The Bible and the Future: "In the Fullness of Time"
At the close of a previous article outlining the main aspects of the Old Testament's view of the future, I noted that the Old Testament believer peering over the immediate present toward the horizon of the future, was anticipating a new and better day. The whole of Old Testament revelation pointed in the direction of the coming of the promised Christ, the Messiah, in whom all the hopes and expectations of God's covenant people would be fulfilled.
It should not surprise us then, that the New Testament record of Christ's birth includes the songs of Mary and Zacharias as well as others, celebrating and praising God for His faithfulness in bringing to pass what He had declared formerly. Notice how the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, links the birth of Christ with the promises of the covenant:
My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior... He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy; as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever.
Luke 1:46-47, 54-55
Similarly, Zacharias views the coming of Christ in the light of all that had come before:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant — as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old — ... to show mercy toward our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to Abraham our father ...
Luke 1:68-70, 72-73
With these familiar songs celebrating the Lord's fulfillment of His Old Testament promises in the coming and birth of the Savior, we confront the new and altered situation of New Testament believers. Whereas the typical look of the Old Testament believer was forward into the future, the New Testament believer now looks backward and forward, back to the coming of Christ in the fullness of time, forward to the expected coming of Christ at the end of time.
The New Testament clearly trumpets the good news that, with the coming of Christ, the history of redemption has entered a new and decisive epoch, the "latter days" of Old Testament expectation are now upon us!
The Future Inaugurated
Thus, the first and most fundamental dimension of the New Testament's outlook upon the future is, ironically, that the future is now. What Old Testament believers anticipated on the furthest horizon of redemptive history has become a reality, has "drawn near," in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
One does not have to read far in the New Testament Scriptures to discover the language of fulfillment. Christ's coming fulfills many of the promises of the Old Testament Scriptures. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus' birth of the virgin Mary is set forth as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah (Matthew 1:20-23). Among other events in Christ's life that fulfill Old Testament prophecy, the following are only a sampling:
- Christ's birth in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5-6; cf. Micah 5:2);
- His rejection by His people (John 1:11; cf. Isaiah 53:3);
- His flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:14-15; cf. Hosea 11:1);
- His triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:4-5; cf. Zechariah 9:9);
- His being sold for thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15; Zechariah 11:12);
- His being pierced on the cross (John 19:34; cf. Zechariah 12:10);
- the soldiers' casting lots for His clothing (Mark 15:24; cf. Psalm 22:18);
- the fact that none of His bones were broken (John 19:33; cf. Psalm 34:20);
- His burial with the rich (Matthew 27:57-60; cf. Isaiah 53:9);
- His resurrection (Acts 2:24-32; cf. Psalm 16:10); and
- His ascension (Acts 1:9; cf. Psalm 68:18).
Surely nothing is more emphatically taught in the New Testament than that Christ is the heir of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Savior to come.
Because the coming of Christ marks the beginning of the fulfillment of so many Old Testament promises, it is also described in terms which bespeak the finality and epochal significance of His coming for the history of redemption. Implicitly contrasting Christ's work with the priestly ministry of the old covenant, the apostle Peter declares,
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.
1 Peter 3:18
The writer of Hebrews makes this a major theme in his comparison and contrast of the old and new covenants. Comparing the daily sacrifices offered by the Old Testament priesthood with the sacrifice of Christ, he notes that Christ
does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.
In the coming of Christ, the long-awaited coming of God's kingdom on earth is inaugurated. In the gospels, both John the Baptist and Jesus announce in their preaching that the kingdom of God "is at hand" (lit. "has drawn near"; Matthew 3:2; Mark 1:15). When Christ cast out demons, He testified to the Pharisees that this was evidence that the kingdom of God "had come upon them" (Matthew 12:28). Similarly, the gospel accounts of Christ's miracles and the authority with which He commissioned the disciples to preach the gospel of the kingdom serve to confirm that, with His coming, the Old Testament promise regarding the future coming of the kingdom was being fulfilled. Though this kingdom has not yet come in all of its fullness, it has come in the person and work of Christ, in His life, death, resurrection and ascension to the Father's right hand, from whence He presently reigns until all of His enemies have been subdued beneath His feet (1 Corinthians 15:25).
Another way in which the New Testament emphasizes the presence of the future of Old Testament expectation is by means of the language of the "last days," the "fullness of time," or the "end of the ages." In Peter's sermon at Pentecost, the apostle cites the prophecy of Joel in Acts 2:17, "And it shall be in the last days, God says, 'that I will pour forth of My Spirit upon all mankind."' When the apostle Paul describes the birth of Jesus Christ, he declares,
But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law.
This language, "the fullness of time," speaks of the time in God's appointment which marks the completion and fulfillment of His promise and saving purpose. In 1 Corinthians 10:11 the apostle Paul remarks that the history of Israel's obedience under the old covenant has been recorded for the benefit of believers, "upon whom the end of the ages have come." Elsewhere the sacrifice of Christ is described as having been offered "once at the end of the ages" (Hebrew 9:26). The apostle John also speaks, in his warning to beware the coming of anti-Christ, of this being "the last hour" (1 John 2:18).
All of these passages only serve to confirm the New Testament teaching that the times in which we now live are the times of fulfillment, the times which mark out the beginning of the end of history, the times in which Christ has begun to establish and ultimately will fully usher in the glorious future of promise.
The Future Anticipated
However, we must be careful not to draw too sharp a line of distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Though the New Testament resoundingly declares that the great complex of events in redemptive history have occurred, it also still teaches that something further lies on the horizon of history. There is still one great event on the horizon of history that remains to be accomplished, and that is the coming again or return of the glorified and reigning Jesus Christ at the close of the present age.1 Only with Christ's corning again will the curtain be drawn on redemptive history and the consummation of God's kingdom achieved.
What, from the vantage point of Old Testament expectation appeared to be a single movement, has now in the New Testament become a two stage movement. Whereas the Old Testament saw only one great, future Messianic age, coinciding with the coming of the Messiah, the New Testament further reveals that the present Messianic age awaits its consummation at Christ's coming again.
Though, as we noted in the preceding section, the New Testament speaks of the present age as the "last days," we often find in the New Testament writings a distinction drawn between this age and the age to come. In these passages, there is a clear indication that, though the future has drawn near in Christ, there remains an even greater future, a consummate future at the end of the age.
In the gospels, Christ contrasts the present age and the future age in several passages. In Luke 20:34-35, responding to a question of the Sadducees about the resurrection, Jesus answers,
The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection of the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage.
In Matthew 12:32, a similar contrast is drawn between the two ages, when Christ announces,
And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgive him, either in this age, or in the age to come.
In a passage in which Christ encourages the disciples with the promise of kingdom blessings for those who follow Him, the same kind of point is made about these two ages:
Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life
It is interesting to observe that this same contrast is drawn in the New Testament in terms of the contrast between "the last days" (plural) and "the last day" (singular), or between the "end of the ages" (plural) and "the end of the age" (singular). Though we live presently in the last days, these days are not identical with the final termination and end of redemptive history, marking the point of transition to God's eternal kingdom. In John 6:39, accordingly, Jesus promises that "everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise him up on the last day." Clearly, here Jesus means to refer to an event in the future, an event still anticipated. Utilizing similar language, Martha in John 11:24 speaks of the resurrection of her brother, Lazarus, "at the last day." Jesus also speaks in John 12:48 of the judgment that will befall those who reject His Word "at the last day." These passages suggest that, though we are living in the "last days," the last day is yet to come. An alternative expression, "the end of the age," is used in several places in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 28:20; Matthew 13:39; Matthew 24:3) to designate the great and definitive day which will mark the closure of redemptive history at the return of Christ.
The "Pledge" of Things to Come
Since Christ's first coming inaugurates the future and, with His resurrection from the dead and ascension to the Father's right hand, points to His glorious coming at the end of the age, believers who are joined to Christ by faith already share in His victory. The blessings of salvation which come to the believer in this present age are so many tokens of the fullness of salvation in the age to come. This can be seen in two outstanding ways: first, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ; and second, in the outpouring of the Spirit upon the church at Pentecost. Both of these events are end time events, events which are prophetic of the future of which they are a pledge and guarantee.
The familiar description of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in 1 Corinthians 15 is sufficient to illustrate that Christ's resurrection is an end-time event, pledging to believers the certainty of their own resurrection. The apostle Paul illustrates the relation between Christ's resurrection and the believer's resurrection in terms of the metaphor of "harvest." Just as the harvest encompasses the gathering of the first fruits and the remainder of the harvest, so it is with the resurrection: the one, end-time harvest is a two-staged event, encompassing the period between Christ's resurrection and the resurrection of believers at the end of the age. These are not two, separate events; these are two aspects of one great eschatological harvest. As the apostle Paul describes it,
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ's at His coming.
1 Corinthians 15:20-23
We have already noted that the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost was understood by the apostle Peter to be a fulfillment of Joel's prophecy of what would occur "in the latter days." However, in the New Testament the work of the Spirit in joining the believer to Christ is also regarded as a work which pledges the fullness of salvation in the future.
This can be seen in a number of passages. In Romans 8:23, the apostle Paul, echoing the language of 1 Corinthians 15 regarding the resurrection of Christ, speaks of the "first-fruits of the Spirit," which promise the full harvest in the future: "[We] have the first-fruits of the Spirit ... waiting for our adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body." On several occasions, the Spirit is termed a "pledge" of the fullness of salvation that awaits the believer in the future (Ephesians 1:13-14; 2 Corinthians 1:22; 2 Corinthians 5:5; cf. Ephesians 4:30). This language suggests that believers have in the Spirit a kind of promissory, though partial, participation in the fullness of salvation that will be theirs at Christ's return. In the Spirit believers enjoy a provisional experience of what will be a consummate experience in the age to come; life in the Spirit for believers is a foretaste of the life to come. The teaching of Ephesians 1:13-14 is typical of this emphasis:
You were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is an earnest or pledge of our inheritance, unto the redemption of God's own possession, unto the praise of His glory.
On the basis of these and other passages, it can be said that the believer's experience of salvation in the present age is an anticipation of saving benefits that will only be fully received in the age to come. Through union with Christ by faith the believer already experiences a foretaste of the life which is still to come, a life of unbroken communion with God through Christ, a resurrection life in a glorified body which will be a fit dwelling-place of God in the Spirit.
Living "between" the Times
Though we have only provided a sketch of some of the main lines of the New Testament's teaching about the future, enough has been said to characterize the life of the believer in this present age as a kind of living "between the times." What gives shape and form to the Christian life is the relation between salvation already experienced and yet still anticipated for the future. Christians live out of the reality of Christ's first coming, resurrection and ascension to the Father's right hand. They also live in fervent expectation of Christ's return, at the close of the age, when the work already begun and secured by His resurrection and ascension is consummated.
This is what accounts for the frequent New Testament exhortations to believers to walk by faith and to live in hope. Believers embrace Christ "clothed in His promises" (Calvin), knowing that the future of God's consummated kingdom has been guaranteed in the great events of Christ's resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.
The apostle Paul well summarizes the quality of the Christian's life in this time "between the times":
If then you have been raised with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.