Friday, June 7, 2013

Did Jesus Believe in the Millennium?

The modern portico on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  Jesus likely debated the Sadducees in a similar location in the ancient and much larger portico of Herod's Temple.

The Millennium doctrine—that the righteous will reign with Messiah for a thousand years—is one of the most disputed teachings of the New Testament.  A problem for some is that it appears to spring up out of nowhere in the book of Revelation (Rev. 20), a book filled with many puzzling symbols.  This has made it easy for many to neglect or even to reject this important expectation of the Early Church.  But did Jesus himself believe in the Millennium? 

Belief in a future Millennium is not based only on the Book of Revelation.  The idea came originally from the dozens of places in the Old Testament that mention a kingdom age on the present earth with Messiah ruling from Jerusalem (see for example Jer. 23:5,6; 30:9,10; 33:14-16; Eze. 34:11-31, 37:24-28). This was not a Christian invention. Belief in a coming Messianic age was widely held among the Jewish people in the time of Jesus.  Even today, the coming of Messiah to establish an age of peace is a normative belief in Judaism.*

* Though no specific length of time for this age is widely accepted among the Jewish people, and the resurrection is usually thought to take place after the Messianic age.  In the Bible, only the New Testament book of Revelation gives a specific length of time to this age. 

But even in the New Testament, Revelation is not the only place to mention the Messianic age.  Jesus himself taught on this subject in his dispute with the Sadducees (Luke 20:27-40).  This took place in the Temple in Jerusalem just days before his crucifixion.

The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection (“For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection…”Acts 23:8).  So they challenged Jesus about this belief with a story about a woman married successively to seven brothers.  This was because of the Levirate law of Deut. 25:5,6, in which a brother must take the childless wife of a brother who has died.  Through her, he was to produce children to preserve the name and the inheritance of the deceased brother.  But none of the brothers was able to father a child with the woman before his death, and so she was passed from one to the other until she had married all seven.  So they asked Jesus, “In the resurrection…which one’s wife will she be?” (Luke 20:33).  To the Sadducees, the idea that a woman could rise and be in a marital relationship with several different men indicated the absurdity of a resurrection. 

Jesus easily overturned this objection by pointing out that there will be no marriages in the resurrection:  “Those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Luke 20:35,36; see also Phil. 3:11 and Paul’s similar teaching about marriage in 1 Cor. 7:29-31).  This teaching gives us valuable insight into Jesus’ own understanding of the resurrection and the age to follow. 

The phrase that Jesus uses to describe the resurrection, “the resurrection from [or ‘out from’] the dead [“dead” is plural here in Greek]” (Luke 20:35), was not just another way to refer to resurrection in general.  It is used only of those raised before the general resurrection at the end of time, who are raised out from among the other dead (who remain dead).  So, for example, it is used of Jesus himself, when he was raised from the dead (Matt. 28:7, Luke 24:46, etc.), or of Lazarus when Jesus raised him from the dead (John 12:1,9,17).  In Luke 20:35, it means that one group of people (“those who are considered worthy”) will rise “out from” the other dead sometime before the general resurrection.  This idea of two major and distinct resurrections (one before and one after the Messianic age) is the essential concept of the Millennium teaching of the New Testament. 

In another place, Jesus calls this first resurrection the “resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:14).  Elsewhere it is called the resurrection “of those who are Christ’s at his coming” (1 Cor. 15:23), “the resurrection of life” (John 5:29), and the “first resurrection” (Rev. 20:5).  In contrast, the second, general resurrection is called the resurrection of “the rest*” (1 Cor. 15:24), the “resurrection of judgment” (John 5:29), and the resurrection of “the rest of the dead” (Rev. 20:5).**

* Often translated “the end,” but here in a military context (see tagma in vs. 23), telos is more appropriately translated “the rest” (see the BAGD Lexicon entry on telos).  This is also implied by Christ’s giving up the kingdom to the Father (vs. 24, i.e. the end of the Messianic age) and by the final defeat of death in vs. 26, which implies a final resurrection (also vs. 54).

** These two distinct resurrections are matched with two different judgments.  The general, second resurrection leads to what is often called the Final (or Last) Judgment.  It has this name because it is not the only judgment.  Before the Millennium there will be another judgment in which Jesus decides who is “worthy” of the resurrection of the righteous (Matt. 25:31-46, the first resurrection).  Those who are worthy will be taken, those not worthy will be left behind (Matt. 24:40-41; 1 Thess. 4:15-17). 

In the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, speculations multiplied about life in the Millennium.  Some began to teach that there would be others living in the Millennium besides the “worthy” that were resurrected, and that among these — or even among those that had been resurrected — marriage would continue.  Over time, these and other wild speculations about the Millennium discredited the entire teaching in the eyes of many (including Augustine of Hippo), and the Millennial teaching as whole was rejected by the Church for more than a thousand years.*

*When the Christian doctrine of the Millennium reappeared after the Reformation, many of these extravagant speculations returned with it.  Dispensationalism, a currently popular end-time teaching, claims that there will be fleshly sinners on earth in the Millennium and that marriage will continue to take place among them. This is one reason that many continue to reject the Millennium today.

But Jesus himself rejected all such speculation long before. In Luke 20, when he affirmed that only the “worthy” will be raised in the first resurrection, he also said that they alone would participate in (“attain to”) the age to follow (“those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead,” Luke 20:35).  Only the worthy will rise and only the worthy will live in the Millennium.  To confirm this, he also says of those living at that time, “for neither can they die anymore” (Luke 20:36).  This clearly teaches that all those living in the Millennial age will be resurrected.  No fleshly sinners will be included. 

Jesus goes on to describe these resurrected believers as being “like angels” (they “neither marry nor are given in marriage.  For neither can they die anymore, for they are like angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection,” Luke 20:35-36).  This does not mean, as this is often misinterpreted, that they will have wings like angels and sit on the clouds playing harps.   The meaning is that just as angels do not die and do not marry, so the believers in that day will not die and will not marry.  The only marriage will be the wedding of the Lamb and his bride, the Church (Rev. 19:9; Matt. 22:2, 25:10).  All other marriages will have passed away (Rom. 7:2,3).

Why will there be no ordinary marriage?  Many aspects of marriage are considered ritually unclean in the Bible.  This includes the physical marital relationship (Lev. 15:16), menstruation (Lev. 15:19), and childbirth (Lev. 12:2,5).  Why are they considered unclean? It’s not that they’re evil.  God himself commanded us to “be fruitful and multiply” in Gen. 1:28.  But as many Jewish and Christian scholars have suggested, they have a connection with death.*

* As in the shedding of blood (in which life was considered to reside, Lev. 17:11) or the destruction of male seed.  The connection with death is even clearer in other types of uncleanness mentioned in the Bible:  contact with a dead body (Num. 19:11-22), eating an animal that died naturally or was killed by another animal (Lev. 17:15), leprosy (Lev. 13,14), and an unnatural discharge of blood (Lev. 15:12).  Even the prohibition of certain kinds of animals as unclean (Lev. 11) may be because they are carnivorous, eating unclean dead meat.  (For more on this topic, see our article Clean and Unclean.)

In Jesus’ day, these uncleannesses prevented access to the Temple, and therefore (symbolically) to the presence of God.  But by excluding them from the Millennium, Jesus clearly teaches that there will no longer be anything that can separate us from God.  As Paul puts it, “And so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17).

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