Millennium as Metaphor in John’s Apocalypse -- By: Paul A. Rainbow

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 58:2 (Fall 1996)
Article: Millennium as Metaphor in John’s Apocalypse
Author: Paul A. Rainbow


Millennium as Metaphor in John’s Apocalypse

Paul A. Rainbow

Near the end of the series of visions vouchsafed to John on the island of Patmos stands one which shows Christian martyrs coming to life and reigning with Christ for a thousand years (Rev 20:1–6). What the vision means has never been entirely clear. Within decades it was already under debate.1

Perhaps one reason why nobody, to our day, has explained this enigma to the satisfaction of all lies in the subtlety of John’s art. John’s language throughout the Revelation is allusive: he lifts a plethora of phrases and images from the Old Testament or from Jewish apocalyptic literature, and weaves them into a design of his own with new referents.2 The ancient figures of Balaam and Jezebel, for example, become ciphers for heretical teachers in the cities of Pergamum and Thyatira known to John (2:14, 20); plagues like those of Egypt, made more dreadful in the seer’s inspired eye, portend God’s wrath against the human race (chaps. 8–9; 16); the four animals of Daniel’s dream, which originally represented a succession of occupying powers in Palestine over several centuries (Dan chap. 7), become in Revelation a conglomerate monster (13:1–2) featuring the seven famous hills of imperial Rome (17:9). Only by rigorously following John’s narrative, as well as clues here and there, can a reader detach the dense wrap of metaphors from their sources in John’s literary background so as to discern what John himself wishes to say, after all, to the churches of proconsular Asia in the last decade of his century (1:4, 11).3

It is generally recognized that John’s millennium is a variation on the apocalyptic theme of a temporary, earthly, messianic kingdom penultimate to God’s final one (cf. 4 Ezra 7:26–44; 12:31–34; 2 Bar. 29–30; 40:3; 1 Enoch 91:8–17).4 So, in a different way, was the Christian proclamation that the messianic kingdom began when Jesus sat down at God’s right hand, a c...

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