Someone told me that Lutherans don’t take the Bible literally, which is why we don’t teach millennialism, that is, Christ’s thousand-year reign with his believers on earth, as found in Revelation chapter 20. What can I say to this person?
Actually, Lutherans do take the Bible literally, that is, according to its genre.
Apocalyptic literature uses figurative language
In order to interpret the book of Revelation, we must recognize that apocalyptic literature uses figurative language.
Even those who accuse Lutherans of not interpreting Revelation literally must acknowledge at least some figurative language in Revelation chapter 20. For example, in verses 1 and 2 where one thousand years is referenced, it states that Satan is bound by a great chain. The chain must be a figure of something since Satan is a fallen angel and cannot be chained with a physical chain. Also notice that a key, dragon, serpent, and even the Abyss are all figurative.
The main message is clear
We need to exercise caution in trying to identify every figure in the book of Revelation with dogmatic certainty. Reading apocalyptic literature is a little like looking at an impressionistic painting. If you get your nose too close, you lose the big picture. The same is true when reading apocalyptic literature. When we get bogged down in the details, we can lose the big, beautiful picture that the Holy Spirit is giving as an encouragement to us.
In one way, the book of Revelation is one of the easiest books to interpret because the message is so simple and clear: On this side of eternity, God’s people will have crosses to bear. But Jesus wins, which means that we win and now beautiful heaven awaits all believers. That is the recurring message of Revelation!
Pay attention to the words
One of the principles of interpretation is to let the clear passages of Scripture shed light on those that are more difficult. The one thousand years mentioned in Revelation must be figurative or it would contradict the clear truths of the end times elsewhere in Scripture. The thousand years when Satan is bound refers to the New Testament era. When interpreting Revelation, it is important to pay attention to the words!
In verse 4, the apostle John sees “thrones.” Where are there thrones? In heaven! They belong to the “souls” of those who have died for their faith. They are in heaven right now during the “one thousand years” of the New Testament era before the resurrection of the body at the Last Day. Verse 4 says, “They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” This says nothing of how long Christ reigns. He always reigns (Revelation 11:15). These faithful who have died are in heaven with Jesus right now.
Verse 5 says, “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.” Who are these “dead”? Unbelievers exist but don’t “live.” Without faith in Jesus they are still dead in trespasses and sins. Believers have come to life in Christ. That’s what John refers to when he wrote, “This is the first resurrection” (cf. John 5:24-29). As a result, verse 6 goes on to say that we are blessed because the second death (i.e. hell) has no power over us!
What a comfort to know that those who die in the Lord are reigning with Christ right now!
Have a question, ask it here!
Author: David Scharf
Volume 108, Number 9
Issue: September 2021