Jesus said: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up….But he spake of the temple of his body” (Jn 2:19-21).
One of the criticisms Premillennialists make against Amillennialists is that they spiritualise the prophecies concerning Israel in the last days. They say that the prophecies in the Old Testament concerning Jesus’ coming to earth as a true man were fulfilled literally; therefore, they say, the prophecies of his return should also be taken literally. But what they fail to mention is that the apostles spiritualised many end-times prophecies, showing how the Church fulfils them.
They also vainly say that Premillennialism was the universal belief of the early Church but the doctrine started being attacked by Origen, and then finished off comprehensively by Augustine. But what they again fail to mention is that the eschatology of the early Church, and which is known as Chiliasm and Millenarianism, was not the doctrine of modern day Premillennialism.
Despite the claims of Premillennialists, the doctrine of a premillennial return of Christ was not held universally, nor regarded as orthodox doctrine by all in the early centuries of the Christian church. The Church historian Eusebius wrote about the views of an early Christian named Papias (70-155 AD). Papias wrote of himself that he received the truths of Christianity from those who were acquainted with the apostles. Eusebius (263-339) was one of those who did not hold a premillennial view; he says of Papias that “he set down other things as coming to him from unwritten tradition, amongst these some strange parables and instructions of the Saviour, and some other things of a more fabulous nature. Amongst these he says that there will be a millennium after the resurrection from the dead, when the personal reign of Christ will be established on this earth” (“Ante-Nicene Fathers” vol 1, “Fragments of Papias” p 154, Hendrickson Publ).
And Justin Martyr (100-165 CE), in his dialogue with a Jew named Trypho, admitted that while he himself held to a millenarian view, not every Christian did. To Trypho, Justin replied, “I signified to you that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise’” (“Ante-Nicene Fathers” vol 1, “Dialogue with Trypho”, Justin Martyr, p 239, Hendrickson Pub.).
But the form of Millennialism held in the early Church was somewhat different to contemporary Premillennialism. In Chiliasm, there was no rapture, no Great Tribulation, and no restored national Israel in a thousand reign of Christ on earth. The Israel of Chiliasm was a spiritual Israel i.e. all who confessed Christ as Saviour, regardless of ethnic or national origin. The Israel of Chiliasm was the Church that Jesus was building (Matt 16:18; Eph 2:13-22 cf 3:10, 21).
And the Chiliasts believed in a spiritual Israel in the last days because that’s what the apostles taught. And that we’re living in the last days, which are from the ascension of Christ until his return, is stated clearly by the writer of Hebrews: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son…” (Heb 1:1). This prophecy alone intimates that the prophecies are to be spiritualised.
If the OT prophecies are taken literally, they lead to blasphemy because they become “another gospel”, and the Apostle Paul cursed all those who propagated and believed it (Gal 1:6-10). For example, how can the prophecy in Ezekiel chapters 40-48 be taken literally when it abrogates the finished work on the cross and sends the Jews right back to the law which Christ, by his death on the cross, abolished?
How can the OT prophecies, which are shown to be fulfilled in Hebrews, be taken literally when Hebrews shows that Jesus Christ is a better priest (Heb 2:14-18; 7:17-8:6) and a better sacrifice (Heb 10:1-18)? And the Old Covenant which is stated to be temporary and insufficient (Heb 8:7-13) is to be restored when Jesus comes to earth to set up a Jewish empire, with him ruling from Jerusalem while his subjects languish under the law (Acts 15:10)?
How can the OT sacrifices be restored in full, with a Levitical priesthood, when God, in Hebrews, said he hates them (Heb 10: 6, 8) and that they can never take away sin (Heb 10:3-4)? How can all that Jesus accomplished on the cross to put away sin forever by his once-for-all sacrifice of himself on behalf of his people so that they can then have the law inflicted on them? And all this for a thousand years?!! This is insanity; or worse – blasphemy. No wonder Paul rails against the whole idea of this Premillennialist gospel, and curses all who hold to it: “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:6-9).
The apostle Paul: Galatians 4:19-31 – The free woman and the slave
In this passage, Paul compares the Old and the New Covenants by comparing the two sons of Abraham and the two women who bore them. One son, Ishmael, was born of Hagar, a slave; the other son, Isaac, was born of Sarah, a free woman. He says “For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Gal 4:22-26).
Here we’re shown how the Old Covenant is inferior to the New and that it is, in fact, bondage. But Christians, both Jew and Gentile believers in Christ, are free because they are of the Jerusalem which is from above. This New Covenant is that which brings freedom and is in force for the rest of time. Significantly, Paul writes “Nevertheless what saith the Scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son; for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with son of the freewoman” (Gal 4:30). And in Romans 7:6 he writes: “But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter”. Then in Romans 9:8 he writes “They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted for the seed”.
Romans 2:28-29 – True Jews and true circumcision
Further, he tells us what a true Jew is. He says “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Rom 2:28-29).
Therefore, if a true Jew is not necessarily of national Israel but true only by faith, the Old Testament prophecies don’t have to necessarily be fulfilled literally because they can and do apply to a spiritual people of God. That’s why Paul could renounce every aspect of his Jewish pedigree and count it loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ (Phil 3:3-9).
So if Paul, writing to the churches by the Holy Spirit, could spiritualise Old Testament prophecy and even what true Jewishness is, then we have warrant and precedent to regard Old Testament prophecy in the same way. Indeed, to regard Old Testament prophecy this way is not even an option, it is the only way to understand it. How can we insist on a literal fulfilment for national Israel in some future time when the New Testament itself shows us how these prophecies have been fulfilled already in the Church?
The apostle James: Acts 15:14-17 – The fallen house of David
The apostle James, bishop of the church in Jerusalem, and presider of the Jerusalem Council, is also one of those on my selective list of those who allegorised or spiritualised the prophecies to Israel. In summing up the discussion at the Council of Jerusalem where the problem of law and gospel clashed, part of what he concluded was that the Church was the fulfilment of prophecy to Israel. Here is part of what he said: “Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things” (Acts 15:14-17; quoted from Amos 11:9-12).
In this passage, James shows that God has gone to the Gentiles, who were not his people at first as the Jews were, and has rebuilt the dwelling of David which had fallen – the dwelling of David which was now rebuilt in Christ. He shows how this was prophesied in the Old Testament with a seeming literal prophecy but the fulfilment was spiritual – Christ is David and the tent or dwelling is the Church: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” (1 Cor 3:16).
The apostle Peter: 1 Peter 2:9-10 – The true holy nation
My next witness is the Apostle Peter. He writes to the churches: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar [particular, special] people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light; Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy” (1 Pet 2:9-10).
Could anything be clearer? Every phrase, every word he uses in this passage, are terms used for Israel, the Old Testament people of God. Peter was a Jew and he knew exactly what he was writing. It was no coincidence that he uses names which describe Israel when he is writing to Christians; no coincidence that he chose a prophecy given to literal Israel to apply to the Church. He recognised that the prophecies to Israel had their fulfilment in the Church, and he wrote to encourage them with this understanding.
The apostle John: John 18:36 – Jesus’ kingdom is spiritual and not of this world
When Jesus was undergoing his trial before Pontius Pilate he told him “My kingdom is not of this world”. It was not of this world then, and will not be of this world in the future. Matthew Henry says of this verse “Its rise is not from this world. Its nature is not worldly; it is a kingdom within men set up in their hearts and consciences. Its guards and supports are not worldly; its weapons are spiritual. Its subjects, though they are in the world, yet are not of the world”.
When Jesus returns, it will not be to reign over a temporary earthly kingdom but to usher in the eternal state; which means that the so-called “Rapture” will be Jesus returning to bring in the new age of eternal life with him for the saints, and the damnation of the wicked. In Matthew chapter 13 Jesus told some parables about the kingdom; in the parable of the wheat and the tares (13:24-30; 36-43) the end of the world is described as the harvest (13:39); the wheat i.e. the children of the kingdom (13:38) and the tares are the children of the wicked one (13:38). Both the wheat and the tares are left to grow together until the harvest, at which time the tares will be gathered up first and cast into the fire (13:30), then the wheat will be gathered to God and “the righteous shall shine forth like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt 13:43).
In another of the parables in Matthew chapter 13 is the parable of the dragnet (13:47-50) which is essentially the same as that of the wheat and the tares; at the end of the world the angels will separate the wicked from among the just and they will be cast into hell.
Both parables describe events at the end of the world and there is no mention of a thousand-year reign of Christ over Israel from Jerusalem; no mention of a temple in which are animal sacrifices; no Rapture; no Great Tribulation as they describe it; in fact, none of the scenario hoped for by Premillennialists is here even hinted at. Rather, we see the wicked and the righteous at the end of time gathered at the harvest and assigned to their appointed end, whether heaven or hell.
The Millennium is not a literal thousand year period
Furthermore, the Millennium is not a literal thousand years. The reference in Revelation chapter 20 to “the thousand years” was a symbolic period signifying a long time, as are many other descriptions given in this same book. The book of Revelation is also called The Apocalypse, which signifies a genre of writing which consists of graphically lurid images which can’t possibly be descriptions of literal figures or events; for example, the earth is totally destroyed in chapter 6, but humanity is not; then, in chapter 8, the earth is destroyed again. This is clearly symbolic language, as can be confirmed by the same images and descriptions which prophesied the destruction of Babylon by the Medes and the Persians (Isa 13:9-22), and the conquest of Egypt and her allied nations by Babylon (Ezek ch 30). And the writer of Hebrews distinctly says that we are living in the last days already (Heb 1:1-2).
What about the Jews today?
Can they be said to be the people of God? There are some influential teachers who say they are. In fact, these Christian Zionists love the Jews so much they refuse to preach the gospel to them because, as these teachers insist, the Jews don’t need the gospel; they’re already God’s people. But the whole message of the New Testament, i.e. of Jesus and the apostles, is that the gospel has to be preached to all men for all time. “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt 28:19-20).
But Israel has rejected their Messiah and the gospel and they don’t even believe the Old Testament. When they do read it, there is a veil over their eyes which has blinded them (2 Cor 3:13-14) which will only be removed in Christ – and when that happens they will NOT be restored as the OT people of God but will be part of the NEW Jerusalem in which Jews and Gentiles are one people in Christ. They do not now speak for God or bear witness to him, and the terrible history of the Jews bears witness to God’s judgement and rejection of them.
Martin Luther: On the Jews and their Lies
“For this year, which we Christians write as the year 1542 since the birth of Christ, is exactly 1468 years, going on fifteen hundred years, since Vespasian and Titus destroyed Jerusalem and expelled the Jews from the city…..For such ruthless wrath of God is sufficient evidence that they assuredly have erred and gone astray. Even a child can comprehend this. For one dare not regard God as so cruel that he would punish his own people so long, so terribly, so unmercifully, and in addition keep silent, comforting them neither with words nor with deeds, and fixing no time limit and no end to it. Who would have faith, hope, or love toward such a God? Therefore this work of wrath is proof that the Jews, surely rejected by God, are no longer his people, and neither is he any longer their God. This is in accord with Hosea 1:9, ‘Call his name Loammi: for ye are not my people, and I will not be your God.’ Yes, unfortunately, this is their lot, truly a terrible one. They may interpret this as they will; we see the facts before our eyes, and these do not deceive us” (Luther, M, 2014, “On the Jews and Their Lies”, RiverCrest Publishing, Austin, Texas).