According to the Biblical view of reality there are two ages: this
present evil age, and the age to come (Matt. 12:32; Gal. 1:4, Eph. 1:21). These two
ages provide an overarching framework for understanding our identity as
Christians. The unbelieving world around us denies that there is any such thing
as an age to come, and invests all of its energy in attempting to improve
this present evil age. Unbelievers therefore find their identity in and have
their thinking shaped by the earthly-minded values and fleeting prospects of
We, as Christians, on the other hand, live not for this passing world but
for the glory of the age to come, the new heavens and the new earth in
which righteousness dwells, and where the glory of the triune God will engulf
the cosmos that God may be all in all. Our minds and our identity are shaped by
a transcendent reality the eschatological glory of God's eternal reign in
heaven. These two ages, then, are all-encompassing in their scope and determine
our ultimate priorities. Every individual is living in and for one of these
ages pursuing the glory of self or the glory of God, living for earth or for heaven,
for the city of man or the city of God.
This two-age view of reality takes on an additional twist in the New
Testament. According to the teaching of Jesus in the gospels, the age to come
(or the Kingdom of God) has arrived earlier than expected (Mark 1:15; Luke
17:20-21). The powers of the age to come have intruded into history in the
person and work of Jesus Christ, in his incarnation, death, and resurrection.
And those who by faith are united to Christ have been transferred from this
present evil age into the power of the eschatological age of the Spirit. They
have entered the Kingdom of God.
The Tension of the 'Already' and the 'Not-Yet'
As real and life-changing as the arrival of the eschatological Kingdom
is, however, we who are believers in Christ have not yet arrived to its fullness.
For those who have been transferred into the age to come by the Spirit still
dwell on earth in the flesh. This creates a tension in the Christian life. On the
one hand, we have been raised with Christ and seated with him in the
heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). On the other hand, we are yet groaning in mortal tents as
we suffer in this present age, longing for the glory of the resurrection (2 Cor.
5:1-5). In other words, the age to come overlaps the present age, creating a
temporary eschatological tension in the period between the two comings of Christ.
Paul speaks of this tension in the following terms: "Though our outer man is
decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day" (2 Cor. 4:16).
Sound and Unsound Approaches
Redemptive-historical preaching begins with this two-age
understanding of the Christian life. It strives to bring the hearers into a fuller awareness
of their position in Christ: already raised with Christ, yet groaning in this
present age and longing for the second coming of Christ. The implications of
the believer's eschatological and Christ-centered identity are comprehensive
and practical. It is the redemptive historical preacher's goal to bring out
those implications ("applications") from every text of Scripture.
This approach differs dramatically from the contemporary
preaching method I call "the application bridge." This is the misguided attempt to
make Scripture relevant by crossing the chasm between the ancient text and
the modern world by building man-made application bridges.
Redemptive-historical preaching denies the existence of the chasm in the first place, thus
eliminating the need to "make" Scripture relevant or applicable. The text does
not contain certain abstract principles or ideas that can be extracted,
processed, and then applied to our situation. Rather, the text itself is an extension of
the incarnation. In the history of redemption in the Old Covenant, God has
ordained a typological anticipation of the coming of Christ in the flesh. And
the text of the New Covenant is the apostolic proclamation of the fulfillment of
the Old Covenant history and the inauguration of a new creation by Christ.
United to Christ by means of the text, we live and move and have our being, not in
this present evil age which is passing away, but in Christ himself.
If we take the application bridge approach, we are in effect denying
that our lives are hidden with Christ in God. We would be saying that our lives
are ultimately tied to this passing evil age, rather than to the eschatological
Kingdom to which we are bound by our union with the
crucified-but-now-exalted Christ. The application bridge denies union with
Christ with the Christ in whose death we were severed/crucified from this corrupt, present evil age
(Gal. 6:14) and in whose resurrection we have ascended into the incorruptibility
and glory of the age to come.
The application bridge says that we must derive certain timeless
principles or moral applications form the text, then process them through a
Kantian grid that enables them to be conveyed in a contemporary form applicable
to our current needs as modern men and women. Thus, the people of God
are united not to Christ and his death and resurrection, but to a
philosophical system of principle, extraction and translation.
Most evangelical preachers today have succumbed to the problematic
of the application bridge and thus they essentially deny that the text is the
God-ordained means of uniting us with Christ by faith. Their preaching
method belies a spirit of unbelief. For them the text is insufficient unless it is
periodically updated or made relevant to the contemporary situation. But they fail
to realize that this contemporary situation will ultimately pass away and is therefore itself doomed to irrelevance. The redemptive historical preacher, by
contrast, believes that the age to come is abiding, and therefore it alone is
Hebrews: A Case Study
I have found that when I discuss my philosophy of preaching with
those who take an application-bridge approach, the issue of the Epistle to the
Hebrews often emerges. Hebrews is clearly an example of a sermon from
the apostolic age. The author identifies his epistle as "a word of exhortation"
(Heb. 13:22), a description applied in Acts 13:15 to Paul's sermon at the synagogue
in Pisidian Antioch. If Hebrews is a sermon, then we ought to consider the kind
of application that Hebrews employs. I would argue that the applications of
Hebrews should not be characterized as the building of application bridges,
but as redemptive historical applications. There are at least three differences
between Hebrews and modern preaching.
(1) REDEMPTIVE-HISTORICAL POSITION: The application bridge
method assumes that there is a profound and ugly chasm between the ancient text
and the modern world. The author of Hebrews assumes that the saints of the
Old Covenant and those he is addressing stand in the same
redemptive-historical position pilgrims between the exodus and the inheritance, that is,
between two ages, the already and the not-yet. (There is a difference, to be sure,
since the church stands at the end of the ages, and her "already" is the
realized eschatology of fulfillment, rather than the realized eschatology of
typology and promise. But that difference only serves to underscore our
fundamental unity with the Old Testament saints Heb. 11:39-40.)
(2) VERTICAL vs. HORIZONTAL: The application bridge method strives
to develop applications that are contextually relevant to the contemporary
situation in this passing age. The author of Hebrews applies his sermon by
taking his hearers and placing them in their heavenly environment and situation,
that is, to the age to come. He tells them that they have come to Mount Zion,
that they have a Great High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary made without
hands, that they have here no abiding city but one which is to come, whose
builder and maker is God, etc. The difference here is as antithetical as the two ages themselves. Thus, the direction of the application bridge is horizontal
(from ancient text to modern world), while the direction of the author or Hebrews
is vertical (from this passing world to the heavenly world above).
(3) INDICATIVE-GROUNDED IMPERATIVE vs. BARE IMPERATIVE:
The application bridge method, having erected the bridge, then invites the
hearers to cross that bridge by means of acts of obedience (that is, by works).
The author of Hebrews calls, warns, urges, and exhorts his hearers not to do
something in the first place but to lay hold of their heavenly position by faith.
The constant exhortation/application of Hebrews is to faith, that is, to enter
the heavenly Sabbath rest (4:1-11) of that inheritance which has already
been achieved by Christ's meritorious works. Only once this faith-application
has been established with crystal clarity in the first twelve chapters, does
the author then make specific calls to live in light of that heavenly reality by
loving the brethren (13:1), honoring marriage (13:4), obeying their leaders (13:17),
etc. In other words, the call to obedience is grounded in and flows from
their heavenly position which has been grasped by faith. Obedience does not
cause one to enjoy one's heavenly position. Only faith does. But if one's
heavenly position is a reality, then one's life must be in accord with that reality.
A Specific Example-Hebrews 10:25
Let's apply what we have said by looking at the specific example of
the command to "not forsake the assembling of yourselves together" (Heb.
10:25). The application bridge method might argue something along these lines: In
the ancient world of the Old Covenant people of God, believers would go to
an ornate temple of gold and precious stones to worship God. But now, in
our modern world, we no longer have temples. Therefore, the modern
application of Old Testament temple worship is to go to church. Now you people tend to
be late to church. So make sure you set your alarm clock and give yourself
plenty of time to get ready! What is missing in the above? The awesome statement
in vv. 19-22 that "we have boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus,
by a new and living way which he consecrated for us through the veil, that is,
his flesh . . . ." The author of Hebrews does not tell his hearers that they are
unlike the Old Testament saints in that they do not have a temple. No, he tells them that they are just like them, since they are entering the inner sanctuary itself
by the blood of Jesus (point 1 above same redemptive historical position).
But he goes a step further, for in fact, they are in a better position than
the Old Testament saints: they have a heavenly (not an earthly) temple, to
which they (not just the high priest once a year) may enter with boldness (not
with fear). The application is not horizontal but vertical (point 2). And thus, the
call to go to church is really a call not to do something that they really don't
want to do (getting up early on Sunday morning), but to lay hold of their
heavenly position in Christ, thus doing by faith what they already are. The
application then is to faith to believe that they have a new and living way, and a
great High Priest in heaven; to believe that their hearts have been sprinkled from
an evil conscience and their bodies have been washed with pure water and
thus to enjoy this heavenly position by not forsaking the assembling of
themselves together (point 3).
What, then, is redemptive historical
preaching? It is preaching which strives to imitate the preaching of the New Testament itself by making
applications that are determined by the redemptive historical, eschatological,
and Christocentric nature of the text. Applications which merely build a bridge
from the ancient text to the modern world leave the people of God still in the
hopelessness of the present age. Applications which show them who they are
in Christ (indicative), and which exhort them to live in light of the implications
of that union with Christ (imperative), bring the people of God into the
heavenly arena of the glory of the age to come.
Redeemer Orthodox Presbyterian Chapel
Van Nuys, California
* Reprinted with permission from
The Presbyterian Banner, magazine of the
Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, August 2000.