The Millennium

I was recently asked by an Alameda member about the meaning of Revelation 20:1-10, which mentions martyrs and the millennium (thousand years).  When I preached Revelation a couple of years ago, I made sure to keep people focused on the ultimate meaning that the symbols in Revelation were pointing to rather than getting lost “in the weeds.”  That’s exactly what one of the best scholars on Revelation advises readers to do when it comes to the issue of the millennium.  In his excellent work, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, Dr. Richard Bauckham writes the following:

“Life and rule – the two issues on which the contest between the martyrs and the beast had focused – are the sole themes of 20:4-6, and they are merely asserted, without elaboration.  This shows that the theological point of the millennium is solely to demonstrate the triumph of the martyrs: that those whom the beast put to death are those who will truly live – eschatologically, and that those who contested his right to rule and suffered for it are those who will in the end rule as universally as he – and for much longer: a thousand years!  Finally, to demonstrate that their triumph in Christ’s kingdom is not one which evil can again reverse, that it is God’s last word for good against evil, the devil is given a last chance to deceive the nations again (20:7-8).  But it is no re-run of the rule of the beast.  The citadel of the saints proves impregnable (20:9).

Thus John has taken from the Jewish apocalyptic tradition the notion of a temporary messianic reign on earth before the last judgment and the new creation (cf. 2 Baruch 40:3; 4 Ezra 7:28-29; b.Sanh. 99a), but he has characteristically made something different of it.  He has used it to depict an essential aspect of his concept of the victory of the martyrs over the beast.  He has given the image of the millennium a very specific function.  But once we take the image literally – as predicting an actual period in the future of the history of the world – it is impossible to limit it to this function.  We then have to ask all the questions which interpreters of Revelation ask about the millennium but which John does not answer because they are irrelevant to the function he gives it in his symbolic universe.  We have to ask: whom do the saints rule?  Do they rule from heaven or on earth?  How is the eschatological life of resurrection compatible with an unrenewed earth?  Who are the nations Satan deceives at the end of the millennium?  And so on.  The millennium becomes incomprehensible once we take the image literally.  But there is no more need to take it literally than to suppose that the sequences of judgments (the seal-openings, the trumpets, the bowls) are literal predictions.  John no doubt expected there to be judgments, but his descriptions of them are imaginative schemes designed to depict the meaning of the judgments.  John expected the martyrs to be vindicated, but the millennium depicts the meaning, rather than predicting the manner of their vindication.”

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