Several streams have converged in my thinking this week. I was listening to the lecture series, “The Challenge of Jesus,” given by N.T. Wright. He made a remark that sparked some imagination in me. He said that a lot of New Testament theology focuses on the fact that with Jesus’ resurrection, we have entered the “Last Days.” For me, a lot of my foundational understanding about God’s kingdom has been shaped by the idea of the “Now and Not Yet,” popularized by George Ladd. But Wright went on to say that as true as that is, Jesus’ resurrection has simultaneously launched us into the “First Days” of God’s new creation coming on earth.
This is startlingly true! We are living in the overlap of two ages. We live on the fault-line of two gigantic tectonic plates that are rubbing and shifting against one another. And God’s people must live naturally with the resulting quakes that rock our attempts to embody Christ on earth.
One of the quakes (or streams of thoughts, to return to my original metaphor) is the issue of the death penalty, brought back to the front of our nation’s consciousness by Tookie Williams’ execution several days ago. We live in a society that is completely defined by, and therefore, embodies our present evil age. As such, God has granted human government the authority to wield the sword of justice in order to maintain societal order within this present evil age (Romans 13:1ff).
But God’s people are also completely reconfigured around Jesus, who has climaxed God’s grand story within himself and has inaugurated God’s renewed creation in the midst of this present one. So although we began our lives in this present age, our new lives in Christ reconfigure us around an eschatological anticipation of God’s coming age, already begun in our midst.
This is why I value N.T. Wright’s hermeneutic of a five-act play in approaching Scripture (another stream of thought this week). Christ was the fourth act, climaxing and fulfilling God’s story in himself. We and the early Church of the New Testament live in the fifth act. Therefore, we cannot read and apply the story of the first three acts unthinkingly in our attempts to live in the fifth act. That would be like speaking the dialogue of a previous act within the present one. It doesn’t make sense to the story. Our dialogue in our present act will have continuity with the previous dialogue, but will also be fresh and relevant to the current flow of the story.
So in the specific issue of the death penalty, human government has the authority to impose its attempts at justice to maintain order. And within the context of this present evil age, there will be times when government will deem the death penalty as just. (Interestingly, a lot of talk of justice I hear nowadays is actually more about sanctioned revenge. But that’s another issue for another time.) But, as God’s future-oriented people, we cannot singularly embrace this value. Although we can recognize a government’s responsibility to establish justice in its given context, we must also recognize that God’s people do not live solely in that context.
Nor can we argue simply from Old Testament texts to support one value or another. For example, we do not live by the “eye for an eye” justice of the Old Testament. We no longer live in that act of the play. Rather, we must replace an “eye for an eye” with “a ransom for many” as climaxed in the fourth act and launching us into the fifth. It is here that the tectonic plates shift and quake. From the perspective of the “Last Days,” government is just. But from the perspective of the “First Days,” mercy truly triumphs over judgment. So our application must be nuanced and wise since both ages overlap.
At this point in God’s story, we live with one foot in the present and one foot in the future. It’s like owning one of those clocks that display the time in our current location, but also the time in another part of the world. Our internal clocks are similar — one set to our present time zone, but another set to the time zone of God’s new creation. Therefore, we must realign our being, thinking, valuing and living, always moving toward the vision of God’s restoration forward (not backward) to his future world. The glorious vision of a God-saturated renewed creation that is populated by a redeemed society of humanity, who is reconciled to God, one another and creation, must continuously reshape and renew our imaginations and form the core of our incarnational identity and lives.