How should citizens of a heavenly kingdom live while on Earth? In his seminal book Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N.T. Wright gestures towards that very question:
“The new creation—both the new creation and the new creation—has already been launched, and Messiah-people must learn how to live within that new world. They are ‘already in the new age.’ Equally, the final new creation is yet to come, and their behavior must look ahead to, and live in accordance with, something which is ‘not yet’ a present reality.” [Emphasis added]
Christ has defeated Satan—He’s reigning at the right hand of God currently—yet there remains work to be done before that reign is fully realized. Enemies still exist—chiefly, death. Of course, this isn’t the first time God’s people have been in such a situation. In 1 Chron. 10: 13-14, we see that the kingdom of the first Shepherd-King, David, was inaugurated without being fully consummated.
His predecessor, Saul, was struck down by the Lord and the kingdom was “turned over” to David. Yet, while this main foe was defeated, and David’s soon to be anointed King (11:3), it won’t be until chapter 18 that his enemies are completely conquered, and his kingdom will be fully realized. As interesting as this is from a historical perspective, it would do our faith well to consider how Israel lived during the time their land was claimed by two competing authorities—David’s and Saul’s.
Why? Because it’s the position in which we find ourselves today. As C.S. Lewis says, “There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.” So, how did Israel live in the already/not yet of David’s kingdom? They lived then how we should live now.
We live with Unction
To live faithfully in this present age, we need the Holy Spirit. We need to have what’s sometimes called unction. This is nothing new but has always been the case for God’s people. Notice that the Spirit is with those who confess David as King:
“Then the Spirit clothed Amasai, chief of the thirty, and he said, “We are yours, O David, and with you, O son of Jesse! Peace, peace to you, and peace to your helpers! For your God helps you” (12:18).
The wording of “the Spirit clothed” is actually quite rare in Scripture. Interestingly, it’s used again by Jesus—seemingly quoting this very passage—just before He ascends to Heaven. Luke records Jesus as saying:
“I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).
To live faithfully in this contested age, God’s people need God’s Spirit. One can almost hear the Welsh brogue of Martyn Lloyd-Jones thundering in his admonition, “The knowledge indeed is vital for you cannot be witnesses without it, but to be effective witnesses you need the power and the unction and the demonstration of the Spirit in addition.” We need to have right knowledge of the word, to be sure, but if the Spirit isn’t with us, we won’t be able to discern between that which is of the world and that which is of the age to come.
We live in Unity
In the battles that lead to David’s triumph, those who were working toward that end lived in harmony:
“All these, men of war, arrayed in battle order, came to Hebron with a whole heart to make David king over all Israel. Likewise, all the rest of Israel were of a single mind to make David king” (12:38-40).
Now, I’m sure there were still differences of opinion within the ranks as to strategy and the like, but the point is obvious: they all wanted the same thing, to see the reign of the anointed one of God fully realized. God’s people today are called to no less a mission and therefore should have no less a unity.
However much Christians are marked more by in-fighting than by evangelizing the nations, tells us how much we’ve taken our eyes off of the main objective: to have Christ’s reign recognized by every tongue, nation, and tribe through gospel-proclamation and acts of mercy.
We live Unworried
We can’t read the history of Israel during the already/not yet reign of King David without becoming acutely aware of the mirth that pervaded those who longed for the giant-killer to assume his throne. Indeed, we see that there were, “abundant provisions of flour, cakes of figs, clusters of raisins, and wine and oil, oxen and sheep, for there was joy in Israel” (12:39).
In a sense, the people’s joy is odd. There are still battles to be fought, still enemies who schemed and plotted. Yet, their hope was in the chosen ruler whom God supplied. Why would they be worried by the straggling defenders of a collapsing dynasty?
Christians are in the same position—we too are fighting from a position of victory, of abundance. The battle is won, the enemy’s head has been crushed under the bruised foot the Messiah! We should never let the current upheavals and uncertainty of the world lead us to forget that the One who raised Jesus from the dead is with us, fighting our battles, winning our victories. Christians, like Israel of old, should be known as a people of great joy even during trying times.
We live with Understanding
Though God was the One who finally brought about David’s total reign, Israel nevertheless played a part in God’s kingdom-project. The sons of Issachar are a perfect example of this. They were known as “men who understood the times.” The great apologist William Edgar first brought the significance of this verse to my attention. While some insist the sons of Issachar were astronomers, I think Edgar is right that the text is commending their discernment. Indeed, that’s the interpretation J.C. Ryle takes as he comments on the text:
“I cannot doubt that this sentence, like every sentence in Scripture was written for our learning. These men of Issachar are set before us as a pattern to be imitated, and an example to be followed, for it is a most important thing to understand the times in which we live, and to understand what those times require. Next to our Bibles and our own hearts, our Lord would have us study our own times.”
In a day in which information moves at the speed of light, trust in our political institutions is at an all-time low, and the family is disintegrating before our very eyes, the church is desperately in need of more “sons of Issachar.” The church needs people who can exegete the culture as well as they can exegete Scripture. We need, as Israel needed, wise guides who understand the dangers and opportunities of the times.
One greater than David has come. He conquered His enemies and all things have been placed in subjection to Him. While the principalities and powers of the old order hold on by their fingernails, Christians live confidently in that Kingdom that is both present and future, here and coming, already and not yet. The Lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Alleluia!
Dustin Messer is a theology teacher at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX and a minister at All Saints Dallas and the author of Secular Sacraments: Finding Grace in the World and Sin in the Church.