Recent conversations with megachurch attendees in SoCal reminded me about “end times” preoccupations among large swaths of evangelicals. Current events ranging from the pandemic to the American presidential election provide endless fodder for pundits of an imminent eschaton. There seems to almost be an obsession over how the world ends with constant recourse to the Apocalypse of Saint John (the Book of Revelation) for preaching. These sermons strike me as, well, both scary and gnostic. Scary, in that the so-called Tribulation teems with horrors and the fear of being “left behind.” Gnostic, in that there seems to be a “secret of” or “key to” understanding the end times which these pastors possess. Cloaked in mystery and encryption, only those “in the know” and the ones who follow those in the know will be spared.
But the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church has a time-tested way of addressing the coming parousia of our Lord: The Church calendar and the lectionary cycle.
The so-called “end times” are explicitly addressed by the liturgical calendar on the Sunday of the Fulfillment — the last Sunday of the church year. On this Sunday, the Church looks forward to the time when everyone and everything in Heaven and on earth will be together under one head, the Lord Jesus Christ. As Paul says in Ephesians 1:9-10: “[The Father is] making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in Heaven and things on the earth.” The focus of this Sunday bears on the just, rectifying, beautifying, and perfecting work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not economic collapse, avoiding the mark of the beast, and speculation about who might be the Antichrist.
The focus of this Sunday bears on the just, rectifying, beautifying, and perfecting work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not economic collapse, avoiding the mark of the beast, and speculation about who might be the Antichrist.
This festival is a day of fulfillment in two senses. It fulfills the liturgical year by bringing it to an end and returns us once again to the season of Advent. More importantly, it calls on the Church to look with vigilance and faithfulness for the final coming of the Lord Jesus to take His redeemed people into paradise and then, ultimately, into Heaven on earth. This is the fulfillment for which all Christians yearn when they pray, “Thy Kingdom come.” Lastly, the festival is the fulfillment of the basic Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord.” Together as the people of God’s Kingdom we, as Jews and Gentiles, men and women, old and young, confess that the prophet from Nazareth is, in fact, the King of the world, the One to whom all authority over Heaven and earth has been given (Matthew 28:18).
In many churches, the Sunday of the Fulfillment is celebrated as the Festival of Christ the King. The lectionary readings for the last few Sundays after Pentecost (three year lectionary) or Trinity (one year lectionary) center on the biblical teachings concerning the final judgment, end times, and Christ’s final coming to usher in the Kingdom of Glory. This emphasis for preaching culminates in the final Sunday of the church year as a celebration of the coming reign of Christ as King of the universe at the end of time.
Of all the lectionary texts appointed for this day, only one draws from Revelation and it hardly presents a handwringing, fretful scenario. Indeed, typical are those which come from 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 (Series A) proclaiming the glorious resurrection of the dead and Colossians 1:13-20 (Series C). The latter text, again, is decidedly trinitarian and wonderfully Christocentric, sounding an assuring and gospel-filled song, not a din of woe and terror (although notes of law and judgment remain unmistakable). In Colossians 1, Paul poetically presents Christ as the “head,” that is, the end all be all of our faith. He affirms how the once-crucified, now-resurrected-and-ascended Lord is the key to our past, present, and future.
Jesus Christ, he says in verse 15, is the, “…firstborn of all creation.” That is the first meaning, and it appears twice (vv. 15, 18). When He says “firstborn” Paul does not mean the first created human being the world ever saw (that, of course, was Adam). No, Paul means the “firstborn of the new creation.” Jesus is the first to rise from the dead and live an embodied life in the Kingdom of God that has broken into the old world through the cross and empty grave and is supplanting and reversing the old world inch by inch. That is a great theme of the end times: Christ becoming the all-in-all and the redeemed in Christ sharing in the fulness of His Kingdom. So, far from spooking our children for fear of being “left behind,” the theme of the Sunday of the Fulfillment, the “end times” scenario of the Bible, is the glorious participation of the complete victory of Christ.
That is a great theme of the end times: Christ becoming the all-in-all and the redeemed in Christ sharing in the fulness of His Kingdom.
The idea of Jesus being “the head,” “ the firstborn of the new creation,” is this Jesus of Nazareth, who once was dead but has been raised to newness of life, is in fact the One to whom has been given all power, honor and glory. All authority in Heaven and earth belongs to Him. He is the head, the first to be born from the grave, and has headship over creation. He intends to use that power and authority for our good and, indeed, the good of the whole creation to and through the eschaton.
Colossians 1:18 brings us right to the point: “Jesus Christ is the head of the body, which is the Church.” That is, He is Lord of all, especially those untied to Him by faith through Holy Baptism. He is present in and presides over all the baptized – every Christian. For us, Jesus Christ is uniquely Lord. He is our King. He is our captain. He is our Prince of Peace in a more extraordinary way than He is for the rest of the world because we have come to know and love this King as our own Redeemer. That bodes for things ending well for all those who have been baptized into Christ. Preaching the end times sounds a clear note of gospel fulfillment for all whom the Father has given to the Son. He will lose none. Preaching the end times, then, purposes to solicit and strengthen faith in the Savior of the world who is at the same time the Creator and Re-creator of the world.
Colossians discloses that all the pejorative monikers used to describe those with a hyper-inflated ego or bloated sense of self-worth actually apply to Jesus. In other words, the kind of counterfactual stuff we hear (and say) about celebrities or politicians really is the truth about Jesus. “He thinks he’s God-gift to humanity.” It is slander to a Senator, but good theology for Jesus. “He thinks the world revolves around Him.” Precisely. “I guess we’re all just supposed to bow down and worship at His feet.” That is a good start. “He acts like He walks on water or something.” Bingo! “We’re all supposed to believe everything He says.” You got it. “I guess He’s never wrong?” Well, when you are the firstborn of all creation, the Head of the Body, the very icon of God the Father on earth, then, “Yes,” Jesus is God’s gift to humanity and we are supposed worship at His feet. There is the point of the end times. Our knowledge of the coming eschaton calls us to practice in the present the future reality of when Christ is all-in-all.
Paul waxes poetic about it in the graceful hymn of Colossians 1. The first section which says “He is the image of God… the firstborn… for in Him…” matches, and is balanced by, the third section of the poem, “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead… for in Him….” The middle section, in between these, holds the two outer sections of the poem together, looking back to the first and forward to the second. The reason it fits together like this is so you can see where you have come from in Christ, where you are in Christ, and how it ends for you in Christ. In other words, these passages give us the past (how it started), the present (how it is), and the future (how it is going to end). In all things Christ is preeminent and in Him our past, present and future hold together. That is how one preaches the end times. Namely, holding onto the cross and standing in one’s baptism with faith for the fullness to come. The texts—Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel—relate to each other in a complementary way to disclose how the full scope of redemption history culminates in a decidedly Christocentric eschaton. So, far from cherry-picking a verse here or there to build an entire end times scenario replete with chips imbedded beneath the skin and the rise of Antichrist over the United Nations, the totality of the Scriptures bear witness to Christ and how He brings resurrection life to all things, even the physical earth itself. The broad range of lectionary texts tracking the same theme safeguard the biblical narrative from degenerating into prooftexts for interpretative subcultures.
What the baptized need to know above all is the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ as Creator, Re-creator, and Redeemer. To know this is to know enough about how it is all going to end.
What the baptized need to know above all is the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ as Creator, Re-creator, and Redeemer. To know this is to know enough about how it is all going to end. The more they get to know and know about Jesus Christ, the more they will understand who the true God is and what He has done, who they are as a result, and what it means to live in and for Him. In other words, knowing Christ is the key to knowing how things began, how things are, and how it is going to end. This is important for the confidence and assurance of each believer because the lives of every Christian are tethered to what happens with Jesus. In the beginning He created all things that are, and that includes each person. By the blood of His cross He has established the peace we presently enjoy with the Father. By His resurrection, our future is secured because as He is so we shall be. Since He has risen from the dead, we shall likewise. He is King and faithful Christians will reign with Him. That is how it ends. Our spirits have been redeemed by the forgiveness of sins and now, having been saved by the blood of the Cross, our spirits were translated from a kingdom of darkness into a kingdom of light. So, shall it be with our bodies, and also the earth. All things will be renewed, and Christ will rule and reign literally on this terrestrial ball, not just in our hearts and churches. Heaven will be on Earth. That is how it ends. And it is a good ending for all who have tasted the goodness and mercy of the Lord.