by Kevin Hester
I was not the student to whom my fellow commission member, Rev. Randy Corn, referred in his recent post The First Word on Last Things, but I could have been. My attitude about eschatology was one that saw it only as an intramural Christian debate over the interpretation of a number of vague Biblical references in apocalyptic literature. The National Association of Free Will Baptists has wisely chosen to allow significant freedom on this theological doctrine, so I resolved not to make it an issue myself. In reality it may have been more of a copout. The theological openness on this point meant that I could remain open on it myself, and I therefore limped along with a malnourished, milquetoast panmillennialism. I have since repented.
This repentance was slow in coming. Jaded as I was by television preachers, Y2K, and the First (and then the Second) Gulf War, it was not until a class at Covenant Theological Seminary with Dr. Gerard Van Groningen that I first began to see that eschatology was more than dire predictions of the sky falling. Van Groningen was an Old Testament scholar who looked the part. Adorned with the most patriarchal beard I could imagine, he walked his students through the covenants of the Old Testament in a way that demonstrated the consistency of God’s progressive revelation in His program of redemption. It was in this class that I began to see that a truly biblical theology was a theology that refused to artificially separate the theological categories of creation, redemption, and consummation, but saw all three as summed up in the works of a personal God whose love overflowed in all His acts.
I began to realize that God’s work of redemption was cosmic in nature, and not confined to the internalized, individualistic experience of salvation bequeathed to me by the Protestant revivalism of my tradition. My experience of God in the present was an effect of God’s redemption in the past and was causally connected to God’s purposes in the future. As Paul demonstrates, my experience of salvation is the outgrowth of God’s promise to Abraham (Galatians 3:29) and Moses (Romans 10:4) and is itself a harbinger of the hope of a renewed creation (Romans 8:22-24).
With this realization, Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God took on new meaning. The universal promise of God’s blessing to all the nations made to Abraham (Genesis 12:3) is fulfilled in the eternal worship of the heavenly state when those from every tongue, tribe, and nation gather in worship (Revelation 12:9). The means of this fulfillment is the Church’s present proclamation of Christ and his Gospel to the world (Matthew 28:19-20). The missional purpose of the Church, my own justification and ongoing sanctification, were a part of God’s eschatological plan. Eschatology was about the “now” just as much as it was about the “not yet.”
Eschatology, therefore, has a number of practical applications for the present. These applications touch on how we view the world and how we interact with it. The model of interaction gives us a plan for engagement.
Impact on the Present
Eschatology teaches us that at this moment we are living in the midst of God’s activity. God is sovereign over history and is working right now in our lives and in His church. This hope is not dependent upon our feelings or even the apparent general course of this world or our country.
God gave John a vision in Revelation that was meant for a small, persecuted group of believers in Asia Minor that is, by extension, also for us. The message was one of His presence and His promise. Christ is present among us in the midst of our difficulties (Revelation 1:13) and God rules in complete control from his throne (Revelation 4). God’s sovereignty means that He is working out His purposes in the world. God will manifest His lordship in time and space in this world. No heavenly or earthly powers will be able to ultimately frustrate His work (Revelation 6:15-17).
Eschatology also tells us that history is significant; both individual and cosmic history. History is a record of God’s engagement with humanity. It is purposeful, having a telos or goal. History therefore gives meaning and purpose to our lives and our relationships. Even our trials and tribulations lie under His sovereignty and He works through them to accomplish His purposes (Romans 8:28). It is at the consummation of all things that we will come to understand and God will wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:4).
Eschatology gives Christians a reason to hope. The divine rule of Christ has been inaugurated in the Church and in the lives of Christians. The kingdom is within us (Luke 17:21) and will come about through us. This gives us a foretaste of what God is going to do universally. In the midst of a highly technical eschatological discussion of the resurrection, Paul makes the following practical application of hope in 1 Thessalonians 4:18, “comfort one another with these words.” With this hope we are called to face any and all situations. We can be assured of God’s ultimate victory in this world.
Impetus to Action in the Present
I realize that there are some millennial perspectives which raise questions about the imminence of Christ’s return. Scripture, however, couples the offer of the Gospel with the entrance of the kingdom. God’s truth is for the present. We often miss the eschatological link between the Great Commission passages and coming of the eschatological kingdom seen in references to Jesus’ authority (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8). But the eschatological link is made especially clear in Jesus’ original commissioning of the twelve (Matthew 10:7 and 10:23).
Eschatology also promises that we can proclaim the Gospel in confidence. God’s Word and work is always accompanied by His power (Isaiah 55:11). Jesus’ response to Peter’s affirmation of faith was that the Church would be built on this faith and that as it advanced Hell’s gates would not withstand the onslaught (Matthew 16:18).
The eschatological promise means that we can have confidence in the success of the Gospel, but it also calls us to courage. We have a promise of victory, but that does not mean that the battle will be an easy one. Jesus reminded His disciples that they would be opposed as He had been opposed and prophesied tribulation (Matthew 10:16-25). The primary burden of Paul’s eschatological teaching in 2 Thessalonians was a call for the church to remain loyal regardless of persecution and trial (2 Thessalonians 2:13-7). Eschatology teaches us to keep our lamps trimmed and burning (Matthew 25:1-13).
Though Christians do not know the day or the hour (Matthew 24:36) we are assured that Jesus is returning to judge the living and dead (Revelation 22:20). We too will be judged at His return. This truth encourages us to live lives of holiness and consecration to God. As Peter reminds us, “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness?” (2 Peter 3:11).
Eschatology invites the church to initiate the life of the kingdom in the world. We are called to redeem the world and take everything captive to the Gospel of Christ. The church exists as God’s hands and feet in the world. The doctrine of the keys of the kingdom means that what we do, God does (Matthew 16:19). This includes evangelism, but it also includes living out the kingdom ethic in such a way that our light and salt promotes a world that is characterized, inasmuch as we are able, by righteousness and social justice. We are to fight for and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This likely means that we will be forced to ask the kinds of questions and give the sorts of answers that are broader than our political parties. If James tells us anything he tells us that a true Christianity, and by definition, a true eschatology will be known by its works (James 2).
Eschatology refers to the future, but if we confine it to that sphere alone, we have missed its relevance for ministry today. The verses I have referenced above are all eschatological in nature, but they all speak to what the Church is doing and should be doing in the world right now. Eschatology isn’t for arguing about the future; it’s for living in the world today.
 While the reference to the “keys of the kingdom” most directly applies to the proclamation of the Gospel which has been entrusted to the Church and the entrance to the kingdom through its acceptance, the overall meaning is broader. The link between the work of God and human participation is seen in the connection of “binding” and “loosing” in heaven and earth. These terms have primary reference in rabbinic tradition to what was permitted under the Law and what was forbidden thus speaking to the ethical ramifications and demands of the Gospel. This is why this passage is also paralleled in Jesus’ discussion of church discipline in Matthew 18:18. The parallel is also expressed by John in his gospel in a different way. John links the work of the Father, the work of the Son, and the work of the disciples (John 14:12-14). It is in light of this agreement which is led by the Holy Spirit that believers can ask and receive from God (c.f. John 16:23-24).
 This term has become a “buzzword” that is often associated with particular positions and programs. My use of the term here is not meant to advocate for such positions but to indicate its earlier (primary) usage of the application of justice to the social sphere of influence held by the Church. Aristotle defined “justice” as giving to people those things to which they have a right. The law of love discussed by James is to be broadly applied in the Church and as the kingdom of God continues to break forth it calls the Church to greater cultural engagement in its application.