The Millennium, Part 2 (Revelation 20.1–10)

Yesterday, I promised to talk about guidelines for the proper interpretation of Revelation 20.1–10. Well, I lied. Or rather—to be a bit more charitable to myself—I bit off more than I could chew. Way more. If premillennial, postmillennial, and amillennial scholars cannot agree amongst themselves after writing thousands of pages on the topic, who am I to think I can settle the debate in a 500-odd-word email?
Of course, on first glance, the proper interpretation seems obvious, right? Premillennialism is the most literal interpretation of the passage, the one that reads it with the most common sense and fewest theological add-ons. That, indeed, is the strength of the premillennial position. Its great weakness, however, is that it is hard to square with the rest of what the New Testament teaches about Christ’s Second Coming. In his recent book, The Promise of the Future, Cornelis P. Venema writes that “the usual presentation of the return of the Christ in the Scriptures, and in a number of different passages, is that it is a consummating event at the close of the age.” He offers several lines of supporting evidence:
·   “Christ’s coming will be a visible public event that will bring about the salvation of the people of God and the realization of the kingdom of God in fullness” (Matt. 24.27, 33; Luke 17. 24; 21.27–28, 31).
·   “When Christ is revealed from heaven, he will bring rest immediately and simultaneously for his beleaguered church and eternal punishment upon the unbelieving and impenitent” (2 Thes. 1.6–10).
·   “In the New Testament, descriptions of the believer’s expectation for the future, the common thread is a focus upon the return of Christ as the event that brings the fullness of salvation, beyond which there is nor further event that will surpass it in redemptive significance” (1 Cor. 1.7; Phil. 1.6, 10; 1 John 2.28; 1 Tim. 4.8; 2 Tim. 4.1).
·   “Christ’s return will introduce the final state of new heavens and a new earth” (2 Pet. 3.13; Rom 8.17–25).
·   “When Christ returns, a rapture of the living and the dead leads to the resurrection transformation of all believers and their uninterrupted and undisturbed communion with the Lord from that day forward” (1 Thes. 4.13–18).
·   “Finally, the resurrections of the just and the unjust will coincide” (Dan. 12.2; John 5.28–29; Acts 24.14–15; Rev. 20.11–15).
In other words, when Christ returns, everything changes. That is the general teaching of the New Testament. It is hard to square Revelation 20.1–10 with this general teaching. So, we might say, postmillennialism and amillennialism make better sense of the whole teaching of Scripture than does premillennialism.
So that is where, for me, the debate lies. Premillennialism makes better sense of Revelation 20.1–10 considered all by itself, but postmillennialism and amillennialism make better sense of the passage when considered in light of the rest of the New Testament.
But it seems to me that we can further than merely pointing out the parameters of the millennial debate and explaining why it is so intractable. The purpose of Scripture is to transform, not merely inform. Or rather, its purpose is to inform us of what we need in order to experience a transformed life. How, then, does Revelation 20.1–10 help us do that? How does it help us become better Christians?
By infusing us with hope. In Revelation 19.11–21 and 20.1–10, first the Antichrist and False Prophet, then the Devil himself, gins up an army to fight against Jesus Christ. In both cases, there is a battle that results in the utter destruction of the enemy forces with nary a nick or scratch on the body of even the tiniest saint. John uses martial language and battlefield imagery to communicate a single point: It is impossible to fight with God. Through Jesus Christ, God will accomplish his purposes in the world. There may be questions about the timing of that accomplishment but not its factuality, about the when but not about the whether. Writing to the beleaguered first-century Christians of Asia Minor, John offered an incomparable word of hope: The battle is already over, God has already won, so persevere to taste the fruit of victory.
That message is one we all need to hear. For sometimes, in our post 9/11 world, we are tempted to think that evil is getting the upper hand. It only seems that way, however. Even in the midst of our terror-ridden times, God is in control, taking his church where it needs to go on its march toward heaven.
As for the devil? I like to keep in mind Martin Luther’s poetic words: “The Prince of darkness grim / we tremble not for him. / His rage we can endure / for, Lo!, his doom is sure. / One little word shall fell him.”
Indeed, and amen!

How to Grow Up Spiritually (Ephesians 4:1-16)

ylic-web-banner.jpgThis past Sunday, I spoke to my church about how to grow up spiritually, based on Ephesians 4:1-16. To listen to the sermon, click here.

The Millennium, Part 1 (Revelation 20.1–10)

Revelation 20.1–10 describes the events surrounding the Millennium, or thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ with his saints. John’s description seems straightforward enough: After an angel binds Satan in the bottomless pit, Christ rules the world for a thousand years with Christian martyrs whom he has resurrected to life. At the end of the millennial period, Satan is released and gathers armies to make war against Christ’s “beloved city” but is defeated and thrown into hell along with the Antichrist and False Prophet.
As I said, this description seems straightforward enough, but Christian theologians have never fully agreed on the proper interpretation of this passage. Broadly speaking, they have staked out three interpretive claims on Revelation 20.1–10: premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism. Let us take a brief look at all three.
Premillennialism reads Revelation 20.1–10 in the most literal fashion. It teaches that Jesus Christ returns to an earth under the sway of the Antichrist, defeats him and his armies in open battle, binds Satan for a thousand years, and establishes a peaceful worldwide kingdom with its capital city in Jerusalem. At the end of that period, open warfare again breaks out with the devil and his minions who are defeated a second time, but now thrown into hell. This is the best-known millennial viewpoint in America today, whose most prolific advocate is Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind series.
Postmillennialism reads Revelation 20.1–10 less literally than premillennialism. It teaches that the Millennium represents the entire church age between Christ’s first and second advents. The binding of Satan and the millennial reign of peace occur as more and more people of the earth hear the gospel, repent of their sins, and acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord of their lives. Verses 7–10 describe the final death gasp of Satan and his minions at Christ’s Second Coming, which utterly defeats them and breaks entirely their power over God’s creation. Postmillennialists are optimistic about the progress of history. As the gospel spreads, the world becomes better and better under its influence.
Amillennialism (i.e., “no-millennium-ism”) reads Revelation 20.1–10 symbolically. In the words of Steve Gregg, the Millennium “depicts either the vindicated martyrs reigning from heaven in the present age, or earthly believers achieving spiritual victory over personal sin during the same period.” As with postmillennialism, then, amillennialism interprets Revelation 20.1–10 as a description of the entire church age between Christ’s first and second advents. Although premillennialism is the best-known millennial position in contemporary America, amillennialism was (and is) the official doctrinal position of the Catholic Church and of the magisterial Reformation churches (Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican).
Now, I know what you are thinking: “George, what possible relevance does this debate have for my life?” Well, I can think of at least three answers to that question: (1) The debate is relevant because it concerns the proper way to interpret Scripture generally and Revelation particularly, i.e., whether we interpret it literally or symbolically. (2) The debate is relevant because it shapes our attitude toward the future. Is the future going to be worse than the present (premillennialism) or better than the past (premillennialism)? (3) The debate is relevant because it touches on our social responsibilities in the present age. Postmillennialists and amillennialists have always taught that Christians have a responsibility to reform society by engaging culture at all levels. Premillennialists, however, at least historically, have favored personal evangelism over social concern. “Why polish the brass on a sinking ship?” is how one premillennialist put it.
So, what is the proper interpretation of Revelation 20.1–10? I will try to offer some guidelines for answering that question in tomorrow’s devotional.

“The Substantial Evidence of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit”

Over at the FutureAG blog, Paul Steward wrote a post called, "Identity Crisis," which is about how the younger generation feels about the Assemblies of God. Many of the responses (including mine) focus on what is essential to Pentecostalism. Apropos of much of that discussion, I’m posting an article my dad wrote four years ago called, "The Substantial Evidence of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit."
I have just returned from a conference with 200 of our national leaders and missionaries from the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. In 16 countries – many whose names are so sensitive the name of the nation itself cannot be put in print – the Gospel of Jesus Christ is seeing significant advance despite great hardship, threats and persecution.
Over the course of three days, we listened to reports from the delegations in country after country describing the coming of the Gospel in power to their lands. I sat with countless numbers of these leaders, including the two young sons of martyrs for the Gospel – now ministers themselves back in the very places where their fathers laid down their lives for the Gospel.
In many countries and cities where the church did not even exist 15 years ago, there are now individual congregations numbering over 4000. One such church has already planted over 100 churches and the mother church itself is only 11 years old. In countries where two decades ago you could count the number of believers on one hand, now you can number believers in Assemblies of God churches into the thousands.
I asked myself, “How has this happened.” I felt the Lord answered me with a phrase I have never heard before. “They are demonstrating the substantial evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit.”
In so many of our American churches these days, little emphasis is placed on the Holy Spirit. Those of us in leadership, out of concern over this neglect, urge our pastors and churches to pray for persons to receive the baptism in the Spirit with the initial physical evidence of speaking in other tongues. But,         WE MUST NOT STOP THERE.
Pentecostals have always believed and taught that speaking in other tongues is the initial physical evidence – it is INITIAL. We must have the initial – but we need to go past the initial to the SUBSTANTIAL and ongoing work of the Spirit. Article VII of our Statement of Fundamental Truths declares that with the baptism in the Spirit “comes the enduement of power for life and service, the bestowment of the gifts and their uses in the work of the ministry (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4, 8; 1 Corinthians 11:26).”
Article VII also states: “With the baptism in the Holy Ghost comes such experiences as an overflowing fullness of the Spirit (John 7:37-39, Acts 4:8), a deepened reverence for God (Acts 2:43; Hebrews 12:28), an intensified consecration to God and dedication to His work (Acts 2:42), and a more active love for Christ, His Word, and for the lost (Mark 16:20).”
We believe the Baptism in the Spirit brings the delight of initially speaking with other tongues – but if we stop there; this Pentecostal experience will have no ongoing fruitfulness. I grew up in the Assemblies of God when it was preached that the baptism of the Spirit is for the EMPOWERMENT of the believers for life and service – in short, the substantial evidence of the baptism in the Spirit resulted in our fulfilling Acts 1:8.
Years ago, Jess Moody wrote a book titled, A Drink at Joel’s Place. He compared what a church promises to the promises made by a bar. A bar promises liquor and if the patrons come in and the bartender says, “We’re out of liquor today, but we do have milk,” the patrons may put up with that for one time – but if it occurs several days in a row, the bar will soon be empty. (And wouldn’t that be wonderful!).
As a Pentecostal people, we also hold out a promise. We say that our churches are graced by the presence of the Holy Spirit. But, what if when people come, there is no sign of His presence – no joy, little love, and no manifestation of the grace and power of Christ? 
Jess Moody said that we falsely think the label of a thing is what sells it. But, people do not buy Coke because of the brand name. If Coca-Cola began adding a dash of lye soap to its formula, people would quit asking for it, requesting a generic cola instead. Or, if Kleenex began adding grains of sandpaper to its product, customers would go back to asking for facial tissue.
The fact is – we must become what we advertise or we’ll simply have no credibility. A “fighting” Pentecostal church is a contradiction in terms. A Pentecostal church without an emphasis on missions is likewise a contradiction in terms. A Pentecostal church without converts and without outreach is a contradiction in terms. In too many of our churches, there is little emphasis placed on persons receiving the baptism and fullness of the Spirit. And, we get what we preach or don’t preach. 
I think the reason so many of our young people today are struggling intellectually with the doctrine of initial evidence is that in many churches they see no substantial evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit. The only difference they see in their Pentecostal church and a non-Pentecostal church is that the Pentecostals speak in tongues (and there may be even little of that!). Brothers and sisters, speaking in tongues is the starting place for the baptism in the Holy Spirit – but there is far more to the work of the Spirit! We will have much more credibility in preaching the doctrine of initial evidence if that proclamation is backed up by the substantial demonstration of the Spirit’s power that propels believers into this world with anointed witness, a lifestyle like that of Jesus, and a boldness to heal the sick in body and heart, to cast out demons, and to bring good news to the poor.
This is an hour for us as Pentecostals to proclaim with new fervor both the baptism and fullness of the Holy Spirit. Speaking in tongues is that initial dynamic that catapults our experience beyond the natural and into the super-natural.   But, if that’s all there is – we will be like a rocket launched into space that instead of going into orbit plunges to the ground like a dud. The baptism in the Holy Spirit is God’s great rocket booster to lift us past what the flesh can do and into the orbit of supernatural usefulness to fulfill the Great Commission of our Lord. The orbit God’s wants for us is “that the word of God spread…the number of disciples…multiplied (Acts 6:6).
It is vital that we pastors and ministers live in a manner full of the Spirit and that we call our people to be filled with the baptism and fullness of the Holy Spirit. The early Pentecostals never even tried to argue people into the baptism in the Spirit, they lived and preached in such a way that people wanted what they had. If we have nothing to give other than arguments and theological defenses to our position, this generation will seek spiritual reality elsewhere. I am not saying that apologetics are not important – we must be able to give a reason for the doctrines we hold – but we must acknowledge that there will be no lack of persons responding to the work of the Spirit when, like Simon (Acts 8:18), they see a demonstration of reality.
I left the Cyprus conference challenged in my spirit to write you this note exhorting all of us to stir up the fire and preach not only the initial evidence, but the substantial and ongoing evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit. If we have only the initial evidence, but no empowerment – our young people will not even be desirous of the initial evidence. But, if they see the substantial evidence of empowerment which brings people to Christ and grows the church while God performs signs and wonders among us – then they will not only want the substantial evidence – they will also want the initial evidence as the gateway to the substantial and ongoing evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit.
George O. Wood
General Secretary
Ministers Letter, April 2003

The Jesus We Never Knew (Revelation 19.11–21)

Several years ago, Philip Yancey wrote a book called, The Jesus I Never Knew. By reading the Gospel with fresh eyes, Yancey saw—and helped his readers to see—Jesus as his contemporaries saw him, not as modern people so often imagine him. As Yancey told it, Jesus was not a person who could be packaged in any conventional religious box. Indeed, the primary targets of his righteous indignation were many of the prevailing religious conventions of his day. Instead, as someone has famously said, Jesus afflicted the comfortable but comforted the afflicted.
Outside the Gospels, few portraits of Jesus are as box-breaking as is John’s portrait in Revelation 19.11–21. Based on our reading of the Gospels, we imagine Jesus sitting on a hill teaching the crowds, or striding through the Temple chasing down moneychangers, or hanging pitifully on an undeserved cross. When was the last time you saw him as a great king, clothed in white, seated on a majestic stallion, with sword at the ready, leading the multitudinous army of heaven? You have no doubt read about his teaching to turn the other cheek, but have you considered John’s portrait in which Christ slays his enemies with a sword held in his mouth?
John’s Jesus is a Jesus we never knew, but will know some day.
To properly appreciate this picture, we must understand two things: the symbolic nature of John’s language and the progress of salvation history.
First, John’s language is symbolic. He is not, I think, describing a literal battle in which Jesus will literally slay his enemies with a literal sword. Instead, he is using images of ancient warfare to symbolically portray Christ’s ultimate victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil. How do we know this? Well, among other things, you do not ride into battle without armor, but Christ and his armies are fighting only in fine linen robes. Also, Christ holds the sword not in his hand but in his mouth. That is hardly proper swordsmanship. Rather, the sword is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6.17). It is “the word of God [which] is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4.12, cf. Revelation 2.16). Jesus Christ does not fight with human weapons. He fights with God’s very own word. Indeed, he is himself the Word of God (John 1.1, 14).
Second, there is obviously movement from the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels to the Jesus portrayed in Revelation, a progressive unfolding of his role in the history of salvation. Soren Kierkegaard told the parable of a king who wanted to win a maiden’s love but knew he could never be sure of his love if she knew he was a king. So, the king left his palace, threw on pauper’s clothing, and worked a trade in the maiden’s village, until he could gain the maiden’s love as a poor man.
In much the same way, Jesus came to earth in swaddling clothes, in the poverty of humanity and vulnerability of crucifixion in order to win our heartfelt love for God. There comes a time, however, when he sees that further time will not produce further repentance and so reveals himself as what he has been all along: “the King of kings and Lord of lords.” The Gospels describe Jesus in his humility, Revelation in his glory, but they describe the same person.
As we read Revelation, then, we must keep in mind that there is coming a day when we will give an account of lives to God. Have we used this time to draw closer to the Savior, to take advantage of his merciful patience and repent of our sins? Or have we stubbornly clung to our rebellious ways?
The truth of the matter is this: We will meet Christ in victory or in defeat, but we will meet him all the same. How you meet him then depends on choices you make today.

The Scandal of Grace

Over at Christianity Today, Mark Galli posts some comments in response to a forthcoming book, of Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity.

Part of the scandal of the Cross is the scandal of grace. And part of the scandal of grace is that I am part and parcel of the company of the graced.

My being a Christian means I am a member of a brotherhood of sinners, some of the most embarrassing sort. Even worse, to be a Christian is to acknowledge that I have been, at heart, a televangelist, a crusader, a sheltered, judgmental, proselytizing hypocrite.

I do not mean to suggest that we should be indifferent to such sins. If books and conversations like the ones I’ve experienced prod Christians to change their ways, it will be all to the good. But the church is always in need of reform, and its behavior will always be a scandal to anyone with moral sensibilities.

When we invite people to follow Jesus, we’re inviting them into the desperately sinful church that Jesus, for some odd reason, loves. To be a Christian—or whatever term you’d prefer—is to identify not just with Jesus or with the healthy church of our imagination, but also with the tragically dysfunctional church, which is mercifully embraced, if not by us, then certainly by the One who was a scandal in his own day.