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The Eschatology of Christmas

The Eschatology of Christmas

December 25, 2020 · C.E. Carter

In the same way that you can’t understand the end of a book just by reading the last few pages, you can’t understand the end of history without understanding history. The right way to understand history is to examine it according to the Biblical narrative and craft a sound exposition of the person and work of Christ, who binds the whole story of redemption together. All of history is God’s and is for God, and His possession over it means the phrase “the end of history” is a double-entendre. The first meaning plays on the temporal nature of it, because God intends for the state of this world to pass away at some point, and refers to the events around the time when the curtains will be drawn and the Author will appear on the stage. The second meaning plays on the possessive nature of it; not “the end of history” but rather “the ends of history”, referring to the fact that history is a means to some set of ends. The theological discipline of eschatology concerns itself with both the timing of the end events and the ends of events in time. The latter is what makes Christmas an eschatological celebration. At the outset, the reality of the incarnation of Christ does not seem to contain much eschatological significance since it seems to be irrelevant to usual discussions of eschatology, which often revolve around topics like the millennium kingdom, the timing of the tribulation, the mark of the beast, and other details of this nature. Nevertheless, the root of its relevance lies in the subject, not the verb; not merely a birth, but Christ’s birth. The incarnation of the Savior was both an end event and an event with ends, for He is the one through whom all things were made, in whom alone is salvation, under whom are all things, to whom are all things being drawn, and with whom are all things being filled. Within these Christological meditations the root of eschatological understanding is planted, and Christmas germinates: Christ was born to fill the Earth with His kingdom.

We should begin our study of the end where all beginnings are: the book of Genesis. Adam, a name which means “man”, was the first man, and as the first man he was commissioned by God to have dominion over all the Earth by filling and subduing it. After all, mankind is generally unnatural in the absence of reproduction and hard work. All the temptation and subsequent fall of man did was reduce the efficiency of these means of economic activity. Mankind would and does still engage in economic and reproductive activity, only now via the laborious and futile toil of scratching the Earth to make a living. Sin, so firmly stationed in the heart of man, had materialized symptoms of dysfunction, decay, suffering, hardship, the pain of childbearing, and the assurance of death. God made Adam to rule the Earth in peace and righteousness, but Adam sought to rule his own way, and the sons of Adam followed suit. Because of this the sons of Adam could not be saved from sin by another son of Adam, since every son of Adam is just as much a disobedient cosmic rebel as Adam himself was. A Second Adam was required; a True Adam to be the father of a new True Humanity. Where the first Adam disobeyed, the True Adam would obey, and in like manner, where the sons of Adam disobey, the sons of the True Adam would obey. To this end, God promises our first parents that the “seed of the woman” (and not the man) would bruise his heel by bruising the head of the Serpent who deceived them (Genesis 3). He would be a Savior, a Messiah, and because of His peculiarity He would have to be born to a peculiar people, namely the Jews, who would recognize Him for who He was. This is why God endowed the children of Abraham with glimpses of His coming, like the one given to them in Isaiah 9:6-7,

For a Child will be born to us, a Son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of armies will accomplish this.

This Mighty God is the same child that God had promised to Adam and Eve in the garden: the seed of the woman who would bruise the head of the serpent. In this, He would also be a new and better Adam who would succeed where the first Adam had failed; a True Adam whose dominion of righteousness and peace would extend into all things, including the hearts of men.

One of the first characters we meet in the New Testament is a forerunner to this kingdom. He was a prophet by the name of John the Baptist, an earthy man who lived in the wilderness, wore animal fur, and fed himself by scavenging the forest. God had separated him from the world for a specific purpose: to be a messenger proclaiming the imminent arrival of the coming Messiah whom Isaiah had foretold. Because of this John identified himself as “a voice of one calling [b]out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight!’” (Luke 3:4, c.r. Isaiah 40:3), and so John prophesied the same kingdom that Isaiah did, yet with much greater urgency. He preached, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2), and worked in a ministry of baptism and repentance from sins to straighten the Lord’s way into the world. The Lord, of course, was already in the world at that time. Some number of years before John began his ministry, an angel named Gabriel had appeared to a young Jewish virgin at her prayers to tell her that she had found favor with God, and that while she was still a virgin the Holy Spirit would cause her to conceive a son. His name would be Jesus, He would be called the “Son of the Most High”, and “His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:26-38), echoing nearly word for word the prophecy given by Isaiah 700 years earlier. The words of Isaiah and Gabriel were fulfilled when the time had come for Jesus to settle in Galilee of the Gentiles and begin His public ministry. He was a preacher, and His message confirmed the preaching of John the Baptist: “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus was not opaque about the nature of this kingdom, and neither is the rest of scripture. In the second chapter of the book of Daniel, we are entreated to a description of the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon: a vision of a great statue with a head of gold, a chest of silver, a belly of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron mixed with clay. Nebuchadnezzar was initially distraught that there was no wise man in the whole kingdom who could interpret his dream for him, and in a fit of despotism and rage he threatened to kill all the wise men of Babylon for their incompetence. In the midst of this, Daniel, who received his wisdom from God, interpreted the vision for Nebuchadnezzar and spared the lives of the wise men. The head is Babylon, and the other three other parts made of silver, bronze, and iron, are three other kingdoms which will arise at a later time. The identities of these three other kingdoms are debated among scholars, but the real centerpiece of the passage is the fifth kingdom: a stone carved out of a mountain without hands, which “struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and crushed them”. Daniel 2:35 says,

Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold were crushed to pieces all at the same time, and they were like chaff from the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away so that not a trace of them was found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the entire earth.

This fifth kingdom is a divine kingdom with an eternal dominion, established by God Himself, as it is written in Daniel 2:44,

And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever.

It would be a kingdom unlike any other kingdom on the Earth, dwarfing even the kingdom of “The Eternal City” of Rome, which only lives in history textbooks. It would be foreign and otherly, not worked out of metal with human hands, but carved out of a mountain without hands to establish itself on the Earth. This motif, of God’s kingdom filling the whole Earth, is a consistent theme in scripture. It is reminiscent of the kingdom of Isaiah’s Prince of Peace, of which “there will be no end to the increase of His government”. Many of the parables of Jesus describe the kingdom in a similar manner. Christ likens the kingdom of heaven to a tiny mustard seed which grows larger than all the other garden plants, as well as to a small amount of yeast which is worked into a whole lump of dough to leaven it. Even the Apostle Paul interprets the ascension of Christ for us in this manner in Ephesians 4:8-10,

Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captive the captives, and He gave gifts to people.” (Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.)

When Paul says, “that He might fill all things’’, he is not just being poetic. Here, he hints at the same motif leavened into all of scripture: that the kingdom of heaven would fill the cosmos with righteousness and peace. He was saying the same thing as Isaiah, Daniel, John the Baptist, Jesus, and many others: that the kingdom of heaven was ushered in by Christ, who established it on the earth to conquer the whole world and fill it with righteousness and peace.

One of the most historically confirmed fulfillments of the prophecies of Jesus is the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D. In that year, the second year of the rule of Roman emperor Vespasian, the Romans laid siege to the city of Jerusalem for several months prior entering the city, subsequently leveling it and the Temple within its walls. The Jewish historian Josephus claimed that approximately 1.1 million people were killed during the siege, most of whom were Jewish people, and that thousands more became prisoners, slaves, or gladiators. He personally observed the horror and suffering of the ensuing tribulation caused by the siege, saying that it was such a perilous time that some mothers had resorted to eating their infants as a means of survival. The astounding thing about this event is that the New Testament scriptures describe and predict this event with a great deal of accuracy. Matthew 24 and parallel passages in Luke 21 and Mark 13 record a passage known as the Olivet Discourse, so called because Jesus gave it on the Mount of Olives. These passages also serve to harmonize Old Testament eschatology with New Testament eschatology. To frame the context for the destruction of the temple, Jesus outlines three events: the destruction of the temple, the tribulation, and the coming of the Son of Man. These events have great eschatological significance as landmarks in the story of redemptive history, and their timing and nature are hotly debated. There are the futurists, who believe that most of these events will happen in our future, and there are the partial preterists, who believe that most of these events would happen in Jesus’ future but have already happened in our past. Most contemporary evangelicals are futurists, in that they interpret this passage to mean that there will be a great tribulation, signs of cosmic events, and then the Son of Man will return to Earth. The implications of this view are usually pessimistic, since the entirety of history would be played out leading up to a great global tribulation full of lawlessness, violence, tragedy, and sorrow. The partial preterist view, by contrast, takes a bit less “wooden” reading of the passage. Hermeneutically, partial preterists recognize that the “melting solar system” language used by Jesus to describe the cosmic events leading up to His coming are actually quotations of Isaiah’s prophecy of the destruction of Babylon (Isaiah 13). In scripture, poetic language of this kind always refers to the destruction of a city or a nation, so we can reasonably conclude that Jesus is talking about something like that here; a great tribulation in the city of Jerusalem, followed by its destruction. This would match the account of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem recorded by historians like Josephus, and would also explain why Jesus warned those in Judea to flee to the mountains when they saw Jerusalem surrounded by armies (Luke 21:20). The “coming of the Son of Man” may be dealt with in a similar way. At first, it may seem as if Jesus is talking about His Second Coming, which is most definitely an event in our future and could not have happened in the past. Here, however, Jesus is again quoting the Old Testament. Daniel 7:13-14 says,

“I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a son of man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, Honor, and a kingdom, so that all the peoples, nations, and populations of all languages might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.

It is a sure and undeniable fact that Jesus will return to Earth in our future to bring about a final judgement against the unrighteous (Revelation 19). In this passage, however, Daniel is clear that the “coming” of Christ is a “coming before” the Ancient of Days, and not a “coming back” to Earth. Scripture draws the distinction between the two, so we must as well. The former is an ascension from Earth to establish a kingdom, the latter is a return to Earth to destroy the last enemies of that kingdom. The former is the end of the Jewish age, the latter is the end of history. The former is a coming in judgement against the Jews who rejected Christ, the latter is a coming in judgement against all who reject Christ. In sum, the partial preterist view interprets the events of Matthew 24 as having already happened, with the great tribulation referring to the siege of Jerusalem, the apocalyptic (“melting solar system”) language referring to the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem, and the “coming of the Son of Man” referring to the Son of Man coming before the Ancient of Days to receive an eternal kingdom. Contrasted with the futurist view, the implications of this view are ultimately optimistic, bearing witness to the reality of Christ’s established eternal kingdom of righteousness and peace. This view is bolstered when it is taken in conjunction with the other scriptural realities we have examined: of Isaiah prophesying Jesus as the Savior-King whose government would grow without limit, of the urgency of John the Baptist prophesying that the kingdom of heaven was “at hand”, of the profound identity of the stone in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream which would crush kingdoms of the world and establish itself as a great mountain which fills the whole earth, and of the parables of Jesus concerning the establishment and growth of the kingdom of God upon the Earth. As if to ease our minds that this is what is meant by the text, Jesus clearly said these things would take place soon in His future after He gave the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24:34, 34 Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. We ought to be fully convinced that they did, and fully convinced of the consequences: namely, that the global church of Christ will be victorious in history by the excellence of her King, whose rule will fill all things.

In his debate with renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens on the topic of “Is Christianity Good for the World?”, pastor Douglas Wilson concluded his arguments with a comparison between Adam and Christ, the True Adam, saying,

“The first Adam received the fruit of death and disobedience from Eve in a garden of life; the true Adam bestowed the fruit of his life and resurrection on Mary Magdalene in a garden of death, a cemetery. The first Adam was put into the death of deep sleep and his wife was taken from his side; the true Adam died on the cross, a spear was thrust into his side, and his bride came forth in blood and water. The first Adam disobeyed at a tree; the true Adam obeyed on a tree. And everything is necessarily different.”

The necessary difference he describes is a difference resulting from the symmetry of opposites, and thus difference of trajectory and ends. The sin of Adam in the garden of Eden was a pinprick of unrighteousness on a backdrop of righteousness, which filled all things with sin and death. By contrast, the obedience of Christ was a pinprick of righteousness on a backdrop of sin, which is filling all things with obedience, life, and peace. Christmas is a reminder to keep this reality in view, even during the time of year when the sun shines on the earth for the least amount of time. It is a celebration which reminds us to be optimistic, not baselessly, but in a grounded, hopeful, and characteristically Christian manner, knowing the supreme victory of Christ over all things. It is a great assurance that Christ came in the flesh, with Him came His kingdom, and with His kingdom comes the obedience of flesh; it is so great an assurance that it motivates Jesus’ claim of victory after His resurrection when he says in Matthew 28:18-20),

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to follow all that I commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Where human kingdoms rise and fall and accomplish their means with weapons of war, the kingdom of heaven steadily marches forward by preaching the gospel, baptizing in the name of the Triune God, and discipling the nations to obey Christ, standing “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners” as C.S. Lewis says. Thus, in that Christmas is a celebration of Christ, it is a call to arms; a spur to do all things with gladness, boldness, and hope as we look forward to the future, knowing that the losses of today have no bearing on the victories of the future.