The very thought of a thousand-year reign of Christ excites the imagination. Usually this period is termed “the millennium” from the Latin meaning “a thousand years.” This much-talked-about thousand years, or millennium, is named only six times in Scripture. Moreover, all six times are in the same text: Revelation 20:1-7. With such scant mention in the Bible, students should be very careful in trying to reach a conclusion regarding the meaning of this period of time.
What Revelation 20:1-7 Does Not Say
Before examining what Revelation 20 does say, it is very enlightening to notice what it does not say:
1 – It does not say where Christ is during this period, whether in heaven or on earth.
2 – It does not say where the martyrs are during this period.
3 – Although it does mention “the first resurrection” and “the second death,” it does not mention “the second resurrection.”
4 – It does not say that Satan is powerless during the thousand years.
5 – It does not say that the thousand years is a period of great peace with no persecution.
6 – It does not even mention the Jews, Jerusalem or any temple.
7 – It does not say that everyone on earth is in subjection to Christ during the thousand years.
8 – It does not offer any “second opportunity” for salvation.
9 – It does not say that the reign is a physical, earthly one, like David’s reign.
There is so much that Revelation 20 does not say, one wonders where all the ideas about “the millennium” come from. The reply is simple: they come by connecting other texts to Revelation 20 (not to mention the addition of ideas that are not found anywhere in the Bible). However, before proceeding to other texts, there are further considerations to keep in mind.
No One Interprets It All Literally
The claim is made that the “thousand” years, and what is connected to the thousand years, must be understood literally. However, the text is admittedly filled with symbols, thereby placing in question a literal interpretation of those parts of the text that are not as clear.
No one understands that the dragon/serpent is literal. In fact, the book itself very specifically and very clearly says otherwise. In both 20:2 and 12:9, the inspired writer says that the dragon, the “that old serpent” is Satan, the Devil.
No one understands “the beast” mentioned in 20:4 as a literal four-legged animal. The reference, of course, is to chapter 13, which in turn is based on Daniel 7. Daniel 7:23 says, “The fourth beast shall be the fourth kingdom upon earth.” Most interpreters recognize that the beast represents Rome at some time in history. Even those who do not apply it to Rome understand that the beast is a symbol of some anti-Christian power.
Then there is the chain, the key and the seal. Does anyone see them as literal? Is not Satan a spirit being, albeit an evil spirit? Can a physical chain bind an evil spirit? Would a literal, physical seal be any deterrent to him?
The book of Revelation is a highly symbolical book. Jesus himself explains that the seven lampstands are the seven churches and the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches (1:20). Whether one understands “angels” here as heavenly beings or earthly “messengers,” Jesus confirms what is seen in other Bible prophecies–namely, that stars in prophecy often represent outstanding individuals, just like “Olympic stars” today.
Symbols continue throughout Revelation to the very last chapter, where Jesus calls himself “the bright and morning star” (22:16). The next verse speaks of “the bride,” a reference to Christ’s church. With all this figurative language throughout the book and in chapter 20 itself, there is no inherent necessity that other elements in the chapter be interpreted literally.
“Thousand” in the Bible
English dictionaries give these definitions for “thousand”: “a very large number,” “a great number or amount.” This use is very common in our daily language. Mom says, “I told you a thousand times to clean up your room.” Or consider the “Thousand Islands” in the Saint Lawrence River, which include more than 1,500 islands.
There are several prophecies in Daniel and Revelation with numerical values: 3 1/2, 42, 62, 69, 1260, 1290, 1335. Such numbers are quite definite and specific. The number “1,000,” however, is a very “round number,” frequently used to express an indefinitely large amount, whether in English, or Spanish or Russian–or in the Bible.
In Deuteronomy 1:11, Moses expresses to Israel: “The Lord God of your fathers make you a thousand times so many more as you are.” Israel at that time consisted of 600,000 men of war, not counting women and children. A very conservative estimate would be that, with women and children, they totaled two million. A thousand times two million is two billion! Was Moses literally wishing they would number two billion? Or was he simply using “thousand” like we often do?
In Psalms 50:10, God says: “For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills.” How about the rest of the hills? Would anyone dare limit God’s ownership to a strict 1,000 count? Certainly not.
Consider also Psalm 105:8: “He has remembered his covenant for ever, the word which he commanded to a thousand generations.” A generation is the average span of time between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring, about 30 years. A thousand generations would be 30,000 years! Literally, the text says that God commanded (or remembers) His covenant for 30,000 years. But wait. There are no “generations” in eternity. Thus, if we force 1,000 here to be an exact number, the world must continue for 30,000 years from the time of Abraham, which is 26,000 years into our future. Unless you can accept that Jesus will not return for 26,000 years, you are forced to understand “thousand” in Psalm 105 as an unspecified large number.
In short, in the Bible, just as in common-every-day English, 1,000 is often used as an indefinitely large number. There is no reason why the same cannot be true in Revelation 20.
Other Scripture Must Be Studied
From all the above, it is very clear that Revelation 20:1-7 cannot possibly be understood by itself. It raises too many questions. Everyone’s explanation is based more on other Scriptures than on Revelation 20 itself.
There are at least two major views of the matter. On the one hand, there are those who connect “the millennium” to all the Old Testament kingdom prophecies. They say that Jesus did not fulfill those prophecies at His first coming. They say that because the Jews rejected the kingdom, Jesus had to postpone the kingdom’s arrival. They believe in a literal future one-thousand-year reign, in which all the Old Testament prophecies will be literally fulfilled via an earthly kingdom centering around Israel, Jerusalem and a rebuilt temple.
On the other hand, there are those who also say that the “thousand years” is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the kingdom. However, they say that those prophecies are not something yet to be fulfilled in our future. They say that Jesus was not a failure–that He accomplished the work He came on earth to do. They say that God set up His kingdom on schedule just as Daniel and Jesus had prophesied. They say the kingdom of God is not a physical kingdom, nor a Jewish kingdom. They say the kingdom is spiritual, it is for Jew and Gentile alike and it is here now. They say that the expression “a thousand years” is a general term expressing an indefinitely long period of time.
It is clear that a person’s understanding of “the millennium” is very much influenced by his understanding of the kingdom prophecies and their fulfillment. That is why the present Insight is not the first, but rather the sixth, in a series. A consideration of many facts about the kingdom, as examined in five previous long Insights, is absolutely necessary as a prerequisite to delving into something as difficult as Revelation 20.
Two Future Resurrections?
What Did Jesus Say?
A superficial glance at Revelation 20 would appear to uphold the idea that there are two future resurrections, separated by one thousand years. It seems to say that there will be a “first resurrection,” that of the righteous, before the thousand years, followed by a second resurrection, that of the wicked, after the thousand years.
Such a concept, however, does not harmonize with Jesus’ teaching on the subject. For example, Jesus taught that on “the last day,” the righteous will be raised from the dead and the wicked will be judged. It will be the end. There is no room in Jesus’ “last day” teaching for one thousand years to follow the resurrection of the righteous. Likewise, in the parable of the tares, Jesus clearly taught that saints and sinners must live together in this world until the end. Not only so, but He adds, “Gather together first the tares.” There is no way to harmonize this parable with the concept of taking the wheat out first, allowing the tares to continue in the world after that. (For greater detail on Jesus’ teaching regarding “the last day” and the parable of the tares, see Insight #78: “The Rapture.”)
The judgment, as taught by Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46, leaves no room for two resurrections separated by a thousand-year reign. Verses 31 and 32 clearly identify the time of the judgment as taking place when Christ returns: “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.” This judgment pronounces who will enter the kingdom (in its future phase) and who will not. “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world… Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (verses 34,41).
What did Jesus mean by “inherit the kingdom”? Not a mere thousand years. Listen to His final words regarding both goats and sheep: “These shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal” (verse 46). No millennium here. According to Jesus, the judgment is followed by eternity. According to Jesus, the future phase of the kingdom is equated to “life eternal.”
A Recognition of What Jesus Said
In the January, 1999, issue of “Midnight Call,” Norbert Lieth offered an amazing admission of what has just been said. Discussing the writing of 1 Thessalonians 4, he says, “Until then, the doctrine of the first resurrection had been a mystery. It wasn’t taught in the Old Testament, nor in the Gospels.” Referring to the writing of 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, he says, “Only in them was the mystery of the Rapture revealed (1st Corinthians 15:51-53). Until then, it was believed that the resurrection of all the dead would take place on the last day (Daniel 12:2 and 13, John 5:25-29 and 11:24).” Mr. Lieth thus admits Jesus taught “the resurrection of all the dead would take place on the last day”!
According to the “Midnight Call,” the Rapture was a new doctrine revealed 20 or more years after Jesus’ ascension. There is no inherent problem with that–the Spirit was leading the apostles into all truth (John 16:12,13). The problem is that the supposed new revelation contradicts the clear teaching of Jesus. Mr. Lieth admits the contradiction. He admits that Jesus taught the opposite of two future resurrections. When Mr. Lieth says, “it was believed,” according to his own context, he is saying, “Jesus believed.” In other words, Jesus did not believe Mr. Lieth’s doctrine.
It is plain for all to see that Jesus’ doctrine says all the dead will be resurrected the same time, on “the last day.” Therefore, the doctrine of two future resurrections, separated by “the millennium,” is a doctrine that opposes the clear teaching of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The Kingdom in Revelation
Previous Insights offered detailed evidence of the existence of the kingdom of God in the first century A.D.–evidence in the four Gospels, in the book of Acts and in the epistles of Peter and Paul. Now it is time to examine the book of Revelation, outside of chapter 20.
In the opening verses of the book (1:9), John says: “I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ.” John was already “in tribulation”! John was already “in the kingdom”!
In 1:5-6, John speaks of “Jesus Christ… loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and has made us kings and priests unto God.” Some Greek manuscripts read “kings” while others read “kingdom.” There is little difference in ultimate meaning. Revelation 20:6 says, “they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.” “Priests” and “reign.” That is practically a repeat of 1:6 “kings and priests” or “kingdom and priests.” Moreover, 1:6 reads, “has made us.” That is past tense. It expresses an accomplished fact, a present reality. We are reigning now!
Revelation 2:11 promises, “He that overcomes shall not be hurt of the second death.” Avoiding the second death is thus a blessing for all faithful Christians. Therefore, Revelation 20:6 is neither stating a new truth nor a truth reserved for a special group of Christians when it says, “Blessed and holy is he that has part in the first resurrection: on such the second death has no power.” This is speaking of all Christians.
Verse 1:5 also says, “Jesus Christ… the prince of the kings of the earth.” Jesus is prince now! In 3:21, Jesus says of himself, “I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.” Jesus is on the throne now! Under the seventh trumpet (11:15), there are “great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.” Whatever historical date one places on the fulfillment of the seventh trumpet, notice that Jesus’ reign is “for ever and ever.” It is eternal, as Daniel 2:44 prophesied. Any interpretation of Revelation 20 that limits the kingdom of God and Christ to one thousand years is simply not in harmony with the rest of Scripture.
Relationship of Chapters 12 and 20
Revelation 12, regarding the woman, the dragon, the male child and war in heaven, is not without its difficulties; but consider verses 10 and 11:
“And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.”
First, note that salvation and the kingdom arrive at the same time–at the time Satan is “cast down” out of heaven. What is the earliest possible point in history for the arrival of salvation and the kingdom of God? Verse 11 says that the war was won “by the blood of the Lamb.” So all of this must necessarily have taken place after Calvary.
A more difficult question: what is the latest possible point in history for the arrival of salvation, the kingdom and the casting down of Satan? Verses 13 and 14 say that, after Satan was cast to the earth, he persecuted the woman and she fled into the wilderness, where she remained for “time, and times, and half a time.” Therefore, salvation and the kingdom had to arrive some time before the persecution of the woman for “time, and times, and half a time.”
It is generally understood by all that the “time, and times, and half a time” is a reference to 3 1/2 years, or 1260 days as stated in 12:6. Whether this is 1260 literal days, or a figurative day-for-a-year interpretation, is a question for another study.
The prevailing view among futurists is that the 3 1/2 prophetic years refers to the second half of “the tribulation,” which is followed by the arrival of the kingdom in “the millennium.” However, this does not agree with Revelation 12. Revelation 12 says that at the moment Satan is cast out of heaven, a loud voice in heaven declares, “Now is come salvation… and the kingdom of our God.” The persecution of the woman for 3 1/2 years comes after Satan is cast down, thus after the arrival of the kingdom. Futurists, however, teach that the 3 1/2 years take place before the arrival of the kingdom in “the millennium.” Such an interpretation of Revelation 20, that places the 3 1/2 years before the arrival of the kingdom cannot harmonize with Revelation 12.
Chapter 12 clearly points to three events as simultaneous: the casting down of Satan, the arrival of salvation and the arrival of the kingdom. If the kingdom is not here yet, then salvation is not here yet. By the same token, if salvation is here now, the kingdom is here now! All this agrees exactly with what John had already affirmed in 1:9: “I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom.” John, in 95 A.D. declared that he was already in the kingdom.
The Millennium Is Not…
Most of the beliefs that anyone has about “the millennium” are not based on Revelation 20. Beliefs about the millennium are derived from other sources.
Based on other Scripture, it has been shown that:
1 – The millennium is not a period of time between the bodily resurrection of the righteous and the bodily resurrection of the wicked.
2 – The millennium is not a yet future arrival of Jesus’ kingdom in which he will fulfill what He failed to fulfill when He first came.
3 – The millennium is not some time yet future when Jesus for the first time will sit on His throne and reign as King.
4 – The millennium is not a period of time that will arrive 2,000 years after salvation arrived in the world.
What then is the millennium of Revelation 20? Future long Insights, Lord willing, will explore how the expressions of Revelation 20 can be harmonized with the rest of the New Testament. In particular, there will be a study on what the rest of the New Testament teaches about the first resurrection and another study on what it teaches about the binding of Satan.