The Biblical concept of a millennium is found exclusively in Revelation 20, and John's vision of a thousand-year reign of the saints as a feature of that millennium is described in no more than three verses of Revelation 20. These verses have been called "historically one of the most influential passages of the New Testament," yet also one of the most difficult passages to expound.1 Do these verses teach that all the covenants God made with Abraham, Moses, and David will be gloriously realized in the church during this age2 or in a future earthly millennial kingdom?3 Could such conclusions possibly be derived from the promise "They will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years" (verse 6)?* What does John actually say he saw in vision? "And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them.
And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and 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 completed. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years" (verses 4-6, N.A.S.B.).+
The danger is acute to read too much preconceived theology into this difficult passage; we need to beware of a dogmatic exegesis that finds in a text what it is already looking for. First of all, we need to acknowledge the fact that there is no indication in this text that John is describing a reign over survivors of the battle of Armageddon or their descend ants who presumably have been born during the millennium. Also, as others have observed, "nothing is said in verses 4-6 about the earth, about Palestine as the center of this reign or about the Jews." 4 "There is no mention of an earthly paradise in the language of Revelation 20, or even a suggestion that the earth will become a kind of Garden of Eden during the millennial age." 5
In fact, the scene of John's vision of the millennial reign of the resurrected saints seems to be in heaven. He saw "thrones" on which were seated those to whom "judgment was given" (N.A.S.B.) or "committed" (R.S.V.)4 In an earlier vision John had seen God's throne in heaven, and "round the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clad in white garments, with golden crowns upon their heads" (chap. 4:4, R.S.V.). This intriguing vision of Revelation 4 seems to suggest that God as Chief Justice has commissioned twenty-four representatives from among the earthly saints to reign and to judge together with Him. 6 These are given the promise that " 'they shall reign on earth'" (chap. 5:10, R. S. V.). This will be fulfilled on the new earth, after the millennium, when all the saints "shall reign for ever and ever" (chap. 22:5, R.S.V.).
The vision of Satan's imprisonment in the sealed abyss (chap. 20:1-3) undoubtedly pertains to the earth, but the vision of the millennial reign of the resurrected saints in verses 4 through 6 is marked off as a new, self-contained unit by the words "Then I saw" (R.S.V.). Christ had explicitly declared that He would return to the earth in order to take all His disciples to His Father's house in heaven (see John 14:1-3). He promises all overcomers a share in His throne in heaven (see Rev. 3:21). These indications strongly suggest that the saints do not reign during the millennium over the abyss, or the desolated world. Rather, their reign is unique in nature and involves the responsibility of sharing in God's reign on His throne. This renewed assurance in Revelation 20:4-6 provides infinite consolation to the misjudged and persecuted saints that their "defeat" and "shame" will soon be reversed completely by God's tribunal into glory and triumph. In fact, the condemned and executed ("beheaded") saints will become the very judges of their persecutors. It is, therefore, deeply significant that the Apocalypse, with its passionate urge for justice, assures the saints that God will resurrect them to life and will exalt them during the millennium as priests and kings to act as judges and assessors together with Christ. 7
All the comfort for the persecuted saints concentrates itself therefore on the most significant beatitude in the Apocalypse, "Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection" (verse 6). They will never die again. "The second death has no power over them" (verse 6), a reference to God's ultimate verdict of condemnation for those whose names are not found written in the book of life" (verse 15).
With regard to those seated on the thrones of judgment (verse 4), one could argue that the twenty-four elders on their thrones (chap. 4:4) represent all the redeemed Israelites and Christians. These twenty-four individuals would then be seen as the twelve patriarchs and the twelve apostles, who rule over Israel and the church as their elders, or judges. 8 This idea seems to be supported to some extent by the promise of Jesus in Matthew 19:28 that in His kingdom His disciples will "'sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel'" (cf. Luke 22:30). It is also true that on the gates of the New Jerusalem are written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel and on the foundations the twelve apostles of Christ (Rev. 21:12, 14).
Some scholars have identified the judgment scene of Revelation 20:4 with that of Daniel 7:9-11, 22, because of parallel features. However, the two visions possess certain fundamental differences that prevent us from equating them.
Daniel 7 does not seem to envision a millennial judgment, but one that takes place in heaven while the Antichrist on earth rages and persecutes the saints in the course of history (see verse 21). 9 Furthermore, judgment in Daniel 7 is pronounced "'in favor of the saints'" (verse 22) so that they will receive the kingdom and the dominion (cf. verses 22, 27, N.I.V.,N.A.S.B.); judgment in Revelation 20:4 is given to the saints and passed by them as judges who reign already with Christ and whose concern is only "to judge the world" and "angels" (1 Cor. 6:2, 3). 10 In Daniel's vision the judgment serves to identify and vindicate the true saints; in John's vision these saints become judges themselves together with Christ. This is the meaningful progression of the kingdom of God. The eschatological judgment of Daniel 7 precedes the resurrection of the saints (see Dan. 12:1, 2), while the apocalyptic judgment of Revelation 20:4-6 follows the resurrection of the saints (see verse 6).
Before the devil and his hosts are executed in a "lake of fire," God's opportunity finally comes to vindicate His maligned name in a most majestic way before the universe, even from the mouths of the wicked. The final court session has arrived for Satan and all his followers among men and angels. Now justice in forensic terms is declared; absolute good and evil acknowledged; the origin, nature, and consequences of sin forever established. "Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire" (verses 11-15).
This great court scene, in which the Creator is the Judge of all His enemies, goes beyond all other descriptions of the final judgment in either the Old or New Testaments. The redeemed, having already been resurrected in the first resurrection at the beginning of the millennium (see verse 6), are therefore exempted from this final judgment of the world. 11 Here applies in its fullest extent what the Gospel of John teaches: " 'Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son'" (John 3:18). '"Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out— . . . those who have done evil will rise to be condemned'" (chap. 5:28, 29). This postmillennial judgment deals exclusively with unbelievers or rejectors of Jesus Christ. Although they are all called to account for their lives "as recorded in the books" (Rev. 20:12; cf. Isa. 65:6), John makes it clear that works cannot save anyone. He states, "If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire" (Rev. 20:15). He is not suggesting, of course, that by some divine mistake a believer could possibly have risen in the postmillennial resurrection, reserved for the lost. As Mathias Rissi states, John rather "indicates that the only criterion of salvation is the fact that our name is written in the book of life. The decisive criterion in the universal judgment is that of belonging to Christ. . . . The judgment therefore can be nothing else than the universal unveiling of decisions that have already been made." 12 Ellen G. White has also shed light on the eternal implications of this final judgment scene: "The whole wicked world stand arraigned at the bar of God on the charge of high treason against the government of heaven. They have none to plead their cause; they are without excuse; and the sentence of eternal death is pronounced against them." 13
The judgment delineates clearly in every case the righteousness of the sentence passed. Thus God's wisdom, justice, and goodness are placed beyond question forever. The character of God is vindicated before the universe. All creatures in heaven and on earth, the righteous and the wicked, cannot help bowing their knees at the name of Jesus and "confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:10, 11). This means the final coronation of the Son of God, exalting Him to the highest place, "above every name" (verse 9). All those around the throne of God respond with the doxology " 'Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!'" (Rev. 5:12).
All are fully satisfied that God's " 'judgments are true and righteous'" (chap. 19:2, N.A.S.B.). In Israel's law a malicious witness who falsely accused a fellow brother of a crime was, after "thorough investigation" (Deut. 19:18) disclosed the facts, sentenced to receive the very punishment he had sought for his brother (see verses 19, 20). Such a "thorough investigation" will take place in the saints' judgment during the millennium (see Rev. 20:4; 1 Cor. 6:2, 3). Not merely by faith alone, but by deeply settled convictions, they will then join the angels' chorus " 'Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments'" (Rev. 16:7; cf. 19:1, 2; 15:3,4).
This profound purpose of the investigation by God's saints indicates the theological significance of the millennium: the ultimate theodicy of the Creator. 14 Through the gift of His Son and by the self-sacrifice of Christ, God's unselfish love and justice stand forever before the whole created cosmos as unassailable and holy. All Satan's charges against God's character and government are finally and forever laid to rest. Christ's reign over God's enemies will therefore reach its dramatic climax at the conclusion of the millennium. He will crush the head of the Serpent under His feet (see Gen. 3:15; Rom. 16:20). The devil, the arch liar and murderer (John 8:44), will be "thrown into the lake of burning sulfur" (Rev. 20:10). Christ will excise all evil from the universe, so that" 'not a root or a branch will be left'" (Mal. 4:1). All who have become one with sin will find their place in " 'the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels'" (Matt. 25:41; cf. Rev. 20:9). "If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." "This is the second death" (verses 15, 14, R.S.V.).
The ultimate issue of salvation or condemnation, then, is whether one is "written in the Lamb's book of life" (chap. 21:27). Of this divine record those who are reborn from above may be absolutely sure already, now (see Luke 10:20; Phil. 4:2, 3; 3:20; Heb. 12:22- 24). Salvation remains a free and sovereign gift of God. It is based not on our sanctified works, but on the Lamb's work alone (see John 1:29; 3:16; 5:24). Our works will ultimately serve as the irrefutable evidence of our actual connection with the Lamb. "Faith without works is dead" (James 2:26, K.J.V.).
It is at this time—after the millennium—that Paul's apocalyptic perspective will be fully realized: 15 "Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. . . . When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God maybe all in all" (1 Cor. 15:24, 28).
Now eternity can begin: "a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness" (2 Peter 3:13; cf. Rev. 21:1; Ps. 115:16). Christian salvation is paradise regained on earth, a universal, social, political reality.
* Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version. Copyright © 1978 by the New York International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
+ Scripture quotations credited toN.A.S.B. are from the New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, and are used by permission.
+ The Scripture quotations credited to R.S.V are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946, 1952 © 1971, 1973.
1 Elis Fiorenza, "Die tausendjahrige Herrschaft der Auferstandenen (Apk 20, 4-6)," Bibel und Leben 13 (1972), pp. 107-124; quotation from p. 107.
2 See H. Bietenhard, "The Millennial Hope in the Early Church," Scot. J. of Theol, 6 (1953), pp. 12-30.
3 The New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 1373. J. F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1959), p. vii.
4 A. A. Hoekema, in The Meaning of the Millennium, ed. R. G. Clouse, (Downers Grove, 111.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1977), p. 169. Also R. B. Jones, What, When, and Where Is the Millennium? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1975), pp. 66, 67.
5 A. H. Lewis, The Dark Side of the Millennium (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1980), p. 63.
6 J. F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ: A Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), p. 296, considers the judges of Revelation 4:4 to be the same as in Revelation 20:4. Others who consider that a heavenly court is in view in Revelation 20:4 are L. Morris, The Revelation of St. John, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1973), p. 236; and R. H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1977), p. 355.
7 Cf. Hoekema, op. cit., p. 165.
8 See E. M. Rusten, A Critical Evaluation of Dispensation Interpretations of the Book of Revelation (dissertation, New York University, 1977), Part I, pp. 263-276.
9 G. B. Caird, The Revelation of Saint John the Divine, Harper's New Testament Commentaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 252.
10 This basic distinction between the judgment scenes of Daniel 7 and Revelation 20:4 is overlooked by E. M. Rusten, G. Ladd, and others, but recognized by G. B. Caird (see note 9). See also Revelation 2:26, 27; 3:21.
11 Cf. M. Rissi, The Future of the World: An Exegetical Study of Revelation 19, 11-22, 15 SET Sec. Ser. 23 (Naperville, 111: A. R. Allenson, Inc., 1966), pp. 36,37.
12 Ibid. Cf. also Rev. 13:8; 17:8.
13 The Great Controversy (Pacific Press, 1911, 1950), p. 668. See the whole chapter 42, "The Controversy Ended."
14 G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1974), p. 631.
15 Cf. M. C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1957), p. 162. G. E. Ladd, Crucial Questions of the Kingdom of God (Eerdmans, 1961), pp. 177-181