David Moore, who blogs at www.twocities.org, conducted the following interview.
R. Alan Streett is Senior Professor of Biblical Exegesis at Criswell College. I recall listening to his stimulating radio program during the early 1980s.
For those of us who are older (I am 55), and still ponder doing doctoral work, Alan is a great example of perseverance. He did his first PhD in his thirties, but recently completed a second PhD in New Testament while in his sixties.
Streett blogs at http://already-not-yet.blogspot.com.
This interview revolves around Streett’s book, Heaven on Earth. There is much food for thought here.
Moore: What was the motivation behind writing this book?
Streett: About a dozen years ago I came across Professor William Abraham’s book The Logic of Evangelism in which he asserted the kingdom of God was the theme of NT evangelism. I also read George Eldon Ladd’s article in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement on Matthew 24:14 in which he explains how preaching the “gospel of the kingdom” to the nations might hasten Christ’s return to earth. These ideas captured my imagination and got me started on my kingdom journey. Since then, I have read hundreds of books on the subject, ranging from classics to the mundane.
As I shifted through a mountain of materials and analyzed the various theories, I began to formulate my own understanding of the kingdom. First, I discerned that the kingdom of God is the grand narrative of the entire Bible. Second, I recognized the need for local churches to become kingdom-focused.
Quite frankly, most pastors and lay people have no idea what the kingdom of God is about or where the local church fits into God’s kingdom agenda. I wrote HEAVEN ON EARTH to help believers fill this void.
Moore: Why do many pastors talk more about theological systems and less about the kingdom of God?
Streett: Most pastors have attended a Bible college or seminary that aligns itself with a particular theology: dispensational, covenant, Wesleyan, Anabaptist, etc. Much time is spent indoctrinating students in these theological systems. Little attention is given to the kingdom of God, except as a subtopic in an eschatology section of a systematics course. Therefore, pastors are unfamiliar with the wealth of material available from such writers as Schweitzer, Perrin, and Wright.
As I see it, the kingdom of God is the overarching theme of the Bible from start to finish. It is an umbrella under which all theology is subsumed. Hence, it is the most important theological concept that should be taught to all students.
Moore: You write, “I have searched the Gospels to find a single case of Jesus refusing a person’s request for healing. I have yet to find one.” What implications, if any, does that have for Christians today?
Streett: Jesus not only preached the kingdom but demonstrated the power of the kingdom (Acts 10:38). The “word” about the kingdom and the “work” of the kingdom cannot be separated. The gospel (good news) of the kingdom is about wholeness, which means it deals with more than deliverance of the soul. It also includes healing for the body. Through the OT prophets God speaks of a day when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, And the tongue of the dumb sing” (Isa 35:5‒6).
When Jesus began his ministry, these verses became a reality. Healing was part of his kingdom agenda (Luke 4:18). He heard the voice of God clearly and knew when and whom to heal. I imagine when the disciples saw these manifestations of the kingdom they expected Jesus to overthrow the Roman Empire and set up God’s reign on earth. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead he established his church to carry out an “interim” kingdom agenda until the arrival of the ultimate kingdom at his second coming.
We live in this “already, not yet” period. After his ascension to heaven, Jesus sent the Spirit to empower the church to fulfill its mission. Healing is one of the eschatological gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:9). Therefore, we should expect to see people healed.
God’s presence is now located in the body of Christ (the church) as it was in the physical body of Jesus when he walked the earth. The church’s ministry of healing will reflect Jesus’ ministry in two ways. First, healings are temporal in nature, i.e. those healed will eventually succumb to death. Second, healings are a sign that points to God’s ultimate kingdom when all are resurrected an experience perfect health.
There is a significant difference between healing now and then. Because we are influenced by the world and affected by sin, we do not discern God’s voice and will as clearly as Jesus. He knew whom and when to touch for healing. He was a perfect channel through whom healing flowed. We are not. Therefore, we pray for everyone, asking God’s will be done in each case.
Moore: How has your view of miracles changed over the past thirty years?
Streett: I have always believed in miracles. But until recently I did not understand the relationship between miracles and the kingdom of God.
The Old Testament contains many miracle accounts, but something new happened when God poured out the eschatological Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism and then upon the church at Pentecost. History shifted gears. Lesslie Newbigin, the respected missionary and NT scholar, called the Christ event, “the hinge of history.” Hence, the present evil age entered the stage of history known as the last days and headed toward its demise. The kingdom of God, on the other hand, began to dawn.
Like healing, miracles are a demonstration of the Spirit’s power and a foretaste of things to come, which point to the day when the world is restored and God is all in all. Paul speaks of a “gift of miracles” (1 Cor 12:10). If the reigning Lord has provided the church with a gift of miracles, shouldn’t we expect to see an occasional miracle?
Moore: How does the individualism which is found in many American churches unwittingly undermine what it means to be a church?
Streett: God’s goal is to rescue creation from the powers of darkness and to establish his universal kingdom on earth. The process leading to this end is called salvation history. On the cross, Jesus broke the strangle hold Satan had over the world and began his reclamation project.
God then established the church as a corporate entity to advance his kingdom agenda during the already/not yet period of history (Matt 16:18‒19). Like a foreign embassy in Washington, DC, that represents its government back home, so the church is a new body politic that represents the government of God on earth. As followers of King Jesus, we are individual citizens of God’s kingdom.
Most people believe salvation is all about the individual. We often hear an evangelist proclaim, “If you were the only person on earth Christ would have died for you.” While I sympathize with that sentiment, salvation is much bigger than the individual. It is about rescuing and reclaiming the entirety of creation. And we are invited to get in on it and become part of the new creation (2 Cor 5:17).
American individualism is more aligned with democracy than kingdom theology. Once we embrace an individualistic mindset, we become self-focused rather than kingdom-focused.
Moore: You have some important things to say about the Lord’s Table. Do you think Protestant churches have overreacted to the sacramentalism of other traditions? Also, what would a more intentional focus on the communion look like?
Streett: First, let me say I have written a book devoted exclusively to this subject, entitled SUBVERSIVE MEALS (Pickwick, 2013, 340 pp). The first-century church came together to eat (1 Cor 11:18, 33). This 3-4 hour worship event was a combined meal and ministry. The experience in its totality was called the Lord’s Supper. In this setting, believers had an encounter with the manifest presence of the living Christ. They believed the Lord hosted their meal and moved among them. Therefore, each experience was alive with expectation.
It is doubtful the apostolic church observed anything like a modern-day Eucharist, repeating the words of institution (“This is my body…. my blood…. do this in memory of me”). The actual meal was the Lord’s Supper.
It was not until the late first or early second century that a symbolic Eucharist (as we understand it) became part of the church’s weekly observance. During the Medieval Age, debates raged over the nature of the Eucharist (consubstantiation, transubstantiation, etc.), and still rage today. Such disputes were unknown to the primitive church.
Where does that leave us? I would like to see churches adopt a worship model that incorporates a weekly or monthly meal and includes time for eating, conversation and ministry. Such an endeavor will take some imagination and logistical maneuvering, depending on the size of the congregation.
Ideally, I would like to see congregations move away from the church as “a lecture hall” model and adopt more of a “supper club” model.
Moore: Towards the end of the book you say, “Like all kingdom undertakings, church discipline is political.” Unpack what you mean by that.
Streett: The church is a “holy nation” set in the midst of other nations, whose citizens are called to be obedient to their King. As a political entity, the church operates according to laws and regulations. When a believer rebels and violates kingdom ethics, s/he must be brought before the church and disciplined. In this sense, the government of God differs little from any worldly government, with one major exception. The goal of church discipline is not to judge and punish the offender, but to lead him or her to repentance, so they can receive forgiveness of sins, be restored to the kingdom community, and motivated to make restitution to offended parties.
When the local church practices church discipline, it demonstrates what it is like to live under the gracious reign of God now and points to the purity that will exist in God’s future kingdom. Church discipline is an alternative to secular courts.
Church discipline is redemptive. A church that attempts to maintain purity within its ranks yet extends grace and forgiveness to all is attractive. When outsiders witness church discipline being done correctly, they often sit up and take notice. Possibly it’s worth joining this kingdom and serving its King.
Moore: What are some of the biggest misconceptions Christians have about the New Heaven and New Earth?
Streett: Two of the more obvious misconceptions result from the way Christians approach the Scriptures. Most Christians don’t interpret a text, they unwittingly read into the text. They come to the text with their own peculiar theological presuppositions. For example, if one reads Revelation 21‒22 from a dispensational perspective, s/he will place the New Heaven and New Earth along a rigid timeline that includes the rapture, seven year tribulation, second coming, a millennium in which people die, and destruction of the earth by fire, final judgment in Hell, and eternity. Those in the covenant camp face the same kinds of problems. Only their conclusions will be different.
Therefore, we must set aside our theological systems and make a heroic effort to approach the text with fresh eyes. Through careful exegesis we must allow the text to speak for itself. When we succeed at the task, our theology will begin falling in line with the Scriptures.
The second interpretive problem we face, leading to misunderstanding the New Heaven and New Earth is a failure to understand the nature of apocalyptic literature. Revelation is an apocalyptic book filled with monsters, numeric formulas, and coded language that have hidden and symbolic meanings. Many believers read Revelation as if it was written in straight prose. This leads to a literalistic and stilted interpretation.
Different rules of interpretation apply to different kinds of literature. Therefore, whenever we approach a text, our first question must be, “What kind of genre is it?” For example, one would not interpret a parable the same as a genealogy. Misconceptions about the New Heaven and New Earth are the result of not understanding the various types of genres.
As I understand things, the Scriptures indicate that God created the original universe that consisted of heavenly and earthly realms. A rebellion occurred in each. The scope of Scripture is a narrative of how God is reclaiming and restoring creation. The end result is a New Heaven and a New Earth. Its exact nature and when and how it will come about is not so clear. But we can all affirm that paradise lost will be paradise restored.