Liturgically speaking, I’ve made the rounds. Down through the years this septuagenarian has worshiped in—or observed the worship of—Pentecostal, Charismatic, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches. Also, over the decades during which I served as a pastor, I continually mulled the New Testament (NT) parameters for worship on the Lord’s Day, trying hard to discern them accurately and practice them faithfully. Now, as I near the end of my journey, it has seemed good to me to share my best thoughts on Lord’s Day worship, and to craft a service of worship that I believe would be pleasing to God and edifying to his children.

Theological and Practical Foundations

Here in Part I of the essay I want to share my major premises: the theological and practical foundations upon which I have based my proposed liturgy. There are seven of them.

Lord’s Day Worship is Special

Worship on the Lord’s Day is quite special. Unlike other gatherings of God’s children, on this day the elders and members of a Christian body come together as a whole church (Acts 15:2, 22; 1 Cor. 11:17-18; 14:23, 26; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 10:25; 13:7). Also, the regulations for this assembly are different from, and more stringent than, those pertaining to smaller gatherings (1 Cor. 11:1-15 vs. 11:17-14:40; 1 Tim. 2:1-15).

But the uniqueness of Lord’s Day worship stems above all from its close association with the mystery of the Sabbath. Theological reflection on this subject is extensive, diverse, and sometimes controversial. For brevity sake, I will give my own view simply by citing a Statement of Faith that I wrote some years back:

We believe that the Sabbath Day, which in the beginning God set apart as a day of rest and worship for all mankind, and which at the giving of the Law he instituted as a day of rest and worship for his OT people, stood as a type or picture of the eternal rest that he now offers to all men—and commands them to enter—through the Gospel. / We believe that Christians do in fact enter this rest, first at the moment of saving faith, then more fully at the entrance of their spirits into heaven, and still more fully at the resurrection of the righteous at Christ’s return. / We believe that in order to underscore the perpetuity of the believer’s rest in Christ, the NT does not, by an ordinance, tie the worship of God to the Sabbath or any special day of the week. / But we also believe that through a holy tradition inaugurated by Christ himself on the day of his resurrection, and perpetuated in the practice of the early church, God’s people are invited and encouraged to designate the first day of the week as the Lord’s Day; that on that day they do well to assemble themselves together in order to celebrate and be refreshed in the spiritual rest God has given them, through a reverent and joyful observance of the ordinances of NT worship; and that in so doing God will be pleased, Christ exalted, his people blessed, and the world confronted afresh with the Good News of the Gospel.1

In short, Lord’s Day worship is special because on that day God specially draws near to his people in order to remind them of, teach them about, and refresh them in, their eternal Sabbath rest in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Lord’s Day Worship is Important to God and Man

The worship of the Lord’s Day is important to the triune God. Scripture affirms that he takes great pleasure in his people (Ps. 149:4). Indeed, his people are his chosen dwelling place (1 Ki. 8:10-11; Ps. 132:5-7; Ezek. 43:5; 44:4; John 14:23; Acts 2:2; Rev. 21:3). Therefore, knowing their needs, and not unmindful of his own enjoyment, he delights to draw near to them on the Lord’s Day. Abba Father delights to gather his children to himself and take them in his arms (Psalm 50:5, 149:4; Is. 43:2). His exalted Son, their heavenly Husband, delights to speak tenderly to his Bride, and to lay her weary head upon his vast and comforting bosom (Is. 40:1-3; John 13:23, 14:3, 17:24; Eph. 5). The Holy Spirit, knowing these things, delights to facilitate the holy visitation: to unveil and strengthen the eternal bond of love that unites the family of God. For these and other reasons, Lord’s Day worship is indeed important to the Three-in-One.

But it is even more important for man. For though God’s people have been justified, they are not yet fully sanctified. Though they are seated in heavenly places in Christ, they are still making an arduous journey through the howling wilderness of this present evil age (Gal. 1:4; Rev. 12:1ff). Therefore, their needs are great. Because they are weary, they need refreshing (Acts 3:19). Because they are pursued and persecuted, they need protection (Rev. 12:13-14). Because they are without (mature) understanding, they need teaching (Eph. 4:91-16). Because they are called, they need equipping (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Because they have faltered, they need exhortation, repentance, and reassurance (1 Cor. 11:27-32; 14:3). Because they are lonely, they need family; because they are lacking, they need the support of the family (Psalm 122; Acts 2:43-5). And because they are grateful and glad, they need a time and a place in which to express their gratitude and joy (1 Pet. 1:8). In sum, the saints are eager for Lord’s Day worship because they know that on that Day—through word, prayer, sacrament, and body ministry—they will yet again behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and so be transformed into his image from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18).

Lord’s Day Worship is Regulated 

Because God desires to meet with his people, and because their needs are so very great, he carefully regulates his own worship. In particular, he gives us detailed instructions concerning the attitudes, actions, and procedures that are proper to the gathering of the whole church. We may think of these regulations as borders by which he surrounds, creates, protects, and preserves a sacred space, ensuring that he himself may fully fill that space, and that in it his people may be fully edified and refreshed (Rev. 12:6, 14). He gives us regulations so that he may freely give us himself.

Concerning the attitudes that we are to bring to this gathering, the NT provides rich instruction. We are to come with understanding (Col. 1:9), gratitude (1 Tim. 2:1), joy (Matt. 13:44; Phil. 4:4), reverence (Heb. 12:28), humility (James 1:21), sincerity (Acts 2:46), confidence (Heb. 4:16), faith (James 1:6), and eager expectation (Matt. 18:20). We come in order to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24), with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). We come faithfully, in spite of what we’ve done or not done, and in spite of what we feel or don’t feel, always remembering that God is faithful, and that he is eager to meet both us and our needs (1 Cor. 10:13; 2 Tim. 2:13; Heb. 10:25). And so, having put on these attitudes, we too come with eagerness, hoping and expecting to see his glory fill the house (1 Kings 8:11; Ezek. 43:4; Acts 2:2)!

As for the actions of NT worship, they are far fewer than those of OT times, being carefully designed to facilitate the simplicity of worship in spirit and truth instituted by Christ, and now so supernaturally natural to the regenerate hearts of his flock (John 4:24; 2 Cor. 11:3). These actions include prayer; the reading, preaching, teaching, and prophesying of the Word of God; psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, sung with grace in our hearts to the Lord; the Lord’s Supper; and, on occasion, the administration of water baptism.

Again, these actions are regulated: The NT prescribes basic procedures for each one. As the procedures become familiar, the worshiper comes to rest in them, trusting that all things are indeed being done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40). Thus resting, he is free to give himself fully to the Lord throughout all the service: to listen for his voice, and to wait for his touch. Regulated worship becomes liturgy, the work of the people; liturgy, in turn, becomes a  garden paradise where the people experience the work of God.

Lord’s Day Worship is Participatory and Charismatic     

Speaking personally, I cannot read 1 Corinthians 12-14 and fail to conclude that here the apostle’s primary concern is to regulate the worship of the Lord’s Day. Yes, he begins by laying some theological groundwork, by unveiling the Church as the Spirit-filled Body of Christ, each of whose members is charismatically gifted for the continual edification of the Body. And yes, for this reason some of the gifts mentioned here will not typically operate in a worship service (e.g. helps, mercies, administrations, healings, miracles; cf. Rom. 12:3-8). But surely the thrust of these chapters is to educate the saints on the gifts of the Spirit with a view to their proper exercise in the gatherings of the whole church (1 Cor. 14:23).

Accordingly, in our thinking about Lord’s Day worship we must take seriously the words of the apostle in 1 Corinthians 14:26: “What then, brothers, is the sum of the matter? Whenever you come together, each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” Therefore, I would ask my Reformed brethren: Can a biblically faithful church exclude this verse from its understanding of the regulative principles of corporate worship? Does it not clearly tell us that Lord’s Day worship is participatory (i.e. each one has something to contribute, though not necessarily every Sunday) and charismatic (i.e. each one contributes that something in the exercise of his spiritual gift)?

My cessationist brethren will balk at this claim, believing as they do that with the closure of the NT canon, and with the passing of the foundational apostles, God has permanently withdrawn some of the more supernatural charismatic gifts. I cannot enter into that debate here. Suffice it to say that for nearly 50 years I have been unable to find a single NT text affirming the withdrawal of any charismatic gift. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 I find quite the opposite, since here the apostle depicts the charismata as essential equipment for the Church Militant as she makes her difficult pilgrimage towards the fullness of her redemption in the Age to Come.

How so? The key words are “now” and “then”. Now, in the long Era of Gospel Proclamation, the Church needs the gifts of the Spirit in order to fulfill her mission. Now she needs to prophesy, speak in tongues, teach, etc., so that the saints may be gathered in, and the Body built up (1 Cor. 13:8). However, as important as the gifts are, they reflect only a partial knowledge of God, and are therefore only temporary. For when “the perfect” comes—not the close of the NT canon, but the return of Christ, the Consummation, and the life of the Age to Come (1 Cor. 1:7)—then her partial knowledge will fail, cease, and pass away (1 Cor. 13:8-9). Then, having graduated into her eternal adulthood, she will put away her “childish” things—her childish ways of knowing, speaking, and reasoning—for then she will see face-to-face; then she will fully know, just as she is known (1 Cor. 13:11-13). If, then, it is essential for the Church to pass through her spiritual childhood, it is also essential that she permanently possess the distinguishing marks of her spiritual childhood: the panoply of spiritual gifts.

All that said, the closure of the NT canon is indeed of great importance. It enables us to identify the various spiritual gifts, and to exercise them properly in their appropriate settings. With reference to the worship of the Lord’s Day, it enables us to prioritize the ministry of the Word (i.e. Scripture reading, preaching, teaching, prophecy) with a view to the edification of the church (John 17:17; 1 Cor. 14:26). It enables us to judge the doctrinal and ethical integrity of various ministries of the Word (1 Cor. 14:29). And it enables leaders, through the exercise of their own spiritual gifts, to structure the Lord’s Day worship in such a way as to incorporate all its elements, while at the same time leaving ample room for the move of the Spirit and the spontaneous participation of various members of the congregation.2

Lord’s Day Worship Specially Regulates the Verbal Participation of Women

The NT places special restrictions on the verbal participation of women in the Lord’s Day gathering of the whole Church. Pressured by the surrounding culture, modern theologians fiercely debate the meaning and application of the relevant texts, with the result that different churches have settled on widely different policies (1 Cor. 14:34-36; 1 Tim. 2:9-15). My own reading, which aligns with traditional Catholic and Protestant interpretations, is that sisters in Christ may freely participate in congregational singing and in the corporate recitation of prayers, Scripture, or creeds (yet another good reason to embrace all these practices). They may not, however, engage in any form of solo speech: They may not teach, preach, prophesy, pray (aloud), speak in tongues, interpret a tongue, read Scripture, ask questions, or make announcements.

It should go without saying that in giving us these guidelines God is in no way denigrating the value, intelligence, or spirituality of his daughters, who, just like men, are created in his own image and likeness, loved, and redeemed in Christ (Gal. 3:28). Nor are the regulations meant to exclude women from all verbal ministry, since a number of other NT texts authorize them to teach, pray, and prophesy in settings other than the gatherings of the whole church (Acts 2:17; 18:26; 1 Cor. 11:1-16; Titus 2:3-5).

Why, then, does God mandate these special restrictions? A close reading of NT teaching on gender relations makes it clear that the rules are designed, above all, to reflect—and to reinforce in the hearts of his people—God’s creation order for the sexes (1 Tim. 2:11-15). By his wise decree—which is meant to image the mystery of Christ and the Church—man is the spiritual “head” of woman: the authority over her (1 Cor. 11:2-16; Eph. 5:22-33). In marriage, in the family, in the church, and indeed in the outer worlds of business and government, God has given to men the responsibility—and with that, the authority—to lead, always with a view to the protection and provision of those under their care.

Accordingly, when a woman speaks out in church she is inverting the creation order by displacing the authorized leader(s) of the meeting, replacing him (them) with herself, and setting all the men in attendance under her authority, since the Word of God—or the words of the elders who authorized her to speak—are assumed to be authoritative. Paul, saturated with divine law and established in biblical sensibilities, startles us moderns by declaring that such an inversion is disgraceful, implying that when the illicit inversion is both performed and permitted ignominy rightly falls on the woman, her husband, the elders, and the men in the church—all of whom have had their part in turning the world upside down (1 Cor. 14:35).

There are practical considerations as well. If a woman happens to misspeak (as men themselves will surely do from time to time), she will not only dishonor her husband, but also may oblige the elder in charge to correct her in front of her husband and the entire congregation—a needless embarrassment and further inversion that Paul clearly wanted to avoid.

It should also be noted from 1 Timothy 2:14 that unless a woman is fully submitted to her husband, she, like mother Eve, is especially vulnerable to deception, and therefore to propagating deception, in the event that she is allowed to speak in church.

Finally, we must honestly admit that a solitary woman speaking in church will necessarily attract attention to herself, which in turn can stimulate sexual thoughts in the men (who are more visually oriented than women), thereby distracting them from the worship of the Lord. This, I think, is why Paul urges the sisters to dress modestly and discreetly when they come to church (1 Tim. 2:9-10; 1 Peter 3:3-4). The words of the apostle display great practical wisdom, a wisdom that, when applied, will enable us to avoid all sorts of problems, and so to preserve good order and peace in the churches.

I am all too aware that in our day these regulations are highly counter-cultural, and therefore circumvented by theologians and pastors alike. Accordingly, it will take extraordinary wisdom, love, patience, and courage for church leaders to explain and implement them, and for God’s men and women to submit to them. But if they love the Lord, and if they desire the fullest possible manifestation of his presence and power in the worship service, they will do so eagerly and gladly.3

Lord’s Day Worship Honors the History and Accomplishments of the Church Triumphant

In the Lord’s Day worship the Church Militant joins with the Church Triumphant before the throne of God, in order to worship, praise, petition, and receive from our triune Creator and Redeemer (Rev. 4-5). Because this is so, it seems fitting that the Church Militant should honor the Church Triumphant by incorporating into her own worship the forms and contents that her predecessors developed through their own prayerful interaction with the Word of God. Yes, we must do this carefully, striving to set aside anything that we consider unbiblical. But our natural bias, born out of love and respect for the work of God in former times, should be to include from the past as much as we honestly can, so that the worshiping Church of our own time may feel an abiding spiritual connection with our Catholic and Protestant forefathers.

In the service of worship below I have sought to do this very thing. With an eye both to Scripture and Church tradition, I have created a space for preparing our hearts for worship, for a scriptural call to worship, for the public reading of Scripture, for the exaltation of the Gospel reading for the day, for a season of charismatic ministry and free prayer, for the passing of the peace, for the teaching and prophesying of the Word of God, for private confession of sin, for corporate gathering at the Lord’s Table, for a glad confession of our evangelical faith, for a closing benediction, and—through it all—for making joyful melody in our hearts to the Lord. It is through such historically sensitive and inclusive liturgies that the Church Militant, on the Lord’s Day, will find herself seated together in heavenly places with the Church Triumphant, blessedly participating in the eternal worship of God.

Lord’s Day Worship is Regulated but not Rigid

Reading texts like Acts 2:42, 1 Corinthians 12-14, and 1 Timothy 2, it is easy enough to discern the basic elements and regulations for the Lord’s Day worship of God. What is not so easy is to picture exactly how the early church put these things into practice. After mulling the matter for many years, I have concluded that this ambiguity is purposeful. Though he could easily have done so, God decided against inspiring his apostles to impose a single liturgy upon the Universal Church. Instead, alongside the various elements and regulations of worship, he granted church leaders a measure of liberty to craft liturgies suitable to their own circumstances, needs, and understanding. Here’s how the authors of the London Baptist Confession express it: “We recognize that some circumstances concerning the worship of God . . . are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian wisdom, following the general rules of the Word, which must always be observed” (LBC 1:6).

This studied NT ambiguity helps us to understand what we see all around us: different folks worshiping in different ways. So long as all is done scripturally, this appears to be acceptable to God. Thus, some worship services will be more simple, others more complex; some shorter, others longer; some more oriented to charismatic spontaneity, others to liturgical formality; some more expressive, others more reserved. Since the NT does not mandate weekly communion at the Lord’s Table, some churches observe this ordinance monthly, some quarterly, and some annually. However, Acts 2:42, 20:7, and the placement and prominence of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 in Paul’s three chapters on church order certainly seem to favor weekly participation. Perhaps if we partook of the Lord’s Supper more often we would find ourselves longing to do so more often.  Let each elder board be fully persuaded in its own mind (Rom. 14:5); and let all elder boards do all things decently and in good biblical order (1 Cor. 14:40).

A Service of Worship for the Lord’s Day

Here, then, is my “dream” Lord’s Day worship service. As you will see, I have included a number of comments along the way in order to clarify what I have in mind for each element of the service. Very importantly, this is but one of many possible services. No doubt it reflects my own personal history, gifts, and tastes. Nevertheless, because it seeks faithfully to incorporate all the elements and all the regulations of NT worship, I dare to hope that it will prove helpful, whether to you who are seeking a place of worship for yourself and your family, or to church leaders seeking to craft a rich service of worship for the Lord and his people.

I. WELCOME (Brother)

A. Welcome
B. Announcements
C. Invitation to Prepare our Hearts for Worship

Comments: As people gather for worship on the Lord’s Day, they love to visit. This is an integral part of the fellowship of the saints. To facilitate it, I recommend no background music prior to the beginning of the service (this from a hearing-impaired brother who struggles in pre-service conversations). / One or two minutes before the service begins the musicians should play (but not sing) a hymn. This signals to the worshipers that it is time to be seated, quiet down, and prepare one’s heart for worship. / A brother opens the service by welcoming both the saints and the visitors, giving all necessary information to the latter. He then briefly shares essential announcements, directing worshipers to the bulletin or church website for further information. / Finally, he calls for a moment of silence in which the worshipers may prepare their hearts for their meeting with the Lord (Is. 41:1; Hab. 2:20).

Special Note: Here and throughout this outline you will notice that the brothers always lead. My view is that several different ones should do so: elders, fathers, husbands, older singles, and mature youth and boys. This practice adds participation, variety, and zest to the service. Even more importantly, it aligns the service with God’s creation order for the sexes, and with his rules concerning the verbal participation of women. As a result, it provides the Holy Spirit with a special opportunity to impress upon men their role as leaders in the family, the church, and the world; to bless godly sisters, as they watch the relevant men in their lives stepping up to do this very thing; and to remind the sisters once again of the privilege God has given them to image the Church to the world by freely submitting to the godly men in their lives, even as the Church submits herself to Christ.

II. CALL TO WORSHIP (Brother)

A. Scriptural Call to Worship
B. Prayer of Invocation

Comments: The call to worship should include a biblical text in which God summons his people and/or the nations to come and worship him (e.g. Ps. 95:6; Isaiah 55:1-3). It is led by a brother, but could well involve an antiphonal reading of the text (e.g. leader-congregation or brothers-sisters). Again, these options have the great advantage of enabling the sisters to participate aloud. / Following the call to worship, the brother will pray, thanking the Lord for this special opportunity to worship him, and asking his blessing upon the gathering.4

III. WORSHIP IN SONG, Round #1 (Brother)

A. Song #1
B. Song #2

Comments: The New Covenant is a marriage covenant, and therefore a covenant of great joy (John 2:1-11, 15:11; 16:24; 17:13). Accordingly, at its very heart it involves celebration, music, and song (Rev. 5:9; 14:3). / My view is that in the Lord’s Day service the songs should be plentiful, giving God ample opportunity to stir the hearts of his children, and the children ample opportunity to pour out their hearts to their God (Ps. 62:8). / As for musical leadership and accompaniment, I believe a brother should lead the worship at all times, but that sisters may participate in the worship team. Ideally, the worship team will be located in the back of the sanctuary, or at least to the side of the Lord’s Table or pulpit, so that all attention is focused, not on the team, but on the Lord and the words of the song. If sisters must be visible, they should be very modestly dressed, so as to present no distractions to the men. The music should be simple and relatively unobtrusive, so that emphasis falls upon the lyrics of the song and the blended voices of the congregation. / The first round of songs will normally consist of joyful hymns of praise to God as Creator and Provider. All hymns should be carefully chosen or approved by the elders. Ideally, the hymns will significantly align with the theme of the sermon, which should become the theme of the entire service. Thy lyrics must be theologically sound, and, as a general rule, God-centered rather than man-centered. They should celebrate, above all, the Person and Work of the Holy Trinity in Creation and Redemption, and how these affect us sinful but beloved human beings. / Most of the songs should be familiar; new songs should be repeated two or three Sunday’s in a row; the melodies of the songs should be memorable, and the accompanying music beautiful. / Certain hymns and choruses cry out for clapping; but in the interest of truly congregational worship, the worship leader alone should initiate it (Ps. 47:1). / Since percussion instruments naturally call attention to themselves, I advise against their use. If they must be used, let it be as unobtrusively as possible. / Special music by a soloist, a quartet, or a choir seems best suited for informal gatherings. In the worship of the Lord’s Day, the congregation itself is the soloist and the choir.5

IV. SCRIPTURE READINGS FOR THE DAY (Brother)

A. OT Reading (Law, Psalms, Prophets) (Brother)
B. NT Reading A (Acts/Epistles/Revelation) (Brother)
C. NT Reading B: (Gospel) (Brother; All Stand)

Comments: The NT commends the public reading of Scripture on the Lord’s Day (1 Tim. 4:13; Rev. 1:3). Wisely, many of our forefathers decided to implement this rule by reading first from the OT, then from the Acts, the Epistles, or the Revelation, and finally from the Gospels, a comprehensive approach whose conclusion is specially designed to honor our Lord. There are, however, a variety of ways to enjoy the public reading of Scripture. / I believe the teaching elder should choose the day’s Scripture texts, ideally with a view to communicating the theme of his soon-coming sermon. / While at this juncture congregational and antiphonal reading is possible, I think it preferable for two or three different brothers to read the day’s texts. Speaking personally, I find it encouraging to see and hear young men and mature boys giving the readings, a practice that significantly involves them in worship, and helps to train them in biblical manhood. / Those chosen to read the texts should practice beforehand, so that the reading is slow, smooth, audible, and confident. / In harmony with ancient Church tradition, the congregation should stand for the Gospel reading of the day.

V. WORSHIP IN SONG, Round #2

A. Song # 3
B. Song #4

Comments: This round of songs, while still celebratory, begins to focus more on God’s redemptive purpose and plan in the Person and Work of Christ. Songs in this set may be slower and more contemplative, tilting towards expressions of grateful love, longing, and adoration.

VI. PROPHECY AND PRAYER (Elder #1)

A. Prophecy, etc. (Brothers only)
B. Free Prayer (Brothers only)
C. Silent Prayer (Brothers and Sisters)
D. The Lord’s Prayer Aloud (Brothers and Sisters)
E. Song #5

Comments: In this portion of the service, which could take as few as 15 minutes or as many as 30, we specially invite the Lord, by his Spirit, to move among his people, prompting them to charismatic ministry and prayer (Rev. 1:12-13). / Since this portion of the service requires careful leadership and oversight, it should be led by an elder. / During the initial time for prophecy, two or three brothers may take 2-5 minutes each to bring a short word from the Lord. To ensure the integrity of such ministries, the brothers must be members of the church in good standing. Per 1 Corinthians 14:3, their prophecies should be words of edification, exhortation, and comfort, delivered from, or in accordance with, the words of Scripture. NT prophetic diction does not involve the Lord (allegedly) speaking through the prophet in the first person. Rather, the brothers speak in an ordinary conversational manner, sharing the message they believe the Lord has laid on their hearts, humbly recognizing that their words may contain defects. / The people themselves will judge these prophecies for conformity to scriptural truth (1 Thess. 5:19-21). If necessary, an elder may add a supplementary, corrective, or qualifying word. / Based on my reading of 1 Corinthians 12-14, and especially of 14:26, I believe this portion of the service should be reserved primarily for prophesying, but could also include a short teaching (i.e. words of wisdom and knowledge, 1 Cor. 12:8; 13:8-10), a supernatural tongue with (mandatory) interpretation, or a song (sung or led by a brother). While the Spirit may indeed suddenly grant a revelation to a brother during the service (1 Cor. 14:26), there is nothing in Scripture to say that the Lord could not do so hours or even days earlier, giving him time to prepare his remarks. / The season of free prayer is led by an elder, who briefly states the guidelines and perhaps suggests topics, and then opens the meeting for the men to pray aloud (1 Tim. 2:8). The men may pray as the Spirit leads, but as a rule will offer prayers of thanksgiving and adoration to God, and then intercede for temporal rulers, missionaries, and the special needs of the church family (1 Tim. 2:1-2). / I recommend closing this portion of the meeting by inviting the sisters to join with the men in a moment of silent prayer and intercession to God, after which, as led by the elder, the whole church may offer the Lord’s Prayer aloud. / I believe that prayers for physical healing or other special needs are best offered in a prayer room after the church service. One or more of the elders should be on hand to pray with those who come, though other church members, with a special gift for intercession, should be present as well.

VII. THE PASSING OF THE PEACE

A. The Passing of the Peace
B. Song #6

Comments: The Passing of the Peace is an ancient tradition, now commonly practiced in liturgically oriented churches. During this short break in the worship service the people stand, shake a neighbor’s hand, and say, “Peace be with you,” to which the neighbor then replies, “And with you also”. When performed sincerely, this little ritual is a beautiful manifestation of the fellowship of the saints, and of the exchange of grace that continually occurs in God’s family (1 Cor. 12:4-31). / As a rule, this portion of the service will last from 3-5 minutes, giving worshipers a mini-opportunity to stand, pass the peace, greet a newcomer, and briefly visit. / The beginning of Song # 6 is a signal for the congregation to re-assemble for the sermon.6

VIII. SERMON (Teaching/Preaching Elder)

A. Sermon
B. Brief Season(s) of Q and A (Brothers Only)

Comments: In evangelical circles, which commonly prioritize the Word of God, the sermon tends to be the climax of the service. In Catholic circles, which always prioritize the administration of the sacraments, the Lord’s Supper is the climax. I incline to the Catholic position, but for evangelical reasons. In the sermon, the elder will bring the Word of the Lord to the people; but this is only in preparation for the climax, when he then brings the people to Lord of the Word and steps aside (a beautiful and healthy exercise in Christian humility). / I do not believe the Sunday sermon should be an in-depth Bible study, a ministry better accomplished in settings where time limitations are not a factor, and where extended dialog can take place. Rather, it is a special opportunity for leaders to exercise one (or more) of three scriptural charisms: gospel proclamation (preaching), gospel instruction (teaching), and gospel encouragement and exhortation (prophecy). Depending on the nature of his spiritual gift(s), the preaching elder will typically major in one of these charisms, and minor in the others. In larger churches with multiple elders, this fact of charismatic life argues for letting differently gifted elders preach at different times in order to meet different spiritual needs. / As a rule, the sermon should last 20-30 minutes, thus leaving ample time for the church to linger at the Lord’s Table. The preacher will normally close with a word of prayer, thanking the Lord for the good gifts celebrated in the sermon, and asking him to help the people walk in their practical applications. / Again, it is ideal that each Lord’s Day service have a clear theme. This can be briefly stated even in the Welcome, reflected in the Scripture readings (one of which will normally be the text for the day’s sermon), and opened up in the sermon itself. / Per 1 Corinthians 14:35, the preaching elder should leave room along the way, or at the end of the sermon, for short comments and questions from the brothers. If sisters have comments or questions, they can share them with their husbands at home, visit briefly with the preaching elder after church, or (better yet) participate in an elder-led discussion of the sermon after lunch.

IX. COMMUNION (Elder)

A. Welcome to the Lord’s Table
B. Fencing of the Table: Words to Seekers, Words to Saints
C. Invitation to Private Confession of Sin
D. Consecration, Distribution, Corporate Sharing of the Elements (Song #7)
E. Corporate Confession of the Faith / Scriptural Words of Assurance of Forgiveness and Salvation
F. Final Song of Celebration (Song #8)

Comments: Again, I think it wise, both by word and practice, to train God’s people to view their time at the Lord’s Table as the climax of the service of worship.7 / We honor the sanctity of the Lord’s Table, and best serve both seekers and saints, by fencing it. To do so is first to graciously ask inquiring non-Christians not to participate, but instead to carefully consider the deep meaning of this rite. It is also to invite the saints, during a moment or two of silent prayer, to examine their hearts, and then privately confess and forsake any specific sins for which the Spirit may be convicting them (1 Cor. 11:28). An anointed sermon will often lead to such introspection, confession, and prayer.8 Elders should advise those who are unable or unwilling to forsake their sin to abstain from participating. But they should also remind honest strugglers that their divine Host warmly invites them to his table just as they are, so that they may receive the True Food by which to fight the good fight of faith. / There are a number of possible procedures for consecrating, distributing, and sharing the communion elements (1 Cor. 10:16; 11:23-26). While approaches will differ, NT testimony concerning the one Loaf given to the one Body argues that the saints should partake of the elements together, thereby manifesting and underscoring the unity of the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:17). / During the distribution of the elements it is a great blessing to sing a hymn celebrating the atoning Work of Christ and its glorious fruits. / I believe that the moments immediately following our time at the Lord’s Table are ideally suited for a “good confession” (i.e., affirmation) of our Christian faith. The specific words may be drawn directly from Scripture, or from the classic creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the historic Church.9 The confession should (usually) be chosen in such a way as to strengthen the believer’s assurance of the forgiveness of his sins, his justification, and his final salvation. This is accomplished through confessions that focus our attention on the all-sufficient work of Christ, and on the once-and-for-all justification that God grants his people at the moment of saving faith. / Following the corporate confession of faith, the elder will invite the congregation to stand and sing Song #8, which should be a rousing celebration of the finished work of Christ, the blessings it bestows, and the joyful hope it imparts to all who believe.

X. CLOSING ACTIONS (Elder)

A. Final Reminders (Offering, etc.)
B. Benediction
C. Doxology
D. Dismissal

Comments: One of the elders will close the service by reminding the people of special matters. This will likely include his inviting both seekers and saints to the prayer room (or corner) of the church, where they can meet with leaders or mature members for counsel and prayer. It will also include his encouraging the saints to worship the Lord by placing their offerings in the special box located near the entrance to the church. / Drawing upon Scripture, the leader will ask the congregation to stand; then he will declare a benediction over them, join with them in singing a doxology, and send them out into the world to love and serve the Lord. (But not before they take time to enjoy refreshments and a post-service season fellowship!)

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

I want to conclude my meditation with some observations of a largely practical nature.

Regarding the place of children in the worship of the Lord’s Day, I believe that leaders and parents should strive to include them as much as possible. The Lord has given us his mind on the subject: “Let the children come to me” (Mark 10:14). I can think of no finer place for a child to meet the Lord, or to receive memorable impressions of the beauty of Christ and his Church, than the Lord’s Day worship service. With maximal participation, and with Spirit-led leaders moving things steadily along, children will find the service interesting. I do indeed favor dismissing children for age-level teaching during the time of the sermon. But beyond that, by all means let them join the family, and let us adults show them how much we enjoy their presence and participation. / I appreciate those wise parents who graciously train their children to sit still, and (at the appropriate times) to be quiet during the worship service. I appreciate the patience and forbearance of the rest of the saints, when some of the little children fail to do so. And I greatly appreciate church leaders who provide a nursery and cry room, to which Dads or Moms can swiftly take their little ones if and when they start to disrupt the service.

From 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 it appears that love feasts were commonly held just prior to the saint’s time at the Lord’s Table (Jude 1:12). However, the NT does not mandate this practice, but only mentions it. I am aware of at least one medium-size church that concludes its formal worship service, and then invites all who so desire, first to eat lunch, and then to partake of the Lord’s Supper. In smaller churches, like the house churches of NT times, this is a viable practice. But since many in a larger congregation will not be present, this practice does not seem to manifest or promote the unity of the Body as the Lord intended. Let each leader be fully persuaded in his own mind.

Again, I very much favor the idea of the saints eating lunch together after church, and then discussing the sermon. It seems a shame to me that a pastor will spend hours crafting a rich sermon, and then, having delivered it, simply move on with his flock to the next thing! Surely an excellent sermon is worthy of an excellent discussion, one in which all church members may share their thoughts and ask questions of the preacher. Might not such a discussion seal a pastor’s message in someone’s heart for a lifetime? If so, why not offer it?

The total time for the service outlined above is around 2 hours. Yes, that’s a stretch for many American Christians, but perhaps American Christians need stretching, seeing that longer gatherings were actually quite common in days of old. Again, if the service is variegated, if there is frequent congregational participation, and if leaders—sensitive to the promptings of the Lord—keep in step with his life-giving Spirit, the two hours should fly by. That said, any number of exigencies may require a shorter service, and there is nothing in the NT to forbid it, so long as all necessary things are done decently and in order.

In conclusion, let me urge all involved—elders, worship leaders, and church members—to prioritize the worship of the Lord’s Day. It is entirely possible that apart from one’s daily quiet time with the Lord, there is no more important activity for a Christian man or woman. For again, here the Father desires specially to gather his children to himself; and here the High King of the Church desires specially to walk among the golden lampstands, and to minister to his Bride (Rev. 1:12-13). Therefore, in preparing for the Lord’s Day, let all the leaders aspire to excellence. Let them stand in the counsel of the Lord, earnestly praying for a revelation of his heart and mind for the Sunday ahead (Jer. 23:22, 1 Cor. 14:27). And with that revelation in mind, let them carefully select the call to worship, the Scripture readings, the hymns, the contents of message, and the ministry at the Lord’s Table. Prior to the Lord’s Day, let them communicate with their people, urging them to prepare for it, and helping them to do so. And together with the whole church, let them pray for God’s richest blessing on the gathering. Surely he is eager to bestow it. And if we, on our part, do all we can to prepare the holy ground, surely the Holy One will meet us there.

 

O DAY OF REST AND GLADNESS

O day of rest and gladness, of day of joy and light,
O balm of care and sadness, most beautiful, most bright:
On Thee, the high and lowly, through ages joined in tune,
Sing holy, holy, holy, to the great God Triune.

On Thee, at the creation, our worship had its birth;
On Thee, for our salvation, Christ rose from depths of earth;
On Thee, our Lord victorious, the Spirit sent from heaven,
And thus on Thee most glorious, a triple light was given.

Thou art a port protected, from storms that round us rise;
A garden intersected, with streams of Paradise;
Thou art a cooling fountain in life’s dry, dreary sand;
From thee, like Pisgah’s mountain, we view our Promised Land.

Thou art a holy ladder, where angels go and come;
Each Sunday finds us gladder, and nearer to our home;
A day of sweet refection, thou art a day of love,
A day of resurrection, from earth to things above.

Today on weary nations the heavenly manna falls;
To holy convocations the silver trumpet calls,
Where Gospel light is glowing, with pure and radiant beams,
And living water flowing, with soul refreshing streams.

New graces ever gaining from this our day of rest,
We reach the rest remaining to spirits of the blessed.
To Holy Ghost be praises, to Father, and to Son;
The church her voice upraises, to Thee, blest Three in One.

 

NOTES

1. This portion of the Statement of Faith is based upon the following Scripture texts: Gen. 2:3, Ex. 20:8, Mark 2:28, Col. 2:16-17 / Heb. 4:3-11, Rev. 14:13, 20:4-6 / Rom. 14:5, Col. 2:16 / Mt. 28:1, Mark 16:2, John 20:19, Acts 20:7, Rev. 1:10; Isa. 56:1-5, 58:13-14, 1 Cor. 16:2, Heb. 10:26; Isa. 56:1-5, 58:13-14, Mark 2:27-28, 1 Cor. 11:26. To view the entire Statement, click here.

2. For a thorough introduction to the gifts of the Spirit from a continuationist perspective, see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan, 1994), chapters 52, 53.

3. The exegesis of the texts dealing with women’s verbal participation in the whole-church gathering is highly contested. To read interpretations that I have found convincing, please click here, here, and (especially) here.

4. To read a list of Scripture texts appropriate for the call to worship, please click here.

5. In 1 Corinthians 14:24 we find Paul saying, among other things, “ . . . each one has a psalm.” While the apostle, in making this statement, likely had in mind an individual brother leading out in a psalm or hymn, I find nothing here to preclude the ministry of a chosen worship leader and his musical team, just so long as the psalms they “have” have been prayerfully received from the Lord.

6. To read a short article on the history and practice of Passing the Peace, please click here.

7. This emphasis and place of honor is based on the richness of the meaning of the ordinance. The Lord’s Supper is a memorial, since here the saints are invited to remember and contemplate his substitutionary death in their behalf (Luke 22:9; 1 Cor. 11:24-25); it is a proclamation, since it brings both saints and sinners before the (heart of) the biblical gospel (1 Cor. 11:26; 15:3-8); it is a prophecy, since it looks forward to the Lord’s return and the eternal Marriage Feast of the Lamb (1 Cor. 11:26; Rev. 19:9); and finally, it is also a fresh participation in the body and blood of Christ, in the sense that here the Holy Spirit pours into the expectant souls of believers that spiritual refreshing which is the fruit of the broken body and shed blood of Christ (John 6:56; Acts 3:19; 1 Cor. 10:16). Here, indeed, is a feast of fat things on the LORD’s holy mountain (Ex. 24:9-11; Is. 25:6)! How shall we not come to this table as often as we can?

8. I do not favor pre-written confessions of specific sins, seeing that this practice, which is common in Reformed liturgies, can actually force believers to sin by confessing sins that they have not committed in the week prior, and for which they are not under conviction by the Spirit! Also, I do not believe that leaders (or liturgies) should encourage believers to ask God for forgiveness of sins. This practice tends strongly to undermine their grip on the once-for-all character of their justification. When they trusted in Christ, God forgave them all their sins, once and for all (time). When they trusted in Christ, God also imputed Christ’s perfect righteousness to them, once and for all (time). This is the clear teaching of Scripture (John 5:24; Rom. 5:1; 8:1; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 7:7; 9:12). Therefore, in light of these tremendous truths—so easily forgotten or misunderstood—I believe leaders should train their people simply to confess any specific sin for which they are presently under conviction, resolve with God’s help to forsake it, and then thank him once again for having so graciously forgiven them for it when they trusted in Christ. The Lord’s Day worship service must never undermine the saints’ grip on their justification, but instead do all it can to strengthen it.

9. In the interests of truth and clarity, it may necessary for the elders slightly to modify one or more of the ancient confessions, in order to align it with their best understanding of Scripture and the church’s Statement of Faith.

 

 

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). 

_____________

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.

 

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.

Introductory Note: November 1, 2023:

For many years I have labored in the Word of God, seeking to establish the Lord’s Church in a soundly biblical eschatology. Current events playing out here in the Fall of 2023 confirm the importance our attaining this worthy goal. Otherwise (to paraphrase the apostle) we may be alarmed or suddenly shaken from our presence of mind, whether by a sermon, a blog, or a video, claiming that recent developments in the Middle East signal a pre-tribualtion rapture, or that the Day of the Lord is at hand (2 Thess. 2:1).

Demonstrating the extent to which the evangelical Church remains under the spell of dispensational premillennialism, the present war between Israel and Hamas has triggered a number of sermons on the eschatological significance of “Israel’s Last Battle”, prophetically described in Ezekiel 38-39. The goal of these sermons is to connect that biblical text with supposed fulfillments in the present conflict (e.g., see here).

In the essay below I argue that all such efforts are fundamentally misguided; that they are based upon a literalist hermeneutic that does not abide under the discipline of New Testament theology; that the Spirit’s focus in this text is not on ethnic Israel, but on spiritual Israel, the Church; and that the Last Battle here in view has little or nothing to do with “wars and rumors of wars” in the Middle East, but exclusively with the world-system’s final global assault upon the Church of God, an assault that will swiftly usher in the Second Coming of Christ, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Judgment, and the advent of the World to Come.

Am I therefore saying that the present war in Israel is without eschatological significance? Not at all. For again, it is definitely one of the many wars and rumors of war that herald the coming of the End, though not the imminence of the End (Matt. 24:6-8).

Also, it is not impossible that the current global attack on God’s OT people is, in fact, the last of the many that have bedeviled them down through the centuries; that in the Providence of God this is the one that will lead (multitudes of) them to repentance and faith in Christ, just as Scripture predicts; and if so, that the return of the Lord is indeed at the door, soon to bring with it “life from the dead” for the entire Israel of God and the whole creation (Genesis 45-46; Romans 8, 11; Galatians 6:16). But only time, and the appearance of other important eschatological signs, will tell.

Here, then, is the essay, and my best shot at opening up its deep meaning for God’s latter-day Church. May it help all of God’s eschatological Israel never to give way to fear or be shaken in mind or spirit, but rather to steadfastly occupy until He comes.1

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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 both 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 interpreters. 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). For example, the conspicuous use of figurative language warns against prophetic literalism. But if, in the case before us, the warning is ignored, our text is immediately seen to conflict with other OT prophecies of the Last Battle, entangle us in numerous historical anachronisms, and plunge 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 New Testament (NT) 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 (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43; Col. 1:13). Sandwiched between the two stages of the one Kingdom is the Last Battle: the final global clash between God and Satan, Christ and the Antichrist, and the Church and the World. During this time, though only 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 will come again to rescue his beloved Bride, destroy his enemies, and usher in the eternal Kingdom of the Father (and the Son: Matt. 24:9-28; 2 Thess. 2:3-12; Rev. 11:7-10, 19:17-21, 20:7-10).

These NT mysteries richly illumine large portions of the book of Ezekiel, including our text. In chapters 33-37 Ezekiel prophesied 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, the season during which God the Father will bring eschatological Israel (i.e., the Church, comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles) into the spiritual Kingdom of his Son (Gal. 6:16).

Later, in chapters 40-48, Ezekiel will encourage 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 God’s 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. For since the prophet is clearly foreseeing the redemptive work of God in the last days, the promise is—and is yet to be—fulfilled in Christ, under the New Covenant, in the twofold Kingdom that he has introduced. Here again, however, his words are veiled: cast in ideas and images designed to give hope to God’s captive OT saints.

We conclude, then, that here Ezekiel is actually speaking of eschatological Israel, of God’s elect in all nations, whether Jew or Gentile (Gal. 6:16). Having sinned in Adam—and also by their own evil choices—God has exiled them in the Domain of Darkness, where they have suffered grievously at the hands of their many enemies. But because of his everlasting love for them, he will soon take action. He will set his glory—the Person and Work of his Son—among them, draw them to him, justify them, fill them with his Spirit, and plant them securely—with neither shame nor disgrace—in their heavenly homeland above (Heb. 12:18-24).

And yes, at the end of the age the confederate world system will mount a fierce attack against the holy nation, for God has decreed that they shall follow in the footsteps of their Redeemer (John 15:20; Rev. 11:7–10). But after they have suffered a little while, and after they have been sanctified through their suffering, God will yet again set his glory among the nations, this time at the return of the High King of Heaven and Earth, who will swiftly destroy and dispose of all his enemies, and then establish his people once and for all in their ultimate homeland: the new heavens and the new earth (1 Peter 1:3–9; 2 Peter 3:13).

On that day, all men and all nations will come to know the LORD: the sovereignty, righteousness, justice, power, wrath, love, mercy, grace, goodness, and faithfulness of the one true living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Notes:

1. This essay is extracted from my book on eschatology, entitled, The Great End Time Debate: Issues, Options, and Amillennial Answers (Redemption Press).

We are all homeward bound. But as I near the end of my journey, I sometimes find myself circling back to the beginning, re-reading the great books that set me on my way. Hinds Feet on High Places is one of them. And strange to tell, it is the golden nuggets found in the Preface to the Allegory that shine most brightly in my memory.  For those of you who love the old book, here’s the Preface. I hope you have found, with the author, that ” . . . the High Places and the hinds’ feet do not refer to heavenly places after death, but are meant to be the glorious experience of God’s children here and now—if they will follow the path he chooses for them.” But if you haven’t—or if you haven’t to the degree you had hoped for when you first began the journey—take courage: Just like me, you’re homeward bound.

 

Preface to the Allegory

One morning during the daily Bible reading on our mission compound in Palestine, our little Arab nurse read from Daily Light a quotation from the Song of Songs, “The voice of my Beloved! behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills” (Song of Solomon 2:8). When asked what the verse meant, she looked up with a happy smile of understanding and said, “It means there are no obstacles which our Savior’s love cannot overcome, and that to him, mountains of difficulty are as easy as an asphalt road!”

From the garden at the back of the mission house at the foot of Mount Gerizim we could often watch the gazelles bounding up the mountainside, leaping from rock to rock with extraordinary grace and agility. Their motion was one of the most beautiful examples of exultant and apparently effortless ease in surmounting obstacles which I have ever seen.

How deeply we who love the Lord of Love and desire to follow him long for the power to surmount all difficulties and tests and conflicts in life in the same exultant and triumphant way. To learn the secret of victorious living has been the heart’s desire of those who love the Lord, in every generation.

We feel we would give anything if only we could, in actual experience, live on the High Places of love and victory here on this earth and during this life—able always to react to evil, tribulation, sorrow, pain, and every wrong thing in such a way that they would be overcome and transformed into something to the praise and glory of God forever. As Christians we know, in theory at least, that in the life of a child of God there are no second causes, that even the most unjust and cruel things, as well as all seemingly pointless and undeserved sufferings, have been permitted by God as a glorious opportunity for us to react to them in such a way that our Lord and Savior is able to produce in us, little by little, his own lovely character.

The Song of Songs expresses the desire implanted in every human heart, to be reunited with God himself, and to know perfect and unbroken union with him. He has made us for himself, and our hearts can never know rest and perfect satisfaction until they find it in him.

It is God’s will that some of his children should learn this deep union with himself through the perfect flowering of natural human love in marriage. For others it is equally his will that the same perfect union should be learned through the experience of learning to lay down completely this natural and instinctive desire for marriage and parenthood, and accept the circumstances of life which deny them this experience. This instinct for love, so firmly implanted in the human heart, is the supreme way by which we learn to desire and love God himself above all else.

But the High Places of victory and union with Christ cannot be reached by any mental reckoning of self to be dead to sin, or by seeking to devise some way or discipline by which the will can be crucified. The only way is by learning to accept, day by day, the actual conditions and tests permitted by God, by a continually repeated laying down of our own will and acceptance of his as it is presented to us in the form of the people with whom we have to live and work, and in the things which happen to us. Every acceptance of his will becomes an altar of sacrifice, and every such surrender and abandonment of ourselves to his will is a means of furthering us on the way to the High Places to which he desires to bring every child of his while they are still living on earth.

The lessons of accepting and triumphing over evil, of becoming acquainted with grief, and pain, and ultimately, of finding them transformed into something incomparably precious; of learning through constant glad surrender to know the Lord of Love himself in a new way and to experience unbroken union with him—these are the lessons of the allegory in this book. The High Places and the hinds’ feet do not refer to heavenly places after death, but are meant to be the glorious experience of God’s children here and now—if they will follow the path he chooses for them.

Perhaps the Lord will use it to speak comfort to some of his loved ones who are finding themselves forced to keep company with Sorrow and Suffering, or who walk in darkness and have no light or feel themselves tossed with tempest and not comforted. It may help them to understand a new meaning in what is happening, for the experiences through which they are passing are all part of the wonderful process by which the Lord is making real in their lives the same experience which made David and Habakkuk cry out exultantly, “The Lord God maketh my feet like hinds’ feet, and setteth me upon mine High Places” (Ps. 18:33 and Hab. 3:19).

–Hannah Hurnard