The Millennium: The Vision That Won't Die

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The Millennium

The Vision That Won't Die

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In 1972 President Richard Nixon stunned the world with his historic trip from Washington to China to meet with Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong. President Nixon observed, "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 Beijing."

This was the assessment of one of this century's most powerful rulers about the lasting effect of his ideas and reforms on the world's most populous nation.

In a later publication President Nixon's 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 century's most influential political ideas. Communism, like so many others, has risen and fallen on the tides of time. Like many other movements, communism may yet see itself consigned to the dustbin of history. Another effort at creating a utopian world will have been tried and found wanting, joining the many other political and governmental systems that failed to last even a few centuries, much less 1,000 years or more.

Yet there is one idea, first put to writing a few thousand years ago but not born of human imagination (2 Peter 1:21), that promises a world of peace and prosperity for all. It is the biblical teaching of the 1,000-year reign of Jesus Christ on earth. We call it, appropriately enough, the Millennium.

This truth, which connects with some of the Bible's earliest statements and is abundantly expressed by the Hebrew prophets, continues to hold the imagination of many over the centuries, in spite of attempts to undermine and explain it away.

God's promise of a millennial kingdom stands as a symbol of hope for mankind. A study of the sayings of Scripture and a review of efforts to overturn this teaching can help us understand our world and the promised peace of the Kingdom of God.

The future foretold

In the book of Revelation the apostle John records that after the second coming of Jesus Christ the saints will reign with Him for 1,000 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, 6, emphasis added throughout).

These verses summarize the Bible's many references to the age to come. It is from this verse that we can define the initial period as the Millennium, which simply means "thousand years."

The book of Revelation provides a summary of other biblical descriptions and promises about the millennial age and beyond. God, through His servants, foretold this period time and time again. It was the hope of Israel's prophets throughout much of that nation's history, especially during the nation's downfall and captivity. This same hope was shared by the apostles as they questioned Christ about the restoration of Israel's ancient kingdom (Acts 1:6).

Isaiah, writing during the time of Israel's decline, offered a clear picture of this future when he wrote of a time when Israel would be reunited under one leader and the knowledge of God would fill the earth:

"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's stirring words remain unfulfilled. They have fired imaginations for centuries and crystallized the concept of the Millennium. Isaiah describes a complete change in the physical order. No part of the world we know will be left unchanged.

The nature of man will change to allow the building of a just world based on God's Word and His laws. The deception that has gripped the world will dissipate as the true knowledge of God's plan spreads to all humanity after Christ's return.

Confirmation from other prophets

Ancient Israel didn't live to experience this prophesied transformation of society. This dream, this vision, never materialized during the time it was a nation. Nor has it been fulfilled since.

From the bleakness of captivity and loss of Jewish national sovereignty, the prophet Daniel was given the promise of an enduring Kingdom that would replace the failed efforts of human rule:

"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).

In yet another vision Daniel saw the promise of a literal kingdom encompassing the earth: "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 7:14, 27).

In the midst of the Babylonian captivity, God showed the Jewish people that a kingdom would come on the earth under a divine ruler. There was no doubt this promise was of a literal, earthly kingdom. The Jews expected the Messiah to restore their kingdom and national greatness. 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 promise to fulfill prophecy

Centuries after Daniel's day, the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that her Son Jesus 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).

During His ministry Christ spoke clearly of His destiny to fulfill these scriptures. He showed that His followers would be among those who would reign in this Kingdom: "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).

The expectation of 2,000 years ago in the Holy Land was that a Messiah would overthrow Roman rule and restore an Israelite monarchy. Many who followed Jesus Christ, including His closest disciples, believed He was the One who would restore the Kingdom to Israel. But on the day of His death He said that His Kingdom was not of that day and age. "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).

The time for Christ's Kingdom to be established was not at hand—not during the age of man—in "this present evil age," as the apostle Paul put it (Galatians 1:4).

The early New Testament Church preached the gospel of the Kingdom of God extensively in the following decades. It was the central idea and hope for which the followers of Christ gave their lives in devoted service.

Persecution and heresy

Near the end of the first century the Church and the truth of God's Kingdom came under severe attack from both within and without. The integrity of Christ's teachings was subverted by heresy. The Roman government killed many Christians, including Christian leaders. The apostle John was exiled on the Aegean prison island of Patmos.

At the height of this crisis John received Christ's revelation that affirmed the truths of the triumphal establishment of the Kingdom of God. The knowledge of the Millennium gave the Church encouragement, as it always has done for those who look to God for their hope (1 Peter 1:3; 5:4).

During this tumultuous epoch the teaching of the literal Kingdom of God on earth became mixed with forms of heresy and in some circles was discredited. In the second, third and fourth centuries the concept of a literal earthly reign of Christ came under the most severe attack.

There were misguided attempts by some to predict the time of the return of Christ, contrary to His own teaching (Matthew 24:36, 44; 25:13; Acts 1:6-7). Montanus, a self-proclaimed prophet of the third century, founded a movement predicting the imminent second coming of Christ. Some gnostics also adopted a form of millennial teaching.

Origen, the third-century Alexandrian thinker, arrived at a radically different conclusion about the Kingdom of God. The focus of his view "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" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, "Millennialism").

Because of the influence of Origen and similar thinkers, the Kingdom of God came to be viewed not as a literal future kingdom, but as a spiritual kingdom subject to varying interpretation. The scriptural references were to be understood as symbolism and allegory, not to be taken at face value.

Holding fast

In the midst of these heresies, many still held to faith in a coming Kingdom as it had been received from the apostles. "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" (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1914 edition, "Millennium").

In these early centuries, among the last known proponents of the teaching of the 1,000-year earthly reign of Christ's Kingdom was a bishop of Laodicea named Apollinaris. By the fifth century the doctrine was largely overwhelmed by the views of Augustine, the most influential theologian of the Catholic church. His teaching that the church was the Kingdom of God on earth replaced the biblical teaching that God would intervene in history and establish a Kingdom that would never end.

In Augustine's view, God had already triumphed over Satan, and His Kingdom was a spiritual matter in the hearts of men, manifest in the role of the church on earth. "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" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, "Millennialism").

This coincided with Roman Emperor Constantine's official adoption of Christianity as the religion of the empire. From this point there was no need for a literal belief in Christ's reign on 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, Great Books edition, 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 was virtually unheard of for approximately 1,000 years, until the period that followed the Protestant Reformation. It is interesting 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. 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 during which religious authority took on the form of a literal, triumphant kingdom on 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 ground to a halt, and "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).

Dawn of a new world

The Bible reveals that a world of light will result from the return of Jesus Christ. The social order effected by the establishment of God's Kingdom on earth will be far different from anything ever produced by human effort.

Nations will seek out the way of God. Fear will be banished from among the peoples of the earth as righteousness—obedience to God's law (Psalm 119:172)—guides international relations.

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). 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, the teaching of the Millennium begins early in the Hebrew Scriptures and continues through the book of Revelation. Christ's last words on the subject are perhaps the clearest and plainest in the Bible. Jesus Christ, the true author of the book of Revelation (Revelation 1:1), says there will be a period of 1,000 years during which the resurrected saints will reign with Him in a just and benevolent Kingdom on this earth. Will we take Christ at His word and believe what He said?

Ideas are a powerful force in human affairs. They have sparked revolutions and toppled centuries-old dynasties. They can sometimes arise in the humblest of ways to create large followings. Mao Zedong took a relatively modern idea and with it ruled the most populous nation on earth. Yet by his own admission he failed to change a deeply rooted ancient culture.

The millennial rule of Jesus Christ, an idea that is older than time, will endure and ultimately transform the world. WNP

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