The Millennium, an Eternal Idea

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The Millennium, an Eternal Idea

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In 1972 President Richard Nixon made a historic trip to China and met with the Communist chairman Mao Tse-tung (Ze-dong). President Nixon observed that “the Chairman’s writings moved a nation and have changed the world.” Chairman Mao more realistically replied, “I have not been able to change it. I have only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Peking [Beijing].” This was the assessment of one of this century’s most powerful rulers about the lasting effect of his ideas and reforms upon the world’s most populous nation.

In a later reflection, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reflected that Mao “could not escape the nightmare that shadowed his accomplishments and tormented his last years: that it might all prove ephemeral, that the exertions, the suffering, the Long March, the brutal leadership struggles would be but a brief incident in the triumphant, passive persistence of a millennial culture which had tamed all previous upheavals, leaving little more in their wake than the ripples of a stone falling into a pond.”

What a commentary about one of the 20th century’s most significant political ideas. Communism, like so many other human ideas, has risen and fallen upon the tides of time. Like many other movements, Communism may yet see itself fall into the “dust bin of history.” Another human effort at creating a “utopian” world will have been tried and found wanting.

Yet there is one idea, not born of human imagination, that promises a world of peace and prosperity for all. It is the biblical teaching of the 1,000-year reign of Christ upon the earth—the Millennium. This teaching, which dates from the earliest statements in the Bible, continues to hold the imagination of many despite the attempts to stamp out and destroy it as an article of truth.

God’s promise of a millennial kingdom stands as a sign of hope for mankind. A study of what the Scriptures say and a review of the efforts to destroy this teaching can help us understand today’s world and the promised peace of God’s Kingdom.

The idea

In Revelation, the apostle John records that after the second coming of Jesus Christ the saints will reign and rule for a thousand years.

“And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years…Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years” (Revelation 20:4 Revelation 20:4And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark on their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
American King James Version×
, 6).

These verses are a capstone to the multiple references that describe the age to come. It is from this verse that we define the period as the Millennium, from the Latin mille, meaning one thousand.

What John describes in detail is a summation of all the previous descriptions and promises about the age to come. God, through His servants, has continually foretold this period. It was a hope of the prophets of Israel during its captivity and of the apostles as they questioned Christ about the restoring of the kingdom to Israel.

Isaiah offered a clear picture of this future when he wrote of a time when Israel would be reunited under one Head and the knowledge of God would cover the earth. He wrote this during the period of Israel’s decline.

“There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord… The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

“The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole, and the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse, who shall stand as a banner to the people; for the Gentiles shall seek Him, and His resting place shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:1-10 Isaiah 11:1-10 [1] And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: [2] And the spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD; [3] And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears: [4] But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked. [5] And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins. [6] The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatted calf together; and a little child shall lead them. [7] And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. [8] And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den. [9] They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. [10] And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious.
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).

Isaiah’s words crystallize the idea of the Millennium and show a multifaceted concept that encompasses all aspects of life. He describes a complete change in all parts of the physical order. No part of the world we know today will be left unchanged. Wisdom and knowledge will grow by quantum leaps under the rule of God. The nature of man will change, and people will build a just world upon the base of the Word of God and His laws. The deception gripping the world will be turned back, as the true knowledge of God’s plan is spread throughout the human family. This will happen only through the appearance of the Son of God-the “Root of Jesse,” as Isaiah called Him.

Israel never experienced this type of society. Years later, from the bleakness of captivity and loss of national sovereignty, the prophet Daniel was given the promise of an enduring kingdom that would replace the failed efforts of human rule. His interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was an overview of political history that ends with the appearance of God’s Kingdom.

“And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44 Daniel 2:44And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.
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).

In another vision, Daniel saw the promise of a literal earth-dominating kingdom.

“I was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed… Then the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people, the saints of the Most High. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey Him” (Daniel 7:13-14 Daniel 7:13-14 [13] I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. [14] And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.
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, 27).

In the midst of the Babylonian captivity God showed His people there would be a future kingdom on the earth under the Son of Man. To the Jews of Daniel’s time there was no doubt this promise was a literal earthly kingdom. They expected the Messiah to restore the sovereign kingdom to Israel. But just as a fuller understanding of the words of Daniel’s prophecies was for a future time, so would the coming of this everlasting Kingdom have to wait.

Christ’s intent to fulfill the prophecy

The angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that her Son would be the head of this Kingdom: “And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33 Luke 1:33And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
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).

During His ministry, Christ spoke clear words about His intent to fulfill these Scriptures. He showed that His followers would be among those who would be ruling in this Kingdom. “So Jesus said to them, ‘Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’ ” (Matthew 19:28 Matthew 19:28And Jesus said to them, Truly I say to you, That you which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, you also shall sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
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Christ’s message showed a fuller dimension to the Kingdom than any previous prophet. He showed the spiritual aspect of its laws and that those who would administer the government would be spirit beings who by a lifetime of overcoming had qualified to rule.

“But those who are counted worthy to attain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; nor can they die anymore, for they are equal to the angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:35-36 Luke 20:35-36 [35] But they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage: [36] Neither can they die any more: for they are equal to the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection.
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The expectation in Christ’s day was that a Messiah would restore the Davidic monarchy and overthrow the Roman rule. Many who followed Christ, including His closest disciples, invested their hope in Him as the one who would restore the kingdom to Israel. But on the day of His death, He said that His Kingdom was not now of this world. “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36 John 18:36Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.
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The time for the Kingdom to be established was not at hand. Before His ascension, Christ showed it to be a future event. “Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ And He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority’ ” (Acts 1:6-7 Acts 1:6-7 [6] When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, will you at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? [7] And he said to them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father has put in his own power.
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After starting the Church, Christ inspired His ministers to continue preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God throughout the world in the following decades. It was the central idea and hope for which they gave their lives in devoted service. The apostles preached of the world to come and the Church modeled that way of life.

Persecution and heresy

Near the end of the first century, the Church and the truth of God’s Kingdom came under severe attack both from within and without. The Roman government killed Christians and exiled the leaders. The apostle John was imprisoned on the isle of Patmos. The integrity of Christ’s teachings was subverted by heresy. At the height of this crisis, John received Christ’s Revelation, which affirmed the truths of the triumphal establishment of the Kingdom of God. The knowledge of the Millennium gave the Church encouragement then, as it always has for those who look to God for their hope (1 Peter 1:3 1 Peter 1:3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy has begotten us again to a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
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; 5:4).

During this tumultuous epoch the teaching of a literal Kingdom of God on earth became mixed with heresy, discrediting it in some circles. During the second, third and fourth centuries, the idea of a literal earthly reign of Christ endured its most severe attacks. It seems that all the forces of evil were aiming and firing their weapons in unison. First, there came the misguided attempts by heretics to predict the coming of Christ, a direct violation of His teaching. Montanus, a third-century self-proclaimed prophet, founded a movement which included predicting the imminent second coming of Christ. Other heresies, including Gnosticism, believed in a form of millennial teaching.

The influence of Greek thought upon church fathers also had a profound effect. In particular, Origen, a third-century Alexandrian Christian thinker, drew a different conclusion from the straightforward teachings of the gospels. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, his “focus was not upon the manifestation of the kingdom within this world but within the soul of the believer, a significant shift of interest away from the historical toward the metaphysical, or the spiritual” (article, “Millennialism”). For many the Scriptures had become allegory, symbolic generalization not taken literally.

In the midst of these attacks many still held to a faith in a coming Kingdom as it had been received from the apostles. Notice this quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Bishop Papias of Hierapolis, a disciple of St. John, appeared as an advocate of millenarianism. He claimed to have received his doctrine from contemporaries of the Apostles, and Irenaeus narrates that other ‘Presbyteri,’ who had seen and heard the disciple John, learned from him the belief in millenarianism as part of the Lord’s doctrine. According to Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., III, 39) Papias in his book asserted that the resurrection of the dead would be followed by one thousand years of a visible, glorious earthly kingdom of Christ, and according to Irenaeus (Adv. Haereses, V, 33), he taught that the saints too would enjoy a superabundance of earthly pleasures” (article “Millennium”).

Among the last known adherents of the teaching of the thousand-year earthly reign of Christ’s Kingdom is a bishop of Laodicea named Apollinaris. By the fifth century, the doctrine was overwhelmed by the views of Augustine, the most influential theologian of early church history. His teaching that the church was the Kingdom of God on earth replaced the truth that God would intervene in history and plant a kingdom that would never end.

For Augustine, God had already triumphed over Satan and His Kingdom was a totally spiritual matter in the hearts of men and manifest in the role of the church on earth. “For [Augustine] the millennium had become a spiritual state into which the church collectively had entered at Pentecost—the time of the reception of the Holy Spirit by Christ’s disciples soon after his Resurrection—and which the individual Christian might already enjoy through mystical communion with God” (Encyclopedia Britannica, “Millennialism”).

This coincided with the Roman Emperor Constantine’s official adoption of Christianity as the recognized religion of the empire. From this point there was no need for a literal belief in Christ’s reign on the earth. The church had become politically and spiritually wedded to the power of the Empire.

What historian Edward Gibbon called “the ancient and popular doctrine,” now became an appendage with little use or support. He writes, “But when the edifice of the church was almost completed, the temporary support was laid aside. The doctrine of Christ’s reign upon earth was at first treated as a profound allegory, was considered by degrees as a doubtful and useless opinion, and was at length rejected as the absurd invention of heresy and fanaticism” (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1952, p. 188).

A dark age descends

Augustine’s view became the accepted teaching of the church. Whatever remained of the belief in the literal rule of the Kingdom of God on earth went underground. It is virtually unheard of for approximately a thousand years, until the period that followed the Protestant reformation. It is interesting to note that this medieval period has been called “The Dark Ages” of Western civilization. It is as if the lights went out on learning and the advancement of culture on all fronts.

The combination of church and state stifled the life and welfare of the common man. It held an iron grip not only on the political power but on the mind and the spirit. Historian William Manchester describes the period as a “portrait…of incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness” (A World Lit Only by Fire, 1992, p. 3).

A close look at this “medieval millennium” reveals a time when religious authority took on the form of a literal triumphant kingdom on the earth.

Manchester continues, “As aristocracies arose from the barbaric mire, kings and princes owed their legitimacy to divine authority, and squires became knights by praying all night at Christian altars. Sovereigns courting popularity led crusades to the Holy Land. To eat meat during Lent became a capital offense, sacrilege meant imprisonment, the Church became the wealthiest landowner on the Continent, and the life of every European, from baptism through matrimony to burial, was governed by popes, cardinals, prelates, monsignors, archbishops, bishops, and village priests. The clergy, it was believed, would also cast decisive votes in determining where each would spend the afterlife” (ibid., p. 11).

During this time the advancement of Western civilization had largely halted. “Nothing of real consequence had either improved or declined. Except for the introduction of waterwheels in the 800s and windmills in the late 1100s, there had been no inventions of significance. No startling new ideas had appeared, no new territories outside Europe had been explored. Everything was as it had been for as long as the oldest European could remember” (ibid., pp. 26-27).

This is the culture created and fostered by Augustine’s “city of God.” And yet it came to a close with a gust of wind we call the Renaissance, a period of rebirth in all areas of knowledge. Roughly one thousand years after Augustine’s proclaiming the church was the Kingdom of God on earth, it lost its dominant hold upon men’s minds.

Rebirth of the idea

Along with the awakening of knowledge that began with the Renaissance came also the stirrings of belief in a coming Millennium. In spite of the many attempts to discard the idea, the truth about the “kingdom which shall never be destroyed” (Daniel 2:44 Daniel 2:44And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.
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) has survived.

The world of God’s Kingdom will be far different from anything produced by any humanly devised idea. Nations will seek out the way of God and desire to know His ways. Fear will be banished from among the peoples of the earth, when righteousness guides international relations. The endless conflicts will disappear and the art of warfare will be forgotten. Families will grow stronger with each generation and produce a tightly knit society that will not come unraveled (Micah 4:1-5 Micah 4:1-5 [1] But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow to it. [2] And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. [3] And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. [4] But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken it. [5] For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever.
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). When God’s Kingdom arrives, there will be nothing to deny its long-held promise and hope of bringing peace on earth.

As we have seen from this overview, the teaching of the Millennium begins early in the Scriptures and continues through the book of Revelation. Christ’s last words on the subject are perhaps the clearest and plainest on the subject. Jesus Christ, the Revelator, says there will be a period of 1,000 years when the resurrected saints will rule with Him in a just and benevolent Kingdom on this earth. Taking Christ at His word and believing what He said is our challenge.

Ideas are a powerful force in human affairs. They spark revolutions that can topple centuries-old dynasties, and they can arise in the humblest of ways to create large followings. Mao Tse-tung took a relatively modern idea and with it ruled the most populous nation on earth. And yet, in his words, he failed to change a deeply rooted ancient culture. The millennial age of Jesus Christ, an idea that is older than time, will endure and ultimately transform the world. WNP

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