Isaiah (Part 72): Eschatology Introduction to Chapters 60-66 (Part 1)
Two major theological systems dominate conservative Christianity: Dispensational Theology and Covenant Theology. Both attempt to explain the manner in which God interacts with his creation—particularly with his image bearers. Dispensational Theology views history as a sequence of seven dispensations or time periods in which God’s primary focus is unique to the current dispensation. At the beginning of each dispensation, God provides revelation. During the dispensation, God tests humanity based on their response to his revelation. The dispensations include Innocence (from creation to the fall); Conscience (from the fall to the flood); Government (from the flood to Abraham); Patriarchy or Promise (from Abraham to Moses); Law (from Moses to Christ); Grace—the Church Age (from Christ’s first advent to his second); and Millennial Kingdom (from Christ’s second advent for a thousand years). Dispensationalists are therefore premillennial, understanding that Christ will return to earth to reign on earth during the final dispensation. Another important feature of traditional Dispensationalism is that each dispensation stands on its own. They are not connected. This is important especially as the ages of the Law and of Grace are considered. At the end of the period of the Law, Christ came in his first advent to offer the kingdom to the Jews. They rejected him, and therefore the kingdom offer was withdrawn and postponed. Instead, Christ established the Church. Our current age is an interruption—a parenthesis—in God’s dealing with Israel. When God is again ready to establish the kingdom, he will rapture the Church out of the world and then continue with Israel to establish a kingdom reign by Christ on earth. Thus, according to Dispensationalism, the two groups of God’s people—Israel and the Church—are separate groups with whom God will continue to have different plans and treatments.
Covenant Theology, mostly taking shape within Reformed Theology, does not focus on separate dispensational periods, but rather sees continuity across time in God’s revelation and interaction with humankind. Covenant Theology focuses on three theological covenants: the Covenant of Redemption—God’s agreement within the Trinity of how to rescue humanity once fallen; the Covenant of Works—God’s agreement with Adam promising life in exchange for obedience; and the Covenant of Grace—God’s agreement with humanity promising eternal life in exchange for trust in God’s revelation as Rescuer (in the NT economy, the rescue must be understood through revelation fulfillment of Jesus Christ). While this system provides a greater cohesive storyline, by itself, it fails to show purpose. Questions of why God created and why he would choose to redeem after his image bearers failed present issues whose resolution is not merely to satisfy curiosity but to offer an unshakable reference point upon which to constrain interpretation of all God’s interaction with us.
Kinship Theology recognizes that love is God’s primary characteristic. While God’s other attributes find definition in contrast with that which is other than God, love may find definition and expression totally within God himself. Recognizing love as God’s primary characteristic allows us to understand Kinship Theology as the study of who God is, how God interacts with his creation, and how humankind bears his image, all from the perspective of covenantal love relationship. I use the term “covenant” heavily in this understanding; however, Kinship Theology is not Covenant Theology. Kinship Theology differs from Covenant Theology in that its focus is on the purpose for the covenants rather than simply on the activity of the covenant. Thus, the Trinitarian covenant stresses the relational purpose to create and redeem rather than simply the act of doing so. Also, the relationship between God and his image bearers has always been one of trusting dependence by the image bearers on God’s purposeful caregiving. And therefore, redemption is a restorative act not merely to keep humanity from everlasting death but to resume the original purpose of everlasting love relationship. In the New Covenant aspects of God’s restorative plan, the same covenantal responsibilities exist of trusting dependence by image bearers while God acts in purposeful caregiving.
Kinship Theology rests on three pillars: soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. These three pillars all have to do with relationship. In the Garden, God established three relationships. The first was the relationship between God and humanity with God in control. The relationship was one in which God provided care with his image bearers trusting in him for that care. The second was the relationship among humanity—between human and human. Here we have an equal giving of self for the benefit of the other, highlighted particularly in the Garden in the marriage relationship. Finally, the third was the relationship of humanity with the rest of creation. And, of course, in this relationship, although caregiving is still involved, humanity was given dominion over the earth.
The fall broke these relationships. Humankind left God’s care, asserting selfish trust. Human discord reigned, symbolized by the wife and husband vying for control. And even the smooth interaction between humans and the earth became disruptive.
God’s restorative plan, developed even before the heavens and earth came about, intended to right those broken relationships. Soteriology is the study of salvation—the reforming of the relationship between God and his image bearers. Ecclesiology concerns itself with turning back to the relationship ideal among humanity (as we relate to God). Finally, eschatology relates to last things—the restoration of humanity’s relationship to the earth through the resurrection of the physical earth.
As we studied through Isaiah so far, we have seen some distinct rebuke directed toward Israel for two major sins. Those sins were failing to trust in their caregiving God and failing to care for each other. Those two sins are precisely the brokenness of relationship to God and relationship among each other. We’ve also noticed so far that these two sins have been addressed through the work of the Servant. The Servant’s rescue (sacrificial atonement of chapter 53) provided redemption—the restoration of relationship with God through faith. Accomplished. Finished. Done. We have also had implied and metaphorically provided a renewal of relationship among God’s covenant family after the Servant’s departure. But the transformation of this relationship is not complete as we saw in Isaiah 58. God specifically addressed post-rescue covenant members (i.e., us) about continuing sinful struggle among our human relationships. Through rescued relationship with God we see better. We know better. We have Holy Spirit prompting to be better. Sometimes we relate in image-bearing fashion of our God. Sometimes we still fail. Paul spoke of the struggle when he said, “For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For the desire to do what is good is with me, but there is no ability to do it. For I do not do the good that I want to do, but I practice the evil that I do not want to do” (Romans 7:18-19). Thus, although relationship with God has been mended and we are aware of what right relationship with others is, we remain in an “already, but not yet” state of restoration. The problem is that sin remains in our earthly being. And it remains because the final relationship has not yet been righted.
The first two relationships are addressed through Christ’s first advent and his ever-present (Lo! I am with you always) activity through this age in the reborn spirit. The final relationship restoration—that of humanity with the rest of creation—cannot occur until the physical creation is reborn. Physical creation’s rebirth occurs when Christ returns (Romans 8:19-24a, Titus 2:13).
Thus, all God’s covenant community sees completed restoration of all three relationships upon Christ’s return. Relationship with God will be as he intended for his purpose. Relationship with each other will be as God intended in bearing the image of him. And relationship with physical creation will be as God intended in harmony with human dominion over it all—that point when all is restored is at Christ’s coming—our blessed hope. In fact, we see Christ highlighted in all this restoration process: renewal of relationship with God based on his first advent; renewal of ideal relationship of human community while Christ is away but working through us; and renewal of relationship with physical creation when Christ comes again, overseeing the phoenix-type resurrection of the material world.