I am a huge fan of ABC’s hit television show Lost. For those unfamiliar with the program’s premise, the story revolves around the survivors of an airplane crash on a mysterious island in the South Pacific. As the show progresses, a strange mythology surrounding the island begins to emerge, one that partially explains why no search-and-recovery efforts have been made to rescue the lost castaways. Apparently, among the island’s oddities is the fact that it moves—not only geographically (from one place to another), but diachronically (from one time to another). One moment the survivors will be in the present day, and then, like the skipping of the needle on a record, they will suddenly find themselves in the same spot, only forty years in the past. While the question on the lips of the stranded characters when the show began was “where are we?” the plot has now thickened, changing the query to “when are we?”
It’s a good question.
Christians today, while obviously not marooned on a deserted island, nevertheless find ourselves stranded in a wilderness not of our own choosing. The Bible’s description of believers as pilgrims and sojourners (Heb. 11:13; 1 Peter 1:17; 2:11) necessitates the cry, “How long, O Lord? When will faith give way to sight?”
Meanwhile, Under the New Covenant …
In seeking to answer the question “when are we?” we must step back from the details and minutiae of Scripture and attempt to gain a broader vantage point from which to behold the work that God is doing. Sometimes the letters used to tell the tale are too big to read from close up, forcing us, as it were, to put away the microscope and dust off the telescope, trading in the magnifying glass for a wide-angle lens.
When we step back from the trees and behold the forest, we see that the history of redemption is divided into two main epochs: this present age and the age to come (Matt. 12:32; Gal. 1:4; Eph. 1:21; 1 Tim. 6:17; Tit. 2:12; Heb. 6:5). We will need to spend a few moments unpacking this theme, for if we fail to appreciate how these two ages relate to one another, we will never be able to “tell time,” eschatologically speaking.
According to Scripture, this present age is contrasted with the age to come primarily due to the former being temporal and the latter eternal. Under the old covenant, the people of Israel were given great and precious promises by virtue of the covenant that Yahweh had made with their father Abraham. Specifically, God promised to the patriarch a great nation, a land for them to inhabit, and kings to rule over them (Gen. 15:1–7; 17:6). Although these promises were fulfilled in a provisional way under the Mosaic covenant with God establishing a nation (Israel), granting a land (Canaan), and anointing kings (David and Solomon), the ultimate fulfillment of these promises was understood by the faithful as being yet future. The expectation of the believing remnant in Israel was that the Messiah would one day arrive with judgment for the wicked and salvation for the elect, ushering in a new age of eternal blessing and shalom.
Hope Divinely Deferred
This expectation can be seen lurking behind the disciples’ question to our Lord concerning His prophecy of the Jerusalem temple’s pending destruction (Matt. 24:1–3):
Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (emphasis added)
Clearly, the disciples expected that the end of the Jewish oppression by Rome would signal the end of all things. To put it simply, the coming of the Messiah would bring about the end of the age of promise and the coming of the age of fulfillment. The “already,” in other words, would immediately overthrow the “not yet.”
The first seed of doubt in the minds of Jesus’ followers concerning this tidy transition from promise to fulfillment was probably sown at the very outset of His public ministry. While worshiping in the synagogue of His home town of Nazareth, Jesus stood and read from the scroll of Isaiah the prophet (Luke 4:18–19):
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus then rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. Everybody in the synagogue stared at Him, and He then said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).
One factor that most likely contributed to His hearers’ being “filled with wrath” and attempting to “throw him down the cliff” (vv. 28–29) was Jesus’ apparent grammatical slip-up in His reading of Holy Scripture and His obvious intent behind it. Rather than reading the entire passage as the Nazarenes would have expected, Jesus stopped at a comma, deliberately omitting what followed. Isaiah’s version reads (61:1–2):
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God. (emphasis added)
As you can see, Jesus omitted a pretty significant detail about “the day of vengeance.” Instead of arriving with salvation in one hand and judgment in the other, our Lord seems to indicate that His agenda would only be halfway fulfilled when He was sent the first time, leaving the remainder to some future period.
Life in the Meantime
For my part, I can certainly understand the frustration exhibited by the people in that Nazarene synagogue on that day so long ago. When we understand that the coming of Christ occurs in two stages, some pretty big questions arise, not the least of which is “what are we supposed to do in the meantime? How are we to live in the gap between the partial and complete fulfillment of God’s promises?”
If we are sensing a tension here, a mingling of joyful anticipation and frustrating deferral not unlike that of a couple during the engagement period before their wedding day, then we are pretty much right on track. The New Testament likens our current situation to a betrothal characterized by the possession of an engagement ring, the Holy Spirit, whose role in the economy of redemption is to bring the realities of the future into the present. Although we are granted foretastes of the age to come by means of the ministry of the church (Heb. 6:4–5), the Christian’s present existence is a mixture of a bit of already with a whole lot of not yet.
This is why the New Testament describes life in this period between betrothal and consummation using the language of bittersweetness. Whenever the Holy Spirit is mentioned in His role as guarantor of our glorious future inheritance, the context is always one of longing, of groaning, of being burdened (Rom. 8:19–26; 2 Cor. 5:1–5). Yes, there is an ache on the part of the pilgrim dispossessed, but this ache is mingled with an assurance that our exile is “momentary” and that the difficulties and homesickness we experience as sojourners are unworthy of comparison with the glory that awaits us (2 Cor. 4:17).
In short, our frustration is a divine frustration placed within us by virtue of our Creator having hardwired us with a longing for heaven that earth could never quench. And to make matters both easier and much more difficult, we who worship under the new covenant have been granted a preview of coming attractions, an appetizer for a future heavenly banquet that utterly ruins us for this world’s fare.
Living as dual citizens in the overlap of the ages is as exciting as it is frustrating. As pilgrims and exiles we are, on the one hand, in the unique position of being able to enjoy earth without idolizing it by confusing it with heaven. But at the end of the day, the future always eclipses the here and now, and our heavenly hope serves to spoil us for earth’s spoils.