Christ, the Meaning of All Scripture, Life and History
Chapter 12—The Eschatological Framework of the Gospel
The covenantal history of the Old Testament was bound up with eschatology, the doctrine of the last things. Israel lived in the hope that the God who acted in the creation of the world and the Hebrew nation would act again in the fullness of time to create all things new. It was this hope of the coming kingdom of God which inspired the entire religious outlook of Israel.
The New Testament announces the arrival of what the Old Testament had hoped for. The message of the New Testament, therefore, is thoroughly eschatological. Jesus began His ministry with the stirring announcement: "The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has arrived" (Mark 1:15, RSV, Phillips). A. M. Hunter says:
It was nothing else than the news that 'the one far-off Divine Event' for which they prayed, had projected itself into history. What was formerly pure eschatology was now there before men's eyes, the supernatural made visible. .
Ever since C. H. Dodd coined it, arguing that the Greek verb in Mark 1.15 (engiken) has the force of 'arrived', a linguistic battle has raged, Dodd's critics contending that 'is at hand', not 'has arrived' is the true translation. We believe that Dodd is right and that engiken here has the same force as ephthasen in Luke 11.20. Even those who boggle at this translation usually concede the main point, that Jesus believed the Kingdom to be a present reality in himself and his Ministry. Indeed the evidence of the Gospels leaves us no option.
To begin with, what is the sense of saying that 'the appointed time has fully come' if in fact the Kingdom is still round the corner? But there is a good deal more to add.
In one passage after another Jesus declares that the Kingdom of God has arrived:
'If I by the finger of God cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you' (Luke 11.20. Q.).
'From the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of heaven exercises its force' (Matt. 11.12 Cf. Luke 16.16).
'The Kingdom of God is in your midst' (Luke 17.21, L.).
'The tax collectors and harlots are going into the Kingdom of God before you' (Matt. 21.31 M.).1
There is a transparent end-time urgency in the message of Jesus. If we have generally overlooked this urgency, it is because the delay of the parousia has caused us to read the words of Jesus in a way that compromises their face value.
The apostles also believed that the end of the ages had arrived (1 Cor. 10:11). We agree with Calvin J. Roetzel when he says: "Paul not only uses apocalyptic terminology for the communication of his Gospel. He also appropriates its eschatological framework."2 Again he says:
Paul's eschatological language is pervasive. . . One is compelled to agree. . . with Schoeps that "we should misunderstand Paul's letters as a whole, and the governing consciousness from which they spring, if we failed to recognize that Paul only lives, writes, and preaches in the unshakable conviction that his generation represents the last generation of mankind."3
This is why many of the key words and expressions of the New Testament are eschatological—"kingdom of God," "eternal life," "salvation," "glory," "justification," "judgment," "wrath" and "righteousness of God." We have often failed to grasp their original meaning because we have detached them from their eschatological setting.
The End of the World in Three Dimensions
There is one important difference between the Old Testament's view of the end and the New Testament's view of the end. From their Old Testament perspective, the prophets saw the end as a single event. The coming of the Messiah, the end-time effusion of God's Spirit and the great consummation were all seen as one event. In the New Testament, however, the end time unfolds in three stages. New Testament eschatology is three-dimensional.
The cross, Pentecost and the parousia represent the unfolding of the end time in three stages. As God sees them, they are one great redemptive event. But to us who live in space and time, they are past, present and future stages of the last things.
The New Testament repeatedly declares that the cross is an end-of-the-world event.
When the time had fully come, God sent His Son.—Gal. 4:4.
In these last days He [God] has spoken to us by His Son.—Heb. 1:2.
He [Christ] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of Himself.—Heb. 9:26.
He [Christ]... was revealed in these last times.—1 Peter 1:20.
Pentecost is also declared to be an end-time event. Explaining the meaning of the outpouring of the Spirit, Peter referred his hearers to the prophecy of Joel, saying:
"'In the last days, God says,
I will pour out My Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on My servants, both men and women, I will pour out My Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved."'
The Old Testament prophets had depicted the end of the world as the time when there would be a great effusion of God's Spirit. This would not only transform God's people, but even their environment, to the glory of Edenic perfection. But Paul declares that the present gift of the Holy Spirit is the firstfruit and beginning of that coming glory (Rom. 8:23; Eph. 1:13, 14). Pentecost is glorification or the life of the age to come breaking in upon the present. True, it is only the down payment, but it is both the guarantee of the full payment and the sign of its imminence. No wonder the New Testament community stands on tiptoe, waiting for the parousia!
Pentecost stands in the closest relationship to the preaching of the gospel. The Spirit of the New Testament is a Spirit clothed in the gospel of Christ; and when He takes possession of men (men do not take possession of Him), He uses them for the proclamation of the gospel. According to the New Testament, Spirit-filled men do not foolishly describe what it feels like to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Much less do they parade their charismatic endowments. They are so clothed with the gospel that they preach "the gospel... by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven" (1 Peter 1:12).
The coming of the Spirit and the proclamation of the gospel, therefore, are inseparable. This means that the preaching of the gospel is also an eschatological event. Thus Paul could declare that Isaiah's prophecy about the day of salvation was being fulfilled in the preaching of the gospel (cf. Isa. 49:8 with 2 Cor. 6:1, 2). James could state that the prophecy of Amos about rebuilding the tabernacle in the last days was being fulfilled in the preaching of the gospel (cf. Amos 9:11-15 with Acts 15:14-18).
It is, of course, unnecessary to prove that the parousia is an end-time event. Thus, the end of the world takes place in three dimensions:
1. In the death and resurrection of Christ.
2. In Pentecost and the preaching of the gospel.
3. In the return of Christ and the great consummation.
These three stages of the end are related. The first brings the second, and the second brings the third. It was the dying and rising of Christ which brought Pentecost to the church and the gospel to the world (John 7:38, 39; Acts 2:33).~ And just as the Christ event brought Pentecost and the preaching of the gospel, so the preaching of the gospel brings the consummation, even as Jesus declared, "This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come" (Matt. 24:14).
The New Testament's three-dimensional view of eschatology is a framework which helps us correctly understand many biblical concepts. It enables us to see that the entire Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ—in the incarnation of Christ, in the gospel of Christ and in the parousia of Christ. (This leaves no room for speculation on current events in Palestine.) Within this framework we may understand more clearly many of the great words and concepts of the New Testament. As an eschatological word, salvation takes place in three dimensions—past, present and future. At the cross salvation was accomplished, in the gospel it is proclaimed, and at the parousia it is revealed (1 Peter 1:3-14). Such New Testament concepts as the kingdom of God, the righteousness of God and the judgment of God are set in the same eschatological framework.
The Judgment in Three Dimensions
At the center of biblical eschatology is God's judgment of the world. If we are correct about the framework of New Testament eschatology, then God's judgment of the world takes place in three dimensions. A judgment of the world takes place first at the cross, then in the preaching of the gospel, and finally at the appearing of Jesus Christ.
The Old Testament everywhere points forward to that great day when God will judge the world. Even current events like the invading armies of Assyria (depicted in Isaiah) or the great locust plague (depicted in Joel) are employed as imagery to describe the final judgment. "The great day of the Lord is near—near and coming quickly," cries the prophet Zephaniah (Zeph. 1:14). The New Testament shares this conviction that there will be a final judgment. It repeatedly declares that this judgment will take place for all men, righteous and wicked, dead and living, at the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work.—1 Cor. 3:11-13.
It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes.—1 Cor. 4:4, 5.
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.—2 Cor. 5:10.
Christ Jesus... will judge the living and the dead, and in view of His appearing and His kingdom.... —2 Tim. 4:1.
Let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. . . . "The Lord will judge His people." ... "He who is coming will come and will not delay." — Heb. 10:25, 30, 37 (cf. Matt. 10:15; 12:36, 37; Luke 19:11-27).
But they will have to give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.—1 Peter 4:5.
But if the New Testament merely proclaimed that the judgment day is near, it would not proclaim anything more than did Zephaniah or the other prophets. In His discourse of John 5, Jesus declares Himself to be the Son of Man. Scholars agree that Jesus hereby identified Himself with the Son of Man in Daniel's vision of the judgment (Dan. 7). After the breathtaking announcement that the Father has committed all judgment into the hands of the Son, Jesus makes the startling statement that "a time is coming and has now come for Him to exercise His divine prerogatives (John 5:25). The New Testament everywhere proclaims that the events associated with the end of the world—judgment, kingdom of God, salvation, eternal life—not only will come, but have come. There is a sense in which the future has already arrived and the things of the last day have already become a present reality.
The Cross As the Judgment
Speaking of His approaching death, Jesus declared, "Now is the time for judgment on this world" (John 12:31). The writer to the Hebrews says, "As man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ...." (Heb. 9:27, 28). Calvary is judgment day. In earlier chapters we saw that those acts of God in Old Testament history which pointed forward to the Christ event were acts of judgment. The God of the Old Testament is a God of judgment. All His ways are judgment, whether He punishes or saves. The righteousness of God is His acts of judgment. When Paul announces that "the righteousness of God" is now manifested (Rom. 1:17; 3:21, KJV), he is describing something thoroughly eschatological. He means that in the Christ event, judgment day has dawned and God has taken action to deal with sin.
On Passover Friday God arraigned the world to judgment in the person of its Representative. He was Adam—which means mankind—and we were all in Him. The human race was there judged and found guilty before God. God arose in terrible justice and took action against sin (Rom. 3:25). The cosmic signs of judgment day were present in the great earthquake and the darkening of the sun. Had not Jesus told His disciples that their generation would not pass until all the events of the last day were fulfilled? And so they were—in Him (Matt. 24:34; cf. Luke 9:27-35).
Throughout the Old Testament God's acts of judgment are not only punitive but also salvific. To those who call on Him, judgment means deliverance (Ex. 6:6; Ps. 35:1-5; 43:1; 72:2-4). With strong crying and tears did Christ, the great Believer, call upon the God of the covenant. God heard His faithful Servant and raised Him from the dead. In the death and resurrection of Christ the righteousness of God—His act of judgment—was manifested. In Christ the old world was destroyed and the new world created, the old history buried and the new brought to light, Israel was sent into captivity and returned again from the land of the enemy. Calvary, therefore, was the judgment of the world.
The Gospel As the Judgment
Now we come to what is surely the heart of our whole argument about the nature of the apostolic gospel. If the gospel is to be restored to its rightful state (Dan. 8:14, RSV), it must be restored to its eschatological or judgment-hour setting. The gospel is not only something which prepares men for the eschaton; it is itself part of the eschaton. We must use great plainness of speech. The gospel is not only something which prepares men to stand in the judgment; it is itself a decisive stage of that judgment. So the apocalyptic angel who bears "the eternal gospel" declares, "The hour of His judgment has come" (Rev. 14:6, 7).5
With the ascension of Christ the judgment which began at Calvary enters its second phase. The Lamb that was slain and rose again takes the scroll from the right hand of God the Father (Rev. 5:1-7). "The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son" (John 5:22). God has "granted Him authority over all people" (John 17:2). After His resurrection Jesus declares to His disciples, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me" (Matt. 28:18). These New Testament scriptures remind us of Daniel's vision of the judgment in which "authority, glory and sovereign power" were given into the hands of the Son of Man (Dan. 7:14). There is an unmistakable correspondence between Daniel 7 and the vision of Revelation 4 and 5.
Revelation 4, 5
Thrones were set in place.—v. 9.
A throne was set.—4:2, KJV.
The Ancient of Days took His seat.—v. 9.
Someone sitting on it.—4:2.
His throne was flaming with fire.—v. 9.
the appearance of jasper and carnelian. —4:3.
Thousands upon thousands attended Him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him.—v. 10.
many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand.—5:11.
One like a Son of Man... approached the Ancient of Days.—v.13.
He ..... . [to the One] who sat on the throne.—5:7.
He was given authority, glory and sovereign power.—v. 14.
He came and took the scroll from the right hand of Him who sat on the throne.—5:7.
The New Testament rings with the message that Christ is Lord. Adam's lost dominion has been restored in the One who has taken the scroll and is now seated at the right hand of God. All judgment has been committed into His hands. Here on earth Christ's struggling, toiling witnesses may sometimes be tempted to think they are abandoned to the fate of history and to the triumph of evil powers—at least until Christ returns as King to judge. But the Revelation of St. John shows that Christ is King and Judge even now and, as such, is the Lord of history. History not only bears the marks of Christ. It is an expression of His righteous judgments in both the churches and the nations. He walks in the midst of the candlesticks of the seven churches and removes the candlestick of those who do not repent. He holds in His right hand the seven stars, which are the ministers of the seven churches. He fills them with light. But if they are unfaithful, they are visited with judgment and become fallen stars. When those who are condemned and killed for His name's sake plead to Him for judgment (Rev. 6:10), He responds with acts of judgment upon the oppressors. The trumpets of judgment bring plagues on those who turn from the gospel to worship "idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood" and who practice "their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts" (Rev. 9:20, 21).
Whether the events of history are the frightful barbarian invasions of the Western Roman Empire or the Mohammedan overthrow of the Eastern Roman Empire, whether the events are the French Revolution or the present Communist Revolution, all are to be seen as outworkings of Christ's righteous judgments and precursors of the final judgment. There is a coming wrath, but the wrath of God is already being revealed (Rom. 1:18) as so-called Christian societies are being given up to great epidemics of crime, immorality, corruption and violence. In all this the judgments of God are already in the land. As people watch unfolding events with stunned bewilderment, God's people should be like modern-day prophets and declare that "the hour of His judgment has come." As the revelator sees war, calamities, pestilence and plagues fall on the earth, he hears voices which declare:
"Great and marvelous are Your deeds, Lord God Almighty...
for Your righteous acts have been revealed." — Rev. 15:3, 4.
"You are just in these judgments . . .
because You have so judged.". . .
"Yes, Lord God Almighty,
true and just are Your judgments." — Rev. 16:5, 7.
"True and just are His judgments." — Rev. 19:2.
The entire book of Revelation has this juridical stamp. Judgment is one of the book's key words and concepts. It not only depicts a coming judgment, but a judgment already in progress and leading to the final judgment. The present judgments may appear frightening, but to the people of God they are omens of their final deliverance. When prisoners of war hear the shells and arms of their allies, they do not despair but shout for joy in prospect of their coming release. This is the spirit conveyed in the message of Revelation.
But the most vital aspect in the present process of judgment is brought to view when the great Intercessor of the temple in heaven "took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth" (Rev. 8:5). This reminds us of the words of Jesus, "I have come to bring fire on the earth" (Luke 12:49). John the Baptist said of Jesus: "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to clear His threshing floor and to gather the wheat into His barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Luke 3:16, 17). It was at Pentecost that the fire of the Spirit was cast into the earth. "Tongues of fire that separated" came to rest on the disciples (Acts 2:3). All this was in fulfillment of what Isaiah prophesied would happen in the last days: "He will cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem by the Spirit of judgment and the Spirit of fire" (Isa. 4:4, margin).
We draw attention to the juridical context of the above scriptures. The Spirit's work is represented as a work of judgment and separation. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit is called the Paraclete (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7-11). This word means Advocate (1 John 2:1) and probably refers to the Old Testament Go'el, the one who pleaded another person's case in the Hebrew law court. The Holy Spirit is also called the Witness of Jesus Christ (Acts 5:32), and this again is a juridical title. From this evidence it should be clear that the Holy Spirit is vitally associated with a work of judgment. In other words, the second stage of the judgment is inaugurated as Jesus takes the scroll from the Father and then from His sanctuary casts the fire of Pentecost into the earth.
How is this work of judgment and separation accomplished by the Holy Spirit? As the Advocate and Witness of Jesus Christ, He does not speak on His own (John 16:13, 14). He comes clothed in Christ's gospel. It is by the gospel that this work of judgment and separation is accomplished.
In the gospel the Holy Spirit rehearses before men God's great act of judgment in the death and resurrection of Christ. Apart from the Spirit there could be no gospel. We could only talk about the cross as some distant historical event. But a mere recitation of history is not preaching the gospel. In an earlier chapter we showed that biblical rehearsal is more than a mere memorial. It is a re-presentation in which all the power and presence of God's covenantal act become present.6 So when the cross is rehearsed before men in the power of the Spirit, it is just as if Christ were being crucified before their eyes (Gal. 3:1; Rev. 5:6). Calvary is always present before God, and His Spirit makes it present before us. It is through Pentecost that the past becomes present. This is how the story of the cross becomes the gospel, "the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16).
If Calvary was the judgment of the world, the Yom Kippur or day of atonement, the preaching of the apostolic gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit means that this judgment becomes present to us. As the people of God look upon Him whom they have pierced, they afflict their souls as Israel did when they gathered around the sanctuary on their Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27; Joel 2:15-17; Zech. 12:9-14).
While the whole world was represented at Calvary's judgment, it is necessary that men be individually brought to the cross, either to be graciously included in the holy history of Jesus Christ or to refuse it. By their response to the cross they are judged. Those who believe are justified. In Paul, justification is the acquitting verdict of the final judgment (Rom. 2:13) received in the now by faith on the ground that the judgment has already been effected in Jesus Christ. ("One died for all, and therefore all died" [2 Cor. 5:14].) Those who believe not are condemned. This too is a verdict of the final judgment projected into the present historical process. John's juridical and eschatological language is unmistakable:
Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. This is the verdict [Greek, krisis, meaning the decision of the judgment]: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.—John 3:18, 19.
I tell you the truth, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.—John 5:24.
Not only does the past judgment of Calvary become present in the gospel, but the future judgment is also mysteriously present. All the blessings of the future judgment—the inheritance, eternal life, glory, justification—are made present in the gospel to be accepted by faith. So too, all the terrors of the future judgment—condemnation, the wrath of God, death—become present to those who believe not. To be confronted with the gospel is as solemn as standing before God on the day of final judgment. In fact, the final judgment will only confirm the verdict passed upon us in this probationary time. The final day will be an open disclosure of what the verdict of God and our own conscience has already been—for the human conscience agrees with the verdict of God.
One more thing points to the juridical nature of the gospel. The initiative in His acts of judgment is always with God. God appointed the time when Christ died and rose again (Acts 2:23, 24). "He has set a day when He will judge the world" (Acts 17:31). He also appoints the hour when men are brought to judgment in the power of the gospel. No one can come to Christ except it be given him of God (John 6:65). We do not come to the Spirit or faith. The Spirit and faith must come to us. It is a delusion to think the sinner has free will so that he can become a Christian any time he chooses. A prisoner has the freedom to walk out of jail only when the jailer opens the door and invites him to come out. It is written, "Thy people shall be willing in the day of Thy power" (Ps. 110:3, KJV). But unless the Spirit graciously comes to us in the gospel, we have no desire or ability to break out of our captivity. No one arranges the propitious moment when he passes from death to life. No one can say, "I will now hear the gospel and become a believer." The sinner is totally deaf and cannot hear the gospel unless the Lord is present to open his ears. He is blind to the heavenly treasure unless the Spirit opens his eyes. He who hears the gospel through the gracious work of the Spirit has no assurance he will hear the gospel again if he refuses it. God is not a servant of man who can be trifled with. He is a God of judgment. The initiative in salvation is always with Him.
Thus the apostolic gospel is set in the framework of the eschatological judgment. This is why the center of Paul's gospel is justification through faith in Christ's blood. Paul sets the judgment of God before us in such a way that justification is seen to be our greatest and most urgent need. His message of justification deals with the most fundamental realities in the universe. But if the gospel is removed from this eschatological setting or from its juridical setting, it ceases to be the apostolic gospel. No one can know what the apostolic gospel is unless he has stood before God in judgment and knows that God surely requires of him a righteousness that will endure the scrutiny of the Almighty. It is from God's judgment bar that a sinner is justified when by faith he lays hold of that righteousness which is unspoiled by man, a righteousness with which he can stand boldly before God's face in judgment.
If we are to effectively proclaim the gospel, we should use every biblical resource at our command to set before men the reality of God's judgment. We should use prophecy and biblical signs to illuminate the meaning of our times. We should show that the state of the nations, our society, the church and current events are evidence that this is an hour of judgment. But above all, we must preach the gospel as the judgment of God which is His prelude to the final judgment. The gospel, restored to its historical, juridical and eschatological setting, is the essence of the pre-advent judgment. The community which is hearing that gospel is a community which is surely being brought to judgment. For "it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God" (1 Peter 4:17).
1 Hunter, New Testament Theology, pp. 27-8.
2 C. J. Roetzel, Judgment in the Community: A Study of the Relationship between Eschatology and Ecclesiology in Paul (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972), p. .90.
3 Ibid., p.107.
4 The Spirit is not won by anything men do but by the mighty deeds of Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:10-14).
5 Cf. Rev. 14:6, 7 with Mark 1:15 and John 5:25. The kingdom of God and the judgment are virtually the same in that the King's chief function is judgment (see Ps. 72, etc.). The gospel message not only announces that the kingdom and the judgment will come, but that it has come. In a certain sense the age to come, with all its blessings and curses, has already broken into the present. To miss this point is to miss the fundamental structure of New Testament thought.
6 Luther tried to capture this thought in his doctrine of the Supper.