BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 6
Copyright 1989, Biblical Horizons
1. The Blessed Hope
"Looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus."
I was recently asked how I as a postmillennialist would preach on "The Blessed Hope." This is often a sticky question, because postmillennialists believe that history has a long way to go before our Lord returns to wind things up completely. How long? We don’t know.
When God made the world, He commissioned humanity to keep working on it, transforming "nature" into "culture," and bringing the world from glory to glory. Man’s task was and is to actualize all the potential of the world. In Jesus Christ, humanity is put back on the track, the track of making a God-glorifying world.
When we look at our home planet earth, we see that there is a tremendous lot left to do before this task is completed. If the world were largely converted tomorrow, and we could get down to work without worrying about war, famine, rapine, and the like, it would still take a long time to develop our world.
And beyond this, does the Bible anywhere say that planet earth is our only project? If God has given us the ability to travel to other planets, perhaps they also are to be developed and glorified as part of His universal plan — all before Christ returns. This could take hundreds of thousands of years. (One reason I enjoy the marvellous science fiction stories of Cordwainer Smith, a devout Christian, is because they communicate a feel for such a universal development and glorification.)
Well, whether the final return of our Lord is a hundred years in the future, or a million, we still have the question: How do we "look for the blessed hope"? What does this mean for the postmillennialist?
If I were preaching on this subject, I would preach three points. First, that the blessed hope is that Christ will come to transfigure the entire universe. Second, that the blessed hope is that Christ will come and deliver me from bondage to this life. And third, that the blessed hope is that Christ will come and dine with me this Sunday. (I realize that a few writers refer Titus 2:13 to the destruction of Jerusalem rather than to the final coming, but let me sidestep that question in this article.)
First, it is true that our Lord will return someday to transform the entire cosmos. Romans 8:18-25 deals largely with this, telling us that humanity is tied up with this world. When Adam fell, the world was estranged from him, but in the resurrection of Christ, the world begins to be reconciled to man. Someday, Jesus will return and completely transfigure this world. Just as His resurrected body was a glorified version of his natural body, so the new universe will be a glorified version of the original one.
This does not mean that Jesus has to come in my own personal lifetime in order for me to look forward to His coming. If I have a true Biblical "cosmic consciousness," then I join with Christ in wanting to see the entire universe transfigured. I know that it may be centuries or millennia before the time is right for universal harvest, but because I have a cosmic worldview, I resist the temptation to shorten God’s timetable.
In Romans 8:22, Paul says that the laboring of the universe is like childbirth. The process of childbirth takes several hours, and involves many pangs of "contraction." When the pangs come, it feels like death (Gen. 3:16 + 2:17), but it is not. In times of international crisis, such as our own day, Christians think that the end of the world may be near. They are right in a sense, because the pangs do speak of the end of the old world and the birth of the new one. But the pangs are not the same as the birth. No matter how glorious the "latter day glory" of the Church may become, there will still be pangs, and Christians will still yearn and look forward to the transfiguration of the cosmos.
Second, I can indeed look for Christ to appear in my lifetime — not in the final sense, but in the sense that He will come and deliver me from the horrors of this life. "Horrors of this life" — is that any way for an optimistic postmillennial Christian to talk? Of course it is, because it is the way the New Testament speaks. Right in Romans 8:23, Paul says that true Christians "groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our body."
True, we are already adopted in Christ, but our adoption is not complete until we are also glorified, even as He is. True, we have access to the Father’s feet, lap, and throne in this life, but we don’t yet have the fulness of access that we will experience once we have departed this life.
Paul said, "For me to live is Christ, but to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21) Inexperienced Christians may not know what it is to yearn for death, but when you have been crucified with Christ, you begin to understand Paul’s desire. Yes, if we are called to remain here to discharge our obligations, then that is a glorious calling, but to die is indeed gain! While death is indeed the last enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26), it is also true that "there is a time to give birth, and a time to die" (Ecclesiastes 3:2).
Third, our Lord Jesus Christ comes to be with us in a special way each Lord’s Day. After all, what is "Lord’s Day" but another way of writing "Day of the Lord," the day of visitation, of judgment, and of deliverance? The Bible teaches us that New Covenant worship is no longer afar off, as it was in the Old Covenant, but takes place in heaven itself (Hebrews 12:22-24). In Lord’s Day worship we are caught up, as was John (Revelation 4:1), into heaven itself. We come to "Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant" (Hebrews 12:24).
And He comes to us. While it is true that we go to heaven, it is also true that heaven comes down to us. After all, on Pentecost the Spirit came down, bringing heaven to earth. This is also a picture of worship. We can look forward each week to a glorious appearing of our Lord and Savior.
Of course, we can approach Him any time, but there is a special presence of Christ connected with public worship, because it is the time of His appointment. It is the time we draw into the Throne room to render formal obeisance before Him. It is the time when He feeds us with the very Bread of Heaven, His own precious body and blood, in the Lord’s Supper.
In conclusion, it is often argued that "looking for the blessed hope" has a sanctifying effect on the Christian, and that postmillennialists remove that benefit. I hope that this article has shown that this need not, yea must not, be the case. The blessed hope is something we look forward to each week. It is also something we can look forward to when we lay down our cross and take up our crown. And finally, it is something we look forward to at the end of history, when all will be transfigured and glorified.
2. Personal Piety and the "Millennium"
Postmillennialists are often regarded as "triumphalists," and there is truth to that assertion. We do believe that we "triumph" in Christ, and that He has "triumphed" over the evil principalities and powers of the Satanic age. At the same time, this truth can be emphasized in a one-sided manner, so that we lose sight of the reality of inward suffering and conviction of sin. Indeed, in the past some Christian groups have so stressed our triumphing in Christ that they overlook the reality of personal sin.
How will it be during the "millennium"? Or, since most postmillennialists, myself included, believe that the millennium began with the ascension of Christ, how will it be during the "latter day glory of the Church," when all nations will come to Zion to receive Christ’s yoke? How should we think of personal piety during those "golden years"? Will believers no longer need to wrestle with sin?
Not at all. In fact, my vision of the latter day glory is quite the reverse. I believe that the closer men draw to God, the more aware they become of their own weakness before His strength, of their own sinfulness before His holiness, of their own wretchedness before His majesty, and of their own poverty before His largesse. If the latter day glory is a time when men live nearer to God than ever before, it will be a time when men wrestle with personal sin more than ever before. It will be a time when men appreciate the privilege of serving Christ as never before, because they will feel more inadequate than ever before.
Their wrestling will seldom be with outward, gross sin, of course. The discipline of society will be such as to drive gross sin and crime into the closets, dark corners, and back alleys where it belongs. A cleansed society will not present the kinds of temptations and wicked opportunities we face today.
No, it is not outward, gross sin that men will wrestle with, but petty meannesses, lusts, and inward depravity. These things will not go away from the depths of the human heart until the resurrection of the whole man, for which all believers yearn.
I believe that Christians during the latter day glory will be less proud and vain than they are today. They will be less self-confident, and more God-dependent. They will be less sure of their motives, and more open to the corrections of the Spirit.
We see this in Paul. If ever there was a man who had a right to boast, it was St. Paul (2 Corinthians 11-12). Yet, he wrote to the believers that it was only "when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10). Early in his career, Paul wrote that he was the "least of the apostles" (1 Corinthians 15:9). Later he wrote of himself as the "least of the saints" (Ephesians 3:8). Toward the end of his maturation in Christ, he regarded himself as the "chief of sinners," an attitude he commended to all (1 Timothy 1:15).
Paul found a contradiction in himself, one that he expresses in Romans 7:13-25. He expresses this contradiction three ways, first in terms of the law, second in terms of his personal disposition, and third in terms of his situation. (I realize that some take this passage to be speaking of Paul’s conversion, but an unconverted man would not have this Spiritual sensitivity. Others take this passage as a picture of the transition from the Old to the New Covenant, but while it may have some application in that direction, it seems to me clearly to be speaking of Paul’s personal experience.)
First, Paul says that the Law of God is good and is Spiritual (v. 14), but he finds a contradiction in himself (v. 15). He is able to take comfort in the fact that in his heart he loves the Law (v. 16), and thereby he is able to isolate his sinfulness (v. 17).
Second, Paul says that his inward disposition is to do good (v. 18), but he finds a contradiction in himself (v. 19). He is able to take comfort in the fact that he really wants to do right, and thereby he is able to isolate his sinfulness (v. 20).
Third, Paul says that his situation is such that he has passed into an estate of loving Christ and truth (v. 21), but he finds a contradiction in himself, for there is an inward principle of evil in him that affects his behavior (v. 22-23). He is able to take comfort in the fact that Christ has delivered him from his earlier estate, which he calls the "body of death," a reference not just to his physical body but also to the entire Old Covenant "body politic" situation (v. 24); and thereby he is able to isolate his sinfulness (v. 25).
The upshot is that Paul finds no victory in himself, even though he is saved, converted, and regenerated. He finds life only in dependence on the grace of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:1ff.) He must lean on Someone outside of himself.
In conclusion, Paul gives us an idea of the piety that Christians will have during the "millennium." Yes, the nations will obey the Law of Christ. Yes, there will be prosperity and progress. Yes, the "cultural mandate" will be fulfilled. But it will not be fulfilled by self-confident, proud, fleshly, "positive thinking," yuppie, "triumphalistic" believers. It will be fulfilled by men and women who do not trust themselves for anything, but lean wholly on their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
3. Death and Mourning
The Bible has a great deal to say about death. It is the punishment for man’s sin, and an appropriate punishment, since death destroys sin. It is the last enemy, to be defeated by our Lord Jesus when He returns to glorify His bride and her world. In this essay, however, we want to consider death and mourning.
We experience feelings of death when those we love die, and when projects in which we have invested much time collapse. The reason for this is seen in the fact that we are connected to these things. Such occasions make us mourn, and sometimes make us wish we too could die. Mourning is sympathy in death.
The reason for this is that we are connected to these things, and when they die, a part of us dies with them. Theologians sometimes call these connections "covenantal bonds." I find it helpful to think of it in terms of rays of light. Imagine strings of red (blood) light between you and your spouse and between you and your children, strings of blue (heavenly) light between you and other members of your church, strings of green (worldly) light between you and material things that you rightly cherish, and a string of pure white light between you and each of the Persons of God.
Now imagine that the white light between you and God has been cut because of sin. Since white light includes all the colors of the rainbow, all other strings of light are also cut. This is death, isolation, alienation. It is what happened to Adam and Eve in the Garden. When the bond with God was cut, so was the bond between themselves, the bond with other people, and the bond with the world. Only in Christ would those bonds be restored.
Of course, by the grace of God, all men experience the joys of covenant bonding anyway, but only provisionally. If they do not renew those bonds in Christ, they will lose them, and be isolated forever in hell.
There is yet another bond, the bond between you and yourself. That bond also can be cut. Paul experienced that death-like contradiction, and describes it for us in Romans 7:14-25. Many times we also feel at war with ourselves, and some people even become completely self-disoriented, giving off "multiple personalities," even becoming demon possessed.
We rightly fear this severing of the bonds. The more we have put into someone or something, the tighter the bond becomes, and the more painful it is to have it severed. Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince feared for his rose, left behind on Asteroid B-612, but he did not understand why. The fox explained that it was the time he had "wasted" on his rose that made her precious to him. And because Saint-Exupery had "wasted" time on the Little Prince, he mourned his death, though he realized that the Prince reigned on, in heaven.
Thus, the experience of death is real in this life. We work for years on a project, and it falls apart. We see loved ones die. And when these things happen, we feel death also.
On the one hand, this is a horror, for death is the last enemy. To pretend otherwise, to "think positively" and waltz on as if all were well, is a pagan, not a Biblical response. Paul said to "weep with those who weep," after all (Romans 12:15), and did not Jesus weep over the destruction of wanton Jerusalem?
Yet, death and loss can also be good for us, for they drive us back to the rockbed of our faith. They drive us to Christ. They strip away our pretenses, and reveal to us that this world is not the last.
4. Yuppie Postmillennialism
Americans are not a people accustomed to suffering. We are used to winning, to succeeding, to getting ahead. We want to be "seen at the top." We plan careers and make career moves. We think positively.
When Americans look at life and its difficulties, they see a series of problems to be solved by the application of some technique. Do you have a problem with health? Then you need drugs, or vitamins, or a new diet. Do you have a problem with your car? Then get it fixed. Is there a problem with the government? Then vote the rascals out. Don’t worry about death; it can be postponed.
There is a certain truth to such an outlook, but it often is a very shallow one. How many Americans have pumped themselves up with "success seminars," only to find in a few months that it has all gone pale? We run from one "positive thinking" book or preacher or seminar to the next, in the quest for techniques that will make us feel good, and that will "solve" our "problems."
Ancient Israel in her prosperity had people who thought the same way. They had misread Solomon’s book, Proverbs, and had come away believing that they could understand any problem, conquer any adversary, and resolve any difficulty if they only thought the right thoughts and did the right things.
Solomon knew better, however. Maybe he once thought that way also, but God had shown him that there was another dimension of life. So, Solomon wrote another book, Ecclesiastes. Somehow, it never became the bestseller that Proverbs had been. It got included in Hebrew One Year Bibles, but never as a daily reading.
In Ecclesiastes Solomon said that life is not a series of problems to be solved by the mere application of technique. Rather, he said, life is often a series of unexplained horrors that have to be suffered through on sheer faith. We often don’t know what is going on or why. We often see the wicked prosper and the righteous persecuted, and it does not make sense. We do what is right, and we get crucified for it.
Life goes back and forth, Solomon said. There is a time to laugh, but also a time to weep; a time to search, but also a time to give up as lost (3:4, 6). The world is pretty meaningless. Man accomplishes nothing (1:14). Knowledge accomplishes nothing (1:17). Pleasure accomplishes nothing (2:1). Work adds up to nothing (2:4). Possessions add up to nothing (2:7). Wisdom gets you nowhere (2:12).
It can be said, of course, that Solomon only means that "under the sun," from the perspective of man outside of Christ, these things are meaningless. And that is true, but it does not do justice to Ecclesiastes. Even for the believer, the world often makes no sense, and there is nothing we can do to change that. It is how God wants it.
We go through pain and suffering. We say, "Lord, show me what I need to do, and I’ll change." But we get no answer. Sanctification is just not that easy.
Solomon had been the Ultimate Yuppie. He had been young. He had been urban — he worked up the biggest urban renewal project in the Bible. He had been professional. And it had worn pretty thin after a while.
In Proverbs, Solomon had said that life makes sense: You can figure it out. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon said that life does not make sense, and you can’t figure it out. Both are true. But like the Israelites and Pharisees of old, Americans really don’t want to hear Ecclesiastes.
Even Job pales before Ecclesiastes, because Job got it all back doubled in the end. Solomon, in Ecclesiastes, is not so sure about that. Solomon says that in the end you get old and you can’t do anything much anymore.
Then you die.
Solomon is sure, though, that God will call all things into judgment. There is another world beyond this one, a world beyond pain, sacrifice, suffering, disappointment, and death; a world where true and righteous expectations are not frustrated.
This is not that world.
As an orthodox, Bible-believing Christian who has been a postmillennialist for nearly twenty years, I think about this when I look at the postmillennial resurgence in America today. Is it going to be a true, Biblical postmillennialism? Will it have room for Ecclesiastes? Will it have room for cross-bearing? Will it see that for us God really is incomprehensible, though not inapprehensible? Will it be clay in the Master’s hand?
Or will the modern postmillennialism be Americanized? Will it be a positive thinking, victory-oriented, get rich, meet you at the top, yuppie postmillennialism?
After all, a career is not the same thing as a calling. Thinking positively is not the same thing as thinking Biblically and realistically. Getting ahead is not the same thing as getting righteous. Being seen at the top is not the same thing as being seen by the King (Luke 14:7-11).
Historic postmillennialism has always seen that God puts His people and His world through fiery trials in order to refine them and make the world a better place. Often the heart of such trials is that we are not told why they are taking place, then or later.
We are God’s images, and we have a certain created "infinite depth" about ourselves that reflects His infinity. Sin and depravity warp us all the way down. Our depravity runs so deep that we are not conscious of it, and God must do things that deal with those unconscious depths of depravity. When He does, we don’t understand what is going on, because we cannot. Only He can. We just have to trust Him.
If we are to have a true Christian renaissance in the United States, it will not be a superficial yuppiefied religion that brings it. True Christianity must have equal time for Ecclesiastes as for Proverbs in its One Year Bibles.