A Conquering Kingdom of Martyrs

Jul 13, 2021

Given the Bible's predictions of the end times, how should we then live?

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

I have long considered eschatology to be an interesting diversion: a good theological question, but not particularly relevant. Christ is coming back to claim His own, we win in the end, and the details of how that happens can be sorted out when the time comes.

My exposure to eschatology growing up was scattered. I recall it coming up in a few sermons, usually to warn people away from Tim LaHaye and the idea of a pre-trib rapture. Premillenialism was a given - we take the Bible literally, after all. It wasn’t until I began to study apologetics and theology that I was exposed to other positions.

Even then I was only tangentially interested. I saw that the sparring between camps was loosely connected to other theological issues: premillenialism and dispensationalism, amillenialism and Reformed covenant theology, and postmillenialism and theonomy. But it always seemed something of secondary concern. If we are going to experience the return of Christ in our lifetime, then we’ll see it when it happens; if not, then it’s more a concern for future generations.

How Should We Then Live?

My perspective has begun to shift recently as I consider the legacy I will build for my family. Perhaps it’s the time of life. I am close to entering my thirties with two young sons, and I’ve been challenged to consider the question from a few angles. As I look at the state of the world today, with Christianity falling from its privileged positions, I find that one question seems particularly relevant for a long-term legacy.

From the time of Christ’s first coming to His second, does the world get better or worse?

If the world is to get progressively better under the influence of the Church’s salt and light, then our strategy ought to be aggressive. Confident in our purpose, we ought to march out to take on the world and see it transformed through the power of the Gospel. For the Gospel is not merely spiritual: it is the antidote to the Curse, which fell upon man and cosmos alike.

If the world is to get worse and worse until the end, then our strategy ought to be defensive. We ought to spread the Gospel to bring as many people with us as we can, but we cannot expect any significant victories in society. Working to see this world transformed is ultimately a futile waste of resources, until Christ Himself makes all things new.

Once we know God’s plan for His Church, we can work alongside Him to leave a legacy that will fulfill His purpose.

The Approach

Two competing positions immediately presented themselves. Our church, like many Baptist churches, teaches dispensational premillenialism. Many of the Reformed authors and pastors who have been influential in shaping my theology (Greg Bahnsen, James White, Doug Wilson, and others) have taught a preterist postmillenialism. I began my study with a comparison of both.

My first step was to compile the relevant passages - which ended up being the Olivet Discourse, Revelation, a few other sections of the Epistles, and the entirety of the Prophets - and reading through them. Then I started reading representative books from each perspective. Some of the books I read include:

  • What in the world is going on? (David Jeremiah)
  • Prophecy 2020 (Chuck Missler)
  • The Book of Revelation (Robert Mounce)
  • Four Views on Revelation (Gentry, Hamstra, Pate, Thomas)
  • Of Things Which Must Soon Come To Pass (Philip Mauro)
  • The End Times According to Jesus (R.C. Sproul)
  • When The Man Comes Around (Doug Wilson)
  • The Wars of the Jews (Flavius Josephus)

One of the key differences between these positions is futurism vs. preterism. So, that’s where I began.

Futurism and Preterism

Broadly speaking, futurists hold that the prophecies of the New Testament (and some of the Old) will take place at some point yet future. Preterists hold that many have since been fulfilled in history. (We can safely ignore the heretical variant “full preterism” which claims that all Scriptural prophecies, including the Second Coming, have been fulfilled.)

Jesus Himself foretells the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24 and parallel passages). He declares that the current generation will not pass away before these words are fulfilled. And, in fact, the temple (and the rest of Jerusalem) are destroyed less than forty years later. Christians in Judea at the time recognized the signs and, as instructed, fled to the mountains.

The Book of Revelation also concerns “what must soon take place,” so preterists draw the connection to Christ’s prophecy in the Olivet Discourse. They argue that Revelation describes in symbolic terms the same events - the destruction of Jerusalem. Thus the Beast represents the Roman Empire, and Babylon the Great represents the Jerusalem that rejected Christ.

Futurists, on the other hand, do not find any historical events which align to their understanding of how Revelation ought to be interpreted, and conclude the events must be yet future - hence the name. This gives the freedom for a range of more symbolic or more literal interpretations.

Ordinarily, when I study two competing two theological positions, one begins to stand out. I look for one that is more consistent in interpreting passages, or that explains more verses. This consistency was what drew me to Reformed theology, so I expected preterism to have a similar pattern, as there are a lot of preterists in modern Reformed circles. Instead, the more I read, the less satisfied I was with either interpretation.

The Time Passages

Jesus’ Olivet Discourse declares plainly that the temple will be destroyed before the current generation passes away (Mat 24:34). Revelation declares that it concerns “what must soon take place” (Rev 22:6). John is commanded not to seal up the book of prophecy, unlike Daniel, whose prophecies were four hundred years from coming to pass (Rev 22:10). These (and others) point to an imminent fulfillment of prophecy, not one thousands of years distant.

Preterists have the advantage here, as they take these verses literally. Futurists have to write them off as figurative, or find creative ways to reinterpret “soon” to mean something else. But the plain reading, absent a theological framework to force a different conclusion, favors the idea that these prophesied events will at least begin soon.

Jerusalem in Revelation

Matthew 24 prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem, with some dramatic imagery - wars, earthquakes, famines, and persecution. All of these can be confirmed in the historical record. Jesus declares that the sun and moon will be darkened, drawing on Old Testament imagery of judgment (Ez. 32:7). It’s less clear what is meant by “[gathering] his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other”, but given the timeframe in verse 34, it’s unlikely to refer to the final Rapture of the Church as described in 2 Thessalonians. Rather, we can read “this generation” literally, if we accept this as a coming of Christ (Rev 3:3) and not the final Second Coming.

So far, the preterist approach is plausible: it fits the prophecy, it fits the historical record, and it takes literally what Jesus declares literally while allowing Old Testament symbols to be just that.

However, preterists try to fit Revelation into the same period. There are some similarities (wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution), but adapting the prophecies of Revelation to the destruction of Jerusalem is a haphazard affair at best.

First, there is little consistency in the interpretation. To pick one example, Doug Wilson points to the battle of Taricheae as a potential fullfilment of the second trumpet, in which a burning mountain is cast into the sea, filling it with blood and destroying a third of the ships. Taricheae was a city on the side of a mountain at the edge of the Sea of Galilee. When Roman legions destroyed the city, the survivors fled in ships, but, outnumbered, were pursued and destroyed in a sea battle.

For the third trumpet, Wilson provides no corresponding historical event, but suggests a metaphorical fulfillment as the Jerusalem which “turned justice to wormwood” (Amos 5:7) gets wormwood in return. It’s difficult to see this as anything but special pleading - picking an interpretive method based on how well it fits your proposed fulfillment, rather than judging your solution by Scripture.

Second, without the assumption that Revelation expands on the Olivet Discourse, it’s difficult to see why Babylon the Great should correspond to Jerusalem. There are two connections: Old Testament occasionally refers to Israel as a harlot; and Jerusalem, like Babylon the Great, is destroyed by Rome. But the description of Babylon as a mercantile power with dominion over the kings of the earth does not fit Jerusalem.

These issues brought this avenue of study to something of a frustrating halt. It’s possible that there’s some other interpretation of Revelation that takes “soon” literally without fudging the rest of the text, but I decided to set this approach aside and come at it from a different angle.

The Kingdom of God

As I studied the Prophets, I started to pick up on another thread. In Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2, the king sees a massive image of a man, representing a series of kingdoms. A stone, not cut with human hands, struck the image on the feet and shattered it. That stone grew to become a great mountain which filled the whole earth. Daniel interprets the vision:

And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.

This prophecy of the kingdom of God is echoed through the prophets:

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 shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples 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.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
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.
(Isaiah 2:2-4)

This promised kingdom of God arrives in the New Testament, heralded by John the Baptist. Jesus declares it to be fundamentally different from the kingdoms of the world: it is “among you,” that is, not territorial. It is like a mustard seed: It grows into something far greater than its beginnings. It is like leaven: it spreads throughout the whole world. It comes in power after Christ’s death and resurrection (and Satan is cast down to the earth at the same time, Rev 12:7-12). This kingdom brings peace to the nations, as they come to its God. Christ reigns over this kingdom until He has destroyed all of His enemies; then He will deliver the kingdom to God (1 Cor 15:25).

The overall picture is triumphant, but Revelation highlights how difficult that conquering will be:

And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” (Revelation 12:10-11)

This is a recurring theme of the letters at the beginning of the book. We conquer, not with physical weapons, not even with a voting majority, but by enduring to the end - clinging with a death grip to the truth that has been delivered to us.

We are a paradox: a conquering kingdom of martyrs.

Conclusions

I am still far from a comprehensive eschatology, sadly, but I am beginning to find the answer to my question regardless: How should we then live?

First, we are at war. We will train ourselves and our children for battle. It’s not enough to look at your weapon every morning; we need to be using it, practicing with it. We need to don the armor of God and wield the Word as a sword.

Second, we are conquering - eventually. The kingdom’s progress is gradual, and its enemies will do their worst while they may. We will lay foundations to build a God-honoring society, like Nehemiah, with a sword in one hand and a hammer in the other.

Third, we are a kingdom. We are not alone; we will fight alongside our brothers, faithfully serving our local church.

Fourth, we are martyrs - in spirit if not in the flesh. We will read of the faithfulness of the martyrs, letting their commitment strengthen our own. We, too, will love the testimony of God more than friendships, jobs, freedom, or life itself.

I may write more about the practical implications of these in the future. For now, I’ll just note that I recently read C.R. Wiley’s Man of the House and it intersects with this theme in some very practical and important ways.