The Thousand Year Reign of the Saints
Excerpted from More Than Conquerors, pages 191-192, by Dr. William Hendriksen. This book is an amillenial interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Hendriksen adopts definite and sane principles of interpretation and clearly and consistently applies them throughout his book. He is best known for his New Testament Commentary, a series encompassing fifteen New Testament books. He has also written Survey of the Bible, Bible on the Life Hereafter, Israel in Prophecy, Covenant of Grace, and Beginner's Book of Doctrine.
In order to arrive at a proper conception of Revelation 20:4-6, we must go back to the first century AD. Roman persecutions are raging. Martyrs are calmly laying their heads under the executioner's sword. Paul had already done this; also James. Rather than say, "The Emperor is Lord", or drop incense on the altar of a pagan priest as a token of worshipping the emperor, believers confess their Christ even in the midst of the flames and while they are thrown before the wild beasts in the Roman amphitheatres.
But Christ is not unmindful of His grievously afflicted disciples. He sustains them in order that they may remain faithful to the end. For that very reason He gives to His sorely-tried Church the vision of 'the souls of them that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus' (Rev. 1:2,9; 6:9). He describes these souls -- together with those of all departed Christians who had confessed their Lord upon earth -- as reigning with Jesus in heaven. He says, in effect, 'Here below: a few years of suffering: there, in that better land above, they live and reign with Christ a thousand years!' What a comfort! Certainly, the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which is revealed to the souls of believers reigning with their exalted Lord in heaven!
In connection with this 'thousand year reign' of verses 4-6 we shall answer three questions.
Where does it take place?
According to the passage which we are considering it takes place in three places.
- The thousand year reign occurs where the thrones are, for we read: 'And I saw thrones and they sat upon them.' Now, according to the entire book of Revelation, the throne of Christ and of His people is invariably in heaven (Rev. 1:4; 3:21; 4:2 ff.; etc.).
- The thousand year reign also occurs where the disembodied souls of the martyrs are, for we read: 'And I saw the souls of them that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus.' John sees souls, not bodies. He is thinking of souls without bodies, for we read: 'of them that had been beheaded'. In this entire passage there is not a single word about a resurrection of bodies. The distinction between souls and body is even emphasized: 'the souls of them that had been beheaded'. True, the term 'souls' at times means 'people' (e.g. Genesis 46:27). But in that case you can substitute the term 'people' for 'souls'. Here in Revelation 20 you cannot do so. The souls reign during this entire present dispensation until Christ's second coming. Afterwards, it is no longer the souls that reign, for then body and soul are together again. Then the saints reign, not for a limited though lengthy period -- a thousand years -- but 'for ever and ever' (22:5).
- The thousand year reign also occurs where Jesus lives, for we read 'And they lived and reigned with Christ...' The question is, where, according to the Apocalypse, is the place from which the exalted Mediator rules the universe? Where does Jesus live? Clearly, it is in heaven. It is in heaven that the Lamb is represented as taking the scroll out of the hand of Him that sat on the throne (Rev. 5). Revelation 12 clearly states that Christ was 'caught up to God and to his throne...Therefore, rejoice O heavens, and ye that dwell therein'.
We may safely say, therefore, that the thousand year reign takes place in heaven.
The next question that has to be answered is:
What is its character?
The nature of this reign may be summarized in four ways as follows.
- It is judging with Christ. The ransomed souls in heaven praise Christ for His righteous judgments. They constantly sing: 'True and righteous are his judgments.' These souls in glory are constantly pictured as taking part in all the activities of the Master: they sit down with Him in His throne (3:21); they stand with Him on Mount Zion (cf. 14:1); they sing before His throne (cf. 14:3; 15:3); they shall see His face (cf. Rev. 22:4; etc.).
- It is living with Christ: 'they did live and did reign' (see Rev. 7:9 ff). In heaven these souls respond in a perfect manner to a perfect environment. And what is life but that?
- It is a sharing of royal glory with Christ. These souls celebrate the Lamb's, and thus their own, victory. With Him, they reign. All their prayers are answered; all their wishes are constantly fulfilled.
- It is 'the first resurrection'. The first resurrection is the translation of the soul from this sinful earth to God's holy heaven. It is followed at Christ's second coming by the second resurrection when the body, too, will be glorified.
Our final question is:
Who participates in this reign?
The answer is simple and easy.
First of all, all the souls of the martyrs, 'those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus'.
Secondly, all other believers who died in their faith, 'such as worshipped not the beast', etc.
The rest of the dead, that is, all other men who died, the unbelieving dead, lived not until the thousand years are finished. When that period is finished, then there is a change. Then they enter 'the second death'. In other words, they receive everlasting punishment: not only as for the soul but now also for the body. The change is not for better but for the worse.
On the other hand, those who have part in the first resurrection are blessed and holy. Over them the second death has no power. Not only shall they reign with Christ, but they shall also worship God in Christ as priests throughout the thousand years (Rev. 1:6; 5:10).