The "End Times"
A Study on Eschatology and Millennialism

A Report of the
Commission on Theology and Church Relations of
The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod

September 1989

Part 2

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Eschatology and Millennialism

A detailed evaluation of arguments for each of the views summarized above lies beyond the scope of this study. The variety of interpretations given to the Biblical data within millennialist eschatology would make such an approach difficult, and perhaps less than helpful. (Within dispensationalism there are, for example, pre-tribulationalists, post-tribulationalists, mid-tribulationalists, and among the mid-tribulationalists there are those who hold a "partial-rapture view" and an "immanent post-tribulational view.") Therefore, the Commission has here singled out what it regards as the principal considerations which, from a Lutheran perspective, must be kept in mind by those seeking guidance regarding the "end times." Especially important are the principles of interpretation (hermeneutics) employed in the study of the prophetic and apocalyptic books of the Old and New Testaments from which millennialist teaching is largely derived. And, since millennialist teaching represents a system of interpreting and shaping all aspects of eschatology, it is also necessary to review key end-time doctrines, and to do so in light of millennialist adaptations. This section will conclude with specific commentary on some of the Biblical texts which have played a determinative role in the development of some of the currently popular views concerning the end times.

A. Hermeneutical Considerations

When approaching the subject of Biblical eschatology, it is especially important that the reader of Scripture take into account the nature of prophetic and apocalyptic literature. Most of both the major and minor prophets are written in poetry, with its characteristic figurative and picturesque language. For example, Amos pictures the future eschatological blessings for God's people by saying that "the mountains shall drip sweet wine" (9:13). The prophet hardly meant here that the hills in the Middle East will one day be covered with wine.

Symbolic language of this kind is especially common in apocalyptic literature such as Daniel and Revelation. In Revelation, for example, one. reads of horsemen (chap. 6), locusts (chap. 9), beasts (chap. 13), Satan chained and bound in a bottomless pit (chap. 20), and more. Moreover, in apocalyptic literature numbers are regularly used symbolically (the seven horns and seven eyes of Christ [Rev. 5:6], the 144,000 sealed [Rev. 7:2-8; 14:1-5], the 1000 years of Revelation 20). Clearly, this type of literature does not purport to be speaking literally,[10] as if every verse is presenting straightforward, newspaper-like prose. The goal of the interpreter must be to seek the one intended or literal sense of the text, and to do so with the recognition that God in some cases has chosen to convey meaning through symbolism and figures of speech (e.g., metonymy, metaphor, and simile).

Second, certain prophetic texts are best interpreted according to what has commonly been called the shortened perspective.[11] Events in the near and the distant future are often telescoped into one picture, like mountain peaks when seen from a distance. Sometimes the prophets focus on the immediate future and at other times on the distant future; however, both are seen at the same time. Joel's prophecy, for example, moves easily from the immediate situation of the locust plague (1:2-2:27) to the distant future of Pentecost (2:28-29) to the even more distant future of Christ's second coming (2:30-3:21). Jesus Himself prophesies in this way. In Matt. 24:15-28 (cf. Mark 13:14-23 and Luke 21:20-24) He projects into one picture both A.D. 70 when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the final intensified persecution against the church before His second coming. Biblical prophecy often does not picture for us the intervening centuries which lie as valleys between the high points of salvation history.

Third, the interpreter should recognize the "historical times-coloring" of the prophetic message. Procedurally, the first task in interpretation is to ascertain what the text meant in its historical situation. Reflecting the historical situation in which they spoke, the prophets preached to a definite life situation and delivered their oracles in terms which their original hearers could understand. For example, Obadiah predicts that those in Mount Zion will escape God's wrath (Obadiah 17). The New Testament indicates that this prophecy is ultimately realized in the promise that the people of God, that is, all believers (the church), will be saved (e.g., Heb. 12:22). However, Obadiah does not say "the Christian church will be saved" simply because these words are not in his B. C. vocabulary.

Fourth, Old Testament prophecy, especially when dealing with eschatological themes, is often typical or typological in nature.[12] A type is a person, institution, or event which prefigures and foreshadows a new and greater reality (the antitype). The antitype historically and theologically corresponds to, elucidates, fulfills, and eschatologically completes the type. The antitype is no mere repetition of the type but is always greater than its prefigurement. And since the Scriptures are Christological, the Old Testament's types (which are so indicated by Scripture) are related to, centered in, and fulfilled in Christ and His people, the church.

Old Testament Israel's history often contains this typological, future-oriented thrust. The prophets constantly express their hope for the future in terms of God's acts in the past, which nevertheless will be repeated on a universal scale and will exceed more gloriously anything experienced in the past. Isaiah predicts a new and greater Exodus from bondage (Is. 11:15; 43:16-19; 51:10-11; 52), a new and greater Davidic King (9:1-7; 11:1-10), and a new Jerusalem inhabited by a new people (65:17-25). The Exodus from Egypt is a prefigurement of the deliverance from bondage to sin in Christ (1 Cor. 5:6 8; 10:1-11; 1 Pet. 1 :13,18-19). David typifies the Messiah (Matt. 2:23; Luke 1:26-33; Acts 2:25-31). And, Old Testament Jerusalem foreshadows the heavenly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26-27; Heb. 12:22; Revelation 21). Thus, to insist, for example, that Jerusalem in the Old Testament (Mt. Zion of Obadiah 17) refers to the modern city of Jerusalem in the Middle East is to ignore its typological significance.

The relationship between the two Testaments is similar to that of a bud and its full blossom. In the words of St. Augustine's ancient formulation, "The New Testament is latent in the Old (the 'bud'); the Old becomes patent in the New (the 'blossom')." When studying a given prophetic oracle, therefore, it is both appropriate and necessary that the reader of the Scriptures ask these questions: Does the New Testament quote it or allude to it? How does the New Testament treat the oracle's themes and theological points? When this is done the interpreter will discover that the fulfillment is greater than the prediction, just as the antitype is greater than the type.

One cannot simply assume that there must be a literalistic correspondence in all details between the prediction and the fulfillment. For example, Ezek. 34:23-24 and 37:24-25 predict that David will rule over restored Israel. Isaiah 7:14 predicts that the Messiah's name shall be Immanuel. The New Testament, however, informs us that Jesus of Nazareth, a descendant of David, is in fact this promised Messiah. Without the New Testament one might be led to expect a resurrected David whose actual name is Immanuel. To be sure, the fulfillment does at times simply correspond to the predicted details. Micah 5:2 predicts that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem, a fact to which the fulfillment corresponds precisely (Matt. 2:1-6; John 7:42). However, the New Testament, and not some preconceived notion of consistent literalism, must determine in what way the prediction is fulfilled.

These observations presuppose that since God is the one Author of all Scripture, an organic unity exists within and between the Old and New Testaments, both with respect to their content (the doctrine of the Gospel in all its articles) and their function of making people wise unto salvation. The hermeneutical principle that Scripture interprets Scripture necessarily presumes this unity. Thus, we may look to the New Testament to clarify what the persons, institutions, and events mentioned by the prophets typify. Hans LaRondelle, in The Israel of God in Prophecy, states the matter well:

All of this is to say that the Scriptures themselves, and not twentieth century commentaries on current events, must provide the normative interpretation of Old Testament prophecy. Ezekiel 38-39 predicts that Gog of the land of Magog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, along with Persia, Cush, Put, Gomer, and Beth-togarmah will make war on Israel. Dispensationalists often identify these with the twentieth century countries of Russia (Meshech=Moscow, Tubal=Tobolsk), Iran, Ethiopia, Libya (Put), Germany (Gomer), and southern Russia (Beth-togarmah) and say that these countries will attack the modern Israelis.[14] The New Testament, however, interprets these references typologically by viewing these enemy nations of Old Testament Israel as illustrative of all the godless world which is hostile to the church and will intensely persecute the church for a short time before Judgment Day (Rev. 20:7-10).

Fifth, the interpreter of Old Testament prophecy should especially keep in mind the Christological focus of Scripture. The Old Testament prophets were both "foretellers" and "forthtellers." They were preachers of the covenant, proclaiming the Law and the Gospel to their original hearers. Even their eschatological predictions were given not to provide unrelated bits of information or to satisfy curiosity about the future, but to lead their hearers to repentance and faith. Therefore, the interpreter must relate all prophecy, including eschatological prophecy, to the covenant, to Law and Gospel, and ultimately to Christ. The Old Testament dare not be treated as a self-contained entity to be read apart from Christ and the New Testament. This would amount to treating the Old Testament as a non-Christian Jewish book (cf. 2 Cor. 3:12-16). To insist, for instance, on the basis of Ezekiel 40-46 that the temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt and that the sacrificial system will be reinstituted is to disregard Christ who is the New Temple (Matt. 12:6; John 2:19-22; Rev. 21:22) and the all-sufficient Sacrifice (Hebrews 9-10, especially 10:18). The Mosaic covenant with its sacrificial system prefigures the new covenant in Christ (Jer. 31:31-34; 1 Cor. 11:25; Heb. 8:13). Now that the antitype has come, one cannot expect the reestablishment of the type (Col. 2:16-17; Heb. 10:1).

Sixth, Old Testament Israel prefigured Christ and His church as the New Israel. Christ is the New Israel, Israel reduced to one. He recapitulates and fulfills Old Testament Israel's history by obeying God perfectly where Israel disobeyed (Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:15; Deut. 6:13,16; 8:2-3; Matt. 4:1-11). "The descendants of Abraham failed and Israel's burden in its entirety came to Jesus, whom God designated as His Israel by calling Him out of Egypt, by placing the world's burdens on Him, and by raising Him to life."[15] Christ is the promised seed of Abraham in whom all the nations of the earth are blessed (Gen. 12:3,7; Gal. 3:8,14-16).[16]

Since Christ is the New Israel, all those who believe in Him also become the New Israel, Abraham's descendants (Gal. 3:29; 6:16; Rom. 9:6-8, 24-26; 4:16-17; Ephesians 2; 1 Pet. 2:9-10). Christ began to reconstitute Israel by first restoring the faithful remnant of the Jews (Matt. 10:6; 15:24; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8; 2:5-42; 3:25-26). Then His mission moved out to the Gentiles so that they too might be incorporated into the people of God (Rom. 11:17-24; Acts 10; 13:46-48; 15:14-18; Gal. 3:14, 27-29; Eph. 2:11-22). Therefore, the Christian church is Israel restored, heir to the promise made to Abraham (Gal. 3:29).

What is said in the above paragraphs may be visualized in the following way:


This diagram illustrates God's plan for bringing back fallen creation into a proper relationship with Himself. His means for doing this narrowed from Abraham and all his descendants (Gen. 12:1-3) to the post-exilic remnant (Hag. 2:2; Zech. 8:6; Ezra 1-2) to Christ, Israel reduced to one. From there it broadened through the faithful remnant of the Jews to the whole church of believing Jews and Gentiles. The church, however, is not an end in itself but has been given the mission of making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19-20).

One should read the prophetic promises of the restoration of Israel (such as Ezekiel 37; Hos. 1 :8-11; Micah 4:1-5:9; Zeph. 3:11-20; Is. 11:10 16; 60-61) in light of the above. Thus, although these promises were partially fulfilled in the return from the Babylonian captivity in 538 B.C., the fulfillment comes in Christ, the New Israel, and consequently His church. The prophet Amos foresees that the Davidic dynasty will be rebuilt to incorporate the remnant of Edom and of all the nations (Amos 9:11-12). According to the apostle James this prophecy was fulfilled when, through the preaching of the Gospel, God called out from the Gentiles a "people for His name" (Acts 15:13-18). It is therefore contrary to Scripture to teach as Biblical doctrine the opinion that the fulfillment of the promises of Israel's restoration took place in the establishment of the secular state of modern Israel in 1948 and/or in the Jewish taking of Old Jerusalem in 1967.

In this connection an important difference between Old Testament Israel and the New Israel should be noted. Old Testament Israel was both church and state, both a spiritual assembly of believers and a political entity. Many of the Old Testament promises reflect this theocratic context of Old Testament Israel. The New Israel, however, is not a secular state, not even in part. The political aspects of Israel's existence in the Old Testament have fallen away in the fulfillment. Isaiah 9:7 prophesies that the Messiah will rule His kingdom on the throne of David (cf. 2 Sam. 7:16; Ps. 132:11-12). Isaiah's words are fulfilled in the crucified and risen Messiah's ascension to and session at the right hand of God where He now graciously rules over restored Israel. They are not to be fulfilled in some future "millennium" when Christ will, according to millennialist prediction, rule in modern Jerusalem (Acts 2:30-36; 13:32-37; 15:13-18; 28:26-28; Luke 1:32; 1 Cor. 15:25-27; Eph. 1:20-23; Rom. 15:12). Again, Is. 19:23-25 prophesies that Egypt and Assyria will join Israel as God's people. The inclusion of Gentile believers in the New Israel, and not Assyria or Egypt as such (Acts 15:14, 17; Gal. 3:28; Rom. 15:8-12), marks the fulfillment of Isaiah 19.

This is not to say that the Old Testament everywhere pictures the Messiah and His kingdom within a political frame of reference. Many of the Old Testament's messianic promises were not formulated in political terms. Isaiah 52:13-53:12 pictures a suffering servant whose mission is to "make many to be accounted righteous" by bearing their iniquities as a substitutionary sacrifice. He brings salvation to all nations (Is. 49:6; 42:6-7). Similarly, the "one like a son of man" coming in the clouds in Dan. 7:13-14 is not an earthly, political king. Indeed, the kingdom which He establishes is clearly in contrast to temporal regnancy (cf. Dan. 2:44). Nowhere is the new Israel over which the Messiah rules portrayed as a secular, political entity. In fact, Jesus explicitly rejected the notion that His messianic office could be conceived of in political terms (John 18:36-37; cf. Luke 24:44-47).

The distinction between the messianic kingdom as a spiritual reality and civil government as a temporal, political reality is maintained in the Lutheran confessional writings. The Augsburg Confession teaches that "all government in the world and all established rule and laws were instituted and ordained by God for the sake of good order" and therefore are an "outward and temporal ... mode of existence" (AC XVI, 1, 4). The Gospel teaches, however, "an inward and eternal mode of existence and righteousness of the heart" (AC XVI, 4). "Christ's kingdom is spiritual; it is the knowledge of God in the heart, the fear of God and faith, the beginning of eternal righteousness and eternal life" (Ap XVI, 2). Thus, "the Gospel does not legislate for the civil estate," though it does command us "to obey the existing laws" (Ap XVI, 6, 3). As a hermeneutical assumption this distinction between civil government and the kingdom of Christ serves to prevent a political reading of those texts which speak of the spiritual reign of God. Such a political rendering is not an uncommon approach in millennialist interpretation, however.

Seventh, the land of Israel prefigures Christ and ultimately the new heavens and earth. Just as the New Testament transcends the ethnic and political aspects of Israel, so it also transcends the geographical limitations of the Promised Land.

To understand this point, one must note the theological significance of the land of Israel. In the Old Testament, the land of Israel or Palestine was like a miniature world in which God illustrated His kingdom. The land of Israel was promised as the place (Deut. 4:21, 38) where God would bless His people, the children of Israel (Deut. 26:15; 28:8) and give them rest (Deut. 12:9-10; 25:19). However, in the New Testament Christ is the heir of the promise given to Abraham and is the one through whom (Gal. 3:15-18; Heb. 1:2; 6:19-20; Col. 1:27; Titus 2:13) the New Israel receives God's blessings (Rom. 15:29) and true rest (Matt. 11:28-29). LaRondelle, states in this connection:

Since those who have fellowship with Christ possess eternal life, one can also say that the Promised Land of Israel foreshadowed ultimately the Promised Land, the new heavens and new earth (Is. 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1-3). Believers look forward to the full enjoyment of their new inheritance (Rev. 21:1, 7; Eph. 1:13-14; Col. 1:12; 1 Pet. 1:3-5), when God will bless the church with eternal rest, a rest which is already ours through faith in Christ (Heb. 3:1; 4:1, 8-10).

Consider how the New Testament treats God 's promise of the land of Canaan to Abraham (Gen. 12:1,7; 15:18-21; 17:8). Both Rom. 4:13 and Heb. 11:8-1 6 interpret this promise as a reference to the new "world" and the "heavenly" country (cf. Heb. 2:5). Jesus Himself widened the scope of this territory to encompass the new earth (cf. Matt. 5:5; Ps. 37:11). The land of Palestine in which Israel lived was, as it were, a down payment or pledge of this future world. Therefore, although the promises of the prophets that Israel will dwell in the land were partially realized in exilic Israel's return to Palestine from Babylonian captivity, the ultimate fulfillment of these promises comes in Christ and the new earth, not in a literal return of Jews to the land of Palestine.

B. The Doctrine of Eschatology[18]

For an evaluation of millennialist views of the end times it is helpful to make use of a distinction between what some theologians have referred to as inaugurated eschatology and future eschatology.[19] The term inaugurated eschatology embraces everything that the Old and New Testament Scriptures teach concerning the believer's present possession and enjoyment of blessings which will be fully experienced whenever Christ comes again. Future eschatology focuses on events which still lie in the future, such as the resurrection, judgment, and new heavens and new earth.

1. Inaugurated Eschatology

The Old Testament throughout has a future-oriented thrust to it. The faith of the Old Testament believer was thoroughly eschatological. As the writer to the Hebrews states, "These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar" (11:13). The Old Testament eschatological outlook can be summarized under the following seven points:[20]

With the first advent of Christ, these Old Testament eschatological hopes are fulfilled. Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited, promised Messiah who has defeated Satan, sin, and death (Matt. 12:22-29; John 12:31; Col. 2:11-15; Heb. 2:14-15; 1 Cor. 15:55-57; 1 John 3:8). In His life, death, and resurrection the eschatological kingdom of God has appeared in history (Matt. 12:28; Luke 1:32-33, 68-75; 11:20; 17:20-21; Col. 1:13-14; Rev. 1:6; Rom. 14:17). The New Israel (Gal. 3:29; 6:16; Rom. 9:6-8) now receives the forgiveness of sins and all the blessings of the New Covenant in Christ (1 Cor. 11:25; Hebrews 8-10). The promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit has already come in Christ (Acts 2; 8:14-17; 10:44-48; 19:1-7; Eph. 1:13-14; Titus 3:5-6; 1 Cor. 6:19). The great Day of the Lord has arrived in Christ (Luke 19:44; Matt. 3:1-12; 2 Cor. 6:1-2). And those who are in Christ already participate in the new creation; they are, in fact, "a new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17). The eschaton has been inaugurated; "the end of the ages has come" (1 Cor. 10:11). Through the Gospel and the sacraments the Christian already now receives God's promised eschatological blessings by faith (Heb. 6:5; 1 Pet. 2:2-3; Rom. 8:37-39; 6:1-11).

Thus, the Christian now lives in the age of the fulfillment, in the last days (Acts 2:17; 3:20-21; Heb. 1:1-2; 9:26; 1 John 2:18; 1 Pet. 1:20). The New Testament declares that the messianic age promised in the Old Testament began at Christ's first advent. The promised Messiah is now graciously ruling on the throne of David through the Gospel and the sacraments, the means through which He extends His gracious invitation (Matt. 22:1-14). The messianic age which the New Testament declares a present reality cannot be viewed, therefore, as only in the future.[22]

And yet, Christians still await the consummation of these divine promises. They await the Messiah's second coming when the kingdom of God will be made fully manifest (Matt. 7:21-23; 8:11-12; 25:31-46; Luke 21:31; 22:29-30; 1 Cor. 6:9; 15:50; 2 Tim. 4:18). Christians eagerly anticipate the consummation of the New Covenant when they will perfectly know the Lord and sin no more (Jer. 31:31-34). They look forward to the day when all of the New Israel, Christians living and dead, will be gathered together forever to be with the Lord (Matt. 19:28; 24:30-31; 25:31-34; 1 Thess. 4:13-18). The gift of the Holy Spirit which was poured out on each of them at their baptisms is the down payment and guarantee of their inheritance of future glory and of the reception of their spiritual body (Eph. 1:14; 4:30; 2 Cor. 5:5; Rom. 8:23). And Christians faithfully wait for the future day of the Lord when they will dwell with Him forever in the new heavens and the new earth (2 Pet. 3:10-13; 1 Thess. 5:1-11).

Therefore, the Christian lives in the proverbial tension between the now and the not yet. This tension underlies everything that the Scriptures teach about eschatology. On the one hand, the end has arrived in Christ. The believer now receives the promised eschatological blessings through the Gospel and sacraments. On the other hand, the consummation is still a future reality. The Christian has not yet entered into the glories of heaven.

The life of Christians in this tension is a life under the cross (Matt. 16:24-25); the eschatological blessings which Christians have are theirs by faith, not by sight (Rom. 8:24-25). Hence, believers can expect to suffer and be persecuted in this life. But the abundant life which Jesus came to give enables them to rise above suffering and, in the midst of their suffering, helps them to focus on the future consummation (Luke 6:22-23, 26; 1 Thess. 3:4; 1 Pet. 5:10; John 16:33; Acts 14:22; Col. 3:1-4; Rom. 8:18-25). Only on the last day will Christians move from a life under the cross to a life of glory.

2. Future Eschatology

When the Scriptures speak of future events of the end times they do so by simultaneously pointing to what has been called the great eschatological act of the past.[23] Since Christ has won the decisive victory over Satan, sin, and death in the past, future eschatological events are but the culmination of what has already been set in motion by this pivotal event in human history. With this in mind, we now proceed to look in detail at those aspects of "future eschatology" which are crucial for a proper interpretation of the end times.

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Rev. Robert E. Smith
Walther Library
Concordia Theological Seminary.

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