by René Bidstrup | 14 May 2020 |
In an epic scene from the book of Isaiah, a messenger runs saying these words:
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” (Isaiah 52:7, NRSV)
We can shout along: Yes, our God reigns.
And because He reigns, we can rejoice in this: Jesus isn’t coming—yet! If we are to look for signs of where we are to situate ourselves on a timescale, I would argue that we still have some time before the end comes.
Why? Aren’t we to believe Jesus is coming soon? Yes—but in the meantime, let us remember what God is up to in the present. God is reigning! God is working to destroy the dark and evil powers that rule parts of this world.
You heard me right. God has stuff to do before Jesus returns.
Enemies to be destroyed
The Apostles Peter, Paul and John all turned to Psalm 110 to paint the picture of what God is doing after the resurrection of Jesus.
“The Lord says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’” (Psalm 110:1, NRSV)
Peter uses this picture in his great speech at the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). And Paul writes in his famous chapter about the resurrection:
“Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:23–26, NRSV)
The passage affirms that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God. God reigns through Jesus. Jesus is King, says the New Testament. He left the empty tomb behind, sat down at the right hand of God and has been in the business of destroying the evil, dark powers ever since. He rules from the right hand of God, the New Testament unanimously sings.
But we also learn this surprising fact: the end only comes after all the enemies are destroyed. He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet!
Our tendency is to look and speculate about the time of Jesus’ return. Might this or that mean Jesus is coming? If we take the words of Paul as a guide, we ought to see these things as signaling the opposite. All enemies will be defeated first. The destroyers will be destroyed (Revelation 11.18), and only then will the end come.
Which means that the Kingdom of God is a present reality. God is reigning now. God is defeating enemies now.
Kings and priests, ruling with Christ!
God is not—or ought not—to be alone in his war against the enemies.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians 1:20-23, Paul again paints the same picture of Christ, seated at the right hand of God, already reigning.
… he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
But Paul includes a second familiar picture in this painting: the church as the body of Christ. He is the head over all things for the church. We know this picture, but we haven’t taken the implications seriously. Paul does. Without apology he says:
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:4–7, NRSV)
This is beautiful—and challenging. We, who were once dead, have been made alive. We are “raised up” and are “seated with him in the heavenly places.”
This makes us rulers—kings and queens—in the Kingdom of God. We rule. Now. With Christ!
The Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, is of heavenly origins. This Kingdom is different from the earthly kingdoms. This makes the Gospel of the Kingdom—the life and mission of the church—so much more interesting. We are not merely messengers. We are partakers in the battle against the evil powers and rulers and authorities who oppose this Kingdom of God.
We can hasten the coming. The Apostle Peter has urged us to live in holiness and godliness “waiting and hastening” the coming of the day of God (2 Peter 3:12).
But we need new and more exciting ways to show this life of holiness and godliness. For too long, we have been looking to a privatized, personalized faith journey. We have been too focused on personal holiness, such as:
- what to eat and drink (and especially what not to eat and drink)
- what to wear (and again, especially, what not to wear), and
- what day to worship (and again, especially what day not to worship).
If we have battled the evil powers and influences of the day, we have only battled them on a personal level. The rest is politics—and we shouldn’t engage in politics, it is often said. Politics are dangerous. But the Christian life is in fact a dangerous and public affair, and so we ought to engage in politics—the Jesus way. No, not by aligning ourselves with a political party. Look at Jesus: his encounters with the people were about more, not less, than that individual person. He took up the battle with the powers of his day. We are to join and imitate him.
Which gods to fight today?
We live in a vastly different age than when the New Testament was written – yet many of its problems continues to take us captive.
- 220 years ago the French Revolution signaled the end of absolute monarchies. Unfortunately, the destructive use and abuse of power did not go away. They live on in our power-structures.
- 150 years ago the American Civil War was a decisive step away from the problems of slavery. Unfortunately, we still engage in a vastly destructive world where slave labor is still present.
- A little over 100 years ago women were given back their own voice in many democracies. Women can vote. Unfortunately, the injustice lingers on, gender-inequality persists. And not just outside the church.
- 60 years ago the civil rights movement, with Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, took a step in the right direction of a race suppressing other races. Unfortunately—even the most blind can see this—we are living in a world where that battle is not over. How many cultural and racial problems are we still battling, inside and outside the church?
- After centuries of oppression, empires gave freedom back to their colonies. Yet these former colonies are/were left in poor conditions, with heavy debt, ruined infrastructures and post-trauma-from-being-a-colony disorder, with leaders who act as tyrants.
What about the environment and climate change? Greta Thunberg managed to put it on the agenda, in a way that Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio couldn’t.
What about sexism and sexual harassment? #Metoo is a step forward—yet many issues still remain, and new ones emerge.
What about the continuous systemic oppression, injustice and prejudices that #BlackLivesMatter has highlighted?
And what about the big one—the one I almost dare not mention? Yes, the economic injustice that disguises itself behind so many doors and comes in so many different outfits! Have you noticed it took only seconds from the onset of the health crisis we now live in until politicians, lobbyists, corporate leaders and others working in the business of Mammon emerged, talking about the danger to our economies rather than the present danger to people’s lives? “The sooner the better, because we need to get those economic wheels running again.” “The cure can’t be worse than the problem.”
These issues—and many more—are why I say this: the end is not yet. God has things to do.
Where is the church?
Where is the church on all of these issues? Don’t we have anything to say? Are we speaking in humility and with boldness? Dear church people—begin to rule with Christ!
God has a lot of things to deal with. Jesus is King and the Head. We are his body; we reign with him. We are to be what God called Israel to be. Peter says we are
“a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9, NRSV)
Yet sometimes it seems our eschatology and end-time speculation make us engage less in these important issues—and we end up merely keeping the Sabbath and being vegetarians. Where is the Matthew 25 picture of character, reliability and integrity in that?
The Holy Spirit has been poured out. It is Christ in us. It is God, doing a new work in us—in the world.
The Holy Spirit is convicting the world of its sinfulness. But the Holy Spirit is also inspiring people like you and me to speak truth to power. We are not doing this by ourselves. This is not progressive, optimistic, liberal politics, disguised and infiltrating the church. It is the church willing to call systemic sin by its name. It is a difficult thing to be a disciple of Jesus, to identify with the downtrodden, the poor, those who experience injustice and violence, and speaking truth to power. It brings us in opposition to the powers that be. It is what killed Jesus.
This is what we are called to be partakers of. We might get some of it wrong. We might end up building something that will not last.
Yet it is a fascinating, challenging and surprisingly joyful vocation to engage in.
- Imagine if the church helped the farmers of the cocoa-plants providing us with chocolate to get a decent salary and access to clean drinking water?
- Imagine if the church worked to transform and reinvigorate ecosystems that have been devastated by environmental problems, like avocado production in Peru and Chile?
- Imagine if the church gave hope and provided light to the darkness of the manufacturing realities of fast fashion, so that billionaires take up greater social responsibility when running factories in other parts of the world?
Perhaps the church might regain the positive, constructive and progressive ground it used to have, if we engaged in this dangerous and difficult task of speaking truth to power. Perhaps then we could fulfill the commandment of Jesus making disciples of all nations, taking the Gospel of the Kingdom to the ends of the world.
We can’t walk past the hurting on the side of the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, as the priest and the Levite did. We can’t turn our backs on all the injustice, the oppression, the racism, the sexism and all the rest of it in this world we inhabit.
We are co-regents in the present. And the end will not come until we partner up with God and proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom. We need to listen to the voice of the Spirit, and work to inspire and transform this world, in the spirit of the Kingdom of God, where Jesus is already King.
Then, when all the enemies have been made a footstool for King Jesus, Jesus will come back, resurrection happens and then the end will come.
Perhaps even soon.
René Bidstrup is the chaplain and youth pastor at Vejlefjordskolen, the Danish Union of Churches’ boarding school. René is passionate about seeing where Jesus and his Kingdom are challenging the church to do greater things, and finding the prophetic voice in and for the present. René is married to Kirstin, and they are parents of Eleanor, Dagmar and Oswald.