The Thousand Year Reign
by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
Many elaborate theories have been based on Revelation 20:4-6. Some teach that at his second coming the Christ will set up a kingdom here on earth. To help him administer this new kingdom, Christians from the early church will be raised to rule with him. After a peaceful reign that lasts a thousand years, the Devil is released from the abyss where he has been imprisoned. A seven-year battle then ensues, known as the years of tribulation. At the conclusion of the battle Satan is defeated.
The teachings vary widely between religious groups. Some place the seven-years of battle before Christ’s return. Some place it after his return, but before the kingdom is established. Some have the dead raised before the tribulation. Some say it will happen after Christ’s reign. The variations are seemingly endless.
The problem is that none of these ideas are founded upon scriptural teachings. A few ideas, incorrectly pulled from the text of the Bible, are heavily padded with imagination to produce a completely fictional account. The most blatant error is assigning a literal meaning to a book stated to be written in symbols. “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants – things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John” (Revelation 1:1). The Greek word translated “signified” means to indicate something by a sign. In regards to the Scriptures it means a word or phrase that contains a hidden meaning. The word appears several times in the Gospel of John. “"And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself." This He said, signifying by what death He would die.” (John 12:32-33). Jesus did not directly state that he would be crucified, but the meaning is hinted in the phrase “if I am lifted up from the earth.” In case the reader missed the clue, John points out that there is a hidden message by stating it was signified. The book of Revelation is written in hints. The message is not in the surface story, but in the hidden meanings behind the words.
A second error people make is in ignoring Revelation’s stated time table. “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants – things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John, ... Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Revelation 1:1,3). However the book of Revelation is understood, the majority of the things it discusses must be about things which would take place soon after it was written. Even at the end of the book, John is warned, “Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand” (Revelation 22:10).
This leaves us with a puzzle, how do we understand something that is mostly symbolic? How can we be certain that we are assigning the correct meaning to the symbols? Fortunately, we are not left completely on our own to decide what various symbols mean. The book of Revelation is written in a style very similar to many of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. God often gave the interpretation of a symbol and used that symbol consistently. A person with knowledge of the Bible can generally come up with passages which explain the meaning of the figurative words in Revelation.
The book of Revelation, like older prophecies, is written as a series of pictures. The images describe, signify, or represent things in real life. If we can understand the meaning of each element in the picture, we can illuminate the complete scene.
“And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years” (Revelation 20:4-6).
The souls who reign with Christ for a thousand years
At the center of this picture is a group of people. They are described as people “who have been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God;” they “had not worshiped the beast or his image;” and they “had not received his mark.” Even without understanding all the imagery, it is apparent that John is describing Christians. But what is this beast that others are worshiping? The book of Revelation describes two beasts. Revelation 13:1 speaks of a beast that rises from the sea and is worshiped (Revelation 13:8). The same chapter then describes a second beast starting in verse 11. This beast rises from the earth and sets up an image of the first beast for the people to worship (Revelation 13:14-15). The worshipers of the beast are marked (Revelation 13:16). We could launch into a detailed study of Revelation 13, but let it suffice that the beast was the false religion of emperor worship promoted by the Roman populace and the Roman government. What is more interesting than the beasts themselves is the power behind the beasts. The beast from the sea is summoned by a dragon (Revelation 13:1). The beast from the land spoke in a voice like the dragon (Revelation 13:11). We do not have to guess what the dragon represents. We are told this forthrightly. “He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan” (Revelation 20:2). Hence, we understand that the beasts and the images are all representatives of Satan. “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works” (II Corinthians 11:13-15).
Marks have long been used to indicate ownership. Cattle have been branded since ancient times to show who owns them. Even people have been marked to show their slave status (see Exodus 21:2-6). The concept of slaves and masters is presented in Romans 6:16-18, “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” All Christians were once slaves of sin. Satan was our master before Christ set us free. But while in sin, Satan would have his mark on us, showing that we belonged to him. Now that we are slaves of righteousness, Satan’s mark is removed and we carry the mark of Christ. Speaking of the persecution the apostles suffered, Paul said they were “always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus' sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (II Corinthians 4:10-11). Paul did not mean this literally for the Lord had ascended when this was written. Rather, Paul is speaking of how their lives were marked by the suffering of Christ and that their own sufferings were reflections of their Master’s life.
Therefore, the center of John’s scene is a group of Christians who have been martyred for their faith in Jesus and the Bible, who have refused false worship, and are not servants of sin. Though these people had died for their faith, John tells us they are alive and reigning with Christ. Paul tells us that Christians reign in life with Christ. “For if by the one man's offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). Paul also tells us, “This is a faithful saying: For if we died with Him, We shall also live with Him. If we endure, We shall also reign with Him” (II Timothy 2:11-12).
The question then is “When is Christ’s reign?” In a parable, Jesus spoke of himself leaving to receive a kingdom (Luke 19:12). After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, Paul tells us Jesus is currently reigning. “For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (I Corinthians 15:25-26). The end of his reign comes when death is conquered and that takes place at Christ’s second coming. “Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power” (I Corinthians 15:24). Christ’s reign cannot begin at his return, because his return marks the end of the world. “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (II Peter 3:10). This is why the church is called Christ’s Kingdom. “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Colossians 1:13). Christians are citizens of the kingdom that Christ rules. It is not a kingdom with physical borders. It exists in the hearts of people. “Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here." Pilate therefore said to Him, "Are You a king then?" Jesus answered, "You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth” (John 18:38-39).
The length of Jesus’ reign with his saints is called a thousand years. This symbol is used often in the Bible to refer to large, but complete set. For example, in Deuteronomy 7:9, “Therefore know that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments,” Moses is not limiting God’s mercy to exactly one-thousand generations, but to indicate that He is always merciful. “For every beast of the forest is Mine, And the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10). God is not saying there is exactly one thousand hills with His cattle, but to say that all the cattle in the world belong to Him. The thousand year reign is not a literal thousand years, but a symbol of a long and complete reign that encompasses the rest of the world’s years. It does not make sense to take one symbol and assign it a literal meaning while assigning figurative meanings to all the other symbols in the same passage. Yet, many have done so when they declare that Jesus will reign for a thousand years.
The second death
Those who partake of the first resurrection will not face the second death. Here is a phrase familiar to many Christians. The second death is defined later in Revelation 20. “Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14-15). The second death is the condemnation to Hell at the Judgment. Notice that verse 15 describes who will not be a part of the second death – those whose name is found in the book of Life. In other words, children of God will not be a part of the second death, so they must be of those who partake of the first resurrection. Jesus speaks of this too, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death” (Revelation 2:11). Later there is a list of the type of people who will experience the second death. “He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son. But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:7-8).
If Hell is the second death, a natural question is what then is the first death? “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). All men must face death. Except for those alive when Christ returns, we will all die one day. This is the first death and afterwards the Judgment will sentence some to a second death in Hell.
The first resurrection
If we look back at Revelation 20:4-6 we note that those who have a part in the first resurrection are priests of God. Once again, we are referring to Christians. “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9). These priests are to reign with God and as we pointed out prior, this speaks of Christians.
Now consider how people become Christians (priests). “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (Romans 6:3-6). Baptism then is a representation of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. All Christians participate in baptism; they die to their old life of sin and rise to a new life in Christ. This is what Paul alludes to Timothy, “This is a faithful saying: For if we died with Him, We shall also live with Him. If we endure, We shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He also will deny us” (II Timothy 2:11-12). Our death in baptism is our resurrection to life. In Ephesians, Paul makes another allusion to baptism and the theme of death, resurrection, and reigning. “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, ... But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:1, 4-7). Therefore, becoming a Christian is the first resurrection when we rise up out of the waters of baptism to walk in a new life. Since Christians participate in the first resurrection, it is logical that they in their escape from sin should not join others in the second death.
Of course, if there is a first resurrection, then there must be a second one as well. We all know that the dead will rise at Jesus’ return. “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words” (I Thessalonians 4:13-18). This resurrection is not limited only to the righteous. “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28-29). This is what Revelation 20:5 is referring to when it speaks of the rising of the rest of the dead. The wicked only experience one resurrection – their resurrection at Jesus’ coming so they may face judgment.
A parallel prophecy
Revelation 20:4-6 is a summary of the Christian age in a few brief statements. What follows this is a description of God’s final triumph over sin. Now that we have illuminated these thoughts, we can look at a similar prophecy recorded in Daniel 7:7-27. It speaks of the rise of a fourth beast, whom God said would be the fourth kingdom (Daniel 7:17, 23), or empire. Counting from Daniel’s time, the first empire was the Babylonian, the second was the Medo-Persian, the third was the Greek, and the fourth empire was the Roman empire. The rulers of this fourth empire, represented by horns (see Daniel 7:24), are full of great boasts and blasphemies (Daniel 7:8). Eventually this beast would be slain and burnt – a prophecy of its destruction (Daniel 7:11), just as John prophesied its destruction in Revelation 19. However, before its final destruction, it is granted a reprieve for a period of time (Daniel 7:12). During that reprieve, the Son of Man (Jesus) goes before the Ancient of Days (God, the Father) and receives a kingdom that will not be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14). The saints of God (Christians) will receive and possess that kingdom (Daniel 7:18). Then a really wicked ruler would arise, gaining power by destroying three of his predecessors (Daniel 7:24). During his reign, Christians would be persecuted for a short period of time (Daniel 7:25). However, God would bring judgment, he will be destroyed, and God’s people would reign (Daniel 7:26-27). Daniel 7:25-27 speaks of the same period as Revelation 20:4-6.