[John F. Walvoord, President and Professor of Systematic Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary.]
The wide diversity in the interpretation of prophecy alerts anyone who approaches this field of biblical exegesis that there are also widely differing principles of interpretation. How can it be that reputable scholars who agree on many basic Christian doctrines interpret the prophetic portions of Scripture with such differing results? How can this be explained?
One of the most obvious reasons for difference in interpretation in prophecy is that scholars do not all regard the Bible as having the same authority and accuracy. Liberal theologians tend to regard the Bible as a human instrument written by fallible men, and therefore conclude that the Scriptures are not infallible. It is understandable that liberals have no clear conclusions about the future. Some question the validity of prediction itself on the grounds that no one knows the future. Others accept the premise that prophecy is in some cases true and in other cases not true. This leaves the interpreter with the difficult question of sorting out the true from the false. Generally, there is little scholarly discussion of prophecy among those who are clearly liberal in their approach to the Bible.
Among conservatives who regard the Bible as authoritative in prophecy as in history, a more serious attempt is made to try to determine what the Bible actually reveals. Here the diversity is not based on the premise that the Bible in some respects is untrue; instead, the difficulty arises in various schools of interpretation.
Most Bible scholars recognize at least three major approaches to prophecy, all dealing primarily with the doctrine of the millennium. The most ancient view, that of the church of the first few centuries, was what is known today as premillennialism or chiliasm. Premillenarians assert that the second coming of Christ will precede a millennium or a thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. Chiliasm is another word (derived from the Greek χιλιὸς “one thousand”) which affirms the same doctrine. Most impartial interpreters of the history of doctrine agree that premillennialism was the doctrine of the early church. Adherents of this view hold that Christ taught that His second coming would be followed by His kingdom on earth, as indicated in such passages as Matthew 20:20-23; Luke 1:32-33, 22:29-30 ; Acts 1:6-7. In the first two centuries of the church there seems to have been an absence of any controversy on this point.
Premillenarians cite many early adherents of their interpretation, such as Papias, who was acquainted with the Apostle John and many others such as Aristio, John the Presbyter, and a number of the twelve apostles including Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John, and Matthew. G. N. H. Peters also lists in the first two centuries premillenarians such as Clement of Rome, Barnabas, Hermas, Ignatius, and Polycarp.1 It was not until the close of the second century and the beginning of the third century that specific opposition to this view seems to have arisen. In the second and third centuries, however, many other premillenarians surfaced in their writings, including Cyprian (200-258), Commodian (200-270), Nepos (230-280), Coracion (230-280), Victorinus (240-303), Methodius (250-311), and Lactantius (240-330). While the premillennial views of some of these have been challenged, it is unquestionably true that Nepos was an ardent defender of premillennialism in North Africa and he was joined by Commodian. Even opponents of premillennialism concede that there was a broad premillennial teaching in the first three centuries.
A second prominent approach to prophecy is the view which has been called amillennialism since the nineteenth century . It is basically a nonmillennial view, which teaches that there will be no literal millennium after the second advent of Christ. While amillenarians tend to avoid identification of any adherents of their view, they usually find the first strong advocacy of amillennialism in the school of theology at Alexandria, Egypt, with the first adherents appearing about A.D. 190. A few writers claim that amillennialism existed earlier. Landis, for example, tries to trace amillennialism back to Christ and the apostles.2 Most amillenarians, however, claim that it had its beginning in the second and third centuries. And yet even careful scholars like Berkhof 3 tend to slur over the facts by claiming that amillennialism was prominent in both the second and the third centuries, when actually it was practically all in the third century except for the last ten years of the second century.
Early amillenarians include Gaius, whose writings come from the third century, and Clement of Alexandria, a teacher in the school at Alexandria, from 193 to 220. Clement’s disciple Origen (185-254) and Dionysius (190-265) led the opposition to premillennialism in the third century.
Amillenarians usually concede that the basic approach of the Alexandrian school was to take Scripture, especially prophecy, in a nonliteral sense. They regarded the entire Bible as one great allegory in which the real meaning is hidden behind the actual statements of Scripture. They attempted to combine the idealism of Plato with Scripture which was only possible if Scripture were interpreted in a nonliteral sense.
Amillenarians admit that the school at Alexandria was heretical inasmuch as they challenged almost all the principal doctrines of the Christian faith. For instance, W. H. Rutgers, an amillenarian, wrote the following concerning Clement of Alexandria.
Clement, engrossed and charmed by Greek philosophy, applied this erroneous, allegorical method to Holy Writ. It was a one-sided emphasis: opposed to the real, the visible, phenomenal, spacial and temporal. A platonic idealistic philosophy could not countenance carnalistic, sensualistic conceptions of the future as that advanced by Chiliasm. It shook the very foundation on which Chiliasm rested. Robertson observed that “it loosed its [Chiliasm’s] sheet-anchor—naive literalism in the interpretation of Scripture.”4
In spite of the fact that the major thrust of amillennialism in the second and third centuries was provided by those who were heretics, Rutgers offers the questionable proof that amillennialism was the prevailing view in the second century simply because many of the church fathers never discussed the issue at all. On the basis of this, and without citing those definitely committed to amillennialism, Rutgers states, “Chiliasm found no favor with the best of the Apostolic Fathers, nor does it find support in the unknown writer of the Epistle to Diognetus.”5
While it is true that many early church fathers simply do not discuss the millennial question, the fact that specific adherents to premillennialism can be cited makes the almost complete silence of any advocates of amillennialism until A.D. 190 most significant. While there is dispute as to whether Barnabas, an early church father, is amillennial or premillennial, even those in the amillennial camp usually do not claim Barnabas. Up until A.D. 190, no clear adherent to amillennialism can be found. This fact is in stark contrast to the fact that many held to the premillennial point of view.
For this reason, most amillenarians trace their view to Augustine (354-430), the famous bishop of Hippo in North Africa. Augustine was the father of amillennialism because he discarded the allegorical system of interpretation of the Bible as a whole as advanced by the school at Alexandria in favor of limiting allegorical interpretation to prophetic Scriptures only. He held that other Scriptures should be interpreted in their natural, grammatical, historical sense. With Augustine began general acceptance of the modern approach of recognizing the basic and normal interpretation of Scripture as literal and grammatical (as held by the Protestant Reformers such as Calvin and Luther) but at the same time holding that prophecy is a special case requiring nonliteral interpretation. It is this difference with premillennialism which is the basic problem in the continued discussion between premillenarians and amillenarians.
The third broad view of prophetic interpretation is postmillennialism. It holds that Christ will return at the end of the millennium. Postmillenarians hold that the “millennium,” such as it is, must be fulfilled before the second coming of Christ, and in this, amillennialism and postmillennialism agree. The difference between the two schools is the more optimistic approach of postmillennialism which regards the gospel as being increasingly triumphant until the world is at least Christianized, and this victory is climaxed by the second coming of Christ and the immediate introduction to the eternal state. While some leaders throughout the history of the church, such as Joachim of Floris, a twelfth-century Roman Catholic, held views close to postmillennialism, most postmillenarians trace their view to Daniel Whitby (1638-1725). While some amillenarians tend to emphasize the earlier postmillennialism, A. H. Strong, a postmillenarian, states clearly, “Our own interpretation of Revelation 20:1-10, was first given, for substance, by Whitby.”6
Postmillennialism related to the optimism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and coincided with the general hope of a better world. While largely discarded now, it was a prevailing view among many conservative theologians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, of which Charles Hodge is an example.
For students of prophecy seeking to weigh the relative cogency of premillennialism, amillennialism, and postmillennialism, the first requirement is a clear view of ordinary rules of interpretation as normally advanced in hermeneutics. Adherents of all views of prophecy tend at times to forget that basic rules for exegesis have been established in the history of the church at least by conservative scholars, and one is not free to disregard them in favor of establishing his own particular interpretation. Conservative scholars tend for the most part to agree on these basic principles, which include the following:
1. Words are to be understood in their normal, natural sense unless there is firm evidence in the context that the word is used in some other sense.
2. Each statement of Scripture should be interpreted in its context. This usually means that a word should be interpreted in its immediate context, although sometimes usage in other passages is also relevant. A common fallacy, however, is to read into a passage something that is found elsewhere in the Bible instead of allowing the immediate context to have primary weight.
3. A text of Scripture must always be seen in its historical and cultural contexts, and the intended meaning of the author is important. Conservative scholars, however, recognize that the Bible is not only a work by human authors, but is also inspired by the Holy Spirit, and in some cases even the human author did not understand entirely what he was writing.
4. Scripture should be interpreted in the light of grammatical considerations including such important matters as tense and emphasis. Bethlehem, pinpointed in Micah 5:2 about seven hundred years before the birth of Christ. He was to be the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15) who would have victory over Satan. His lineage is described in the Old Testament as extending through Seth, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and then through Boaz, Obed, Jesse, and David. All of this is pointed out in the genealogies of the New Testament (cf. Matt 1:1-16: Luke 3:23-38). The Old Testament abounds with prophetic details about Jesus as prophet, priest, and king (Deut 18:15-18; 1 Sam 2:35: Ps 110:4: cf. Gen 49:10; 2 Sam 7:12-16; Zech 6:13; Heb 5:6). Isaiah 9:6-7 summarizes His birth, person, and deity. All these prophecies have been literally fulfilled. Even His death on the cross is anticipated in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, and His resurrection is predicted in Psalm 16:10. In all these cases the prophetic Scriptures have been fulfilled historically in a literal way.
In view of these fulfilled prophecies it seems reasonable to conclude that yet unfulfilled prophecies will have the same literal fulfillment, especially when they are couched in terms that make sense literally.
In general, conservative expositors have agreed on the literal interpretation of Scripture when it comes to broad doctrines such as the deity of Christ, the humanity of Christ, His life on earth, His death, His resurrection, and His second coming. They agree that there is a literal heaven and a literal hell. In discussion of prophetic interpretation. it soon becomes evident that the crux of the matter is whether there is a future, literal millennial reign of Christ on earth. It is here where conservative scholars differ, going in general in three directions: premillennialism, amillennialism, or postmillennialism.
Although it is generally agreed that amillennialism sprang from the theology of Augustine and that postmillennialism derived from it, it is quite clear in current discussion that the problem is more than a general rule that prophecy should be interpreted in an allegorical or nonliteral sense. As has been pointed out, as a matter of fact, both amillenarians and postmillenarians often interpret prophecy in a very literal way. What, then, is the real point of distinction?
The abundant literature in the field supports the concept that the major problem is the doctrine of the millennium or a thousand-year reign of Christ. If the millennium precedes the second coming of Christ as amillenarians and postmillenarians contend, it is also clear that many of the precise predictions related to the millennium cannot be clearly fulfilled. The present world is not under the political direction of Jesus Christ, and evil as such is not being immediately judged by God as it will be in the millennial kingdom.
By contrast the premillennial view anticipates a second coming of Christ followed by His thousand-year reign on earth. This is the historic interpretation held by the early church fathers and which has continued in contemporary premillennialism.
Current discussion on the subject, however, has tended to blur some of these time-honored distinctions. For instance, Arthur H. Lewis denies that he is amillennial but at the same time he prefers not to be known as premillennial or postmillennial.7 Lewis holds that the millennium must be before the second coming because there is sin in the millennium and for him there can be no sin on earth after the second coming of Christ. His problem is in his premise that the millennial kingdom is perfect. This, of course, is contradicted by many Old Testament passages which he ignores.
Others have followed the lead of Lewis by claiming to be historic premillennialists and then proceeding to describe the millennium as something which precedes the second coming of Christ. Often the problem arises because they are forced in their denominations or schools to agree to a premillennial statement.
Gilbert Bilezikian, professor of biblical studies at Wheaton College, is typical of those who blur the distinctions on the doctrine of the millennium. While affirming agreement with the premillennial position of Wheaton College, he nevertheless adopts what is normally called amillennialism. He writes, “Peter, reading about God’s oath to David to set one of his descendants upon his throne (Psalm 132:11), interpreted the promised messianic rule as having been fulfilled in the resurrection of Christ and his exaltation in heaven (Acts 2:30-31).”8 This view is obviously not historical premillennialism, for it allows for no literal thousand year reign of Christ after His second coming. This he makes clear later in the same article, when he states that “the essential features accompanying the second coming of Christ” are “the general resurrection, the universal judgment, and the inauguration of the reunion of the redeemed in eternity.”9 He further adds insult to injury by accusing those who differ with him as being guilty of “shoddy exegesis consisting of facile scissors-and-paste patchworks of fragments of biblical texts,” which he claims is motivated by their desire to reap monetary gain.10 He discards the testimony of a millennial reign in Revelation 20 because it is found in one of “relatively unclear passages where figurative and symbolic motifs are present (such as the thousand years’ rule of Revelation 20).”11 What can be said of this type of “premillennial” interpretation? Actually this approach brings confusion rather than clarity to the subject. Any system that says the millennium is fulfilled before the second advent and also teaches that the eternal state begins at the second advent cannot accurately be labeled premillennialism. It would be far better for a scholarly discussion of the problem to accept the time-honored terms rather than attempt to redefine prophetic interpretation in a way that does not correspond to the historic handling of the problem.
It is clear that the major problem in the interpretation of prophecy is the doctrine of the millennium. Along with this is the corresponding difficulty of whether many Old Testament prophecies relating to Israel will be fulfilled before or after the second coming of Christ. The doctrine of a future millennium following Christ’s second advent is inevitably related to the question as to whether promises given to Israel will have a literal fulfillment. Accordingly in other articles in this series special attention will be addressed to these issues which have been characteristic of the discussion for many generations but which have also been evident in recent literature.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications. 1952), 1:494-95.
2 Ira D. Landis, The Faith of Our Fathers and Eschatology (Lititz, PA: By the author, 1946).
3 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1941), p. 708.
4 W. H. Rutgers, Premillenialism in America (Goes, Holland: Oosterbaan and Le Cointre. 1930), p. 64.
5 Ibid., p. 57.
6 A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), p. 716.
7 Arthur H. Lewis, The Dark Side of the Millennium (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), p. 6.
8 Gilbert Bilezikian, “Are You Looking for Signs—Or for Jesus?” Christian Life, September 1977, p. 17.
[John F. Walvoord, President and Professor of Systematic Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary]
The masterful chapter on “The Kingdom Concept in the Old Testament” by J. Dwight Pentecost in his work, Things to Come,1 sets forth in a comprehensive way the doctrine of the kingdom of God in the Old Testament. Unfortunately, in spite of the comprehensive presentation in this chapter, as well as numerous other books that set forth the doctrine of the kingdom in the Old Testament, amillenarians have repeatedly stated that the Bible nowhere teaches a future kingdom on earth.2 Rather than leave such statements unchallenged, it seems best to review briefly the specific contribution of the Old Testament to the premillennial interpretation of a future kingdom on earth.
The problem is by no means simplistic. Many varying definitions of the kingdom of God are given. As Pentecost states, “Through this maze of interpretations it is almost impossible to make one’s way.”3
Pentecost divides these confusing aspects of the kingdom of God into two categories, the eternal kingdom and the theocratic kingdom.4 As Pentecost and others have noted, the theme of the theocratic kingdom can be traced from the Garden of Eden through the period of human government initiated by Noah, the period of the patriarchs initiated by Abraham, the kingdom under the judges, the kingdom under the kings, and finally the kingdom under the prophets.5 Although interpretations of these aspects of the kingdom of God vary in differing systems of eschatology, the primary problem of interpretation is found in the theocratic kingdom under the prophets. Usually it is conceded that the kingdom was in theocratic form in Israel under Saul, David, Solomon, and their successors. The question remains whether there is a future form of the kingdom that will also be theocratic, political, and on earth. This is the point of tension between premillennial and amillennial interpretation. Obviously for an amillenarian to say summarily that no verse in the Bible teaches a future earthly kingdom is a dogmatic statement that needs to be examined. The purpose of this discussion is to refer primarily to what the Scriptures actually state and then raise the question as to the proper interpretation of these passages.
As a casual reading of the Book of Isaiah demonstrates, the prophet Isaiah speaks repeatedly on the subject of a future earthly kingdom. In his book he predicts a future kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital and involving the tribe of Judah.
In the last days, the mountain of the house of the LORD will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it. And many peoples will come and say, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us concerning His ways, and that we may walk in His paths. For the law will go forth from Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And He will judge between the nations, and will render decisions for many peoples, and they will hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war (Isa 2:2-4, NASB).
This prophecy has had no literal fulfillment in the past, but a future kingdom on earth could fulfill precisely these predictions of Isaiah.
One of the better known of Isaiah’s pronouncements concerning the future kingdom is his prediction of Christ’s birth.
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this (9:6-7 ).
Again this passage refers to an earthly government. The child will be born on earth; the throne will be that of David; rule will be characterized by justice and righteousness; and it will be accomplished by the power of God rather than the power of men. His birth has been fulfilled, but the establishment of His earthly government has not.
One of the most extensive passages by Isaiah refers to Christ’s coming and the characteristics of His reign on the earth:
Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And He will delight in the fear of the LORD, and He will not judge by what His eyes see, nor make a decision by what His ears hear; but with righteousness He will judge the poor, and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth; and He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked. Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins, and faithfulness the belt about His waist. And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them. Also the cow and the bear will graze; their young will lie down together; and the lion will eat straw like the ox. And the nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (11:1-9 ).
These characteristics of Christ’s reign obviously refer to earth. The righteousness of His rule, the destruction of the wicked, the accompanying tranquility in nature does not correspond to anything in history nor anything in the future in heaven, but refers to the earth. Verse 9 refers to “My holy mountain” and “the earth” being “full of the knowledge of the LORD.” To these prophecies Isaiah adds the graphic picture of judgment on earth in chapter 24 in connection with His earthly reign, He concludes, “Then the moon will be abashed and the sun ashamed, for the LORD of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and His glory will be before His elders” (24:23 ).
To this Isaiah adds another point in Isaiah 32:1, “Behold a king will reign righteously, and princes will rule justly.” And in 33:20 , he describes Zion: “Look upon Zion, the city of our appointed feasts, your eyes shall see Jerusalem an undisturbed habitation, a tent which shall not be folded, its stakes shall never be pulled up nor any of its cords be torn apart.” Again, this prophecy has never been fulfilled in any way in the past; thus it requires a future fulfillment. Emphasis here is again on Israel’s regathering to her “own land. Israel will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king, and they will come trembling to the LORD and to His goodness in the last days” (3:4-5 ),
Hosea, though he lived years after the death of David the king of Israel, predicted that David would return. This resurrection of David is promised by several other prophets and is related to the second coming of Christ. That is when David will live and reign with Christ. The kingdom of God over which David will reign after the second coming of Christ was predicted by Ezekiel. “And I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken” (Ezek 34:24).
Ezekiel confirms it again with these words: “And My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd; and they will walk in My ordinances, and keep My statutes, and observe them” (Ezek 37:24).
Jeremiah adds his confirming word. “But they shall serve the LORD their God, and David their king, whom I will raise up for them” (Jer 30:9).
In these passages it is clear that David is not Christ. The resurrected David who once reigned on the throne of Israel will serve as a prince under Christ, the King of kings.
The revival of the Davidic kingdom and the restoration of the cities and vineyards of Israel is graphically prophesied by Amos. “In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old” (Amos 9:11). The prophecy concludes:
Also I will restore the captivity of My people Israel, and they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them, they will also plant vineyards and drink their wine, and make gardens and eat their fruit. I will also plant them on their land, and they will not again be rooted out from their land which I have given them, says the LORD your God (9:14-15 ).
This does not describe a spiritual kingdom in the hearts of the followers of Christ, nor does it refer to the eternal new earth. Instead Amos is writing about a literal kingdom on earth with cities and vineyards. This will be a literal Davidic kingdom.
A major prophecy is given in Micah 4:1-5:5 , the early portion of which parallels Isaiah 2:1-5. Zion is declared to be the source of the law (Mic 4:2). Peace will characterize world government (Mic 4:3). This will be when “the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion from now on and forever” (Mic 4:7). As in many other promises of the coming kingdom, nothing in history or in the contemporary spiritual situation parallels these prophecies, or in any sense provides a reasonable fulfillment.
Zechariah 2:10-12 adds its testimony to the future joy and blessing of the kingdom.
Sing for joy and be glad, O daughter of Zion; for behold I am coming and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD. And many nations will join themselves to the LORD in that day and will become My people. Then I will dwell in your midst, and you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent Me to you. And the LORD will possess Judah as His portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem.
As in other prophecies, the center of the government will be Jerusalem and the central fact of the kingdom will be the abiding presence of the Lord on the earth.
Another confirming word is found in Zechariah 8:1-8.
Then the word of the LORD of hosts came saying, Thus says the LORD of hosts, I am exceedingly jealous for Zion, yes, with great wrath I am jealous for her. Thus says the LORD, I will return to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. Then Jerusalem will be called the City of Truth, and the mountain of the LORD of hosts will be called the Holy Mountain. Thus says the LORD of hosts, Old men and old women will again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each man with his staff in his hand because of age. And the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in its streets, Thus says the LORD Of hosts, If it is too difficult in the sight of the remnant of this people in those days, will it also be too difficult in My sight? declares the LORD of hosts. Thus says the LORD of hosts, Behold, I am going to save My people from the land of the east and from the land of the west; and I will bring them back, and they will live in the midst of Jerusalem, and they will be My people and I will be their God in truth and righteousness.
Familiar predictions of Jerusalem as the center of God’s kingdom and the presence of the Lord and His blessing on His people are again emphasized in this prophecy. Zechariah 9:9-10 adds:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey. And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem; and the bow of war will be cut off. And He will speak peace to the nations; and His dominion will be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
This passage, like Isaiah 9:6-7, views both advents of Christ together. At His first coming, the nation welcomed Him as her King. But His crucifixion followed. Christ will nevertheless reign over Jerusalem when He returns again, “and His dominion will be from sea to sea” (9:10 ). Zechariah 14 describes in detail the return of the Lord, the battle of Jerusalem, the establishment of the kingdom, the change in the typography of the land, and the ultimate victory of Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords. As in other millennial passages, nothing in history, in the present age, nor in the eternal new earth corresponds to these events. Many other Old Testament passages bring confirming evidence to these passages that have been quoted. The kingdom of God, brought to the world by Christ in His second coming, is not taught merely by an isolated passage here and there; it is a major theme of Old Testament prophetic revelation.
Frequently in the Psalms as in the Prophets, references are made to God’s future theocratic kingdom. Psalm 2:6 predicts that Christ will be “installed [as] My King upon Zion, My holy mountain.” While Psalm 22 prophesies the crucifixion of Christ, Psalm 24 predicts His reign on earth.
Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in! Who is the King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates, and lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in! Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, He is the King of glory (24:7-10 ).
Many understand Psalms 45 and 46 to refer to the reign of Christ. Psalm 48 speaks of the future glory of Zion.
One of the clearest passages is Psalm 72. Although given in the form of a prayer, it will surely be fulfilled, as is evident for instance, in verses 7-8 . “In his days may the righteous flourish, and abundance of peace till the moon is no more. May he also rule from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” The universal submission of the kings of the world in the future theocratic kingdom is described in verses 10-11 , “Let the kings of Tarshish and of the islands bring presents, the kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts. And let all kings bow down before him, all nations serve him.” The psalm closes with the prayer, “And blessed be His glorious name forever; and may the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen, and Amen” (v. 19 ). It should be noted that this prophecy relates to “earth,” not heaven. recent form of amillennialism, which says the prophecies are fulfilled in a nonliteral way for the believer in heaven (in the intermediate state) prior to the creation of the new heavens and the new earth; (3) a combination of the other two forms, that interprets some kingdom passages as being fulfilled in the present age, some fulfilled in their intermediate state during the present period, and others yet to be fulfilled in the eternal state in the new heavens and the new earth.
The variety of approaches of the amillennial view, which is essentially a denial of a literal millennium on earth, is its own commentary. None of these views provides any reasonable literal fulfillment of the passages. Amillennial writings, which sometimes boldly state that not a single verse in the Bible teaches a kingdom of God on earth following the second coming of Christ, usually avoid the many Scriptures which have been cited in this article. Amillennialism nevertheless has appealed to many scholars in the ancient as well as in the modern church. But that theory does not provide an adequate explanation of these passages. Amillenarians often simply avoid passages that would contradict their conclusions or dismiss them by asserting dogmatically that the premillennial interpretation is wrong.
An illustration of this is the discussion by Jay Adams in his work, The Time Is at Hand. This book does mention some passages which seem to teach premillennialism but often his references are only a sentence or two, a footnote here and there, or a strong assertion that the premillennial view is wrong. Of 14 references to Isaiah, 9 are simply references in footnotes. In 2 sentences in a footnote he dismisses 11 passages in Isaiah as being already fulfilled, and he claims that his interpretation “can hardly be questioned.”8
Amillenarians in their interpretation of millennial passages have several alternative explanations: (1) they declare them conditional and therefore never to be fulfilled; (2) they declare them historical and already fulfilled; or (3) when historical fulfillment is doubtful, they say they will be fulfilled in the new earth. But with one voice they declare that it is impossible to find their fulfillment in an earthly millennial kingdom. There is a growing tendency among amillenarians to refer millennial passages to the new earth as this eliminates the difficulty of finding historic fulftllment for many such prophecies.
Adams provides another illustration. In regard to numerous passages on the millennial Jerusalem he writes, “Was Christ to rule in Jerusalem? Of course! And that is precisely what he does. Today he reigns and rules from that ‘Jerusalem which is above’ (Gal 4:26); from that heavenly ‘Mount Zion’ to which the writer of Hebrews says that believers ‘have come’ (Heb 12:22).”9
Certainly all recognize that Hebrews 12:22 refers to the new Jerusalem in the eternal state (and it could conceivably be in existence now). But does this satisfy the many references to a millennial Jerusalem? Again Adams writes, “Come to a millennial city? Come up to a literal mountain? A physical throne? An earthly temple? Of course not.”10 Why does he say, “Of course not”? The answer is that it would teach a millennial kingdom.
All of Adams’s references to the millennium in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Nahum, and Malachi are discussed in footnotes. He avoids giving a detailed exegesis of pertinent passages. A reading of the many Old Testament passages previously quoted reveals that they do not disappear simply because a footnote says a literal interpretation is impossible and a nonliteral interpretation is “of course” the only proper one. Even his claim that the amillennial interpretation is transparently the only possible one is supported by too scanty a New Testament confirmation.
In defense of Adams, it may be pointed out that he is attempting only a relatively small paperback discussion of a large problem. But the sweeping dismissal of alternative views and the failure to recognize that there is a variety of contradictory amillennial interpretations are all too characteristic of amillenarians’ discussions. The fact is that the many allusions to an earthly kingdom yet to be fulfilled in the future are too detailed to dismiss them that easily.
It is not the purpose of this article to provide a detailed refutation of amillennialism. The writer has sought to do that in his work, The Millennial Kingdom, which is confirmed by the extensive work of J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, both of which have been mentioned earlier. The goal of this discussion is to call attention to the many detailed prophecies related to the millennium which premillenarians feel have never been satisfactorily explained by the amillennial approach. Premillenarians believe that it is honoring to Scripture to allow it to mean what it appears to mean when taken literally and that it is just as wrong to explain away prophetic passages about the millennium as it is to explain away historic passages referring to the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ, and other central doctrines of biblical faith.
BSac 139:554 (Apr 82) p. 128
The familiar cry of amillenarians is that the New Testament confirms their interpretation of the Old Testament. The next article in this series will deal with the New Testament doctrine of the kingdom of God.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), pp. 427-45.
2 Rutgers states, for instance,”Again the New Testament gives plain indication that Christ will remain in heaven until the end of the world. That kingdom will not be one of earthly, material felicity and blessing, but spiritual. In Christ and His true disciples that kingdom is already established, and in harmony with the confession of the church of all ages, not to establish an earthly, Jewish kingdom, Himself visible and bodily reigning in this semi-earthly, semi-heavenly realm of material existence, but for judgment. An unprejudiced reading of the Scripture renders one universal judgment, one universal resurrection. Nowhere is there intimation of a millennial reign intervening” (William H. Rutgers, Premillennialism in America [Goes, Holland: Oosterbaan and Le Cointre, 1930], pp. 286-87). Hoekema states, “That the millennial reign depicted in Revelation 20:4-6 occurs before the Second Coming of Christ is evident from the fact that the final judgment, described in verses 11-15 of this chapter, is pictured as coming after the thousand-year reign….it is obvious that the thousand-year reign of Revelation 20:4-6 must occur before and not after the Second Coming of Christ” (Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. 1979], p. 227).
3 Pentecost, Things to Come, p. 427.
4 Ibid., pp. 428, 433.
5 Ibid., pp. 435-37, 441.
8 Jay Adams, The Time Is at Hand (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1970), p. 63.
9 Ibid., p. 27.
[John F. Walvoord, President and Professor of Systematic Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary]
Like with many other doctrines, the doctrine of the kingdom in the New Testament builds on the concepts already revealed in the Old Testament. In summarizing the Old Testament doctrine, it was noted in a previous article that the Old Testament concept of the kingdom includes 14 major features.1 These can be summarized under three headings.
Prophecies of a theocratic kingdom on earth in which David would reign as king were partially fulfilled in David’s day. God also promised him that his throne and his kingdom would endure forever (2 Sam 7:16).
Details of the future theocratic kingdom on earth include the factors that it will be an earthly kingdom, that David will be resurrected to serve as a prince under Christ, that Christ Himself will be the King of kings and Lord of lords ruling over the entire earth, not simply the land conquered by Solomon. In the kingdom, Jerusalem will be its capital, Israel will be regathered to her land with the kingdom extending to the whole earth with blessing to the Gentiles as well as to Jews, and Christ’s rule will be characterized by righteousness, justice, and peace. In addition to its political and theocratic character, the kingdom will have a high level of spiritual life in which the ministry and presence of the Holy Spirit will be much in evidence.
In view of occasional sweeping statements on the part of amillenarians that the Bible nowhere teaches a premillennial kingdom of Christ on earth, it should be noted that the Old Testament has abundant evidence which, interpreted normally and literally, would clearly teach the kingdom on earth which can in no sense be fulfilled either (a) in the present age by the church in heaven, or (b) by the saints who are in the intermediate state, or in the new earth (Rev 21-22 ).
Many Old Testament passages speak of the high level of spiritual life in the future kingdom on earth referred to as “a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Jer 31:31). This New Covenant is described in Jeremiah 31:32-37 with many other Scripture passages supplying additional details. As many have pointed out, the New Testament emphasizes this spiritual character of the kingdom without contradicting its political and earthly character.
Interpretations of the kingdom in the New Testament may be divided into four types, with some overlapping. (1) Premillennial interpreters have found confirmation in the New Testament of a kingdom on earth, as will be supported in the discussion to follow. (2) The amillennial interpretation of the New Testament, however, building on the spiritual characteristics of the kingdom, denies that the earthly kingdom will ever be literally fulfilled, and denies a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. Conservative amillenarians usually follow Augustine in holding that the kingdom is on earth now in the hearts of the people of God and that at Christ’s second coming the new heavens and the new earth are immediately introduced. However, some do believe that the millennium is fulfilled in heaven or in the intermediate state. Oswald Allis traces this view to Duesterdieck (1859) and Kliefoth (1874).2 Currently some amillenarians combine the two concepts and find some prophecies fulfilled in the present age and some prophecies fulfilled in heaven. Another alternative has the prophecies fulfilled in the new heavens and the new earth. the same entity, but some like Earl Miller point out certain proper distinctions.6 In the discussion which follows (in this and an ensuing article) the New Testament passages that relate to the doctrine of the kingdom will be examined. Without reviewing all the prolific literature that has been written on all sides of the question concerning the nature of the kingdom, the question constantly before the interpreter is whether the New Testament text supports the premillennial, amillennial, postmillennial, or liberal interpretation.
J. Dwight Pentecost has written an excellent discussion on “The Kingdom Program in the New Testament.”7 He cites G. N. H. Peters in support of the concept that the Jews expected the Messiah, when He came, to bring in a literal fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. Peters states:
It is universally admitted by writers of prominence (e.g., Neander, Hagenbach, Schaff, Kurtz, etc.), whatever their respective views concerning the Kingdom itself, that the Jews, including the pious, held to a personal coming of the Messiah, the literal restoration of the Davidic throne and kingdom, the personal reign of Messiah on David’s throne, the resultant exaltation of Jerusalem and the Jewish nation, and the fulfilment of the Millennial descriptions of that reign. It is also acknowledged that the utterances of Luke 1:71: Acts 1:6; Luke 2:26, 30, etc., include the above belief, and that down, at least to the day of Pentecost, the Jews, the disciples, and even the apostles held to such a view….they regarded the prophecies and covenanted promises as literal (i.e.. in their naked grammatical sense); and, believing in their fulfilment, looked for such a restoration of the Davidic Kingdom under the Messiah, with an increased power and glory befitting the majesty of the predicted King; and also that the pious of former ages would be raised up from the dead to enjoy the same.8
Amillennial and postmillennial refutation of this premillennial concept usually follows one of four patterns: (1) that the promises of the Old Testament were literal but were forfeited by Israel’s rejection of Christ; (2) that the prophecies were misinterpreted as literal and were never intended to teach a literal kingdom on earth, and that they refer instead to the present experience of the church on earth (John Calvin’s view); (3) that the promises of the kingdom refer to the future new heavens and new earth, not to the present situation; (4) that the fulfillment of the promises is found in the intermediate state in heaven at the present time. There is so much variety in the refutation of premillennialism that it is quite clear that opponents of premillennialism are not agreed among themselves except on the negative conclusion that the New Testament does not confirm the premillennial view that Christ’s coming will precede a one-thousand year reign on earth.
When Christ, preceded by John the Baptist, taught the doctrine of the kingdom, the question raised was not whether the kingdom had come but whether it was coming immediately. Even John Bright, an amillenarian, recognizes this widespread expectation of fulfillment of the prophecies of the kingdom on earth.9 On the other hand even premillenarians like George E. Ladd attempt to define the concept of the kingdom of God with comparatively little reference to the Old Testament teachings, giving as much attention to the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha as he does to the Old Testament, and building his concept of the kingdom almost entirely on New Testament revelation.10 Modern liberals feel free, however, to hold that the Old Testament prophets were wrong and that they were stating merely an ideal which will never be literally fulfilled. Even conservative amillenarians tend to hold that the New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament indicates that no literal kingdom and fulfillment was intended. With these varying interpretations the Gospel narratives must now be searched to determine their contribution to the doctrine of the kingdom.
The Gospel of Matthew, as many recognize, is the bridge between the Old and New Testaments. Many Jews, who anticipated that the Messiah would immediately bring in the prophesied earthly kingdom, needed an explanation as to why this was not fulfilled. Matthew covers this by first proving beyond question that Christ is the expected Messiah and King. This is brought out in the genealogies and in the announcement to Joseph that Mary would have a son who would fulfill Isaiah’s prophecies of a virgin-born son (Matt 1:21-23, Isa 7:14) and of a son who will become a world ruler (Isa 9:6-7: Matt 1:21). Luke takes up the prophecy of Isaiah 9:7, “There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.” Luke states it, “He will be great. and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:32-33).
Mary would have shared Israel’s widespread hope for the Messiah who would reign in a political sense over them and free them from the oppression of Rome. Mary would have understood Isaiah’s prophecy to refer to a literal earthly reign. If something else were intended, then Mary would have misunderstood the message and was in fact deceived by the angel. That the coming Messiah will be the spiritual Savior of those who trust Him is clear in both the Old and New Testaments. The question of whether, in addition to His work as Savior, He would also reign on earth as a king is confirmed by Luke 1:32-33, if the Scriptures are taken in the ordinary sense. Any variation would require a nonliteral interpretation of the prophecy given to Mary.
The second chapter of Matthew continues the subject of Jesus Christ as the King of the Jews (Matt 2:2). Christ was recognized by the magi as the prophesied King, and the priests and scribes informed the magi that when the Messiah came He would fulfill the prophecy of Micah 5:2, “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” This was quoted by the scribes and chief priests to the magi (Matt 2:5-6). Even Herod recognized it as a threat to his political kingdom and ordered the killing of male children from two years old and under in the area of Bethlehem. In Matthew 3 John the Baptist introduced the ministry of Christ by announcing, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). John then quoted Isaiah 40:3 (Matt 3:3; cf. John 1:23), which refers to clearing “the way for the LORD in the wilderness.” This preparing the way for the Lord meant preparation for the coming of the kingdom. Whatever the spiritual character of the kingdom, it is clear that the Jewish people held to a political concept as well.
Though the Jews anticipated that the future messianic rule would be a political kingdom on earth, they were somewhat short in their understanding that it would also have spiritual and moral characteristics. This explains Christ’s emphasis in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7 ) in which He dealt with the spiritual and moral principles of the future kingdom of God. While many of the principles have present applications, some of the principles will not be fully applied until the future reign of Christ on earth.11 use the term “kingdom of God” (12:28 ; 19:24 ; 21:31, 43 ).12 It is also not true that Matthew avoided the term God (θεός) for he used it almost 50 times in his Gospel. Why, then, did Matthew use the term “kingdom of heaven”?
Without attempting a complete study on this question, one can observe that the kingdom of heaven has some characteristics that are not true of the kingdom of God.
As used in the New Testament, “the kingdom of God” always speaks of a realm of spiritual reality (that may include holy angels), but it never includes unsaved men. In contrast, “the kingdom of heaven” seems to refer to men alone and to include some who are merely professing Christians. This is illustrated in Matthew 13 where the kingdom of heaven is compared to a field with both wheat and tares, with the wheat representing the saved and the tares seemingly representing a sphere of profession without reality. Likewise, the kingdom of heaven is compared to a net which includes both good and bad fish. These parables are never used in the other Gospels to refer to the kingdom of God. Accordingly, the view that the kingdom of heaven refers to the spirit of profession including true believers while the kingdom of God includes only holy angels and true believers has some support in the Gospel of Matthew. As such, the kingdom of heaven can refer either to the present form of the kingdom as it does in Matthew 13, or in eschatological form to the kingdom which will follow the Second Advent. In both cases there is a sphere of profession as contrasted to the sphere of reality composed only of those who are elect men or angels.
Subsequent to Matthew 13 many additional references to the kingdom are included. Christ gave “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” to His disciples (16:19 ). He predicted that they will see the coming of the kingdom (16:28 ). He defined who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven (18:1, 3-4 ). He spoke of the King judging the works of His subjects (18:23 ). He referred to the qualities of those who enter the kingdom (19:12, 14, 23-24 ). He spoke of rewards for labor in the kingdom (20:1-16 ). He talked of those who will share His kingdom reign (Matt 21-23 ). He said tax collectors and harlots will enter the kingdom, whereas religious Jews will be left out (21:31, 43 ). He likened the kingdom to a wedding feast (22:1-4 ). He condemned the Pharisees who seek to hinder people from entering the kingdom (23:13 ). He predicted the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom worldwide (24:14 ). He likened the kingdom of heaven to the guests of a wedding (25:1-13 ). He predicted that the righteous will inherit the kingdom (25:34 ). He predicted that the disciples will drink the fruit of the vine with Him in His Father’s kingdom (26:29 ).
In these passages, the references to the kingdom are in contexts in which the kingdom is on earth, Christ is the King, failure is judged, and righteousness is rewarded. In none of these passages does Christ make any effort to correct what amillenarians feel is the misconception of the disciples that Christ was speaking of an earthly kingdom in which He would reign triumphantly as King of kings.
The Gospel of Matthew has as its purpose to explain why Christ did not bring in the predicted kingdom in His first coming. Matthew emphasizes the fact that when Christ presented Himself as King, He was rejected. While this was anticipated in the sovereign program of God and led up to the predicted death and resurrection of Christ, it does not relieve those who rejected Him of the consequences of their decision.
In his treatment of this major subject of the Gospel of Matthew, Pentecost points out that there are “three major movements in the Gospel of Matthew: (1) the presentation and authentication of the King (1:1-11:1 ); (2) the opposition to the King (11:2-16:12 ); and (3) the final rejection of the King (16:13-28:20 ).”13
There can be no question in any fair exposition of the Gospel of Matthew that Christ is presented as the rejected King. Much is made by opponents of premillennialism that Christ could not make a genuine offer of Himself as King and of His millennial kingdom because in the plan of God it was necessary for Him to die on the cross for the sins of the world. This is playing games, however, with the difference between the human and the divine standpoint. All conservative interpreters of Scripture regardless of eschatology agree that the death of Christ on the cross was essential to God’s redemptive program. It is wrong to argue that premillenarians who insist that Christ made a genuine offer of the kingdom and of Himself as King are making unnecessary the Cross of Christ in the plan of God. Obviously the plan of God included the rejection of Christ by His people when He offered Himself as their King. The fact that this was certain and essential to the ultimate plan of God that Christ be the Redeemer in no way detracts from the seriousness of the decision nor the consequences that the kingdom could not be immediately fulfilled. Nor does this contingency imply any uncertainty in the ultimate program of God to bring in His kingdom. This is the whole point of the Gospel of Matthew.
The rejection of Christ is a rejection first of His person as the Messiah-King of Israel. To quibble that there is a difference between offering Himself as the King and offering the kingdom is again an unjustified distinction. The emphasis in Matthew is on the person of Christ. But in His person He is presented first as the King rather than as the Savior of the world. In rejecting Christ, of course, those who rejected Him rejected both concepts. Beginning in Matthew 11 is a constant parade of evidence of the people’s rejection of Christ. This, of course, began with the rejection of John the Baptist as His forerunner. It includes all the controversies with the Jewish leaders in such matters as the Sabbath, and their accusation that He performed miracles in the power of Satan. Christ was constantly opposed by unbelievers in Nazareth, by Herod, and by the religious leaders. This opposition is the background of Christ’s prediction of His sufferings and death, first mentioned in Matthew 16:21. Because the nation Israel rejected Christ as the King of Israel, He then rejected the nation Israel (23:1-36 ). This passage closes with His lament over Jerusalem, whose people through the years had killed God’s prophets and rejected those whom God had sent to them (23:37-39 ). All these steps in rejection culminated, of course, in His crucifixion as the people of Israel, influenced by the religious leaders, demanded His death.
The Gospel of Matthew like the other Gospels, however, demonstrates that Christ had the right to be the Messiah-King of Israel. His resurrection, the empty tomb, the many appearances after His resurrection, combine to convince one willing to consider the evidence that Christ was indeed the Messiah-King who, though He was rejected by His people at His first coming, would return to fulfill the kingdom promises given to Israel.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 John F. Walvoord, “The Kingdom of God in the Old Testament. Part 2 of Interpreting Prophecy Today,” Bibliotheca Sacra 139 (April-June 1982): 124-25.
2 Oswald Allis, Prophecy in the Church (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1945), p. 5.
6 Earl Miller, The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven (Meadville, PA: Earl Miller, 1950).
7 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Findlay, OH: Dunham Publishing Co., 1958), pp. 446-75.
8 G. N. H. Peters, Theocratic Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1952), 1:183.
9 John Bright, The Kingdom of God (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1953), pp. 17-18.
10 George E. Ladd, Crucial Questions about the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1952).
11 John F. Walvoord, Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974). pp. 43-62.
12 Some include Matthew 6:33, but some ancient Greek manuscripts have only “the kingdom” and omit “of God.”
13 Pentecost, Things to Come, p. 456.
[John F. Walvoord, President and Professor of Systematic Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary]
The doctrine of the kingdom in the Gospel of Mark is similar to that presented in Matthew except that uniformly the expression “kingdom of God” is used instead of “kingdom of heaven.”1 Some passages in Mark refer to earthly kingdoms (3:24 ; 6:23 ; 13:8 ). Other references are to the kingdom of God in general, that is, any rule of God over the earth. This seems to be its meaning in such passages as Mark 9:47; 10:14-15, 23-25 . It may also be the meaning in Mark 12:34 where Christ declared that the inquiring scribe was not far from the kingdom.
Other references in Mark to the kingdom may refer to the kingdom prophesied in the Old Testament and which premillenarians believe will be fulfilled in the millennial kingdom. In Mark 1:14-15 Christ stated, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” Here Christ is alluding to the kingdom predicted in the Old Testament. It was then “at hand” in the sense that the King had come, although the kingdom itself had not been inaugurated. In Mark 4:11, 26, 30 Mark used parallel references to the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven expounded in Matthew 13. This refers to the spiritual form of the kingdom which exists in the present age. The details of the kingdom are referred to as “mysteries” because this form of the kingdom was not predicted in the Old Testament. Mark 4 accordingly is a parallel to Matthew 13. of the kingdom as a spiritual rule. In Luke 9:11, 60, 62; 10:9, 11 ; and 12:31-32 the present form of the kingdom is probably in view.
Although the future kingdom will also be a spiritual rule, Christ’s message concerning the kingdom is referred to as “the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Luke 16:16). In Christ’s answer to the Pharisees concerning when the kingdom of God would be coming, He declared, “Behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst” (17:21 ). While the Pharisees may have had in mind the future earthly reign of Christ, Christ pointed out that the kingdom of God was already in their midst in the form of the King Himself. Children are said to be a part of the kingdom (18:16-17 ). Entering the kingdom is declared to be difficult for the wealthy (18:24-25 ). It should be observed in all these references that the fact that there is a present form of the kingdom does not carry with it the conclusion that this is the only form of the kingdom.
Some references in Luke, as in Matthew and Mark, seem to refer specifically to the kingdom on earth which, according to the Old Testament, can be fulfilled only when the throne of David is reestablished. This is made clear early in Luke when Mary was told she would give birth to the Messiah. “And behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:31-33).
Amillenarians tend to ignore the obvious interpretation which Mary put on the announcement of the angel that Christ would reign over Jacob on the throne of David. They simply equate Israel with the church, which Mary certainly would have not done. They ignore the fact that the church is never called “the house of Jacob.” Berkhof, a typical amillenarian, states, “Peter…thus virtually said of the Church that it was now in reality what Israel was once called to be. And the angel which announced to Mary the birth of Jesus used this language.”3
It should be quite clear from the angel’s words to Mary that the Jews anticipated a literal, earthly, political kingdom even though it would have spiritual characteristics and could be entered only by new birth. Many would certainly have understood it in this way. If only a present form of a spiritual kingdom was intended, Mary would have been deceived by the message of the angel. the Lord Himself said, ‘ye who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of His glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’ (Matt 19:28).”5
The Gospel of John has relatively few references to the kingdom of God. This is because John’s Gospel is concerned primarily with the deity of Christ and salvation through Him. The book’s prophetic sections deal with the present inter-Advent age.
In John 3:3-5 Christ’s words about entering “the kingdom of God” had in mind both the present spiritual form of the kingdom and His future earthly reign. In both cases it is impossible to enter the kingdom of God without the new birth. Of importance is the fact that Christ rebuked Nicodemus for not knowing this concept, for the Old Testament clearly stated that unless a person had new life he could not enter the kingdom. As brought out in Ezekiel 36:25-31, salvation in the Old Testament clearly involved a new birth, receiving a new heart, and being delivered from the power of sin. Other references to this in the Old Testament include Isaiah 44:2-4; 60:21 ; and Jeremiah 24:7.
The only other reference to the kingdom in the Gospel of John is found in 18:36 where Christ indicated that His kingdom did not receive its power from the world which relies on physical force for its endurance. Whether referring to the present spiritual form of the kingdom or the future millennial kingdom, Christ’s statement would be true in either case.
While Christ clearly offered a present form of the kingdom which believers can enter now by new birth, He also reaffirmed the hope of the Jews that there would be a future kingdom in which the Son of David will reign over the house of Israel.
Only seven references to the kingdom are found in Acts. In the first chapter the disciples obviously were troubled about the fact that Christ was leaving them and the predicted earthly kingdom had not been introduced. Christ gave them some teaching on the subject, but He did not answer the question whether He would restore the kingdom of David immediately (1:6 ). From this it is clear that up to this time Christ had not contradicted in any way the universal hope of Israel for an earthly restoration of the kingdom of David. If this were a false expectation, it certainly would have been necessary for Christ to correct them. However, in His reply He merely told them that He could not tell them when this kingdom would come (1:7 ). Meanwhile, however, they would have the power of the Holy Spirit to sustain them in their present ministry during the absence of Christ (1:8 ).
Sauer points out the significance of Christ’s words.
And when, after His resurrection, the disciples asked, “Lord, dost Thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Gr. basileia, kingly rule), He did not rebuke them for “fleshly conceptions,” or give them a general denial of such a visible kingdom of God as they had in mind, but said only, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has reserved in His authority” (Acts 1:6-7). But precisely this prophetic expression “times or seasons” proves that the kingdom of God will be duly and actually set up.6
In Acts 8:12 reference is made to Philip’s “preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.” His message probably included both the present spiritual form of the kingdom and the future reign of Christ. However, the reference to the kingdom in Acts 14:22 seems to imply a future reign not yet realized by the present form of the kingdom. This could be a reference to the millennial kingdom. Paul’s preaching in the synagogue concerning the kingdom of God (Acts 19:8) probably also included both elements as this would be the natural concern of the Jews. Paul preached “the kingdom” (20:25 ) and “the kingdom of God” (28:23, 31 ).
In these references to the kingdom of God in Acts the message of the apostles was clearly a dual message. It included (a) the invitation to enter the kingdom now by new birth and (b) the announcement that Christ would return and reign on earth in the future. To eliminate the future aspect would be to leave the obvious question of many Jews unanswered.
Only scattered references to the kingdom are found in the New Testament Epistles. In Romans 14:17 Paul said that the present form of the kingdom embodies “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” In a similar way 1 Corinthians 4:20 speaks of the present “power” of the kingdom of God.
Three other references in 1 Corinthians, however (6:9 ; 15:24, 50 ), seem to refer to a future kingdom which is not fulfilled in the present age. Qualifications for entering the kingdom are discussed and the final deliverance of the kingdom to God the Father by Christ is mentioned in 15:24. In the new heavens and the new earth all forms of the kingdom will merge in the universal rule of the Father.
Entrance into a future kingdom is also mentioned in Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 1:13; 4:11 ; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; and 2 Thessalonians 1:5. The heavenly kingdom mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:18 refers to the ultimate rule of God in the new heavens and the new earth. The universal throne of Christ is mentioned in Hebrews 1:8. Hebrews 11:33 refers to earthly kingdoms, and Hebrews 12:28 seems to be a general reference to the divine kingdom regardless of its time and form. Heirs of the future kingdom are mentioned in James 2:5 and include “the poor of this world” who are “rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him.” The eternal form of the kingdom is mentioned in 2 Peter 1:11.
In all these references it is obvious that the term “kingdom of God” is used in various senses, sometimes referring to the present form of the kingdom, sometimes to its future earthly situation in the millennium, and other times to the kingdom in its eternal form in the new heavens and the new earth. In each case the context helps determine the interpretation.
Only six verses in the Book of Revelation refer directly to the kingdom. In Revelation 1:9 John declared himself to be in the kingdom. The angel’s pronouncement, “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15), refers to the coming of Christ in His millennial kingdom which, however, will continue after the millennium. In this sense His reign will be forever. A similar prediction of the coming millennial kingdom is found in Revelation 10:1-2. In 16:10 the kingdom of the world government headed by the beast is mentioned, and Revelation 17:12, 17 refers to the earthly power of the kings on earth during the great tribulation.
Although the word “kingdom” does not occur in Revelation 19-22 , the kingdom idea is clearly embodied in the reference to Christ in Revelation 19:16 where He is described as “King of kings, and Lord of lords.” His rule on earth is said to be “with a rod of iron” (19:15 ). The saints reigning with Christ for a thousand years are mentioned in Revelation 20:6.
Sauer provides another answer to the objections raised against the concept of the kingdom in the Book of Revelation when he points out the general expectation of the Jews for a coming kingdom of one thousand years.
…the doctrine of an intermediate Messianic kingdom was announced in contemporary Judaism and…its duration was to be exactly one thousand years. The Jewish synagogue as early as the first century distinguished between the days of Messiah and the final perfecting in ‘Olam ha-ba, that is, in the world to come. The former were regarded as being limited in duration, the latter as being eternal…. Therefore, it cannot be justly asserted, as it often has been, that the doctrine of a millennial kingdom is nowhere found apart from the celebrated passage in Revelation 20.7
The future eternal reign of Christ is introduced with the concept of “a great white throne and Him who sat upon it” (Rev 20:11). Revelation 21:3 refers to the heavenly throne which will be in the holy city, the New Jerusalem, and Revelation 21:5 speaks of Christ sitting on the throne. The idea of a kingdom is obvious in all these references even though the word “kingdom” itself is not used. The continued reign of the saints with Christ is mentioned also in Revelation 22:5.
When all the New Testament references to the kingdom are examined as a whole it is seen that they fall into various categories. Some references are to earthly kingdoms, some to the concept of the general rule of God, some to a present spiritual rule of God, some to the future millennial rule of a kingdom on earth, and still others to an eternal kingdom. Confusion is introduced when one ignores the context in which the word “kingdom” is used. The fulfillment of all these anticipations of a rule of God on earth are necessary to support fully the concept of the kingdom of God in the New Testament.
Ladd refers to a “bewildering diversity of statements about the kingdom of God.” He continues, “If you will take a concordance of the Bible, look up every reference in the New Testament alone where the word ‘kingdom’ occurs, write down a brief summary of each verse on a piece of paper, you will probably find yourself at a loss to know what to do with the complexity of teaching.”8 Actually, it is possible to distinguish various aspects of the kingdom, as this discussion has sought to demonstrate. The doctrine of the millennium is the only cogent explanation of some references to the future kingdom.
BSac 139:556 (Oct 82) p. 310
Ladd correctly summarizes the concept of the millennium in these words.
In the Apocalypse of the things which must shortly come to pass, Jesus revealed to John on the island of Patmos that after his glorious return, there would ensue a millennial kingdom on earth (Rev 20:1-6). After his Parousia, Christ is to reign in person over human society as it is now constituted. The earth and human history will then become the realm within which God’s reign will be realized to a degree beyond anything experienced before. The powers of Satan will be curtailed with special reference to the deception of the nations (Rev 20:3). Israel as a nation is to be saved (Rom 11) and is to become an instrument in the hands of God for the fulfillment of the divine purposes. The prophecies of God to Israel in the Old Testament which have never been fulfilled will then come to realization.9
This series of four articles began by noting that frequently amillenarians state that the Bible nowhere speaks of a millennial kingdom following the second coming of Christ. The point of these articles has been to demonstrate that such an affirmation does not correspond to statements in the Old and New Testaments on the kingdom.
Of course, the Bible does refer to a form of the kingdom in the present age. The Bible also refers to political kingdoms that have existed on earth. Also there are references to the new heavens and the new earth in the eternal state as a form of God’s continued rule. None of these concepts, however, is adequate to explain the many references in the Old and New Testaments that clearly delineate a kingdom which is subsequent to the second coming of Christ—a kingdom on earth involving a temporal rule of Christ and fulfilling the anticipations of the prophecy of a thousand-year kingdom.
Amillenarians themselves have many differing explanations on how to understand these passages that seem to refer to a future kingdom on earth. This is itself a confession that they do not have an adequate explanation. Amillenarians sometimes explain away the passages as being conditional and therefore never ones that will be fulfilled. Other times they say the supposed future millennial kingdom refers to the intermediate state or to heaven. Recently some amillenarians have revived the concept that the millennial kingdom will be fulfilled in the new heavens and the new earth.
BSac 139:556 (Oct 82) p. 311
All of these explanations are in themselves inherently contradictory and require a disregard of the normal rules of exegesis of the passages which deal with a future kingdom on earth. While the differences of opinion will continue, it should be clear that the amillennial concept explains away many significant Scriptures. This is hardly a cogent exegesis, in keeping with the revelatory character of the entire Bible.
1 For a cogent explanation of the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven, see Earl Miller, The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven (Kansas City: Walterick Publishers, 1950).
3 Louis Berkhof, The Second Coming of Christ (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953), p. 62.
5 Eric Sauer, From Eternity to Eternity (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1954), p. 147.
6 Ibid., pp. 147-48.
7 Ibid., p. 148.
8 George E. Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1952), p. 16.
9 Ibid., pp. 94-95.