Revelation 20:4 Commentary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
4. thrones ] Dan 7:9. “They” who sat upon them, to whom judgement (i.e. the right of judging: see 1Co 6:2-3) was given are identified by Dan 7:22 as “the saints of the Most High” saints, plainly, in the modern sense, as distinguished from angels.
[ I saw ] the souls ] Cf. Rev 6:9.
beheaded ] Lit. struck with the axe, the old Roman mode of execution by sentence of the supreme magistrate. Capital punishment of citizens had been virtually abolished for the last years of the Republic: and when the emperors assumed the right of executing men for treason, it was done as though by military law (cf. St Mar 6:27), by a soldier with a sword. But the old constitutional punishment was inflicted on provincials down to the fall of the Republic (Cic. Phil. XIII. xvi. 33): and it is not impossible that it was revived when it was desired that a citizen should be executed in due form of law. Thus it is not unlikely that St Paul will be included among those thus designated.
a thousand years ] Only in this passage is the kingdom of Christ on earth (which is of course one of the most frequent subjects of prophecy) designated as a millennium or period of 1000 years. It may be added, that this is the only prophecy where there is at all good reason for supposing that the Millennium of popular belief is indicated, as distinct on the one hand from the Kingdom of God which already exists in the Christian Church, and on the other from that which will be set up at the last day.
Nevertheless, this passage is quite sufficient foundation for the doctrine, even if it stood alone: and there are many other prophecies which, if not teaching it so plainly, may fairly be understood to refer to it, if the doctrine be admitted to be according to the mind of the Spirit. We therefore have to consider the question, Is this prophecy to be understood literally? Is it meant that, for a period of a thousand years (or more), before the general Resurrection and the end of this world, this earth will be the scene of a blessed visible Kingdom of God, wherein the power of the Devil will have vanished, and that of Christ be supreme and unopposed? wherein Christ shall either reign visibly on earth, or at least shall make His presence felt far more unmistakeably than at present; while the martyrs and other great saints of all past time shall rise, and, whether on earth or in heaven, share in the glory of His reign?
Down to the fourth century, the decidedly dominant belief of Christendom was in favour of this literal interpretation of the prophecy: since then, at least till the Reformation, it has been still more decidedly against it. In the second century, Papias, who seems to have been more or less personally acquainted with St John himself, taught Millenarian doctrine decidedly: and St Irenaeus and others derived it from him. In the same age St Justin accepted the doctrine, though admitting that Christians were not unanimous on the subject: but he considers St John’s authority, in this passage, decisive.
And in fact, the rejection of the doctrine was usually on the part of those who rejected or questioned the authority of the Revelation as a whole: it was held to discredit the book, that it taught the doctrine. Thus in the third century, Caius the Roman Presbyter seems unmistakeably to ascribe the book, not to St John but to his adversary Cerinthus; on the ground of its teaching this carnal and Jewish doctrine of an earthly kingdom of Christ. And St Dionysius of Alexandria, who, though not admitting the book to be the work of St John the Apostle, yet on the whole recognises its inspiration and authority, thinks it necessary to refute a suffragan bishop of his own, who adopted Millenarian views, as though he were at least on the verge of heresy.
The case seems to have stood thus. The doctrine of the Millennium was current in the Church, but was most insisted on in that section of the Church whose Jewish affinities were strongest: and it is asserted it is very likely true that the heretical Judaizers expressed their millennial hopes in a coarse and carnal form. Orthodox Christians condemned their language: but while some of them, like Justin, felt bound, in obedience to the plain teaching of St John, to believe in a Millennium of spiritual blessedness on earth, others, like Caius, rejected altogether the doctrine of the Millennium, and rejected, if necessary, the Apocalypse as teaching it.
But when St Dionysius proposed to reject millennial doctrine without rejecting the authority of the Apocalypse, a course was suggested which, if less critically and logically defensible, was theologically safer than either. The Apocalypse was declared not really to foretell a millennium, but only such a kingdom of Christ as all prophecy does foretell, viz. a Church such as now exists. To expect His more perfect kingdom to be an earthly and temporal one was pronounced a heresy, a falling back to Judaism.
St Jerome who, living in Palestine, knew more than most men of the Judaizing heresies which still existed in his time, and had once been formidable, spoke very strongly (as his manner was) in condemnation of the Milliarii (this, not Millenarii, is the ancient Latin name of the sect). He apparently grouped together all believers in the earthly kingdom, whether they regarded its delights as carnal or not: and it seems that his strong language frightened the Church of his time into giving it up. St Augustine had held and taught the doctrine, of course in a pure and spiritual form: but towards the close of his life he abandoned it, and though admitting his old belief to be tolerable, he echoes Jerome’s condemnation of the Judaizing caricature of it. The opinion of these two great Fathers was adopted by the Church down to the Reformation, not formally or synodically, but as a matter of popular tradition.
At the Reformation, the Anabaptists proclaimed an earthly kingdom of Christ in the Millenarian sense, and certainly did all they could to discredit the doctrine, by the carnal form in which they held it. There was a tendency to revive the doctrine, among sober Protestants: but the alarm raised by the Anabaptists at first went far to counteract it; e.g. in England one of the 42 Articles of a.d. 1552 condemned it as “Jewish dotage.” But when the controversies of the Reformation quieted down, and both the Romanist and the Protestant Churches formulated their own beliefs, the former adhered to the tradition of SS. Jerome and Augustine, while the latter, for the most part, as was natural, went back to the literal sense of Scripture and the older tradition.
It thus appears, that Catholic consent cannot fairly be alleged either for or against the literal interpretation. Catholic feeling does of course condemn a Judaizing or carnal view of the nature of Christ’s Kingdom: but whether He will have a kingdom on earth more perfect, or reign more visibly, than is the case now, is a point on which Christians may lawfully differ; the Church has not pronounced either way.
If the question be theologically open, it appears that, as a matter of opinion, the literal sense is to be preferred: “when the literal sense will stand, that furthest from the letter is the worst.” Can anyone honestly say, that Satan has been bound during the time (already far more than a thousand years) that the kingdom of Christ on earth has already existed? that he deceives the nations no more till the present dispensation approaches its end in the days of Antichrist? It is far easier to hold that he will be bound for a long time (probably more rather than less than a thousand literal years), after Antichrist has been overthrown, but before the actual end of the world.
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The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges is a biblical commentary set published in parts by Cambridge University Press from 1882 onwards. Anglican bishop John Perowne was the general editor. The first section published was written by theologian Thomas Kelly Cheyne and covered the Book of Micah.
Perowne exercised limited editorial control over the writers of individual commentaries: his aim was "to leave each contributor to the unfettered exercise of his own judgment".