Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Mystery: The “D” Word (part 3)

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,   “‘The Lord said to my Lord,  “Sit at my right hand,     until I put your enemies under your feet”’? (Matthew 22:41-44)

At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. (Hebrews 2:8)

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus… (Revelation 1:9)

Today, according to the lectionary, commemorates the conversion of St. Paul.  And it was Paul who was committed with the mystery that he declared to the Gentiles: “That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel…”

That the Gentiles would be blessed of God in an age to come was not a mystery in the Old Testament.  Paul, who had seen the Light on the Damascus road, saw himself as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of a “light to the Gentiles.”  

I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22-23)

The mystery hidden from ages past, kept from the Gentiles, was that through the gospel they would be joined together with the believing Jewish remnant in one body, the Body of Christ.  Those who had been strangers to the commonwealth and covenants of Israel were now brought near in Christ.  They are now coheirs of His kingdom.  Let us briefly retrace the progression:

God made a promise regarding the “seed of the woman” to Adam.

God preserved a remnant of the human race through Noah.

God promised to bless the nations through Abraham.

God established David’s house and throne forever.

Through the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, God promised to make a new covenant with Israel and Judah.

Christ, the risen Davidic king, is mediator of that new covenant.

In Christ, Gentile believers have been brought in, before the establishment of a visible, earthly kingdom, to an equal standing with the believing Jewish remnant.  That is the mystery.

There are other marvelous truths that Paul develops in his epistles.  The Church is the Body of Christ, who fills all in all, and of which He is the Head.  It is the Bride of Christ – or will be presented to Him as such in the eschaton.  It is the temple of the Holy Spirit.  It is the house of God.  It will be saved from the wrath to come.  Its citizenship is in heaven, where its life is hidden in God, from whence it awaits its Savior.  When He returns the adopted sons of God (including the daughters) will be revealed to the world.

Will be revealed.  For now, the kingdom of God is a mystery.  At present the kingdom is a field containing a hidden treasure.  It is a field of wheat and tares growing together, the latter to be bundled up and thrown into the fire.  It is a net of good and bad fish drawn up together, with the bad ones to be tossed aside.  It is a dinner party thrown by a nobleman whose servants have gone out in the streets and grabbed anybody and everybody to come in – though some do not have the appropriate attire and will get thrown out.  The wheat, the good fish, and the buried treasure all represent the true heirs of the kingdom.

But for now, as the mysterious writer to the Hebrews noted, we do not see everything subjected to the King.  I used to quip that if the kingdom has already come it is certainly a sorry one.  But that was based on faulty notion that the kingdom of God had been postponed until the Second Coming.  I had embraced the traditional dispensational idea that the present age, between the first and second comings, is a “parenthesis” or “intercalation,” a time during which God has suspended His dealings with Israel while calling out a “Gentile bride” for His Son.

That idea is only partially correct.  The present age is not a parenthesis but the next stage in the expansion of God’s kingdom.  While Christ will have a bride, it is not exclusively Gentile.  There is only one olive tree in view in Paul’s analogy in Romans 11.  Yet, the Church is a distinct people of God.  The “wild branches” were grafted in, not as an extension of Israel of old (or as a replacement of Israel) but in fulfillment of the promises to the patriarchs.  The new covenant is the springboard for the progression of the kingdom beyond Israel to form a new people who will inherit the kingdom.

In the present age the King rules in a mysterious manner.  Whereas Israel under the Mosaic economy was openly and outwardly blessed for obedience to the law, the heirs of kingdom today suffer, often wrongly and for no apparent reason.  As the King Himself was rejected and cast out by the religious leaders of Israel, so the heirs of the kingdom are being rejected by this present world. 

During Jesus’ earthly ministry to Israel the kingdom of God in its power was present in His person.  Now, the kingdom of God in its grace and peace is experienced in the Church.  The Church – the eschatological people of Christ – is the vanguard of the eschatological kingdom in the present dark world.  Note that the Church is not the kingdom (a sphere of rule that for now includes tares and bad fish) but is the representative reality of it.  The Church is where people taste the power and presence of God.  It is a testimony to Christ, to His kingdom, and against the powers of this world.  It is that nation Jesus foretold that would bring forth the fruits of the kingdom.

As the world grows darker, the kingdom miraculously and mysteriously expands.  We can look around the Western world and observe steady moral decline.  The apogee of Christendom in the West crested many centuries ago.  Here, “evil men and seducers wax worse.”  On the other hand, the gospel is spreading like wildfire in the global South – which brings us to one of Craig Blaising’s most salient points: that the Church is, among other things, a multicultural society.   As the gospel reaches into different areas and cultures the expression of the one true faith varies.  Unity does not mean uniformity.  It should not be surprising to find Messianic Jewish congregations in our own backyard; nor should it surprise us that the children of the powerful East African revival worship the Lord in a style and manner quite foreign to us in the West.  To say that theirs or ours is the “better” way is to err. 

It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men's manners, so that nothing be ordained against God's Word. (Article XXXIV)

What is utterly alike in all places where the gospel has prevailed is the persistence of biblical truth, such as is upheld in East Africa and other places.  God’s Word does not return to Him void.  Christ, the exalted son of David in heaven and a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek, is the mediator of better promises.

Ours is to remain faithful in the tribulation and kingdom and endurance that are in Jesus.  That the Church has done so down these two millennia is a great part of the mystery.  In the age to come the power and majesty of the Lord in His saints and the greatness of His kingdom will be further revealed.

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