Christian Eschatology and Discipleship
From Theological Reflection to Practical Life
Over the last couple of weeks, I have described the Christian vision of things to come in terms of the healing that it will bring to people and to their relationships. My aim has been to imbue our understanding of what God will accomplish with a depth and richness that has too often been lacking in discussions of “the end times.”
The conversation has been pretty dense, and you could be excused for asking “What’s the big deal?” I hope that we can at least begin to address that question over the next couple of weeks. Today, I would like for us to consider how a robust Christian eschatology can help us become (and make) better disciples of Jesus. Next week, I would like for us to consider how a properly focused and carefully nuanced eschatology can provide us with resources we need to help people cope with physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma. In both cases, I hope that you will share your questions and observations in the “Comments” section.
Begin with the End in Mind
Jesus wants us to be and to make disciples (Luke 14:25-35; Matthew 28:16-20). Discipleship is the mechanism by which God’s purposes are accomplished in our lives, and, as we saw last week, understanding God’s purposes will inevitably mean understanding God’s goals. These facts should shape how we understand the gospel and how we present it to others. Telling the whole story of Jesus—both what has already taken place and what will take place in the future—gives us the best chance to start the discipleship process headed in the right direction and to use the right criteria in evaluating our discipleship efforts.
Embrace the Journey
Notice that I described discipleship as a “process” above. It is at least that. None of us comes into God’s family a fully mature follower of Jesus. We all make mistakes. We all need to discover our weaknesses and find ways to strengthen them. And we all need to discover the things we are good at and become even better at them. All of this takes time and work.
Nevertheless, discipleship is more than a process. It is a journey. What is the difference? Saying that discipleship is a process might imply that it is something that is imposed upon us by an outside entity—something over which we have no control. By contrast, describing discipleship as a journey implies that we have a choice in the matter. Biblical discipleship requires that we form the intention to follow Jesus wherever he leads us, and it requires that we put that intention into action (beginning with our public profession of our devotion to Jesus in baptism).
Furthermore, the Bible is clear that the pilgrimage that we call “discipleship” is an intensely personal phenomenon. We do not simply implement the steps we find in a manual; we devote ourselves to a dynamic, ongoing relationship with a real person—one that is characterized by trust and obedience. And we do not embark on the quest for Christlikeness alone. We walk the road of discipleship with others, learning from their experience and drawing strength from their support.
Focus on People as Well as Practices
The personal aspects of discipleship have far-reaching implications. What we do is certainly important. After all, Galatians 5:19-21 says, “Now the works of the flesh are clear: they are sexual immorality, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, wraths, rivalries, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you about these things, just as I said before, that those who practice them will not inherit the kingdom of God.” And Revelation 21:7-8 says, “Whoever overcomes will inherit these things; I will be his [or her] God and he [or she] will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the unbelieving, the detestable, the murderers, the sexually immoral, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. This is the second death.”
Nevertheless, we can do a lot of good things—and avoid a lot of bad things—and still miss the point of discipleship. Following Jesus successfully will inevitably result in a life dedicated to the well-being of others. Violence and promiscuity are inconsistent with achieving this goal, but, as the Galatians passage illustrates, so are a lot of other behaviors, many of which do not immediately come to mind when we think about sin.
Understanding discipleship from the standpoint of peace and reconciliation focuses our attention squarely on the people that God has placed in our lives. It also gives us a much broader framework for discerning which behaviors are compatible with devotion to Jesus and which behaviors are not.
Make Room for God’s Work
Finally, if discipleship really is the mechanism by which God’s eschatological purposes are made manifest in the lives of individuals and congregations, then that means the work of disciple-making is, at some level, God’s work. This is the flip side of the idea that discipleship is a journey of intentionality. Sure, we chose to embark on the expedition that leads to Christlikeness, but the shape of that journey, and how it is used to make us more like Jesus, is largely up to God (Hebrews 12:1-2).
This fact can be quite frightening. Adoption into God’s family means that we give up our right to self-determination. Like Peter (cf. John 21:15-22), we may have to follow Jesus down a dark and painful path, and we may be asked to sacrifice far more than we ever wanted or imagined. But the fact that God is at the helm of our journey can also be comforting. Like Peter, we will all come face to face with the darkness within us. Many of us will discover that we do not possess the strength to overcome that darkness. It is precisely at that moment that we can take comfort in God’s sovereignty. He knows what we can do, and He knows what we cannot do. God uses that knowledge to shape our journey, and we can trust Him to shape it in a way that builds His Kingdom and that accomplishes His purposes.