The Bible and the End-time (1): The kingdom has come!
Christian hope, by definition, is focused on the future or, as many would put it, on ‘the last days.’ It is something of a paradox, then, that 2,000 years ago the writers of the New Testament saw themselves as already living in these ‘last days’. John the Baptist preached that the kingdom of God had drawn near (Mt. 3:1), and Jesus told his hearers that the kingdom was already in the midst of them (Lk. 17:21). The Apostle John tells his ‘dear children’ that , ‘this is the last hour’ (1 Jn. 2:18); Peter, in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, declares that the outpouring of the Spirit is a fulfilment of what the prophet Joel had said would happen in the last days (Acts 2:17); the Writer to the Hebrews describes the ministry of Jesus as the word spoken by God ‘in these last days’ (Heb. 1:2); and the Apostle Paul tells the Galatians that the coming of Christ signalised ‘the fullness of time’ (Gal. 4:4)
This phrase, ‘the fullness of time’ (to plērōma tou chronou) has little to do with what the Latins used to call the praeparatio evengelica (the preparation for the gospel by the providential coming together of such factors as the Roman peace, Roman roads, the universal Greek language and the Jewish diaspora). These were indeed important factors in the early dissemination of the gospel, but ‘the fullness of time’ points to something deeper: the time the prophets had spoken of (1 Pet.1:11) was now here. The Seed of the Woman, the Seed of Abraham, the Son of David, the Son of Man, the Messiah, the Lamb of God, had now come, and in him all that the Scriptures had spoken concerning the Messiah had been fulfilled. His coming divided history into its two great epochs: before it, the age of promise; after it the age of fulfilment.
It was to this emphasis, particularly as set forth in the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus, that the English New Testament scholar, C. H. Dodd, attached the label, ‘realised eschatology’. But what can it mean to speak of the kingdom of God as a present reality in a world where evil seems rampant and where secular historians can see no such ‘before and after’ in the development of human civilisation?
It certainly cannot mean that all God’s promises with regard to a coming kingdom have now been fulfilled and that we have nothing more to look forward to. Many New Testament passages speak of a future coming of the kingdom. Jesus himself, for example, taught us to pray, ‘Your kingdom come’ (Mt. 6:10), referred to a day when men would see the kingdom come in power (Mk. 9:1) and pointed forward to a final coming of the Son of Man ‘on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.’ (Mt. 24:30) It is to accommodate the twin facts that the kingdom has come and that the kingdom has yet to come that many scholars now prefer the word ‘inaugurated’ to the word ‘realised.’ The Kingdom has indeed been inaugurated, but it has not yet been consummated.
Christ enthroned as King
What this consummation means, we might look at later. But, first, we must clarify what we mean when we say that we are already living in the ‘Last Days’?
First and foremost, it means that Christ is now enthroned as King. He was born a king, heir to the throne of his father, David (Lk. 1:32), and he died a king (Jn. 19:19), but while he often gave glimpses of his power during his earthly ministry (notably in such miracles as the calming of the storm, Mk. 4: 35-41), it was generally so obscured by his servant-form (Phil. 2:7) that few recognised his glory; and when he died, his death, and the manner of his death, seemed to falsify all his messianic claims. But God raised him from the dead, installed him as Son-of-God-with-power (Rom.1:4), and seated him beside himself in the heavenly realms, supreme over every power and authority (Eph. 1:20-22). This is no mere future prospect, but a present reality. Every force in the universe is under his control. He it is who turns the pages of history (Rev. 5:7), and he who it is who will summon all nations to their final judgement (Mt. 25:31-46).
The age of the Spirit
The second outstanding feature of the Last Days is that we are now living in the age of the Spirit. As Paul sees it, this was the core meaning of the blessing God had promised to Abraham (Gal. 3:14), and it was to secure it that Christ had died, redeeming us from the curse of the law precisely so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. In the days between his resurrection and his ascension, Jesus himself spoke much of it, telling his disciples to wait for the fulfilment of the promise, and assuring them that when the Spirit came he would bring them new empowerment (Acts 1:8). The promise had been fulfilled, visibly and audibly, at Pentecost, the New Testament Sinai, when the Holy Spirit came in wind and fire, and settled once for all on the church, the New Israel. From that moment onwards, he has filled every believer. In him, the Paraclete, Christ walks with his people every minute of every day (Jn. 14:18).
The binding of Satan
The third great mark of our time, considered as the Last Days, is that Satan is bound (Rev. 20:2). At first sight, this is scarcely credible. The demonic seems to be all around us, and the New Testament itself warns us against both the wiles (Eph. 6:10) and the ferocity (1 Pet. 5:8) of the devil. But this doesn’t mean that he is another Great Power able to mount a credible challenge to the supremacy of Christ. Despite its realism, and all its awareness of the evil of the present age, the New Testament consistently portrays the devil as a defeated, emasculated foe. Jesus himself spoke clearly in such terms. When the Seventy-two returned from their mission (Lk. 10:17-20), they joyfully reported to Jesus that the demons had submitted to them in his name, and Jesus responded, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.’ Similarly, when the Pharisees accused him of deriving from Beelzebub his power to drive out demons (Mt. 12:24), Jesus countered that, on the contrary, the precondition of breaking into Satan’s house and plundering his goods was first of all to bind Satan himself (Mt. 12: 29).
This is a consistent New Testament theme. Shortly after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Lord announced, ‘Now is the time for judgement on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.’ (Jn. 12:31) It is in this light that St Paul portrays the cross, where, he writes, God ‘disarmed’ the powers of darkness and made a public spectacle of them (Col. 2:15). The Writer to the Hebrews seems to go further still, declaring that Christ, by his death, has ‘destroyed’ the one who had the power of death, namely, the devil (Heb. 2:14).
It is in the light of such statements that we have to interpret the language of Revelation 20:2, which portrays an angel coming down from heaven to bind the devil with a great chain and casting him into the abyss. This is certainly not a stronger statement than the one in Hebrews 2:14, which led Calvin to comment that not only has the tyranny of Satan been broken by the death of Christ but ‘the devil himself has been so laid low as to be of no more account, as if he did not exist.’ John Bunyan made the very same point when he described Christian’s encounter with the ‘Lions in the way’ in Pilgrim’s Progress: ‘The Lions were chained, but he saw not the Chains. Then he was afraid, and thought to go back, for he thought nothing but death was before him. But the Porter at the Lodge, whose Name is Watchful, perceiving that Christian made a halt, as if he would go back, cried unto him saying, Is thy strength so small? fear not the lions, for they are chained: and are placed there for trial of faith where it is; and for discovery of those that have none’. The cross has bound Satan with a great chain: already.
But what precise form did the ‘binding’ referred to in Revelation 20:2 take? The key lies in the following verse: he is bound so that he is no longer able to deceive the nations. The crucial phrase here is ‘the nations’ (ta ethnē). It may have the precise meaning, ‘the Gentiles’, but even if it does not, it certainly includes them, and in salvation-history this is a major revolution. Throughout the pre-Christian centuries Satan held the Gentiles in thrall. They believed his lie, lived in his darkness and submitted to his authority. But now all has changed. The risen Lord commissioned his apostles to make disciples of all nations (panta ta ethnē, Mt. 28:19, and when Peter reported to the Jerusalem church after his visit to Cornelius they praised God because he had granted ‘even the Gentiles (again, the word ethnē) repentance unto life.’ (Acts 11:18). This was the ‘mystery’ which, according to Paul, had not been made known to earlier generations, but has now been revealed by the Spirit: the mystery, namely, that ‘through the gospel the Gentiles (ta ethnē)are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.’ (Eph. 3:6).
This doesn’t mean that the Old Testament contains no hint of the ingathering of the Gentiles. At the very heart of God’s covenant with Abraham lay the promise that through his seed all the nations (ta ethne) on earth would be blessed, and Paul alludes to this when he tells the Galatians that the purpose of Christ’s redemption was that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles (Gal. 3:14). Joel, as we have seen, had prophesied that in the last days God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh. In the second Psalm the nations were promised to the Messiah as his inheritance (Ps. 2:8) and in Psalm 100:1 the psalmist had foreseen a day when ‘all the earth’ would shout for joy to the LORD (Ps.100:1).
These were but glimpses, however, and they made little impression on the Jews of Jesus’s day, who clearly believed that they were God’s specially favoured nation and that the Gentiles had no part in salvation. But Pentecost exploded this exclusivism: the gospel would be preached in all languages, and whoever called on the name of the Lord, whether Jew or Gentile, would be saved. But it was not merely a matter of salvation being extended to Gentiles. The ultimate ‘mystery’, made known to the Apostle Paul by revelation (Eph. 2:3, was that Jews and Gentiles were to form one body and one church. In Christ, the boundary-markers were demolished (Eph. 2:14) and the distinction between Jew and Gentile became spiritually meaningless: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal. 3:28). This was a new age.
Which brings us to the fourth mark of the Last Days: worldwide evangelism. The gospel is to be preached to all nations: indeed, according to the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel, it is to be preached to every single human being (Mk. 16:16). What is striking, however, is that this worldwide mission is possible only because of the other key factors. Only because Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth (Mt.28:18) are we able to take the gospel to every corner of the planet, confident that wherever Christian missionaries go, Christ goes with them; and wherever Christ goes, he is Lord, with a categorical claim on every single life and every single culture.
But no less important to mission is that the missionary goes forth in the age of the Spirit. Jesus himself made the link unmistakeably clear: ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8) We are but witnesses, unable by ourselves to convince a world which sees the gospel as ridiculous and offensive, but the Holy Spirit goes with us as Christ’s advocate (paraklētos); and he will convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgement (Jn. 16:8-11). Otherwise our mission would be hopeless.
And indeed it would still be hopeless if the Gentiles remained in thrall to Satan and excluded from the divine promises. But he is now bound, restrained, cast out: destroyed, even. Once, he was the Prince of this world, but there has been a change of government, and now the writ of Christ extends to every nation on earth. Abraham Kuyper expressed it memorably: ‘There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, “Mine!”’ (Quoted in John Bolt, A Free Church, a Holy Nation: Abraham Kuyper’s American Public Theology, p. 21).
Of course, this is not how things look. It is not the signs of the glorious reign of the Prince of Peace that we see all around us, but the symptoms of rampant evil, ungodliness and anarchy. But appearances should not dislodge us from biblically-based convictions. When the apostles spoke so clearly of the reign of Christ, they were not speaking naively as people unaware of the evil in the world. After all, it was from a prison cell, and under the threat of imminent martyrdom, that Paul wrote, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ (Phil. 2:11). What we see is but a small part of the total picture, and this is why the book of Revelation is so important for our Christian perspective. At one level, it sets forth what is almost a horror-story, filled with persecution, famine, war and terror, as the Dragon, the Beast and the Serpent wreak their havoc. But this is not what is first revealed to our view (Rev. 4-5), and it is not what dominates the book. It is dominated by the vision of the throne in Chapters Four and Five: the Throne of God, encircled by the covenant rainbow (Gen. 9:12) and with the Lamb who redeemed us by his blood standing like a lion in its centre, holding the scroll and turning the pages of history (Rev. 5:6-8). This is not simply a vision; far less is it wishful thinking. As far as the governance of the universe is concerned, it is the present reality, and to this faith, hope must cling. The Dragon, the Beast and the Serpent never occupy the Throne, never grasp the scroll, never have the ascendancy, and never overcome. Whatever tribulation the saints go through, they come out of it (Rev.7:14), and one day the ransomed church of God will be a multitude that no one can count; and not only will it be innumerable, but it will be a body of infinite ethnic diversity, gathered ‘from every nation, tribe, people and language’ (Rev. 7:9).
The new covenant
There remains one other key feature of the Last Days: the New Covenant. Jesus had referred to it when, at the Last Supper, he had spoken of the cup as ‘the new covenant’ in his blood (Lk. 22:20), and in doing so he was appropriating a concept revealed long ago to the prophet Jeremiah: ‘“The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”’ (Jer. 31:31).
At the heart of this new covenant lay the provision of a new High Priest, Christ, whose once-for-all sacrifice of himself would secure a perfect redemption. But it was another feature of the New Covenant that was highlighted in Jeremiah’s prophecy. Under the old covenant the law was written externally on stone tablets, but under the New Covenant the LORD would write his law on his people’s hearts; and all of his children would know it, from the least to the greatest (Jer. 31:33) This doesn’t mean that the old law would be abrogated. Jesus made absolutely clear that he had not come to abolish the law, neither had he come to relax its rigour: ‘unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt. 5:20). What the New Covenant means is that for the disciples of Christ the impulse to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbour as ourselves comes from within; and not only the impulse, but the power, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This very same point was made later by Jeremiah’s successor, Ezekiel, through whom the LORD promised the people of the Exile, ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you: I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.’ (Ezek. 36:26-7)
It is the very nature of the heart that cries, ‘Abba, Father’ (Gal. 4:6) to love and obey, not from the dread of sanctions but from gratitude and joy.
Clearly, then, the coming of Christ and the mission of the Paraclete have inaugurated a new era in which believers already taste ‘the powers of the coming age’ (Heb. 6:5). Even in the here and now, we who were dead in transgressions have been made alive with Christ, raised up with Christ and seated with Christ in the heavenly realms (Eph. 2:5, 6). It is an age of new privileges and of new power; and an age, too, of new challenges and new responsibilities.
 Dodd had introduced the description ‘realised eschatology’ in his work, The Parables of the Kingdom (1935), and sometimes seemed to convey the impression that the kingdom had already been fully realised. However, in a later publication, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (1953, p. 447 fn.) he referred to the phrase as ‘not entirely felicitous’, and indicated that it might be more appropriate to speak of either ‘inaugurated eschatology’ or ‘an eschatology in process of realisation.’ The term, ‘inaugurated eschatology’, is now widely accepted. See, for example, Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Exeter; Paternoster, 1979), pp. 17-18. Cf. John A. T. Robinson, Jesus And His Coming (London: SCM Press, 2nd edition, 1979), pp. 29-30.