. The Torah, God-given as it was, could not penetrate to the depths of human existence to purge sin. But Christ’s sanctified and resurrected life imparted by union with Him through the Spirit is enough. It will finally overcome human sinfulness and turn Israel’s sinners into saints, turning apostasy into faith working through love.

Yet Christ’s victory for Israel was not automatic for those who were already members, and the new covenant of the new creation brought with it new terms of membership, a new stage in election. In this new covenant a relationship to Abraham alone would not be sufficient. The new covenant fulfilled the promise to Abraham exclusively through Christ, the elect Messiah. As God had once restricted the promise from Abraham’s descendants to Isaac’s descendants, excluding Ishmael’s, and then restricted it further from Isaac’s descendants to Jacob’s, so now God further restricted the covenant to those who are in Israel’s Messiah.

This next stage, then, at which people of the old, fleshly Israel are incorporated into Christ and thus Israel in a reborn form, occurs at Pentecost. At this point all is fulfilled as the Father and the Son send the Spirit to Christ’s apostles. These apostles, filled with the Spirit, are the first fulfillment to Israel of the promise. In this the new age and the new creation came to life in the midst of the present by the Spirit. Israel, actual Israelites descended from Abraham, received the forgiveness of sins, regeneration, and the Spirit in them. The were incorporated into the resurrected Messiah and so became part of a reborn Israel.

The renewing of election around Christ with a new covenant in place of the old, Torah-based covenant also brings with it an expansion in election. Now it is no longer necessary to be physically descended from Abraham to be a son of the promise. Through the Spirit and faith, even the Gentiles can share in the promise, and thus God’s promise to bless even the Gentiles through Abraham is fulfilled as well. The new terms of the new covenant, reducible essentially to loyalty to Jesus, simultaneously cut off many natural-born Israelites and enable the inclusion of many Gentiles. Thus Israel in its new form, reborn in Christ, becomes also the Church, the assembly of believers.

So what happens to the old, fleshly Israel, Jews who do not recognize their Messiah? They remain in essential exile, having been judged at AD 70 for the last time. Their future lies in the new covenant, the promise of the Spirit. There is no future for them apart from their Messiah. This does not mean that God has abandoned them, for He has fulfilled His promise by instituting a new covenant in which they can have forgiveness and moral renewal. He has taken the next step to rescue them, but those who will not repent and recognize their Messiah cannot benefit from this saving action. The word of God in election and promise has not failed, as Paul argues in Romans 9-11, and in the end we see hints that, perhaps out of continued faithfulness to Abraham and His physical descendants, God will see to it that all Israel will one day find salvation in its Messiah and His new covenant. One day perhaps there will be no more old, fleshly Israel, but all will enter the life of Israel reborn in Christ.

Of course, I am sure that many questions about details and implications of this view may remain. I cannot answer them here, as this post is long enough. But if you have any, drop a comment and I’ll look into making a good reply. I believe the narrative I have articulated here is faithful to Scripture and what is portrays about Israel and the Church. Perhaps one of these days I will get around to developing this further and adding more specific Scriptural support instead of relying so much on allusions and themes I just kind of hope people will recognize.

The Homecoming of Jesus Christ

As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both fully human and fully divine. This one person possesses in Himself two natures, the nature of God and the nature of man. Unfortunately, this is hard for us to understand. We cannot get how someone can exist in this way, so we naturally tend to lean towards error. Too easily we begin to lose sight either of either Jesus’ deity or, in my experience, more often His humanity.

Losing sight of Jesus’ humanity is, to be an honest, a pretty easy thing to do. We forget things like that Jesus grew up as a boy. He had a home, a house where he lived with His mother and His adoptive father. Nazareth was His hometown, and He certainly had favorite places to go and sights to see throughout His childhood and onward. He was, and remains, a human being with a human history and a human home. Indeed, Jesus grew up in our own world, shared in our experience of this world, and enjoyed its mountains, waters, and produce.

With this in mind, I would like to point out that Jesus is currently, in a way, away from home. While He reigns from heaven, which is truly the proper home for Him according to His divinity, He is not locally present at His human home. Jesus hasn’t walked the streets of Nazareth in two thousand years, or felt the warmth of our sun, the cool of an autumn breeze, the refreshment of flowing water. He is physically away from His earthly home, from the planet and country and town in which He lived out His childhood with Mary and Joseph.

This is, of course, far from an ideal situation. Home is a powerful part of human existence. We do not easily move past the sentiments and memories of our formative years. To say that any of this does not apply to Jesus would seem to imply that His humanity is not quite fully human, that His human life has some kind of more exalted dimension that’s just a little less earthy and personal than ours. Such an implication would be a heretical one. Can we really suspect that Jesus will be content to never return home?

Yet we know from Scripture that Jesus is not away forever. He has promised to return, and this will not be exclusively for our benefit, but for His joy as well. One day Jesus will come back to His own land and live once again among us in full physical, human life on the same earth where He played and laughed as a boy. He will be able to visit old sites, the locations of precious memories, with Mary and Joseph if He pleases. When this happens, all of creation will sing for joy and find itself radically transformed to reflect His glory. Jesus is coming home, and His homecoming will give the world, including His many brothers and sisters in the Spirit, a share in His resurrection life that will never die or fade. This is our hope. Our Elder Brother is away, and in the meantime the house is chaotic and messy. But He will return, and when He does the reunion will be everything. Lord Jesus, come. Come home.

[As a side note, I recognize that some of you will be thinking, “This can’t be quite right because this earth will be completely destroyed when Jesus returns.” With this line of thinking I do not agree at all. For the sake of space, I will simply say that I believe the destiny of creation is the same as Christ’s fate: death and resurrection. I’ve written and preached on this previously, and so I refer you to such posts.]

Is the Lord’s Prayer for Jesus to Return?

Is the Lord’s Prayer really an eschatological prayer, a wish for God to usher in the Kingdom and finish all things? Some people have suggested so, and it actually seems likely enough. So here is a possible way to read the Lord’s Prayer as a prayer for Christ to return:

Our Father in heaven – The prayer starts off by acknowledging that God is in heaven, where things are already right and where the authority over earth lies. God alone has the power and right to bring in the age to come, and since He is our Father, we can approach and ask this of Him.

Hallowed be your name – This is the ultimate goal of creation: the worship and glorification of God. To pray “hallowed be your name” is to ask God to finally bring the world to its conclusion where all is prayer and praise, and God alone is known as holy.

Your kingdom come – This is the key and obvious point of asking for God to finish the story and send Christ back to us, but I would also argue that this is in a way the intended context and meaning of the rest of the prayer. We pray for the Kingdom to come because that is what life is ultimately all about and is the only hope for the world.

Your will be done – This is what God’s Kingdom looks like, and what we pray for God to accomplish by sending Jesus back. We want a world which is in conformity to His will, where lies and lust and licentiousness are once and for all done with and instead, the world works in the perfect harmony it was created for under people who live as God designed humans to live.

On earth as it is in heaven – Heaven is the control room and the place of God’s throne where His will is actually executed supremely. The goal of all things is that earth should come fully into conformity to God’s will, just as heaven already is. Essentially, we pray for heaven and earth to finally become one.

Give us today our (daily?) bread – This does not sound eschatological at first, but the consensus these days is that the Greek word translated “daily” does not mean “daily” at all. This word appears nowhere else in ancient Greek texts but here. One theory which has gained some ground is that it means “tomorrow” or “the next day.” In essence, it could be taken to mean, “Give us today the bread of tomorrow,” i.e. the bread of the eschatological feast, the wedding feast of Christ’s union with His bride. Give us, as it were, eternal life. (As a side note, another possible translation might lead to a Communion connection, which would make sense as well since Communion is fundamentally eschatological.)

Forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors – While we think of forgiveness of sins as primarily a present or past reality, there is an important future dimension. While our sins are forgiven in Christ, we still bear the earthly consequences of our sins and must submit to death, the original punishment for sin. Our forgiveness of sins in the present anticipates the last day, when we will be delivered from all of sin’s consequences, death will be undone, and shame and guilt will be relegated to this passing age. Yet Christ also reminds us that the forgiveness we receive then will be in alignment with the forgiveness we give out now, a pressing reminder to live a life of forgiveness.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil – The word translated “temptation” is also frequently translated “trial” or “tribulation,” and it is in this sense we can see an eschatological dimension here. The Jews expected (just as many Christians do) a severe time of trial and tribulation immediately preceding the end. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray to be preserved and protected, not subject to grueling trials but delivered from the evil powers which cause them.

For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever – In concluding, we ascribe to God all that we ask of Him in this prayer. We want God to bring in the Kingdom using His power and fill the earth with His glory, and so we acknowledge these perfections of God and praise Him for them. By adding “forever,” we call to mind the eternal bliss which waits on the other side of Christ’s return. His reign will never end.