Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 33, August 10 to August 16 2008

The Millennial Reign

Part IX

By Philip Edgcumbe Hughes

Philip Edgecumbe Hughes was Visiting Professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia and Associate Rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania. His other works include Theology of the English Reformers, Commentary on II Corinthians, But for the Grace of God, and Confirmation in the Church Today.

Climax or Anticlimax?

Despite the teaching of the apostles that "the end of all things is at hand" since it is upon us who live in this gospel era that "the ends of the ages have come" (1 Pet. 4:7; 1 Cor. 10:11), the advocates of premillennialism prefer to think otherwise, maintaining that the present (church) age, far from being the "last hour," will be followed by further periods or dispensations of which the most important will be the millennial age. They look forward to the millennium, when they expect Christ to reign on earth for one thousand years, as the climactic age of human history. In this way, they contend, the necessity for Christ to demonstrate his sovereign lordship over the whole earth will be satisfied, for this golden age of a thousand years will be an age of universal peace, prosperity, and justice during which Christ will rule the world with a rod of iron — otherwise, it is said, the world would never know what it is to be under the total dominion of Christ.

There will, however, be "the shadows of the millennium," to borrow an expression from a contemporary premillennial author; and these "shadows" can have only an invalidating effect on the alleged purpose of the millennial reign, indicating as they do that the total dominion of Christ in this period is more apparent than real and that it leads at last to a situation of incredible anticlimax. The millennial kingdom, in short, will be totalitarian rather than total and it will end in a massive rebellion of the forces of anti-Christianity. Submerged beneath the calm surface of this kingdom, we are told, sin will still persist in many hearts. On any who openly display their recalcitrance, the severest punishment will be inflicted. But such challenges to the authority of the King will be incidental, and it is only at the conclusion of the thousand years that the hostility, no longer latent, bursts forth, as an army, whose number is like the sand of the sea (Rev. 20:8), is mobilized under the command of Satan.

Though the participants in this final insurrection are consumed by fire from heaven and thereupon brought to judgment before the great white throne and condemned to the lake of fire and brimstone, the mutiny of the nations at the conclusion of the millennial period makes nonsense of the supposed purpose of the thousand years' reign, namely, to establish the absolute supremacy of Christ as sovereign ruler on earth. Indeed, "the shadows of the millennium" then prove to have been cast by dark and terrible storm clouds which shut out the brightness of the sun above and cause all to end (so far as the alleged objective of the millennium is concerned) in anticlimax.

But it must also be said that "the shadows of the millennium," when it is interpreted in accordance with the presuppositions of the premillennialist, are cast by things long past as well as by things yet future. Of this, we shall give but one example, namely, the expectation that the Jewish temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem and the Levitical sacrifices reinstituted. This expectation is closely tied to a literalistic principle of the interpretation of prophecy (though it is only fair to add that, while it is insisted on by virtually all dispensationalists, this belief is not universal among those whose viewpoint is premillennial). The attempt to justify it is based in the main on the prophecy contained in chapters 40-48 of Ezekiel which, it is contended, awaits literal fulfillment and will be literally fulfilled in the millennial kingdom.

In these chapters, written at a time when city and temple lay in ruins and the prophet himself was a victim of the Babylonian captivity, Ezekiel describes a vision he saw of a great temple built on a very high mountain in the land of Israel. The measurements of the temple and its precincts and the regulations for its priesthood and sacrifices are set down in great detail. The dimensions of the new city, which belongs to the same vision, are also given. It is of interest that the temple is not placed within the city, but stands on its own — though both stand on the royal and sacred territory which is in the center of the land and to the north and south of which are the territories allocated to the twelve tribes together with the aliens who have found a home in their midst and have become "as native-born sons of Israel" and fellow heirs of the promises (Ezek. 47:21-23). The city, moreover, has twelve gates, three on each of its four sides which are all of equal length, and each of the gates is named after one of the twelve tribes of Israel (48:15ff., 30ff.). Issuing from the temple the prophet sees an inexhaustible river of water which brings life wherever it flows and on either side of which are trees whose fruit, fresh every month, is for food and whose leaves, never wilting, are for healing (47:1ff.).

These are some of the outstanding features of this prophetic vision. The question is whether they are intended to receive a literal or a symbolical interpretation. The possibility of identifying Ezekiel's temple with the earlier temple of Solomon or the later and less impressive temple of Zerubbabel is ruled out by the specifications given in the vision. Accordingly, a fulfillment that is future rather than past seems to be demanded. The fact, however, that throughout the book of Ezekiel there is so much detailed and graphic imagery makes it intrinsically unlikely that the prophet's vision of the temple is meant to be interpreted in a literal manner. Once again, the distinctive nature or genre of the writing has to be taken into account.

Nonetheless, a literalistic approach to the text is characteristic, as we have said, of certain premillennialists, and this has led them to the conclusion that the temple of Ezekiel's vision will be built in the millennial age. The specifications given in the prophecy, moreover, concern not only the dimensions of the structure but also the worship that is to be conducted in it, and this worship is precisely that of the Levitical sacrificial system. Consequently, the literalist has the further expectation that in connection with this millennial temple there will be a revival of the Levitical priesthood and of the repetitious routine of the offering up of animal victims in sacrifice, including the blood-shedding associated with such sacrifice. But this would involve a reversion to Judaism, a turning back to a system that has long since served its intended purpose and been set aside; and the temptation to regress from the substance to the shadow is one against which the apostolic authors of the New Testament most insistently warn.

The restoration of the Old Testament sacrificial system would run clean counter to the emphatic teaching of the New Testament that the Levitical order of priesthood has been abolished and that now the only priesthood is that of the order of Melchizedek, with but one priest, our Saviour Jesus Christ, who because he continues forever is a priest forever, and but one sacrifice, that offered by him once for all on the cross, with the result that there can be no further sacrifice for sin and no redeeming blood other than the blood he shed for us at Calvary (see pp. 76ff. above). It is no satisfactory rejoinder to assert that the millennial sacrifices will not be offered as atoning sacrifices but only as commemorative of the one perfect sacrifice; for if commemoration were necessary it would be effected by means of the ceremony instituted by Christ himself in commemoration of his saving sacrifice, that is to say, the sacrament of holy communion. But people do not commemorate one who is present with them, and, according to premillennialists, Christ will be personally present during his earthly reign of a thousand years, and present, what is more, with the marks of his suffering and death visible to all. This being so, it does not make sense to talk of commemoration.

The reinstitution of the Levitical system would be an anticlimax of colossal proportions; but, worse than that, it would be contrary to the true essence of the Gospel and a disastrous return to the shadowy and temporary ordinances which have been irrevocably superseded by the perfection of the everlasting reality to which they pointed. It is futile to attempt to place the new wine of the Gospel in the old wineskins!

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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