And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”
Acts 1:9-11 NASB
When I walked out of work today into a bright late afternoon I was presented with a magnificent sky. I marveled at a huge cloud formation having a dark circular shape with a very large hole and perfectly in the center revealing the sun blasting forth in a white blinding brilliance. It was late afternoon and the sun was just over half way to the horizon. This formation took up about a quarter of the western sky. It was awesome. We get a lot of amazing cloud formations here in coastal Savannah. The sky this close to the Atlantic is an ever changing beauty. Every time I see one of these skies I’m transported back to the the book of Acts and the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. I look up in wonder at these skies and think “this would be a perfect cloud formation from which our Lord to descend.” I continue my gaze in expectant hope wondering “is this the time, oh Lord?” But it isn’t. And I’m disappointed. But I continue to ponder the words of the angel to the disciples, waiting for Him to return in the same way in which He left.
To the early church this was a highly anticipated event, one they thought would occur fairly soon. I’m reading Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church and volume 2 pertains to the years 100 through 325 A.D., or the anti-Nicene period, the period right after all the Apostles had died to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine and the Nicene Counsel. Section 158 of this volume deals with Chilianism, chilian being Greek for “thousand years.” Millennialism is another term. The early church kept alive this hope of a physical thousand year reign of Christ on earth to help them survive during the often horrific period of persecution. The Jews had a Chiliastic hope based on some traditions and apocryphal writings. The Christians had Scriptural support in some things our Lord said and the Apocalypse, mainly the one passage, Revelation 20:1-6, which Schaff describes as “hieroglyphic” probably for its variety of interpretation, though most people are quite certain of their own. 1
The early church Fathers were on both sides of the issue. Barnabas, Papias of Hierapolis, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian taught a real one-thousand year reign of Christ, differing only in details. Others fought the idea as a “Jewish dream,” and tainted by Gnosticism and Montanism, and instead treating end-times prophesies in more spiritual terms. Origen and Augustine were major opponents who figured the millennium started with the Resurrection, and that Christ was currently reigning on earth in His Church. Amusingly, this later caused many to look for the the approaching final judgement as the first millennium of the Church Age drew to a close.
But just as the persecution of the early church spurred millennial hopes, the triumph of the church over pagan society after Emperor Constantine converted and legalized Christianity cause millennial hopes to wane. The Church was an accepted part of society, and emphasized living today over quixotic hopes for tomorrow. An antagonism towards a millennial reign of Christ and His church lasted even into the Protestant Reformation. Five hundred years later of course we have church denominations and theological seminaries founded on some version of millennial theology.
I for one greatly anticipate, along with the original disciples, the promised return of Christ for His church, whenever and wherever this may occur. The glorious night time sky and spectacular daytime skies continue to look like perfect backdrops for the most highly anticipated event in post Resurrection church history.
So as Jack Horkheimer always said, I say to you, “Keep looking up.”
1 By way of explanation I’ll quote Schaff’s footnote. “Rev. 20:1-6. This is the only strictly millennarian passage in the whole Bible. Commentators are still divided as to the literal or symbolical meaning of the millennium, and as to its beginning in the past or in the future. But a number of other passages are drawn into the service of the millennarian theory, as affording indirect support, especially Isa. 11:4-9; Acts 3:21; Rom. 11:15. Modern Pre-millennarians also appeal to what they call the unfulfilled prophecies of the Old Testament regarding the restoration of the Jews in the holy land. But the ancient Chiliasts applied those prophecies to the Christian church as the true Israel.”