Dear Aunt Tracy: The Great End Time Debate Clarified for Busy Homemakers and Teens
Actually, Aunt Tracy is my sister-in-law. However, she is indeed a busy (and most excellent) homemaker. For that reason—and also because she was delving into Isaiah at Ladies Bible Study Fellowship—she once asked me to write her something SHORT on the question of the Millennium (i.e., the “1000” years of Revelation 20). Now if you know me at all, you know I don’t do short. Nevertheless, I trust that the following letter—which was short by MY standards—proved helpful to her. I post it here in hopes that it will also be helpful to anyone who is looking for a brief introduction—and proposed solution—to the Great End Time Debate (GETD).
Dear Aunt Tracy,
Thanks for asking me about the Millennium, and about how to interpret OT prophecies of the coming Kingdom of God. Your question is both a challenge and an opportunity. It’s a challenge because there’s quite a debate over this question, and because that debate can get pretty complicated. It’s an opportunity because explaining the gist of the debate in an uncomplicated manner could be helpful, not only to you, but also to others who are not likely to wade into big books on biblical eschatology.1 So—keeping short continually before my eyes—I’m eager to begin.
The question of the Millennium is like the tip of an iceberg: All sorts of interesting matter lies hidden beneath the surface. This becomes especially clear when we take a quick look at the three main views of the end times popular among Christians today: Historic Premillennialism, Dispensational Premillennialism, and Amillennialism.
1. Historic Premillennialism
In Latin “pre” means “before” and “millennium” means “1000 years.” So premillennialism is the view that Christ will come again before a future 1000-year reign over the earth with his saints (Rev. 20).
Why do premillennarians look for such a reign? Two main reasons. First, they feel they must interpret the OT prophecies of a coming King and Kingdom more or less literally. So if Isaiah and Micah speak of a day when the nations will worship God at a temple in Jerusalem on top of Mt. Zion, premillennarians look for a day when that will happen: literally (Isaiah 2, Micah 4).
This brings us to the second reason. Since premillennarians know that Christ and the apostles did not institute physical temple worship, and since they know that we won’t practice physical temple worship in the New Heavens and the New Earth, they conclude that Revelation 20 must be revealing to us a special stage in world history, a stage in which all the Old Testament Kingdom Prophecies (OTKP’s) will be literally fulfilled.
Please note carefully what this means: It means that premillennarians believe the Kingdom of God enters history in three separate stages: 1) The present Era of Gospel Proclamation, 2) the Millennium, and 3) the eternal World to Come (i.e, the New Heavens and the New Earth).
Now, here’s where things get a little complicated. After centuries of Christian thinking and theorizing, we presently have two kinds of Premillennialism: Historic and Dispensational. What’s more, we have two kinds of Historic Premillennialism: New Covenant and Old Covenant. (Try not panic: You can do this!) I will explain them as simply as I can.
A. New Covenant Historic Premillennialism (NCHP)
This view was held by some of the early church fathers, men like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. Throughout the Middle Ages it was eclipsed by Amillennialisim, but after the Reformation it again popped up from time to time. Today a number of respected theologians embrace NCHP, including Bible teachers like Craig Blomberg, Wayne Grudem, Jim Hamilton, George Ladd, and John Piper.
According to NCHP the Church is at the center of the millennial scenario. Here there is little or no emphasis on ethnic Israel, or on a millennial return to such OT institutions as temple worship, animal sacrifices, the observance of feast days, etc. Christians of this persuasion believe that when OT prophecies seem to predict such things, they are actually speaking “mysteriously” (i.e., typologically and figuratively) of a future millennium wherein God will continue to be worshiped according to NT principles; where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, but Christ is all and in all; where the various OT forms of worship give way to the NT worship of God in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24).
I said above that premillennarians interpret OT Kingdom prophecies “more or less” literally. These brothers belong to the “less” camp. But again, they are still looking for a literal 1000-year reign of Christ over a partially transformed earth, and centered in an earthly Jerusalem.
Bearing all this in mind, here is how most NCHP’s view the Consummation: that is, the events surrounding the Second Coming of Christ:
As the world nears the end of the present evil age, there will be brief season of unprecedented tribulation characterized by rampant evil, various divine judgments, the rise of a personal Antichrist, the persecution of the true spiritual Church, and (according to some) the conversion of a great multitude of Jews. When this tribulation has run its course, Christ will return to the earth in glory, destroy the Antichrist and his followers, and confine Satan and his evil angels to the abyss for 1000 literal years. Then the Lord will resurrect both the OT and NT saints, transform the living saints, partially lift the curse from the world of nature, and welcome his glorified saints into the Millennium, where they will rule with him for 1000 years under vastly improved spiritual and physical conditions. Christ’s ordinary human subjects will apparently be the children of believers and/or unbelievers. During the Millennium many of them will love (or come to love) and serve the Lord, but some will not. Accordingly, at the end of the Millennium, Satan will be released in order to test the nations. Unhappily, he will succeed in stirring up a brief but widespread rebellion against Christ and his loyal human followers. But God (or Christ) will step in to destroy all such enemies, after which comes a second bodily resurrection (primarily of the unrighteous, but also, according to some, of believers who died during the Millennium), the Last Judgment, and the creation of the World to Come, the eternal home of the redeemed.
B. Old Covenant Historic Premillennialism (OCHP)
Put these brothers in the “more literal” camp. That’s because they interpret OTKP’s quite literally, with the result that Christians of this persuasion anticipate great things for the Jews who, they say, will be converted in large numbers prior to (or at) Christ’s second coming, and then exalted once again to favored status throughout the Messiah’s millennial kingdom. Also, on this view there will be a return to various OT ordinances: An enormous millennial temple will be built, priests will offer animal sacrifices commemorating the work of Christ, and all nations will observe the various Jewish feasts. Apart from their special emphasis on God’s plan for the Jews, OCHP’s view the Consummation in much the same way as their NCHP brethren. OCHP became popular in the 19th century, and was defended by theologians and pastors like David Baron, George Peters, Charles Spurgeon, and Nathaniel West.
Hopefully you’ve noticed, Aunt Tracy, that Historic Premillennarians have trouble deciding how to interpret OTKP. Some want to interpret these prophecies literally, in terms of ethnic Israel and the nations; others want to interpret them figuratively, in terms of Christ, the New Covenant, and the Church? Which approach is biblical? Trust me when I say that in the GETD this is THE crucial question!
2. Dispensational Premillennialism
Now brace yourself, Aunt Tracy, because things are about to get more complicated! That’s because in the 1850’s a brother by the name of John Nelson Darby developed a new “dispensational” form of premillennialism. Through the influence of his denomination (i.e., the Plymouth Brethren) and their many prophetic conferences, this view became extremely popular among many smaller Protestant churches and denominations that remained loyal to an inspired Bible. Famous dispensational premillennarians of our time include John Hagee, David Jeremiah, Tim La Haye, Hal Lindsey, John MacArthur, Chuck Smith, Charles Stanley, Charles Swindoll, and John Walvoord.
Like it’s birth mother (OCHP), Dispensationalism interprets OT Kingdom prophecies quite literally, and therefore shows a similar interest in the future of ethnic Israel. However, this system goes even further, teaching that God actually has two different plans for two different people groups: an earthly plan for ethnic Israel and a heavenly plan for his (largely Gentile) Church. Some dispensationalists even teach that this distinction will continue throughout all eternity!2
The dispensational view of Salvation History controls its (popular) understanding of the Consummation. In essence, dispensationalists teach that the glorified Christ will return to the earth three times: once at “the secret Rapture” (when he removes his heavenly people, the Church, to their home above, and resumes his dealings with his earthly people, Israel); again at the end of a literal seven year tribulation (when he returns in visible glory to judge the living nations, and to welcome those who believed in him during the tribulation into his millennial kingdom); and the again at the end of the Millennium (when he raises the unbelieving dead, administers the Last Judgment, and creates the new heavens and the new earth). Thus, according to Dispensationalism the Consummation involves three separate comings of Christ, three separate resurrections, and three separate judgments. (For a diagram of dispensational eschatology, click here). If, then, God intended the Consummation (i.e., our Blessed Hope) to be clear, simple, and sheep-friendly, we may be excused for wondering if our dispensational brethren are picturing it for us well.
A Brief Time Out
Now let’s pause for a moment, Aunt Tracy, and think about premillennialism in general.
If you’ve been reading your NT carefully, you have to be puzzled by all of these scenarios. I know I was, for to a greater or lesser extent they all are saying that in a future millennium we’ll be going backwards: backwards to the OT Law, and backwards to what life was like in OT times!
However, the NT does not encourage this view. In fact, it teaches the exact opposite! For example, the NT repeatedly says that the Mosaic Law has been fulfilled by Christ and the New Covenant, and is therefore now obsolete (Matt. 9:14-17; Heb. 8:13). It tells us that henceforth God’s people will not worship him on Mt. Zion, or in earthly Jerusalem, or in a temple made of stone, but in spirit and in truth (John 4:15-26). It says that Christians are citizens of the Jerusalem above, and not a Jerusalem below (Gal. 4:26; Heb. 12:22f). It tells us that the physical Israelite theocracy was a “type”: A temporary physical kingdom that pictured an eternal spiritual Kingdom in which there is no longer any distinction between Jew and Gentile (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:14f; Col. 1:13). It tells us that the present reign of the Messiah emanates from heaven above, and not from the earth beneath (Acts 2:29ff; Phil. 3:20-21; Col. 3:1f). It tells us that there is a veil of symbolism over the OT, and over our eyes as well: two veils that only NT truth, quickened by the Holy Spirit, can remove (Mt. 13:10-17; 2 Cor. 3:7ff). If, then, the NT says that OT institutions are fulfilled in Christ, and that we are never going back to them, then surely we are not going back them in a future millennium.
And there is more. For once our minds have been saturated with the NT, we cannot help but feel that premillennialism of any variety needlessly complicates the true biblical picture of Consummation. Why? Because it teaches that the Kingdom of God enters history in three stages, rather than two. But this in turn forces premillennarians to multiply (sometimes twofold, sometimes threefold) the comings, resurrections, judgments, and transformations of the physical world that are biblically associated with the return of Christ. So again: If part of the blessedness of our Blessed Hope consists of the ability to envision it easily, then it is highly doubtful that premillennial scenarios are giving us the true biblical picture of the Consummation.
Well, Aunt Tracy, here is where your patience is finally rewarded, and where you can breathe a sigh of relief. For as you closely study the NT you realize that in fact it gives us a very simple view of the Kingdom and the Consummation, a view that the average sheep can not only understand, but from which he can also draw deep drafts of spiritual insight, strength, and joy. That view is called Amillennialism.
From the very beginning of the NT era this has been the majority view of the Christian Church, and especially since the days of Athanasius and Augustine. It appears in the most of the ancient creeds (i.e., the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed), and is found in the doctrinal standards of all the major denominations (i.e., Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Methodist). Though it is presently the minority position among evangelical Protestants, the current revival of interest in classic Protestant theology is definitely causing its stock to rise. Modern amillennial Bible teachers include Greg Beale, Mark Dever, Anthony Hoekema, Dennis Johnson, Kim Riddlebarger, and Sam Storms.
The word “Amillennialism” means “no millennium.” In a way, that’s unfortunate since, as we shall see, Amillennialism does not deny the existence of a millennium, only that it is a future, literal 1000-year reign of Christ on the earth. For this reason some teachers prefer to call this view Realized Millennialism or Present-Millennialism. The big idea here is that we are living in the Millennium now!
But lest we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look briefly at the amillennial view of the Kingdom and the Consummation.
1. View of the Kingdom
Amillennialism teaches that the Kingdom of God is a direct spiritual reign of God the Father, through the Lord Jesus Christ, and by the Holy Spirit. It is entered by the new birth, and through faith in the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 13:1f; John 3:1f; Rom. 14:17; Col. 1:13). As we learn from the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, this reign enters into the world in just two stages: 1) the present spiritual reign of the exalted Christ over his born-again children, and 2) the future spiritual and physical reign of God the Father (with Christ) in the new heavens and the new earth. A great many NT passages explicitly represent the Kingdom as having this simple, two-fold structure, and all NT teaching about the end times presupposes it (Matt. 24-25; Luke 19:11f; 1 Cor. 15:20-28; Eph. 1:15-23; Col. 3:1f; etc.). For a diagram illustrating the two-staged Kingdom of God, please click here.
Now, what is it that separates the two stages of the Kingdom? What is the hinge upon which the world swings out of the present evil age and into the glories of the eternal Age to Come? Amillennialism replies: It is the one Consummation of all things, which occurs at the one coming again of the glorified Lord Jesus Christ, both to judge and to redeem, consummately (Matt. 24:14; 1 Cor. 15:24; 1 Pet. 4:7). Just here—in the Christ-centered unity of the Consummation—we encounter the power and the glory of amillennial eschatology.
2. View of the Consummation
To understand this better, let’s consider the amillennial view of the Consummation in greater detail.
First comes “the last of the last days,” a short season (though not seven literal years) in which the Church and the world will suffer extraordinarily great tribulation. During this time lawlessness will increase, the Church will endure severe marginalization and persecution, and dramatic signs of the imminence of the Last Judgment will appear in the skies above, on the earth below, and in society at large. As if to resolve this crisis, a personal Antichrist will suddenly arrive on the scene, usurping the prerogatives of deity, proclaiming a counterfeit gospel, working satanically inspired miracles, opposing the true spiritual Church, and establishing a global reign over the (largely) willing nations of the world. Then, when men are saying “Peace and safety,” Christ will come again.
His return will be cosmic in appearance, scope, and impact, leaving no doubt that the former things are passing away, and that the eternal things have come at last. Prior to the Lord’s appearing the heavenly bodies will dissolve, the sky will darken, the trumpet will sound, and the archangel will issue a cry of command. At his appearing, Christ will descend from heaven in power and great glory, bringing with him all the holy angels, and all the spirits of the departed saints. In swift succession he will destroy the Antichrist and his followers, raise all the dead of all times, transform the living saints, and send out his angels to gather all sentient beings before his great white throne in the air. When that is accomplished, the Son of God will literally become the center of the universe.
Next comes the consummation of God’s judicial purposes. The High King will reward his saints for works well done, separate the sheep from the goats, and send the unrighteous and unbelieving into Gehenna (i.e., the Lake of Fire). As a part of the Last Judgment, the earth below and all its works will be destroyed with fire.
Then comes the consummation of God’s redemptive purposes. The Alpha and the Omega will lift the curse that he formerly laid upon his creation, and then fashion new heavens and a new earth, the eternal home of the redeemed. Having thus renewed the universe, he and his glorified Bride will descend to the beautiful new world below. This is Paradise regained: the eternal Garden of God, in which the heavenly Man and his beloved Bride will live together forever in perfect holiness and joy.
Having thus consummated the redemption that he himself previously purchased and applied, the High King will bring his heavenly mediatorial reign to an end with one final act: He will deliver up the completed Kingdom to his Father, so that in the glorious World to Come God may be all in all to the eternal family that he has redeemed through the Person and Work of his divine Son.
It is deeply impressive to see how all of the eschatological passages of the NT work together in perfect harmony to produce this simple, clear, and majestic picture of the one Consummation.3 In my experience, to catch a glimpse of that Day adds a whole new level of meaning to words like dreadful, awesome, breathtaking, and glorious!
This, Aunt Tracy, is the amillennial understanding of the Kingdom of God and the Consummation. When I first spied these things way back in 1976, I felt like Moses kneeling at the Burning Bush. In subsequent years the amillennial bush has only grown bigger and burned brighter in my heart. I hope that that as you study these things for yourself, you too will behold its glory, and that the vision will guide and strengthen you for throughout all the remaining years of your journey to the Promised Land.4
Making Sense of the Millennium
But a question remains: If the Kingdom of God comes in just two stages, what are we to make of the Millennium? How shall we understand the “1000 years” of Revelation 20?
The solution is not difficult. As a close reading of that chapter will show, John is not speaking of a future earthly reign of Christ, but rather of the heavenly reign of Christ over the Church and the world. He is speaking symbolically of the Era of Gospel Proclamation, the lengthy season (now some 2000 years old) between the Lord’s first and second comings.
The Structure of the Revelation
One important way to see this truth is to understand the structure of the Revelation as a whole, and especially the structure of chapters 6-20 (for a helpful chart, click here). As the chart indicates, this large section of the Revelation may aptly be entitled The Course of the High King’s Heavenly Reign. That’s because in this section of the book Christ’s heavenly reign is described six separate times, in six parallel large-scale visions, all of which draw heavily upon OT language and imagery in order to express core NT truths.
The six visions are: (1) The Six Seals (chapter 6, followed by a sneak preview of the World to Come in chapter 7); (2) The Seven Trumpets (chapters 8-11); (3) The Woman and the Dragon (chapters 12-14); (4) The Seven Bowls (chapters 15-16); (5) The Fall of the Dragon’s Helpers (chapters 17-19); and (6) The 1000 Years (chapter 20).
That this is the true structure of the Revelation is easily seen from the fact that towards the end of each of these six visions we often receive a symbolic description of the Last Battle (i.e., the final conflict between Christ and Satan, the Church and the World: Rev. 11:7-10, 13:6-10, 16:12-16, 19:19, 20:7-10), and always receive a depiction of the resurrection and/or the last judgment at Christ’s return.
Now, bearing all this in mind, let’s take a quick look at the sixth and final vision of this section, the vision of The 1000 Years (Rev. 20). Again, be sure to remember that throughout the Revelation the Holy Spirit was pleased to use OT ideas and images to re-convey important NT truths about the course and character of Christ’s spiritual kingdom under the New Covenant.
Revelation 20:1-3: The Binding of Satan for “1000” Years
Here John tells us that at the beginning of the Era of Gospel Proclamation Satan is bound from deceiving the nations any longer. Prior to Christ’s first coming, they were largely in his grip (Luke 4:6). Now, however, the fullness of time has come. Now Christ has died and risen again. Now God’s redemptive activity can finally overflow the borders of Israel. Now the gospel can go forth to all nations. Now Satan can be cast out, and God’s elect children can be brought in . . . without fail (John 12:20-36).
My point is this: The message here is carefully circumscribed. During the lengthy season between Christ’s two advents, Satan is not swept off the stage of history into the abyss. Rather, he will indeed remain present and active in the world (Eph. 6:10f); but with respect to the progress of the gospel among the elect, he is will be completely bound, for his authority over them has been completely shattered (Mt. 12; John 12; Rev. 12). Yes, at the end of the age he will be released for a little while in order to deceive the inhabitants of the earth once again. But here too he is bound, for until that time comes, God will keep him from gathering the nations against the Church for the Last Battle.
As for the duration of the era between the two advents of Christ, the Holy Spirit represents it as “1000 years”. This number, like all the numbers in the Revelation, is symbolic. It symbolizes both magnitude and divine completeness (10 x 10 x 10). In other words, in using this number the Holy Spirit wanted us to know that Christ will not return quickly; that there will be a long time between his first and second advents. However, he also wanted us to know that this longish time will be purposeful and fruitful, for in that time the triune God (symbolized by 3) will complete (symbolized by 10) the ingathering of his Church through the preaching of the Gospel, which the exalted Christ himself will spearhead from his throne above (Mt. 28:18f, Acts 2:1f, Rev. 6:1-2).
Revelation 20:4-6: The Reign of the Saints for “1000” Years
Concerning the reign of the saints revealed here, notice first that John sees the souls of the faithful ruling with their Lord. This is not an earthly reign, but a heavenly. These saints are reigning in life with Christ (Rom. 5:17). That is, having completed their earthly course victoriously, they now reign in heaven over all the dark powers that formerly accosted them on the earth. This is the meaning of the first resurrection. At the moment of their death, faithful saints, who had previously risen to newness of life in Christ (John 11; Rom. 6), now rise to the perfection of that life in heaven. Also, having arrived in heaven, judgment is given to them, not in the sense that they share in Christ’s present heavenly reign over the nations, and certainly not in the sense that they will reign with him on the earth in a future millennium. Rather, John means that at Christ’s Second Coming they will participate in the final judgment of the world (Dan. 7; Rom. 16:20; 1 Cor. 61f; Rev. 3:26-27, 19:11-15). In short, the great purpose of this portion of Revelation 20 is to encourage the Church Militant to be faithful until death, at which time great blessings await them in heaven, blessings that include a central role in the Last Judgment at Christ’s return.
Revelation 20:7-11: The Last Battle and the Judgment of Satan at the End of the “1000” Years
At the end of the 1000 years (i.e., at the end of the Era of Proclamation and the present evil age), the devil will be released to deceive the nations one final time, thereby inciting a final battle between Satan and Christ, the world and the Church (Gen. 3:15). This solemn theme pervades the Revelation, and is found in other portions of the OT and NT as well (Rev. 11:7-10, 16:12-16, 19:17-21; Dan. 9; Ezek. 38-39; Zech. 11-12; Matt. 24; 2 Thess. 2). Every such text makes it clear that the Last Battle will be brief, cut short by the coming again of Christ in power and glory to rescue his own. According to the apostle Paul this is one of the two or three great signs by which latter day believers may know that Christ’s return is very near, even at the door (Matt. 24:33; 2 Thess. 2).
Revelation 20:11-15: The Last Judgment of All Mankind at the End of the “1000” Years
As the NT teaches pervasively, the return of Christ will lead immediately to a general bodily resurrection of the dead, after which comes the Last Judgment. Christ himself will administer it, seated upon his throne in the air above the earth. Here, as elsewhere in the NT, we see all men (and angels) gathered before him. While all are judged according to their works, salvation itself is by God’s sovereign grace through faith in Christ. All who have trusted in the High King of Heaven will find their names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Gladly and gratefully, the glorified Bride will descend with her heavenly Husband to a radiant new earth below, the eternal home of the redeemed (Rev. 21:1f).
Understanding OT Kingdom Prophecy
We have seen that the NT does not leave room for a millennial stage of the Kingdom. We have also seen that it declares the Mosaic Law to be obsolete. What then are we to make of the many OT Kingdom prophecies that seem to predict an eternal, universal Mosaic theocracy?5
Christ and the apostles themselves point the way.
On the one hand, they teach us what the Kingdom really is: the direct spiritual reign of God the Father, through Christ, by the Spirit, over a redeemed people who, through faith, have been transferred from the Domain of Darkness into the spiritual Kingdom of God’s beloved Son. This reign appears in two stages that are separated by a single Parousia of Christ at the end of the age (Matt. 13:36-43; John 3:1f; Col. 1:13).
On the other hand, having revealed to us the nature and stages of the Kingdom, Christ and the apostles implicitly tell us what the Kingdom is not: It is not an eternal Mosaic theocracy. Rather, the Mosaic theocracy was simply a temporary picture or “shadow” of the Christ-centered spiritual Kingdom that now has come, and soon will come in its glorious fullness (Col. 2:16-17; Heb. 9:1f).
Therefore it is clear that we must interpret OT Kingdom prophecy figuratively, or “typologically.” That is, we must understand that in former times the Spirit of God moved the prophets to speak in OT “types and shadows.” They used language and imagery drawn from the history and institutions of the Mosaic Law in order to depict the two-fold spiritual Kingdom that would be introduced and unveiled by Christ and the New Covenant.
Accordingly, when we come across a particular OT Kingdom prophecy, we will need to “decode” it. We will need to put on our NT glasses in order to see how it is fulfilled either in Christ’s heavenly reign, or in the new heavens and new earth, or in both. Happily, when we read the NT we see that this is exactly what the writing apostles did.
To get a feel for how this works let’s look very briefly at a couple such prophecies.
Imagine you’re a Jew living in the time of King David, or in the days prior to Pentecost. You read Psalm 2 and conclude, naturally enough, that one day soon the LORD will raise up a mighty Israelite king, install him on the earthly Mt. Zion, and grant him such military success that all the surrounding nations will either humble themselves before him and his God, or perish. You think: This is how God’s coming Messianic king will extend the reign of the LORD—and the Law of the LORD—over the whole earth.
However, when you read the NT, you see from any number of passages that David’s prophecy actually has a heavenly fulfillment in Christ and his Church (Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5, 5:5). God the Father, having exalted the incarnate Christ to his own right hand, has “begotten” him as the first-born Son over his entire household; indeed, over the entire creation itself (Heb. 1:1f, 3:6)! Even now Christ reigns, not upon the earthly Zion, but upon the heavenly (Heb. 12:22). Even now, through the preaching of the Gospel, God is giving him the (believing) nations as his inheritance (Rev. 5:9). Therefore, even now all kings—and all peoples—would be wise to “kiss” the Son in faith and obedience, before he returns to the earth in judgment to shatter the rebels like vessels of clay (Rev. 2:37, 12:5, 19:15).
Like the Jews of old, premillennarians interpret Psalm 2 basically literally, believing that God said exactly what he meant. Like the apostles, amillennarians interpret it spiritually, in terms of Christ, the Gospel, and the Church. They affirm that God did indeed mean what he said, but also that he did not say all that he meant. To understand Psalm 2 we need to see it with New Covenant eyes, as amillennarians strive to do.
As with Psalm 2, so here: Take it at face value and you are forced to conclude that in days ahead God will raise up a Royal Priest who, having gathered to himself a mighty army of zealous young warriors, will extend the reign of the LORD from Zion to all nations, leaving no impenitent enemy to survive.
However, when we consult the NT, we repeatedly learn that the fulfillment of this prophecy is not earthly and physical, but heavenly and spiritual. When the exalted Christ entered heaven, God the Father sat him down at his own right hand, making him the High King and High Priest of his believing people. Through the work of the Holy Spirit and the preaching of the Gospel, these believers will volunteer freely to serve their Lord in the Day of his power (i.e., in the days of his heavenly mediatorial reign). When at last their mission is accomplished, Christ will come again in judgment to “shatter the head over a broad country” (i.e., Satan), and to place every other spiritual and physical enemy under his feet, including death itself.
Psalm 110 is, then, yet another picture of the course, character, and consummation of Christ’s heavenly reign, couched in the language of the OT Law. And the NT explicitly tells us so, more than once (Acts 2:34-35, 3:19-24; 1 Cor. 15:20-28; Eph. 1:15-23)!
Premillennarians enthusiastically claim this famous Kingdom prophecy for their own, arguing that it gives us a picture of world conditions during a future millennial reign of Christ on earth. However, this text says nothing at all about Christ living upon the earth, and nothing about his ruling for 1000 years. With eyes schooled by the NT we can, however, see in verses 1-5 the entire course of Christ’s redemptive mission, from his incarnation, to his death and resurrection, to his heavenly reign, and to his second coming, at which time he will judge the world in righteousness by the rod of his mouth and the breath of his lips (cf. 2 Thess. 2:8).
Then, in verses 6-9, we find the Spirit using OT images of divine blessing to picture the second stage of the Kingdom, the new heavens and the new earth that Christ himself will create at his Parousia and afterwards deliver up to his Father. In picturesque language that would resonate in the hearts of his OT saints, God was pleased to call this glorious new world “all My holy mountain.” Spiritually speaking, we are blessed to live on that mountain now, but also to know that, physically speaking, we shall see it with our own eyes on day up ahead (Phil. 3:21; Isaiah 65:25; Col. 3:1f; Heb. 12:18-24; Rev. 14:1-5, 21:10)!
Micah 4:1-4 (Isaiah 2:1-4)
Here is another favorite among premillennarians. And it must be admitted that a strictly literal reading of this prophecy inclines us to look for a (very BIG) latter day temple, situated upon an earthly Mt. Zion, to which Gentile nations will stream, and from which the Mosaic Law will somehow go forth until, at last, the final judgments of the LORD bring in his perfected kingdom.
But again, the NT teaches us to adopt a deeper, more spiritual understanding.
Seeing, for example, that the events predicted here are set in “the last days,” we know that they pertain to the days of Christ and the New Covenant (Heb. 1:11; Pet. 1:10-12). Likewise, we understand from the NT that the OT temple was merely a picture of the eternal habitation of God: Christ and his Body, the Church (John 2:19; Acts 7:48-50, Eph. 2:21-22). From this we conclude that the “law” (Heb., instruction) that goes forth from Zion is really the gospel, sent down by Christ from the Jerusalem above, and disseminated by his gospel heralds in such a way that many nations of believing peoples “go up” in spirit and in truth to worship the Lord there (John 4:21-24). Moreover, one day soon he will return for final judgment and final redemption, so that ever after his peace-loving children may sit, each under his own vine and under his own fig tree, in the beautiful, fruitful new World to Come.
Does God’s Use of Figurative Language Make Him a Deceiver?
Our premillennnarian brethren often ask, “If God gave us dozens of OT predictions about the first coming of Christ that were all literally fulfilled, how, in the case of OT prophecies of his Kingdom, can you say that they are spiritually and figuratively fulfilled? In the former he trains us to take his word literally. If, in the latter, he was speaking symbolically, would he not be deceiving his OT people, and us as well?”
This is an excellent question, and one that I have addressed here. The short answer is: The NT requires us to distinguish between two kinds of OT Messianic prophecy: Simple and Kingdom. Simple OT Messianic prophecies, which include various predictions about Christ’s first coming (e.g., his virgin birth, the place of his birth, his miraculous ministry, his atoning death on the cross, his resurrection) were literally fulfilled. They had to be, so that the Church would have a body of prophetic evidence by which to preach the Gospel, especially to God’s OT people, the Jews (Rom. 16:25-17). However, OT prophecies of the Kingdom that Christ would introduce after his earthly ministry were veiled. That is, they employ OT language and imagery in order to speak figuratively about spiritual realities now introduced by the New Covenant (2 Cor. 3, Col. 2:16f, Heb. 8-9).
Does this make God a deceiver? Not at all. For though it pleased him to hide the exact nature of the New Covenant realities from his OT saints, he nevertheless told them the truth in OT Kingdom Prophecy, and did so in such a way that must have filled their hearts with great encouragement. Furthermore, he supplied many strong hints that these prophecies were not to be interpreted too literally. These include apparent contradictions, historical anachronisms, manifestly symbolic texts, and Jeremiah’s great prophecy of a new and eternal covenant that God would introduce in the last days. Also, we who live in NT times now have all we need to “decode” the OT prophecies, since Christ and the apostles teach us how to do so in the NT.6
I would ask my premillennarian brothers: Is not God at liberty to bring his truth to his people in a form that pleases him? What if he considered it good and wise to temporarily veil the truth about his coming Kingdom in order to reserve for his Son the honor of drawing back that veil himself (2 Cor. 3:7-18, Heb. 1:1); the honor of disclosing the “true truth” about the Kingdom of God (Matt. 13); the honor of illuminating the minds of the saints once for all (Luke 24:44-45); and the honor of opening their eyes to the deep, underlying substance of the Law and the Prophets, which is the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ (John 5:39, 45-46)?
No, we may not fully understand all of God’s ways in the OT, but surely we know enough from the NT not to quarrel with them!
Aunt Tracy, just in case this letter is too short, let me add a few final words of encouragement.
I definitely get it that eschatology is a bit complicated and a lot controversial. But that’s because it is deep, important, and potentially life-changing. If so, you can be sure our adversary the devil will do all in his power to keep us in the dark about it.
Do we want to understand “the mystery of God,” his eternal plan for the salvation of his people? Do we want to behold the true course and character of all Salvation History? Do we want to understand and enjoy the Old Testament? Do we want to enjoy a clear, inspiring picture of our Blessed Hope: the Coming again of Christ, and all the amazing, awesome, wonderful things he will do when he comes? If so, we’ve got to wrestle with biblical eschatology.
Here then, in a summary paragraph, are my concluding thoughts on the entire matter:
I believe that the mystery of the two-staged Kingdom of God introduced by the New Covenant—the mystery that God planned before the foundation of the world, and that Jesus and his apostles unveiled to us all (Mt. 13)—is the Master Key that will one day fully resolve the Great End Time Debate. That’s because it addresses all the issues, and resolves all the disputes, underlying that debate: the proper interpretation of OT Kingdom prophecy, the structure and theme of the Revelation, the meaning of the Millennium, and the nature and purpose of the Consummation at the end of the age.
Small wonder that in teaching us about these mysteries, our Lord himself said, “Blessed are your eyes, because they see. For many righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it; and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matt. 13:17).
Let us therefore ponder these things often and with great care, understanding that in them our Lord Jesus has indeed placed a precious key in our hands; a key that turns ordinary folks like you and me into NT scribes, so that we might bring out of his great treasury of divine wisdom things both old and new—and so go forth to feed and enrich the world.7
1. In Greek, eschatos means last, and logos means word, matter, or thing. Thus, eschatology is the study of “the last things”: the things that happen at the end of the story, whether of an individual human life or of cosmic history. The Bible has lots to say about them all! Technically speaking, however, it’s probably best to define biblical eschatology as the study of “the last days.” Concerning those days, the Bible says that they began with the incarnation of God’s Son, and that they will continue throughout eternity (Acts 2:17, Heb. 1:2). That means we’ve been living in the last days for over 2000 years! And yet, after all that time, God’s people are still eagerly waiting for “the last of the last days,” when their heavenly Husband will return to fetch his Bride and welcome her to their eternal home: the new heavens and the new earth (John 14:1f)! For a list of good books dealing with biblical eschatology, see note 7 below.
2. However, the NT disagrees. Christ himself declares that henceforth and forevermore elect Jews and Gentiles are one flock with one shepherd (John 10). The apostle Paul says that God has broken down the middle wall of partition between the two peoples once and for all (Eph. 2:11-18), and that together they constitute a single olive tree in his sight (Rom. 11). John, in the Revelation, depicts the OT and NT people of God as one woman: the Mother of the Living and the Bride of Christ (Rev. 12). Here is excellent material for further study among Good Bereans!
4. At the risk of further confusion, I should mention that there are several varieties of amillennial thinking. Though they carry different names, they all agree that we are not to look for a future 1000 year reign of Christ on the earth. Postmillennarians teach that the 1000 years of Revelation 20 represent the entire Church Era, or a later portion of it, during which the world is almost completely won to Christ through evangelism. Think of these folks as highly optimistic amillennarians. Preterists are tricky to describe, since they interpret key NT eschatological texts in different ways. What unites them is a belief that all or most of those texts were fulfilled in 70 AD, when the Roman general Titus invaded Israel and devastated Jerusalem. Amillennarians, on the other hand, believe that while a very few of these texts reference the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple (e.g., Mt. 24, Luke 21), the vast majority (including major portions of Mt. 24 and Luke 21) are primarily concerned with end-time events that occur throughout the entire NT era, or at its conclusion (i.e., the last of the last days). I have discussed postmillennial and preterist views in the appendices of The High King of Heaven, and in articles available on this website. For a helpful chart giving you the gist of Postmillennialism, click here. For a chart on Full Preterism, click here. For a chart on Partial Preterism, click here. I think it’s fair to say that for the moment these are all minority views. And for good reason: the classic amillennial view is surely the one that best captures the complete biblical truth!
5. One major problem with premillennial views is that the OT prophecies of a coming theocratic Kingdom do not limit it to 1000 years, but instead depict it as enduring forever (Is. 65:18, Jer. 17:25, Ezek. 37:25, 43:7). Therefore, the millennial solution is really no solution at all.
6. Here is a list of NT texts in which we find Christ’s apostles interpreting OT Kingdom prophecies as being spiritually fulfilled in Christ, the New Covenant, and the Church. I have placed those of special interest in bold print. Acts 2:33-35, 7:44-50, 13:46-47, 15:12-21; Rom. 9:19-26, 10:12-13, 11:25-27; 2 Cor. 6:1-2, 14-18; Gal. 4:26-27. Of very special importance is Jeremiah 31:31f, cited in Hebrews 8. Here, God and the prophet caution Israel (and us as well) against anticipating the presence and practice of the Mosaic Law in the days of the Kingdom. This, in turn, should incline us to adopt a more figurative approach to the entire OT, an approach that sees the New Covenant mystically foreshadowed in the Old. In the book of Hebrews, the inspired author consistently does this very thing.
7. For further study on eschatology, see my book The High King of Heaven, and also the excellent work by Anthony Hoekema, called The Bible and the Future (Eerdmans). For an inspiring exegetical and devotional commentary on the Revelation, see William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors (Baker). For further study of amillennialism, and for further books to read, click here.