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Lesson 13: God’s Prophetic Plan (Various Scriptures)

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October 23, 2016

This message will probably sound more like a Bible college classroom lecture than a sermon. But before we plunge into Paul’s treatment of biblical prophecy (1 Thess. 4 & 5; 2 Thess. 1 & 2), it’s important for you to understand an overview of various approaches to biblical prophecy. For some, this may be a boring review (my apologies!). But I hope for others it will help you understand some of the issues involved.

It has always troubled me that if I were to announce a mid-week series on prayer, few would show up, but if it was on prophecy, the place would be packed. It has also bothered me that much of the hype connected with prophecy is based on speculation about the future without application to the present. People are fascinated to know whether some famous world leader’s name transliterated into Hebrew or Greek adds up to 666 or whether the European Union is the 10-horned beast of Daniel 7, but knowing that doesn’t help them grow in godliness or love.

Also, many evangelicals think that all Bible-believing Christians believe in the pretribulation rapture of the church, as popularized by Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind books. I was taught that view in seminary. Some of my professors believed that all other views border on liberalism. When I graduated from seminary 40 years ago, I agreed with that view.

But the more I’ve studied biblical prophecy, the less certain I’ve become that that is what the Bible teaches. I’d like for it to be true, because who wants to go through the tribulation? And I don’t have a system worked out so that I can explain all the prophetic passages. I’ve read many commentaries and books on prophecy, but I still don’t understand the Book of Revelation well enough to teach it. So I continue to read and study, but don’t expect a series on Revelation any time soon! But we’re coming to several sections dealing with prophecy, so I’ll try to explain them as best as I know how at this point in my understanding.

In this message, though, I want to provide a survey of the major views of biblical prophecy among Bible-believing Christians and explain some of the pros and cons of each view. To sum up:

All true Christians agree that Jesus Christ will come back bodily in power and glory, but there are some major differences about the details.

Let me begin by saying that as long as a person believes that Jesus Christ will come back bodily in power and glory, we should not make agreement on our particular view of prophecy a test for fellowship. Godly men and women differ on these matters, but each view has biblical support; if it didn’t, all who believe the Bible would be in the same camp. So while it’s fine to debate prophetic views in a friendly way, we should not attack those who differ with us as if they were enemies of the gospel.

1. All true Christians agree that Jesus Christ will come back bodily in power and glory.

All of the major approaches to biblical prophecy agree on this truth: Jesus will return bodily and when He comes, He will come in great power and glory to reign. At His trial Jesus told the Sanhedrin (Matt. 26:64), “I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” He was referring to Daniel 7:14, which predicts that Messiah’s kingdom will be everlasting. The angel told the disciples as they watched Jesus ascend into heaven after His resurrection (Acts 1:11), “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.” He ascended bodily; He will return bodily. However Christians understand the details of prophecy, all agree that Jesus is coming back bodily to reign. To deny that is heresy.

2. True Christians disagree regarding the specifics of biblical prophecy.

There are three main views regarding the Lord’s coming:

A. Postmillennialists believe that Jesus will return after a time of widespread acceptance of the gospel.

According to this view, the gospel in this church age will grow like the mustard seed until it becomes a large tree. Or, it will spread like leaven in bread dough, until it permeates the whole earth, so that the world is largely Christianized. This millennial age in which God’s kingdom will come to earth will last for a long period of time (not necessarily 1,000 literal years). At the end of this time, Christ will return to resurrect the dead for judgment and usher in the new heavens and new earth (cf. Lorraine Boettner, The Meaning of the Millennium [IVP], ed. by Robert Clouse, pp. 117ff.).

The millennium envisioned by postmillennialists is very different than that expected by premillennialists (ibid. pp. 120-121). The conditions on earth will not be substantially changed, except as a majority of believers may bring about a culture of righteousness. Jesus won’t be bodily reigning in Jerusalem on the throne of David, since He doesn’t return until the end of the millennium. People will still be in their normal bodies, since the resurrection of the living and dead happens at the return of Christ. There will not be a final rebellion against Christ, as premillennialists believe. The millennium will be a time much like today, except that the gospel will spread widely throughout the world.

Some of those from the past who have held to postmillennialism are Reformers Martin Bucer and Theodore Beza, many of the Puritans, including Matthew Henry, the Wesley brothers, Jonathan Edwards, William Carey, Charles Hodge, and Augustus Strong. In our day, Kenneth Gentry (in Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond [Zondervan], ed. by Darrell Bock, who supplies the list above, plus many others), and Douglas Wilson (desiringgod.org/messages/an-evening-of-eschatology), among others, contend for this view.

Postmillennialism rests on God’s purpose of being glorified in His creation. It believes in His sovereign power to accomplish His purpose and that He has equipped His church with the necessary gifts and power to accomplish that purpose (Gentry, ibid., develops these points). It has a strong hope in the power of the gospel to spread and transform lives. It encourages evangelism with the hope that God will bless the gospel with widespread conversions. And it is supported by many Scriptures in both the Old and New Testaments that predict the ultimate triumph of Christ (Gentry, pp. 31-55). Also, one modern form of postmillennialism (advocated by Gentry and the late Greg Bahnsen) is called theonomy, Reconstructionism, or dominion theology, which holds that God’s Old Testament civil laws are binding on governments today.

Against postmillennialism is the picture of the end times in the New Testament, when godlessness and the persecution of the godly increase, not decrease. Also, current world conditions do not reflect any sort of increasing righteousness, but rather increasing rebellion against God. Against theonomy is the New Testament teaching that we are not under the Mosaic Law. And the Scriptures used to support postmillennialism can easily fit into other approaches to prophecy.

B. Amillennialists believe that there is no future earthly millennium, but that Jesus is now reigning spiritually over His kingdom.

Amillennialism was the predominant view of the church from the time of Augustine (early 5th century) until the Reformation. Today, many godly Reformed theologians and pastors hold this view, although some object to the label. They believe that the “thousand years” (Rev. 20:4) refers to the current church age when Satan’s influence over the nations has been bound (Rev. 20:1-3; Matt. 12:29; Col. 2:15) so that the gospel may spread to every nation. Christ’s kingdom began when He was on earth (Matt. 12:28). He is now reigning from heaven over His church, but there is a future fulfillment of His kingdom in the new heavens and new earth.

There will not be a literal future seven-year worldwide tribulation. Some amillennialists say that at the end of this age, Satan will be released for a time, leading to the deception of the nations, Armageddon, and the physical return of Christ. This will be followed by the resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked for judgment, and then the new heavens and new earth.

Amillennialists argue that because the Jews rejected their Messiah, the kingdom was taken away from them and given to a believing “nation,” the church (Matt. 21:43; 1 Pet. 2:9). Christ is the true Israel (Isa. 42:1-7), the true temple where God dwells with His people (John 2:19-21). Believers in Him are the true seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:7), who saw in God’s promises of the land the heavenly city, whose architect and builder is God (Heb. 11:10-16). The promise of the land for God’s people will be fulfilled in the new heavens and earth that follows Christ’s return. Some amillennialists (e.g. Martyn Lloyd Jones) believe that Romans 11 teaches that there will still be a widespread conversion of the Jews before Jesus returns. But there are not two separate prophetic programs, one for the Jews and another for the church.

In favor of amillennialism is the fact that it is fairly simple. Amillennialists argue that they interpret Old Testament prophecies in line with the way that the New Testament interprets them, which often includes a spiritual fulfillment in Christ (e.g. Acts 2:17-21; 13:32-35; 15:16-18; Gal. 4:21-31; Heb. 4:1-11; 1 Pet. 2:9-10). Also, Revelation 20 is the only passage which mentions a thousand year reign of Christ and that number, like most numbers in Revelation, should be interpreted symbolically.

The main reason that I reject amillennialism is that I cannot swallow their interpretation of the binding of Satan (Rev. 20:1-3). They argue that it is limited to his ability to deceive the nations, but the picture in Revelation is much more extensive than that. He is thrown into the abyss and the door is shut and sealed over him. That sounds like complete restriction, which doesn’t describe the present age! Even if you limit it to being bound from deceiving the nations, it seems to me that he has deceived most nations (“people groups”) for these past 2,000 years. Many are still in complete spiritual darkness (2 Cor. 4:4; 1 John 5:19).

Also, several passages in the Old Testament seem to describe a future period of glory that is greater than the present age, but not descriptive of the eternal state (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology [Zondervan], p. 1117). For example, Isaiah 65:20 describes a time when infants will not die, those who die in youth will be 100, and those who don’t live to 100 will be thought to be accursed. That is certainly not true now and it won’t be true in the new heavens and earth, when there is no death. It would seemingly refer to the millennium (also, cf. Ps. 72:8-14; Isa. 11:2-9; Zech. 14:6-21; Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15; cf. Grudem, pp. 1114-1121 for further arguments against amillennialism). Also, it seems to me that amillennialism goes a bit too far in spiritualizing God’s promises to Israel. That leads us to the third major view:

C. Premillennialists believe that Christ will return and rule on earth for a thousand years prior to the eternal state.

To complicate matters a bit, within premillennialism, there are two major views: pretribulational (or dispensational) premillennialism; and classic or historic premillennialism.

1) Pretribulational (or dispensational) premillennialism teaches that Christ will return secretly for His church before the great tribulation and again at the end of the tribulation to establish His millennial kingdom.

This is the view I was taught in seminary. It’s probably the most popular view among American evangelicals. Some dispensationalists argue that this view has been around for centuries, but most scholars agree that it was developed and popularized by the 19th century Plymouth Brethren leader, John Nelson Darby. It rests largely on two pillars: a sharp distinction between Israel and the church; and, a literal hermeneutic in prophetic interpretation.

The church will be removed through the secret rapture, followed by seven years that complete Daniel’s 70th “week” for Israel. During this time, many Jews will be saved, and many will be martyred by those loyal to the Antichrist, who will come to power and rule a one-world government. At the climax of the tribulation, just as the forces of the Antichrist are ready to annihilate Israel, Jesus will return, slay all of His enemies, and establish His millennial reign in Jerusalem. During this time, Satan will be bound and Christ will rule the nations with a rod of iron. Many will be saved, but there will still be some who will resist His rule.

At the end of this period, Satan will be released and lead a final rebellion. Fire will come down from heaven and destroy all the rebels. Satan will be thrown into the lake of fire. The dead will be raised for judgment and thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death (see Rev. 20:1-15).

There are also a few variations among dispensational premillennialists. A few argue for a partial rapture before the tribulation, where the watchful or overcomers will be taken to heaven, but the rest of the church will be purified through the tribulation. Watchman Nee taught this view. Others hold to a mid-tribulation rapture or a pre-wrath rapture that removes the entire church just before the worst judgments of the tribulation begin.

The main reason I no longer hold to the pretribulation rapture of the church is that I don’t see two separate returns of Christ clearly taught in Scripture. I heard Dr. Richard Mayhue of The Master’s Seminary, who holds to this view, say that it must be inferred. Several verses and arguments lead to this inference:

First, Christ’s promise to the church in Philadelphia (Rev. 3:10) is to keep them from the hour of testing that is about to come upon the whole world. This is interpreted to apply to the church at the end of this age. Second, the purpose of the tribulation is for the pouring out of God’s wrath (Rev. 6:17), but the church is not destined for wrath, but for salvation (1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9). Third, it is argued that if Christ is not returning until the end of the tribulation, then His coming could not be imminent. (Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come [Zondervan], pp. 193-218, lists 28 arguments for the pretribulation rapture, but we don’t have time to go through all of these.)

I reject the argument about being spared from God’s wrath because throughout history, God has not protected His church from horrible tribulation. In our day, Christians are being persecuted and annihilated in many Muslim countries. The wrath from which we are to be spared is not temporal persecution, but the eternal wrath of God in the lake of fire. With regard to the argument about imminence, dispensational premillennialists agree that Christ’s Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24 & 25; Mark 13) refers to His second coming, not to the pretribulation rapture of the church. But Jesus clearly teaches that no one knows the day or hour of His coming and He warns His disciples to be on the alert (Matt. 24:36-44). He says (Matt. 24:44), “For this reason you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will.” So even though His second coming follows the events of the tribulation (described in Matt. 24:4-28), the Lord pictures it as imminent and urges us to be alertly watching for it.

Also, there are predicted events that must transpire before the church could be removed from the earth. The disciples had to bear witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), which would have taken many years (in fact, it still has not been fulfilled). Jesus said that the end would not come until the gospel had been preached in the whole world, which is the task of the church (Matt. 24:14). The Lord told Peter that he would live to be an old man (John 21:18). He told Paul that he would live to bear witness in Rome (Acts 23:11). So the idea that we must hold to the pretribulation rapture because any other teaching denies that Christ could return at any moment doesn’t hold up (cf. Moo, pp. 207-211). As I said, I hope that the pretribulation rapture is true, because I don’t want to suffer. But I’m not convinced that the biblical arguments prove it.

2) Posttribulational (or classic) premillennialism teaches that the church will go through the tribulation, followed by the second coming of Christ and His millennial rule.

This is also called historic premillennialism. It was the predominant view of the church for the first three centuries of the church. The late George Ladd (The Blessed Hope [Eerdmans]), Douglas Moo (Three Views on the Rapture [Zondervan]) and Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology) all defend this view.

As I said, the pretribulation rapture rests on the pillars of a complete distinction between God’s purpose for the church and His purpose for Israel; and, on the literal interpretation of biblical prophecy. With regard to the distinction between Israel and the church, I see some distinctions, but not distinctions that continue throughout eternity. Paul states that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:11-22; Col. 3:11). I find it hard to see in Scripture that the church is merely a parenthesis in God’s program, separate from Israel. Rather, Christ and the church are the culmination of God’s redemptive program. Many dispensationalists say that during the millennium, the Jewish temple will be rebuilt and animal sacrifices will be offered there as a memorial. I find that idea to be in opposition to the Book of Hebrews. Christ is the complete and final sacrifice for our sins. Why go back to offering “memorial” sacrifices when we have Christ’s perfect sacrifice for our sins?

Regarding the literal interpretation of prophecy, there are many places where even dispensationalists interpret the fulfillment of prophecies spiritually (cf. Vern Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists [P&R Publishing], chapters 8-11). For example, the church is now the temple of God, where He dwells (1 Cor. 3:16-17). We are now “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9).

When it comes to a “secret rapture” of the church, the text that we will study next time is often used as a main support. But it doesn’t sound very secret: the Lord “will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God” (1 Thess. 4:16). Dr. Grudem states (p. 1134),

The doctrine of a pretribulation rapture is an inference from several passages, all of which are disputed. Moreover, even if one believes this doctrine to be in Scripture, it is taught with such little clarity that it was not discovered until the nineteenth century. This does not make it seem likely.

Conclusion

I don’t expect all of you to agree with me. But as I said, we need to disagree with one another graciously, admitting that there are many godly scholars in each camp. Whatever you believe, here are some concluding applications:

First, no matter what view you take, the Lord Jesus clearly is going to return bodily to execute judgment on unbelievers. This, along with the uncertainty of life, is incentive to believe in Christ without delay. Use this when you witness.

Second, in light of His coming (1 Cor. 15:58), “… be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.”

Third, we can have assurance and comfort in the midst of the present world turmoil. God is sovereign and He works all things after the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11). He sets up rulers and takes them down to accomplish His plans (Prov. 21:1). No evil ruler, including the Antichrist himself, can thwart God’s plan. Therefore (Ps. 2:12), “Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!”

Finally (1 John 3:3), “Everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” Make sure that you’re living in holiness in light of Christ’s warnings to be ready when He comes (Mark 13:33-37)!

Application Questions

  1. Which of the three major views is the most convincing to you? Why?
  2. What are some differing practical applications that stem from each view? What dangers may be connected with each view?
  3. When do we cross the line of being too enamored with biblical prophecy? What warning signs should we heed?
  4. To what extent should we try to connect current events with the signs of Christ’s coming? Is this too speculative?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Prophecy/Revelation

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