ADVENT: Active Love (pp. 78-86)
The coming of Jesus Christ in power and glory is vital to the biblical message. We call it advent, and it is so central that a theology could be written with hope as its integrating theme. [Best known among such works is Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). See also Thomas Finger, Christian Theology: An Eschatological Approach, vols. 1-2 (Scottdale, Penn.: Herald, 1989).] Christians await what Paul calls the "blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13).
The resurrection inaugurated the age of salvation anticipated by the Old Testament, and the risen Lord has poured out the Spirit of life to restore the creation. One day the kingdom of God will be consummated, and the creation will be liberated from bondage to corruption (Romans 8:21). When the kingdom comes, evil will be overcome and the goal of creation realized. More than the survival of disembodies souls, it will be a redemption both personal and communal, involving spirit and body, affecting church and cosmos. Our hope for fulfillment is also deeply relevant in a day when many people are living aimlessly and without hope. [On the doctrine of hope, see Stephen Travis, I Believe in the Second Coming of Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982).]
What is Advent?
The meaning of advent is basically simple. It is not a puzzle to be figured out by the makers of prophecy charts. It is faith's confidence that Jesus is coming, that the new order he proclaimed will be realized and that what he stood for will prove solid and reliable. Hope is the response to the future of those who believe the good news, who are confident in the fulfillment of God's promises. It is not a question of predicting the date or imagining what the new creation will be like. We cannot know that any more than the unborn can know the day of their birth or what life outside the womb will be like. Hope does not mean information about times and seasons; it is confidence in the coming victory of God. This hope empowers us to live as disciples.
God calls us to be witnesses to the kingdom, and hope strengthens our resolve to persist in obedient action. We are called to be active participants in the mending of creation with Jesus, and hope enables us to live not for ourselves but for him who died and rose again. It gives us courage and fortitude to stand with Jesus, to live in solidarity with those who suffer and to act like disciples who await the kingdom of God.
Why is the meaning of advent often distorted by people who set dates and create false expectations? One would think that repeated failures to set the date correctly would put a stop to this practice.
The explanation is in part innocent. The Bible is not an easy book to read and understand, especially in this area, and it can be misunderstood when one takes a naive approach. There are passages like Daniel 9:24-27 and Revelation 12:6 that do appear to offer a chronology of future events, even though a closer reading suggests they do not. A modern reader may fail to understand the symbolism which was important to an ancient writer. It may require biblical specialists to sort out the difficult texts in this area.
At the same time, ordinary readers can see that the Bible speaks of advent in picture language and warns us against attempting to calculate dates (Acts 1:6-7). One can readily grasp the wisdom of God in not making the date of the Second Coming known. Keeping it a secret (or not fixing it rigidly) makes good sense, since it leaves God free to act when and how he chooses. It also prevents us from taking a fatalistic attitude, which results when we know too much about the timetable of events. If the advent were to happen tomorrow, for example, it would be better not to know it today, because it would prevent us from doing this day's duty.
The Nature of Biblical Prophecy
Biblical prophecies are often conditional. They announce possibilities so as to give people an opportunity to change the future. For example, God actually did not want the prophecy he gave to Jonah against the city of Nineveh to happen. God hoped that if this prophetic warning was given, the judgment might be avoided. History is not programmed but involves human choices. Prophets speak of hope and judgment in order to influence our actions. They leave room for God to fulfill their oracles in ways that transcend the original terms.
Who from reading the Old Testament could have predicted exactly what Jesus would be like? Who could have predicted exactly what would happen? There was much newness and surprise in the fulfillment of the promises. God gave much more than he had promised. Jesus' enemies were biblical literalists who balked at Jesus precisely because he did not fit their expectation of what Messiah would be like. They had carefully constructed an agenda from the Bible. But in Christ's coming, God exercised creativity that did not meet their expectations and went far beyond what had been anticipated.
As a general rule, one should approach biblical statements about the coming kingdom as one would approach the assertions about creation. Both deal with things no eye has seen or can see. In both cases language is stretched to the limit. [Dale Moody, The Hope of Glory (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964), and Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1979).] A more careful reading of the Bible is needed to avoid distorting the biblical hope.
Preparation for the Coming
There can be a darker aspect of the problem of misunderstanding than hermeneutics (the science of interpreting texts). In their zeal to calculate the date of the advent, people may be subconsciously wanting to avoid facing up to the real thrust of Christian hope, which is to impact the lives of disciples. Calculation can easily eclipse that. The advent or coming of Christ is meant to spur us to costly discipleship consistent with the kingdom that is coming. We are told to be like the maidens in the parable who, because they expected the bridegroom's coming, made themselves ready for it. Those who spend their time calculating the date of the end times are in danger of being like the foolish maidens, who were so intrigued by speculation about the time of the bridegroom's arrival that they failed to get ready for it (Matthew 25:1-13). There is a real danger of getting sidetracked.
Amos had to say to some in his day: "Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light" (Amos 5:18). His point was that the key thing is not to be experts in prophecy but to be engaged in the kind of obedient action that would testify to the coming kingdom. So the foolish maidens in Jesus' parable symbolize believers who think they have a handle on the time of the advent but do not concentrate on letting their light shine.
We anticipate a final advent, but there are also mini-advents. They are less talked about. By mini-advents we mean acts of God in history which anticipate and advance the kingdom of God.
There is a final judgment, and there are mini-judgments in history that anticipate the final event. There are penultimate judgments such as Israel's exile into Babylon, the fall of Jerusalem (in AD 70) and the outworking of the consequences of sin in people's lives prior to the last judgment. They serve as warnings meant to lead to repentance. Not to respond to them, as Paul says, is to store up wrath on that last day (Romans 2:4-5).
The Bible speaks in the same way about the advent or coming of Christ. There are also comings in history prior to it. The advent is anticipated by mini-comings, some not so minor. Jesus comes not only on the last day but throughout the history of the world. He indicates this when he says to the church of Ephesus that needed to repent, "Repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place" (Revelation 2:5). Christ is not inactive, sitting at God's right hand. He is working through the Spirit to set us free, and coming to us is one of his ways of dealing with the effects of human sin and freeing people before it is too late.
The "little apocalypse" of Mark 13 is a fascinating chapter, and it can illustrate our point. [G.R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Future (London: Macmillan, 1954).] It sounds as if Jesus is predicting that the world is about to end. This led Albert Schweitzer to claim that Jesus made an error in announcing a kingdom that failed to materialize. He claimed that Jesus predicted the end of the world and it did not happen. Jerusalem was destroyed, all right, but the Son of Man did not return and the judgment did not fall. As a result, Jesus died a failure.
But isn't it more likely that Mark 13 is referring to events in the first century, not at the end of the world? We believe that Jesus is referring to a coming, but not to the Second Coming. He is speaking of a coming in advance of advent, an event that was to happen in the first century and that would mark the end of an era and the passing of a generation.
As for the final advent, it will occur at the end of history, but we are not told when that will happen. Of the last advent Jesus says quite plainly: "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mark 13:32).
It is likely that in Mark 13 Jesus is speaking of the fall of Jerusalem in apocalyptic terms, warning his hearers that they are about to experience a coming or mini-advent of God in history. The language sounds a little extravagant to us, but it is consistent with the way prophets spoke about turning points in world history. It is even the way we ourselves sometime speak when alluding to an "earth-shattering" event like the fall of communism. We do not mean the words literally. The earth was not really shattered. This is metaphorical language for a serious matter. Such events are indeed more important than earth tremors, because they change the course of history itself.
Apocalyptic language tells us that history is to experience a major turn-around, that a day of liberation is at hand. God's kingdom is drawing near. One era is coming to an end, another is beginning. We must not think of Jesus as if he were a literalist, as if he did not know that cloud imagery, for example, concerned more than water vapor. With his imagery Jesus was referring to space-time events that were about to happen to the inhabitants of Palestine, and he used prophetic language to underline their enormous significance. Judgment was about to fall upon Israel, but it was not the final judgment. Christ was about to come, but not in the last advent. [N.T. Wright, Who Was Jesus? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992), pp. 54-58, and R.T. France, Jesus and the OldTestament (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1971), pp. 227-39.]
Jesus' talk about stars falling from heaven and the sun being darkened is end-of-the-world language to describe an important event that was about to happen. The imagery came from Isaiah's words about the fall of Babylon (Isaiah 13), which was metaphorical for the fall of a city long ago. Other prophets used similar metaphors (for example, Ezekiel 32:7-8, Joel 2:1-10, 30-31). They were thinking not of physical portents in the sky but of catastrophic events in history.
Jesus' warnings about the future did not refer to the end of the world but to judgments about to fall in time-space. Citing Isaiah's oracle about the fall of Babylon, he was picturing the eclipse of a great nation: just as Babylon suddenly fell to the ground, so it would be with Jerusalem.
Actual history supports our interpretation. The world did not come to an end in A.D. 70 with the destruction of Jerusalem. The facts now fit the exegetical argument we have offered. Jesus was certainly speaking of an advent prior to the final day of the Lord. Thus an advent or parousia took place at the close of the Old Testament dispensation. It was a local event in Judea in the first century, witnessed by the generation then living, and the language used to describe it was stock-in-trade prophetic language in which present judgments anticipate the final judgment.
This application is visible in other biblical texts. "When the tenants saw the [owner's] son, they said to themselves, "This is the heir; come, let us kill him.'...Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?...He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants" (Matthew 21:38-41). The judgment here is a historical judgment on Jesus' tormentors (as in Matthew 22:7). The Roman legions were going to march on Jerusalem and destroy it, and in their attack a divine judgment would be felt. This reminds us of the Old Testament, where God uses Cyrus and the Assyrians to do his work.
The Day of the Lord
There is a last advent, and there are mini-advents before it. There are many comings and visitations, because God is a God of action. Idols cannot do anything, says Isaiah, but the Lord is powerful to save (Isaiah 46). He is the living God, and history is the sphere of his activity. Moses asks:
Has any god every attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the LORD is God; but there is no other besides him (Deuteronomy 4:34-35).
God makes himself known by acts and judgments in history. This is how God is known - not through speculative thinking, but by what God does in history.
In the Old Testament God came to Adam and Eve in the Garden, and he came again at the destruction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:7). He came to Sarah to give her a child and visited the Israelites in Egypt to bring them into the Promised Land. His coming may destroy the old order, as in the fall of Samaria and the northern kingdom, as in the first fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity. Or he may come to bless and liberate. Evidently there are many comings and visitations of the Lord.
The expression "day of the LORD" occurs dozens of times in the Old Testament. The prophets used it for a momentous event like the exodus. It was a day of the Lord when a nation of slaves was freed to go to the Promised Land and when divine judgment fell on Egypt. Centuries later, the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians was a victory for Nebuchadnezzar but a day of catastrophe and exile for the children of Israel.
The expression comes again and again. It refers to the fall of Babylon (Isaiah 13:9), to victory over the armies of Egypt (Jeremiah 46:10), to the fall of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 13:5) and to the doom of various nations (Ezekiel 30:3-4). A day of the LORD points to a day when God intervenes to judge or to bless, to a time when God's mighty hand is evident in history.
The idea of God's visitations in history also occurs in the New Testament. Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, declared: "Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people" (Luke 1:68 NIV). In the incarnation God came to dwell with us. James said in an address to the Jerusalem church, "Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name" (Acts 15:14).
God's visitations have different purposes. It may be to encourage a person, family, church or nation in time of distress. It may be to judge and destroy, as in Mark 13, where Jesus warns that the Lord will come to destroy the temple and the city. The fall of Jerusalem was a day of God that brought judgment on the nation for its hardness of heart. On the other hand, it was also a day when a worldwide mission would begin and the Gentiles would start to be gathered in.
We may speak of a day of the Lord in relation to the fall of Rome or Constantinople, to the French or American revolution, to the toppling of the Third Reich or to the end of communism. These events were earth-shaking and happened in the context of the providence of God. If we had eyes to see it, the sign of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:30) would be evident in all of them. The final advent will terminate history, but only after the many mini-advents that precede it.
Day of Liberation
We can see God's coming in the liberation of peoples. In 1989 there was a great liberation from the oppressive hand of Marxism. Countries awoke to unexpected freedom with little shedding of blood. This liberation had roots in the churches, where many who were concerned about freedom and justice had continued to pray, keeping the dream of freedom alive. Their hope for the kingdom of God spelled the defeat of evil and a triumph of good.
Communism was exposed as a false ideology that had sought salvation by political means. It had led to the death of an estimated 100 million people. Yet it was not brought down by diplomacy or the force of arms; its defeat came through a triumph of the human spirit, which kept the future open for God's kingdom. It did not happen because the church played a clever political game, but as a result of the church's being a light in the darkness. Liberation came because the church preached the risen Lord. Jesus can be seen in the revolution of 1989, and we expect more from his hand in history before we arrive at the new Jerusalem. [George Weigel, The Final Revolution: The Resistant Church and the Collapse of Communism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).]
This is but one of many movements of liberation that have occurred thanks to God's grace. The United States began with a cry for liberation from foreign control. Then came the concern for the liberation of slaves and eventually full civil rights for black people. Similar concerns surfaced in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Liberation theology has focused on the poor in South America, and now other oppressed minorities have begun to see opportunities. The need for the liberation of women to exercise their gifts in church and in society is being addressed with much creative thinking.
These movements are not political accidents. They are rooted in the actions of God and the work of the Spirit. God has created us to love and be loved, and he is burdened by every interference with the freedom to love caused by the system of sin that grips us. Our risen Lord continually comes to us and intervenes on our behalf to free our world from every kind of oppression.
One form of oppression from which people need to be delivered is religious oppression. Such liberation also happens in history in advance of the advent. Idols are shown to be mute and powerless. History is the graveyard of false gods: Baal, Astarte, Zeus and Rimmon - all gone and forgotten, while the Lord lives in the lives of unnumbered millions today. Jesus Christ has already won significant victories over the powers of darkness in history.
Ultimately we are waiting for the kingdom of God. In the meantime there will be ups and downs, progress and regress, success and failure, advance and setback, ironies and surprises, cross and resurrection. We are not privy to God's strategies prior to the end - we simply wait for a revelation of sovereignty. God is extending his rule in history. It is his will that all nations participate in the renewal of creation. God works ceaselessly toward that end, entering into conflict with the powers of darkness and into contest with other gods.
God continually comes to us by the Spirit. Called "the Lord, the giver of life" in the Nicene Creed, the Spirit of God sustains all things. The Spirit hovers over the waters (Genesis 1:2) and gives life to every creature; in the Spirit we live and move and have being. In the brokenness of the world, the Spirit renews and empowers life and gives hope (Psalm 104:30). More than that, the Spirit keeps working to draw all people to God.
God has never left himself without witness, and the Spirit never fails to orient humankind to the mystery of life and the coming blessings of God. God is coming to us, wooing and warning us, not only at the end of time, but always.
Chapter 8 .....