We do not see our signs;
There is no longer any prophet,
Nor is there any among us who knows how long.
How long, O God . . .
• Psalm 74:9-10
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What is (or should be) the most troublesome matter in theology for Christian people?
It is the fact that we are still here as we’ve always been, and that the world has not been transformed under the rule of Christ.
We read words in the New Testament like this:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
• Romans 8:18-25
Yes, the text speaks of “waiting with patience” for the hope promised to Jesus’ followers. However, remember, those words were written to believers nearly 2,000 years ago! At that time, the apostle says, creation was waiting “with eager longing” for its final redemption. Haven’t creation’s “labor pains” continued past the point that anyone would expect? Didn’t Paul go on to say, “the night is far gone, the day is near”? (13:12).
“Quite clearly, whatever Paul expected, he expected it to happen soon, and no doubt within his own lifetime” (Stephen S. Smalley).
Doesn’t the New Testament lead us to believe that Jesus ushered in “the last days,” the days when God’s kingdom would come, and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven?
The book of Hebrews says:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. (1:1-2)
It also gives perspective on the relationship of Jesus’ followers to the saints that came before:
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect. (11:39-40)
The author’s point is that, before Jesus came, people were waiting, looking, longing for the fulfillment of God’s promises. They were people of faith and hope, trusting in God’s word that one day he would act, that the “city” he was “preparing” would become their home. Throughout their lives and throughout the long history of Israel, they wandered and struggled and hoped toward that future pledge.
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (11:13-16)
But now, the author of Hebrews proclaims, we have received it!
Of course, that didn’t imply an immediate consummation, for the author then goes on to talk about a race that his readers must run with perseverance (12:1-13). But a 2,000 year race is one whale of a marathon, and there appears to be no finish line in sight.
Who would have thought that the life of Jesus’ church in “the last days” would span a history as long as Israel’s before Christ? And that our history would be as checkered under the risen and reigning Christ? Is there any indication of this in the New Testament?
It was common in 20th century N.T. studies to talk about how the “delay of the parousia” became a problem in the early church and is reflected in the development of teaching in the N.T. itself. Some scholars tried to show how the authors transitioned to a “realized eschatology,” redefining what it means to say that “Jesus will return.” Others tried to more carefully define the tension between “already” and “not yet” in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Still others deny a “development” in the N.T. texts, but rather see different emphases based on the needs of the communities which were being addressed.
The focus of all these studies had to do with the nature of future hope in the early days of the Jesus movement and how that is reflected in the writings of that period. But I don’t think “the delay of the parousia” posed as much of a problem for the believers in N.T. times as it does for us at this stage in church history.
I’ve been reading more of Andrew Perriman’s “narrative-historical” views on his blog P.OST and in his book, The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom.
Perriman interprets the vast majority of New Testament teachings about “the end” to refer to historical judgments that were in close proximity to the days of Jesus and the apostles and intimately related to the world in which they lived. In the Gospels, Jesus’ teachings about “the end” pointed to the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and apostolic warnings about “the wrath to come” and “Jesus’ return” pointed to the triumph of Christ over the pagan Greco-Roman empire, which eventually came to pass through the establishment of Christendom. Perriman also holds that there is a “final” eschatology that looks beyond these to the new creation.
But that still leaves a large, unexplained (unforeseen?) gap in history. Various eschatological systems have tried to explain how the “end times” will work and what will happen when Jesus returns. But to my knowledge, this problem of an extended interval that lasts thousands of years has been and remains largely ignored, even though I think it raises profound and perplexing questions for our faith.
The cry, “How long?” is starting to wear thin.
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Header Art: Sea of Faces by Evelyn Williams.