For all the laughter and mocking that Harold Camping has given us over the last couple of days, he has made us think about the second coming of Jesus. Unfortunately, he has contributed to the scoffing spoken of by Peter,
…scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. 4They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” (2 Peter 3.3-4 ESV)
But the return of Christ is a clear promise of the Scriptures, and while no one knows the day nor the hour (see Acts 1.7), we are to focus on His return enough to both long for it and to hasten its coming (see 2 Peter 3.12).
But the teachings about the specifics of the return of Christ are not as clear as we would hope. Most agree that the Bible speaks about a period of great tribulation in connection with His coming, but questions about when the rapture will take place, or even if there will be a rapture, continue to stir great debate. Along with questions about the tribulation and the rapture, another element of the return of Christ that causes division in the church is the millennium, or the thousand year reign of Christ.
The primary passage of Scripture that speaks to the millennial reign of Christ is found in the revelation given to the apostle John,
1Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. 4Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. (Revelation 20.1-6 ESV)
In trying to understand how this thousand year reign of Christ relates to the tribulation, the rapture, the return of Christ, and the resurrection, three major understandings of developed throughout church history.
The postmillennial view believes that Christ will return after the thousand year reign. According to this view, the gospel will spread all over the world, bearing fruit and so redeeming culture that discrimination, injustice, conflict, and wars will disappear. The Kingdom of God will gradually take hold, but eventually, Christ will reign (though physically absent) over the entire earth for an extended period of time. At the end of this period, Christ will physically return.
The premillennial view believes that Christ will return before the thousand year reign to rule over the earth. Most believe that a sudden, cataclysmic event will break the cycle of history, bringing the great tribulation to an end, and Christ will usher in a period of worldwide peace, both between nations and individuals, but also within nature itself. The saints will rule with Christ, Satan will be bound, and all the earth will recognize YHWH a the one true God.
The ammillennial view believes that there will be no earthly reign of Christ. Like much of John’s revelation, the thousand year reign of Christ is symbolic, most likely of the age of the church. And since the millennial reign of Christ is only mentioned in Revelation 20.4, it is best not to build a major doctrinal point off this one obscure passage.
I must admit that I have usually not given myself to much in-depth study of the ordering of events of the end times. I have taken Jesus’ words to heart, that it is not for me to know the times or the seasons of His return. I have also been cautioned by the lack of uniformity by Christian scholars on this issue, furthering my conviction that it is not for us to know such things. But as a student of the Scriptures, it is hard to avoid the passages that speak of the return of Christ and the specifics thereof.
For a time, I probably fell into the ammillennial camp, thinking that it was odd that if Christ was going to return and rule for a thousand years that the Scripture would teach that important event in only one passage. What is beginning to change my view point on this is not the convincing arguments of the premillennial position, but the writings of the Old Testament prophets.
A couple of years ago I began to explore why it was that the Jews rejected Jesus as the promised Messiah. What I found out was startling: they rejected Jesus as the Messiah because Jesus did not accomplish what the prophets said the Messiah would do. The prophets described a Messiah who would restore the Davidic throne, cast out the oppressors of Jerusalem, bring international peace, bring a peace within nature, rule over the entire earth, establish the law of God as the law of the earth, and where all nations would recognize that YHWH was the one true God. The first coming of Jesus did not accomplish these things, and so the Jews did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. What the apostles taught is that the first coming of Jesus accomplished the prophecy of Isaiah 53, and the Lord laid upon Him the iniquity of us all. The first coming made it possible for sinners to be made right with God. The majority of the prophecies will be fulfilled in the second coming of Jesus.
Now if this is true, that the majority of the prophecies concerning the Messiah will be fulfilled in the second coming of Jesus, then an earthly reign of Christ is almost a logical necessity. In short, the prophecies concerning the Messiah require an earthly reign of Jesus in order to be fulfilled. Consider just the single prophecy of Zechariah 14,
16Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths. 17And if any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, there will be no rain on them. 18And if the family of Egypt does not go up and present themselves, then on them there shall be no rain; there shall be the plague with which the Lord afflicts the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths. 19This shall be the punishment to Egypt and the punishment to all the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths. (Zechariah 14.16-19 ESV)
This cannot be a vision of heaven, for there are people on the earth who refuse to worship the King. For Zechariah 14 to be a reality, there must be an earthly reign of Christ during a time where there are still unbelievers on the earth.
I bring all of this up because in our study of the book of Zechariah, we come to the third night vision that the prophet had on February 15, 519 BC, and we are forced to wrestle with the question of how much of this vision relates to the restoration of Judah to Jerusalem in the sixth century BC and how much of it relates to the second coming of the Messiah. Consider the third night vision,
1 And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, a man with a measuring line in his hand! 2Then I said, “Where are you going?” And he said to me, “To measure Jerusalem, to see what is its width and what is its length.” 3And behold, the angel who talked with me came forward, and another angel came forward to meet him 4and said to him, “Run, say to that young man, ‘Jerusalem shall be inhabited as villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and livestock in it. 5And I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the Lord, and I will be the glory in her midst.’” 6Up! Up! Flee from the land of the north, declares the Lord. For I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heavens, declares the Lord. 7Up! Escape to Zion, you who dwell with the daughter of Babylon. 8For thus said the Lord of hosts, after his glory sent me to the nations who plundered you, for he who touches you touches the apple of his eye: 9“Behold, I will shake my hand over them, and they shall become plunder for those who served them. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent me. 10Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the Lord. 11And many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. 12And the Lord will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem.” 13Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling. (Zechariah 2.1-13 ESV)
In this third vision, the prophet saw a man with a measuring line in his hand, much like Ezekiel’s vision (see Ezekiel 40). The surveyor was measuring the city of Jerusalem in preparation for its rebuilding. It is easy to get lost in the vision trying to distinguish between “the man with the measuring line,” “the angel who talked with the prophet,” the other angel who came forward, and the prophet himself. I think the other angel who confronted the angel who was speaking with the prophet was surely the Angel of the Lord, the pre-incarnate Christ, for He said, “I will dwell in your midst, declares the Lord.” This angel spoke of the future of Jerusalem, a city without walls. This would have been inconceivable for the Jews of that day (think of Nehemiah’s shock when he learned the walls of Jerusalem had not been rebuilt), but the absence of walls did not mean that the city was insecure for the Lord Himself would be a wall of fire around the city. The city will be without walls because of the multitude of the people who will live there.
The vision of this vast city, protected by God Himself, is meant to encourage the people of Zechariah’s time to leave Babylon and return to Jerusalem, but the larger prophecy must concern the day of the Lord, a still yet future event. Notice that many nations will join themselves to the Lord and become part of the people of God, and while many wish to spiritualize this to mean the church which has been gathered from among all nations, this spiritualized interpretation ignores the earthly promises given regarding the reign of the King on the earthly throne of Jerusalem in a city without walls, protected by the wall of fire.
There are several interesting things to note about this prophecy. First, this is the only place in the Scriptures where Judah is called the “holy land” (verse 12). Other Scriptures refer to it as the holy hill, the holy city, or the holy nation, but this is the only occurrence of Judah described as the “holy land.”
Second, the people of God are called “the apple of his eye,” or more literally, the “gate of his eye” where gate is the pupil of the eye. Other Scriptures pick up the imagery, too. Moses spoke of how the Lord found Israel in a desert land, cared for him, and “kept him as the apple of his eye” (see Deuteronomy 32.10). The psalmist prayed that God would keep him “as the apple of your eye” (see Psalm 17.8). No doubt the vision of the prophet speaks to the Lord’s love and care for His people.
However, some would press this to mean that the Lord will deal differently with ethnic Israel during the earthly reign of Christ, a point of theology especially emphasized by dispensationalism. And indeed, the language of Romans 11.26 makes it sound like “all Israel will be saved.” But, I am convinced that a larger reading of Romans makes it very clear that all people are made right with God by faith in Christ, and those who are of the true Israel are those who share the faith of Abraham. Consider,
Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel (Romans 9.6)
Everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek (Romans 10.11-12)
There is a remnant chosen by grace (Romans 11.5)
The natural branches were broken off because of their unbelief (Romans 11.20)
If they do not continue in their unbelief, they will be grafted in (Romans 11.23)
God will once again choose Jerusalem on the Day of the Lord, and the Messiah will reign from the Davidic throne over all the earth. But He will reign with “the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God” (Revelation 20.4) not with ethic Jews who refuse to believe in the name of Jesus.
So what does the vision of Zechariah do for us today? It should probably do for us what it was intended to do for the people of Zechariah’s day. The prophet was to share the vision of the future reign of the Messiah to motivate the people of God’s love for them and of His eternal plan. The vision of the second coming of Jesus reminds us that God is working all things toward His divine eternal plan where everything will be brought under the headship of Christ, things in heaven and things in earth (Ephesians 1.10). Knowing that Christ is at work, bringing to fruition a divine eternal plan where all things will be under His feet ought to encourage us to be faithful and hopeful in Him. When writing of these things to the church in Corinth, Paul concluded with this exhortation:
23But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power….58Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15.23-24 and 58)
Our labor in the Lord is not in vain when we know that we are part of a divine, eternal plan where the Lord will put everything under His feet and all things will be brought under the headship of Christ.