the neglected Second Coming

When I was younger, there was no hotter topic than Jesus’s Second Coming, usually called the rapture, which was supposed to take the church away before the Great Tribulation, therefore called a pretrib-rapture. Hal Lindsay is well known for his book, The Late Great Planet Earth. I, along with many others had my copy and read it. He is still teaching to this day, and from the time I heard him, right along those same lines, though at one time he finally drew a line and expected Jesus to return no later than a certain year, which since has come and gone. One characteristic of such teachers and preachers is their propensity to point to nations and specific people as possible players, for example, so and so, as the anti-christ.

For obvious reasons, such teaching, though still strong in pockets has fallen on hard times. Part of that has been the modification in many quarters of dispensationalism, at least in part influenced by reformed theology, and to some extent, the Great Tradition. Maybe a larger part due to the simple fact that events like Israel’s Six-Day War, come and go, and we really don’t seem any closer to the end than before.

Christians go back to the Book, and I am in Mark 13 in my ongoing daily Bible meditation right now. A number of prominent evangelical scholars today see Jesus’s prediction entirely fulfilled in the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. I tend to think that way myself, given the specifics of that passage and the nature of the language used as reflected in the Old/First Testament prophets.

The sad fact of the matter is that the Second Coming of Christ, which is part of the gospel, has fallen on hard times, little preached and taught, so that even though all Christians have a nominal belief in it, it doesn’t seem to be sufficiently a part of any living faith, so that it does not impact day to day living. I have recently concluded for myself, that hope is perhaps my weakest link of the triad: faith, hope and love. Though I certainly have plenty of room to shore up, and actually grow in the others. I little think of heaven, or the after-life (the new heavens, and the new earth), and probably even less on Jesus’s return.

Somehow we need a return to preaching and teaching on Jesus’s Second Coming. Approaches like N. T. Wright’s and Scot McKnight’s can help us, on God’s grace and kingdom being present in King Jesus now through the gospel in the church, with the promise of fulfillment in a completion when Jesus bodily returns and restores all things in the completed new creation. At the very least, it seems to me, this should be a part of our daily faith understanding, confession and creed.

We need to take back this teaching, held hostage for some time by unhelpful, mistaken approaches. It is an important part of God’s word, of the gospel, the promise in Jesus. May God stamp it on our hearts, and help it to become a part of our lives, how we live and why, in and through Jesus.

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God’s judgment as good news

In the Bible, judgment mostly comes across as good news, or at least that’s a large swath of its teaching. One sees that over and over again in the psalms: God is going to root out the wicked and destroy them, maybe even in a way which not only brings them shame, but actually causes them to seek his face, whatever that might possibly mean in the hidden scheme of things. The backdrop of this is God’s care for the poor, the oppressed, the bereaved, as well as for his people. The day of God’s judgment, called the day of the Lord (LORD, or Yahweh in the First/Old Testament) is coming.

In the Bible, judgment always precedes salvation. We all end up being judged in some way, but God in Jesus takes the judgment for sin on himself by suffering death, even at the hands of sinners, and through that death providing the way for forgiveness and eternal life for all who believe. When Jesus returns, he will rid the earth of all evil to bring in the full salvation, somehow all of this being a new creation in the fullness of the kingdom of God.

We were raised on the version of God’s judgment as something to fear and even be ashamed of. How could a loving God pour out judgment on the earth? Admittedly some of the lines and passages in the prophets show a passion on this which seems extreme. Though one has to remember the nature of prophetic writing, how exaggeration to make a point is accepted, and not to be taken strictly literally. We in this culture with any knowledge of Christian history remember Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Heaven and hell once dominated the American Christian theological landscape in the Christian understanding within the churches. At least it was a dominant theme.

But we do much better to let that recede, and what actually is in the wave of biblical teaching appear. It may not appeal to the world, or to those coming up with some kind of new theology, but it will deal forthrightly with things as they are by a God who is completely good and pure love. As we remember the salvation provided in Jesus from all of the destruction to come, to bring us into the goodness of God’s judgment, both for ourselves individually and for the world in and through Jesus.

a gospel bigger than I, me, mine, and even us- the only gospel there is

When we open our Bibles, the beginnning is Genesis, for a reason, and the end is the Revelation for a reason, and everything in between counts, every book and for that matter, every line, has its reason and place in the whole.

It is daunting, and takes commitment over time, but we all need to be in the entire Bible, as challenging on many levels as that is, and read it through again and again. When we do, we’ll come to see that the story of Israel picked by God to be a blessing to the world is a central theme. And how that is fulfilled through them, but mainly in anticipation of the true fulfillment in Jesus.

While this is certainly for each person in our relationship to God, it is for every other person, as well, and for the entire world. It’s a good news in and through Jesus which affects everything and is therefore worldly in that sense, or one could say earthly. But in another sense it can’t be worldly at all since it can’t participate, except insofar as it influences the change of worldy structures. This is the case, because the difference is in and through Jesus, and God’s redemption, salvation, and kingdom come in him.

Only when Jesus returns will all things be changed, the god of this age gone; the world, the flesh and the devil being a thing of the past. But until then, we witness not only to a gospel for each individual, but a gospel which is to begin to demonstrate the alternative to what is necessarily in place, in this present evil age and world.

And so we live in the in between times when God’s grace and kingdom in Jesus is beginning to break in through the gospel into the church, and out from that into the world. As we look forward to the end of this age which will bring in the fullness of what has begun now in Jesus, when he returns.

the hope for 2017 and beyond

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2

There is actually one ultimate hope for us and for the world, and that hope is in King Jesus, and God’s promises in him. We in Jesus await for his return, when at last all that is lacking and wrong now, will be made right and complete in the final judgment and salvation, in the new creation. Until then, it’s not like we don’t have hope in Jesus for good in this present existence. In another place we read:

Love…always hopes…

1 Corinthians 13

Hope in scripture is put in the context of faith and love. This is a hope distinct from the blessed hope when the final salvation is put into place. But it’s certainly related to that hope.

All Christian hope is solely in Jesus. It’s not like we can’t hope for the best in the institutions of this world, in governments which are appointed by God for the good of people. But the faith, hope and love which we have in Jesus, just as they are linked together as a triad, are also dependent on the gospel. We have prayerful, lesser hopes, which are still important in their place, as we pray for everyone, for governing authorities, that people might live in peace, and that we might be able to spread the gospel in that same peace. Though in this world we can expect pockets of persecution for such a stand. That hope is grounded in God’s sovereignty now over the nations, which is often hard if not impossible to trace or understand.

And so my hope for 2017 is not so much in earthly institutions, which I think are always certain to disappoint those who have high expectations for them. Instead we look to God’s promises in Jesus for ourselves, and ultimately meant for everyone else. Even for the wicked, who will repent of their ways, and bow the knee to the one Lord, King Jesus, and trust in God and God’s promises in him.

That is my one hope for 2017 and beyond. Even while we pray, hoping for other things along the way for the good of all. More of a just and righteous peace, being one of them. While we wait in the anticipation of the blessed hope when at last every good will be fully realized in and through King Jesus.

the one hope for the world

A concern for one’s eternal and temporal security has its place, but if it stops there, then that faith is less than Christian. The hope we have in Jesus is the one hope we have for the entire world.

I am a citizen of the United States by birth, and as such certainly live in a privileged place compared to many in the world. The problem though, is that we can put our hope in earthly systems, and even in earthly authorities such as politicians, governors, rulers. To the extent which we actually do that, surely we end up blinding ourselves to the one hope that we truly have.

We pray for rulers and governing authorities, and we hope for peace and freedom for all peoples, and that all tyranny and evil would cease, for true and complete justice, especially for those who have been denied it for so long, oftentimes people of color, yes, in the United States of America. For good stewardship of the gift of the earth in ways which protect it, and people, and for an end to the tragedy of abortion.

As people of God in Jesus, we’re called to be his followers and help others to follow him. The church is to be the sign to the world of the one hope that the world has through the gospel and the beginning transformation and hope which that gospel brings.

This all began on earth through a humble, peasant, quite young woman, the angel giving her the great, good, and perplexing news of a miracle birth, Joseph, her fiancee having to work though that news before an angel appears to him in a dream, and then choosing to live with it, and at last the birth in a humble place, the baby Jesus laid in a feeding trough for animals. And at the end of his life, nailed to a cross. But resurrected from the dead, and thus sealing the witness of his life in his works and teaching of God’s grace and kingdom having come in him. And ascended to the right hand of the Father from whom he poured out the Holy Spirit on the church to be a witness to the world of this good news. That news including his return, when at long at last all will be made right and new.

That is our hope, and the one hope always for this world. Let our focus be on that, even as we seek to be faithful as a witness to a world which is given to lesser hopes that will fail and often let people, especially the poor down. As we pray for our Lord’s return. Lord, have mercy! And maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.

the primary problem with the flag draped over the cross

Yesterday, Christianity Today published an excellent critique by Andy Crouch of Donald Trump and his run for the presidency, aimed at challenging evangelicals who still support Trump, not leaving out some criticism of Hillary Clinton’s run. It is well worth the read. And Scot McKnight wrote an equally compelling piece from an Anabaptist, and certainly more importantly, a biblical perspective, questioning the allegiance of both the Christian right and the Christian left to an American political Christian position, as if America itself could, and therefore ought to be a Christian nation. Recently Jeff Manion at Ada Bible Church in his series on the book of Colossians challenged the idol that we can make of America, not questioning a proper patriotism Christians might adopt, but the kind which would see the flag draped over a cross.

The basic problem is that the gospel is not seen as a good news which is about a kingdom come in Jesus which involves all of life, but rather simply about one’s personal salvation. It is certainly that, but much more. It is about all of life, including the political sphere, a politic in and of itself in the grace and kingdom in Jesus. One enters into this through the good news of Christ by faith, and into a common life which is a precursor of the life on earth to come, when Jesus returns. It is political in that everything matters in the life of the church. The rich help the poor, while everyone is held accountable to live well, and grow in their lives together, as followers of Jesus, and no less than Christ’s body on earth. (Jesus Christ, of course; I try to use the terms in the way scripture places them.)

Of course the church can be a blessing to the state, but not by the politics of the state, except where the state wants to include the work of the church. That is where sooner or later it can be not only tricky, but downright deceptive, as the church looks to the state to provide what only the church through Jesus can provide.

Like most everything in life, this is more complicated than that, but that basic premise must never be left behind. It isn’t that what the state does, or fails to do matters. For example, I believe it shouldn’t even be an issue that there is some kind of universal health care provided through the state. Many people are not part of the church, not Christian, and God will judge nations on how they treat each other, especially the poor, oppressed and helpless. The church ought to be a model of what the state should do. Of course if the state provides services for citizens, than the church proceeds accordingly. But the point here is that the politics of the state is important. Yet the church is never to get entangled in such a way that they have an unhealthy and even idolatrous relationship with the state, seeing it as the source of blessing, rather than looking to God through Christ. The church must be careful never to get into a union with the state, and see its existence depending on the state. We know that this is simply not the case. The reality of the church is in the resurrection of Jesus and through the Spirit. The church will go on come what may. And the shalom/justice and peace, though present in some respects within the church through Jesus will not take root and flourish on earth until Jesus returns and reigns.

And so, in a kind of rambling here, I have shared a bit of what I understand to be the problem with the American flag draped over the cross, the union of church and state. Yes, American claims the separation of church and state, and in some ways we experience that through the religious freedom here. But all too often we are taken right back up into an allegiance and union in our thinking and practice which belongs to Jesus alone, and to God’s grace and kingdom present even now, in and through Jesus.

See also in this connection an important, helpful book by Allan R. Bevere: The Politics of Witness: The Character of the Church in the World.  

knowing Satan’s schemes

For we are not unaware of [Satan’s] schemes.

2 Corinthians 2

Whether we like it or not, we in Jesus are in a spiritual battle. And the more serious we are about our walk in the Lord, the more real that warfare will become.

Yes, Satan and his hosts are defeated through the risen Christ’s death (Colossians 2:15). We in Christ have the victory, and can live in that by faith. But living within that is not automatic.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God,and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

1 John 5

The world, the flesh, and the devil have aptly been called the unholy trinity, not that such is actually analgous with the Blessed Trinity, but because in scripture these three though distinct, are in sync with each other. The world refers to the world system set against God either subtely, or not so subtely. The flesh refers to humankind under the power of sin, manifest individually and systemically. And the devil is Satan, or evil personified, actually in a person which in their evil loses what is good of personhood, and disguises evil as good.

We in Christ by the Spirit and in the communion of the church need discernment from God to understand the enemy’s working, what they’re up to, and how they trip us up. There is no question that they do. And we need to be not only aware of that, but to learn to recognize it when it is happening, and know what to do to resist and overcome it. And we have to remember that in this present life this spiritual warfare will continue on (Ephesians 6:10-18) until the Lord returns.*

To be aware of this we might well say is half the battle, but we need to know what to do, as well. We certainly need to resist and stand firm, holding on to the gospel as the power of God to overcome sin, death, and evil. While seeking to remain responsible, our final hope and confidence lies only in the good news of God who is Jesus, with all the meaning that comes with that in God’s revelation found in scripture and taught by the church. There is no easy formula. It involves our entire life, and all of God’s revelation to us in Jesus, received not only once, but over and over again. Through a once for all salvation, which involves a process in growth in grace into increasing conformity to God’s will in Jesus. So that even though we through Jesus can do better and overcome some things, we must be ready for more. Hopefully getting better and better at it, as we look forward to our Lord’s return when evil will be vanquised forever and this spiritual warfare done.

*See C. S. Lewis’s, The Screwtape Letters for a most interesting, informative look at this, told in an imaginative, true to life story.