I remember a pastor telling me once that he hoped that the world would rush toward evil sooner so we could expedite the Rapture. Crassly put, we should wish for more evil and suffering in the world so we Christians can escape sooner. I was a bit speechless when he said it so matter-of-factly, but as I’ve gotten older and seen deep human suffering, I find a range of emotions come to the fore. Certainly, God never intended our theology to siphon out compassion from us.
Theology is a funny thing. It has consequences. It draws our attention to certain themes in the Bible and blinds us from others. As we’ve all navigated this global pandemic, we see the effects of a culture that has lost its sense of hope in God’s sovereign reign in the world. But far too many Christians use the future fulfillment of the visible reign of King Jesus as an excuse, worse yet a badge of honor, to sit idly looking into the heavens for the trumpet to sound and not around them for people to love as we are called.
I’d like to briefly revisit our theology of hope through the lens of the early church in Acts. What I trust we’ll discover is a biblical picture of hope that is not devoid of theology but is dependent upon the truth of God’s mission for His Church today. We ought not to use our hope in what is to come as an excuse to be, as the adage goes, “so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good.”
A Primer from the Book of Acts
The dramatic events of Jesus’ death and resurrection did little to dissuade the disciples from anticipating the fulfillment of God’s promises to the nation of Israel. Who wouldn’t want to get out from under the heavy hand of Rome, especially if you had heard stories of old when Israel was a sovereign nation as in the days of David and Solomon?
“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6 NIV). In other words, “When are you going to crush the Romans and bring peace for us once and for all?”
Of course, the disciples wanted that! God had promised His people Israel future glory even after exile in texts like Isaiah 54:7-8: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back…but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord your Redeemer.” Who wouldn’t want to usher in that return to the glory days of old?
Jesus, however, did not deny the disciples’ hope in the promised future in response. Nonetheless, he redirected their attention to their mission in the present:
“He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’” (Acts 1:7-8 NIV).
Jesus gave the disciples a mission to drive their hope, instead of permission to hope they could escape their mission. The same holds true for us today. Anytime our theology derails us from the task of rolling up our sleeves and living out the gospel in word and deed, we’ve mistaken our identity as God’s people.
The Gospel Extended to Gentiles
As Peter’s encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10 testifies, the realization that the gospel message was extended to Gentiles could not have been more profound. To the Jews, Gentiles were despised lawbreakers who did not circumcise, honor the Sabbath, nor refrain from eating bacon. Yet Peter says after a strange vision and a divinely-appointed encounter with a godly Gentile in Acts 10:34-36:
“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.”
And who are the messengers of this “peace through Jesus Christ”? We are, of course. How can we watch the depth of human suffering physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually and still not be moved to be the hands and feet of the One who still “heals the brokenhearted
and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3)?
We know how this story ends. As the hymn goes, our “hope is found on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Yet this ought to propel us to engage with the brokenness of our world even more! None of us knows when Christ will return. But what we do know is that we will want to hear the words “Well done, good and faithful servant” when we meet our Lord.
We are susceptible to falling into the same trap as the disciples when we choose to sit on our hands and hunker down in our cynicism and inaction in the world. We must go where people are and hear the stories of authentic human brokenness. They expect to hear judgment and condemnation from Christians because there are too many who have poorly represented Jesus. But it’s a powerful thing for broken people to experience unconditional love when they feel so much guilt and shame. What we think about politics, critical race theory, and or the national debt pales in comparison to what we truly believe to be our mission as proclaimers of “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ.”
I’ve never seen someone repent of their sin because I heaped guilt and shame upon them. As a pastor, I find that people already have enough of that in their minds. Moreover, I have witnessed deep repentance from sin because I extended grace when someone thought I would extend guilt and I extended compassion when the person thought I would extend condemnation. The world is dying to see the power of God’s grace in action through us, the Church! How can we stand by waiting to be whisked away when there is work to be done!
After Jesus ascended to heaven, the disciples were shellshocked. “What about those promises to make all things right for Israel?” The two angels redirected their attention to the present, just as Jesus had done a few verses prior:
And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:10-11).
An Inspiring Transformation
There was work to be done, there were people who needed to hear the good news about Jesus, and there was no doubt that the promises of God were as secure as ever. The transformation of the Church in Acts is inspiring for us today.
When the disciples stayed comfortable and secure in Jerusalem among the Jews up until Acts 7, God had to supernaturally interrupt them so that they would continue their mission He gave to them. Acts 8:1-3 tells us that Stephen was stoned to death. A zealous Jew named Saul began searching for Christians to put in prison. The Church was scattered because of persecution. Things looked devastating! Talk about taking away the Christians’ freedom! That’s not fair!
Where did they scatter? “Throughout Judea and Samaria.” Precisely the places Jesus told the disciples they would be “his witnesses” (1:8). God used a large-scale interruption among His Church to further His mission. That is precisely what God is doing right now with His Church. I certainly don’t know everything God is doing, and I certainly grieve the collateral damage of this global pandemic (just as I would grieve Saul’s persecution of Christians in Jerusalem). One thing I do know: Jesus hasn’t moved from his position at the right hand of the Father and He’s coming back someday. Nothing can change that.
Our hope is what gives us the courage to do the hard work of ministering in a changing world that continues to stack the cards against the Church. History teaches us that the Church is always at its best when it operates from positions of weakness, not from positions of power. Our hope is not that public legislation will tip the scales back into our favor, nor is it that things will return to a previous era. Our hope is in the return of the King, who will make all things right and reward those who serve faithfully as stewards of his message and resources.
As Paul tells hits his crescendo about the return of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15, he says: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 56-57). Then he takes the most obvious turn after giving a profound theology of hope to the Church in verse 58: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
There’s work to be done and people are dying to know the source of our hope. Your labor, my brothers and sisters, is not in vain! Jesus is coming soon enough, though waiting for the Rapture while the world suffers is not our marching orders. Our mission is not to help bring Jesus back to the world, but rather to help bring the world back to Jesus. – By Jeremy Wike (Jeremy Wike is pastor of Community of Hope Grace Brethren Church, Columbia City, Ind.)
 My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less, Edward Mote (1834)