‘wars and rumors of wars’ and the ‘nations rising up against nations,’ what Christ calls ‘merely the beginning of birth pangs’ (Mark 13:7-8), to me it looks not like ‘Armageddon on the horizon,’ but something very different. First of all, what He is describing is not something peculiar to our era. These things, along with the natural disasters He names, have been happening all through recorded history. Our days are, in fact, less violent and oppressive to humanity in general than many earlier ages. What Christ calls ‘merely the beginning of birth pangs’ is the period that is finally now coming to an end. The birth pangs are nearly over. The birth is in process. What birth? The birth of the new humanity of which Christ is the first Example, the Harbinger not of a new religion or ‘dispensation’ but of a new human race.
What? Hasn’t this already happened? I mean, aren’t we, the Christians, in fact that ‘new humanity’ that Christ has been creating ever since He became a human being? Don’t we ‘put to death the old man and put on the new’ in our baptisms, chrismations, and Christian lives? Well, yes, and no. As individuals and as a people—the Church—we are incorporated into the Body of Christ and given a chance to live our earthly lives in a heavenly way, and what have we made of it? Has the Millennium arrived? We’ve had two of them already and are now beginning a third. Hasn’t it occurred to anyone that something is wrong with this picture? Are we too busy pushing our own versions of ‘the Good News’ to let the eternal Gospel ‘kick in’?
Eternal Gospel? Yes, you know, this one…
Then I saw another angel, flying high overhead, sent to announce the Eternal Gospel to all who live on the earth, every nation, race, language and tribe. He was calling, ‘Fear God and praise Him, because the time has come for Him to sit in judgment; worship the Maker of heaven and earth and sea and every water spring.’
Revelation 14:6-7 JB
People call this book of the Bible mysterious and either avoid it completely or use it as colors to paint their own images of the end of the age, but it was meant to be ‘read aloud’ so that those ‘who hear and keep what it says’ will be blessed (Revelation 1:3). God forbid I should use this book or the Book itself as a spade to dig with, but the living God did not make it His own for nothing.
Since the beginning, He has been speaking to us, first through the prophets, then appearing Himself in the God-man Jesus Christ, He not only spoke, but breathed the new humanity into existence, into us, making a new and eternal ‘covenant’ just as was foretold…
‘It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the LORD. ‘This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the LORD. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, “Know the LORD,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the LORD. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’
Jeremiah 31:32-34 NIV
What is ‘new’ about this covenant, or agreement, between God and mankind is the absence of an outward authority, ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts,’ and the need for one, ‘No longer will they teach their neighbor… because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.’ This is echoed and reiterated after Christ’s coming by one of the apostles, writing to the Hebrews, to emphasize, not that this was something still to come, but that it was a present reality…
There will be no further need for neighbor to try to teach neighbor, or brother to say to brother, ‘Learn to know the Lord.’ No, they will all know me, the least no less than the greatest, since I will forgive all their iniquities and never call their sins to mind. By speaking of a new covenant, he implies that the first one is already old. Now anything old only gets more antiquated until in the end it disappears.
Hebrews 8:11-13 JB
The old covenant, a system of priesthood, laws and ritual sacrifices, we know as Christians was ended by this new covenant of which both prophet and apostle speak, but what exactly was ended? The Jewish priesthood? Yes, and as proof of this, the Temple was destroyed, and along with it, the sacrificial code was retired, never to return. All this, ‘divinely revealed’ in the Torah of Moses, was religion, and though unlike the religions of man-made, mythical gods, even this religion was destined to disappear. What about the laws? This is not as easily answered.
Just as religion is a prop to prepare humanity to meet God face to Face in the Messianic age, the law too is only a caretaker until the childhood’s end of the race. When will this ‘childhood’s end’ arrive? That is the question most needy of answer, and to this very day none is forthcoming, though it is plain in the words of Jesus in the Gospel…
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
‘Not to abolish, but to fulfill’ are the keys to understanding the words ‘until everything is accomplished.’ What is this ‘everything’ and when will it be accomplished, or has it already been? Obviously not an easy question, as we’ve wasted two millennia by not trying to answer it, and a third is waiting ‘for the sons of God to be revealed’ (Romans 8:19). Christ Himself in the same passage prompts our thinking in the right direction, ‘unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter.’ Enter what? The kingdom of (the) heaven(s). I put in parentheses what is written in the Greek to demonstrate the iconic nature of the phrase, which in other gospels is called ‘the kingdom of God.’ Both terms stand for the new humanity which Christ has created.
This new humanity is the fulfillment of ‘the Law and the Prophets.’ It is the ‘everything’ that must be accomplished. It was accomplished by the death-defying life and the life-giving death of Christ on the Cross, at His words, ‘It is finished.’ Its realization comes only in surpassing the righteousness of ‘the Pharisees and the teachers of the law’ not just talking about surpassing it. Jesus makes no excuses for Himself, His teachings, or His kingdom, nor does He give us an excuse for not following Him. There is no consolation prize for the losers of the new universe, only ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Luke 13:28). He is explicit. Why are we implicit? What do we gain by stalling His ‘new creation’ by our religious and legal systems?
‘Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’ When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.
Yes, ‘and not as their teachers of the law.’ We’ve heard this passage so many times, memorized it even, know it so well, that we assume that everything we haven’t done is compensated for by everything we have done, even though very little is what He tells us to do. He is telling not only the Pharisees of His day but also us, the Christians of former ages till today…
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
He says in effect, ‘Yes, you want to be religious. Well, then, be religious. Pay your respects and reverence your traditions to the letter. Pay your tithes till it feels good. But this is not what God our heavenly Father expects. What He really wants has never changed. He wants you to grow up. To treat each other with the same love that He shows to you. The more important matters of the law, in fact, its spirit—justice, mercy and faithfulness—that’s really all you need to do. Everything else runs like clockwork—your well-being, your prosperity, your world—when you do what you know is right.’
For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them. This will take place on the day when God judges people's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
Yes, ‘the day when God judges people's secrets through Jesus Christ’ is not a threat uttered to some distant, future age, but yesterday, today, and forever, to us. We read and we hear these words in scripture and, removing them from our real lives, ensconce them with our ikons and enshrine them in our liturgies, and we remain—children. We confuse childish with childlike and, clinging to Christ’s comfortable words, scramble onto His lap as we kick others behind us away. They aren’t like us. We’re better than them. We’re saved, or we’re Christian, or we’re Catholic, or we’re Orthodox. ‘I’m for Paul. I’m for Apollos. I’m for Peter. I’m only for Christ’ (1 Corinthians 1:12). Meanwhile, outside our gates—after all, we’re the Church!—the human race at its best is following Him without knowing who He is, ready to take the step we have already given up on. And, in spite of what looks like social chaos, at this very moment people are taking it, without our permission, our religion, our rites and rituals, or our righteousness.
Soon, there will only be one thing for us to do, and we had better start soon.
Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.