Will Jesus Christ return to rule over the nations of this world, or are the prophecies of a messianic kingdom only symbolic of a spiritual reality?
The term Millennium is derived from the Latin word mille, meaning thousand. In the Bible it is associated with Revelation chapter 20, where it states that faithful saints will reign with Christ for “a thousand years” (verses 4, 6). Though the definition of Millennium is easily understood and its scriptural reference is well-known, the exact nature of this millennial Kingdom has been very much debated.
What exactly does the Bible teach about Christ’s millennial reign?
Ideas about the Millennium
Views of what Bible prophecy and specifically Revelation 20 are saying fall into three main categories.
- Amillennialists do not believe in a literal millennial kingdom on earth and generally interpret the prophecies as referring to the symbolic rule of a spiritual kingdom. Theirs has been the prevailing view since the fifth century.
- Postmillennialists believe that the Millennium will be established by the global spread of the gospel and the rise in Christian holiness in the earth. They believe that once that perfection is in place, Jesus will return.
- Premillennialists believe Jesus will personally return to establish His Kingdom and inaugurate a literal 1,000-year reign over the nations.
But what do the Scriptures say about the Kingdom ruled by Christ? Can we arrive at a level of certainty about the Millennium?
Early Church beliefs about the Millennium and the Kingdom of God
The belief in a literal Kingdom of God with Christ ruling over the nations following His return to the earth was the commonly held understanding of the early Christian Church.
The disciple Nathaniel answered Jesus on one occasion and said, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49). Pilate asked Jesus if He was a king, and Jesus answered that becoming a king was the reason He was born (John 18:37). That the Messiah was King as well as Savior was a common understanding in the Church (Acts 17:7).
Even in the second century, Justin Martyr, the famous apologist and philosopher, believed that belief in the Messiah’s reign on the earth was essential to orthodoxy. “I and others who are right-minded Christians at all points are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged, [as] the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, chapter 80).
However, after about A.D. 400, premillennialism was no longer accepted by the majority who considered themselves Christians. Even the influential Catholic theologian Augustine of Hippo, who had initially adopted premillennialism in his early days, later rejected it (Henry C. Sheldon, History of Christian Doctrine, 1886, Vol. 1, pp. 146, 282).
Augustine’s book The City of God was a significant factor in establishing amillennialist thought in Christendom. He wrote: “Therefore, the Church even now is the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of heaven. Accordingly, even now His saints reign with Him” (The City of God, XX, 9).
A literal interpretation of Scripture was being replaced by a more allegorical view of the kingdom on earth. The longstanding Roman disdain for anything Jewish also contributed to this drifting away from apostolic doctrine and the idea that our Savior is a King (Luke 1:32).
So, over time a shift away from believing in a literal Kingdom resulted in mainstream Christianity losing sight of Christ reigning on earth. The prevailing view considered the Christian community to be the new Israel, to the exclusion of national Israel, and Christ was said to be reigning on the earth through the Church.
A future Millennium?
What does the Bible say about the return of Christ and His reign on the earth?
Daniel interpreted a dream for King Nebuchadnezzar in which God revealed the rise and fall of four major empires: Babylon, Greece, Persia and Rome. But this revelation from God extended beyond the fall of Rome, all the way to what the Bible calls the latter days (Daniel 2:28). In other words, prophecies found in Daniel covered events through the end of this age (Daniel 8:17, 19; 11:35, 40; 12:4, 9).
The Bible shows that God is calling people now to be a part of this spiritual family that will rule with Christ.Daniel 2:44 reveals, “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.” God is going to set up a kingdom that will seize administration of the earth from these flawed, self-destructive, human-led governments.
Jesus’ own disciples asked Him when this Kingdom would come on the earth and what would be the sign that it was near (Matthew 24:3). Jesus then gave instruction about what to watch for. He said His return would be visible and dramatic: “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (verse 30).
Government of God
The Kingdom of God will be regulated by His righteous, spiritual laws. Those laws show who God is and how He thinks and what He wants us to do—for our good.
God’s government is now at work in His Church (Matthew 16:19; Ephesians 4:11-12), where the saints keep God’s laws and have them written in their hearts (Hebrews 8:10). Jesus Christ, who has been given all authority from His Father, is the Head of the Church (Ephesians 1:22).
The Church operates under the authority of the Kingdom of God, while the rest of the world is still controlled by authorities in the various nations. But, it’s important to distinguish the difference between being under the government of God’s Kingdom and being the Kingdom. The Church, though led by Christ, is not the Kingdom of God. But it does represent that Kingdom as a forerunner. God’s people today are ambassadors that proclaim and model that coming Kingdom.
Daniel 2:44 is a prophecy about how God’s one righteous government will prevail, not just in one nation or in the Church, but throughout all the earth.
Old and New Testament prophecies about the Millennium
That the Messiah—the Anointed One, the Christ—will literally reign on the earth is confirmed by many Old Testament prophecies.
Micah 4:1-4 is a classic millennial prophecy: “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it. Many nations shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us of His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion the law shall go forth, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
“He shall judge between many peoples, and rebuke strong nations afar off; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
“But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.”
This is not an allegory; it describes real nations.
Zechariah 14:18 shows what will happen if a nation stubbornly refuses to accept the new King of the earth and God’s way of life at that time: “If the family of Egypt will not come up and enter in, they shall have no rain; they shall receive the plague with which the LORD strikes the nations who do not come up to keep the Feast of Tabernacles.”
In Matthew 25:31 Jesus comments on His return to the earth from heaven: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.” A ruler or king sits on a throne for one reason—to administer a government. Jesus will be overseeing physical nations (verse 32). The continuous cycle of wars and rumors of wars and repeated political turmoil will finally come to an end under the government of God on earth.
The book of Revelation centers around Christ’s glorious return to the earth. It harmonizes with the rest of Scripture in showing Jesus ruling over the physical nations of the earth.
“Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!’” (Revelation 11:15).
Revelation 20:1-6 is the section of Scripture where we find multiple references to the millennial reign of Christ on earth. It follows chapter 19, which describes Jesus’ triumphant return to earth to establish God’s government.
Your part in the Kingdom
The Kingdom of God will not be governed by carnally motivated men, but by a righteous King and those who assist Him.
Daniel records, “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” (Daniel 7:13-14).
Jesus Christ will be assisted in His righteous rule by the resurrected “saints of the Most High” (verses 22, 27).
This is also shown in the book of Revelation.
“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 20:6).
Who are the saints?
Who are these “saints” that will rule with Christ in His coming Kingdom?
They are ordinary people who have responded to a special calling (2 Timothy 1:9), and who have submitted their lives to God’s righteous, loving government and His spiritual laws. The life they live is not void of imperfection, but they strive to be subject to the guidance of God’s Spirit (Galatians 2:20), repenting when they fall short (1 John 1:9).
The Bible shows that God is calling people now to be a part of this spiritual family that will rule with Christ (Acts 2:21). If you are coming to have a better understanding of God, His plan and His government, then that may indicate that God is now extending to you a special invitation to be a part of the Kingdom of God. What will you do with this invitation?
Study what the Bible says about how to respond to God’s calling in our booklet Change Your Life.