The Jews, during the days of our Lord’s ministry, were deeply involved in eschatology. Simeon and Anna both anticipated seeing God’s Messiah. When the “wise men from the east” inquired in Jerusalem, the “chief priest and scribes” were familiar with Old Testament prophecies predicting Messiah’s coming.
Added to this was the heightened expectation generated by a number of books written during the period between Malachi and Matthew, the inter-testamentary period. These include Esdra, the Book of Jubilees and I Enoch. All of these were indebted to the book of Daniel and the prophecy of seventy weeks.
Throughout the Old Testament, God revealed, in a rather specific way, His plans for the future of Israel. For example, God told Abraham that his descendants would be captive in a strange land for four hundred years. Thus it wasn’t hard for Moses and the Israelites to predict that their time of deliverance was close. Jeremiah predicted that Judah would be in Babylon seventy years, and Daniel knew this when he prayed for Israel’s deliverance.
This is the promise that God makes to the nation of Israel: “Does a bird fall in a snare on the earth, when there is no trap for it? Does a snare spring up from the ground, when it has taken nothing? Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does evil befall a city, unless the LORD has done it? Surely the Lord GOD does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.”
It was not difficult, therefore, for the Jews of Jesus’ day to calculate that, according to Daniel’s seventy weeks, they were living in the days of Messiah’s coming.
LOSS OF HOPE
Jewish scholars surviving the destruction of Jerusalem rejected the previously popular Jewish apocalyptic literature with the expectation of Messiah’s coming. On this point the noted scholar F. Crawford Burkitt makes an interesting observation.
Quoting Johanan ben Zakkai, that God revealed to Abram this world, but not the world to come (Ber. rab. 44 [on Gen 15:18]), he says that there was a renunciation of the apocalyptic idea, the literal creation of the Kingdom of God on earth. It was this ideal that inspired the whole series of Jewish Apocalypses, and was the central thought of the earliest preaching of Christianity, intoxicating the Jewish people in their wild struggle with Rome. “Johanan ben Zakkai was a realist, content ‘to let the future age wait for God’s good time,’ and in the meantime channeled Jewish thought into new directions. On the other hand, the Christians believed, ‘the Kingdom of God is at hand.'”
A HOPE TRANSFERRED
As the Jews were losing hope in the imminent, literal fulfillment of the Old Testament promises regarding the Kingdom of God, the Church was becoming increasingly Gentile, allegorizing these same Old Testament promises and applying them to the Church. Inconsistent in their hermeneutic, they interpreted the Revelation literally and the Old Testament figuratively. This was how they became “historic pre-millennial.”
Those who condemn the patristics for being pre-millennial because they were “Jewish” in borrowing from Jewish apocalyptic literature, must ask themselves why it was that Christians incorporated it into their doctrine? The only plausible answer is, they looked for the imminent return of Christ to establish His earthly reign. From where did they get this idea? Again, the plausible answer is, from the apostles and those who followed them.
Jesus’ disciples believed in His return and establishment of an earthly reign. Being Jews, however, they saw it in Jewish terms, applied to Israel, simply because in their minds they did not see a Church – Israel distinction. When wrestling with the Jew – Gentile distinction, they concluded that the two could unite in Christ. But this did not abrogate the Old Testament promises being fulfilled to Israel in an earthly kingdom with Jesus on the throne of David. It became a “Church event” only after a Gentile Church, in their anti-Jewishness, found no room for the Jews.
Let’s continue from here with brief looks at some of the other early church fathers.
Clement of Rome was of noble birth and part of the family of the Caesars. His father Faustus was related to the reigning emperor; his mother Mattidia was also a kinswoman of Caesar’s. His first letter to the Corinthians was written in approximately AD 96, or about 40 years after Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, about the time of the persecution of Domitian. Some of the ancient manuscripts make him the successor of Peter as pope in Rome. In his I Corinthians epistle, Clement seems to indicate that he personally knew both Paul and Peter.
To understand Clement’s position on the millennium, we need to remind ourselves that the Jews believed in what O’Hagan calls a “material re-creation.” The Old Testament promises a physical restoration of this earth, during which time the nations will be at peace and the lion will lie down with the lamb. It is during this time that Messiah sits on the Throne of David and rules the world. Throughout Clement’s I Corinthians, he holds for a “material re-creation” in the cosmic sense, following clearly the Jewish tradition.
A re-creation of the world as envisioned by the Old Testament prophets necessitates a millennial framework in which a new earth exists. No eschatology other than pre-millennialism has a place for this. Post-millennialism comes close in teaching that the church will capture the world for Christ before His return. Only pre-millennialism argues for an eschatological re-creation of the world; all other eschatologies teach that after the return of Christ we move into Revelation 21-22. A-millennialism replaces this Old Testament hope of a reconstituted world with the cultural mandate. We will explore this further in future issues of this series, but it is this “material re-creation” that Clement and others embraced, even though they may not make reference to the millennium of Revelation 20.
Reputed to have lived approximately 69 – 155 AD, Polycarp was “bishop” of Smyrna during the days when Ignatius was martyred. Irenaeus, as a youth, knew Polycarp and wrote of him: “But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried (on earth) a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.”
Irenaeus also says of Polycarp: “…so that I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse – his going out, too and his coming in – his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received (information) from the eye-witness of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures.”
The nineteenth century scholar, Lightfoot, comments that the Apostle John lived for more than a quarter of a century after the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70) in the province of Asia. headquartering in Ephesus. Polycarp was one of the disciples John gathered around him. He may have been privy to the Revelation of John when he was on Patmos. John made him bishop in the church of Smyrna.
In his epistle, Polycarp uses the language of Jesus who said, “… in the new world, when the Son of Man shall sit on His glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Polycarp says, “… and promised the kingdom of heaven to those who follow after righteousness.” Again, “They that are true citizens of Christ’s kingdom now shall themselves be kings with Him hereafter.” Finally, “… the saints shall themselves judge the world, as Paul teacheth.”
Polycarp seems to distinguish between the promised kingdom of heaven and ruling with Christ as they judge the world. By deduction can we conclude that Polycarp was chilliest? It seems so, for Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp, claimed his own teaching was the product of learning from Polycarp (and therefore of the Apostles and Christ). We shall see that Irenaeus was definitely a millenarianist.
In the next issue we will look at Justin Martyr, an important, if not the most important, patristic from the perspective of our study on eschatology. I don’t have room to cover him in this issue.
You notice that sprinkled throughout this series are quotes from various scholars, substantiating the over-arching theme of this study. They are not polemicists seeking to prove their own bias; many may not even be believers in Christ. E.C. Dewick, writing at the turn of the century affords us a partial summary of where we have been with a glimpse of where we are going.
Reviewing the period of the patristics from the time of Irenaeus forward, there is a slow, steady decline in an eager, imminent return of Christ. Actually the decline begins in the New Testament, and with every fresh decade the primitive hope silently retires more and more into the background. This doesn’t mean that it ever entirely disappeared; quite the contrary, it has always remained ready to revive in times of tribulation. But generally speaking, when the church is trouble-free, it has ceased to be a living power in Christendom.
In what Dewick calls “primitive Christianity,” even in the waning anticipation of an immediate Second Coming there is the belief in the Millennial Reign of Christ on earth. It was most strongly opposed by those favoring a “subjective” religion combined with a liberal use of allegory. Origen and some of the Gnostics are illustrations. This, combined with the Augustinian conception of the church as the Kingdom of God on earth, contributed to the demise of millenarism.
Eager for His return,