The 1000-Year Reign of Christ
When we come to Revelation 20, we need to address certain issues which have been left hanging. For example, when did or does Armageddon in Rev. 19 occur? Second, what about the exact nature of the 1000-year reign of Christ which John speaks about in chapter 20? Just when did it or does it occur? Christians have been fighting for centuries over these 2 questions. Such fighting is totally ridiculous because no matter who wins all the arguments about Revelation, God is still going to do what He is going to do. What I would like to present this week is the view which the early church adopted. Again, the main source of this view is Irenaeus who was the disciple of Papias, a disciple of John the author of Revelation.
The first question involves the date of Armageddon. There are 3 different views regarding Armageddon. The first view restricts it to the violent destruction of the Roman empire. Whereas there does seem to be real justification to this view, the problem with it is that Jesus did not return in the fashion Revelation 19 seems to indicate. Yes, He did return in a spiritual sense to destroy the Roman empire; however, this passage seems to indicate more than just a spiritual coming of Christ. The second view states that Armageddon refers to the triumph of Christ over Satan as a result of His death and resurrection. According to this view, His return in Rev. 19 actually occurred with His resurrection from the dead when He defeated Satan and His coming at Pentecost when He saved His people. Once more, while there is an element of truth in this view, the text seems to indicate more than this. The third view claims that this return will occur only at the end of history when Christ returns to destroy a futuristic Antichrist. The problem with this view is that so many parallels exist between the Book of Revelation and the persecution of the church in John’s day that this view does not do full justice to the situation in which John was writing the book.
So what conclusion should we draw? A melding together of the strengths of the different views seems to do full justice to this passage. It is true that God rescued His people from their Roman and Jewish oppressors during the first few centuries of the existence of the church. In 325 AD, for reasons of state the Roman emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman empire. The old Roman empire as it had existed for 800+ years no longer existed. Christianity had triumphed with Christ saving His people by His spiritual return. This situation though does not fully exhaust the meaning of Revelation 19. Instead, it points to a future fulfillment when a future Antichrist will attempt to destroy God’s people and Christ returns to save His people one last time. Between the time of the Roman empire and this last fulfillment, Rev. 1-19 has been reenacted numerous times in the history of the world, most recently during WWII when the spirit of Antichrist operated in Hitler to destroy both the Jews and Christians who stood firm in their faith in Christ. What happened then gives us a real taste of what is yet to come.
THE THOUSAND-YEAR REIGN OF CHRIST (20:1-6)
With the battle of Armageddon concluded, Christ has destroyed both the Antichrist and the False Prophet; however, the real power behind these 2 remains at large—the Dragon, that is, Satan. After the battle, an angel descends from heaven having a great chain and key in his hand. The key unlocks the gate which shuts up the abyss, the realm where apparently God imprisons demons until He allows them to do their harm within the parameters He sets for them (see Rev. 9:1-2). The angel seizes Satan violently (the implication of the Greek word used), binds him with the chain, and casts him into the abyss where he remains imprisoned for a period of 1000 years. Whatever else this 1000-year period is, it is a time when Satan’s power has been thoroughly neutralized. After the 1000 years are completed, then Satan will be released. Why God releases him after the 1000-year reign, we will see later.
This seems to be the appropriate place to discuss the nature of the 1000-year reign of Christ. Some claim that this thousand years is not a futuristic event which will occur when Jesus returns. Rather we are now living in the 1000-year reign of Christ because Christ has been exalted to the right hand of the Father where He reigns and because Satan was defeated on the cross. Whereas there is a real element of truth in this view, it seems hard to believe that what we are experiencing now is all that chapter 20 seems to be showing us. Whereas Satan was dealt a terrible blow at Calvary, does it really seem like for the past 2000 years that Satan has been bound and neutralized. He has caused so much trouble at both the individual and global level (WWI and WWII) that it seems strange to associate the thousand-year reign of Christ with the present age.
After the incarceration of Satan, John see thrones with 2 different sets of people sitting upon them. The first set are those who were martyred for the cause of Christ, especially during the tribulation but also probably including any and all who have been martyred because of their relationship with Christ throughout the ages. Although John says that these have been beheaded, it probably includes those who were martyred by any means—crucifixion, burning at the stake, drowning, etc. Since very few Christians were ever beheaded—actually only those who were Roman citizens, it seems unlikely that John is restricting this group to only those who were beheaded.
The next group is made up of those Christians who had not worshipped the Beast or his image and had not received the mark of the Beast on either their hand or forehead. Just like the first group was not restricted to those who were beheaded, it is most likely true that this group includes all Christians across the ages who have been faithful to Jesus Christ and not just those who lived during the time of the tribulation.
What do these 2 groups actually do on their thrones? According to John, they exercise judgment. The first way they might execute judgment is that they render verdicts against those who stand in judgment. Paul claims that one day Christians will execute judgment upon angels (1 Cor. 6:3). A second way, however, while including the first, expands the meaning of judgment. It could actually mean that they rule or reign with Christ. While the thousand-year reign of Christ sees Christ ruling with a rod of iron, it also sees Christians as participating in that reign. One of the promises Jesus makes to the church at Laodicea is that those who overcome will sit down with Christ on His throne just as He has sat down with His Father on His throne. Sitting with His Father on His Father’s throne means that Jesus shares in God’s reign; therefore, when we sit down with Christ on His throne, we reign with Christ (Rev. 3:21; see also Rom. 5:17). The 1000-year reign of Christ is not only the triumph of Christ but also the triumph of His followers.
At this point John claims that the 2 groups just mentioned “came to life,” whereas the rest of the dead did not come to life until after the 1000-year reign of Christ. Just what exactly does John mean by this phrase “come to life?” It refers to the bodily resurrection of believers. Now whereas John focuses attention on the resurrection of those who were either martyred during the tribulation and those who were faithful but not martyred during that same time period, this resurrection covers all believers. This event is what many Christians call “the rapture.”
What leads us to this conclusion? According to John, this is the first resurrection. In fact, John in the Greek language stresses emphatically that this is the first resurrection, not the second. He literally writes, “This is the resurrection—the first one!” Why is this important? Whatever else the rapture is, it is the resurrection of believers—those dead as well as those alive at the time of Christ’s return (Rev. 19). If it is not resurrection, then the rapture is meaningless since the dead are already with Christ since the time of their death. If the rapture occurs before the tribulation, then this is the second resurrection. Since John does not mention a rapture at the beginning of Revelation and since he emphatically calls this the first resurrection, then it is safe to claim that this is the rapture of the saints Paul mentions in 1 Thess. 4:13-18. Other reasons are listed at the end of this paper.
A further question we need to address is whether this is bodily resurrection or spiritual resurrection. Some claim that the triumph of Christ at Armageddon occurred during His life upon the earth when He defeated Satan on the cross and that this resurrection refers to the new life that believers receive whenever they become Christians. The only problem with this view is that John uses this exact same word—“they came to life” (literally ezhsan--e-ZAY-san)—in the very next breath to refer to the second resurrection which nearly all NT scholars agree refers to the bodily resurrection. What has happened to change the meaning of this word from one verse to the next? Nothing. As a result, we need to be consistent. This first resurrection refers to the rapture, while the second resurrection refers to the bodily resurrection of the rest of mankind.
Just what is the theological significance of the 1000-year reign of Christ? Just why does God have Jesus reign on the earth for 1000 years? First, the number 1000 is symbolical—10 x 10 x 10 or 103. Since 10 is the number for completion, 10 cubed refers to the complete reign of Jesus Christ, whether it lasts 1000 years or 1 million years. However long that reign is, it is a complete reign. Second, the thousand-year reign of Christ consummates His reign. From the time Christ came to the earth until the finish of the 1000-year reign of Christ, the Father has dictated that all focus be placed upon His Son. At the present time, we are living during the age of Jesus Christ. Those Christians who claim they are going deeper by getting into “God” and yet do not focus on Jesus have thoroughly missed the boat. They have not gone deeper in God; they have veered off into a direction which ultimately does not lead them to God. The only way to get deeper in the Father is to get deeper into His Son, Jesus. After this reign of Christ upon the earth, Jesus then turns and gives the kingdom to the Father that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:27-28). At that time, all focus will be upon the Father.
THE LAST GREAT REBELLION (20:7-10)
After the 1000 years are completed, Satan is released from the abyss. At that time, he is able to recruit an army which comes from the 4 corners of the earth. These nations have the names “Gog” and “Magog,” the OT names for those armies which are hostile to the people of God. These armies surround the heavenly city—most likely Jerusalem—to destroy her. No battle ensues because God shoots fire (lightning) down from heaven and destroys the armies. Satan then is taken and thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the Beast and False Prophet also dwell.
Just what are we to make of this final battle, and just who make up this army? If you go back to the beginning of this chapter, you will discover that the rapture/resurrection involved only Christians. Moreover, we saw that the entire world of non-Christians was not destroyed at the Battle of Armageddon. This means that many people who were non-Christians entered into the thousand-year reign of Christ without being transformed. (While it does seem strange to think of resurrected Christians walking around with people not resurrected, it is not that strange when you remember that this same phenomenon occurred when Jesus rose from the dead in His resurrected body and walked with the un-resurrected disciples.) Whereas many of these un-resurrected people may have been saved after Jesus returned to rule, many most likely did not. Those who never voluntarily submitted to Christ’s rule then became fertile ground for Satan’s recruits.
Why does God allow this to happen? Why not just throw those who do not believe in Jesus into the lake of fire at the beginning of the 1000-year reign of Christ and be done with it? By doing it this way, God proves that man’s major problem was never the environment. We have been sold such a bill of goods whenever we believe the politicians and psychologists who preach that a person’s environment is what determines what kind of person s/he is going to be. The people who become Satan’s recruits have lived in the perfect environment for 1000 years, and yet when they are given half a chance to rebel against Christ, they do just that very thing. The true problem is our own rebellious nature. It must be crucified so that Jesus Himself might live His life through us. Nothing else will take care of our sin nature.
GREAT WHITE THRONE JUDGMENT (20:11-15)
After the battle is over, John saw a great white throne from whose presence earth and heaven fled away. The white color of the throne symbolizes the purity of the judgment God and Christ will administer from it. It is great because of the magnificent person sitting on it. Earth and heaven, as we now know them, fled away because they are a part of the old system of sin and death which God is in the process of transforming. They are not destroyed but rather transformed as we shall see in Rev. 21.
Before the great white throne stand either the rest of mankind who was not resurrected during the first resurrection or else all of mankind, including Christians. At this point, all those who were not resurrected during the first resurrection are brought to life by resurrection, that is, their bodies are transformed just like ours will be at the first resurrection. This resurrection includes not only those who died on land but also those who died on sea.
All of mankind stands before God in judgment on that day. God uses 2 criteria to judge mankind. The first criterion is the deeds that person performed while on earth; the second is whether or not that person’s name was written in the book of life. At first blush, these 2 criteria seem to contradict each other; however, they do not. The first criterion does not promote the idea that we are saved by our works. You and I can do nothing to save ourselves; however, what we do proves whether or not we were saved in the first place. The person who allows Jesus to live His life through him/her is a Christian; that person very much resembles Christ in his/her life. The second criterion does not mean that a person can do anything and everything s/he wants to do because their life is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. The person whose name is written in this Book will produce the kind of life which produces good works which God records in the first book.
Before John presents us with the new heaven and new earth in the next 2 chapters, he shows us death and Hades being thrown into the lake of fire along with those who are Christians. The new order of perfection will never be complete until these last 2 enemies have been utterly destroyed. With their destruction all is now ready for the coming of the Father Himself to dwell forever among His people.
TIME OF THE RAPTURE
Throughout our study of Revelation, I have consistently argued against placing the rapture at the beginning of the tribulation and have posited that it occurs at the end of Revelation. Why? I think it is only appropriate at this point to share why since the events we are dealing with correspond to the rapture Paul describes in 1 Thess. 4:13-18.
Remember first of all that there are going to be some variations (not differences) between the way Paul describes the rapture in 1 Thess. 4 and the way John describes it in Revelation. Why? Simply because 2 different people are describing it. Two people will never see the same event and describe it exactly the same way. The 4 Gospels are prime examples of this very principle; however, even though the 2 passages are written by different authors, many of the same thoughts and events occurring in 1 Thess. 4 are occurring in Rev. 16-20.
Next we must remember that whatever the rapture is, it is the resurrection of the body of those Christians still living and the bodily resurrection of those Christians who have died. If it is not a bodily resurrection, then why is there a rapture at all, especially of the Christians who have already died? These dead Christians are already in heaven. They may be in heaven only in a spiritual sense and not a bodily one; however, they are still there! The rapture radically transforms the bodies of all those who believe in Jesus.
Having made point number 2, we need to see that in Rev. 20:6, John claims that the resurrection which occurs in Rev. 20 is the first resurrection. Those who believe the rapture—bodily resurrection—occurs before the tribulation have a problem with this verse because according to their system this would be the second resurrection and not the first. Those who believe the rapture occurs after the tribulation have no problem with this because this would be the first resurrection in their interpretation of Revelation.
Paul describes the rapture in 1 Thess. 4 in terms very similar to the events John describes in Rev. 16, 19 and 20.
Many of the terms Paul uses in 1 Thess. 4 are military terms describing war which happens to be the very situation operating in Rev. 19. “The Lord will descend from heaven with a shout [emphasis mine].” The word translated “shout” is used in Greek literature to refer to the command of a general or commanding officer in the armed services. Next, Paul claims that the trumpet will sound before the resurrection. One of the primary uses of trumpets in Paul’s day was to signal the troops for battle. Third, Paul claims that the archangel will take part in the rapture. The only archangel identified as such in the NT is Michael who is the warrior angel (see Rev. 12:7). Some try to restrict his role to being the defender of only Israel; however, Rev. 12:7 undermines that restriction because Michael defends heaven and Jesus against the attack of the dragon. Fourth, the Lord meets His saints in the “air.” According to Paul (Eph. 2:2), the air is the domain or stronghold of Satan. In other words, when Jesus returns to destroy Satan, He does not sneak in through the back door. Rather, He takes on Satan right where he is strongest—in the air! Where does God pour out the last bowl of wrath? Upon the air, the stronghold of Satan.
Finally, the word Paul uses to describe the “meeting” between Christ and His followers is a technical term used in Greek to describe the meeting between a monarch and his people whenever that monarch is about to travel to their city. Whenever the city gets wind that the monarch is coming, they go out half-way to meet him. At that point, they escort him back to their city; they do not escort him back to his. This same idea is operating in Matt. 25:1-10 (especially v. 10) when the maids go out to meet the bridegroom (the coming Christ). They are not going to escort him back to his place of residence but to the wedding banquet which they have helped prepare for him.
The presence of the statement that Jesus is coming like a thief occurs during the pouring out of the 6th bowl and not at the beginning of Revelation.
Moreover, we need to remember that bodily resurrection is appropriate not for existence in heaven as it now exists but for existence in a transformed earth that exists starting in Rev. 20 during the thousand-year reign of Christ and consummates with the actual coming of God to a new heaven and earth in Rev. 21-22.
In 1 John 2:18, John very clearly states that he believes that he (and the church) is about to go through the tribulation: “Children, it is the last hour, and just as you heard that Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour.” Some water down this verse to mean very little; however, taken at face value, this verse indicates that John believed that he and the church of Asia were either in the midst of the tribulation or about to go through it. By no means does he hint that he is going to escape it.
What about the objection that John does not mention the church after Rev. 3? This is no problem at all since John is using OT symbols to apply to the Christian Church throughout Revelation. If John uses these OT symbols to refer to the church in Rev. 1-3, then the interpreter must do some fast talking if s/he is going to claim that these same symbols do not refer to the church in chapters 4-19.