[This is the fifth in a series of articles on biblical future prophecy. The material has been adapted from the author’s book, What the Bible Says About the Future, second edition, 2011, by Sam A. Smith. To jump to the next article in this series tap or click here.]
In the previous article (Biblical Future Prophecy–Part 4) we looked at the biblical basis for the millennium. Here we will focus on the characteristics of the millennial aspect of the kingdom of God. The “millennium” includes only the first one-thousand years (approximately) of the visible kingdom. Of course the visible kingdom will extend beyond the millennium into eternity (Rev. 20:1-22:6).
The millennial kingdom will be global; however, Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, will be the center of attention during the period, since it is from there that Messiah will reign (Isa. 2:1-4), and Israel will occupy a special place of honor at the head of the nations (Isa. 60:1-22; 61:4-9; 62:1-12; Jer. 16:14-18; 30:18-22; Mic. 4:1-2; Zeph. 3:20). Isaiah describes Israel during the millennium in these words:
[Isa. 60:1-22] “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the arm. Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD. All Kedar’s flocks will be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth will serve you; they will be accepted as offerings on my altar, and I will adorn my glorious temple. Who are these that fly along like clouds, like doves to their nests? Surely the islands look to me; in the lead are the ships of Tarshish, bringing your sons from afar, with their silver and gold, to the honor of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor. Foreigners will rebuild your walls, and their kings will serve you. Though in anger I struck you, in favor I will show you compassion. Your gates will always stand open, they will never be shut, day or night, so that men may bring you the wealth of the nations—their kings led in triumphal procession. For the nation or kingdom that will not serve you will perish; it will be utterly ruined. The glory of Lebanon will come to you, the pine, the fir and the cypress together, to adorn the place of my sanctuary; and I will glorify the place of my feet. The sons of your oppressors will come bowing before you; all who despise you will bow down at your feet and will call you the City of the LORD, Zion of the Holy One of Israel. Although you have been forsaken and hated, with no one traveling through, I will make you the everlasting pride and the joy of all generations. You will drink the milk of nations and be nursed at royal breasts. Then you will know that I, the LORD, am your Savior, your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob. Instead of bronze I will bring you gold, and silver in place of iron. Instead of wood I will bring you bronze, and iron in place of stones. I will make peace your governor and righteousness your ruler. No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise. The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end. Then will all your people be righteous and they will possess the land forever. They are the shoot I have planted, the work of my hands, for the display of my splendor. The least of you will become a thousand, the smallest a mighty nation. I am the LORD; in its time I will do this swiftly.”
As the name implies, the millennium will last approximately a thousand years (Rev. 20:2,3,4,6,7). Satan’s confinement, which begins prior to the millennium, is to last for one thousand years, after which he will be released for a short time. His release will result in a rebellion and the destruction of those who follow him (Rev. 20:7-10). How much time lapses between Satan’s release and the final rebellion is not stated, thus it is not possible to give a precise figure for the length of the period. The destruction of those who follow Satan will mark the end of the millennium. It may well be that the destruction of those rebels invokes the dissolution of the present heavens and earth, and prepares the way for the new heavens and earth (Rev. 20:7-21:8).
Humanly, the millennium will be a period characterized by health, prosperity, satisfaction, and longevity (Isa. 65:18-25, cf. 35:3-7). Isaiah’s description of the earthly kingdom, though he does not distinguish between the millennial and eternal phases, is one of the earliest in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament.
[Isa. 65:18-25] “But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more. Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat. For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands. They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them. Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.
Only the redeemed will enter the millennial kingdom from the tribulation period (Matt. 25:31-46, cf. Matt. 13:29,40,47-49). They will be joined by the glorified Church saints, having been raptured from the earth prior to the outpouring of divine wrath at the day of the LORD, as well as the resurrected tribulation saints who do not survive to the second coming, and the resurrected Old Testament saints. Of these four groups, only the saints who survived the tribulation will enter in natural (untransformed) bodies. While scripture does not explicitly address the question of whether those saints living in their natural bodies will be subject to death during the millennium, there is reason to believe they will survive the entire period, since the resurrection of the righteous occurs at the beginning of the millennium and there is no mention of any subsequent resurrection of the righteous dead. If this hypothesis is true, then only the unsaved will die during the millennium. (This would also seem to be consistent with Isaiah 65:20.) The unsaved will be the descendants of the redeemed who enter the millennium in their natural bodies from the tribulation. These unredeemed descendants, though subject to death, will live much longer lives than is presently possible (Isa. 65:20-22). As the period progresses the population of unsaved people will swell to enormous proportions, possibly far exceeding the population of the saints (Rev. 20:7-9).
Governmentally the millennium will be a theocratic kingdom, with Christ ruling from Jerusalem, which will serve as the religious and political center (cf. Isa. 9:6; Rev. 20:6). Concerning this, Micah prophesied:
[Mic. 4:1-3] In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. Many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
Nations will continue to exist in the millennium, and each nation will have a significant measure of freedom and self-governance under the lordship of Christ (Isa. 2:2-5; Rev. 12:5; 19:15). The presence of an increasing number of unregenerate people, especially toward the end of the period, will result in problems. Disputes between nations will still occur, but undoubtedly with less frequency and less intensity. Apparently it will be necessary on occasion for some of the nations to be reminded of their obligations to Christ as Lord (Zech. 14:16-19). While it will be a great improvement over prior conditions on earth, the millennium will not be a perfect age. Perfection will only come after the earth has been purified and re-created, and the eternal age begins (Rev. 21:1-22:5 cf. 20:9).
Economically the millennium will represent a time of unparalleled prosperity (Joel 2:21-27; Amos 9:13-15). Amos prophesied,
[Amos 9:13] “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by the one treading grapes. New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills.”
The amelioration of the effects of the Edenic curse upon the earth (cf. Isa. 11:6-9; Rom. 8:18-24) will undoubtedly account for much of this prosperity; however, the presence of Christ and the influence of godliness in business, government, social institutions, education, and the sciences will certainly have great effect, not to mention the positive economic impact brought about by the elimination of international conflict. (Isa. 2:4).
Socially the millennium will be characterized as a time of unprecedented peace, world harmony, and justice (Isa. 9:1-7). The presence of Christ and the absence of Satan’s influence, at least until the end of the period, will affect the world in such a positive way that even with an ever increasing population of unredeemed people, the world will experience unparalleled harmony both in the natural and human realms not seen since before the fall of man. At the present time the ways of the world dominate society; in the millennium, the knowledge of the LORD and his ways will be the predominant influence (Isa. 9:11; 54:13; Hab. 2:4). The blessings that will flow out of this are impossible to overestimate.
Religiously the peoples of the earth will worship only the true God, at least overtly. In Ezekiel 40-48, the prophet records what must be the plan for a millennial temple. Isaiah also mentions a millennial temple (Isa. 2:3; 60:13), and adds that burnt sacrifices will be offered (Isa. 56:6-7; 60:7). Jeremiah echoed the same thought when he prophesied that the Levitical Priests would never fail to have a man to stand before God continually, “to offer burnt offerings and to present sacrifices” (Jer. 33:18). Zechariah, while not making explicit reference to the temple, did indicate that all the peoples of the earth will be represented at the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. Although worship will be quite natural for the saved that enter the period, as time progresses and the population of the unsaved increases, there will be increased reluctance to render worship to God (Zech. 14:16-19). The idea that there are to be animal sacrifices in the millennium (i.e., burnt offerings, cf. Jer. 33:18) has proved to be problematic for some who perceive it as a reversion to the Old Testament economy. However, when the historical significance of the biblical sacrifices is understood as pointing to Christ’s sacrifice, their use in millennial worship is easily understood as a memorial to Christ’s work on the cross. As such, any sacrifices in the millennial temple do not indicate a reversion to an earlier economy; rather they function as a remembrance, much like the present celebration of the Lord’s supper.
Events of the millennium
While many of the more general features of the millennium are described in the Bible, very little is known of actual events. In fact, only three specific events are mentioned: the resurrection of the righteous at the beginning of the period, the release of Satan after a thousand years, and the final rebellion that marks the conclusion of the period. The judgment of the nations (Matt. 25:31-46, cf. 7:21-23 and Lk. 13:22-28), though not strictly a millennial event, will take place during the short interval between the second coming and the beginning of the millennium. At that judgment Christ will determine who will enter his kingdom.
The judgment of the nations
The judgment of the nations occurs during the interlude between the tribulation and the millennium (cf. Dan. 12:11-12; Matt. 25:31-46). Since only the redeemed will enter the millennium (cf. Matt. 13:30, 41-43, 49-50) the purpose of this judgment is to exclude the unredeemed who will be consigned to Hades until their final judgment. How Christ will judge so many in so short a period of time is not stated. Since the righteous and the unrighteous will be separated from one another by the angels at the second coming (Matt. 13:29 cf. v.40,47-49; 24:31), it is possible that this is a summary judgment wherein the righteous and unrighteous are dealt with as groups. If that is the case, and there is strong reason to believe it is, then it stands in contrast to the final judgment of the lost after the millennium, in which everyone’s works will be examined individually. In any case, only the righteous will be allowed to enter the kingdom.
The resurrection of the righteous
Daniel 12:11-12 indicates that those who survive to seventy-five days after the close of the tribulation period are “blessed.” [From the midpoint of the tribulation to the end is 1260 days (Rev. 12:6,14 cf. Dan. 7:25). The one who survives to the 1335th day is blessed (Dan. 12:11-12). The 1290 day figure in Dan. 12:11-12 terminates 30 days after the second coming. What occasion the 1290th day marks is unknown.] It is possible that the reason for this is that the resurrection occurs on the seventy-fifth day and thus, those survivors will have escaped physical death forever. (An alternate explanation for the statement in Daniel is that if one survives to the seventy-fifth day beyond the close of the tribulation, he or she has successfully come through the judgment of the nations and is thus assured of a place in the kingdom.) Whether the resurrection occurs on the seventy-fifth day from the second coming, or close thereto, that occasion likely signals the beginning of the millennium. In Revelation 20:4 John gives the following description of this resurrection.
[Rev. 20:4] I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
Satan’s release and deception of the nations
After the resurrection of the righteous dead there is no mention of specific events until the release of Satan after his thousand year confinement. We know only that the saints will rule with Christ during this period (Rev. 20:4-5) and the general characteristics of the age, which have already been noted. The release of Satan marks a turning point in the millennium. Satan will quickly exploit, consolidate, and organize any disaffection present on the part of those confirmed in their rejection of Christ. How long it will take for this rebellion to mature is not certain; it could be months or years. The immediate effects of Satan’s release on the millennial environment are not stated, but it would seem likely that as the rebellion grows, conditions within the millennium will deteriorate. This rebellion will ultimately turn to overt conflict. Scripture presents the rebellious as vastly outnumbering the saints. John relates the following prophetic picture:
[Rev. 20:7-9] When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them.
After the destruction of those rebelling against Christ, Satan, and presumably his host of fallen angels, will be cast into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:10).
The millennium is the first phase of the visible kingdom of God on earth. The Abrahamic Covenant, along with the Land Covenant, the Davidic Covenant, and the New Covenant, provides the biblical framework for our concept of the visible kingdom of God. Although Israel has been unfaithful, their unfaithfulness has not, indeed cannot invalidate the promises God has made. God has sworn and will bring his promises to pass. There is an elect generation of Jews who will, by faith, enter into the blessings of the covenant that their forefathers forsook. It is to that generation, as well as the righteous dead of Israel who will be raised, that God will fulfill his promise of an eternal kingdom, first in the millennium, then forever in the new creation.
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(Adapted in 2017 from What the Bible Says About the Future, by Sam A. Smith. Click or tap for the print edition, [350 pages] or the e-book edition [233 pages-abridged], illustrated. Unless otherwise indicated all scripture is taken from the New International Version of the Bible.)