The Beginning of the End
From the Bible's point of view, the end has already arrived. There is a sense in which we are living with and in the end, whether we like it or not. To understand the end that will be, we must understand the end that already is. We turn, therefore, to the theme of Jesus' preachingthe kingdom of God. We turn, in fact, to "the beginning of the end."
Jesus was a prophet of the end: "The time is fulfilled," he preached, "and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). According to Mark, this simple message was "the gospel of God" (Mark 1:14).
Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God. For Jesus and his hearers, God's kingdom is not a place but an activity. It is God's rule. Although it was "at hand" in one way, there were also three senses in which this rule or kingdom was already a reality in Jesus' life.
The Existing Reality of God's Kingdom
First, there was God's general sovereignty. As Creator of this universe, he is its sustainer and ruler; he controls it, from the mightiest of its stars to the tiniest of its plants and animals and physical elements. This was a reality for Jesus.
Second, there was God's rule over Jesus himself. He was uniquely the servant of the Lord, living, unlike us, as the obedient servant of God's rule because God is the rightful Lord of our race. We have disputed and repudiated God's right to rule over us. Having freed ourselves from the rule of God, we have become ignorant of God. We build our flawed and unsatisfying cities. Jesus Christ, however, lived under God's rule. This was a reality for Jesus.
Third, there was God's rule over his special people. As ruler of the world and its history, God chose and created a family, a people, a nation, to be in unique contact with him, intended to reflect the proper relationship between God and man. The nation was Israel, and its life was meant to be one of service to the Lord God, a service in which it frequently failed. It was, however, also the recipient of the promises of God. These promises indicated that a future day would come when God would decisively disperse his enemies, reassert his rule, and introduce a new age of righteousness. This was the goal or end of history, and it was what Jesus was announcing: "The kingdom of God is at hand."
For Jesus to announce the kingdom of God was not, then, to say that God's rule did not exist until that moment. It was to say that a new stage was about to begin, that the history of the world had now moved to the point of crisis, of action, of its end. It was to announce a new era. It is no wonder that he urged his hearers to capitulate to God's existing rule at once through repentance and faith before the day arrived and they would be overthrown.
The Old Age Continues
To say all this is to raise the question of how good a prophet Jesus was. If one thing is clear to us, it is that the rule of God in its decisive form has still not come, nearly two thousand years after our prophet spoke. His gospel was good, but his news seems false. The world maintains its pain, its evil, its mystery, as far as we are concerned; we may be living in the worst epoch yet. There are not lacking those who will tell us that the Jesus experiment is a failure, that nothing has happened. Here, however, is where we must discern the meaning of history as Jesus and the Bible expound it. Our present era is marked by tension between what has come and what is yet to come. To deny the tension is to misunderstand both history and the contemporary moment. The present tension is not unexpected; it is part of what he predicted.
On the one hand, Jesus expected that history would continue. Whether Jesus' disciples believed that it would be all finished within the near future, or run on as it has over two thousand years so far, is not important. Jesus, in fact, refused to be drawn in on that point. What he did endorse, however, was the insight that God remains in control, that the sufferings of history do not count against that control. He saw within the historical experience that all of us pass through certain "signs of the times" arising from the providential care of God. These signs would function as reminders that God is in charge of history and that it has a terminus. Jesus spoke of nations rising against nations, of wars and rumors of wars, of false Christs and false prophets with signs and wonders, of earthquakes and famines (Mark 13:6, 8, 22).
The very ordinariness of these signs has frustrated many, but it is the clue to their usefulness. The signs are the ordinary events of history that testify to God's judgment. They are not intended to act as a sort of map to the future, as though the followers of Jesus were being given special advance information. The bizarre attempts to calculate the date of the end have disfigured Christian history, obscured the gospel, and reflected a misunderstanding of the Bible itself. The function of the signs is to stimulate both patient endurance and readiness for the end, not to satisfy curiosity. The judgments of God in history constantly remind us of the judgment of God that will conclude history, and prepare us for it. The precise moment of its appearing is not revealed to us, nor is the specific meaning of any particular sign. It is sufficient to know that "he who endures to the end will be saved" (Mark 13:13).
But the King Has Come
Thus, on the one hand, history continues despite the announcement that "the kingdom of God has drawn near." On the other hand, though, a vital new thing has occurred, and it is not the same history as it was before. In a key sense, "the kingdom of God is in the midst of you" (Luke 17:21). The kingdom has come, as Jesus said it had.
Such a bold claim can refer only to one thing: the entry into our world of Jesus Christ himself. Such is the impact of his coming that the Bible has to describe it as the drawing near of the age to come, the new age beyond the Day of the Lord, the age of the fulfillment of hopes and expectations. It has to say that eternal life has not waited for the judgment day; it has pushed itself into the midst of today's history.
Others are making the same claim. We experience the explosion of New Age religions, and it is believed by many that we are living at the dawn of a new era in which human beings can be happy and fulfilled in new ways. But alert readers of popular literature can only be impressed with the lack of substance in it all and, worse, with its overwhelming egocentricity and lack of moral purpose. It seems remarkably like the new age that we would invent in our worst moments. In the desire for a return to unity with nature, to significance in a crowded world, to the conviction that we are part of a grand scheme of some sort, the New Age has forgotten the presence of the Old Age. As Mircea Eliade observed about the parallel astrological boom, "You feel in harmony with the universe and do not have to bother with hard, tragic, or insoluble problems." But Christianity regards us as living in both ages, and insistently draws our attention to Jesus Christ as the key to an understanding of where and what we are.
The Presence of Our Future
The new age announced in the New Testament has been inserted into time, and the old age and the new run on together. It is the time of two ages. The new age has its foundation entirely through the life, death, and resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ. From his birth to his death, he never ceased to be the faithful servant of the Lord, the one who lived under God's rule. Men assassinated Jesus by false witness and crucifixion. In raising him from the death of crucifixion, God has declared himself thoroughly pleased with Jesus. More than that, however, God has declared that he is the representative of men and women, the first of our human race to be raised, and the pattern and guarantee for the rest of us. He is what humanity, we ourselves, are intended to be. He is what we will become; he is the first citizen of the new Jerusalem.
There is a special sense in which this is so. In the early chapters of the Bible, we are told that men and women are made in the image of God, and hence share his stewardship of the created world (Gen. 1:26). As God's rule has been disputed by us, so our capacity to rule the world has been severely limited: that is part of the pain and mystery of being fallen. But Jesus Christ, the one ruled by God and approved by God, has himself, and uniquely, been appointed Lord and ruler of the world during the time of the two ages. He preached the kingdom of God. Since his resurrection, the message remains the same, but is expressed more precisely as the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord or ruler. Men and women everywhere are called to put themselves under his control.
Ever since the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his ascension to the right hand of God, we have been living in the last days; it has been the beginning of the end. How long this period will last is relatively insignificant; for God, a thousand years is as one day, and one day as a thousand years. Should history have 50,000 years yet to run, it would still be the last days. Jesus said that God has planted a seed which will one day be a great tree; he has planted a field where his good plants and the devil's weeds will grow together until he is prepared to sort them out (Matt. 13:24-31).
The Bible does indicate, however, that our journey through history will have a conclusion. We are not allowed to assume that history, or rather the unaided human race working in history, can create a perfect civilization. We cannot build ourselves here on earth an enduring city, a new Jerusalem, a superior London, Sydney, or New York that will be fit for humanity to live in. Even more important, we cannot create the conditions that would mean that God would accept us gladly as valid and deserving members of his new age. We cannot be good in this life, and, specifically, we cannot be good enough for the next. Thus, a definite conclusion is needed, that there may be a definite new beginning.
However, this new beginning cannot be made without the past. It is in human history that decisions are made, values forged, and lives lived out that will affect the new age, the age to come. If we cannot build our New Jerusalem here, we ought nonetheless to note that what we do here has a bearing on our experience of the New Jerusalem that is God's gift. It is no part of the Christian ideal to despise the present age and what occurs within it. We record only a tiny fragment of it and call it "history"; God records it completely and with perfect justice for the sake of the age to come.
We should note that Jesus Christ is the intersection of the two ages. There can be no doubting his sheer human presence in the old age, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate. But he also represents the new age, the age to come. His death occurs in one, his resurrection in the other, and he shows us the connection between the two. He is the presence of the future, the beginning of the end.
This article is an excerpt (slightly edited) from At the Heart of the Universe, by Peter Jensen (1997), pp. 22-28. Used by permission of Good News Publishers/Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL 60187, crosswaybooks.org. The author quotes the RSV. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2002.