Dr. Christopher Cone
Southern California Seminary
Election Day gives us a sense that we can have some influence over world events. As world events remind us of the frailty of society and of our own lives, attentions are easily drawn to the future. But our attention should not be drawn simply to the great big things God is doing in the world, but also to what God is doing within each of us. And regardless of whether or not Christ returns in our lifetime, we all have a personal eschatology. In God's great design, He has a program for each of us. Not every aspect of that program is joyous and exciting, but we need to understand what God is doing in each of us. In so doing, our confidence in Him will grow, and we will be more able, in Him, to live each day as He prescribes. Everyday God is working in our lives and has expectations of us. Consequently, we should be mindful of the chronology of the church-age believer, considering what we can and should expect on our journey home.
Positional Reality of Believers
The first aspect of the believer's positional reality is the new birth. In John 3 Jesus explains the necessity of being reborn. Ephesians 2 describes the positional reality of the unbeliever: dead in sin and separated from God. But we have been made alive by grace through faith. We have become, by belief in Jesus Christ, His workmanship—new creations, as Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 5:17. Old things have passed away and new things have come. 1 Peter 1:23 explains that we have been born again not of perishable but of imperishable. John 1:12 adds that we have been given the right to become the children of God, by belief in His name. 1 John 3:1 reminds us that we are not simply called children of God, but we are indeed children of God. These are more than just words. This is a real positional shift from death unto life.
One element that believers—and new believers, especially—struggle with is the assurance of their new position. Our new nature as children of God is in itself a profound evidence of that new position. To illustrate, lets pretend that the children of a particular father decide that they want nothing to do with their father. They leave home, they change their name, and they go to great lengths to separate themselves from their father. While they have accomplished much to make it appear that they are no longer related to their father, have they really eliminated that connection? Sure, they have broken the fellowship, but they can't change the fact that they are derived from their father. He will always be their father no matter what—even in spite of themselves. And so it is with our Heavenly Father. Even our greatest failings cannot separate us from Him (Jn 10:27-30; Rom 8:28-39; 1 Pet 1:3-5). We are His children, by His mercy and His grace.
Practical Possibilities for the Walk of Believers
Once our position is set, we are His workmanship created for good works. Whereas before we were enslaved by sin, and could only operate as spiritually dead creatures, now we have options. We can honor or dishonor our Father. Paul describes, for example, in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 that we begin as babes in Christ—in spiritual infancy. In light of this we need to grant each other the patience to grow. We begin in infancy, and the design is for us to grow by the milk and the meat of the word. Hebrews 5:12-13 is a rebuke of the Hebrew believers, because they should have been mature and able to teach, but they were immature and needing milk, rather than meat. Just as the Corinthians were failing to mature, so were the recipients of the book of Hebrews. 1 Peter 2:2-3 encourages young believers to long for the milk of the word, in order that they might grow. There is a proper stage of infancy in the Christian life.
But there is a potential problem, as we see illustrated in the Corinthian church: carnality, or fleshliness. Romans 7:5 describes our old positions as being in the flesh, and notes a positional shift from being in the flesh to being of flesh. Believers still have flesh, or a sin nature, and we still have to deal with those challenges. Paul illustrates that struggle, especially in Romans 7. He explains that those in the flesh cannot please God, and that believers are not in the flesh (Rom 8:8-9). Believers have a different position, and with that change in position comes the option to submit to the flesh, or to submit to the Lord.
Believers need to grow beyond infancy, and we need to avoid fleshliness. Galatians 5:16 challenges believers that we must walk according to the spirit, and not according to the flesh. Believers are in a spiritual battle, and we can walk according to the flesh, and when we do, the flesh bears all kinds of negative fruit. We start out as infants, and we can remain infants by not growing in His word. We can be immature in infancy, but we can also be immature in carnality—or fleshliness. In 1 Corinthians 14:20, Paul challenges believers to be mature in their thinking, rather than to be babes. The challenge is to press on to maturity. Ephesians 4:11-12 describes the process of the equipping of believers to growth unto maturity.
Hebrews 5:14 reminds us that solid food is for the mature, who by practice have been trained to discern good and evil. (Practice, practice, practice). Hebrews 6:1 points out the need to move beyond the basic aspects of salvation and press on to maturity. Get the basics, and press on to maturity. Faith in Christ, repentance, and new birth—these are basics. They get us started, but we need to press on to maturity.
Believers begin in infancy, can remain in infancy by starving themselves of the Scriptures, or can be fleshly or carnal, by not practicing the word that we have learned. But the design, as we see in Ephesians 2:10, for example, is to press on to maturity, and to do the good works that God has prepared for us. We have significant responsibility in this. Which of the three possible stages of the Christian life are we working towards: infancy, immaturity and fleshliness, or maturity and being spiritual? We need to examine our own lives in the light of Scripture so that we can discern accurately where we are, so that we can press on to maturity as prescribed.
Imminent Events in the Lives of Believers
Whereas there are certain paths that can be taken by believers, and walking as spiritual men and women is not guaranteed (again, we can choose to remain in infancy or walk in fleshliness), there are certain events that are imminent in the lives of believers. For example, 2 Timothy 3:12 describes that all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. It is not optional, and not merely possible, it is assured and imminent. Persecution is guaranteed if the believer seeks godliness. Perhaps one can avoid persecution by remaining in infancy or walking in fleshliness, but if one seeks to be godly, that persecution will come. Nobody said discipleship would be easy. The Christian life is difficult, and if we are honest about that, perhaps we will be more cognizant of our need for His strength and more willing to diligently prepare ourselves for the spiritual battles to come.
Death is also imminent for the believer. We think (correctly) about Christ's return at the rapture as being imminent—it could happen at any moment. But that event has been imminent for nearly two thousand years, and during that time many believers have met him face to face through death. As the famous sermon proclaims, "Death comes unexpectedly." Certainly, we can't predict the timing, but we can know with certainty that if the Lord doesn't return in our lifetime, then we shall meet Him at the moment of our deaths.
Even for the believer, death is imminent, so in a sense, I suppose it isn't all that unexpected—or shouldn't be, if our focus is Biblical. Genesis 3:19 announces physical death as a consequence for sin. Death is a part of living in a fallen world. Yes, Jesus overcame death, and has granted us new spiritual life, but we still have perishable flesh. 1 Corinthians 15:35-49 explains the importance and role of physical death as an important aspect of physical resurrection. Jesus' parable in Luke 12:16-21 illustrates the false security of thinking that we have unlimited time. The greedy fool in the parable didn't have unlimited time, and neither do we. Death is imminent. It could happen at any moment. If we focus on carnality, and we are simply feeding our flesh, then we are wasting our time. Hebrews 9:27 reiterates that death is appointed for everyone, (at least in a general sense). James 4:13-17 reminds believers that we are just a vapor, and we can't control what happens tomorrow, so we should approach with humility every moment God grants us in His service on earth.
Thankfully, though, persecution and death aren't the only events imminent in the life of the believer. John 14:1-3 describes a return of Christ to receive church-age believers to Himself. The hope offered in this passage isn't escape from difficulty—we have already seen that persecution was guaranteed for those seeking to live godly. Rather the promise of comfort Jesus offered was that His people would be with Him always. The comfort was not primarily to be found in change of circumstances, it was to be found in the relationship with Him. Paul reveals in 1 Corinthians 15:50-58 that some would be changed without seeing death, and that either by death and resurrection, or by the "in the twinkling of an eye" transformation at the rapture, all believers will gain glorified physical bodies to match the spiritual life they have been given.
In a further consideration of how believers are to deal with death, Paul explains in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 that believers need not grieve as those who have no hope. This is the only passage that gives direct instruction regarding how we are to handle death. Our hope is in resurrection—again, this is not about escaping difficult times, but rather it is about being "always with the Lord" (4:17). The purpose is to be with Him.
Notice the progression: we begin with a new position in Him, we have options regarding how we can walk—whether we will abide in Him or whether we will remain in infancy or fleshliness, we deal with certain imminent events, including persecution, death, and potentially the rapture. We start with Him and we finish with Him. Ultimately, we will be conformed to His image (Rom 8:29). The whole point is to be with Him and like Him. So what about the here and now? Shouldn't we desire to walk with Him everyday? I wonder if we realize the joy that is available to us simply by walking with Him every day. We aren't waiting for eternal life (which Jesus describes as knowing Him, in John 17:3), rather we have it right now (Jn 3:16). If we are spending our days on earth focused on anything else, we are wasting our time.
At Home With the Lord
Whether by death and resurrection or by rapture and transformation we will one day be at home with the Lord. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 that we will stand before the Lord, and our works will be tested by fire. If the works remain, we will receive reward. If they are burned up, then we suffer loss, but yet this is not a positional loss. We are still children of God. Our works don't begin that relationship and they can't end it. Nonetheless, we certainly lose reward if we are unfaithful stewards. We will one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Are we preparing for that day?
At some point shortly after the time of the rapture, the day of the Lord (including the seven year tribulation, fulfilling Jer 30:5-11 and Mt 24:15-31) begins (cf., Dan 9; 2 Thess 2; and Rev 4-19). During that time we are in heaven with the Lord, as He fulfills His prophetic timeline on earth and prepares for His return. Colossians 3:1-4 challenges believers to seek things above where Christ is seated, because one day we will be revealed with Him. That day is described in Revelation 19. Jesus returns in glory to the earth, and with Him His saints—including us (Rev 19:8 and 14)! After that return we discover in Revelation 20:1-4 that as Jesus begins His earthly Kingdom (in fulfillment of such passages as 2 Sam 7:8-17; Ps 110; and Jer 31:27-34), those who come with Him from heaven (including us) sit on thrones and are given judgment (Rev 20:4-6).
It appears that we will play a role in the administration of His earthly kingdom, and that we will spend one thousand years ruling with Him, perhaps doing such things as even judging the world (1 Cor 6:2) and angels (1 Cor 6:3). Now, if we are to be doing these things in the future, then what about now? Of course our citizenship is in a kingdom (Col 1:13) that has no present earthly manifestation. Jesus isn't sitting on a throne; He is sitting at the right hand of the Father, awaiting His throne. But still, even though His kingdom isn't here and now, what sort of people should we be? We anticipate His kingdom, and we will participate in it. Shouldn't we be preparing for it now, by walking in Him?
After the kingdom is fulfilled, and after all judgment is completed, and after there is a new heaven and earth in place, where are we? With Him. The beginning is the end. We begin our new lives by being in Him. We enter eternity by being in Him and with Him. If we start out with a relationship with God, and we finish with a relationship with God, then what should be our focus here and now? Walking with Him. We must not lose sight of the main thing: walking with Him. Eternal life itself is in order that we may know Him (Jn 17:3).
As believers we can become too focused on the things of this earth—especially on the concerns of government and society. Yes, we are to engage and be active in doing good, so government and society are legitimate areas of interest and activity for the believer. But they are not the central focus. Likewise, we can also focus so much on things to come that we forget the stewardships and responsibilities God has given us right here and right now. Remember, we are His workmanship created for good works which He has prepared for us (Eph 2:10). We are not necessarily to seek the things in the future (those things will take care of themselves), but we are to seek the things above—where Christ is. So again, we begin our new lives with Him, and we ride off into the sunset of eternity—with Him. In the interim He has granted us the amazing privilege of being able to walk with Him.
Martha was busy in His service and was worried about many things. Jesus explained to Martha that there was really only one thing necessary, and Mary was illustrating it; she was listening to the Lord's word and seated at His feet (Lk 10:38-42). I pray that we don't get so involved in serving Him that we forget to walk with Him, and I pray that we don't wait for eternity future to enjoy the fellowship that was ours the moment we first believed in Him and became children of God.
[Adapted from "Personal Eschatology: The Beginning is the End" in The Bible in Government and Society.
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