Sunday, May 21, 2006

Packer on Eschatology

Eschatological is one of those words which gets used a lot, but IMO most of the time most people don't know what it really means :-) For me, I think it is only over the last few years that I have begun to get a proper handle on the significance of eschatology. Now I think it is of fundamental importance in better understanding the Scriptures, and God's purposes in Christ. Too often, in a man-centred way, we just think of eschatology in terms of what will eventually happen to me, in the future, as it relates to me: life after death, heaven and hell, bodily resurrection, last judgement when Christ returns. However, there is a bigger picture with eschatology, which has to do with the whole Biblically anticipated age to come. This age to come includes the list of things I just mentioned previously, but is also more expansive that that. And the real crunch point is that the age to come is not just future, but it has already and really begun in the coming of Christ. In Christ's resurrection, the new creation has already begun. And as we are born again of the Spirit, the new creation has already begun in us, yet still waiting for perfection and completion. So every Christian is an interface or intersection between this present evil age and the age to come, and all the Christians together (ie the church) are a preview of the new humanity of the age to come, constituted in Christ. It seems to me it is very important to understand both the 'now and not yet' as well as the ultimate goal or telos of eschatology, if we are to better understand the perspective and meaning of Scripture. For example, I think we often think about OT Israel being fulfilled in the NT church. Yet I think ultimately both Israel and the church are better understood as pointing to the ultimate reality of the new humanity of the kingdom of God in eternity, in the consummated age to come. The church is a better representation of the new creation than is Israel, but it is still not a perfect representation.

Anyhow, recently I read some J. I. Packer on eschatology, and he made some helpful comments I thought I would record here. They come from Honouring the Written Word of God (Paternoster, 1990), in the chapter entitled "The Challenge of Biblical Interpretation: Eschatology"...

Eschatology is the study of the last things, God's future, God's fulfillment of his purpose of perfecting his creation by eliminating from it the disorder brought into it by sin and reconstructing everything in its final perfect form. Further, the biblical presentation of this great theme is like an ellipse with two foci, a single oval figure with two points inside it each of which is just as central in its significance as the other. The two foci are global eschatology (which has to do with the future of our Lord Jesus Christ and this whole world) and personal eschatology (which has to do with the future of the individual Christian and the individual unbeliever). [p.200]
The perspective set forth in the New Testament is what is usually called inaugurated eschatology, that is, the belief that the kingdom of God is here and the powers of the kingdom are at work already. The gospel is the good news that heaven has already begun here on earth for those who are Christ's. The long expected king of Old Testament prophecy has come. [p.200]
Never underestimate the theological significance of eschatology. In the schools, very often eschatology has been the poor relation in the theology courses. Coming last it has often been, to speak frankly, skimped in teaching. Partly, I think, this is because professors have not always known what to say. In addition, everyone who works in the classroom knows things often take longer to teach than you anticipate, so that the final bit of any course nearly always gets skimped. That's universal teaching experience. But it is a very sad thing that eschatology should ever be skimped because, as you can already see, it is a matter of enormous importance, very much a part of the glory of the gospel and very important for every Christian to understand... Eschatology is first the key to understanding the unity of the Bible... Eschatology is, further, the clue to understanding the nature of the Christian life. That life is essentially a life of hope, a life in which nothing is perfect yet but the hope of perfection is set before us... Third, eschatology is the key to understanding the shape of world history... The people of God have always been at the centre of world history... Finally, eschatology is supremely relevant for teaching the gospel in these days, considering what we are up against. On the one hand, there are utopian hopes, false hopes of different kinds offered by different people... On the other hand, we face a great deal of pessimistic hopelessness on the part of people who feel that they have seen through the false hopes of society and now have no hope at all... We need to speak loudly and clearly about the glory of the Christian hope. The world needs to hear that word from our lips. [pp.201-202]
the Bible is an Oriental book, and its testimony to the future is given in Oriental fashion. It is given in a pictorial, evocative, evaluative and imaginative way, rather than in the sort of reportorial prose which is informative in the way that a newspaper report of things is informative. This is the way that the Oriental mind, through which God gave us his Word, focuses and formulates and presents these coming realities. [p.203]
As wise persons preparing for vacations tidy up, pack their bags and get ready well in advance, so should we prepare for the meeting with Jesus that will close our lives in this world. Keep short accounts with God and 'live every day as if thy last', just as the hymn says. And while our life continues, let us work and pray for the advancing of the kingdom. When Christ appears publicly in this world, in what posture should he find the church? Praying for revival and planning world evangelism, surely. Let us see that when he comes for us, whether it is soon or late, those are the tasks in which he finds us engaged. [p.212]

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