Today is the first Sunday in Advent.

Traditionally a time of pentitence, Advent affords us the opportunity to look ahead to the second coming of the Christ, before we celebrate His first. As my priest pointed out this morning, the earliest epistles of the New Testament are full of hope and expectation of Christ’s imminent return. The later epistles (contra some current Pauline scholarship) do not lose this focus. One need only spend a few hours reading Phillipians before noticing the overwhelming presence of eschatological language.

Christ came the first time proclaiming, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Even his disciples managed to misinterpret Him by expecting Him to overthrow Rome. The Kingdom is unlike any Kingdom yet seen, for now it remains unseen. The fulfillment, though is yet to come:

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.

The notion that this King will establish, through violence, His Kingdom over the earth is offensive to our most sophisticated sensibilities. It is the same revulsion one feels when reaching the end of Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. It is impossible to not wonder along with Mrs. Dimble whether the brutality of Merlin was a bit too uncompromising. In similar fashion, the notion of a King remains too unsophisticated, too archaic for our democratic, egalitarian ears. The presence of a King means the presence of an authority which cannot be challenged, a difficult doctrine to those trained in the art of questioning authority as a means of escaping it.

Yet the Kingdom is among us, and it awaits its fulfillment. Logres and Britian stand in tension with each other–the Kingdom of God is not, and cannot be the Kingdom of Man. Neither can the Kingdom of God merely baptize the Kingdom of Man. The Kingdom of Man must be undone, and so the King must come again. It is His Kingdom, He alone can establish it. The King of the Gospels, the Dying King, is the same One who is given authority over all things.

So what is left for us? As Joshua spoke to the people of Israel, “And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve.” We have the opportunity to join in the Army of God, and to fight the forces of Britian and of Evil here and now, in the battles that precede the end. Yet we are not ready for the end. Instead, the work left for us is to obey and wait, to watch and pray.

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
–The Book of Common Prayer

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

7 Comments

  1. Christ came the first time proclaiming, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Even his disciples managed to misinterpret Him by expecting Him to overthrow Rome. The Kingdom is unlike any Kingdom yet seen, for now it remains unseen. The fulfillment, though is yet to come:

    [long Revelation quote]
    I remember recently being criticized for claiming that I–someone centuries distant from the first century, and not steeped in Jewish theology–could understand a 1st century situation better than Paul :)… so I find it particularly interesting that when the disciples (and Paul!) take Jesus’s words “literally,” they “misinterpret Him”–but they apparently got everything else right. (By the way, wouldn’t that Revelation passage undercut your argument? Or are you not taking that passage “literally”–and why?)

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  2. “I remember recently being criticized for claiming that I–someone centuries distant from the first century, and not steeped in Jewish theology–could understand a 1st century situation better than Paul :)… so I find it particularly interesting that when the disciples (and Paul!) take Jesus’s words “literally,” they “misinterpret Him”–but they apparently got everything else right. (By the way, wouldn’t that Revelation passage undercut your argument? Or are you not taking that passage “literally”–and why?)”

    This objection confuses me. I am not claiming to have any better understanding of the Kingdom than any first century Christian. I did claim that the Disciples at first misunderstood the nature of the Kingdom. That seems clear from passages such as Matthew 16:21 (where Peter rebukes Jesus for predicting His own death). Secondly, I never claimed that Paul misunderstood Jesus. In fact, I think that Paul understands Jesus better than anyone. So I’m not sure what to do with that objection other than wonder what it means and hint that you may be beating up straw men.

    Secondly, pray tell, what do you mean by “literal interpretaion”? How does it preclude misunderstanding?

    I’m going to stop and just ask for more clarification. I keep typing responses that don’t quite work because they are responses to an objection that seems irrelevant. It seems you have managed to misunderstand the meaning of what I actually wrote. I wasn’t “making an argument” about literal interpretation at all.

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  3. The issue of “literality” is implicit in your discussion, especially concerning the word “imminent.” As you write:

    “As my priest pointed out this morning, the earliest epistles of the New Testament are full of hope and expectation of Christ’s imminent return. The later epistles (contra some current Pauline scholarship) do not lose this focus. One need only spend a few hours reading Phillipians before noticing the overwhelming presence of eschatological language.”Yet, as we all know (all of us excepting Jehovah’s Witnesses, I suppose), Christ hasn’t literally returned–at least not in the sense that Revelation predicts. So Christ’s return isn’t so “imminent” after all. Christian apologists, as far as I can see, try to get around this by claiming the disciples misunderstood Jesus–and not just “initially” as you claim later, but fundamentally (because, as you point out in your first post, it’s not like Paul gave up the idea of an imminent return).

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  4. I wrote:
    “As my priest pointed out this morning, the earliest epistles of the New Testament are full of hope and expectation of Christ’s imminent return.”

    I’m sorry the inclusion of imminent confused matters. You could delete it and still get the sense of the passage. However, since you have pressed me on it,I will simply point out that the notion of “imminent” does not have temporal connotations–i.e. there is no deadline on what it means for an event to be “imminent.” Rather, (a la OED and Websters), it means “ready to take place, especially: hanging threateningly over one’s head.” Hence, the fact that the early church was over-zealous in their understanding of when Christ would come does not change the “literal” reading of the text at all. Also, how are apologists “getting around” the “delayed!” return of Christ by appealing to the early misunderstandings of the Disciples? As far as I can tell, I have not. Rather, I pointed to the pre-resurrection misunderstandings about the nature of the Kingdom, not misunderstandings of the time of return…

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  5. Jesus’s words about “this generation will not pass away…” puts the temporal in “imminent.” And don’t go looking in the dictionary for connotations; dictionary definitions are, by definition ;), denotative. (Besides, I think you’re going to lose the battle of definitions anyway.)

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  6. I’ll concede both points.

    What was the point again?

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  7. That Jesus can’t be taken at his word? Or, perhaps, his own closest friends didn’t have a clue to his intentions, pre- or post-resurrection. First they expected him to overthrow Rome. He didn’t. Then they expected him to return on his stated timetable. He didn’t. After the “disappearance of God” in the Old Testament, this has to be the second-greatest disappointment in Biblical history.

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