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“When Do God's Promises Get Fulfilled?”
May 21, 2017
We can trust a God who doesn’t make promises lightly.
I. A Millennial Reign (Revelation 20:1-10)
II. Where God’s Promises are Fulfilled
As we have walked through God’s Big Story this year we’ve seen so many of His promises fulfilled, especially those that related to the hero-messiah who would rescue his people. We heard in Genesis that he would crush the serpent’s head. We heard God tell Abraham that, ‘in your offspring all the nations will be blessed.’ We heard about the prophet like Moses who would arise. We heard especially about one who would sit on David’s throne, offspring of a virgin, “Emmanuel.” We also heard of the suffering servant who was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, by whose stripes we are healed.
Then Jesus came and fulfilled all these promises. God was faithful to every one of them, as Jesus himself showed the disciples after his resurrection. Further, God was faithful to the promises Jesus himself made. I’ve called Jesus’ own prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection the most amazing prophecy of all, and it was fulfilled in every detail. Jesus made other prophecies as well, especially in the sending of the Holy Spirit, and as we’ve seen recently in the book of Acts, these prophecies too were fulfilled. We can readily conclude from all this that God is a faithful God who keeps all his promises. But what if we found a whole class of promises made in the Old Testament, and even in the New, but not obviously fulfilled? I’m not talking about one or two obscure passages in the prophets, but a whole interwoven series of promises that seem key to God’s big story, whose fulfillment should have been obvious.
How do you explain unfulfilled promises? There are really only three ways. First, one can claim that the promises were fulfilled, but not literally. The clear language of these promises, you could say, was symbolic, and the fulfillment did not take the form the first readers of these promises, or even a reader today might expect. This is what the church has often done with God’s kingdom and land promises to Israel. Second, you can discount God’s faithfulness, claiming either that God makes promises he can’t keep or has no plans to keep. This is the position of modern scholarship and popular atheism. The Bible is just a heavily edited and late record of a history that is mostly myth, and its promises are just historical remnants, like pottery in an archaeological dig, giving insight only into the time it was written and the people who wrote it.
But what I’d like to do is defend a third option. It’s not that these promises are not clear, and it’s certainly not that God is unfaithful, but that these promises have not yet been fulfilled. A faithful God has revealed a place where they can, and I believe will be fulfilled, and he will be shown faithful to all his promises.
The fulfillment of God’s land and restoration promises fits into what we call ‘the millennium,’ in which Christ returns and reigns on earth from Jerusalem. A few weeks ago I got an e-mail saying that the leadership of the Evangelical Free Church is going to try again to take the word ‘premillennial’ out of our statement of faith. Though this won’t come to a vote until 2019, I wanted to take advantage of this moment in God’s big story to lay out why I think the millennium is a good way to understand God’s faithfulness to his promises. This phrase itself only shows up in one place in Scripture, in Revelation chapter 20, and that’s what we’ll look at first today.
Revelation 20:1-10. Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. 4Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.
7And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. 9And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
Just before these verses Christ wins a huge victory over the enemies who had tormented his people. Revelation 19:6 “Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. 7Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; 8it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”
That’s the famous marriage supper of the lamb, but it is followed by this, “Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. 13He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. 14And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. 15From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.” Verse 19: “And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army. 20And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.”
So Jesus wins the victory that ushers in the kingdom. But it is not yet the eternal victory and the eternal kingdom that we expect. Revelation 20, verse 1: “Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended.” After the destruction of the beast and the false prophet, Satan himself is thrown into the abyss to be imprisoned there for a thousand years. This is the millennium. Does it have to be a thousand years? No. Often in Scripture a round number stands for a large number. It can be approximate, but it can’t be forever. This is not the same thing as the eternal Heavens and Earth of the next chapter.
In church history this thousand year period has been understood several ways. In the first centuries pre-millennialism dominated. This is what most of the early church fathers believed, as we’ll see in a moment. But after Augustine a new view, a-millennialism, came to dominate. In this view the church was the New Israel, and the promises to Israel of restoration to the land were spiritualized or allegorized. The thousand years, in the words of one proponent of this view became “a figurative or symbolical description of the entire age of the new covenant.” Pre-millenialism became a “bizarre teaching” that “involves denial of the oneness of Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church, rejection of the unity of the covenant of grace, opposition to infant baptism, and the embracing of the dreaded doctrine and practice of antinomism.”
In this view the binding of Satan is only partial. He is restrained enough that the Gospel can go out to the nations, and he is restrained by the work of Christ in the lives of believers, "bound" for believers since he no longer deceives them, but still "loose" for unbelievers, who are deceived. This explanation, however, does not take seriously the prison in which Satan is confined, nor does it account for the releasing of Satan after the thousand years. As one commentator says “The elaborate measures taken to insure his custody are most easily understood as implying the complete cessation of his influence on earth (rather than a curbing of his activities).”
This thousand-year binding of Satan is also a thousand year reign of Christ. Verse 4: “Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” This is the millennium.. The time is limited, Satan is bound, and these people reign with Christ. But who are these people? Verse 4 tells us they are ‘those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image.” It says they came to life. That’s a resurrection. Verse 5 tells us that “the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.” Verse 6 says they will be priests of God and Christ, and reign with him for a thousand years.
The simplest explanation is that these are tribulation period martyrs, those beheaded for their faith, like the Coptic Christians at the hands of ISIS. But there are indications in Revelation that this may be a larger group, all who had never worshipped the beast. John has elsewhere indicated that the kingdom reign will be shared by every believer who overcomes and is purchased by Christ's blood. In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul speaks of all believers, not just martyrs, exercising judgment in the future. Revelation 5:10 indicates that believers from every tribe and tongue and nation will reign as priests on the earth.
So who are these people? Todd Still says “I feel comfortable with the view . . . that the martyrs represent the whole church that is faithful to Jesus whether or not they have actually been killed. They constitute a group that can in truth be described as those who "did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death"” He points out that in chapter 2 those who during persecution are faithful to Christ even to the point of death are promised escape from the second death, which is promised here to those who share the first resurrection. I think I agree with that. These are persecuted believers who suffered martyrdom or who die during the tribulation period.
And who do they reign over? Tribulation period believers who don’t die in the tribulation, especially Jewish believers. But also non-believers, who survive that period. We can’t go into all of tribulation debate, but nearly everyone agrees that many will come to faith during the tribulation, and that even some who do not come to faith will survive and continue to populate the earth, many of their children becoming believers in that blessed reign, some maybe not.
All that fits perfectly with John’s description of the end of the millennium: “And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. 9And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” At the end of the thousand years, when Satan is released, there is a final rebellion against the Lamb, and God is finally victorious. Satan will not just be bound, but will be thrown into the lake of fire forever. And that, folks, is all that the Bible formally says about the millennium. But it is not all the millennium is about.
Todd Still answers the question “Why the millennium?” by saying, “First, during the Millennium, Christ will openly manifest his kingdom in world history; . . . It will be a time of the fulfillment of all God's covenant promises to his people. Second, the Millennium will reveal that man's rebellion against God lies deep in man's own heart, not in the devil's deception. Even when Satan is bound and righteousness prevails in the world, some people will still rebel against God.” Both are important, but the key is “It will be a time of the fulfillment of all God's covenant promises to his people.”
What promises are we talking about? Many. The prophets often look forward to the end times, the day of the Lord as they often call it. Many of their prophecies depict God’s fulfillment of the core promises of shalom in the land and restoration of the Davidic kingdom. Being prophecy and looking forward this far, there is some overlap in the prophetic visions between the millennium and eternity. But there are also some which can only occur in the millennium. One list I looked at had 67 passages which assume or explain the millennium. But we’ll read only a few. Zechariah 14:1-9 Behold, a day is coming for the Lord, when the spoil taken from you will be divided in your midst. 2For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women raped. Half of the city shall go out into exile, but the rest of the people shall not be cut off from the city.
3Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. 4On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward.” That’s a fairly typical Day of the Lord prophecy. When was that fulfilled? Not yet. The Mount of Olives has not yet been split in two. But we know Jesus ascended from the Mount of Olives and the angels said “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Jesus will return to the Mount of Olives. Zechariah 14:9 “And the Lord will be king over all the earth.” This is clear. Jesus will reign over all the earth.
How do we know it’s Jesus? Because these prophecies also point to him. In Isaiah 11 he’s called ‘the root of Jesse,’ David’s father. “In that day the root of Jesse, shall stand as a signal for the peoples. Of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.” Notice that there are still nations to inquire, meaning nations not yet returned to the Lord. “In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. 12He will raise a signal for the nations and will assemble the banished of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.” The reign of Jesus will include the return of the Jewish people and kingship over all nations.
Micah 4:1-4 “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, 2and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 3He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations far away; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; 4but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.”, Reigning on earth, the Lord receives the nations and gives peace.
So do you see this? The promises are not vague, not symbolic, though there are some symbolic elements. But when someone says “He will gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth,” or “Out of Zion shall go forth the law and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem,” those are very specific, plain promises in fulfillment God’s land and people promise to Abraham.
And this is just a tiny portion of the many times God makes such promises through Scripture. It’s a whole thread of prophecy, as robust as the prophecies of Jesus, which God was faithful to fulfill. Now it’s true that some elements of these promises can come true in eternity. For example, one of these prophecies in Isaiah 65 begins by taking about the New Heavens and the New earth, a key marker of eternity, as we’ll see next week. But then the prophet focuses a little nearer and says things that can only refer to the millennium. “I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. 20No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.” God promises a time not like the present, a time when the sound of weeping and distress will no longer be heard in Jerusalem. But this is also not eternity because infants will be born and people will die, although their lives will be much longer than ours, like the patriarchs.
And this will be a long time. Verse 21 “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 23They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord, and their descendants with them. 24Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear. 25The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.” So for a long time, say a thousand years, this promise will be fulfilled. It will not yet be eternity, for Jesus tells us clearly that in eternity they will no longer marry or be given in marriage, but these people in this millennial bliss will bear children.
So do you see where I’m going with this? Unless you spiritualize these promises to such a degree that the original readers would not recognize them, there has to be a place in God’s timetable where they can be plainly fulfilled. We just saw that place, Revelation 20, a special thousand years in which Satan is bound and the people of God reign with Christ in the beloved city. This isn’t the only way believers, true Christians understand these things. It’s not a salvation issue. But for twenty years and more this truth has been coming up over and over in my own life and thinking. This truth, of the millennial reign of Christ on earth has more and more satisfied me because it allows a place for God’s promises to be fulfilled. And I believe God is faithful. We can trust a God who doesn’t make his promises lightly or say one thing and mean another.
This is also the way the early church understood Jesus. Oddly enough the Wikipedia article on the millennium does an awesome job of laying this out. “During the first centuries after Christ, various forms of millennialism were to be found in the Church, both East and West. It was a decidedly majority view at that time, as admitted by Eusebius, himself an opponent of the doctrine. Nevertheless, strong opposition later developed, notably from Augustine of Hippo. But the Church never took a formal position on the issue at any of the ecumenical councils, and both pro and con positions remained consistent with orthodoxy.”
This is what the apostles and the church fathers believed. Why then should we repudiate it? More than that, this is what allows the plain prophecies of the Old Testament to be fulfilled, and in that we see the faithfulness of God to his promises. We should not lightly let that go. So, Zephaniah 3 “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! 15The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. 16On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. 17The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with singing.” Praise God that he is a God faithful and true to his Big Story.