The week I completed my ordination was a week like no other I’ve had in ministry.
On Saturday I officiated a wedding.
On Sunday I launched our church sermon series in the book of Acts.
On Monday I crammed for my oral ordination exam by reading over my paper and most of the book Evangelical Convictions.
On Tuesday I underwent my four-hour oral exam, being asked and attempting to answer 154 questions (per the transcript) about theology and pastoral ministry. The rest of Tuesday and Wednesday, like many of you, I enjoyed the EDA Move’s annual conference.
On Thursday I was subpoenaed to testify in court related to an appeal of a former church member currently in prison.
On Friday I had major reconstructive surgery on my shoulder. I’m not making this up. I wrote this post with my right arm still in a sling, where it will be for the next six weeks.
When I started to put my children to bed on Tuesday night, the evening after my ordination, I collapsed on my own bed at 8 pm. I thought I’d just rest for five minutes to steel myself for the job of putting our six children to bed. My wife had to finish the job, as I woke up from my five-minute nap ten hours later.
Again, it was a week like no other.
If you’re considering the credentialing process, don’t let my difficulties discourage you. It’s a ton of work, but I learned so much in each stage of the process: the studying and researching, the writing and re-writing, and the preparing for the oral exam and actually being examined. The ordination process made me a more effective pastor, knocked off rough edges of my theology, deepened my sense of calling, and stirred fresh joy in God.
I’m told that my ordination is the first in the EFCA for a candidate who holds to the amillennial view of the return of Christ. As many of you know, our EFCA statement of faith formerly specified a “premillennial return of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Article 9, Christ’s Return). Therefore, credentialed pastors in the EFCA formerly only took one of two views on the tribulation and millennium: either historic premillennialism or dispensationalism. This summer the statement of faith was broadened to include all orthodox views of the return of Christ, including amillennial and postmillennial views, by replacing the word “premillennial” with the word “glorious.” We believe in the glorious return of Jesus.
In the rest of this blog post, I simply want to share with you the section of my paper under Article 9. I’m well aware that my paper does not constitute the official position of the EFCA any more than any other approved ordination paper becomes our gold standard. I may be the first, but I don’t assume first will mean best. However, what I hope you’ll see, especially if the amillennial view is new to you — as it will be to many in the EFCA — is that I’m trying to take the Bible seriously and cooperate with the original intent of the authors.
If you read nothing else, you might benefit from at least reading the opening paragraph where I share some of the backstory on my shift to the amillennial view. If you’d like to learn more about the amillennial view, I’d suggest the video “An Evening of Eschatology” produced by Desiring God and the books The Bible and the Future by Anthony Hoekema and Kingdom Come by Sam Storms.
9. We believe in the personal, bodily and glorious return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The coming of Christ, at a time known only to God, demands constant expectancy and, as our blessed hope, motivates the believer to godly living, sacrificial service and energetic mission.
Perhaps it would be helpful at this point to include a brief paragraph that is more memoir than theology. As long as I can remember, I have appreciated the EFCA; my family almost exclusively attended EFCA churches as I grew up, and my father often served as a lay elder. As such, in my limited understanding of eschatology, I identified with historic premillennialism. This view abided during my time at a conservative, evangelical Presbyterian seminary and continued into my first pastorate within a nondenominational, reformed baptist church. There, my fellow teaching pastors were both amillennial. By the way, I had tried to be hired in the EFCA directly after seminary, but at the time there was no room in the inn, at least very little room; I graduated from seminary on the heels of the economic recession and churches weren’t hiring. But my hope was always to return to the EFCA. Then I did. Community EFCA in Harrisburg hired me. A year went by and, besides pastoring, I studied and refreshed the EFCA licensing paper I had written while in seminary. Still, my historic premillennial position abided. For those who were at my licensing council, you’ll remember that what was otherwise a fairly smooth-going licensing exam, shall we say, had more than a few bumps when it came to the millennium and my allegedly questionable hermeneutic applied to the days of creation and modern day Israel. I wasn’t lying when I said I held to historic premillennialism. But I was naïve—naïve not only about the influence of my seminary but also the influence of my fellow teaching pastors at my former church and my own hesitancies about some aspects of historic premillennialism. I’m thankful for those bumps, the pointed questions, and the one no-vote I received because together they sent me on a four-year trajectory to study the issues in more detail. I now hold to amillennialism, which, among other topics related to Christ’s return, I will defend below.
Jesus will return personally and bodily (Mt 24:30; 26:64; Acts 1:11; Rev 1:7). This view stands over and against the view that a “return” of Christ in the hearts of his followers could fulfill scriptural promises. The two major interpretive decisions related to Christ’s literal and physical return are the nature and timing of the tribulation and the millennium. With respect to the tribulation, many Christians interpret this term to refer to a period of intense struggle, calamity, and persecution or a “great tribulation,” as Jesus calls it (Mt 24:21). Historic premillennialism understands the Bible to teach that the church, as a whole, will remain through this tribulation period and after a time (seven years being either literal or symbolic) Jesus will return to set up his millennial kingdom on earth. This understanding of the tribulation isn’t too different from my amillennial understanding of the tribulation, though it obviously differs significantly on the millennium. Amillennialism rightly understood does not deny the existence of the millennium as atheism denies the existence of God; rather, amillennialism understands the Bible to speak of Christ’s millennial reign to be taking place in heaven right now. The amillennial view is consistent with passages that intricately link the timing of Christ’s return with the final judgment and eternal state (Rm 8:17–23; 2 Thes 1:5–10; 2 Pet 3:3–14), not two returns of Christ with a great intervening period of time between the returns, which would make for odd readings of passages like John 5:28–29 (“the hour is coming . . .” where the “hour” would be separated by 1,000 years). True, some passages in the OT, Isaiah 11 and 65 for example, seem to describe a time “better” than the church age but “not as great” as the new heavens and new earth. Yet these passages could be speaking poetically of the new heavens and new earth. In short, what some see as taking place in the millennium can actually be seen as taking place in the final state. A rigid interpretation of Isaiah 65:20, which speaks of those dying after a long life, is odd to me, when v. 19 speaks of no more weeping. How could physical death not produce weeping no matter how long one lives?
Additional consideration, of course, must be given to Revelation 20. I favor the interpretive scheme called progressive parallelism, which understands the book of Revelation to recapitulate similar sequences of events, often with each cycle moving the description of the end a bit further. So, for example, what happens with the seals in chapters 4–7 is roughly parallel with what happens with the trumpets in chapters 8–11, and so on. Space does not allow for much elaboration, but events like stars falling from the sky “as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale” (6:13) push me away from a more chronological reading of the book. Once stars have plopped upon the ground like over-ripe figs, there can’t be much left.
Addressing the classic text of Revelation 20:1–6 directly, a few things should be said. A great case can be made for describing Satan as bound in the church age and unable to deceive the nations, at least to the degree he did in the OT (2 Kg 17:29; Mt 12:28–29; 28:18–20; Lk 4:6; 10:17–18; Jn 12:31–32; Acts 14:16; 17:30; 26:17–18; Col 2:15; 1 Jn 3:8). Also, the reign of God and Christ upon a throne is frequently (some say exclusively) spoken of in Revelation as taking place in heaven (1:4; 3:21; 4:5; 7:9ff; 8:3; 12:5; and dozens of others). The 1,000 years mentioned in vv. 3, 5, 6, and 7 from which all our millennial views build their name (pre-, post, a-) could surely be, in such a highly symbolic book, a round number suggesting a long period of time (cf. the figurative use of 1,000 in passages such as Dt 7:9; 32:30; Josh 23:10; Jud 15:16; 1 Sam 18:7; 1 Chron 16:15; Job 9:3; Ps 50:11; 84:10; 90:4; Ecc 6:6; 7:8; SoS 4:4; Is 30:17; 2 Pet 3:8). And it doesn’t feel like a stretch in context to see the “first resurrection” of those reigning with Christ as the believers raised to the intermediate state, whereas unbelievers do not experience this resurrection but only the “second death.” Then add to this that the whole vision (“I saw,” v. 1) feels very heavenly; missing from the text are earthly details about Christ reigning upon earth, the temple, the land of Canaan, and the holy city of Jerusalem (although perhaps some infer that the vision takes place on earth because the angel comes down from heaven).
Moving on, a theological tension appears concerning our expectancy of the Lord’s return, but the tension is also seen within the Scriptures. On the one hand, many verses in the Bible seem to indicate that the Lord could return at any time and we must be ready for him (Mt 24:42–44; Lk 12:40; 1 Thes. 5:2). On the other hand, many passages seem to indicate that certain events must precede the coming of the Lord, including the tribulation (Mk 13:7–8; Mt 24:15–22; Lk 21:20–30), preaching the gospel to the nations (Mt 24:14), signs in the heavens (Mt 24:29; Is 13:10), the salvation of Israel (Rm 9–11, esp. 11:1–2, 25–26), and the coming of the man of lawlessness (2 Thes 2:3). Some propose the solution of two returns of Christ: first, a “secret” or pre-tribulation return of Christ to rapture his church from the world before the tribulation and then yet another return to set up his millennial kingdom. This view is often associated with dispensationalism. The post-tribulation view, which I hold, teaches that it is possible that all of the signs have been fulfilled or could be fulfilled very quickly but that it is more probable that the signs are not yet fulfilled. Therefore, fidelity to God’s promises in Scripture demands we maintain “constant expectancy” regarding Jesus’s return, while at the same time make sure that when Jesus does come, he finds us not idle but busy at his work in his world in service to him (Mt 24:36–51; Rm 13:11–13; 1 Thes 5:1–11; Rev 3:3).
Concerning the relationship between ethnic, national Israel and the church, some go too far when they speak of replacement theology as though nothing special remains about the Jewish people and thus push them out of the way. A better term, it seems to me, is fulfillment theology because the OT hope was always for an expansion of light to the Gentiles under the reign of the Messiah, an expansion that did not push out ethnic Israel but instead reconciles them both to God in one body (Eph. 2:11–22; Is 46:9). The true “Israel of God” was always a believing Israel, which today includes both believing Jews and believing Gentiles (Gal 6:15–16; cf. Rm 4:16ff). A passage like Romans 11:25–26 seems to expect an increase in conversions of ethnic Jews near the return of Christ, which is wonderful news.
On the one hand, no person knows the exact time of Christ’s return (Mt 24:36–44; 1 Thes 5:1–3; 2 Pet 3:10; Rev 3:3), which should engender humility. On the other hand, while our interpretation of some specific aspects about the end times remains partially uncertain, believers in Christ must remain fully assured that Jesus will come. For those who have put their faith in him, it will be a glorious and joyful day—a reality that should propel believers “to godly living, sacrificial service and energetic mission” (cf. 2 Pet 3:14).