Eschatology Begins Here

Eschatology Begins Here January 14, 2014

Where does eschatology, the belief in the future, begin for the Christian? for Paul? Right here:

If Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead, then it meant either that the whole cosmos had gone completely mad or that ‘the resurrection’ had come forward into the present, in just this one case, with Jesus leading the way and everyone else following in due course.

So N.T. Wright, in Paul and the Faithfulness of God (1062). It is crying pity that so much of Christian eschatology has become debates about the rapture and whether or not there is a real, live 1000 year millennium, and just how tribulation and rapture are connected. No, no, 1000x no, eschatology is front, left, right, and center and back about the resurrection of Jesus. Everything else (and everyone else) follows suit. Without resurrection it’s nonsense; with it everything else falls in line.

He makes a second point: if crucified as a messianic pretender and if raised as a vindication by God, then he was the Messiah. If that is the case, then the Story found its solution in King Jesus. In Romans 1:1-4 and 1 Cor 15:20-28 we see two more elements: following that resurrection-as-vindication, Jesus now rules and Jesus will return to rule in the kingdom. Now we have our bearings for a genuine Christian eschatology, and notice the emphases: Jesus as king ruling over God’s people in the kingdom of God.

A strong case can be made for saying that whenever Paul refers to Jesus as kyrios – from Romans 1.5 onwards! – it is this that he has in mind: the sovereign rule of the Messiah, inaugurated already, fulfilling the prophecies in which the world would at last be brought to book by the true human in charge of the ‘animals’, by the Messiah in charge of the nations. Certainly the concept of the messianic ‘inheritance’, in the sense of Jesus’ sovereignty over the whole world, is assumed by Paul to be central, as in Romans 8.17– 25, in which the ‘now and not yet’ consists of Jesus already ruling the world and his people promised their share in that saving, liberating regime – even though at the moment their participation in it seems to consist mostly of mysterious groanings and inarticulate prayers. The kingship of Jesus is already, for Paul, a present reality. He is ‘at the right hand of God’, as in Psalm 110 (1066).

And this death with resurrection complex leads to a New Exodus — liberation for the people of God.

Not all his statements of the achievement of the cross fit snugly within a ‘new-Exodus’ theme, but some (including those just mentioned) clearly do, and the others draw on related biblical passages such as Isaiah 40—55. The danger, in western theology at least, has been that what is usually called ‘atonement’ is seen in a dehistoricized fashion, as though the cross functioned simply as the peculiar historical outworking of an essentially abstract or ‘spiritual’ transaction. But if we keep second-temple Judaism in mind, the reality of what Paul means by ‘redemption’ was that Israel’s God had acted decisively within history to deal with evil in general and the sin of his people in particular, meaning that with this blockage out of the way the new creation could be set in motion, starting with the resurrection of Jesus and continuing to its completion in the renewal of all things. In the end, the one God would be ‘all in all’. The cross, then, is not simply part of the definition of God (chapter 9, above) or the key fulcrum around which the purpose of God in election is accomplished (chapter 10, above). It is also at the heart of Paul’s inaugurated eschatology (1071).

All of this happens, as well, through the Spirit (Wright’s intent on writing “spirit”), and here he draws on Spirit and indwelling and especially new temple themes.

But there is an eschatology still to come, and so he spells out how that is to be seen in light of the larger story that is at work, once again setting new teeth into old bread:

What has happened, it seems, is a combination of five things:

  1. There is the older Jewish expectation: YHWH will come back, with all his holy ones, and will sort out the mess of Israel and the nations once and for all.
  2. There is the messianic version of this expectation: David’s son and heir will destroy the wicked with the sword of his mouth and the breath of his lips.
  3. Then there is Paul’s reappropriation of these and related traditions, based on his firm belief (itself grounded in Jesus’ resurrection) that the hope of Israel had been dramatically inaugurated through Jesus and the spirit: this future scenario had come to birth in the present, but with the all-important eschatological now-and-not-yet division.
  4. Then, since Paul identified Jesus as the one in and through whom YHWH had become personally present, it was not difficult to transfer to  him the still-future expectation of YHWH’s ‘day’ or ‘coming’ or ‘appearing’. This sustained the ‘divine manifestation’ meaning of both parousia and phaneroō.
  5. Finally, it will not have been lost on Paul that parousia, epiphaneia and related ideas were familiar as terms for the royal visit, or appear- ing or return, of Caesar himself.

When, therefore, he speaks of Jesus’ triumphant return in power to establish his sovereign rule over the whole world, and when he uses, in relation to Jesus, language which was in fairly common use for the return or appearance of Caesar, the present ‘world ruler’, we should draw the obvious conclusion. Just as the ancient Israelite expectation of ‘the day of YHWH’ included the hope that YHWH would be revealed as the true ruler of the world by the overthrow of pagan tyrants, whether of Egypt, Babylon or anywhere else, so Paul’s expectation of ‘the day of the lord’ included the expectation that, on the last day, that which was already true would at last be revealed: Jesus is lord, and Caesar is not (1084-1085).

We can’t develop this but the theme of “glory” in Paul is as much related to God returning to Zion as it is to such things as luminosity; therefore it is about the people and the world being put right and new creation.

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