Have you ever been taught something by parents, grandparents, a teacher, or a mentor they believed to be really important, but you weren’t all that impressed? You thought (if not actually said), “Yeah, yeah, I got it! No biggie!” This happened with me.
Exactly three decades ago I began my studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. It was while I was there that New Testament professors talked about the “already/not yet” principle that permeates the New Testament. Their point was this: The New Testament at its core communicates that the End-times promises God made to his people in the Old Testament have already arrived in Jesus Christ, but they are not yet fully here and in place. It is a simple enough principle, one to which it is easy to respond, “Yeah, yeah, I got it.” And certainly that is how I replied, but I was not all that impressed with its importance.
That has all changed after thirty years of studying the Bible intensely and also seeking to be a student of human nature—not the least of which is my own nature and my own fight with sin. I now embrace this reality as explaining a tension with which I (and we) better live every moment until we either die or Jesus Christ returns. If we forget one part of it, we find our self at great risk. For example, if we emphasize the not yet to the exclusion of the already, we may conclude that we will experience all God’s promises and most of his resources only someday in the future. This will leave us with little hope for now. What is more, it might give us an overly pessimistic bent about world events now—thinking God is doing little presently. On the other hand, if we emphasize the already to the exclusion of the not yet, we may become overly optimistic about what we can now do and place ourselves at the peril of the remaining moral corruption in us, as well as a deceiving enemy that wants nothing more than to destroy us.
Consider some of the ways the already/not yet principle brings comfort, hope, balance, wisdom, and much needed sobriety:
· (1) God's saving reign, also known as his kingdom, has already partially arrived in Jesus Christ (Mk. 1:14-15). However, it has not yet full arrived (Zech. 14:9; Mt. 6:10; 15:24-28). To remember both helps us have hope now in the midst of world chaos. God, in Christ, is carrying out his salvation purpose in the world, he is in control, he is orchestrating all things together for the good of his people, and he is bring many under his saving reign and blessings. Yet, not all are part of that kingdom and so great evil still is present. We are encouraged, but also still earnestly await “our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
· (2) We have already been betrothed to our Beloved and so our future eternal communion with our Savior and Bridegroom bleeds in on our experience more and more as we grow in him (Eph. 5:32). Yet, we have not yet consummated our full eternal communion and bond with him (Rev. 21:1-2). Because of this, we experience sweet fellowship with him and find our hearts desiring him. Yet, we must be careful since we are still prone to run after other lovers (James 4:1-4; 1 John 2:15-17; 5:21).
· (3) God’s end-times community (the New Covenant Church) has already come into existence—displaying a foretaste of what it will be like to live in perfect Christ-accomplished and Spirit-empowered fellowship as his people (Eph. 2:11-22; 1 Peter 2:4-10). However, this community has not fully and perfectly come into existence. We still await a day when we will love each other perfectly, without sin and hurt, a day when we will enjoy this community perfectly (see Revelation 21-22). As such, we grasp the importance of the Church and would never dare seek to follow Jesus apart from each other—appreciating the help and support we have in such a society (Acts 20:28; 1 Thes. 5:14-15; Heb. 3:12-14; 10:24-25). After all, we are the embassy, the outpost of the kingdom in this hostile world. At the same time, we know that even in this body there will be hurt, pain, and disappointment since we all still stumble in so many ways (James 3:2-12). So, we find great comfort, but do not have overly inflated expectations.
· (4) Jesus Christ has already defeated Satan and his works so he cannot deceive and keep in darkness to the extent that he once did (Mt. 12:29; 2 Pt. 2:4; 1 Jn. 3:8; Jude 6; Rev. 12:8-9; 20:1-3). Yet, he has not yet been fully vanquished (Mt. 25:41; Rev. 20:14-15). What this means is that we can find strength and comfort in Jesus Christ that we might stand against Satan and his evil powers (Eph. 6:10), but we dare not take him lightly. Instead, we must actively resist him (James 4:7-8) and do this in the armor we have in Christ, never forgetting we are in a serious battle (Eph. 6:11-18).
· (5) Because of Jesus Christ’s saving work that has been accomplished for and applied to us, already we have been saved from the penalty of sin (John 3:16; 5:24; Rom. 8:1), we have been saved from its dominion and are being saved from its power (Rom. 6:1-14). However, we have not yet been saved from the presence of sin (Rom. 7:17; 1 John 1:8; Rev. 21:1-8). What this means is that the moral corruption we have inherited from Adam (this tendency to be our own god, to ignore our Savior, and to trust in and love anything and anyone above and beyond him) is no longer the king over our soul, our heart, and our actions. Instead, Christ and his grace reign over us. Sin does not have to dominate totally who we are and what we do. Nevertheless, this corruption, this sin, does still remain in us as an insurgent that carries out its very destructive terrorist campaigns in our mind, affections, will, and behavior.
· (6) Related to the previous point, we can say that the future new age has already bled in on our lives so that already all who are in Jesus Christ are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). However, we have not yet become the perfectly new creation who is able always to do the will of the Father without sin. That still awaits a future day (cf. Rom. 8:30; 1 John 3:1-2).
There is more we could say. However, I think you get the point of how this brings a rich perspective that should bring hope and encouragement, at the same time it prevents us from expecting from self or each other too much. It moves us to rest in our Savior so much now but also to expect an even greater deliverance and reward for the future. Though we will experience his blessings now in Christ, the blessings we have in him now are only a foretaste of what someday we will have!
So, don’t think this teaching is a ho-hum doctrine. It is one of those biblical realities that keep us on our feet and going forward as we live in this time in-between the two comings of our Lord, in this already/not yet period!