In Revelation 20:2-7, six times we are told thatwill be bound and that Christ will reign for a thousand years. The question regarding the last years of earth’s history is, in a sense, very similar to that regarding earth’s first days: what do numbers and units of time in the Bible actually mean? Are they merely figurative or are they to be taken literally?
Understanding this to be a literal period of thousand years or an allegory of an indefinite period of time has been an issue which has, generally speaking, created two camps of believers. There are those who call themselves premillenialists, believing that the Great Tribulation will occur before Jesus returns to set up His kingdom for a literal period of a thousand years in which He will reign physically from Jerusalem. The amillenialists purport that the thousand years in Revelation should be taken figuratively, and that there will not be an actual, literal, physical reign of Christ nor a binding of Satan for a literal thousand years. Again, we are faced with the question of whose view is right. Is it really a matter of theological preference as to which view one holds or is there some key to unlock this enigma?
There are in essence two words that we need to study in order to determine the duration of time in Revelation 20. We will first of all look at “years” to appreciate how the word is used in the Bible. Once we have recognized what is the normal meaning we will explore what writers meant when stating “one thousand”, to see if the number has just a simple meaning of thousand or if as the amillenialists state, it should be understood as an indefinite period of time.
Years in the Bible
The word “year” (ἔτη ete) appears a total of 29 times in the New Testament. In every occurrence the meaning of “year” (or “years”) is simply that of a real, literal period of a year, whenever a number precedes it. For example we read in Mark 5:25, “Now a certain woman had a flow of blood for twelve years.” The text treats this as a real number of real years and why shouldn’t it? What else could “years” mean? In Luke 2:37, we read of the prophetess Anna: “and this woman was a widow of about eighty-four years…” In John 2:20, the Jewish leaders reply to Jesus’ claim, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” Furthermore, in Acts 13:20, we read “After that He gave them judges for about four hundred and fifty years, until Samuel the prophet.” In all of the examples, the word “years” (ἔτη ete) is referring to a real (specific) amount of time and is used in its literal sense. The 450 years of the time of the judges is considered to be a real amount of time. The fact is that “year”, when preceded by a cardinal number, is never used in any other way. “Year” always refers to what we understand to be a year – that is, the completion of twelve months (with the exception of an occasional 13th month added every several years to balance out the calendar), once around the sun. Similarly to “day” in the Old Testament, which when preceded by a number means only a real day, so too when the words “year” and “years” are preceded by a number, they always and only signify a definite period of time.
The Number “Thousand”
Since “year” (ἔτη ete) (and “years”) has only a literal and absolute meaning when preceded by a number, our next undertaking is to try to correctly understand “thousand”. Is there something in the word which would lead us to conclude that “thousand” could mean something other than its literal and plain meaning?
“Thousand” (χίλια chilia) occurs in the New Testament eleven times, six of those being in the twentieth chapter of Revelation. Twice it occurs in 2 Peter 3:8 “…that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” The other three occasions are in the book of Revelation as well. The number of verses with which we can compare the word “thousand” in the New Testament in order to correctly determine the meaning is somewhat limited since six of the eleven examples occur in Revelation 20. Thus, we need to turn to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament translated from the Hebrew in approximately 270 BC.
The word “thousand” appears 504 times in the Septuagint where it is translated from the Hebrew word אלף elef, which simply means thousand. It never refers to any kind of imaginary number nor does it signify an indefinite quantity. The Septuagint merely translates that word literally and it carries the same meaning. There are cases where a text will say “thousands” in the plural and, of course, that by definition is indefinite. But whenever a text refers to “one thousand” it is speaking in a literal sense.
So, you might ask, why doesn’t the word “one” appear before the word thousand? Quite simply, Greek does not require the word “one” to appear before thousand for it to be understood that it means “one thousand”. Many languages are parallel to Greek in this respect. For example, in Hebrew, there is no need to say “one” echad before “thousand” elef. In fact, it is impossible to say that and to do so would sound very foreign. So too in Greek, when it is only one thousand then no other word is necessary to qualify the number. Only when it is two thousand plus, does a number come in front of it.
The Definite Article
The phrase “thousand years” appears six times in the passage of Revelation 20:2-7.
He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished. But after these things he must be released for a little while. And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. 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. Now when the thousand years have expired, Satan will be released from his prison. (Rev 20:2-7 emphasis mine)
Three times in the passage the author, John, states “…bound him [Satan] for a thousand years,” (20:2) “…And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” (20:4) “…and shall reign with Him a thousand years.” (20:6). In all three of these passages the literal rendering of the text is that Satan is bound and the saints reign one thousand years (one is included in the word “thousand” in Greek). The other three passages “…till the thousand years were finished.” (20:3) “again until the thousand years were finished.” (20:5) “…when the thousand years have expired…” (20:7) all refer to a specific time indicated by the use of the definite article “the”. The word “the” is a limiter or a definer. It tells us that something specific is indicated. So too, the time frame is not something undefined but in fact it is very defined. “The thousand years…” reinforces the fact that a literal amount of time is indicated.
A Final Objection
In Peter’s second letter, he writes to fellow believers who were suffering all kinds of trials and persecutions on account of their belief in Jesus. His words are to comfort them and remind them that God’s perspective is different from ours. He writes, “But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (2 Peter 3:8). This verse has been used to supposedly prove that time and numbers in the Bible do not have concrete value and therefore the “days” in Genesis 1 could have lasted one thousand years or perhaps even one million, and likewise the “thousand years” in Revelation is not an actual period of one thousand years. But is Peter really saying that one day is equal to one thousand years? Looking at the verse again carefully we note that there are two important keys to a correct understanding.
The first key is “with the Lord”. Peter here is describing God’s perspective to time and not man’s. This cannot be overlooked. Peter is not saying that one thousand years is equal to one day. He is saying that, in God’s economy, time is radically different – when we think that the Lord is “slack” we should think again. “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9). Peter wants to make clear that God’s timetable is different than ours.
The other important key is the little word “as” (ὡς hos). Though small, it plays an important function in that it tells us that two things are similar but not exact in nature. It is no different than when we make such statements as “Johnny is like his father” or “In Johnny’s eyes, his father is as Hercules”. Both statements are merely stating that one is like or similar to another but not the same as the other. So too, Peter is saying that in the eyes of God, a day is similar to one thousand years and vice versa, one thousand years is like a day. Since God is outside of time, this simply confirms that time is irrelevant to God, though it is not irrelevant to us. Peter gives us another example of the use of this little word in his first epistle (1 Peter 1:24) where he says, “All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass.” Clearly, he is not saying we are actually grass growing on the field. He merely says that we are in many ways similar to grass. Just as it has a short life, so too are our lives short when compared with the eternal God, and our glory will fade away faster than we think. Thus to God, a day or a thousand years is the same and our lives will pass by quickly.
This truth was first stated in the Old Testament, which Peter more than likely drew from. Psalm 90:4 “For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night.” Here too, the writer is simply stating things from God’s point of view – that is, time has no bearing on God. He is outside of time and hence whether it is a day or one thousand years, it is the same to Him. We are not to conclude however, that time is irrelevant for us. Again and again, we see that people live real lives for a specific amount of time. The Bible treats the lifespan of the lives of Adam (930 years), Noah (950 years), Abraham (175 years), Sarah (127 years), Jacob (147 years), and Moses (120 years) as all real and definite (See Genesis 5:5; 9:29; 25:7; 23:1; 47:28; and Deuteronomy 34:7, respectively). Notice that Adam and Noah lived close to one thousand years. Their lifetime was like a single day in the eyes of the Lord, but nevertheless, they lived a specific number of years, and at least according to Jacob, those years didn’t pass by as if they were just a day:
And Jacob said to Pharaoh, ‘The days of the years of my pilgrimage are one hundred and thirty years; few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage.’ (Genesis 47:9)
Conclusions about the Thousand Years in Revelation 20
In conclusion, we have seen that years and numbers in both the Old and New Testaments are taken as literal. “Years” always refers to a literal amount of time. “Year”, when used with a number, is never used to refer to anything more than once around the sun. When the writer wished to indicate a longer period, then the exact number of years was mentioned. We also saw that the number “thousand” is treated just like the other numbers in both Testaments. The references to years in the New Testament are numerous and all of them are treated as real years including the one of 450 years. Furthermore, the Greek word χίλια chilia meaning “one thousand”, is used hundreds of times in the Greek Septuagint and every time has a simple meaning of a literal number, that is “one thousand”! And finally, we noted that the grammar in Revelation, by the use of the definite article, limits the use of what one thousand can mean. It is not an indefinite period of time, but rather is very definite.
Thus we are left with the conclusion that the thousand years of Revelation should be understood to mean precisely that – one thousand literal years. Having used Scripture to interpret Scripture, we see that any other interpretation is both grammatically unsound and inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible.