Are we in the millennium or not? That’s usually the first question asked in any discussion about Revelation 20. But rarely does anyone ask what the millennium is. We tend to take for granted a whole range of cultural assumptions about the basic content of the period spoken of in Revelation 20, most of which doesn’t actually have anything to do with that chapter. The fact that secular sociologists and historians now use terms like “millenniarian” and “chiliast” to describe any religious and/or political sect that carries the expectation of a golden age on earth is a sign of how deeply ingrained these cultural assumptions have become. If we think of the millennium as a period of earthly peace and prosperity, a return to the garden of Eden, then of course we are not in the millennium. But is that what the text of Revelation 20 describes? How “millennial” is the millennium?
It's a fact widely acknowledged that Revelation contains more references to the Old Testament than any other New Testament book. Indeed, some scholars have found as many as 635 echoes and allusions in John's apocalypse. As a Jew who was thoroughly versed in the ancient Scriptures, it seems that John couldn't help but make associations with God's previous revelations as he himself was given the climactic vision of God's redemptive plan. Granted, sometimes those associations seem to be less of a conscious action on John's part, and simply reflect the way his mind was furnished so entirely by Israel's sacred texts. But sometimes his allusions do reflect a conscious parallel, calling on an OT passage in order to say "This is that!" in some way or another.
Whether conscious or unconscious, however, John's many echoes and allusions constitute our single greatest aid in understanding the way that he, the seer, understood his own vision. If we want to see things through John's eyes and understand his vision the way he understood it, therefore, we should pay close attention to the many references he has left for us.
And yet, curiously, this fact has been largely overlooked in the long and wearisome debate over the millennium. What should have been the interpreter's very first question has seldom been asked: What does John think about his extraordinary vision of a thousand-year reign? In fact, there is much to be learned from the passages John references in Revelation 20:1-10, and perhaps even more from the passages he does not. In verses 1-3 we find allusions to Isaiah 24:21-22, Genesis 3:13-15, and the LXX of Isaiah 27:1; in verses 4-6 we find allusions to Daniel 7:9-11, 26-27, and Exodus 19:6; and in verses 7-10 we find multiple allusions to Ezekiel 38-39. These several OT texts have a lot to tell us about how John himself understood his vision of the thousand-year reign.
But the truly remarkable thing, and the point I would like to focus on here, is that we don't find a single allusion to any of the OT passages which have long been labeled "millennial" by chiliasts. Think of all the so-called "millennial" passages in the OT: like Isaiah 25, where God makes a feast for his people on mount Zion and wipes away the tears from every face; or Isaiah 65, where the Lord makes Jerusalem a place of rejoicing in a newly restored earth and makes the lifespan of his people like the days of a tree; or, perhaps most famously, Ezekiel 40-48, where Ezekiel sees a glorious new temple for the Lord to dwell in when he returns, out of which flows a river of healing waters for the nations. Well, not only does John not allude to any of these supposedly "millennial" passages in his write-up of the millennium, but he ironically does allude to each of them in his description of the post-millennial and eternal new heavens and new earth.
This presents a rather awkward problem for the premillennial scheme, since that interpretation of John's "thousand years" relies most heavily on those passages outside of Revelation 20 for its content. This problem can be broken down into two questions for further dialog: First, granted that Revelation 20 is the only passage in which a thousand-year reign is explicitly mentioned, why do none of the stereotypical "millennial" passages come to John's mind in his vision of the millennium? And, second, how do we account for the ironic presence of many such passages in John's portrait of the "new heavens and new earth" in chapters 21 and 22? Have premillennials perhaps mislabeled those OT passages in order to fit a particular scheme, a scheme which is in fact foreign to the thinking of John himself?