Richard Norman explains why we must recover the eschatological perspective expressed by the first words of Jesus in the Gospels
The first words of Jesus in the Gospels are so often the last to be understood. In Mark, commonly thought to be the earliest of the four Gospels, Jesus is silent until he has undergone baptism at the hands of John, and forty days’ temptation in the wilderness; then he returns to Galilee with the message, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.’ Jesus taught that we are at the time of the consummation of history, a period which theology terms the eschaton.
The rest of the New Testament is written from this perspective: the letters of St Paul are shot through with it; St John warns, ‘Children, it is the last hour’, and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews observes that ‘in these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son.’
The kingdom of God is at hand: it is just around the corner, its presence can powerfully be felt, even if for these last fleeting moments the clear sight of it remains withheld.
But how often the Church behaves as if the consummation of history lay in the far-off future, as if the kingdom of God were still at a great distance: thus the concern to construct a kingdom of our own in the interim, to attend to the world as if its problems could and ought to be solved here and now in preference to waiting upon the in-breaking of the kingdom, as if unaware that in Christ, when he comes again in glory, all will be judged and perfected, and the world made new.
Clinging to Christ
It is vitally necessary to recover that eschatological perspective, by means of which the world is seen as resting in a state of penultimacy, of nearly-thereness.
The eschatological perspective makes bearable the trials and tribulations of the present age; it encourages us to cling to Christ rather than putting our trust in worldly things, and it rephrases the Christian ethical life, the life lived in accordance with Gospel precepts, in terms of symbolizing and pointing out the life of the world to come.
Upon each of us it is incumbent to ask whether the way in which we live points to the kingdom of God, or to an earthly kingdom – be this an ideological or political adherence; a particular social order, or one’s individual material circumstances. By our words and by our deeds, where do we find real permanence? In God’s kingdom, or in a kingdom of our own?
‘[Where] your treasure is, there will your heart be also’: as Christians we must preach and live a turning-away from this world and this age, turning instead towards God in faith and hope.
The kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe in the good news.