The Temporary Rule of the Messiah

In Revelation 20:2-7, we read about Christ ruling the earth for a thousand years right after his return. Following the millennium, Satan is cast into the Lake of Fire, the dead are judged, and a new heaven and new earth emerge (Revelation 20-22).

A similar idea may be found in I Corinthians 15:23-28: “But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when it says, ‘All things are put in subjection,’ it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him.’ When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all” (NRSV).

This passage may mean that Christ has ruled since his resurrection and is currently subordinating all of his enemies, but he will turn the kingdom over to God right after his return to earth. Or it can mean that Christ will come to earth, set up a kingdom, subordinate his enemies during his reign, and finally hand all rule over to God. Either way, we see that the Messiah rules for a time, then he gives his kingdom to someone else.

What’s interesting is that we see a similar idea in first-second century C.E. Jewish apocalyptic literature. In the Second Apocalypse of Baruch 29-30, for example, the Messiah is revealed, the monsters Behemoth and Leviathan are eaten, the land produces fruit, and the hungry are fed. Then, the Messiah returns in glory, and the dead are judged (see here). The Messiah comes, does his job, and leaves, after which history seems to come to an end.

In II Esdras, we see something similar, yet slightly different. We read in 7:27-33:

“Everyone who has been delivered from the evils that I have foretold shall see my wonders. For my son the Messiah shall be revealed with those who are with him, and those who remain shall rejoice four hundred years. After those years my son the Messiah shall die, and all who draw human breath. Then the world shall be turned back to primeval silence for seven days, as it was at the first beginnings, so that no one shall be left. After seven days the world that is not yet awake shall be roused, and that which is corruptible shall perish. The earth shall give up those who are asleep in it, and the dust those who rest there in silence; and the chambers shall give up the souls that have been committed to them. The Most High shall be revealed on the seat of judgment, and compassion shall pass away, and patience shall be withdrawn.”

Here, the Messiah is revealed and rules for four hundred years. Then, he and all other human beings die, and the world returns to a primeval state. After that is the judgment of the dead. So the Messiah doesn’t go to glory in this passage. He dies with everyone else.

That reminds me of II Peter 3:10-13:

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”

We don’t really see a Messianic interval here. In this passage, God pretty much cuts to the chase: Christ comes, the cosmos is destroyed, and a new heavens and a new earth takes its place. But a lot of Christians try to read II Peter 3 and Revelation together, positing that the earth will burn up right after Christ’s millennial rule. And that’s the scenario we find in II Esdras, only Revelation doesn’t present the Messiah dying after the millennium. For the author of Revelation, Christ already died once!

I one time debated an amillennialist, and I was defending the pre-millennial view: that Christ will come back and set up a millennial reign. By contrast, amillennialists maintain that the millennium of Revelation 20 is not a literal thousand year reign in the future. Rather, it’s symbolic, as are many things in apocalyptic literature, and it represents Christ’s present rule, which began with his resurrection.

The amillennialist told me that I didn’t understand the apocalyptic genre. I don’t know. Maybe my understanding actually conforms to that genre. The Second Apocalypse of Baruch and II Esdras present the Messiah overthrowing the evil of their time and establishing a temporary rule. They don’t suggest that the Messiah is ruling in their time. Their time stinks, which is why they’re writing the literature in the first place!

But amillennialism may have a point. If it does, it’s a point that’s unique to Christianity rather than representative of all apocalyptic literature. Christians, after all, believe that the Messiah has come, which could conceivably mean that he’s ruling right now (on some level). The authors of the apocalypses, however, viewed the Messiah solely as a future figure.

Also, even though Revelation presents the Messiah having a temporary reign, it also believes that he will rule forever, for Revelation 22:1 talks about the throne of God and the lamb (Jesus) in the new heavens and the new earth. The millennium is a period of transition, not the sum total of Christ’s reign. That may reveal a difference between Christianity and the Jewish apocalypses: Christianity views the Messiah as much more than a clerk who will take care of a little business and leave once his job is done. Christ’s status in Christianity is much higher than that.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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