In the last several blog posts, we talked about revival and important ways of defining it. Revival happens to the church. Evangelism comes from the church.
One of the most notable pieces of the Great Awakening revivals was the hope that they would give rise to the millennium. That was mentioned a couple of times, but it wasn't give much substance. Today, I want to speak to that a little bit and give some background information on why that was an expectation or a hope.
First, the millennium refers to Revelation 20:1-3, which says, "Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while."
The great hope of all believers in historic Christianity is the physical return of Jesus Christ at the end of this age to consummate his kingdom for all eternity. The debates among Christians is to the exact time period the thousand years is referring. Is it literal or metaphorical? Is it past, present, or future? What does this have to do with the Great Awakening?
Many of the Puritans, a group quite active during the Great Awakening, were postmillennial. Many of the early church fathers were a version of premillennial. Several denominations today hold to an amillennial position. What exactly do these words mean?
It's important to note a few things before discussing the millennium. First, it is mentioned only one time in the entirety of Scripture. This does not make it unimportant, but we should always see the weightier matters in a different light than those mentioned once in a highly apocalyptical book (cf. Matthew 23:23).
Second, the way we understand the authority of Scripture and the proper means of interpretation (i.e., Scripture interprets Scripture) will have a direct impact on how we understand Revelation 20.
Third, there was no creed or confession in the early church, even up until relatively recent times, that made any statement about the end of the age other than Christ will return in bodily form. This does not mean in any sense that any other components mentioned in Scripture about the end of the age are unimportant and can be neglected without any consequences, but neither it should not be a cause of extensive division among orthodox Christians.
The next several week's posts will deal with the three major positions on how to interpret the millennium. All three of them have merits, and all three have great explanatory power when it comes to a variety of other passages in Scripture that speak to the end of the age (or at least seem to at first blush).
Since we've mentioned the Puritans and that many of them held to postmillennialism, let's begin there.
The essence of postmillennialism is that because the church remains faithful to the great commission, there will come a time when Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth will have heard the gospel. The promise that Christ is with us to the end of the age is the assurance that all the world will hear the gospel. The nations will turn to worship God on his mountain in Jerusalem. That final period of time, it is believed, is what the millennium is referring to.
Kenneth Gentry is perhaps one of the most prolific writers on and adherents to postmillennialism, so much of the thought that follows comes from his writings.
Postmillennialism can be found as early as the 2nd through 4th centuries in the writings of Origen, Eusebius, Athanasius, and Augustine. Some of the Puritans who were convinced by postmillennial thought were John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, William Perkins, and Matthew Henry. It's worth noting that John Calvin, the giant from Geneva, was also a postmillennial. Some more recent names with which you may be familiar would be Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, and J. Ligon Duncan. This isn't to sway anyone by a litany of name drops, but it is to show that intelligent people throughout the history of the church have themselves been convinced of this interpretation of the millennium in Revelation 20.
One draw to postmillennialism is its positive view of Scripture and revelation. It affirms that the Christian must evaluate current circumstances through the Scriptures and its prophecies, not vice-versa. This sort of free association that is common today, where we read about the American diplomats being embarrassed by Chinese officers and somehow squeeze that into one of the bowls or trumpets of Revelation, is vehemently opposed in postmillennialism, as it should be in all interpretations of Scripture. If God makes a promise, it is certain no matter what current events appear to be on the surface. If God was sovereign when he made the promise, he is sovereign to keep it. The only sign we need is that God said it.
Postmillennialists see in the covenants of Scripture an unfolding promise of eventual salvation, which they understand to be fulfilled in the present age. The covenant made at creation, mentioned in Jeremiah 33 and Hosea 6, is about the continued development of human culture throughout history. The fall did not end the creation covenant.
When sin and death entered, God promised to send the seed of a woman to atone for the sins of mankind. Christ would crush the serpent's head. That happened at the first coming of Christ, it is being worked out in subsequent history, and will culminate at Christ's return. The effects of redemption will be played out in history in the same way the effects of the fall played out in history.
The covenant with Abraham promises that all people will be blessed through Abraham. Paul calls Abraham the "heir" of the world in Romans 4. Postmillennialists read this as a gradual blessing, not something that takes place in an instant at the end of this age. The New Covenant made in Christ's blood promises greater adherence to God's law, a greater revelation from God, and greater knowledge of God.
So far, we don't see many prooftexts from Scripture, but a biblical theology, trying to see the story of the Bible in a certain way. But postmillennialists do have many passages they point to in order to justify their position.
Many Psalms speak of a "golden age" when the whole world will worship God (examples include Psalms 2, 22, 67, 72, 87, 102, 110 among others). For example, Psalm 2 speaks of the nations raging against God and his Anointed One, God breaking their chains, God setting his throne in Zion, God breaking the nations like dry pottery, and kings being called to worship. Postmillennialists see this as progress of the kingdom of God, inaugurated by Christ, throughout history.
Isaiah 2 speaks of the nations rushing to the mountain of God, Jerusalem, in the last days. That time will also be marked by peace between nations that history has never known.
In Matthew 13, we read a collection of parables about the kingdom of God. First, the parable of the sower teaches about those who receive the Word of God, compared to a seed. That seed spreads and increases thirty, sixty, and a hundred-fold.
Second, the parable of the weeds teaches that the growth of the kingdom will always include wheat and weeds, righteous and unrighteous. Only the second coming will purify the ever-increasing kingdom.
Third, the hidden treasure/pearl of great price are about the kingdom blessings.
Fourth, the mustard seed implies a development of the kingdom that exceeds expectations. This parable plays off of Ezekiel 17, where God says he will take a small branch and plant it on his mountain, and as it grows birds (representing nations) will nest in it.
Fifth, the parable of the yeast teaches that the kingdom of God works its way through in ways often unseen.
John 12 notes that the crucifixion, when Jesus is "lifted up", (yes, the comma goes on the outside when the quote itself does not include a comma) is the moment when victory over sin and death were won. Satan is cast out and men are drawn to Christ. Satan does not deceive the nations in the same way he did before the resurrection, ascension, and birth of the church.
Matthew 28:18-20, the Great Commission, speaks of both Christ's authority over every realm and the command to disciple everyone. This passage clearly has in mind Daniel 7:14, where the Son of Man is given unending dominion over every nation at that moment.
1 Corinthians 15 is probably Paul's clearest text on the expectation of the resurrection at the end of the age. Paul writes that Christ was resurrected, and when he returns, those who belong to him will be resurrected, as well. That time is considered "the end". The millennium does not follow, because it is over. At that time, Christ hands the kingdom over to his Father. Note that "every rule and every authority and power" are also already destroyed. In postmillennial thought, Christ overturns every opposing power before his second coming.
That's enough for now. Here's where we'll be headed in future weeks, should the Lord tarry and the postmillennialists turn out to be right:
We'll present each position in its own light. Then we'll talk about the interpretive issues with each. Then, we'll spend some time specifically with Revelation 20. Hopefully I present each interpretation with charity and fairness and you won't know which position I hold until the very end!
Until then, comment below:
What is good about the postmillennial position? What problems might you see with adopting it wholesale?