Eschatology – the study of last things – seems always a hot topic of interest. But what does it have to do with life today and church and ministry? Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance, and this is our topic of conversation today. We’re talking to Drs. Benjamin Gladd and Matthew Harmon about their new book, Making All Things New: Inaugurated Eschatology for the Life of the Church.
Ben Gladd is professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS, and Matthew Harmon is professor of New Testament at Grace College and Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, IN.
Ben, Matthew, welcome! Congratulations on your new book, and thanks for talking to us today.
Gladd & Harmon:
Thanks, Fred. Good to be with you!
Let’s start at the beginning. “Inaugurated Eschatology” – the future is now, and it’s not yet. What’s that all about?
One of the most difficult thing about writing a book on eschatology is to sort of dissuade what people think by that, and one of the reasons we wrote this book is to integrate what we think is a proper understanding of eschatology into the local church. Now this move has been made in the wider academy in the last in the last couple of decades but it is slowly beginning to break into the church. And we’re really trying to make that happen.
Specifically we’re trying to demonstrate some awareness of how the Old Testament, when it talks about the kingdom and the tribulation, it does so as they relate to a period known as “the latter days” or “the end of days,” or term such as those. And so what happens in the New Testament we see in the Gospels that when Jesus comes he begins to kick off the latter days and everything goes into that. All that the Old Testament said would happen begins through Christ’s ministry. And then we get to the epistles, we get the New Testament writers, they conduct their ministry in light of it. It really flows through every passage in the New Testament. So we’re trying to draw those connections, and then most of all we’re trying to relate them to the church today. So that’s just a broad strokes of what’s going on there.
I think when you hear the term “inaugurated eschatology,” that’s one of those phrases that gets thrown around in the Academy, as Ben said, but at a popular level it hasn’t really sunk down into the life and ministry of the church. And so one way we try to talk about it in the book that maybe is a little easier to hang onto or get a hold of is the “already” and the “not yet.”
This idea that through the life death and resurrection of Jesus, the last days have broken into this fallen world. God has begun to fulfill his promises and we experience the beginning of that, but not everything has come to pass fully. There are still aspects of those promises that haven’t been fully realized. We don’t yet we have in a completely transformed creation, a new heavens and a new earth. And so we wanted to try to give a practical look into why that tension between the “already” of what God has done and the “not yet” of what is still to come should shape the life and the ministry of the local church.
How has the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ ushered in “the latter days”?
Well, when you read through the Old Testament there are a number of different ways that it talks about what God is doing in the world and tracing that sort of narrative storyline. And both of us have had the privilege of studying with Dr. Greg Beale, so he writes the introductory chapter that kind of walks through some of this and he likes to summarize the story of the Old Testament in terms of God progressively reestablishing his new creation kingdom out of chaos over a sinful people by his word and spirit through promise covenant redemption ultimately resulting in a worldwide commission to God’s people to advance the kingdom.
So against that backdrop, it’s promised that “in the latter days” would be the time period when God would fulfill that set of promises specifically through the work of a Davidic king. And so, of course, when the New Testament dawns, and you’ve got Jesus preaching the good news and announcing, “the kingdom of God is at hand,” and being identified as that promised Davidic king through his life, his ministry, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension, that new creation kingdom has broken into this fallen world and through his work he has given us the spirit that has launched the fulfillment, the beginning fulfillment of these promises.
So we experience them in an “already” sense that we have the spirit, we’ve been forgiven of sins, all blessings that in the Old Testament were promised as part of the latter days. And as a result we begin to experience those benefits, but yet the whole earth isn’t yet filled with God’s new creation glory. Not all the nations have heard. And we still live in this present evil age where sin and the flesh are still active. So Jesus is the pivot point, the hinge point where God begins to fulfill those promises.
I would say that one of the more remarkable things when reading the Gospels is how Jesus himself receives those promises. That was to happen in the latter days, they are placed upon him. If you were to trace all those Old Testament quotations and allusions, you should see how many of them come back to him and his ministry. It’s actually quite remarkable because he is fulfilling all of it in himself. As I argue, and he’s wrapping up all of those promises in himself – the kingdom and the tribulation and all of those flow right through him. That’s a pretty remarkable event that’s somewhat, I would argue, even unanticipated in the Old Testament.
So what we end up watching then in the Gospels, we see the latter days flowing through a person, one individual who then, once he begins that process at a sort of microcosmic level then begins to ramp up into a more macrocosmic level. But again it starts with just one person. You’re watching the story of the Bible be repeated in that there’s a pattern, a rhythm to it, but this time he gets it right. So all these promises are just going to flow right through him.
You write to tell us that all this is more than abstract theological categories. So in what way does this theology become experience? Let’s talk individual Christian experience first, and then we’ll talk about the church corporately.
Well, I think Ben can speak to the individual experience since he wrote that chapter in the book so I’ll let them start with the individual experience that I’ll jump in in and terms of the church.
Individual experience is very much tied to what I just mentioned, how Christ experienced the latter-day kingdom in suffering and because we’re united to him, we to experience this latter-day kingdom and latter-day suffering. Our destiny is done up with his destiny, and who he is. So our experiences very much like his experience. That’s what chapter 2 is really trying to do – it’s trying to show how the kingdom is here and what does that look like practically? I dip a little bit into John 5 there about how the resurrection has begun in the person of Christ, and he’s calling people out from being dead to alive and participating in a spiritual level in the new creation.
And what that looks like experientially is: Well, you know what? I’m going to start loving Jesus more. I’m going to embrace these aspects of the kingdom. I’m all in, in other words, and I need to keep working out my position in Christ at a very practical level. I need to minimize sin and maximize righteousness. Embody the new creation. I like the expression of falling into the rhythm of the new heavens and the new earth so that when I get there, in its fullness, well, I’m just going to keep doing what I have been doing at some level because I’m going to keep loving people like I’ve been loving them now and I’m going to keep being holy and all those other things. So it’s really a sense in which we fall in step with who we are. We fall in step with that rhythm of the new creation and it begins by being identified with Christ.
I would just add that one of the really helpful things that Ben does in his chapter on the individual experience is connecting how we have genuinely been spiritually raised from the dead already. That is a present reality that believers experience. That we have the experience of spiritual resurrection and really we’re waiting for our bodies to catch up so to speak when it comes to the bodily resurrection. And he does a nice job as well in talking about how the gift of the eschatological spirit effects and impacts all of the different areas and is connected to all of the different promises that God has made to us. So I think that’s one of those areas where that chapter can be especially helpful.
When it comes to the local church, that was one of the challenging chapters to have to write because inevitably when you start talking about the identity of the church and eschatology, there’s all sorts of issues that can come up. So one of the things that I tried to focus on is – based on what the New Testament authors do with the Old Testament, how they allude to it, how they quote from it, how they see it being fulfilled in the life of the church – to take that is the starting point.
What I try to argue is that in the Old Testament there was this promise that there would be an eschatological people of God, and obedient people, a people marked by a different kind of obedience compared to Israel. And so I try to make the case that the church, made up Jew and Gentile together, begins to experience the fulfillment of the new covenant blessings in and through being united to Jesus Christ. I know that gets into potentially interesting territory when it comes to discussions between covenant theology and dispensational theology, but my hope was to try to explain how, if we as the church understand that we are the eschatological people of God, the people of God that God had promised to create in the latter days, then that changes how we read the Bible, that affects how we think about our identity, it changes how we think about what our purpose is even as the church. In the rest of the book we then tried to tease some of those things out that way.
Give us an overview of the book in broad strokes.
Basically the book is broken down into three broad sections. The first section we refer to as “theological foundation.” Just kind of laying that groundwork. So what we just talked about in the previous question in terms of what is the already/not yet inaugurated eschatology, the storyline of the Bible, those kinds of issues, the identity of the church, what it looks like to experience the latter days as those people who have the Spirit of God dwelling in them – all that is kind of laid as a foundation in that first section.
And then the middle section we’ve entitled “pastoral leadership.” Thinking about how should pastors lead in this time period known as the latter days?
And then the third and final section is what we’ve called “end times ministry.” So what do specific aspects of ministry look like has God’s people in the latter days?
How does or should all this shape our understanding of pastoral leadership?
Okay I’ll just be very general here because there’s just so much. How does pastoral leadership relate to inaugurated eschatology? We came at this in three chapters in the second part under pastoral leadership. We did one on preaching called Feeding the Flock. We did one on false teaching, that’s Guarding the Flock. And then the last one is more of a general thing called Guiding the Flock. We used that metaphor of shepherd and sheep.
What we’re trying to do in those chapters is to isolate the specific points of ministry that are rooted in eschatology, specifically inaugurated eschatology. Matt did one on preaching and he demonstrates how Paul and Peter, when you examine their sermons they’re eschatological to the core. Therefore when pastors preach we need to model our preaching on those types of sermons. Not just rooting our sermons in eschatology but also working that out with our congregations with its content and application.
And then I did this one on guarding the flock – I spent a fair amount of time developing the idea that the antichrist, at least in a corporate sense, has begun in the first century and continues today. And the reason why that’s very important is because that affects how we protect the flock, how we protect our congregations. We need to be aware of false teaching. We need to protect our congregations through catechisms, through biblical instruction. False teaching is always a threat. It has either infiltrated the church was knocking on the church’s door. It is that big of a deal.
And then lastly, number six, Guiding the Flock, I examine a couple of things they are. I do one with how the pastor should model end time living; I did one from Revelation 1 with John on Patmos. John is both a kingdom citizen and a member of the tribulation, as he says in 1:9, in how he overcomes the world by being overcome physically by the world. Pastors need to model that, which gives the church a wonderful way that they should live as well.
One of the things that comes out as we work through this, and even into the next section, is – it’s not like we’re making these radical, new suggestions on ministry methodology or anything like that. Really what we’re doing is we’re taking this inaugurated eschatology and showing how it’s the air which the whole New Testament breathes, so that’s why it should shape pastoral ministry.
So even as we look at preaching and guiding the flock and guarding the flock, those kinds of things. You know, someone’s not going to read this and go, “Wow, no one’s ever suggested that specific application!” That’s not what people are going to say. But what I hope they will say is, “I’ve never thought about that particular aspect of pastoral ministry from the framework of, we live in the last days. These realities are so crucial that not only do I need to understand them and live in light of them, but I’ve got to make sure that my people understand them and live in a way that is appropriate as citizens of God’s end time kingdom.”
Let’s look at the next section – what is “end times ministry” all about?
In this last section we simply tried to look at three specific areas that are essential to the life and ministry of the church. We moved from specifically oriented in terms of the pastoral leadership tract, so to speak, into a little broader consideration.
The first chapter in that section is on worship and how our corporate worship gathering is a foretaste of heavenly worship; that there’s a merging, almost, of heaven and earth when we gather as God’s people to worship corporately that it is a sort of advanced preview, a taste of heavenly worship. That reality then should shape what our worship actually looks like. That it should bring both a sobering effect of: we are in the presence of God himself and we are joining with the saints who have gone before us in worship around the throne. And it also has the effect of helping us get a better bearing on what that worship should actually look like. So that our corporate worship should be patterned after heavenly worship, and so I look at some of the passages in Revelation that describe those scenes just to get a taste of what that worship entails.
Then in the next chapter on prayer I try to give a picture of the fact that basically when we pray, and using the Lord’s prayer as a template, is that we start by acknowledging who God is and what he’s already done for us. That fuels our praise, our Thanksgiving, and it serves as the foundation, then, for asking for God to fulfill the rest of his promises in their fullness. And I think the Lord’s prayer gives us a taste of that. So I tried to just explain how that shapes the corporate prayer life of the church and the prayer life even of the individual believer as well. And then the last chapter in that section is on missions. Understanding the larger storyline of the Bible, framing how we think about advancing the gospel to the ends of the earth.
And I think one of the payoffs that comes from looking at that is that it helps clarify how God’s mission advances through the preaching of the word, that that takes primary centrality in terms of mission, but at the same time our presence in the world as believers when it comes to doing good for others, caring for others, loving others, serving others – that accelerates. It’s like pouring fuel onto the proclamation of the gospel.
And as a result I think that also gives us a better picture even of the fact that all of God’s people are involved in God’s mission in the world. That it’s not like it’s just for the pastors, or it’s just for the missionaries but all of us play a role when it comes to sharing the gospel ourselves, praying for others, praying for the advance of the gospel, giving sacrificially – all those sorts of things come out of an understanding that we live in the latter days. And this is what God is actively doing in and around the world and so that should be our priority as God’s people so that eventually we see the day when God’s glory covers the earth as the water covers the sea.
The only thing I want to add is the more I read the New Testament the more I’m convinced that the New Testament writers so breathed that eschatological air that everything they did – when they ministered to their congregations, when they were journeying from one city to the next – it flows right out their end time context. Because if you watch how they admonished these churches, the instructions that they give, it’s all rooted in eschatology.
And if you read the story of Acts you see how the apostles as they are going out they are taking promises from the Old Testament and applying them to their ministries in the book of Acts. In other words, it’s an eschatological modus operandi. The way in which they did ministry was eschatology to the core. They were very purposeful and it and I think they were very mindful of it. And that is I think that’s a key, I think that’s a blueprint on how we’re supposed to do it. We’re supposed to keep these things in mind as we do it. Because it empowers and enriches our ministry.
You get a clear sense of that, if we can make this distinction, both theologically and practically toward ministry. That on the one hand it’s no longer a question of whether or not there will be an end time resurrection, it has already happened. It’s happened in Christ. It’s no longer a question of whether or not we will have eternal life because eternal life which is that eschatological blessing has been brought forward in Christ. We have it now. And he is Lord now and we enjoy that kind of atmosphere then in church ministry and in outreach and mission and all.
What audience do you have in mind?
Obviously pastors, church leadership. I teach at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, so I kept my students in mind as I wrote. I had friends of mine who are in ministry, as I wrote I was trying to think through how they could apply some of these truths to their ministries. Even elders and deacons.
Even when we finished a draft of the manuscript we managed to share it with a variety of different people: pastors, people in ministry, I had several of my elders at my church read it and give feedback and input. So we really wanted to make it accessible but also substantive in terms of thinking through how the already/not yet shapes the life and ministry of the church. I don’t think you have to be a pastor or student to benefit from this. If you’re a person who really enjoys biblical theology and has a heart for the church I think you will benefit from this as well. Even if you’re not a pastor or missionary or have any sort of formal position of leadership within the local church.
I would also say, Fred, that it can also be used as a primer of sorts for eschatology or the already/not yet in the New Testament. I’ve assigned it now to a couple of my classes to sort of fill in some gaps on how they understand inaugurated eschatology or just eschatology in general in it. And they are becoming more aware of it rather than having such a narrow view of it that they don’t quite see how it’s almost everywhere in the New Testament.
I would add just one more wrinkle that I think makes this book unique is that by having Greg Beale write the introductory chapter. This is a great place if you’re a little intimidated by trying to jump into Greg Beale’s writing. You know if you look at his massive New Testament Biblical Theology, you see he is remarkably prolific. So I think it can be a little intimidating for people maybe to even think, “I could never pick up a 1000 page book like New Testament Biblical Theology, but I still want to glean from Greg Beale’s insights.” Well, reading the first 20 pages of this book where he sums up the Old Testament storyline, the New Testament storyline, the inaugurated eschatology framework, that’s a great starting point to say, “Okay, I think I have a general sense of what he’s about and what’s important to him,” and hopefully it might serve as a, “you know, maybe I should make the effort to try to dive into some of Beale’s other writings.”
This is an enormously important subject, and it seems to me this was a book waiting to be written. We’re talking to Benjamin Gladd and Matthew Harmon about their new book, Making All Things New: Inaugurated Eschatology for the Life of the Church. It’s a wonderful topic, and we encourage you to get the book and look into this more fully.
Ben, Matthew – thanks for talking to us today.
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Making All Things New