Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Coming of the Kingdom, Part VII

Pining or Serving?

“In the sweet bye and bye” is a sentimental Victorian “pining” hymn. Yet in many ways it captures the mistaken idea that the real point of life is to die and be with Jesus. Now, we need to state clearly at the outset that from a personal point of view, the passing from this life to be with the Lord will be a wonderful experience. Paul affirmed that to depart and be with the Lord is “very much better” (Philippians 1:21). Our Lord promised that He was going to prepare a place for us in heaven where there are many mansions, and where He will be (John 14:1,2). Part of us, like Paul, can't wait.

But, at the same time, and in the same breath, when we contemplate our death the cry of our heart must almost ways be, “Not yet, Lord. Not yet.” Why? Well, since a predominant focus of prayers is that God's Kingdom would come upon earth, it follows that we should not be in a hurry to leave. Our entire life's career is to be lived in service to our Lord whilst upon the earth. This means that we are to be taken up with the coming of His Kingdom upon the earth, not with our leaving the earth to go to heaven. If work remains that we can do, we are duty bound to remain here as long as possible, as long as there is Kingdom work and service which we can perform. This is why the living of a long life upon the earth is always regarded in Scripture as a great blessing. Living here a long time is the first promise found in the Law.

This is the kind of spiritual calculus Paul uses while he is a prisoner in Rome, nearing the end of his life. He reasons that he still has a contribution to make, and that while this remained true, he was convinced that he would remain. “For me to remain in the flesh is more necessary for your sake,” he tells the Philippians, and so, convinced of this, he knows that God would have him remain and “continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith” (Philippians 1:25,26).

So the purpose and focus of our lives is not to long to go and be with Jesus (although as we age, our faculties weaken, and dependency rises this may come more and more to the fore) but to remain here as long as we can to partake and share in the great work of seeing His Kingdom come upon earth.

Yet, the platonic distortion continues to influence too many, far too much. One staple text which is cited to “prove” that the focus and longing of our lives should be to depart and be with the Lord is found in Hebrews 11. Herewith the text:
By faith, Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he lived in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow-heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. . . .

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles upon the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11: 8—16)
Those Believers with platonic glasses firmly in place always read this passage in a certain way. They see that earth is not our home; it is a place of exile, where we live as strangers. Our real home is in heaven. Abraham inherited the wonderful land God had prepared when he finally died and departed this earth, going to be with God in heaven. But that is platonism talking, not the text itself. The text says something very different.

God has promised Abraham a land, a much, much better country than the one whence he had come. But he did not receive it in this life. It remained a bare promise of God. He lived all his life as a stranger and exile upon the earth. Consequently, Abraham saw the promise of God “at a distance”, afar off. Neither did he see it (in the sense of experiencing it in realised form) when he died. He died, as he had lived—in faith, without seeing God's promises come to pass.

What then of the “better country”, the “heavenly one” the “city whose architect and builder is God”? It is the city and kingdom which God is establishing upon the earth. It is heavenly in the sense that it comes from heaven; it is the actual coming of the Kingdom of Heaven upon the earth. In this sense, we are in exactly the same place Abraham was—we still look forward to seeing that city come to pass. We, like Abraham, will die without receiving this promise. We, like Abraham, will die in faith, having seen the promises from afar off.

To be sure, we see and experience a whole lot more than Abraham did. We have seen the coming forth of Messiah—His death, resurrection, and ascension to the heavens. We live in the days of Messiah's reign. We have witnessed the pouring forth of the Spirit upon all the nations of the earth. We have recorded the spread of the Gospel of God's grace to all nations and men. We see Chinese, Koreans, Russians, and Congolese bowing to the Son of God, and in Christ we call them our brethren, more dear to us than our own Unbelieving countrymen. We in our day see much, much more than our father, Abraham of God's city coming out of heaven to earth. But there is much, much more to come. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard” what yet awaits to be unfolded upon the earth. (I Corinthians 2:9). So, we labour, and long, and work, knowing that we have, even now, seen just the beginning of the glory that is to be revealed.

Hebrews 11, and the example of the patriarchs, teaches the exact opposite of a longing to be freed from our physical and material world. Rather, it is a longing to see the transformation of this world under the redeeming power of Christ, as the realm of heaven is established upon the earth. Now, just as with Abraham God could have commanded and the entire earth to be
instantly transformed. But this would not have been a sufficient display of His glory, and power, and grace. Rather, He has decreed that the heavenly kingdom would come upon earth by way of Messiah dying upon a Cross for the atonement of the sins of His people, by way of the preaching of the Gospel to all creatures, by way of his disciples growing and expanding to fill the earth, and, finally, by way of His triumphant return to earth to dwell forever amongst men.

This was Abraham's great hope. For, as Paul tells us, all along he knew that in the end, the promise meant that he would inherit the very world itself (Romans 4:13). He died without seeing it. But he will. For God has prepared it for him, and us, his children, through Christ, the Lord.

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