Ok, your first thought at seeing that title might be, “what is eschatology?” Basically, it’s just a fancy Christian word for “the study of the end times.”
And, confession time, for most of my Christian life, I hated eschatology.
As a pastor, I feel bad for saying that.
Maybe I should rather say that I hated the omphaloskeptic approach to eschatology that pervaded my introduction to the subject.
But I don’t hate it anymore. Something changed when I, you know, actually read what the Bible had to say on the subject.
What Caused The Change?
I discovered that eschatology is not a matter of chart-making, headline-chasing, or navel-gazing. Instead, eschatology is firmly entwined with THE task of the church: make disciples.
My previous frustration with the subject was grounded in a certainty that the “man on the island” couldn’t care less about the second time Jesus came when he had never heard about the first time.
Eschatology seemed altogether too isolated and ivory-tower for it to make any difference in my life. I proudly declared myself a pan-millennialist (someone who believes everything will pan out in the end without me having to figure it all out) and moved on with my life.
But time spent in the Word of God made me see that the end of all things is intimately connected with the proclamation of the King of all things. There are three passages of Scripture that flipped the light switch for me.
2 Peter 3:9
“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
I had always read this verse isolated from its context. I thought it was a philosophical statement of the Lord’s patient mercy towards unbelievers. I never realized that it was an eschatological statement of his patient mercy towards believers.
But it is.
Note the object of his patience: “you.” Peter is not writing his letter to unbelievers. He is writing to the church, to believers, to those who are waiting for God to fulfill his promises.
Not only that, but the context moves this statement from being a nice thought about the nature of God to what it really is: a challenging thought about the nature of God as seen in the coming eschatological reality.
“But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” 2 Peter 3:8-10
The statement is clearly set in an eschatological context! The impact is this: the Lord is delaying the dissolution of all things because he is patiently waiting for his people to spread the good news that perishing is not the only option given to humanity: we can choose repentance and eternal life because of God’s mercy to us in Christ Jesus!
God is merciful to those who are under his condemnation and he’s patient with those of us who have had 2000 years to make sure everyone heard about that good news but who haven’t taken it seriously enough to finish the task.
This text began to spark in my mind a sense that eschatology wasn’t as divorced from the evangelistic task as I had imagined.
But God wasn’t done opening my eyes yet.
“And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
If Peter connected the dots between eschatology and evangelism for me, Jesus picked up the line and smacked me in the forehead with it.
Matthew 24-25 speak to the coming of Jesus and the events of the eschaton. I knew that. But what I didn’t realize was the Jesus connected the eschaton to the Great Commission. I was used to quoting that “no man knows the hour” regarding the Second Coming, but I was blithely unaware that we had at least a hint at a prerequisite for that event.
Go back and read it again: Jesus says that the end won’t come until the gospel has been proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations. Then read Matthew 28:18-20: Jesus’ last command to the church is to fulfill his prophecy of the gospel being proclaimed everywhere.
Now, I don’t claim full knowledge of where all the gospel has been preached and, yes, I know that many claim that Colossians 1:23 says it has (it doesn’t necessarily say that), but I do know this: Jesus isn’t back yet. And as long as there’s a chance that the reason he hasn’t returned is that the Lord is patient with his church who are slow to preach the gospel in all the world, eschatology is firmly connected to the evangelistic mandate. In other words, if we want Jesus to come back, we should be evangelizing and making disciples.
All this was warming me up to eschatology as immediately applicable and important, but it wasn’t personal yet. That came in the next passage.
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
Daniel is talking about the end of all things. And I was struck this last week by this passage’s connection of evangelistic effort with eschatological joy. When the dead are raised from the dust it is those who are wise and who have “turned many to righteousness” who shine most brilliantly.
There is a call wrapped up in the Bible’s language of the end times for me to get serious about obeying the Great Commission, both from a conditional and a personal standpoint. We shy away from teaching and thinking this way, perhaps for honorable reasons, but the Bible is clear: our experience of personal reward at in the Kingdom of Christ will be tied to our faithfulness in making disciples.
If I want to truly experience the joy of the eschatological New Heavens and New Earth, I need to be evangelizing now.
That’s the most natural understanding of Daniel, Matthew, and Peter and the witness of the rest of the Bible from Genesis-Revelation. Eschatology doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It is wrapped up with God’s purpose for his people: the proclamation of the Good News that God reigns.
So, don’t divorce eschatology and evangelism. Don’t waste time on fruitless speculation about current events cross-referenced with obscure (and out-of-context) verses supposedly prophesying them. Instead, seek to personally connect the people around you to the life-changing gospel.
And keep doing that until Jesus comes back.