The Kingdom has come, but society is not uprooted. This is the mystery of the Kingdom.
I converted very young and grew up in the church. I heard explanatory sermons and cut my teeth on flannel charts from Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and “sword drills” at Christian Summer Camp. At my grandmother’s encouragement, I read the Bible cover to cover as a teenager. Later, I attended a Christian college, where I studied the Bible. So by the time I hit my twenties, I knew a lot of verses, I could give you summaries of Bible books, and I was very familiar with the message of salvation.
But I had never heard anything like what I encountered in a particular paragraph I read while preparing for the ministry.
When Jesus became scandalous
I don’t remember how I came to read George Ladd A New Testament Theologyand I have never read the whole volume, but these sentences (and the chapter of which they are a part, “The Mystery of the Kingdom”) fired my imagination and permanently altered my understanding of God, the Bible, the story and of my own life:
The coming of the Kingdom, as foretold in the Old Testament and in Jewish apocalyptic literature, would bring about the end of the age and usher in the age to come, disrupting human society through the destruction of the unrighteous. Jesus affirms that in the middle of the present age, while society continues with its mixture of good and bad, before the coming of the Son of man and the glorious manifestation of the Kingdom of God, the powers of this future age entered the world to create “sons of the kingdom,” those who enjoy its power and blessings. The Kingdom has come, but society is not uprooted. This is the mystery of the Kingdom. (94)
Up to this time in my life, I had read the Bible as a more or less static record of God’s revealed truth. I knew many important biblical facts, but I had little sense of a larger story, of a dynamically unfolding plan, of a developing work of salvation through time. Ladd began to put these pieces together, exciting me with a sense of the dynamism and progress of God’s redemptive work.
Before reading this paragraph, I had never considered how the ministry of Jesus could be surprising or scandalous. Of course, it was extraordinary that he performed miracles and challenged religious leaders. But having grown up hearing about these miracles and confrontations, they were familiar to me. Ladd opened my eyes to the mystery of the kingdom.
Through Ladd’s eyes, I now saw Jesus’ statement that the kingdom of God had already come (but was not fully consummated) as the outrageous surprise it would have been to Jesus’ contemporaries. To compare the mighty end-time kingdom of God to a tiny hidden mustard seed? Unthinkable! I had never really understood the parables in Matthew 13 about the fillet, the mustard seed or the leaven. Ladd’s teaching on kingdom already–not yet has unlocked them for me. Today, 23 years later, I still remember the excitement and satisfaction of enlightened understanding.
Much bigger than me
More than that, the teaching of the inaugurated but unconsummated kingdom helped me more fully appreciate the truly historic significance of Jesus’ first coming. His life, death and resurrection had ushered in nothing less than a new era. He had brought God’s end-time promises to initial fulfillment, securing the future new creation.
At this point in my life, I had read the Bible almost exclusively as an account of something that mattered on a personal basis. Jesus came to save souls. Jesus’ work was between Jesus and me. To come to life cosmic the importance of Jesus’ ministry, to the novelty Jesus brought in God’s historic redemptive work, to Jesus as the culmination of God’s plan for all things — all of which exalted Jesus higher in my mind and heart .
For me, the intellectual stimulus of the eschatology inaugurated by Ladd was deep and lasting. It prepared me to discover the richness of biblical theology in seminary, and subsequently to pursue a doctorate focused on Jesus fulfilling God’s end-time promises.
give meaning to me
Beyond a deep understanding and appreciation of the New Testament, God’s redemptive work, and the centrality of Christ, Ladd’s words have helped me understand my own life more clearly. I could look at Ladd’s famous diagram of overlapping ages (the “present age” and “age to come” lines overlapping between the first and second coming of Christ) and see exactly where I was living. . I could imagine, like a map at the mall, a marker located in this overlap saying “You are here”. And that gave meaning to my life.
This explained God’s justification of me and the ongoing transformation of my heart by the Holy Spirit. These miraculous events were possible because the last days had already begun through the work of Christ. It also explained my agonizing struggles with sin. Why did part of me want to access sexual images with my dial-up modem, while another part of me desperately wanted to be free of those images? Welcome to the overlap. This explained the sadness of the suffering that had touched my life. Why was my father in a wheelchair, despite my many prayers for his recovery? Why was anxiety a sometimes paralyzing reality for me? Welcome to the overlap.
“The already–not yet of the kingdom has protected me both from excessive optimism and from despair. He offered hope in difficult times.
The already–not yet of the kingdom didn’t answer all the questions, but it provided a powerful framework for understanding my sin and my sanctification. It protected me from both over-optimism and despair. He offered hope in difficult times.
purpose of my life
Two years after my discovery of Ladd, I was a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. On a sunny and windy day, I sat by the Atlantic Ocean, on the rocks of Magnolia, and read these words in the book by Richard Hays The Moral Vision of the New Testament:
The church community is God’s eschatological bridgehead, the place where the power of God has invaded the world. All of Paul’s ethical judgments are made in this context. . . . To live faithfully in the meantime is to walk the tightrope of moral discernment, claiming neither too much nor too little for God’s transforming power within the community of faith. (27)
This paragraph became as defining and defining for me as Ladd’s had been earlier, as it offered me purpose in life. I already knew that I wanted to be a pastor. Understanding the church as God’s “eschatological beachhead,” the center of end-time power rushing into the present, made this call even more meaningful and urgent.
“The ‘when’ of our lives is meant to shape the how of our daily lives.”
Hays confirmed my growing belief that ethics and eschatology are meant to go together, that when of our lives (life in the already-not-yet kingdom) is meant to shape How? ‘Or’ What of our daily life. To help God’s people understand the intermediate nature of their existence (the power of God is already available to them at the dawn of the last days, but the consummated new creation is yet to come), to help them grasp the practical, ethical, everyday significance of this reality—it seemed like a good use of my life.
I wrote on a page at the back of Hays’ book, “[This is the] purpose of my life. »
Sharing the life-changing mystery
In the years that followed, I sought to live that life purpose. I have sought to help people understand the book of Revelation, with its heartfelt encouragement to suffering believers through beautiful depictions of our final future.
I have finally written a little book to help ordinary Christians understand the exciting and frustrating tension of being simultaneously restless and patient for the future new creation because of our assurance that it is superbly good and securely ours. In my teaching to seminary students, inaugurated eschatology has been a recurring theme. Throughout fourteen years of pastoral ministry, I have sought to help people in my church understand the story of the Bible, the cosmic significance of Christ’s work, and the very practical implications of a future new creation that is ours because of what Christ has already done for us.
I rejoice to be a son of the kingdom, to already savor some of the power and blessings that Jesus has obtained. I am grateful to have glimpsed more of God’s purposes. And by his grace, I hope to help others rejoice in Christ as the culmination of all God’s plans.