On a cold November day in 1095, Pope Urban II roused the great crowd assembled before him to take up the cause of holy war against Islam. Instead of fighting each other, the people were told to unite against the common enemy and retake the Holy Land. "If you must have blood," he exhorted, "bathe in the blood of infidels."
Though less violent, many Christians in America still demand visible symbols of Christianity in the culture. Ironically, many Christians today who decry the legacy of "Christendom" nevertheless confuse the advance of Christ's kingdom of grace with the common activity of Christians working alongside their neighbors in culture. While we may still tolerate the ordinary means of grace, we grow impatient with this apparently meager visibility of Christ's reign in this present age. Across the political spectrum, many proclaim that Christ's kingdom is advanced not by proclaiming the forgiveness of sins in Christ's name so much as by cultural transformation. We seem to hear less today about Christ's unique person and work than we do about us and our mission of "incarnating," "redeeming," and "reconciling."
Where did Jesus go after he accomplished our redemption? And how did the church--and allegedly Christian empires--come to think that they could keep his seat warm until he returned in power and glory to reign on the earth? The disciples themselves missed the point of Jesus' journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. They expected Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem to be the victory celebration and that they would sit at his side for the inaugural ball. He had prepared them for his departure in the Upper Room, as he explained how his ascension to the Father meant that the Spirit would descend to dispense the gifts of his victory. Even after the resurrection, when he explained how all the Scriptures pointed to his saving work, they were not ready for his ascension. Just before this momentous event, they still asked, "Lord, now are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6, emphasis added). They were still thinking about a kingdom of earthly power here and now, not a kingdom of grace. They were ready for the ax to fall, for the sheep to be separated from the goats, and for fire to consume the enemies of God. Instead, they were told to go throughout the world preaching the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ until he returns at the end of the age. As they stood gazing at the ascending Lord, the disciples were told by two angels, "'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven'" (vv. 10-11).
Refusing to be located in the time between the times, the church often substitutes itself for its absent Lord. Just compare the pomp and circumstance with which Memorial Day and Independence Day are celebrated in churches across America with the relative obscurity of Ascension Day. Nobody expects The New York Times to celebrate Christ's victory over sin and death each week, but why should the church give the impression that there is something more important and more impressive to focus on than this report?
Obviously, a cure for AIDS would grab the front-page headline for weeks on end. We would all dance in the streets. Right now, there are Christians working alongside non-Christians in labs and on the field to try to achieve that success. In our common callings, we are not ushering in Christ's kingdom of glory and power, but sharing with non-Christians in temporal blessings and woes and loving our neighbors through the gifts we have been given by God's common and saving grace. Only the church, however, is commissioned as Christ's agency to announce each week that the whole kingdom of Satan has been toppled forever; that we are now in the hand-to-hand combat phase of ferreting out guerilla strongholds that have not yet yielded to the truth of their defeat, and awaiting the return of the King for the last battle. The end of all disease, poverty, oppression, violence, disaster, idolatry, and sin is at hand. Which is more powerful: the announcement of God's work or the calls to our work? Once we realize that the gospel is the power of God for salvation, our action becomes a "reasonable service." If our service is front and center, however, the church may easily (wittingly or unwittingly) proclaim itself as the Messiah.
We still have trouble knowing what time it is or what kind of kingdom Christ has inaugurated. If we are still thinking in terms of a fully consummated kingdom of glory and power present now in the world, whether as the church or as Christian movements, then the gospel will be considered foolish and the divinely prescribed methods of delivery (preaching and Sacrament) will be judged too weak to really grab the world's attention. The challenge for us, as for the first disciples, is to believe in a kingdom of grace and await the arrival of the kingdom of glory.
When an agnostic creates a cure for a terrible disease, we neither reject this gift of God's common grace nor imagine that he or she is advancing Christ's kingdom. It was not simply to believers but to all human beings that God gave the commission, "Be fruitful and multiply," as his stewards of the earth. God preserved and protected Cain, the idolater and murderer, because he wanted the secular city to continue.
The Great Commission, however, is not the cultural mandate, and the kingdom of Christ cannot be identified with any of the kingdoms of this age. Like the exiles in Babylon, New Testament believers are called to participate in the common life of their captive city, while remaining "exiles" and "sojourners" in their hearts. We share the travails and joys of the secular city, while witnessing to the greater judgment and salvation found in Zion. If we could resolve our top ten crises in the world today, we would still have the devil on our back, sin mastering our heart, and everlasting death as the penalty for our mutiny. Do we really believe that our greatest crisis is the wrath of God and our greatest solution is the death and resurrection of Christ?
As a minister, I am called regularly by God to make a political speech--a deeply partisan political speech. However, it is not to rally the troops in defense of Christendom against the infidels of various sorts. It divides not between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, but between Christ and Antichrist. As heralds and ambassadors of the age to come, we are given the commission to go into all the world with the announcement that Jesus Christ is Lord and King, the only Sovereign who holds the keys of death and hell--who opens and no one can shut, who shuts and no one can open. It is he alone who will rid the world of evil by his wisdom and might, subduing chaos, and leading his own into the place that even now he is preparing for them.
In this covenantal gathering, the cross is raised, not as a cultural symbol but as the proclamation of Christ crucified for sinners. Our role is not to represent Western civilization, democracy, or the free world, nor to oppose these systems, but to announce and to exhibit--however imperfectly--the triumph of Christ's weak kingdom over the powerful kingdoms of this age. For now, we pray for secular rulers, pay our taxes, and fulfill our callings together with our non-Christian neighbors and citizens. As Calvin pointed out, the distinction between the "two kingdoms" does not mean that Christ is not king already, but that for now he rules both kingdoms in different ways. The kingdom of God advances by Word and Spirit, while the kingdoms of this age progress or decline according to the light of God's moral law inscribed on the conscience in creation and the Spirit's work in common grace. The cities of this age rise to the heavens in pride, but the City of God--the New Jerusalem that is coming down out of heaven as a bride prepared for her husband--alone promises and gives true liberty to its sons and daughters beyond the ultimate triumph of death and hell. We witness to the ascended King who will return again to judge the living and the dead and to reign forever.
Unlike the first Adam, who led creation on a detour in the thanksgiving parade from its appointed path, this Servant of the Lord finally fulfilled our human destiny. Psalm 68 records a royal march of Israel, foreshadowing the faithful Servant, Jesus Christ. The psalm begins with the battle cry, "Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered!" (vv. 1-3). As Jewish scholar Jon Levenson observes, Zion represents the eschatological destination of the people of God, a mountain that rises far above the failures of the human partner in the covenant and exists by God's grace. Psalm 68, then, "records a march of YHWH from Sinai, a military campaign in which the God of Israel and his retinue...set out across the desert."
As important as Sinai is in the march, it lies midway between Egypt and the earthly Zion: Canaan. The focus shifts from Sinai to Zion, for example, in Psalm 97 (cf. Ps. 68:8-9; Deut. 33:2; Ps. 50:2-3).
The transfer of the motif from Sinai to Zion was complete and irreversible, so that YHWH came to be designated no longer as "the One of Sinai," but as "he who dwells on Mount Zion" (Isa. 8:18)....The transfer of the divine home from Sinai to Zion meant that God was no longer seen as dwelling in an extraterritorial no man's land, but within the borders of the Israelite community.And in the Zion traditions, Levenson comments, "there will emerge something almost unthinkable in the case of Sinai"--an unconditional divine oath that God himself, above all the vicissitudes of human disobedience, will somehow arise and scatter his enemies and save his people. So Zion takes on a cosmic, universal role that Sinai never did. "Not only Jerusalem and the land of Israel, but even the people of Israel can be designated as Zion," as in Isaiah 51:16 and Zechariah 2:11.
Leading captivity captive, ascending, giving gifts to and receiving gifts from even his enemies, crushing the head of the serpent, and dwelling forever in Zion (Ps. 68:19-23), this is the King who "daily loads us with benefits, the God of our salvation," from whom alone we receive "escape from death." Although Levenson interprets Psalm 68 as a march from Sinai to Zion, echoing the trial of Adam from commission to consummation--and even points out the failure common to both--he concludes that Zion is finally absorbed into Sinai within Judaism. The ascent of Mount Zion, he suggests, is an allegory for "the ethical ascent of man."
From his victory on the mountain of Golgotha to his ascension to the true heavenly Zion and enthronement as the King of kings and Lord of lords, Yahweh leads captivity captive. This is already anticipated at various points in Jesus' ministry. The return of the Seventy in Luke 10 anticipates the victory march. Jesus pronounces the "woes"--the covenant curses--upon the enemies of his kingdom, including Israel's religious leaders, while the Seventy return with joy, breathlessly reporting to their Lord, "Even the demons are subject to us in your name." And Jesus said to them,
I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.
As the Captain of salvation, Jesus Christ in his earthly ministry marched from Sinai to Zion, leading captivity captive. Resisting the way of glory falsely promised by Satan in the temptation, Jesus went the way of the cross, marching all the way to the gates of hell to crush the serpent's head and to throw open the prisoner's doors. Psalm 68 ends with the arrival of the military procession--drawn from Israel and the nations--into the sanctuary of the Great King who has ascended in triumph. In his Upper Room discourse (John 14-16), Jesus prepared the disciples for his departure. He would be crucified, buried, and then rise again on the third day. Then he would ascend, both to send the Spirit from his throne and to prepare a place for us.
In the meantime, on the basis of his victory ("All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me"), he commissions them to "go into all the world," proclaiming, teaching, and baptizing. In his covenant with Abram, God promised that in him and his heir (Jesus Christ) all the nations of the earth will be blessed. This hope was kept alive by the prophets. Even in the process of pressing God's charges against Israel for violating the Sinai covenant, they prophesied the day when God himself would descend and build a highway from Jerusalem to Egypt, Assyria, and all nations. A remnant from all peoples would be gathered into the royal march of the Great King, not to an earthly mountain and temple but to the heavenly reality that the earthly Jerusalem only prefigured.
Christ's ascension opened up a fissure in history, locating the church in the precarious collision of the two ages: this age of sin and death, and the age to come. It is easy in the absence of Christ's visible reign in the flesh on the earth to substitute ourselves or the church. What we are doing right now on earth becomes the front-page news. However, we miss the whole point if we fail to see that it is still what Jesus is doing that is the big news. He ascended to heaven in order to rule and subdue history to his gracious and holy designs, to dispatch his Spirit to sweep sinners into his victory parade, and to spread his kingdom of peace to the ends of the earth. This may not capture the world's headlines. In fact, Peter describes these last days as an era in which scoffers mock, "Where is the promise of his coming?" After all, it seems as if "all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation" (2 Pet. 3:4). Nevertheless, as Peter goes on to relate, this era of apparent weakness for God's kingdom is actually due to God's patience. His energetic activity may not be seen in the daily press, but it is reaping a harvest of redeemed sinners from the ends of the earth.
In Ephesians 4, we--the new covenant believers--get swept up into this victory march. Just as the dragon's tail swept a third of the angels from heaven in his fall in Revelation 12, the Savior's ascension sweeps into his wake a remnant from every tribe and tongue on earth. However, this triumphant march is not like the holy wars of the Old Testament. Christ does not call his people today to drive the serpent's emissaries out of a supposedly holy land or to rule over them by the temporal sword. He came to crush the serpent's head himself. In this contest, Jesus must fight alone. No one but Jesus hung on that cross, bearing the weight of the world's sins. Nevertheless, his resurrection draws innumerable captives into his train. He reigns as victor for us in heaven, while we bring news of his victory to the earth. The world does not welcome this news any more after his resurrection than when he first arrived. The announcement of good news provokes the rage of the dragon; and although he knows that he has lost the war with the seed of the woman, he spends his last days in pursuit of his co-heirs.
Ephesians 4:1-6 records a march as believers "walk in unity." As he writes this Epistle, Paul himself is under house arrest in Rome, "the prisoner of the Lord." Even in prison, he is not the captive of Satan or Caesar; he is the Lord's prisoner and under his reign. Despite their intentions, the devil and his ambassadors are actually serving the Lord's reign through Paul's ministry. He calls the Ephesians to "walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all lowliness and gentleness, with long-suffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (vv. 1-2). This exhortation stands in sharp contrast to the old covenant command to eliminate the serpent and his seed from God's holy land by the sword. Yet it also stands in contrast to the complaining, backbiting, and attempted mutiny against Moses' leadership exhibited by the Israelites on their march through the desert.
Having been raised from spiritual death and seated with Christ (Eph. 2:1-6), saved by grace alone through faith alone (vv. 6-8), believers are predestined to walk in good works together toward their destination (v. 10). With the two hands of Word and Spirit, the King creates a body of which he is the head. That unity is already lodged in God's election, redemption, calling, and sealing elaborated in Ephesians 1. We must be "eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:2). Yet the preservation of this unity depends ultimately on its source. In other words, we cannot drum up this unity by our own resources. It cannot be enforced. The imperative to preserve this unity depends always on the indicative fact that we are united by Christ and his gospel. "There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call--one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Eph. 4:4-6).
Notice what is not included here: one universal pastor or form of church government, one movement, one program, or one experience. Longing for a more visible security than the gospel we hear proclaimed, we are easily misled into thinking that if we could only unite behind a pope or a charismatic leader or a revival or social program, we could really know who is in and who is out. At last there would be true unity. Doctrine only gets in the way. Let's just love Jesus and transform the world.
However, we are directed here to find our unity precisely in the doctrine: "One Lord, one faith, one baptism." If you want to find the "one body" and "one Spirit," you must look for the place where Christ is proclaimed in Word and Sacrament. The King not only saves, he preserves the body that he has saved through his current gift-giving reign.
We are one in Christ (Eph. 1-3); therefore, let us walk together according to this high calling. Our Conquering King will not keep the spoils of victory all to himself. As he lived for us, died for us, and rose for us, so he rules for us in heaven until all of his enemies and ours are defeated.
Far from establishing a clericalism that excludes laypeople from Christ's gifts, the ministry of Word and Sacrament that Paul highlights in Ephesians 4 is the means through which Christ distributes them for the completion and maturity of the whole body in the gospel. Ironically, many Christians today as in the past imagine that the Scriptures offer a blueprint for transforming the kingdoms of this age, while claiming that the Bible is relatively silent on the doctrine or at least on the worship and government that Christ has instituted for his church. The reverse, however, is the case in the New Testament. The doctrines and imperatives for godly living are clearly revealed. Through the apostles, Jesus has given clear instructions on the proper ministry of his Word and Sacraments as well as the offices in the church and their qualifications. Yet beyond the call to diligence and loving service in our secular callings, the Scriptures do not offer Christians a blueprint for economic development, civil legislation, social progress, and political stability. As "salt" and "light," Christians make a difference in all sorts of ways in varying degrees, but salt is a preservative not a savior.
"The secular" is not a place, but a time. It is not a period in which Christ is absent, much less a supposedly neutral space to which he is barred access. The term saeculum, apparently coined by Augustine, simply means "of the age." While the Greeks divided reality into "this world" of shadowy appearances (the physical realm) and the "other world" of true reality (the spiritual realm), Jesus and Paul divided reality into "this age" and "the age to come." Biblical eschatology knows nothing of a salvation from the realm of time, space, and matter, but only of the salvation of the whole creation at the end of the age. So the question is not whether Christ is now Lord of the whole earth, in all of its spheres, or whether the creation itself will be renewed. Rather, it is a question of timing. As Paul teaches in Romans 8, we have already been justified--no longer condemned, we have been renewed definitively by the Spirit who indwells us. Yet we wait patiently for Christ's return, when the children of God will be raised immortal and the whole creation will share in the triumph of God's everlasting Sabbath. In between these two advents of Christ, we live not in the shadows but in the tension between this present age, dominated by the powers and principalities of sin and death, and the age to come, ruled by the power, righteousness, peace, justice, and grace of our triune God.
Joining the throng of pilgrims to Zion, away from the thrall of Vanity Fair, we testify to the world that there is something greater, richer, deeper, and fuller than our best life now. Through preaching and Sacrament, the Spirit brings the "solid joys and lasting treasures" of the age to come into this present age that is passing away. By caring sacrificially for brothers and sisters who are overlooked by the regents of this passing age, and belonging to a communion of saints that defies the natural, cultural, or political affinities of the temporal city, we already indwell a new creation that will be consummated when Christ returns. In our common prayer, songs, and service, we point ourselves and our neighbors to another King who makes his subjects co-heirs and fellow children of the Father. And in our common witness, we become God's means of gathering strangers to the Sabbath feast. Then, as we are scattered into the world as "salt" and "light," we pursue our callings as parents, children, volunteers, citizens, Little League coaches, employees and employers with the assurance that our primary citizenship is in Zion.
So now we have Christ's answer to his disciples when they asked at his ascension, "Now are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" Right at the moment they ask this, Jesus leaves. But where does he go? He goes to heaven to claim the prize of his victory--not only for himself but for us. And he sends his Spirit to lead the ground campaign of grace.
In this present phase, we are neither merely waiting for Christ to establish his kingdom nor building his kingdom of power and glory through our own impressive campaigns. Rather, we are recipients and heralds of his victory and his heavenly reign at the Father's right hand. We live now as those who have already been justified and transferred from the tyranny of Satan and sin to the liberating reign of Christ and the age to come. In the ministry of Word and Sacrament, in the fellowship of the saints that transcends earthly divisions and demographics, in the diaconal care for those in need, and in its mission to the world, the church testifies that Christ is already Lord and will consummate his kingdom when he returns. Just as Daniel prophesied, this Kingdom of David's greater son endures from generation to generation and brings the liberated captives into the everlasting rest. There is only one kingdom that cannot be shaken. "Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and awe" (Heb. 12:28).
Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.
Issue: "Zion" Nov./Dec. 2009 Vol. 18 No. 6 Page number(s): 14-18
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