Fundamental Eschatological Issues
The "Kingdom" consists of three fundamental components: (1) a king, (2) a people, and (3) a circumscribed domain - a territory. The "king," of course, is Christ - raised from the dead, exalted, empowered, and sitting at the right hand of the Father (Ephesians 1:20-21); the "people," the second fundamental component of the kingdom, are even now being gathered - ironically, from out of the Kingdom of Darkness (Acts 26:18, Eph. 5:8, 1 Peter 2:9, etc.) - on the basis of the atonement and the sanctifying ministry of the Holy Spirit. But establishment of the kingdom's "domain" - its territoriality - has been postponed until all the "elect" have been gathered (2 Peter 3:9). Its establishment awaits Christ's personal intervention - the long prophesied "Day of the Lord" (Isaiah 13:9-11, Zephaniah 1:15, Amos 5:18-20, 2 Peter 3:10, etc.) Thus, the present era is pervaded with an eschatological tension: the Kingdom is being established - but it is not yet fully consummated. It's inception was Pentecost; and its culmination is the still future "Day of the Lord."
The Christian Message
The fully manifested kingdom awaits the "Day of the Lord" - and it's established on the basis of a cathartic judgement of God (Isaiah 13:9-11, Zephaniah 1:15, Amos 5:18-20, 2 Peter 3:10, etc.). At present, justice and judgement are held in abeyance - suspended; because the premature imposition of judgement would destroy the very souls God has "elected" for the Kingdom (2 Peter 3:9). Only enough judgement is meted out to prevent total chaos. That suspension does not compromise God's righteousness - because the atonement upholds it - the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ (Romans 3:25-26). The church's mission, then, is clearly restricted to proclaiming, promoting, and fostering reconciliation - peace with God (2 Corinthians 5:18-20); her archetypal calling is found in Matthew 4:18-19: "I will make you fishers of men." Her message is forgiveness - and she preaches judgement not for the purpose of effecting that judgement, but only to warn of its inevitability should her message of forgiveness be spurned.
Suffering and Persecution
The "message of forgiveness" can only be preached by a "forgiving people" - a people willing to forgo the justice to which a claim based upon righteousness might entitle them. That claim is laid aside; and, instead, misunderstanding and, ultimately, persecution are endured - all for the sake of magnifying the gospel - expanding its scope and sharpening its appeal. The message of forgiveness is not meant simply to be preached, but to be lived. Our model is Christ Himself "...who when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not..." (1 Peter 2:23). Note also: John 15:20: "The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you..." 1 Corinthians 4:12-13: "...being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it: being defamed, we entreat..." 2 Timothy 3:12: "Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution."
The Nature of the Christian Life
The believer is called to a life of personal and corporate devotion - a life marked by (1) sanctification and (2) "incorporation": on the one hand, of personally drawing ever closer to God and, on the other, of being concretely built up with fellow believers - of being pressed into a vital and caring relationship with them. The Holy Spirit is the special guardian of the "church age." He seals the elect with the stamp of God's ownership and ministers transforming grace. Enterprise and stewardship - though important and expected - are secondary, the inevitable fruit of an intimate and deeply personal union with God (Ephesians 2:10). The "saved" are being prepared for the "coming" Kingdom - and are called upon to cultivate a life which reflects that privilege and expresses a profound thankfulness. It's a life of worship and glorious praise. Joy is an abiding hallmark - a joy which transcends the unavoidable tribulation and persecution - and is fixed upon the certain hope of standing in His presence - glorified and triumphant.
Political activism is largely useless. The church is not the eschatological agent of cultural transformation. Political activism, therefore, can only be justified on the basis of an appeal to conscience, not on the basis of an eschatological rationale; and whatever activism is instigated should be restricted in scope - and built largely around an evangelistic strategy. Christ's personal intervention is the "sine qua non" of all truly enduring political righteousness and social justice - and that intervention begins with the "Day of the Lord" - and is marked by staggering portents and cataclysmic upheaval. The opposition of unregenerate mankind cannot be softened and gradually diminished. It is a diabolical enmity - and it extends to the very "end" - and, indeed, actually worsens. The nations - and the social institutions which comprise the fabric of those nations - are beyond redemption - destined to be crushed. The new order is established upon the wreckage of the old (2 Peter 3:10 and 13; Isaiah 65:17; Revelation 21:1, etc.).
Material Wealth and Security
Title to the earth has, of course, passed to Christ - by virtue of the cross (John 12:31); however, Satan retains actual possession (1 John 5:19) - because no claim based upon that title can be pressed until all the elect have been gathered. Hence, Christians are "strangers and pilgrims" (Hebrews 11:13) - who, like Christ, can find no rest within the cosmos of secular institutions (Matthew 8:20, 2 Peter 3:10-13). The church is an alien body. To be sure, that alienation will finally be terminated - at the "Second Coming" on the "Day of the Lord;" but until then, it cannot be assuaged - it cannot be overcome. Jesus Himself declared: "...(Christians) are not of the world, even as I am not of the world..." (John 17:14-16). Wealth often undermines that "mind-set" - and fosters instead entanglements and compromises which strip believers of their witness and erode their faith (1 Timothy 6:6-10). Wealth is not an irremediable evil - its godly stewardship is actually rewarded; however, it can be very deceptive - and its anxious pursuit is severely condemned.
Mission of the Church
The all-important and over-riding mission of the church is the salvation of the lost. The earth is a large, magnificent ship; but she is sinking - and nothing can be done to salvage her. Christians, therefore, should not be encouraged to "man the bilge pumps." Instead, they should be exhorted to help the passengers find the lifeboats and get on board - and those lifeboats are Christ. Certainly, Christians should help to mitigate the abuses and exploitation which so frequently characterize life aboard the ship; of course, the church should protest wickedness and injustice; but she should protest not on the grounds of her mission, but, instead, solely because the moral scruples of her Christian conscience cry out for her to protest - and - whenever possible - to remedy. Still, she should not become distracted from her primary mission; her vast resources must not be shunted into a political void; her people and her wealth - all miserably squandered. Her primary mission, the salvation of the lost, must not be compromised because of an aggrieved political and social consciousness.
The unsaved - during the present dispensation - are the objects of God's mercy: it's for them that Christ stripped Himself of His majesty and shed His blood. The unsaved, therefore, must never be cast in the role of "enemy." The inevitable persecution which they inflict tempts Christians to strike back; but that temptation must be resisted; it plays into the hands of the devil: (1) the church loses sight of her real enemy - not "flesh and blood" - but Satan himself; and (2) the church ceases to preach the message of forgiveness: she becomes too engrossed in bitterness and spite to preach it - too angry with the unsaved to extend them God's offer of mercy. The unsaved are not "the jailers of God's people." The unsaved are themselves captives - and the church has been commissioned by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit to rescue them - sent into the "strongman's house" (Matthew 12:29) - to plunder it, to seize its goods - the souls of the lost - and to incorporate them into the Body of Christ - making them trophies of God's grace.
The Relationship between the Church and the State
Certainly, individual Christians - acting on the basis of their own personal convictions - should be encouraged to shoulder the responsibilities of good citizenship - to participate in the political process - and, in that sense, help to mold and fashion the state. However, the church should not - in any formal sense - forge an alliance with the state. Her primary plea should be simple and straightforward: to be left alone to preach the gospel and gather converts. Christian" kingdom building" has always perverted both the gospel and the state - tyranny and repression have been its tragic consequences. The state is politically derived - the inevitable product of compromise and coalition formation. But compromise has never been a defining characteristic of Christian "kingdom builders." Instead, Christian "kingdom builders" have, historically, proven to be very intractable - unwilling to temper their convictions or to propose meaningful concessions; and that has bred dreadful results - ranging from bitter disappointment to a frightening polarization which has ripped asunder the very fabric of the state - and has transformed the gentle and kind gospel message into the hammer of an angry oppression.
The Scriptures should be interpreted literally. A figurative interpretation is occasionally justified, but it should never be presumed. It often amounts to little more than a ruse - a clever ploy designed to facilitate an interpretation which cannot otherwise be sustained. Israel, therefore, is not a mere "type" of the church - a simple allegorical device meant to clarify its definition. Nor are the Jews meaningless anachronisms - bereft of spiritual significance. None of the promises God made to the Jews has been abrogated. To be sure, the Scriptures do not obfuscate Jewish recalcitrance; but, instead, plainly underscore it; nevertheless, that obstinacy will yet be terminated; God has not forsaken the Jew - and will soon miraculously intervene on the basis of His sovereign grace. He will prick their conscience, press them toward authentic repentance, and open up a fountain of cleansing for them. Both the Law and the Prophets point unmistakably to that conclusion - and only a figurative interpretation of the Old Testament can obscure it.
The Bible clearly sketches an eschatological scenario linking Israel to the Second Coming. Its broad outline is simple: (1) Israel will find herself emerging from a long epoch of dispersion - the consequence of her stubborn disobedience. (2) She will find herself reconstituted a sovereign nation - with her capital at Jerusalem. (3) Nevertheless, her sovereignty will once again be threatened - and, eventually, she will find herself encircled by implacable enemies. (4) A vicious, genocidal war will be launched against her - and Jerusalem will be besieged. (5) The defense will be heroic, but futile. (6) Nevertheless, at the point of capitulation Messiah will supernaturally intervene; (7) the veil will be drawn back - and the besieged Jews will behold the truth: that Messiah is Jesus, the pariah "whom they pierced;" (8) a crushing repentance will ensue; and (9) a fountain of cleansing will be opened. (10) The gentile nations will be vanquished. (11) The Messiah will establish His personal reign; and (12) will institute Israel's preeminence among the nations.
A Graphic Depicting the Grand Theme of Scripture
Close to forty years ago, a good many theologians found themselves wrestling with the apparently fragmented nature of the Bible. They found it impossible to identify a single theme that tied together all the books of the Bible - from Genesis to Revelation - including the wisdom books, the histories, and the prophets. In 1978, Walter Kaiser, then President of Trinity Evangelical Seminary, published a book that suggested just such a theme. I have depicted that theme in graphic form below. The theme can be reduced to a simple three part formula . . .
The formula expresses God's intention - the purpose underlying God's creation of mankind: to wit, mankind is meant to enjoy an especially intimate relationship with God. But a relationship with God is necessarily grounded in holiness. It's not surprising, therefore, that a call to holiness is likewise woven into the warp and weft of scripture: "Therefore, be holy, for I am holy." And therein lies the snag. Mankind's hopelessly corrupt nature stands in the way - and it's around that connundrum that so much of the Biblical drama revolves.
I orginally developed the graphic I've sketched out below as an aid to accompany a class I was teaching. It was never designed to stand alone - meaning it's not meant to be self-explanatory. If, however, you look it over carefully and "think through" its implications, you'll be able to pick up some of the more obvious the truths it's meant to reflect. For those of you taking my discipleship class, however, we will be making extensive use of it - and, over time, the truths imbedded in it will become quite clear.