The Spirit of the Lord, §10.6.2: Eschatological Basis

10.6.2. The Eschatological Basis of the Ekklesia

In light of the actuality of the ekklesia, we turn now to its possibility: what must be true in order for the ekklesia to embody the eschatological regnum Dei? The ekklesia is the eschaton made present only because Jesus Christ established the reality of the eschaton in his life, death, and resurrection. In other words, the eschatological ground of possibility for the ecclesial community is God incarnate, the Lamb of God who gave himself up “for us and for our salvation,” in our place and on our behalf. Eschatology and ecclesiology are both soteriologically grounded. The being of the church and the eternal reign of God are both actualized in the cross of Christ: through his crucified body he “abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (Eph. 2:15-16). Ephesians speaks here not only of the eschatological promise of the “new covenant” (Jer. 31:31-34) in which the old law is no more and Israel and Judah are reconciled together as one people, but also of the eschatological promise of the “new creation” (Isa. 65:17) in which all of humanity will be reconciled as one family and the divisions of sin will be annihilated by the blood of Christ. As a result of his reconciling death, therefore, Christ proclaims peace to all people, giving everyone “access in one Spirit to the Father.” The author of Ephesians can thus declare: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:18-20). The ekklesia is the “household of God” built upon the salvific life, death, and resurrection of Immanuel, the Messiah of God. The ekklesia is the community of peace because “he is our peace” (Eph. 2:14). The ekklesia is an eschatological community of reconciliation because Christ has put to death the hostility of sin in order that the fecundity of new life might thrive by the Spirit. In other words, the very being and life of the church is rooted in the being and life of Christ. The essence and existence of the ekklesia is rooted in the essence and existence of Immanuel, Deus nobiscum.

Ephesians is not the only epistle to clarify the christological grounding for ecclesiology and eschatology. We find further elaboration of Christ’s centrality to the ecclesial community and the reign of God in both 1 Corinthians and Colossians. In the former, we need only examine the climactic passage in 1 Cor. 15. Paul begins this chapter by recounting the “good news”: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (vv. 3-5). The appearance of Christ is an appearance which calls people to the task of witness. Paul simply assumes that those to whom Christ appears will become messengers of the gospel. (Perhaps this is why Christ only appeared to a select few in the Gospel accounts.) After grounding the ecclesial community in the Resurrected One, Paul goes on then to explicate the eschatological significance of Christ’s bodily resurrection. Paul transitions from a focus on the past reality of Christ’s resurrection (as an event about which we testify) to a focus upon the future reality of our resurrection on the basis of Christ’s resurrection (as the “first fruits” of what is yet to come). While the church is grounded in the appearance of Christ, the eschaton is grounded in the reign of Christ. Paul writes: “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. . . . When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all” (vv. 21-26, 28). In this important passage, Paul moves through the three temporal modes of the eschaton—past, present, future: “Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end . . .” The church exists as the present-tense mode of the eschaton on the basis of Christ, who is the “first fruits of those who have died” (v. 20). Paul locates the church in these verses within a clearly eschatological framework—not as the church of witness but as the church of the resurrection, the church of those who “belong to Christ” and thus are “made alive in Christ.” The final, future, and unsurpassable form of the eschaton is thus centered on Christ as the one who reigns supreme over death, granting life to the world “so that God may be all in all.” 1 Cor. 15 provides a clear account of Christ’s centrality both to the eschaton and to the eschatological identity of the ekklesia.

The book of Colossians is one of the most christocentric passages in the entire New Testament, and thus it provides an important resource for elucidating the christological framework for the church and the eschaton. Unlike Ephesians, the book of Colossians does not focus upon the church itself; it is much more indirect, preferring instead to speak about Christ and only then about the church in the light of what Christ accomplished. In the introduction, the author of Colossians says that the Father “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:13-14). With this, the author enters into a Christ-hymn comparable to what we find in Jn. 1 and Phil. 2, combined with elements found in 1 Cor. 15 and 2 Cor. 5, making Col. 1 the most comprehensive doxological summary of Christ’s identity: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” The Colossians Christ-hymn is sufficient to demonstrate the centrality of Christ to the ekklesia. As in 1 Cor. 15, Christ’s identity is both cosmically and ecclesially constitutive: he is the “firstborn of all creation” as well as the “firstborn from the dead”; he is the one in whom “all things hold together” and the “head of the body, the church.” At the center of Christ’s ecclesial and eschatological identity is the fact that in him “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.” This reconciliation is definitive for all creation—“whether on earth or in heaven”—but it takes concrete form in the life of the church, to whom this letter is addressed. As a result, in Col. 1:21, the author shifts from a cosmic third-person perspective to a personal second-person address: “And you who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled . . .” The hymn in Col. 1 unites the eschatological and the ecclesial in the ontologically constitutive history of Jesus Christ.

The rest of Colossians goes on to amplify what Col. 1 establishes at the start of the book. In terms of the eschatological significance of Christ, we read that in his death and resurrection he “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (2:15). Moreover, “with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe” (2:20), and thus human laws, regulations, and ways of thinking have all lost their importance. Christ has inaugurated a new age—a new creation—and the old age is now truly old (cf. 3:9-10). The apocalyptic dichotomy between new and old undergirds statements like “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (3:2), which is not a gnostic division between heaven and earth but an eschatological division between old and new, death and life, finite and eternal. In terms of the ecclesiological significance of Christ, we read that the mystery of Christ “has now been revealed to his saints” (1:26). Consequently, the mission of the church is to proclaim Christ, “warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (1:28). The church is not a fortress where you go to escape from hell; it is rather a community of discipleship that shapes people into the image of Christ by the power of the Spirit. The author of Colossians then implores those who have received Christ to “live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (2:6-7). But this is only possible because “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3; cf. Gal. 2:20). Perhaps most important is the way Col. 2:9-15 runs parallel to Col. 1:15-20: both passages are centered on the reconciling history of Christ, but the major difference is that the former passage is ecclesially focused and written in the second person. In sum, the book of Colossians offers a robust christocentric theology, in which the salvific history of Jesus Christ is the center and norm for all theological reflection on the eschaton and the ekklesia.