The millennium has been part of the teaching of the Church from the very beginning. However, teachings concerning the millennial rule of Christ have been systematically suppressed over the centuries and classified as heresy. Yet, the church of God not only teaches about a millennial rule but considers it essential to sound biblical proclamation of the kingdom of God.
The Church of God teaches and proclaims a coming 1,000 year millennial rule of Christ on earth. We consider it an important phase of God's plan of salvation and spiritual birth into His family. This fall we will celebrate the biblical festival called the Feast of Tabernacles. That celebration will include plenty of talk and instruction about this interesting 1,000 year time period called "the millennium".
Christ’s return is spoken of throughout the bible. The specifics of a 1,000 year earthly rule is built upon a reading of Revelation 20:1-6.
Pointing believers towards the expectation of a 1,000 year millennium may seem like an obscure interpretation of prophetic verses particular to the modern age. Not so, the millennium has been part of the teaching of the Church from the very beginning.
However, teachings concerning the millennial rule of Christ have been systematically suppressed over the centuries and classified as heresy. Yet, the church of God not only teaches about a millennial rule but considers it essential to sound biblical proclamation of the kingdom of God.
Today we will:
- first consider historical records concerning the teaching of the millennium by the early church following the death of the apostles
- Then a brief look at why and how teaching about the millennium was suppressed,
- Ending with a return to the teachings of Jesus Himself and the apostles concerning the coming kingdom of God on earth.
The expectation of the 1,000 year rule of Christ on earth was the majority view of the Church for hundreds of years... long after the death of the original apostles.
Let’s look at a few prominent examples:
Papias of Hierapolis (in Asia Minor) lived form 60AD. 156 AD. So there could have been some overlap with the apostle John who died in 90 AD. Papias was known as a disciple [or follower of John] and a friend of Polycarp [a disciple of John].
Papias wrote the "Exposition of the Lord's Sayings". That document is no longer in existence. We only know snippets of it from quotations made by other writers who came on the scene later.
- Irenaeus, a younger contemporary or Papias, quoted having written about a millennium that followed the resurrection (Irenaeus v.32).
- Eusebius of the 4th century quoted Papias as having said: "There would be a certain millennium after the resurrection, and that there would be a corporeal reign of Christ on this very earth". Eusebius, who was personally opposed to the millennial teaching bemoaned the fact so many in the church believed this crazy doctrine. (Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius, book 3, chapter 39).
Justin Martyr: a pagan convert, lived from 100 to 166 AD. His life span does not overlap with any living apostle. However he gives us a taste of what was going on in the Church about 50-60 years after the last apostle died.
"I and others are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead and 1,000 years in Jerusalem which will be built, adorned and enlarged" (Dial., 80). He admits however, that some members of the Church think otherwise.
Irenaeus (previously mentioned), lived from 130 to 202 AD. a little further removed from the apostles in time mentions the 1,000 year rule in his own writings.
"For in as many days as this world was made, in so many thousand years it reaches its consummation." Then, after quoting several Old Testament passages referring to the millennium, he continues: "All such things refer not to heavenly matters, but to the times of the kingdom, when the earth has been restored by Christ" (Against the Heresies, book 5, chpts 28, 35).
In the early3rd century Tertullian acknowledged the possibility of a promised Millennium on the earth (Against Marcion, book 3, chapter 25). I have a dozen or so more such examples but for the sake of time let me offer this summary:
Wikipedia, Millennium: "During the first centuries after Christ, various forms of millennialism were to be found in the Church, both East and West. It was a decidedly majority view at that time". Britannica.com makes much the same assessment.Suppression of Millennial Teaching
The biblical picture of the millennial rule of the Messiah on earth graphically depicts the overthrow of oppressive human government, enforcement of justice, as well as prosperity for all. Its a great message of hope for people who are suffering and oppressed… but not so appealing to the people currently in charge of human government, religion and culture.
By the 3rd century the church was no longer downtrodden and oppressed. It had become large, and powerful within the Roman empire. A form of Christianity became the state sponsored religion under emperor Constantine. The church wasn't counter culture anymore... it began to dominate the culture... seeking to work as a cooperative appendage of the imperial government.
The state sponsored version of Christianity began changing the apostolic teachings to better achieve harmony with the Roman empire. One of the apostolic teachings that needed revision was the millennium. The teaching of Christ returning to earth and to overthrow all forms of human government was becoming an embarrassment to the influential men who now lead the "Christian" Church.
Strong opposition to a literal teaching of the 1,000 year rule of Christ on earth began to develop.Second Ecumenical Council of 381 AD.
Teaching of a literal millennium was condemned as heresy in 381 AD. at the Second Ecumenical Council. The phrase "His kingdom shall never end" was added to the Nicean Creed to obliquely address the issue.
Note: One of the objections to teaching of a future 1,000 year rule of Christ on earth was that it gave a start and stop point to Christ’s rule as opposed to an everlasting rule.
At the same time the book of Revelation was removed from the general reading list of the established Christian church. One reason was probably because it plainly referred to the Millennium. Removing it would get rid of the troublesome scriptural reference on which millennialism was founded.A New Way of Thinking About Christ’s Rule
Others laid the groundwork but it was a man named Augustine. He was the one who finally developed a way to make the millennium friendly to the powerful secular and religious leaders. He accomplished this by arguing that the 1,000 year rule found in Revelation 20 was only to be understood symbolically.
- Christ already ruled the earth. He did this from His throne in heaven using the authorized Christian Church to enact His rule.
- Even though Christ was ruling presence of oppression, corruption, and war were still happening on earth. To address this Augustine developed the two cities theory. The city of God which was in heaven (heavenly Jerusalem) and the city of man (earthly Babylon). These two opposing cities would exist until the end of time.
- Believers became future citizens of the heavenly city of God through accepting the rule of God in their hearts now.
- The millennial promises of peace, justice, freedom, reward etc. would only be realized by going to heaven after a person’s death and judgment. This would also be the time when believers would “rule with Christ”… from heaven.
These interpretations were forcefully and persuasively presented by Augustine and ultimately backed up by the power of Rome. This new symbolic and spiritualized interpretation of Christ’s rule changed the Christian understanding of end-time events, inheritance, what happens after death, but especially the millennium. The answer to humanity's longing for a better world was no longer based on Christ returning to earth to set things right... the answer was to leave the earth behind and go somewhere else.
OPINION: This teaching implies that God's creation was designed to fail from the beginning, also implies that God’s laws were never meant to provide a realistic outline for a just society on earth.Millennial Hopes & Dreams Persist
Outlawing millennial teaching and explaining away the scriptures didn't stop people from wanting and seeking a better world. Millennialism never really went away. It remained lurking under the surface… often providing justification and spiritual fervor to countless European revolutionary movements, totalitarian regimes, and wars. There are simply too may examples to list but here are a few: the crusades, the 100 years war, the peasants revolts, the dawning of the age of Aquarius, and the most notorious of our time... the violent attempt to establish a 1,000 year Reich.
Time and time again frustrated humanity has foolishly tried to bring about the dawn of a new age through violence, revolution, war, and political activism. Given the historical record, Its not without good reason that In 1995 Joseph Ratzinberger [who would later become Pope Benedict XVI] reiterated and confirmed the Roman Church's stance on the matter of the millennium:
The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the "intrinsically perverse" political form of a secular messianism. - Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1995.
Millennial dreams of a solution to earth’s problems (even though good) have had, and will continue to have, disastrous results without the guiding light of holy spirit… and the presence of Christ Himself.What Did Jesus Teach?
Jesus told us plainly that He would return and that millennial conditions would not be experienced before his return. He sent His church forth to tell people about the coming kingdom of God. But He also warned: they will not heed you, you will be hated among all men, you will be persecuted Matthew 24:4-14.
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 Jesus came in the flesh and he sowed good seed, He is the master of the harvest which happens at the end of the age. Prior to that no one is “harvested”. There is no present City of God to which people are whisked away upon death. In the meantime, much deception and confusion is permitted.
Luke 19:11-15 the kingdom was a future event. Some time after He had been granted authority to rule He would return... at that time and not before He would reward His servants with subordinate authority ... over cities... a very earth-bound reward.The Apostles Taught the Same
The duration of 1,000 years is only mentioned in Revelation 20. But the return of Christ is mentioned 318 times in the NT [too many to mention]. That's 1 out of every 30 verses. He has received authority to rule and is presently in heaven…. at the appointed time He will bring that rule from there to earth ... Acts 1:11. His feet will once more touch the Mt. of Olives.
2 Thessalonians 4:13-17 … at the time of His return, and not before, those who are Christ’s will be raised to life. None will be raised to life before the rest. Some future generations might even live to see that day without ever having died in the flesh.
Your role will not be to join Christ in heaven, but to be with Him when He returns to set all things right and establish the rule of God on earth. The creation can work, the laws of God do provide a realistic framework for peace, justice, and freedom… but only with the presence of Christ and the power of the holy spirit among humanity
Revelation 22:12, 19.