Previous article in this series: March 15, 2012, p. 276.
An Earthly Conception of the Kingdom
Closely related to postmillennialism’s error of conceiving the victory of the Messianic kingdom as an earthly victory, within history, is its erroneous conception of the very nature of the kingdom of Christ. Postmillennialism views the Messianic kingdom as an earthly reign of Jesus Christ. Granted, the postmillennial theologians in the Reformed tradition acknowledge the spiritual power that must establish the kingdom of Christ and bring it to victory during the millennium. Especially the Puritans, the Reformed theologians who were influenced by the Puritans, and such Presbyterians as B.B. Warfield credited the gospel and the Spirit for the erection of the kingdom in its glory during the millennium. But the form of the kingdom, the form that is essential to the victorious kingdom of Christ in history, is earthly.
For postmillennialism, the kingdom must one day consist of large numbers—a majority, if not the totality, of the human race. It must consist of a radical change in the earthly circumstances of Christians, indeed of the entire human race. Christians will possess and exercise earthly authority and might. Christians will bring about, enforce, and enjoy earthly peace. By the influence of Christianity, all humanity will delight in earthly prosperity.
The dominion of the Messianic kingdom must be political, social, cultural, and economic.
The dominion of the kingdom of Jesus must take physical form.
Men and women, including unregenerated men and women (if a few remain during the heyday of the Messianic kingdom), will be able to see the dominion of King Jesus—its power, its splendor, its benefits—with the natural eye, just as men and women, including the barbarians, once could see the glory that was Rome and just as men and women today can see the (fading) grandeur of the United States.
So earthly will the Messianic kingdom be, so earthly must it be, according to postmillennialism, that its power will overawe and its benefits will seduce ungodly people unto submission to the kingdom, at least until the end of the millennium.
The Messianic kingdom of postmillennialism is a carnal kingdom.
Postmillennialism’s conception of the Messianic kingdom, particularly the Messianic kingdom at the height of its power during the millennium, does not differ from that of the Jews of Jesus’ day. They dreamed of a kingdom that would overthrow the earthly rule of Rome and restore the earthly reign of David and Solomon. They fervently desired a Messianic kingdom that would give its citizens earthly bread, that is, all the necessities of physical life in a comfortable, safe, earthly environment. Because they ate of the loaves, obviously miraculously multiplied by one with great potential for earthly kingship, and were filled, the Jews, zealous for the establishment of the Messianic kingdom as they conceived it, were ready to “take [Jesus] by force, to make him a king” (John 6:26, 15).
Jesus repudiated the carnal kingdom of Jewish and postmillennial dreams, root and branch. As God’s Messiah, He will not provide earthly bread, but heav enly bread. “My Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world” (John 6:32, 33).
His reign will not deliver from Rome, or from the brutalities of Louis XIV, or from the cruelties of Nazi Germany, or from the tortures of Communistic states, or from the oppressions of the increasingly godless nations of the West, or from the great tribulation of the Antichrist. Not within history. But King Jesus will deliver from sin and death. “The bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give [in the cross that redeems from sin] for the life of the world” (John 6:51). “This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die” (John 6:50).
The dominion of Christ will not bestow an abundant and long physical life, but eternal life. “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54).
As the power of the Messianic kingdom is spiritual—the Spirit working by Jesus’ words, as the members of the kingdom are spiritual people—those who believe on Him, as the benefit of the kingdom is spiritual—deliverance from sin, and as the life of the kingdom is spiritual—eternal life, so is the Messianic kingdom spiritual (John 6:63; John 6:64; John 6:51; John 6:54).
Over the spiritual nature of the kingdom of Christ, the Jewish nation stumbled, and perished. “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:66).
Let postmillennialists take heed!
With an eye on John 6, the Second Helvetic [Swiss] Confession of 1566, in its day a popular Reformed creed, condemned as “Jewish dreams” the millennial notion “that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth.”¹
The great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky understood well that Jesus’ refusal to be the bread-king, by His rejection of the devil’s first temptation of Him in the wilderness, meant that He was determined to be the king of the elect in a spiritual kingdom, rather than a king of the masses in a carnal kingdom. In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky has the ecclesiastical “Grand Inquisitor,” say to Jesus:
Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man? And if for the sake of the bread of Heaven thousands and tens of thousands shall follow Thee, what is to become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly? Or dost Thou care only for the tens of thousands…. Canst Thou have simply come to the elect and for the elect?²
It is a deep concern of the Reformed faith that men and women not follow Jesus Christ for earthly bread. The Reformed form of the installation of deacons admonishes the poor, who do receive earthly necessities from Christ through the diaconal office, that they “follow Christ for the food of your souls, but not for bread.”³ This concern is rooted in the conviction that the kingdom of Christ is spiritual.
The Heavenly Kingdom
The nature of the Messianic kingdom is spiritual, not physical, because the kingdom of Jesus Christ is of a radically different order, or kind, from all earthly kingdoms. Especially in its New Testament realization, from Pentecost to the second coming, it is heavenly.
It is on earth. It is in the midst of all earthly nations. It very much affects earthly life. It sanctifies the earthly lives of its citizens. It exposes, condemns, hardens, and enrages the earthly lives of its unbelieving enemies.
It impacts the earthly kingdoms. At times, for a while, it influences a nation culturally, so that the laws of the nation and the outward way of life of some of the citizenry reflect something of the truth, righteousness, and holiness of the kingdom of Christ, which is within the nation. The early United States, although never a Christian nation, never the kingdom of Christ, never the city of God on a hill (the blatant Deism of the Declaration of Independence and the complete absence of any mention of Christ in the Constitution make this incontrovertibly evident), manifested in various aspects of its national and cultural life something of the Christianity of many of its founding citizens.
At other times, the Messianic kingdom has the effect upon nations of arousing them to persecuting hatred, as was true of the Roman empire in the early days of the post-apostolic church and as is increasingly the case today of the United States and the other nations of the West.
At the end, when Christ returns, the Messianic kingdom will have this impact on all the nations of the world, united under Antichrist, that it will demolish them, grind them to powder, consume them, and replace them in the whole earth, everlastingly (Dan. 2:34, 35, 44).
But the Messianic kingdom is not of the order of earthly kingdoms. It is heavenly. Jesus Himself described His kingdom as heavenly at a critical juncture in the history of the kingdom. He was about to establish it on the foundation of the divine righteousness of His cross (this unique foundation alone distinguishes the Messianic kingdom—radically—from all other kingdoms, which are founded either in earthly power or on mere earthly justice, or both). At that moment, He gave account of His kingship and kingdom to the representative of Rome.
Both in malice and because they could not conceive a kingdom other than earthly, Jesus’ Jewish enemies charged Jesus with rebellion against the state (John 18:33-35). If the Messianic kingdom were earthly, the charge would have been true, would have stuck with the Roman authority, and would have resulted in Jesus’ execution as just another revolutionary in history. And that would have been the end of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
But Jesus denied the charge. The ground of the denial was the truth that His kingdom is unearthly in kind. Jesus affirmed His kingship: “Thou sayest that I am a king” (John 18:37). He proclaimed His kingdom: “My kingdom” (John 18:36). But His kingdom is “not of this world. . . is [not] from hence” (John 18:36). The origin of the Messianic kingdom is not the earth, but heaven, not sinful mankind, but the holy God. This origin determines the kind of kingdom it is. Every kingdom that originates from the earth is earthly in kind and physical in nature. The one kingdom that originates from heaven is heavenly in kind and spiritual in nature.
Jesus demonstrated that His kingdom is heavenly to the satisfaction of suspicious Pilate, although, apparently, not to the satisfaction of postmillennialists. First, the servants of Jesus do not fight: “If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight” (John 18:36). The Messianic kingdom in its New Testament form does not consist of physical force, does not possess or exercise earthly authority and might, does not extend itself by physical force and arms, and does not defend itself by physical power.
The king went to the cross, not to the throne of an earthly empire.
The kingdom of Christ in history is always a kingdom under the cross—unique shame, unique suffering, and unique death. It is not a kingdom under the sign of a crown.
Second, the reign and realm of Jesus Christ on earth are by, for, and of the truth. “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice” (John 18:37). As the entire Scripture reveals, the truth is the gospel of the cross. By this gospel the Messianic kingdom comes (Matt. 6:10). By this gospel it translates its citizens into itself, from the power of darkness—elect believers and their children (Col. 1:13). By this gospel it defends itself against its enemies, which are not, ultimately, flesh and blood, but principalities, powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph. 6:10-20).
By this gospel it has always been victorious in history By this gospel it is victorious today. By this gospel it will be victorious presently, in the short time of the beast from the abyss, when the two martyrs conquer by their faithful witness to the truth (Rev. 11).
The Holy Nation
Dreaming its fantastic dream of an earthly victory of the Messianic kingdom within history, postmillennialism has lost touch with reality—the reality of the kingdom as described in Q&A 123 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Thy kingdom come. That is: So govern us by thy Word and Spirit that we may submit ourselves unto thee always more and more; preserve and increase thy Church,” etc.4
The fulfillment of the Old Testament nation of Israel is the New Testament church. To the church, identified by the mark of the truth, the Holy Spirit applies the titles and honors that once applied to Old Testament Israel: “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people” (I Pet. 2:9; cf. Ex. 19:5, 6). The true church is the kingdom of Christ. The citizens of the kingdom are believing members of the true church and their children—those who hear Christ’s voice, according to divine election (John 18:37).
The life of the kingdom is the church’s and her members’ submission to God in Christ. For the church, this submission to God consists of pure worship; sound preaching; right administration of the sacraments; and proper administration of discipline. Lo, there is the Messianic kingdom! Only faith can see it.
For the believer and the child of believers, this submission is faith in Jesus Christ and faith’s obedience to the law of God—the ten commandments as explained and applied by all the rest of Scripture, history and precept, admonition and exhortation, threat and promise. Lo, there is the life and power of the Messianic kingdom. Only faith can perceive them.
In this kingdom is peace. The nations beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks (Is. 2:4). The peace is reconciliation with God by the forgiveness of sins and, thus, harmony with the fellow citizens. Only faith can experience it.
The citizens of the kingdom are satiated with prosperity. The floors are full of wheat, and the vats overflow with wine and oil (Joel 2:24). We have the Spirit of Christ; truth; righteousness; holiness; communion with God; the hope of the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Only faith appreciates this prosperity.
Never in history is the Messianic kingdom earthly. It is only and always heavenly. Never is its nature physical. Always and only it is spiritual.5
Nor will the kingdom become earthly in kind and physical in nature at the end, in the day of Christ, when, as the Catechism goes on to say, by a wonder Christ Himself will bring His kingdom to its “full coming”: “until the full coming of thy kingdom, wherein thou [the triune God] shalt be all in all.” For on that day, all will become spiritual: the citizens of the kingdom in their resurrection body and the entire creation of the new heaven and the new earth.
In that spiritual world, among that spiritual people, will the spiritual Christ Jesus perfect His heavenly kingdom.
And then the eyes of our (spiritual) bodies will see it.
1 The Second Helvetic Confession of 1566, in Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century, ed. Arthur C. Cochrane (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), 245, 246.
2 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. Constance Garnett (New York: New American Library, 1960), 233, 234, 237.
3 Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons, in The Confessions and Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005), 293.
4 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966), 352.
5 For a more thorough explanation of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, see David J. Engelsma, The Kingdom of God (Grandville, MI: Evangelism Committee of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church, 2002).