Last Things First
Last things last, that’s what I used to say. It seemed to me that there were plenty of difficult theological issues for us to wade through without having to worry about the end times. We all agree, after all, that in the end our side wins. Whether Jesus comes to find His world a horrible cesspool that needs to be cleaned up, or to find a glorious reflection of His successful bride, or somewhere in the middle, He does come back and make all things right. I was indifferent about how He would return.
But two things kept nagging at me. The Bible talks about the return of Christ. It talks about the full consummation of history. And one thing I didn’t want to happen when Jesus comes back was this — to have Him be displeased with me because I tossed aside a portion of His Word cavalierly, indeed, if I tossed a part aside at all.
The second problem was this, a fundamental principle of progress. One cannot know which way to go unless one knows where one is supposed to go. If you’re going nowhere, any direction will do. But if you want to get somewhere, you have to know where.
A good friend once explained that years ago he had joined an association of local evangelical pastors that had as its goal educating their congregations about various political candidates. He explained that in the providence of God, this little group of pastors came to be rather influential in local politics. Candidates would actually seek them out to curry their favor. As a result, the elections began to swing strongly in favor of more conservative candidates. Everything was going well. And that, according to the organization’s founder, was a problem. He announced that he was shutting the organization down immediately, as an act of repentance. What was he repenting of? Seeking to delay the return of Jesus. To labor for justice was, in the mind of this pastor, to go in the wrong direction. His understanding of the end times taught him that the quicker things got worse, the sooner Jesus would return.
What are we to be doing? How are we to prepare for the return of Jesus? Is our calling to sit and wait, to drag as many lost souls as we can onto the lifeboat? Are we supposed to merely occupy until He returns, or are we called to be more than conquerors? Or should we be like I was, utterly indifferent?
Paul writes to Titus that believers are to be “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (2:13–14). That’s not nothing. That’s not indifference. We are called here to look for the blessed hope, to be not only at peace but looking joyfully forward in the midst of our own cultural collapse, knowing He will return. Yet we are also to purify ourselves, to be a people zealous for good works.
As we look with hope, our first task, it would seem, is to tend our own garden. We should be spending more time preparing for the return of the Groom than peeking down the hallway to see if He is coming. We know that when He appears we will be dressed in His righteousness. But this doesn’t mean we don’t labor to purify ourselves. Even as we face frustration in our sanctification, we still have peace because He is the one working in us, not just as individuals, but as a people. He is purifying for Himself a people. And our common purity is shown forth in zeal for good works. In this context we go forth as conquerors. We tend our own garden, then our common plot with the body, the church, and then go out into the jungle — the world — doing good deeds.
It’s all about Jesus. Our understanding of the last things is dependent upon our understanding of the firstborn of the new creation. As we understand that this Jesus who went up in the shekinah glory cloud, and will return again in it, went to heaven not to wait, but to rule, we will labor here as His faithful servants, as His mighty warriors. When we understand that He is the only once and future king, we will serve Him not by straining our eyes toward Avalon, not looking for a sign but by putting our back into our labor. When we understand that He will wipe away every tear, our tears would begin to dry themselves (if we only would believe it). If we would but believe that He has already overcome the world, we would be of good cheer now.
We need not invest all our energy trying to chart the day and the hour. We need not live as if this were our last day, eschewing the godly investments in a sure tomorrow — like marriage and the bearing of covenant children. Such is a sure sign of a faithless steward. Instead, we need to seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness. That is first, and that is last — because it begins in Christ, the firstfruits of the new creation, the true Alpha male, and ends in Christ, to whom and for whom and through whom are all things, the true Omega man.
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