As we approach the Christmas season, we focus on the details of the wondrous events surrounding the birth of our Lord. We celebrate Bethlehem, the shepherds, the visit of the Magi, and all of the familiar details.
Among the precedent events, we also love to review the visit and annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary as recorded in Luke's gospel.1 We are all familiar with the commitment he assured her regarding her forthcoming son:
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord
God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over
the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no
Do we take this promise seriously? The throne of David did not exist then. And it hasn't since. Has this promise been fulfilled yet? Will it be fulfilled in the future? What does it really mean?
The Early Church
We tend to pattern many of our doctrines after the early church. It is one thing to carefully inspect the details of the Book of Acts. It is quite another to lean excessively on the early centuries following for any doctrinal guidance.
Before the close of the first century, Jesus sent seven letters to seven churches.2 Each letter contained a "report card" on each of these representative churches. It is interesting that in each of the churches the recipients were surprised. Those that thought they were doing well, weren't. Those that thought they were not, were. All were surprised.
That should disturb us. Even that early, they all had deviated from His instructions.
The early church wasn't perfect. And the subsequent centuries had their own deviations and heresies and many of these were incorporated into the traditions and subsequent doctrines they embraced. It is disturbing to learn that one of the least supported views, from a Biblical standpoint, is still dominant in most of the current denominations, even though it appears to be quite divergent from the plain teaching of Scripture.
We talk a lot about the "Second Coming." (Let's forego the controversies surrounding the precedent harpazo for the moment.) Is Christ really coming to rule on Planet Earth?
It may surprise you to learn that most of the denominational churches do not take the "Second Coming" literally. Why?
From Augustine to Auschwitz
The man most responsible for changing the way the early church interpreted prophecy was Origen. He was the leading teacher of theology and philosophy at the influential catechetical school of Alexandria, Egypt, at the beginning of the 3rd century. He desired to harmonize the New Testament with the philosophy of Plato, and he powerfully introduced, taught, and spread the allegorical method of interpreting the Scriptures. His method of allegorical Scripture interpretation was soon adopted throughout the church and prevailed throughout the Middle Ages.
Church theologians began to develop the idea that the Israelites had permanently forfeited all of God's covenants by rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. This view taught that these covenants now devolved upon the church, and that the church is the only "true Israel" now and forever.3 This view also taught that the Jews will never again have any future as a divinely chosen people, and that the Messiah will never establish His Messianic Kingdom on earth that was promised to them.
This was, of course, tragic for the Jews. It led to centuries of abuse and persecution under so-called Christian banners of various kinds. It was also tragic for the church because we lost the significance of our Jewish roots.
By the time of Augustine (A.D. 354-425), the famous Bishop of Hippo, Origen's system of interpretation dominated the Christian scene. It was Augustine who systematized the allegorically based teaching into a cohesive theology that would dominate the church for over 1000 years. By the 5th century, the church believed it was the sole possessor of Israel's covenant promises.
These views, commonly called "Amillennialism," were thus embraced by the Roman Catholic Church. These views also do not present the "Second Coming" in the literal terms they are presented in the Bible. Even the later Reformers failed to challenge his allegorically based, unrefined eschatology, and so these views continued to influence most of the Protestant denominations deriving from the Reformation- even to the present day.
(The enthusiasm of many new believers, as they embrace the straightforward Biblical texts, is often confused when they discover the traditions still permeating some of the churches they emerge from.)
Among the tragedies that also emerged from the amillennial view was an attendant anti-Semitism that ultimately led to the Holocaust in Europe.4
Amillennialism simply means, "No millennium." The Amillen-nialist does not believe that Christ will personally reign on the earth for a literal thousand years. They define an allegorical millennium extending from His Resurrection from the tomb to the time of His Second Coming on the clouds at the end of this age. (Since this has already lasted two thousand years, it is just allegorical.) Their central teachings include:
There will be no future reign of Christ on the earth from Jerusalem.
The Second Coming of Christ will occur at the end of history.
There will be one general resurrection of both believers and unbelievers from throughout history.
At this same time, the Last Judgment of all mankind will take place. The believers will be given eternal life and the unbelievers will be condemned to eternal judgment.
Another common view is called "Postmillennialism"; literally, "after the millennium." This view says that Christ will come only after the Spirit-empowered Church has established God's kingdom on the earth by progressively subduing the world and taking dominion over it. Variations of these views are known as "Kingdom Now," "Dominionists," or "Reconstructionists." It is surprising to discover how many prominent "Christians" hold these non-Biblical views.
Most of us would be classified as "Premillennialists" if we believe in a literal thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ on the Planet Earth.5
The problems with not taking the Bible seriously about these issues goes far beyond simply the issue of Gabriel's announcements to Mary. They are also tied to the nature of the promises God repeatedly reconfirmed to the nation Israel.
Pick up your Bible, and put your finger in the beginning of Genesis 12. Then put another finger at Acts 2. The portion in between is all about Israel! And although some of God's promises to Israel were conditioned upon obedience and faithfulness, there are at least four major covenants that were unconditional and eternal. And this presses the point about God keeping His promises!
The Abrahamic Covenant
In Genesis 12:2-3, we have Seven "I Wills":
1.And I will make of thee a great nation,
2.and I will bless thee,
3.and make thy name great;
4.and thou shalt be a blessing:
5.And I will bless them that bless thee,
6.and curse him that curseth thee:6
7.and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.7
This covenant was further solemnized, in Genesis 15, by a divinely ordered ritual8 symbolizing the shedding of blood and passing between the parts of the sacrifice.9 The entire procedure was expressly designed to be a unilateral, unconditional covenant. Furthermore, it was expressly declared eternal, and therefore unconditional.10
This covenant was confirmed with the birth of Isaac and Jacob, to both of whom the promises were repeated in their original form.11 (It is notable that these reiterations of the covenant are in spite of acts of disobedience.)
The New Testament also declares the Abrahamic Covenant immutable.12
The Palestinian Covenant
(We should realize that when our politicians muck around in the Middle East, and fail to acknowledge Israel's God-given right to the land, they are poking their finger in the face of God...)
The Davidic Covenant
Perhaps the covenant most relevant to our topic here is the Davidic Covenant.15 God promised David a royal dynasty,16 an eternal throne,17 and a political kingdom.18 It was even confirmed by oath.19 This cannot be applied to the Church.20
Does God Keep His Promises?
One either takes these issues seriously, or one has to allegorize, or explain away, the entire sense of most of the promises in the Old Testament. We believe God means what He says, and says what He means.
When we pray, "Thy Kingdom Come," what are we praying for? It is for our Coming King to establish His kingdom on the earth. He will appear as promised,26 tangibly,27 with His armies,28 and remove the curse on nature.29 (And this may not be in such a far distant future as is commonly supposed!)
Let's Really Celebrate!
This Christmas we will remember the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh presented by the Magi.30 These prophetic gifts celebrated his deity, priesthood, and death. When He returns to establish His kingdom, He will be presented only with gold and frankincense.31 There will be no myrrh: His death is now behind Him.
Let's make this season a real celebration. What are you giving Him this Christmas? Is there something in your life He would like to see you part with?
Pray about it. Seriously.
* * *
Portions of this article were excerpted from Behold the Fifth Horseman, the final in our series of The Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse.