May 2, 2021
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts around 19:00 in the audio file.
Series: Just Conquer #56
Many years ago at a Shepherds’ Conference I heard John MacArthur describe the work of John Calvin in a way that planted a mental seed which still bears fruit every week as I study the Bible. John Calvin wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion fairly early in his life (27 years old). He continued to revise it, editing and adding, for the next two decades until his death. His work explained the theology that the Reformers believed, and were willing to die for. By the time Calvin’s earthly ministry was finished, he had also published verse-by-verse commentaries for almost every book of the Bible. MacArthur commented something to the effect that Calvin dragged his theology through text after text of Scripture which sharpened his theology and kept it driven by the Word.
At a different level, we all have some sort of “theology” when we come to read whatever book we pick up, including the Bible. With the Bible, though, we want to constantly, intentionally, submit ourselves to it. We don’t need to claim that we come without any assumptions, but we must be willing to have our assumptions challenged, if not rebuked and corrected, depending on what we read. It is a process, and that’s good. God’s revelation was progressive, so is our understanding of it.
One reason I wanted to preach through the Apocalypse is because I wanted to drag my own notions of eschatology through every seal, trumpet, and bowl. It’s true, I also wanted to drag you all (and your theological assumptions) along together. Being honest with our assumptions is tough, and it is even tougher to willingly barrage those assumptions with questions to see what still stands. Preaching through Revelation has been the most difficult series for me, not necessarily because of the apostle John’s visions, but because of trying to consider some of the interpretations of those visions by those with a different approach.
This can be done charitably, not building figurative bunkers about eschatology. Some of my closest friends are wrong.
It’s also been difficult because eschatology seems to be one of the most dualistic doctrines by default. What I mean is, the way I’ve heard Revelation talked about is more for bunker-builders than bold conquerors. If the world is going to hell in a handbasket, as is often talked about, then we should hunker down until the rapture. But I wanted to drag my Kuyperianism through these chapters to see what would come out.
As we like to say, we are Reformed and still reading Revelation (ha!). No, we’re “Reformed and still reforming,” which includes reading the verses in Revelation for themselves, which promise blessing (Revelation 1:3), rather than assuming what they can’t mean because of our “theology.” Also, for what it’s worth, John Calvin never wrote a commentary on Revelation. Who knows what might have happened if it had been otherwise.
We’ve looked at the first two paragraphs in Revelation 20, paragraphs that repeatedly refer to the “thousand years.” Satan is bound for a thousand years (verses 1-3), some group of people are resurrected and are said to reign for a thousand years (verses 4-6). After the thousand years, Satan is released for a little while and then is finally defeated (verses 7-10). I have mentioned some of the categories, but have tried to drag us through the verses first.
If the eschatology of Revelation were a vision chart, and Jesus is the big “E” on the top line, we have some among us who’ve never looked closely at any of the lines below, and others who are arguing over the fine print of copyright information. And great. Today I want to get a higher perspective with some of the theological categories, show how they are understood to fit in Revelation (and a “thousand” millennial misunderstandings, which shows that I realize a “thousand” can be figurative), and then finish with some of my pastoral burden for why it matters.
Perhaps you’ve heard this before, I don’t know who first said it, that the Millennial Kingdom is 1,000 years of peace that Christians like to fight about.
The millennium refers to a thousand. I don’t have exact figures, but whole denominations defend that a thousand means a thousand and other denominations say that thinking that a thousand means a thousand is indefensible.
At the beginning of our study in Revelation I gave four approaches to the book: Preterist, Historicist, Idealist, and Futurist. These do not directly map onto the three main explanations of the millennium, but they are often related close. Usually the Historicist and the Idealist think 1,000 is symbolic, and the Preterist must think it’s symbolic since we’re in the millennium now. I don’t know if there is any benefit to being a Futurist who isn’t Premillennial, but, for example, Abraham Kuyper is a Futurist A-millennialist.
What’s different about each of these millers? Is it okay to be any one of them?
A Postmillennialist typically believes that the thousand years is symbolic of a long time, perhaps thousands of years. For example, Doug Wilson, who is probably the most well-known Postmillennialst in our group, teaches that the “thousand years” is the time between Christ’s first coming and His second coming. When considering Revelation 20, the dragon is bound now, and Christ’s second coming is post/after the thousand years. The “first resurrection” is spiritual life, and the reigning with Christ includes political and cultural gospel-progress and success. Some Postmillennials think that a “golden age” of the kingdom, where the gospel has more widespread acceptance, is still to come, and they call that time the millennium. But it’s still not a 999+1 years, and it still happens before Christ returns.
There are good things for the Post-Millers, especially in their emphasis on the power of the gospel and the Lordship of Christ over all things, along with obeying Christ as Lord with a generational mindset.
An Amillennialist typically believes that the thousand years is symbolic of a long time, and is currently in effect as well, both with great blessings and great trials. (Kuyper is odd, believing that the “thousand” is still future, but that it may only be a few days.) The emphasis for an Amillennial is that Christ is currently reigning (with all authority, Matthew 28:18), seated at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 8:1; 12:2), and that both gospel fruit and wicked rebellion will increase until some point in the future when God ushers in the eternal kingdom. There will be no “thousand years” before the new heavens and the new earth. All those who have died in Christ are reigning with Christ, we who are still alive on earth and those who have died with Him in the heavenly places.
There are good things from the A-Millers, especially in their emphasis on the authority of Christ and the need for faithfulness to Christ amidst suffering.
A Premillennialist typically thinks that the thousand years is not a figure for a long time, but that “thousand” is the shorter way to say ten centuries or one-hundred decades. A Pre-Miller understands the Rider on the white horse to come and defeat the kings of earth and then establish His reign on earth. They take chapters 19 and 20 consecutively, battle on earth then kingdom on earth then a final battle on earth then the new heavens and new earth. At the beginning of this thousand years, believers will be resurrected with their glorified bodies and will participate in the reign on earth.
There are (at least) two subsets of Premillennialism: Historic and Dispensational.
Historic Premillennialism holds that the thousand years is future, not symbolic, and that the focus of Christ’s reign will be the church. Most likely the church will go through the Tribulation, and then the church will be the primary vehicle or institution through which Christ reigns during the millennium. Many of the early church fathers were Premillennialists of this type, including Augustine, until he turned toward Amillennialism and the church followed him in that for a thousand (and more) years.
Dispensational Premillennialism holds that the thousand years is future, not symbolic, and that the focus of Christ’s reign with be the nation of Israel. Most Dispensationalists think that the church will be raptured before the Tribulation (note that there is no talk about “church” after Revelation 3, though there are Mid-Trib and Post-Tribers, too), and then “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25) and Jesus will reign from the throne of David in the city of David, Jerusalem.
Both Post-Millers and A-Millers share a symbolic take on the “thousand years,” which is because both Post-Millers and A-Millers share a (mostly) symbolic take on the book of Revelation. Both Post-Millers and A-Millers think that Revelation repeats, or “recapitulates,” such that, for example, the battle in 19:17-21 and the battle in 20:7-10 are the same, that the battle is spiritual, and that the millennium is in between (20:1-6) only as a vision, not as an actual kingdom.
Pre-Millers get defensive about overly-sprititualized interpretations (arguing that a “thousand years” is plain), about non-sequential reading of the book (i.e., battle, binding, resurrections and reigning, battle).
As a Dispy Pre-Miller, I believe that it takes less gymnastics to accept it in the order it’s presented and with the more “surface” or “natural” reading, even while acknowledging a high amount of figurative language in John’s visions. And while we all believe that God is faithful to His promises, a Dispy Pre-Miller is distinguished from all of the other categories in terms of God’s love and plan for the nation of Israel.
I also believe in a double-irony (not a literal thousand). The first irony is that a Dispy takes “covenant” more consistently than most capital-C Covenantalists. The second irony is that most Dispies live inconsistently with their own theological consistency.
As for a more consistent hold on the covenant, Dispies maintain that when God said “all Israel will be saved” that God meant Israel, the nation, not a redefined group (see especially Jeremiah 31:31-40). I keep reading about “replacement” theology, where the church replaces Israel. Some want to call it “fulfillment” theology rather than replacement, so they say that the church is the fulfillment of the promises. Others reject the label “replacement” because they say that Old Testament Israel was the church in an earlier stage of God’s redemptive plan, so it’s the same thing, so the New Testament church can’t “replace” it.
But a Dispy says that the gospel is the power of God to salvation for the Jew first, that God’s promises to the nation of Israel that were unconditional and that are unfulfilled must be fulfilled otherwise God’s faithfulness is in question (which is the reason for Romans 9-11). He promised Israel new hearts, land, a rebuilt city, He promised them blessing. He promised them the Messiah in flesh, and the throne will be in Jerusalem.
A number of the visions in Revelation fit with the fulfillment of promises to the nation. The 144k are from the tribes of Israel (7:1-8), distinguished from the “great number from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (7:9). The two witnesses are in Jerusalem (11:1-13). There are some of the “woman,” who is identified as Israel, who are spared from the pursuit of Satan (12:1-6, 13-17). The final battle (20:7-8) is outside of Jerusalem. The fulfillment of God’s “new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31) is upheld and exalted by Dispies.
Dispies have failed badly, however, and ironically, to be Kuyperian.
To the degree that Augustine turned to Amillennialism in the 5th century he also promoted dualism. He blamed his move on bad-apple Pre-Millers. Eusebius and Augustine were repulsed by visions of gratuitous, gluttonous behavior in the thousand years kingdom as apparently taught by some.
But why would glorified, let alone sanctified believers, abuse the good gifts? The Israelites were not too spiritual for Deuteronomic blessings. The kingdom conquerors in Hebrews 11:33 didn’t wish they had been the ones sawn in two, as Hebrews 11:37.
Dispy Pre-Millers have built too many eschatological bunkers, and read our rapture novels. We have been dualists, watching for the figurative rapture helicopter out of the figurative Vietnam of tribulation. We have the principle that God will show His faithfulness through spiritual and material blessings on earth in history, but we often do not live in practice consistently with our principle.
Ironically, the Pre-Millers, who are supposed to not love symbols and spiritualization, have defined themselves out of any material and physical blessings, while still expecting it, reserving it, for Israel. The Post-Millers have taken physical and left out Israel. The A-Millers leave out Israel and physical.
Just as Arminians must reckon with words such as “elect” in the Word, so Christ’s reign is called a “thousand years” no matter how we try to define it. The millennial categories provide alternatives for how to understand the “thousand.”
As for consistent Dispy Pre-Millers, we share the optimism of the power of the gospel with the Post-Millers, we share the concern over the increase of evil on earth with the A-Millers. And a future kingdom of saints reigning with Jesus does not eliminate current responsibilities of the saints for Jesus.
A Kuyperian Dispensationalist magnifies his ministry in order to make the Jews jealous (like Paul described in Romans 11:11, 13-14) with the result that they would turn to Christ. Here is the place and now is the time for us to glorify the Lamb as He blesses us in our succeeding and in our suffering, and we trust that God has ordained to use us in part to turn Israel to her Messiah for when He returns to reign on earth.
By His grace you have turned to the sun and the Son, you have considered your jealous-making ministry in the story of human history on earth, you have been made fat in faith. What grace He has given, and now He promises His powerful grace as you go.
May [you] have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:18-21, ESV)