Towards Understanding Revelation


Good morning all! I was going to do the Part 2 of the 19th century introductions for today, but when I moved from John Darby into explaining about the views of the Millennium and Dispensationism I realized that I couldn’t do a half-way job of it, and it was going to be long enough for a post of it’s own. So, I’ve moved everything I wrote about John Darby to a new Part 2 post that will come out shortly, and I’m giving this current topic it’s own, long post.

The two main systems that Darby formalized were Premillennialism and Dispensationalism. Unfortunately, those who disagree with these systems have spent years claiming that Darby made them up, as well as the so-called “secret rapture”.  

First, a few words about the Rapture. Those opposed to a Pre-tribulation Rapture claim that Darby got the idea from a 15 year old Scottish girl who had “visions”. I’ve read part of one of her visions…it pretty much follows the Bible. Others have reported variances from the Bible in her visions, making it sound rather like it came from demons…I can’t comment on that as I don’t want to waste time reading all of her visions. As to Darby, there is no direct evidence that he had any contact with Margaret MacDonald, and, he was talking about the Rapture in 1827, when he says he realized the distinction between Israel and the church;  while MacDonald revealed her “visions” in 1830. 

Here’s quote from an 1861 account of Margaret MacDonald’s visions:

“…now there is distress in nations, with perplexity, the seas and the waves roaring, men’s hearts failing them for fear — now look out for the sign of the Son of man. Here I was made to stop and cry out, O it is not known what the sign of the Son of man is; the people of God think they are waiting, but they know not what it is. I felt this needed to be revealed, and that there was great darkness and error about it; but suddenly what it was burst upon me with glorious light. I saw it was just the Lord himself descending from Heaven with a shout, just the glorified man, even Jesus…”

You can see that this is not totally opposed to Scripture….except for the part about not knowing what the “sign of the Son of man” would be. Of course, it’s possible that people were unclear about this in her day…but I doubt it. We have only to look at 1 Thessalonians:

For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: (1 Thessalonians 4:16; KJV)

There are multiple other references to the Rapture in the New Testament, which, of course, are interpreted differently by those who deny the Rapture.  As an aside, the Rapture as described in Scripture would hardly be “secret”, for one thing, even if non-Christians don’t see the Lord descending from heaven,  when millions of people vanish I think they will notice.

There is a good paper about the Rapture on my Online Sources page (THE RAPTURE OF THE CHURCH: A DOCTRINE OF THE EARLY CHURCH OR A RECENT DEVELOPMENT OF THE DISPENSATIONAL MOVEMENT? by David K. Hebert). The conclusion of the paper is that there is enough evidence, indeed, to declare it a doctrine of the Early Church. By Darby’s time it had gotten fairly lost.

The attacks on Darby are just incredible, which to me indicates that he was on the right path. I need to share with you something that I found on the internet. It’s entitled THE ALEISTER CROWLEY/JOHN NELSON DARBY LINK from the Christian Observer website (obviously not a very Christian website…).  Here’s a quote:

“…Aleister Crowley was raised in an English extremist religious group called the Exclusive Brethren [this is Darby’s last group, Darby died when Crowley was 7], lead by a preacher named John Nelson Darby. Darby is the person that invented the concept of the “Rapture,” the idea that people will be literally teleported into heaven during the Second Coming. He made a huge mark on history by claiming that the book of Revelation was literally real, and definitely not, you know, just a metaphor — and even that human beings had to help God’s plan by bringing about the end of the world so that Jesus would come back sooner.

“The British, not being particularly impressed by anything this sincere, let alone religious literalism, didn’t take to Darby’s ideas. Aleister Crowley sure did, however, because he spent the rest of his life rebelling against his early cult brainwashing [!!!] by trying to create his own, ‘Satanic’ version of Darby’s teaching…” The article goes on bashing Premillennial Dispensationalism and Republicans in a very confused and unscriptural way.

This is so full of lies and nasty innuendo it’s hard to know where to start. The two things I REALLY want to point out are: 1) The Rapture is not going to happen during the Second Coming (unless you are an Amillennialist, which Darby was NOT…we’ll be getting into that); and 2) the other important point is that the idea of helping God bring about the end has nothing to do with the Rapture, Premillennialism, or Dispensationalism…i.e. nothing to do with Darby, and I have yet to find a Biblical system that believes this. I’ve heard individuals espouse this idea, but it seems to be a result of sloppy, non-biblical thinking.

So let’s get into how people look at the millennium. Many people who don’t agree with Premillennialism will either join it with Dispensationalism, or make Premillennial Dispensationalism a separate category. We’re not going to do that, we are going to separate the two.

There are 3 general systems for looking at the millennium as described in Revelation 20:1-10 and they are: Amillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Premillennialism.  There are side-shoots and divergences in each of these, but we are just going to look at the main systems.

AMILLENNIALISM – Amillenialists believe that we are presently living in the millennial kingdom, and that the term “one thousand” is figurative, as are all the references to the Millennium in Scripture. For them, the millennium is from the death of Christ until His Second Coming. They believe that the dead in Christ are in heaven reigning with Christ during this time, and some also believe that the Church militant is also sharing in that reign. They believe that Satan was bound at the cross of Christ. Earlier Amillennialists believed that because Satan was bound, the Church was able to grow, but that Satan still had power to persecute the Church; they believe that once the Church had transformed the earth, then Satan would be released for a short time before the Second Coming as basically a test for the Church. More latter day Amillennialists see the growth of Christ’s kingdom has having very few visible manifestations, and rather have their focus on the suffering of the Church that Jesus said would happen due to Satan’s continued ability to persecute; and also that Satan will be released for a short time at the end of time to deceive believers and ramp up persecution. 

So, the basic scenario is: the present millennial age, which is characterized by suffering, will end with the Second Coming of Christ concurrently with one general resurrection and a public rapture of the Church, who immediately returns to earth with Christ, to then participate in the last judgment, and the full realization of the kingdom with the new heavens and the new earth.

Regarding Israel, Amillennialist believe that the promises made to Israel, David, and Abraham are fulfilled by Jesus Christ and His Church during this present age, and because these promises have been fulfilled, no further fulfillment is needed (called Replacement Theology, or supersessionism; “this view fueled Medieval anit-Semitism, Eastern European pogroms, the Holocaust, and contemporary disdain for the modern state of Israel.” from ). They see Revelation 20 as a recapitulation or representation of Revelation 19, rather than 20 chronologically following 19.

Origen initiated this view, and St. Augustine is credited with systematizing it, though many think that he included some Postmillennial thoughts into that system. As the two were one for a long time, and therefore have many similarities, that’s not surprising. 

Luther and Calvin went along with the Catholic version of Amillennialism, making about 2/3 of Protestant denominations Amillennialist, including the Lutherans and most of the Reformed churches.

POSTMILLENNIALISM – Amillennialists were lumped in with Postmillennialists until the 20th century, so they are very similar in beliefs. Like the Amillennialists, they teach that the 1000 years is figurative, and that the millennium is the period between Christ’s first and second coming. They teach that the kingdom of God is now being extended throughout the world through the preaching of the Gospel by the Church and the saving work of the Holy Spirit, while Satan is bound. They see the nature of the millennium differently than the Amillennialists however. They expect a gradual decrease in suffering leading to a golden age of righteousness on earth after the Great Commission has been completed. Once this happens, the stage will be set for Christ’s return, the general resurrection of the just and unjust, and the final judgment.

Regarding Israel, Postmillennialists include the ethnic Israelites in with those who are brought to Christ during this present age.

Postmillennialism as we know it started during the Age of Enlightenment (17th century), most probably by Daniel Whitby (1683-1726), a Unitarian. It was the main belief of the Puritans, and was the majority view of the Church in the late-17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The rise of dispensationalism in the mid-19th century, and the turmoil, suffering, World Wars, and general increase in evil in the 20th century led to a decrease in belief in Postmillennialism until the last 20 or 30 years when a resurgence occurred.

PREMILLENNIALISM – Briefly, Premillennialism believes that Christ will return after a period of tribulation, followed by the binding of Satan and a literal 1,000 year period in which Christ and His followers reign from Jerusalem upon the earth. At the end of the thousand years, Satan is released for a short time and gathers those who are unhappy with Christ’s reign for a last rebellion; this rebellion is stopped by Christ and Satan and his followers are thrown into the lake of fire. This is followed by the judgment and the Eternal Kingdom with the new heaven and new earth. Premillennialists follow a literal Revelation, except where Revelation itself says it is using allegory or symbolism. 

Concerning Israel, there is a split in view. The Calvinistic Premillennialism sees the covenants made with Abraham and Moses as really being covenants with the Church, so those Jews who do not accept Jesus as their Messiah are basically outside the Church and therefore not included in the covenant. They see no prophetic fulfillment in modern day Israel, and do not look for a Temple to be rebuilt. The Evangelical view is that God made covenants with Israel and He will keep them, but yes, Jesus is the Messiah. Evangelical Premillennialists see Revelation as being about bringing Israel to a saving knowledge of Christ. 

Premillennialism was the most widely held view of the earliest centuries of the Church. At that time it was called millenarianism or chiliasm, and it was taught by Barnabus, Papia, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Methodius, and Lactantius. The Church actively suppressed Premillennialism and it died out, except for some fringe groups, once the Church accepted the teachings of Augustine in the 4th century. During the Reformation, Anabaptists and Hugenots helped revive Premillennialism, and there were some Puritans who adopted it. Premillennialism really came back strongly in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s  with the rise of Fundamentalism and Dispensationalism, starting in England and then spreading to America. People had started reading the early Church Fathers again.  Amillennialists and Postmillennialists like to say that Premillennialism actually started as part of Dispensationalism, which isn’t true, and some theologians have made talking about Historical Premillennialism vs Dispensational Premillennialism popular in an attempt to divorce what we now call Premillennialism from the millenarianism and chiliasm of the early Church…and then saying that Premillennialism started in the 19th century.

Now we’ll talk about Dispensationalism. Here’s the short version: “Dispensationalism is a theological system of interpretation that sees the scriptures as its central focus.”(from ) From the same source: “According to Dr. Timothy Jones dispensation ‘translates from a Greek term that can also be rendered as stewardship or administration.’”

But let’s go a little deeper; this is from WHAT IS DISPENSATIONALISM by Thomas Ice, the following beliefs are “Dispensational”:

  • The Bible is the inerrant Word of God. History is interpreted through the framework of Scripture. Scripture (God’s written Word) reveals His plan for His creation.
  • Since the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, it should be interpreted literally and historically (unless the Bible itself indicates it is allegorical, symbolic, etc.)
  • Because God has a plan for His creation, it follows that there is an ebb and flow to His plan. So, God’s plan includes dispensations, ages, or epochs of history,  which test and instruct His creatures.
  • Since all of humanity are sinners, individuals must receive salvation through the death of Christ and forgiveness of sins: the Gospel.
  • Because all of humanity are sinners and naturally rebellious to God, salvation through Christ is necessary before properly understanding God’s Word.
  • God’s plan includes a purpose for Israel and promises made to Israel; many of these promises have not been fulfilled yet, so God is not finished with Israel.
  • God’s plan also includes a purpose for the church, which will end with rapture before the Tribulation (thus, Dispensationalists are usually Premillennialists, but not necessarily vice versa). After the rapture, God will complete His plan for Israel and the Gentiles.
  • God’s main purpose in His plan is to glorify Himself through Jesus Christ. Jesus is therefore the goal and hero of history.

The word “dispensation” appears four times in the King James version of Paul’s New Testament writings:

For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, if you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me for you: How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery;…(Ephesians 3:1-3; KJV)

Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him… (Ephesians 1:9-10; KJV)

For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel! For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me.  (1 Corinthians 9:16-17; KJV)

…I Paul am made a minister; Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church: Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God… (Colossians 1:23-25; KJV)


“Justin Martyr…one of the first of the fathers that are known as the apologists. Justin Martyr was a philosopher by trade, and very skilled in the art of rhetoric. Though the canon of scripture had not yet been compiled, the Old Testament was. Justin noticed ‘several different economies’ in the Old Testament. In biblical terms, an ‘economy’ is a divine order in which history is revealed. Though there are subtle difference[s], it is very similar to the meaning of dispensation.

“For Justin Martyr, there was a clear distinction between various ages in Scripture. There was an age prior to circumcision, an age prior to the law, and an age after the law…One such dispensation in which Justin Martyr firmly believed was in a literal one-thousand-year reign of Christ…In his DIALOGUE WITH TRYPHO Justin writes, ‘But if so great a power is shown to have followed and to be still following the dispensation of His suffering, how great shall that be which shall follow His glorious advent! For He shall come on the clouds as the Son of Man, so Daniel foretold, and His angels shall come with Him.’ In this very important passage he lays out the Dispensational Premillennial view of the end times.

“…In the writings of Papias we see the dispensational teaching of the literal millennial reign of Christ on Earth. One of the hallmarks of dispensationalism is the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem as an essential element for the faithful to receive physical and spiritual blessings…

“Irenaeus is one of the most towering figures in the early church. He was a disciple of the church father Polycarp, and he died in A.D. 202, in what would eventually become known as France…Elements of dispensationalism are prominent in Irenaeus’ writing, and were part of his battle to prove that the Gnostics were heretics. In regards to Irenaeus and dispensationalism Peter Enns writes, ‘Irenaeus refers in his writings to four principle covenants given to the human race, particularly drawing a distinction between three covenants of the Old Testament and the gospel. This distinction is typical of dispensationalism’…Irenaeus…taught that Christ was indeed coming back, and that He will reign in the millennium…Regarding the various economies, or dispensations, that Irenaeus wrote about, J.N.D. Kelly writes, ‘the fact that there are real distinctions in the immanent being of the unique, indivisible Father, and that while these were only fully manifested in the ‘economy’, they were actually there from all eternity.’ This corresponds to the four ages in which God revealed His plan for His people.”

“To be more specific the four ages, or dispensations that Irenaeus saw in Scripture were the Adamic covenant, the covenant with Noah, the Mosaic covenant, and the new covenant. In section seven of AGAINST HERESIES, Irenaeus explains that God revealed Himself through many different dispensations. God did this so that man would see the glory of God and not fall away from Him. These dispensations were a way in which God nourished His precious creation…”

“Tertullian is an early church figure who was brilliant in his theological treatises…[he wrote] that the Mosaic covenant was one of four dispensations that the true God had laid out. Tertullian saw God working in a dispensation with Adam, Abraham, Moses, and the millennial reign of Christ.”

This article goes on, but we will leave it here. Let’s end this part by briefly reviewing the seven dispensations that John Nelson Darby identified from

  1. The Dispensation of Innocence – covers the time from the creation of man to the fall of man (Genesis 1:28-30, 2:15-17). Man was without sin, was to procreate, rule the earth and the animals, and care for the garden. He and Eve had only one command to obey. Their disobedience ended the first dispensation.
  2. The Dispensation of Conscience – a time when man was left to rule himself by his own will and conscience, both of which had been tainted by sin. This turned into a total disaster, with man turning very wicked, and ended with the flood. (Genesis 3:8-8:22) 
  3. The Dispensation of Human Government – God made promises and gave commands to Noah and his family. Noah and his sons were to scatter and repopulate the earth; they were allowed to use animals for food; God established capital punishment (Genesis 8:1-9:7). Noah’s descendants gathered together to build the Tower of Babel, God confused their languages and scattered them…human government started. (Genesis 11:1-9) 
  4. The Dispensation of Promise – The call of Abraham, the lives of the patriarchs, and the enslavement of the Jewish people to Egypt all fall under this dispensation. Abraham’s descendants waited for the promise that was given to Abraham: that God would make Abraham’s descendant a great nation and give them their own land. (Genesis 12:1-7) This dispensation ended with the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, which is when they became a nation led by God. 
  5. The Dispensation of Law – begins with Exodus and ends with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The delivery of the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic Law, found in Exodus 19-23, outlined the standard of perfection that God required from His people. The people repeatedly broke His commands, and wandered off after other gods. Note: mercy and faithfulness were more important to God than strict obedience to the commandments. The law was given to show the people that they needed to depend on God and trust Him to save them, rather than trusting themselves or other gods. The blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin – they are a symbol, looking forward to the One whose blood could take away sin (Hebrews 9:11-14, 10:3-10) 
  6. The Dispensation of Grace – starts with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and continues today. It’s the new covenant in Christ’s blood (Luke 22:20). What’s known as the Church Age is part of this dispensation, and the Church Age will end with the Rapture of the Church. What follows is seven years of tribulation during which many will come to Christ (Revelation 7:14-17), and the dispensation will end with the defeat of Satan (Revelation 19:11). 
  7. The Millennial Kingdom of Christ – the defeat of Satan ushers in 1,000 years of peace, where Christ will reign on the earth (Revelation 20:4). After the 1,000 years, Satan will be released and some of the people will again follow him into battle against God, and they will be defeated again (Revelation20:7-10). This will be followed by a final judgment of all people, destruction of the old earth and old heaven, and the Eternal Kingdom will begin with the new Heaven and the new Earth (Revelation 21, 22).

One more thing we should cover is the alternative to Dispensationalism: Covenant Theology.


“Covenant theology is a branch of theological study that examines the Bible within the context of the Bible’s covenants. The two covenants typically of focus include the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. A third covenant, the covenant of redemption, is also frequently emphasized. These two (or three) covenants are seen as extensions of the seven covenants mentioned in Scripture (Adamic,  Noah, Abrahamic, Palestinian, Mosaic, Davidic, and New)…Simply explained, [Covenant theology] begins with the covenant of works that began in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were given one command, with a clear consequence for disobedience.”

“When Adam and Eve failed to keep God’s commandment, God established the covenant of grace. This covenant is seen clearly in Jesus Christ, with salvation offered as a free gift of grace by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).”

“Other covenants are similarly broken by humans yet kept by God’s grace. Abraham failed God at times, yet God’s grace was sufficient. The Davidic Covenant was fulfilled despite David’s sins…Because of the focus on covenants, Covenant theology stresses the covenantal nature of both baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These sacraments are seen as signs and seals of the covenant of grace. Salvation is not acquired through these acts, yet these sacraments hold a special role in God’s covenant work.”

The seven covenants in Covenant theology are:

  1. Adamic Covenant – general in nature, included the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, pronounced a curse for sin, and spoke of a future provision for man’s redemption (Genesis 1:26-30, 2:16-17, 3:15)
  2. Noah Covenant – a general covenant between God and Noah (Genesis 9:11). Included a sign of God’s faithfulness to keep it – a rainbow.
  3. Abrahamic Covenant – an unconditional covenant made to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) that promised God’s blessing upon Abraham and upon those who blessed Abraham and his descendants, and a curse on those who cursed him and his descendants. Circumcision was the the sign of the covenant. The fulfillment is seen in the history of Abraham’s descendants and in the creation of the nation of Israel. The worldwide blessing came through Jesus Christ, who was of Abraham’s family line.
  4. Palestinian Covenant – an unconditional covenant (Deuteronomy 30:1-10) that included God’s promise to scatter Israel if they disobeyed God, then restore them at a later time to their land. This covenant has had 2 fulfillments: the Babylonian captivity with the subsequent rebuilding of Jerusalem under Cyrus the Great, and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, followed by the restoration of the nation of Israel in 1948. [I have to break in here…what happened to the covenant of grace that was supposed to cover things like this?]
  5. Mosaic Covenant – a conditional covenant (Deuteronomy 11) that promised the Israelites a blessing for obedience and a curse for disobedience. Much of the Old Testament chronicles the fulfillment of this cycle of judgment for sin and later blessing. [Again, the covenant of grace doesn’t seem to work here.]
  6. Davidic Covenant – an unconditional covenant (2 Samuel 7:8-16) that promised to bless David’s family line and assured an everlasting kingdom. Jesus is the fulfillment of this covenant.
  7. New Covenant – This covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34), promised that God would forgive sin and have a close, unbroken relationship with His people. The promise was first made to Israel and then extended to everyone who comes to Jesus Christ in faith (Matthew 26:28, Hebrews 9:15) [Look up Jeremiah, God says “the days are coming…when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel”. It doesn’t say the covenant is made here with Jeremiah. The New Covenant starts with Jesus, which is what the Matthew and Hebrews quotes say.]

That’s more than enough for today. The next post will be part 2 for the 19th century. Maranatha

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