Living toward the future

Christians have a special relationship with the future–a relationship that no other human has.

What the Christian knows and understands about the future powerfully influences how they live in the present, which in turn, profoundly influences the ‘actual’ future they come to experience. As such, the Christian life is neither lived in the present, nor in the future, but is lived in the present toward the future!

This is what theologians call the eschatological view of life.

Now, the term eschatological comes from the ancient Greek word eschaton (meaning end, or last) and in Christian thought it refers to the end things or end times. This term also implies that the end influences the beginning, and is best made sense of by understanding what God is doing when he reveals truth to his people. In his word, God often tells his people what is coming in the future, and correspondingly, gives them instructions how to live in light of what he has just told them, so when it does come to pass, they will be both prepared and enabled to receive the future lovingly offered to them.

The biblical story of Noah illustrates this perfectly.

In ancient times, God was deeply grieved at the growing wickedness of humanity on the earth. Only one righteous man pleased God–Noah. God forewarned Noah of a future cataclysmic event that will end the existence of all of sinful humanity–a great flood. God then made a covenant with Noah; that he, his family, and two of every kind of animal on the earth would be delivered. But to lay hold of this deliverance, Noah had to build a giant ‘lifeboat’–an ark.

Of course, Noah had never even imagined such a boat, let alone seen ‘anything’ of such grand scale, nevertheless he trusted God and, ‘ …did all that God commanded him.’ Gen 6:22 (ESV) On its completion, Noah and all the intended ‘passengers’ entered into the ark; remaining in it for the duration of the flood–only they survived. And, when the flood waters subsided, they exited into a new future: ‘ And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.’ Gen 9:1 ESV

As you can see, God’s revelation of the future, taken up in faith, obedience, and diligent service in the present, resulted in a blessed new future. In Noah’s life, we see this special future-present-future relationship at work– the eschatological life.

No one in history has drawn the eschatological life into sharper relief than Jesus Christ. And, at the centre of his eschatological teaching, is that ‘great’ future event that shapes the present life of Christians, like no other–His return at the end of the age. In fact, so significant is Jesus’ teaching on this subject, it would not be an overstatement to suggest that its content in Matthew 24-25, is as critically important to the Christian life, as is his ethical teaching in the Sermon on the Mount!

Having outlined to his disciples the signs of his second coming early in chapter 24, Jesus then challenges them with these words…

‘ But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man….Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’ Matt 24:36-39, 44 (ESV)

But how is the Christian to be ready?

Despite the theorizing of many end-time alarmists, being ready for Jesus return has nothing to do with trying to guess when that coming might be, or dramatizing the events relating to the end of the world . It does, however, have everything to do with how diligently the present Christian life is lived, in light of this final event.

In order to clarify and illustrate the necessity of Christian readiness, Jesus tells four consecutive stories to his disciples. All these stories paint a picture of Christian life from an eschatological point of view, with a particular emphasis on those who ‘failed’ to take his view life seriously–not getting ready!

The first story (Matt 24:45-51) is about a steward who is appointed over the master’s house and fellow servants; who has the option to be faithful or unfaithful–with predictable results. The second story (Matt 25:1-13) is about 10 bridesmaids who are awaiting the coming of bridegroom; five are wise, taking enough oil for their lamps and five are foolish, not taking enough oil with them. The third story ( Matt 25: 14-30) relates to three servants, who are entrusted with their master’s riches to invest, in his absence; two are rewarded for their work and one is punished for his laziness. And the fourth and final story, (Matt 25: 31-46) relates to the final judgment, which is likened to a shepherd separating sheep from goats; the sheep represents the faithful going to eternal life and the goats the disobedient going to eternal punishment.

Taken together, we see common threads in all four stories:

Firstly, the central ‘master’ figure in each story represents Christ, who graciously grants his disciples responsibilities promising great reward.

Secondly, this master went away for an indeterminate amount of time , which means he could return at an unexpected hour and call those entrusted servants to account.

Thirdly, the servants are disciples, not unbelievers, they are known to the master, and they were all forewarned to be ready.

Fourthly, the diligent ones who did their master’s bidding: providing for others, being prepared, using their abilities to advance the master’s cause, and caring for his brothers and sisters. Thus, proving their readiness in his absence, they were abundantly rewarded.

Finally, those deemed ‘not ready’ in the stories, missed out because of what they did not do: They failed to give food, they didn’t have enough oil, didn’t reproduce the talent, and did not help the needy brethren. Moreover, the unready/unfaithful are mercilessly punished: Cut to pieces, locked outside, thrown outside into a place of misery and thrown into the eternal fire.

The unready lost out on God’s blessed future, because they failed to allow the revealed future to seriously impact their present–their heart/mind did not embrace it. As such ,they became complacent about the master’s delay and were unfruitful in their service. It seems their alleged love for and faith in Jesus failed to produce fruit–it had never taken root.

Whereas, in the case of the ready, the opposite is true. They heeded their master’s word’s, they trusted he could return at any time, and set about diligently doing his will in anticipation of his return. They were not caught unawares, because they allowed the predicted future to influence their present life, their actual future was a great blessing. Their faith in and love for Jesus proved real–they truly lived the eschatological life.

But, why is the eschatological life so seldom promoted today?

Sadly, I want to make the suggestion that the existential life has largely overthrown it in contemporary first-world Christianity. This existential view of life states that the life we experience is ultimate reality, and tends to orientate the Christian hope toward the here and now. As such, Christian hope has been collapsed into the present, with the future being subtly discarded.

This is evidenced in the increasing emphasis by first world Christians on social justice advocacy, alignment with state politics, therapeutic views of the gospel ( health and wealth gospel), apocalyptic views of the end of the world that inspire this-worldly solutions, and a general compliance of Christians with worldly priorities. The return of Jesus is no longer viewed as the goal of Christian hope, neither is it the motivator for Christian living.

Of course, I am not suggesting that justice, political engagement, or the temporal benefits of the Christian life are unrelated to our eschatological stewardship, but I do want to strongly object to the notion that they or their goals are the source of our future hope.

However, I want to affirm, and trust you will also affirm with me, the apostle Paul’s view of the eschatological Christian life presented in Holy Scripture: ‘For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope–the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, ‘ Titus 2:11-13 (NIV)

Come Lord Jesus, come!

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