The Mystery of the Times
Topic: Dudley's Monthly Message Passage: Ephesians 3:4–3:12, Romans 8:31–8:39, 1 Corinthians 10:11–10:11, 2 Corinthians 2:17–2:17
THE MYSTERY OF THE TIMES
I have mentioned in earlier messages how confusing all the discussions about the end of the world had been to me during college and seminary. The coffee shop debate often brought out charts and maps. The pressure was on to declare your stance on the issue of “pre-,” “post-,” and “a-.” If you didn’t experience the intensity of those discussions in your journey, the issue was about whether Christ’s return would occur before the beginning of the millennium (“Pre-” as in Premillennialism), after it (“Post-” as in Postmillennialism), or if there would not be a literal 1000 years of Christ’s physical reign on earth (“A-” as in Amillennialism).
When I arrived at the religion department of Samford University as a freshman, I was confronted by an upperclassman who demanded that I declare my position. “Are you premillennial, postmillennial, or a-millennial?” he interrogated. I had come to college from a small Baptist church where we didn’t discuss such categories. I honestly didn’t know what he was asking, so I hesitated, stalling for time, and uttered, “ahh...” before my statement. He thought that was my answer and stormed away, muttering about how I was a liberal. I began to research the matter and found a lot of speculation was needed to adopt any of the systems fully. Some of the guys who confidently identified with Dispensational Premillennialism proudly displayed their Scofield Bibles. I had been given a Bible by my parents upon my decision to enter vocational ministry, but it wasn’t a Scofield. I tried one. I liked the way it felt in my hands, but it didn’t fit as well in my heart. The study notes seemed to be artificially imposed on various texts about the end times. I never bought one, though I concluded that those guys might be right—I just didn’t want to fight on that front.
No one particular view of eschatology was required at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, though certainly the most common view among students was some version of Premillennialism. (There are several ranging from Historical Premillennialism to Premillennial Dispensationalism.) In an environment where ideas could be examined more freely, I continued to “stand in the question” regarding eschatology. The classroom discussions were helpful, and the coffee shop debates were lively, but it seemed like we were trying to put the puzzle together without some of the pieces, or at least without the picture on the box top. Gradually, I began to see the value of an accurate interpretation of the biblical metanarrative. It is the story that gives context to all the events and doctrines. It was designed as a mystery that could only be explained in Jesus.
When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel . . . To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.
Ephesians 3:4-6; 8-12(ESV)
The story is about God’s having a people on earth who reflect him and partner with him in confronting the evil one, by establishing his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. All the chapters in the story fit into that overall plot. It is not just about going to heaven when we die, though that is a benefit of being in Christ. It is not about establishing a political entity to compete and rule over other political entities. It is not about trying to get better as persons, though when aligned with his story we are better off by far. It is not about Jesus coming again to do the work he has assigned his body to do now. The climax of the story is Jesus. His work, culminating with his ascension to the right hand of the Father, and sending the Holy Spirit to empower his believers, produced a new kind of community. The members have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. They are an alternative kingdom on the earth. They are different. Though each member might be at a different stage of maturity, as a body, the church is a community of people centered on the unique person of Jesus, informed by the transforming gospel of Jesus, empowered by the resurrection life of Jesus, to carry out the global mission of Jesus. Each member has received a measure of faith by which the gifts of the Spirit enable that member to display the life of Christ in the world.
It should be noted that this kingdom will encounter persecution, but it will succeed. Competing ideologies are always arising to mock the Creator and his order, but they can’t win. (See Psalm 2.) The fast-rising religion of Secularism looms like a giant monster with an insatiable appetite for power. It has filled the vacuum left by a Christ-less moralism marketed as modern Christianity. But believers are being awakened to reality as revealed in the gospel. Jesus is already seated at the right hand of the Father with all authority to rule in his kingdom. The battle is not in question. He faced down the powers of the universe arrayed against him and defeated them through his death and resurrection. He has empowered his body with the same Spirit that raised him from the dead. His word, when proclaimed, is unstoppable. It is the imperishable seed that inevitably produces the fruit of righteousness. His love is indestructible. It can destroy hatred, but hatred cannot destroy love.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:31-39 (ESV)
God has a people on earth who can enjoy him as he enjoys himself, and we are his earthly partners to display heavenly order in the middle of earthly disorder. For the time being, this community lives in a creation that is not yet fully restored (Romans 8:18-39). Though we are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17), we still live in a world suffering from the deterioration that sin brought. The full restoration is guaranteed because Jesus is already seated on the throne, ruling over all that his redemption bought, but we have the privilege of displaying the glory of eternal life while we wait for the final consummation. We are assured that what Jesus accomplished for the restoration of all creation will one day be fully realized. The presence of the Spirit is our guarantee that the whole effect of redemption will come to pass (2 Corinthians 5:5). All persons and behaviors will ultimately be judged by Jesus (Romans 2:16). What is real now in the heavenly realm will eventually be displayed on earth.
Historically, when the kingdom community has strayed from the centrality of Christ and his work of redemption, the society in which we live suffers from deception and deterioration. It seems to work like this: We enjoy the fruits of freedom when we find rest for our souls in the finished work of Jesus. We begin to focus on the freedom and promote the standards that sustain it. With this distracted focus, we then find frustration in trying to live up to the standards and resort to normalizing the sub-normal. We excuse our compromise with truth and powerlessness to address the underlying problems of society. The culture around us sees our hypocrisy and rejects our witness. We are viewed as those who condemn the sinner, yet offer no real hope of transformation. We either return to faith in God’s faithfulness revealed in Jesus, or we delay our hope until after our physical death—or we adopt a pessimistic view, essentially expecting evil to overcome good. But, God has been faithful to his community by graciously awakening a remnant to the reality of the exalted Christ. He is doing that today.
There is an enormous interest in “the last days.” Volumes have been written from various views of the last days. Some even declare that we are in the last seconds of the last day. Speculation about how the world will end will continues just as it has always occupied the minds of earth’s inhabitants. But, the New Testament is not as confusing as it might appear if we read it as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises.
Israel’s prophets looked forward to a new era where God would invade history and establish his people in their proper place under his rule. All the injustices done to them by foreign powers would be rectified. They would enjoy their special favor from God as the rest of the world would submit to their rule. History was divided into two ages: the present evil age, and the age to come (Galatians 1:4). The hope of Israel included this new age. Some expected a new level of wisdom, even greater than the age of Solomon. Others expected a new Law to live by. It would be, according to their expectation, initiated by the arrival of Messiah.
The New Testament reveals Jesus as the fulfillment of that hope. He came announcing that the time for the new age had arrived (Mark 1:14-15). He fulfilled the hope of a new wisdom in that he was the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:30). He fulfilled the hope of a new Law, in that he was the Logos of God (John 1:1). He came as the Messiah representing Israel, doing what ethnic Israel was unable to do. Israel was chosen to be God’s vessel to bless the people of the world. Jesus did that by taking on the sin of the world, paying the penalty of the broken covenant, and defeating death. He, as Messiah, offers the whole world the chance to be reconciled to God. The last days began with the coming of Christ and will continue until the consummation.
Sometimes, when that phrase is used in the New Testament, it refers to the last days of the old era. There was an overlap for some years as Jesus came in the fullness of time. The old era was not fully finished until the destruction of the Temple and the capture of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Many of the predictions of imminent judgment in the Gospels are referring to that time. Most of the New Testament books were written before this event. It is important to determine what last days are being addressed if we can. To the Corinthian church, Paul explains that the Old Testament was valuable in preparing us for our time in the story. He declares that we live in the period of the last days.
Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.
1 Corinthians 10:11 (ESV)
The apostle John declared that his readers were living in the last hour, as many antichrists were being revealed (1 John 2:18)—probably referring to the end of the old era, which was fraught with conflict between believers and the hate-filled Jewish leaders who rejected Jesus as Messiah.
Paul, in his letter to Timothy, warned him of the apostasy of powerless religion “in the last days” (2 Timothy 3:1-9). If Paul were just thinking about the future last days that still await us, his instructions would not have been applicable to Timothy. Of course, the truth of the danger of a religion that features form without power applies to anytime. And we know there have been many times in history when such happened to the church. Paul’s intense instructions apply then and now.
We can be confident that we live as God’s human partners, doing on earth what he purposes to do. We do not fear a judgment that has already been passed on Jesus, as our representative. We do live with a compelling zeal to work with God to glorify his name. We live and work as sincere servants, fully aware that our authority is delegated from the sovereign Lord, and that we stand in his presence offering a life shared with Jesus to all.
For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.
2 Corinthians 2:17 (ESV)
We don’t need to try to sell our product as if it were an ideology, philosophy, or competing religion. We don’t need to polish it up for appearance. It doesn’t need our attempts to make it more pleasing to the consumer. We aren’t salespeople; we are living witnesses whose very presence gives light to the darkness. The three characteristics mentioned by Paul in the above text gives clarity to our mission.
First, we are people of sincerity. We are what we say. It means more than non-hypocritical. It means that our showing up makes a difference. We are as conspicuous as salt and as obvious as light. We are not trying to witness. We are, by virtue of having seen the Lord, witnesses. We can talk and should when given the opportunity, but we witness even when we are not talking. We show up.
Second, we are commissioned by God. What authority! We are his chosen instruments for earthly use. He works through his delegates. We speak his word and those who would have responded to Jesus, if he were still on earth, respond to us. Those who would reject him will also reject our message. We should not be surprised. We represent him. We share his life now, and he is still on mission to bless the earth through the good news.
Third, we stand in his presence. Like the angels of Old Testament times, we are his servants and messengers. We present Christ—not just his words, but his presence. We can actually introduce people to the living Christ whose life we share.
Living in view of the times and seasons means we live in our part of the story of history. The old era has transitioned into the new. Jesus called the turmoil associated with the judgment on Jerusalem and the Temple “birth-pangs.” The new was being born out of the old. The new is here, and we are new creations within the new creation, enjoying a new covenant, displaying a new Temple, waiting for a new body. It is our privilege to honor our history by living our present to the fullest. The point of the long narrative of the Bible is the exaltation of Jesus as the fulfillment of the purpose and promises of God. Nothing should distract us from that.