A Thousand Years
A Thousand Years
by William Klock
As we get into the final chapters of the book of Revelation it becomes increasingly important that we keep our attention on the broad strokes of John’s painting. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details and speculations, while losing sight of what’s really important. And it’s important to keep the big story, the one that begins all the way back in Genesis, to keep it in mind and to read Revelation in light of it. It’s important to remember the context—the situation in which John was writing and the people to whom he wrote. Revelation isn’t an easy book, but that historical context and that big biblical narrative make it a lot easier to understand and steer us clear of a lot of interpretive pitfalls. As I’ve been saying, the book is about tribulation, perseverance, and kingdom. It was written to little churches, small groups of early Christians, living at the turn of the ages. Persecution was coming—and had already hit some of them. It was going to get worse. Many would question whether they’d made the right choice in following Jesus. They’d wonder whether he truly was Lord. Jewish believers might be wondering: Were the Pharisees or the Zealots right all along? And others had believed that Caesar was a cheap imitation of Jesus, but when persecution came, when Nero was feeding Christians to the lions, they’d be wondering whether or not they’d got it wrong. Maybe Caesar really was Lord. Maybe Caesar’s gods were, in fact, greater than the God of Israel.
And so, through John, Jesus urges these believers to stand firm. Judgement will come. First on unbelieving Jerusalem and then on the whole Greco-Roman world. As we saw last week in our look at Revelation 19, Jesus assured them that he would triumph. The decisive victory was won at the cross, and now his Spirit-empowered Church—which looked so small and weak in John’s day—would go out and conquer the nation for Jesus by proclaiming the gospel—the word of truth, the sword proceeding out of the mouth of Jesus, the word of God.
When we remember that context—and when we look back on history and see that Jerusalem really did fall and that Rome really was conquered by the gospel—most of Revelation is actually pretty straightforward and you don’t need a bunch of complicated charts to make sense of it. But now with Chapters 19 and 20 we start to move beyond the events that were about to take place. John and the people to whom he wrote were living at the turn of the ages. With Chapters 19 and 20 we move beyond their immediate horizon and into what was for them still the age to come. This is, I will argue, where we stand today and with the last couple chapters of Revelation still ahead of us. One of my favourite commentators explains this with a parable, saying that Israel was like a great ship. On that ship, everything was a mess. The crew and passengers were fighting with each other. The captain and officers were corrupt. And while everyone squabbled she sailed into a storm. A few prophets tried to snap the people out of it, pointing to the storm ahead and urging the crew to do their jobs, but few would listen to them. The last of those prophets they angrily killed. But a few heeded his warning and as the storm was about to break, they got into a lifeboat and lowered it into the stormy waters. They rode out the storm. They watched as the great ship sank. Those in the lifeboat barely survived. Some starved. Some were injured. Some fell overboard and drowned. Along the way they picked up survivors of other ships—Gentile believers—who struggled through the storm with them. But eventually they made it. The storm passed. And their little boat washed up on a new shore. Now it was time to make a new life for themselves. This was the beginning of a new age. Brothers and Sisters, we’re the descendants of those people, living in that new age and carrying on their mission. That, I think, gives us a sense of the broad brush strokes of John’s painting. I think the smaller details all made sense to John and to most of his reader, but with our distance from the original context, some of them can be a struggle for us. Christians disagree on many of them. But that’s okay. As long as we’ve got the bigger picture in our minds, I think we can be reasonably sure that we’ve got the important things right. So let’s look at the first part of Revelation 20. We’ll look at verses 1-6 today and I’ll just read them all at once here.
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him 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.
Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.
In the last two chapters we’ve seen the fall of Babylon—John’s symbolic name for Rome, tying her to that evil empire that had for so long persecuted Israel and that was traced all the way back to the tower of Babel and humanities opposition to God. The prostitute—Rome herself—has fallen, the beast and his false prophet—the Emperor and his cult—have been cast into the lake of fire. The demonic power behind the great pagan empire has been defeated and Jesus and his Church now stand poised to ride out to conquer with the gospel. But what about the enemy behind all of this? The victory will be short-lived if the one who inspired it all from the beginning is still out of control, as St. Peter wrote, prowling around like a roaring lion. So now John sees an angel descend from heaven. This is Jesus himself, just as in Chapters 10 and 18. He brings with him a chain and the keys to the abyss. Back in Chapter 9, those keys were given to the devil so that he might open the abyss, release the forces there, and do his worst. And now John stresses that the devil’s worst wasn’t good enough. Jesus has defeated him and taken back the keys that rightly belong only to him. He binds the satan—John uses all those words—dragon, serpent, the devil, the satan—he’s used before to describe this embodiment of evil. Jesus binds him up, casts him into the abyss, and locks its gate.
What is the abyss? It’s different from the lake of fire. The lake of fire is a place of final destruction—a place that removes whatever is cast into it from Creation for good. If by his act of creation, the Lord brought order to chaos—which is what the ancient Hebrews saw as the heart of the creative act—then the abyss is sort of that one part of the original chaos that remains, from which evil and opposition to God and his good order can still emerge. It’s not a major theme in the Bible, but here and there it pops up—in Job for example. But when it does, we always find that even the abyss and its denizens are in the Lord’s sovereign control. And so he casts the satan, bound in chains, into that prison and locks its door. For a thousand years, John writes. Then, he says, the satan must be “let out for a little while”.
Now what about this “thousand years”? This is where the idea of the millennium comes from—millennium is Latin for one thousand. And it’s an interesting thing that when we talk about the different schemes for interpreting biblical eschatology, most of them are named based on how they view this millennium—and specifically how it relates to the return of Jesus. Pre-millennialists believe Jesus will return before the millennium. Post-millennialists believe he will return after. Amillennialists, well that’s a little more complicated, although many would line themselves up with the Post-millennialists—sort of. And, of course, is John envisioning a literal thousand years or just a really long time? The millennium is one of those things that’s only mentioned once in the whole Bible, but ends up commanding a disproportionate amount of our attention. Modern pre-millennialists often make holding a pre-millennial view a test of orthodoxy—which itself is odd, considering the modern pre-millennial view has been around less than two-hundred years—and has had wide-spread acceptance for only about half that time. Many of the new denominations that arose from the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversies of the early 20th Century wrote pre-millennialism into their confessional statements. Bp. Nicholson, one of the early bishops of the REC, pushed for this when he re-wrote the Articles of Religion for the REC in 1874. It’s a reminder that we need to keep our focus on the big picture, rather than getting dogmatic about speculations over the details that are often much less clear. There’s a reason why the Creed requires our belief in Jesus’ return to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom, that will have no end. Those are the essentials, the non-negotiables of eschatology. How exactly the millennium relates to that is not something to which anyone should be binding the consciences of other Christians or using to drive a wedge between believers and churches that differ. We can faithful to the Scriptures and disagree on these points. That’s okay.
As far as the duration of the millennium goes, in a book full of symbols and symbolic numbers, I simply can’t see any reason to insist that suddenly here John means for us to take this number absolutely literally. The point is that this period of time will be long, but also just as long as it needs to be. This is the age of the gospel—of the people of Jesus riding out on our white horses into the world with his word of truth, conquering by the gospel. Pre-millennialism tends to produce the sort of ideas I talked about last Sunday—the idea that Jesus can’t return until some bare minimum has been redeemed from every tribe and tongue. It’s a pessimistic view of things. In that way of thinking, the ages have not yet turned. The satan still claims the world as his, the Church fights an uphill battle with the gospel, we will win some, but ultimately things will get worse and worse and worse and finally Jesus will return, bind the satan, and usher in the millennium—a perfect age for a thousand years.
I have trouble with that. It just doesn’t square with the larger narrative of Scripture. It doesn’t square with what Jesus has established in the Church. In us, he has established a new Israel. Our mission is the same as the old, to bring the nations to the Lord. But he has given us his gospel and empowered us with his Spirit. He has commissioned us to go out to the nations and Jesus told Peter that the gates of hell will not prevail. When the people were amazed at Jesus’ power over demons, Jesus told them it was because he had broken into the strong man’s house and bound him. The binding of Satan isn’t something future. It’s something Jesus did even before died and rose again. Jesus has won the battle and he calls his church to join him in it—and as surely as he has conquered the satan, so have and so will we.
The problem may be that we expect perfection. If the satan is bound, we think, how does he still have power in the world? How, if he is bound, does he prowl around like a roaring lion? This millennial kingdom thing must, then, be something future. But, again, we miss John’s use of symbolism. At no point in his ministry did Jesus ever physically grab the devil and bind him in literal chains, and lock him in a literal prison. There’s no literal abyss somewhere out there with a gate to which Jesus—or the Church—hold literal keys. But Jesus bound the devil nevertheless—by his very presence. If we believe Jesus and take him at his word, we have to believe that he bound the satan in the time of his earthly ministry. The Church now bears Jesus’ authority into the world, meaning the devil has no power over the Church. We are filled with God’s own Spirit and when we go out to proclaim the good news of his death and resurrection, it is not we who make that preaching effective, but God himself.
So is the devil still out there? Is he still opposing? Sure. But his rule over the nations has been broken and the nations have been handed over to Jesus. Something happened that the people alive in the first century recognized—something I don’t think a lot of modern Christians are even aware. We don’t pay enough attention to history. The Greek philosopher Plutarch noticed it and wrote a treatise, trying to explain why the gods of the Greeks suddenly went silent in the First Century—their oracles ceased to speak anymore. Athanasius wrote about the same phenomenon in his treatise On the Incarnation of the Word of God—but, of course, he knew the answer. It was Jesus. The power of the devil to deceive the nations was broken. The satan is still at work, but his kingdom has been taken from him and given to Jesus and the progress of the gospel means for him an ever-shrinking circle of influence.
I think this expectation of perfection cuts the other way too. We often think that in this age, either the Church itself should be perfected or that our mission should be one of unimpeded advance, always onward and upward. The reality is that the Church is not perfect—often far from it—and the advance of the gospel is not always linear. There was time in the early centuries of the Church that Eastern Christendom extended from the Middle East across central Asia and all the way to the frontiers of China. Now, apart from small pockets here and there, Christians are almost unheard of in those lands. The same goes for North Africa. And, of course, Europe was the seat of Christendom for fifteen-hundred years, but is now almost entirely secular. And here in North America we don’t seem far behind that same curve. The gospel advances in some parts of the world, but contracts in others. Why? Well, the Church functions much as Israel did. Even though we manifest the kingdom of God in the world, we are not perfect. The difference between the old Israel and the new is that we are united to Jesus and empowered by the Spirit. But, like Israel, the Lord will accomplish his work through us, perfect or not, and in the process he will not only accomplish the mission of gospel spread, but of the purification of his Church. Think, for example, of Christian conquistadors violently invading Meso-America in search of gold. It’s hardly the Church at her best hour, and yet the Lord used their actions to bring judgement on the Aztecs and an end to their evil regime of idolatry and human sacrifice—not unlike the pagan nations bring down Rome in Revelation 18 and 19. The gospel, however imperfectly, advanced and transformed a new part of the world and its people. Eventually the Lord’s rebuke fell on those who had murdered and plundered in his name. The Lord disciplines and prunes his church and continues to use her to accomplish his purposes, even in her ugliest hours—just as he did Israel. He takes us into periods of exile, just as he did Israel, because his goal is to make us ever purer. Brothers and Sisters, consider that if Jesus’ gospel mission required a perfect Church, it would have been doomed to failure from the start. We accomplish our mission even as the Lord accomplishes his mission in us.
But, then, why does John say that at the end of this millennial age the satan must be released for a little while? I think it fits with the way God works when he comes in judgement. He allows those who oppose him to condemn themselves. And, too, as at the cross and in the first century setting into which John was writing, God allows evil to rise to its full height, in order to strike it down in defeat. When the Lord’s judgement comes to a person or to a people—or even the devil himself—it comes in such a way that there is never any doubt of its justness and it is always complete.
Meanwhile, John writes in verse 4, the martyrs rule with Jesus in the heavenly court. John sees those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus. We know he’s talking specifically about those brothers and sisters to whom he wrote, those who were about to face a time of tribulation and to die for their faith, because he writes that these are they that refused the mark of the beast—who refused to bow to the emperor or to participate in his cult. John says that they were raised—resurrected—to reign with Jesus throughout the thousand years. We might be tempted to pass over this quickly, but it’s the heart of what John’s been getting at all along and it’s why he wrote this book to those churches. Think back to those seven letters he wrote to them. He exhorted them to stand firm and to conquer because a time of persecution was coming. To the Christians in Smyrna he wrote, “The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death” (2:11). It’s the same thing he promises here: “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power”. Now he sees them vindicated. These are the martyrs who “conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name”. And we see them fulfilling the role of redeemed humanity—back to the vocation that Adam rejected: they’ve been made priests of God and of Christ, seated on thrones to reign with him.
This, John says, is the “first resurrection”. There will be another, but this first resurrection is for the martyrs who shared in the sufferings of Jesus at the turning of the ages. They stand in a unique position amongst the saints. John writes that the rest of the dead will have to wait until the thousands years are complete—until Jesus and his Church have completed their mission. What does that mean for the rest of us? Scripture says very little about the state we are in between death and our eventual resurrection. That hasn’t stopped us from latching onto passages that have little or nothing to do with this subject and forcing them to say things they don’t—and then becoming very dogmatic about our conclusions. Scripture says little about this intermediate state simply because it’s not that important in the grand scheme of things. What we can know for certain—and we’ll see this in the coming chapters of Revelation—is that when the time is right—when Jesus has put every last enemy under his feet—the Lord will raise us just as he has Jesus and the martyrs, and he will restore to us what we lost when Adam sinned. If we are in Jesus, then we share in his life and in his inheritance. What belongs to him belongs to us! In the meantime we know that the Lord does not forget us. Those martyrs John saw in his vision, restored to their role of priesthood, are our assurance of that. What he has done for them he will just as surely do for us.
Now, what should you take home from all of this today? Brothers and Sisters, remember where we’ve come from and look forward to where we’re going. John’s vision gives us needed and encouraging perspective. I’ve said before, I think at present the Lord is taking the Church in the West into a time of exile. Christendom went wrong. Consider those conquistadors slaughtering under the banner of the cross or the carnage Christians nations wrought on each other in the First World War. Even as the North American church has engaged in gospel mission as in no other time in history, our churches have become absorbed by the anti-gospel philosophies of our day—by consumerism, by materialism, by individualism. We are imperfect vessels. The Lord graciously uses us, but like Israel of old, we need reformation—and if we do not reform willingly, the Lord will discipline us. He will either remove our lampstand or he will purify us that our lamp will one day shine brightly. These times are discouraging for many. At the very least we are culturally out of favour. Opposition is growing. We may face actual persecution in our lifetimes. Brothers and Sisters, stand firm. Jesus and his kingdom are worth it. Our first parents in the faith stood firm until death and now sit with Jesus in the heavenlies, coheirs and sovereigns over this kingdom. And for all its imperfections, what has been built by their heirs here on earth, this kingdom pushing the devil ever away, building churches in corners of the earth where once he reigned supreme, robbing him of his territory, ought to fill us with hope and faith for the future. Dear Friends, the future belongs to Jesus and he has given us the privilege to have a part in making it so. He has chosen us, he has called us, he has washed us clean with his own blood and filled us with his Spirit and he has not done so in vain. So go out in peace to love and to serve the Lord. To proclaim his good news. To spread his kingdom until it fills the earth. For Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
Let’s pray: O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
 See Andrew Perriman, The Coming of the Son of Man (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005), 224ff.