Study Notes for Revelation 2:12-17 the church @Pergamum

Below are my notes on the letter to the church at Pergamum. I will also note that I’ve included and excursus into the Binding of Satan below which may prove helpful for future reference.

To the Church in Pergamum

Pergamum was the capital of Asia. It has been so for some 250 years before this time (per MacArthur), and had been its own kingdom until about 133 B.C. when its final king died, and he bequeathed his kingdom to the Romans.

Hendricksen gives us some scope to the city of Pergamum:

The city was located upon a huge rocky hill which, as it were, plants its foot upon the great surrounding valley. The Romans made it the capital of the province of Asia…Here were to be seen the many pagan altars and the great altar to Zeus. All these things may have been I the mind of Christ when He called Pergamum the place ‘where Satan dwells.’ Yet, it seems to us that the obvious purpose of the Author is to direct our attention to the fact that Pergamum was the capital of the province and, as such, also the center of emperor-worship.[i]

The city was about 100 miles north of Ephesus and lay 15 miles inland from the Aegean – so it wasn’t a port city like Smyrna and Ephesus. Pliny wrote about how magnificent it was, and MacArthur notes that famous archeologist William Ramsay declared it to be a majestic city sitting atop the gigantic rock formation.

The city boasted a library only second to the famous library of Alexandria, with over 200,000 handwritten volumes. A third century B.C. king of Pergamum even tried to lure the librarian from Alexandria away to run their collection, but the Egyptian king caught wind of it and retaliated by cutting off the export of papyrus to the Asian city!

“Out of necessity, the Pergamenes developed parchment, made of treated animal skins, for use as writing material. Though parchment was actually known from a thousand years earlier in Egypt, the Pergamenes were responsible for its widespread use in the ancient world. In fact, the word parchment may derive from a form of the word Pergamum.[ii]

2:12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.

In chapter one (vs. 16) we see that Jesus is described as the one who had a sword protruding from his mouth. When we discussed this in the class setting, we came to the conclusion that the sword was the word of God. The fact that it emanated from the mouth of Jesus made a great deal of sense in that the inspired Word is that which came from Jesus.

The author of Hebrews, himself inspired by the Spirit, said this:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. [13] And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13)

Matthew Henry sees the connection here as well and says this:

(1.) The word of God is a sword; it is a weapon both offensive and defensive, it is, in the hand of God, able to slay both sin and sinners. (2.) It is a sharp sword. No heart is so hard but it is able to cut it; it can divide asunder between the soul and the spirit, that is, between the soul and those sinful habits that by custom have become another soul, or seem to be essential to it. (3.) It is a sword with two edges; it turns and cuts every way. There is the edge of the law against the transgressors of that dispensation, and the edge of the gospel against the despisers of that dispensation; there is an edge to make a wound, and an edge to open a festered wound in order to its healing. There is no escaping the edge of this sword: if you turn aside to the right hand, it has an edge on that side; if on the left hand, you fall upon the edge of the sword on that side; it turns every way.

Of course the sharp two-edged sword is familiar to us now. But perhaps equally interesting is how Hebrews describes the all-knowing nature of the Lord. He says, “…no creature is hidden from his sight.” In a similar way we read earlier that Jesus was described as having eyes, “like a flame of fire” (1:14). Those eyes are all-seeing, and, as the writer of Hebrews says, all will be “exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

Jesus himself said, “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17).

I’m pointing this out because, while this is apocalyptic literature, the way in which Jesus is described – his attributes, his authority, and his actions are consistent across the canon of scripture.

2:13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.

Here is the commendation of the church at Pergamum. They have held fast the name of Jesus and didn’t deny the faith even in the midst of execution.

Note how Jesus describes their location as “where Satan’s throne is.” And that the result is that Christians – notably this man Antipas – have died on behalf of the name of Jesus. There are two points I want us to understand about this:

Satan’s Driving Motivation

  1. Satan has always sought to kill those people who are the offspring of Eve. He delights in killing the Lord’s elect. For as God said to the devil in Genesis:

The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. [15] I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:14-15)

Now Jesus has been bruised for us, but He has leveled the fatal blow – the headshot – to Satan. Therefore Satan’s destiny has been set – his power already diminished, and he will soon be permanently cast into outer darkness.

Satan’s Throne and His Power

  1. Satan’s “throne” may be here on earth, but it is not a throne of sovereignty. He “rules” in a subordinate sense, not an ultimate sense. He is roaming the earth seeking those whom he can devour (1 Peter 5:8), but his freedom is subordinate to God’s sovereign power and control. Many people get tripped up on the traditional Amillennial idea that of Satan being bound “bound” from deceiving the nations right now (Revelation 20:3). This is perhaps because they cast their own ideas about what it means to be “bound” onto the Biblical text. They point to all the terrible things going on in the world and to other texts like this where Satan is characterized as ruling in some sense, and they say, “Hey, there’s simply no way he is “bound” right now.”

But perhaps the Amillenial view is closer to the correct view than they might realize, and that we live right now in the millennium. If this is true, then Satan is bound. But how is he bound? He is “bound” from “deceiving the nations.” The Bible never says he is bound from doing evil and working to kill the offspring of Eve! It simply asserts that he no longer has the ability to withstand the unbridled power of the Holy Spirit. Before the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus, the entire world save a few was characterized by darkness and idol worship. Now the gospel is saving souls and Satan, though powerful and devouring those whom he can, is ultimately unable to tamp out the gospel or keep the world in darkness.

Excursus

Now – a note on this front – I understand the difficulties here with what I’ve said about the nature of Satan being “bound.” Not the least of these difficulties comes from the passage in Revelation 20 itself, namely that Satan is characterized as being thrown in a “pit” which is “shut” so that “he might not deceive the nations” until the millennial period is over. That certainly sounds like a complete cutting off of his freedom!

But here I will lean on greater exegetical minds than my own to explain in much more detail what is going on in this passage. Namely, I want to lean on G.K. Beale’s mind, who has what I consider to be the most clear understanding of the passage, and for the sake of reference in the future I will cite several of his remarks here on the passage in question, Revelation 20:1-6. This may seem to be getting ahead of ourselves a bit, but I believe that the book is a uniform whole. There are concepts throughout the book that I will continually bring up, and I want to explain where my “assumptions” are coming from. I think that putting some of these thoughts to rest early in our study could help us understand the book more clearly as we go along. Here are some of Beale’s exegetical notes:

The “key of the abyss” in 20:1 is similar to the keys in chs. 1, 3, 6 and 9, especially chs. 6 and 9, which all pertain to realities during the church age. The “abyss” in 9:1-2 and 20:1 is probably a synonym for “death and Hades” in 1:18 and 6:8…

As in 6:8 and 9:1-2, so in 20:1-3 the Satanic realm comes under Christ’s authority, which is executed by a mediating angel…

If we have been correct in generally identifying 20:1 with the preceding “key” passages, which concern inter-advent realities, then the binding and the millennium are best understood as Christ’s authority restraining the devil in some manner during the church age.

This means tat the restraint of Satan is a direct result of Christ’s resurrection. If so, the binding, expulsion, and fall of Stan can be seen in other NT passages that affirm with the same terms (“bind”, “cast” etc.) that the decisive defeat of the devil occurred at Christ’s death and resurrection (Matt. 12:29; Mark 3:27; Luke 10:17-10; John 12:31-33; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14). More precisely, the binding was probably inaugurated during Christ’s ministry, which is more the focus of texts such as Matthew 12:29, Mark 3:27, and Luke 10:17-19. Satan’s binding was climatically put in motion immediately after Christ’s resurrection, and it lasts throughout most of the age between Christ’s first and second comings.

But now what about the nature of the binding? How is this defined etc.?

Many commentators conclude that the metaphors of verses 1-3 (in ch. 20) refer to al complete cessation of the devil’s influence on earth, sometimes basing this on such texts as 2 Cor. 4:3-4, 11:14; Eph. 2:2; 2 Tim. 2:26; and 1 Peter 5:8. But the “binding of Satan in Mark 3:27 (= Matt. 12:29) does not restrict all his activities but highlights the fact that Jesus is sovereign over him and his demonic forces. Therefore, context, and not the metaphor by itself, must determine what degree of restriction is intended. That Stan is “cast out” by Christ’s death does not restrict Satan in every way. Rather, it keeps him from preventing “all people” throughout the earth being drawn to Jesus (John 12:31-32). “Sealing” may connote an absolute incarceration, but it could just as well connote the general idea of “authority over,” which is its primary meaning also in Daniel 6:17 and Matthew 27:66 (though the context of the latter pertains to absolute confinement). God’s “seal” on Christians does not protect them in every sense but only in a spiritual, salvific manner, since they suffer from persecution in various physical ways (see on 7:3; 9:4). Conversely, God’s seal on Satan prevents him from harming the salvific security of the true church, though he can harm it physically.

Now Beale continues, and gives several pages of the nature of the binding and more depth is added to his argument. But I will finish with one last excerpt that I think makes a very strong case, so long as you agree with the recapitulation view of the book of Revelation (which I do).

If our understanding of the disjunctive temporal relation of 20:1-6 to 19:11-21 (that 20:1-6 actually comes chronologically before 19:11-21) and our view of the “keys” are correct, then Christ’s work of restraining the devil’s ability to “deceive” is not a complete curtailment of all the devil’s activities but only a restraint on his deceiving activities. 9:1-10 especially suggests this. The opening of the “abyss” with a key there results in demonic deception and oppression of unbelievers “who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” Therefore, the locking up of the “abyss” in 20:1-3 may convey the idea that Satan and his hordes cannot be on the loose to deceive those “who did not receive the mark (of the beast) on their foreheads.” 9:1-10 and 20:1-3 are synchronous and portray those whom Satan is permitted to deceive and those whom he is not permitted to deceive.

I hope this extended series of excerpts serves as a thought provoking adventure into the text. I don’t want to confuse anyone, but rather to offer some more depth to the arguments and viewpoints I’m offering on a Sunday morning.

End Excursus

2:14-15 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. [15] So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

Now comes the accusation. The church has followed the way of Balak and in a similar way there’s also a group of them who follow the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

Balaam was a character from the OT and we learn about him and his betrayal of the Israelites in the book of Numbers. He was asked by a foreign King – Balak, king of Moab – to curse the Israelites so that they could be overcome in battle. The Lord intervened and stopped Balaam on in his tracks on his way to meet with the king:

But God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. [23] And the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. And the donkey turned aside out of the road and went into the field. And Balaam struck the donkey, to turn her into the road. (Numbers 22:22-23)

God had actually given him permission to go only if the men sent from Balak asked him again to come with them. But apparently Balaam couldn’t control his eagerness for the journey and set off on his own accord.[iii]

Balaam ended up being allowed to go to the king, but when he opened his mouth to curse the Israelites at the request of Balak, he could not curse them. Instead he spoke only what God had told him to speak. But later on, Balaam, “encouraged Israel to sin through engaging in idolatry and immorality.”[iv]

As Greg Beale describes, “Balaam’s name became a biblical catch-word for false teachers who for financial gain sought to influence God’s people to engage in ungodly practices (Deuteronomy 23:4; Nehemiah 13:2; 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11).”[v]

Peter mentions this in his second epistle when describing false teachers:

Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, [16] but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness. (2 Peter 2:15-16)

So there were parts of the church who had been following false teachers motivated out of a desire for wealth and power.

Jesus also mentions that this church has, “some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Who are these people? John MacArthur explains well and is worth quoting at length:

The phrase “in the same way” indicates that the teaching of the Nicolaitans led to the same wicked behavior as that of the followers of Balaam…the Nicolaitans derived their name from Nicholas, one of the seven men chosen to oversee the distribution of the food in Acts 6. Where he became an apostate (as some of the early church fathers believed) or the Nicolaitans, his followers, perverted his teachings is not known. Abusing biblical teaching on Christian liberty, the Nicolaitans also taught that Christians could participate in pagan orgies. They seduced the church with immorality and idolatry.

The majority of the believers at Pergamum did not participate in the errors of either heretical group. They remained steadfastly loyal to Christ and the Christian faith. But by tolerating the groups and refusing to exercise church discipline, they shared in their guild, which brought the Lord’s judgment.[vi]

This kind of thing scares me to death because as a church in the modern era, we often refuse to exercise church discipline. The church is seen as a club, but not as an authoritative body of believers. If someone commits a sin and wrongs others in the church, or is in grave error from a teaching standpoint and refuses to repent of that error, that person generally just leaves and goes to another church. We are such a mobile society now that the idea of being tied down to a local body of believers who have authority to admonish individuals, is something that is far from the mindset of many in the modern Christian church.

Commenting on this passage, Matthew Henry says, “Though the church, as such, has no power to punish the persons of men, either for heresy or immorality, with corporal penalties, yet it has power to exclude them from its communion; and, if it do not so, Christ, the head and lawgiver of the church, will be displeased with it.”

One only need look at the fall of Mark Driscoll in Seattle to see how effective a local body can be when functioning correctly. Mark had been off the reservation for a while, and finally the local elder board at his church confronted him about his attitude and his speech and he stepped down. Now this is a nationally known figure. He had a giant ministry that spanned over a network of churches and reached tens of thousands of people. Yet, he was subject to the local body of believers.

Today we need to have local churches that function in this way.

2:16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. [17] He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’

Here is the call to repent followed by the description of the consequences to follow if they do not repent – namely that the Son of God will “war against them with the sword of (his) mouth.”

What does it meant to have God “war against” you? If the sword is the word of God, it is evident they will be judged by the truth that is in that word. As I mentioned before, these churches no longer stand – only the church at Smyrna exists in a city that still stands.

What came to my mind as best showcasing the truth of this is what Jesus says in John 5:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)

Note the close connection between hearing and believing (obeying the word – obeying the gospel) and judgment.

Now secondly note how the when he calls on them to hear what he’s saying – using the familiar phrase, “he who has an ear to hear let him here” – he says that it is the “Spirit” who is speaking. What can He mean by this? Isn’t it Jesus who is speaking?

The answer to this question is that Jesus and the Spirit are of the same mind. Before Jesus left this earth He promised that the Spirit would come to lead (them – the disciples of Jesus) into all truth:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (John 16:13).

The famous Princeton theologian Geerhardus Vos once spoke of the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit in the following way:

…the union effected between him and the Spirit and through the Spirit and believers, acquires the character of an organic mystical union, so that to be in the Spirit is to be in Christ.[vii]

So they are always on the same page. Jesus’ words are the Spirit’s words.

Now the next thing we read is the promise of eternal reward to the one who conquers. Like the other letters, the promise to those Christians who conquer is eternal life with the Father. The neat thing about reading these letters and studying them closely is that we are given the privilege of seeing the different ways in which Jesus describes the splendor of eternity. Here he talks about “hidden manna” and a “white stone.”

Now as you might recall, manna is bread, and in the Bible you’ll see time and again how bread represents sustenance. It represents God’s provision for men. Namely in the OT God provided manna from heaven to the Israelites, and in the NT Jesus called himself the “bread of life.”

Furthermore, interestingly, Jewish tradition talks of how Jeremiah hid some manna in the ark before the temple was destroyed and “that it would be revealed again when the Messiah came” (cf. Exodus 16:32 and 2 Maccabees 2:4-7 – see Beale).

Beale remarks on the meaning here:

Here the idea of the manna may have come to mind because of the preceding meditation on Israel’s confrontation with Balaam in their wilderness journey. Israel should have relied on God’s heavenly food for their sustenance rather than partaking of idolatrous food, and the church will partake of heavenly manna if it does not compromise in the same way.[viii]

Hendricksen hints at Jesus being the hidden manna, and personally that makes the most sense to me. Jesus is the fulfillment of the OT type – He brings satisfaction of a more ultimate kind, and a rest which only comes from Him alone (Hebrews). He is also our ultimate reward.

Now with regard to the white stone, there are a number of theories. I think we don’t have to come down on one thing or another. But George Ladd says:

A white stone (in the ancient world) signified acquittal by a jury, a black stone condemnation. White stones were used as tickets of admission to public festivals. This meaning fits the context best. The white stone is a symbol of admission to the messianic feast.

Whereas Hendricksen says that there are only two possibilities in his research.

The first is that the stone represents the person himself – “just as in Israel the twelve tribes were represented by twelve precious stones in the breastplate of the high priest (Exodus 28:15-21). Now this stone is white. This indicates holiness, beauty, glory…the stone itself symbolized durability, imperishability. The white stone, therefore, indicates a being, free form guilt and cleansed of all sin, and abiding in this state for ever and ever.

The second interpretation the pellucid, precious stone – a diamond? – is inscribed with the name of Christ. Receiving this stone with its new name means that in glory the conqueror receives a revelation of the sweetness of fellowship with Christ – in His new character, as newly crowned Mediator – a fellowship which only those who receive it can appreciate.

Interestingly Hendricksen gives pages of arguments in favor of each possibility. I’m not sure that it’s all that important to nail down an opinion about what the white stone means. But I think that it generally symbolizes the uniqueness of the individual relationship with God, and reward that each person has for following Christ. We are all one body, but it’s a body made up of individuals. And here Jesus is saying that He knows us all by name, He has called specific people to life according to His eternal hidden purposes. And the gifts of God are indeed irrevocable, and eternal.

Conclusion: Doctrine Matters

So what can we say about this church? What are we to learn from its mistakes and its commendation?

Many are quick to call this the “worldly church” because of its compromise with the world. Perhaps a better moniker would be the “compromising church” or “the timid church.”

What is so scary about this church is that, while they loved the Lord, they didn’t love him enough to guard their church from compromise. They didn’t love him – or each other – enough to reject false teaching, or admonish and discipline those who were led astray by false teaching.

Doctrine matters. If we are not firmly rooted in the truth of God’s Word we will be easily misled. The entire church in Pergamum was admonished for the actions of a few people. And if we are not firm in our convictions, we’ll tolerate the infiltration of false doctrine in our churches. I’m not just speaking about the church as a whole (The universal church), but more particularly our church – our local body of believers. Because it’s a heck of a lot easier to recognize and reject unorthodox teaching from Mark Driscoll, or Rob Bell, than it is to gently approach the Sunday school teacher here in our church for wrongly interpreting the word of God.

Yet we are called to do just that. But how are we to do that if we are not first grounded in what is right and true? This is a call for both understanding, and for courage and purity in the local body.

 

[i] Hendricksen, Pg. 66.

[ii] MacArthur, Pg. 84-85. He has a good bit of insight on the background of the city here, and quotes William Ramsay’s book ‘The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia’, which is an old book itself! Ramsay was one of the most renowned archeologists of the last 150 years.

[iii] Matthew Henry Notes: “God gave him leave to go if the men called him, but he was so fond of the journey that we do not find he staid for their calling him, but he himself rose up in the morning, got everything ready with all speed, and went with the princes of Moab, who were proud enough that they had carried their point. The apostle describes Balaam’s sin here to be that he ran greedily into an error for reward, Jude 1:11.”

[iv] Beale, shorter commentary on Revelation, Pg. 66.

[v] Beale, shorter commentary on Revelation, Pg. 66.

[vi] MacArthur, Volume I, Commentary on Revelation, Pg. 89.

[vii] Danny Olinger, ‘A Geerhardus Vos Anthology’, Pg. 323.

[viii] Beale, the longer commentary, Pg. 252.

Introduction to Revelation: Part 4

The Kingdom of God & the Already Not Yet

Often it is very easy to get caught up in viewpoints about the millennium, and I do not want to detract from the importance of the millennium. For even though the millennium – the 1,000 year reign of Christ mentioned in the first few verses of chapter 20 – takes up a very short space in terms of the book itself, its importance is seen in how we interpret what its saying.

But before we discuss these things specifically, I believe we need to begin our study of this book by briefly examining the nature of the kingdom of God. For when we speak of the “millennium” we’re talking about the Kingdom of God, and specifically the reign of His Christ.

Tom Schreiner says, “Those who participate in the first resurrection will reign with Christ for a thousand years (Revelation 20:6), although the nature of this reign is intensely debated, and scholars differ on whether it refers to the reign of saints in the heaven during the time between the resurrection and the return of Christ or to a reign of the saints on earth before the inauguration of the new heavens and new earth.”[ix]

We can see the importance of this idea of the reign of Christ in how it manages to seep into how pastors and theologians comprehend the overarching theme(s) of this book. For instance, Warren Wiersebe, a Premillennialist, says, “The overriding theme of the book of Revelation is the return of Jesus Christ to defeat all evil and to establish His reign.”   Note how he uses the word “establish” in lieu of the word “consummate” which is the term an amillennialist would use because of the emphasis on Christ’s current reign.

The amillennialist would remind us of verses like we find at the end of Mark’s gospel, “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19 – also see Ephesians 1:20-23)[i]

Now, most theologians believe that Christ is reigning now, but what is the nature of that reign? I think the difference lies in whether or not one believes that His current reign is somewhat lesser or mostly spiritual (i.e. in the hearts of his people).

Dispensationalist John MacArthur puts it this way:

So God rules spiritually now over the hearts of those who know Him by faith. And that’s been the case since His saving work began. There is a spiritual element of the Kingdom that has existed since God started redeeming men. But this is not that spiritual Kingdom of which we read here, but rather that earthly literal Kingdom which comes at the culmination of human history.[ii]

However, I think that this emphasis on the future nature of Christ’s kingdom does injustice to His victory at Calvary, and does not fully comprehend the fullness of Christ’s current reign.

You can now see the rub, can you not? How we think about the kingdom of God shapes how we view the book of Revelation, and perhaps the millennium question in particular.

The Already/Not Yet

I believe the critical hermeneutical principle which will help us most is called the “already/not yet” principle. In order to understand most of the NT – especially the words of Jesus and the book of Revelation – we need to understand this important principle.

For our purposes, I believe that we need to get our heads around two truths about the nature of God’s kingdom. The first is that it has been inaugurated by Jesus Christ, and will be consummated upon his return. The second is that God is working dynamically in history to bring about the expansion of His kingdom and its final consummation.

Regarding the first truth, it is worth quoting R.C. Sproul at this point at length:

Many professing evangelicals today believe the kingdom of God is strictly in the future, although there is no biblical foundation for that. This view robs the church of important teachings concerning the kingdom that are clearly set forth in the New Testament. In fact, the New Testament opens with John the Baptist’s announcement of the kingdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).

Another time the Pharisees asked Him when the kingdom of God would come, and Jesus replied, “Behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). The kingdom was in their midst became (sic – because) the King was there. In another occasion, He said, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20).

So John came first with his warning of the radical nearness of the kingdom. Then Jesus came announcing the presence of the kingdom. This was followed by the acme of His redemptive work in the ascension, when He left earth to go to His coronation, where God declared Him King. As Jesus stood on the Mount of Olives, read to depart, His disciples asked him, “Lord will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). They had been waiting for Jesus to make His move, to drive out the Romans and establish the kingdom, but Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

In answer to their question about the kingdom, Jesus gave the fundamental mission of the church. Men would be blind to His kingship, so His disciples were given the task of making it visible. The fundamental task of the church is to bear witness to the kingdom of God. Our King reigns now, so for us to put the kingdom of God entirely in the future is to miss one of the most significant points of the New Testament. Our King has come and has inaugurated the kingdom of God. The future aspect of the kingdom is its final consummation.[iii]

When Jesus returns it will not be to establish a kingdom, but rather to consummate a kingdom which has been established from before the foundation of the world, and which He reigns over at this very moment.

Indeed the book of Revelation, as we mentioned earlier, was written to assure Christians that He is in control over all things – He is the Lord of history.

Interestingly, Beale thinks that John wrote Revelation with the book of Daniel in mind – especially important in Daniel is the already/not yet function of his literature. Some things were occurring right away for Daniel during his time, while others he saw as distant and far away. Those things which Daniel saw as far away, John saw as fulfilled at least partially in the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus and the inauguration of his kingdom.

Beale puts it this way:

John probably views the death and resurrection of Christ as inaugurating the long-awaited kingdom of the end times predicted by Daniel, which will now continue throughout the church age.

Side note: for those more advanced in prophetic study or curious about these things, one of the things Beale and other see in Revelation is that at the beginning of some of the major sections/division there is a reference or allusion to something from Daniel chapter two (1:1, 4:1, and 22:6) Beale says that a pattern definitely emerges, “John is employing the same allusion as a literary device to give structure to his whole book.”

This also has ramifications for how we understand the millennium.

Douglass Kelly says, “The exercise of this heavenly authority over all lesser powers is the main thing that is happening in this age between the two comings of the Lord; which, as we shall seek to demonstrate, is the prime meaning of the millennium. The millennium is not a literal period of only one thousand years that will occur much later; rather it is that period of victorious outreach of the Gospel to the nations: a time that last from Jesus’ first coming to his last.”[iv]

All of this can be comprehended by identifying how the Bible speaks about the kingdom of God and the reign of His Christ in other places, and how we are to understand this in light of what we read in chapter 20. Is Jesus’ reign something future, or is it now and to be seen with our eyes in the future? How should we think of, and describe his reign?

This is what R.C. Sproul was speaking of earlier when he said that Christ’s kingdom was “inaugurated” but not yet “consummated.” There are some promises, and some realities that are presently being realized in the church age, yet will not come to their full glory until Christ returns. Our very salvation is like this, for we are saved NOW, yet we have not yet fully realized that salvation. We have the down payment of this reality in the giving of the Spirit, yet not the consummation of this reality in the presence of our Lord and Savior.

The second principle is tied to the first, and it is this: The kingdom of God is “dynamic.” That is to say it is more than just this idea of God separately reigning in heaven, He is working out His will in and amongst us in time and space. He is ruling here – He is involved in our lives – His rule is not detached.

John Frame quotes Geerhardus Vos for us on this matter:

To him (Jesus) the kingdom exists there, where not merely God is supreme, for that is true at all times and under all circumstances, but where God supernaturally carries through his supremacy against all opposing powers and brings men to the willing recognition of the same.

Then Frame says, “On this definition, the kingdom is dynamic, indeed dramatic. It is a world-historical movement, following the fall of Adam, in which God works to defeat Satan and bring human beings to acknowledge Christ as Lord. It is, preeminently, the history of salvation.”[v]

Anthony Hoekema puts it this way:

The kingdom of God, therefore, is to be understood as the reign of God dynamically active in human history through Jesus Christ, the purpose of which is the redemption of God’s people from sin and from demonic powers, and the final establishment of the new heavens and the new earth. It means the great drama of the history of salvation has been inaugurated, and that the new age has been ushered in. The kingdom must not be understood as merely the salvation of certain individuals or even as the reign of God in the hearts of his people; it means nothing less that the reign of God over his entire created universe. “The kingdom of God means that God is King and acts in history to bring history to a divinely directed goal. (quoting Ladd)”[vi]

He goes on to say, “The Kingdom of God involves two great moments: fulfillment within history, and consummation at the end of history.”[vii]

Now given what we know of these two principles, we know that God is both reigning supreme over all, but also dynamically working in and through His creation to bring about His purposes. This points to the linear nature of history – God is working toward something.[viii] What He is doing now in and through us by His Spirit and His Lordship over all history and creation is a shadow of what will be upon the consummation of His purposes.

Christ inaugurated a kingdom (the already) and with that inauguration has brought forth fruit first by His cross work, and now by His Spirit’s powerful work here on earth through the spread of the gospel. One day He will return to consummate His kingdom (the not yet) and upon that return will usher in the visible reality of his reign (the already).

While futurists await a future “literal earthly” kingdom (which we all look for), the way in which we speak about and think about God’s exercise of power and authority over the world, and the souls of lost people is important. I believe its crucial that we understand God as working even now dynamically, personally, powerfully in history and in the lives of men all across the globe to expand his kingdom – a real kingdom of real people.

So you can see how these perspectives function to shape our viewpoint of the book itself and the millennium. But they also shape how we live our lives as Christians – especially what kind of mindset we take toward events here on earth and circumstances in our personal lives.

NOTE: Some of the dispensationalists might argue that God rules “spiritually in the hearts” of men, but not physically here on earth, and does not rule them in any way other than in their hearts. To me this is a false dilemma. The postmillennialist has it right in the respect that when God saves a man, there is fruit and evidence of change not only in that man’s heart, but in his life and in the society in which he lives. To argue a distant futurist reign of Christ is to argue the opposite of how the Bible describes the efficacy of Christ’s work on the cross. He truly is Lord of all and he exercises that Lordship full now, though it is unseen (as Sproul mentions above). I’m not saying that the Postmillennial view is perfect, but their mindset on the nature of the kingdom certainly seems to make more sense and align more Biblically to me.

The Millennium

With this cursory understanding of the kingdom of God under our belts, let us examine the four major views on the reign of Christ in the millennium.

Amillennialism

The Amillennial view (Amil) is probably the simplest of the four major viewpoints on the millennial question.

Wayne Grudem says, “Those who are said to be reigning with Christ for the thousand years are Christians who have died and are already reigning with Christ in heaven…This view is called ‘Amillennialism’ because it maintains that there is no future millennium yet to come.”[x]

John Frame describes it:

The Amil believe that the millennium is now, the whole period from Jesus’ ascension to his return. He emphasizes that the resurrection and ascension of Jesus ushered in a new era of world history. Jesus has now achieved a great victory over Satan, sin, and death…The Amil says that Satan no longer deceives the nations (20:3) as he did before the coming of Christ. Before Jesus came, believers in the truth God existed mainly in Israel. The other nations were deceived by Satan into worship idols. But after the resurrection, the Christian church received power to reach people of all nations with the message of the gospel. And God will continue to empower this mission until the last day, until there are believers from every kingdom, tongue, tribe and nation.[xi]

R.C. Sproul adds…

The Amillennial position, which holds some points in common with both of the premillennial positions, believes that the church age is the kingdom age prophesied in the Old Testament. The New Testament church has become the Israel of God. Amillennialists believe that the binding of Satan took place during Jesus’ earthly ministry; Satan was restrained while the gospel was preached to the world, and this restraint continues today.[xii]

The verses that come to my mind as typically cited in terms of the defeat of Satan are as follows:

The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:15)

Frame describes how the Amil views the future…

Amils affirm that toward the end of this era Satan will be released briefly, as Revelation 20:3 indicates (also verses 7-8). He will then deceive the nations again, presumably achieving some measure of his old power. But he will be frustrated and defeated by the return of Christ and the judgment that will result in his final destruction.[xiii]

Amils believe that the first resurrection is simply that spiritual resurrection that has taken place and realized during the intermediate state. The second resurrection is the physical resurrection of the body preceding the judgment when Christ returns. Frame says, “Similarly, the first death is the physical death of human being; the second death is the condemnation of the wicked, a death that believers do not experience.”[xiv]

Postmillennialism 

Most folks who are of the post-mil persuasion also believe that the millennium period of 1,000 years is NOW just like the Amils believe. John Frame notes that some older literature reveals that there are a few Post-mills who have said that is a part of this time now, but more will reside in the future. Post-mills also agree with Amils on the binding of Satan during Christ’s ministry and his release for a short time before Jesus’ return.

John Frame describes the difference between Amils and Post-mills:

Well, although the postmil agrees with the amil that our age is a time of persecution for the church, he also thinks that during this time Christians will come to have more and more influence in general culture. Believers will indeed gain wealth, influence, and even dominance.[xv]

Sproul describes this unique part of Post-millennialism:

What distinguishes postmillennialists from amillennialists and premillennialists is the belief that Scripture teaches the success of the Great Commission in the age of the church.[xvi]

Grudem says, “ The primary characteristic of postmillennialism is that it is very optimistic about the power of the gospel to change lives and bring about much good in the world.”

I must admit that when I study the history of the world since the spread of the gospel, I do not see a uniform trajectory upward toward a world of people who are united in morals and standards. Certainly I believe that since Christ the world has been changed in huge part by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no doubt that the world was in darkness before He came – so much so that every other nation worshiped idols except Israel. Can you imagine if we looked around the world today and every other nation except one the size of Rhode Island worshiped wooden blocks and golden statues? So certainly the gospel has transformed our world.

However, the post-millennial viewpoint was really made popular and caught on prior to the 20th century. It was perhaps at its height at the end of the 19th century when medical cures were being found, the industrial revolution was in full swing, and great revivals had swept across the world many times over the course of the past several hundred years. Then came World War I. The gruesome bloodshed and seemingly worthless outcome was more than conservative theologians could swallow in their assessments of world events and the human situation on earth.

However, not all theologians and pastors had to wait until the bloody events of the 20th century to object to Postmillennialism’s optimistic theology. J.C. Ryle, the great 19th century contemporary of Spurgeon, wrote hinting about this way of thinking:

Let us dismiss from our minds the vain idea that nations will ever give up wars entirely, before Jesus Christ comes again. So long as the devil is the prince of this world, and the hearts of the many are unconverted, so long there must be strife and fighting. There will be no universal peace before the second advent of the Prince of peace. Then, and then only, men shall “learn war no more” (Isaiah 2:4).

Let us cease to expect that missionaries and ministers will ever convert the world, and teach all mankind to love one another. They will do nothing of the kind. They were never intended to do it. They will call out a witnessing people who shall serve Christ in every land, but they will do no more. The bulk of mankind will always refuse to obey the Gospel. The nations will always go on quarreling, wrangling, and fighting. The last days of the earth shall be its worst days. The last war shall be the most fearful and terrible war that ever desolated the earth.[xvii]

The theology fell out of style, yet there are some very smart theologians whom I respect who still hold this theology today. John Frame[xviii] and Keith Mathison both consider themselves Post-Millennial.

I say all that because, while I do not consider myself Postmillennial, I really respect those who take that view, and their arguments are generally very scriptural. They point to many times, both in Scripture and in the time since Christ, when Christian influence has changed the world for the good. They remind us that when Jesus changes someone’s head and heart, those changes lead to changes in our actions which affect the society in which we live.

NEXT TIME…..Premillenialism…..

FOOTNOTES

[i] Ligonier has a devotional published about the kingdom of God which cites these verses in Ephesians: http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/seated-at-gods-right-hand/

[ii] John MacArthur sermon on Revelation 20 (Part 1): http://www.gty.org/resources/print/sermons/66-73

[iii] Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 307.

[iv] Kelly, Pg. 11

[v] John M. Frame, ‘Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief’, Pg. 87

[vi] Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, Pg. 45

[vii] Anthony Hoekema, ‘The Bible and the Future’, Pg. 51

[viii] For more on the linear nature of history, see Anthony Hoekema’s ‘Created in God’s Image’

[ix] Tom Schreiner, New Testament Biblical Theology, Pg. 846-847.

[x] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1110.

[xi] John Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1087-1088

[xii] R.C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 313.

[xiii] John Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1088

[xiv] John Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1088

[xv] Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1088.

[xvi] Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 314.

[xvii] J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Luke 21:10-19. Here Ryle is discussing the Olivet Discourse and particularly, “Christ’s predictions concerning the nations and the world.” That this important, and sound, theologian and pastor would raise such a warning flag against the post-mil mindset while its popularity was at its zenith is (to me) a very important note.

[xviii] Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1094