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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
 
Title:The return of Christ and the 1000 years of Revelation 20: how should we understand these things?
Text:LD 19 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:End Times
 
Preached:2014
Added:2015-12-10
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Note:  all songs from the 2014 Book of Praise

Hymn 7

Psalm 66:1,2

Psalm 92:1-4

Hymn 1

Psalm 92:5-7 & Hymn 9

Scripture reading:  Revelation 20:1-6

Catechism lesson:  Lord's Day 19

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus,

Over the last while, we’ve been working our way through the articles of the Apostles’ Creed.  This afternoon we’ve come to the last of the articles that deal with the work of Christ.  The first two questions and answers in Lord’s Day 19 speak of his sitting at the right hand of God.  Christ has completed his work here on earth and so he sits in heaven with the Father.  Sitting at the right hand means that he’s been given a position of power and honour.  He’s the head of the church and the one through whom the Father governs all things.  From heaven, he pours out heavenly gifts through the Spirit and then also defends and preserves us from all his and our enemies. 

And then we get to the return of Christ to judge the living and the dead.  Our Catechism gives a straightforward summary of what Scripture teaches about that.  When Christ returns as judge, I have nothing to fear.  I have nothing to fear, because he took the divine judgment that was to fall on me.  Moreover, all his and my enemies are going to get their just desserts.  Meanwhile, I will be vindicated and taken into heavenly joy and glory.  Christ’s return is not something to be afraid of, but to anticipate.  If we’re looking to him in faith, we can see that his return offers gospel promises of comfort. 

The Catechism is simple and clear on these things.  Yet there are all sorts of questions that people ask about the last things, what we call eschatology.  Eschatology is the doctrine of the last things.  A question that I’ve often been asked about is the 1000 years mentioned in Revelation 20.  Many other church groups around us hold to a definite view of the 1000 years or the millennium.  Some years ago, there were those books in the Left Behind series.  A movie was even made of it, and recently it was remade into yet another movie.  Reformed believers sometimes get confused about these things and so it’s no wonder that they ask questions.  This afternoon we’re going to look more closely at the millennium, the 1000 years of Revelation 20.  What are we to believe about it and how should we regard the different views of it?

The issue here is the proper understanding of the first six verses of Revelation 20.  Let’s first briefly look at those verses.  Verse 2 says that Satan will be bound for 1000 years.  Verse 3 says that after the 1000 years are over, Satan must be released for a little while.  Verse 4 speaks of some believers who come to life and reign with Christ for 1000 years – this is the “first resurrection.”  Verse 5 says that the rest of the dead come to life after the 1000 years.  Then verse 6 tells us those who share in the first resurrection are blessed and holy and repeats the fact that they will reign with Christ during those 1000 years.   You can be forgiven if you read these verses and are left scratching your head.  The meaning is not right away clear.  We’re left asking:  is there a literal 1000 year kingdom of Christ and if so, when does it take place?     

There have been various answers to that question. We can group them broadly into three categories.  I’ll briefly tell you what they are and then we’ll spend some time looking more closely at each one.  Remember:  we’re looking at the 1000 year question, the millennium question.  So each of these approaches is described as a form of “millennialism,” a belief about the millennium of Revelation 20.   First, there is pre-millennialism.  Pre-millennialism says that Christ returns to earth before (pre-) a literal 1000 year kingdom on this earth. Second, we’ll look at post-millennialism.  Post-millennialism argues that Christ returns after (post-) the establishment of his millennial kingdom on earth.  Finally, we have a-millennialism.  The prefix ‘a’ means that there is no millennium, at least there is no literal 1000 year kingdom.  So there are these three different views.  Which one is correct?                

Let’s begin with the one that’s most popular today:  pre-millennialism.  This is the position of many North American evangelical churches.  It’s quite common to look at a statement of faith or doctrinal statement and find something like:  “We believe in and expectantly await the glorious, visible, personal, premillennial return of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  A form of pre-millennialism was promoted by the Left Behind books and films.  Because it’s so popular in North America and because in our Reformed churches we haven’t always been so diligent about teaching eschatology, it’s possible that pre-millennialism is the default position of many people in our churches too. 

There are a number of varieties of pre-millennialism.  We can’t do justice to them all this afternoon.  Instead, I’ll describe one popular form of it.  According to this form of pre-millennialism, Jesus Christ came to earth with a plan to establish an earthly kingdom among the Jews.  However, the Jews did not want him as their king and so his plan failed.  Instead, Christ decided to go with a “plan B” involving the church.  With this view, there is a distinction made between Old Testament Israel and the church.  They are two separate entities.  According to this form of pre-millennialism, there is no continuity between the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament people of God.  Israel and the church are distinct, they say. 

Suddenly, at some point in history, what they call “the rapture” is going to happen.  This is said to be Christ’s second coming.  It will not be public.  Those who are believers will suddenly be drawn up to heaven by Christ and everyone else is left behind.  Especially south of the border you’ll sometimes see bumper stickers that say, “In case of rapture, this car will be driverless.”  Some enterprising people have even sold “rapture insurance.”  If you’re raptured, your family members who are not raptured or your pets or whatever will still be taken care of.  Believers are raptured, taken out of the world, and only unbelievers are left.

What happens next is the tribulation.  There will be seven years of enormous world turmoil.  The Antichrist is busy doing his evil work during this time.  After this tribulation time, Jesus returns again.  This third coming is public.  Everyone will see it and know about it.  He returns with all the saints.  Then Christ reigns on earth with them for 1000 years.  Christ and his saints rule from Jerusalem.  The temple is rebuilt there and the sacrificial system of the Old Testament resumes again. 

After the millennium, there is a turning away from God and one last battle with Satan.  Satan is defeated and then cast into the bottomless pit.  Then comes the resurrection of all unbelievers and the final day of judgment.  After that, believers finally get to live in the new heavens and new earth.

I don’t blame you if you didn’t follow all of that.  I tried to keep it as simple as possible, but even then it’s quite elaborate.  You can see why they need charts to explain it.  You can see why pre-millennialism easily lends itself to a whole series of books like Left Behind.  But how should we evaluate it?  There’s so much that’s wrong with this approach that it’s difficult to know where to begin.

But let’s just restrict ourselves to the problem of understanding the 1000 years of Revelation 20.  If you want a more rigorous and thorough critique of pre-millennialism, you should check out Kim Riddlebarger’s book A Case for Amillennialism.

When it comes to the understanding of Revelation 20, where pre-millennialism fails is its insistence on understanding some things in a literal fashion.   There are many parts of the Bible that are meant to be taken literally.  There are descriptions of historical events that we take at face value.  However, the Bible is a large volume with 66 books.  Each of those books has its own character and there are several different types of literature among these books.  The word for a certain type of literature is ‘genre.’  There are different genres in the Bible.  One of these genres or types of writing is called apocalyptic.  There are books in the apocalyptic genre, or books that contain passages written in the apocalyptic style.  For instance, parts of Daniel, Joel, and Zechariah.  Most of the book of Revelation also falls in that category.  Apocalyptic literature uses a lot of symbolism to communicate a message.  But pre-millennialists are often missing this point.

So in Revelation 20, pre-millennialists typically see the 1000 years as a literal 1000 year reign of Christ on the earth.  However, in verses 1 and 2 of Revelation 20, we read about Satan being bound with a great chain.  Satan is an angel.  He does not have a physical body.  So how would it be possible to bind him with a literal physical chain?  It’s obvious that the language is symbolic or metaphorical.  If the language is symbolic in one part of the verse, shouldn’t consistency lead you to see that the language is symbolic in the other part of the verse, especially if you’re dealing with apocalyptic literature?  It’s arbitrary to say that the great chain is metaphorical but the 1000 years are literal.  It’s inconsistent.  So pre-millennialism fails to read the Bible properly here. 

According to pre-millennialism, the reign of Christ on earth is still coming.  But listen to what Jesus said in Matthew 12:28, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”  Or what about Luke 17:20-21?  Christ was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom would come.  But he said not to listen to those who say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!”  He said, “…for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”  And then there’s Colossians 1:13.  Paul says that Christians living here on this earth right now have been transferred into the kingdom of Christ.  Christ is ruling on this earth right now.  Yes, there is still a sense in which his kingdom is coming.  He taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come…”  But that doesn’t take away from the fact that he is ruling here on earth right now already.  Pre-millennialism fails to reckon with this biblical truth.

Finally, pre-millennialism also has trouble with what the Bible says about the resurrection of the righteous.  Remember, pre-millennialism says that the saints are resurrected at the beginning of the 1000 years.  The last day of judgment doesn’t come until after the 1000 years are over and the final apostasy.  But what does Jesus say in John 6:39-40?  He says that he will raise up the elect at the last day.  He repeats it several times in John 6.  Martha says it in John 11 as well and Jesus doesn’t correct her.  When he says about Lazarus, “Your brother will rise again,” Martha replies, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  Both the righteous and the unrighteous are resurrected on the last day of judgment, not at the beginning of a 1000 year reign.  This is also what we confess in article 37 of the Belgic Confession.  The only resurrection of the dead takes place at the last day.  There is only one resurrection.  So here too, pre-millennialism cannot be correct.

But then what about post-millennialism?  Here we are closer to the truth.  In fact, throughout history, there have been numerous Reformed believers who’ve held this position.  It’s quite well-recognized that our Reformed confessions leave room for post-millennialism.                                         

The prefix ‘post’ says it all.  The return of Christ comes after the 1000 years.  According to post-millennialism, there is only one return of Christ and there is only one resurrection.  As for the 1000 years, post-millennialism doesn’t take this to be necessarily a literal 1000 years.  It is a set period of time in history, they say.  In this period, which still lays in the future, the gospel is preached everywhere and widely accepted.  Christianity expands and the world becomes Christianized.  The vast majority of people submit to the reign of Christ on earth through his church.  There is a golden age ahead for the Christian faith.  Post-millennialists do believe that there will be a final struggle with Satan before Christ’s return, but the overall view is one of optimism.  We can be positive seeing that there is a great future ahead.

But the question is:  does the Bible support this very optimistic view of the future things?  Does the kingdom of Christ come upon this earth with glory and grandeur the way people conceive of these things?  The question relates to the character of Christ’s kingdom in this age.  The Bible speaks about this age and the age to come.  The kingdom has a different character in each of the two ages.  In the age to come, all the opposition to Christ is gone, all sin is gone, everything evil is conquered in a definitive and public fashion.  But in this age, the kingdom exists in the midst of suffering and persecution.  Christ’s kingdom advances, but in a counter-intuitive way.  That’s what happened in Acts 14.  In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas were at one moment being worshipped as Greek gods (literally!), and the next moment the people of the same city were trying to stone them to death.  Yet there were those who heard the preaching of the gospel and believed, disciples were made.  Paul and Barnabas encouraged these disciples and in verse 22 of Acts 14, they said, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.”  In this age, the way the kingdom progresses is through hardship and suffering, through persecution.  Scripture does not lead us to expect that, in this age, Christianity will be widely embraced.  Quite the opposite, since Jesus says in Matthew 7:14, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”  There’s far more that could be said about post-millennialism, but we want to move on to the last way of understanding Revelation 20.

Amillennialism is the view held by most Reformed theologians today.  As I mentioned earlier, the word “amillennialism” literally means “no-millennialism.”  I think it was Dr. J. Faber who proposed a different name for this view.  Dr. Faber reportedly said that we should call it nunc-millennialism.  Nunc is the Latin word for “now.”  So, “now-millennialism.”  That would be more accurate.  It would be better because what this view says is that the millennium is right now.  It’s not coming at some point in the future before Christ returns, like the post-millennialists say.  It’s not coming after Christ returns, like the pre-millennialists say.  No, the millennium of Revelation 20 is the present reign of Christ here on this earth.  It’s not a literal 1000 years.  It’s stands for the period of time between his ascension into heaven and his return to judge the living and the dead.

During this time, during the millennium, Satan is bound.  He is bound right now.  What that means is that, while he tries, he cannot ultimately stand in the way of the progress of the gospel.  He can still do a lot of evil things, but he cannot stop the gospel being preached over the whole world, to every nation, tribe, and tongue.  The Great Commission given by Christ to his church will continue to be carried out and people will be saved.  We see that happening among us and we see that happening on our mission fields too.  In that sense, we can share some of the optimism of the post-millennialists.  Really, there is nothing that can ultimately stop the progress of the gospel in this world and the drawing in of the elect.  It doesn’t mean that the world becomes “Christianized” or that all opposition stops.  It means that there is no one who can frustrate Christ’s church-gathering work, not even Satan.

Revelation 20 tells us that, at some point in history, Satan will be released from his bonds.  There will be a period of widespread deception leading up to the return of Christ and the final judgment.  This is described elsewhere in Scripture as well.

Verses 4 to 6 of Revelation 20 describe the reign of the saints with Christ in heaven during the millennium.  Believers are in heaven with Christ, both the martyrs and those who otherwise died in Christ, they are presently already reigning with him.  Their life in heaven with Christ right now is described as “the first resurrection.”  They have been raised to heaven, to a life reigning with Christ right now.  But there will be another resurrection that involves physical bodies coming to life.  That happens at the last day.  That resurrection of the living and the dead, the just and the unjust, that happens at Christ’s return.

Brothers and sisters, the doctrine of the last things can be an area with a lot of confusion and a lot of questions.  To tell you the truth, I’ve struggled with eschatology too.  I’ve never found pre-millennialism to be persuasive at all, but as a seminary student I did waver between post-millennialism and amillennialism.  I’m quite convinced now that amillennialism is the correct view.  The millennium is right now.  And as for how the end times will unfold, you could turn to article 37 of the Belgic Confession and find a simple and straight-forward explanation:  We don’t know when Christ will return.  He will come back when the number of the elect is full.  He will return bodily and visibly, with great glory and majesty.   The dead will be raised and Christ will judge.  Believers will be vindicated and unbelievers will be condemned.  Believers will be blessed with eternal life in the restored creation; unbelievers will be cursed with an eternity in hell.  That’s it.  That’s the simple description of how things end. 

I want to urge you to strive to understand Scripture correctly.  After all, right understanding leads to right belief and right belief leads to right living.  There’s no doubt that there are parts of the Bible that are more complicated than others.  They’re easily misunderstood and then shoe-horned into elaborate systems.  We need to be discerning about these things.  My prayer is that this afternoon’s sermon is a starting point for you to look more closely at these things for yourself.  Also when it comes to the doctrine of the last things, we need to strive to grow in our understanding.  AMEN.

Prayer:

Heavenly Father,

Through Christ, we are your children and we love your Word.  We love its promises.  We love the hope your Word gives us for the future.   We’re glad that Christ is coming to judge the living and the dead.  Because we look to him in faith, we eagerly look forward to his return and we pray that you would bring it quickly.  While we’re waiting, we’re also thankful that he reigns right now.  We thank you that under his good rule, the gospel is advancing among us and around the world.  Thank you for encouraging us with the knowledge that Satan is bound right now and cannot stop your church-gathering work.  We pray that this work would continue and all the elect would be drawn in to your church. 

Father, please help us also when we encounter difficult and confusing passages in your Word.  Please give us the illumination of your Holy Spirit so that we can rightly understand such passages.  We pray that you would lead us with wisdom and insight so that we would continue growing as your children with your Word in our hearts and minds.  




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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