Now It All Makes Sense

The Kingdom has come, but society is not uprooted. This is the mystery of the Kingdom.

I was converted at a young age and grew up in church. I heard expositional preaching and cut my teeth on Sunday School flannelgraphs, Vacation Bible School, and “Sword Drills” at Christian summer camp. At the encouragement of my grandmother, I read the Bible cover to cover as a teen. Later, I attended a Christian college, where I minored in Bible. So, by the time I hit my twenties, I knew lots of verses, could give you summaries of Bible books, and was very familiar with the message of salvation.

But never had I heard anything quite like what I encountered in a particular paragraph I read while preparing for ministry.

When Jesus Became Scandalous

I don’t remember how I came to be reading George Ladd’s A Theology of the New Testament, and I never read the entire volume, but these sentences (and the chapter of which they’re a part, “The Mystery of the Kingdom”) fired my imagination and permanently altered my understanding of God, the Bible, history, and my own life:

The coming of the Kingdom, as predicted in the Old Testament and in Jewish apocalyptic literature, would bring about the end of the age and inaugurate the Age to Come, disrupting human society by the destruction of the unrighteous. Jesus affirms that in the midst of the present age, while society continues with its intermixture of the good and the bad, before the coming of the Son of Man and the glorious manifestation of the Kingdom of God, the powers of that future age have entered into the world to create “sons of the kingdom,” those who enjoy its power and blessings. The Kingdom has come, but society is not uprooted. This is the mystery of the Kingdom. (94)

Until that moment in my life, I had read the Bible as a more or less static record of God’s revealed truth. I knew many important biblical facts, but had little sense of a larger story line, of a dynamically unfolding plan, of a developing work of salvation through time. Ladd began to put those pieces together, to excite me with a sense of the dynamism and progress of God’s redemptive work.

Before reading that paragraph, I hadn’t ever considered the ways in which Jesus’s ministry might be surprising or scandalous. Sure, it was extraordinary that he performed miracles and challenged the religious leaders. But having grown up hearing about those miracles and confrontations, they were familiar to me. Ladd opened my eyes to the mystery of the kingdom.

Through Ladd’s eyes, I now saw Jesus’s declaration that the kingdom of God had already come (but was not fully consummated) as the scandalous surprise it would have been to Jesus’s contemporaries. To liken the mighty end-time kingdom of God to a tiny, hidden mustard seed? Unthinkable! I had never truly understood the Matthew 13 parables of the dragnet, the mustard seed, or the leaven. Ladd’s teaching of the already–not yet kingdom unlocked them for me. Now 23 years later, I can still remember the excitement and satisfaction of awakened understanding.

Far Bigger Than Me

More than that, the teaching of the inaugurated-but-not-consummated kingdom helped me appreciate more fully the truly epoch-making significance of Jesus’s first coming. His life, death, and resurrection had inaugurated nothing less than a new age. He had brought to initial fulfillment the end-time promises of God, securing the future new creation.

To that point in my life, I had read the Bible almost exclusively as an account of something that mattered on a personal basis. Jesus came to save souls. Jesus’s work was between Jesus and me. To come alive to the cosmic significance of Jesus’s ministry, to the newness that Jesus brought in the redemptive-historical work of God, to Jesus as the climax of God’s plan for all things — all this exalted Jesus more highly in my mind and heart.

For me, the intellectual stimulus of Ladd’s inaugurated eschatology was deep and enduring. It prepared me to discover the richness of biblical theology in seminary, and subsequently to pursue a doctorate focusing on Jesus’s fulfillment of God’s end-time promises.

Making Sense of Me

Beyond a deepened understanding and appreciation of the New Testament and God’s redemptive work and the centrality of Christ, Ladd’s words helped me to understand my own life more clearly. I could look at Ladd’s famous diagram of the overlap of the ages (the lines of the “Present Age” and the “Age to Come” overlapping between the first and second comings of Christ) and see exactly where I lived. I could imagine, like a map at the mall, a marker located in that overlap saying, “You Are Here.” And this made sense of my life.

It explained God’s justification of me and the Holy Spirit’s ongoing transformation of my heart. These miraculous events were possible because the last days had already begun through the work of Christ. It also explained my agonizing struggles with sin. Why did part of me want to access sexual images with my dial-up modem, while another part of me desperately wanted to be free from those images? Welcome to the overlap. It explained the sadness of suffering that had touched my life. Why was my father in a wheelchair, despite my many prayers for his healing? Why was anxiety a sometimes-paralyzing reality for me? Welcome to the overlap.

“The already–not yet of the kingdom guarded me from both over-optimism and despair. It offered hope in hard times.”

The already–not yet of the kingdom didn’t answer every question, but it provided a powerful framework for understanding my sin and my sanctification. It guarded me from both over-optimism and despair. It offered hope in hard times.

Purpose of My Life

Two years after my discovery of Ladd, I was a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. On a bright and blustery day, I sat by the Atlantic Ocean, on the rocks at Magnolia, and read these words in Richard Hays’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament:

The church community is God’s eschatological beachhead, the place where the power of God has invaded the world. All Paul’s ethical judgments are worked out in this context. . . . To live faithfully in the time between the times is to walk a tightrope of moral discernment, claiming neither too much nor too little for God’s transforming power within the community of faith. (27)

This paragraph became as seminal and shaping for me as Ladd’s had been earlier, because it offered me a life purpose. I already knew I wanted to be a pastor. Understanding the church as God’s “eschatological beachhead,” the focus of God’s end-time power rushing into the present, made that calling even more significant and urgent.

“The ‘when’ of our lives is meant to shape the how of our everyday living.”

Hays confirmed my developing conviction that ethics and eschatology are meant to go together, that the when of our lives (life in the already–not yet kingdom) is meant to shape the how of our everyday living. To help God’s people understand the in-between nature of their existence (the power of God is already available to them through the dawning of the last days, yet the consummated new creation is still future), to help them grasp the practical, ethical, daily significance of this reality — that seemed to me a good use of my life.

I wrote on a page in the back of Hays’s book, “[This is the] purpose of my life.”

Sharing the Life-Changing Mystery
In the years since, I’ve sought to live out that life purpose. I’ve sought to help people understand the book of Revelation, with its earnest encouragement of suffering believers through gorgeous portrayals of our final future.

I eventually wrote a short book to help ordinary Christians understand the exciting and frustrating tension of being simultaneously restless and patient for the future new creation because of our assurance that it is superbly good and securely ours. In my teaching of seminary students, inaugurated eschatology has been a repeated theme. Throughout fourteen years of pastoral ministry, I’ve aimed to help the people of my church understand the story line of the Bible, the cosmic significance of Christ’s work, and the utterly practical implications of a future new creation that’s ours because of what Christ has already accomplished for us.

I rejoice to be a son of the kingdom, to savor already in part the power and blessings that Jesus secured. I’m grateful to have glimpsed more of the purposes of God. And by his grace, I hope to help others rejoice in Christ as the all-satisfying climax of all the plans of God.

Stephen Witmer

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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