A 1000-year Reign
The heart of premillennialism is the notion that Jesus will return and reign on earth for a thousand years. Is this the Bible picture? As mainstream as this doctrine has become, Bible readers might expect frequent references to the thousand-year reign. Is it not telling that only one passage mentions such a period? Let us consider that text, Revelation 20.
The book of Revelation foretells the persecution of Christians which was to occur shortly after it was written (1:1, 3). Indeed, it was already beginning (1:9; 2:13). The message is, be faithful to Christ. No matter how much opponents seem to have the upper hand, He and those with Him will be victorious.
In the imagery of the book, the great red dragon is the leading opponent. He has three allies: a beast from the sea, a beast from the earth (sometimes called the false prophet), and the great harlot Babylon. Satan, of course, is the dragon. His assistants are civil government, false religion, and worldliness, respectively. Chapters 12-16 portray their rise to power, chapters 17-20 depict their fall. Satan is the first to rise, the last to fall. Saints suffer severely. Early on, we get a glimpse of those who have been slain because of their faith crying out for justice (5:9-10). The fall of Satan in Revelation 20 is the answer to their plea.
First, Satan is bound for a thousand years (vv. 1-3). Next, John saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their faith. They come to life and sit on thrones with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead are unaffected at this point (vv. 4-6). Then Satan makes one last-gasp effort, fails, and is cast into the lake of fire, his eternal destiny (vv. 7-10). After that, the final judgment of all mankind occurs (vv. 11-15).
Now, some questions.
Where are the thrones? On earth? In Jerusalem? Nothing in the text even remotely suggests that. To the contrary, Christ’s throne is in heaven (3:21; 12:5; 22:3). The only thrones on earth in the book of Revelation are those of Satan (2:13) and the sea beast (16:10). The truth is, no passage anywhere in the New Testament ever has Jesus setting foot on the earth again!
What kind of resurrection is this? Is it bodily? Nothing in the text indicates that. Jesus said there would be but one of those, a universal resurrection of both the righteous and wicked (John 5:28-29). This is a resurrection of selected souls, martyrs. Revelation 20 is the answer to the plea we hear in chapter five. Those then under the altar are now on thrones; those then crying for judgment are now given judgment. A scene of defeat has become a scene of victory. The expression judgment was given to them does not mean that they were made judges; it means judgment was passed in their favor. Human verdicts against them have given way to the divine verdict in their favor. They, and the cause for which they died, are vindicated.
Earlier, Christians were admonished, “Be faithful until death [that is, even to the point of death or martyrdom]. . . He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death” (2:10-11). Now our text says of the martyred souls who have come to life, “over these the second death has no power” (v. 6). Christians were promised, “He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My Father’s throne . . .” (3:22). Sure enough, in chapter 20 they are sitting on thrones with Christ.
Why a thousand years? Would you endure losing a dime to gain a thousand dollars? If these Christians could endure tribulation lasting ten days (2:10), they would be victorious a thousand years! Obviously both numbers are symbolic, as is so common in the book. Their sizes illustrate the relative values of suffering for Christ and being victorious with Him. The point of this paragraph is the saints’ victory, not the duration of Jesus’ reign. Martyrs are not dead, they are alive and reigning with Christ!
Please note: the text does not say that Christ reigns for a thousand years; it says these resurrected saints reign with Him for a thousand years. He was already reigning (2:26-27; 3:21) before these saints were martyred!
Ray Summers said it well (Worthy Is the Lamb 203). “If verses 4, 5, and 6 of Revelation 20 had been omitted, no one would have ever dreamed of a literal thousand years of Christ’s reign upon the earth. . . Yet whole systems of eschatology, theology, and philosophy of history have been constructed on this precarious basis of highly symbolical verses.”