Revelation chapter 20 has long been a watershed passage for taking the Bible literally. Understanding why can help us identify where dispensational thought existed in Christian history.
Six times in Revelation 20:2-7 John mentions a period of “one thousand years”. The reading is easy enough, but controversy abounds around this millennium (a thousand years).
Satan is bound for a thousand years. (Rev 20:2-3)
Christ reigns for a thousand years. (Rev 20:4
Resurrected believers are priests of Christ for a thousand years reigning with him. (Rev 20:6)
Is Satan bound? Is Christ reigning? Is the resurrection past?
If you have a tendency to toward taking the Bible literally you will read this passage very differently than someone who does not take the Bible literally.
If the binding of Satan, Christ’s reign, and the resurrection are all spiritual referring to Christ’s resurrection and reign in the heart of the believer, then the thousand years must also be an indefinite spiritual long period of time.
We could be living in this non-literal “millennium” now!
And so there exists the teaching of the priesthood of all believers, God’s kingdom on earth, and no need to count the years until Satan is unbound, he is simply never unbound.
According to this non-literal perspective, when Christ returns it will be after this spiritual millennium we are now living in. This is the view called post-millennialism – post (after) millennial (thousand years).
If the binding of Satan is literal, Christ’s reign is a literal reign on earth, and the resurrection of believers is a literal resurrection from the dead, then the thousand years must also be a literal definite period of time: one thousand years.
When was this thousand year period? Was it in the past or the future?
Christ is required for this reign, and so it is logical to consider when Christ came. However, if it started anytime around the time of Christ it would have been long over by now two thousand years later.
It would also mean that Satan has now been loosed, the reign of Christ with his priests on the earth is over, and the resurrection is past. (2 Tim 2:18 says to beware of this teaching)
This does not seem likely since Christ did not remain on earth for a thousand years, nor was there a thousand year period where Satan was bound, and priests of God reigned with Christ.
If the millennium was not in the past when Christ came, then the thousand year period, known as the millennium, must be in the future from now.
If in the future, when Christ returns it will be before the millennium begins in order to start his kingdom rule on earth. This literal view is called premillennialism – pre(before) millennial (thousand years).
The Dispensational Approach
When the Bible is not taken literally there is no difference between Israel and the church, mystery and prophecy, or the different gospels in the Bible.
The millennial kingdom reign with Christ’s priests might as well be happening today, the church might as well be the Israel of God, and what was kept secret might as well be what was foretold by the prophets.
The differences are blurred. Dispensational distinctives are covered by spiritualizations.
When the Bible is taken literally, suddenly the church and Israel are different, the church is never called a priesthood, and the prophetic fulfillment in Revelation 20 is not the same as the mystery church.
The Biblical literalist must become dispensational separating the church from Israel, and mystery from prophecy. God has been operating through his church according to the revelation of the mystery of Christ. Prophecy (Revelation 20) has been postponed til the future.
This aligns with Paul’s statements in Romans 11 about Israel’s future return, and shows that literal premillennnialism necessitates dispensational thinking.
This is why finding premillennialism in Christian history is so important: it identifies where literal dispensational thought existed.
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A good resource for further study on this topic is A M.A.D History of Dispensational Thought and Why It Matters by Terence McLean.