Why did God tell King Ahaz to ask for a sign?

Q. Why did God, through Isaiah, instruct King Ahaz to ask for a sign? It reads like God was weary with Ahaz for not asking. Do you know why?

We tend to think of asking for a sign as a negative thing because of Jesus’ statements in the gospels that, for example, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign.” But this refers to asking for a sign from God as a condition of belief or obedience, or as proof that God is really present with us.  On other occasions God offers a sign, or even invites us to ask for one, as a token and pledge that He will keep a promise, and as evidence that He is already at work to fulfill it.

Jesus himself refused to ask for a sign as a condition of belief and obedience when the devil tempted him to throw himself off the heights of the temple to prove that God would rescue him.  To reject this temptation, Jesus quoted what Moses said in Deuteronomy:  You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”  Moses was referring to what the Israelites had done in the wilderness when they reached a place where there was no water and asked, Is the Lord among us or not?”  In other words, the Israelites were making the miraculous provision of water there a condition of their continuing belief and obedience.

It may appear that Ahaz is simply following this same principle, because he also says, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.”  But most interpreters agree that this is actually just a pious excuse, because Ahaz wants to continue on the course he has already chosen–not to trust in the Lord, but to make a military and political alliance with Assyria, which will require him to worship Assyrian gods instead.

God sends Isaiah to assure Ahaz that he can trust Him instead, and God even offers to let Ahaz ask for any sign he wants (“let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven“) as a token and pledge that God plans to deliver him from the nations that are invading. But Ahaz declines, and that is why God is weary with him.

We see God offering this same kind of sign in other places in the Bible as well.  For example, when King Hezekiah (Ahaz’s son, but a good and godly king) was ill, God promised him through Isaiah that he would recover.  Isaiah offered, referring to the royal sundial, This shall be the sign to you from the Lord, that the Lord will do the thing that he has promised: shall the shadow go forward ten steps, or go back ten steps?”  Hezekiah chose the much more remarkable sign of the shadow going backward, and it was granted.

So we today should be on the lookout for any “sign” God may be offering us in token and pledge that He will fulfill His promises to us (including matters of individual guidance that we have received), and as evidence that He is already at work to this end.  Perhaps we may even feel the freedom to ask for such a sign–not as a condition of belief or obedience, but as confirmation that we have heard correctly and are hoping and working for the right things, in cooperation with God’s purposes.

(This, I believe, was the nature of the sign that Gideon, for example, asked for using a fleece of wool.  He was already actively involved in the mission God had assigned to him; when God granted this sign, it was simply to confirm the instructions and strengthen Gideon in his obedience.)

Is there any evidence to suggest that John believed 666 to mean Nero?

Q.  Is there any evidence to suggest that John, the author of the book of Revelation, believed 666 to mean Nero? I read your post about whether early Christians believed this; I am wondering about John specifically.

In my study guide to Daniel and Revelation, I discuss how John, writing towards the end of the first century AD, portrays the reigning emperor Domitian several times as “Nero come back to life”—that is, as a persecuting emperor in the spirit of Nero.  These portrayals, taken together with the fact that the name Nero Caesar in Hebrew adds up to 666, provide evidence that the author of Revelation himself intended us to see that name in the number.

As I explain in the guide when discussing John’s vision of “the beast”:

Nero, Roman emperor from AD 54-68, was remembered as a tyrant and a murderer.  He executed many of his opponents and was widely believed to have killed his mother and stepbrother to consolidate his power.  He was also suspected of causing a great fire in Rome to clear the ground so he could build himself a huge palace.  But Nero blamed the Christians in the city for the fire, and they were severely persecuted.  When his generals finally revolted against him, to avoid execution Nero committed suicide by stabbing himself in the throat.  But rumors circulated that Nero was still alive or would come back to life, and that he would  reclaim his throne and resume his despotic reign.  John’s vision of “the beast” can be understood against this background.  The “beast” appears to be a depiction of the current emperor as if he were “Nero come back to life.”  That is, Domitian will become a tyrant like Nero and persecute the followers of Jesus as he did.  And so he’s described as “the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived.”

In discussing this same vision I also explain in the guide, as I do in this post, how the name Nero Caesar adds up to 666.

Later in the guide, when discussing John’s vision of “the great prostitute,” I share these further thoughts about the portrait in Revelation of Domitian as a persecuting emperor in the spirit of Nero:

Some details are quite transparent.  John’s audience would have clearly understood “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” to mean Rome.  The famous “seven hills” that the city sits on reinforce this identification.  Other details can be understood in light of the symbolism in Revelation and its Scriptural background.  The “beast” that “once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction” is likely a depiction of Domitian as “Nero come back to life.”  The emperor’s pretensions to divinity are being parodied by contrast to the true God, who “was, and is, and is to come.”  . . .
The biggest puzzle in the portrait is the identity of the “seven heads” that represent “seven kings.”  As he did for the number of the beast, John says that this “calls for a mind with wisdom,” meaning that there’s some kind of twist to the puzzle–some key to how the kings (apparently Roman emperors) are being counted.  Unfortunately a straightforward solution to this puzzle has not yet been identified; interpreters offer a variety of explanations.  But in some way John is trying to portray the persecuting emperor as the culmination of imperial arrogance (seven being a number of totality), which then takes a further step into Satanic evil as the emperor becomes “the beast,” “an eighth king.”

Essentially, until Nero, followers of Jesus could count on the Roman authorities for protection (as we see Paul doing often, for example, in the book of Acts).  It was hoped that Nero’s persecution had been a one-time exception to this policy of tolerance and protection.  But John warns in Revelation that under Domitian, followers of Jesus will one again have to “not love their lives so much as to shrink from death”  in order to remain faithful to their true Lord.

The portrayal of Domitian as “Nero come back to life” is essential to this message, and the use of the number 666 to represent “Nero Caesar” is a vital part of the portrayal.  So yes, John, the author of Revelation, did indeed understand 666 to mean Nero.

Bust of Domitian, Roman emperor AD 81-96, Capitoline Museum, Rome

Does God know in advance who will be the Antichrist?

This question was asked in a comment on my post entitled “Why Did God Create Satan?

Q. Wow I really love this article. For years I’ve been trying to make sense of two somewhat conflicting beliefs, (1) that we are made as an expression of God’s love and (2) that God made Satan knowing that he would turn on him and tempt Eve. I’ve often wondered if God makes the deliberate choice to not know what choices we will make. Being God he certainly has the option to make that choice if he wants to. My only thought that would seem to contradict this theory is that the Bible talks about the future Antichrist and it’s pretty clear about what choices he makes. What are your thoughts on this?

If God does know in advance what choices we’re going to make, then the creation of Satan certainly raises a great problem for the idea that God loves us and wants the best for us.  How could God create “such a monster,” as the questioner behind my original post put it, knowing what havoc he would wreak on humanity and the creation?

The solution I suggest is that God created not Satan but Lucifer, a great and glorious angel who had tremendous potential for good.  Because Lucifer had the freedom to follow God or not, what he would eventually choose was not knowable in advance—at least according to my understanding of freedom.  And not knowing what cannot be known is not a deficiency in omniscience or foreknowledge.

You’re suggesting a different solution:  God could know every choice in advance, but God chooses not to know, perhaps for the same reasons I describe in my original post, to allow true freedom so that true love will also be possible.  (Love that is compelled is not love.)

I think that both of these approaches work, so I just need to address what you’ve raised as a potential counterexample:  Isn’t it clear from the Bible that God knows in advance what moral choices the Antichrist is going to make—another “monster” whose choices will wreak havoc?

I’d say in response that I think we need to examine critically what we’ve been led to believe about what the Bible predicts regarding the Antichrist, that is, the person who will lead a worldwide rebellion against God at the end of history.

For one thing, the term “antichrist” is not used in the book of Revelation or in any of the other biblical passages that are typically understood as predictions of the end times.  It is used only in the letters of First and Second John, where it is defined as anyone who denies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.  This, John writes, “is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.”  In other words, for John, “antichrist” is not so much a future person, it’s a spirit that has already arrived.  We need to be careful not to come under its influence ourselves, but this does not mean that God knows in advance which specific people will choose to give in to its influence, not if their choices are truly free.

The Bible does speak under other names of a person whom interpreters often identify with a future “Antichrist.”  In Revelation he’s called the “beast.”  This seems to be an echo of the way this same figure is described in Daniel as one of the “kings” of a “kingdom” that’s represented symbolically in his vision as a “fourth beast.”

But I think it’s important to recognize that the initial application of the prophecies in both Daniel and Revelation must be made to the near future from the standpoint of those books, that is, to the time when they were written, or shortly afterwards.  This is simply responsible biblical interpretation, to ask first what a text would have meant to its author and its original audience.

In that light, as I explain in my study guide to those two books, and in this post, Daniel’s references to the “tenth horn” of the “fourth beast,” equivalent to the “little horn” of his next vision, must be associated primarily with Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who desecrated the Jerusalem temple in 167 BC.  Similarly, as also I say in the guide and in this post, Revelation’s frequent references to the “beast” must be understood as referencing initially the Roman emperor Domitian, who persecuted the followers of Jesus late in the first century AD.

At least according to the “preterist” approach I take to Daniel and Revelation (see the explanation of that term near the end of this post), any further fulfillments of these prophecies will occur in the future by analogy and redemptive-historical “deepening.”  (This is precisely the way that Jesus, according to Matthew, “fulfilled” Old Testament prophecies—not so much literally as typologically.  See this post for a discussion.)

As the conflict between good and evil reaches its culmination at the end of world history—the Bible certainly envisions that happening—somebody will take the lead in opposing God, and that person will gather followers from all over the world.  But I’m not convinced that it’s knowable right now who this person will be, as countless people will make innumerable choices between now and then.  Rather, as Jesus said to his disciples, “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come.”  In other words, the leading astray may be inevitable, but the actual person who leads astray remains indefinite (“anyone”).

As a result, I don’t believe the Bible actually predicts which specific person in the future will lead the opposition against God at the end of history.  And so what the Bible says about this future figure is not a counterexample to the idea that God does not know moral choices in advance because they are truly free and thus unknowable.  What we need to come to grips with is not God knowingly creating a monster, whether Satan or Antichrist, but God endowing us with such beautiful, terrible freedom.

“The Beast from the Sea,” medieval tapestry illustrating figures from the book of Revelation. This “beast” is typically identified with the Antichrist.

The meaning of Daniel’s seventy weeks

Q.  . . . Which elements of dispensationalism do you most find fault with? Perhaps you could touch on your understanding of Daniel’s seventy weeks, the “great” tribulation, and the status of the nation of Israel in regards to the promises God had made specifically to it in the Old Testament.

I answered the first part of this question more generally in my last post. Let me address here some of the specifics you’ve asked about.

Daniel’s “seventy weeks” are literally “seventy sevens.”  Dispensational interpreters take this to mean seventy periods of seven years each, and they understand the “great tribulation” described in Revelation to be the last of these periods. The events that will take place over this whole period of time are described at the end of Daniel’s third vision.  There the angel Gabriel explains:

The archangel Gabriel, depicted in a fresco in a church in Tsalnjikha, Republic of Georgia

“Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place. Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.”

As I explained last time, John Nelson Darby, who developed dispensationalism as we know it today, believed that the Jewish nation would replace the multinational community of Jesus’ followers as the people of God on earth at the end of history.  And so he was inclined to apply these words to the Jews and to believe that they would be fulfilled in the “end times,” as world history reached its culmination.

But expecting a future fulfillment of biblical words like these inevitably involves much speculation, and continual revision as world events overtake whatever scenario is originally conceived.  That is why you are probably familiar with numerous timetables for how these “seventy sevens” play out and various versions of the “great tribulation” or last “seven” at the end.

I think it is more responsible, and more in keeping with the way we interpret the rest of the Bible, to ask first whether Gabriel’s words in Daniel’s third vision might not already have had their specific historical fulfillment, so that anything we can anticipate in the future will be something analogous, not something directly predicted.  Here’s what I say about this in my study guide to Daniel and Revelation:

– – – – –

Biblical scholars have discussed and debated Gabriel’s words extensively, but they haven’t reached any consensus about how to interpret them.  It’s not obvious how they line up with events in later history, and attempts to explain them can quickly become speculative and fanciful.  One observation we can make, however, is that many of the details Gabriel provides seem to correspond with events in the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes:

– “The anointed one will be put to death” may describe the murder of the Jewish high priest Onias by his rival Jason in 171 B.C.;
– “He will make a covenant with many” may refer to the agreement Antiochus made with the Jewish nation once Jason seized power;
– “In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering” may describe how Antiochus suppressed Jewish worship three and a half years after making this agreement;
– “He will set up an abomination that causes desolation” may indicate how Antiochus desecrated the temple;
– “The end that is decreed is poured out on him” could describe Antiochus’s sudden death from disease in 164 B.C.

The explanation of what Daniel found “beyond understanding” in the previous vision, therefore, is that the temple, desolate in his day, will be rebuilt, but then desolated again by an evil ruler who will ultimately be judged by God. This is a further warning to God’s people that they need to be faithful, even to death, and refuse any compromise.  It’s still not evident, however, how the “seventy sevens” get the reader down to the time of Antiochus from Daniel’s day.  So, much remains to be understood in this fascinating but cryptic prophecy.

– – – – –

You can see that I take quite a different view from the one that characterizes dispensationalism.  But it’s because my interpretive presuppositions are so different.  In the same study guide I explain the four ways that the book of Revelation is interpreted, and the same approaches can be taken to the book of Daniel:

– – – – –

The book of Revelation is interpreted in four major ways.  The futurist approach understands it to be a description of the events of the “end times,” at the end of human history.  (Works like the novels and movies in the Left Behind series follow this approach.)  The historicist view sees the book as a prediction of the whole course of history, from Jesus and the apostles down through the present to the end of the world.  The idealist interpretation is that Revelation depicts the struggles and triumphs that followers of Jesus will experience everywhere, but it doesn’t have any particular place or time in view.  The preterist approach is to try to understand the book by reference to the time and place it was written in–western Asia Minor towards the close of the first century.

– – – – –

After this review of approaches I explain, “This study guide will consistently pursue a preterist interpretation.  If this is new for you, and you’re much more used to hearing the book treated differently, just try to keep an open mind and look for the potential benefits of this approach as you and your group do the following sessions together.”  I should say the same thing about the posts on this blog!

One last item you asked about was “the status of the nation of Israel in regards to the promises God had made specifically to it in the Old Testament.”  Let me refer you to this post for my thoughts on that.  And yes, that post, too, is written from a preterist perspective.


Why do some premillennialists give special status to the nation of Israel?

Q.  I’d be thankful if you could expand a little on the following schools of belief:  Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism.  Which one are you inclined to believe, and why? Also, why do some of the people who believe in Premillennialism tend to treat Jews with special significance and Israel as a separate state (and not as the whole body of believers) even today? Doesn’t this go against what Paul said in Galatians 3:28-29?

In my first and second posts in response to this question, I’ve explained that the three terms premillennialsm, postmillennialism, and amillennialism refer to different beliefs about when Christ will return relative to the millennium (the thousand-year era of worldwide peace and justice described at the end of the book of Revelation) and by what means the kingdom of God might find its ultimate earthly expression in such an era.

Let me now answer the last part of your question and explain why some premillennialists believe that the nation of Israel has a special status within God’s unfolding plans for the culmination of human history.

As I’ve already noted, all three of these millennial views have been represented in just about every period of church history, and until relatively recently they all agreed, despite their other differences, that God’s plan for the Israelites was to draw them into the multinational community of Jesus’ followers that now constitutes the people of God on earth, according to the Christian understanding.

However, in the 1830s a man named John Nelson Darby developed a theological system, known as dispensationalism, that taught instead that the age of the church was a “parenthesis” between two periods, one past and one future, in which the Jews constituted the people of God on earth.

The starting point for Darby’s system was his doctrine of the “ruin of the church,” the belief that the earthly institution claiming to embody the community of Jesus’ followers had become so hopelessly corrupt that it was of no possible future use to God.  Darby expected the few remaining true followers of Jesus to be “raptured” (taken to heaven) imminently, after which all of the promises God made to the Jews in the First Testament would be fulfilled for them literally on earth.

This meant, for our present purposes specifically, that Darby expected a Jewish millennium:  Christ would return to earth to reign for a thousand years as the king of the Jews, who had once rejected him as their ruler but who would now accept him.  This view differed from all previous millennial expectations, which were of a Christian millennium, in which Christ’s reign over the multinational community of his followers (already a present spiritual reality) would be extended over the whole world.

Dispensational premillennialists today follow Darby’s theological system generally, and that is why they accord special status to the modern nation-state of Israel: They believe it embodies a group that will soon become the people of God on earth once again.  In this they differ distinctly from traditional premillennialists, who like postmillennialists and amillennialists have always expected a Christian millennium, in which the Jews are drawn into the multinational community of Jesus’ followers.  My personal belief is that the New Testament supports this expectation.

You cited Paul’s statement in Galatians that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile . . . if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”  It’s hard to imagine a clearer statement of the case.  But there are others as well.  Paul writes in Romans, “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.”  And he tells the Philippians, “It is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.”

Statements such as these make me confident that today the true “Israel of God,” which Paul speaks of later in Galatians, is made up of “all who follow this rule”: that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.”

One important implication of this conclusion is that the modern nation-state of Israel shouldn’t be held only to a privileged, more lenient standard when it comes to human rights and foreign relations.  That nation does not have a “free pass” from God to behave any way it wishes.  It must adhere to international norms.

A poster promoting one of the “Left Behind” movies. The books and films in the series reflect a popularized apocalyptic version of Darby’s nineteenth-century dispensationalism whose expectations about the future are much more pessimistic than those of traditional forms of millennialism.

What’s the difference between premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism? (Part 2)

Q.  I’d be thankful if you could expand a little on the following schools of belief:  Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism.  Which one are you inclined to believe, and why? Also, why do some of the people who believe in Premillennialism tend to treat Jews with special significance and Israel as a separate state (and not as the whole body of believers) even today? Doesn’t this go against what Paul said in Galatians 3:28-29?

In the first part of my response to this question, I explained that these terms refer to varying beliefs about the timing of Christ’s Second Coming.   Premillennialism is the belief that his return will be pre-millennial, that is, it will precede the millennium, the thousand-year era of worldwide peace and justice described at the end of the book of Revelation. Postmillennialism is the belief that Christ’s coming will be post-millennial, that is, it will follow this millennium.  And amillennialism is the the belief that Christ’s coming will be without a millennium, that is, that there be no world-wide era of peace and justice at the end of history.

But I also explained that these expectations of when the millennium will occur reflect far more important beliefs within each system about how the millennium will occur–that is, about what, if anything, will create such an era.

Premillennialism is more accurately the belief that Christ’s return will be required to bring about the millennium, because nothing short of this will be sufficient.  In this view, the kingdom of God is an eschatological reality that comes over against history.

Postmillennialism, by contrast, is the belief that Christ’s return will come as the culmination of the millennium, because it will have been brought about previously by inner-historical forces such as the progress of literacy, education, charity, etc.; the advancement of the influence of the gospel on culture; or similar things.  In this view, the kingdom of God is a historical reality that comes within history.

Amillennialism, for its part, is the belief that Christ’s return will take place without a millennium, since from this perspective God does not intend to bring about a worldwide era of peace and justice on earth.  In this view, the kingdom of God is a spiritual reality that comes apart from history.

So which one is right?  My conclusion, after years of research and reflection, is that they are all right.  The kingdom of God is a complex entity that has historical, eschatological, and spiritual aspects.  Each school of millennial thought is looking at one of these aspects.

I was interested to discover in my doctoral research that each view has had its proponents in each major era of church history.  In fact, when one view comes to dominate, it’s not too long (within the grand sweep of history, at least) before the others reassert themselves in a counterbalancing way, often prompted by developments within the life of the church.

For example, the eschatological view dominated during the Roman persecutions, but the historical view largely displaced it when Constantine proclaimed himself a Christian emperor.  Then when Rome fell to barbarian invasions, the spiritual view came to the fore, exemplified by Augustine’s great work The City of God.  This cycle has repeated itself many times throughout church history.

This discussion of the various millennial beliefs has definite practical implications because their adherents tend to see in them “marching orders” for the church.  Premillennialism, an eschatological understanding of the kingdom, tends to emphasize witness.  Postmillennialism, a historical understanding of the kingdom, tends to emphasize service.  And amillennialism, a spiritual understanding of the kingdom, tends to emphasize worship.

All three of these things, of course, are vital to the church’s health and influence.  Whichever one we would most promote, we would do well to recognize and affirm the importance of the other emphases, and the valid insight into one aspect of the kingdom of God that underlies each one.

As for me personally, while I acknowledge the truth in each view, I find that the historical expression of the kingdom of God is the one we need to attend to most intentionally.  I proclaim in full faith, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ is coming again!”  But I am clearly not in a position to accomplish anything that only his return can accomplish.  And while I treasure the worship life of the church, its ministry of word and sacrament, I sometimes feel that the church would always carry on this life simply as an expression of its own being.  But the historical side of things requires intentionality, to get out of ourselves and into the world to see where we can make a difference.

So if I had to choose one view to emphasize, it would be postmillennialism, to help all of us recognize that the kingdom of God does come, in one sense, within history, and that we can express our faith in what we believe Jesus wants to do when he returns by working for those same things now, even if ultimate success must await his Second Coming.

Along these lines, the particular version of postmillennialism that I find most attractive is what I have come to call “vocational postmillennialism.”  This is the belief that as godly and sincere followers of Christ pursue their divine callings with integrity into a variety of fields of human endeavor, with God’s help they will rise to positions of influence that will allow them to shape the society and culture around them.  This was Jonathan Edwards’ expectation of how the millennium would be brought about, and I think it is a wise and biblical expectation. (It is certainly less fraught with risk than relying on technology and science, or on an emperor such as Constantine or Charlemagne or on any modern nation, to bring about the kingdom of God on earth.)

In my final post in this series I’ll respond to the part of your question in which you ask why some premillennialists accord special status to the nation of Israel.

What’s the difference between premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism? (Part 1)

Q.  I’d be thankful if you could expand a little on the following schools of belief:  Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism.  Which one are you inclined to believe, and why? Also, why do some of the people who believe in Premillennialism tend to treat Jews with special significance and Israel as a separate state (and not as the whole body of believers) even today? Doesn’t this go against what Paul said in Galatians 3:28-29?

I really appreciate this question, because the Christian doctrine of the millennium was my main focus of investigation during my doctoral program.  While I did my dissertation on Jonathan Edwards’ theology of history, I researched and wrote my comprehensive exams, by way of background and preparation, on the various millennial views as they have found expression in each era of church history.  So I’m glad to have this opportunity to recall this research and explain in this series of posts what is meant by the terms premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism.  (In the course of the series I’ll also answer your questions about my own personal beliefs and about why some premillennialists give special significance to Israel.)

In terms of their derivation, these terms refer to varying beliefs about the timing of Christ’s Second Coming.  Specifically, they answer the question of when this will take place relative to the millennium, the thousand-year era of worldwide peace and justice described at the end of the book of Revelation.

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom (1826), a depiction of the millennium coming through developments in history and culture. This view would be known as “postmillennial” today.

From the 1600s to the early 1900s, the prevailing view among Protestants in Britain and America who considered the Bible to be the inspired word of God was that Christ would return after the millennium.  The expectation was that he would come back as king, but if the world had not yet been transformed according to his wishes, it was argued, he would have no kingdom to rule over, so the millennium had to come first.  As the English Puritan theologian John Owen insisted in a 1652 sermon to the British parliament (which was then controlled by his fellow Puritans), “Antichrist not destroyed, the nations of the world generally wrapped up in idolatry . . . will the Lord Christ leave the world in this state, and set up his kingdom here on a molehill?”

By the middle of the 1800s, however, another view had developed, that Christ’s return would actually be required to bring about the millennium, and so it had to take place before. This view was articulated in David Brown’s 1858 book Christ’s Second Coming: Will It Be Premillennial?  This is where the term “premillennial” originated.  The term “postmillennial” was coined in response, to describe the view that had formerly dominated eschatological thought so completely that it didn’t need a separate name.

So in terms of derivation, premillennialism is the belief that Christ’s coming will be pre-millennial, that is, it will precede the millennium.  Postmillennialism is the belief that Christ’s coming will be post-millennial, that is, it will follow the millennium.  And amillennialism, for its part, is the the belief that Christ’s coming will be without a millennium, that is, that there be no world-wide era of peace and justice at the end of history.  (This view interprets the description of the millennium at the end of Revelation symbolically.)

But these expectations of when (if at all) the millennium will occur relative to the return of Christ are really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to these systems of thought.  Far more important are their beliefs about how the millennium will occur–indeed, about what the millennium will be.  (We’ve already had a hint of this in the explanation that premillennialism arose from a belief that Christ’s return would be required to bring about the millennium.)  I’ll explore this aspect of these systems, which is really their much more important dynamic, in my next post.

Who are the 144,000 in the book of Revelation?

“Sealing the 144,000” Ottheinrich Bibel, c. 1430

The identity of the 144,000 who have their “Father’s name written on their foreheads” is one of the great puzzles in the book of Revelation.  Because these people are said to be “from all the tribes of Israel,” they are often understood to be Israelites of some kind.  But there’s a very good reason to believe that they are not exclusively Israelites, but rather a different group that includes some Israelites.

The list of the tribes of Israel in the description of the 144,000 in Revelation is different from any other such list in the Bible in two significant ways:
(1) the names are different and
(2) the order is different.

Elsewhere in the Bible, these names are typically listed in one of two ways.  When they are being presented as the sons of Jacob, they are listed by birthright, according to the seniority of his wives and concubines and the birth order of their sons:

Sons of Leah
Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun.
Sons of Rachel
Joseph, Benjamin
Sons of Bilhah
Dan, Naphtali
Sons of Zilpah
Gad, Asher

On the other hand, when the names represent the tribes of Israel, that is, territorial and civic entities, Levi is not listed because his descendants became temple servants and were not assigned any territory.  To get back to a total of twelve, Ephraim and Manasseh are listed in place of their father Joseph.  When the names represent the tribes, they are often listed in geographic order, roughly from south to north.

In Revelation, Levi and Joseph are both on the list, suggesting that the sons of Jacob are in view.  However, Manasseh also appears on the list, even though all of his descendants are already included in Joseph—this is a redundancy.  And Dan, for some reason, is missing.  So we have one tribe too many and one tribe too few.  And the order isn’t even close to being correct either by birthright or geography.

So what’s going on here?  As I’ve argued in this article, I believe that here in Revelation we have a “portrayal of the church as the new Israel in the names and order of the tribes.”  That is, the names are presented in such a way as to show that the community of Jesus’ followers is the continuation of the people of God flowing out of the community of ancient Israel.

Specifically, in the portrayal of the 144,000:
• Judah comes first because Jesus was from that tribe as the Messianic heir to David’s throne.  He is the “lion of the tribe of Judah.”
• Reuben comes next representing believing Israelites, the “firstborn” who belong to God.
• Then come four names representing the tribes descended from Jacob’s concubines, who come last by birth order, but in the community of Jesus’ followers, “the last shall be first.”  These names represent the Gentiles, who at the time of the book’s writing are actually coming to faith ahead of the Israelites.
• However, one of the four names, Manasseh, is a replacement for Dan.   The tribe of Dan was the first to fall into idolatry and the first to be carried off into exile.  This represents the danger of apostasy in general (one of the main concerns of Revelation), and perhaps also how Judas Iscariot fell away and was replaced by Matthias.
•  The remaining sons of Jacob’s full wives make up the last six names on the list, expressing the expectation that ultimately “all Israel will be saved.”

The 144,000, in other words, represent the community of all who believe in Jesus, whether Jew or Gentile.  They are a symbolic representation of the reality that is described more literally immediately afterwards, the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.”

This is another of the places where the book of Revelation is creatively adapting an image from the First Testament to speak to New Testament realities, in this case the continuity between the covenant communities of both testaments; they are one people of God.  This same theme is encountered in other places in Revelation as well, such as when the new Jerusalem is seen to have “the names of the twelve tribes of Israel” on its gates and “the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” on its foundations, or when the human community around the throne of God is represented as 24 elders, depicting the first and new covenant communities, 12 being the covenant number in the book.  But in this case the continuity of the covenants is symbolized by 12 x 12 (144) rather than 12 + 12 (24).  The symbol is intensified by multiplication by 10 x 10 x 10 (1,000), representing the totality of those who belong to the community.

Is there any historical evidence that early Christians understood 666 to mean Nero Caesar?

There certainly are many different explanations of what the number 666 means in the book of Revelation.  So why should anyone believe that it means Nero Caesar, as I argue in this post, rather than something else?  There’s actually an intriguing bit of historical evidence that the earliest readers of the book understood it the way I’ve suggested.

The question of the meaning of the number 666 arose from a comment on a post I wrote about secret codes in the Bible.  This number represents a name and it comes from gematria, the practice in languages that use letters for numbers of adding up the total value of the letters in a word.  Gematria is something like a code, but there’s an important difference.

As a rule, if you know how a code works, you can decipher anything written in that code.  But in gematria, you need to know the likely subject of the code in order to imagine possible solutions and test their numerical totals.

It appears that early followers of Jesus understood the number of the beast in Revelation to indicate Nero Caesar (that is, to point to the imminent resumption of imperial persecution) because at least one early copyist seems to have known that this was the solution to the code, but couldn’t get the numbers to add up, and so wrote 616 instead, a number the copyist thought did work!

Here’s what likely happened.  As Bruce Metzger suggests in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament, “Perhaps the change was intentional, seeing that the Greek form Neron Caesar written in Hebrew characters is equivalent to 666, while the Latin form Nero Caesar is equivalent to 616.”  (The difference is the Hebrew letter Nun, which has a value of 50.)  Whatever copyist first introduced the change was thinking of Nero’s name in Latin rather than Greek, and so wrote in 616.

We don’t know when this variant reading first appeared, but it was quite early, since Irenaeus discusses it in Against Heresies, which he wrote around AD 180.  He notes that 666, not 616, is the number “found in all the most approved and ancient copies” of the book of Revelation, and that “those men who saw John face to face” attest to it.  So 616 was recognized early on as a change.  But that’s the whole point: it’s a change that was made so early it was likely introduced by someone who knew what Revelation wanted to say and who was trying to get the numbers to add up.

A fragment from p115, the earliest written attestation of the reading 616, indicated by arrow (courtesy Wikipedia)

The change in the text was copied into later manuscripts. The first written evidence we have of this reading is in an Egyptian papyrus fragment that dates to about AD 225-275.  The reading 616 also appears in Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, compiled about 200 years later, which is one of the four major uncial manuscripts that are key resources for New Testament textual criticism.

This variant reading provides a vital clue that the interpretation of 666 as gematria for Nero(n) Caesar is correct. The implications are, as I say in my Daniel-Revelation study guide, that the meaning of this number “has a unique solution based on the conventions of apocalypses and the facts of history.  Its main purpose is to delegitimize Domitian’s claims to divinity and to strengthen followers of Jesus who are being pressured by the emperor cult.”  The take-home message for us today is that we should be equally faithful in resisting anything that rivals our loyalty to Jesus.  But “the number 666 isn’t a coded biblical prediction of some invisible, demonic means of social control in the end times.”

What is the meaning of 666, the number of the beast in the book of Revelation?

In response to my last post about secret codes in the Bible, a reader commented that the number 666 in the book of Revelation is also an encrypted word.  That’s quite true. Let me summarize here what I say about this in my Daniel-Revelation study guide.

In many ancient languages, letters were used to represent numbers. (One example of this is the “Roman numerals” we know today: Super Bowl XLVI means Super Bowl 46.) Words and names in such languages had a total value, the sum of the values of their individual letters.  This total value could be used as a kind of  symbolic code in place of the word.  (This practice is known as gematria.) For example, as I discuss in an earlier post, the value of the Hebrew letters in Hezekiah’s name adds up to 130, and in tribute to him, 130 proverbs were placed in the collection that was created under his patronage.

As I’ve show in another post, apocalypses like Revelation evoke the symbolic significance numbers. 666 suggests having pretensions to divinity or perfection, but falling short of it, since it’s symbolized in the book by the number 7.  But whose name adds up to this total, revealing the hollowness of his pretensions to divinity?

To answer this question, we need to understand the book of Revelation in light of the first-century events that occasioned its writing.  The book was written to warn followers of Jesus, who had experienced persecution under Nero, that persecution would resume under the current emperor, Domitian. So they needed to be faithful unto death in order to win the crown of life. When the book is understood this way, its figure of a “beast” is recognized to be a depiction of Domitian as if he were Nero come back to life.

The number 666 is part of this depiction. John writes that understanding this code “calls for wisdom,” meaning that the puzzle has a trick to it. The secret is, even though John is writing his book in Greek, the numerical values will be those of Hebrew letters. As many scholars have recognized, the consonants of “Neron Caesar” in Hebrew add up to 666. Tagging Domitian with the name (or in this case, the number) of Nero is like drawing a Hitler mustache on a leader’s picture today.  Domitian thinks he’s “lord and God” (as he proclaims on his coins), but he’s really just another evil emperor.

So the meaning of the “number of the beast,” 666, has a unique solution based on the conventions of apocalypses and the facts of history. Its main purpose is to delegitimize Domitian’s claims to divinity and to strengthen followers of Jesus who are being pressured by the emperor cult. But evil rulers in other places and times may also revive the tyrannical spirit of Nero, and they’ll have to be resisted with suffering and endurance. That is the significance of the number 666 for all who live after the time of the book of Revelation.

For some historical evidence that the earliest Christians understood 666 to mean “Nero Caesar,” see this post.

For the significance of the number 144,000, see this post.

Nero 666