The Return of Christ: Millennium Matters
Great excitement is often generated in Christian circles by the mention of the millennium. The church has become divided into those who hold to a ‘pre’, ‘post’ or ‘a’ position. In some respects the Evil One has been most clever in creating such division for so often our concern is to defend our particular eschatological scheme rather than to focus our minds, and the minds of others, on the significance and certainty of Christ’s return.
In this article we will look at Revelation 20 which is essentially the key passage for understanding these millennium matters. Before we consider this passage we need to take a moment to define our terms.
A premillennialist is someone who believes in a literal period of one thousand years. While there are considerable variations among those who hold to a premillennialist position, essentially it is the conviction that Jesus will return, set up his throne in Jerusalem, and will reign on earth for a thousand years.
Postmillennialists believe that Jesus will come after the millennium. Most postmillennialists don’t believe in a literal period of one thousand years but rather believe that Jesus will return after a long period of time, after a time of Gospel prosperity – a Golden Age – for the church. As such, Jesus will return to a largely Christianised world.
Amillennialists don’t believe in a literal period of one thousand years at all but rather think this is a symbolical reference to a long period of time – the whole period of the last days’ from the ascension of Christ to His return in power and glory. The present writer would hold to an amillennialists position with a certain optimism concerning the spiritual future of Israel.
In Revelation 20 we are given a fivefold description of what’s happening on earth and in heaven during the ‘last days’. We need to remember that what we are considering here is a vision given to the apostle John, and so the language is vivid and symbolical.
The binding of satan – verses 1 to 3
Throughout the period of the last days Satan is bound (Verse 2). Like an angry vicious dog Satan is chained. He’s still able to do a lot of harm and he is far from inactive but in one particular and specific area he is limited and restricted in terms of what he is able to accomplish. That particular area concerns the evangelisation of the nations. Satan is not able at this time to ‘deceive the nations any more’ (verse 3). Prior to the coming of Christ the gospel was largely ineffective among the Gentile nations but now, post-Pentecost, the message of salvation is being declared to Jew and Gentile, and God is gathering in his people from ‘every nation, tribe and tongue’. Satan will not be able to prevent the missionary expansion of the church. Notice, however, that just prior to Christ’s return he will be unchained ‘he must be set free for a short time’. (Verse 3)
The intermediate state – verses 4 to 6
In verse 4 to 6 John is given a reassuring and comforting view of the condition of the departed saints, especially of those who ‘had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus’ (verse 4). Here we read about a ‘first resurrection’ (verses 5 & 6) and a ‘second death’ (verse 6). These two terms obviously imply a second resurrection and a first death. The glorious teaching of this passage is that the saints in glory have experienced the first death but will not experience the second death. They have died, ‘the first death’, but they will not die eternally, ‘the second death’. They have experienced the ‘first resurrection’ when the Lord took them into his presence in heaven and they are awaiting the second resurrection’ when Jesus will raise them up on the last day and reunite their souls and bodies.
Some confusion has existed over how we are understand the words of verse 5:
The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.
Here is a perfect example of a verse where we must interpret scripture with scripture. These words are not suggesting that ‘the rest of the dead’, unbelievers, are annihilated or cease to exist during the intermediate state but rather that they do not live in glory. They ‘do not come to life or reign with Christ’ (verse 4). They are, sadly, experiencing the awfulness of hell as they await the second resurrection.
Satan’s little season’s – verses 7 & 8
We have already mentioned that just prior to the return of Christ Satan is going to be ‘set free for a short time’ (Verse 3). Verses 7 and 8 describe for us what this ‘unbinding’ will look like. It will be a period of great persecution for the church and will undoubtedly coincide with the great Apostasy and the rise of the Antichrist. Verse 8 refers to Gog and Magog. In the prophecy of Ezekiel (chapters 38 and 39) we read about days of terrible persecution for God’s people instigated by Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria. Gog and Magog symbolise pagan opposition to God and his people and are terms being used here in Revelation 20 to speak of intense persecution for God’s people just prior to the Saviour’s return.
The rival conflict – verses 9 & 10
Throughout this vision John has been both encouraged and warned. He’s been given a beautiful picture of the saints in glory during the last days awaiting Christ’s return. He’s been warned about the awful destiny of the godless and now he’s further encouraged as he is reminded of the ultimate triumph of the Lord. The devil is to be thrown ‘into the lake of burning sulphur’ (verse 10). This is a picture of Christ, on His return, casting down his enemies forever – surely a particularly encouraging image for those knowing hellish persecution.
The final judgement – verses 11 to 15
A solemn scene is now set before John – the final judgement. This is a scene too solemn and too important to be ‘tagged on’ at the end of this article. For now let us be comforted by the picture of glory we see here in this passage. As we gaze, with John, at the saints in heaven, let us rejoice in the simple, yet marvellous, truth that ‘the souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness and do immediately pass into glory.’ (Shorter Catechism: Question 37)