The prophecies of the Old Testament, taken at face value, inevitably lead to premillennialism. As we saw in Monday’s post, this is a point on which amillennial and postmillennial scholars agree. Even a brief survey of Old Testament prophecy leaves no question as to what was being described. John Walvoord explains:
If interpreted literally, the Old Testament gives a clear picture of the prophetic expectation of Israel. They confidently anticipated the coming of a Savior and Deliverer, a Messiah who would be Prophet, Priest, and King. They expected that He would deliver them from their enemies and usher in a kingdom of righteousness, peace, and prosperity upon a redeemed earth. It is hardly subject to dispute that the Old Testament presents such a picture, not in isolated texts, but in the constantly repeated declaration of most of the prophets. All the major prophets and practically all the minor prophets have Messianic sections picturing the restoration and glory of Israel in this future kingdom. This is so clear to competent students of the Old Testament that it is conceded by practically all parties that the Old Testament presents premillennial doctrine if interpreted literally. The premillennial interpretation offers the only possible literal fulfillment for the hundreds of verses of prophetic testimony. (The Millennial Kingdom, 114)
Because the Jewish people of the Old Testament interpreted the words of the prophets in a literal way, they expected a future messianic kingdom on earth. Anticipation for that golden age only escalated throughout the Intertestamental period. As Stanley Porter observes,
During the so-called Intertestamental period, there was developing thought in much Jewish literature of a coming resurrection and the establishment of a ‘millennial kingdom’ . . . . For example, a millennial kingdom is spoken of in such works as 1 Enoch 6–36, 91–104, and 2 Enoch 33:1, where it is to be 1,000 years, Pss. Sol. 11:1–8 and Jub. 23:27, where it is again 1,000 years, 4 Ezra [2 Esdras] 7:28–9, where it is 400 years, and Test. Isaac 6–8, where it is referred to as a millennial banquet. (“Millenarian Thought in the First-Century Church,” 63–64)
In the time of Christ, then, the universal expectation of the Jewish people centered on an earthly kingdom in which the Messiah would reign over all the nations from Jerusalem.
This would have been Mary’s perspective when she heard Gabriel’s announcement in Luke 1:31–33. It was also the view of the disciples during their time with Jesus—which is why, though driven by selfish motives, they sought for greatness in the kingdom (cf. Matthew 20:21; Mark 10:37; Luke 22:24).
When we consider the New Testament’s treatment of the millennial issue, we must do so against the backdrop of first-century Jewish eschatology. If the New Testament writers rejected the premillennialism that was so prevalent in their day, we would expect them to denounce it clearly and explicitly (just as they did in response to other issues, like the legalism of the Judaizers). A strong, overt condemnation would be necessary in order to overturn the widespread eschatology of Jewish believers based on the common understanding of Old Testament Scripture that had been passed down to them.
The fact that no such denunciation exists is highly significant, especially when paired with New Testament passages where the literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecy is upheld (e.g. Acts 3:18–21; Rom. 11:25–29). Moreover, the most explicit reference to the millennium in all of Scripture is found in the New Testament, in Revelation 20:1–6. If the goal of the New Testament writers was to overturn the prevailing eschatology of their day, as the amillennial position asserts, they did a very poor job of it—so poor, in fact, that the generations of church fathers who immediately followed after them understood the New Testament in a distinctly premillennial way (as Michael Vlach pointed out in yesterday’s article).
To cite Walvoord again:
One of the most eloquent testimonies to premillennial truth is found in the absolute silence of the New Testament, and for that matter the early centuries of the church, on any controversy over premillennial teaching. It is admitted that it was universally held by the Jews. It is often admitted that the early church was predominantly premillennial. Yet there is no record of any kind dealing with controversy. It is incredible that if the Jews and the early church were in such a serious error in their interpretation of the Old Testament and in their expectation of a righteous kingdom on earth following the second advent, that there should be no corrective, and that all the evidence should confirm rather than deny such an interpretation. (Millennial Kingdom, 118–19)
In today’s post, I would like to focus specifically on the words of the Lord Jesus, to see whether He rejected or affirmed the millennial expectations of His day.
Did Jesus Reject Premillennialism?
Though Jesus often spoke of the kingdom of God in a general sense (as the realm in which God rules or the sphere of salvation), He never denied the reality of the future millennial kingdom. (For example, Jesus’ words to Pilate in John 18:36 do not deny that His kingdom will one day be present in this world, but only that His kingdom will not be of this world; that is to say, the establishment of His kingdom will not be characterized by the ungodly machinations of this evil world system [cf. John 17:11–16; 1 John 2:16–17]).
On the contrary, Jesus’ promise in Matthew 19:28 was explicitly premillennial. He told His disciples, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” That promise was reiterated on the night before His death in Luke 22:28–30: “You are those who have stood by Me in My trials; and 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.” The disciples, who shared the millennial expectations of their fellow Jews, understood those promises literally (as evidenced in Acts 1:6).
After the Resurrection, the Lord continued to instruct the disciples about the kingdom. Luke, in his brief description of the forty day period between the Resurrection and Ascension, explains that this topic was the predominant theme of Christ’s teaching. In Acts 1:3 Luke writes, “To these [the apostles] He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God” (emphasis added). His primary message concerned the kingdom. Though the disciples had been characterized, in the past, by hard-heads and hard-hearts, such was no longer the case, because Christ “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45).
It is at the very end of this forty-day period that we come to a most instructive passage regarding the millennial kingdom. After having been taught about the kingdom by Christ Himself, and having been granted a supernatural understanding of God’s Word, the disciples still understood the messianic kingdom in a literal, premillennial sense.
In Acts 1:6, we read, “So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’” In their minds, after intensive instruction on the subject by the resurrected Christ Himself, the millennial promises of the Old Testament were still to be understood as literally true. Their only question was when would these things come to pass?
It is important to note the manner in which Jesus responded to their question. “He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority’” (v. 7). Significantly, Christ did not denounce or correct their millennial expectations. He did not refute their understanding of the nature of the kingdom. Instead, He merely explained that they were not privy to knowing the timing of that future kingdom.
During the forty days Jesus spent with His disciples, discussing things pertaining to the kingdom, He certainly could have taught them that it was only a spiritual kingdom. Having opened their eyes to understand the Scripture, the Lord could have clearly explained to them that the Old Testament prophets ought to be interpreted in a non-literal way. Yet, He did neither.
At the end of this period, the disciples were still convinced that the kingdom would literally be restored to the nation Israel. If Christ had wanted to correct that notion, this would have been the time to do it. Instead, He did nothing of the sort. He refused to answer their question about the timing of the kingdom, but He never refuted their understanding of the nature of it.
Christ’s response indicates that the apostles’ expectation of a literal, earthly kingdom mirrored His own teaching and the plan of God clearly revealed in the Old Testament. But the timing of the kingdom was still future. In the meantime, the Lord had a specific mission for the disciples to accomplish, which was to be His “witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (v. 8).
Premillennialists, then, join with the apostles in their expectation of a future messianic kingdom in which Christ will reign on the earth.
Today’s post is adapted from Dr. MacArthur’s chapter 8 in Christ’s Prophetic Plans (Moody, 2012).