RPM, Volume 18, Number 32, July 31 to August 6, 2016

To the Ends of the Earth

Revelation 20
The Millennium

By Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

The story is told of the Dr. Alexander Stewart, that he had an understanding with his local book store. Every new commentary on Romans would be sent to him so that Stewart could read the comments of the seventh chapter and the vexed issue of the identity of one who speaks in the second of the chapter. If the commentary did not identify it as a "Christian under conviction of sin," he would return the book saying, "This book is not for me."

Similar stories could, no doubt, be told in relation to the twentieth chapter of Revelation and the identification of the "thousand years" (20:2). No passage has highlighted in greater relief the differences between the various schools of millennial interpretation. The passage is, then, something of cause celebre.

Part of the problem with this, and other passages in Revelation, has to do with the opening phrase: "And I saw…" (20:1). As we have already noted, interpreting this as a reference to an unfolding chronology in history leads to all kinds of problems. Rather, wherever this, or a similar expression occurs (e.g. 4:1; 8:2; 9:1; 13:1; 15:2; 19:17), we are meant to infer that this was the order in which John saw these visions. That means that we are not to imply that there is an historical sequence of events from the ends of chapter 19 to the beginning of chapter 20.

So far, in the section which began at 17:1, we have been told of the destruction of Babylon (17:1-19:3), the beast and the false prophet (19:11-21). Still at large is the organizer of all evil, Satan. It is the destruction of Satan that occupies our attention in this chapter. Three particular features emerge that call for a more detailed examination.

1. The Binding of Satan

It is tempting to thin that the reference in verses 1-3 to the binding of Satan takes place at the end of history. After all, it is mentioned following the destruction of Babylon, the beast and the false prophet. This has led many to interpret this scene in conjunction with a view that expects a future millennial reign of Christ on earth. The binding of Satan, therefore, takes place during this millennial reign, following Christ's return. If, however, we take the reference, "And I saw…" in verse 1 as we have suggested above, what John is seeing in this vision is something which is true at the time he wrote it. That is, Satan is already bound.

This proves impossible for some to accept since Satan seems to be very much at large. After all, does not the New Testament spend a great deal of time warning the saints not to ignore him (e.g. Eph. 6:10-18; 1 Pet. 5:8-9)? This is true, but equally, there are some pointed indications in the New Testament that Satan's power in this period between the two advents of Christ is drastically reduced.

i. From a redemptive-historical point of view, Satan's power over the nations of the world is not what it was during the period of the Old Covenant administration. In the Old Testament, the kingdom of God was limited to one particular location and ethnic group, apart from some notable proselyte conversions. The Gentiles were, on the whole, excluded from the kingdom. There were some wonderful examples of Gentile conversion, such as Ruth; but these were the exceptions and not the rule. Prophets, such as Isaiah, foresaw a day when the Gentiles would flow into the kingdom (Isa. 9:1; 42:6; 49:2,22). But that was to be after the first coming of Christ into the world. The basis, therefore, upon which evangelism in the nations can be done in obedience to the command of Christ to "go and make disciples of all nations" is that Satan's grip upon the Gentile nations has now been curtailed (Matt. 28:19).

ii. Indications of this curtailment can be seen in various statements made during Jesus' ministry. When the Pharisees accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan, Jesus replied: "how can anyone enter a strong man's house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man?" (Matt. 12:29). The expression "ties up" is the same word rendered "bound" in Revelation 20:2. Again, when the seventy disciples returned from the preaching tour, they were ecstatic: "Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name." To which Jesus responded by saying: "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven." (Luke 10:17-18). Satan's fall is surely the same event spoken of as a "binding" in this chapter. A similar reference is to be found in John 12:31-32. Speaking of his work in relation to Satan, Jesus could say: "Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." The verb "driven out" is of the same root as the verb of Revelation 20:3, "He threw him into the Abyss" which speaks of how Satan is consigned into the pit. Here, too, those who are drawn to Christ are to come every nation.

Satan's power is currently restrained. It is not that he has no power; but his freedom is limited. He is on a chain. He is cast into the "Abyss" (20:1,3; later "prison" 20:7). The "lake of fire" mentioned later in the chapter (20:10, 14, 15) is that final place of punishment assigned to Satan, and therefore the "Abyss" of verses 1 and 3 must refer to some intermediary condition. Perhaps, given the symbolic nature of Revelation, we should try and think of some physical expression of the Abyss. It is a figurative description of Satan's curtailment.

That this curtailment is for a period of a "thousand years" had given rise to millenarianism (or chiliasm, the Greek for thousand is chilioi 20:2,3,4,5,6,7) is its many forms. The question that has now to be faced is: is this one thousand year reference meant to be taken in a literal sense? Obviously, if the binding of Satan is a reference to the entire period between the advents of Christ, any literal interpretation of the thousand years is impossible. Given the use made of number patters in the book of Revelation (e.g. 3, 4, 7, 10, 12, 666, 144,000) it would be fitting that a symbolic use of thousand is intended here also representing the period of time from the resurrection/ascension of Christ until a period shortly before his return (1000 = 10 x 10 x 10, or 103). Ten and three are both "ideal" numbers: ten fingers and toes, three reminding us of the Trinity. One thousand is an ideal period of time.

2. The reign of the saints

Verses 4-6 depict those to whom judgment was committed sitting upon thrones. It is tempting to think of this as description of a reign on earth in some way. This has led some to interpret this as corroboration of a promise of an earthly reign of saints "with Christ" (20:4), possibly in Jerusalem. Various other features of an end-time sequence of events must, of course, be inserted to complete this picture a premillennial return of Christ being one of them. But this is unnecessary, for the following reason.

The depiction of the reign of the saints is prefaced by yet another of these expressions, "I saw…" (20:4), and it is assumed that this vision follows the vision already given of the binding of Satan in verses 1-3. This is not necessary. It is perfectly feasible that John intends to say something like this: at the same time as Satan is bound, the saints are reigning. That means that the saints are reigning now, in the period of time between the two advents. How can this be? Where are they reigning? Where are these thrones?

The answer, of course, is an obvious one: they reign in heaven! Corroboration for this view is given in verse 4 whenever John tells us that he "saw the souls of those who had been beheaded…" It is not an earthly, physical reign that he sees, but a heavenly, spiritual one. It is yet another answer to the question that underlies the entire book of Revelation: what has happened to those Christian who have been killed for their testimony to Jesus Christ? This pressing pastoral concern has been answered again and again, and now receives this glorious answer: they are reigning with Christ in heaven and entering into judgment upon their persecutors.

It is difficult to imagine an answer better calculated to produce encouragement on behalf of those who remain that the one given here. These are the ones who lives bore all the marks of regeneration (the meaning of latter half of verse4). They have come to life. They are the true victors. Imagine the smile on behalf of anxious relatives as they hear this message for the first time. It is not that they will come to life in some future millennial age; that would be comforting too; but, they are already alive, already reigning. Their triumph is as certain as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The cry of the persecuted for vengeance in chapter 6 is answered by this glorious scene of judicial vindication. For refusing to worship the image of the beast, they had been killed (13:6). But now, they are very much alive.

Is the vision of verse 4 wider than just that of the persecuted martyrs of John 6? It appears that it is. Verse 5 includes a remark placed in parenthesis in our English translations: "The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended." Followed by the statement: "This is the first resurrection." The "rest of the dead" is an allusion to the unbelieving dead, which implies that those seen in verse 4 must include all believers who have died, rather than the narrower thought of the martyrs alone. It is possible that John intends in verse 5, the rest of believers. Either way, whether this refers to believers or unbelievers, we need to ask the question: What does John mean by saying that they "did not come to life" until the thousand years were ended?

Most commentators understand this as a reference to the physical resurrection of unbelievers at the end of the age. A problem is thereby created. At the end of verse 4 we read of some who have "come to life". This we have seen as a reference to a spiritual resurrection of believers whop have died and whose souls have gone to be with Christ. The very next verse, uses the identical expression, but this time it is to a physical resurrection of unbelievers at the end of the age. This has led some to insist upon grammatical considerations that the word has to mean the same thing in both cases. This is why verse 4 is sometimes interpreted in a premillennial way: there must be a physical resurrection in verse 4. This has led to the idea of a physical resurrection of the saints reigning with Christ for a thousand years.

But this objection has no real foundation, for there other examples where the idea of "resurrection" and "life" can have both spiritual and physical connotations within the same passage. Try asking the question as to whether a physical or spiritual resurrection/life is meant by the words "resurrection" and "life" in the following passage.

…just as Christ was raised from the dead… we too may live a new life. If we have been united with Him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with Him in his resurrection… Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him… but the life He lives, He lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus… offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life… (Rom 6:4-13).

A blessing is now pronounced (20:6) upon those who have died, for they take part in the first resurrection and over them, the "second death." This second death is a reference to eternal punishment as 20:14 makes clear. The assurance is yet another pastoral word from John to concerned believers over the fate of they deceased loved-ones. They are safe for ever!

The Release of Satan

The closing verses of this chapter describe the defeat of Satan and the "second death" to which he is subjected (20:7-15). Following the thousand year reign (which we have seen is a reference to the period of time which begins at the resurrection of Jesus), Satan is released from prison (earlier called "abyss" 20:7). That from which he was been restrained, viz., "deceiving the nations (20:8; c.f. verse 3) is now to be returned to his power. The language of Ezekiel 38 and 39 returns again with a reference to Gog and Magog gathering in war against Israel. Here it is God's people and Jerusalem that is the focus of their hatred.

The expectation that at the end of history a battle will take place of immense proportions between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of evil (Armageddon in 16:13-16, and Gog and Magog here in 20:7-10) is one of those factors which makes a postmillennial interpretation of history difficult to sustain. A period of time in which all such opposition against the kingdom of God is to cease is a paradigm that is difficult to maintain. There is to be a "short time" in which Satan will wage war (20:3). It is the same prophecy as we have already seen in 16:14-16 and 19:17-21.

The number of the nations assembled are "like the sand of the seashore" (20:8). The language is borrowed from Ezekiel's description, emphasizing the impossible odds arrayed against the people of God. But battles of the kingdom of God have always been unevenly matched. It is not the power of man that prevails, but the power of God. In this battle, as in every other, it is the power of the Warrior Christ that overcomes.

The defeat is sudden and dramatic. Fire descends and devours the hostile army of forces. Satan is cast into the "lake of burning sulphur" where the beast and false prophet has already been cast. The general judgment scene that follows includes a depiction of all the dead (not just unbelievers) now raised and standing before the throne (20:12). Like 4:2, the throne is described in terms calculated to emphasize the greatness of God. The throne of God is the answer to the problem of veil.

Several features are worth noting.

i. The judgment of unbelievers, and of Satan, the beast and the false prophet, is to be a conscious and eternal one: "they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever" (20:10).

ii. There is a judgment which is according to works (20:12-13). On this basis, a perfect record of all our deeds, it is impossible to see how any could find salvation. The answer lies in the second book: "Another book was opened, which is the book of life" (20:12). This the "the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world" (13:8). This is thought to be the book containing the names of the elect. The basis of their salvation is not their works, but the free grace of God which wrote their names there. It is why the words of the final verse are so solemn: "If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire" (20:15; c.f. 3:5; 21:27).

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