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David S. Clark -The Message From Patmos: A Postmillennial Commentary on the Book of Revelation (1921) "This early twentieth-century Postmillennial commentary on the Book of Revelation, written by the father of theologian Gordon Clark, offers an easy-to-read alternative to the popular Pre-millennial/Dispensational views of the best-selling Scofield Reference Bible and a multitude of other dissertations on end-time prophecy that litter the shelves of Christian bookstores. "
By David A.J. Seargent MA, Ph.D, FRAS
In times of uncertainty, many seek some way to peek beyond the curtain of the future. Ours is an age of much uncertainty, so it is not surprising that we have seen a rise in interest in "future seeing", whether this be occultist fortune-telling, scientific prognostications concerning the greenhouse effect or whatever is the fashionable fear of the moment, or biblical prophecy. The latter, in many cases, is interpreted as applying specifically to our own day and is interpreted such as to give information about what is supposed soon to befall us.
Typically, these attempts at "future seeing" foretell a time of doom and gloom soon to fall upon the world. There may be a distant horizon of hope, but the immediate future looks bleak!
In the pages that follow, we will look again at the key biblical prophesies and attempt to discern just what they are saying to us. Are they really predicting such a bleak future? Or are they telling us that Christ has already overcome and that the future is safe in Godís hands?
It is my belief that the doomsayers have misread much of biblical prophecy and it is my further contention that their gloomy and defeatist interpretations have resulted in a sapping of spirit of the Christian Church. Unless I am seriously mistaken, the prophesies join with the entire Gospel message in a call, not just to battle but to go out and conquer in the name of Christ until all things are placed under His feet. Christ has won the victory, but much of the Church is cowering in the bomb shelters awaiting the tyranny of Antichrist and the war of Armageddon!
I fear that the prophesies which are actually forthtelling the victory of Christ have been appropriated by spiritual Tokyo Roses who misinform the troops in this spiritual battle by spreading the rumour that the prophesies are actually foretelling the defeat of the body of Christ in this world, the Church. To be sure, the ultimate victory will be Christís, even on the gloomiest interpretation of scriptural prophecy, but even this can become a deception as the inference to the Church is "Wait until He comes again to set up the Kingdom, nothing you can do now can stand against the forces of darkness". But this is clearly a call to inaction! It is a call not to fight, just to hold fast in our bunker until our Commander comes to rescue us. What sort of soldiers would this advice make us?
I believe that Christís command to His Church was clear "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19) and that this will succeed because "surely I am with you always" (28:20) and because "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (28:18). Note, that Jesus said all authority "has been given to me", not "will be given to me at my second coming". It is He who has authority over the world. He has already fought the great determining battle and bound the prince of the powers of darkness. And it is He who continues to fight through His corporate body, the Church, to mop up the remaining shattered and demoralized forces of Satan that remain and to tell the people of earth that they are free at last from the power of sin and death, if only they will believe and acknowledge the rightful King. But if we as a Church are to fulfil our role in this conquest, we must not allow ourselves to be demoralized and led astray by the defeatist propaganda being fed to many truly godly Christians by a desperate enemy.
We must never let down our guard or "liberalize" our doctrinal position or moral convictions under the guise of being made more "acceptable" to the secular world. The secular world is not calling the tune ó Jesus is and it is to Him alone that we must pay heed!
If the world darkens around us with rising crime and immorality, let us not become tempted to follow the fashion but rather let us dedicate ourselves anew to a greater purity; purity of heart, purity of morals, purity of faith and purity of doctrine. Let this be our arsenal. If the light of the world dims, let ours shine ever more brightly that all may be drawn to it, like moths in the blackest of nights, seeking the one brilliant beacon. Let our shining light be our wholehearted commitment to Jesus Christ, the Lord, God, Saviour, Conqueror and Absolute Ruler under God the Father of this world and the next! Amen!
What is the future of the Church?
Are we really living in a post-Christian era in which Christians will become a decreasing minority whose presence and opinions long since cease to be relevant to the wider society?
Many believe this to be so. Perhaps it is not surprising that this opinion is held by non-believers, as in their view the Christian movement is just another crackpot sect, but it is distressing to find such opinions amongst some who would call themselves Christians. This is surely a contradictory position to hold for "Christians"; as, by calling themselves by that title, they are making a claim to acknowledge Christ as the King and Lord of all things, a position totally incompatible with the belief in a fading of the Church. Can Christ the King really lose His Kingdom??
Professing Christians of this kind would probably describe themselves as "liberal". Perhaps "secularized" would be a better term. But a not-very-different attitude is also widespread at the other end of the theological spectrum.
Many fundamentalists hold to a doctrine which effectively sees the Church as defeated in this age. True, they combine this with a belief in a millennial rule of Christ on earth following the Second Coming, but until that time, the situation on earth will just go from bad to worse and the Church will become less and less effective. One popular doctrine even has the Church being taken bodily into Heaven for a period (usually believed to be seven years) while all Hell quite literally breaks loose here on earth.
The view that I am about to suggest makes a radical departure from all such notions. I believe that the Bible teaches that Christ has already overcome death, Satan and the forces of evil and that He already rules as King and Lord from the highest Heaven. True, the victory is not yet total in its practical manifestations, but the great eschatological war has nevertheless been won and what we call "Christian history" is really the mopping up phase. This is being done by Christ the King, through His chosen instrument the Church. All the power required for a complete clean-up of the evil of the world is available through Christ ministered via the Church. It is His own instrument, His own body in this age. He has no other plan for saving the world!
Unfortunately, individual Christians have (by and large) been less than ready to believe this high calling and to wield the spiritual sword that has been given them. This has, in my opinion, been due to false humility (unable to see ourselves as instruments of the Lord), false teaching (such as the defeatist ideas mentioned above) and outright laziness and conformity with secular philosophies that stress the smallness of mankind and deny the existence of the supernatural.
Of course we are small in our own stature. Of course we are weak in our own strength. But that is precisely the point ... we are NOT in our own strength and we do not stand in our own stature. We have the ability to stand in GODís!
God invites us to be made strong with His strength and to let Him fit us for His battle. We may be small and weak, but so was the shepherd boy David, and look what God was able to do with him!
In the following pages, I will argue from the Bible for a belief in the triumph of Christ through the Church. I will argue that many of the biblical passages used to support the view that the Church will face only defeat prior to the Second Coming have been misunderstood out of their original context.
The view which I present is certainly optimistic, but it is not an easy optimism. Christ will, I believe, overcome through the Church, but there will be many battles yet to come as the forces of darkness resist His onward march. Moreover, to be effective as the conquering body of Christ in this age, the Church must face hard examination and must be willing to purge itself of anything that is not fitting it for the great task that has been given to it. If it is to function efficiently as the body of Christ, it must transcend all division and this will require a willingness to give up whatever causes of division its different branches continue to cherish. I am not necessarily talking about institutional union here. What is to be sought is something deeper, something so magnificent that in comparison with which institutional union becomes irrelevant. What is to be sought, found and held on to is nothing less than a union of identity through mutual union with the will of God.
If enough members of the Church truly believe that victory is not merely possible but inevitable, the determination to forge ahead will surely follow, what ever sacrifices may be called for.
It is this spirit of Christ-centred optimism for the future ó the heart-felt conviction that the future belongs to Christ and that the Church is His chosen instrument for determining this future ó that I hope to arouse. There may be things in these pages with which you disagree. You may be correct. I certainly do not claim infallibility (far from it!). But the details are less important than the overall conclusion and it is with this in mind that I ask you to seriously and prayerfully consider the argument presented. Our attitude, as Christians, to the future is important. If we can honestly pray "Your Kingdom come, Your will be done in earth as in Heaven" and really believe it, I have no doubt that the prayer will be answered or, put another way, when the Church can pray this prayer truly believing that God will act, it will be answered!
Interpretations of the Book of Revelation are legion. For some, it represents a prophecy of the turmoil that was about to befall the civilized world in the first century of our era and was essentially a warning to the early Christians to hold fast to the profession of their faith during the times of strife and persecution about to befall them.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have those who view John as little more than a Christian Nostradamus, putting forth mystical prophesies that will only have relevance in some still-to-come future age.
In between these two extremes ó where, happily, most commentators on the book are to be found ó are various schools of interpretation ranging from the partial preterist who sees most of the prophesies as having been fulfilled soon after they were written down, but who still maintains a future fulfilment for some of them, to the partial futurist who, while still looking to the fulfilment of much of the prophecy in ages to come, nevertheless admits to a degree of realized eschatology within the book. In between are the various historicist interpretations who see fulfilment of the prophesies unfolding in history and even in the evening news.
These schools of interpretation are not as distinct as they may at first sight appear, as is evidenced by the number of commentaries on the book which begin by enumerating the traditional interpretations, only to disavow rigid adherence to any of them. Most commentaries are therefore partial preterist/partial historicist/partial futurist, with the real difference between them depending upon which approach is the more prominent.
In the opinion of the present writer, both of the extreme ends of the spectrum can be discounted.
If the hyper-preterist view were correct and everything in the book related simply to the writerís immediate future, it is difficult to understand why the work was retained as part of the canon of scripture. Surely the post-apostolic Church must have recognised some continuing relevance in the book, or it would have dropped out of circulation after the events that it prophesied came to pass!
At the other extreme, the hyper-futurist position fares at least as poorly. We must understand that the book was essentially a letter and, like the other letters preserved in the New Testament canon of scripture, it was written primarily to specific groups for specific purposes. The New Testament letters were real letters, not simply literary devices aimed at the instruction of a general readership. Their continuing relevance is due to the fact that the teaching they contain has application beyond their immediate purpose. By implication, Revelation should be viewed in the same light.
But herein lies the problem with a hyper-futurist interpretation. The Christians to whom the letter was addressed obviously had very real problems and were in need of pastoral advice. Would they really have been interested in receiving a letter wholly concerned with the state of world and Church hundreds or thousands of years in the future?
Related to this is the fact that the author of the letter was not someone seeking esoteric knowledge of the future from a cozy retreat, but a prisoner who had been incarcerated for being a member of a religious movement suspected of holding subversive doctrines. The prophetic message that came to him was unexpected and specifically directed him to record the visions in a letter and direct it to various Churches located at specific places. The visions contained specific messages directed to the "angels" of these Churches who were then to pass them on (presumably read them to) the congregations concerned. The "angels" were presumably human messengers as John is unlikely to have written to supernatural beings! Some commentators have understood the "angels of the Churches" as referring to the bishops or overseers of these various assemblies, but the force of "angel" (i.e. "messenger") probably implies that these were representatives of the Churches who had access (not necessarily direct) to John in his prison and who could be relied upon to carry copies of the letter to their home Churches.
In the present writerís opinion, this implies an urgency about the distribution of the letter. In a time of persecution, it must also have involved a certain risk both for the author and the messenger. The symbolism of the visions may have been dismissed as mystical nonsense by a Roman soldier into whose hands the letter could have fallen, but the symbolic picture of Rome as a harlot seated on seven hills in Chapter 17, would probably have been sufficiently transparent for the true nature of the "harlot" to be recognised (Rome was known as the city of the seven hills) and the subsequent description of what happened to the "harlot" in Chapter 18 would have been enough for a charge of treason against the author, the messenger, and probably the entire Christian Church! Such risk hardly seems warranted for a book of visions of a remote future. Better to secretly bury the manuscript in an earthenware jar where people of a future age could find it! However, nothing in scripture resembles such an esoteric document; certainly not the Book of Revelation!
Actually, although this difficulty is most obvious for the hyper-futurist, it is also encountered to a greater or lesser degree by more moderate futurists and even by those who take an historicist view of the book. In short, anyone who sees the greater part of the prophecy as predicting events after the close of the first century (that is to say, any interpretation that sees the prophesied events occurring after the expected lifespan of the bookís first readers) must answer the question as to why such prophesies were required to be distributed to a Church with enough problems in its own day. What would be the point in worrying about events in the more or less distant future, when the events of oneís own day were so serious (Matt.6:34)?
This does not, however, lead us into the opposite difficulties of a hyper-preterist interpretation. Even if it should prove true that all of the specific prophesies found in the book had their fulfilment during the first Christian century, there may still be an extended sense in which the prophesies are fulfilled to a greater or less degree throughout history and in which the book thereby remains relevant to every age and place. Although not taking such a strongly preterist position as this would imply, Bishop Paul Barnett interprets the continuing relevance of the book of Revelation in a similar manner and sees the prophesies as being in most instances non-specific, i.e. as relating not so much to specific events (whether in the first or twenty first centuries) as to general principles, working within history, that find a certain fulfilment in just about every generation. For instance, although (in Barnettís interpretation) the Beast would have been interpreted by John and his initial readers as Caesar Domitian, it could just as truly have referred to Hitler for a German Christian living in the late 1930s or to Lenin for the Russian Church circa 1920.
Barnett did, however, understand certain specific aspects of the prophesies as relating to historical events either in the first century (e.g. the situation during the reign of Domitian) or in later history (he interpreted Rev. 17:16, 18 as being a prophecy of the fall of the Roman Empire). He also held to the usual interpretation of the Last Judgment and Consummation as being a specific event that is still to come.
This interpretation also avoids the difficulty of the immediate relevance of the book. Not all of the prophesies need to be fulfilled within the lives of Johnís first readers for the book to be of vital relevance to them. If immediate difficulties were prophesied and endurance encouraged, the book would be of great relevance. If some events of the more distant future were also prophesied, this of itself would not make the book less relevant in the short term. Indeed, a reminder of the eventual Consummation (how ever remote in time that might be) could only encourage believers as they faced persecution in the present and the prediction of the fall of the persecuting Roman Empire (assuming, for the moment, that Barnettís interpretation of Rev.17:16 - 18:24 is correct) would also give encouragement to those suffering under its tyranny.
Part of the problem of correctly interpreting the book concerns the date at which it was written. A widespread view holds the book to have been written in the 90ís, during the reign of the tyrannical emperor Domitian. This is a position held by many from the earliest days, and appears to rest upon a statement by Irenaeus in his work Against Heresies. This work has not been preserved in Greek, but has survived in Latin and the relevant passages were cited by the early Church historian Eusebius. The English translation says " We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitianís reign."
The question raised by some scholars, however, is whether the word translated as "that" in the final sentence refers to the vision (as many assume) or to the visionary himself, John, who is known to have lived well into the reign of Domitian. K. L. Gentry, for instance, cites an interpretation of this passage by F. E. Chase viz., "Had it been needful that the explanation of the name should be proclaimed to the men of our own day, that explanation would have been given by the author of the Book. For the author was seen on earth, he lived and held converse with his disciples, not so very long ago, but almost in our own generation. Thus, on the one hand, he lived years after he wrote the Book, and there was abundant opportunity for him to expound the riddle, had he wished to do so; and, on the other hand, since he lived on almost into our generation, the explanation, had he given it, must have been preserved to us."
Although far from definitive, this expansion of Irenaeusí passage is certainly a possible interpretation.
More interesting, perhaps, are Irenaeusí references to "ancient copies" of Revelation, an expression which does not square with a time of authorship "almost in our generation".
Other early evidence for the date of composition of revelation is to be found in the writings of another early Church Father, Clement of Alexandria (150 - 215). Clement stated that "When after the death of the tyrant [the apostle John] removed from the island off Patmos to Ephesus, he used to journey by request to the neighbouring districts of the Gentiles, in some places to appoint bishops, in others to regulate whole Churches, in others to set among the clergy some one man, it may be, of those indicated by the Spirit." This would have been an active career for a man in his nineties, but the main question raised here is the identity of the one to whom Clement refers as "the tyrant". Was it Domitian, or was it Nero?
While there can be no doubt that the description would have applied to Domitian, it was Nero who was regarded as the quintessential tyrant at that time. Sometimes he was simply referred to as "Tyrant", as if by a proper name. Reference to "the tyrant" would therefore most probably have been read by contemporaries as reference to Nero.
Clement adds two other pieces of information which would seem to support an early date for Revelation.
First, he relates an incident concerning John pursuing a young apostate on horseback, sometime after his release from Patmos. If his imprisonment there had really taken place during the reign of Domitian, he would have been over ninety years old when the related incident took place. Although not impossible, we must admit that this is unlikely.
The second piece of evidence relates to a statement in Clementís Miscellanies in which he stated that the teaching of the Apostles ended with (i.e. in the time of) Nero. There is no doubt that Clement considered the apostle John to have been the author of Revelation and, in view of his statement that the apostolic writings ceased during the reign of Nero, it would seem to be an inevitable conclusion that Clement thought that this book was composed before Neroís reign had ended.
Further support for a Neronic date is the fact that it is difficult to associate the prophecy of widespread persecution with events of Domitianís reign. Certainly, tradition sees him as a persecutor of Christians, but it seems that most of the supposed evidence for this comes from the Book of Revelation, supposing this to have been written during Domitianís reign! As this is the very point at issue, it is worthless.
Apart from this, the only evidence appears to depend upon records of the executions of Titus Flavius Clemens (a first cousin of Domitian), his associate Manius Acilius Glabrio and the banishment of Flavius Clemensí wife, Flavia Domitilla, all on charges of "atheism". Presumably this "atheism" amounted to the refusal of these people to worship the official gods and, by implication, their denial that Domitian himself was one of the gods. We can be virtually certain that Domitilla was a Christian and both her husband and (especially) Glabrio were widely believed by early historians to have been Christians as well. Nevertheless, their arrests and subsequent sentences seem more in line with the paranoid emperorís elimination of family and close associates who, for one reason or another, were perceived as being possible threats, than evidence of any concerted campaign against Christians of the type earlier instigated by Nero.
Gentry, R. C. Sproul and many others who accept a Neronic date for the writing of Revelation, see it primarily as a prophecy of the events of the immediate future. This does not commit one to a totally preterist view of the entire book, but it does tend to see the main focus of the book in the events that took place in the "Last Days" i.e. the period from the Ascension of our Lord in AD 30 until the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.
Arguably the most thorough development of this line of thinking is presented by Rev. David Chilton in his exhaustive commentary on Revelation, Days of Vengeance. Realizing how inadequate any summary of a position as extensively and minutely argued as Chiltonís must be, the author himself mercifully provides us with a skeletal overview of the main themes and symbolism of Revelation, which will be worthwhile repeating here.
Much of the Book of Revelation is concerned with a series of divine judgments symbolized in terms of seven seals, seven trumpets and seven chalices. Questions about these judgments abound. Are they really the same judgments described under differing symbolism? Do they refer to specific judgments at some time in history (First Century? A time still to come?) or are they experienced throughout the whole of human history? Are they intended for the entire human race or for the apostate Jewish people?
Chilton argues that they refer to the increasingly severe judgment on the Jewish nation during the Last Days. The "Last Days", as already mentioned, constituted the final decades in the life of the Jewish state. This period began when Christ ascended to take up His rightful rule in the heavenly places in AD 30 and ended with the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, the cornerstone of Jewish worship under the Old Covenant, in AD 70. Following the Templeís destruction and the razing of Jerusalem to the ground, the instrument of divine revelation became the Christian Church, the New Temple not made with human hands and the New Jerusalem which came down from heaven, i.e. which was a divine creation, not a human one.
According to Chiltonís interpretation, the Seven Seals set forth the period of the Last Days (in the sense being used here) in general. The Seven Trumpets sound the warning of the Tribulation, which Chilton understands as being the period up to the first siege of Jerusalem under Cestius. The Seven Chalices revealed the final outpouring of Godí wrath upon Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 67 - 70. One may note the intensification of the judgments from the Seal stage to the Chalice stage and the chances given for the nation to repent before final judgment became inevitable.
The meaning of the main symbols used throughout the Book of Revelation may be summarised as follows;
the seven-sealed Book is the New Covenant, which Christ obtained at His Ascension and "opened" during the Last Days, climaxing in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
The "Little Book" which explains the seven-sealed Book is Revelation itself.
The 144,000 represents the believing (i.e. Christian) Jews of the First Century, symbolically represented as twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.
The Great Multitude represents the redeemed from every nation.
The Two Witnesses symbolize the faithful Church of the Old Covenant, exemplified par excellence by Moses (the Law) and Elijah (the Prophets) and culminating in John the Baptist.
The woman clothed with the sun is faithful Israel, the mother of Christ, exemplified most specifically by the Virgin Mary.
The Beast from the Sea symbolizes the Roman Empire and its embodiment in Nero (Barnett speculates that the symbol may have been influenced by the boats carrying the Emperorís officials, complete with figure-head and multiple oars, arriving in the harbour of Ephesus like some alien-headed, multi-legged monster from the deep).
The Beast from the Land represents Israelís apostate religious leadership. Chilton equates this with the False Prophet and also with the earlier references to the "Synagogue of Satan", "Baalamites", "Jezebel" and "Nicolaitans". He regarded all of these terms as being references to the occultist, gnostic and statist form of apostate Judaism which had captured the minds of the religious hierarchy of Israel.
The Image of the Beast represented the apostate Jewish synagogue.
Babylon or the Harlot City, he understood to refer to Jerusalem. In this, he agreed with Warfield but went against most commentators who saw these terms as referring to Roman. We will return to this in due course.
The New Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ, is the Church, contrasting strongly with the old Jerusalem that had become a harlot.
The marriage supper of the Lamb, Chilton understood as symbolizing Holy Communion.
Following the marriage feast, the Church, the Bride of Christ, follows her Husband who, as the Word of God, goes out and conquers all nations by means of the Gospel, the sword of His mouth with which He slays fallen manís enmity against God. This conversion of the nations is, according to Chilton, the real meaning of the symbolism of Armageddon. The "war" is a spiritual and symbolic, not an actual, one. Moreover, it is not fought between the nations, but as an alliance of the nations against Christ. The gathering of the nations to battle against Christ is a symbolic way of picturing the resistance of the nations to the rule of Christ over them. They gather for war and yet, as Barnett stresses, no war eventuates. They are conquered, not by a superior army, but by Christ Himself with the sword of His mouth; the Sword that is the Word of God.
The binding of Satan, according to Chilton, took place at the First Advent of Christ. It is this binding that prevents him from gathering the nations into the eschatological war of Gog and Magog, which is really the final rebellious act of unredeemed humanity that brings down the final judgment of God.
The Millennium is the period during which Christ reigns, beginning at His Resurrection/Ascension and continuing until the end of the present age. It is during this period that His reign will by degrees extend throughout the world and during which all things will be placed under His authority.
The New Heaven and New Earth is a picture of salvation. This is brought in definitively by the finished work of Christ, developing progressively throughout the present age (i.e. the Millennial age) and finally revealed in all its glorious fullness at the Consummation of all things (pp. 582 - 3).
Chilton stresses that the rule of Christ cannot be properly understood apart from the original Dominion Mandate, i.e. the task assigned by God to Adam to exercise dominion, under God, over the creation. This will be fulfilled by the triumph of the Gospel throughout the world and it is the task of the Church to bring this about, under the Lordship of Christ, during this present Millennial age. Christians are ruling now with Christ in His Kingdom. His Kingdom has already begun and this Kingdom ó Christianity or the Church ó is destined to take over all the kingdoms of the earth (p. 587). God has given His people a "covenant grant" to take possession and to exercise dominion (always in submission to God of course) over His creation.
It could be said that, for Chilton, we do not need to await the Millennium. We only have to live it. It is here now, but it will become progressively realized or actualized as more and more people submit to the Lordship of Jesus and as those who have already submitted yield increasingly to His will.
In Chiltonís interpretation, most of the prophesies of Revelation were fulfilled by the end of AD 70. Most, but not all. The Millennial rule of Christ had only just begun and will continue until Christís rule becomes universal, continuing into an indefinite future. The thousand years is, of course, purely symbolic on this interpretation. After all, two thousand years have already elapsed and the world has still not been converted. In Chiltonís opinion, this may take thousands of years, followed by thousands more of a Christianized world in which the whole of society, national and international, will acknowledge the rule of Christ.
Even then, however, not every individual within that Christianized society will be a committed Christian, but they will not openly rebel while ever Satan remains bound from "deceiving the nations". This situation will remain until the end of the Millennial period when Satan is to be released "for a short time" (Rev. 20:3). Then the rebels will come out of hiding and gather to attack the people of God, but instead of a war, Godís judgment will fall on them and they will be destroyed. This is the meaning of the Gog and Magog symbolism. The original Gog/Magog battle as prophesied by Ezekiel had many different features from the final battle as prophesied by John, and it seems best to understand Ezekielís prophecy as referring to an earlier event and not the final judgment of the intransigently rebellious that was prophesied by John. Chilton sees the original Ezekiel prophecy as referring to the Maccabeesí defeat of the Syrians (p. 520) and that Johnís prophecy of the end-time battle employs the symbolism of the earlier one adapted to his own purposes. We may note, however, that John "spiritualizes" the symbolism. Thus, whereas Ezekiel foretells the armies being led by a human king ("Gog") and doing battle with human armies, John foresees the final onslaught being both inspired and led by Satan himself and defeated, not in battle, but by "fire from heaven" (Rev.20:9) i.e. by the direct judgment of God Himself. Indeed, in Johnís prophecy there is no battle at all, only a presumptuous deception that Godís Church can be conquered by human attack, followed by Godís intervention and judgment.
Unlike most premillennialists, i.e. those who believe that the Millennial period will commence after the Second Coming of Christ, Chilton does not believe that the resurrected righteous dead will rule physically on earth at any time during the Millennial age. In this he is in total agreement with Barnett and S. H. Travis and virtually everyone who takes an amillennialist or postmillennialist viewpoint. He understands the First Resurrection to be the resurrection which we share with Christ and which is appropriated by us in conversion and symbolized in our baptism. Christís resurrection is the definitive resurrection (p. 517 - 518). Those who participate in the Resurrection of Christ reign with Him already in the heavenly places and will continue to reign with Him throughout this Millennial age.
Most prophesies contained within the Book of Revelation were, as we have said, fulfilled by the end of the year AD 70. If Chilton is correct, practically all of the specific prophesies have already been fulfilled long ago. What remains for a more distant future are generally less detailed and mentioned only briefly. Gog/Magog and the Final Judgment, we have already mentioned. Chilton also sees hints of the future in the vision of the Eighth King of Chapter Seventeen. In the person of the Eighth King, the Beast (Roman Empire) was effectively resurrected, a prophecy in which Chilton sees the strong hint of further kings following the Eighth and future troubles beyond those prophesied in the Book of Revelation (pp. 436 - 437).
He also discerns reference to the distant future in the sealing up of the voices of the Seven Thunders (pp. 262 - 263). The "Thunders", Chilton argues, represent nothing less than the Voice of God itself (Psalm 29) and announce the final Judgment and the Consummation of all things. John was given this vision of the far distant future, or maybe of the whole of history culminating in the Great Consummation, but the vision was for himself only. It did not concern his immediate readers who were facing far more immanent problems about which Revelation was more urgently concerned.
The great future vision of the Consummation is the culmination of Revelation and, indeed, of the entire Bible. In one sense, the final Chapter of Revelation brings us back to the opening chapters of Genesis, but, Chilton stresses, the final vision of the Book of Revelation is not simply that of a restored paradise. It is of a consummated paradise (p. 567) relating to the paradise of Genesis as a fully flowering plant relates to a seed planted in the ground. The vision is not simply of a garden growing a single Tree of Life, but of a flourishing and fantastically beautiful City encompassing a veritable forest of Trees of Life, lining each side of the River of Life which flows through the midst of the City. The prophecy of John assures us that what will be restored (what is, indeed, actively being restored even now) is much more than what was lost in the Fall. Seen in this light, the stormy times prophesied in the Book and the hint of other troubles to be faced by the Church even after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, take on their proper perspective.
If seen in the light of the events of AD 69 - 70, the Book of Revelation becomes a lot clearer than many other interpretations. The tendency to read it as a sort of futuristic message written in code vanishes and in its place we find something far more in harmony with the other letters of the New Testament. And that is just what the Book is; a letter, like those of Paul and the other letters of John. It is, in reality "The Fourth Letter of John" and like the other letters of John, and of Paul and of Peter, Jude, James and whoever wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, was written to a specific group of people in order to address certain crises that had arisen within that group and/or to warn of certain external troubles about to be faced by that group. In that sense, all the New Testament letters, including the Book of Revelation, were contemporary in their focus, but they have also been relevant to subsequent generations and remain so today, because the advice and warnings that were given to their authorsí contemporaries are based upon eternal principles which apply at any date and in every age. The main difference between the Book of Revelation and the other New Testament letters is the degree of symbolic language in Revelation. Symbolic language is found in other New Testament letters too, especially when relating to the consummation of all things (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 - 18, 2 Peter 3), but the difference with Johnís fourth letter is that there symbolic language dominates.
This interpretation of the Book of Revelation has several implications as to how we should think about the future of world and Church. In general, premillennialism is what Chilton and others call "pessimillennialism". That is to say, it virtually necessitates the view that human society will go from bad to worse and that the Church will become an increasingly persecuted minority movement having no positive influence upon wider society. The Second Coming of Christ (which, remember, inaugurates the Millennial era according to this eschatological viewpoint) is seen as a "rescue mission", as Christ returning to a world which is going out of control and to a humanity hell-bent (literally!) on destroying itself if He does not quickly intervene. The Second Coming is, from the premillennialist point of view, very much the case of Christ pulling mankind out of the fire before it is totally consumed.
Although it may be supposed that the fact of the fallen nature of humankind supports such a pessimistic viewpoint, surely the redeeming act of Jesus Christ does not. Premillennialism does indeed provide a corrective against an easy humanist progressivism (if, after reviewing the Twentieth Century, such a thing exists any more!) and it does emphasise the genuine hopelessness of any attempt by fallen man to attain an harmonious state on earth or to facilitate his own salvation, how ever that may be interpreted. But it over corrects, I would argue, in so far as it reduces the mission of the Church - which is the mission of Christ Himself, let us never forget - to a failed utopian enterprise together with all other political or religious movements that promise a better world. At least, it sees the Church as a failure until Christ comes back to bring in His Kingdom.
However, surely the "rescue mission" of Christ was at Calvary! It was there that he intervened decisively to save mankind from a hopeless future and from spiritual death. It was at Calvary that Christ fought and finally defeated the powers of darkness and reclaimed the Kingdom on whose throne He regained at His Ascension. This is what Barnett means when he says that the battle of Armageddon was won on the Cross at Calvary, for it was there that the final battle between good and evil, God and Satan, really took place. We must remember that Jesus, as a descendent of King David, was in reality the royal prince of Israel. Even as Herod sat on the throne, Jesus was the rightful heir of David and the one who should have been occupying the royal palace (more will be said about this later). This was why He was so feared by the Herodic dynasty; the Herods saw in Him an entirely legitimate challenge to their rule. At His Ascension, His true throne was reclaimed, not as a political position ruling over the physical nation of Israel, but over the New Israel, the New Jerusalem, the spiritual nation consisting of redeemed persons from both the old Israel and the Gentile nations. All, in other words, who recognised and submitted to His rule. This is the heavenly Kingdom which came to earth with power on the day of Pentecost and has been growing ever since. It is the City which has been given dominion over the earth and into which the nations will come (Rev. 21:24). This is a supernatural nation distributed across the face of the earth. It is empowered with the Holy Spirit and has been given the mission of being the corporate body of Christ Himself; the means through which Christ continues to be present to humanity at large. As such, it cannot be defeated!
In defence of the premillennialists, it must be said that many believe that the Church will be purified during the unprecedented time of tribulation which, they believe, will immediately precede Christís Second Coming. Some even believe that many will be won to Christ by the purified Church just prior to the Second Coming. Nevertheless, the role of the Church as the Holy Spirit filled and empowered corporate body of Christ, through which Christ rules and which has the divine mandate to go out and win the nations, is ultimately a failed one for the premillennialist.
The amillennialist holds a similar point of view, except that he believes the Second Coming of Christ to be synonymous with the Last Judgment and final Consummation of all things and to introduce, not a temporal millennial period, but the eternal state. Strictly speaking, the amillennialist does not really reject the millennium (as the prefix "a", literally understood, means) but in a manner of speaking "de-mythologises" it such that the biblical descriptions of the conditions of life during this period are not to be taken literally. Thus, descriptions of the peaceful kingdom are deliteralized to mean peace in the hearts of believers and to harmony between true followers of Christ. If an amillennialist accepts the Bible as Godís written Word, he must accept the Millennium as a clear (though minor) biblical teaching, albeit one that should not be taken too literally in his opinion. Rather than call such a position amillennialism, it would be more accurate to call it realized millennialism. In practice, the dividing line between this position and postmillennialism is not always clearly defined. Indeed, any eschatological doctrine which understands the Millennium (how ever this be understood in detail) as preceding the Second Coming is be definition a postmillennialist doctrine. Any form of postmillennialist doctrine which rejects the notion of a victorious Church at some time during the Millennium agrees with premillennialism in being "pessimillennialistic", in Chiltonís sense. In spite of the large differences between these positions, they are nevertheless in agreement that the Church will not succeed in winning the nations, that Christís "rescue" of fallen mankind was not completed at Calvary and will require the Second Coming, either to usher in a Millennial reign or the Eternal State.
There is another form of postmillennialism which Chilton terms "optimillennialism" and which differs from the above in that it understands the Church to be the instrument through which Christ exercises His rule and by which God will eventually place everything under the feet of Christ. As sometimes expounded, this position understands the Millennium to begin when the gospel has become victorious and to extend for an indefinite period (not normally interpreted as a literal thousand years) until the Second Coming of Christ at Judgment. The problem with starting the Millennium at the point of gospel victory, however, tends to eclipse the fact that the victory was won at Calvary by Jesus alone and that He has already come into His Kingdom and rules now in the heavenly places. This doctrine must be the pivotal point of any eschatology and a postmillennialist who loses sight of it is in danger of coming to place his faith more in the success of missionary and evangelistic outreach than in the already-completed sacrifice of Christ. If we take our eyes of the Cross, we may allow optimillennialism to drift into optimistic humanist progressivism, albeit in a very "Christian" garb!
Nevertheless, I would argue that this position comes closer to biblical teaching than the others mentioned here. The one major modification, theological rather than practical, is to understand the Millennial era as beginning, not with the conversion of the nations but at the moment that Christ ascended back to Heaven to take His seat at the right hand of the Father. This would appear to be Chiltonís position. Like the so-called amillennialist doctrine, it is a realized postmillennialism but unlike "amillennialism" it is one in which the rule of Christ, already present right from the start of the Millennial period, will become progressively apparent until all the nations yield to Christ as Lord. If one wished to give this position a distinguishing name, perhaps "progressively realized millennialism" would be appropriate, although this may obscure the fact that the millennium was not actually realized progressively at all, but quite suddenly at the time of Christís victory. Perhaps "progressively apparent millennialism" would be better.
This seems to me to best agree with biblical teaching on the subject of the earthly Kingdom of God. It agrees with Danielís symbol of the rock not cut by human hands which grows to become a mountain filling the whole earth. It agrees with Zechariahís vision of the Day of the Lord (Zech. 14:6-7); a day that was neither completely dark nor completely light throughout much of its duration, but which became bright as evening approached, just when one would expect a normal day to be darkening. According to Collins, the "day" referred to in this passage is the gospel epoch, what we have identified with the Millennial era. That it has known periods of both relative light and relative darkness warns us that even though the growth of the Kingdom is progressive, it has not been without its dark periods and setbacks. "Progressive growth" is not necessarily the same as continuous growth.
Most references to the growth of the Kingdom, like the two Old Testament ones just cited, are framed in symbolic language. Interpretation is not always straightforward. Nevertheless, there is a passage in the New Testament which is almost free of symbolism and which is therefore of the greatest value in forming the clearest possible idea of the nature of the Millennial rule of Christ. I would argue that this passage should be seen as the primary one against which the more symbolic ones should be interpreted. The passage to which I am referring is 1 Corinthians 15:22-28. Speaking about the resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of His followers (something about which some at Corinth apparently had doubts or maybe interpreted in a "spiritual" way), Paul writes,
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must rule until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he "has put everything under his feet." Now when it says that "everything" has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all."
This passage should be examined carefully, as it is capable of several interpretations. Indeed, it is easy to read this passage in the light of an eschatological doctrine already derived from some of the more symbolic passages of, say, the Book of Revelation. But this goes against the rule that obscure passages of Scripture should be interpreted in the light of clearer ones, not vice versa.
Taking the first two sentences, Paul appears to be saying quite plainly that Christ will rise first (this refers to the Resurrection on Easter morning, of course) then those who belong to Him at His Second Coming. Then, says Paul, the end will come; the end, that is to say, of unredeemed human history. Christ will hand the Kingdom over to the Father after He (Christ) "has destroyed all dominion, authority and power". After He has, that is to say, prepared the Kingdom to be ready to hand over to the Father. This destruction of all that is contrary to Godís rule will be accomplished during the reign of Christ and this is the reason why He must "rule until he has put all his enemies under his feet."
The problem of interpretation here is to determine the time when this conquering rule will be. Many see it as being after the Second Coming, i.e. between the time when Christ returns and "the end". However, there are strong reasons against this interpretation.
First, Paul clearly states that when Christ returns and the Christian dead rise, "Then the end will come". This does not appear to leave any time for an earthly rule of Christ during which His enemies are progressively conquered (and the fact that Paul mentions a "rule until he has put all enemies under his feet" and a "last enemy" to be conquered indicates that this is a progressive process, not something that is immediately accomplished at the Second Coming).
The most telling statement, for the present writer at least, concerns the fact that the rule of Christ will continue until the last enemy, which is death, is put beneath His feet. Paul seems to be equating the resurrection of Christís followers and the conquest of death. That death is called the "last enemy" can only mean that all other enemies will be conquered before it, but if these other enemies, collectively named as "dominion, authority and power" are indeed conquered before death is conquered and if all of these are conquered during the rule of Christ, then we can only conclude that the complete conquest of death comes at the end of Christís rule. It is then, at the end of His rule, that He returns and the Christian dead rise. The conquering rule of Christ must, therefore, precede His Second Advent. Paul would appear to be picturing the Second Advent as the great culminating and consummating event crowning a period of Christís increasingly apparent victory over all that opposes Him.
When does His rule begin?
A clue is given by Paulís quotation from Psalm 8:6 i.e. "He (i.e. God) has put everything under his feet". The "his" in the Psalm referred to man, but Paul sees it as referring to Christ as representative Man. That is to say, for all things to be placed under manís feet, they must first be placed under Christ, as only in and through Christ will God place all things under man. If all things are placed under Christ, then they will be progressively placed under mankind in general to the extent that we place ourselves under Christ. The same Psalm is also quoted by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb. 2:5-8) where it is explained (v. 9) that Jesus, as representative Man, "is now crowned with glory and honour" (emphasis mine).
Interpreting 1Cor. 15:27 in the light of the Hebrews passage, it seems best to understand Paul as saying that Christ is ruling now and, as representative Man, has all things placed under him by God the Father. All things have been placed under Him, but not everything submits to His authority as yet. Nevertheless, such submission is inevitable and more and more things will come to acknowledge the authority that is already His, until even death is conquered and the redeemed rise again to life. Then, when all things submit to His rule, He will hand the Kingdom to the Father.
If our interpretation of this passage is correct, it would seem that Paul subscribed to a form of postmillennialism where Christ was believed to be already ruling, where the Millennial era had already begun and would continue to become progressively apparent until all enmity against Christ had been put down and the Church had been purified and made ready to be presented to God the Father.
This position surely follows from the clear teaching of the New Testament that sin, death and Satan were defeated by Jesus on the Cross. As Barnett argues, the great eschatological conflict between good and evil is not something that lies in the future. It has already been fought and won. Christís last words from the Cross "It is finished" was not a cry of despair. They were a declaration of victory. The last battle had been fought, and it had been won. Christ was victorious and Satan had lost. The Resurrection of Jesus was the Fatherís vindication of the victory, as for the first time, the last enemy ó death ó had been conquered, a sure and certain foretaste of the final and complete victory over death that still lies ahead for all those who place their trust in Jesus and who enter into His Kingdom and, by so doing, partake in the victory that is already His.
This understanding of the Millennium places before us a vision of the future which is both more optimistic and more challenging than the alternatives of premillennialism and amillennialism. It is more optimistic, because it sees the future as belonging to God and Christ, not to Satan and Antichrist. Premillennialism shares this view in the sense that it also believes that Christ will have ultimate victory on earth, but the more immediate future is black and there seems nothing that the Church can do about it. The problem with this position is that the Church is seen as being effectively impotent. If it was simply a human organisation, this would be understandable, but the Church is a supernatural, God-indwelt creation against which the gates of Hades shall not prevail. How can such a movement, founded by the Son of God Himself and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, not prevail! The premillennialist doctrine of Christ returning and "rescuing" the Church does not sit well with the high position of the Church as taught in the New Testament. The Church only exists because Christ has already rescued it. He has taken ordinary people, placed His Spirit within them and made them into His corporate body, i.e. the body through which He now rules on earth. This is what the Church really is ... the instrument through which Christ is now ruling and through which He is bringing all things under His authority. To see this body as failing in this task and needing a second rescue, is to detract, not merely from Godís Divine plan but also from the efficacy of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. It is also to weaken the resolve of the Church. Christians are really Christís "viceroys" in this world. Or, on another model, His hands and feet ... hands through which He works and feet by which He carries the Gospel far and wide. To have "failure" preached at us and to be told that we cannot succeed until Christ comes is enervating to our efforts. Of course we can do nothing without Christ, but He is here with us already (Matt.28:20). There is no need to look to a future era for Christ to accomplish what He is already doing. Rather, the role of the Church is to submit to Him in His rule and thus hasten the day when all this shall be accomplished (2 Pet. 3:12). My fear is that premillennialist and amillennialist eschatologies are doing to the Church militant what Tokyo Rose, and Lord Haw Haw tried to do to the troops in World War II and what Hanoi Hannah tried to do to those fighting in Vietnam. Their pessimillennialist teachings risk demoralizing the Army of God, subtly inducing an inward-looking survivalist mindset as we prepare for the times of tribulation which these eschatologies say are coming, rather than supporting what should be a mood of triumph born of a recognition that we are the people of the King and that we have been given the command to win all nations to Him, a command which Jesus surely would not have given if He intended it to fail.
Premillennialism does at least acknowledge that there will be a time when the will of God will be "done on earth as in Heaven". In this respect, it is preferable to amillennialism, which effectively sees the present state of the Church as being about as good as it will get. Yet, if this is true, we would seem forced to believe that the number of people who are lost must vastly outnumber those that are saved, implying, in a sense, that the victory of Christ was less successful than the temptation of Satan. A doctrine that sees the vast majority of the human race as being lost to Satan and only a relatively small remnant won to Christ does sit well with , for instance, Romans 5:14-19 which speaks of the gift of life in Christ being so much greater than the curse of death brought about by the Fall.
It is true, of course, that God has often worked through a faithful remnant, but always for the purposes of a wider salvation. Again, one may quote Christís words "many are called, but few are chosen" to justify the belief that only a few are saved. Yet, as F. F. Bruce argued, these words were addressed at a specific time and to a specific audience, and hardly apply to the Church in the years following Pentecost for example, when many came into the Church. The old Puritan hope, which I believe was held by Calvin himself and which in more recent times has been upheld by preachers such as David Chilton and John Stott, is that the number of saved will greatly outnumber that of the lost. Can it be otherwise when Jesus Himself taught us to pray "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as in Heaven"? How can an amillennialist pray this prayer believing, as he must if he is to be consistent, that it will forever go unanswered in any recognisable sense? But then, why would God the Son have taught His followers a prayer to God the Father that He knew would not be answered? The thought is just too preposterous to contemplate!
The amillennialist writer, Stephen Travis raised some objections to the type of optimillennialism presented here, and these need an honest appraisal before we can truly accept it.
First, he argues that any millennialist eschatology (understood in any literalist sense) seems to conflict with the Biblical dichotomy of "this world and the next". That is to say, the New Testament persistently contrasts the present fallen world with the redeemed life in Heaven in such a way (Travis argues) that there is no room for a "spiritual halfway house" where quasi-heavenly conditions are prominent in what basically remains the present world.
While acknowledging this argument to some degree, the present writer believes that it can be carried too far. The dichotomy, it seems to me, is not so much between a place or era called "earth" and a contrasting place or era called "heaven" (or "this world" and "the next world", if you like these terms better), as between the state of affairs without God and that in which God rules supreme. The point is, I would argue, that this second state of affairs is even now breaking through into the first, and has been ever since Christ won the victory on the Cross. Two worlds, two eras, are intersecting and the real issue is not to introduce a third which somehow straddles the them, but to acknowledge the increasingly prominent breaking through of the "heavenly" into the "earthly". If my reading of Scripture is not totally in error, this is exactly what I believe that it teaches is happening. It seems to me that the earlier quoted passage from Paulís First Letter to the Corinthians is telling of the progressive fulfilment of Danielís vision of the rock that becomes a mountain and fills the earth (Dan. 2:34-35, 45, which we will discuss later). The rock (the rule of Christ) is clearly of the heavenly realm (the rock not cut by human hands), yet equally clearly, it is seen as exercising progressive rule over the earth. It is difficult to understand how Travisí own position can do justice to either of these biblical passages.
Secondly, and potentially more serious, is Travisí argument that this variety of postmillennialism cannot do justice to Jesusí warning that His followers must keep alert to His return, at a time that nobody knows. How, Travis argues, can we do this if we expect a long period of triumphant Christianity to precede the Second Coming?
Superficially, this objection seems very powerful indeed and was enough to hold the present writer in the amillennialist camp for a goodly number of years, oblivious to what I now believe to be very serious arguments against it.
The solution to the problem lies, I now believe, in determining exactly what Jesus meant by His "Coming". Was the "Coming" for which His followers were to remain alert the Final Coming at the end of human history, or was it another "Coming" in judgment, during the lifetime of His initial hearers? We tend to forget that Jesus did not leave His teaching written on a scroll to be picked up and interpreted by a future Church (although, of course, His teachings continue to be relevant), but were given in conversation to specific people at a specific point in history and, to be properly appreciated, must be understood in the light of how they were relevant to those folk at that time. In this instance, Jesus was telling the people to whom He spoke to keep watch. In other places, He even told them that their generation would not pass away before all of these things had been accomplished, implying that most of them would live to see the events He prophesied. This controversial issue will be taken up as we discuss the Olivet Discourse, but let me say for the present purpose that there are good reasons for believing Jesus to be speaking, not about the Final Consummation of all things, but about the judgment soon to be poured out against Jerusalem and the Jewish nation that had rejected its Messiah.This Ďcoming in judgmentí took place in AD 70, while most of Jesusí original hearers would indeed have still been alive.
If this interpretation is correct, Travisí second objection evaporates as these particular words of Jesus are not directed toward those living after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the old system of worship in AD 70. More will be said about this later.
Travisí third objection, namely, that postmillennialism does not pay sufficient heed to Jesusí teaching of a coming time of tribulation, can be criticised along similar lines. Thus, if Jesus was really referring to the judgment about to fall on Jerusalem, the times of wars, rumours of wars, earthquakes, etc. and the time of terrible tribulation would have fallen between the time of His earthly ministry and AD 70 and would, as Travis himself together with many commentators, correspond with the seal, trumpet and bowl judgments depicted in the Book of Revelation. We may recall how Chilton interpreted these as referring to increasing chastisement giving time for Jewish repentance preceding the judgment of AD 70. We may, incidentally, note how the prophecy of the sealing of the 144,000 (interpreted to mean the Christian Jews in Israel at the time) so that the judgments would not harm them was fulfilled by the rescue of the Jewish Church through visions and prophesies before the siege of Jerusalem. According to early Church historian Eusebius, not one Christian Jew perished when the city fell. We may also see a prophecy of the calling out of Christian Jews as mentioned by Eusebius, in Jesusí prediction that "one will be taken and the other left" ( Matt.24:40 - 41). Christian Jews were "taken" to safety by being called out through prophetic visions, while non-Christian Jews were "left". If this prophecy of Jesus does indeed foretell the event noted by Eusebius, His warning to "remember Lotís wife" becomes chillingly relevant. If a Christian Jewís love for Jerusalem held him back from obeying the vision ó as Lotís wifeís heart remained in Sodom ó he would fall with the rest of the population. If Eusebiusí statement that no Christian Jew perished is indeed correct, there must have been no "Lotís wives" among the Jewish Christians!
This Ďpreteristí interpretation of these passages seems, therefore, to be entirely consistent with the Scripture and we therefore suggest that Jesusí warnings of turbulent times and tribulation refer to a period already long past and, as such, do not conflict with an Ďoptimillennialistí eschatology. Indeed, we can go even further than this and recall Jesusí words that the time of tribulation was to be greater than anything that had ever been and greater than any that would ever be again. If the Great Tribulation really was the tribulation of the last days of Jerusalem before its destruction in AD 70, we have Jesusí own words that another like it will not occur in the future.
To some, this may be the biggest objection to this interpretation. They need only point to the terrible things that have occurred during the past century as evidence that equally terrible times have occurred after AD 70. Were the events leading up to AD 70 worse than the Holocaust, for example?
Terrible times are a sad reality, and it generally seems a pointless exercise trying to determine which is worse. Jesus did not promise that there would be no more times of trial after the Great Tribulation, simply that none would equal it in severity. Incidentally, this very way of speaking about it seems to suggest that Jesus saw human history as continuing after the Great Tribulation, that is to say, He must have seen it as an event within history rather than something coming at the end of history.
Without in any way making the other terrible events of history seem any less terrible, the sacking of Jerusalem was unique in history, not simply in the severity of its suffering, but in the fact that the destruction of the Temple and the total desecration of the land represented a termination of the Jewish sacrificial system and acted as visible evidence that the way to God upon which the Jewish faith depended had now been closed forever. It was not just a time when people who were not even permitted to eat pork or any unclean animal were forced by starvation to revert to cannibalism (even of oneís own babies, as has been recorded) or where suicide became the preferred option of people who had always regarded the taking of oneís own life as such a serious sin that men refused to shave their beards or cut their hair lest the razor should slip and cause a fatal cut. Terrible though this alone would have been, the destruction of oneís country, onesí holy city, oneís place of worship and (ultimately) oneís only known way to God and salvation must have been so much worse. Nothing indeed, as terrible as this has happened at any other time in history.
We said earlier that the optimillennialist vision of the future was not only more optimistic, but more challenging as well. To some degree we have already touched upon the challenge; the challenge that it presents to the Church to be the army of God and the body of Christ in this world and the challenge to be the instrument through which God has chosen to exercise His rule in this world. All these functions are really one ó to represent God in Christ on this earth!
Think about that for a minute. Can there be a greater privilege or a greater responsibility? The Church is called to reflect the image of God in Christ, as if in a mirror, to the wider world. And the image that we reflect will be the only image of Christ that most of the worldís people will see. The task is mind-numbing, but even that is not the end of it. We are called not only to reflect the image of God in Christ to humanity, but also to those spiritual beings that constitute the angelic host. There are some aspects of Godís nature that can only be seen, either by human beings or by angels, in so far as they are reflected in the mirror of the Church. Principally, I believe, the aspect of Godís nature thus revealed through the Church is His mercy. His mercy is revealed through the redemption in Christ of a people chosen to bear His image and be indwelt by His Holy Spirit. The Church is the only company of such people, and in this capacity, the only means of revelation of the extent to which Godís mercy will go. Only by looking at the Church can anyone, human or angel, see the degree of Godís mercy that would take the most avid persecutor of Christians and turn him into the most prominent Christian Apostle. Or would take an atheist such as C.S. Lewis and turn him into the Twentieth Centuryís most popular and influential Christian apologist.
Not only does the Church reflect Godís image to human beings and angels, but it is also the instrument through which God chooses to reveal His power and government of the world of humanity. It may not rule as a world government, but the real power on earth is the Church. This may seem a ludicrous statement. How, it will be asked, can the Church be said to rule in todayís world?
It rules by and through prayer. Prayer is the instrument through which Christians influence the course of events. Prayer has tremendous power because it is the God-chosen means through which the power of God is channelled into the human world.
Can it be co-incidence that the fall of the Iron Curtain was preceded by concerted prayer efforts by both Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians?
It is also a well known fact that every great Christian revival has been preceded by a concerted and earnest prayer effort, sometimes by just a few dedicated Christians.
Then there is the experience of many believers who suddenly feel a burden to pray for some specific thing. I remember an instance where a Christian travelling by public transport heard something like an inner voice ordering prayer for fellow passengers. Shortly thereafter an event occurred which may have resulted in injury or death, but which in actual fact resulted in nothing more than minor inconvenience. I think that most Christians would agree that the response of this believer to this urgent burden for prayer brought about divine intervention to prevent what would otherwise have been a major tragedy.
Did an angel speak to this Christian? Did the Holy Spirit?
We do not know, nor does it matter. What is important is that the burden was answered with a positive response. Skeptics will no doubt question why it should be necessary for God to first call somebody top pray in order for something to happen. Surely, they will argue, God could have simply intervened without the need for anyone to have first prayed. Isnít it strange that God should first give someone the burden to pray for His intervention, before He actually intervenes?
Yes, we agree that it is strange, but it is the way in which God has chosen it to happen. It is just another demonstration of the high value that God places on the Church. It is not that the Church "calls down" Godís intervention, but that the divinely-inspired prayer of the Church (or, as in this example, one of its members) is itself part of this divine intervention. The Church becomes Godís instrument of intervention!
We must also appreciate the fact that the Church is not confined to what is called the "Church militant" here on earth, but also to the "Church triumphant" in Heaven, i.e. to the whole company of the redeemed who have already run their earthly race. The Book of Revelation (20: 4-6) teaches that the Church triumphant ó with especial reference to those who had been martyred for Christ ó rule during the Millennium. The premillennialist sees this as a still-future happening and understands the thrones mentioned in this passage to be on earth. However, as Travis points out, there is nothing in this passage, or anywhere else for that matter, to suggest this. The only "thrones" mentioned as earthly ones belong to the Beast. Surely, argues Travis, the thrones of the saints are in Heaven from which they exercise their rule during the present era of the gospel. Travis, as we have said, is an amillennialist, which we have already declared to be a misnomer and more accurately described as realized millennialist. But he is a "pessi-realized millennialist" in so far as he does not see the Church ever being victorious during this era and looks upon the post-millennial vision as being nothing more than a dream of what might have been possible. Nevertheless, with respect to the rule of the redeemed in Heaven, he is at one with the "opti-realized millennialist" view being supported here. The risen saints are now with Christ in Heaven and we believe (as against Travis) that this rule will become increasingly apparent as time goes on and as the Church still on earth grows spiritually closer to the Church triumphant in Heaven. We read in Revelation 6:10 that those who had been martyred prayed for the vindication of their cause. We see no reason to disbelieve that the saints in Heaven do not continue to pray with the Church on earth for the furthering of Godís Kingdom. Most Protestant Christians shy away from thoughts of the saints in Heaven praying for the situation on earth or in any way intervening. This reserve is understandable in so far as the cult of the saints has at times degenerated into something approaching polytheism as veneration for the saints has effectively slipped into worship of the saints. There is no mandate for the practice of praying to the saints. But can we really imagine that a Christian with a strong burden of prayer for the Church and world would automatically cease praying once he or she comes into the nearer presence of God? I rather feel that these people remain part of the praying Church, interceding now in the purer Light of Divine Truth.
The Church, therefore, quite literally links Heaven and earth and brings the power of the former down into the latter to rule, to guide and to reflect the glory of God in Jesus Christ. The Church has been placed in the position of the real power in the world, but it exercises this, not through worldly governments, but through prayer. I believe that the prayers of the Church triumphant in Heaven, informed by a clearer Light than here, always influence the affairs of the world, but the prayers of the Church militant are also vitally needed, as these are the prayers directed from the front line of the battle. If the Church downplays the role of believing prayer, the link between Heaven and earth broken, or at the very least, weakened. For this reason alone, the Church must have the high vision of its own cosmic role and the vital importance that prayer plays in the fulfilment of that role, ever before it and whatever else it does, must grow in prayer. We must never see our prayers as being mere rituals, but as true communication with God and genuine channels through which Godís power is released into the world. Concerted prayer is the way through which God has chosen to revive the Church, convert the nations and make explicit in the world what is already implicit, viz. the rule of Christ.
Can we imagine a world where was and crime no longer exist, where Christ is universally acknowledged as Lord, where the United Nations (or its future equivalent) begins each session with Holy Communion and prayerfully awaits the guidance of the Holy Spirit before each decision is made, where all the governments of the world are filled with people who publicly acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit and where governmental policies are seen as steps towards the furthering of Godís rule on earth? Can we imagine a world where scientific research is directed by the Holy Spirit for the good of humanity, where poverty and hunger have been eliminated by the rich nations sharing of their resources until nobody has too much or too little? Can we imagine a Church in which the majority of the worldís population are members; a Church united (though not necessarily into a single denomination) by a common sense of union with Christ and through Him, "horizontally" with God and "vertically" with one another, a Church were the conscious presence of God (once thought restricted to the so-called Christian mystics) is perceived by virtually everyone and where visions of angels and even of Christ Himself, together with all manner of miracles, have become so frequent as no longer to attract newsworthy attention?
This world and this Church is, I believe, only a prayer away. This is the potential which has been given to us and sooner or later, I believe, will come to pass. If we so choose and pray, really pray, it can come sooner rather than later.
There will be two aspects of this time when Christ will be acknowledged as Lord by the nations.
One aspect will be spiritual and inward, namely, the individualís yielding to Christ as his or her personal Lord and Saviour. This is not a "good work" for which one is rewarded with salvation, but the response to a special grace of God through which we share in the victory won by Christ on the Cross. It is a grace, a gift from God and not something dependent upon any action on our part. We remember that when Peter responded to Jesusí question "Who do you say that I am?" by correctly replying "You are the Christ, the Son of God" (Matt. 16:16), Jesus told him that this knowledge had been revealed to him by God the Father. Peterís belief came to him as a gift from God; as a spiritual insight. The gospels were written that this belief may become ours. Yet, mere belief is not enough (James 1:22 - 27, 2:14 - 26). The belief must be applied and lead to true acceptance of Christ as Saviour and Lord, not just held as a theological doctrine, and this can only happen, as it did with Peter, by the working of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3b).This is why Paul insists that no-one can accept Christ as Lord except through the Holy Spirit. Paul knew better than most just how much of a miracle true belief is. After all, it was while he was trying to destroy this very belief that he was overwhelmed by a vision of Jesus and converted.
This special grace is saving, transforming and sanctifying. As more and more of the worldís population receive it, so the very nature of the race will be transformed.
The second aspect concerns general grace or common grace; grace which God extends to everyone as He makes His rain to fall on the just and unjust alike. In a sense, the presence of the saved assures a degree of blessing to all people (Genesis 18:23 - 32). This is yet another role of the Church in the world. Its presence assures Godís wider blessing. This is really the opposite of the "general curse" following the sin of Adam. Saved and unsaved both suffer because of the results of the Fall in that both are susceptible to physical death, illness and the effects of disharmony in the world.
Even after the nations come to Christ, there will still be unbelievers in the world. Yet, as increasing numbers of people are brought into the Kingdom and live increasingly in conformity with Godís laws (which means living increasingly in harmony with Creator and creation) we may expect this beneficial influence to spread increasingly to society at large, to the benefit of believers and the remaining non-believers alike. Thus, all will share in the blessings of Godís general grace. The spiritual atmosphere, so to speak, will be changed.
What we have been saying is not mere utopian dreaming. I believe that it is what the Bible teaches, despite pessimillennialist objections to the contrary. But there is also direct evidence that this kind of situation can come about ... it has already come about for limited periods in limited geographical areas. We have already suggested that the mystics of the Church (a group so diverse that everyone from Ignatius Loyola to John Calvin and John Wesley have been included by various writers) were really Christians who were granted a foretaste of "Millennium consciousness" or direct awareness of the presence of God. But there have been times in the Churchís history when this consciousness has been experienced, not by an individual "mystic" but by an entire congregation or even community. Such times are times of revival and for a time the Millennial rule of Christ is explicitly revealed in a community experiencing them. During the Welsh Revival of 1904, for example, the formerly high crime rate dropped so dramatically that the magistrates courts were empty, the pubs went broke while the Churches filled to overflowing, prayer meetings continued for days at a time, miners held prayer meetings in the pits and one reporter wrote of finding a Welsh village with lights on in every house at 3am, as the sound of prayer rose from each home and people were even found praying in the streets. Pit ponies were said to have stopped working because the expletives that had been their commands were no longer being used by the miners. For many, the presence of God became a conscious, almost tangible, experience.
Similar events occurred during the wider revival under the Wesleys. Indeed, it is often said that this revival saved England from a French-style revolution and directly inspired many liberal social reforms that may even have prevented the country from turning communist at a later time. Karl Marx himself, it should be remembered, thought that his communist revolution would begin in England.
The point being made is simply that if such things can happen in villages in Wales, they can happen throughout the world and if the effects of these limited revivals were profound, just imagine the impact of a world-wide turning to Christ!
It is with this vision that we should approach the subject of revival. That is to say, we only correctly appreciate what happens in revival in so far as we understand it as the rule of Christ becoming visible in the world, presenting us with a foretaste of the latter stages of the Millennium and, beyond this, of the Consummated Kingdom itself. Praying for revival is therefore praying for the Kingdom to come. Working for revival is working towards the coming of the Kingdom, preparing the way for the Lord Himself. If the above interpretation of the Book of Revelation is correct, we can have a confidence based upon that Book itself that this prayer and this work is in accordance with the will of God and that sooner or later there will be the "ultimate revival"; the final turning of the nations to Christ.
"Babylon is Fallen"
Chilton, as we saw, equates the harlot city "Babylon" with First Century Jerusalem, which actually became the enemy of Christ after the Jewish leaders rejected Him as their Messiah. He pointed out that the initial persecution of Christians was by Jews and not Romans, and even after persecution by the Roman authorities began, Jews were often involved in the accusation of Christians. The city of the anti-christian forces was therefore, he argued, Jerusalem rather than Rome as most commentators on the Book of Revelation believe. His argument that Jerusalem was the first city where organised opposition to Christianity became a reality is certainly a weighty one (Rome initially protected Christianity, during the reign of Tiberius Caesar) and an identification of Jerusalem with "Babylon" certainly fits well with the preterist interpretation that sees most of the Book of Revelation as a prophecy of the destruction of that city and the end of the Jewish age. Rome was not destroyed, Jerusalem was.
To the objection that the description (Rev. 17) of the harlot city as riding the beast (i.e. the Roman Empire) fits the Empireís capital rather than a provincial city such as Jerusalem, Chilton argues that the issue here is not so much political power as the mandate given by God. Jerusalem was the city of the Temple of God, and as such had been the most important place on earth. From this great height it had fallen!
Chilton also argued that the picture of the harlot riding on the beast is symbolic, not of the capital city of the Empire controlling that Empire, but of the fallen Jerusalem enjoying the protection of Rome. The turning of the beast against the harlot (Rev. 17:16-17) would then be a prophecy of the Jewish war leading to Jerusalemís destruction in AD 70.
Yet, what are we to make of Rev. 17:9, where the city is said to sit on seven hills. True, Jerusalem is a hilly city, but Rome was specifically known as the "city of the seven hills" and characterising "Babylon" as a city sitting on seven hills seems tantamount to identification with Rome. Moreover, Rev. 17:18 ("The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth"), although it may refer to the dominion mandate, seems more easily understood in terms of political power.
So, is "Babylon" Jerusalem as Warfield and Chilton argue, or Rome as Barnett, Beasley-Murray and the majority of commentators argue?
Perhaps it is both!
By the time of the last days of the Jewish era, Jerusalem and Rome were as one in their opposition to the Christian Church. Both had gone over to the Beast. Of the two, Jerusalem was the more culpable, as it had been given the scriptures wherein the will of God was revealed and had been led to expect the coming of the Messiah. And yet, when the Messiah did come, this was the city that crucified Him and continued to persecute His followers. It therefore brought down upon itself the greater punishment.
Rome, as the capital of a pagan Empire, had not been entrusted with the revelation of the purpose of God and had no knowledge of the Messiah. For the Romans, Christianity was just another troublesome cult. Yet, it too committed grave sins by the dreadful persecutions of Christians under Nero. It also "deserved a beating", but received a lighter one (Luke 12:47-48). The Flavian armies that were soon to sack Jerusalem captured Rome in a bloodbath said to have cost fifty thousand lives and which also saw the destruction of the Temple of Jupiter, yet the city itself was spared.
Vespasian had been willing to destroy the city in his endeavour to rout every last vestiges of loyalty to Emperor Vitellius, and threateningly camped on the other side of the Tiber waiting the time to attack. Seeing themselves greatly outnumbered, the troops that had till then remained loyal to the Emperor finally deserted him and crossed over to the Flavians, thereby averting the wholesale destruction of Rome. The fighting was still heavy and great numbers of people lost their lives as the battle was carried from street to street, yet the events that were to occur in Jerusalem only months in the future were prevented from befalling Rome by the last minute desertion of the Emperorís remaining supporters. Vitellius, now deserted by everyone, was found by the Flavian soldiers hiding in the janitorís closet. He was paraded through the streets, pelted with excrement, tortured and finally impaled on a hook and thrown into the Tiber. Thus ended the brief reign of this gluttonous, drunken and completely ineffectual emperor and the Roman Empire emerged from its time of division, civil war and turmoil.
The events of AD 69-70 are to be seen, I believe, as a judgment upon both the beast of the pagan Roman Empire and the beast of the fallen Jewish state, with the latter being judged more severely. It had been given more, and from it more had been required, yet its sin was even greater than that committed by Rome under Nero.
A word should be said at this point about the nature of the "ten horns" of the Beast which are said (Rev. 17:12-13) to be "ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast. They will have one purpose and will give their power and authority to the beast." They will also, according to verse 14, "make war against the Lamb" but that He will overcome them "because he is Lord of lords and King of kings" i.e. that the real rule of the world is in His hands.
Both Chilton and Barnett agree that the ten kings or rulers represent the governors of the ten provinces into which the Roman Empire was divided (cf. the discussion of the ten toes of the statue in the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, which we will examine later). At least some of the ten specifically relevant to this prophecy were presumably not in power when the it was given and therefore "had not yet received a kingdom". It also ensures that they will rule only for "one hour", i.e. a very short while.
Verse 14 makes it clear that the ten "kings" are completely subservient to Rome and are at one with the Imperial government in its hostility to Christianity. The seemingly specific reference to a particular set of governors (they "had not yet received a kingdom" and would rule for "one hour" implies a specific reference of this prophecy rather than a sweeping application to the rule of the provincial governors in general. In particular, it appears to be referring to their role in the coming period of intense persecution (either by participating themselves or by tacitly agreeing with it).
It is not necessary, I believe, to associate this prophesied period of persecution with the eighth king however. The text does not imply this. There seems no reason to doubt that the time of the persecution would occur during the reign of the sixth king, Nero, and that it would begin soon after the prophecy was made.
The Battle of Armageddon
We saw earlier that Chilton understood this as symbolic of the spiritual war between Christ and all that is in human beings which opposes His rule. The battlefield of Armageddon is the soul of man and the "slain" are those whose enmity against Christ has been conquered by the sword in Christís mouth, i.e. the Word of God. Armageddon, viewed in this light, is not an event confined to the end of the age, but a process which continues throughout the Millennial age. In this, Chilton follows Swete as understanding Armageddon as symbolizing the conversion of the nations.
G. Beasley-Murray strongly objects to such an interpretation on the grounds that the "slaying" of 19:21 should be read as equivalent to the harvest of the earth of Chapter 14, and as such is to be regarded as "wholly judicial" (p. 1193) and involving the physical destruction of those involved. Indeed, the angelic invitation to the birds of the air to feed on the flesh of those slain ó which some commentators have described as a parody of the invitation to the Great Feast of the righteous in Godís consummated Kingdom ó certainly speaks as if physical destruction of Christís enemies is involved (19:17-18). This does not necessarily mean that Armageddon is to be interpreted as a literal war of course. On the contrary, it would be odd if a literal war was described in the midst of the symbolic language of the Book of Revelation and, in any case, the picture given is not of a war at all in the usual sense of the word. The nations gather together, not to fight one another, but to resist the reign of Christ, which they obviously see as a threat to their own selfish rule. Furthermore, as Barnett observes, no battle eventuates! The scene moves from the gathering of nations, not to one of warfare but to one of judgment.
In my opinion, this judgment aspect is not made sufficiently explicit in the interpretations of Swete and Chilton. To be sure, the conversion of the nations and the slaying of all enmity toward Christ by the sword of the Living Word is there, but so is the powerful warning that those who remain rebellious will be destroyed by that same Word. The gospel brings news of both salvation and judgment. Indeed, neither salvation nor judgment can be adequately understood alone. They go together, and the conversion of the nations includes the judgment of those who persistently oppose the spreading of the Kingdom of Jesus throughout the world.
Nevertheless, I am not convinced that Beasley-Murray is entirely correct in equating the "slaying" of 19:21 with the harvest of 14:14 - 20. The "harvest" is probably to be interpreted as the Messianic judgment against the land of Israel which culminated in the sacking of Jerusalem in AD 70 whereas the slaying of Chapter 19 depicts a judgment against "the nations" of the world. There may still be a connection however, in so far as the events of AD 66 - 70 (and especially the events of 69 - 70) could be seen as the opening act of divine judgment against the world, both Israel and the Gentile nations. If Chilton and those who accept the early dating of Revelation are correct in seeing a prophecy of the events of 69 - 70 as being central to this book, the judicial aspect of the "slaying" may be interpreted as having as its immediate reference the tumultuous events which rocked the Roman world in AD 69. This again emphasises the terrible judgment which both Rome and Jerusalem brought upon themselves by rejecting Christ and persecuting His followers.
Symbolically locating the battle at Armageddon ó Megiddo ó may have been a way of emphasising its decisive nature. Megiddo was not only the site of many battles, it was also very strategic, being located on the main trading rout between the fertile lands to the east and the great oasis of the Nile delta. Whoever captured Megiddo, could exercise considerable control over a wide area, in fact, over the then-known world. By picturing the insurrection of evil symbolically as a gathering for battle at Megiddo, only to be decisively conquered by Christ alone without so much as an arrow being fired by the anti-christian forces, beautifully depicts how utterly complete the victory won by Christ ó and by Christ alone ó really is. "Megiddo" is in Christís hands; He is in control of everything, now and for ever. Moreover, this victory was won, not in a literal battle but on a Cross, not with the assistance of "Christian" countries or even of armies of risen saints and hosts of angels, but by Christís atoning sacrifice alone.
The Last Judgment
Verses 11 through 15 of Chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation depict scene which is usually interpreted as being of the final Judgment of mankind. It is graphic in its imagery. Heaven and earth ó the whole created order ó fleeing away from the majestic scene of God seated on the throne of the Cosmos. The place of the passage describing it, coming directly after the account of the final Satan-inspired rebellion of Gog and Magog is normally read as implying that this Judgment will follow immediately upon Godís judgment of the rebels. Certainly, Johnís vision of the Judgment immediately follows the vision of the latter, but no time sequence is given for the events themselves.
Moreover, the Judgment is specifically of the dead. Unlike the other judgment scenes in the Bible, there is no mention of the gathering of the nations before the Judgment Throne. Only the dead are mentioned. Perhaps the real force of having this vision come straight after that of the defeat of Gog and Magog lies in the reinforcement of the fact that not only physical death awaits those who oppose God and not only the last unredeemed generation face judgment. It is as if John sees through the physical world and into the spiritual realm beyond where all the dead of all times and all places are raised to face their Judge.
Whatever the exact sequence of events will be and whatever form they take, the teaching is surely that there will be a time when all rebellion against God will be brought under the feet of Christ, who will then hand over the Kingdom to the Father. Death, the final enemy, will cease. The dead will rise and be judged by God; those whose names are found written in the Book of Life entering into the fully consummated Kingdom.
This great and final Day of the Lord can in no manner be equated with the judgment upon Jerusalem in AD 70, as the hyper-preterists argue. The resurrection of the dead and their judgment, the transformation of the created order clearly speak of something that is still future and toward which all history, not simply Jewish history, moves.
This teaching was surely part of the theological framework in which all the New Testament letter writers thought. We need not point to specifically doctrinal passages to find it. Throughout the letters, expressions such as "on the day of the Lord" occur time and time again which, for the most part, seem to refer no so much to a judgment on the unbelieving as to a time when the believing will be raised to life immortal in the perceived presence of Jesus Himself. That is not to say that judgment of the unbelieving was not a part of this belief, but it does not appear to have been the chief thought, as it would have been (I should think) if the "day" was synonymous with the destruction of Jerusalem.
Consider, for example, the following verses from Paulís beautiful hymn of love in 1 Corinthians 13;
Love never fails. But where there are prophesies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophecy in part but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (vv 8 - 12).
Could anybody, by any amount of twisting and warping of Scripture, make this refer to the fall of Jerusalem? How could "perfection" refer to this? How could that historic event be construed as a time after which "we shall see face to face"? How could this event possibly have been seen as a time when the child became a man?
How, indeed, could any of the above quoted passage refer to anything less than the total consummation of all things following the Last Judgment?
Some, admittedly, have understood "when perfection comes" as referring to the completion of the canon of Scripture. If this interpretation is to be taken seriously, they must also say that with the collection of the complete Bible came the ability to see [God] "face to face" and to know as fully as we are known. But surely Paul had something far more significant in mind. The chief motive for so unlikely an interpretation seems to be a desire to disprove the continuation of charismatic gifts after Apostolic times. If Paul really is talking about the Last Judgment (as he surely is!) his words imply that the charismatic gifts will continue until then and only "cease" in the sense of being absorbed into something greater ... in the way that an engagement "ceases" at the wedding. Indeed, the force of his reference to the child becoming the adult is that it makes precisely this point.
My aim is not to defend the continuation of charismatic gifts in this context, though I do believe that anyone arguing the counter case must do so in spite of, rather than because of, this passage. What I am interested in is simply pointing out that making this passage refer to anything less than the Consummation (whether that "something less" be the destruction of Jerusalem or the completion of the text of the Canon) seriously fails to do justice to the plain sense of what Paul is saying.
It is even more difficult to interpret Johnís statement that "when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1Jn. 3:2b) as having any relationship with the events of AD 70. Clearly, this can only be fulfilled by a full and final revelation of God
In short therefore, we stress that an interpretation of revelation and other Scriptural passages that allows many of the references, frequently assumed to be to the Last Judgment, to relate instead to the historic events of AD 69 - 70, does not preclude the doctrine of a Last Judgment and does not give license to a wholesale reinterpretation of all "last days" Biblical references as prophesying something which from our epoch of history, has already taken place. On the contrary, many eschatological references cannot be properly appreciated unless they refer to a final Judgment of all mankind and a total consummation of history where God will be "all in all". This is a vital part of the Christian message and remains an indispensable part of our hope.
In the books of Daniel and Revelation, several prophetic revelations predict the passing of the empires of Man and the coming of the Kingdom of God. The revelations take the form of a strange dream by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and interpreted by Daniel, and visions of peculiar beasts whose characteristics depict aspects of the empires of which they are symbols. We look at each of these in turn, suggesting how they are interrelated and how they may be interpreted.
Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a colossal statue composed of a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze and legs of iron with feet of iron mingled with clay. Then, in the dream, a stone that had not been cut by human hands struck the feet of the statue and shattered them, causing the entire statue to crumble away to powder and blow away like chaff in the wind. The stone, on the other hand, grew to become a huge mountain that filled the whole earth (Dan. 2:31-35).
Daniel interpreted the dream to mean that a series of empires would follow one another upon the earth. The head of gold represented the Neo-Babylonian Empire itself under King Nebuchadnezzar but, contrary to the Kingís own dearest dream, this empire would not last forever. On the contrary, it would be followed by a succession of three others that would depart progressively his ideal of an empire ruled by a powerful sovereign king whose word was law. The Neo-Babylonian Empire was ruled by Nebuchadnezzar for some forty years from BC 605 to 562 or possibly 560, but was to outlast him by no more than twenty-one years and in that time see no fewer than four rulers. His son, who had the unfortunate name of Evil-Merodach, reigned a scant two years from 562 to 560. His was followed by the somewhat longer reign of Neriglissar (from 560 - 556) and the single-year reign of Labashi-Marduk (in 556 BC). Nabonius came to power in a coup díetat in 555 and ruled until Babylon fell in 539.
The second, or silver, empire is best identified with the Medo-Persian. Some commentators disagree and restrict its identification to the Medes only, identifying the Persian with the bronze empire and the Greeks with the iron. However, it would seem to be more accurate to think of the Medo-Persian as a single empire and the Greco-Macedonian as the bronze. The aspects of the prophecy also fit this interpretation in a more straightforward manner, as will be seen shortly.
The Medo-Persian Empire was inferior to the Neo-Babylonian, from Nebuchadnezzarís point of view, in so far as the kingís authority to annul a law once passed by him was restricted under this regime. That is to say, the kingís power was somewhat restricted.
The silver empire began when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 BC. Cyrus died ten years after his conquest of Babylon and his elder son Cambyses reigned until his own death in 523 or 522. During his fairly short reign he did, however, conquer Egypt.
Following the death of Cambyses, an upstart claiming to be Cyrusís younger son claimed the throne but, after a brief reign, was deposed and assassinated by Darius son of Hystaspes who began a new dynasty. The Persian Empire was brought to the zenith of its power by Darius, but (despite the conquest of Thrace) he largely left the question of the Greeks on the western border unsettled. This remained a problem for his son Xerxes who attempted invasion in 480-79 and Artaxerxes I whose intrigues set the Greek city states against one another.
Altogether, the silver empire lasted for approximately two centuries, although the later kings declined still further in their power.
The next empire, that of bronze, was the Greco-Macedonian established by Alexander the Great and was to be more republican in nature, thus departing still further from Nebuchadnezzarís ideal. Alexander began his invasion of Persia in 334 and had crushed its last resistance in 331. His empire extended from the border of Yugoslavia to beyond the Indus Valley in India; the largest of ancient times.
Following Alexanderís death in 323, his territory was divided into four realms, ruled over by his former generals. Thus, Macedon-Greece was ruled by Antipater, Thrace-Asia Minor by Lysimachus, Asia by Seleucus and Egypt, Cyrenaica and Palestine by Ptolemy. Following the Battle of Ipsus in 301, any attempt to maintain a unified empire vanished with the defeat of the imperial regent Antigonus. The eastern sections of the Seleucid realm revolted against the central authority at Antioch and were gradually absorbed by the Parthians as far to the west as Mesopotamia. The remainder of the former Greek Empire was annexed by Rome following the defeat of Antiochus the Great at Magnesia in 190. Rome also annexed Macedon in 168 and Greece was permanently subdued in 146. The Seleucid domains west of the Tigris were annexed by Pompey the Great in 63 BC and Egypt reduced to a Roman province following the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.
Thus the bronze kingdom, after a duration of close to 300 years, came to be supplanted by the fourth kingdom, the iron kingdom, of Rome.
From a despotic point of view, iron is much less valuable than the metals of the other kingdoms. It is tough, as the Roman Empire was tough, but it can also be brittle. The fact that this kingdom was also represented by the two legs of the dream statue also hints at a basic division within this empire. In actual fact, the east and west of the empire were never in complete unity, even in the early days. Only the strong central rule of the early Caesars could hold together such diverse peoples beneath the facade of unity.
The iron legs terminated in two feet in which the iron had been mixed with clay. Undoubtedly, the iron component symbolized the centralised strength of the Empire and possibly the military might through which was translated. The clay is symbolic of something which weakens the iron resolve of the Empire, possibly the remaining opposition to Rome in the lands on which its rule had been forced, or even the remaining Republican sentiment that persisted at the heart of the Empire.
The two feet terminated in ten toes. These have been variously interpreted, but it is probably best to regard them as symbolizing the ten provinces into which the Roman Empire was divided. These were the provinces of Achaia, Italy, Asia, Syria, Egypt, Africa, Spain, Gaul, Britain and Germany.
It is upon these brittle feet that the last Empire of pre-Christian times stood. At that point, something entirely new entered into human history!
Verses 44 and the first part of 45 speak of this new work of God in the symbolism of a rock cut (but not by human hands) from a mountain. The rock rolls down the mountain and strikes the statueís brittle feet, bringing the whole vast idol crashing to the ground. Nothing is left except dust, which is then swept away by the wind (do we detect a hint of the Holy Spirit in this wind?).
Following the collapse and total destruction of the great statue, the rock grows into a mountain that fills the entire earth and endures forever.
The rock is the Kingdom of God, the fifth kingdom following the Roman Empire which, unlike all the kingdoms of man, is eternal. It began with the birth of Christ and was first preached in the provinces ("feet") of the Roman Empire. At first, it was just a rock; a very small thing, easily overlooked in the political world of the time. But it did not stay small for long, and quickly began to smash against the feet of the Empire, eventually overturning the old pagan rule and, in the longer term, bringing down the edifice of the Roman Empire.
Certainly, other empires of man have arisen since Rome (Britain, for instance), but the destiny of the world does not lie with any of these. Christ has conquered and He alone is the true ruler of the world, His alone the one true Kingdom. It began as a small rock in the Roman provinces. It has grown into a world-wide Church and will continue to grow until at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord (Phil.2:10-11).
The other Empires were those that specifically held sway over Godís people from the time of Danielís writing. When the last of these was swept away, it would not be by yet another merely human king to whom Godís people would again be subjugated. Instead, the authority over Godís people would then pass to the One for whom it was always intended, the Messiah or Christ. The rule would pass to Christ when he took the Enemy captive on the Cross and rose victorious. It was then that all other so-called authorities were taken captive and the rule of Christ began, even though this may not have become clear to everyone immediately and may not be exercised until a long period of Kingdom growth has elapsed.
Incidentally, the thought of a rock growing into a mountain hints that the victory of Christ over the kingdoms of man, although in actual fact accomplished definitively at Calvary, will not be instantaneously apparent. It will appear to begin small, but grow progressively until all opposition to His rule is subdued. This accords well with the interpretation given here of the Fifth Empire, the Kingdom of God, beginning with the coming of Christ into the world in Bethlehem. This is also in good agreement with the New Testament doctrine of the Kingdom being already present and the slow increase in the Kingdomís rule, represented by the symbols of a rock becoming a mountain and the mountain filling the earth, is reflected in Paulís account of the progressive extension of Christís dominion over all that opposes Him, (1Cor. 15:20-28) which we will discuss later.
An opposing interpretation is sometimes put forward, whereby the destruction of the statue is not accomplished until the Second Coming of Christ. The Fifth Empire is interpreted, according to this view, to be the Millennial rule of Christ, understood in premillennialist terms, and is thought to conquer the final Empire of man not progressively, but suddenly in the great war of Armageddon. There are serious reasons for doubting that Armageddon is to be understood as a literal war, but we may note further at this point that the notion of the Kingdom of God not beginning until Christís Second Coming is not consistent with New Testament concept of the Kingdom as being present now in the form of the Church. The Kingdom of God is the Kingship of God, the rule of God, and wherever God rules, there the Kingdom will be found.When the first disciples of Jesus accepted Him as Lord, the Kingdom began on earth. Someday, Christ will be acknowledge by all as supreme and the Kingdom will have come in its fullness, but that does not imply that it is not present in any sense until that day.
It also seems strange to jump from the four Empires of the ancient world, culminating in the Roman, straight to the Second Coming of Christ, without so much as a mention of the First Coming and the Church age. It seems almost to relegate the earthly ministry of Jesus to a position of unimportance, at at the very best, of secondary importance. Yet, it was this ministry, culminating in His death and resurrection, that is the central sun about which the entire scriptural revelation orbits. To omit the very centre of biblical and historical revelation seems incredible!
Then there is the problem of the present non-existence of the Roman Empire. That is to say, for the prophecy to be taken both literally and given a premillennarian interpretation, the Roman Empire must continue to exist until the Second Coming of Christ and the beginning of His physical rule on earth in the Millennial Kingdom. But the Roman Empire does not exist now! And its historical end was not brought about by a personal Second Coming of Christ. Either the prophecy has failed or the premillennial interpretation is wrong.
Agreeing with us that scriptural prophecy cannot fail, the premillennialists generally seek to escape the dilemma either by arguing that there is a sense in which the Roman Empire still continues or, alternatively, that it will be reestablished again prior to Christís Second Coming.
The first alternative relies on the undoubted fact that our present secular society owes much to the Roman Empire. But we could equally say that it owes much to the Greeks and Babylonians!
The force of "Roman Empire" lies in the rule of Rome. If Rome does not rule, there is no Roman Empire. Simply to say that some of the traditions of ancient Rome continue in our own day is not sufficient to conclude that the Roman Empire itself continues in some weak and ghostly sense. In any case, the feet and toes of the Statue were still composed of iron as well as sand. The Empire which was felled at the Coming of the Kingdom of God remained a substantial one, not just a shadow of a shade. The feet and toes were made of neither glass nor jelly.
The belief in a reestablished Roman Empire is a widespread one in dispensationalist and premillennial circles. Nothing in the vision of the Statue, however, suggests it. On the contrary, a straightforward interpretation of the dream would see the four Kingdoms as being continuous, extending from Danielís own day until the time when the people of God received their promised Messiah and the Kingdom of God began on earth. There is no evidence of a gap in the existence of the Fourth Empire; no sense that it will become a sleeping bear for many centuries, only to menace the world once more in the distant future.
Those who subscribe to this doctrine claim to find such evidence, not in Nebuchadnezzarís dream or Danielís interpretation thereof, but in the Eighth King of Revelation 17:11. He is then usually named as the Antichrist and assumed to be a still future Roman dictator who will, in effect if not (perhaps) in literal actuality, revive the Roman Empire.
We will see later how this whole concept of a "rule of Antichrist" is of dubious Biblical validity. We have already touched upon the probable identity for the Eighth King and will have more to say about this later. We argue that this ruler, in whom the Beast (which, we freely admit, is the Roman Empire) is reestablished is not intended to be someone who will appear at the end of human history, but was in fact a First Century figure - a Roman ruler who would rescue the Empire from the prophesied period of disruption and disintegration that was about to come upon it. Historically, this prophecy has already been fulfilled in the person of Caesar Vespasian, but more of this later. If, however, the prophecy of the Eighth King has already been fulfilled in the First Century, its further application to a future revival of the Roman Empire is, without a lot more scriptural justification, doubtful to say the least.
Danielís Vision of the Four Beasts
Chapter Seven of the Book of Daniel records an elaborate vision of a series of four fantastic beasts, representing four powerful pagan empires, arising from "The great sea". The sea is often used in the Bible as symbolic of the forces of evil (as when God tells Job that He has set a limit to its "proud waves") and appears to stand here for the turbulent Gentile world. It probably has a literal level of interpretation as well, i.e. as identifying the Mediterranean from whose lands the four empires arose.
The four beasts are symbolic of the same empires that comprised the various parts of the statue.
The first was a winged lion, corresponding to the golden head of the statue and symbolising Babylon (during the time of King Nebuchadnezzar, the lion was a symbol of Babylon and the Ishtat Gate entrance was actually adorned with yellow lions). Its eagle like feathers are, however, plucked so that instead of flying it is confined to the ground. This probably refers to the reduction of pride at the time of Nebuchadnezzarís madness. The statement that the heart of a man was given to the beast presumably refers to the kingís restoration to sanity, when he finally acknowledged the authority of Israelís God.
The second beast was a ravenous bear, corresponding to the silver arms and chest and symbolised Medo-Persia. One side of the lumbering bear was higher than the other, suggesting that one side of the alliance was the more powerful (the Persian side, in actual fact). It devoured three ribs from an animal that it had killed, symbolic of the three major conquests of the Medes and Persians under Cyrus and his son Cambyses, namely, the Lydian kingdom in Asia Minor in 546 BC, the Chaldean Empire (539 BC) and Egypt, which Cambyses acquired in 525 BC.
The third beast was a swift four-winged leopard with four heads and corresponded with the bronze belly and thighs of the statue. It symbolised Greece. The four wings and four heads portrays the division of Alexanderís empire into four parts shortly after his death
The fourth beast was unlike anything experienced in the natural world. Its teeth were iron (compare the legs of iron of the great statue) and its head was adorned with ten horns, presumably corresponding with the ten toes of the statueís feet. This beast symbolises the Roman Empire, with the ten horns representing the provinces and client kingdoms under its rule.
The feet of the statue were made brittle by being mixed with clay. The brittleness of the feet were the downfall of the Empire and it was against the feet that the uncreated Kingdom of God initially waged war. As we have already seen, it was in one of the provinces that Christ was born and it was in the provinces that the Church first spread. Against the strength of the appearing Kingdom of God, the weakness of the Roman provinces is thrown in contrast. In the Book of Revelation, the weakness of the Empire is exemplified when the horns attack the great prostitute, i.e. when the Roman provinces attack the ruling city. We shall see how this prophecy was fulfilled in the civil war of 69 AD. In Danielís vision, however, a "little horn" arises from amongst the ten, yet was apparently not of the ten, and becomes the most prominent of them all. Three of the other horns were broken off. Daniel does not say that the remaining horns were subjected to the little horn, but they certainly are forced into a secondary role in comparison with it. Furthermore, the little horn is said to have eyes, symbolising intelligence. It emerges as very much an individual, standing out from the other horns of the beast.
Interpretations of this prophecy of the little horn vary considerably. The Book of Daniel itself interprets the prophecy in a general sense. Thus, the ten horns are identified as ten kings (i.e. rulers) arising from the Empire. The little horn is a king who shall arise after them and be different from them and shall subdue three kings, symbolised by the breaking off of three horns. It would seem that the ten kings must be contemporary with the little horn (otherwise he could not subdue three of them), so the statement that he arose "after them" (7:24) must mean that his appearance followed the establishment of the other ten. This upstart king shall speak blasphemous things against God Himself and will think that he can change the times and the laws. The saints of God shall be given into his hand for "a time and times and the dividing of time" (28) before he is destroyed by the judgment of God. From comparison with the vision of the statue, and the interpretation given of this, we suggest that the destruction of the little horn and of the fourth beast and the establishment of the Fifth Kingdom - the Kingdom of God - refers to the first Advent, not the second. Christ has already been given His crown and He rules now. He, not the kingdoms of mankind, is the true King of the earth, even though not everyone has come to acknowledge this at present.
If this interpretation is correct, the little horn must be a ruler who arose from the historical Roman Empire, not a world dictator who is still to appear .
Could he be the eighth king of Revelation?
Whether we do or do not see the prophecy of an eighth king as having been already fulfilled, identifying this king with the little horn is that the eighth king was one of the Beastís heads, not one of its horns. We shall also see that the Beast of Revelation was, in a sense, resurrected in the person of the eighth king, which gives him a greater importance than a mere "horn". If we are correct in thinking of the horns as provincial governors and client kings, it seems more reasonable to think of the little horn as an upstart client king.
Furthermore, it does not seem valid to identify the little horn of Daniel Chapter Seven with the little horn of Chapter Eight. This latter chapter describes a visionary prophecy which is generally interpreted as foretelling the destruction of the Medo-Persian Empire (symbolised in the vision as a ram) by the forces of Alexander the Great in 334 BC. The latter is symbolised by the figure of a swift, one-horned goat that with one mighty charge, shatters the horns of the Medo-Persian ram. The shattering of the horns symbolises the breaking of the power. The large horn of the goat, in its turn, is also broken however, to be replaced by four horns. In this symbolism, we have a prophecy of the death of Alexander in 323 BC and the quadripartite division of his empire. It was from the midst of these four horns that a "small horn" was prophesied to arise in verse 9 - 12 of Chapter Eight. This "horn" appears to be identified with Antiochus IV, who gave himself the title of "Epiphanes" or "the illustrious one", but who was nicknamed by others (behind his back, we must presume!) "Epimanes" i.e. "madman". He is also described in 8:23 and following verses. It was this ruthless king who brought great persecution to faithful Jews and who, through his general Apollonius, seized Jerusalem on the Sabbath and erected a statue of Zeus in the Temple. As an ultimate insult to the Jews and their God, he then proceeded to sacrifice a pig to the heathen idol. This "abomination of desolation" became the type for the abomination predicted by Jesus.
Many of the prophesies of Daniel concern the period of wars and persecutions culminating in the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes and the uprising of the faithful Jews under the Maccabeans.
It is noteworthy, however, that the "horn" of Chapter Eight arises from the Greek Empire and grows up amongst the four "horns" or kingdoms into which that Empire was divided following the death of Alexander. The "horn" of Chapter Seven, by contrast, is prophesied to arise from the Roman Empire; more specifically, from amongst the ten "horns" or provinces. Clearly, this prophecy cannot be applicable to Antiochus Epiphanes.
Some also argue that the prophesied "king" of verses 36 - 45 of Chapter 11 does not accurately describe the career of Antiochus Epiphanes and that these verses consequently refer to a later tyrant, probably the "little horn" of Chapter Seven. Some have identified this king as Herod, while futurists see the prophecy as still to be fulfilled.
In the opinion of other commentators however, the latter stages of the career of Antiochus was sufficiently close to the prophesied king as to permit Chapter 11 to be read as a continuous prophecy. This is surely the most natural way to approach it. Any other interpretation introduces a gap into the prophecy between that which is clearly applicable to Antiochus and that which refers to the hypothetical second person; a gap which is not obvious in the prophetic narrative itself and whose introduction has the appearance of being forced. This is especially acute in a futurist interpretation.
Futurism also necessitates a similar gap in the narrative of Chapter Seven. A popular futurist interpretation sees the ten horns, not as Roman provinces and client kingdoms of the First Century, but as a confederation of states in some future resurrected "Roman Empire". The gap, therefore, comes between the appearance of Rome (the terrible fourth beast) and the ten horns of the resurrected form of that beast, but nothing in the prophecy indicates that such an interpretation is justified. Indeed, as we already saw, it seems far more probable that the entire prophecy of the beast, its horns and the emerging little horn, refers to a time just before the (First) coming of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God at the time of the historical Roman Empire.
Some commentators understand the "little horn" to be the Roman Emperor himself (i.e. the actual position of Emperor rather than any particular Emperor), who appeared after Republican Rome had already become the dominant world power.
However, although we cannot be dogmatic about the interpretation, an interesting alternative suggestion sees the "little horn" as Herod or, more particularly, the Herodian dynasty.
The "little horn" came up after the ten other horns of the Beast. Assuming that Beast to be the Roman Empire and the ten horns its governors, the "little horn" arose after this system had been put into place. The Herodian dynasty, those a client kingdom of Rome, had a special place in the world of those days. The "little horn" was prophesied to break off three of the other horns, i.e. to subdue three of the other "kings". This probably means that this king would extend his rule over a significant part of the Roman Empire of that time (about one third, though it is difficult to say how literally this is to be read). In fact, the Herodian dynasty did subdue the regions around it and acquired a considerable "mini empire" with that of Rome.
The Herodian dynasty stood against God in a unique way. Jesus was, we must not forget, a royal prince in the line of King David. Had the rightful dynasty still been ruling, the king at the time of Jesusí birth would have been King Joseph ruling with Queen Mary. After Josephís death, King Jesus would have ascended to the throne. With the somewhat sentimental Christmas-story emphasis about Jesus having been born a carpenterís son in a manger, it is easy to forget that carpenter Joseph was actually of royal blood ... a direct descendent of King David and that the Davidic Kingdom belonged to Jesus by right of ancestry, even at the purely human level.
Jesus, not Herod, was the true King of the Jews. Therefore, merely by proclaiming himself to be king of the Jews, Herod was speaking great things against God. The prophecy stated that the "little horn" would seek to change the times and laws (7:25). In Dan. 2:21 it was said that this was the province of God alone, so whatever else is meant here, its main meaning appears to be that the "horn" attempts to put himself in the place of God. Herod, we have already remarked, was in fact occupying the throne that belonged to Jesus Himself and was to this degree at least making himself to be as God.
But, in apparent fulfilment of Chapter 7:26, the kingdom was taken from the Herodian dynasty. From the very land where Herod ruled came the new Kingdom of God, ruled by the immortal King to whom, one day, the knees of all the earthís rulers will bow and who will be accepted as Lord by all people.
In popular eschatology, the Antichrist looms large as a coming world dictator who will cause terrible persecution of the Church and inaugurate a time of dire distress upon the earth. To read some of the dispensationalist literature being published today, one could form the opinion that eschatology was more about the coming of the Antichrist than the coming of Christ!
It is therefore somewhat surprising to take note as to the number of times the word "Antichrist" appears in the Bible. The word occurs a total of four times in the entire Bible, three times in 1 John (being plural in one instance) and once if 2 John. The word does not appear at all in the Book of Revelation, the book from which most of the details of the doctrine of the "rule of Antichrist" is derived.
Let us see what John actually says about Antichrist in his own words;
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many Antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. (1 Jn 2:18-19).
Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the Antichrist - he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also. (1 Jn. 2:22-23).
This is how you recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. (1 Jn. 4: 2-3).
Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the Antichrist. 2Jn. 7.
This is it. The entire biblical teaching about Antichrist, or (at the very least) the entire biblical teaching which mentions this evil personage by this title. Nevertheless, it is from these verses, and not from others which may or may not be about Antichrist, that any biblical doctrine of this evil personage must primarily be constructed.
What then, can we learn about Johnís concept of the Antichrist from these passages?
To begin, we learn that the coming of the Antichrist was something that had been prophesied and that the prophecy was apparently quite widely known amongst the Churches to which John was writing.
We also learn from the first passage that this prophecy was to be fulfilled in "the last hour" and we see John drawing the conclusion that, because the prophecy was already being fulfilled at the time of his writing, the last hour had already arrived.
But what did he mean by "the last hour"? The last hour of what?
Had he meant the last hour of human history, he was either wrong or the last hour has already lasted a very long while!
The first alternative is unlikely and accepting this way out raises problems about the inerrancy of scripture which sit ill with the broader teaching of scripture and its traditional interpretation. Better not follow that road if there are other paths available to us!
A popular approach is to take the second alternative and to interpret the expression "the last hour" to mean the Church age in its entirety. It is "last" in so far as it represents the final phase of salvation history. Thus, John is correct in saying the he and his initial readers are living in the last hour, but we cannot from this draw the conclusion that this "hour" must have ended long ago. There is no conflict with scriptural infallibility to assume that John himself may not have expected the "hour" to be of such duration, because the duration itself is not the real issue. The real issue is that this period of time (be it short or long) is the final one and will be characterised by (amongst other things) the appearance of Antichrist, in Johnís day, in ours, and until Christ comes again.
A possible difficulty with this is the apparent sense of immediate crisis implied by calling this period "the last hour". The "last times", even "the last days" would seem easier to reconcile with the second interpretation than "the last hour". Could it be that John had in mind a more immediate crisis?
Much depends upon when the letter was actually written. If we follow many modern scholars, we would opt for a date sometime late in the First Century. Indeed, there are some who consider the letter to have been written, not by the Apostle John himself, but by an elder of a Church founded by him and to whom a measure of authority had passed after the apostle had died.
On the other hand, we have the statement by Clement of Alexandria (150 - 215) that "... the teaching of our Lord at His advent, beginning with Augustus and Tiberius, was completed in the middle of the times of Tiberius. And that of the apostles, embracing the ministry of Paul, ends with Nero."
It would seem that Clement regarded all apostolic revelation to have ceased by the end of Neroís reign and that any writing having apostolic authority must have been written during that time. There is good evidence that he knew of the First Epistle of John and seems to have regarded it as having apostolic authority, indicating that he believed it to have been written prior to the end of Neroís reign and therefore, incidentally, before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
Few accept such an early date, yet if the Letter (and, presumably, its companion letters) was indeed written so early, the "last hour" takes on a very urgent meaning indeed. It was the last hour of the visible sign of the Old Covenant, Jerusalem and the Temple.
A strong argument against an early date for 1 John is the widely accepted belief that the author was writing against proto-Gnostic heretics who denied that Jesus had been truly incarnate. Many commentators find in Johnís description of Antichrist as one who denies that "Jesus Christ came in the flesh" reference to the germ of an idea which later developed into the heresy of Doceticism, that is to say, the doctrine that Jesus did not have a material body but was simply an "appearance" or phantom.
It is obvious that to John ó the apostle closest to Jesus and the one who watched his Friend suffer beyond words on the cross ó any such doctrine that denied the true humanity of Jesus (and, therefore, denied the reality of His suffering) would have been an especially obnoxious heresy and he would certainly have condemned it as being a doctrine of the Antichrist. Yet this does not automatically mean that he had the doctrine in mind when he wrote those words. We might suggest that he meant by the denial that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, the denial that Jesus was really the Christ (=Messiah) at all. The Antichrists that he had in mind would then be, not proto-Gnostics or proto-Docetics, but people who rejected Jesus as the Christ and had begun teaching that the true Messiah had not yet come. Such teaching would indeed be anti-Christ in that these people would be teaching that Jesus was a false Christ and that the true Christ had not yet appeared "in the flesh" (= had not yet appeared on the stage of history). Some support may be given to this suggestion by the fact that John (1 John 4:3) equates denial that Jesus Christ came in the flesh with denial of Jesus. The sign of the Antichrist is that he denies Jesus. Principally, denial of Jesus is denying, not that He existed or that He was a real flesh and blood human being, but that He is Lord (see 1 Cor. 12:3 for a parallel statement by Paul as to how to differentiate between those who speak by the Holy Spirit and those who do not). But to accept Him as Lord, one must believe that He is the Christ or Messiah and that He is both human and divine. It is the rejection of this, essentially the rejection that the Jesus of history is the Christ, that seems to me to be the essence of the Antichrist and this was foremast the sin of those Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah.
If these people had previously been superficial believers, we could characterise them as Jews who had began to walk in the way of Christ but who had fallen victim to the temptation about which the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews had warned his readers, i.e. the temptation to reject Christ and to go back to Judaism.
Such people may also be represented by the Nicolaitans of Revelation, if Chiltonís interpretation of these as Jewish opponents of Christ be accepted.
Interestingly, on this interpretation, the overriding issue which John is addressing in the epistles is the same as that of his gospel, viz. Jesus as the Messiah and God incarnate. The widely held opinion that the author is confronting proto-Gnostic ideas in the epistles is one of the reasons given by certain critics for identifying this author with someone other than the apostle John and for placing the date of authorship at the very end of the First Century.
We repeat, however, that this suggestion of an early date for these epistles and the proposed identification with Johnís opponents as apostate Jews rather than proto-Gnostics goes against widely held opinions. I am not being dogmatic about it; merely presenting it here as something to consider.
In any event, whether the Antichrists about whom John wrote were apostate Jews, proto-Gnostics or something else, the inescapable conclusion is that they had been members of the Church and had made a superficial profession of belief in Jesus as Christ. They subsequently changed their views, left the Church (maybe individually or maybe as a schismatic group) and became hostile to the gospel message, presumably trying to seduce other Church members into following their beliefs (if our suggestion is correct as to the date of the letters and the nature of the heresy, this would have implied making Christians renounce their faith in the atoning work of Christ and going back to Temple sacrifice ).
Therefore, we can also say this about the Antichrist. This is not so much a persecuting influence from outside the Church, as a corrupting influence from within or, more accurately, a corrupting influence that had once been within but which subsequently rebelled and separated from the company of believers. Can the similarity between these people and the rebellion of Satan and the fallen angels be more than co-incidence?
The main characteristic of the Antichrist can therefore be seen as a spirit of rebellion against the rule of Christ and of opposition to the spread of the gospel. What ever form the doctrines embodying this rebellion take is of secondary importance to the rebellion itself. Antichrist necessarily opposes the true and unaltered gospel of Jesus Christ, even if this opposition involves the preaching of a pseudo "gospel" which on a superficial appraisal may even be mistaken for the real thing.
John apparently does not believe that these schismatics were ever a part of the true Church in the sense of having been born again of the Holy Spirit and sharing in the saving work of Christ. They may have once been in the Church (attending its meetings and so forth) but they were never truly of it. He sees their departure from the Church as proof that they had never been truly converted (1 Jn. 2:19).
It may be noted that John speaks both of "Antichrist" and of "Antichrists", the singular and the plural. He also uses the expression "spirit of Antichrist". About the true implications of this, there has been considerable dispute.
For instance, is he implying that there is a difference between the spirit of Antichrist and the Antichrist himself and, if so, does this imply that whereas the former may be operating in the world already, the latter will not be revealed until "the last hour"? Are the Antichrists who are already present merely "approximations" or "prototypes" of the great Antichrist who will appear at the end of days?
Many ó perhaps most ó consistent futurists would answer in the affirmative to both these questions. Nevertheless, John gives us little support for so answering. As we have already said, he obviously believes that the prophecy of the coming of the Antichrist in the "last hour" has been (or, rather, is in the process of being) fulfilled at the time of his writing, and that this fulfilment is being seen in the appearing of the many Antichrists about whom he is warning his readers. This is his evidence that the Ďlast hourí has indeed arrived.
His argument runs something like this;
Prophecy foretells of the coming of the Antichrist in the last hour.
The Antichrist is here already in the form of the many Antichrists who have gone out from our
Therefore, the last hour has truly arrived.
No further fulfilment of the prophecy (with, for instance, a single Antichrist) is mentioned and apparently none is anticipated.
Similarly, the "spirit of Antichrist" seems to be used as a contrast to the "Spirit of God". There is a parallel here in 4: 6b where he also contrasts the "Spirit (some translations say "spirit") of truth and the spirit of falsehood", the former being equated with the Spirit of God and the second with the spirit of Antichrist.
It could be that a literal entity ó a demon or specific evil spirit ó is meant here or it could be that "spirit" is being used the way we would use it in, say, "spirit of criticism" or even "spirit of the age". Either way, the spirit of Antichrist is that which is manifested by or through the people John characterizes as "Antichrists" and anyone who thus manifests this "spirit" is justifiably called "Antichrist". There is no reason, from these passages, to believe that John thought of the spirit of Antichrist as merely a foretaste of the Antichrist himself.
But is Antichrist a single being (human or demon) or many beings?
I think that a parallel may be drawn here with certain titles that can equally be applied to an office or to the individual who at a specific time occupies that office.
For instance, the head of government of my country has, since 1901, been the Prime Minister. Yet in saying this, I am not implying that the one person has ruled the land since 1901!
Taking this further, I can truly state "The Prime Minister has been head of Government since 1901" and "The Prime Minister is currently visiting the United States of America" Assuming that the PM is in America when these statements were written, I can state that they are both true, but I cannot, from this, go on to conclude that the man who became Prime Minister at Federation in 1901 is currently visiting the USA!
"Prime Minister" is, first and foremost, the title of an office and it is in and through the capacity of occupying that office that an individual man or woman assumes the title "Prime Minister". The people functioning in that role change, but the office itself continues.
Similarly, I think it is easier to see the Antichrist as a role function, viz. the function of the opponent of Christ. As such, the term is singular. But the role may be fulfilled by different people at different times or at the same time in different places or even at the same time and the same place. In this sense, we can speak of "Antichrists" in the plural (just as we can also speak of "prime ministers", each of whom either was the Prime Minister at some time or who is currently the Prime Minister of another country).
I believe that John is saying that the prophecy of the Antichrist is fulfilled when this spirit of rebellion and opposition to Christ and the true gospel breaks out in the visible Church. God preserves those who are really His, and these will be aware of the deception, but many whose faith is only superficial will be led away from Christ to follow the false teachers. John sees this already happening in the Churches under his care and so writes that the Antichrist has come.
It should be noted that there is nothing in these passages of John to support a belief in the "rule of the Antichrist". John clearly does not have in mind some world dictator whose regime will persecute the Church. Such a vision did come to John on a different occasion in the form of the Beast of the Apocalypse, but there is no indication that he thought of the Beast and the Antichrist as in any way related, unlike much eschatological speculation since his time. Undoubtedly influenced by the manifestly unchristian stance of the Roman Empire, many early Christian writers married the two together and saw in the prophecy of the "eighth king" (Rev. 17:11) another reference to the Antichrist. A belief became quite widespread that Nero would come back from the dead possessed of full diabolical power to become the eighth king (= the Antichrist). More recent writers have identified this supposed ultimate incarnation of evil with everyone from Napoleon through Hitler to any one of the tyrants who have appeared on the world stage in recent times. Even seemingly benevolent statesmen such as Henry Kissinger have been under suspicion for one reason or another. And when Ronald Wilson Reagan became US President, the dark day must have seemed close to many Antichrist-watchers. Here we had a world leader whose name numbered 666, who seemed unduly influenced by astrology and whose policies were feared by many to be steering the world into nuclear conflict!
All of this goes well beyond scriptural teaching, be that about Antichrist or about the eighth king.
Johnís teaching about the Antichrist, though primarily directed toward his initial readers, are no less relevant to us today. They warn us, not of a coming dictator who will persecute the Church (though we must be aware that this too could happen ... as it has happened in the past!) but to the more subtle danger of false gospels being propagated by people who once seemed to be Christians, and who still may operate within the boundaries of the visible Church, but whose doctrines are actually in direct opposition to the gospel of salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Man of Lawlessness
Apparently, there were hyper-preterists around in Paulís day as well as in our own!
In the second chapter of his second letter to the Church of the Thessalonians, he warns that his readers are to give no credence to those who say that the Day of the Lord has already come. This Day will not come, he says,
"until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose everything that is called God or is worshipped, so that he sets himself up in Godís temple, proclaiming himself to be God. "(2 Thess. 23b - 4).
This evil force is already operating but,
"you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so until he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles and signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness." (2 Thess. 2:6 - 12).
In a later letter, Paul also speaks about an outbreak of lawlessness in the last days, although the Man of Lawlessness is not mentioned.
Writing to Timothy, he says,
"The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth." (1 Tim. 4:1 - 3).
Again, also writing to Timothy, Paul says,
"But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God - having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them." (2 Tim. 3:1 - 5).
Do all of these passages refer to the same apostasy?
Are they something that Paul sees happening in the distant future or are they already occurring or about to occur, at his time of writing?
Looking at the last question first, it is difficult to believe that Paul foresees only a distant futurist fulfilment of the Timothy passages. We must remember that these passages occur within the context of practical advice to a younger Church leader whom Paul had trained and into whose care he had entrusted certain of the Churches which he (Paul) had earlier founded. These letters are filled with practical instructions of immediate application, not theological speculations and long-distance prophesies.
Paul sees these disruptive teachings as already entering the Church and causing grave problems. His position is very similar to that of John as concerns the Antichrist and it is tempting to see the same dark forces at work in the Churches under Paulís care as in those under Johnís. Both had apparently been warned in prophecy that this would happen in "the last days", the "latter times" or the "last hour".
In the First Letter to Timothy, Paul could be read as implying that the "latter times" had already begun and that the problems he cites were a present reality. The second passage, however, speaks as if the "terrible times" are still future ó "there will be terrible times" ó although it may be argued that this is an approximate quote from an earlier prophecy and does not necessarily preclude its contemporary fulfilment. Nevertheless, it is probably better to see the fulfilment as being still future at the time of Paulís writing, though the fact that this is found within the context of a pastoral letter strongly suggests a fulfilment in the near rather than in the distant future. It will be something with which Timothy will need to contend. It fits well with the many personal instructions which Paul gives to Timothy ó including advice on how to care for his stomach problems (1 Tim. 5:23)!
In the opinion of the present author, Paulís experience of the rise of heresy and apostasy was seen by him as the beginning of the troubles and he had no doubt that things would get worse before they got better and that Timothy would likely encounter more severe problems than even he (Paul) had encountered. The prophecy warning of these things had presumably been given to the Church some time earlier, probably during the first flush of Christian evangelism when it might have seemed that the conversion of the world was near at hand. The prophecy would presumably have been given as a corrective and as a warning that bad times were coming and that the Christian walk would call for much endurance in latter times. Almost certainly, the prophecy had this pastoral purpose and would not have been concerned with the far-distant future.
On the face of it, one could possibly argue that "latter times", "last days" and "last hour" are not exactly synonymous terms, but that they represent a sequence of temporal stages. The "latter times" could represent a general time period of which the "last days" denoted the final stage and the "last hour", the short period immediately preceding the end of the "latter times" epoch. On this view, Paulís letters to Timothy might suggest that he believed the "latter times" to have begun, but that the "last days" were still to arrive. John, on the other hand, was writing at a time when the "last days" had not merely arrived, but had almost run their course. He saw himself as writing in "the last hour"!
This interpretation is probably reading too much into the texts and it might be best to interpret "latter times", "last days" and "last hour" as being more or less synonymous expressions. In any event, what is pictured here is a strong sense of impending crisis. Against the view that these terms indicate a progression (perhaps one should say a regression!) is the fact that the article is not used in the original Greek of Johnís letter. Rather than "the last hour" we would be better to read "a last hour", meaning an hour or period of crisis rather than a time immediately preceding the end of something.
Incidentally, it should be noted that the "terrible times" about which Paul warned Timothy were to be "terrible", not in the sense of being times of special hardship, suffering or persecution, but in the sense of being times of moral laxity, apostasy and superficial belief. People would have the "form [i.e. the outward appearance] of godliness", but they would deny that it had any power to change them. They might be "believers", but "believing" would be all that they did; the moral commitment and the spiritual power to transform their lives ó both vital to all true Christian belief ó would be sadly lacking.
Much of the later writings of the New Testament were composed against a background of apostasy and heresy. It could be said that many of the central doctrines of Christianity were sharpened on the grindstone of controversy. As false teachers twisted basic Christian doctrines until they came to mean something remote from their original intention, the apostles and teachers of the early Church wrote their letters to clarify the true meaning of basic doctrines and maintain the unity of the apostolic faith.
The immediate question, however, is whether this apostasy is the same as that which Paul foresees as taking place under the "man of lawlessness". It seems to this present writer that the rebellion under the "man of lawlessness" could be interpreted as the final stage of the apostasy of the last days, when the rise of heresy reaches its climax. Paulís association with the "man of lawlessness" with the coming of Christ, who destroys him with the brightness of His coming, requires this as being a final stage of the apostasy. But the big question for us is "Is this coming of Christ the final Judgment or the return in judgment on the Jewish Nation in 70 AD?" If the former, this would seem to be a reference to Gog and Magog as interpreted in Revelation 20:8. A futurist interpretation of this type is widely held today.
On the other hand, writers such as Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield and Gary DeMar argue that the "man of lawlessness" was a contemporary figure. They also understand the apostasy spoken of by Paul as being already in motion when he wrote to the Thessalonians (though most probably not at its most intense) and that it is probably to be equated with the falling away of the Jews who rejected their Messiah rather than an apostasy of the Church either in that age or at some time still future.
Warfield understands Paul as referring to the great falling away of the Jews which was already hastening to its completion in the destruction of the Jewish state. If this interpretation is correct, one might best identify the "man of lawlessness" as the Jewish leadership which, by its rejection of Christ whilst still continuing to offer worship in the Temple, was effectively desecrating the Temple and had become as obnoxious in the eyes of God as Antiochus Epiphanes or Herod or Caligula who in his insane belief that he was a god, tried to have an image of himself erected in the Temple.
Nevertheless, it remains true that the Jewish leadership did not explicitly "oppose and exalt ... over everything that is called God or is worshipped" and did not, in actual fact, proclaim itself to be God. Some commentators have, therefore, found it more probable that the "man of lawlessness" is more likely to refer to the Roman leadership, especially as embodied in the person of Nero. Yet this does not adequately account for Paulís reference to "all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders" (2 Thess. 2:9b). Such sings and wonders, however, were an integral part of Jewish Messianic expectation and were used by counterfeit Messiahs to attract followers.
The question as to whether the apostasy was Jewish or Christian was not as relevant in Paulís day as in our own. Paul always saw himself as a Jew and what we now call Christianity would have been seen by Christians, pagans and Jews alike as one of several alternative "Judaisms" that co-existed at the time. The non-christian Jews did not see themselves as opposing another religion (they probably would not have bothered doing this), but as opposing a Jewish heresy. Even though this alternative Judaism was gaining Gentile converts, the dispute was essentially between Jews or, more accurately, between differing interpretations of what it meant to be Jewish. When Paul spoke about Christians as being the true Jews, he was not using metaphors. For him, as for the other Christian leaders, the form of Judaism that became known as Christianity was the correct one that continued in unbroken line from the faith of the Patriarchs and Prophets. It was the other forms of Judaism ó the ones which later became known as the Jewish religion ó that had broken away and become apostate and heretical. Seeing the majority of the Jews, the original Church so to speak, reject Jesus as the Messiah would certainly have been seen by Paul as a great apostasy. In this sense, even though the leader(s) of this apostasy would not have regarded themselves as setting themselves up against God or proclaiming themselves to be God, their very actions effectively set themselves against Christ and, by rejecting the one means provided by God for salvation, in effect did set themselves up as God.
Although it is normally assumed that the "man of lawlessness" refers to a single person, we should not overlook the possibility that it might actually refer to a particular type of man. It could be argued that Paul is saying that once the restraining influence has been taken away, this "man of lawlessness" (used as a generic term ) would no longer be restrained and would be seen for what he is. As the restraint is taken away, this type of condition of man ó the "man of lawlessness" ó is released like a mad dog off a chain, to bring havoc on all around. Anyone acting in this way could then be called the "man of lawlessness" analogous to our interpretation of the Antichrist spoken of by John. We cannot be certain that the two were synonymous, but they certainly seem closely related by both being part of the great apostasy of the last days of the Jewish state.
But what was this restraining influence that had first to be taken away?
Paul becomes unusually enigmatic here, as if he is not willing to put into words something that his readers already knew about. He had already spoken to the Thessalonians about it and apparently did not feel free to spell out too many details in writing. In 2Thess. 2:6, Paul writes as if the restraining force is an impersonal influence, but this becomes personal in the following verse ... a "he" that will be taken out of the way.
Although many interpretations have been suggested for these verses, the most credible, I believe, is the the one which equates the restraining power with the Roman Empire. This immediately explains Paulís reticence to be more explicit, as any reference to the removal of the Empire (or the Emperor) would have been regarded as seditious. If the letter had fallen into the wrong hands, a more explicit reference could have brought swift action against Paul himself as well as giving the Roman authorities reasons for suspecting the spread of seditious teaching amongst the Thessalonian Church.
The change from the neuter to masculine between verses 6 and 7 is also readily explained on this interpretation. The power of the Empire, though itself impersonal, is manifested in the person and position of the Emperor himself.
Those who equate the "man of lawlessness" with Nero might find some support in the fact that Nero emerged as Emperor after the Caesar ruling at the time of Paulís writing (Claudius I) died. The present writer finds this less than satisfactory however as the impact of both this verse and the preceding one seems to involve the Empire itself being taken out of the way, not just a change of head. Wilkinson adds a greater dimension to the debate by arguing that the Roman Empire is being seen as the rule of law, and it is this rule of law, embodied first in the Empire and further embodied in the Emperor himself, that is the force that must be removed before the "man of lawlessness" can be revealed. When law (in what ever embodiment) is removed, lawlessness will be unchained.
Wilkinson is a futurist and understands that this event is yet to take place. Indeed, in a general sense, it has happened many times and will undoubtedly happen many more times in the future. But there was an event in the First Century which seems to me to have spectacularly fulfilled this prophecy.
At Neroís appointment, Vespasian (assisted by his son Titus) amassed an army of sixty thousand men at Ptolemais and in the spring of AD 67 marched into Judea with great slaughter. For fifteen months, the armies of Vespasian reduced all the strong towns of the Galilee and the chief ones of Judea to rubble, killing at least one hundred and fifty thousand of their inhabitants. His armies reached as far as Jericho before returning to Caesarea in preparation for the grand attempt against Jerusalem.
At that time, however, word reached Vespasian of the death of Nero and, not knowing whether the succeeding Emperor would wish to pursue the war, he temporarily suspended his plan. This decision allowed a respite of nearly two years for the Jews.
The following eighteen months was a time of turmoil. These months saw the death of four emperors; two by their own hands (Nero and Otho), one through assassination (Galba) and one through what could only be described as lynching (Vitellius). Already suffering from the tyranny and dissipation of Neroís last years of life, the Empireís fate went from bad to worse with the rise of the elderly and austere Galba who seemed to have a talent for offending just about everyone. His murder was almost inevitable, but if those who perpetrated the deed expected it to save the Empireís decline, they were sadly mistaken.
Otho, the new Emperor, was clearly not competent to handle so responsible a position and never had the loyalty of the entire Empire. Many provinces preferred Vitellius and the struggle between supporters of the two plunged the Empire into a disastrous civil war which effectively rendered it impotent.
Othoís brief and turbulent rule (if "rule" it could even be called) ended on the battlefield though not in battle. Surrounded by troops loyal to Vitellius, the besieged Emperor took his life rather than fall to superior forces.
Vitellius was a strange choice for Emperor. His career as a provincial governor had been disastrous and it very soon became apparent that his rule at Rome would follow suit. After making an encouraging speech which promised what would have effectively been a constitutional monarchy (something which even a more astute person than he could not have delivered in those circumstances) he virtually dropped all pretence at governing and retired into a private and increasingly dissolute life of luxury, gluttony, debauchery and drunkenness (not necessarily in that order!).
Not surprisingly, the change of emperors did nothing to improve the political situation and civil war continued. Already, the soldiers had proclaimed Vespasian as Emperor and an increasing number of provinces threw their weight behind him until Vitellius became nothing more in practice than "Mayor" of the city of Rome. History records how he met his fate at the hands of the ruthless Vespasian.
While Rome and its empire were tearing themselves to pieces, the Jews were left to themselves and should have had time to consolidate had it not been for a fresh wave of factional strife amongst them. If the great apostasy is really to be understood as a Jewish apostasy, it was at this time that it reached its full manifestation.
At Jerusalem, two factions contended for sovereignty. A division of one of these which had been excluded from the city, swept in at night sparing nobody in their path. Over eight thousand people were said to have died during that night alone, including the two chief priests. Not only were the chief priests murdered, but their bodies were cast aside and left unburied, a gross insult for a Jew, let alone a Jewish priest.
G. P. Holford says of this reign of terror that
"They slaughtered the common people as unfeelingly as if they had been a herd of the vilest beasts. The nobles they first imprisoned, then scourged, and when they could not by these means attach them to their party, they bestowed death upon them as a favour. Of the higher classes twelve thousand perished in this manner; nor did one dare to shed a tear, or utter a groan, openly, through fear of a similar fate. Death, indeed, was the penalty of the lightest and heaviest accusations, nor did any escape through the meanness of their birth, or their poverty. Such as fled were intercepted and slain: their carcasses lay in heaps on all the public roads: every symptom of pity seemed utterly extinguished, and with it, all respect for authority, both human and divine."
Holford goes on to say that while this was happening in the city, the whole Judean countryside was being laid waste by bands of robbers and murderers, "who plundered the towns; and in case of resistance, slew the inhabitants, not sparing either women or children." A commander of one of these bands, Simon son of Gioras, entered Jerusalem at the head of his army of thugs, effectively giving rise to a third faction and making a truly awful situation even worse. "The three factions, rendered frantic by drunkenness, rage, and desperation ... fought against each other with brutal savageness and madness. Even such as brought sacrifices to the Temple were murdered. The dead bodies of priests and worshippers, both natives and foreigners were heaped together, and a lake of blood stagnated in the sacred courts." John of Gischala, whose faction had control of the city before Simonís invasion, replied by burning storehouses full of provisions and Simon replied by copying his action. Thus, supplies which may have helped the city withstand a Roman siege were destroyed by senseless factional violence.
Initially, the faction headed by Eleazar had control of the Temple itself, but this high ground fell to John who sent a party of his followers to slay Eleazar under the pretence of going up to the Temple to offer sacrifices. This placed John in the superior situation, essentially in the Temple itself and controlling the middle regions of the city, while Simon had control of the more remote parts
Was this the apostasy that Paul foretold? Was the "man of lawlessness" exemplified by such as Simon Gioras and, perhaps even more, by John of Gischala, who did indeed "oppose and exalt ... over everything that is called God" by slaying those who came to the Temple to bring sacrifices, including the priests themselves, and by desecrating the Temple through their plundering of the sacred vessels? The factional leaders did not actually claim to be God, but by their action they proved that they had neither fear nor respect for God and in effect did set themselves in the Temple in opposition to God. Simon Gioras even executed the High Priest Matthias and his three sons. Lives would be spared by submitting, not to Godís will, but to that of the factional leaders!
Later, when the city was under attack, It was John to whom Josephus appealed to surrender and thus save Jerusalem from total destruction, but (despite his treatment of the priests and worshippers), John continued to maintain that the city was Godís own and would never be taken. Josephus records a long and impassioned speech that he made to John and his followers in which he compared the present rebellion and desecration of the Temple to that under Antiochus Epiphanes (note that 2Thess. 2:4 describes the "man of lawlessness" in terms that also recall Antiochus Epiphanes). Antiochus profaned the Temple by sacrificing a pig to a pagan god, but those to whom Josephus spoke had caused an even greater desecration by filling the Temple with human corpses, both Jews and foreigners. In addition to this, John melted down the sacred utensils, emptied the sacred vessels of the oil and wine and committed other acts of sacrilege such that Josephus wondered if the ground would not have opened up and swallowed the city had the Romans not attacked it (Jos. pp. 870-1) He warned of the coming Divine wrath if they persisted in their course of action and did not repent. Alas, his warnings fell on deaf ears.
As for "counterfeit signs and wonders", Josephus records that there was "a great number" of false prophets whom "the tyrants" had induced to deliver lying prophesies to the people to delude them into believing that Divine deliverance would come. He records an instance where one false prophet addressed the populace, proclaiming that God commanded them to go to the Temple where they would receive miraculous signs of their deliverance. Some six thousand people obeyed, according to Josephus, and gathered in the outer court of the Temple, just as the Roman soldiers attacked. Before Titus had a chance to determine what to do with these people, the soldiers set the area on fire, trapping all those who had followed the false prophet. Josephus records that some died by "throwing themselves headlong" while others perished in the fire itself ( Jos.p. 889).
Interestingly in view of St. Paulís prediction concerning the appearance of the "man of lawlessness" following the removal of the restraining influence, it should be noted that the emergence of the full manifestation of this violence and rebellion depended upon the Roman Empire being effectively Ďtaken awayí for a period of time by being rendered impotent through its own destructive civil war. Even the Emperor was effectively Ďremovedí in so far as no one ruler could claim to govern the entire empire during the civil war. Some provinces looked to Otho, some to Vitellius and (later) some to Vespasian as the Emperor.
Following his capture of Rome, Vespasian had consolidated the Empire behind him and once more turned his attention to Judea, sending his son Titus at the head of his army for the final onslaught. Faced with a common enemy, the factions of John and Simon at last came together and the two men effectively ruled as joint tyrants of the city. So terrible were the conditions under these tyrants that many in the city looked to the Romans as their liberation. Alas, not liberation, but ever more dreadful catastrophe was to attend the Romansí attack.
People who considered pork unclean and unfit to be eaten were driven by starvation to consume their own babies. Followers of a religion that held human life in such high regard as to regard an accident resulting in oneís own death as a grave sin, actually committed suicide rather than fall into Roman hands. The suffering of that time was unbelievable.
The rebellion of the Jews, especially during the final period of the factional tyrants, inspired a vindictiveness in the Romans that burst forth in an orgy of destruction, once the city was captured, that not even Titus could contain. The Temple was not simply burnt to the ground, but according to the Talmud and Maimonides, was actually given over to the plough share by Terentius Rufus, captain of the army of Titus. According to these records, the foundations of the Temple were ploughed up in a literal fulfilment of Micah 3:12. One may see the extent of Roman violence as a direct response to the depth of rebellion and the Ďrule of lawlessnessí which enveloped Jerusalem during that terrible period.
The Eighth King and the Beast that "once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction."
We should now take a closer look at something that has been touched upon already a number of times, namely, who or what is the eighth king of Revelation Chapter 17?
We have already argued that this figure does not appear to be identifiable with the "little horn" or with Antichrist or with "the man of lawlessness".
The eighth king is intimately associated with the beast "which ...once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction" (Rev. 17:8). On the beast rides the evil woman, personification of the Antichristian city which we argued is probably best identified both with Rome and with apostate Jerusalem, but for the moment we are more interested in the beast itself. This hideous creature is described as having "seven heads and ten horns" (Rev. 17:3b).
The seven heads are identified both with the seven hills on which the woman sits (Rome was known as the City of the Seven Hills) and with seven kings or rulers . Five of these had already fallen when John received his vision, one was present, and the seventh was still to come, though his rule would only be brief (Rev. 17:9 - 10). After this, there would be an eighth king, who would in some sense be identified with the beast itself, who "belongs to the seven: and who is "going to his destruction".
It is interesting to note that this last king is described as "an eighth king" and not "the eighth king". Presumably, he does not necessarily follow immediately from the seventh king (the one whose reign is only to be brief), although there is no reason to postulate a long interlude between them.
Identification of the eighth king depends to a great degree upon identification of the first seven. This, in turn, depends upon the date of Johnís writing, as the existence of the sixth king as a contemporary of John ("one is") will at least fix the identity of the former five as well as the one "not yet come" and hopefully give us a better indication of identifying the eighth.
Before taking this up however, let us be clear about what is said and ó more particularly ó what is not said of the eighth king.
Contrary to the popular doctrine of the Ďrule of Antichristí, this king does not necessarily emerge as the worst of the eight. John sees all the kings of the group, and the beast they govern, as being inspired by Satan, but he does not single out the eighth as being any more wicked than the rest. Although he states that the ten horns (about which more will be said below) will "make war against the Lamb" (Rev. 17:14a), he is silent as to whether the eighth king will or will not be an especial persecutor of Christians. Popular eschatology asserts this, but it is not stated in Johnís writings.
John specifically identifies the eighth king with the "beast who once was, and now is not" (Rev. 17:11a). This seems to imply that the "beast" will effectively be incarnated in this eighth king. The present writer pictures the beast as going into the Abyss and being effectively destroyed, only to rise up again phoenix fashion in the form of this new leader who will subsequently be in complete control of the beast and in that sense totally identified with it. In the longer run, however, he and the beast will meet with complete destruction.
The other feature of this king which John specifically notes is that he will "belong to the seven" (Rev. 17:11b). A number of Christians interpreted this as meaning that one of the other kings (in fact, Nero) would come back from the dead with the full power of Satan to rule as the ultimate Antichrist. Such an extravagant interpretation, however, is hardly warranted and John may be doing no more than saying that this king will be similar in nature to the other seven. This could mean that he will again be in complete charge of the beast, an interpretation which fits with the association between the appearance of this king and the "resurrection" of the beast from the Abyss.
There can be little doubt that the beast represents the Roman Empire and that the kings are its rulers. Five had already passed by the time John wrote of his vision. The most straightford identification of the "kings" would be Julius (who, though assassinated before being actually made Emperor was, as Dictator of Rome, effectively fulfilling this function), Augustus, Tiberius, Gias (Caligula) and Claudius I. The "king" who ruled contemporaneously with Johnís writing would than be Nero, which fits perfectly with the prophetic aspect of Johnís visions as to persecution of the Church etc. The king that was still to come and who would rule for only a brief time would than be Galba, whose reign lasted less than a year.
Following Galbaís brief and disastrous reign, the decay that had already begun under Nero reached its climax as the Empire tore itself apart with civil wars and lack of leadership from the top. The two emperors that followed Galba (Otho and Vitellius) had little control, reigned for very brief periods and were not recognised by the entire Empire. This was the period when the Empire ó the beast ó "was not", not in the sense that it ceased to exist, but in the sense that it ceased to function as a unified entity and would most probably have disintegrated altogether had it not been for the emergence of a strong and determined leader.
Vespasian was, I would argue, the eighth king prophesied by John. In actual fact, he was the tenth "king" in the line that began with Julius Caesar but as neither Otho nor Vitellius held sway over the entire Empire (even though each was officially made Emperor), Vespasian was really the eighth Roman Emperor to be recognised as such throughout the Empire. This fits perfectly with Johnís vision of an eighth king who once more embodies the Empire (and, as such, becomes one of the same class as the other seven) and in whom the Empire rises, figuratively speaking, from death.
Vespasian was also "of the seven" in the sense that he, like them but unlike Otho and Vitellius whose very brief reigns represented something of an interlude in the early history of the Empire, held sway over the entire Roman Empire. With Vespasian, Rome again ruled in a very real way.
Yet, this rule was not to be forever. Eventually the great beast of Rome itself would go to destruction (Rev. 17:11).
Only the Kingdom of Christ will last forever.
There is no doubt that Jesus addressed the people of His age about the concerns of that age. His message was expressed in terms that a typical Jewish person of the era would have understood ... sheep and flocks, fish from the Sea of Galilee, farmers sowing seeds etc. He also foresaw great changes about to come into their world and He knew that He was going to be the agent of those changes. He knew that the old era was passing; the era of Temple sacrifice and its accompanying priesthood were soon to pass away and a new era of salvation history was about to be written with His own blood.
The sacrificial system and all that accompanied it pointed to Him; to His atoning death on the cross and His resurrection and conquest of death itself. Over all His teaching was the realization that the religious system to which both He and His listeners adhered was soon to find its completion in the sacrifice of His very self and that this old system ó about to be made impotent by being transcended ó was soon to be swept aside as the old age of salvation history was being brought to a culmination in Him.
The days of His teaching ministry were therefore the beginning of the final days of the old system; the system centred on Jerusalem and its Temple. Soon, a new era of salvation history would be opened up through faith in His atoning sacrifice and the pathway to God would cease being through the altar of sacrifice in the Temple. From then on, it would be through Him. Indeed, it would be seen as always having been through Him, the Reality of which the Temple sacrifice was but a symbol and a shadow.
But, humanity and its vested interests being what it is, Jesus knew that the Jewish people and their priests were not about to stand aside, tear down the Temple and embrace His way. They would fight to retain their old practices and beliefs and even persecute those who saw in Jesus the culmination of all that they had treasured.
But the Temple and the old system would have to go and if the people would not do it, then the only way was for a direct intervention from God, a "messianic judgment" against a superseded system that was threatening to become a stumbling block to the following of the new revelation of Jesus.
Jesus spoke about this coming judgment many times, always placing it within the lifetime of the people to whom He was speaking. He warned that "this generation" (i.e. His contemporaries) would bear the punishment of all the sins of their ancestors, because they refused salvation when it was offered them. He foretold of a deteriorating political situation ("wars and rumours of wars") as well as natural disasters (earthquakes, famine etc.) in various places and compared these with the birth pangs of the new era. They were not to be seen as signs of an immediate end of the era, but they were signs that a new order of things was being brought to birth within the old and that deliverance was soon to come to His followers ... deliverance from the persecutions of the leaders of the old era, whose vested interests in its continuation blinded them to the reality of the salvation that had now come amongst them.
The time for the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple sacrifice and the Jewish state was to happen before "this generation" had passed away. The generation of Jesusí contemporaries would live to see "the abomination of desolation" in the Temple, Jerusalem surrounded by (Roman) armies and finally, not one stone (of the Temple) left upon another.
It is the suggestion of the present writer that most (but not all) of the "doomsday" statements of Jesus related, not to the final Judgment of all humanity, but to what we might call the "Messianic Judgment" of Jerusalem and the old order culminating in the destruction of AD 70.
Most commentators would agree that the destruction of Jerusalem loomed large in the prophesies of Jesus, however many would argue that they extend beyond this event to a more distant happening; to the end of human history where Christ comes on the clouds of heaven to judge the living and the dead. The problem with this interpretation however, is that the prophesies concerning what we generally call the "Second Coming" appear not to have been placed by Jesus in the remote future, but on a straightforward reading of texts such as Matthew 16:28 and 24:34, to be essentially contemporaneous with the fall of Jerusalem. Could it be that they in fact are further references to the fall of Jerusalem, albeit expressed in apocalyptic and symbolic phraseology?
Most commentators do not wish to go that way, however the alternatives do not appear at all convincing.
Perhaps the most popular explanation involves the notion of a shortening of the historical perspective in prophetic utterances. It is argued that the important thing to remember in attempting to understand prophecy is not when something will happen so much as the significance of that event. Two events may be closely related from the prophetic perspective (it is argued by supporters of this view) even though they may be separated by long periods of historical time. The analogy of mountain peaks is sometimes used. A prophet, symbolically standing on the high ground, views what appear to him to be two adjacent mountain peaks, one only a short distant behind the other. This perspective is not an illusion ó the two peaks are truly close together ó but what the prophet does not see (because it is unimportant from his perspective) is the deep valley separating them. A traveller, on the other hand, finds the peaks separated by a journey of many miles ... across an down the valley and through several lower ridges of hills that the prophet could not even see in his "high point" vision.
What ever may be said about this thesis in general terms, its application to Jesusí prophecy is made doubtful by the fact that He is answering a specific question concerning the timeframe of events to come. He also states quite unequivocally that the events which He is predicting will all takes place before the end of the generation of people listening to Him (Matt. 24:34). This effectively brings the relative shortness of the time frame to these events into the subject matter of the prophecy itself.
Admitting this, other commentators interpret "generation" in Matt. 24.34 in an unconventional way, for example, to mean "race" or "the people of God". This is a possible interpretation, but even on the unlikely assumption that it could get around the difficulty with this particular verse, it would in no way alleviate the parallel problem raised by Matt. 16:28 where Jesus states that some of His listeners (i.e. "some standing here") will not taste of death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom. Here, He effectively makes the same point as in Matt. 24:34 without even using the word "generation".
Then there are statements such as "you shall not pass through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes". Once again, a relatively short time limit seems to have been placed on this event.
Moreover, although seldom seen in this light, parables such as that of the wheat and the tares appear, if taken at face value, to refer to just a single generation. The farmer goes out to plant the seed, he waits for the plants to grow and then he harvests the crop. But note that farmers harvest the same crop that they plant. They do not normally allow generation after generation of plants to seed and regrow before harvesting the distant descendants of the seeds initially planted!
Some may object that this is taking parables of this kind too literally; that parables are, after all, normally intended to teach just one lesson and should not be analysed in detail. This is a fair enough comment, but it nevertheless remains true that the "single generation" interpretation of the parable fits nicely with Jesusí own words about the generation of His listeners not passing away before His prophesies are fulfilled and also with the further fact that parables such as that of the wheat and the tares make no mention of the resurrection of the dead. Taken at face value, they would seem to describe a "harvest" and judgment of the living, not of the dead, because those who had been "sown" were alive at the time of the "harvest".
Of course, this parable continues to have relevance today in so far as it can be interpreted to refer to nominal and committed Christians within the Church, but I suspect that this (the "traditional" ) interpretation is really a reinterpretation for our own situation of something that would have been understood quite differently by Jesusí original hearers. I am not saying that the reinterpretation is not justified or valid, but it would hardly have occurred to the Jews who first heard it from Jesusí own lips. For them, and for Jesus Himself, I would suggest, the field was Israel, the wheat the truly godly Jews (those who accepted Jesus as Messiah) and the tares those who, though superficially followers of God, rejected His Messiah (they were those whom Jesus called the children of the devil in Jn.8:42-45). Jesus Himself is the Sower in this parable, the seed is His message and the wheat matured into the Jerusalem Church. When Jerusalem was sacked in AD 70, the "weeds" were torn up from the ground as the Jerusalem Church was gathered together safely away from the scene of conflict and, together with all who are true to Christ, shine like stars in the Kingdom of the Father.
The fulfilment "within a generation" of these prophesies is even more apparent in the parable of the tenants. Here the rebellious tenants clearly represent the unbelieving Israelites who first mistreat the messengers sent by the vineyards owner (representing the prophets) and then kill the ownerís son (clearly a prophecy of Jesusí own death at their hands). The owner then comes to the vineyard (i.e. Israel, understood as the Kingdom of God), destroys the presents tenants and turns it over to new tenants. This is a clear prophecy of the destruction of Israel and its replacement by the largely Gentile Christian Church; something that happened at the destruction of the Jewish Temple. It is noteworthy however, to note that Jesus saw this happening when the owner of the vineyard returned. This associates the parable with those such as the wheat and tares in speaking of a great judgment event when the time is ripe. However, the fact that the parable of the tenants speaks of "others" (i.e. the gentiles) inheriting the kingdom after this judgment event identifies this judgment, as clearly as anything could, with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. This event certainly did occur before the generation of Jesusí contemporaries had passed and, we believe, adds weight to the contention that the judgment event prophesied in this parable is identifiable with that prophesied in the parable of the wheat and tares as well as that prophesied in such passages as Matthew 16:28 and 24:34.
We could also ad that further weight appears to be given to this interpretation of the Messianic Judgment by Jesusí denunciation of the unbelieving towns, whose populations refused to believe in Him despite His preaching and His miracles. In saying that even Sodom and Gomorrah would have repented upon seeing such a display of divine power, He is denouncing the towns of Israel as being even more deeply in sin than the "wicked cities" of the plain had been and that their inhabitants (i.e., the generation inhabiting them at the time who were actually involved in rejecting Christ) would be subjected to an even greater punishment. The events throughout the land of Israel between AD 66 and AD 70 surely may be seen as fulfilment of this prophecy.
Many would object that, even granted that the "coming" referred to in, or implied by, these parables is the Messianic Judgment of AD 70, that about which Jesus spoke in the Olivet Discourse and to which the above passages of Matthewís Gospel refer, is described in terms which seem too "cosmic" to apply to the historic events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem.
This is a valid criticism, and one which requires serious attention.
First, however, let us look at the similarities between this event prophesied by Jesus in His Olivet Discourse and that which He prophesied in the abovementioned parables.
We may note that both seem to be judgments of the living. Neither in the parables nor in the Olivet Discourse is their any mention of the resurrection and subsequent judgment of the dead. This may seem strange if the prophecy refers to the judgment of the whole of humanity, including those who have long passed the way of all flesh. It also appears strange if the prophecy is of an event in the distant future, after the passing of many generations who had been given the opportunity of either accepting or rejecting Jesus. However, it is not strange if Jesus truly is prophesying an event within the lifetime of most of those listening to Him speak.
The second similarity, as we have already seen, is precisely this time limit on the fulfilment of the prophecy; implied in the parables, but explicitly stated in the Discourse.
The judgment is implied rather than described in the parables. Moreover, it is implied in metaphorical terms ... as the return of a vineyard owner etc. The judgment prophesied in the Discourse seems to be more like a description of what Jesus expected to happen ... and this is where the problem lied. Whereas we may indeed say that the Kingdom was taken from the Jews and given to "others" following the events of AD 70 and while we may even see these events as symbolically being the harvesting of the land, the literal description of these events were not those prophesied by Jesus. At least, not all of them were!
One may see in the imagery of the darkened sun and the blood-red moon a literal description of the skies filled with smoke and illuminated by columns of fire as the city of Jerusalem burned. Showers of sparks may even make it appear that the very stars of heaven were falling to earth. However, such imagery is not primarily literal. It is poetic, apocalyptic. It is the type of imagery that Old Testament prophets used to denote the fall of kingdoms (e.g. Isaiah 34:3-5). The people whom Jesus addressed, as Jews, would have been well aware of this of course and should have readily appreciated the force of His prophecies in terms of this symbolism. He was not giving a description of the event, any more than he described it in the parables we discussed earlier, but he was impressing on His hearers the importance of what was about to happen ... that it was the end of Israel as they had known it. Surely, if Isaiah (in the passage above referred to) could use such apocalyptic language in his prophecy of the capital city of Edom, Jesus would have found it entirely appropriate to describe the destruction of the capital of the kingdom established as Godís own people!
However, this still leaves unexplained what surely must be the most vital aspect of the prophecy. The personal coming of Jesus on the clouds of heaven. Surely, the critic will argue, this describes an event far more profound than anything that happened in AD 70!
But what exactly did Jesus prophesy would happen?
The picture we form of the prophecy depends to some extent upon which translation we read.
For example, according to the Authorised Version, Jesus prophesied "And then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven" (Matt. 24:30a). The New International Version, however, interprets this same verse as "At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky".
These two versions do not necessarily say the same thing.
The older translation is ambiguous as to just where the "sign" is. Is the sign in "heaven" ... and is "heaven" in this context synonymous with "the sky"?
Or is Jesus telling His listeners that they will see a sign (place and form of sign unspecified) that in some sense indicates "the Son of Man in heaven"?
The NIV interprets this to mean that the sign itself is the Son of Man and that He will be seen in "the sky". Basil Atkinson (p. 800) interprets this passage "the sign, i.e. the Son of Man ..." clearly identifying the sign with the coming of the Son of Man per se. The AV use of "heaven" is then assumed to mean, not the abode of God or of the blessed, but simply the empirical sky.
Whether one reads the NIV version as symbolic or literal, the picture presented has become the traditional one of the Second Coming ó the exalted Christ appearing in full majesty amid the clouds of the sky.
That this interpretation might be correct seems to be implied by the second part of this verse which clearly states that the people will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven.
The imagery of the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven goes back to Daniel 7:13 where, however, it relates, not to the Son of Man coming to earth from heaven, but being presented to God in heaven. "Heaven" being, in that context, the abode of God and not simply the sky.
The "sign" might then be something that will tell the population that the Son of Man has been exalted in heaven, without implying that the Son of Man Himself is at that time visible to human eyes. On this interpretation, the sign may not itself be in the sky. It could be some event on earth that shows by its nature that Christ now rules at Godís right hand. The destruction of the Temple ó whose sacrifices have been rendered obsolete by Christís atoning death ó could be considered such a sign. However, this does not alter the further statement (v 30b) that "They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds". Here, it seems to be the Son of Man Himself, not just the "sign" of the Son of Man, that they will see.
One may ask, nevertheless, just how literal "seeing" might be. The language of prophecy is very graphic and very often highly symbolic. Although I would certainly not be dogmatic about it, it may be suggested that the "seeingí is not intended to be a literal visual perception of the Son of Man but an experience of something so dreadful that no reasonable doubt can be left that the Son of Man has indeed come in the clouds of Heaven (in the sense of the Daniel passage). This fits in nicely with the earlier prophecy that the "sign" was what would be seen and once again suggests that what is actually seen ó the prophesied sign ó is really the ending of the Jewish nation, the Temple and the entire Old Testament system of worship.
A second difficulty with the interpretation of these words of Jesus as prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem in the First Century concerns not so much the difficulty of what is to be witnessed as who it is that will witness it.
The NIV translated the latter part of the first sentence of verse 30 as "and all the nations of the earth will mourn" when they see Christ coming in the clouds of heaven. Expressed in these words, the prophecy certainly appears to be of something wider than the First Century destruction of Jerusalem.
But is this interpretation the most accurate?
Some would argue that it is not. They would follow J. S. Russell in arguing that the original phrase "pasai ai phulai tes ges" is better translated as "all the tribes of the land". The word "ge" is commonly used in the New Testament and is best translated as "land". Where it is used, as in this passage, with "phulai" (= "tribes" ... plural) the association with Israel is, in Russellís opinion, "obvious".
Certainly, there are many commentators who do not agree that it is as "obvious" as Russell contends. To some extent, oneís interpretation of these words will depend upon just how "cosmic" one is willing to interpret the picture language which Jesus uses in His prophecy. In all such assessment however, what must be remembered is that Jesus was speaking face to face with His listeners in what was, essentially, a pastoral situation, i.e. a situation in which advice concerning problems which the listeners themselves were facing would be expected to loom far larger than something that may not occur until the distant future. Too much cannot be placed on Jesus statement that even He did not know the time when these things would come to pass, as what is relevant here is not the "date" of the prophesied events, but their relation to one another. Thee is no conflict in saying that He did not know the day or the hour (i.e. the exact date) and yet stating that all this would happen before the generation of His first listeners had passed. This gives no mandate for splitting the prophecy such as the first part (the destruction of the Temple) was at a time known to Jesus (i.e., within that generation) while the latter part was not.
It should be noted also that the "signs of the end", often taken to be signs of the end of the world or of the coming of the Last Judgment, are specifically associated with the destruction of the Temple in such passages as Luke 21:5 - 24 and that this passage continues straight into a prophecy of the coming of the Son of Man in the verses following.
Nevertheless, I do believe that we can go too far and make every eschatological statement of Jesus refer to the events of AD 70. Whereas I would argue that the majority of His eschatological statements are to be interpreted in this way, I remain very skeptical about such an interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46. Perhaps significantly, this does not appear with His earlier prophesies, although it is included within the Olivet Discourse.
It is true that the general resurrection is not specifically mentioned in this passage either, but it does depict a judging of the nations. The problem with this judgment scene is that it appears to be about salvation by works. At first reading, it would seem that the saved are welcomed into Heaven because they visited people in prison, helped the needy and in general demonstrated good works and the reprobate were excluded, not so much because of "active" sins as because their lives lacked love.
Of course, if one claims to be a follower of Christ and yet lives a loveless life, that personís claim to Christianity is to be doubted and the usual interpretation of Jesusí words here is simply that He is using the signs of a personís commitment to Him to reveal the true (not necessarily the professed) state of that personís spirit. That would overcome the apparent implication of salvation by works which this passage carries, but this popular interpretation nevertheless remains doubtful.
Another and considerably less satisfactory interpretation sees "these my brothers" as referring to the Jewish people as Jesusí "brothers" in the flesh. Taken to its logical conclusion, this interpretation would have salvation depending upon our reaction to the Jews.
The solution seems to rest with the determination of the identity of "these my brothers" . Are they people in general (as the popular "social gospel" interpretation holds), the Jews (as the second interpretation believes) or someone else?
It seems to me that the solution is to see who it was that Jesus called His brothers. This is answered in Mark 3:34b. In Jesusí own words "Whoever does Godís will is my brother and sister and mother." In other words, "these my brothers" are those who do Godís will, who through Jesus share His relationship with God. We also recall the words of the risen Christ to Saul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:4) "why do you persecute me?" (emphasis mine). Saul was not directly persecuting Jesus of course. But by persecuting Christians, that is exactly what he was doing indirectly.
On the positive side, Jesus (Matt. 10:41-42, Mark 9:38-41, Luke 9:46-50,) told His disciples that anyone who helps a righteous man of a prophet because he recognises that person as a righteous man or prophet, will share that personís reward and that whoever shows kindness to one of His disciples, shows kindness to Him.
In view of this, it seems that the "brothers" are followers of Christ and those of "the nations" will be judged according to how they respond to these followers.
The followers are there with Christ. Their salvation has already been settled (at their conversion) and the Judgment is not for them. In a sense, they are participating with Christ in the Judgment (1Cor.6:2-3). This judgment scene appears to be saying that people who had no thought of having been Christians but who nevertheless supported Christians when they (the Christians) needed help, in effect established a saving relationship with Jesus. Their actions demonstrated a faith which they did not themselves recognise. We think of the Indonesian Moslems hanged in 2000 outside a Mosque because they acted as spies for the Christians in their community. Will they be included in this number?
On the other hand, these words of Jesus are chilling for those whose "Christianity" is only an outward show devoid of a corresponding inner commitment to Jesus!
Such an interpretation of this judgment scene makes any equating with the events of AD 70 utterly inappropriate. Indeed, it seems to me to be forcing interpretations too far to allow any understanding of these passages to equate with the Messianic Judgment.
Beyond the gospels, equal doubt may be placed upon the interpretation of 1 Thess 4:13 - 18 as referring to the destruction of Jerusalem. This passage does not specifically mention the destruction of anything, but paints a scene of the resurrected dead and the living at the time of Christís coming being raptured together to met Him "in the air" ("air" is normally synonymous with the spiritual realm). This is probably picture language, but the "picture" appears to be of something quite different from the destruction of Jerusalem!
One of the difficulties encountered here is Paulís use of the phrase "we who are alive" (1 Thess. 4:17) at the time of this event. If taken literally, it seems that Paul expected to still be alive at the time, which would set its time in the near future when Paul wrote those words. This seems to be the main argument for identifying this event with the destruction of Jerusalem.
This argument is, however, quite weak.
For one thing, if Paul was not alive in AD 70, although many of those to whom he wrote would have been.
Moreover, the use of "we" does not always imply that the speaker or writer believes that he or she will still be alive when a certain event occurs. We use such expressions as "We might be living on Mars by the year 2100" without implying that we will personally be around to see this. In this context "we" simply means "we humans" without any implication as to ourselves personally. Paul may simply have been using "weí to mean "Christians who are then alive". Like Paul as he wrote those words and like his readers as they read them, the Christians who will be caught up to meet Christ in the air are alive, or rather, will be alive when Christ comes.
A more serious issue involves this question of the resurrection of the dead and the rapture of the living. It is an understatement to say that there is no record of either having taken place in AD 70 (although some statements of Jesus often thought to refer to the rapture have been interpreted as the calling out of Christians from Jerusalem just prior to the destruction of that city). Unless these references are deliteralized to a degree unacceptable to most commentators, there is no way that this prophecy was fulfilled in AD 70 ... or by any other event thus far in history.
It may be that Paul did think that the Judgment would be within his lifetime. If so, this would have been his opinion, not something revealed to him. If so, he could not have believed (at that time anyway) in an extended millennial period during which Christ would subject everything under Himself, as he seems to believe by the time he wrote 1 Corinthians.
On the other hand, it may be that the time factor did not particularly concern him in the Thessalonians passage. Whatever else might be going to happen, the most important message that Paul wanted to instil into his readers was the certainty that Christ would come again and that the dead would rise to be with Him. This was important for the Thessalonian Christians to understand, as apparently some were beginning to think that those alive at the time of the Second Coming would have an advantage over those who had died or even that the dead might not rise to participate in the Kingdom.
In his second Thessalonian letter, Paul states that the Second Coming will not happen until after the appearance and defeat by Christ of the man of lawlessness. Not the conquest of the nations by the gospel, but the defeat of the man of lawlessness.
We argued earlier that this sinister character can probably be identified with the rebellious and apostate Jewish leadership in the time immediately preceding the destruction of Jerusalem. Christ will, says Paul "overthrow [the man of lawlessness] with the breath of his mouth and destroy [him] by the splendour of his coming" (2 Thess. 2:8b). Futurists see this as evidence that the man of lawlessness is still future and will not appear until just before the last Judgment. Preterists, understanding the man of lawlessness to be a contemporary of Paul, use these same verses to argue that the Second Coming and Judgment was also a First Century event. However, if the coming of Christ in 2 Thess 2:8 is identified with that about which Paul wrote in his first letter ó as it surely must be, as Paul is referring back to his earlier letter in this passage ó this would mean that the resurrection of the dead and the rapture of the living were also events of the First Century; a conclusion that we have already seen to be extremely doubtful.
Perhaps a closer look at this passage will avoid the dilemma.
The man of lawlessness was to be overthrown by the breath of Christís mouth. This, I take to mean the Holy Spirit. We note the similarity with the sword (that is the Word) that Christ held in His mouth in Revelation and by which he defeated the nations. This is the "sword" by which He both punishes and converts the nations, according to our interpretation.
Secondly, Paul says that Christ will destroy the man of lawlessness by the splendour of His coming. There seems to me to be some parallel here with the final judgment on Gog and Magog.
These parallels (if indeed, they are parallels) should not be pushed too far, but they may hint at something of importance.
We suggest that the man of lawlessness, as an historical person, was overthrown at the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, and that this was a direct punishment by God on the religion and the nation that rejected Christ. Nevertheless, the "lawlessness" which manifested so dramatically then, has not been completely destroyed. Christ is still in the process of overthrowing its remaining influences as the worldís peoples are drawn to Him by the workings of the Holy Spirit. Eventually, those who remain intransigent will rebel and be totally destroyed by His personal appearing at the Last Judgment.
For Paulís purpose as he wrote 2 Thessalonians, it did not matter whether all this would take place in the same event or not. He was not speculating about the future, but was concerned to counteract a belief in an extreme form of preterism that was growing up amongst the Christians to whom he was writing. This was all the more urgent as the hyper-preterist doctrines were being circulated as having come from Paul himself! (2 Thess 2:1-2).
A great deal more could be said about the end-time prophesies of the New Testament, but I believe that even this brief examination is sufficient to demonstrate that they cannot all be made to refer to a single eschatological event. The assumption that they do will lead, we argue, to an eschatology that is unbalanced in one or other direction, either hyper-preterist in which all prophesies have long ago been fulfilled, or hyper-futurist in which most of the important events foretold by Jesus and His followers are yet to come and the present rule of the Kingdom of God (and especially the power and authority already given to it to make disciples of all the world in the power of Christís Spirit) is seriously underemphasised. Both extremes are unhealthy for the progress of the Church.
Although eschatology, the doctrine of Last Things, may seem a remote and esoteric subject, it is nevertheless important in determining how one sees the role of the Church and ones own ministry within the Church. If, for example, we believe that the future will become increasingly worse, that human civilization faces destruction in a great war and the Church faces extreme times under the yoke of an antichristian world dictator, or if we simply believe that "this is as good as it gets" ó that all prophecy of a coming future Kingdom of the Lord is merely a mythological way of expressing the sense of peace and harmony that Christians should have to one another in the fellowship of the Church, but that the Church itself will forever be a small and defeated minority movement struggling for existence first in a pre-christian, then in a pseudo-christian and finally in a post-christian society, why (we may ask ourselves) should we even try to carry out the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations? Why did Christ give us this command if He knew that we (and He, at least in this world) face inevitable defeat?
If, on the other hand, we believe that God in Christ is better at straightening things out than we are at messing them up; if we believe that St. Paul should be taken seriously when he spoke of Christ ruling until all is placed under His feet; if we really believe in Danielís prophecy that the rock not cut by human hands will indeed become a mountain overshadowing all the earth, we must see that we are not merely on the winning side, but on the side that has already won!
Simply to sit back and wait for Christ to come and put all things right, after they get into such a mess that just about everything is destroyed anyway, is not, I believe, the message of the Bible. God has chosen the Church to be His instrument in this world. We, the Church, carry the Sword of the Word with which the risen Christ smites the nations. We are His army and His weaponry here on earth. We are the viceroys through whom He rules until He puts everything under His feet, the last enemy being death itself, and hands the Kingdom over to God in final judgment.
There are, I believe, two possible misconceptions about the Church as the instrument of God in the world.
We would be wrong to see it as a machine that God has wound up and released into human society. We would be equally wrong to see it as a pipe through which God blows, as it were.
The Church is Godís windmill, and His Holy Spirit is the Wind. If the windmill is kept [properly oiled, the blades will respond perfectly to the Breath of God, driving the turbines and generating the electricity to light the darkest corners of the world. What does the work in a windmill. The machine or the wind?
The wind does 100% of the work, surely. But then, the machine does 100% of the work also. And the total adds up to 100%!
So it is with God and the Church ... as long as the Church is and remains yielded to Him and in consequence able to detect the slightest breath of the Holy Spirit.
Being yielded involves many things. Principally, it involves, commitment to Christ before all else. But it also helps to have correct theology. And correct eschatology!
May God correct us wherever His correction is needed.
Atkinson, B. F. C. "The Gospel According to Matthew" in The New Bible Commentary.
Edited by F. Davidson, A. M. Stibbs & E. F. Kevan London: The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1967.
Barnett, P. Apocalypse Now and Then. Sydney: The Anglican Information Office, 1989.
Beasley-Murray, G. R. Revelation" in The New Bible Commentary.
Bruce, F. F. The Hard Sayings of Jesus. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1983.
Chilton, D. Days of Vengeance. Fort Worth: Dominion, 1985.
Collins, C.N.M. "Zechariah" in The New Bible Commentary.
Holford, G. P. The Destruction of Jerusalem. Exeter: Leonard Jackson, 1830.
Josephus, Flavius. The Complete Works (Tr. William Whiston). Nashville: Thomas Nelson,
Massie, A. The Caesars. London: Martin Secker & Warburg, 1983.
Russell, J. S. The Parousia: A Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of
Our Lordís Second Coming. New edition 1887. Reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983.
Sproul, R. C. The Last Days according to Jesus. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.
Travis, S. I Believe in the Second Coming of Jesus. London: Hodder and Stoughton,
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