Will There be a Millennium?
Many within Christendom are preoccupied with dispensational theology, having embraced the premillennial framework that teaches a coming “rapture,” “tribulation,” “antichrist,” “Armageddon,” and “millennium.” The millennium refers to an alleged thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth in which He will establish a literal, physical kingdom, and rule from Jerusalem. Is a thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth taught in the Word of God? The reader is urged to consider the following observations.
In the first place, several contextual indicators within the book of Revelation militate against the application of the book’s contents to a yet-future time. For example, the events of the book of Revelation were to “shortly take place”—an expression that occurs near the beginning as well as near the end of the book (1:1; 22:6). “Shortly” (en tachei) meant quickly, at once, without delay, soon, in a short time (Arndt and Gingrich, 1957, p. 814). Moffatt gave the meaning as “soon” and noted: “The keynote of the Apocalypse is the cheering assurance that upon God’s part there is no reluctance or delay; His people have not long to wait now” (n.d., 5:335).
Other passages where the term is used, confirm that a brief length of time is intended—not merely the rapidity with which the designated events occur. Regarding those disciples who cry out to God night and day for His intervention, Jesus assured: “He will avenge them speedily (en tachei)” (Luke 18:8). What comfort would be afforded if Jesus intended to convey the idea that relief may be long delayed, but when it finally did come, it would come in a quick fashion? When Peter was asleep in prison, bound with two chains between two soldiers, and an angel awoke him by striking him on the side and instructed him to “arise quickly (en tachei)!” (Acts 12:7), would Peter have understood the angel to mean that he could continue resting or sleeping for as long as he chose, just as long as when he did get ready to get up, he came up off the prison floor with a rapid motion? When Festus insisted that Paul be detained in Caesarea rather than transferred to Jerusalem, since “he himself was going there shortly (en tachei)” (Acts 25:4), would anyone have understood him to mean that he may delay his visit to Caesarea by years? Paul even used the term in contradistinction with being “delayed” (1 Timothy 3:14-15; cf. White, n.d., 4:117). Additional occurrences of the expression further underscore the meaning of “soon” (Acts 10:33; 17:15; 22:18; Romans 16:20).
Another contextual indicator within Revelation itself is the occurrence of the phrase: “for the time is near” (1:3; 22:10). Thayer said “near” (eggus) refers to “things imminent and soon to come to pass” (1901, p. 164; cf. Arndt and Gingrich, p. 213). Such a reference would necessarily pertain to the first century—not the twenty-first. Two or three thousand years would be too late for the desperate Christians of Asia Minor (see Summers, 1951, p. 99). Those who get caught up in “millennium mania” seem oblivious to the fact that the book was written to an original, immediate audience. Revelation was, in fact, written to the seven churches of Christ situated in Asia Minor (1:4). All seven are even named (1:11)! If the book was written to them, and if it was their spiritual condition that was the concern of the book, millenarians are incorrect in their contention that the book is devoted primarily, if not exclusively, to predictions of the end times. Though the Old Testament prophets predicted future events on occasion, their primary message was relevant to their immediate audience. Dispensationalists have trouble finding in Revelation a relevant message for a first-century audience. The apostle John recognized their need, and identified himself as their “companion” in the terrible tribulation they were then enduring (1:9). Not only was this tribulation going on at that time, but John further referred to himself and his readers as being in the kingdom at that time (1:9). Thus, Christ’s kingdom was already set up, in existence on Earth, and in full operating mode.
In addition to these contextual indicators, there is the statement of the angel to John: “Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book” (Revelation 22:10). What did the angel mean? What he meant becomes apparent when one reflects upon the fact that Daniel was told to do the exact opposite of what John was told to do. After receiving a remarkable series of detailed prophecies, Daniel was told to “shut up the words, and seal the book until the time of the end” (Daniel 12:4, emp. added). Furthermore, he was instructed: “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end” (vs. 9, emp. added). The reason Daniel was told to seal the book was because the fulfillment of the prophecies that had been revealed to him were hundreds of years off in the future—far from his own day. The predictions, therefore, would be of no immediate value to the initial recipients of the book. The book could be closed and placed on the shelf until those who would be living at the time of their fulfillment could appreciate the relevance of its predictions. In stark contrast, John was ordered: “Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book” (22:10, emp. added). Why? The text answers—“for the time is at hand”! These words can hold no other meaning than that the bulk of Revelation was fulfilled in close proximity to the time they were written.
Still another significant contextual detail pertains to the use of the impersonal verb “must”: “things which must shortly take place” (1:1). Greek grammarian Ray Summers explained:
The verb translated “it is necessary’ or “must”…indicates that a moral necessity is involved; the nature of the case is such that the things revealed here must come to pass shortly…. The things revealed here must happen shortly, or the cause will be lost…. They were in need of assurance of help in the immediate present—not in some millennium of the distant and uncertain future (p. 99, emp. in orig.).
Indeed, the downtrodden, persecuted Christians of Asia Minor needed assistance right away. The dispensational framework would rob those first-century saints of the very comfort and reassurance they so desperately needed, deserved—and received!
One additional contextual feature is the use of the term “signified”: “And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John” (1:1). This term, as is evident from the English translation, means “to show by signs” (Vincent, 1890, 2:564; Summers, p. 99). The term, along with the Greek word translated “revelation” (apocalupsis), introduces the nature of this book. The book of Revelation reveals or unveils God’s message through signs or symbols. Placing a literal interpretation on the numbers, animals, objects, colors, and locations of Revelation—as dispensationalists routinely try to do—does violence to the true intent of the book. John’s Revelation declares itself to be a book of symbols, filled with figurative language, and not intended to be taken literally. In fact, as Swete observed, “much of the imagery of the Apocalypse is doubtless not symbolism, but merely designed to heighten the colouring of the great picture, and to add vividness and movement to its scenes” (1911, p. cxxxiii). A genuine recognition of this realization of this self-declared feature of the book excludes a literal interpretation of the number one thousand.
In addition to these preliminary contextual details (which are sufficient of themselves to dismiss the dispensationalism scheme from the book), chapter twenty contains specific features that assist the interpreter in pinpointing the meaning of the symbol of a “thousand-year reign.” It is surely noteworthy that in the entire Bible, the only allusion to a so-called thousand-year reign is Revelation 20:4,6—a fact that is conceded even by dispensationalists (e.g., Ladd, 1972, p. 267; Mounce, 1977, pp. 356-357). Yet an entire belief system has been built upon such scanty evidence. An examination of the setting and context yields surprising results. For example, a simple reading of the immediate context reveals that the theme of Revelation 20 is not “the thousand-year reign of Christ.” Rather, it is “victory over Satan.” Each of the symbols presents concepts that, when put together, relieve the fears of oppressed first-century Christians regarding their outcome. The key, abyss, and chain (vs. 1) are apocalyptic symbols for the effective limitation or containment of Satan in his ability to deceive the nations in the specific matter of emperor worship enforced by the government (see Swete, 1911, pp. xxxi, civ-cv). The symbol of one thousand years (vss. 2-7) is a high multiple of ten, representing ultimate completeness (see Summers, p. 23). John’s readers thus could know that the devil was to be completely restrained from deceiving the nations into worshipping the emperor. The thousand years symbolized the extended triumph of God’s kingdom on Earth over the devil, who was then operating through the persecuting powers of Rome. A thousand symbolic years of victory would lesson suffering in the minds of persecuted Christians.
“Loosing for a little season” (vs. 3) would have represented the revival of persecution under later emperors. “Thrones” (vs. 4) represented the victorious power of the oppressed. The persecuted saints were pictured on thrones, judging because of the victory of their cause. “Souls” (vs. 4)—not resurrected bodies, but disembodied spirits—represent those who were martyrs of the persecution. Their refusal to “receive the mark” meant they refused to worship Caesar, or to manifest those marks that would identify them as adherents of the false state religion of emperor worship. The “first resurrection” (vs. 5) referred to the triumphant resurrection of the cause for which the Christians of Revelation 20:4 had lived and died. Gog and Magog were symbolic of the enemies of God and Christ, the imagery drawn from Ezekiel 38 and 39. The “beloved city” (vs. 9) is an unmistakable reference to spiritual Israel, the church (John 4:20-21; Galatians 6:16).
Some allowance may be granted in the interpretation of these highly figurative symbols, without doing damage to other Bible doctrines, or reflecting adversely upon the Gospel system and the broader will of Deity. However, the thousand years must not be perceived as a yet-future period. There is simply no biblical support for doing so. The figure represents an important concept for those to whom it was first directed. It has meaning for people living today only in that context. There will be no one thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ on Earth.
Arndt, William and F.W. Gingrich (1957), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
Ladd, George E. (1972), A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Moffatt, James (no date), “The Revelation of St. John the Divine,” ed. Nicoll, W. Robertson, The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Mounce, Robert (1977), The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Summers, Ray (1951), Worthy is the Lamb (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press).
Swete, Henry B. (1911), Commentary on Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1977 reprint).
Thayer, Joseph H. (1901), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977 reprint).
Vincent, M.R. (1890), Word Studies in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1946 reprint).
White, Newport (no date), “The First and Second Epistles to Timothy,” The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).