The Bible and the Future: Preparing the Way for the Coming of the Lord
In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin declares that the Old Testament was given to the people of Israel as a means to "foster hope of salvation in Christ until His coming." All of the Lord's redemptive dealings with His covenant people, prior to the birth of Christ in the "fullness of time," were aimed at kindling in them an expectation and anticipation of the coming Savior. Whatever initial fulfillments of God's covenant promises they may have received, these were only a down payment and pledge of a fuller, richer fulfillment yet to come.
Consequently, there is a kind of restlessness that characterizes the Old Testament's view of history, even when the children of Israel enjoyed a provisional rest in the land of Canaan. Each new chapter in the history of the Lord's gracious acts on behalf of His people only heightened their anticipation of the consummation of that history in the future. The fullness of salvation in fellowship with God which the covenant promised, awaited its realization when the redeeming work of the Lord would have reached its goal. There is a dynamic to the history of the covenant in the Old Testament that would not permit the believer to look only to the past, in the remembrance of what the Lord had already done, but demanded that he also look to the future, in the hope of even better things in the future.
Therefore, before treating the New Testament's understanding of the importance of Christ's coming into the world for the Christian's understanding of history, particularly the future, it is necessary that we consider in a general way the Old Testament's view of the future. The New Testament teaching concerning the coming of Christ and the significance of His coming for the future unfolding of God's redemptive purpose can only be understood within the context of the preceding history of redemption in the Old Testament. The first words of the New Testament — "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham," Matthew 1:1 — tell us that the story of redemption does not begin with Christ, but many centuries earlier. They remind us that all of the hopes of the Old Testament child of God met in the birth and coming of Jesus Christ.
To set the stage for our consideration of the New Testament's understanding of the future, then, we will begin with a sketch of the Old Testament background. What, from the perspective of the Old Testament, was the believer's outlook upon the future?1
The Coming Savior or Messiah
Undoubtedly the great center of Old Testament expectation is the expectation of a coming Savior, the Messiah. This expectation is the seedbed for all of the other dimensions of the Old Testament's teaching about the future.
The first Word of the Lord, spoken to our first parents after the Fall into sin in Genesis 3, announces the future birth of a Redeemer who will crush the head of the serpent and vindicate God's gracious rule within His creation. In Genesis 3:15, we find this so-called "mother promise" in the history of redemption, the protevangelium, the "first gospel" announcement: "And I (the Lord God) will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall crush you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel." In this first gospel promise, the Lord announces that He will establish an antithesis between two kinds of seeds, the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman, representing the people at enmity with God and the people whom He befriends. This antithesis between these two peoples will serve God's gracious purpose for His people whom He will deliver and save through One born of a woman. In the seed of the woman the people of God will find their deliverance and salvation from the power and dominion of the evil one and sin. This "mother promise" is the first and fundamental promise in the old covenant, fixing the people of God's eye of faith upon the Person of the coming Savior.
Subsequent to this first announcement and promise of a coming Savior, the Lord renews and specifies this promise in His Word to Abraham, the father of believers. Promising to make Abraham one through whom "all the families of the earth" would be blessed (Genesis 12:3), the Lord assured Abraham that in his seed this promise would be fulfilled. Through the birth of a son, Isaac, Sarah would become the mother of nations (Genesis 17:16); from him would be born the seed in whom all the nations would enter into the blessing of the covenant (Genesis 22:18; compare 26:4; 28:14). Now the promise of a Savior becomes focused upon the seed of Abraham, the son in whom the promise of redemption will be realized. Later in the history of Old Testament revelation, we learn that this son in the line of promise will be born of the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10) and of the family of David (2 Samuel 7:12-13).
With the progressive unfolding of the revelation of the Lord to His covenant people, the expectation of this coming Savior, the seed of promise, becomes further refined.
For example, in the three special offices of prophet, priest and king, ordained by the Lord, the children of Israel were taught to expect One in whom these offices would be fulfilled. The Messiah or "Anointed" One would be called of God and empowered by His Spirit to speak the Word of the Lord, offer sacrifice and intercession on behalf of His own people, and rule in righteousness in the Lord's name.2 The great prophet of the old covenant, Moses, was a "type" of an even greater prophet, like Moses, who was to come. So we read in Deuteronomy 18:15, "The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me (Moses) from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him" (compare Acts 3:22). The Aaronic priests who ministered daily at the altar were only a "shadow" of an eternal priest, after the order of Melchizedek, who would offer Himself once for all, a perfect sacrifice for His people (Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 5). Furthermore, king David was promised that the Lord would establish the throne of his Son forever (2 Samuel 7:12-13; Isaiah 9:7). In the offices of prophet, priest and king, Israel was given the promise of the Messiah who, commissioned and empowered by the Lord, would reveal the Word of the Lord, make atonement for the sins of the people, and rule in righteousness over an eternal kingdom.
But this is not all. The person and work of the coming Messiah is also described in the Old Testament as the coming of the Lord Himself to be with His people. In the person of the Messiah, God Himself would take up dwelling in the midst of His people, just as He had dwelled in their midst in the Old Testament tabernacle and temple. The Messiah's name will be Immanuel, "God with us" (Isaiah 7:14). He will also be the suffering servant of the Lord, who will take upon Himself the sin of His people, providing atonement for them. In the well-known words of Isaiah 53, the prophet Isaiah strikingly foresees the suffering of the Messiah by which He will accomplish His people's redemption:
But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our wellbeing fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed (vs. 5).
Not only will the Messiah be Immanuel, God with us, and the suffering servant who takes away the sins of His people, however. He also will be the heavenly Son of Man to whom God will give the dominion and power to establish His kingdom and destroy every enemy who would resist God's rule (Daniel 7:13, 14).3
In all of these ways and more, the Old Testament prepares the way for the future coming of the Lord to His people in the person of the Savior.
Aspects of the Future
In addition to the central promise of a coming Savior, the Old Testament uses a variety of alternative expressions to reveal the shape of the future, as the Lord realises His covenant promises and re-establishes His kingdom on the earth. None of these is to be separated from the one, great expectation of a coming Savior; they are only alternative, and related aspects of the salvation which this Savior will bring with Him. But they do enrich and deepen our appreciation of the Old Testament's view of the future.
The Future Kingdom
Though the Old Testament clearly reveals God to be the King over all (Psalm 103:19), the majestic Lord of heaven and earth, whose will cannot be frustrated in any corner of His creation-kingdom, it also acknowledges that sin has disrupted God's kingdom. Sin is rooted in rebellion against God's righteous rule. Whole nations and peoples are under the dominion of darkness and sin, captive to the kingdoms of this world and at enmity with God. Only Israel among the nations and peoples was given truly to know and confess the kingdom of the true and living God.
One of the ways in which the Old Testament portrays the future is in terms of the final victory and (re-) establishment of God's kingdom over all creation. Not only will the Lord continue to reign in majesty from heaven, the place of His dwelling and throne, but He will also come to be acknowledged as King in the whole realm of the creation. All who have rebelled against Him, all the kingdoms of mankind which have resisted His rule and dominion, will be brought into subjection.
One of the most powerful and dramatic prophecies of the future establishment of the Kingdom of God is found in Daniel 2 which speaks of a kingdom that God will set up in the "latter days" that will never be destroyed, and that will come to fill the whole earth (Daniel 2). Interestingly, this kingdom is depicted as being like a "little stone" that will crush the kingdoms of this world and grow until it fills the whole earth, a depiction that clearly associates the realization of this kingdom with the coming of the Messiah, the Son of Man.
The New Covenant
In the Old Testament, it becomes increasingly clear that what the covenant of grace promised the people of God did not come to full flowering because of the unfaithfulness and disobedience of the covenant people. The history of the covenant is marked by a striking contrast between the faithfulness of the Lord and the unfaithfulness of His people. As a result, the children of Israel are finally sent away into exile under the covenant wrath and judgment of the Lord. In this darkest period of redemptive or covenant history, it almost seems as though the Lord's way of grace with His people has ended in failure.
But the Lord remains forever faithful to His promises! The disobedience of the children of Israel will not frustrate His redeeming purpose for and on behalf of His chosen people. Hence, we find, even in their exile and subsequent restoration to the land of promise, that the people of God are given further promises of a new and better covenant. The day will come, the Lord promises, when He will gather His people to Himself and establish a new covenant with them, based upon better promises! This does not mean that the old covenant failed or that its promises were deficient; the failure was owing to the children of Israel's stubborn refusal to live according to the covenant's stipulations (compare Hebrews 8). However, in the new covenant the Lord promised to write His law upon the hearts of the people:
'But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,' declares the Lord, 'I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
The Gathering of a Restored Israel
Still another aspect of the expectation for the future found in the Old Testament is that of the restoration of the people of God. With the dispersion of the people of Israel before and during the exile, the unity and future of the people of God seemed imperiled. Would there be a return to the land of promise and, if so, under what circumstances? What did the future hold for them as the peculiar possession of the Lord?
In this setting, the Lord reveals to His people a future in which there will be a kind of new exodus (Isaiah 11:11), a return to the land of promise and restoration of the people of God. A remnant of the people would return to the Lord in renewed faithfulness and repentance. As the Lord spoke through Jeremiah, "Then I Myself shall gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and shall bring them back to their pasture; and they will be fruitful and multiply" (Jeremiah 23:3). This restoration of a remnant would not exclude, however, the fulfillment of the promise that all the families of the earth would enter into the blessing of the covenant through the seed of Abraham. Many of the Old Testament promises concerning the restoration of Israel also include the promise that the nations and peoples of the earth will come to the light and enjoy, in fellowship with Israel, the blessings of salvation (compare, e.g.: Jeremiah 48:47; 49:39; Isa. 2:2; Micah 4:1). The Lord would not fail to gather His people, and through them, all the families of the earth.
The Outpouring of the Spirit
When the question is asked — on what basis could the Lord assure the people of Israel of a future bright with promise, a future which would bring a new and better covenant and a new exodus? —the answer is to be found in the promise of a new outpouring of the Spirit of God upon the people.
In Jeremiah 31, for example, the Lord's promise of a new and better covenant, one in which His people will love Him according to His law even as He has loved them, is intimately joined to the further promise of the Spirit who will write the law of God, not upon tablets of stone, but upon the fleshly hearts of His people (Ezekiel 36:24-28). The new covenant will be better than the old covenant, because in it the Spirit will work in a new and powerful way, causing the people of God to answer the Lord's faithfulness with a faithfulness of their own. Similarly, in Ezekiel 37 the restoration of the people of God is likened to the resurrection of a valley of dead and dry bones, into which the Lord breathes new life by His life-giving Spirit. Just at the time Israel's prospects for the future seem bleakest, just then the Lord will graciously intervene in a mighty way by His Spirit, granting life from the dead. As the Lord spoke through Ezekiel,
'And I will put My Spirit within you, and you will come to life, and I will place you on your land. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken and done it, 'declares the Lord.
This future work of pouring out His Spirit upon His people is most dramatically disclosed in Joel 2:28-29, a passage to which the apostle Peter appealed in his sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2):
And it will come about after this, that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.
The "Day of the Lord"
In the prophecies relating to the restoration of Israel, the outpouring of the Spirit and the re-establishment of the covenant, there also increasingly emerge references to what is termed the "day of the Lord." This "day of the Lord," whether understood to be in the near or more distant future, bespeaks a day of the Lord's final visitation of His people in grace and in judgment. Though it frequently emphasizes the theme of God's wrath and judgment upon the wicked, it also promises salvation for the righteous.
Sometimes this day of the Lord is described as a fearsome day in the near future when God will execute His judgment against Israel's enemies (Obadiah 15-16). Sometimes it is disclosed to be a final day of the Lord's visitation, when He will deal once and for all with the world because of its sin (Isaiah 13:9-11). The prophet Amos warns the children of Israel that the day of the Lord will mean destruction for the wicked, even as it brings vindication and salvation to the righteous (Amos 5:18). The prophets Isaiah (2:12, 17) and Zephaniah (1:14-15) sound similar notes of judgment and wrath falling upon the disobedient in the day of the Lord. Though this note of the wrath of the Lord falling upon the wicked tends to predominate among the prophetic announcements of the coming day of the Lord, there are passages which also speak of the salvation for the Lord's people that will accompany it. Joel 2:32, for example, assures salvation to all who call upon the name of the Lord before the great and terrible day of His wrath (compare Malachi 4:2-5).
A "New Heavens and New Earth"
One of the grandest aspects of the Old Testament's expectation for and outlook upon the future is the promise that the Lord will establish a new heavens and earth. More than any other aspect of the future, this one reminds the believer of the beginning. Paradise lost will become paradise regained. What was in the beginning will become reality also in the future. But the future reality will even exceed the past.
When the redeeming work of the Lord has run its course and reached its goal, the whole of creation, ruined through the fall into sin, will be purged of sin and brought to a state of perfection. This hope is expressed particularly in the prophecies of Isaiah. In Isaiah 65:17, the Lord declares,
For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
Just as the Lord fashioned man from the dust of the earth, so, in the day of the fullness of redemption, man will be restored to the fullness of life in the new heavens and earth.4 When the earth is renewed, according to Isaiah, it will become an abundant and fruitful field, rather than a wilderness (32:15). The new earth will be one in which the former dry places have become springs of water (35:7). It will be a place where there will be no more conflict or disorder within the creation; all creatures will live together in harmony and peace.
As the prophet so beautifully puts it, "they will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (11:6-9).
The "Latter Days"
Though there are many more things that could be said about any one of these aspects of the Old Testament's expectation for the future, I would like to conclude this sketch by considering the phrase, "the latter days." This phrase captures well the whole thrust of the Old Testament revelation regarding the future. To the extent that Old Testament believers were nurtured by the Word of the Lord in their view of the future, they came to fix their gaze upon the latter days which would introduce the age to come in distinction from the present age.
The use of the expression, the latter days, varies considerably in the Old Testament. However, it does have some characteristic features. Typically, this language draws into focus the future destiny, not only of individuals, but of all peoples and nations. It is language which encompasses the Lord's purpose and intention to bring salvation as well as judgment upon all peoples, depending upon their response to His Word. In Daniel 2:28, for example, the "latter days" encompass the entire history in which the stone will destroy the kingdoms of this world and inaugurate God's eternal kingdom. Not only does this reference include a period of history of some duration, though leading to the "end" of history as we now know it, but it also includes the realizing of God's purpose for all the nations and kingdoms of the earth.
The latter days are also consistently days both of blessing for the people of God and tribulation for the enemies of God. Often the theme of blessing and peace for the people of God is prominent (Isaiah 2:2; Micah 4:1; Hosea 3:4, 5). However, this is also balanced by the theme of tribulation and judgment upon those who reject God and who oppress His people (Daniel 2:28). Furthermore, the blessing which will come to the children of Israel will also mean blessing for all the nations who will come to Jerusalem and be given a share in the salvation of the Lord (Jeremiah. 48:47; 49:39).
This revelation regarding the latter days is a fitting place, therefore, to conclude our sketch of the Old Testament's view of the future. Though it is important not to read more into this expectation than is present in the Old Testament, a rather clear picture emerges from the foregoing.
All of these dimensions and aspects of the Old Testament outlook upon the future are accumulative. Together they form a single mosaic of anticipation and expectation for the day, on the furthest horizon of history, the great future, when the Lord would visit His people in grace and His enemies in judgment. All of the things we have discussed — the coming of the Savior, the establishment of the kingdom of God, the granting of a new and better covenant, the restoration of the people of God, the day of the Lord — point to a time in history when the Lord will bring to fruition and realize in perfection all of His gracious purposes and covenantal ways with His people.
To the Old Testament believer, peering over the immediate present toward the horizon of the future, a new and better day was approaching. Thus, when this glorious future dawned at the birth and coming of Jesus Christ, we should not be surprised to find believers like Simeon, whose joy at the Savior's birth Luke's gospel records. Simeon, Luke tells us, was "righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel." When Joseph and Mary presented Jesus at the temple, Simeon took Him in his arms and blessed God and said:
Now Lord, Thou dost let Thy bond servant depart in peace, according to Thy word; for my eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, 'a light of revelation to the Gentiles,' and the glory of Thy people Israel.
This event, recorded early in the gospels of the New Testament, indicates that the future of Old Testament expectation has become the now of New Testament fulfillment in the birth of the Savior.