Dear Aunt Tracy: The Great End Time Debate Clarified for Busy Homemakers and Teens

Questions and answers about the millennium and about how to interpret OT prophecies of the coming Kingdom of God.

The question of the millennium is like the tip of an iceberg: All sorts of interesting materials lie hidden beneath the surface. This becomes especially clear when we take a quick look at the three main views of the end times popular among Christians today: Historic Premillennialism, Dispensational Premillennialism, and Amillennialism.

 

Actually, Aunt Tracy is my sister-in-law. However, she is indeed a busy (and most excellent) homemaker. For that reason—and also because she was delving into Isaiah at Ladies Bible Study Fellowship—she once asked me to write her something SHORT on the question of the millennium (i.e., the “1000” years of Revelation 20). Now, if you know me at all, you know I don’t do short. Nevertheless, I trust that the following letter—which was short by MY standards—proved helpful to her. I post it here in hopes that it will also be helpful to anyone else who is looking for a brief introduction (and proposed solution) to the Great End Time Debate.

Dear Aunt Tracy,

Thanks for asking me about the millennium, and about how to interpret OT prophecies of the coming Kingdom of God. Your question is both a challenge and an opportunity. It’s a challenge because this debate can get pretty complicated; and it’s an opportunity because explaining the gist of it in an uncomplicated manner could be quite helpful, not only to you, but also to many others who are unlikely to wade into big theological tomes on eschatology.1 So—keeping “short” ever before my eyes—I’m eager to begin.

Millennial Views

The question of the millennium is like the tip of an iceberg: All sorts of interesting materials lie hidden beneath the surface. This becomes especially clear when we take a quick look at the three main views of the end times popular among Christians today: Historic Premillennialism, Dispensational Premillennialism, and Amillennialism.

  1. Historic Premillennialism

In Latin “pre” means “before” and “millennium” means “1000 years.”  So premillennialism is the view that Christ will come again BEFORE a future 1000 year reign upon the earth with his saints (Rev. 20).

Why do premillennarians look for such a reign? Two main reasons. First and foremost, it’s because they feel they must interpret the OT prophecies of a coming Messianic Kingdom more or less literally. So if Isaiah and Micah speak of a day when the nations will worship God at a temple in Jerusalem on top of Mt. Zion, premillennarians look for a day when this will happen: literally (Isaiah 2, Micah 4). This brings us to the second reason. Since premillennarians know the NT doesn’t institute physical temple worship, and since they know we won’t worship that way in the New Heavens and the New Earth, they conclude that Revelation 20 must be giving us the special stage in world history when all such OT prophecies will be literally fulfilled. Note carefully what this means. It means that premillennarians believe the Kingdom of God enters history in three separate stages: 1) The present Church Era of Gospel Proclamation, 2) the Millennium, and 3) the eternal World to Come (the New Heavens and the New Earth).

Now, try not to panic, but here’s where things get a bit complicated. After centuries of Christian thinking and theorizing, we now have two kinds of Premillennialism: Historic and Dispensational. What’s more, we have two kinds of Historic Premillialism: New Covenant and Old Covenant. I’ll explain them as simply and briefly as I can.

  1. New Covenant (or Christian) Historic Premillennialism (NCHP)

This view was held by some of the early church fathers, such a Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. It has popped up from time to time throughout Church History. Today quite a number of theologians embrace it, men like Craig Blomberg, Wayne Grudem, Jim Hamilton, George Ladd, and John Piper.

According to NCHP, the Church is at the center of the millennial scenario. Here there is little or no emphasis on ethnic Israel, or on a millennial return to OT institutions such as Temple worship, animal sacrifices, and the observance of Feast Days, etc. Brothers of this persuasion believe that when OT prophecies seem to predict such things, they are actually speaking “mysteriously” (i.e., symbolically, figuratively) of life under the New Covenant, where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, but Christ is all and in all; where the various OT forms of worship are all fulfilled in Christ and give way to the NT worship of God in spirit and truth (John 4). I said above that premillennarians interpret Kingdom prophecies “more or less” literally. These brothers are in the “less” camp.

Nevertheless, they are still looking for a literal 1000 year reign of Christ upon a partially transformed earth, usually centered in an earthly Jerusalem. Here, then, is their overall view of the Consummation; that is, of the Second Coming of Christ, and of all that will happen thereafter it. Following a brief season of great tribulation, Christ will return to the earth to destroy the Antichrist and his followers, and to confine Satan to the abyss. Then he will resurrect both the OT and NT saints, transform the living saints, partially lift the curse from the world of nature, and welcome his glorified Church into the millennium, where she will rule with him for a literal 1000 years in a new (earthly) Jerusalem. His subjects will apparently be the children of believers and/or unbelievers who were designated to enter the millennium. Many will (come to) love and serve the Lord, but some will not. Therefore, at the end of the millennium Satan will be released to test the nations, and will succeed in stirring up a brief rebellion against Christ and his loyal saints. But God (or Christ) will step in to destroy such enemies, after which comes the second resurrection (of the wicked), the Last Judgment, and the creation of the World to Come, the eternal home of the redeemed.

Sound complicated? That’s because it is. But hold on, there’s hope!

  1. Old Covenant (or Jewish) Historic Premillennialism (OCHP)

Put these folks in the “more literal” camp. For in this kind of Historic Premillennialism ethnic Israel is very much at the center of things. Here the OT prophecies of a coming theocratic kingdom are interpreted quite literally, with the result that Christians of this school anticipate great things for the Jews: They will be converted in large numbers prior to (or at) Christ’s second coming, and then exalted to a special status in their Messiah’s millennial kingdom. Also, there will be a return to various OT ordinances. For example, an enormous millennial temple will be built, priests will offer animal sacrifices commemorating the work of Christ, and all nations will observe the various Jewish Feasts. This view became quite popular in the 19th century, and was defended by men like David Baron, George Peters, Charles Spurgeon, and Nathaniel West. Apart from this special emphasis on God’s plan for the Jews, it pictures the wrap up of Salvation History in much the same way as the proponents of NCHP.

Hopefully, Aunt Tracy, you are noticing that Historic Premillennarians have trouble deciding how to interpret OT prophecies of the Messiahs future kingdom. When, how, and how much should we interpret them literally, in terms of ethnic Israel and the nations? When, how, and how much should we interpret them figuratively, in terms of Christ, the New Covenant, and the Church? Trust me, in the Great End Time Debate, this is the THE crucial question!

Well, not to despair. Help is on the way. But first . . .

  1. Dispensational Premillennialism

Now brace yourself, because things are about to get even more complicated! That’s because since around 1850, a brother by the name of Charles Darby developed a new “dispensational” form of premillennialism. Through the influence of his denomination (the Plymouth Brethren) and their many prophetic conferences, this view has grown popular among many smaller Protestant churches and denominations. Famous dispensational premillennarians include John Hagee, David Jeremiah, Tim La Haye, Hal Lindsey, John MacArthur, Chuck Smith, Charles Stanley, Charles Swindoll, and John Walvoord.

Like it’s birth mother (Old Covenant Premillennialism), Dispensationalism interprets OT Kingdom prophecies quite literally, and therefore shows a similar interest in the future of ethnic Israel. However, this system goes even further, teaching that God actually has two different plans for two different people groups: an earthly plan for ethnic Israel, and a heavenly plan for his (largely Gentile) Church. Some dispensationalists even teach that this distinction will continue throughout all eternity!2

This understanding affects their view of the Consummation, since it requires them to further multiply the great end time events. Thus, dispensationalists teach that the glorified Christ will return THREE times: once at “the secret Rapture” (when Christ removes his heavenly people, the Church, to their heavenly home above); a second time at the end of a literal seven year tribulation, after which he introduces the millennium, where God’s predicted plans for his earthly people Israel are fulfilled at last; and a third and final time at the end of the millennium, when Christ administers the Last Judgment and brings in the new heavens and the new earth. Note carefully: In order to make all this work dispensationalists are forced to envision THREE separate resurrections and THREE different judgments! (For a diagram of dispensational eschatology, click here). If, then, God intended our blessed hope to be clear, simple, and sheep-friendly, I’m thinking this cannot possibly be it.

A Brief Time Out

Now, let’s pause for a moment and think about premillennialism in general. If you’ve been reading your NT carefully, you’ve got to be puzzled by these premillennial scenarios. I know they puzzled me, for they were all saying that in the future millennium we are going to go backwards: backwards to the OT Law, and to what life was like in OT times!

But surely this is not the NT view. In fact, the NT explicitly teaches the opposite! For example, it repeatedly says that the Mosaic Law has been fulfilled by Christ and the New Covenant, and is therefore now obsolete (Mt. 9:14-17, Heb. 8:13). It tells us that from now on God’s people will not worship him on Mt. Zion, or in earthly Jerusalem, or in a temple made of stone, but in spirit and  in truth (John 4:15-26); that now they are citizens of the Jerusalem above (Gal. 4:26, Heb. 12:22f). It tells us that the Israelite theocracy has given way, once and for all, to a spiritual Kingdom in which there is no longer any distinction between Jew and Gentile (Gal. 3:28, Eph. 2:14f, Col. 1:13). It tells us that the reign of the Messiah promised in the OT now emanates from heaven above, and not from the earth beneath (Acts 2:29ff, Col. 3:1f). It tells us that we need the NT to understand the Old (Mt. 13:10-17). And it tells us that there is a veil over the OT, and over our eyes as well, a veil that only the NT and the Holy Spirit can remove (2 Cor. 3). If, then, the NT tells us to interpret OT prophecy figuratively, and if it tells us that we are NOT going back, then surely we are NOT going back!

Also, believers whose minds are saturated in the NT cannot help but feel that to a great or lesser degree all forms of premillennialism needlessly complicate the true biblical picture of Consummation. Why? Because they teach that the Kingdom of God enters history in three stages, rather than two. But this in turn forces premillennarians to multiply (sometimes two-fold, sometimes three) the comings, resurrections, judgments, and transformations of nature that are biblically associated with the return of Christ at the end of the age. Happily, as you study the NT you will find that it actually teaches a far simpler view of the Consummation. That view is called Amillennialism.

  1. Amillennialism

From the very beginning of the NT era this has been the majority view of the Christian Church, especially since the days of Athanasius and Augustine. It appears in the most of the ancient creeds (e.g. the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed) and the doctrinal standards of all the major denominations: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Methodist. Though it is presently the minority position among evangelical Protestants, the current revival of interest in classic Protestant theology is definitely causing its stock to rise! Modern amillennial Bible teachers include Greg Beale, Mark Dever, Anthony Hoekema, Dennis Johnson, Kim Riddlebarger, and Sam Storms.

The word amillennialism means “no millennium.” In a way, the term is unfortunate, since, as we shall see, amillennialism does not deny the existence of a millennium, only that it is a future, literal 1000 year reign of Christ on earth. For this reason some prefer to call it Realized Millennialism, or Present-Millennialism. The big idea here is that we’re living in the millennium now!

Well, Aunt Tracy, this is where you finally get some relief. For it turns out that amillennialism is very easy to understand, and very easy to defend from the NT. I’ll introduce it to you briefly, first by giving you it’s idea of the Kingdom of God, and then of the Consummation.

Amillennialism teaches that the Kingdom of God is a distinctly spiritual reign of God and Christ, entered by the new birth and faith in Christ and the Gospel (Mt. 13:1f, John 3:1f, Rom. 14:17, Col. 1:13). As we learn from the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, and from many other NT texts as well, this reign enters into the world in just two stages: 1) the present heavenly reign of the exalted Christ over his born-again children, and 2) the future eternal kingdom of God the Father (and Christ) in the new heavens and the new earth. A great many NT passages explicitly represent the Kingdom in this simple, two-fold manner, and all NT teaching about the end times presupposes it (Mt. 24-25, Luke 19:11f; 1 Cor. 15:20-28; Eph. 1:15-23; Col. 3:1f; etc.). For a diagram illustrating the two-staged Kingdom of God, please click here.

Now here is the part I love, the part where my heart comes home at last. For what is it that separates the two stages of the Kingdom? What is the hinge on which the world swings out of this present evil age, and into the glorious eternal age to come? It is the one Consummation of all things (Mt. 24:14, 1 Cor. 15:24, 1 Pet. 4:7). And at the center of this momentous event is the one coming again of the glorified Lord Jesus Christ, both to judge and to redeem, consummately. At that time Christ will descend from heaven bodily, in great power and glory, to raise the dead, transform the living saints, gather all sentient beings (both men and angels) before his throne in the air, judge the world in righteousness, destroy the earth and its works with fire, and then settle his beloved Bride in the new heavens and a new earth, the eternal home of the redeemed. It is very impressive to see how many NT passages consistently anticipate this one majestic coming again of the Lord Jesus Christ (Mt. 13, 24-25, 1 Cor. 15, Phil. 3:17-21, 1 Thess. 4, 2 Thess. 2, 2 Pet. 3). For a list of all the major NT texts dealing with the Consummation, click here. For a chart showing that all the great end-time events occur at Christ’s Second Coming, click here.

I sincerely hope, Aunt Tracy, that you will take some time to read all the Scriptures cited above. And as you do, I also hope and pray that the Holy Spirit will open your wondering eyes to the simplicity, beauty, power of the amillennial understanding of the Kingdom of God.

Making Sense of the Millennium

But if the Kingdom of God comes in just two stages, what are we to make of the millennium? The solution is not difficult. As a close reading of Revelation 20 will show, John is not speaking of a future earthly reign of Christ, but rather of the era of his present heavenly reign. He is speaking of the Church era, the time between Christ’s first and second advents.

The Structure of the Revelation

One important way to see this is to understand the structure of the Revelation as a whole, and especially chapters 6-20. (For a helpful chart, click here.) This large section of the Revelation is aptly entitled The Course of the Heavenly King’s Reign. As many commentators have observed, here Christ’s heavenly reign is described six separate times, in six parallel large-scale visions that draw heavily upon OT language and imagery to express NT truth.

They are: 1) The Six Seals (chapter 6, followed by a sneak preview of the World to Come in chapter 7); 2) The Seven Trumpets (chapters 8-11); 3) The Woman and the Dragon (chapters 12-14); 4) The Seven Bowls (chapters 15-16); 5) The Fall of the Dragon’s Helpers (chapters 17-19); and 6) The 1000 Years (chapter 20).

That this is the true structure of the Revelation is easily seen from the fact that towards the end of each of these six visions we often receive a symbolic description of the Last Battle (i.e., the final conflict between Christ and Satan, the Church and the World), and always receive a depiction of the resurrection and/or the last judgment at Christ’s return.

Now, bearing all this in mind, let’s take a quick look at the sixth and final vision of this section of the Revelation, the vision of The 1000 Years (Rev. 20). Again, be sure to remember that all through the Revelation the Holy Spirit was pleased to use OT ideas and images to re-convey important NT truths about the course and character of Christ’s spiritual kingdom under the New Covenant.

Revelation 20:1-3: The Binding of Satan for “1000” Years

Here John tells us that at the beginning of the Church era Satan is bound FROM DECEIVING THE NATIONS ANY LONGER. Prior to Christ’s first coming, those nations were largely in his grip (Luke 4:6). Now, however, the fullness of time has come; now Christ has died and risen again; now God’s redemptive activity can finally overflow the borders of Israel; now the gospel can go forth to all nations; now Satan can be cast out, and God’s elect children brought in, without fail (John 12:20-36).

So then: The message here is carefully circumscribed. During the period between Christ’s two advents, Satan is not swept off the stage of history into the abyss. Rather, he will indeed remain present and active in the world, but with respect to the progress of the gospel among the elect, he is completely bound, for his authority over them has been completely shattered (Mt. 12; John 12; Rev. 12). Yes, at the end of the age, he will be released for a little while in order to deceive the inhabitants of the earth once again. But here too he is bound: Until that time comes, God will keep him from gathering the nations together against the Church for the Last Battle.

As for the duration of the era between the two advents of Christ, the Holy Spirit here represents it as “1000 years”. This number, like all the numbers in the Revelation, is symbolic. It symbolizes both magnitude and divine completeness (10 x 10 x 10). In other words, in giving us this number the Holy Spirit wanted the saints to know that Christ will not return quickly; that there will be a long time between his first and second advents. But he also wanted us to know that this longish time will be purposeful and fruitful, for in it the triune God will complete the ingathering of his Church through the preaching of the Gospel, which the exalted Christ himself spearheads from his throne above (Mt. 28:18f, Acts 2:1f, Rev. 6:1-2).

Revelation 20:4-6: The Reign of the Saints for “1000” Years  

Concerning the reign of the saints spoken of here, notice first that John sees the souls of faithful saints ruling with their Lord. This is not an earthly reign, but a heavenly. These saints are “reigning in life” with Christ (Rom. 5:17); that is, having completed their earthly course victoriously, they now reign victoriously in heaven over all the dark powers that formerly accosted them on the earth. This is the meaning of “the first resurrection.” At the moment of their death, faithful saints, already risen to newness of life in Christ (John 11, Rom. 6), now rise to the perfection of that life in heaven. Also, once in heaven, “judgment is given to them,” not in the sense that they henceforth share in Christ’s present heavenly reign over the nations (and certainly not that they will reign with him on the earth in a future millennium). Rather, at his coming they will participate in the final judgment of the world (Dan. 7; Rom. 16:20; 1 Cor. 61f; Rev. 3:26-27, 19:11-15). In sum, the great purpose of this portion of Revelation 20 is to encourage the Church Militant to be faithful until death, at which time great blessings await them in heaven, blessings that include a central role in the Last Judgment at Christ’s return.

Revelation 20:7-11: The Last Battle and the Judgment of Satan at the End of the “1000” Years 

At the end of the “1000 years” (i.e., the end of the Church era and the present evil age), the devil will be released to deceive the nations one final time, thereby inciting a final battle between Satan and Christ, the world and the Church (Gen. 3:15). This solemn theme pervades the Revelation and is found in other portions of the OT and NT as well (Rev. 11:7-10, 16:12-16, 19:17-21; Dan. 9; Ezek. 38-39; Zech. 11-12; Mt. 24; 2 Thess. 2). Every text in which this theme appears makes it clear that the Last Battle will brief, cut short by the coming again of Christ in power and glory to rescue his own. According to the apostle Paul, this is one of the two or three great signs by which latter day believers may know that Christ’s return is very near, even at the door (2 Thess. 2).

Revelation 20:11-15: The Last Judgment of All Mankind at the End of the “1000” Years

As the NT teaches pervasively, the return of Christ leads immediately to a general bodily resurrection of the dead, after which comes the Last Judgment. Christ himself will administer it, seated upon his throne in the air above the earth. Here, as elsewhere in the NT, we see all men (and angels) gathered before him. While all are judged according to their works, salvation itself is by God’s sovereign grace, through faith in Christ. All who who have trusted in the High King of Heaven will find their names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Gladly and gratefully, they will descend with him to a glorious new earth, the eternal home of the redeemed (Revelation 21:1f).

Understanding OT Kingdom Prophecy

We have seen that the NT does not leave room for a third, millennial stage of the Kingdom. We have also seen that it declares the Mosaic Law—now fulfilled in Christ—to be obsolete. What then are we to make of the many OT Kingdom prophecies that seem to predict an eternal, universal Mosaic theocracy?3

Christ and the apostles themselves point the way.

On the one hand, they teach us what the Kingdom really is: the direct spiritual reign of God, through Christ, by the Spirit, over a redeemed people who, through faith, have been transferred from the Domain of Darkness into the spiritual Kingdom of God’s beloved Son. This reign appears in two stages that are separated by a single Parousia of Christ at the end of the age (Mt. 13:36-43; John 3:1f; Col. 1:13).

On the other hand, having revealed to us the true nature of the Kingdom, Christ and the apostles implicitly tell us what the Kingdom is not: It is not an eternal Mosaic theocracy. For the Mosaic theocracy was simply a temporary picture or “shadow” of the Christ-centered spiritual Kingdom that now has come, and soon will come in its fullness (Col. 2:16-17; Heb. 9:1f).

Therefore it is clear that we must interpret OT Kingdom prophecy figuratively or “typologically.” That is, we must understand that in former times the Spirit of God moved the prophets to speak in “types and shadows”; to use language and imagery drawn from the history and institutions of the Mosaic Law in order to depict the two-fold spiritual Kingdom that would be introduced and unveiled by Christ and the New Covenant.

Accordingly, when we come across a particular OT Kingdom prophecy, we must put on our NT glasses in order to see how it is fulfilled either in Christ’s heavenly reign, or in the new heavens and new earth, or in both. As the NT itself makes abundantly clear, this is exactly what Christ’s writing apostles did.4

To get a feel for how this works let’s look very briefly at a couple such prophecies.

Psalm 2

Imagine you’re a Jew living in the time of King David, or in the days prior to Pentecost. You read Psalm 2 and conclude, naturally enough, that one day soon the LORD will raise up a mighty Israelite king, install him on the earthly Zion, and grant him such military success that in the end all nations will either humble themselves before him and his God, or perish. In this way God’s coming Messianic king will extend the reign of the LORD (and the Law of the LORD) over the whole earth.

When, however, you read the NT, you realize from any number of passages that David’s prophecy actually has a heavenly fulfillment in Christ and his Church (Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5, 5:5). God the Father, having exalted the incarnate Christ to his own right hand, has “begotten” him as the First-born Son over the whole household of God; indeed, over the whole creation itself (Heb. 1:1f, 3:6). Even now Christ reigns, not upon the earthly Zion, but the heavenly (Heb. 12:22). Even now, through the preaching of the Gospel, God is giving him the (believing) nations as his inheritance (Rev. 5:9). Therefore, even now all kings—and all peoples—are wise to “kiss” the Son in faith and obedience, before he returns in judgment to shatter the rebels like vessels of clay (Rev. 2:37, 12:5, 19:15).

Like the Jews of old, premillennarians interpret Psalm 2 basically literally, believing that God said exactly what he meant. Like the apostles, amillennarians interpret it spiritually, in terms of Christ, the Gospel, and the Church. They affirm that God did indeed mean what he said, but also that he did not say all that he meant. To understand Psalm 2 we need to see through “New Covenant Eyes”, as amillennarians strive to do.

Psalm 110

As with Psalm 2, so here: Take it at face value and you must conclude that in days ahead God will raise up a Royal Priest who, having gathered to himself a mighty army of zealous young warriors, will extend the reign of the LORD from Zion over all nations—leaving no impenitent enemy to survive.

When, however, we consult the NT, we repeatedly learn that the fulfillment of this prophecy is not earthly and physical, but heavenly and spiritual. When the exalted Christ entered heaven, God the Father sat him down at his own right hand, making him the eternal King and High Priest of his believing people. Through the work of the Spirit and the preaching of the Gospel, these believers will “volunteer freely” to serve their Lord in “the Day of his power” (i.e., throughout his heavenly mediatorial reign). When at last their mission is accomplished, Christ will come again in judgment to “shatter the head over a broad country” (i.e., Satan), and place every other spiritual and physical enemy under his feet, including death itself.

Psalm 110 is, then, still another picture of the course, character, and consummation of Christ’s heavenly reign, couched in the language of the OT Law (Acts 2:34-35, 3:19-24; 1 Cor. 15:20-28; Eph. 1:15-23).

Isaiah 11:1-9

Premillenarians enthusiastically claim this famous Kingdom prophecy for their own, arguing that it gives us a picture of world conditions during a future millennial reign of Christ on earth. However, here Isaiah says nothing about Christ living upon the earth, nor anything about his ruling for 1000 years. With eyes schooled by the NT, we can, however, see in verses 1-5 the entire course of Christ’s redemptive mission, from his incarnation, to his heavenly reign, to his second coming, at which time he will judge the world in righteousness by the rod of his mouth and the breath of his lips (see 2 Thess. 2:8). Then, in verses 6-9, we find the Spirit using OT images of divine blessing to picture the second stage of the Kingdom, the new heavens and the new earth that Christ himself will create. In picturesque language that would resonate in the hearts of his OT saints, God is pleased to call this glorious new world “all My holy mountain” (Phil. 3:21; Isaiah 65:25; Heb. 12:18-24; Rev. 14:1-5, 21:10).

Micah 4:1-4 (Isaiah 2:1-4)

Here is another favorite among premillenarians. And it must be admitted that a strictly literal reading of this prophecy bids us look for a (BIG) latter day temple, situated upon an earthly Mt. Zion, to which Gentile nations will stream, and from which the Mosaic Law will somehow go forth until, at last, the final judgments of the LORD bring in his perfected kingdom.

But again, the NT invites us to adopt a deeper, more spiritual understanding.

Seeing, for example, that the events predicted here are set in “the last days,” we know that they pertain to the things of Christ (Heb. 1:11; Pet. 1:10-12). Likewise, we understand from the NT that the OT temple was merely a picture of the eternal habitation of God: Christ and his Body, the Church (John 2:19; Acts 7:48-50, Eph. 2:21-22). From this we conclude that the “law” (or instruction) that goes forth from Zion is really the gospel, sent down by Christ from the Jerusalem above, and disseminated by his gospel heralds in such a way that many nations of believing peoples “go up” in spirit and in truth to worship him there (John 4:21-24). One day soon he will return in judgment, so that ever after his peace-loving children may sit, each under his own vine and under his own fig tree, in the beautiful, fruitful new world to come.

Does God’s Use of Figurative Language Make Him a Deceiver?

Our premillennnarian brethren often ask, “If God gave us dozens of OT predictions about the first coming of Christ which all were literally fulfilled, how, in the case of OT prophecies of his Kingdom, can you say they are spiritually and figuratively fulfilled? In the former he trains us to take his word literally. If in the latter he was speaking symbolically, would he not be deceiving his OT people, and us as well?”

This is an excellent question, one that I have addressed here. The short answer is: The NT requires us to distinguish between two kinds of OT prophecy: Simple and Kingdom. Simple OT prophecies, which include various predictions about Christ’s first coming (e.g., his virgin birth, the place of his birth, his miraculous ministry, his atoning death on the cross, his resurrection), were literally fulfilled. They had to be, so that the Church would have a body of prophetic evidence by which to preach the Gospel, especially to God’s OT people, the Jews (Rom. 16:25-17). However, OT prophecies of the Kingdom that Christ would introduce after his earthly ministry were veiled. That is, they employ OT language and imagery in order to speak figuratively of spiritual realities now introduced by the New Covenant (2 Cor. 3, Col. 2:16f, Heb. 8-9).

Does this make God a deceiver? Not at all. For though it pleased him to hide the exact nature of the New Covenant realities from his OT saints, he nevertheless spoke the truth to them in OT Kingdom Prophecy, and did so in such a way that must have filled their hearts with great encouragement. Furthermore, today, in the NT, we have all we need to “decode” those prophecies, for Christ and the apostles, in many places, teach us how to do so.

I would ask my premillennarian brothers to consider: Is not God at liberty to bring his truth to his people in a form that pleases him? What if it pleased him somewhat to veil the truth of the coming Kingdom in order to reserve for his Son the honor of drawing back that veil himself (2 Cor. 3:7-18, Heb. 1:1): the honor of disclosing the “true truth” about the Kingdom (Mt. 13), the honor of illuminating the minds of the saints once for all (Luke 24:44-45), and the honor of opening their eyes to the deep, underlying substance of the Law and the Prophets: the Person and work Christ (John 5:39, 45-46)? While we may not fully understand all of God’s ways in the OT, surely we know enough from the NT not to quarrel with them.

Conclusion

Aunt Tracy, just in case this letter is too short, let me add a few final words of encouragement.

I definitely get it that eschatology is a bit complicated and a lot controversial. But that’s because it is deep, important, and potentially life-changing. If so, you can be sure our adversary the devil will do all in his power to keep us in the dark about it.

Do we want to understand God’s plan of salvation? Do we want to behold the true course and character of Salvation History? Do we want to understand and enjoy the Old Testament? Do we want a clear, inspiring picture of our Blessed Hope: the Coming again of Christ, and all the amazing, awesome, wonderful things he will do when he comes?

If so, we’ve got to wrestle with eschatology. Here then, in a summary paragraph, are my concluding thoughts on the whole matter:

I believe that the mystery of the spiritual, two-staged Kingdom of God introduced by the New Covenant—the mystery that God planned before the foundation of the world, and that Jesus and his apostles unveiled to us all (Mt. 13)—is the Master Key that will one day fully resolve the Great End Time Debate. That’s because it opens up just about everything of importance in the study of eschatology: the proper interpretation of OT Kingdom prophecy, the structure and theme of the Revelation, the meaning of the millennium, and the nature and purpose of the Consummation at the end of the age.

Small wonder, then, that in teaching us about these mysteries, our Lord himself said, “Blessed are your eyes, because they see. For many righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it; and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Mt. 13:17).

So then: Let us ponder these things often and with great care, understanding that in them Christ has indeed placed a precious key in our hands; a key that turns ordinary folk like you and me into NT scribes, so that we might bring out of his great treasury of divine wisdom things both old and new—and so feed and enrich the world.5

Notes

  1. Eschatology is the study of “the last things.” As a rule, the focus of biblical eschatology is on “the last days,” on the events set to occur at the end of the present evil age. But technically “the last days” began with the incarnation of God’s Son, and will last for all eternity (Acts 2:17, Heb. 1:2). For a list of books dealing with biblical eschatology, see note 5 below.
  2. However, the NT disagrees. Christ himself declares that henceforth and forevermore elect Jews and Gentiles are one flock with one shepherd (John 10). The apostle Paul says that God has broken down the middle wall of partition between the two peoples once and for all (Eph. 2:11-18), and that together they constitute a single olive tree in His sight (Rom. 11). John, in the Revelation, depicts the OT and NT people of God as one woman: the Mother of the Living and the Bride of Christ (Rev. 12). Here is excellent material for further study among Good Bereans!
  3. One major problem with premillennial views is that the OT prophecies of a coming theocratic Kingdom do not limit it to 1000 years, but instead depict it as enduring forever (Is. 65:18; Jer. 17:25; Ezek. 37:25, 43:7). Therefore, the millennial solution is really no solution at all.
  4. Here is a list of NT texts in which we find Christ’s apostles interpreting OT Kingdom prophecies in terms of Christ, the New Covenant, and the Church. I have placed those of special interest in bold print.Acts 2:33-35, 7:44-50, 13:46-47, 15:12-21; Rom. 9:19-26, 10:12-13, 11:25-27; 2 Cor.6:1-2, 14-18Gal. 4:26-27. Of very special importance is Jeremiah 31:31f, cited in Hebrews 8. Here God and the prophet caution Israel (and us as well) against anticipating the presence of the Mosaic Law in the days of the Kingdom. This, in turn, should incline us to adopt a more figurative approach to the entire OT, an approach that sees the New Covenant mystically foreshadowed in the Old. In the book of Hebrews, the inspired author consistently does this very thing.
  5. For further study on eschatology, see my book The High King of Heaven,and also the excellent work by Anthony Hoekema, called The Bible and the Future(Eerdmans). For an inspiring exegetical and devotional commentary on the Revelation, see William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors (Baker). For further study of amillennialism, click here.

Dean Davis is the Director of Come Let Us Reason. This article is used with permission.