Question: Only Revelation speaks of Jesus’ earthly reign as being 1,000 years, a book that is highly symbolic. Are the thousand years to be taken literally or symbolically, and how can we know?
The reference for this question is Revelation 20:1-7. How we answer this question will depend largely on how we interpret the book of Revelation as a whole. It is true that the book of Revelation is full of highly symbolic images, but that does not mean everything is symbolic. In fact, Revelation is intended to be clear and understandable, not a mysterious puzzle to unlock. It is a “revelation,” an “un-veiling”[i] of Jesus Christ, an “unveiling” of events to come, and an “unveiling” of when, in the order of events, these things are to take place:
Rev. 1:1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.
A correct approach to interpreting Revelation then is to treat the language in a straightforward manner unless the context indicates otherwise. With that principle of interpretation in mind, here’s why I believe the 1,00 year reign of Christ is intended to be understood literally:
1) The Messianic Reign of Christ on earth itself is presented throughout Scripture as a literal event, so it is consistent interpretation to understand the time frame given in Revelation as literal as well.
2) Revelation gives many new details to previous prophetic revelations from the Old Testament. The 1,000 year reign of the Messiah is one such new detail, emphasized by Jesus to John six times, one right after the other to make the matter crystal clear.
3) Revelation 20:1-7, where the 1,000 years are specified, also lists several other events that are to take place in and around that time frame:
• Satan is to be “bound,” rendered incapable of affecting human affairs during that 1,00years (20:1-3).
• Jesus’ followers are resurrected, including those martyred for not receiving the mark of the Beast, and exercise authority and judgment with Jesus during this 1,000 year period (20:4-5).
• Jesus’ resurrected followers will also serve in a priestly function during this 1,000 year period (20:6).
• At the conclusion of the 1,000 year reign Satan will be released and will instigate mankind’s final, failed World War, targeting Jerusalem as the Messiah’s headquarters (20:7-9), after which he will be forever banished to eternal torment in hell (20:10).
If the 1,000 years are to be understood symbolically then the events set within that time frame would have to be interpreted as symbolical as well, if we apply a consistent principle of biblical interpretation. We cannot arbitrarily treat one as literal and the other as symbolic. And if the events are interpreted as symbolic, then we would have to conclude that there will be no literal messianic reign of the Kingdom of God on earth at all, no literal binding of Satan, no literal resurrection of the saints to reign with Christ as kings and priests, and no final defeat of Satan ending in his eternal demise in hell.
On the other hand, if we take Revelation 1:1 at face value and interpret this prophecy as an “unveiling of Jesus Christ,” and an “unveiling” of “what” must take place and when it must take place,” then both the events described and the time frame the events are placed in must be interpreted literally.
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