Practical Eschatology

Reposted from The Cripplegate.

“If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next… . It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity [New York: Harper Collins, 2001], 134.)

“Eschatology” is the study of last things, or end times. For many, that term sounds like little more than an academic label, fit only for theology textbooks and doctrinal debates.

But whether we use the term “eschatology” or not, the study of the future is of vital imporance for believers. Biblical eschatology is far more than an academic topic to be debated. In His Word, God has revealed truth about the end of the age, and that truth is intended to do more than merely generate colorful charts or provide fodder for bestselling novels.

Why has God revealed so much about the future to His people?

At least three answers to that question might be considered, demonstrating that the future is meant to edify and encourage believers in the present. Our understanding of future events ought to impact our present reality in substantive ways.

Like all of divine revelation, what the Bible reveals about last things is intended to transform believers presently and progressively into the image of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18; 2 Tim. 3:16–17). 

Consider the following three categories in light of what Scripture reveals about the future: (1) hope, (2) holiness, and (3) the honor of God.

Hope

The truth about the future provides believers with hope for the future, even in the face of trials or death. Thus Paul could tell the Thessalonians that Christians do not grieve “as the rest of the world who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). Death for them was not the great unknown. Instead, it represented their final homegoing (cf. Phil. 1;21). Speaking of heaven, Charles Spurgeon observed:

The very happiest persons I have ever met with have been departing believers. The only people for whom I have felt any envy have been dying members of this very church, whose hands I have grasped in their passing away. Almost without exception I have seen in them holy delight and triumph. And in the exceptions to this exceeding joy I have seen deep peace, exhibited in a calm and deliberate readiness to enter into the presence of their God. (Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon at His Best [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988], 51.)

Writing about his trials, the apostle Paul similarly explained to the Corinthians, “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17–18). Because believers know what the future ultimately holds, they can face the temporal troubles of this life with confidence and courage.

Holiness

In addition to producing hope, any study of the future ought to promote holiness in the lives of the redeemed. In the words of one commentator, writing about the eternal state,

“The New Jerusalem is the reality that finalizes the hopes of God’s people and rewards them for all they have endured. It also is intended to spur the readers to greater faithfulness in the present, knowing what is at stake.” (Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, BECNT [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002], 727.)

Recognizing that they will soon be in the presence of their heavenly King, those who belong to Christ desire to please Him and reflect His perfect character in every way possible. As the apostle John wrote in his first epistle, “We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:2b–3).

Believers understand that they will be rewarded by Christ for their faithfulness in this life (Rom. 14:10; 2 Tim. 4:8). The reality of a heavenly future puts the priorities and pursuits of this life in proper perspective (cf. Matt. 6:19–21). Such an eternal mindset motivated the nineteenth-century missionary, Adoniram Judson, who said:

A few days and our work will be done. And when it is once done, it is done to all eternity. A life once spent is irrevocable. … Let us, then, each morning, resolve to send the day into eternity in such a garb as we shall wish it to wear forever. And at night let us reflect that one more day is irrevocably gone. (Adoniram Judson as cited in Edward Judson, The Life of Adoniram Judson [London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1883], 14–15.)

Those words echo the heartbeat of the apostle Paul, whose entire ministry was motivated by eternal concerns. As he told the Corinthians, “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:9–10).

The Honor of God

Finally, biblical eschatology provides a vivid reminder of the fact that the purpose behind all of salvation history is the glory of God. After Christ returns, His glory will be marvelously seen on earth during His millennial reign. Ultimately, the manifestation of that glory will culminate in the blazing light of the new heavens and earth. It will radiate throughout the New Jerusalem and engulf every one of heaven’s inhabitants. For all of eternity, believers will bask in the wonder of God’s grace and glorify Him for His infinite mercy and kindness. The unmerited favor of God will forever thrill the hearts of the redeemed, and they will praise and exalt Him as a result. The awe of redemptive love will fuel their worship. As Richard Baxter so aptly expressed,

As we paid nothing for God’s eternal love and nothing for the Son of His love, and nothing for His Spirit and our grace and faith, and nothing for our eternal rest… what an astonishing thought it will be to think of the unmeasurable difference between our deservings and our receivings. O, how free was all this love, and how free is this enjoyed glory… . So then let DESERVED be written on the floor of hell but on the door of heaven and life, THE FREE GIFT. (Richard Baxter, The Saints Everlasting Rest [Reprint: Philadelphia, Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1847], 36 – 37.)

With inexhaustible joy, believers from every age of human history will join together in unending adoration and thanksgiving to God for the unmerited kindness of His grace (cf. Rev. 5:9–14). Clearly, eschatological truth ought to motivate believers in their homeward journey, as they navigate through this world as sojourners and citizens of another realm (Phil. 3:20). To do that effectively, they must set their eyes on Him and the glorious future He has promised (Col. 3:1–2; Heb. 12:1–2). Focusing on God’s reign during the Millennial Kingdom and beyond is not a hindrance to the life of faith; it is the essence of it (Heb. 11:16).

It is no wonder, then, that Lewis can say, “[T]he Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next… . It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.” (Lewis, Mere Christianity,134. ) When we approach eschatology the right way, we inevitably respond in worship, obedience, and faith.

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