Monday, June 12, 2006

Should Christians Be Optimistic? Part II

In my previous post, I considered certain attributes of God's character and His purposes that should incline Christians toward historical optimism.

Likewise, consider Jesus and His ministry. Christ came to earth to accomplish the purpose of His Father in establishing the kingdom of God.

Before departing to the right hand of the Father, Jesus promised to empower His disciples, and He gave them their marching orders. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matt. 18:18-20).

After this, Jesus ascends to heaven and is enthroned at the right hand of God. I've often wondered why I've never heard a single sermon on the ascension and its significance. Not once in my entire life do I recall having been taught about this doctrine. The reason, I've concluded, is that it conflicts with the predominant eschatological framework of the modern evangelical church. The idea that Jesus is king NOW and has been given all authority in heaven and ON EARTH does not neatly comport with the notion that the church will fail, and that Satan's authority and power will increase over time.

Jesus has been exalted at the right hand of God and the promised Holy Spirit was poured out on the church to empower it with gifts (Acts 2:30-36). Scripture affirms that Jesus will, indeed must, reign until he has put ALL his enemies under his feet (I Cor. 15:25). But does this victory occur through a catastrophic return, or is the process slow and gradual with Jesus working out His will through His People?

Paul says that the Father "seated him [Jesus] at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all" (Eph. 1:19-23).

Jesus said to Peter, "I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." Our Lord paints a picture of a militant and empowered body of elievers, with Jesus in the lead working through the Holy Spirit, taking the Gospel into the world and scattering the darkness. It is the forces of evil manning the barricades against the Church, not visa versa.

Thus, if Jesus has been given all authority, and has been made head of the church, then He is responsible to bring the world into submission. Is it possible that He will fail? And why would such a victory only come about AFTER the church, the Body of Christ, has been raptured out of the world?

Having said that, let me offer a qualification. The kingdom of God has not reached its ultimate fulfillment. There is indeed an "already, not yet" dichotomy at work. However, is it not reasonable to expect that during the period between inauguration and consummation there will be growth in the kingdom of God?

When Jesus describes the Kingdom in His parables, he paints a picture of a mustard seed sown in a field. "It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree," says Jesus (Matt. 13:31-33). Likewise the kingdom is like leaven that over time permeates the entire loaf of bread. So the development is progressive and slow, not catastrophic or in some sense post-historical.

This is not altogether different from a traditional understanding of sanctification. There is a moment of definitive sanctification in the life of the believer. However, the process of growing into Christ-likeness takes place in history, on earth, practically in the life of the believer. And though sin is not completely eradicated, it should wield less influence over the believer. Why shouldn't this principle apply to the broader context of God's kingdom?

Next time, I will briefly consider Christ's humiliation.


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