Eschatology – Part 6

Eschatology – Part 6

As you know, the New Testament writers quoted generously from the Old Testament, applying various Old Testament passages to Christ and the New Testament age. Often their use of the Old Testament Scriptures seemed in violation of a proper hermeneutic.

For example, Matthew quotes from Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” God, speaking through the prophet Hosea, uses this reference in regard to Israel at the Exodus; Matthew uses it in reference to Jesus’ family returning to Palestine after the death of Herod. Without Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 we would not be able to discern that it had a messianic meaning.

Another illustration is Paul using allegory in Galatians where he uses the two sons of Abraham to draw attention to the distinction between law and grace. Paul even calls it an allegory.[1]

The early patristic writers lived in a period of time when there was no clear understanding or agreement as to what constituted the New Testament canon. Nor did they distinguish between the rules of interpretation available to those writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit vis-a-vis those that did not. It was natural, therefore, for these men to employ the same hermeneutic they saw used by Matthew, Paul, et al. Once they became anti-Semitic, it was a short step for them to apply the Old Testament kingdom prophecies to the Church.

The Patristics failed to comprehend: 1) The delineation in the thinking and writing of New Testament authors such as Paul and John regarding the role of the Church vis-a-vis the future of Israel in the on-going program of God, and 2) The hermeneutic restraints on the writers of Scripture vis-a-vis all other authors. That the Patristics saw themselves in the train of the apostles is obvious by their style of writing, such as introduction, frequent quotes from the Old Testament, and moralizing.[2] We will frequently see this as we proceed in our study of the Patristics.

Let’s take a brief look at some of the earliest post-apostolic writings, noting their references to the millennium.


The Didache is The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, or The Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles Through the Twelve Apostles. Although the author is unknown, historians feel it was written around 100-150 AD somewhere in Syria. In part, the Didache reads: “And then shall appear the signs of the truth; first, the sign of an outspreading in heaven; then the sign of the sound of the trumpet; and the third, the resurrection of the dead; yet not of all, but as it is said: The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him. Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.”[4]

Paul references the return of Christ with the sound of a trumpet in I Corinthians 15:52 and I Thessalonians 4:16. Only in I Thess. 4:17 does he refer to the clouds at the appearing of Christ. The Didache says that some of the dead rise, which implies two resurrections. As we will see in our study of Augustine, “one resurrection only” is at the heart of a-millennial eschatology.

“The writer of the Didache, like the generality of the Church of the first centuries, was a pre millenarian, and held that the Second Advent of Christ would bring the Resurrection of the righteous only, so that they might take place only after this. This doctrine arises from a very literal rendering of Revelation XX, 1-7″[5]


Written around 100 AD, its authorship is disputed, and although some hold that it was actually written by Barnabas, the companion of Paul, the tone of the epistle seems to refute this. There are twenty-one chapters in the letter, and it carries a strong anti-Jewish undercurrent:

“But they (the Jews) thus finally lost it, after Moses had already received it. For the Scripture saith, ‘And Moses was fasting in the mount forty days and forty nights, and received the covenant from the Lord, tables of stone written with the finger of the hand of the Lord;’ but turning away to idols, they lost it. For the Lord speaks thus to Moses: ‘Moses, go down quickly; for the people whom thou hast brought out of the land of Egypt have transgressed.’ And Moses understood the meaning of God, and cast the two tables out of his hands; and their covenant was broken, in order that the covenant of the beloved Jesus might be sealed upon our heart, in the hope which flows from believing in Him….And all the more attend to this my brethren, when ye reflect and behold, that after so great signs and wonders were wrought in Israel, they were thus at length abandoned.”[6] The epistle picks up the same argument again in chapter XIII, arguing that Christians rather than Jews are heirs of the Old Testament covenant.[7]

“Barnabas’ view of history necessitates that in handling the eschatological questions that arise in the Epistle, his solutions always favor the Christians, the true chosen people, at the expense of the rejected race, the Jews. In chapter 6 we saw how Barnabas transferred the land of the promise from Jew to Christian by identifying the land itself with Christ in some way, saying that therefore this land – now the eschatological land – is already possessed spiritually by the Christian…”[8]

In chapter 15 “Barnabas” uses the seven days of creation as a template for history; as God created in six days and rested the seventh, so history is six thousand years in length with the seventh the millennium. On the eighth “day” God recreates with a new heaven and earth.[9] The origin of this division of history into seven periods is somewhat ambiguous, but can be found in I Enoch and IV Esdras.[10]

This division of history into seven parts, with the seventh being the millennium, is a repeated theme throughout the Patristics. Even Augustine embraces it, arguing that the millennium “is now passing, and cannot be measured by any number of generations….”[11]


Clement’s name is mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3, although we are not positive that it is the same person as the patristic bearing this name. In his first epistle, although there is no statement expressing either a belief in pre-millennialism or a repudiation of it, he talks about the second coming of Christ in terms that would be difficult to understand if he did not embrace a millenarian mind-set.

O’Hagan thinks that the tone of Clement indicates that he believed in a period of time after judgment in which the land would participate not only in punishment, but also purification – a “material re-creation,” as he calls it.[12]

In his letter to the Corinthians, Clement argues against the removal of presbyters without good reason. His argument comes out of the Old Testament. “For unto the high-priest his proper services have been assigned, and to the priests their proper office is appointed, and upon the Levites their proper ministrations are laid. The layman is bound by the layman’s ordinances.”[13]


We see Clement’s ecclesiological presuppositions here, and this may well have been a precursor to an Old Testament view of the ministry. It is this tie between the Old and New Testament, in the minds of the Patristics, that produced a limited role for the laity, culminating in an Old Testament view of the mission of the Church.

Whether Clement saw a literal thousand-year reign of Christ through the Church, as did most of the Patristics (historical pre-millen-nialism), is not the important issue. Rather, he saw the Church in Old Testament terms and this influenced his perception of the ministry. The conviction that the nation of Israel had been permanently removed from the program of God and replaced by the Church, produced an Old Testament “grid” through which every aspect of the life of the Church passed.

An illustration of this can be seen in what R.R. Williams, Principal of St. John’s College, Durham; Examining Chaplain to the Bishops of Durham and Chelmsford, says in his book on authority: “In St. Paul’s mind the final criterion by which all ministerial questions had to be judged was the welfare of the Church. The object of the ministry was the building up of the body of Christ, the edification of the Church, so that the Church too could embark on its share of ministry (see especially Eph. iv. 11-15)….”[14]

“There was no sharp distinction between a charismatic traveling and a local, non-charismatic ministry. In such a distinction, few scholars now believe. Gifts of the spirit were needed for the local ministry as much as for a traveling ‘assignment.’ But that there was tension between traveling prophets and local ministers is suggested by the Didache, and this may lie behind the divisions at Corinth revealed by Clement’s letter, and the troubles between ‘the Elder'[15] and Diotrephes.”[16]

It was this “tension” between para-church (“traveling prophets”) and church (“local ministers”) that gave impetus to viewing the ministry in Old Testament terms with a hierarchy of leadership and the laity controlled by “priests.”

Yours for a life of ministry,

[1] Gal. 4:24.

[2] Wilson, C.T., Illustrations of the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church from the Apostolic Fathers, Cleaver, Baker St., London, 1845.

[3] I am indebted to a masters thesis from Trinity Seminary on Primitive Premillennialism: A Study in Patristic Chiliasm, from the Apostolic Fathers to Irenaeus by Charles Turner. It directed me to many of the original texts, saving me many hours of personal investigation.

[4] Didache 16:6.

[5] Lawson, John, A Theological and Historical Introduction to the Apostolic Fathers, New York, Macmillian Co., 1961, p. 100.

[6] op.cit., ANF, Vol I, Epistle of Barnabas, chapter IV, pp. 138-139.

[7] ibid, pp. 145-146.

[8] O’Haagan, Angelo P., Material Re-Creation in the Apostolic Fathers, Adademie-Verlag, Berlin, 1968, p. 65.

[9] ibid, pp. 146-147.

[10] “After that there shall be another, the eighth week, that of righteousness…. And sinners shall be delivered into the hands of the righteous….And the first heaven shall pass away, and a new heaven shall appear, and all the powers of the heaven shall give sevenfold light. And after that there will be many weeks without number for ever, and all shall be in goodness and righteous- ness, and sin shall be no more mentioned forever (I Enoch 91:12,16-17). “And it shall be after seven days that the Age which is not yet awake shall be roused, and that which is corruptible shall perish….O Lord, show this also to thy servant: whether after death…we shall be kept in rest until those times come in which thou shalt renew the creation….But the Day of Judgment shall be the end of this age and the beginning of the eternal age that is to come; wherein corruption is passed away” (IV Esdras 7:31,75,113).

[11] op.cit., The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol 11, The City of God, chapter 30, p. 511.

[12] op.cit., O’Hagan, p. 103.

[13] Lightfoot, J.B., The Apostolic Fathers, J.R. Harmer, editor, Clement, The Epistle of S. Clement to the Corintihians, chapter 40, Baker, Grand Rapids,1967, p. 30.

[14] Williams, R.R., Authority in the Apostolic Age, SCM Press LTD, London, 1950, p. 51.

[15] Read III John, esp. v. 9.

[16] op.cit., Williams, p. 68.