The long view

Anyone who begins to study theology for the first time is confronted with a whole new vocabulary: a host of previously unheard of “-ologies” that can be difficult to pronounce, remember, or spell. In my own teaching, I try not to use too many long words, lest I begin to see people’s eyes glaze over: Sir, thou art being too lofty for mine ears.

But from time to time, I ask people to learn new words so they can also learn their importance. Theologians, after all, don’t just coin words for fun; they are trying to give voice to an aspect of the Christian story that is important to the understanding and practice of the faith.

One such word is eschatology, which refers to the “doctrine of last things.” To some, this means getting into debates about the whens and hows of the end times, of apocalypse and judgment, tribulation and rapture. It can become a matter of sorting people into camps: Hi, my name is Ralph. So, what kind of millenialist are you?

But I won’t address such debates here. Rather, I simply want us to recognize that the writers of the New Testament did in fact constantly look at life through eschatological lenses: they interpreted the ups and downs of our present life on earth in terms of God’s promised future. One might say that in all things, they took the long view.

We’ve already seen some of this in the book of James. In preaching the upside-down kingdom of God, he tried to redirect his readers’ values with a vision of the future: Earthly riches are beautiful now, but they won’t last (cf. James 1:9-11); act accordingly. Again, this echoes the teaching of Jesus: the spiritual wisdom of the kingdom dictates that we should store up treasures in heaven, the kind that can’t be stolen and won’t decay (cf. Matt 6:19-21).

Later in chapter 1, however, James turns to the more positive side of the future. He instructs his readers that no one should blame temptation on God, because God is good and gives good gifts; this is his nature and will never change (cf. vs. 17). Then, he builds on that thought as he looks toward the future:

In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. (James 1:18, NRSV)

In previous verses, James has already described our movement through time, the way that both faith and sin develop. On the one hand, facing our trials faithfully builds endurance, and continued endurance leads to our maturity (cf. 1:2-4). On the other hand, giving in to temptation by inappropriately indulging desire “gives birth to sin” (vs. 15), and this too leads to a growth process — except that the end result of this process is not maturity, but death.

Here in verse 18 he speaks again of birth, but this time, it’s new birth through the gospel. And looking again toward the future, he might have said that the end goal of this birth is our growth into spiritual maturity and eternal life, not death.

But what he says instead is not about where our individual stories are going; it’s about how each of us is part of God’s bigger story of the future. We are the “first fruits,” the early returns on an ongoing harvest, the harbingers of what is to come. We are pulled into the historical expression of God’s good purposes, and there’s more where that came from.

Much, much more.

It’s one thing to try to endure trials with the knowledge that the wicked will perish, or that the earthly goods won’t last anyway. But it’s another to think that how we live today is a sign — especially to those who will come after us — of God’s ongoing kingdom, a sign that God’s future can be brought to expression today.

We do that through how we respond to both trials and temptation. Both can dominate our vision of the present, occupying all our thoughts. But James wants us to take the long view, to see through the present to God’s future.

It’s a good future. And James seems to think we have chance to embody that future today, with glad anticipation.