Is the Russian invasion of Ukraine a prelude to the fulfillment of Ezekiel 38-39? Does it portend the Rapture of the Church, the conversion of 144,000 Jewish evangelists, the onset of the Tribulation, the Battle of Armageddon, and the return of the Lord to set up his millennial kingdom in the holy land? In this essay, extracted from my forthcoming book on biblical eschatology (The Great End Time Debate), I reply (indirectly) to those questions with an amillennial interpretation of Ezekiel’s Last Battle. May it remind the Church of the words of her Lord: “You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars: See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but the end is not yet at hand” (Matt. 24:6). May it steady her soul to continue in a soundly biblical hope, and to occupy until he comes (Luke 19:13). 

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These mysterious chapters give us Ezekiel’s famous prophecy of the Deception, Destruction, and Disposal of Israel’s great eschatological enemy: Gog and his confederation of evil armies. In the latter days, by divine decree, they all will go up against a people fully restored to the LORD and his covenant blessings, thinking to annihilate them and seize their homeland. But it is Gog and his armies who will be annihilated. Under furious strokes of divine judgment they will suffer complete and everlasting destruction upon the mountains of Israel.

How shall we understand this prophecy?

The answer from our premillennarian brethren is predictable, yet problematic. Embracing prophetic literalism, they argue that Ezekiel is foreseeing a military war against latter day Jews who are spiritually renewed and happily resettled in their ancestral homeland. But once again there are telling disagreements within the premillennial camp. Some, following the lead of Revelation 20:7-9, place this battle at the end of the Millennium. Others say it will take place just prior to Christ’s Second Coming and the onset the Millennium. This, however, forces the latter group to explain why Ezekiel has the Messiah living in the land before the Last Battle, rather than coming to it afterwards (Ezek. 37:24-25).

There are other problems as well, and of the same kind that appear throughout all Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP). As we have seen, the conspicuous and repeated use of figurative language in these texts warns us against prophetic literalism. But if, in the case before us, that warning is ignored, Ezekiel’s vision is immediately seen to conflict with other OT prophecies of the Last Battle, entangles us in historical and geographical anachronisms, and plunges us into incredulity. For consider: Would (or could) modern armies bring wooden weapons to the field of battle? Would there be enough such weapons for a nation of millions to use them as fuel for seven years (Ezek. 39:9)? If all the people of the land worked daily for seven months to bury the bodies of their defeated foes, how many millions of corpses would there have to be (Ezek. 39:13)? How could the Israelites bear the stench or avoid the spread of plague and disease?

No, prophetic literalism cannot be the key to understanding our text; but if not, what is? The Didactic New Testament (DNT) points the way. As we have seen, according to the NT the Kingdom of God enters history in two stages: a temporary spiritual Kingdom of the Son, followed by an eternal spiritual and physical Kingdom of the Father (Matt. 13:36-43). Sandwiched between the two stages of the one Kingdom is the Last Battle: a final global clash between the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of Satan, during which, for a brief moment, it will appear to all the world that the Lord’s Church has been destroyed. But nothing could be farther from the truth, for in fact the Last Battle is the sign and trigger of the Consummation of all things: No sooner has it begun, than Christ himself comes again to rescue his Bride, destroy his enemies, and usher in the eternal Kingdom of the Father (and the Son).

These NT mysteries richly illumine large portions of the book of Ezekiel, including our text. In chapters 33-37 Ezekiel prophesies about the Days of the Messiah, and about the great spiritual renewal that he will accomplish among God’s people. Here the prophet is using covenantally conditioned language to speak of the Era of Gospel Proclamation, during which the Father will bring “the Israel of God” into the spiritual Kingdom of his Son (Gal. 6:16). Later on, in chapters 40-48, Ezekiel encourages the saints with visions of the eschaton (or final state): the Everlasting Temple (40-42), the Everlasting Glory (43), the Everlasting Worship (43-46), the Everlasting Wholeness (47), the Everlasting Homeland (47-48:29), and the Everlasting City (48:30-35). In these chapters he is using covenantally conditioned language to picture the glorified Church in the eternal World to Come. And what is sandwiched between these two great blocs of prophecy? You have guessed correctly: A covenantally conditioned picture of the Last Battle and the Consummation, cast as the Deception, Destruction, and Disposal of Israel’s most fearsome enemy: the armies of Gog.

Keeping these introductory thoughts in mind, let us now begin our journey through Ezekiel 38-39.

The Deception of Gog (38:1-17)

In verses 1-6 God commands Ezekiel to prophesy against Gog—who is consistently represented as a person—and the seven nations that will join him in the eschatological assault against Israel: Meschech, Tubal, Persia, Ethiopia, Libya, Gomer, and Togarmah. The number is symbolic, indicating that these nations typify the entire world. So too does the fact that they are situated to the north, east, and south of Israel. Rev. 20:7-10 further opens up the meaning, declaring that Gog and Magog will be gathered from “the four corners of the earth.” The message, then, is that Gog—unveiled in the NT as a personal antichrist controlled by Satan himself—will gather together the entire world-system for a final attack against the NT people of God: the Church. Her enemies will mean it for evil, but the all-sovereign God of providence, intent on a final majestic display of his glory, will mean it for good (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28, 9:14-18, 11:36; 2 Thess. 2:1ff).

In verses 7-9 God elaborates. The battle will occur “after many days” and “in the latter years”—that is, at the end of the Era of Gospel Proclamation. By his providence God himself will summon his foes, emboldening them to gather together against the LORD and his anointed servants (Ps. 2:1-3; Acts 4:23-31; Rev. 13:7). Accordingly, they will go up against a people gathered out of the nations and henceforth resting securely in their homeland and upon the mountains of Israel (v. 8). That is, they will attack the Church: a people called out of the world-wide Domain of Darkness, and planted in the heavenly places in Christ. Because of man’s sin, those places were long a desolate waste (i.e., uninhabited); but now God’s nation dwells there in peace and security with their mighty risen Lord (Eph. 1:3, 2:6; Col. 3:1-3; Heb. 12:22). Observe again from verse 9 the universality and magnitude of the attack against the Church: “Many peoples” are joined with Gog, and together they cover the land like a cloud (Rev. 13:3, 8, 20:9).

In verses 10-13 God elaborates further, this time probing the evil motivations of Gog and his hordes. Seeing both the prosperity and powerlessness of a peace-loving people who trust in God rather than walls and weapons, they will be emboldened “to capture spoil and to seize plunder” (v. 12). So too will many covetous onlookers, typified by the merchants of Sheba, Dedan, and Tarshsish (v. 13; Rev. 18:15-19). These images speak of spiritual conditions in the last of the last days. Hitherto the Church has enjoyed a wealth of adherents, as well as religious, moral, and cultural influence; now, however, all is attenuated. Spiritually speaking, she is no longer “the navel of the earth,” the spiritual center of human civilization (v. 12). The moral force of the Gospel—and the moral influence of the Church that proclaims it—no longer register on the conscience of a lawless world. Accordingly, it now dawns on the rulers of this present evil age that there is nothing to prevent them from seizing, not simply the property, but also the religious, philosophical, and moral high ground of the followers of the Prince of Peace (Matt. 24:12; 2 Tim. 3:1f; 2 Thess. 2:1ff). Foolishly, they decide to try.

Before pronouncing judgment on his foes, God reiterates his decree one final time (vv. 14-17). Yes, Gog will discern the vulnerability of the LORD’s little flock (v. 14). And yes, a multitude of latter-day nations will follow him in the attack, animated by the same spirit that motivated so many of Israel’s former enemies to invade Palestine from the north (v. 15; Is. 41:25; Jer. 1:13-15, 6:22f). But why are these things so certain? It’s because God himself has ordained them, and because he has done so in order to manifest his glory to all mankind (v. 16). As in the Exodus, so at the Last Battle: God will demonstrate his wrath and make his power known upon vessels fitted for destruction, even as he displays the riches of his glory upon (persecuted) vessels of mercy, whom he lovingly prepared beforehand for glory (Rom. 9:22-23, 2 Thess. 1). Over the course of many years the former prophets spoke of these very things. Why? Because God himself had decreed them (v. 17; Deut. 32:34-43; Is. 34:1-6, 63:1-6, 66:15-16; Joel 3:9-14; Mic. 4:19-23). Amidst all their tribulations the saints are invted to take refuge and comfort in the absolute sovereignty of their covenant-keeping God.

The Destruction of Gog (38:17-23)

Having spoken at length of the Deception of Gog, the LORD now unveils his Destruction (vv. 18-23). When the murderous armies attack his beloved land, he will jealously pour out his fury, anger, and blazing wrath upon them, even as he did upon his uniquely begotten Son, so that his chosen people might be rescued from these most dreadful enemies (vv. 18-19; Ezek. 20:33-35; Matt. 27:4; Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2, 4:10).

The first judgment is an earthquake. It is cosmic in scope, affecting seven sectors of the creation: fish, birds, beasts, all men, all mountains, and all human constructs (vv. 19-20; Heb. 12:29, Rev. 11:3, 16:8). In verses 21-22, seven more judgments are announced: sword, pestilence, blood, overflowing rain, hailstones, fire, and brimstone (Rev. 17:16). The numbers are clearly symbolic, and so too is the message. The NT decodes it. Ezekiel’s catalog of OT punishments symbolizes the one cosmic judgment by fire set to occur at the return of Christ (Matt. 3:12; Luke 17:29; 2 Thess. 1:8, 2 Peter 3:7, 12; Rev. 20:9). When it comes, all men and nations will see and confess that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the indeed the one, true, living, and altogether holy God (v. 23; 2 Thess. 1:3-10, Phil. 2:9-11).

The Disposal of Gog (39:1-20)

Chapter 39 gives us the Disposal of Gog and his hordes. Verses 1-8 begin with a brief recapitulation of his Deception and Destruction, wherein we learn again of the universality (v. 6), purpose (7), and certainty (v. 8) of the coming judgment. Observe from verse 6 that when it does come, all the earth will be living in security. But when people are saying, “Peace and safety,” sudden destruction will come upon them like labor pains upon a pregnant woman; and they will not escape (1 Thess. 5:3).

The theme of verses 9-10 is eschatological pillage and plunder. That the passage is symbolic is clear from the numbers used: six kinds of weapons will be used for fire over the course of seven years. The meaning? Time and again Israel had been pillaged and plundered by her human enemies; the Last Battle will be their last attempt, when fallen man (6) will do his very worst. But here, says God, is where it ends, and where the tables are forever turned. For here eschatological Israel will pillage and plunder all her foes, and for all time; her victory will be complete (7).

 The NT unveils the fulfillment of our text. By God’s decree the saints will have a share in the Judgment. “Do you not realize,” asked the incredulous Paul, “that the saints will judge the world” (Rom. 16:20; 1 Cor. 6:2; Rev. 20:4)? In that Day, the glorified Church will pillage her enemies and plunder their illicitly held possessions. When the fires of judgment have performed their work, a world formerly gone over to Satan and his seed will forever belong to the saints of the Most High. The humble will inherit the earth (Gen. 3:15; Dan. 7:18; Matt. 5:5, Luke 4:5-7; 2 Pet. 3:10-13).

The message is much the same in verses 11-16, which describe the burial of the hordes of Gog. The imagery of verse 11 is designed to communicate the immensity of the burial ground, while that of verses 12-15 staggers us with the multitude of dead bodies that will lie there. Verse 16 makes the latter idea explicit, declaring that the valley will suddenly become a city (or at least play host to a city) that men will call Hamonah (i.e., Multitude). The NT gives the interpretation: In the Judgment the resurrected saints will receive from Christ the honor of co-laboring with him in the eschatological cleansing of the world. The Church will have a role in the final casting out of all things that offend (v. 13; Matt. 13:41; 1 Cor. 6:2-3).

Verses 17-20 alert us to the symbolic character of the entire prophecy, since now we learn that the corpses of Gog are not actually buried in the valley, but instead become a sacrificial meal prepared by the LORD on the mountains of Israel for every sort of bird of the air and beast of the field. Here again the theme is the Last Judgment. We are assured of this by its NT counterpart, Revelation 19:17-21. Drawing liberally from Ezekiel’s words, the Spirit there associates “the Great Supper of God” with the Second Coming of Christ as Judge of all (Rev. 19:11-16). Passages from the DNT decode the symbolism of both prophecies: At the Parousia, Christ, the holy angels, and (perhaps) the saints themselves will fall upon the wicked and cast them into Gehenna, where the latter will be eternally devoured by the fires of divine judgment (Matt. 13:39-43; Rom. 2:5-10; 2 Thess. 1:3ff, 2:8; Jas. 5:3; Rev. 19:20, 20:14-15). Thus shall they become a kind of sacrifice, not to atone for sin, but to glorify the holiness, righteousness, justice, wrath, and power of the divine Judge of sin (Rom. 9:19-24; Rev. 15:1-8, 16:4-6).

A Final Promise of Restoration (39:21-29)

This section brings the prophecy to a close, paving the way for Ezekiel’s description of life in the everlasting World to Come (40-48). Appropriately enough, it gives us yet another promise of Israel’s eschatological restoration (vv. 25-29).

In verses 21-24 God casts a backward glance at his supreme purpose in the Judgment previously described: “That they may know.” He desires all to know his glory (v. 21). He desires Israel to know his covenant faithfulness (v. 22). And he desires the Gentiles to know that whenever they (briefly) triumphed over his people and nation, it was not because he was unable or unwilling to save them, but because they had sinned, with the result that for a little season he was forced to hide his face from them in judgment (vv. 23-24; Is. 54:8).

Mindful of this purpose, and eager to instill hope in his suffering people, God therefore concludes the prophecy with yet another promise of eschatological redemption (vv. 25-29). The blessings are familiar. He will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have mercy on the house of Israel (v. 25). They will forget their former disgrace and live securely in their own land (v. 26). Their holy and blessed life will bring honor to his name (v. 27). They will learn to see his sovereign hand, both in their previous exile and in their return (v. 28). And when in fact they have returned, they will rest in this glorious confidence: Never again shall God hide his face from them in judgment, for he will have poured out his life-transforming Spirit upon all the house of Israel (v. 29; Heb. 8:1-13).

How shall we interpret this final promise? That it appears to be speaking exclusively of ethnic Israel can scarcely be denied. However, the NT assures us that such is not the case. In fact, the promise will be fulfilled in Christ, under the New Covenant, in the two-fold Kingdom that he will introduce. On this view, Israel’s history of sin, exile, and return stands as a type of the history of all God’s people of all times, whether Jew or Gentile. Having sinned in Adam, as well as by their own evil choices, God has exiled them into the Domain of Darkness, where they suffered grievously at the hands of their many enemies. Yet because of his everlasting love for them, he will take action. In the last days, he will set his glory—the Person and Work of his Son—among the nations, draw a chosen people to him, justify them, fill them with his Spirit, and plant them securely, with neither shame nor disgrace, in their new heavenly homeland.

Yes, at the end of the age the unbelieving world-system will mount a fierce attack against God’s holy nation, for it is appointed to the saints that they should follow in the footsteps of their Master (John 15:20; Rev. 11:7-10) But after they have suffered a little, and after they have been sanctified through it, God will yet again set his glory among the nations. He will do so by sending the High King of Heaven back into the world to destroy and dispose of all his foes, and to establish his people once and for all in their eternal homeland: the new heavens and the new earth (1 Pet. 1:3-9).

In that day, all men—both saints and sinners—will indeed come to know the LORD. They will come to know the sovereignty, righteousness, justice, power, wrath, love, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, and grace of the one true living triune God.

 

The apocalyptic vision here under consideration is one of a number found in the book of Daniel in which we behold the course, conflict, and climax of Salvation History from the time of the Babylonian Empire until the coming the Kingdom of God in its fullness at the end of the age (Dan. 2, 7, 9, 11, 12).

The purpose of these visions is clear: to give God’s suffering people hope.

The method is also clear: to give them hope by means of repeated symbolic representations of: (1) God’s absolute sovereignty over history; (2) the necessity—and brevity—of holy suffering on the part of his saints; (3) the final overthrow of the enemies of God and his people; and (4) the final rescue, restoration, and vindication of the saints on the Day of Judgment, when the Kingdom appears in fullness, triumphing once and for all over the kingdoms of this fallen world.

Needless to say, such prophecies are of great eschatological importance. But given the abundance and complexity of the symbolism involved—and the multitude of interpretations offered—how can we interpret them with confidence?

The short answer is: When we employ the New Covenant Hermeneutic (NCH). (More here)

The long answer is: When we let Christ and the apostles be our theological guides; when we have understood the nature and structure of the two-fold spiritual Kingdom they proclaimed; when we follow them in seeing Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP) as NT truth mystically communicated under  OT type and shadow . . . then, and only then, will we be able to approach these otherwise daunting visions with true spiritual confidence. (More here and here)

With Daniel 7 before us, let us see if these bold assertions are really true. In particular, let us see if this prophecy really does confirm the two-fold spiritual Kingdom of NT eschatology, thereby enabling us confidently to decide between the amillennial and premillennial interpretations, not only of Daniel 7, but of all OTKP.

The Four Beasts (1-8)

In the first year of Belshazzar, king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream in which he beheld visions from God. In the first part of his vision he saw the four winds of heaven stir up the Great Sea in such a manner that four powerful and terrifying beasts rose up out of it, one after another (1-3).

The first was like a lion, the second like a bear, the third like a leopard (4-6).

The fourth— stronger and more dreadful than the rest—was largely indescribable, though Daniel does manage to convey its rapacity by mentioning its iron teeth (well suited for devouring) and its powerful feet (well suited for trampling). This beast had ten horns (2:41-41). While contemplating the horns, Daniel saw a little horn rising from among them: It tore out three horns by the roots, had the eyes of a man, and spoke boastful words (7-8).

The message of this vision—which is almost identical with that of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a huge, four-part statue (chapter 2)—is clear: The sovereign God has decreed that between the days of Daniel and the coming of the Kingdom of God in its fullness, four earthly kings/kingdoms shall arise. Like monstrous, predatory beasts, they will emerge from the turbulent sea of fallen, sinful humanity (2:24ff; Isaiah 7:12, 13, 57:20).

Because of the particular symbols used to describe these four beasts, conservative commentators are nearly unanimous in identifying them as Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome.

The NT gives further insight into this vision by unveiling Satan as the unseen ruler of all the kingdoms of this world (Luke 4:5, John 12:31, Eph. 6:12, 1 John 5:19); as he who (under God’s over-arching sovereignty) summons one evil empire after another onto the stage of history (Rev. 13:1); as he who, since the days of Babel, has sought to use proud and wicked men to consolidate the entire world-system around himself, thereby usurping the worship of God and mimicking his absolute sovereignty (Mt. 4:8-10). One day, according to Daniel and the NT writers, he will get his wish—and much more besides (2 Thess. 2:1f, Rev. 11:5, 16:14).

The Ancient of Days (9-12)

Even as the little horn continues to exalt himself, Daniel beholds the chariot-throne of God arriving upon the scene for final judgment. Immediately, other thrones are set up, and the Ancient of Days—He who was, and is, and is to come—takes his seat (Rev. 4:8). His garment and his hair are as white as snow and wool, emblems of his holiness, righteousness, and age-old eternity. His throne and its wheels are ablaze with fire, a token of his wrath, now fully kindled (9). A stream of fire pours forth from before him, ready to engulf his enemies. Ten thousand times ten thousand holy ones stand before him, ministering to him, alerting us to the cosmic dimensions of this Day.

The court is seated and the books are opened: The Judgment has begun (10). As soon as it does, the little horn is forever silenced, for the body of the beast from which it arose is now slain and cast into the blazing fires of hell (11). So too, one must assume, are the rest of the beasts, whose dominion was lately taken away, but who were allowed to live (perhaps as members of the fourth beast) only for a little time (12).

There can be no reasonable doubt that this majestic vision depicts the Last Judgment. As we have just seen, it is preceded by the destruction of the final earthly kingdom, and it is followed by the saints taking possession of the everlasting Kingdom of the Most High (7:18, 26-27). But if this is so, then NT teaching concerning the Last Judgment must be brought to bear upon the passage before us.

When it is, wonderful things suddenly appear before our eyes!

Who, for example, is the Ancient of Days? Verse 7:13 (and Revelation 4) make it clear that this is indeed the One we immediately think of: God the Father. Yet the NT calls for a more nuanced answer, since there we also learn that God the Father has committed all judgment to the Son (John 5:22), and that all must appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ (Mt. 25:31:f, Acts 17:31, 2 Cor. 5:10). The Ancient of Days of vv. 9-10 is, then, God the Father acting through Christ—the very Christ who, when he came to John on Patmos, appeared in the form of the Ancient of Days (Rev. 1:14)!

The NT answers other important questions, as well.

Where shall the Judgment Seat of Christ appear? According to the NT, it will appear in the skies above the earth (Mt. 19:29, 1 Thess. 4:13-18, Rev. 20:11-21:2).

Who are the thousands of thousands who stand before him and minister to him? Doubtless the holy angels, but also the glorified saints, rejoicing in their new resurrection bodies and exulting in the justice of God (Mt. 13:43, 24:29-31, 1 Cor. 15:50-58, 1 Thess. 4:13-18, Rev. 15:1-4, 16:6, 19:11-21).

Who is seated upon on the other thrones that were “put in place,” presumably around the throne of Christ itself? Again the NT fills in the blanks, assuring us that the thrones belong to the saints, who, under Christ, will judge both men and angels (Rom. 16:20, 1 Cor. 6:1-3, Rev.4:4, 19:11-21, 20:4).

And what of the books that were opened when the court sat for judgment? The NT helpfully identifies them as the Book of Life, and also the multitude of books in which God has recorded the deeds of men, so that all may be judged according to their works (Luke 10:20, Rev. 20:12).

We conclude, then, that the NCH does indeed richly illuminate this mysterious OT revelation of the Last Judgment.

The Coronation of the Divine Son of Man (13-14)

As Daniel continues to watch, still another vision appears before his inward eye. He beholds a Personage—One like a Son of Man—coming with the clouds of heaven to the Ancient of Days. An entourage, presumably of angels, brings him near to the throne (13). At this point, God gives him dominion, glory, and a kingdom—or a right of universal sovereignty—so that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. Unlike the dominion of the four beasts, the dominion of the Son of Man will be everlasting. Unlike the kingdoms of the four beasts, the Kingdom of the Son of Man—the realm that is the fruit of his universal reign—will never pass away or be destroyed (14).

Doubtless the OT saints found this text quite mysterious, for it raises three great questions arise that would remain unanswered until Christ and the apostles flung open the doors of truth for all to see: 1) Who is the One like a Son of Man; 2) What is the nature of the transfer of authority here envisioned; and 3) When exactly does the transfer occur?

As for the One like a Son of Man, nearly all evangelical commentators identify him as the Messiah, the divine-human Lord Jesus Christ (Dan. 9:25-26). True, there is a certain parallelism between the inheritance of the Son of Man (v. 14) and the inheritance of the saints (vv. 18, 27), a parallelism suggesting to some that the Son of Man symbolizes the saints. But our text explicitly identifies this Personage as One who is like a Son of Man, and it uses the singular pronoun throughout to speak of him. As for the parallelism itself, the NT explains everything, declaring that through Christ the saints will indeed reign (and judge) upon the earth (Rev. 2:26-27, 5:10).

Very importantly, the Lord Jesus repeatedly spoke of himself as the Son of Man; it was, by far, his favorite self-designation. Moreover, towards the end of his earthly course he explicitly referenced this text when speaking to the Sanhedrin about his Parousia, lest there should be any confusion about who he understood himself to be (Mt. 26:64, Mark 14:62)!

But what about the nature and timing of the transfer of authority from the Ancient of Days to his Messiah? If we were shut up to the OT, having no recourse to NT teaching on this matter, it would indeed be most natural to conclude that God plans to bestow absolute and universal sovereignty upon the Messianic Son of Man at the (time of the) Judgment described in the vision immediately preceding; and that it may well be the Messiah himself who executes it (7:9-12). Interestingly, some of the OT apocrypha, along with a number NT texts, make it clear that this was the impression of at least some of Jews of Jesus’ day, possibly including John the Baptizer himself (Mt. 3:12, John 12:34). (1)  Nevertheless, the ambiguity here is considerable, and stands as an open invitation to search the NT for much-needed help.

Happily, the NT does not disappoint. When was it, according to the NT, that Christ came to the Ancient of Days, riding upon the clouds of heaven (v. 13)? And when was it that God gave him dominion, glory, and absolute sovereignty over all creation, so that in the end all peoples, nations, and men of every tongue might serve both Him and his Father (14)?

As we have already seen, both Jesus and his apostles answer fulsomely: All this occurred when the Father highly exalted Christ by raising him from the dead, catching him up into heaven on clouds of glory, seating him at his own right hand, and bestowing upon him all authority in heaven and earth, so that he might apply and consummate the redemption that he achieved through his humiliation on earth, thereby bringing in the Kingdom in its full, final, and glorious form (Luke 19:12, Mt. 28:18ff, Acts 1:9-11, 2:22-36, Phil. 2:5-11, Heb. 1:1-3).

On this score, Rev. 4-5 is of special importance. Indeed, one might well argue that these two chapters constitute a NT elaboration of Dan. 7:9-14. In Revelation 4 we behold the Ancient of Days, the eternal Creator and Judge of the world, seated in glory upon his throne. Then, in Revelation 5, we behold the Redeemer. Using apocalyptic imagery reminiscent of Daniel 7, the Spirit here depicts the session of the Lord Jesus Christ. Having “prevailed” on earth to fulfill all righteousness and to atone for the sins of his people, the Lion/Lamb enters heaven, comes before the Father, and, in taking the scroll from his hand, receives all authority in heaven and on earth (Rev. 5:1-7, 12). Henceforth, he is authorized to “break the seals” on God’s last will and testament. That is, he is commissioned to superintend the remainder of Salvation History with a view to applying the merits of his redemptive work to God’s elect, gathering in a chosen people for his possession from every tribe, tongue, people and nation, thereby creating a kingdom of priests who will in inherit (the fullness of) eternal life and who will everlastingly reign upon the earth (Rev. 5:8-14).

This is Daniel 7:9-14, writ large.

But this line of interpretation raises a legitimate question: Why, in Daniel 7, would the Spirit represent the heavenly reign of Christ as coming after the Last Judgment? Several answers immediately come to mind.

First, the text itself hints that here we are actually dealing with two visions rather than one, for both begin with the telltale introductory phrase: “I saw in my vision by night” (7:2-12, 13-14). Yes, the chapter as a whole may indeed be reckoned as a single vision; but at the very least, these verbal markers suggest that 7:13-14 touches upon a new (though related) theme. The NT, as we have just seen, confirms this very thing.

Secondly, the burden of the chapter is to speak of the great inversion of cosmic rulership that will occur at the end of Salvation History. It is, then, altogether fitting for the Spirit here to touch on Christ’s heavenly reign in such a way as to emphasize its end result, precisely as he does in verse 14.

Finally, the sequence of the two visions effectively underscores a pervasive biblical theme: The Messianic Son of Man—though himself divine—is nevertheless subordinate to the Ancient of Days; the Ancient of Days is the fountainhead of the authority by which he (the Son of Man) will rule in such a way as to create the eternal Kingdom of God. As we have seen, the NT fleshes out this important theme in a number of texts, especially 1 Corinthians 15:20-28. (2, 3)

Given that Daniel received this vision in an era when God was pleased to veil the mystery of the Eternal Covenant, it should not surprise us that here much eschatological truth is fused, hidden, or (purposely) left unclear. This includes the two stages of the Kingdom, the Messiah’s heavenly reign, its distinctly redemptive character, the exact sequence of events leading up to the Judgment, the Messiah’s role in the Judgment, and his role in the coming of the Kingdom in its fullness.

But in the NT—and especially in Revelation 4-5—all is finally unveiled, clarified, and set in good order. Therefore, the NT mysteries of the Kingdom—and the NCH built upon them—do indeed prevail, not only to open up Daniel 7, but all OTKP. Without them we are at sea. With them, we reach our desired haven and stand confidently upon solid ground.

The Vision Interpreted (15-28)

As the vision draws to a close, Daniel inquires as to the meaning of what he has seen, and then receives a measure of further illumination from one of the angels involved. The section falls nicely into four parts. I will comment briefly on each, highlighting aspects of special relevance for our study.

In verses 15-18, we find the prophet—grieved and troubled by the persecutions yet in store for God’s people—asking for more light on the vision as a whole. One of the angels responds, identifying the four beasts as four kings/kingdoms that will arise “out of the earth.” However, the emphasis here, as elsewhere, falls upon the eternal Kingdom of God, which the Most High—the sovereign LORD of all history—will bestow upon the saints from heaven above (2:44-45). As we have seen, verses 13-14, supplemented by an abundance of NT teaching, reveal that God will accomplish the final inversion at the Parousia of the glorified Son of Man. This is the blessed hope of all the saints, both OT and New (Titus 2:13).

In verses 18-20, Daniel relates that even after this broad explanation, he remained curious about the fourth beast. As if in answer to his curiosity, the vision suddenly resumes, so that now he sees the little horn making war against the saints and prevailing over them (v. 21). In a moment, the angel will explain the meaning of these ominous symbols. Meanwhile, the prophet’s vision ends with yet another sighting of the coming of the Ancient of Days (who is Christ at his Parousia), vindicating the faith (and the faithfulness) of the saints, and bestowing upon them the joys of eternal life in his Kingdom (1 Thess. 1:3-10). By now, the motif of the entire vision—indeed, of the entire book—has become clear: God warns of coming conflict with a view to producing endurance, but also promises coming triumph with a view to producing courage, hope, and eager expectation.

In verses 23-27, we have the angel’s (partial) explanation of the vision of the fourth beast. Several key points—much illumined by the NT—may be made.

First, the fourth beast, which is emblematic of the final earthly kingdom, will be different from all the rest, largely because it will succeed in devouring the whole earth (v. 23). Here, the global hegemony of the ancient Roman Empire is partly in view. However, that very hegemony anticipates something far greater, something eschatological, and the true burden of this verse: In the days of the fourth beast, Satan will finally achieve his age-old purpose—manifested from the very beginning at Babel—of creating a counterfeit kingdom that overspreads the entire world (Gen. 11:1-9). Later, the apostle John foresaw much the same thing, writing, “And all the world marveled and followed the beast” (Rev. 13:3; 12:9, 16:4). Only “the saints”—the true spiritual Church of all generations, but especially of the last generation—will refuse to marvel, follow, worship, and otherwise receive his mark of ownership (Rev. 13:8, 17:8, 20:4).

Secondly, the verbiage of verse 24 suggests to some commentators that the life of the fourth beast is destined to unfold in three separate stages. In the first, the beast arises from the Great Sea: This marks the advent of the ancient Roman Empire. In the second, “ten” horns (i.e., kings/kingdoms) arise from head of the Beast: This marks the totality (symbolized by the number ten) of the serial manifestations of Greco Roman culture subsequent to the fall of ancient Rome. In the third, one final horn arises, subduing “three” of its ten predecessors. This speaks of the final eschatological embodiment of the Roman Empire, achieved by the Antichrist, who suddenly consolidates the residuum of Roman power and influence (symbolized by the number 3). This approach, advocated by E. J. Young, is quite attractive in that it allows us to see how, from the time of Christ right up to the Consummation, the territories, peoples, and culture of the ancient Roman Empire remain near the center of the drama of world history.

There are, of course, other views. For example, many of our Dispensational brethren, adopting a highly futuristic interpretation of this verse, look for an end-time confederacy of ten European nations, over (the remnant of) which the Antichrist will rule after subduing three of them. However, this approach seems too futuristic: Certainly the text itself does not teach it explicitly. Moreover, if the numbers ten and three are meant symbolically, then the Dispensational view becomes a prescription for fruitless speculation and failed “fulfillments” based upon the ebb and flow of European politics. By my lights, Young’s approach is far preferable.

Verse 25 sketches the character and career of the Antichrist. He is arrogant and blasphemous; he will attempt to alter well-established customs and laws (including many pertaining to religious observances); and—for a brief, divinely ordained season—he will “wear out” the saints (i.e., persecute them to the point of apparent defeat). This, as we have seen, is none other than the Last Battle, which, according to the NT, will be pitched by the Man of Lawlessness and his subservient world-system against the true spiritual Church of Christ (Mt. 24:9-13, 2 Thess. 2:1f, Rev. 11:7-10, 16:14, 20:8).

In verses 26-27 the angel brings his message to a close by once again sounding a note of final triumph. The NT fully illumines his words. At Christ’s return, the Son of Man will execute final judgment, destroying not only the antichrist and his followers, but also “the dragon” that inspired and empowered them all (Mt. 25:41, 2 Thess. 2:8, Rev. 17:14, 19:19-21, 20:10). After this, the kingdoms of the world will become  the (universal) Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ: He—and the saints with him—will reign forever and ever (v. 27, 1 Cor. 15:28, Rev. 11:5, 22:5). Amen.

Premillennial Musings

From all we have just seen, it certainly appears that the NCH powerfully opens up this majestic but deeply mysterious OTKP, giving us a simple, biblically coherent interpretation, thereby warning and encouraging the saints of all subsequent generations.

Alas, premillennial views do not fare so well.

Premillennarians assert, for example, that verses 9-12 do not describe the Last Judgment at all, but speak instead of a lesser judgment that will immediately precede Christ’s millennial reign. This is counter-intutive in the extreme.

Regarding verses 13-14, some commentators, following Scofield, argue that Daniel is describing a special “investiture” in heaven, by which Christ, just prior to his millennial reign, will receive authority from the Father to descend to the earth and rule there (Rev. 5).

Others, such as Fausset, Walvoord, and Pentecost, contend that these verses—and verses 26-27 as well—simply describe Christ’s Second Coming in order to inaugurate his millennial kingdom upon the earth.

The great difficulty with both of these views—apart from the fact that they are needlessly complicated and confusing—is that they miss the thrust of the chapter as a whole. For again, the Spirit’s purpose in giving Daniel this vision was clearly to illumine, prepare, strengthen, and encourage all the saints—both OT and New—with a revelation of the entire course and sequence of “the kingdoms of this world;” a revelation of all that must occur up to and including the Consummation, after which God’s everlasting Kingdom will appear in its glorious fullness.

But premillennarians, bound by their eschatological commitments, are forced to deny what is right before their eyes, and so to assert that the prophecy merely takes us to the end of the present age, after which there must still come to pass the Millennium, the (last) Last Battle (Rev. 20:7-10), and the Last Judgment, all of which the Spirit somehow neglected to mention, not only here, but in chapter 2, as well!

The net effect of this fundamental error is to eclipse the grandeur what God actually revealed, to becloud the vision of the saints, and to defer their fondest dreams for an extra thousand years!

Conclusion

We conclude, then, that unlike premillennarian literalism, the NCH does indeed supply the most satisfying interpretation of Daniel 7; an interpretation that helpfully equips Christ’s Church for the dramatic closing scenes of the present evil age, even as it kindles their hopes for a glorious, everlasting, heavenly Kingdom soon to come!

NOTES

1. See George Ladd, New Testament Theology, p. 136.

2. 1 Cor. 15:20-28 makes it clear that Christ’s heavenly mediatorial reign is temporary, and that after the Consummation he will subject himself afresh to the Father. Whatever the nature of this further and final subordination, it is clear from a great many other biblical texts, including Daniel 7:14, that Christ will indeed rule forever, with and under the Father, over the eternal Kingdom of God (Psalm 72:7, Isaiah 9:7, Ezek. 37:25, Luke 1:32-33, Rev. 5:13, 11:5).

3. It is true that Jesus, in speaking with the Sanhedrin about his Parousia, referred to Daniel 7:13. This does not mean, however, that he would endorse the conclusion of those commentators who argue that Daniel saw the Son of Man coming to the Ancient of Days at the Parousia in order to receive sovereignty and a kingdom. As I argued above, either this view seriously misunderstands the structure of NT eschatology, or else it refuses to bring it boldly to the (interpretation of the) text. No, in speaking as he did, Jesus was not saying that he will fulfill Daniel 7:13 at the Parousia. Rather, he was saying (to us, his NT saints) that just as he came to the Ancient of Days upon clouds of glory to receive his heavenly Messianic reign, so, at the Parousia, he will come from the (right hand of the) Ancient of Days on clouds of glory to consummate it. A great many NT texts confirm this very thing (Mt. 24:30, 13:26, Acts 1:9-11,1 Thess. 4:17, Rev. 1:7).

NOTE: This essay brings together excerpts from my book, The Great End Time Debate: Issues, Options, and Amillennial Answers (Redemption Press). Please see that book for further thoughts and clarifications. Also, please be sure to click on the various links scattered throughout the article. These will offer biblical support for my general assertions about the Kingdom of God, Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP), the Millennium, and the Consummation.

Exposition
(For a time line of Dispensational Premillennialism, click here)

Dispensational Premillennialism is a recent, complex, and increasingly controversial form of modern Historic Premillennialism (HP). It was developed in mid-19th century England by John Darby, a leader of the small but influential Plymouth Brethren Movement. In a day when theological liberalism was rotting out the foundations of mainline Protestantism, dispensationalists held loyally to a high view of Scripture and so won favor among biblical conservatives. Also, as the murderous 20th century progressed, the dispensational interpretation of biblical prophecy—which was decidedly pessimistic about the future of world society—seemed to make good sense of the tumultuous times in which people were living.

As a result, Dispensationalism enjoyed a large following. It included a number of devoted apologists: men like C. I. Scofield, Harry Ironside, William Blackstone, and A. C. Gabelein. Evangelist D. L. Moody did much to spread the new eschatology among Christian laymen, as did the popular Scofield Reference Bible and the Prophetic Conference Movement. In time, dispensationally oriented Bible colleges and seminaries began to spring up here and there, from which there flowed a continuous stream of teachers, pastors, writers, and conference speakers. Familiar contemporary proponents of Dispensationalism include Jonathan Cahn, William Criswell, Norman Geisler, Dave Hunt, Thomas Ice, John Hagee, David Jeremiah, Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey, John MacArthur, Joel Rosenberg, Charles Ryrie, Chuck Smith, Charles Swindoll, Jack Van Impe, and John Walvoord.

Two Peoples, Two Plans, Seven Dispensations

At the heart of Dispensationalism lies a novel and highly controversial thesis, namely, that God has always had two different plans for two different people groups: one for Israel and another for the Church (comprised largely of Gentile believers). This conviction is reflected in its picture of Salvation History, which is divided into seven different dispensations. These are defined as seasons during which God tests people in a particular way. Accordingly, dispensationalists break up the Era of Promise and Preparation (i.e., the era stretching from the fall to the advent of Christ) into four separate dispensations: the dispensation of Conscience (Adam), Human Government (Noah), Promise (Abraham), and Law (Moses/Israel).

Among these, the fourth is of special importance, since it was during this troubled season of Israel’s moral failure that God, through his OT prophets, ever-increasingly promised that he would restore his (scattered) people to their homeland in Canaan, send them a Messianic King, and set up a global theocracy with Israel as the head and the Gentiles as the tail. Dispensationalists interpret these OTKP’s quite literally, and therefore anticipate a future “dispensation of the Kingdom” in which God’s earthly people—ethnic Israel—will again be living in Canaan/Palestine, reigning triumphantly with their Messiah over the other nations of the world.

This brings us to the NT era. Here God finally sends his Son into the world for the express purpose of offering the promised theocratic Kingdom to Israel. However, as the four gospels make painfully clear, Israel largely refuses to submit to Christ, thereby failing their test and forfeiting the theocratic Kingdom. But this does not spell the death of God’s Kingdom promises. Instead, God graciously postpones the dispensation of the Kingdom until the Millennium (Matt. 11:20f). Meanwhile, about mid-way through his earthly ministry, Christ unveils a new plan by which God will henceforth create a new (heavenly) people and introduce a new dispensation: the Dispensation of the Church, or the so-called Church Age (Matt. 13:1f). Some dispensationalists speak of this dispensation as the “mystery form” of the Kingdom, since here Christ does indeed rule over his saints, but only inwardly, by his Spirit.

Very importantly, dispensationalists insist that this new plan was a pure mystery. That is, the OT prophets never foresaw or spoke of it at all. Rather, Christ introduced it altogether de novo during the days of his flesh when he realized that the Jewish nation would soon reject him. And that, of course, is precisely what happened, with the result that on the Day of Pentecost the crucified, risen, ascended, and glorified Christ did indeed give birth to a heavenly people, pouring out the Holy Spirit on his disciples and seating them—along with all who would afterwards believe their report—in heavenly places at the Father’s own right hand.

The Consummation

This brings us to the most complicated part of the dispensational system, the part that deals with the Consummation. I will sketch it as simply as I can.

First comes the secret Rapture. This is “phase one” of the Lord’s Parousia, the phase of his Coming in which Christ descends from heaven for his saints. When he does, he will resurrect the saints of old, transform the living believers, gather them all to himself in the sky, and then take them with him to heaven, where, for the next seven years, they will enjoy the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Again, the Rapture is a “secret” event: Here, no (unbelieving) person on earth sees Christ or the departure of his glorified Church. Also, it is an “imminent” event: Since God has not given us any signs by which we might know that it is at hand, no one can know when the great catching up will occur. The saints must be prepared for an “any-moment Rapture.”

Next comes the Tribulation. Based on a unique and quite literal interpretation of Daniel 9 (see below), dispensationalists argue that the Tribulation will last for seven literal years. During this time 144,000 converted Jews will preach “the gospel of the Kingdom” to all nations. This is the good news of Christ’s coming millennial reign, and also of access to that reign through personal faith in him. As the 144,000 preach, many Jews and Gentiles will believe. However, mid-way through the Tribulation the Antichrist will step onto the stage of history. When he does, the whole world will follow after him, believers will undergo fierce persecution, and God will pour out dreadful warning judgments upon the earth. This season of three and a half years—referred to as The Great Tribulation—concludes with the Battle of Armageddon: a military conflict centered in Palestine that will scarcely get under way before Christ returns visibly, in power and glory, to rescue his beleaguered people and destroy their enemies.

This particular return is “phase two” of the Parousia (and is also called the Revelation). Here Christ will come with his saints (and all the holy angels). His feet will touch down on the Mount of Olives. More Jews will be converted. OT saints—and believers who died during the Tribulation—will be raised from the dead. Then Christ will judge the living Gentile nations, punishing many, but permitting those who treated his “brethren” (i.e., the Lord’s Jewish emissaries) well to enter the Millennium. Likewise, he will also judge between believing and unbelieving Jews. Finally, he will cast Satan into the abyss for 1000 literal years. Then all the glorified saints will return to heaven and the thousand-year Kingdom Age will begin.

Throughout the Millennium Christ will reign on earth and over the earth from the earthly Jerusalem. A glorious rebuilt temple will become the center of the global worship of God. In commemoration of Christ’s atoning death, priests will again offer animal sacrifices and observe Jewish feast days. Though sin and death will be marginally present, the Millennium will largely be a time of widespread peace, prosperity, longevity, righteousness, and joy. On those rare occasions when rebels rise up against their King, Christ will swiftly punish them with a rod of iron, possibly with help from certain glorified saints living on earth or sent from above. At the end of the Millennium God will permit Satan and his demon hosts to arise from the abyss and deceive the nations one final time. A final battle will ensue, wherein a confederacy of rebellious nations will attack the camp of the (largely Jewish) saints. But God (or Christ) will quickly intervene, destroy his foes, cast Satan into hell, and raise the millennial saints from the dead.

Now comes the Last Judgment. Here the focus is upon the unbelieving dead, who will be raised and brought before the Great White Throne, where Christ will judge them according to their works, and then cast them into the Lake of Fire.

Finally, God (or Christ) creates the World to Come: the new heavens and the new earth. This is the eternal home of the redeemed. The Church—God’s heavenly people—descends to the new earth to join Israel, God’s earthly people. Though remaining forever distinct (at least according to some dispensationalists), both now live and serve together in the eternal Kingdom of God and Christ.

Current Status

Among modern scholars dispensationalism has largely fallen out of favor. Nevertheless it is still preached by a great many pastors, for which reason it has also acquired a large following among the people in the pews. Indeed, for over 150 years evangelical Christians have been saturated with dispensational thinking, whether in sermons, prophetic conferences, novels, or movies. If, then, this system is truly is in error, many of God’s children will need considerable time, effort, and eschatological re-training to unlearn it. But if they are Good Bereans, they will be willing to pay the price.

Critique

As ever, the most effective way to understand, evaluate, and critique any given eschatology is to see what it has to say about the four underlying issues in the Great End Time Debate (GETD): The Kingdom of God, the proper interpretation of OTKP, the meaning of the Millennium, and the nature of the Consummation. Let us do so now, taking a close look at Dispensational Premillennialism.

View of the Kingdom

Dispensationalism misunderstands the Kingdom of God in the following three ways.

First, it misunderstands the nature of the Kingdom. Classic dispensationalism identifies the Kingdom as a future earthly theocratic reign of Christ over ethnic Israel and the nations. However, the Didactic New Testament (DNT: i.e., the teaching portions of the NT) identifies the Kingdom as a direct reign of God the Father, through Christ the Son, by the Holy Spirit, over all who have entered the New Covenant by faith. Thus, the Kingdom has nothing to do with a return to the theocratic institutions of the Mosaic Law, all of which have been fulfilled and rendered obsolete by Christ and the New Covenant. (More here)

Secondly, it misunderstands the structure of the Kingdom. As in the case of Historic Premillennialism, so here: Dispensationalists look for three stages of the Kingdom, whereas the DNT looks only for two. (More here and here)

Thirdly, dispensationalists misunderstand the people of the Kingdom. According to the DNT they are a great multitude taken out of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, bound as one through their common faith in Jesus Christ (Matt. 11:28f; John 6:37, 44, 65; Eph. 2:11-3:13). This is the true spiritual seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:29). This is the true Israel of God (Gal. 6:16). The DNT is emphatic: God does not have two separate families, nor does he have two separate plans for those families: a Gospel of the Kingdom for the Jews, and a Gospel of Grace for the Gentiles. Through Christ, God has broken down the middle wall separating Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:14). Henceforth, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). Henceforth, there is one flock (John 10), one Woman (Rev. 12), one Bride (Eph. 5), one Wife (Rev. 21), one Body (Eph. 5), one New Man (Eph. 2), one Olive Tree (Rom. 11), one City (Rev. 21), one Royal Priesthood (1 Pet. 2), and one Holy Nation (6:16; 1 Pet. 2). Therefore, let no man rebuild what God has forever torn down (Gal. 2:18); and let no man separate what God has forever joined together (Matt. 19:6).

View of OTKP

Like many Historic Premillennarians, dispensationalists interpret OTKP quite literally. Thus, the hermeneutical problems of the latter are the same as those of the former. Their literal approach entangles them in historical anachronisms, apparent contradictions, a resurrection of the OT Law, a rebuilding of the wall between Jew and Gentile, and the problem of millennial conditions said to endure forever. And this in turn brings them into direct conflict with NT teaching on the nature and structure of the Kingdom introduced under the New Covenant. (More here and here)

Thankfully, progressive dispensationalists have begun to feel the force of these objections. Recognizing that the Kingdom is indeed “already” and “not yet,” they acknowledge that even now the greater David is reigning on his heavenly throne, and that under the New Covenant the Church is indeed participating in the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants. Accordingly, these interpreters (who nevertheless still adhere to the basic the dispensational scheme of Salvation History) argue that OTKP has a double fulfillment: It speaks both of the Church Era and also of a future Jewish millennium. Amillennarians acknowledge this as a small step in the right direction. It is, however, but a first step in a long journey that will only end when dispensationalists finally come home to the eschatology of the Bible and of their Protestant forefathers.

View of the Revelation

The dispensational interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27 is the rock of dispensational theology. Broadly, it grounds their conviction that God has a double purpose in Salvation History: the salvation of the Church (his heavenly people), and the salvation ethnic Israel (his earthly people). More narrowly, it governs their understanding of the Revelation. Very importantly, dispensationalists find the perceived harmony between Daniel 9 and the Revelation compelling: The one seems clearly to reinforce the other, and so to vindicate the entire dispensational system. Accordingly, in this this section we must spend some extra time discussing these crucial matters.

I will do so in three steps. First, we’ll look briefly at the dispensational interpretation of Daniel’s famous prophecy of the seventy weeks (Dan. 9). Next, we’ll discuss their interpretation of the Revelation, emphasizing its (alleged) correspondence to Daniel 9, and offering amillennial critiques along the way. Finally, I will conclude with some remarks designed to show why dispensational interpreters have so grievously misunderstood this precious book, the Grand Finale of all Scripture.

  1. The Dispensational Interpretation of Daniel’s Seventy Sevens

Here, very briefly, is the standard dispensational interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27.

The theme of the grand theme prophecy is not the future of spiritual Israel (i.e. all God’s people, Jew and Gentile), but of ethnic Israel. Daniel’s people and Daniel’s city are not spiritually circumcised Jews and Gentiles, but rather the Jewish race and nation (Dan. 9:24). Throughout OT times God promised the latter a theocratic kingdom, mediated by his Messiah. But before Israel can enter this promised Kingdom Age, it must first traverse Daniel’s “seventy sevens.” These are seventy weeks of calendar years, totaling 490 years. The 69 weeks of verse 25 began with Artaxerxes’ decree to rebuild Jerusalem (445 BC); they ended at the birth (or triumphal entry) of Christ. Verse 26 gives us the events of the 69th week, in which Christ was rejected, and after which the Roman general Titus came and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. But now something unexpected happens. At this point in the prophecy, Daniel leaps over the entire Church Age (now some 2000 years long), thereby rendering God’s dealings with his heavenly people (i.e., the Church) a mystery: a hidden purpose and plan later to be unveiled by Christ.

Accordingly, verse 27 gives us future events that are set to occur during the seventieth week, the week that follows the secret Rapture of the Church. Here, “God’s prophetic time clock” begins to tick again; here he resumes his redemptive dealings with the (physical) sons of Abraham. Dispensationalists refer to this week of seven years as the Tribulation. At the beginning of the Tribulation, the Antichrist makes a covenant with ethnic Israel. In the middle of the week he breaks that covenant, suppresses Jewish worship, and defiles the (restored) Jewish temple. This marks the beginning of the Great Tribulation, a 3½ year season of dreadful divine judgments upon the world, and of intense persecution for believing Jews and Gentiles. At their end Christ will return in glory, destroy the Antichrist, and welcome the Jewish saints who have survived the Tribulation into the promised Kingdom Age. According to Revelation 20, this age will last 1000 literal years. (More here)

       2. The Dispensational Interpretation of the Revelation

In the paragraphs ahead I will sketch the dispensational interpretation of each section of the Revelation, and then offer a brief amillennial reply based on all we learned earlier about the purpose, literary genre, structure, and themes of the Revelation  (More here, here, and here)

Dispensationalists: Chapter 1 of the Revelation gives us a vision of the exalted Christ, the One who will first bring to pass God’s purpose for the Church (Rev. 2-5), and thereafter God’s purpose for ethnic Israel (Rev. 6-20).

Amillennarians: Yes, chapter 1 gives us a revelation of the exalted Christ, the Lord of the remainder of Salvation History. But no, the book does not give us God’s two-fold purpose and plan, first for the Church, and then ethnic Israel. Rather, it gives us God’s singular purpose and plan for his one and only people: the Church, comprised of elect Jews and Gentiles of all time. Here, however, the emphasis falls upon God’s New Covenant people, as the High King of Heaven enables them to make their difficult spiritual pilgrimage through the lengthy Era of Gospel Proclamation (Rev. 12).

Dispensationalists: Chapters 2-3 give us the Lord’s messages to the seven Churches of Asia. Real as they were, these churches also symbolize the universal Church, and (for some interpreters) the historical stages through which she must pass over the course of the Church Age. This age is the “mystery parenthesis,” the season of Salvation History that neither Daniel nor any of the other the OT prophets foresaw. It is the age that Christ unveiled when, in anticipation of his rejection by Israel, he said, “I will build my Church” (Matt. 16:18) Thus, in chapters 2-3 Christ is speaking to the Church, about the Church, in the Church Age. Soon, however, he will be speaking to Israel, about Israel (and the nations), during the Tribulation, and on into the Millennium.

 Amillennarians: Yes, the true nature of the Church, as the spiritual Body of the Messiah, was a mystery to the OT prophets (Eph. 3). However, the prophets did indeed foresee the Church, and were moved by the Spirit to speak about her, albeit under a veil of OT imagery. And this is true of the prophet Daniel himself, who was actually speaking about the destiny of the Church in Daniel 9! As for the Revelation, in chapters 2-3 the High Prophet of Heaven speaks to the Church about the various strengths and weaknesses that she will manifest during her pilgrimage to the World to Come. Then, in chapters 6-20, he speaks to the Church about the persons, powers, events, and institutions she will encounter along the way. In the Revelation, ethnic Israel is never in view, whereas Israel’s anti-type, the Church, is always and only in view.      

Dispensationalists: In chapters 4-5 we have John’s vision of heaven, its occupants, and the worship that fills it. The apostle hears a voice, saying, “Come up here” (Rev. 4:1). For many interpreters, this is a veiled reference to the secret Rapture. For all interpreters, the 24 elders represent the raptured, glorified, rewarded, and worshiping Church. In her presence, and eliciting her praise, Christ receives from the Father the title deed to the earth and prepares to unfasten the seven seals. When the unfastening begins, so too does the 70th week of Daniel (i.e., the Tribulation). That is, the exalted Christ launches God’s eschatological dealings with ethnic Israel and the nations, all with a view to bringing in the (1000-year) Kingdom Age.

 Amillennarians: No, John’s journey to heaven does not picture a secret Rapture (a doctrine not found in the DNT). It does, however, remind us that through the new birth all the members of Christ’s Church are seated in the heavenly places in/with him. As for the scene in heaven, it is timeless, and therefore depicts the worship of all God’s people of all times: the Church. She is comprised of OT saints (symbolized by the 12 patriarchs) and NT saints (symbolized by the 12 apostles). The scroll in the Father’s hand is a last will and testament containing the eternal inheritance of the saints promised in the Covenant of Grace: the Gospel (Rev. 21-22). However, before they can receive that inheritance the High King of heaven, who prevailed upon the earth for the salvation of his people, must first unfasten its seven seals. That is, he must preside over the various historical events through which his redemptive work will be proclaimed and applied to the hearts of his elect. He must superintend the pilgrimage of the Church throughout the Era of Gospel Proclamation, after which he will come again to consummate God’s plan in final judgment and redemption, and bring in the new heavens and the new earth, the eternal home and inheritance of the saints.

Dispensationalists: Chapters 6-19 give us the Tribulation, the seventieth week of Daniel. In essence it is a seven-year season of world evangelization, during which time 144,000 redeemed Israelites will proclaim the Gospel of the (coming millennial) Kingdom amidst ever-increasing and ever-intensifying providential judgments, culminating in a supernatural judgment at the personal Coming (Revelation) of Christ (Rev. 7:1-8, 19:11-21). The judgments are serial in nature, progressing from the seven seals (6-7), through the seven trumpets (8-11), and on to the seven bowls (15-16). Writes John MacArthur, “The seal judgments include all the judgments to the end. The seventh seal contains the 7 trumpets, the seventh trumpet contains the 7 bowls.” Midway through the Tribulation, the Antichrist (i.e., the Beast) will arrive on the scene, break his covenant with Israel, defile the temple, and devastate Jerusalem; thus do the 3½ years of the Great Tribulation begin (Rev. 13:5). This section ends with chapter 19, which alone of all the chapters in this section gives us the second coming of Christ in glory (19:11-16), the demise of Christ’s enemies gathered against Israel at Armageddon (19:17-21), and the close of the Great Tribulation.

 Amillennarians: No, these chapters do not speak of a future seven-year tribulation. Rather, together with chapter 20, they give us six parallel recapitulations of the course and character of the High King’s heavenly reign. Each one begins at the beginning of the Era of Gospel Proclamation and ends with a more or less symbolic representation of the return of Christ in final judgment and redemption. Literal interpretations of the 144,000, the seal judgments, the trumpet judgments, the bowl judgments, the two witnesses, the permutations of 3½, the mark of the Beast, and the Battle of Armageddon all wreak havoc with the text. They miss the symbolic meaning of all such imagery, needlessly straining credulity and engendering crippling fears. The dispensational interpretation works further harm to the Church by projecting the fulfillment of these chapters onto another people and into a distant (post-Rapture) future. Because the flock of God is journeying through the howling wilderness of this present evil age, it urgently needs to hear the voice of its heavenly Shepherd (Rev. 12:1-17). Here and elsewhere dispensationalism cuts it off. (More here)

Dispensationalists: Chapter 20 gives us the goal and aftermath of Daniel’s 70 weeks: the 1000-year Kingdom Age in which all OTKP is (literally) fulfilled at last. First Satan and his demons are cast into the abyss, paving the way for vastly improved spiritual and physical conditions upon the earth. Then, in “the first resurrection,” Christ raises the OT saints and the Tribulation martyrs. They, along with those who came to faith during the Tribulation, enter the Kingdom Age and rule with Christ throughout the Millennium. OT temple worship, centered in Jerusalem, is revived, but only to commemorate the finished work of Christ. Again, the Millennium is basically a lengthy season of peace, prosperity, longevity, righteousness, and joy. Nevertheless, as time passes many of the children of the tribulation saints fall into unbelief. This results in a series of dramatic eschatological events that bring the Millennium to a close: the release of Satan from the abyss, a gathering of rebellious nations against Jerusalem, a divine judgment by fire, a second resurrection (this time of the unrighteous dead), and a final Judgment of all unbelievers at the Great White Throne.

 Amillennarians: No, Revelation 20 does not describe a future 1000-year reign of Christ upon the earth. Rather, it gives us a seventh and final recapitulation of the course and character of his heavenly reign. During this time, which stretches between the Lord’s first and second advents, Satan is bound from deceiving God’s elect, and from gathering the unbelieving world to the Last Battle. It is a long time (symbolized by 1000), but also a finite time, during which the triune God (3) completes (10) the application of the redemption purchased by Christ (10 x 10 x 10). During this time the souls of believers who die in the faith are raised to spiritual perfection and reign in life with Christ in heaven above. This is the first resurrection, a spiritual resurrection that secures the saints’ bodily resurrection at the Parousia of Christ. At the end of the age Satan is released from his restraints and gathers the unbelieving world against the Church for the Last Battle. But Christ returns in fire to destroy his enemies, raise the dead of all time, consign the unrighteous to the Lake of Fire, and bring in the eternal World to Come. (More here)   

Dispensationalists: We hold different views on chapters 21-22. All of us look for new heavens and a new earth. All look for a physical city, the eternal habitation of the saints. Many look for a physical tree and water of life, albeit with spiritual properties and benefits. Some say that the middle wall between Jew and Gentile will be removed once and for all; others say it will endure forever.

 Amillennarians: Yes, chapters 21-22 give us the eternal World to Come; but no, we should not bring a literalist hermeneutic into it. Here, the Church—comprised of all God’s people of all time—is not only the Bride of Christ, but also the City of God. She is the Bridal City, forever dwelling in glory in the new creation. The throne of God and the Lamb, the river of the water of life, the tree of life and its fruits and leaves . . . all are spiritual realities, rather than physical objects. They are symbols, teaching us that the sovereign Father and Son, by the Holy Spirit, will forever refresh, nourish, and maintain the good health of their beloved children and Bride in the glorious World to Come.

     3. Why the Dispensational Interpretation Fails

Our dispensational brothers have stumbled badly in their interpretation of the Revelation. How so? I would answer as follows:

First, they have misunderstood the intended audience of the book, which is the Church of all times and places.

They have misunderstood the nature and purpose of the book, failing to see that it is an extended prophecy, designed to edify, exhort, and encourage the Church as she makes her pilgrimage through the howling wilderness of this present evil world and on into the Promised Land.

They have misunderstood the underlying theme of the book, which is the exaltation of Christ—the High King of Heaven—who, at the Father’s right hand, rules heaven and earth for the ingathering, upbuilding, preservation, and final glorification of the Church.

They have misunderstood the literary genre of the book, which is biblical apocalyptic, and therefore interpreted the persons, places, objects, and events of the Revelation literally instead of figuratively (i.e., in terms of the spiritual realities previously disclosed in the DNT).

They have misunderstood the structure of the book, failing to see that its five major blocs are meant as a celebration of the heavenly reign of the exalted Christ, and that the very lengthy fourth bloc (chapters 6-20) gives us parallel symbolic representations of the course and character of the High King’s reign. They have also failed to see that this structure rules out their futurist interpretation, but instead mandates an “idealist” interpretation, according to which the key symbols (i.e., the Woman, the Dragon, the Beast, the False Prophet, the Harlot, Babylon the Great, etc.) all stand for persons, institutions, or events that Christ’s Church will encounter again and again throughout her historical pilgrimage. (More here)

Finally, they have misunderstood the ancillary purpose of the Revelation, which is to give us the Grand Finale of Scripture: a biblical movement that introduces no new themes (such as a future millennium), but instead simply rehearses and celebrates all that has been previously disclosed in the Bible, and especially in the master key to the Bible: the Didactic New Testament.

In short, our dispensationalist brothers have stumbled over the Revelation because, in trying to understand it, they turned away from the High Prophet of Heaven and the DNT, choosing instead to impose their novel interpretation of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks upon the Grand Finale of all Scripture. The result has been enormous complexity, and therefore great confusion and controversy. But the cause was simple: They failed to listen to Him (Matt. 17:5).

View of the Consummation

For believers steeped in the DNT, dispensational teaching on the Consummation is painful in the extreme. The essential problem here is that it destroys the Blessed Hope of the Church by breaking God’s one eschatological gem into tiny fragments, and then sewing them like sequins on a false time-line of future Salvation History. The result is still more confusion and controversy, neither of which well serve a people upon whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Cor. 10:11).

In our journey towards eschatological clarity I have sought to address every element of the dispensational Consummation. Working out way through the dispensational time line, let us review what we have learned.

First comes the Rapture, when Christ secretly returns to the earth and removes his glorified Bride to heaven, thereby marking the onset of a seven-year season of tribulation. We have seen, however, that this teaching is based on a faulty exegesis of Daniel 9, and also on a small handful of NT texts forced into its mold. In truth, the catching up of God’s glorified saints occurs at the one Parousia of Christ, when the High King returns in power and glory, raises all the dead of all time, transforms the living, and gathers all men and angels before his throne in the sky for the Judgment (Matt. 13, 25; 1 Thess. 4). (More here)

Next comes the (seven-year) Tribulation, or the 70th week of Daniel. Here, error abounds. The Great Tribulation of Revelation 7:14 is the entire present evil age, begun at the fall and stretching all the way to the Consummation. Now over six millennia long, it has ever been a season of tribulation for the true saints of God. The permutations of 3½ years, found throughout the Revelation (i.e., 42 months, 1260 days, a time, times, and a half a time), recall Elijah’s years in the wilderness, and therefore symbolize the entire Era of Gospel Proclamation as a season of persecution and divine provision (1 Ki. 17:1-6). The “greatest tribulation” of which our Lord spoke in Matthew 24:21 is a brief season of unspecified length, set to occur at the end of the age; a season of affliction for both the Church and the world. Dispensationalists are correct when they identify Daniel’s 70th seven as the final “seven” of Salvation History, the “week” in which the Antichrist will rise to power, deceive the world, and persecute the saints (Dan. 9:27). They err, however, when they identify that “week” as seven literal years. And they further err when they assert that the Church will escape it. Quite the opposite: The Spirit’s main purpose in giving this prophecy is to prepare the saints for the final 69 weeks, and especially for the 70th! In those days the saints must take up the weapons of their warfare afresh, and, as good soldiers of Jesus Christ, fight bravely right up to the last hour of the Last Battle (2 Cor. 10:4; Eph. 6:19f; 2 Tim. 2:3, 4:5). (More here)

Next we have “phase two” of the Parousia: the Revelation of Christ, that is, his visible coming with his saints, at which time he will resurrect only the OT saints and Tribulation martyrs, and welcome Tribulation believers into his millennial Kingdom. We have seen, however, that this truncated view of the Consummation empties it of much of its Christ-centered power and glory. For again, in truth there is only one Consummation of all things, set to occur at the one Parousia. When it is complete, the divine Consummator will lay the shining trophy of the God’s completed Kingdom at his Father’s feet, thereby concluding his Messianic reign, rather than beginning it. (More here)

Next comes the Millennium, or the so-called Kingdom Age. By projecting it into the distant future, dispensationalists misrepresent the true structure of the Kingdom, giving us three stages instead of two. Also, their premillennialism further disrupts the unity of the Consummation by requiring a third coming of Christ at the end of the Millennium. But neither the DNT nor the Revelation support this scenario, teaching as they do that the 1000 years of Revelation 20 symbolize the lengthy era between Christ’s first and second advents.

We conclude, then, that the dispensational view of the Consummation seriously departs from Scripture, robs Christ of his proper glory, and needlessly confuses the saints by breaking up the one Consummation into multiple comings, resurrections, judgments, and transformations of nature. (More here and here)

Conclusion

There are difficult days ahead for the Church. We are swiftly heading for the Last Battle. (More here) As never before, the Body of Christ will need to stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, and be ever-increasingly energized and encouraged by her one true Blessed Hope (Phil. 1:27; Eph. 4:4). This is not a time for confusion and controversy; it is a time for recovering the historic Blessed Hope of the Church. (More here)

Accordingly, I would urge my dispensational brothers to rethink their position, and to come home to the good old paths of our Protestant forefathers. On that solid ground they stood strong amidst many dangers, toils, and snares. If we will stand with them, we can do the same.

NOTE: This essay is an excerpt from my book, The Great End Time Debate: Issues, Options, and Amillennial Answers (Redemption Press, 2021)

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These mysterious chapters give us Ezekiel’s famous prophecy of the Deception, Destruction, and Disposal of Israel’s great eschatological enemy: Gog and his confederation of evil armies. In the latter days, by divine decree, they all will go up against a people fully restored to the LORD and his covenant blessings, thinking to annihilate them and seize their homeland. But it is Gog and his armies who will be annihilated. Under furious strokes of divine judgment they will suffer complete and everlasting destruction upon the mountains of Israel.

How shall we understand this prophecy?

The answer from our premillennarian brethren is predictable and disappointing. Embracing prophetic literalism, they argue that Ezekiel is predicting a military war against latter day Jews who are spiritually renewed and happily resettled in their ancestral homeland of Palestine. But once again there are telling disagreements among them. Some, following the lead of Revelation 20:7-9, place this battle at the end of the Millennium. Others say it will take place just prior to Christ’s Second Coming and the onset the Millennium. This, however, forces the latter group to explain why Ezekiel has the Messiah living in the land before the Last Battle, rather than coming to it afterwards (Ezek. 37:24-25).

There are other problems as well, and of the same kind that appear in all Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP). As we have seen, the conspicuous use of figurative language warns against prophetic literalism. But if, in the case before us, the warning is ignored, our text is seen to conflict with other OT prophecies of the Last Battle, entangles us in numerous historical anachronisms, and plunges us into incredulity. For consider: Would (or could) modern armies bring wooden weapons to the field of battle? Would there be enough such weapons for a nation of millions to use them as fuel for seven years (Ezek. 39:9)? If all the people of the land worked daily for seven months to bury the bodies of their defeated foes, how many millions of corpses would there have to be (Ezek. 39:13)? How could the Israelites bear the stench or avoid the spread of disease?

But if prophetic literalism is not the key, what is? The Didactic New Testament (DNT) points the way. As we have seen, according to the NT the Kingdom enters history in two stages: a temporary spiritual Kingdom of the Son, followed by an eternal spiritual and physical Kingdom of the Father. Sandwiched between the two stages of the one Kingdom is the Last Battle: a final global clash between the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of Satan, during which, for a brief moment, it will appear to all the world that the Lord’s Church has been destroyed. However, nothing could be farther from the truth, for in fact the Last Battle is the sign and trigger of the Consummation of all things: No sooner has it begun, than Christ himself comes again to rescue his Bride, destroy his enemies, and usher in the eternal Kingdom of the Father (and the Son).

These NT mysteries richly illumine large portions of the book of Ezekiel, including our text. In chapters 33-37 Ezekiel prophesies about the Days of the Messiah, and about the great spiritual renewal that he will accomplish among God’s people. In these chapters the prophet is using covenantally conditioned language to speak of the Era of Gospel Proclamation, during which the Father will bring “the Israel of God” into the spiritual Kingdom of his Son (Gal. 6:16). Later, in chapters 40-48, Ezekiel encourages the saints with visions of the Everlasting Temple (40-42), the Everlasting Glory (43), the Everlasting Worship (43-46), the Everlasting Wholeness (47), the Everlasting Homeland (47-48:29), and the Everlasting City (48:30-35). In these chapters he is using covenantally conditioned language to picture the glorified Church in the eternal World to Come. And what is sandwiched between these two great blocs of prophecy? You have guessed correctly: A covenantally conditioned picture of the Last Battle, cast as the Deception, Destruction, and Disposal of Israel’s most fearsome enemy: the armies of Gog.

Keeping these introductory thoughts in mind, let us now begin our journey through Ezekiel 38-39.

The Deception of Gog (38:1-17)

In verses 1-6 God commands Ezekiel to prophesy against Gog—who is consistently represented as a person—and the seven nations that will join him in the eschatological assault against Israel: Meschech, Tubal, Persia, Ethiopia, Libya, Gomer, and Togarmah. The number is symbolic, indicating that these nations typify the entire world. So too does the fact that they are situated to the north, east, and south of Israel. Rev. 20:7-10 further opens up the meaning, declaring that Gog and Magog will be gathered from “the four corners of the earth.” The message, then, is that Gog—unveiled in the NT as a personal antichrist controlled by Satan himself—will gather together the entire world-system for a final attack against the NT people of God: the Church. Her enemies will mean it for evil, but the all-sovereign God of providence, intent on a final majestic display of his glory, will mean it for good (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28, 9:14-18, 11:36; 2 Thess. 2:1ff).

In verses 7-9 God elaborates. The battle will occur “after many days” and “in the latter years”—that is, at the end of the Era of Gospel Proclamation. By his providence God himself will summon his foes, emboldening them to gather together against the LORD and his anointed servants (Ps. 2:1-3; Acts 4:23-31; Rev. 13:7). Accordingly, they will go up against a people gathered out of the nations and henceforth resting securely in their homeland and upon the mountains of Israel (v. 8). That is, they will attack the Church: a people called out of the world-wide Domain of Darkness, and planted in the heavenly places in Christ. Because of man’s sin, those places were long a desolate waste (i.e., uninhabited); but now God’s nation dwells there in peace and security with their mighty risen Lord (Eph. 1:3, 2:6; Col. 3:1-3; Heb. 12:22). Observe again from verse 9 the universality and magnitude of the attack against the Church: “Many peoples” are joined with Gog, and together they cover the land like a cloud (Rev. 13:3, 8, 20:9).

In verses 10-13 God elaborates further, this time probing the evil motivations of Gog and his hordes. Seeing both the prosperity and powerlessness of a peace-loving people who trust in God rather than walls and weapons, they will be emboldened “to capture spoil and to seize plunder” (v. 12). So too will many covetous onlookers, typified by the merchants of Sheba, Dedan, and Tarshsish (v. 13; Rev. 18:15-19). These images speak of spiritual conditions in the last of the last days. Hitherto the Church has enjoyed a wealth of adherents, as well as religious, moral, and cultural influence; now, however, all is attenuated. Spiritually speaking, she is no longer “the navel of the earth,” the spiritual center of human civilization (v. 12). The moral force of the Gospel—and the moral influence of the Church that proclaims it—no longer register on the conscience of a lawless world. Accordingly, it now dawns on the rulers of this present evil age that there is nothing to prevent them from seizing, not simply the property, but also the religious, philosophical, and moral high ground of the followers of the Prince of Peace (Matt. 24:12; 2 Tim. 3:1f; 2 Thess. 2:1ff). Foolishly, they decide to try.

Before pronouncing judgment on his foes, God reiterates his decree one final time (vv. 14-17). Yes, Gog will discern the vulnerability of the LORD’s little flock (v. 14). And yes, a multitude of latter-day nations will follow him in the attack, animated by the same spirit that motivated so many of Israel’s former enemies to invade Palestine from the north (v. 15; Is. 41:25; Jer. 1:13-15, 6:22f). But why are these things so certain? It’s because God himself has ordained them, and because he has done so in order to manifest his glory to all mankind (v. 16). As in the Exodus, so at the Last Battle: God will demonstrate his wrath and make his power known upon vessels fitted for destruction, even as he displays the riches of his glory upon (persecuted) vessels of mercy, whom he lovingly prepared beforehand for glory (Rom. 9:22-23, 2 Thess. 1). Over the course of many years the former prophets spoke of these very things. Why? Because God himself had decreed them (v. 17; Deut. 32:34-43; Is. 34:1-6, 63:1-6, 66:15-16; Joel 3:9-14; Mic. 4:19-23). Amidst all their tribulations the saints are invted to take refuge and comfort in the absolute sovereignty of their covenant-keeping God.

The Destruction of Gog (38:17-23)

Having spoken at length of the Deception of Gog, the LORD now unveils his Destruction (vv. 18-23). When the murderous armies attack his beloved land, he will jealously pour out his fury, anger, and blazing wrath upon them, even as he did upon his uniquely begotten Son, so that his chosen people might be rescued from these most dreadful enemies (vv. 18-19; Ezek. 20:33-35; Matt. 27:4; Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2, 4:10).

The first judgment is an earthquake. It is cosmic in scope, affecting seven sectors of the creation: fish, birds, beasts, all men, all mountains, and all human constructs (vv. 19-20; Heb. 12:29, Rev. 11:3, 16:8). In verses 21-22, seven more judgments are announced: sword, pestilence, blood, overflowing rain, hailstones, fire, and brimstone (Rev. 17:16). The numbers are clearly symbolic, and so too is the message. The NT decodes it. Ezekiel’s catalog of OT punishments symbolizes the one cosmic judgment by fire set to occur at the return of Christ (Matt. 3:12; Luke 17:29; 2 Thess. 1:8, 2 Peter 3:7, 12; Rev. 20:9). When it comes, all men and nations will see and confess that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the indeed the one, true, living, and altogether holy God (v. 23; 2 Thess. 1:3-10, Phil. 2:9-11).

The Disposal of Gog (39:1-20)

Chapter 39 gives us the Disposal of Gog and his hordes. Verses 1-8 begin with a brief recapitulation of his Deception and Destruction, wherein we learn again of the universality (v. 6), purpose (7), and certainty (v. 8) of the coming judgment. Observe from verse 6 that when it does come, all the earth will be living in security. But when people are saying, “Peace and safety,” sudden destruction will come upon them like labor pains upon a pregnant woman; and they will not escape (1 Thess. 5:3).

The theme of verses 9-10 is eschatological pillage and plunder. That the passage is symbolic is clear from the numbers used: six kinds of weapons will be used for fire over the course of seven years. The meaning? Time and again Israel had been pillaged and plundered by her human enemies; the Last Battle will be their last attempt, when fallen man (6) will do his very worst. But here, says God, is where it ends, and where the tables are forever turned. For here eschatological Israel will pillage and plunder all her foes, and for all time; her victory will be complete (7).

 The NT unveils the fulfillment of our text. By God’s decree the saints will have a share in the Judgment. “Do you not realize,” asked the incredulous Paul, “that the saints will judge the world” (Rom. 16:20; 1 Cor. 6:2; Rev. 20:4)? In that Day, the glorified Church will pillage her enemies and plunder their illicitly held possessions. When the fires of judgment have performed their work, a world formerly gone over to Satan and his seed will forever belong to the saints of the Most High. The humble will inherit the earth (Gen. 3:15; Dan. 7:18; Matt. 5:5, Luke 4:5-7; 2 Pet. 3:10-13).

The message is much the same in verses 11-16, which describe the burial of the hordes of Gog. The imagery of verse 11 is designed to communicate the immensity of the burial ground, while that of verses 12-15 staggers us with the multitude of dead bodies that will lie there. Verse 16 makes the latter idea explicit, declaring that the valley will suddenly become a city (or at least play host to a city) that men will call Hamonah (i.e., Multitude). The NT gives the interpretation: In the Judgment the resurrected saints will receive from Christ the honor of co-laboring with him in the eschatological cleansing of the world. The Church will have a role in the final casting out of all things that offend (v. 13; Matt. 13:41; 1 Cor. 6:2-3).

Verses 17-20 alert us to the symbolic character of the entire prophecy, since now we learn that the corpses of Gog are not actually buried in the valley, but instead become a sacrificial meal prepared by the LORD on the mountains of Israel for every sort of bird of the air and beast of the field. Here again the theme is the Last Judgment. We are assured of this by its NT counterpart, Revelation 19:17-21. Drawing liberally from Ezekiel’s words, the Spirit there associates “the Great Supper of God” with the Second Coming of Christ as Judge of all (Rev. 19:11-16). Passages from the DNT decode the symbolism of both prophecies: At the Parousia, Christ, the holy angels, and (perhaps) the saints themselves will fall upon the wicked and cast them into Gehenna, where the latter will be eternally devoured by the fires of divine judgment (Matt. 13:39-43; Rom. 2:5-10; 2 Thess. 1:3ff, 2:8; Jas. 5:3; Rev. 19:20, 20:14-15). Thus shall they become a kind of sacrifice, not to atone for sin, but to glorify the holiness, righteousness, justice, wrath, and power of the divine Judge of sin (Rom. 9:19-24; Rev. 15:1-8, 16:4-6).

A Final Promise of Restoration (39:21-29)

This section brings the prophecy to a close, paving the way for Ezekiel’s description of life in the everlasting World to Come (40-48). Appropriately enough, it gives us yet another promise of Israel’s eschatological restoration (vv. 25-29).

In verses 21-24 God casts a backward glance at his supreme purpose in the Judgment previously described: “That they may know.” He desires all to know his glory (v. 21). He desires Israel to know his covenant faithfulness (v. 22). And he desires the Gentiles to know that whenever they (briefly) triumphed over his people and nation, it was not because he was unable or unwilling to save them, but because they had sinned, with the result that for a little season he was forced to hide his face from them in judgment (vv. 23-24; Is. 54:8).

Mindful of this purpose, and eager to instill hope in his suffering people, God therefore concludes the prophecy with yet another promise of eschatological redemption (vv. 25-29). The blessings are familiar. He will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have mercy on the house of Israel (v. 25). They will forget their former disgrace and live securely in their own land (v. 26). Their holy and blessed life will bring honor to his name (v. 27). They will learn to see his sovereign hand, both in their previous exile and in their return (v. 28). And when in fact they have returned, they will rest in this glorious confidence: Never again shall God hide his face from them in judgment, for he will have poured out his life-transforming Spirit upon all the house of Israel (v. 29; Heb. 8:1-13).

How shall we interpret this final promise? That it appears to be speaking exclusively of ethnic Israel can scarcely be denied. However, the NT assures us that such is not the case. In fact, the promise will be fulfilled in Christ, under the New Covenant, in the two-fold Kingdom that he will introduce. On this view, Israel’s history of sin, exile, and return stands as a type of the history of all God’s people of all times, whether Jew or Gentile. Having sinned in Adam, as well as by their own evil choices, God has exiled them into the Domain of Darkness, where they suffered grievously at the hands of their many enemies. Yet because of his everlasting love for them, he will take action. In the last days, he will set his glory—the Person and Work of his Son—among the nations, draw a chosen people to him, justify them, fill them with his Spirit, and plant them securely, with neither shame nor disgrace, in their new heavenly homeland.

Yes, at the end of the age the unbelieving world-system will mount a fierce attack against God’s holy nation, for it is appointed to the saints that they should follow in the footsteps of their Master (John 15:20; Rev. 11:7-10) But after they have suffered a little, and after they have been sanctified through it, God will yet again set his glory among the nations. He will do so by sending the High King of Heaven back into the world to destroy and dispose of all his foes, and to establish his people once and for all in their eternal homeland: the new heavens and the new earth (1 Pet. 1:3-9).

In that day, all men—both saints and sinners—will indeed come to know the LORD. They will come to know the sovereignty, righteousness, justice, power, wrath, love, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, and grace of the one true living triune God.

This essay is a chapter taken from my book, The Great End-Time Debate: Issues, Options, and Amillennial Answers (Redemption Press, 2021).1 Here is a key to some of the abbreviations you will encounter as your read:

GETD = Great End Time Debate
DNT = Didactic New Testament (i.e., the teaching portions of the gospels, the book of Acts, and the epistles)
OTKP = OT Kingdom Prophecy (OT prophecies of a coming Kingdom of God)
NCH = New Covenant Hermeneutic (the NT method for interpreting the OT in general, and OTKP in particular)
PP = Partial Preterism
FP = Full Preterism.

Introduction

In recent years a small but influential group of theologians in the Reformed wing of evangelicalism have defended a view of eschatology called preterism. The name is derived from the Latin praeter, meaning past. It fits well, since interpreters of this persuasion argue that events traditionally associated with the Consummation at the end of the present evil age have already occurred. They believe that some or all of the eschatological predictions found in the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Revelation were actually fulfilled in “the last days” between 33-70 AD, and especially in the Jewish War, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Titus (66-70 AD).

Most historians agree that preterist eschatologies first appeared in the 17th century writings of Jesuit priest Luis de Alcazar, Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, and English Bible scholars Henry Hammond and John Lightfoot. Later on, the English Congregational pastor J. S. Russell became the father of “full preterism,” while the American professor Moses Stuart defended a milder version called “partial preterism.” In this essay I will offer a brief exposition and critique of these two schools of eschatological thought.

I. Exposition of Partial Preterism
(To view a time line for PP please click here)

Partial preterists (PPs) agree with their Reformed forefathers in teaching that the Kingdom of God enters the world in two stages: the Era of Gospel Proclamation followed by the World to Come. They also agree that we must interpret Old Testament Kingdom prophecies (OTKP’s) figuratively and spiritually, as pointing to New Covenant institutions and blessings. However, on a number of other crucial points they differ with their Protestant predecessors.

For example, the time-line indicates that partial preterists do not identify “the last days” as the eternal Era of Fulfillment introduced by the New Covenant, but rather as the closing years of the Mosaic dispensation: that brief season of time between Pentecost (ca 33 AD) and the events of 70 AD. Also, they do not identify “the greatest tribulation” as amillennarians do (i.e., as the Last Battle between the Church and the World, fomented by the rise of the Antichrist), but as the Battle of Jerusalem, which took place in AD 67-70.

As for the Parousia, Christians have traditionally identified it with the one supernatural Coming of the Lord at the end of the present evil age. But according to PP, there are two Comings, or two phases of the one Coming. The first—sometimes referred to as “the judgment-coming”—occurred in 70 AD, when Titus destroyed Jerusalem. This judgment marked “the end of the age”: that is, the end of the Mosaic dispensation. It was not a supernatural judgment, but a providential judgment. The second (phase of the) Parousia is supernatural. It includes the bodily return of the Lord in glory, the resurrection of the dead, and the last judgment. This Coming marks the end of the Era of Gospel Proclamation. According to partial preterists, in Matthew 24:27-31 Jesus used OT apocalyptic language to symbolize his providential judgment-coming, whereas in Matthew 25:31ff he straightforwardly spoke about the events of his supernatural coming.

Partial preterists bring their new hermeneutic to the Revelation, which, based on their distinctive interpretation of the book’s contents, they insist was written around AD 60, prior to the fall of Jerusalem. Accordingly, all partial preterists agree that chapters 1-19 mystically picture the events of “the last days” (i.e., 33-70 AD), and especially those of “The Great Tribulation” of 66-70 AD, when the Church endured great hardship at the hands of Israel and Rome.

Regarding chapter 20, some PPs identify the Millennium with “the last days” (i.e., 33-70 AD), throughout which Satan was bound so that the Church could preach the Gospel to Israel and the nations. Others advance a futuristic and postmillennial interpretation, arguing that at some point in the Era of Gospel Proclamation (future even to us) God will grant his people a season of extraordinary evangelistic success, with the result that ethnic Israel will finally turn to Christ and the world will become largely Christian. Some in this latter camp—called theonomists or Christian Reconstructionists—also argue that during the millennium to come global society will become largely theocratic: that is, that the nations will be governed by the principles and statutes of the Mosaic Law.

With notable differences among them, Greg Bahnsen, David Chilton, Ken Gentry, Gary de Mar, Hank Hanegraaff, Peter Leithart, Keith Mathison, Rousas Rushdoony, Martin Selbrede, and R.C. Sproul all embrace a partial preterist understanding of biblical eschatology.

II. Exposition of Full Preterism
(To view a time line of Full Preterism, please click here)

Full Preterism (FP) is the natural result of a consistent application of the preterist hermeneutic discussed above. If our Lord used mystical, apocalyptic language in the Olivet Discourse to describe an invisible Parousia that occurred in 70 AD, who is to say that he and his apostles did not use the same kind of language to describe all of the other events biblically associated with the Parousia: the Resurrection, the Last Judgment, and the introduction of the World to Come? Who is to say that these too were not accomplished in 70 AD?

This is the position of FP’s. In 70 AD Christ came again: not bodily, but spiritually. At that time the dead were raised and judged: not visibly and bodily, but spiritually. The souls of the wicked were raised from Hades, given a new spiritual body of some kind, and cast into a Lake of Fire. Likewise, the souls of the righteous were “raised” from their previous state, given a new spiritual body of some kind, and welcomed into a spiritual World to Come.

Obviously this view raises a question: What happens to the people who are born after 70 AD? Some FP’s reply that the Last Judgment is now ongoing, and that it takes place when a person dies (Heb. 9:27). Others reply that when a person is converted and becomes a new creature in Christ, he immediately enters the spiritual World to Come, but will do so in greater fullness at the moment of his death. Thus, for FPs, the Parousia, the Resurrection, the Last Judgment, and the World to Come are not bodily and physical, but spiritual only. As for the future of the present physical universe, FPs allege that the Bible is silent on this subject.

Needless to say, FP is a dramatic break with historic Christian orthodoxy—a break that men like John Bray, (the late) David Chilton, Max and Tim King, John Noe, Don Preston, and Edward Stevens have openly made. Accordingly, they do not hesitate to remind us that the historic creeds of the Church are not infallible, and that a majority theologians can be, have been, and (in this case) presently are, wrong. Nevertheless, FP has not gained much traction among evangelical Christians. Indeed, many regard it as eschatological heresy.

III. Critique of Preterism

We have seen that Preterism emphasizes the past fulfillment of biblical prophecies surrounding the Consummation. Partial Preterism (PP) says that many of these prophecies were fulfilled between AD 30-70. Full Preterism (FP) says that all of them were. In our eschatological journey I have addressed a number of preterist claims; however, because preterist views have lately gained considerable traction in Reformed circles, we must take a closer look. We’ll begin by going to the heart of the matter: the preterist hermeneutic, the distinctively preterist method for interpreting the NT prophetic scriptures. After that, we’ll examine PP (the most popular of the two views), and then comment briefly on FP (the most troubling).

A. The Preterist Hermeneutic

Remarkably enough, it appears that the entire edifice of preterist eschatology is largely built on a small and exceedingly shaky foundation: the preterist interpretation of Matthew 24:34. We recall that the Lord said, “I tell you the truth: This generation will by no means pass away till all these things have taken place.” Preterists claim that here Christ was referring strictly to the generation of his own contemporaries, the generation that would experience the events of AD 70. But having drawn that conclusion, they now have a problem. That’s because the Lord’s description of his Parousia, found in Matthew 24:29-31, looks highly supernatural, eschatological, and cosmological. But if, as preterists claim, this event really occurred in 70 AD, then obviously we cannot take his words literally (as, indeed, most Christians do). Rather, in order to preserve their truthfulness, we shall have to interpret them typologically and figuratively. We shall have to say that here Jesus was doing as the OT prophets did in OTKP: veiling the truth in typological and figurative language, and so actually speaking of his providential judgment of Jerusalem at the hands of Titus.

Alas, the problem does not end here. For if the Lord used figurative language on this occasion, we are compelled to ask: Might he also have done so a little while later, when he spoke of the Judgment (Matt. 25:31-46)? Might he have done so when he previously spoke of the last things (e.g., Matt. 13:37-40; 22:23-33; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:27-36; John 5:21-29)? Indeed, did he predict a supernatural Parousia on any occasion? And what of his apostles? In making their predictions, were they simply following their Master by using apocalyptic language to describe the destruction of Jerusalem? And what of the Revelation? Did the Spirit really use these stunningly cosmological symbols simply to speak of the vicissitudes of “the last days” (i.e., AD 30-70)? In short, where in the NT does all the typological language end, and where does the straightforward teaching begin? Where are the words by which alone we can know God’s true future, and so decipher any veiled revelations used to describe it?

Happily, we have already received the answer: God has told us to listen to his Son, the appointed Teacher of the human race (Matt. 17:5). When he came, he revealed all facets of the Eternal Covenant. In particular, he (and his apostles) gave us many simple prophecies—straightforward, easily understood predictions—concerning the course and consummation of Salvation History. Having done so, and having seen to their preservation in the DNT, he has given us the keys: the revealed eschatological truths by which alone we can know the future and also decode the mystical meaning of the OT, OTKP, and the Revelation. Contrary to the claims of the preterists, Jesus Christ did not come to veil God’s truth, but to unveil it once and for all (Matt. 13:52).

Here, then, is the great faux pas of our preterist brothers. Just as premillennarians err by interpreting OTKP literally, so preterists err by interpreting simple NT prophecies figuratively and typologically. Bound by their narrow interpretation of Matthew 24:34, they feel constrained to embrace an entirely new hermeneutic for the interpretation of NT eschatological texts. Accordingly, they have fallen away from some or all of the tenets of traditional Christian eschatology.

Let us therefore take a moment to address the two main preterist stumbling blocks.

Concerning the Olivet Discourse, we saw earlier that it was the Lord’s extended reply to his disciples’ twofold question, a question that concerned both the destruction of Jerusalem and his supernatural Coming at the end of the age. Accordingly, the reply itself was two-fold, blending the local with the global, the historical with the eschatological, and the providential with the supernatural. We need only read the text itself to see that in all these arenas the Lord was giving simple prophecies of events future to all his disciples.

This includes Matthew 24:29-31, Christ’s prediction of his (supernatural) Parousia. Contrary to the claims of our preterist brothers, it does not read like Isaiah 13, Isaiah 24, or Ezekiel 32:7-8—OTKPs that clearly employ much figurative language. Rather, it reads like a straightforward prediction of the Coming of the Son of Man in glory. This is evident from the straightforward prediction itself, the straightforward predictions leading up to it (Matt. 24:21-27), and the straightforward predictions flowing down from it (Matt. 24:32-51; 25:31-46). And it is especially evident from the many other NT predictions that so closely resemble this one (Matt. 13:37-43; 1 Thess. 4:13-5:3; 2 Thess. 1:3-12; 2:1-12; 2 Peter 3:1-13). Clearly, this is the mother of all NT prophecies of the Parousia. If, as the preterists claim, it is not giving us a true picture of the Parousia and the Consummation, then we are completely at sea in trying to form a mental picture of the Blessed Hope of the Church.

But what of Matthew 24:34? We saw earlier that the Lord’s use of the phrase “this generation” was not monolithic, as the preterists claim. Rather, it too was controlled by the disciples’ twofold question, a question that concerned both the Lord’s providential coming to Jerusalem in AD 70, but also his supernatural coming to the world at the end of the age. Therefore, we paraphrased his words as follows: “I tell you the solemn truth: This one generation—this one fallen but beloved and eminently redeemable race of human beings, comprised of saints and sinners living here and now in Israel, but also of saints and sinners living all over the world right up to the end of the present evil age—will not pass away until all of these things have taken place.” This interpretation re-admits the supernatural, the eschatological, and the cosmological into the Olivet Discourse. In so doing, it rescues the Church from the preterist error, and restores to her the eschatology of the classic Reformation.2

Summing up, we have seen that preterist eschatology—and the confusion it brings in its train—is based on a major hermeneutical error. Having misinterpreted Matthew 24:34, preterists have forced an alien hermeneutic upon some or all of the NT texts dealing with the Consummation. Having misunderstood the mission of the Teacher—which was to unveil all of God’s truth—they have veiled it again by imposing typological and figurative interpretations upon a precious NT body of simple eschatological prophecies: prophecies that are meant to supply the scriptural foundation for, and the keys to, all biblical eschatology. This makes perfect sense. Somewhere, sometime, someone in the Bible is going to have to speak plainly about the Eternal Covenant, the Kingdom of God, and the course of Salvation History, so that God’s people will be able to decode all the typological texts dealing with those themes. In the DNT Christ and the apostles have done this very thing (Matt. 13:10-12, 51-52; John 16:12-14, 25; 1 Cor. 2:6-16; Eph. 1:8-10). Alas, our preterist brethren fail to see it.

B. Critique of Partial Preterism 

Keeping these thoughts in mind, let us now take a critical look at PP by examining its position on the four underlying issues of the GETD.

View of the Kingdom

In agreement with Amillennialism, PP affirms that the Kingdom of God is the direct spiritual reign of God the Father, through the Son, and by the Holy Spirit; that it is entered through faith in the Person and Work of Christ; and that it is the promise of the Eternal Covenant. Also, the two schools agree that the Kingdom enters the world in two stages: a spiritual Kingdom of the Son, followed by a spiritual and physical Kingdom of the Father. However, as we shall see, PP holds heterodox views on certain key events proper to the Kingdom of the Son.

View of OTKP

Like amillennarians, PPs use the NCH to interpret OTKP. Rightly, they have learned to view Christ, the New Covenant, the Church, and the two-staged Kingdom of God as the true spheres of fulfillment for all OTKP. However, to the extent that they misunderstand NT teaching on the course of the Era of Proclamation, to that same extent they will misinterpret OTKPs dealing with its key events. For example, if a partial preterist believes that NT predictions of the Man of Lawlessness were fulfilled by the emperor Nero, then that conviction will shape his interpretation of OT prophecies dealing with the Antichrist and the Last Battle (e.g., Dan. 7:1-28; 9:26-27; 11:36-12:13).

View of the Consummation

Before discussing the PP view of the Revelation and the Millennium, we must first examine its understanding of the Consummation.

Like Amillennialism (and unlike FP), PP affirms the traditional elements of the Consummation: a single supernatural coming of the glorified Christ, a single resurrection, a single judgment, and a single advent of the glorious World to Come. However, on the following five points, PP departs from traditional orthodoxy.

First, most PPs assert that “the last days” are the years during which the Mosaic Covenant remained in effect (ca AD 33-70). However, no NT text teaches this. Though the early church would need time to realize it, the Mosaic Covenant ended on a single day: the Day of Pentecost, when, for the first time, through the mystery of preaching (Rom. 10:14), Christians entered the New Covenant that Christ sealed with his blood, thereby abrogating the Old (Mark 11:13-14; Matt. 27:51; John 19:30; Acts 2). As for “the last days”, some NT texts use this expression to speak of “the last of the last days”: the (difficult) days prior to the Consummation (2 Tim. 3:1; 2 Peter 3:3). However, as a rule the Bible understands “the last days” as the season of Salvation History in which the Eternal Covenant and the Kingdom of God have been manifested in the world. They began with Christ’s incarnation, and will extend into eternity future (Is. 2:2; Hos. 3:5; Mic. 4:1; Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:2).

Secondly, most PPs assert that the early Church fully evangelized the world prior to AD 70, thus fulfilling Matthew 24:14. Now it is true that in the apostolic era the Gospel spread like wildfire, thoroughly penetrating the Roman “world” (Acts 19:20; Rom. 15:18-19; Col. 1:6; 1 Thess. 1:8-9). But hyperbole notwithstanding (Col. 1:23), this was only a prelude to, and a picture of, the evangelization of the whole earth, of which the Lord Jesus spoke in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:14; cf. Rom. 15:18-29). Many NT texts depict the Great Commission as open-ended and incomplete. The Lord tarries, not desiring that any should perish (2 Peter 3:8-9). The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11:7 (i.e., the witnessing Church) have not yet finished giving their testimony. Fittingly, even after 2,000 years of Gospel proclamation, the Church still hears the Great Commission as a command to finish the job of world evangelization in the power of Christ, who promises to be with her always, for that purpose, even till the end of the age (Matt. 28:18-20).

Thirdly, most PPs teach that Nero was the Man of Lawlessness (i.e., the Antichrist). However, while Nero was indeed animated by the spirit of the Antichrist (1 John 4:3), he was not the eschatological Antichrist himself, as any objective reading of 2 Thessalonians 2 will make clear. The coming of the Antichrist—with his miraculous powers, unprecedented claims to deity, and global following—still lies ahead, and is arguably the single most important sign of the nearness of the end (2 Thess. 2; Rev. 13:3).

Fourthly, PPs identify “the greatest tribulation” of Matthew 24:21-22 with the vicissitudes of Titus’ invasion in 67-70 AD. We have seen, however, that while the Lord did indeed have those vicissitudes in mind, and while they were indeed dire, he primarily had in view something far worse: a tribulation the likes of which the world has never seen before, and never will again. Set to occur at the end of present evil age, it will be triggered by the coming of the eschatological Abomination that Causes Desolation (i.e., the Antichrist), cut short for the sake of the elect, and end at the visible appearing of the Son of God in glory in the skies above the earth (Matt. 24:15-31; Rev. 1:7). It is contemporaneous with, and largely constituted by, the Last Battle between the Church and the world, which, notably, is repeatedly foreseen in the Revelation (Rev. 11:7-10; 13:6-10; 16:12-16; 19:19; 20:7-10).

Finally, while it is indeed true that PPs affirm a supernatural Coming of Christ at the end of the present evil age, their teaching on this point is confused. The crux of the problem is the relation between Matthew 24:29-31 and Matthew 25:31-46. Amillennarians teach that the former is a simple prophecy of Christ’s supernatural Parousia, and the latter a simple prophecy of the (final) Judgment immediately following. PPs disagree. Constrained by their interpretation of Matthew 24:34, they assert that the former is a veiled prophecy of Christ’s “judgment-coming” to Jerusalem, whereas the latter is a simple prophecy of his supernatural judgment of the world.

But this view strains all credulity. The Olivet Discourse (Matt 24-25) is a seamless teaching in which Christ gives his disciples a series of simple prophecies covering historical events that will occur between the days of his flesh and the end of the age. These two portions of the very same discourse—with their shared references to the Coming of the Son of Man, his glory, his angels, and his judgment—fit together hand in glove. Both are clearly describing the one supernatural Parousia of Christ and the one cosmological Consummation it will bring.

The preterist exegesis of the Olivet Discourse wreaks havoc on the interpretation of other NT texts dealing with the Consummation. For again, if Christ himself used veiled language to describe his providential coming, but straightforward language to describe his supernatural coming, then which of the two comings were the apostles referring to when they themselves spoke of the last things?

Inconsistencies and debates among PPs show that this is a very real problem. For example, we have seen that Matthew 24:29-31 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:3 are so similar that most Christians regard them as parallel texts. Yet all PPs say that the former gives us the Lord’s providential coming, while some say that the latter gives us his supernatural Coming. FPs avoid this inconsistency by saying that both texts give us the coming of AD 70, with the result that amillennarians say they are partially mistaken instead of greatly mistaken.

Again, nearly all PPs say that in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 the apostle was predicting the death (by suicide) of the emperor Nero, whom the Lord Jesus “providentially” slew with the breath of his mouth and brought to an end by the appearance of his Coming! Setting aside the historical and exegetical implausibility of this interpretation, how then can some PPs (e.g., Ken Gentry) affirm that in 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12 Paul was referring the Christ’s supernatural Parousia, when it is obvious that in both prophecies he was speaking of one and the same event?

Or again, how can one PP (e.g., Ken Gentry) say that in 2 Peter 3 the apostle was describing cosmic destruction and renewal, while another (e.g., Peter Leithart) says that he was actually predicting the events of AD 70? Amillennarians reply, “Because Leithart is more consistent in his application of the preterist hermeneutic, and so has slidden further down the slippery slope into error.”

The truth of the matter is as simple as it is important: Whether we have in mind their statements in the book of Acts, the epistles, or the Revelation, Christ’s apostles show no interest whatsoever in the destruction of Jerusalem (unless, perhaps, it is found in 1 Thessalonians 2:16). This is true whether it lay ahead of them (as in the case of Paul’s early writings) or behind them (as in the case of all of John’s). Their only eschatological concern is the Parousia: the one supernatural Coming of Christ, set to occur at the end of the present evil age (1 Thess. 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:1; James 5:7; 2 Peter 3:12; 1 John 3:2). Yes, in the Olivet Discourse we do find the Lord referring to the destruction of Jerusalem, for his disciples had specifically inquired about this, and it was necessary for him to prepare them. But in the rest of the DNT, which is directed almost entirely to Gentile Christians, or to Jewish believers dispersed throughout the Roman empire, interest in the events of AD 70 completely falls away, seeing that the one true Blessed Hope of the universal Church was (and is) the visible Coming of Christ in power and glory at the end of the present evil age. This is the living heart of all apostolic eschatology, as indeed every major NT eschatological text makes clear. 

View of the Revelation and the Millennium

Having critiqued preterist teaching on the Consummation, we are now in a position to consider its views on the Revelation and the Millennium. I will do so in two steps.

      1. View of Revelation 1-19

By and large, PPs assert that Revelation 1-19 was fulfilled prior to, during, or very shortly after AD 70. For preterists, the theme of these chapters is not a supernatural consummation to be accomplished at the end of a lengthy Era of Proclamation, but rather the events of “the last days,” understood as the years following Pentecost and culminating in a “judgment-coming” of Christ at the Battle of Jerusalem (ca 33-70 AD). Of necessity, this approach requires preterists to correlate the symbols of the Revelation with concrete historical persons and events of the 1st century. Those who have surveyed preterist writing on this subject realize that the attempt is as maddening as it is vain.

Here is a very general survey of the PP view. Chapters 1-3 give us Christ’s message to the seven Asian churches—messages that were designed to equip the 1st century Church to endure tribulation until “the end” (i.e., AD 70). Chapters 4-5 give us visions of God and Christ, who, by their good providence, will safeguard the redeemed as they bring “the end” to pass. The visions of the six seals (Rev. 6), the seven trumpets (Rev. 8-11), and the seven bowls (Rev. 15-16) all depict various events and judgments up to and including “the end” itself. Revelation 7:1-8 depicts the spiritual sealing of the universal Church (or of the faithful Jewish remnant), so that the saints might safely pass through the tribulation of “the last days”. Revelation 7:9-13 depicts them as having done so and now enjoying the blessings of Heaven above. Chapters 12-14 girded the early Church for persecution at the hands of two of the Dragon’s helpers: the Beast (i.e., Nero/Rome), and the False Prophet (i.e., either the Roman governor of Jerusalem, or the cabal of apostate Jewish clerics who fell in with Rome). Chapters 17-19 depict the fall of the Dragon’s third helper, the Harlot (i.e., apostate Jerusalem), who wickedly consorts with the Beast (i.e., Nero/Rome). According to most PPs, none of these chapters contain a description of Christ’s supernatural Parousia, only of the spiritual and providential victories he will grant to his faithful 1st century Church.

In the course of our journey I have defended a standard amillennial interpretation of the Revelation. With that in mind, I offer the following short critique of the PP view on chapters 1-19.

First, we have seen that a large majority of NT scholars, citing both internal and external evidence, have concluded that the Revelation was written around 95 AD, and not around 60 AD, as PPs assert. If so, the preterist interpretation is impossible. The Spirit of God would not inspire a prophecy dealing strictly with events already past, or addressing believers who, for the most part, were already asleep in the Lord.3, 4

Secondly, PP misunderstands both the audience and purpose of the Revelation. The audience is the Universal Church, and the purpose is to equip her for her centuries-long journey through the howling wilderness of this present evil age (Rev. 12). It does so by keeping before her eyes (and not behind her back) the rigors of the Great Tribulation through which she must pass, the nature and tactics of the enemies she will face, the vicissitudes of the Last Battle she is destined to endure, and the eternal rescue and restoration she will experience at the Coming of her mighty King. Preterism turns the Revelation into an historical curiosity, when in fact it is an urgently needed prophecy, valuable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, so that the people of God may stand complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work in these last days (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Thirdly, PP opens the door to exegetical chaos. It does so by forcing the interpreter to look outside of Scripture for the meaning of the symbols it employs. To what 1st century persons, places, things, and events does the Revelation refer when it speaks of the Seal, Trumpet, and Bowl judgments; of the 144,000 sealed Israelites, or the Two Witnesses; of the Beasts from the Sea and the Earth; of the Mark of the Beast; of the Harlot and Great Babylon; of the Battle of Armageddon; or of the stupendous judgments described at the end of each of the six visionary cycles comprising Revelation 6-20? Combing the works of Jewish and pagan historians, PPs bring back one speculative answer after another. But who is say which answer is right? By forcing us to look outside of Scripture, the preterist hermeneutic opens the door to exegetical chaos, whereas the idealist hermeneutic—which locates the meaning of all the symbols in the OT and the DNT—keeps us on solid exegetical ground.

Finally, PP obscures—indeed, trivializes—the majestic symbolism of the Revelation, which clearly does not point to the local and the historical, but instead to the global, the cosmological, and the eschatological. We have seen, for example, that the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments do not fall (exclusively) on Jerusalem or Rome, but rather upon the entire world-system; that the Beast from the sea is not Nero, but the governmental face of the anti-Christian world-system; that the False Prophet is not an obscure Roman functionary or a cabal of apostate Jewish clerics, but the religious face of the anti-Christian world-system; that the Harlot is not earthly Jerusalem, but the economic and cultural face of the world-system; that Babylon the Great is not Rome or Jerusalem, but the City of Man of all time, the fallen world-system as a whole; etc. Yes, the preterist approach may give us some valid historical applications of these symbols, but it by no means exhausts them. Being universal in scope, they therefore speak with fresh power to every generation of believers.

      2. View of Revelation 20-22                 

Concerning Revelation 20-22, PPs disagree among themselves. Some identify the Millennium with the entire Era of Proclamation. On this view, the binding of Satan is an ongoing work of the Spirit made possible by the cross of Christ. Henceforth, the Deceiver of men and nations cannot prevent the ingathering of God’s elect, nor can he foment the Last Battle until the God-appointed time. The first resurrection is spiritual rather than physical, and refers either to the new birth or the onset of the Intermediate State. Revelation 20:7-10 gives us the book’s one and only prediction of the Last Battle between the Church and the world. However, the Man of Lawlessness will not spearhead it, since he has already appeared in the person of Emperor Nero. Other passages that seem to predict a future Last Battle were actually fulfilled during the Great Tribulation of AD 66-70, when the Church was persecuted by Israel and Rome. Therefore, Revelation 20:7-15 gives us the book’s one and only description of the supernatural Coming of Christ, the Resurrection, and the Judgment, while chapters 21-22 give us the advent of the World to Come. We have seen, however, that chapters 1-19 actually give us numerous visions of the Consummation (6:12-17; 11:15-19; 14:14-20; 16:17-21; 19:11-21), and that the advent of the Man of Lawlessness is actually the preeminent sign of the imminence of the Lord’s supernatural return (2 Thess. 2; Rev. 13:8).

Other interpreters—like David Chilton, Ken Gentry, Keith Mathison, and Doug Wilson—defend a postmillennial interpretation of Revelation 20. For such as these, the Millennium is a Golden Era still future to us. The binding of Satan has yet to occur, but certainly will, probably when ethnic Israel is graciously turned back to the Lord (Rom. 11:15). This will bring about the first resurrection and the millennial reign of the saints, these being understood as fresh bursts of Gospel vitality that will fill the earth, not only with multitudes of devoted Christians, but also with widespread Kingdom righteousness, peace, and joy. Alas, the Golden Era will be (dreadfully) marred by the release of Satan and a resultant global rebellion against Christ and his faithful remnant. But the Lord will reverse the reversal at his swift return, and will raise the dead, judge the world in righteousness, and bring in the new heavens and the new earth. For a critique of this view, please see my previous evaluation of Postmillennialism.4

C. Critique of Full Preterism

We have seen that Full Preterism (FP) is the natural result of a consistent application of the preterist hermeneutic. If our Lord used apocalyptic and cosmological language in his Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:29-31) to describe what was in fact a providential and spiritual coming in AD 70, then who is to say that he and his apostles did not use the same kind of language in all their eschatological predictions? Who is to say that in all their utterances about the Consummation they did not have the events of AD 67-70 in mind? Alas, in a radical departure from PP and Christian orthodoxy, FPs have taken this very position. Focusing on FP distinctives, I will briefly review and critique their views here.

View of the Kingdom

FPs teach that the Kingdom of God is a direct spiritual reign of the triune God over his New Covenant people; and that it enters history in two stages: the last days of the Mosaic Covenant (AD 33-70), followed by eternal heavenly and earthly worlds to come, inaugurated at the time of Christ’s Parousia in AD 70. They also teach that the reign of God is always and only spiritual; that it will never come upon the physical bodies of the saints or the natural world in which they were created to live.

We have seen, however, that the NT supplies a dramatically different picture of the Kingdom. Yes, the one Kingdom does indeed enter history in two stages. But the first—the Kingdom of the Son—is co-extensive with the entire Era of Gospel Proclamation. And the second—the Kingdom of the Father—is not only spiritual, but also physical and eternal, and is the sudden, supernatural creation of the High King of Heaven at his visible return in power and glory. Thus, at bottom, there is no fellowship between the amillennial and full preterist views of the Kingdom of God.

View of OTKP

FPs rightly interpret OTKP typologically and figuratively, in terms of the New Covenant. But again, their great misstep is to impose a bastardized version of the NCH on all the simple eschatological predictions of the DNT. But in doing so they actually take away the master key to all biblical eschatology, making it impossible for us to discern the true shape of Salvation History, and therefore the true sense of the Old Testament prophetic texts dealing with the last days and the Consummation.

View of the Revelation and the Millennium

FPs teach that this stunningly eschatological and cosmological book was entirely fulfilled in historical and spiritual events that occurred around AD 70, though certain spiritual aftermaths remain with us to this day. Concerning Revelation 20, opinions differ: Some says it temporal sphere of fulfillment is held to be “the last days” (AD 33-70), others the Battle of Masada (AD 70 to 73), and others the Bar Kochba rebellion (AD 132). In any case, all FPs agree that Revelation 20 does not take us to a genuinely cosmological judgment and “consummation of all things” (1 Peter 4:7).

We have seen, however, that the Revelation actually scans the entire centuries-long journey of the pilgrim Church; and that its manifold symbols, which the DNT alone can illumine, confront us afresh with every element of the classic NT eschatology: the various judgments and deliverances of God administered throughout Salvation History, the Church’s serial encounters with the Dragon and his helpers, her constant spiritual nourishment at the hand of her heavenly King, the hope of spiritual perfection during the Intermediate State, the Last Battle, the Parousia, the bodily Resurrection of the Dead, the Transformation of the Living Saints, the Judgment at the Great White Throne of Christ, the Lake of Fire, and the New Heavens and the New Earth. Again, the Revelation is actually the Grand Finale of all Scripture, and is therefore one of the greatest prophetic treasures of the pilgrim Church. She must never let FP rob her of it.

View of the Consummation 

Just here the preterist error is at its worst, since FPs, while disagreeing among themselves on fine points, stand united in expressly denying the traditional elements of the biblical Consummation. Having already discussed NT teaching on these points, I will simply describe the basic FP view here, and then let you, the good Berean, decide for yourself how they compare.

There is but one Parousia of Christ, and it is not a future bodily return of the Lord in glory. Rather, it is a past “judgment-coming” that occurred in AD 70, a coming that (somehow) brought the suffering first-century Church into the fullness of her spiritual inheritance. Therefore, as never before, Christ has now fully come to his people, and will not come again, bodily, to this earth.

The Resurrection is not a future event in which Christ, at his bodily appearing, will join the spirits of the dead with their physical remains, thereby creating eternal physical bodies. Rather, it is a past spiritual event in which he raised the souls of the biologically dead out of Sheol/Hades and gave them new “spiritual bodies” suited for Heaven or Gehenna. Now that the one general Resurrection has occurred, and also the transformation of the living saints (1 Cor. 15, 1 Thess. 4), the souls of all who die physically are spiritually “raised” at death and go directly to Heaven or Gehenna.

Again, the Judgment is not a future event in which all mankind will appear bodily before the judgment seat of Christ, there to receive eternal reward or retribution. Rather, it too occurred in AD 70, when Christ opened Heaven, created Gehenna (also called the Lake of Fire), raised the souls of the dead out of Sheol/Hades, and assigned them to their eternal spiritual habitation. Also, at his return in AD 70 the Lord “destroyed” the earth and its works (see 2 Peter 3:10), but only in this sense: Having fully entered his Church, he has now inaugurated a whole new world order, such that, through the Gospel preaching of the Church, he will ever-increasingly destroy the powers of evil and bend the wayward nations to his will.

Thus, concerning the World to Come, it has in fact already come. Why? Because Christ has already come (in AD 70), the Resurrection has already occurred, the Judgment has taken place, and the New Jerusalem (i.e., his Spirit-filled Church) has “descended” onto a new, spiritually transformed Earth, in which she will continually summon all men and nations to enter her blessed precincts through faith in Christ and the Gospel (Rev. 21:2, 22-27; 22:22:1-2; 17).

You may ask: “But what of the present physical world in which we live, ‘the whole creation that groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now’” (Rom. 8:22)? What is her future? Alas, on this subject the Scriptures are (allegedly) silent. Ours is simply to occupy: not until he comes, but until we go.

Again, having closely examined NT teaching on all these themes, I will not offer further criticisms here. Suffice it say that if Amillennialism really is the eschatology of the Bible, then FP clearly stands under the stern rebuke of Holy Scripture (Matt. 24:26-27; Acts 1:11; Rom. 8:18-25; 1 Cor. 15; 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 2 Tim. 2:18). Having read some of the writings of my FP brothers, I sense that they do indeed love the Lord, and that in developing their eschatology they are trying to be faithful to their best understanding of the NT. Nevertheless,, if we may define heresy as a persistent and harmful departure from widely accepted biblical doctrine, then the historic creeds of the Church unanimously declare that FP is eschatological heresy (1 Cor. 11:2, 19, 2 Thess. 2:15). Let every good Berean decide for himself.

IV. Conclusion

By imposing an alien, spiritualizing hermeneutic on the simple eschatological predictions given by God’s appointed Teacher and his apostles, PP badly damages our Blessed Hope, while FP destroys it altogether. Therefore I would urge all my preterist brothers to return swiftly to the traditional amillennial faith of the Church. I think it likely that we are living in the last of the last days. If so, the Bride of Christ will need all the eschatological truth, clarity, and encouragement she can get. And she will need you to help her receive them all.

Notes:

1. Available here.

2. For a more detailed discussion of Matthew 24:34, please click here.

3. For a brief discussion of the internal evidence favoring a late date for composition of the Revelation, please click here. External confirmation comes from second century scholar and bishop, Irenaeus (ca.125-202). Citing earlier sources, he wrote, “John received the Revelation almost in our own time, toward the end of the reign of Domitian” (i.e., AD 81-96).

4. In defense of an early date preterists cite verses in the Revelation stating that the events in view “must shortly come pass” (Rev. 1:1; 22:6), and that “the appointed time is near” (Rev. 1:3; 22:10). But these texts hardly prove an early date of composition or a strictly 1st century fulfillment of the prophecies. To begin with, there are two verses in chapter 22 stating that all things, including the advent of the World to Come, must shortly come to pass, and that their time is near. So unless one is a full preterist, these verses rule out a strictly 1st century fulfillment of the book. More to the point, the progressive idealist interpretation of the book richly illumines the nuanced meaning of these expressions. Since the Revelation speaks to all believers of all times, it is indeed true that many of its predictions came true in the lives of first century Christians, just as they will for believers of subsequent generations. As for the prophecies that speak of the end of the age (i.e., of the Last Battle, the Parousia, the Resurrection, the Judgment, etc.), they too will soon come to pass, for against the backdrop of eternity a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it has passed by, and like a watch in the night (Psalm 90:4; 2 Pet. 3:8).

5. For an exposition and critique of Postmillennialism, please click here.