The apocalyptic Jesus and the urgency of His return

“Eschatological Central Figure.”

That’s what a friend wrote on a picture of Jesus he got me for my bachelor party back in 1999.  “Eschatology”: meaning, end times.  It’s what one of Trinity Baptist’s members would call a “fancy word with too many syllables,” but it’s what Jesus was all about and what we forget in our busy, fast-paced world of late.

The picture was a gift, as esoteric as it was, because my friend and I took a college course on the “historical Jesus.”  The class was a glorified Bible study of the Gospels, and we learned the language, worldview, and cultural context of the ancient world to understand our Lord and Savior better.

One of the things we learned was that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who spoke decisively and urgently about the “end times.”  As a result, he led a marginalized group of misfits who opposed the religious authorities and Rome and had an alternative vision (“apocalypse” means, literally, unveiling or vision) of what God was doing in the world “in the last days.”

This was not uncommon in the first century.  Jesus was one of many people who believed that the religious institution in Jerusalem, temple and all, had become corrupt under Roman influence.  Some folks lived in the desert as a way to protest the temple, like the Qumran community who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls; others preached repentance from the Jordan River, like John the Baptist.  Many others looted fields, robbed tax coffers, or assassinated aristocrats.

Jesus preached that “The time is fulfilled . . . and the Kingdom of God has come near!” (Mark 1:14).  But, unlike the other eschatological prophets of the time, this Kingdom would come not in power or forceful violence, but in the grass-roots faithfulness of peasants who believed that Jesus was “the way, the truth, and the life.”

To help people understand this vision, Jesus set out to paint pictures of what God was doing if this transformative kingdom.  He painted pictures using words, most notably parables and stories.

He painted pictures with his compassion and hospitality, even welcoming “tax collectors and sinners.” And he had the audacity to put them in leadership roles much to the chagrin of the religious authorities.

He painted pictures with his actions.  He came to Jerusalem, for instance, in the midst of waving palms not so he could raise up a physical army to overthrow Rome, but to show that God himself was coming to liberate Israel and all creation from the enslavement of corruption and sin.

It was Jesus’ sense of God’s eschatological urgency, however, that captured the imagination of my friend and me.  It was what inspired our vocation, shaped our ministry, and crafted our theology of evangelism and missions.

Now, with two children for which to care, a lovely marriage, career, mortgage and car payments, I find myself forgetting just how urgent this message of hope still is in our culture today.

My busy schedule makes me sleepy in a way; and, like one who fails to anticipate the coming of the “thief in the night,”  there is always the threat that I may slumber and miss the whole thing “in the blink of an eye!”

Perhaps my friend knew something that I did not at the time of my bachelor party: I needed something physical–a picture as silly as it was–to remind me that Jesus and his urgent message still needed to be central in my life even though I was about to get married and start a family.

As we Christians prepare for Palm Sunday and Easter in order to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus, let us also take time to proclaim the urgency of the Second Coming of Christ, a message that promises resurrection for all who believe in him.

“He ascended into heaven,” reads the Apostle’s creed, “And is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”  Sounds pretty urgent to me.

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