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Posts Tagged ‘already/not yet’


I came home from vacation to find a box of books I had forgotten that I had ordered. There was a clearance sale. Some had arrived before I left for vacation and this was the balance of the order.

Since I’ve chosen to read The Works of John Newton this year, I decided to read some shorter books on a variety of subjects to broaden my reading for the year.

I decided to begin with The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God by Tim Chester and Jonny Woodrow. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book on the subject of the ascension. This is generally a neglected doctrine, at least among Protestants.

Yet, I thought this an unusual book for Tim Chester. I’ve liked other books of his, but this seemed to be a less practical and more theological topic. Robert Letham? Sure, I can see him writing a volume on the ascension. Tim Chester? Not so much.

This is not just a different subject than usual for Chester but also writing style. Perhaps it is the presence of Woodrow. It is not written in the more popular style that Chester typically uses. It is not quite academic either. It draws a good balance.

The book is a mere 3 chapters and 92 pages long. Don’t confuse that with being shallow or superficial. It certainly isn’t exhaustive, but it handles what it does cover well. There are some good footnotes with resources to use for further reading. Some may be hard to find. My first attempt at finding an older volume by Derek Thomas was futile, but there are other places for me to look.

The first two chapters cover Jesus as Ascended Priest and Ascended King. They anticipated my (and other’s) critique regarding the final chapter which was not Ascended Prophet but Ascended Man. I believe they could and should have added a 4th chapter covering the missing office of Christ. It bears discussion. This is one way in which the present volume is not exhaustive.

“Let’s be honest: the ascension of Jesus is weird.”

It is a nearly unique event that makes it difficult for us to talk about with people. We struggle to understand it, so how can we explain it to non-Christians. But we must for there is no Christianity without it!

I say nearly unique because in one of the few points of disagreement, I think God prepared us with taking up of Enoch and then Elijah.

In the introduction they address a few of the objections people may have to the idea of an ascension. Things like “Wouldn’t evangelism be a whole lot easier if Jesus was still on earth?”

“The ascension seems a bad strategy. It removes the key piece of evidence that substantiates the claims of Christianity.”

And so we see the struggle we can often experience as we consider the ascension. It is not simply the reward for a righteous man like Enoch (though it is that too). This is the removal from earth of the most important person who ever lived, the object of our faith. And that perhaps is the point- He’s an object of our faith, not our sight. But it is more significant that simply that.

“The ascension is the enthronement of Jesus. He receives all authority and sends us out to declare that authority to the world. The ascension is the beginning of mission.”

I thought the first chapter, Ascended Priest, was the best chapter. It moved me to worship as I read of Christ ascended as my Great High Priest carrying my name (among others) into the presence of the Father. A good amount of theology is covered in a short space. This is good biblical theology as they moved through the Old Testament to show greater fulfillment and types revealed in Jesus’ ascension.

They frequently connect this doctrine with our union with Christ. We are present before the Father because we are united to the Son who is physically present before the Father.

“Our presence before God is as certain as Christ’s presence before God. Our salvation is safe and secure as long as Christ is in heaven.”

Jesus is there, as our Priest, not only interceding for us but leading our worship. We worship not only on earth but in heaven because of our union with Christ. The Father hears our voice!

The authors then move to the subject of Jesus as our Ascended King who is currently subduing His enemies while we wake and sleep. He is re-establishing God’s rule on a rebellious planet from His seat at the right hand of the Father. He has and is accomplishing what no mere son of David could do.

They look at the Ascension “from above” by tying it into Daniel 7 as the Son of Man appears before the Ancient of Days in the heavenly court. This is legal coronation as He is invested with authority to rule. Earthly kingdoms are being superceded by the kingdom as the gospel is announced and trusted.

“If he’s enthroned in Jerusalem then He is just Israel’s king. No, Jesus is enthroned in heaven as the king of the whole world.”

The new Adam is not merely the son of God but the Son of God who comes “as the world’s king to rescue the world.” He reigns thru His people as they continue with the mission He gave in the Great Commission. In this they want us to see a bigger gospel than the individualized one. We do believe as individuals, but we become part of a bigger Story, a bigger Body and an everlasting kingdom. We are citizens of heaven, and citizenship is not a private thing but a public one.

They spend some time on the necessity of a bodily ascension instead of a spiritualized one. He is both King by virtue of divinity but also a human king sitting on the heavenly throne. He rules not only over “spiritual” realms but the material realm as well. Rather than immediately establish the kingdom in its fulness, Jesus left “earth to allow those who belong to the old age time to repent.” They explain the already/not yet aspects of Jesus’ reign well. The new age has begun while the old age continues until Jesus does return. We live within a great tension.

We can see this tension in a number of ways. Personally: we are at the same time righteous and sinners. We partake of the new age thru justification and sanctification. But we are not yet glorified until we are in His immediate presence. Justified by faith alone we not only seek to become righteous but thru the proclamation of the gospel bring others into the new age. We work to change the societies in which we live, reflecting the rule of Christ. But this won’t be completed apart from His return. We should neither “give up” because it will all “burn anyway” nor expect to usher in some golden age before the return of Jesus. We work for righteousness though we know it won’t be accomplished (there will still be poor, still be famine, still be racism etc.).

The third chapter, Ascended Man, was probably the least focused. It contains some important material. But the lack of an office creates a broader stroke. In some ways they try to cover too much territory and engage in some philosophical speculation.

The begin with the scandal of the ascended man by taking a look at John 6. He see a Messiah who came down from heaven, who promises resurrection to those who partake of Him, and the disciples will “see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!”. In the Ascension, the Son of Man is not going someplace He’s never been. He’s returning to His glory. But, He goes as Man blazing a trail for humanity. They express it as ‘making a place for humanity in heaven’. This idea of eternal bodily existence was scandalous to the Greeks who generally had a view of the body as a prison for the soul which is escaped in “salvation.” Our understanding of salvation is bodily.

“The ascension is the story of a body moving to heaven. It is not escape from the bodily realm, but the entry of humanity- in our physical-ness- into the heaven, the sphere of God.”

Here they get into discussing heaven and earth as “two separate planes that intersect” rather than heaven being “above” earth. He reminds us of Narnia, another world that intersected with ours so that at times people could move between them. In unpacking this they bring up theoretical physics and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Space, time and motion are about the relationships between things. This could be difficult for some to wrap their minds around.

Image result for lord's supperNext they address how the “absent Christ is present through the Spirit.” The ascension results in the outpouring of the Spirit as Jesus now engages in His heavenly ministry on earth. The humanity of Christ has not been transformed and omnipresent but is available thru the Spirit who dwells in His people making Christ present to them, preserving our union with Christ. This plays out in the Reformed understanding of Communion. Rather than confuse the natures of Christ, nor transfer attributes creating one new nature, we uphold the two natures of Christ but recognize how the Spirit mediates His presence with us and our presence with Him. Following Calvin they say: “It is not that Christ comes down to us in the Lord’s Supper. Rather, by the Spirit, we ascend to be with Christ in the Lord’s Supper.”

In ministry we are people in two places (earth and heaven) and two times (present age and age to come) through Christ. They differentiate between an ascensional ministry and an incarnational ministry. Like J. Todd Billings in his book Union with Christ, they critique incarnational ministry. There is a way to affirm this as loving people as Jesus did and serving them in their context. But we are not to think of ourselves as His presence on earth, as though He re-enters creation through us. They note: “Christ does not need a replacement body because He is still embodied.” We do not complete the Messianic task, He does.

Lots of distinctions are made in this section as they deal with some concepts common in evangelicalism. They want us to properly understand kingdom growth, not in spatial terms, but in the number of people who gladly enter His rule. Here they also discuss the “pilgrim principle” for our remaining time on earth prior to His return.

I found this to be a helpful book to introduce the meaning and implications of the bodily ascension. I am surprised that Tim Chester wrote a book on this subject (with Jonny Woodrow), but I’m mighty glad he did. Aside from some of the theoretical physics and their application in the Lord’s Supper via Calvin, this is an accessible book for normal people. They connect all this to our salvation, mission and Christian life such that this is not ivory tower navel gazing.

“Christ has taken our nature into heaven to represent us; and has left us on earth, with his nature, to represent him.” John Newton

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Thanks to Augustine hope and despair have been on my mind. In the wake of the recent events in Ferguson, I’ve had many thoughts about all if it. Like most people I’ve read lots of musings on the situation, some of them good and some not so good. I find that most commentators hit one aspect of the situation. That is okay as long as we don’t expect them to speak exhaustively. As I’ve turned this over in my mind I see so many angles to it.

On Sunday I used Isaiah 9:1-7 for my sermon text. I’d already planned on that text well over a month ago. It proved very appropriate in the wake of a week like last week.

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
3 You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
4 For the yoke of his burden,
    and the staff for his shoulder,
    the rod of his oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

The Light arrives in the midst of darkness. Here we see the darkness of injustice and oppression. The Son of David would come to end injustice and oppression. His reign is one of justice and righteousness. We who are Christians affirm the NT teaching that this child is Jesus the Light of the World and the Son of David who sits on his eternal throne now.

Scripture and history point us to an already/not yet understanding of this text. Jesus has already come to redeem His people. Jesus already sits upon the throne. Jesus has not yet removed all injustice and unrighteousness. That awaits His second advent. The kingdom has been inaugurated, continues and awaits consummation or completion.

This means we live in the time between times. We, as Christians, have the capacity to treat others with justice and righteousness. But we live in a society that is marked by injustice and unrighteousness. This should not surprise us. We see this in Hebrews 2:

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.

Nothing, it says, is outside His control even though it may not look like it. There is still rebellion within His realm. Remember, we were numbered among the rebels. It was His role as the Lamb of God that removed the guilt of our rebellion. We, too, deserved the just wrath of God for our part in the unrighteous and injustice of the world. Those who suffer injustice often respond with injustice and unrighteousness as well. There is a dark, vicious spiral involved. It requires the grace of God to break it. First He breaks it in individuals. Those individuals can work to break it in society by seeking just laws or enforcing just laws. Those who have been oppressed need to share in the power, not to bring an opposite form of oppression but pursue righteousness and justice.

Christ holds off His return, as I mentioned Sunday, to apply the redemption purchased to the elect. This is what is going on behind 2 Peter 3:

9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

We see that God is working out a number of purposes, seemingly in conflict with one another. He is bringing grace to some of the oppressed and oppressors. He is showing justice to some of the oppressed and oppressors. He is working out judgment and salvation, as well as guiding His people into righteousness all in the midst of the darkness of this world.

“Often times the poor man is the oppressor by unjust clamors. We should labor to give the best interpretation to the actions of governors that the nature of actions will possibly bear.” Richard Sibbes

Many of us see this and are tempted to despair. We see these eruptions of injustice and violence and fear that we’ve made no process. Despair can kill us. We can give up and just let the situation continue unabated. We can give up in a deeper sense and either forsake the truth or fight the monster and become the monster in the process.

There is some cause for despair, in a good and not giving up sense. While we have been justified, Christians are not fully sanctified.This means we still sin. We still have blind spots (race issues can be one of them!). The gospel has already begun to transform us into the image of Christ but has not yet finished its work.

Note what Calvin says about us:

Let each of us go on, then, as our limited powers allow, without departing from the path we have begun to tread. However haltingly we may travel, each day will see us gaining a little ground. So let us aim to make diligent progress in the way of the Lord, and let us not lose heart if we have only a little to show for it. For although our success might be less than we would wish, all is not lost when today surpasses yesterday. Only let us fix our gaze clearly and directly on the goal, trying hard to reach our objective, not fooling ourselves with vain illusions or excusing our own vices.

This sentiment found its way into the Heidelberg Catechism.

114. Q. But can those converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?

A. No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with earnest purpose they do begin to live not only according to some but to all the commandments of God.

If we cannot act with perfect righteousness and justice how can we expect an unbelieving world to do so. So, we should despair or give up hope in human governments accomplishing this. As Isaiah 9 notes, only the zeal of the Lord will accomplish all this. Hope, as Red noted in The Shawshank Redemption, is a dangerous thing. If our hope is in earthly perfect apart from the return of Christ, we will experience the bad form of despair that resorts to resignation or violence.

“A holy despair in ourselves is the ground of true hope.” Richard Sibbes

Let us set our hope on God’s promises to be fully accomplished upon the return of Christ. This hope can sustain us in the midst of the continuing darkness. It also helps us to rejoice over the modest gains as we see people exhibiting righteousness and justice. We need to remember that God works on the behalf of those who wait for Him. Such waiting is not passive. For instance, William Wilberforce longed to see England free of slavery. He worked for years, first to end the slave trade and then to end slavery. It took decades, and many setbacks, but he saw God bring this about. Yet there was still much work to be done in the human heart which is “naturally” filled with evil and inclined toward unrighteousness.

18 Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
    and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
    blessed are all those who wait for him. Isaiah 30

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul who seeks him. Lamentations 3

Righteousness and justice do not come easily or quickly. It times waiting for them feels like we are dying. We want everything to change now. A rightly understood hope enables us to wait. And suffer while we wait if need be.

16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And

“If the righteous is scarcely saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

19 Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. 1 Peter 4

Peter, who watched Jesus suffer unjustly, suffered unjustly. We do well to receive his counsel to the early Church. If we suffer we should entrust ourselves to our Faithful Creator and Redeemer. Instead of a useless rage or foolish resignation, we trust. As we trust, we continue to do good.

Doing good can have many faces. It includes forgiving those who acted with injustice. This prevents bitterness from growing and corrupting your response to injustice. It includes helping those who have been harmed by injustice. You can help them pick up the pieces of their lives. It can mean running for office or seeking a promotion that enables change.

Let us remember that there is a despair and a hope that can kill us. There is also a form of despair and hope that can grant life as we lean upon Christ.

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Systematic Theologies are not the most exciting reads.  Joshua Harris seeks to change that with his book Dug Down Deep: Building Your Life on Truths that Last. This is a systematic theology for the average person. Harris sticks to the essentials: doctrine of God, Christ, the Spirit, Scripture, Salvation, Sanctification and the Church.  For the most part he avoids controversial areas, though for some the essentials of the Christian faith can be controversial.

One thing that sets this apart from most (not all) books of this kind is that theology is not seen as abstract.  He begins with the notion, similar to John Frame, that truth is to be lived.  It is a foundation for our lives, providing stability in the storms of life (as Harris notes from the end of the Sermon on the Mount).

“Theology matters, because if we get it wrong, then our whole life will be wrong.”

Another thing that sets this apart from just about every systematic theology I’ve read is the use of narrative to explain or illustrate the importance of particular doctrines.  It is similar to the work his friend Don Miller has done, but not nearly as funny.  He even has a few hand-drawn illustrations in his section on sanctification.  So this is far more interesting than Berkof or just about any systematic theology.

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