There is only one passage in the New Testament that discusses the Millennium--the thousand year reign of Christ. ("Millennium" is drawn from the Latin words for "thousand" and "year.") That passage is Revelation 20:4-6. There are additional mentions of the "thousand years" in verses 20:2-3 and 20:7 as that period is pertinent to the narrative. Although there is such scanty Scriptural evidence concerning this period, the Millennium is one of the most discussed topics in eschatology. Three schools of interpretation are named for their views of when Christ will come in relation to the Millennium. These schools are as follows.
Amillennialism is the belief that there will not be a literal Millennium during which Christ reigns on earth but that the Millennium is a term for the rule of Christ from heaven during the church age.
Premillennialism is the belief that Christ will return (an event often called the Parousia) before the Millennium and then set up a kingdom over which he will reign for 1000 years.
Postmillennialism is the belief that the church will ultimately triumph in its mission of evangelism and will have powerful influence over the affairs of the world so that a perfect society that aligns with Scripture will be established; at some point during this process the Millennium will be instituted; at the end of the Millennium, Christ will return to earth.
There are variations in each of these scenarios that are advocated by different individuals.
My discussion below of the Millennium relies a great deal on a chapter in "The Meaning of the Millennium. Four Views" by Robert G. Clouse. The chapter, which is titled "Historic Premillennialism," is by George Eldon Ladd. Ladd does not justify the name "Historic Premillennialism" in his chapter, but I gather from an internet entry that "Historic" reflects the belief that it is the view of the early church fathers. (I shall not enter into that discussion.) Ladd's understanding of the Millennium agrees with Dispensationalism that Christ's Parousia will take place before the Millennium. However, he does differ from the Dispensationalists in some other issues. I shall indicate some of those differences. I have chosen to focus mostly on his chapter in Clouse's book because he provides some insight into the nature of the Millennium and the role it plays in God's program. I have added some of my own interpretative comments in some sections.
THE HEAVENLY SESSION OF CHRIST
Ladd refers to the "Heavenly Session" of Christ and connects it to the idea of "revelation" or "apokalypsis." Psalm 110 is often referred to in the New Testament and especially applied to Jesus. Peter, in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, quoted Psalm 110:1 (Acts 2:34-35) and then applied David's prophecy to Jesus: "Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified." (Acts 2:36) In making this application, Peter is stating that Jesus now reigns on the throne with the Father from heaven. Ladd points out that Jesus is NOW the Messianic King of all. In Philippians 2:5-11, Jesus' timeline reaches a climax by acclaiming Jesus as Lord. Note the timeline is as follows:
--He was in the form of God
--Did not grasp at equality with God
--Emptied himself by taking the form of a servant
--Born in the likeness of men
--Humbled himself in obedience to death on a cross
--God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name above every name
--This has the purpose and/or result that every knee bows and every tongue confesses Jesus Christ is Lord
Note that the final outcome of this timeline is that every knee bows and confesses Jesus Christ is Lord. Ladd believes this is a confession of Jesus as King. In Romans 10:9, confession that "Jesus is Lord" is necessary for one to be saved. Ladd also considers this is a confession that Jesus is King. Many (including myself) have understood the Philippians 2 passage to culminate in the exaltation of Christ in the last days. However, the grammar of the passage puts Christ's exaltation in the past, that is, at Jesus' ascension. In Philippians 2:9 God put Christ in the highest position ("highly exalted him"). "Exalted" is an indicative aorist verb, implying the past. This passage in Philippians coordinates with the passage in Acts 2:34-36, which applies Psalm 110:1 to Jesus. Ladd states that this "heavenly session" of Christ--his being seated at the right hand of the Father--constitutes the movement of the Davidic throne from Zion (Jerusalem) to heaven. As the Messiah, son of David, and as the Messiah, almighty son of God, Jesus is Lord--the King over the universe and over every human RIGHT NOW. This position of Christ is known to Christians through the Biblical witness and is a matter of faith. However, the will come a time when it will be known by sight.
THE REVELATION OF JESUS CHRIST
In the New Testament the Second Coming of Jesus is usually referred to by the term Parousia (coming or visitation or presence). However, sometimes it is referred to by the term Apokalypsis (revelation). Obvious examples of this usage include (some translations may render it as a verb): I Corinthians 1:7, II Thessalonians 1:7, I Peter 1:7, 1:13, 4:13. In these verses, Jesus' Second Coming is the "Revelation" of Jesus. Ladd states that this Revelation will be a "disclosure to the world of what is already Christ's: [his] sovereignty and lordship; what is now by faith will become sight." Ladd says: "We do not find in Scripture the idea that Jesus begins his Messianic reign at his parousia and that his kingship belongs primarily to the millennium. We find on the contrary that the millennial reign of Christ will be the manifestation in history of the lordship and sovereignty which is his already."
I should expand a bit on the ideas presented in the preceding paragraphs. First, Ladd is arguing for a present reign of Christ over the earth from heaven. Second, he is arguing that the Millennium will be a period when that reign will be visible on earth. This latter idea is what he means when he says that it will take place "in history." Ladd is countering the Dispensationalists who place a great emphasis on Christ's kingship in the Millennial period without emphasis on his present rulership.
Ladd's emphasis on the Heavenly Session is similar to the ideas of the Amillennialists who consider the present church age to be the Millennial reign of Christ. That is, they equate the Heavenly Session with the Millennium. Although Ladd acknowledges the Heavenly Session of Christ, as I have just discussed, he does not equate that heavenly reign with the Millennium. Instead, he maintains that the Heavenly Session will be transferred, so to speak, to an earthly reign of 1000 years. His argument comes from a careful exegesis of Revelation 20:4-6. He maintains that this brief passage reveals a 1000 year reign of Christ on earth--a literal Millennium. The crucial argument is that the verb that is translated "came to life" in verses 20:4 and 20:5 must be taken literally in both verses. He contrasts this passage with John 5:19-29. In that latter passage, one can "spiritualize" or take metaphorically Jesus' use of "has eternal life" or "pass from death to life" or "will live" in verses 5:24 and 25. On the other hand, in verse 5:29 "resurrection of life"and "resurrection of judgment" should be taken literally as they refer to the last judgment. Notice that the "dead" in verse 5:25 hear the voice of the Son NOW whereas Jesus is careful to say "all who are in the tombs" will hear his voice in the FUTURE in the last days. So, there is CONTEXTUAL EVIDENCE to guide us as to whether literal or metaphorical language is being used. On the other hand, in Revelation 20:4-6, the context does not give any evidence for metaphorical use of the verb "come to life." In the absence of contextual evidence, we are constrained to take both uses literally. "They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years." (Revelation 20:4c) "The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended." (Revelation 20:5a) The outcome of this exegesis is that there is a LITERAL MILLENNIUM in the future. There is a Heavenly Session now and there will be a earthly "session" of Christ as King in the future. This earthly reign of Jesus will be a revelation of him in his glory, power, royalty, and sonship.
THE REIGN OF CHRIST UNTIL ALL ENEMIES ARE SUBDUED
The doctrine of a literal Millennium rests on the brief passage of Revelation 20:4-6. However, there is one passage that alludes to the Millennium and that is consistent with the context of Revelation 19-20. The passage I refer to (taking this from Ladd) is I Corinthians 15:24-26. Most people are aware that I Corinthians 15 is an extended teaching by Paul on the resurrection of the body. It is instructive to follow the passage starting at 15:20. I shall summarize, quote, or paraphrase the verses starting at 15:20 through 15:26, as follows:
15:20: Christ rose as the "firstfruits" of the resurrection. (The term "firstfruits" refers to the earliest grain or fruit, such as grapes, of a harvest--promising the full harvest to come.)
15:21: Death came by a man (Adam), and the resurrection came by a man (Jesus).
15:22: In Adam all die, but in Christ all are made alive.
15:23: The order is: Christ is the firstfruits, then at the Second Coming those who belong to him will be resurrected.
15:24: After Christ destroys his enemies, he will deliver the Kingdom to God [the Father].
15:25: Christ must reign until he has subdued all enemies.
15:26: The last enemy to be subdued is death.
Ladd points out that the events described in Revelation 19-20 reflect the concepts that are stated in I Corinthians 15:20-26. Note the events narrated in Revelation 19:11-20:15, as follows:
Christ's Second Coming is portrayed as his coming on a white horse (19:11-16).
Christ defeats two major enemies: the Beast/Antichrist and the False Prophet along with their followers (19:17-21).
The devil is bound during the Millennium (20:1-3).
The devil is released after the Millennium; he deceives the nations into attacking the saints. He is thrown into the Lake of Fire and his followers are destroyed by fire (20:7-10).
The sinners of all history are thrown into the Lake of Fire along with Death and Hades (20:11-15).
Thus, Christ reigns until he has subdued all his enemies. (Compare I Corinthians 15:25.) At the turn of the chapter, from Revelation 20 to Revelation 21, an entire new order is announced: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more." (Revelation 21:1) Then we read: "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.'" Thus, in this new order, the Kingdom has been delivered to the Father. Christ has done his magnificent work. The completion of that work is described in Revelation 19-20. Revelation, chapters 21-22, then, describe the blissfulness of the future life of the ages.
WHO WILL REIGN WITH CHRIST?
A. THE EVIDENCE FROM REVELATION 4:4-6
If we now turn again to the Millennium, we notice that it occurs during a hiatus in the activity of Satan. See Revelation 20:3. There are few details that are given as to the nature of this period. The material on the Millennium is contained in Revelation 20:4-6. The focus in those verses is not on Christ, but on those who reign with Christ. Notice who these people are. The list is as follows. References are to Revelation.
1. The "souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God" (20:4b).
2. Those "who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands." (20:4c) "They [this very likely refers to both the groups in 1 and 2 of this list] came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years." (20:4d)
3. The ones who share "in the first resurrection." (20:6a) "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." (20:6b)
The first two groups are persons who will live during the reign of the Beast. However, it is a matter of Christian doctrine that those who will be resurrected "unto life" includes all who have been saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. I need to pause and make the case that the "first resurrection" includes not only the martyrs of the Tribulation period but also all who are saved by faith.
B. THE EVIDENCE FROM JOHN 5:24-29
If we return to Jesus' remarks on coming into life and experiencing the resurrection in John 5, we have the following statements:
John 5:24: "Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life." This verse was briefly referred to earlier. It seems clear that this "life" is the eternal life that a believer receives through faith. Jesus reinforces this idea in the following verse.
John 5:25: "Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and now is here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live." The spiritually dead will hear the voice of Jesus calling them.
John 5:28-29: "Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment." Jesus describes two resurrections--one "of life" and the other "of judgment." Whereas, in John 5:24 and 25, hearing the Jesus' word and believing brings spiritual life, in John 5:28-29, hearing Jesus' word brings about physical life that is either "of life" or "of judgment." The former, "of life," is a resurrection that allows one to participate fully in the Kingdom of God with Jesus. It is the "first resurrection" that is referred to in Revelation 20:5. The "second resurrection" is described in Revelation 20:12ff.
C. THE EVIDENCE FROM PAULINE LITERATURE
In I Corinthians 15:12-49, Paul makes an extended argument in support of the resurrection from the dead as the future destiny of believers. In 15:50-57, he briefly goes back over the resurrection to life in the context of the coming of the Kingdom of God, of the victory over death, of the rapture of living believers. Our present physical existence, which Paul calls "flesh and blood" cannot experience the Kingdom of God. But, the resurrection, as well as the rapture of those alive at that moment, will bring about a change into a new order of existence. Paul calls it an imperishable and immortal body, now equipped to experience the Kingdom of God.
In I Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul relates the Resurrection/Rapture of the saints to the Parousia. Just as in I Corinthians 15:50-57, he mentions the "dead in Christ" and "we who alive, who are left." Both groups join Jesus in his Parousia. Notice that Paul is including first century Christians among the "dead in Christ." They will be resurrected. Paul did not realize that there will also be second, third, fourth century Christians, and even twenty-first century Christians, who will be resurrected and be joined with Christ in his Parousia.
D. THE FUTURE, UNSEEN CENTURIES OF FOLLOWERS OF JESUS
Revelation 20:6 gives a blessing to those who share in the first resurrection. John has put the spotlight on the martyrs during the reign of the Beast/Antichrist. But, the testimonies of Jesus and of Paul also include ALL CHRISTIANS in the first resurrection. There is further evidence that the first resurrection and its attendant victorious reign with Christ includes all Christians throughout the centuries. Jesus promised his disciples: "you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." (Matthew 19:28) In I Corinthians 6:2-3, we read: "Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? If the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!" Note that Paul is writing to first century Christians. Thus, when John saw thrones (Revelation 20:4) and those who were seated on them, the Biblical evidence seems to include all who are saved sharing in that victory. John's perspective, and the persepective of his readers, was of the first century church. He, like Paul, very likely believed that all the events that he was prophesying would occur in the next few years. It is very likely that he--from his own human understanding--believed that the Beast/Antichrist would be a Roman emperor. So, the thrones would be occupied by first century Christians. But his prophesy does not exclude those who would follow Christ in the centuries to come.
E. THE QUESTION OF MARTYRDOM, THE FIRST RESURRECTION, AND THE SECOND DEATH
Another issue should be addressed. It is almost synonymous with what has already been discussed. I am referring to the fact that martyrdom seems to be the qualification for occupying one of the thrones of Revelation 20:4. It is even possible to interpret verses 20:4-6 to exclude all except martyrs from reigning with Christ. However, this interpretation would lead to a problem. Verses 20:5-6 divides the dead into only two groups: those who experience the first resurrection and those who experience the "second death." In the sort of shorthand communication which runs through Revelation 20:4-15, two terms are mentioned and their coupled terms are left to the reader to supply. The following explains this:
Term mentioned: First Resurrection; coupled term: Second Resurrection
Coupled term: First Death; Term mentioned: Second Death
So, the "first resurrection" is what Jesus, in John 5: 29 calls the "resurrection of life.' The "second resurrection" is what he calls the "resurrection of judgment" in John 5:29. The "first death" is simply physical death, which all experience except those who are raptured at the Parousia. The "second death" is defined in Revelation 20:14. It is to be thrown into the Lake of Fire. From this discussion, it is evident that all who are saved by faith enter into the first resurrection. It then follows that they also reign with Christ. One does not have to be a martyr to reign with Christ. However, one must have the faith of a martyr. One must have given one's life over to Jesus.
F. THE QUESTION OF OLD TESTAMENT BELIEVERS
I have ignored the issue of "Israel" and the role that Israel will play in the last days as well as the question of the salvation of Israelites and their resurrection. I believe this is a complex issue that should be dealt with as a separate post. I shall just briefly say that I believe Old Testament "believers" will be resurrected in the First Resurrection and that Israel will play an important role in the Millennium. I shall do my best to address that issue in another post.
THE PURPOSE OF THE MILLENNIUM
Ladd humbly admits that he cannot see a clear purpose for the Millennium that is revealed in the New Testament. He refers to the idea of "progressive revelation." Progressive revelation usually refers to Biblical evidence that expands as one progresses through the history of the Scripture. So, for example, very little about the afterlife is revealed in the Old Testament, but more detail is given in the New Testament. Also, although the coming of the Messiah is progressively revealed in the Old Testament, the full nature of Jesus and how he ministered, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven awaited the actual events that took place from the announcement of Gabriel in Luke 1 to the ascension in Acts 1. Salvation by grace through faith was present in the Old Testament period, but it was Paul who clearly explained that doctrine. For Ladd, the revelation of the Millennium and its nature is alluded to in the Old Testament and given a concrete foundation in the New Testament. However, its full nature awaits the arrival of the actual event in the future. Ladd offers briefly the following purposes for the Millennium:
A. The "millennium is part of Christ's Messianic rule by which he puts all his enemies under his feet (I Cor. 15:25)."
B. It also may "reveal to the world as we know it the glory and power of Christ's reign."
C. It will bring a measure of peace and righteousness to the world while the devil is imprisoned. Once he is released, he will find "the hearts of men still responsive to his enticements...This will serve to commend the justice of God in the final judgment." That is, although the "environment" of the Millennium will bring about peace and righteousness, that "environment" will not cure original sin. Thus, God will be just in putting sinners into the Lake of Fire.
THE CONTRAST OF LADD'S NOTIONS TO THE DISPENSATIONALISTS
Ladd is a Premillennialist. His writings espouse a concept of the Parousia--the Second Coming of Christ--that takes place before the Millennium. This is in contrast to two other major teachings on the Millennium. First, there is Amillennialism, which denies a literal Millennium. Some interpreters equate the church age with the Millennium, and the idea of the Heavenly Session of Christ is also equated with the Millennium. Second, there is Postmillennialism, which believes that the church will ultimately be triumphant in evangelism and will create a reign of righteousness on earth. This period may or may not be for a literal thousand years. At the end of that period, Christ will return.
The most influential group of interpreters who promote Premillennialism are the Dispensationalists. I have written more than once in this website concerning the Dispensationalists. Although Ladd agrees with the Dispensationalists on a number of issues, he also disagrees with them on some issues. In the essay that I have based much of this article on, Ladd points out his differences with the Dispensationalists on the following points.
A. church in millennium
C. literal fulfillment of OT
A. THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH IN THE MILLENNIUM: Ladd differs from the Dispensationalists with regard to the role of the church during the Millennium.
B. ANIMAL SACRIFICES DURING THE MILLENNIUM: The Dispensationalists believe that animal sacrifices will be reinstituted. They believe that the temple that is described in Ezekiel 40-43 will be the rebuilt temple of the Millennium and that animal sacrifices will be offered there. Ladd believes that the animal sacrificial system was ended with Christ (see Hebrews 10:5-16 and 8:13) and that this would apply to the Millennium as well as the present time. The Dispensationalists believe that the Millennial animal sacrifices will serve as a memorial to Christ, pointing back to his death just as the Old Testament sacrifices pointed forward to his death. This explanation is really an attempt to justify their interpretation of the Old Testament and has no Scriptural warrant.
C. LITERAL INTERPRETATION OF THE OLD TESTAMENT: Ladd believes that "Dispensationalism forms its eschatology [doctrine of last things] by a literal interpretation of the Old Testament and then fits the New Testament into it. A nondispensational eschatology [such as his own] forms its theology from the explicit teaching of the New Testament. It confesses it cannot be sure how the Old Testament prophecies of the end are to be fulfilled for (a) the first coming of Christ was accomplished in terms not foreseen by a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, and (b) there are unavoidable indications that the Old Testament promises to Israel are fulfilled in the Christian church."
Ladd admits that his methodology "sounds like" Amillennialism. However, he replies that Romans 11:26 states that "all Israel will be saved." This means that one's eschatology must take Israel as a people into account, which is not done in Amillennialism. He also points out the New Testament teaching of the Millennium in Revelation 20, as I have already described. Again, this contradicts Amillennialism even while using an approach to Scripture similar to that of Amillennialism.
If one follows Ladds methodology, then some of the "headlines" of Dispensationalism fade into the background or, at least, must be approached with caution. For example, will the Jewish Temple be rebuilt? Is the existence of Israel as a nation necessarily a precursor to the last days? I think that "caution" should be the watchword. Ladd was a brilliant scholar and, I think, was very helpful in clarifying some matters. But one needs to be humble and cautious about making final judgments about many of these matters.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE MILLENNIUM
I think that I have only begun to wade into the waters of the Millennium and have not yet begun to swim. It is a difficult subject that will take years to understand. I do think that Ladd and others have helped me to see the Millennium as an important component of the reign of Christ. Moreover, Ladd's highlighting of the Heavenly Session of Christ and the Parousia as the Revelation of the majesty and glory of Christ have been helpful. One final thought is this: the Millennium is not the final word from the Lord. There is more to come!
Clouse, Robert G. The Meaning of the Millennium. Four Views. Downer's Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, 1977.
Crossway. The Holy Bible. English Standard Version. Wheaton, Il: Crossway by Good News Publishers, 2001.