The church is always, everywhere a sign of new creation. I would venture to say that it is not in any respect the real thing—nothing has fundamentally changed, there is no mystical “regeneration”, we remain fallen humans through and through, dependent on grace. But when we talk about life in the Spirit of God, we mean—among other things—that who we are, what we do, how we relate to one another and the world, are always potentially pointers to a final renewal of all things, a new heaven and new earth. The broadest prophetic task of the church is actively, practically, personally, corporately, socially, politically, environmentally to prefigure the final, cosmic vindication of the Creator God over his enemies. I hope to make this point, clearly and simply enough, in my teaching at the Christian Associates staff conference in Prague next week.
But that’s not really what we see being taught and worked out in the New Testament. What we see in the New Testament is communities that bear corporate witness, at different stages in an unfolding narrative, to a much more immediate and pressing vindication of the God of Israel over his enemies. The New Testament is much more about kingdom than new creation. Let me illustrate.
- The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) defines a community of Jews converted to the way of Jesus. It will be made up of Jews who mourn over the wretched condition of first century Israel, whose righteousness will exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, who will bless their persecutors, love their enemies, who will seek the vindication of Israel’s God, who will be prepared to follow Jesus down the narrow path of suffering that will lead to the life of the age to come. It is a community that will not be swept away and destroyed when the impending storm of God’s judgment against his people comes.
- The Pentecost community of disciples shares the same limited eschatological horizon. It is not the church universal. It is a community of Jews converted to the way of Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to his resurrection (Acts 1:22; 2:32; 5:32) and to prophesy, as Jesus had done but as a community, to the people and rulers in Jerusalem impending judgment on this crooked generation (2:40). It is a community shaped by the conviction that YHWH has vindicated his Son by raising him from the dead and making him Lord and Christ, Israel’s judge and saviour (2:32-36; 3:15, 26; 4:10-12).
- The “mission” of the predominantly Gentile churches was not to bear witness to the resurrection, because they hadn’t witnessed it; nor was it to prophesy judgment on first century Israel. It was, I suggest, to serve as a sign to the Greek-Roman world that the God of Israel would sooner or later publicly demonstrate his righteousness by defeating the pagan gods and establishing his own Son as king over the nations. A crucial requirement for this mission was that these communities should model the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile because this demonstrated that YHWH was not God of the Jews only but God of the Gentiles also (Rom. 3:29). The hope of the Gentile churches was that Christ would “rule the nations”. Paul’s concern as an apostle was that the “offering of the Gentiles”—the character of their life and witness—would conform to this eschatological expectation (15:12-13, 16).
- Peter teaches communities of Jewish Christians how to live among the nations as they experience the sufferings of the end of the age, when judgment must begin with the household of God—the Jew first, then the Greek (1 Pet. 4:17). These communities are assured that Jesus will soon be revealed to the world, that they will then receive the inheritance, they will be vindicated in the eyes of the Gentiles, they will share in the glory of God; but they must remain faithful and holy during this period of “exile”, they must do good deeds, no matter how severe the opposition.
- Similarly, the seven churches in Asia Minor are exhorted by the Christ who has himself overcome death to endure suffering and to hold true to their calling. If they fail to do so, the risen Christ will judge them—he will remove their lampstand, he will give them according to their works, he will spit them out of his mouth. But if they are “faithful unto death”, if they conquer, their names will be found in the book of life, Jesus will give them the crown of life, they will sit on his throne, they will reign with him over the nations, and so on. In other words, these martyr communities will share in the foreseen eschatological triumph over idolatrous Rome.
There is much that the church today can learn from these stories of eschatological community. What it should not do is collapse the narrative shape and rewrite ecclesiology and mission in generic, universal terms. The basic lesson to be learnt from the New Testament is that church and mission—especially at a time of crisis—are primarily shaped by a vision of a transformed historical future. That vision is formed in light of the big story about creation, and it has profound implications for individuals: What is required of me if I am to be part of God’s future? What are the consequences of rejecting God’s future? But these dimensions are secondary to the driving narrative about God and his people in history.
I press this point partly because I think that it is important that we read the New Testament for what it is and not make it subservient to the theological paradigm of the modern church. But I am also inclined to think that it would benefit the church today to think narratively—and therefore prophetically—about its own situation. The biblical response to crisis is to tell stories about where God’s people have come from and where they are going. It is only once they have grasped clearly where they are going that they know what they need to be and what they need to do.
The narrative perspective may mean that the prophetic Spirit will give the church in the West visions and dreams of its own eschatological horizon—a historical crisis that must be interpreted as a “judgment” that begins with the household of God but also opens a door to renewal.
Or less apocalyptically, it may mean that the church must translate the hope of new creation into terms that make historical sense in the western context. Churches are a corporate sign that God is not dead, that the biblical narrative remains meaningful, that deep social fears and antagonisms can be overcome, that relationships can be healed and sustained, that justice does not have to be self-serving, that living well does not have to be at the expense of others, and so on.
Either way, we need to take not only our cultural context but also our historical context—our past, present and future—very seriously. But at the heart of the mission of the church after Christendom is the same “missiological” principle that we find at the heart of the New Testament—that the living God will be publicly vindicated in history by what he does in, through and for the sake of his people.