What About the Millennium?
Will there be a literal millennium or thousand-year earthly reign of the saints with Christ after his return?
The idea of a thousand-year reign of Christ — a millennium — is found in two verses in the Bible — Revelation 20, verses 4 and 6. These verses speak of the martyrs or saints reigning for a thousand years. This number has produced the term “millennium,” which is derived from the Latin mille (thousand) and annus (year).
Jewish apocalyptic writings speculated about the length of the Messiah’s reign. Some speculated 40 years, some as many as 7,000 years. The author of the apocryphal book 4 Ezra thought the Messiah’s “millennium” would last 400 years (7:28). The original audience of Revelation probably would have been familiar with the idea of a limited reign of the Messiah, at least from the popular apocalyptic writings then in circulation.
However, the Old Testament says nothing about the Messiah’s rule as being a thousand years in length, or as being of any limited duration. The prophets seem to speak of the kingdom of God on earth as being eternal, or at least open-ended, once it begins. Even the kingdom of the “new heavens and new earth” in Isaiah 65:17-25 and 66:22-24 seems to be simply an extension of the earthly and seemingly eternal reign of the Messiah.
Neither does the New Testament directly speak of Christ’s kingdom as being limited in time. The only verses that might indicate a time-limited kingdom existing between Christ’s coming and what is called the consummation are found in 1 Corinthians 15:22-24. Paul here seems to speak of “the end” of all things as being in some way distinct from Christ’s coming.
The only mention of a “thousand years” comes in the book of Revelation. Since Revelation sometimes uses number in a symbolic way, we should ask whether this period of time is to be taken literally as a thousand years. To answer this question, we must rely on the context, for no other Bible verse clearly discusses such a period of time.
Some commentators have taken the figure to represent a literal thousand years. Others feel that while it may be a real period of substantial length, its actual time is undetermined. That is, in the same way that “one hour” means a very short time, a thousand years would simply mean a very long time.
One thousand is the cube of ten — ten times ten times ten. Ten is another number of completeness — as in the ten commandments. John uses the number several times in Revelation. The ten horns is one example. Perhaps what Revelation means to say is that God’s kingdom will last for whatever complete time God has determined it should last.
Those who feel the number “thousand” refers to an indefinite though long time cite examples of similar usage from the Old Testament. In Psalm 50:10 God speaks of himself as owner of all that exists. He says, “Every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills.” Obviously, the expression is not to be taken as exactly 1,000 hills.
Job 9:3 speaks of man’s inability to box God in with arguments by saying, “Though one wished to dispute with him [God], he could not answer him one time out of a thousand.”
In the New Testament, Peter says that with God one day might just as well be a thousand years (2 Peter 3:8). That is, what we think of as a long time, to God is but a very short time. Again, it is a metaphorical way of expressing this idea.
The “millennium,” as a time of seemingly limited duration, is mentioned only in Revelation, a highly symbolic book. Because of the uncertainties of symbolic numbers in this book, we do not want to build a theological doctrine on such an idea. From a New Testament context, the millennium is a doctrine the Bible does not speak about with a clear and loud voice.
But don’t the Old Testament prophets speak of a physical kingdom on earth and can’t we bring those pictures of a universal Promised Land into the concept of a millennium? Many people do shape their understanding of the millennium by the Old Testament Scriptures.
The New Testament doesn’t describe the characteristics of the kingdom of God. When the kingdom is mentioned, the emphasis is on the church age, on the return of Jesus, and/or the judgment, as in Matthew 25:31-46. The book of Revelation, which spends much time describing the time immediately before Jesus’ return and the establishment of God’s kingdom in glory, gives only a brief description of events that come after his return. In what little detail it offers regarding the kingdom of God to come, it concentrates on the judgment.
How are we to understand the Old Testament prophecies of God’s kingdom? One way is to see that the kingdom was described in terms old covenant Israel could understand.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the focus of the salvation God gave was on the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt and the nation’s entrance into the Promised Land. It was a physical deliverance, and that is what Israel expected for the future — another physical deliverance, and a restoration within the Promised Land. Thus, the prophecies of the kingdom used physical terms, too — as restoring people into a perfect land of beauty and physical plenty where God’s law reigned supreme.
These descriptions of God’s kingdom can be seen as “shadows” in the same way that the sacrificial system, the priesthood, the temple with its holy of holies, physical circumcision, the annual festivals and the weekly Sabbath were shadows of the salvation we have in Jesus Christ. The Christians’ Garden of Eden, Paradise of God and Promised Land would represent the joy of eternal life in the presence of God.
The book of Revelation treats the physical events and situations described in the Hebrew Scriptures in precisely this way — as symbols of salvation. Revelation is a good example of a work that takes Old Testament physical typologies and gives them a spiritual twist or meaning.
For example, the seven churches are told they will have a right to eat from the tree of life in the paradise or garden of God. They are also told that they will be part of the temple of God in a new Jerusalem and sit on the Father’s throne. In Revelation 22, readers are told they will have access to the river of the water of life, and the leaves from the trees on either side will heal the nations. The river of life metaphor is taken from Ezekiel’s description of a new temple.
These physical types are to be taken symbolically, as the eternal life we will have in the presence of the Father. When we have imperishable life, we do not need to look for leaves and waters, for we have the reality that those things only pictured. The Old Testament details need not be taken in a physical or literal sense. They can refer to spiritual realities. Today, that is how we may see the physical descriptions of God’s kingdom in the Old Testament prophecies.
Perhaps there will be a future kingdom of God on earth with human beings and human society under the loving government of a returned Christ. But the Scriptures are not that clear as to the specifics of such a future kingdom of God. Some people take too literal a view of such things — and often carry the Scriptures beyond meanings they can support. We should be more cautious, particularly in view of the fact that the New Testament interprets Old Testament realities like the kingdom of God as metaphors of salvation.