"And behold, I am with you always,even to the end of the age." (Matt. 28:20)
This past year we have unpacked the Great Commission. We began with the "Great An-nouncement" that generates the church's mandate. Jesus grounds his imperative "Go!" in the indicative announcement that he has already accomplished our redemption. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," Jesus announces, "go therefore…" He didn't make salvation possible if we actualize or appropriate it. Rather, he accomplished our salvation and he applies it by his Word and Spirit. "Where does true faith come from?" asks the Heidelberg Catechism. "The Holy Spirit creates it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments."
Wherever Christ’his person, his work, his promises, and his accomplishments’is proclaimed, impossible things happen. The dead are raised. A lush garden blooms in the desert. Basically, Jesus is saying, "I've done everything; I'll finish what I have started’now go and tell everybody!" Jesus even gave us the system of delivery that fits with this gospel: preaching the gospel, baptizing, and teaching disciples everything that Christ commanded. This is the mission of the church, not only in planting churches but also in sustaining them from generation to generation. The mission of the church is to bear the marks of the church to the ends of the earth. As Lesslie Newbigin reminds us, the church doesn't just engage in missions; it is God's mission in the world. The church exists by witnessing as a fire exists by burning.
And now Jesus closes the Great Commission with the Great Assurance: "And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Our missionary imperative is sandwiched between the indicative declaration of Christ's mission accomplished and sustained. Jesus is not waiting for us to fulfill the Great Commission before he returns in glory; rather, he is fulfilling the Great Commission by his Word and Spirit and will return on the day the Father has set. This relieves us of an impossible burden, liberating us to participate in the missionary movement in which the Triune God has been engaged from the beginning of the world.
The Paradoxical Promise
Jesus pledged to be present with his church, even to the end of the age, right at the moment that he ascended to heaven. At the very moment that the disciples finally understood the point of Jesus' journey to the cross and, through the cross, to the resurrection, he left! As the firstfruits of the harvest, Jesus ascended bodily to the right hand of the Father. What a time to leave, though, just when things were really getting started. What is a kingdom without a king?
Yet he had already prepared them for his departure (John 14-16). He would not leave his people as orphans but would send the promised Spirit to lead them into all truth, illuminating their hearts and minds to understand and to embrace everything he had taught, and empowering them to bring this witness to the ends of the earth. Jesus said, "I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment" (John 16:7-8). Because Christ did ascend and did send the Spirit, we today know Jesus Christ better than even the disciples before this event. The Spirit unites us to Christ, seating us with him in heavenly places, and through the ministry of Word and Sacrament raises up from the valley of dry bones a mighty army of kingdom heirs.
Our Lord's commission began with a triumphant indicative and now concludes with a solid promise. Lodged in the precarious crevice of his Word, where the powers of this present age are being assaulted by the powers of the age to come, the church appears weak and foolish in the eyes of the world. It does not look like the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church that its Lord nevertheless says it is. Although Jesus is absent from us in the flesh, the Spirit unites us to the whole Christ in heaven by his mysterious grace.
Nothing can compensate for Jesus' absence in the flesh. Not even the Holy Spirit is a substitute for our Living Head; in fact, the Spirit's indwelling presence provokes within our hearts the cry for Jesus' return when our exile will be ended and we join him in the everlasting Sabbath. If not the Spirit, then no mere human being will suffice to make up for the bodily absence of our Lord. There is no "vicar of Christ" who replaces Jesus in the flesh. Not even the apostles replaced Jesus; they were his ambassadors in this world, and there are no living successors to St. Peter or any of the other apostles today. Not even the people of God as a community on earth can fill in for Jesus.
Rather, the church endures and even conquers from age to age and nation to nation in dependence on the Spirit who unites us to our ascended Lord and gives us every blessing in heavenly places. It is the Spirit who even now has seated us with Christ, enthroned over death and hell. It is the Spirit who inspired the words of the prophets and apostles as the Word of God, a Word through which Christ continues to address his little flock. It is the Spirit who binds us to Christ in baptism and the Lord's Supper, so that we can be bathed by our Lord and fed with his own body and blood.
How can Jesus announce his departure in the flesh, even telling his disciples that he will return bodily only at the end of the age, and yet at the same time promise, "And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age"? The only possible answer is the one he gave his disciples in the upper room and repeated at his ascension: the outpouring and indwelling of the Holy Spirit, working through the Word and sacraments.
Christ's Program, Not Ours
We do not ascend to God; God descended to us and continues to descend by sending us his Word of Christ through preachers. Christ is as near to us today as the Word that we hear proclaimed. This is Paul's point in Romans 10, as we have seen. We have to keep our focus on the historical pattern of Christ's descent in the flesh, death and resurrection in the flesh, ascension in the flesh, and return at the end of the age in the flesh. Descending into our history, he has forever transformed it, opening up a fissure in that history of death by his resurrection. By his Spirit, Christ keeps that fissure opened for the proclamation of the gospel, so that our lives even now become united to the new history of everlasting joy he has already entered as our pioneer.
Everything in the Great Commission keeps our eyes on Christ during this intermission’this pilgrimage that we are making and inviting others to make to the city whose architect and builder is God. It is not by turning inward in mystical contemplation or by trying to make the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ, but by knowing our job description as witnesses to Christ, that we fulfill this commission. We are the witnesses to redemption, not the agents of it. Throughout the book of Revelation, the saints are described not as ascetic monks or as transformers of the Roman Empire into Christ's kingdom, but as witnesses; they give their lives for the testimony to the Lamb.
In an interview with Billy Graham's Decision magazine, C. S. Lewis was once asked, "Do you feel, then, that modern culture is being de-Christianized?" Lewis responded,
I cannot speak to the political aspects of the question, but I have some definite views about the de-Christianizing of the church. I believe that there are many accommodating preachers, and too many practitioners in the church who are not believers. Jesus Christ did not say, "Go into all the world and tell the world that it is quite right." The Gospel is something completely different. In fact, it is directly opposed to the world. (1)
Like Athanasius, our motto should be, "Against the world, for the world." It is in the world's best interest that we stand up to it, refusing to conform our message, mission, or methods to the pattern of this passing age. We believe, live, and act on the basis of the covenant that was made between the persons of the Trinity before all time for our redemption, the saving work of Christ that is already completed. And we believe, live, and act on the basis of Christ's promise to be with us by his Word and Spirit until the very end, when he returns bodily in glory. This promise with which Jesus assures the shaky apostles at the end of his Great Commission is similar to the one that he issued in Matthew 16, when he gave them the keys of the kingdom: "I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (v. 18).
Again and again we meet this emphasis of our Lord on the kingdom that he is building and we are receiving. Jesus told his disciples not to be anxious about the future. "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32). We may build all sorts of things. We may build movements, personalities, programs, and publicity-generating organizations. But only Jesus can build his church. It is his church, not ours; his ministry, not ours. He builds it through means, to be sure, but it is the means that he has instituted and promised to bless with his saving presence.
This church may not look pretty. Regardless of its outward appearance, though, Christ's promise trumps all earthly powers. Wherever this church is preaching Christ, baptizing, administering the Supper, confessing its sins, receiving Christ's absolution, confessing its faith in the gospel, caring for the sheep, and unleashing its salty saints in ever-widening circles of mission, witness, and service in their ordinary vocations, Satan's kingdom is falling piece by piece. We are storming the Bastille, that wretched prison that holds Christ's blood-bought treasure of captives. We are bringing the good news that the long night is over and that the Light has come into the world.
The conquest did come’and is still coming. However, the new covenant conquest was no less puzzling to the disciples than the new covenant exodus! It wasn't a replay of the Old Testament holy wars, with a sliver of real estate in the Middle East, that Jesus promised. Rather, in fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise, salvation will come to the ends of the earth. The whole earth will be made Christ's theater of grace. His meek pilgrims "shall inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5).
Preparing his disciples for his departure and the sending of the Spirit, Jesus included in that upper room speech the promise that he would prepare a place for them, reigning in everlasting peace over his people (John 14:1-29). Jesus did not escape the world into which he was now calling his disciples to suffer and witness. Nor is he merely waiting in heaven to return some day. Every day that passes on earth is a productive delay of the last judgment. In the meantime, Jesus is gathering a people for himself on earth, forgiving and renewing them by his Word and Spirit, interceding for his coheirs, and preparing his heavenly sanctuary for our arrival.
In this in-between time of our exile today, there is no holy land or holy nation, apart from Christ and his worldwide family. When Christ returns, however, cleansing the land in a final judgment, everything will be holy. Zechariah prophesies the day when the true temple will be cleansed of all traders and everything that defiles. The most common household pots and pans’even the bells on the horses’will bear the inscription, "Holy to the Lord!" (Zech. 14:20-21). The wasteland will again become a lush garden, from which the violent and the oppressor will be banished (Isa. 35). One last time the world will be shaken and the nations will come to the Desire of All Nations, the end-time temple filled with the glory of the Spirit (Hag. 2:6-7). "'The glory of this latter temple shall be greater than the former,' says the Lord of hosts. 'And in this place I will give peace,' says the Lord of hosts" (v. 9).
It is the final "shaking of everything that can be shaken" so that only Christ's kingdom remains that is spoken of in Hebrews 12:18-29. In this passage, the writer observes that the theocratic kingdom of Israel could indeed be shaken’and was shaken’because it depended on conditional promises and threatened exile for disobedience. God addresses us not from Mount Sinai, however, but from Mount Zion, with absolute promises of unilateral deliverance. Founded on Christ's perfect obedience, the kingdom we are now receiving cannot be shaken.
After the destruction of the first temple, Ezekiel received a vision of the new one (Ezek. 40-42), and then reported the return of the Spirit (in the form of the theophanic Glory-cloud) to the temple in chapter 43. A man "whose appearance shone like bronze" stood with a measuring rod, making sure that the new complex was perfect in its dimensions, including the wall separating the holy from the common (40:5-42:20). Recalling that cherubim were posted at the eastern gate of Eden, barring re-entry to the sanctuary after the Fall, as was the case when the Glory evacuated Israel's first temple, Ezekiel was now taken in his vision to the gate that faces east: "And it was shut." "The Lord said to me: 'This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut. Only the prince, because he is a prince, may sit in it to eat food before the Lord; he shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way'" (44:1-3). Nothing "unclean" will be allowed to enter its sacred precincts (vv. 4-9).
All of these prophecies are fulfilled in the heavenly sanctuary John saw in his vision in Revelation 21 and 22. First, it will be the holy habitation of God with his people, where sin, death, pain, and suffering are banished forever. "And the one who was seated on the throne said, 'See, I am making all things new'" (21:5). This is precisely what Jesus told the disciples he would do in this in-between time. The inhabitants will drink freely of the water of life, just as they will be finally allowed to eat from the Tree of Life and escape the judgment of the unrepentant world (vv. 7-8). John was then shown "the bride, the wife of the Lamb," which is none other than "the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God" (vv. 9-10). Here, as in Ezekiel, the city is measured with a rod, symbolically displaying its cosmic dimensions (v. 16). In fact, it becomes increasingly clear that the temple is not something within the city, but the city itself. "I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb" (v. 22). Unlike the temples of Eden and Jerusalem, "nothing unclean will enter it" and therefore this sanctuary's gates "will never be shut" so that all "whose names are written in the Lamb's Book of Life may enter" (vv. 25-27). There will be no threats to life and communion with the Triune God.
The physical distinctions of the temple’with its outer court of the Gentiles, inner court of the Jews, and the Most Holy Place’remind us of Jesus' answer to the disciples' query at his ascension, "'Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?' He replied, 'It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth'" (Acts 1:7-8). In the Old Testament, Israel is often described as the mountain of the Lord to which the people come, but the emphasis in the New Testament falls on the mountain of the Lord as a community of redeemed Jews and Gentiles who take the good news to the nations. "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to all creation" (Mark 16:15).
The end-time sanctuary, made without hands, has finally appeared in Christ. Far greater than the rending of the temple curtain at Jesus' crucifixion is the rending of Jesus' own body on the cross, which opened up direct access to all believers. There our High Priest has entered the heavenly sanctuary of which the earthly temple was merely a type, and he entered bearing his own blood as the complete and final sacrifice for sin. There will be no renewal of the Sinai covenant, no going back to the shadows now that the reality has come.
Now believers, Jew and Gentile, are being built up into Christ as living stones. The people have become the place of God's dwelling, robed in the glorious robes of Christ's righteousness. The city and the temple in the book of Revelation encompass the whole cosmos. It is not only the wall between the Jews and Gentiles that is torn down, but also the division between heavenly and earthly temples. At long last, God has not only small-scale replicas of his sanctuary, but he also dissolves any distinction between heaven and earth. (2) Not only the prophets and apostles, but the whole people of God are now "caught up in the Spirit" to stand in the heavenly council, covered in priestly vestments, sent from the throne room as witnesses. (3)
Amid flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, John's vision of the heavenly worship describes the twenty-four elders seated around God's throne, with flaming torches burning before each throne. And behind the thrones hangs the rainbow of peace (Rev. 4:2-5). The flaming torches in Revelation are reminiscent of the flames of fire above each Spirit-endowed witness at Pentecost. The new temple is not built "by human hands" (Acts 7:48), and they are circumcised by a circumcision without human hands, by the circumcision-death of Christ (Col. 2:11). (4) The new creation is therefore entirely the work of God, and the end-time sanctuary is the temple that God has built for himself. It is not built by us but by God, whose indwelling presence is not conditioned on the nation's faithfulness but on his own covenant faithfulness, erected not from inanimate blocks that may be pulled down but from living stones taken from every tribe under heaven with Christ as the cornerstone (1 Pet. 2:4-8).
The Old Testament prophecies anticipate a renewal of the whole earth. Nothing good that God has made’laughter, friendship, feasting, labor, and culture-making’will be lost; everything will be restored. In the New Testament as well, the final heavenly abode is a created place (Luke 24:51; John 14:2-4; Acts 1:11; 7:55-56; 1 Pet. 3:22). To be sure, the renewal is so radical that it can be described only in apocalyptic terms (2 Pet. 3:12-13) as passing away (Rev. 21:2-3). Nevertheless, we should think not in terms of the end of God's creation itself but of the end of creation in its current condition. Our heavenly hope is not only of saved souls but of creation (Rom. 8:19-21). Just as Jesus ate and drank after his resurrection, so there will be eating and drinking in the new creation’although this time at the consummated marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9), Jesus will drink wine with us (Luke 22:18). The theme of eating and drinking in the presence of the Lord that we find throughout the Old Testament narratives, and again so prominently in Luke's Gospel, will be fully realized in that day. In Revelation 22 we hear of a great river that flows through the city, with the tree of life "yielding its fruit each month" (v. 2).
This whole creation will be wholly saved and yet wholly new. If our goal is to be liberated from creation rather than from the liberation of creation, we will understandably display little concern for the world that God has made. If, however, we are looking forward to "the restoration of all things" (Acts 3:21) and the participation of the whole creation in our redemption (Rom. 8:28-21), then our actions here and now pertain to the same world that will one day be finally and fully renewed.
Raising our eyes in faith toward God, we reach out in love to our fellow saints and to our neighbors with our hearts and our hands. As God serves us with his heavenly gifts through the ministry of the church in his own Great Commission, he also serves our neighbors with common blessings through our worldly callings. Let us live out our discipleship as those who know that all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to our Redeemer, that he is with us until the end of the age, and that he will at last return bodily to judge the living and the dead and to make everything new. And even when we’and you’fail, remember that Jesus has not and that he promises to be with us’and you’until the end of the age. He has already given you the kingdom.
2 [ Back ] M. G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (S. Hamilton, MA: self-published, 1986), 35.
3 [ Back ] Kline, 94.
4 [ Back ] G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church's Mission (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004), 233-34.