The idea of a thousand-year reign of Christ – a millennium – is found in only two verses in the Bible — Revelation 20:4, 6. The length of the martyrs’ or saints’ reign is here said to be a thousand years. This number has produced the term “millennium,” which is derived from the Latin mille (thousand) and annus (year).
Jewish apocalyptic writings of the first century speculated about the length of the Messiah’s reign, when it was assumed that the nation of Israel would be restored to glory by God. The time spans were as little as 40 to as many as 7,000 years. The author of 4 Ezra thought the Messiah’s reign 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.
The writer of Revelation may have mentioned the “millennium” to counter the idea that the “kingdom of God” was to be based around a Jewish nation. An important point of Revelation is to reinterpret Old Testament prophecies in terms of Jesus’ redemptive work and the church. Revelation was written to point out that the church was the recipient of God’s grace, made possible by Jesus’ saving work. The book’s message to the church contradicted the Jewish idea that salvation would come to the Jewish people alone. Given this context, it’s not surprising that Revelation would make a comment about Jewish millennial speculations and expectations, and reinterpret them in terms of God’s real purpose in the church.
However, we also have to distinguish between some Jewish ideas about God’s ideal kingdom and what the Old Testament says about it. The Old Testament says nothing about the Messiah’s rule as being a thousand years in length, or that it would last for a limited time. It seems to speak of the kingdom of God on earth as being open-ended, continuing without end once it begins. Even the kingdom of the “new heavens and new earth” in Isaiah 65:17-25 and 66:22-24 appears to be an extension of the earthly and seemingly eternal reign of God.
Neither does the New Testament speak of Christ’s kingdom as existing for any limited time. The only passage that might indicate a time-limited kingdom as existing between Christ’s coming and the beginning of a more glorious kingdom is 1 Corinthians 15:22-24. Paul here may speak of “the end” as being in some way distinct in time from Christ’s return. If that is so, Paul gives no specifics. In none of his writings does he express any interest in or undertake any discussion of a limited “millennium.” Neither do the other New Testament writings. We should also note that the concept of “the end” is understood in the New Testament as beginning with the completion of Jesus’ work of redemption – that is, his crucifixion and resurrection.
The only mention of 1,000 years in the book of Revelation – a book of symbolic numbers. This prompts us to ask whether this period of time is literally 1,000 years, or whether it is to be taken as a limited period of time at all. Any attempt to answer this question must rely on the context of Revelation 20, for no other Bible verse clearly discusses such a period of time. But if we attempt to use a single passage in a highly symbolic book as the basis of a dogmatic conclusion about a theological doctrine, we are violating one of the most important rules of biblical interpretation.
Despite those limitations, some commentators nevertheless believe that the figure given in Revelation 20 represents a literal 1,000 years. Other biblical commentators feel that while the “millennium” is a period of substantial length, its actual time is undetermined. In the same way that “one hour” means a very short time (Revelation 17:12), 1,000 years would 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.” The expression is not to be taken literally, as if God owned cattle only on 1,000 specific hills.
Job 9:3 speaks of a human’s inability to box God in with arguments by saying, “Though they wished to dispute with him [God], they could not answer him one time out of a thousand.” In any dispute with God, we humans lose the argument because his wisdom and understanding is infinite and ours is very limited.
In the New Testament, Peter says that with God one day might just as well be a thousand years and a thousand years a day (2 Peter 3:8). That is, what we think of as a long time, to God is but a very short time. It is a metaphorical way of expressing the idea that time has no meaning for God, so we need to understand the significance and timing of events from his perspective, and not ours.
The “millennium,” as a time of 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 doctrine on this idea. 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. How are we to understand these prophecies of God’s kingdom? One way is to see that the kingdom was described in terms ancient Israel could understand.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the focus of the salvation 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 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.
The book of Revelation treats the physical events and situations described in the Hebrew Scriptures as symbols of salvation. Revelation is a good example of a work that takes Old Testament physical typologies and gives them a spiritual 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 prophecies as metaphors of salvation.