“Given its importance,” Ian writes at the very end of this Grove Biblical series booklet, “both in our reading and in our discipleship, it seems high time that we should stop shying away from the subject, and make it once again an essential element of our teaching within our churches.”
When was the last time you heard a sermon about the ‘end times’? probably not very recently. Although, it is quite likely that sermons mentioning the President of the United States or a certain referendum result might have an apocalyptic quality to them.
Ian is right, of course, even a cursory reading of both the Old and New Testaments would reveal a significant interest in what is going to happen in some future event.
Skilfully, Ian navigates the reader in just 26 pages and five short chapters through an overview of the biblical texts relating to eschatology, which he defines, in the opening sentence, as ‘the study of last things.
I found Chapter 2 on the Old Testament material particularly interesting. It is easy to imagine that eschatology and apocalyptic are synonyms but Ian carefully traces the significance of the creation narratives and other Old Testament passages (including importantly, the psalms) in establishing that God is King of creation and that our faithful response is subjection to his kingship. This is important later on when noticing the significance and meaning of Jesus’ sayings referring to the kingdom of God (or, in Matthew, heaven), and indeed the kingdom motif of the book of Revelation.
Helpfully, the book follows the biblical order – Gospels, Acts, Paul, Revelation – rather than fashionably examining Paul first. This establishes the importance of Jesus and his teaching as the source of Paul’s teaching whatever the chronology of the original texts.
Chapter 3 has a brilliant exegesis of the ‘Little Apocalypse’ or Olivet Discourse (Mt 24-15 and Mark 13) and the difference between the two accounts, although most notable is how similar they are. The section on the phrase, which occurs twice, and is usually translated in the same way in English ‘the coming of the Son of Man’ but using different vocabulary in the Greek, is very helpful, and a good example of the non-gratuitous use of Greek in New Testament study. I also found especially useful the explanation of the past-present-future dynamic in relation to salvation; I was saved, I am saved, I will be saved (my words not Ian’s).
The final chapter applies ideas introduced earlier to our thinking pastorally and in particular to the way in which eschatology can be misused. Ian is very clear that there is “absolutely no suggestion that the return of ethnic Jews to the geographical location of the land forms any part of NT expectation of Jesus’ return” and completes this with a nice reference to uncircumcised Christians.
There is an excellent section on the need for lament in this present time when we are subject to the sufferings of the world. Believing in the coming kingdom is not about praise that ignores the reality of our time.
Not surprisingly, I part company with Ian in his emphasis on criticism of those Christians who have “acted as though social reform is the sum total of what the kingdom of God is about”. Of course, where people do that he is right, as he is in stating that “our salvation comes from beyond ourselves”, that must be right, we need Jesus, we need a Saviour. However, I think the greater danger is in not doing enough to apply the Gospel in the concrete politics and economics of our day. I can see F.D. Maurice’s The Kingdom of Christ on the shelves in front of me, and not far from those two volumes, Guttierrez, Boff and Cardenal; an eschatology that does not critique the structures of this world is too weak. Salvation is indeed past-present and future. We need that critique more than ever in this capitalist, populist, nationalist moment.
Ian’s writing style is always concise, and persuasive. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this Grove Book and recommend it wholeheartedly.
Now for the plug: A subscription to Grove Books would be a superb ordination or anniversary of ordination present, or a gift to yourself; a great way to keep up to date with some of the latest thinking.
Here is the booklet for online purchase:
I should point out that Ian is Managing Editor of Grove Books and I am a member of the Education Editorial Group.