Romans – An Eschatological View
Eschatology, meaning the last things, or what is called by some end-times, is central to the writings of Paul in the letter of Romans, but not in the way we may expect. That is, the letter is about the kingdom of God which Jesus spoke of in the Gospels. Often, it has been said that the message of Paul and the message of Jesus were in some ways different. Some have said Jesus preached the law, to lead people to faith, and that it is in Paul that we find the real gospel expounded. That is not the case. Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom, and that is the same gospel Paul preached.
Paul’s theme in Romans is this kingdom. Paul is writing about the promise of God to Abraham, where God said that through Abraham all families of all the earth would be blessed. This is the eschatological vision of the kingdom – people of all the earth coming into Abraham’s family, to become Abraham’s seed, to inherit Abraham’s promises through faith. This is what eschatology is about: the gathering of people throughout the world into the family of God, and further to this, that through this family, that is, through Abrahams’ seed, all the world shall be blessed. And when we go to the prophets, like Isaiah, we see what this blessing entails. It is the renewal of creation: the renewal of the nations. This is the biblical vision of eschatology.
So, we can see here the theme of Romans. It has often been held that the theme of Romans is soteriological, meaning the doctrine of the salvation of the individual. Many times our Bible College curriculums follow this view of Romans. It goes like this: the individual is lost; cannot be saved by the law; can only be saved by faith; is then sanctified by faith; is then glorified, meaning, sent to heaven at death. So here, faith and the induvial are seen as the central themes of Paul. Then we can add other blessings to this faith, like healing and prosperity. This is often the package through which the gospel is presented in our times. It reflects the individualism of a prosperous Western culture.
But this is a far cry both from the teachings of Paul and Jesus. Throughout Jesus’ teaching we see the community centrality of his kingdom message. It is good news for the poor; it is caring for our neighbour; it is breaking down divisions; it is loving our enemies; it is service to others; it is taking up our cross to serve, as opposed to a gospel of personal blessing. In fact, blessing in Jesus’ teaching is the opposite. We are blessed when we are persecuted and left out. In other words, in Jesus’ teaching, faith is about building family, reconciling the marginalised, healing our community. It isn’t about the individual’s advancement. It is about following God, who in Christ was rejected and suffered, so he could bless others.
When we come to Romans we see the same message. The centre of Paul’s theme is ecclesiology, not soteriology. Ecclesiology is about the family of God. It is the believing community, not being a blessing just to themselves, but being a renewing impact in the nations, to their enemies. In our traditional Bible College curriculums, teachings of faith for the individual have usually come first and have taken up most of the program, then studies about the church have been tacked onto the end, if we have time. It is unfortunate that this has given us a skewed view of the gospel and of our place in the world. The centre of Paul’s message in Romans is this church, this family of people renewing the nations.
So, when Paul speaks of justification and of faith, he is speaking of what joins us together as one people. He is speaking of us receiving one another from different backgrounds, despite our different traditions, and views, and ways of doing things, because if we are not justified by works, then none of our works (our ritual differences) should alienate us from each other. Throughout Romans, Paul’s intent is to build one table, at which all God’s people, Jew or Gentile, come to share cross-shaped (self-giving) love for one another. And Pauls’ intent, is that this fellowship, that is Christ-like, becomes our renewing witness to the world around us. This is what Paul is writing about in Romans. We see here, that Romans is about the kingdom of God. It is neighbour orientated, just as Jesus’ teachings were. This love of enemy, love of neighbour theme, is the very crux of Romans, of the nature of Jesus, whom Paul loved, filling the church community and then passed on to our world.
This then, is eschatology in Paul. Paul’s eschatology isn’t the wild guesses we make today of the end of the world, or of war among nations, or of overcoming our enemies through God’s judgement and our violence. It is, rather, of a church embodying family love for each other, and being filled with the Spirit of Christ, so that the world may see the sons of God, and seeing may be transformed. It is about God fulfilling his promises to Abraham, to fill the world with a new type of family, where its members lay down their lives for each other, showing the world in our own lives the Christ who died for us and rose again, and bringing the same resurrection to our dead world.
Eschatology in Paul isn’t God taking saved individuals to heaven while God destroys the earth, but God’s new community making all things new on the earth.
Romans – The Story of Israel
Romans is the story of Israel’s commission. Israel had the call of God to renew the world. This was God’s promise to them. They were called to be God’s answer to the Adamic problem: to the fall of man and the impact of that fall upon God’s creation project. God called Israel to carry his creational purposes forward. But throughout the letter of Romans, Paul weaves in the problem that Israel faced. They too were part of the Adamic fall. They too needed restoration. How could God use Israel to be the solution to the world’s predicament, if they too were part of the problem?
Paul kicks off the letter by showing that Rome, contrary to popular persuasion, were not the custodians of God’s world renewing commission. Despite their claim of “peace and safety”, faithfulness and justice to the nations, despite their claim to be the gospel to the world (the same Greek word was used, claiming the reign of Caesar was the “good news” to all nations) and despite Caesar’s popular claim to be the son of God with power ruling the world, Paul opened the letter with a clear debunk of this myth. Jesus Christ, of the seed of David, heads the government of peace, faith and justice. His Lordship is the good news to deliver the world from Satan’s rule in the nations. Christ is given rule over the nations for their renewal through obedience. This is the subject of the letter.
There are two main stories in the history of Israel that define their mission. One is creation, when Adam and Eve are installed as servant-rulers of the world. The other is the Exodus, where Israel is born as a nation, with a mission of transformation, aka new-creation; to be God’s second Adam, or ruling priesthood, bringing salt and light to the world. These are the two stories, along with the narrative of Israel’s sin, fall and redemption, that Paul weaves into his letter to the Roman church.
The opening chapters deal with the sin of Israel. They were called to be light, but their fall is likened to the fall of Adam. They have become like the gentiles. They too have “fallen short of the glory of God.” This is a reference to Adam’s commission to rule. The 8th Psalm speaks of the restoration of this rule through the gospel, where man is crowned with “glory” and once again rules over God’s creation. Paul shows that the gospel is the restoration of Adam’s rule, and the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham that his seed would inherit the word; that they would reign in life. (Rom 4:13, 5:17) All these themes are picked up again and again in the letter as Paul moves on. This is ultimately a reign on earth with our resurrection bodies, a theme which peaks in Romans 8.
Woven into the opening five chapters are two themes that link together, both about the law. The law leads Israel to hardness of heart, through which God actually fulfils his purposes. Opposite to this hardness, is the self-giving love of God, and this is how the atonement is understood. On the cross, God isn’t satisfying his own demands for blood, for he has already accepted us (see the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son), but he gives himself to fulfil the demands of the law, of the accuser (e.g. the Prodigal’s older brother), the demands of the covenant God made with Israel, and in the main, the demands of our own fallen sin-conscience which drove Adam, and all of us, away from God. The cross is a type of spiritual warfare, in which God gives himself as a ransom to rescue humanity. Through giving himself in Christ, God proves his love to us, setting us free by one act of love and grace, from so many acts of sin and self-guilt.
Sin reigned through the fallen conscience of Israel, especially after the law was received, and this brought them into captivity to self-guilt, anger, selfishness and violence, which was finally manifested in the Pharisees’ way of life and in their handing over Jesus to die. So this is how Christ took our sin, not by God inflicting punishment upon him for us, but by man casting his own sinful actions against Christ, which he absorbed on the cross, and then forgave. This becomes the model of his church towards others. God builds a new kingdom, where evil isn’t defeated the Pharisees’ way, by violence against it, but by God’s way of forgiveness and self-giving. On the cross we see the ultimate contrast between God’s kingdom, which renews all things, and human kingdoms, which bring destruction.
We can see the theme of Israel’s hardening throughout Romans. It starts in the first two chapters, and is brought into sharp focus in 5:20, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more…” This is the main theme in chapter 7 and of chapters 9-11. Chapter 7 shows this hardening process, in which Paul speaks of himself as a representative of the nation of Israel, regarding how the law given at Sinai brought Israel down. In Chapter 9, Paul shows that this hardening was actually the point of their election. So election isn’t a boast, but it was a hard service Israel provided to the world, because it was through this hardening that they handed over the prince of life, who brought life to the world. Therefore, Paul calls gentile believers to serve Israel, rather than to boast against them, now that we have come to faith. This is the nature of election.
Election is mentioned here in the context of Israel’s story, their call to serve the world, which God loves and is setting free. This servicing and forgiving others will bring us into suffering, like it did for Christ, but through this suffering God will be conforming us also to his image, to rule his way.
Romans 6-8 moves us, with Israel, through their story of the Exodus. They pass through the sea of baptism, coming out of the world (this theme is duplicated in 1 Cor 10). This Spirit baptism gives us a new heart. Instead of living for self in the Empire, we have a new love for our neighbour and for the world God is setting free. In Romans 7, Israel journeys on to Mount Sinai to receive the law, but finds that instead of bringing freedom, the law brings Israel into further bondage, unable to inherit the Promised Land, unable to fulfil their commission to be sons of God, (new Adams) renewing the world. But as God becomes a man, he joins us to his resurrection life, enabling us to walk out the inheritance of life and rule in the world, setting the whole world free from its corruption, not by violence, but suffering service.
Romans 8 returns to Israel’s problem in the earlier chapters: their lack of good works. God is going to judge the world in righteousness, granting eternal life to those who do good, and allowing destruction to come to those who do evil. The purpose of the gospel isn’t to exempt us from this, but to renew our works. The purpose of the law was that Israel should do it and live. It is the doing of the law, that is, doing the right things – basically, service rather than greed – in our hearts, lives and communities, that life comes to our homes and societies. It isn’t just by “faith”, but faith that produces the works that renew our creation. This is how the world is renewed in Romans 8. The purpose of the law is finally fulfilled, being written on our hearts. We now walk by the Spirit, meaning in the self-giving nature of Christ towards his enemy and neighbour, rather than in the flesh, pleasing ourselves. If we “come to Christ” and yet aren’t transformed and don’t do these works, we and our nations will die.
Chapters 12-14 move on with practical matters on how our world is being changed. The powers and governments of this world are being renewed by seeing the new people within the empire (see also Eph 3:10). Paul takes up Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as the basis for our new actions towards others, including our enemies: “overcoming evil with good.” Caesar has nothing to fear from this new community, which is called to respect all men and powers. We aren’t trying to take over, but to renew from within, by obedience and self-giving lives. We expose governments, not by taking them on, but by refusing their oppressive life styles, by instead serving the weak, the poor, the marginalised, the enemy. Finally, Paul comes to the goal of his letter in Romans 14: Jewish and gentile believers at Rome sharing one table in love and cross-shaped community, receiving each other despite their different backgrounds and traditions. This unity and care in love, this obedience to Christ’s Lordship, is our witness that Jesus is Lord of the world. This is the Isaianic vision of new community: enemies becoming one, replacing the curse in our nations with the blessing of a new kingdom of peace.
I guess it is here that we can understand the term Paul uses: the righteousness of God. He means the gospel story, in which God has proven his faithfulness to the world he created and to the Israel he called. This faithfulness, or righteousness (literally, covenant faithfulness) was demonstrated by God on the cross. And seeing Romans as the story of Israel fulfilled in the gospel, and not as a systematic treatise on soteriology (the doctrine of personal salvation alone) helps us realise it’s true focus: ecclesiological eschatology – one family, renewing creation.
Eschatology – Service
What is the big revelation of eschatology? What is the big scoop? Is it about this date, or that event, or about a particular evil nation of person? No, eschatology is not about any of these things. There is only one main point of eschatology. Eschatology is the age in which the church displays the character of God that was revealed in Jesus Christ: the character by which he set aside his own status and served the good of his enemies. Eschatology is about this type of church displaying who God is in the world, thus revealing the gospel, which transforms individuals and also nations. There is no time-line to this that has been shown to us; no dating, nothing in prophetic text by which we can predict the future ebbs and flows of history. Such predictions miss the point of eschatology. The point is a church that looks like Jesus: that serves, and the new world this is bringing about. We don’t know when this new world will fully appear, but we do know some of its characteristics, and we, the church, can point towards that world today through service. That is prophecy.
There are certainly a lot of mysteries in biblical prophecy. Not mysteries in the sense that we don’t understand God’s big picture and our part in it. But the details of how these things will be unfolded in the future are not known by anyone. Certainly, the way Jesus’ first coming in the Gospels shocked prophecy interpreters in the first century, should sober us in making our own predictions today.
Most people in that century were expecting a God of violence to destroy their enemies. Many of the Old Testament predictions, even of Paul’s statements in his letters, and John’s in the Revelation, on first reading look like they depict a God of violence. But the huge surprise was, and is today, how the gospel itself fulfils these violent texts. Jesus took our violence on himself, and showed his love instead by forgiving us. God fights evil with different weapons than man.
So eschatology, or end-times, isn’t trying to predict what is in the future. That isn’t the point. Jesus plainly told us that, “It isn’t for you to know the times that the Father has kept in his own hands.” We spoke about the “signs of the times” earlier in these notes. In this case Jesus wasn’t speaking of end-times events, as they are commonly called today, like the end of the world, or his second coming. He was warning the people of his generation then, that if they kept living in selfishness, then destruction would come to their community. And when Jesus spoke of the earthquakes, and other like events, he was again speaking of things that were to come to pass before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Applying those things to our current day is unfruitful guess work and also out of step with their intended meaning at the time Jesus spoke them.
We have heard the word apocalypse. It is usually associated with end-times, with the book of Revelation and an idea of coming destruction. Hollywood movies portray apocalypse in this way. This isn’t the way apocalypse is primarily used in scripture. The word means to unveil, or reveal. What God is revealing through the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ is his new kingdom, and his new King. What is being unveiled is how God’s fights and overcomes his enemies: how God’s kingdom is established, in contrast to other kingdoms, and how Christ becomes king in the world. God doesn’t do this through violence, as was expected, but through service, through giving his own life in Christ on the cross, thereby defeating the accuser and destroyer. This is the big surprise, the condescension and humility of God to serve his creation, even when it hates him. This is the primary meaning of apocalypse: a surprise revelation about the nature and character of God.
Apocalypse is associated with violence and destruction, but not from God. This destruction comes about through those who refuse God’s love and who refuse to turn from their personal or group violence. The destruction is self-perpetuated. It is called the judgement of God, because in the end God’s grace is removed and people are left to their own will. God doesn’t compel repentance.
A primary text in which we see the meaning of apocalypse is Philippians 2. Here, the humiliation of God in Christ is shown. Though he is God, yet he comes as a man and humbles himself under his creation, to serve, even to die a slave’s death on the cross, in order that through love he might set us free from sin, self-love and death.
Through this act, God births an apocalypse-church. That is, God coming in Christ wasn’t just a once- off act for our redemption, but the act which also set the character of his new kingdom on earth. As Philippians 2 tells us, we are to “let this mind be in us, which was in Christ Jesus.” The revelation of the character of God in this apocalypse isn’t to stop with what he did. God’s revelation of himself continues on in the world through the church, exhibiting the same character of God we see in Jesus. Christ is to be followed by all who know him. This is what all the injunctions in the scripture to “follow God”, or “follow Christ” mean. The church is to preach the gospel in the world, not just in word, but in flesh, taking on this revealed nature of God, which he showed to his world and enemies, through self-giving service. Jesus stripped himself of his rights and served others. This is the apocalypse. This is the church. Philippians 2 strikes at the very centre of God’s revelation of who he is and what his kingdom on earth is about.
This is the very essence of what end-times is about. It isn’t about a church on the margins of suffering, dictating as to what is wrong with the world, waiting for God to act against evil on its behalf. It is a church that goes into the evil in the world and serves, thereby revealing the God who died for the world and rose again to set it free from death. The church is God’s apocalypse, unveiling to the world the nature of God in Christ.
When we discuss God’s plan for the world, to renew it and bring all nations into his full blessing, it is sometimes thought we are promoting a form of eschatology called post-millennialism. We wish to make it clear here that we are not promoting post-millennialism.
Post-millennialism started growing in popularity after the Enlightenment in Europe. The view fitted in with both an empire stance and the belief in modern culture and technology. The idea was that “advanced nations” would spread their culture and technological blessing to the world, ridding the world of witchcraft, diseases and other ailments that spread due to ignorance. Science would be the great deliverer. Along with this went the idea of empire. When nations conquered other nations they believed they were sharing their blessings with the world, getting rid of roadblocks to change. Empire, as always in the past, was again legitimized by the call to the improvement of mankind, though this time using Christian themes. Many Christians still hold to this kind of post-millennial view of eschatology today, though they may not realise it, and may mix it with other views.
Post-millennialism may also promote the idea that progress is made in our nations by Christians working within governments to impose a Judeo-Christian law upon society. This is a kind of triumphalism, where it is believed that if Christians can get enough political power, the will of God can be implemented upon the world and God’s millennial, or kingdom blessings, will take over. This comes with harsh penalties towards those who resist the Christian view, and therefore this millennial vision can end up looking like the revolution in Iran. Jesus plainly said that his kingdom is not of this world. That is, it doesn’t proceed by the use of these worldly powers and means. Another problem is that the Christians who do this may become just like the system they are fighting.
This doesn’t mean that God’s law has nothing to do with the gospel and with his kingdom blessing the world. It does, but not in this Pharisaical way. The law is written on our hearts, so that as the Holy Spirit renews us, our lives change and reflect the values and love within the law. Then our communities are transformed by our new lives shared with others. It is the same God who gave the law, who also gave us a new heart in the gospel. And the reason he did both was for the renewal of our world.
And this doesn’t mean that government doesn’t have a place. But the primary role of government is to serve the people, not to be harsh. When we visit the Australian government house in Canberra we find it rich in symbols of messianic serving government. The house is not on a hill, so that the government will not be above the people. Texts from Isaiah are employed to show the government is to serve the welfare, not only of its own people, but also, wherever it can, the weak and suffering of the nations. So government isn’t to serve only its own national interest. Government is to help, in using its gifts and powers to serve, not in harshness. Government is also to be renewed by the messianic vision of Isaiah.
So how does this happen? How do we get a government like this? The answer to this is throughout Paul’s preaching. “God has chosen the foolish things, and the weak things, to bring to nought the (harsh) powers of this world.” Paul says this weakness is God’s wisdom. This is the nature of his kingdom: not overcoming the world by power, but by the cross. “God’s plan is that through the church, God might reveal to the political and commercial self-centred powers, the multifaceted wisdom of God.” (Eph 3:10) Corinthians highlights this. Chapter by chapter Paul takes on all the powers of self-centeredness that work in our own lives. In Romans 12-13 he takes them on with the Sermon on the Mount. There, the children of God are salt and light serving, not fighting the powers.
How do we overcome the covetousness and corruption in the world? By being examples of people and communities that don’t live by those values. How do we overcome the self-interest in our commercial and political world? By being those who live for the interest of others. Peter explained this is how the gospel spreads and this is how, by being ambassadors (pilgrims) of a different culture, we change our world with respect: “When they see your way of life and ask the reason for your hope (what is our hope, since we have forsaken the secular hope of self-interest?), then we explain our hope with respect, using Jesus’s sufferings for us as the prime example.” This is fruitful evangelism.
The eschatology of the scriptures doesn’t present an inevitable progress of civilization. It doesn’t discount the nature of man and bent towards evil. It doesn’t give us a timeline for inevitable progress in eradicating poverty, war and corruption. These things are always ready to increase and swallow up many lives, especially now we live in a nuclear age. Biblical eschatology shows that God’s way is to use his church, led by his Spirit and following the Lamb of God, as a pointer to his new world. He calls us to serve each other and our enemy, to point to God’s kingdom, which is already among us, which is already renewing the world, and will one day restore the nations with the biblical hope: justice for the least, whoever they are.