Eschatology and heavenly-mindedness

Introduction

Geerhardus Vos says in his ‘Biblical Theology’ that “Biblical religion is thoroughly eschatological in its outlook.” Many of us know what the Westminster Shorter Catechism says: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” The end and purpose of man’s existence and God’s work of redemption is eschatological. The glorification of God and our enjoyment of His glory—of this we have a foretaste, and we will see it in its fullness in the age to come, at the consummation of the Kingdom. Eschatology is much more than trying to figure out the date of Christ’s coming, or if the nation of Israel plays a major role in the last things, or who or what is the antichrist. Just like the rest of our theology, our eschatology must begin with God, not with man. Depending on our hermeneutical focus we will come to different eschatological conclusions. Our focus determines our theology and worldview, and in the same way, it determines our eschatology. What does our eschatology say about Christ’s Kingdom? Is it earthly or heavenly? Should we center our eschatology on the glory of God in redemption through Christ, just like we do with the rest of our theology? What does our eschatology say about the way we should live here on earth?

In this article, I will make a contrast between different eschatologies, not by looking at the different eschatological views, but by looking at the focus. It is not intended as an attack to any particular eschatological view, but simply as a way for us to consider whether we have the correct focus in our eschatology. Some of you might disagree with me, so I’m warning you, but please consider it from a biblical perspective.

Eschatology of fear

It is quite common to see an eschatology of fear in evangelical churches. Those who hold to this eschatology are scared of what might come in the future. They are always worried about whether they won’t be saved at the time of the return of Jesus, and about each and every event that comes out in the news. Speculation is their daily bread. “Who is antichrist? It this the mark of the beast? Is Israel going to war again?” and many other questions go through their mind because they have no choice. Is this what our eschatology should make us do? Don’t get me wrong, sometimes we don’t think about the return of Jesus enough, but there is a difference between longing for His return, and being constantly worried about every political event or economic collapse that happens on this planet. We should also examine ourselves as though Jesus were to return the next day, not in desperate fear, but in sober-mindedness, because our panic may turn our faith away from Christ and towards our works.

Puerto Rican Pentecostalism is very dispensational. I have been told by some friends of mine that they have been in conversation with a girl in the Pentecostal church, and the topic on Jesus’ return came up. She was anxious because she didn’t know whether she was ready for the rapture or not. Dispensationalism mixed with the legalism that we see in many Pentecostal churches in Puerto Rico is a deadly combination. The message of much of Puerto Rican Pentecostalism is a message of fear. If you don’t conform to the norms of the Pentecostal church, you’re not ready for the rapture, and you’ll suffer through the great tribulation. This girl’s anxiety is not surprising, considering this background. She has been brainwashed by an eschatology of fear which tells her that if she doesn’t work hard enough to keep her salvation, she is only ready to meet antichrist. Now, it is no secret that I dislike dispensationalism, but this is not specifically an attack on that system of interpretation. It’s an attack on an eschatology that makes us fear the future instead of longing for Christ’s return.

 Eschatology of pessimism

This eschatology is related to the eschatology fear in that it focuses on the things that happen around the world and worries about them all the time. The difference is that the person with the eschatology of pessimism does long for the coming of Christ, except the reason that he does long for it is simply to escape the evil he sees in the world. Some might adequately call it ‘escapism’. It has almost the same level of speculation as the eschatology of fear, looking for signs of the coming of Christ in every single event that happens around the world. The anxiety that emerges from this speculation, rather than producing fear, produces a sort of eschatological depression. “Everything is going bad. Nothing is right. I want to escape.” There is nothing wrong with looking at the world and longing for Christ to put all things in order. The problem is when we focus on the earthly things so much that we long for Christ’s return for the wrong reasons, wanting to escape from our responsibilities here on earth. In some cases, the escape looks more like an earthly utopia, which brings me to the next eschatology.

Eschatology of utopia

Those holding to the eschatology of utopia look at the world with a mixture of anxiety and hyper-optimism, and want to change the world through cultural influence. The difference between the utopia of the eschatology of pessimism and that of utopian eschatology is that the first utopia is simply a method of escape from the problems we currently face, and the second utopia is an ideal that the believer works hard for. Cultural influence is the way the believer wants to change the world. Is it wrong for individual Christians to have influence on the culture? Not at all. I would encourage individual Christians to be good at their calling, whether it is in education, in business, in the arts, and even in politics, all for the glory of God. Yet, we should realize that cultural influence is not the way through which Jesus and the Apostles changed the world. They changed the world with the Gospel. We do not change the culture to change individuals. We preach the Gospel that changes individuals who will then change the culture in their own way. If we want to see our culture change, preach the Gospel, but remember that God chooses whether the people and the culture will change or not. The outcome of the preaching of the Gospel is not under our control, it is under God’s control.

Although these three eschatologies have many differences, they all have something in common. On the surface, it may seem like there is no similarity between them, but a closer look will make you see what makes these similar. The focus of the eschatologies of fear, of pessimism, and of utopia is an earthly one. The first looks at the world in fear at the outcome of daily events. The second looks at the world with pessimism and anxiety wanting to escape from the evil around us. The third looks at the world with hyper-optimism wanting to bring about the new heavens and new earth through cultural influence. Yet, they all look at the world as their focus. The world has become a blindfold to many believers so that we may not see the glory of God in redemption and so that we may not long for Christ’s return as we should. This brings us to our final eschatology.

Eschatology of heaven

The author of Hebrews in chapter 11 describes faith and lists some of the people written about in the Old Testament as examples of faith. After taking a good look at Abraham, he writes a bit of an early conclusion:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

The people listed by the author of Hebrews as examples of faith looked forward to the eschatological state. They desired something beyond what they saw here on earth. Yet, that faith made them do great things while they were here on earth. That faith did not make them want to leave their earthly responsibilities behind, but instead do everything to the glory of the King of the heavenly city. I believe Geerhardus Vos couldn’t have said it better:

Man belongs to two spheres. And Scripture not only teaches that these two spheres are distinct, it also teaches what estimate of relative importance ought to be placed upon them. Heaven is the primordial, earth the secondary creation. In heaven are the supreme realities; what surrounds us here below is a copy and shadow of the celestial things. Because the relation between the two spheres is positive, and not negative, not mutually repulsive, heavenly-mindedness can never give rise to neglect of the duties pertaining to the present life. It is the ordinance and will of God, that not apart from, but on the basis of, and in contact with, the earthly sphere man shall work out his heavenly destiny. Still the lower may never supplant the higher in our affections. (Geerhardus Vos, from the sermon Heavenly-mindedness)

Our first father Adam was promised the eschatological state—the same perfect communion with God that we will have in eternity—for himself and his descendants on condition of perfect obedience. I mention this because, as Vos would put it, eschatology precedes soteriology. Adam did not need salvation until he sinned. My point here is that from the very beginning the Bible looks forward to this eschatological state, even when man did not need salvation. Adam failed, and then Christ came to accomplish Adam’s work for us. This is because God has chosen to glorify Himself in the redemption of sinners. A bad eschatology fails to take into account these truths, and deviates its focus away from God’s glory in redemption. It fails to place all categories in order. A bad eschatology makes the earthly things primordial and the heavenly things secondary, making the heavenly things a copy and shadow of the earthly things.

This is why I wrote this article: to challenge us to have a heavenly perspective not only on eschatology, but on all of life as well. We may not realize it, but our eschatology affects much of how we view world events, the culture, daily life. In other words, our worldview is, in a sense, affected by our eschatology. It was Christ who told us to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33). Our perspective on what the Kingdom of God is affects our evangelism and our ecclesiology. If we believe that the Kingdom is an earthly one, we will use earthly means to bring about this Kingdom. If we listen to Jesus who said “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), then we will not place our trust in earthly means to attract people to church and keep them there, and instead we will obey God and use the means that He has given us for the growth and preservation of the church—Word and sacraments.

What should be our focus in our eschatology? Heaven, or more precisely, God Himself. He is our greatest reward, and He has offered and given Himself to us by grace. When we have our focus placed on heaven, everything will look different (I speak from experience). When we look to heaven, we see God on His throne, sovereign over creation and providence, controlling all things for His glory and our good. We see Jesus reigning with the Father in majesty, interceding for His people. We see the promises of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He reigns until His enemies are put beneath His feet. When we worship God on the Lord’s Day, we enter into the very presence of God, a foretaste of the age to come. We join the angels in worship who day by day sing “Holy, holy, holy is YHWH of hosts”. There is much more I could say about having this heavenly perspective, but that would take quite a lot of time and space.

It all comes down to this: heaven should be our focus. I’m not calling for pietism or escapism, but for heavenly-mindedness. What I’m saying is that everything that we do here on earth must be done in faith, looking forward to the city of God, like the examples of faith in Hebrews 11 did. Jesus said that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him (Matthew 28:18). He also promised that He would be with us until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). Let us live our lives knowing these truths, that Jesus is King and that He will never leave our side, and no one will ever be able to take us from His hand. The Gospel must also be preached to every nation. We cannot rest until the body of Christ is completed. Let us do these things knowing that at the end of the age we will see God in all His majesty, and we will glorify and enjoy Him forever in perfect communion.

The Promise

Of all the promises of Scripture, there is one that stands out from the rest and is repeated throughout. When God made a covenant with Abraham, He promised that He would “be God to you and to your offspring after you”, and of Abraham’s offspring He says, “I will be their God” (Genesis 17:7, 8). In Exodus 6, God tells Moses to speak to the people of Israel that He would deliver them from slavery, and in verse 7, God says, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God…” When God gave Moses and the people of Israel the instructions for the consecration of the priests, He says, “I will dwell among the people of Israel and I will be their God.” (Exodus 29:45). In Leviticus 26:12, we see that one of the blessings for obedience to the Law is “And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.” When Jeremiah received the vision of the figs in chapter 24, God says of the exiles from Judah, “I will give them a heart to know that I am YHWH, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.” (Jeremiah 24:7). In Jeremiah 30, God speaks about the restoration of Israel, and in verse 22 He says, “And you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” Similar words are repeated in Jeremiah 31:1. God then speaks through Jeremiah about the New Covenant:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares YHWH, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares YHWH. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares YHWH: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:31-33)

Again, God promises that He would gather Israel from exile, and says in Jeremiah 32:38-39, “And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them.” The prophet Ezekiel speaks on behalf of YHWH about the same thing, bringing Israel back from exile into their land. God says, “And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” (Ezekiel 11:19-20). In Ezekiel 34, God speaks against false shepherds, and says that He will set David as prince over Israel. By David, of course, He refers to Jesus. In verse 24, God says, “And I, YHWH, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am YHWH; I have spoken.” God promises Israel again that they would return to their land; He again speaks the phrase “…you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36:28). He again says this in chapter 37, verses 23 and 27. We find this also in Zechariah 8:8.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians that we are the temple of the living God, and he quotes from the Law and the prophets in 2 Corinthians 6:16, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” The author of the epistle to the Hebrews quotes from Jeremiah 31, and repeats the words I will be their God, and they shall be my people” in Hebrews 8:10. In the book of Revelation, there are two instances where this phrase appears. In the first one, the Apostle John writes, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place [or tabernacleof God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God’.” (Revelation 21:3). Then God speaks to John from the throne, and He says, “The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.” (Revelation 21:7).

Why did we go through all these verses where God promises to be God to His people? I just wanted to give a bit of a perspective of what we’re talking about here: this is the main and greatest promise of God to His people. What gift could God give that is greater than God Himself? It would have been amazing grace if God simply freed us from the punishment of hell, and put us some place where we won’t suffer eternally. God chose instead to give us the greatest thing in existence, Himself.

Notice the context in which this promise is made. We see this promise in the context of covenant. In the Scriptures, God has always dealt with man through covenants. We see that it is the reward for obedience to the Law which, of course, man cannot do because of his sin. Paul teaches that the Law functioned back then the same way it does today, as a guardian or pedagogue (Galatians 3:24) to teach man that he cannot obtain salvation through works. This means that the Law was never intended to save anyone, but to make man look outside of himself and look to the promised Messiah, and the Law still does this today and that’s why we preach the Law so that man might see his need and believe the Gospel. Why is it important, though, to see the context of covenant behind the promise of God? Because of how God accomplished this. In the covenant of works, God made this promise to Adam on condition of perfect obedience; Adam failed. Later, God promised Abraham that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through his offspring, Jesus; we know this from the New Testament, especially Galatians. Jesus, who is the second Adam, came to keep the covenant of works that the first Adam broke, so that God’s people might receive grace through His death on the cross. The wicked still have in them the sin of the first Adam. God’s people receive the righteousness of the second Adam through faith. It is through this same faith that Abraham received the promises of God. These same promises we receive in Christ, which is why Paul can say that if we are Christ’s, we are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:29). The fact that this promise is restated throughout the whole Scripture makes clear the unity of Scripture in the unfolding of the covenant of grace throughout redemptive history. In one instance, the promise was restated during the giving of the instructions for the consecration of the priests in Leviticus. God would dwell among His people by the intercession of these priests. We have a greater Priest, our High Priest Jesus Christ. He has made the perfect sacrifice, He rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven where He now intercedes for all His people. Because of His intercession, there’s no need for earthly priests so that God may dwell among His people.

We see behind the promise and the covenant the concepts of redemption and restoration, as we see in the restatement of the promise when He redeemed Israel from slavery, and when God promised those who were in exile that they would return to their land. In the same way, in Christ we have been redeemed from Satan, sin, and death. He has restored our original relationship with God, since Christ as our Mediator has reconciled us to God (Romans 5:10; 1 Timothy 2:5). He has also reconciled us to one another. By the death of Christ, the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles has been broken down, creating in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace (Ephesians 2:11-22). The intention of God is clear, to become the God of a particular people by making them His own through redemption. This particular people is the Church. We also see the concept of regeneration in places like Ezekiel 36 and 37. We were dead in sin, a valley of dry bones, and God gave us new life in Jesus Christ.

This promise is eschatological in its nature. We are God’s people, and we serve Him as our God. Yet, we still have not been glorified. God dwells within us in the Person of the Holy Spirit, and we are the temple of God, but there will come a time when all creation will see this in its fullness. This is why creation eagerly awaits the revealing of the sons of God, and we await the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:18-25). Right now, we are still fighting the sin in our flesh, but when Jesus returns, our bodies will be transformed and there will be no more sin. The rest of creation will be flooded by fire, the fire of purification and judgment, by which the wicked will perish. There will be a new creation where there is no more sin. God will dwell among His people and we will worship Him eternally. We will be able to perfectly glorify and enjoy God forever, which is the chief end of man, because sin will not bother our lives anymore. Remember what John saw in Revelation 21. He saw the new creation and the new Jerusalem, and he writes, “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” (v. 22). The last and perfect temple is not a building, it is God Himself. The promise of God is this: God and His people living in perfect communion for all eternity. Geerhardus Vos in his ‘Biblical Theology’ says this about Abraham and the promise: “It is emphasized in the narrative that the patriarch’s supreme blessedness consisted in the possession of God Himself: ‘Fear not, Abraham, I am thy shield, thy exceeding great reward’ [Gen. 15:1]. For this treasure he could cheerfully renounce all other gifts.” Can you think of any greater possession than God Himself? I want to point out that not only have we been chosen by God to be His people, but also to be His own children. We have been adopted as sons and daughters of God through the work of Christ, and He promises that the one who conquers will be His son, according to Revelation 21:7. I’ve only scratched the surface. I invite you to look into these texts for yourself, and look at the simplicity and depth of this truth.

David wrote in Psalm 27:4, “One thing have I asked of YHWH, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of YHWH all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of YHWH and to inquire in His temple.” The first thing we see is that this is the one thing that David asked of God and that he would seek. Surely, David has asked in prayer many things in his life, like protection from his enemies, forgiveness of sins, provision, among other things. Yet, his main focus is not on this earthly life. His main focus is in this one thing that he asked of YHWH, that he may dwell in the house of God. The focus of the psalmist is in eternity. Why does David want to be in the house of God? Because God is there. God is the reason why he wants to dwell in God’s house. David is asking for the promise of God to be fulfilled in him. God cannot lie, and if you are in Christ, you are an heir of the promise. If you are in Christ, you are God’s possession, and God is your possession for all eternity.

The King of all nations

Psalm 2 is a song about God’s decree of giving a Kingdom to the Messiah, His rule over the nations, and His wrath against their rebellion. The first three verses remind me of the current situation of the world, especially America and Europe, how the nations want to have nothing to do with God ruling over them. The LGBT agenda, abortion, public schools teaching children that socialism is great, lack of self-control is fine, evolution is fact, and Christianity is evil, are all manifestations of the rebellion of the nations. What does God say about this? Let’s see what God says by looking through the different sections of this Psalm.

Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against YHWH and against His Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.” (vv. 1-3)

This Psalm begins with a question. It asks why are the nations raging and plotting against God in vain. This question is intended to ridicule the rebellious nations, to point out that the raging and plotting of the nations against God is all for nothing. The kings and rulers may set themselves against God and His Anointed (this is, Messiah, Christ), but they will never succeed. These kings know that they are bound to God and Christ, and they want to be “free” from His rule, but they never will.

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then He will speak to them in His wrath,
and terrify them in His fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.” (vv. 4-6)

God responds to the rebellion of the nations with mockery, and by pointing to the Messiah as His King. There is also a picture of judgment here when it says that “He will speak to them in His wrath…” Then God says, “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” The Messiah has received the Kingdom from God the Father. When has Christ received this Kingdom? After His resurrection. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.” (Matthew 28:18). I take these words from Jesus literally. Jesus has all authority, not just some authority here but not over there. All authority has been given to Jesus. Paul mentions in Acts 17:31 that God “has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a Man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead.” Christ’s resurrection is our guarantee that our sins have been forgiven, but also a guarantee that He is the one who has been appointed to judge the world. How is this judgment going to happen? Jesus puts it in very simple terms: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matthew 25:31-32). In the rest of the passage, He describes how those on the right are called righteous and welcomed to eternal life, and those on the left are called wicked and cast into eternal punishment (see Matthew 25:31-46). The eschatology of the Bible is simpler than we make it seem sometimes. Let’s move on to the next section.

I will tell of the decree:
YHWH said to Me, “You are My Son;
today I have begotten You.
Ask of Me, and I will make the nations Your heritage,
and the ends of the earth Your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” (vv. 7-9)

Clearly the voice speaking here is the voice of Christ. Christ is speaking about what the Father told Him in eternity that He would do in time. God planned redemption in eternity past, and He would accomplish it through the Son incarnate. After the Son did His work, He would inherit all the nations. The nations plot against God, but it is all in vain, because God has given His Anointed One the Kingdom, and He will come to judge them. No nation, no army, no individual can ever frustrate God’s plans. He reigns over them with authority, with the strength of His iron rod. The nations with all their armies will be dashed in pieces because they are really fragile compared to the iron rod of the Messiah.

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve YHWH with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest He be angry, and you perish in the way,
for His wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in Him. (vv. 10-12)

The kings, judges, and rulers of the earth are warned to be wise and to fear God, serve Him and rejoice with fear and trembling. They must give God and the Messiah what is His due because He is sovereign over all. They are also told to kiss the Son. This probably refers to either the kissing of the hand or the kissing of the feet, both of which are done to a king as a sign of reverence. They are told to give the Son reverence because the day of His judgment and wrath is coming soon, and they must humble themselves before it is too late. Then there is a divine blessing for those who take refuge in the Son. This same Messiah who is King over all the nations is the refuge of all who have faith in Him. We have absolutely nothing to fear if Jesus is our refuge. We are no longer condemned if we are in Christ, and so we don’t even have to fear death and the judgment because we have the righteousness of Christ by faith. This should make us rejoice, and praise and serve God, glorifying Him and obeying His commandments. The nations may reject God and His people, but He laughs at them, and warns them of the coming judgment, while He is also the refuge of His people.