(The following is another lesson written for Canvas, a new series for young adults being developed by the United Methodist Publishing House. The press decided to run with the first five, leaving this and the previous lesson on “Salvation” orphaned, so I share them here.)
You may be familiar with the modern proverb, “Hindsight is 20/20.” We arrive at the end of some process, look back, and see all the things we could have done better to arrive at a better outcome. The proverb is really born of regret that we couldn’t see the outcome before it was too late to change it, or at least change our behavior leading up to it. A bad grade on an exam moves your GPA just below the threshold of being awarded a scholarship for college. If I could have seen that coming, I would have studied more diligently instead of…. A friend dies from a drug overdose. If I had only known how much she had been struggling with that, I would have…. The knowledge of where things were heading would have helped us make better choices in the moment.
The writers of the Scriptures believe that God has shown us where things are headed and what the end of the story will be. They believe that God has given us sufficient foresight that we don’t need to wait for hindsight to catch up in order to see clearly. Knowing that Jesus Christ will return to hold all people accountable to the Father’s standards of justice and holiness; knowing that this life is not the only life there is, but that an eternity stands prepared for us beyond death; knowing that God has promised a fresh start not only to us individually but to all of creation itself – we can, in effect, look back on our life today in the light of eternity and see more clearly what we need to do with “today” so that we and those around us may arrive at God’s best outcome. The vision of where things are going to end up helps us know what we ought to be aiming at today, how to use today strategically to move closer to that vision of the goal.
The writers of Scripture appear to have reached consensus on a few basic points. First, God’s good creation got pretty well messed up as human disobedience increased, as violence increased, as human communities organized themselves around power and self-interest rather than justice and generosity. Second, God wasn’t just going to give up on creation and humanity! God was still heavily invested in bringing both humanity and creation to the place where God could look out at it and say again that it was good.
So where is “all this” heading? And what difference does knowing the destination make for us who are still on the journey?
The Scriptures have a great deal to say about this – about “last things.” While what they saw did not reflect God’s best desires for humanity, God was too powerful, too good, and too committed to abandon God’s best desires for us. During the period in which many of the Old Testament prophets were writing, the people of Israel and Judah were living in the wreckage of the kingdom of David and his heirs. Many were in fact living in exile in other lands, whether as refugees or as captives of war. All of this was the consequence of not keeping covenant with God.
The prophets looked ahead to God remedying their dismal situation, which would have to include changing the peoples’ hearts so that they would keep covenant with God and enjoy, at last, the benefits of consistent obedience to God’s righteous laws. The prophets thought that the “destination” was a renewed kingdom in the land of Israel. By awakening hope among the people in regard to this destination, they wanted to awaken commitment to renewed obedience to the Law of Moses – to walk in that way of life and worship that God had wanted for them all along. Such obedience would make the people “ready” for God’s future acts of deliverance from exile and restoration to the land of Israel, and “ready” to enjoy the covenant’s blessings when God did choose to act. Moreover, the glorious restoration of Israel to its land would make such an impression on the non-Jewish nations around them that they would at last put away their idols and false gods and worship this amazing and powerful God of Israel.
But the problem was bigger than the prophets had initially discerned, and the “solution” of the return of the Jewish exiles to Judah accomplished far less than they had hoped. The Gentiles did not put away their idols; the people of Israel did not walk consistently in God’s ways; God’s best desires for humanity were not yet achieved.
During the centuries between the testaments, and all the more with God’s unprecedented intrusion into the human story in the person of Jesus, God’s Word made flesh, a new understanding of “where all of this is heading” emerged. God had set a day – the “Day of the Lord” – when he would show up to set all things right at last. Those who had died before that day would be raised to life on that day and join those who had lived to see that day. Death itself would not get in the way of the obedient experiencing God’s promised blessings, nor in the way of the violent, the self-serving, and the loveless experiencing God’s judgment.
Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was the overture that announced that the drama of these “last things” was beginning to unfold. His coming again would be the denouement in that drama, when human affairs would all be set right. As Paul would write, “We all must appear before Christ’s judgment seat, so that each might receive due recompense for what he or she did while in the body, whether good or ill” (2 Cor 5:10). As with a great deal of the Scriptures’ appeal to “last things,” the proclamation of a day of reckoning was not merely a forecast of some future event. It was an invitation to think about the present day in light of that future event and to live today in the way that will make for celebration on that day, and not disappointment or shame (see Rom 2:6-11).
Beyond the day of judgment, however, stretches eternity – an eternity during which God’s people will not fail to experience God’s best desires for them forever. This future will be so different from what we experience now that the New Testament authors spoke of it as God starting from scratch, as it were. Some expected that “the heavens would pass away with a roaring sound and the elements will be dissolved in a burning fire and the earth and all the works in it will be laid bare,” all of which would be replaced by “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness is at home” (2 Pet 3:10, 13). Some might speak instead of the removal of the visible earth and sky in order that the way into God’s unshakable realm might be disclosed (Heb 12:25-29).
This is not God giving up on creation; this is God creating anew, setting creation right again, making a home for those who are themselves becoming “new creation” in Christ as the Holy Spirit lives and works within us to set us right before God. “Last things” in the New Testament are once again all about putting “first things first” in the present moment, prioritizing the Holy Spirit’s work in and among us to fit us for the new creation “where righteousness feels at home.”
Read Matt 25:31-46. How does Jesus, through this vision of the future “Day of the Lord,” seek to change our priorities and our investments of ourselves in this present day?
Read Rom 2:5-11 and Rev 20:11-15. Two very different New Testament voices (Paul and John) paint very similar pictures of one of the most prominent “Last Things,” the day of judgment. What is going to make a difference on that last day? How does knowing that shed light on what you’re going to do today and tomorrow?
Read 2 Pet 3:1-13. Why were people already doubting the “last things” when this letter was written? To what extent do you sympathize? What explanations of the delay of the “last things” does the author give, what do they say about God, and how convincing do you find them? How does the author hope that knowledge of the “last things” will shape our lives and our investments in the here and now?
Read 1 Cor 15:20-26, 50-58. How does the promise of being raised from the dead and living forever change how you think about life on this side of death? What freedoms does it give? What pressures does it impose?
Read – and really allow yourself to imagine – Revelation 6:12-17 and 7:9-17, in which John paints two alternative pictures for how one might encounter God “at the end.” What feelings and motivations do these word pictures provoke in you? How do they change how you think about today and tomorrow?
Read 1 Thess 4:13-5:9. What does Paul say about “the day of the Lord” (the return of Christ) in these paragraphs? What is he trying to accomplish in the “now” of Thessalonica by talking about “last things” (think first about 4:13-18, then 5:1-9)?
The following prayer is a “collect” (KAH’-lekt) for the First Sunday of Advent from the Book of Common Prayer. It captures the heart of the Church’s reflection on “last things” by highlighting how our hope for “last things” must drive our agenda in the midst of things present. It also teaches us that our right and whole-hearted response in this life to the Lord who took on flesh and shared a life in the body with us is closely connected to our sharing with our Lord in the life of the resurrected body on the other side of the “last things.”
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and to put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Read Revelation 14:6-20. John is writing to Christians who face significant pressure to show their solidarity and loyalty by participating in emperor worship (John’s “beast”) alongside their neighbors, as well as significant temptation to enjoy the prosperity that partnership with Rome and its economy offers. How does John, with his visions of “last things,” motivate and position his congregations to respond? What warnings might he give us concerning places where our politics and economics lead us away from wholehearted obedience to the God of Jesus Christ?
Read Revelation 21:1-14, 22-27; 22:1-5. This is John’s vision of paradise regained, the new urbanized garden of Eden in which human community is “done right” in the light of God and the Lamb. What does John’s vision say about where God desires human community to end up? What characterizes life – and political relationships – in New Jerusalem? How does this vision of human community “done right” indict the way we currently see and experience human community (locally, domestically, globally)? What might John’s vision of the eternal then make us think about striving for now?