|Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 12, March 16 to March 22 2008|
This article is taken from Chapter III of Why Thousand Years? by William Masselink, published by Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1930, pp. 20-30."What is the origin of this strange doctrine?" you ask. The careful study of church history will furnish us with the conclusive answer. Premillennialism is a descent of ancient Judaism. There is a striking resemblance between the off-spring and the parent. The old Jewish conceptions of an external Messianic kingdom have found their perfect embodiment in the Chiliastic theory of the millennium. Premillennialism is a relic of Judaism. Dr. Hodge says of this, "It is a Jewish doctrine. The principles adopted by its advocates in the interpretation of prophecy are the same as have been adopted by the Jews in the time of Christ; and have led substantially to the same conclusions. The Jews expected that when the Messiah came He would establish a glorious earthly kingdom at Jerusalem; that those who had died in the faith should be raised from the dead to share the Messianic reign; that all nations and peoples on the face of the earth should be subject to them; and that any nation that would not serve them should be destroyed. All the riches and honors of the world were to be at their disposal. The event destroyed these expectations; and the principles of prophetic interpretation on which these expectations were founded were proved to be incorrect," Hodge Systematic Theology - Eschatology.
Coming down to the Christian period we meet this two-fold kingdom idea in the Slavic Enoch and in the Apocalypses of Ezra and Baruch. In these writings the duration of the Messianic period is fixed by a definite number of years. In 4 Ezra 7:28 the reign of Christ lasts four hundred years. After that time Christ with the rest of His earthly creatures, dies. Then the dead awake and the eternal judgment begins. So also in Baruch 40:3 the reign of Christ is represented as lasting till the world comes to an end.
In many of the Jewish writings, the presentation of these two stages has resulted in an orderless confusion. In the Similitudes of the book of Enoch and in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs only one of the two aspects of the future hope is emphasized, whereas the other, while not denied, is nevertheless left in obscurity. For this reason scholars have thought that to bring order in the confusion the various elements were distributed over two successive periods. The Messianic was put first by the Jews as it was thought that the political hopes would first go into fulfillment and thereupon the new order of things should assume its eternal sway, cf. Pauline Eschatology, Vos.
Whether the Jews borrowed their materialistic conception in regard to the future kingdom from ancient Babylonian eschatology as is maintained by Dr. Bavinck, Hoekstra, and others, or whether Dr. Vos is correct in ascribing this Jewish view to their own carnal interpretation of Old Testament prophecy, is a question of minor importance for our present purpose. We believe with Dr. Vos that the charge of Babylonianism need not be laid against Chiliasm. It is not difficult for us to understand that Judaism with its external legalism and carnal expectation would come to such a materialistic conception of the Messianic reign. We do not believe that the Jews borrowed their views from heathen eschatology.
The later Jewish eschatology which was written during the time of the apostles and the early church is far more sensualistic than that which precedes. Baruch is especially typical of this sensualistic coloring. He speaks of the destruction of the enemies at Christ's coming. After the evil forces are subdued there will follow a period of prosperity and great joy. It is said that a vine will then have a thousand branches, every branch a thousand clusters and every cluster a thousand grapes, etc. We also read, "In those days reapers will not have to exert themselves, and those that build will not have to toil, for of themselves all work will have progress together with those who labor thereon."
The Jewish Talmud, which is of later origin, tells us that the promised Messiah will destroy the fourth world kingdom which is predicted by Daniel. Israel will be redeemed from the bondage and be gathered from the dispersion to their own land. The Messiah will raise the dead. Jerusalem and the temple will be rebuilt, law and ceremony restored and the kingdom of glory established. During this time the Gentiles shall live in servitude to Israel and the kings of the world will honor the Messiah with costly gifts and sacrifices.
The apostle John informs us in the sixth chapter of his gospel that the Jews were ready to take Jesus and make Him king by force after the miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. Jesus, however, withdrew into the mountain. The people had seen the sign and became convinced that He was indeed the prophet that should come into the world. They were, however, only looking for an earthly kingdom. This carnal expectation becomes very evident at the close of the chapter when they murmured because He said He was the Bread of Life. The inspired writer tells us that this caused many of His disciples to go back and walk no more with Him. Jesus failed to satisfy their longing for an earthly king.
When at a later date the Pharisees asked Him concerning the time of the coming of the kingdom of God, the Lord replied, "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: neither shall they say, Lo, here! or, There! for lo, the kingdom of God is within you." The Pharisees were thinking of an earthly Messianic kingdom which was to come with observation and power. Jesus corrects their mistake by telling them the true spiritual nature of the kingdom. This could not be perceived by the unregenerate mind because the whole nature of that kingdom was elevated far above their realm of thought.
Jesus instructed His disciples by parables in order that they might know the "mysteries of the kingdom of heaven." The contrast is sharply drawn between His true followers and the Scribes and Pharisees. The mysteries of the kingdom were hidden from the Pharisees and Scribes because of their carnal-mindedness. The great Dr. Warfield once said, "Had Jesus immediately disclosed Himself as the Messiah of that spiritual kingdom He would not have lived another three weeks. The hatred of His enemies increased in the same proportion as it became more and more evident that He was the promised Christ. The resurrection of Lazarus from the dead was the climax. His Messianic mission then became so evident that immediately steps were taken against Him. That He came to seek and to save the lost and to establish that spiritual kingdom, in which God would be all in all, went against the very grain of their reasoning. The disciples, however, were given to understand the mysteries of the kingdom through His parables. The superlative mystery of that kingdom was contained in its deep spirituality in contrast with the materialistic hopes of the Jews of that time.
The thought of an earthly kingdom was also predominant with Judas Iscariot. He followed Jesus with a purely selfish motive. Judas expected to reap great honor and temporal advantage from the Lord. When he sees that his earthly anticipation would never be attained he turns against his Master and betrays Him for thirty pieces of silver.
The expectation of an earthly kingdom is expressed strongly at the time of Jesus' crucifixion. The rulers together with the people that stood by reproached Him by saying, "If thou art the king of the Jews, save thyself." Their crude conception of Jesus' kingship could not be harmonized with His agonizing pain at Golgotha. This was so because they expected a different Messiah. His death on the cross was to them a convincing argument that Jesus was not the promised king of the Jews. They protested against the superscription of Pilate, "This is the King of the Jews," because they felt ashamed to acknowledge such a one as their king.
Even the disciples of Jesus were not entirely free from this mistaken earthly conception of His kingdom. The mother of the Sons of Zebedee came with the foolish request that one of her sons might sit at His right and another at His left hand when He came in His kingdom. Jesus rebuked her by saying, "Ye know not what ye ask." The disciples still clung to this hope after the resurrection of the Lord. Luke informs us in Acts that their last question to Him just before the ascension was, "Lord wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" Jesus again corrects their mistaken conception by reminding them of the true spiritual nature of this kingdom. It would be realized through the preaching of the gospel after the Holy Spirit had qualified them for that supreme task. They should be His witnesses both in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth. It was not for them to know the times and the seasons of the final consummation of that heavenly kingdom because the Father had set that in His own authority.
The Chiliastic hope of an earthly kingdom is an importation of the eschatology of the Jews. This, we believe, has been made plain by the foregoing references to the Apocalyptic writings of Judaism as well as from the current expectations among the Jews that prevailed during the ministry of Jesus on earth. Jesus' teaching in regard to the nature and development of His kingdom can only be understood in the light of this fact. This relic of Judaism was still in the subconscious mind of the followers of Jesus before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It touches our hearts with pain to think that this Judaistic expectation which was repeatedly corrected and even severely rebuked by our Master, should again thrive within the present day Christian church.
On the other hand, in many of the writings of the other church fathers, we find no traces of Chiliasm; e.g., no mention is made of it in the two letters of Clemens of Rome, written to the church at Corinth, at about 90 A.D. We also do not find it in the letters of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch at about 100 A.D., nor in the letters written in the latter half of the second century by Polycarpus, Bishop of Smyrna, nor in the polemic writings of Athenagoras and Theophilas of Antioch.
At the time of the crusades, it was again thought that the coming of Christ was at hand, in consequence of which many Christian worshippers returned to Palestine. Whenever war or persecution was present, Chiliasm again received a fresh impetus. In that way, it found acceptance by a number of sects in the middle ages, but it is true, that from the time of Augustine up to the Reformation, Chiliasm had little influence in the Christian church.
Hallazius reproduces the Reformed and Lutheran view on this subject when he says, "A millennial reign of Christ, characterized by a pre-eminent knowledge of the mysteries of God, by a holy life, and an earthly prosperity for those involved, is not to be expected by God's children in this world," (Cf. Hase, Hutterus redivivus, Lpz. 1868, pp. 279).
The view of the Reformed church on this subject finds expression in the Confession Helvitica, — "We reject the Jewish fancy that there shall be before the day of judgment a golden age in which the pious shall take over the control of the world after their enemies the ungodly have been subdued, because the Evangelists Matthew and Luke, as seen in Matt. 24-25 and in Luke 18, and also in the apostolic teachings as found in II Thess. 2, and in II Tim. 2, 4, give us quite a different representation," (Art. on Judgment, translated from Dutch). So also in the "Nederlandsche Geloofsbelijdenis" no mention is made of a glorious reign of peace and prosperity of Christ and the believers and of a double resurrection after the coming of Christ. The last article of this confession explicitly states that the resurrection and final judgment shall both take place at the time of Christ's coming.
Some of the other theologians of this time must be called mild Chiliasts. So, for example, the Dutch theologian Van Oosterzee expected only one return of Christ. This is to be followed by His reign upon earth, during which time part of humanity will live in a state of glory. The general conversion of the Jews and many of the Gentiles will then be realized. After this there will be the general resurrection and judgment. He however thought that the number "thousand" in Revelation 20, "is not arithmetical but a symbolical number; and nothing may be promised or expected of that period which is an irreconcilable contradiction with the principles laid down by Jesus Himself in John 4:21. The predictions of the prophets also as to the national restoration of Israel, must not be regarded alone, but understood according to the rule of Melanchthon: the gospel is the interpretation of prophecy," cf. Christian Dogmatics of Van Oosterzee, Vol. 2, p. 799.
In our time, the Jewish movement called Zionism deserves special attention in this connection. Special effort is put forth to bring the Jews back to Palestine. It is but natural that this movement is sympathetically observed by many Christians of the present day who are looking forward to the restoration of Israel to the promised land and the speedy inauguration of the millennial kingdom which they suppose will follow. The recent World War has also had an effect in stimulating the belief in this doctrine.
This brief survey of history shows that Chiliasm flourished during times of adversity and hardships. This also accounts for its great progress during the great war.
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