Among Protestants, there have been two significant proposals for how the entire Bible is put together as one story: covenant theology and dispensationalism. In the first proposal, God saves His elect through a covenant of grace, which has some historical connections to the biblical covenants associated with Abraham and David. Many covenant theologians also add a covenant of works, which is often associated with Adam and Moses. In the second proposal, God works differently with man in different time periods called dispensations. Specifically, God worked directly with Israel during the Old Testament and will again in a future Tribulation and Millennium; but for now, He is working with the church, those who are “in Christ.” Personally, I am not a dispensationalist per se, but I am very dispensational; and like the dispensationalists, I hold to a premillennial return of Christ, but for different reasons. Traditionally, this middle road has been called “historic premillennialism.” How biblical is such a position?
Ironically, both covenant theology and dispensationalism take their shape from a strong desire to keep grace and works separate. In other words, both proposals are very Protestant in their concern over salvation by grace alone through faith alone. I, too, am a Protestant in my beliefs about salvation, as I hope this essay will make clear; but I share with some recent scholars a concern that our traditional division of the covenants, into conditional and unconditional covenants, muddies the waters and obscures some aspects of the biblical text (e.g. see Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant). Significantly, how the biblical covenants fit together is a big part of our understanding of the historic work of Christ, of God’s faithfulness, and of personal salvation. Given this importance, I ask you for your patience in reading this long essay on a biblical case for historic premillennialism. Truly, may it edify your soul, whether it convinces you in the end or not!
We will first consider the relationship between Israel and the church; then we will consider how the covenanted promises of land and throne support a belief in the Millennium, when Christ reigns on earth between His second coming and the Eternal State. The essay closes with a brief look at the book of Revelation.
The Relationship between Israel and the Church
In light of the old Protestant adage of Scripture interpreting Scripture, it is wise to let the clear Scriptures interpret the less clear Scriptures—and there are some (cf. 2 Pt. 3:16). In general, this means that the didactic portions should interpret the narratives, poetry, and apocalyptic literature. It also means that the New Testament (NT) should interpret the Old Testament (OT). Therefore, the best starting point may be Paul’s lengthy discussion about the Jews and the fulfillment of prophecy in Romans 9-11. Merely the fact that Paul devotes three chapters to this topic in his longest exposition of the gospel shows the importance of prophecy for the sake of the gospel. It should not be ignored. So, what does Paul say?
At least three things stand out. First, the OT covenants and promises still belong to ethnic Jews, those who are descended from Abraham biologically, that is, “according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3-5). These promises include the “adoptions as sons,” which Christians receive as part of the New Covenant (Rom. 9:15, 23; cf. 2 Cor 3:6; 6:16-7:1; Gal. 4:1-6). But if adoption, for example, belongs to the ethnic Jews and yet most of them have not received it, should we say that “the word of God has failed” (Rom. 9:6)? Where is God’s faithfulness? It is expressly at this point where prophecy impinges on the gospel. In its essence, the gospel is news about a historical event. Specifically, the gospel is the good news that God is now fulfilling His promises in the persona and work of His Son Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 1:1-4). If God breaks any promise, especially one given on oath, then we have no assurance that He will not break other promises, whether to the church as a whole or to us personally. Prophecy matters for the gospel (cf. 2 Pt. 1:19).
Second, since the days of Abraham himself, God has always differentiated among the biological Jews. Not every ethnic Jew has been regarded by God as “seed” of Abraham, but only those who are sovereignly chosen and called by God (Rom. 9:6ff). Paul bases his argument on the God’s word to Abraham, “Through Isaac your seed shall be named,” or “called” (Gen. 21:12; cf. Rom. 12:7). He then shows that God immediately applied this principle to unborn twins, choosing the younger Jacob and passing by the older Esau, “so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls” (Rom. 9:11). According to Paul, such calling has persisted to the present day (Rom. 9:24). Among the biological Jews, there were chosen Jews. Mysteriously, this secret election always correlates perfectly with personal faith, the mark of every son of Abraham (Rom. 4:12; Gal. 3:6-7). As a result, a non-elect ethnic Jew is still held accountable for his unbelief, especially in light of his higher privileges (cf. Lk. 12:48; Rom. 3:1-3). Yes, he may be a Jew by blood and by circumcision, but God Himself regards him as “uncirmcumcised of heart” (Jer. 9:25-26; cf. Jer. 4:4; Rom. 2:28-29; Eph. 2:11; Ph. 3:2-3; Col. 2:11). Therefore, the word of God has not failed because it was never promised individually to each ethnic Jew. As John the Baptist warned, biology alone saves no Jew (Mt. 3:9; Lk. 3:8).
Third, although not every individual Jew is chosen and called, God has not rejected the Jews as a group, that is, as an ethnicity, as a “people” (Rom. 11:2). The proof is threefold. First, there have always been a remnant of believing Jews, both in the days of Elijah and in our day (Rom. 11:1-6). Second, Paul’s gospel ministry among the Gentiles sought to provoke Jews to faith through jealousy (“Hey, they’re getting what rightfully belongs to my people!”), which may lead to their acceptance again as a group (Rom. 11:11-14; cf. 10:1). Third, someday “all Israel will be saved,” whenever the “fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25-26). If this “fullness” refers to the completion of the Great Commission among all ethnicities, an event which must occur before “the end” (Mt. 24:14; cf. 28:19-20), then the hope expressed here is for a particular ethnicity to be saved, namely, the Jews, the only special ethnicity in God’s sight. Granted, at this moment, the majority of ethnic Jews are “from the standpoint of the gospel…enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:28-29; cf. Dt. 4:37; 7:7-8). At some point in the future, Jesus will “come” and “remove ungodliness from Jacob” (Rom. 11:26). As unbelieving Saul become believing Paul through seeing the risen Savior, so perhaps will each Jew believe, who is privileged to be alive when Jesus returns from heaven. Through the gracious outpouring of the Spirit, those individual Jews at that moment “will look on [Him] whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son” (Zech. 12:10; cf. Rev. 1:7). It appears that this acceptance of the Jews en masse precedes the resurrection of the dead (Rom. 11:15).
In Romans 11, Paul uses the analogy of a cultivated olive tree (Rom. 11:16-24). There is one tree with one root, but many branches. The branches represent individuals. Some of the branches naturally belong to the tree. These are the ethnic Jews. It is their tree, but many of them have been broken off due to unbelief. In their place, branches from a wild olive tree have been grafted into the tree. These are the Gentile believers. They remain on the tree through faith or they too would be broken off due to unbelief. All of these believing branches, whether natural or wild, are partakers together of the “rich root of the olive tree” (Rom. 11:17). This root appears to represent the OT covenants and promises that ethnically belong to the Jewish people. Based on this analogy, I conclude that there has always been one program of God through history. It is a Jewish program. It started with Abraham, as a continuation of Adam through Noah, and it includes all the nations (Gen. 12:1-3; 22:15-18; 35:11).
Think of the program in this way. If we leave the Gentiles out of the picture, we are left with a lot of continuity. The Jews have always struggled to believe and to receive their promises. Through an initial covenant with Abraham, God made absolute promises of land and seed; but through another covenant, the Mosaic covenant, God made the actual fulfillment of these promises dependent on the obedience of the sons of Abraham. The first generation died in the wilderness, then Joshua (literally, “Jesus”) brought the next generation into the land. After that “Jesus” died (and did not rise again), the Jews lapsed into Canaanite behavior and were in danger of losing their land. God raised up David and made to him, by covenant, an absolute promise of throne and seed; but again, God made the actual fulfillment dependent on the obedience of the sons of David. After David died (and did not rise again), the first son lapsed and subsequent sons led the Jews into Canaanite behavior and the loss of their land. Things looked bleak indeed for the Jews.
At that point, God promised to the house of Israel and the house of Judah—not to every individual Jew, but to the people as a whole—that He would someday inaugurate a new covenant that would bring both a change of heart and a personal relationship with Him, based on a permanent forgiveness of sins (Jer. 31:31-34). This new covenant began with Jesus (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25), who is the obedient “son of David” and “son of Abraham” (Mt. 1:1). His death brought permanent forgiveness through payment for transgressions committed under the old covenant (Heb. 9:15); and His life guarantees the permanent safety of all who draw near to God through Him (Heb. 7:22-25). It is fitting to say “began” because covenant promises reach actuality in stages. Just as the Jews at Sinai started to enjoy the privileges of the old covenant through the presence of God, although outside the land, so now the Jews who believe in Christ are starting to enjoy the privileges of the Spirit of adoption even though they have not yet enjoyed the adoption itself, the “redemption of the body” (Rom. 8:15, 23). Someday, all these believing Jews, both from the OT era and the NT era, will inherit all the promises; and through the circumcision of the heart, they will love the Lord Jesus forever and never leave Him (cf. Dt. 30:6; Jer. 24:7; cf. Eph. 3:17; 6:24).
In other words, think of the whole program apart from the Gentiles. Not every Jew who lived before Christ will rise to receive the land with Abraham or the throne with David; neither will every Jew today. Each Jew must personally believe (Rom. 4:12). The promises have always been “through the righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:13). However, if a Jew today believes, he is sealed with the Spirit for the day of redemption and can look forward to reigning with Christ upon His return. This makes sense. Instead of regarding this era as a parenthesis, in which God has set aside His program for Israel, I regard it as a delay, like the wilderness era, when a generation failed to receive the promises due to predominant unbelief.
The real mystery is not the delay in the program, but the inclusion of Gentiles among the believing Jews as fellow members of the Jewish household, with all the rights and privileges of any Jew (Eph. 2:11-14, 19; 3:6). No longer a second-class citizen, every Gentile believer is a “partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree” (Rom. 11:17). Consequently, which of their privileges—promises, adoption, glory—does a Gentile believer not also receive in Christ, the one obedient Jew? Indeed, according to Paul, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29). A Gentile believer is reckoned to be a Jew by grace, just as graciously as his faith is reckoned for righteousness (cf. Rom. 2:26; 4:3-12, 22-25). No wonder, then, that Gentile believers are warned three times by Paul not to be arrogant and high-minded toward the Jews (Rom. 11:18, 20, 25)! Both as sinners and as Gentiles, such believers are doubly undeserving.
To be clear, this interpretation does not mean that the church replaces Israel. Yes, there are three groups of people in the world today: the church, the Jews, and the Gentiles (1 Cor. 10:32). The latter two groups are outside the church, because they are two kinds of unbelievers. Those inside the church are starting to enjoy the promises of the new covenant in Christ. Some of those inside the church are “natural” branches. They are Jewish believers. The remainder inside the church, those are Gentiles, have been graciously grafted in. They are reckoned as Jews, even though they are not by nature Jewish. (Incidentally, if the church is not somehow related to the olive tree, then into what exactly are Gentiles grafted?) Now consider the status of a Jewish believer in the church. He is not reckoned to be a Jew. He is aJew. Like Nathaniel, he is “an Israelite indeed” (Jn. 1:47). On account of these true Jews within the church today, the church can rightly be said to be Jewish. Instead of replacing Israel, the church fulfills Israel and calls on all Jews to start enjoying by faith what actually belongs to them. Just as a wedding does not cancel an engagement, but fulfills it, so also God has not called off the wedding to His people. The New Covenant has begun, and some Jews are already enjoying some of its benefits. Someday, all Jews will—those alive at Christ’s return. In fact, this mass conversion is part of the New Covenant itself (Rom. 11:27).
Again, as Paul looks at the world, he sees two kinds of unbelievers—ethnic Jews and ethnic non-Jews (Gentiles). He longs for the ethnic Jews to receive their own promises by faith, and one of the ways he seeks to win them is through the salvation of Gentiles provoking them to jealousy (Rom. 10:1; 11:13-14). His primary calling is to the Gentiles, but he will “magnify” his ministry through this additional, indirect way of winning Jews. All those Jews who come in to the church are true Jews and members of Christ, the Jew of Jews. Therefore, according to my understanding of Scripture, the church neither interrupts Israel (dispensationalism) nor replaces Israel (covenant theology); the church is the group of true Jews and reckoned Jews that fulfills Israel in Christ. Both the seed promises of Genesis and the olive-tree analogy of Romans support this position. This is Paul’s gospel.
The Promises of Land and Throne
Well, how does this understanding of the gospel compare to dispensationalism? Traditionally, dispensationalism emphasized that there are two peoples of God—the earthly people, the Jews, and the heavenly people, the church. Although dispensationalists today would not necessarily use that terminology, it still seems that the hard-and-fast division between the church and Israel is the core doctrine of this system of theology. Israel and the church are mutually exclusive groups. As a result, promises made in the Old Testament must apply to one group or the other. If a promise is given to Israel, it cannot be fulfilled in the church, lest God should prove faithless, which is impossible. This zeal for the faithfulness of God should be commended—again, such zeal is the burden of Paul in Romans 9—but the interpretation behind it may not be correct, any more than a Dutch Reformed parent clinging to the “promise” of God being the God of their seed through the covenant of baptism.
These assertions about the essence of dispensationalism were recently confirmed in a podcast on “Reformed Dispensationalism” that featured Mike Riccardi and Peter Sammons of Grace Community Church in California. One of them defined the sine qua non of dispensationalism as follows: “Promises made to ethnic Israel in the Old Testament, as interpreted by faithful grammatical-historical exegesis, will be fulfilled literally and truly to those to whom they were made. They won’t be spiritually re-interpreted and applied to the church.” In other words, “Israel gets her promises. She gets her land. She gets her kingdom.” As a result of this hermeneutic, the “unavoidable tenet” of dispensationalism is the Millennium, defined as “God’s plan for geo-political Israel in a thousand-year period in an intermediate kingdom.” There is a direct link between the dispensationalism and the Millennium.
Here is where it gets interesting. Without the dispensational distinction between Israel and the church, why would anyone hold to a Millennium? Many Reformed ministers today are amillennial for that exact reason. If the church replaces Israel, as Calvin’s exegesis of Romans 11:26 asserts, then there is no need for land and throne to be given to Israel. The eternal state, with the new heavens and the new earth, can immediately follow the return of Christ. Nothing remains to be fulfilled.
But what if the Church fulfills Israel? Is there still room for land and throne promises to be fulfilled on earth before the eternal state arrives? Admittedly, prophecy is challenging, but here are some suggestions. I remain open to correction, based on the principle of “comprehending with all the saints” the love of Christ (Eph. 3:18-19).
Regarding land, God promised Abraham the land of Canaan by covenant (Gen. 15:8-21). Earlier, he had told him to walk throughout the land, because He would give it to him (Gen. 14:17). Apparently, Abraham believed that he would receive it through resurrection, because he died in faith as a sojourner possessing no more than a cemetery (Gen. 23). This cemetery, however, proved important, because Jacob insisted on being buried there (Gen. 50:1-14); and Joseph, his son, made the people swear that they would carry his bones back to the land (Gen. 50:25). These patriarchs expressed their faith in God fulfilling His promise of the land. Therefore, the land of Canaan is a special land, because it is the land promised by covenant to Abraham and to his seed forever.
Later in the Law, the Lord posed the possibility of an expanded territory beyond the Canaanite nations, one that would include “all the land which He promised to give to your fathers” (Dt. 19:1, 8). Presumably, this would include all the land from Egypt to the Euphrates (cf. Gen. 15:18). Could it be that some of this land will be obtained through empire-building, as in the days of David and Solomon, and not through personal habitation? If so, then there is a vision for an expanding control of land that begins with an inhabited inheritance and stretches out to include a possessed dominion over other nations, thereby combining land and throne promises, even as Abraham is promised a special Seed who will “possess the gate of his enemies” (Gen. 22:17).
Personally, I think this expansive vision helps to explain why Paul, in the context of discussing Abrahamic promises, declares that Abraham will be “heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13). Indeed, Paul says this promise is to Abraham’s Seed, which probably refers to the singular Seed, who is Christ (cf. Gal. 3:16). As the Messiah, Jesus Christ must someday “rule from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth” (Ps. 72:8). Could it be, then, that the promise of a throne in the Davidic Covenant fulfills the promise of land in the Abrahamic Covenant? If so, then we have some help in explaining why, according to Hebrews, Abraham’s confession of being a sojourner pertains less to the land of Canaan and more to the land as land—in other words, to the earth in contrast to a “heavenly” country (Heb. 13:13-16). Just as David also called himself a “sojourner” in light of his short days “on the earth” (1 Chr. 29:15; cf. Ps. 39:12), so they all shared this sojourning on earth and look for “the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). Apparently, this is “the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22-23), prophesied by Isaiah and said to be “our mother” (Gal. 4:26-27; cf. Isa. 54:1).
Therefore, I conclude that Abraham and all those, who by faith are included as his seed, shall rise to inherit the earth, whenever the City of God descends to earth. The question is: Is this point the Millennium or the Eternal State?
Shifting from the land promises to throne promises puts us in the context of the Messianic reign of Christ. Certainly, He is at this moment “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). In accordance with His Great Commission, He has been given “all authority…in heaven and on earth” (Mt. 28:18; cf. Jn. 17:2). This vision of Christ’s authority fueled the early American revivals and the foreign missions movement. Those evangelical preachers fully expected the Millennial reign of Christ to occur on earth before the physical return of Jesus at the end of history. This postmillennial vision assumes that the OT promises of the kingdom can be fulfilled without Jesus physically reigning on earth. In other words, His session at the right hand of God is sufficient to accomplish these prophecies. While I used to believe this view, I no longer do for several reasons.
First, the fact that Christ reigns in heaven now does not mean that the church will reign on earth now—or at any time before His physical return. There is more involved here than a time delay. According to the gospel, there is pattern of suffering, then glory (Rom. 8:17; cf. 2 Tim. 2:11-12). In fact, the suffering is even said to produce the glory (2 Cor. 4:17). Moreover, the gateway between suffering and glory is resurrection. Just as Christ suffered on earth and then entered His glory through resurrection, so also the church must suffer on earth—even being hated by all nations until the end of the age (Mt. 24:9-14)—and then enter her glory through resurrection and rapture. Paul makes this sequence necessary and explicit: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50). Therefore, we should not expect a realized kingdom on earth before glorification.
Granted, the postmillennial view has big faith—something I admire—but it is misplaced. It believes that the cultures of the world will become Christian through either the preaching of the gospel (like an ongoing revival) or through education (like the “disciplining” of the nations, as some postmillennialists quote the Great Commission). In the Bible, however, we receive a different kind of earthly victory. The word will triumph, as the book of Acts shows (6:7; 12:24; 19:20; 28:31; cf. 2 Tim. 2:9), and disciples will be made in all nations, as the book of Revelation shows (5:9; 7:9), but the church herself will live under repeated persecution until the Lord comes. It is a “must” (Acts 14:22). Fittingly, this insight came to me through preaching a series of Lenten sermons on the cross (cf. Mt. 26:54).
Second, the kingdom, or reign, that Jesus has now received is a share in His Father’s throne as co-regent in heaven, but it is not yet His own throne. Jesus told His disciples in the upper room, “Just as My Father has granted Me a kingdom, I grant you that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Lk. 22:29-30). Jesus has received a kingdom now like the one we will receive with Him later, namely, a share in another’s reign. Both now and later, Jesus will be reigning—there is continuity in the kingdom of God—but the throne is different. Instead of the Son being at the Father’s right hand in heaven, as He is now (Ps. 110:1; cf. 16:11), the Father will once again be at the Son’s right hand on earth (Ps. 110:5; cf. 16:8; 109:31)—but this time, for victory over His enemies. In the book of Revelation, Jesus promises, “He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Rev. 3:21). Do you see the two thrones? Right now, the Son is sharing the Father’s throne. When He returns to earth, “He will sit on His glorious throne” (Mt. 25:31). On either throne, both the Father and the Son reign, even as the Davidic throne itself was said to be “the throne of the LORD” (1 Chr. 29:23). Similarly, when Jesus sits on His throne, we too will reign with Him “upon the earth” (Rev. 5:10; 20:4-6; cf. 6:9-11; 1 Cor. 15:50-57).
Regarding the Millennium itself, the data in the New Testament epistles is admittedly scant, but Paul does differentiate between three moments in the historical “order” of resurrections: “Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (1 Cor. 15:23-24). Here, then, are three moments in time. The etymologically-related words in Greek for “after that” (ἔπειτα) and “then” (εἶτα) clearly refer to a sequence in time. Therefore, the “end” is not at the same moment as the second coming of Christ, which is literally His debut or parousia. Yes, the time gap between the resurrection of the church and the end might be quite short, as amillennialism would require, but it would seem more natural for the gap to be longer. Such a gap could allow for a Millennium. Between the final two moments is the destruction of Christ’s enemies: “He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet” (1 Cor. 15:26). According to Psalm 110, this destruction begins when Christ comes to earth. Until that point, He still rules, in gathering a people to Himself, but He is not destroying and abolishing His enemies. According to Hebrews, He remains seated until the moment arrives for destroying His enemies (Heb. 10:12-13). The “last enemy” to be destroyed is death (v. 27), which occurs at the end of the Millennium in Revelation 20, when all the dead are finally raised and death itself is thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). Therefore, the Millennium of Revelation can fit nicely into Paul’s timeframe. According to Hebrews, this vision of a “world to come” is one that “we do not yet see” (Heb. 2:5-8; cf. Ps. 8:6; 1 Cor. 15:27). Then, when every enemy is abolished, the end arrives, when Christ “hands over the kingdom” to God and is Himself “subjected” to the Father, who subjected all things under Him (1 Cor. 15:24, 28). If there is no Millennial reign of Christ on His own throne, then what is He handing back to the Father that is not already in “subjection” to Him? Admittedly, it could be merely His authority, as exercised now from heaven, but I wonder whether His session at the Father’s right hand could already be said to be in “subjection” to God or not. At any rate, this verse seems to prohibit us from seeing the kingdom promises as somehow fulfilled in the Eternal State. Whatever the creeds assert about the eternal kingdom of Christ, based on Luke 1:33 and in answer to Marcellus of Ancyra, there is still a change in the form of His reign that must occur at “the end” (1 Cor. 15:24).
The Millennium in the Book of Revelation
Mention has been made to the book of Revelation. Having considered the clearer texts of Scripture, let us briefly consider the nature of apocalyptic literature: How literal should we take the Millennium in Revelation 20?
According to the interpretive key provided in Revelation chapter seventeen, the things that John sees represent historical realities such as a king or a city. Granted, the thing John sees is not how that reality appears in real life—indeed, the seven-horned and seven-eyed Lamb is not a snapshot of Jesus (Rev. 5:6)—but what John sees represents symbolically true aspects of these historical realities, just as the Lamb’s perfect number of horns and eyes represent Jesus’ omnipotence and omniscience in the Spirit. Significantly, in the symbolism of Jesus, John heard that a lion had overcame, but then he sees a lamb (cf. 5:5, 6). Both symbols have the same referent: Jesus. Later in the book, John again hears one thing and sees something else, presumably (again) pointing to the same referent. This time, John hears that a doubly-complete number of Israelites are sealed (namely, 144,000 = 12 x 12 x 10 x 10), but then he sees “a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:4-9). Again, the symbols appear to have the same referent. If the view presented earlier in this essay is correct about the church being Israel fulfilled, then there is little trouble in equating these two groups. In this way, the book of Revelation traces the history of the church symbolically. Incidentally, an interpretive guide by J. Ramsey Michaels really opened my eyes to how the symbolism worked in the book of Revelation.
Significantly, this same multitude of 144,000 appears later in the book on Mount Zion with the Lamb, but they are all male (Rev. 14:4). Again, the symbolism points to reality, but it itself is not the historical reality. The church is composed of males and females. Similarly, in the sixth seal, the souls beneath the altar are all said to have been “slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained” (Rev. 6:9). Interestingly, according to the Law, the life (literally, “soul”) is said to be in the blood, and the blood was routinely poured out at the base of the altar (Lev. 17:11; cf. 4:7). Again, the symbol is not the reality. Not every Christian is physically martyred, even though all Christians must take up their cross (Mark 8:34; cf. Ph. 3:10-11). As Michaels pointed out, Revelation pictures the church as both male and martyred. Neither is necessarily true in physical reality, but it is symbolically true. Therefore, when we come to the Millennium, it is possible to see the resurrection of those martyred as representing the entire church (Rev. 20:4-6), even as the souls beneath the altar were told to “rest for a while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also” (6:11). In the vision, these resurrected souls will reign with Christ on the earth for a thousand years (20:6). Perhaps the number “one thousand” is symbolic (1000 = 10 x 10), but it would represent a very long time.
When I translated and preached through the book of Revelation, I was struck by the coincidence of the symbolism with historical reality. In particular, I was impressed by the repeated references to three-and-a-half years: forty-two months (11:2; 13:5), 1260 days (11:3; 12:6), and “a time and times and half a time” (12:14). Thinking about it now, if historical geography can be represented symbolically (e.g. 17:9; cf. 17:18), why not chronology? It is my belief that the book of Revelation presents a historical sequence of events. It is not a mere collection of visual parables about current reality, much as an amillennial interpretation might be. Honestly, I did not anticipate this effect; but as a result, I have come to believe firmly in a church age (Rev. 6), a short tribulation (Rev. 7-18), a physical return of Christ (Rev. 19), and a Millennium (Rev. 20). Once I saw the same pattern in Ezekiel of a resurrection (Ezek. 37:1-14) followed by a Millennium (Ezek. 38-39), I became even more convinced. The book of Revelation even cites the “God and Magog” of Ezekiel’s prophecy (cf. Ezek. 38:2; 39:1, 6; Rev. 20:8).
To be sure, I am very fuzzy on what specifically happens in the Millennium. Given that Christ is the substance that has replaced the shadow of the Law (Col. 2:17), it is hard for me to accept the dispensationalist claims of a Millennial temple and memorial sacrifices. Why would we revert from the substance to the shadows? Again, I see the final chapters of Ezekiel, where such claims are often based, as apocalyptic symbolism, not video footage of future reality. At the very least, the symbolism points to a life centered on worship and flowing from worship. Perhaps the Millennium will be an amazing time of technological advancement—the so-called “repairing the ruins” (cf. Isa. 58:12). Just as Noah and his sons emerged from the flood with all the knowledge and skills they had learned in the previous world, so also the glorified church may supply the Millennium with a variety of skills for the glory of God. In addition, the Millennium could be both a time of spiritual power, when the saints have spiritual bodies and judge the world and even angels (1 Cor. 6:2, 3; 15:42-49), and a time of cosmic warfare, when we witness our God singlehandedly destroy the devil and his host at the end of the Millennium, while we dwell unarmed (cf. Ezek. 38:10). With this grand finale of cosmic firepower, the Lord will definitively demonstrate to us that we are forever safe. And to think, we await not just one new age with Christ, but “the ages to come” (Eph. 2:7). What if this little life now were simply the first chapter in a near-endless story of unfolding glory, in which God will continually show “the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus” (2:7)! Truly, the prophets spoke rightly: “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9; cf. Eph. 3:20-21).
In the meantime, we should remember that, whether one holds a premillennial an amillennial view of the end, there is little difference for the mission of the church and her expectations. Both views expect culture to become worse in the end; as a result, neither view promotes a fixation on “winning” the culture for Christ. This evangelical impulse to win American culture is actually a carryover from the antebellum awakenings and their postmillennial visions of the future. Yes, God could make the nations Christian in culture, but He has not chosen to do so. He could also make our bodies live forever, but contrary to some charismatic expectations, He has not always chosen to heal us. Still, if we have health for a little while, or find temporary healing, it is a good from His hand and we thank Him. Similarly, there are times when God choses to improve the health of a culture, even though ultimately it will perish in the time of the Beast. Therefore, as we have opportunity, we should still seek the good of our neighbors and the nation, even as the Jews sojourning in Babylon were told to “seek the peace of the city” (Jer. 29:7; cf. Gal. 6:10; 1 Pt. 1:1; 2:11; 3:11; 5:13). And, of course, their ultimate good is salvation (cf. 1 Pt. 2:12). Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!
Please Note: The discussion here about the Millennium is little affected by one’s view of the rapture, whether it occurs at the end of the tribulation or before it. According to Paul, the rapture is when all believers are instantly changed to be like Christ (1 Cor. 15:50-57; Ph. 3:20-21; 1 Th. 4:16-17; cf. 1 Jn. 3:2).