New Testament,  Theology

A Significant Chronological Problem for Postmillennialism in Acts 3:21

Postmillennialism is trending upward on the eschatological popularity scale. It has many visible and popular adherents, such as Doug Wilson, Jeff Durbin, and more recently, James White. As postmillennialism gains popularity, many questions arise about whether it is an accurate view of the world’s future. One significant challenge postmillennialism has is a chronological issue in Acts 3:21.

Postmillennialism teaches that, over time, the church will emerge victorious by progressively and gradually triumphing over the world. Eventually the whole world will embrace the gospel, times of immense blessings will flow, and then Jesus will return to receive the kingdom. A self-assessed optimism of the future marks this view.

In contrast to postmillennialism, premillennialism teaches that the coming of Christ must precede the establishment of a peaceful earthly kingdom. When Christ comes, he himself will establish a thousand-year reign (millennium) on the Earth.

There are many ways to assess the theology of postmillennialism. For example, one could analyze the postmillennial presentation of the evidence and see if it does justice to the biblical texts. A recent (and in-depth) treatment of postmillennial proof texts (such as Matthew 28, 1 Corinthians 15, etc.) is found in a recent article by Jeremy Sexton. Articles like Sexton’s can be helpful in working through multiple texts in detail, but I want to zero in on one particular passage which gives a chronological problem to postmillennialism.

Acts 3:21 gives what I think is an insurmountable problem to postmillennialism. At the same time, this key text provides confirmation of the Old Testament expectation of a kingdom for Israel when the Messiah returns.

The Chronological Sequence of Acts 3:21

[19] Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, [20] that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, [21] whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.

Acts 3:19-21

Notice that when Peter is talking to his brethren, the Jewish populace of Jerusalem, he states unequivocally that Jesus must stay in heaven until the time for restoring all things. According to a postmillennial viewpoint, Jesus is currently restoring all things, and Jesus comes back at the very end. But Peter couldn’t be more explicit—Jesus has been received into heaven until the time for restoring all things.

What does “Until” Mean?

The word for “until” in Acts 3:21 is ἄχρι (achri), and according to one of the most extensive New Testament lexicons, BDAG, it is a “marker of continuous extent of time up to a point, until.” Here are a few of the examples of the normal function of this word using the ESV translation.

Luke 1:20And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place…
Luke 4:13And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Luke 17:27They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.
Luke 21:24They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
Acts 1:1-2In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up…

These samples are indicative of the normal use of this word which occurs 49 times in the New Testament. Although it is normally used temporally, it can also be used geographically (cf. Acts 13:6, “as far as [until] Paphos”) and occasionally to refer to the extent of something (cf. Rev 2:10, “Be faithful unto [until] death”).

Of special interest is the similarity between Acts 3:21 and Revelation 20:3.

Acts 3:21whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.
Revelation 20:3And [the angel] threw him [Satan] into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

Both Acts 3:21 and Revelation 20:3 give eschatological temporal sequences. Acts 3:21 says that the Messiah is in heaven until the time comes for restoration. Revelation 20:3 says that Satan must be bound until the thousand years of Revelation 20 are ended. Both give an initial situation which lasts until another event (at which time the previous situation ends and a new phase begins).

The implication of Acts 3:21 seems rather obvious. Heaven “must receive” the Messiah until the time for restoring all things comes!

What Did Peter Mean by “the Time for Restoring All Things”?

Peter speaks here in Acts 3:21 about the establishment of the kingdom for Israel. How do we know that? Two lines of evidence are sufficient to establish this point.

First, Peter tells us that the times of restoration were spoken of by the prophets in the Old Testament. This phrase, “the mouth of the holy prophets” is actually unique and shows up only here and in Luke 1:70. This section of Luke (vv. 68-75) is worth quoting in full.

      Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
      for he has visited and redeemed his people
      and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
      in the house of his servant David,
      as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
      that we should be saved from our enemies
      and from the hand of all who hate us;
      to show the mercy promised to our fathers
      and to remember his holy covenant,
      the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
      that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
      might serve him without fear,
      in holiness and righteousness before him all our days

Luke 1:68-75

Note that the exact same phrase is used in this text, and the content of what the prophets talked about is specifically detailed as follows:

  • “That we should be saved from our enemies…”
  • “To show the mercy promised to our fathers”
  • “To remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham”
  • “To grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days”

These statements give us content as to what the prophets of the Old Testament expected. These statements are also recorded by the same author of Acts 3:21. These phrases match well with the words of the Old Testament prophets themselves, which indicate a restoration of Israel in accordance with the Abrahamic covenant, and a revival of Israel’s kingdom in accordance with the Davidic and New covenants (cf. Amos 9:14; Ezek 37:21-22; 39:25; Hos 3:5; Zech 14; etc.).

Because Peter explicitly states that his message is in accordance with what the holy prophets spoke about, we know these are some of the texts Peter was thinking of when he preached to the people of Israel in Acts 3:19-21.

The second line of evidence which solidifies that Peter was speaking of a restored kingdom for Israel is the connection between Acts 3:21 and Acts 1:6. Peter uses the same terminology that the disciples used in reference to the kingdom of Israel earlier in Acts 1:6.

In Acts 1:6, after having been taught about the kingdom of God for 40 days, the disciples ask, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” To think that the disciples misunderstood Jesus’s teachings on the kingdom of God for 40 days seems to presume much, because Jesus doesn’t rebuke the disciples’ question. He simply says it is not for them to know the Father’s times and seasons.

Later on, in Acts 3:21, Luke records Peter using the same vocabulary. He uses the times (χρόνος/chronos) and restoration (which is the noun form in Acts 3:21 and verb form in Acts 1:6). Clearly these passages are referencing the same subject, and it is unlikely that Luke expected his readers to understand Acts 3:21 differently than Acts 1:6.

In Acts 1:6 the disciples expected Jesus to restore the kingdom to Israel as the Old Testament prophets prophesied. Jesus said, in effect, “Not yet.” In Acts 3:21, Peter mentions that heaven “must receive” the Messiah until that time of restoration.

Putting it All Together

Postmillennialism teaches that the kingdom is here and now, and that the restoration is in progress and will continue to near perfection prior to the Messiah’s arrival. Acts 3:21 seems to directly contradict that idea. Heaven “must receive” the Messiah until the time for restoration. In other words, the restoration awaits the Messiah’s arrival. What restoration is that? It is exactly what the Old Testament prophets foretold. Contrary to the postmillennial belief of slow and steady progression, the times of restoration will begin when the Messiah arrives from heaven.

Image Credit: Bing Image Creator

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

2 Comments

  • Ingmar Hemesath

    According to the type of restoration contextualized by Luke, how can it be understood as anything other than the restoration of people to God? As anything more than one part of the Kigndom? Are you saying no one has been restored to Him, and will not be until Jesus’ return? That no one person is being restored to Him in such a way as written by Luke, “before Him all our days”?

    “All the things about which God spoke” certainly go beyond the restoration-of-people described in Luke. The “restoration of all the things” is indeed all things, as prophesied by prophets apart from those cited by Luke. Therefore, it is true Jesus will be kept until the time of restoring all things, because death, among all things, will keep all things from being perfect – incumbent upon is still the pursuit of perfect, however “near perfect” we become, as you say.

    The restoration of all things happens when death is no more. Like sanctification. He is restoring us to himself, but final restoration doesn’t happen until after death.

    Thanks you for your thoughts.

    – ingmar

  • Paul

    How could the Holy Spirit be any clearer then Acts 1:6, 3:21. Postmill interpreters must drape a theological hermeneutic over these passages (and many more), in order to acheive their desired conclusion. Thanks for your clear exegesis Pater.

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