‘Death is dead! Death is dead!’

This morning in my Bible reading I read again the crazy plot to kill Lazarus (John 12:9-11):

When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.

Threats of death to the resurrected?!

The story reminds me of a Ravi Zacharias sermon jam I found many years ago:

Have you ever wondered what you would do to frighten Lazarus after he’d been raised from the dead? What would you do to threaten him? “Lazarus, I’m gonna’ kill you?” Caligula says, “I’m going to kill you.” He says, “Ha, ha, ha.” He says “Stop ha, ha, ha-ing. I’m going to kill you as I’m killing all the Christians.” He doubles over in uncontrollable laughter, comes up for air and says, “Caligula haven’t you heard? Death is dead! Death is dead!”

How do you frighten somebody who has already been there and knows the one who’s going to let him out? …

Behind the debris of the fallings of our solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists lies the gigantic figure of one person, because of whom, by whom, in whom, and through whom, mankind may still survive. The person of Jesus Christ.

Dying and Rising with Christ

One of the more stimulating reads from 2012 was for me a short 130-page book written 45 years ago by Robert Tannehill, Dying and Rising with Christ. For its brevity the book punches hard and achieves a sketch of the sweeping eschatological structure in Paul’s writings, something I appreciate in the writings of G. K. Beale.

Tannehill seems to make a few points about the Christian life that are worth highlighting here. First, the book is strong on the large-scale eschatological framework of the Christian life in Paul, as you can see on page 30:

Christ’s cross puts an end to the dominion of sin, and so to the “old man.” It is an inclusive event, for the existence of men was bound up with this old aeon, and what puts an end to it also puts an end to them as men of the old aeon. When Paul speaks of dying and rising with Christ, and associates it, as he does here, with the end of the old dominion and the foundation of the new, it is clear that he is thinking of the death and resurrection of Christ as eschatological events. And because they are eschatological events, affecting the old dominion as a whole, they are also inclusive events.

But I think Tannehill’s work is especially valuable on the flip side of our entrance into the new aeon, in our battle with the tug and pull of the old aeon in the ongoing “eschatological discord” (Beale). Tannehill explains the discord on page 127:

The connection which we have noted between dying and rising with Christ and Paul’s eschatology provides the key to understanding the relation between dying with Christ as a past event and as a continuing aspect of Christian existence. Through dying with Christ the Christian has been released from the old world and has entered the new. If this were all that Paul wished to say about God’s eschatological act, he could only speak of dying with Christ as something which has already happened to the Christians. But the old world has not yet accepted God’s judgment of it and claim upon it, and the Christian is still bound to this old world through his present body.

This means that the Christian is still exposed to the powers of the old aeon. Therefore, the new existence which is based upon the past death with Christ takes on the form of a continuing dying with Christ. To be sure, Paul speaks of dying with Christ as a present process particularly, though not exclusively, in connection with suffering. However, he makes clear that the dying with Christ which takes place in suffering is also a dying to the old world, the world of “flesh” and of trust in self. It is because the decisive break with the old world must continually be maintained and affirmed that what happened to the Christian in the death of Christ also determines the present structure of his life, so that dying with Christ is not only the basis of the new dominion but remains a present reality within it.

Tannehill seems to be on to something here, and he’s not the only one to point this out. For a further discussion on this dual dynamic of our dying and rising with Christ, and how these twin realities shape our perception of our daily Christian lives, see the second half of my recent interview with Constantine Campbell in the Authors on the Line series (iTunes). And if you are looking for a brilliant chapter on the eschatological shape of the Christian life, see Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology, pages 835–870.

The Deepest Motive for Holiness and Charity

Richard B. Gaffin, By Faith, Not by Sight (Paternoster, 2006), page 78:

Ultimately, in the deepest sense, for Paul “our good works” are not ours, but God’s. They are his work begun and continuing in us, his being “at work in us, both to will and to do what please him” (Phil. 2:13). That is why, without any tension, a faith that rests in God the Savior is a faith that is restless to do his will.

In 1 Corinthians 4:7 Paul puts to the church those searching rhetorical questions, “Who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (NIV). These questions, we should be sure, have the same answer for sanctification as for justification, for our good works as well as for our faith. Both, faith and good works, are God’s gift, his work in us. The deepest motive for our sanctification, for holy living and good works, is not our psychology, not how I “feel” about God and Jesus. Nor is it even our faith. Rather, that profoundest of motives is the resurrection power of Christ, the new creation we are and have already been made a part of in Christ by his Spirit.

Inaugurated eschatology: What it is and why it matters

On this blog I spend quite a lot of time discussing “inaugurated eschatology,” especially when it comes to understanding how Christ’s resurrection marks the dawn of the new creation. But, you may be asking, what is inaugurated eschatology in the first place and why should I care? And those are both very good questions.

The other day I discovered a brief interview published in 2008 in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology with professor Dr. C. Everett Berry. The excerpt has two particular strengths; first, it explains the basic contours of inaugurated eschatology quite well, and, second, it explains how this inaugurated eschatology should shape our thinking and daily Christian living.

This is a longer excerpt, longer than most of my posts, but it is worthy of a careful, slow read.

SBJT: How can the theological construct of inaugurated eschatology help us in forming a biblical understanding of Christian sanctification?

C. Everett Berry: The term inauguration essentially refers to an act of ceremonial observance whereby a given party officially inducts another newly designated party into a special position of authority. Note also that this practice typically alludes to a significant transition wherein the subject being inaugurated represents a new phase of leadership or service. And it is here where insight has proven helpful to evangelicals as they attempt to conceptualize the theological flow of the biblical storyline and delineate the hermeneutical symmetry between Old Testament promise and Christological fulfillment.

Specifically, the concept known as “inaugurated eschatology” highlights a theological tension in the New Testament between the temporary co-existence of two mutually exclusive realms. First there is “the present age,” which is marked by all the consequences of sin upon the world including the divine curse as well as Satanic oppression. This era continues to wreak havoc upon humanity but now with one crucial difference. It exists on borrowed time because of the beginning of another age established by the finished work of Jesus Christ. His act of redemption defeated death, made atonement for sin, thwarted the works of the devil, and provided a means whereby the kingdom of heaven might eventually become a full reality on earth. Consequently, the completion of his Father’s mission marked the dawning of a new eschatological era that would bring salvation and restoration from sin.

The key though is that the full realization of this telos [ultimate aim] is not instantaneous. The biblical writers understood the resurrection and ascension of Christ as events that set in motion, or inaugurated, the gradual ushering of “the age to come” into the present. Now the present age commences on a divinely-set stopwatch ticking down the last days until the impending kingdom of God arrives in its consummate form on the last Day, which is otherwise known as the Day of the Lord when the glorified Christ returns to save his people and judge his enemies. Furthermore, believers in the early church were taught that this future was certain because of promises made by Christ and his apostles regarding the imminent parousia. They were also assured of this reality by virtue of the fact that Christ was currently executing in preliminary form the power of the future kingdom amidst the very time of spiritual darkness in which they still lived. While they existed in a world blinded by Satan and cursed because of Adam’s sin, they were likewise experiencing many of the blessings of the eschatological age. The forgiveness of sins, the indwelling of the Spirit, and the gift of eternal life were soteric foretastes that were indicative of future realities not yet received, such as resurrection from the dead, the absence of sin’s carnal influence, and a new creation.

Theologically speaking then, the concept of inaugurated eschatology obviously has tremendous implications for interpreting numerous motifs in Scripture. Yet one theme often overlooked is its relationship to the doctrine of sanctification. One notices when reading the ethical sections of the New Testament that biblical writers frequently allude to believers’ identity as kingdom citizens of the age to come in order to exhort them to live out their faith in the world now. The portrait given in Scripture is that believers are a people who live in the hostile convergence of two antithetical ages that overlap, thus creating a kind of parallel universe. On the one hand, our redemption is not experientially culminated because we still struggle with temptation, sin, and spiritual immaturity. Yet on the other, we have been born again, empowered by the Spirit, and thereby become new creations in Christ.

The net result of these dual truths is a clash of loyalties because now we as believers are admonished to repudiate the immoral ways of our old identity as children made in Adam’s image by walking in the power of the Spirit so we can be continually conformed into the image of the second Adam. The theological irony, however, is that we do not reject our former way of life so we can gradually achieve a new spiritual rank. We recognize instead that at conversion, we forfeit our spiritual link to the present age and became full citizens and heirs of the future kingdom. Therefore, because of the dynamic of inaugurated eschatology, biblical sanctification does not focus on maintaining a certain life style in order to gain something we do not have yet. Rather we are to grow in grace in order to reflect the identity that is already fully ours. This is why believers in the New Testament are not described as sinners who should change in order to be called saints one day. It is because they already are saints positionally that they are to exhibit a certain life practically.

So in a sense each ethical mandate placed before us as believers entails an eschatological context that validates its authority. For instance, we seek those things that are Christ-honoring because it is there where we have already been seated (Eph 2:6; Col 3:1). We forgive those who wrong us because we have been forgiven (Eph 4:32; 1 John 4:11). We do not take fellow believers to civil courts because we are to be judges of angels (1 Cor 6:2-3). We live as loving servants in all social contexts because the ones exalted in the future are the ones who serve in the present (Matt 18:4-5; 19:28-30). We maintain physical purity because we are indwelt by the Spirit who is given to us as a promise of a future eschatological reunion (1 Cor 6:19; 2 Cor 5:5; Eph 1:14). Moreover, in the end we see that because Christ’s kingship is a reality now, sin in our lives is not only to be understood as rebellion against God our Creator. It is also contrary to who we are as Christ’s redeemed people because in the age to come, kingdom citizens will walk in full obedience to their Lord.

Source: “The SBJT Forum: The Kingdom of God,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 12/1 (2008), pages 109–111. Posted online with written permission from SBJT.

Daily Renewal and Resurrection

It’s very easy to dislocate daily renewal (personal growth, progressive sanctification) from the much broader picture of God’s redemptive plan for your life and from future personal bodily resurrection. Our hope of resurrection does not negate the value of our daily progress; daily progress does not diminish the incredible transformation that must happen in the resurrection. In that light Murray Harris makes an important point in his comments on 2 Corinthians 4:16, and the place of this text within the broader flow of Paul’s book. Harris writes:

For Paul, the spiritual body was not simply the state of the renewed “inner self” at the time of the believer’s death, but it seems a priori likely that he saw a relationship between the two, that he regarded resurrection not as a creatio ex nihilo, a sudden divine operation unrelated to the past, but as the fulfillment of a spiritual process begun at regeneration. The daily renewal of the “inward person” (2 Cor 4:16) contributed toward the progressive transformation of the believer into the image of Christ (3:18) in a process that would be accelerated and completed by resurrection. Paul does not explicitly say that his ἔσω ἄνθρωπος [“inner self”] is the embryo of the spiritual body or bears its undeveloped image, but the natural transition of his thought from 4:16 to 5:1–4 shows that this sentiment would have been congenial to him. As a result of the final convulsion of resurrection, the butterfly of the spiritual body will emerge from the chrysalis of the renewed “inner person.”

[Source: Murray Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 360.]

The Gospel and Eschatology

Too often we don’t equate the gospel and justification with the theme of eschatology. These themes can get separated in our minds, and each individual doctrine suffers for the disconnect, and our souls suffer from malnourishment. The fact is that these themes are inseparable—the death and resurrection of Christ mark the inbreaking of the eschatological age and the inauguration of the new creation.

Yesterday I read what may be the best summary of these interwoven themes in the back of Thomas Schreiner’s new commentary on Galatians (Zondervan, 2010), pages 394–395.

Notice how he draws the themes together:

Justification is an eschatological verdict that has been declared in advance of the last day. This is not to say that the verdict announced now only refers to a future reality. Believers are already justified, and yet at the same time they await the final declaration on the day of judgment when the verdict that God has already announced becomes public (5:5).

In the same way, the cross of Jesus Christ has launched believers into the age to come, even though they live in the present evil age (1:4). In other words, the new exodus promised in the OT has become a reality through Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord (Isa 40:3­–11; 42:16; 43:2, 5–7, 16–19; 48:20-21; 49:8–11; 51:10–11).

The resurrection in Jewish thought also signals the end of the old evil age and the coming of the new age of peace and plenty (cf. Isa 26:19; Ezek 37:1–14; Dan 12:2–3).

The resurrection is not a prominent theme in Galatians, and yet it appears in the first verse of the letter (1:1), signifying that the age to come has invaded the present age. The old evil cosmos has lost its hold over believers through the cross of Jesus Christ (6:14). Therefore, believers now belong to the new creation (6:15). The new creation has not been consummated (Isa 65:17; 66:22), but it has been inaugurated through the work of Jesus Christ. The gift of the Holy Spirit represents the arrival of the new creation (Isa 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 11:18–19; 36:26–27; Joel 2:28). The Spirit is a gift of the last days, and his presence and indwelling among the Galatians shows that the final days have begun.

Eschatological contrasts dominate Galatians, so that we have a contrast between the old age of the flesh and the new age of the Spirit. The flesh in Paul represents the old age and who human beings are in Adam, whereas the Spirit signifies the inbreaking of the age to come.

We see the same eschatological contrast between the law and the gospel. The Mosaic law belongs to the former era and believers are no longer under the law (see esp. 3:15–4:7). To be under the law is to be enslaved to the power of sin (3:10, 22, 23, 25; 4:3, 21–31; 5:18). Such slavery belongs to the former age. Now that the gospel of Christ (a fulfillment of the promise of the new exodus! Isa 40:9; 52:7) is proclaimed, the age of the law is obsolete. Believers live in the era of the cross, the resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit.

Second Corinthians 5:17 rightly summarizes Galatians: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone; the new has come!”

A summary quote like this one that weaves together so many key themes in Galatians and throughout the Old and New Testaments is worth printing out and studying carefully and meditating over devotionally.

(And his commentary is  certainly worth the coin, in case you’re wondering.)