How Shall We Interpret Old Testament Prophecies of the Kingdom of God?
The question I have placed before you in the title of this essay is a true theological hot-spot. Let me explain why.
At the risk of oversimplification, we may fairly say that within evangelical circles there are two basic approaches to the interpretation of OT prophecies of the Kingdom of God—prophecies that look ahead into the Messianic Era and describe all that God will accomplish, through Him, for the redemption of the world.
On the one hand, we have premillennialism. Our premillennarian brothers interpret OT Kingdom prophecies (OTKP’s) more or less literally, teaching that many (or all) of them will be literally fulfilled in a future thousand year reign of Christ upon the earth (Rev. 20). Adopting this approach, and taking their cues from most (but not all) OTKP’s, they look for a (millennial) day when ethnic Israel will be the head among the nations, and not the tail; when God and Christ will again be worshiped in accordance with ancient OT ordinances, ordinances that originated with the Mosaic Law and that appear frequently in OTKP (e.g., a land, a city, a temple, priests, memorial sacrifices, holy days, etc.). Such is the conclusion to which premillennial literalism and a futuristic reading of Revelation 20 necessarily lead.
On the other hand, we have amillennialism. Amillennarians interpret OTKP’s more or less figuratively. They contend that in such texts the Holy Spirit used OT language and imagery to speak “mystically” (i.e., in types and shadows) of a two-staged Kingdom of God created by, and administered according to the ordinances of, the New Covenant. The first stage is the (heavenly) Kingdom of the Son (which is coextensive with the Era of Gospel Proclamation, or the Church Era); the second is the Kingdom of the Father (also called the Eschaton, the World to Come, and the New Heavens and the New Earth).
Very importantly, amillennarians teach that Revelation 20 is not speaking of a future earthly reign of Christ, but rather of his present Heavenly Reign; a reign that began when he sat down at the Father’s right hand, and will conclude at his Second Coming. For them, the (unknown) duration of this reign is symbolized by the number 1000, and this for two reasons. First, the Spirit chose this large number to signify magnitude: There will be a long time between the first and final coming of Christ. But second, He also used it to signify divine completeness. 1000 = 10x10x10. In biblical numerology, 10 signifies completeness, while 3 often symbolizes the Holy Trinity. Thus, by using the number 1000 the Spirit is saying that in the Era of Proclamation—the space of time between Christ’s first and second comings—the Triune God will bring to completion His judicial and redemptive plans for the world. In short, amillennarians believe that the Millennium and the heavenly reign of Christ are one.
Count me among the amillennarians. As I have stated in in my book, The High King of Heaven, it seems to me that among all the eschatological options available to evangelicals today, amillennialism is by far the most faithful to NT teaching. In particular, I find that it well reflects the teaching of Christ and the apostles on: 1) the nature of the Kingdom of God (i.e., a direct, spiritual reign of God, through Christ, by the Spirit, over his people); 2) the simple, two-fold structure of the Kingdom (i.e., the Kingdom of the Son, followed by the Kingdom of the Father); 3) the way the apostles themselves actually interpreted OTKP; and 4) the character of the Consummation (i.e., a single Momentous Event, wrapping up Salvation History in final judgment and redemption, effected by Christ Himself at his return). And again, this view also makes excellent sense of Revelation 20, seeing it as one of six symbolic representations of the course, character, and consummation of the spiritual reign of the High King of Heaven. (For a diagram of the structure of the Revelation, click here.)
Needless to say, if all this is true, it has VAST implications for the proper interpretation of OTKP. I have touched on some of them already, but let us take a few moments to make things more explicit. In particular, let us consider three NT principles of interpretation by which the Holy Spirit would guide Christians into a good understanding all OTKP.
Three NT Principles for the Proper Interpretation of OTKP
Note: In what follows, I will not cite many biblical texts in support of my statements. For my proof texts, please see the relevant chapters of the HKOH mentioned below.
All OTKP’s are fulfilled in the twofold spiritual reign (Kingdom) of God instituted by Christ under the New Covenant, and must be interpreted accordingly.
This principle is based upon NT teaching—both dominical and apostolic—about the nature and structure of the Kingdom of God.
As to its nature, the NT views the Kingdom is a direct spiritual reign of God—a sphere of redemptive rescue and restoration—introduced by Christ and the New Covenant (NC).
As to its structure, the NT teaches that the Kingdom comes in just two stages: 1) the present heavenly reign of the exalted Christ (or the Kingdom of the Son); and, 2) the New Heavens and the New Earth (or, the Kingdom of the Father).
Very importantly, the NT also teaches that the two stages of this one Kingdom are separated by a single Consummation at the close of Salvation History. At the center of it all is the Parousia, or the coming again of the glorified Lord Jesus Christ, both to judge and to redeem, consummately.
Quite a number of NT passages present the Kingdom in this manner (Matthew 13; Luke 19:11f; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28; Ephesians 1:15-23; Colossians 3:1f, etc.).1
This principle—which reflects NT teaching on the Kingdom–has a number of important corollaries that must always be remembered when we approach OTKP.
The Days of the Messiah
First, it implies that OTKP’s speaking of The Days of the Messiah (i.e., his ministry prior to the Day of the LORD) are fulfilled in the Heavenly Reign of the Lord Jesus Christ; in the Era of Proclamation and Probation; in the inter-adventual period wherein Christ, ruling and reigning at the Father’s right hand, oversees the ingathering and upbuilding of his Church.
This, as our Lord taught us, was one of the great mysteries of the Kingdom, namely, that the Messiah’s reign would emanate from “the Jerusalem above,” rather than the Jerusalem below; and that the conversion of (many) Gentiles to faith in Israel’s God would not come about through force of arms, but through the force of truth proclaimed by the Church. A good understanding of these mysteries will enable the Christian interpreter to see his Lord (and himself) in these OTKP’s of the Messiah’s reign.2
The Last Battle
Secondly, this principle implies that OTKP’s of The Last Battle are fulfilled in the final, eschatological clash between Christ and Satan (embodied in the Antichrist), and the Church and the World. Not only does this conclusion flow naturally from the NT view of the Kingdom, but it is also the explicit teaching of the apostles of Christ, who clearly saw the Last Battle as the culmination of the perennial clash between the Woman and the Serpent, and between her Seed and his; who saw it as the great eschatological anti-type, of which Israel’s fierce battles with Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Rome were but the lesser historical types.3
The Day of the Lord
Thirdly, this principle implies that OTKP’s of the Day of the LORD will be fulfilled at the Parousia; at the Second Coming of the High King of Heaven, into whose hands the Father has placed “all things,” including the high privilege of consummating all Salvation History in final Judgment and Redemption (John 5).4
The World to Come
Finally, this principle implies that OTKP’s of the World to Come are fulfilled in the second stage of the Kingdom; in the eternal Kingdom of the Father (and the Son); in the new heavens and the new earth. As I have shown in the HKOH, such prophecies are nearly always “covenantally conditioned”, and must therefore be interpreted in light of NT teaching concerning the true conditions of life in the Age to Come.5
Dual Kingdom Fulfillment
By way of conclusion, it is important to note that some OTKP’s—and perhaps a great many of them—are fulfilled in both phases of the Kingdom. For those schooled in NT teaching about the Kingdom, this is not surprising. For again, the two phases of the Kingdom share a common essence: Both are New Covenant spheres of rescue and restoration, in which God, through Christ, rules directly over his blessed people. The only fundamental difference between the two is that in the Kingdom of the Son, God’s blessings are largely spiritual and are experienced “in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 1:3, 2:6); whereas in the Kingdom of the Father, the blessings are both spiritual and physical, and are experienced on a spiritually renewed earth. Laden as they are with typological and poetic imagery, many OTKP’s are well able to speak of both.6
Consider, for example, Micah’s great prophecy of the LORD’s future reign in Zion (Micah 4:1-4; cf. Isaiah 2). These things will come to pass, the prophet says, “in the latter days.” But from the NT, we know that the latter days include especially the Kingdom of the Son, but also the Kingdom of the Father. Therefore, on a first reading of the prophecy, we may see these words as being fulfilled in the Era of Proclamation and Probation (i.e., the Church era), and in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:1, 2:6). On this view, the LORD’s house is Christ’s Church, and the Mountain of the LORD’s house is heaven, the Zion above (Hebrews 12:22). Even now, through the faithful preaching of the Gospel, many nations of new believers are ascending this Mountain, there to worship the God of Jacob. Even now, through the High Prophet of Heaven (Christ), God is teaching his people his ways. Even now, the instruction of the Gospel is going forth from Zion; the Word of the LORD is going forth from the Jerusalem above, of which the Church on earth is a member in good (heavenly) standing (Galatians 4:26; Hebrews 12:22), etc.
However, on a second reading of this prophecy, we may just as easily view it as being fulfilled in the Kingdom of the Father, in the New Heavens and the New Earth. For though they are experienced in different degrees, the same immutable blessings of the Eternal Covenant belong to God’s people in both stages of the Kingdom, and it is of these blessings that the OT prophets speak so beautifully, powerfully, and mysteriously, in type and shadow.
To a greater or lesser degree, all OTKP’s are covenantally conditioned, and must be interpreted accordingly.
The idea here is that in interpreting OTKP we must not fail to apply our NT understanding of the deep meaning of all OT revelation: that it testified of Christ; that it was a veiled revelation—cast in OT type and shadow—of the things of the Eternal Covenant, which is none other than the New Covenant (Hebrews 13:20). For if the whole OT speaks of Christ and the New Covenant, then it is certain that the portion that we call OTKP does, as well. Therefore, we must interpret it accordingly.7
But what exactly do we mean when we say that OTKP is covenantally conditioned? To my mind the important point is this: In giving hope of a coming Kingdom to his OT saints, the Spirit of God (naturally enough) used language and imagery familiar to the OT saints. More particularly, in giving hope of the things of Christ and the Covenant to saints living under the Mosaic Law, the Spirit was pleased to frame that hope in language and imagery drawn primarily from the institutions of the Mosaic Law, or from life as it existed in the days of the Mosaic Law. In short, in OTKP explicit promises of future New Covenant blessings are “conditioned”—clothed in and veiled under—the whole fabric of life under the Old (Mosaic) Covenant.
This great NT truth does indeed open the door to a correct interpretation of OTKP, but it also requires much of us if we hope to arrive safely at that interpretation. In particular, it requires us to be so thoroughly saturated in NT revelation that we can emulate the apostles themselves in translating or decoding the language of the OT into the New; it requires that in our reading of OTKP we can spot specific NT truths and blessings hidden beneath the OT typological language employed by the Spirit. In the HKOH I discuss such language at length, seeking to open up the “mysterious” NT significance of the panoply of OT persons, places, things, events, and institutions that speak to us of Christ and the Covenant, and that appear with great frequency in OTKP. Again, the important point is this: In OTKP the Holy Spirit was pleased to lay hold of just such Old Covenant types and shadows in order to depict New Covenant worship in spirit and truth (John 4:19-24).8
By way of illustration, let us consider again the prophecy of Micah. There is no hope of understanding it correctly unless we first recognize that it is covenantally conditioned; that here the Spirit used images drawn from the Mosaic Law to represent New Covenant blessings yet to be unveiled by Christ in the fullness of time. On this view, “the LORD’s house,” “the Mountain of God,” “Zion,” “Jerusalem,” and “the Law” are all, in fact, spiritual and heavenly realities, of which the ancient physical analogues, so central to the Law, were mere types and shadows.
Here, then, is the conclusion of the matter: In order to understand OTKP we must be able to “decondition” it—to decode or translate it—so that we can see, enjoy, and proclaim the NT blessings that are being promised and predicted under OT imagery. The apostles led the way; we have but to follow.
Did the God of OTKP Lie?
Here it is appropriate to pause and address two questions that have greatly troubled our premillennial brethren.
The first is this: If OT prophecies concerning the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ were literally fulfilled, by what right do we say that OT prophecies of his Kingdom are not? By what right do we introduce a completely new hermeneutic for the interpretation of OTKP?
The answer to this reasonable question is found in the distinction between “simple” OT prophecies and OTKP. By definition simple OT prophecies were fulfilled under the Law; they were fulfilled in the days when the Law was still in force. For this reason, they were more or less literally fulfilled, since there was no good reason for them not to be. In their case, God had, as it were, nothing to hide. He could supply hope, instruction, and encouragement to his OT people by letting these prophecies be literally fulfilled right before their eyes (e.g., Jeremiah 29:1-14).
OT Messianic prophecies of events that occurred prior to the Day of Pentecost—i.e., prior to the coming of the Kingdom—fall into this category. In the days of their fulfillment, the Law was still in force; indeed, in most of those days, Jesus himself lived under the Law (Galatians 4:4). Therefore, they too were simple OT prophecies, and were more or less literally fulfilled. Looking at the NT, we realize that these simple Messianic prophecies were an important element in God’s evangelistic outreach to the Jews of Jesus’ day. In them, he sought to give hope, instruction, and encouragement to Israel; in them he sought to enable his OT people to identify their Messiah.
How exactly did he do this? The answer is impressive indeed: He did it by foretelling the place of the Messiah’s birth (Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:5-6); his predilection for ministry to the mixed multitudes of Galilee (Isaiah 9:1f; Matthew 4:12f); his prophetic works of power on behalf of the poor (Isaiah 61:1-3; Matthew 11:1-6; Luke 4:18); his rejection by hostile rulers, both Jew and Gentile (Psalm 2:1-2; Acts 4:23-31); his death as an apparent criminal, by which, according to God’s eternal purpose, he atoned for the crimes of his people (Isaiah 53:1f; Mark 10:45; 1 Peter 2:21-25); and his resurrection, ascension, and session at God’s right hand (Psalms 16, 110; Acts 2:22-36). As this small sampling of texts reveals, the apostles employed these simple OT Messianic prophecies to great purpose, if by any means they could save some of their Jewish brethren (Romans 11:14).
However, OTKP’s are not simple, but fall into a unique category of their own. They are fulfilled after Pentecost, when the Kingdom has come at last; they are fulfilled under the New Covenant, when the New Covenant is in force at last. And in their case, God did have something to hide, for, according to the NT, it pleased him to make of the New Covenant—and of the spiritual Kingdom it would introduce—a mystery. That is, it pleased him to conceal the true nature of the Kingdom from his OT people under types and shadows drawn from the Law; and it pleased him to do this, so that in the fullness of time his only-begotten Son might enjoy the privilege and prerogative of unveiling the “true truth,” not only to Israel, but also to the whole wide world! In short, it pleased God to hide in Christ all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, so that in the days of Christ, Christ himself might be the One to open up those treasures to his own (Matthew 13:10-17; John 1:17; Romans 16:25-27; 1 Corinthians 2:1f; Ephesians 1:9, 3:1f; Colossians 1:26, 2:3; Hebrews 1:1f).
This brings us to a second, related question: If indeed God spoke figuratively in OTKP; if indeed he covenantally conditioned it; if indeed he placed a veil of (Mosaic) types and shadows over the truth, then is it not the case that God, in effect, lied to his OT people and knowingly deceived them? For surely he knew that they would interpret these prophecies literally, just as they did the simple OT prophecies that had been fulfilled before their eyes in ages past.
While at first glance this objection may seem weighty, there are at least four good reasons why it cannot stand.
First, in speaking as he did through the OT prophets, God told the absolute truth. Not one of all the good words found in OTKP has fallen—or ever will fall—to the ground (Joshua 23:14). True, in them God did not say everything he meant, for much was hidden away under type and shadow. Nevertheless, he certainly meant everything he said: He intended to convey important truths, and he intended those truths to have a desired effect. For this reason, the Spirit of Truth honored his words, using them to give light, strength, and hope to his OT elect. Therefore, in giving OTKP, God did not lie.
Secondly, even in OTKP itself, God gave many hints to the effect that his words about the Kingdom had a figurative, spiritual meaning. In the HKOH I discuss these at length. They include multitudes of apparent contradictions, patently symbolic texts, and talk of a completely new covenant (Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 16, 20, 34, 37). All of these flagrantly warned against a too literal approach to OTKP.
Thirdly, God also repeatedly intimated to his OT people that they would not fully understand his redemptive purpose and plan until the last days; until the days of the Kingdom itself. For example, looking ahead to the time of Christ and speaking of the Gospel he would bring, God warned Israel through Isaiah, saying, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways” (55:6-13). Similarly, he spoke of a coming day when all the sons of Zion would be taught by the LORD (54:13; John 6:45); a day when their Teacher would no longer hide himself; a day when they will see their Teacher, and hear a word behind them, saying, “This is the way, walk in it” (30:19-21). Micah looked forward to a (Kingdom) time when God himself would teach his ways to all peoples (4:2). Jeremiah, speaking of God’s redemptive promises to Israel, declared, “In the latter days you will understand this” (Jeremiah 30:18-31:6). As for Daniel, he himself was astounded by the apocalyptic visions he had received, but “there was none to explain” (8:27). Indeed, after giving him his final vision, the Angel of God told him to “conceal these words and shut up the (whole) book until the time of the end” (12:4). Only then will a people arise who can give (full) insight to many (11:33); only then will knowledge increase (to the point of completion, 12:4); only then will all these prophecies be fully understood. Confronted by words such as these, what OT saint could fail to walk humbly before the mysteries of OTKP (Isaiah 66:2)?
This brings us to our fourth and final point, namely, that no sooner did God begin to fulfill OTKP, than he also supplied the keys by which anyone who wanted to could correctly interpret them. As we have seen, even before the coming of the Kingdom, Jesus himself revealed the mysteries of the Kingdom to his disciples (Matthew 13:1ff). After the Day of Pentecost, when the first stage of the Kingdom had begun, he gave his holy apostles and prophets still more light—indeed, definitive light—on the true nature of the Kingdom and the proper interpretation of OTKP, light that is now available to all in the pages of the NT. If, then, in OT times, there was occasion for a certain amount of confusion—and therefore caution, patience, and trust—regarding the true meaning of OTKP, in NT times that occasion is completely removed. Henceforth, to all who are willing to receive it, Christ offers the Rosetta Stone: the New Covenant Hermeneutic, by which they can easily translate the mysterious tropes of OTKP into glorious NT truth. Therefore, if any today are deceived by OTKP, they are not deceived by God, but by themselves.
All OTKP’s are fulfilled in the Church and must be interpreted accordingly.
As for the OT in general, so for OTKP in particular: It is fulfilled under the New Covenant (and so must be interpreted covenantally); it is fulfilled in Christ, who lies at the heart of the New Covenant (and so must be interpreted Christologically); and it is fulfilled in the Church, which is the people of the New Covenant (and so must be interpreted ecclesiologically). Yes, the last assertion has become controversial. Nevertheless, the truth of it should be no more controversial than that of the previous two, since it flows logically and necessarily from them both. There is simply no escaping it: The Church—and not ethnic Israel—is the one and only sphere of fulfillment of all OTKP.
This statement does, however, require some important qualifications and elaboration. Two main points may be made.
First, we must remember that some OT prophecies about the future of God’s people subtly blend “simple OT prophecies” and “Kingdom prophecies.” Since simple OT prophecies are, by definition, fulfilled in OT times, this component of a blended prophecy must be fulfilled among God’s OT people, ethnic Israel. However, the component of a blended prophecy that looks beyond the days of the Old Covenant into the New is fulfilled among God’s New Covenant people, the Church. Daniel’s famous—and quite challenging—prophecy of Israel’s 70 weeks is an outstanding example of this phenomenon (Daniel 9:24-27). For my interpretation of this challenging text, click here.
Double Anthropic Fulfillment
Secondly, there are a great many OTKP’s that have what might be called a “double anthropic fulfillment.” The idea here is far less intimidating than my name for it. In these prophecies, the prophet speaks of “Israel’s” relation to the Gentiles; to the nations that are not yet part of God’s covenant people. Reading them from one angle, we can see that they are fulfilled in the relationship between the NT remnant of Jewish Christians and their Gentile neighbors who have not as yet heard of Christ or trusted in him. However, reading them from another angle, we can see that they are also fulfilled in the relationship between the Church (the spiritual “Israel of God,” comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles,) and the unbelieving world, a world typified in these prophecies by “the nations” that remain outside of the Covenant.
Consider, for example, Zechariah 8:23. It reads, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘In those days ten men from the nations of every language will grasp the garment of a Jew saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”’” The telltale eschatological phrase, “in those days,” signals that this an OTKP. It is, then, fulfilled in the Church. But how? Well, it certainly was fulfilled when the Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip for light on the meaning of Isaiah 53 (Acts 8:26f). Similarly, it was fulfilled when the Gentiles in Antioch begged Paul to preach the Gospel to them again on the next Sabbath (Acts 13:42). But it was also fulfilled when the Gospel “sounded forth” from the Gentile converts of Thessalonica, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in “every place,” with the result that still more Gentiles believed and “went with them,” realizing that the true and living God was indeed in the midst of their assemblies (1 Thessalonians 1:8). And the same has been true all throughout Church history, whenever and wherever Gentile Christians have preached the Gospel to unbelievers.
So then, Zechariah 8:23—an OTKP—has a double anthropic fulfillment, not only in spiritual relations between Jewish Christians and Gentiles, but also between Gentile Christians and unbelievers. Nevertheless, being fulfilled under the New Covenant, this text is fulfilled exclusively in the sphere of the Church. And such is the case for all OTKP.
In this essay I have set forth and discussed three fundamental NT principles for the proper interpretation of OTKP, principles taught and used by the Lord’s apostles.9 We have seen that all OTKP’s are fulfilled in the two-fold spiritual reign of God and Christ introduced by the NC; all are covenantally conditioned, therefore requiring the translation or decoding of OT types into NT truths; and all are fulfilled in the Church, whether in the present Era of Proclamation and Probation, the Age to Come, or both.
Can we, then, follow our premillennarian brothers and interpret OTKP’s literally? Can we interpret them as simple OT prophecy? Clearly not! Rather, we must recognize, with the OT prophets themselves, that these are indeed “dark sayings;” that they are a great thicket and a forbidding maze, wherein many a poor literalist has lost his way; and that we therefore stand in desperate need of the High King of Heaven, and of the powerful NT keys he has so graciously put in our hands, if ever we are to enter, pass through, and reach our glorious destination on the other side: the “true truth” about the Kingdom of God (Numbers 12:8; Psalm 78:2; 1 Peter 1:10-12)!
- For a close NT examination of both of these themes, see chapters 5 and 9 of the HKOH.
- See chapter 12 of the HKOH, pp. 217
- Ibid. p. 218
- Ibid. p. 220-224
- Ibid. p. 224-226
- For a helpful chart illustrating the differences between the two phases of the one Kingdom, click here.
- For a discussion of the Eternal Covenant, and its progressive administration over the course of Salvation History, see chapter 7 of the HKOH
- See the HKOH, chapter 13, p. 231
- For examples of how the apostles interpreted OTKP see chapter 14 of the HKOH. Also, see this chart.
- For a very fulsome list of OTKP’s, see this chart.