TOWARD A CONCRETE HERMENEUTIC OF REVELATION 20:1-10

September 20, 2009

This article, along with the two previous on the Millennium, guarantee that I would never be allowed to graduate from some of the great theological schools, seminaries and Bible Colleges in the country.  Institutes like Dallas Theological Seminary, Biola University, and the Moody Bible Institute plainly will not let a student walk the aisle to receive a diploma who has not subscribed to Dispensational Premillennialism.  As I have attempted to prove, this hermeneutic is flawed and is not grounded in any historical roots farther back than the Industrial Revolution.

 Having "shown my cards" and declared myself to be an adherent to the Amillennial school of eschatology, I believe it is time to offer an interpretation to what is considered to be a perplexing passage of Scripture.  After much research and having studied under several of the most learned Christian scholars who adhere to the amillennial eschatology, I offer my interpretation of Revelation 20:1-10.  Most of the following article is adapted from a research paper I had to defend in a seminar on the Book of Revelation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  I owe a great debt to my professor and mentor, the late Dr. Philip E. Hughes and to the late Dr. Anthony Hoekema who critiqued my research prior to its presentation.

The following is just an synopsis of my research as the full paper is over 45 pages in length and quite technical.

Because of the unique literary makeup of the Book of Revelation and the extensive use of apocalyptic symbolism throughout, any interpretation of Revelation 20 should take place with the broader eschatology of the New Testament in mind.  Several factors which we have already considered throughout these articles serve as the background for the proper interpretation of this passage.  It should be clear that we must interpret unclear or difficult passages in the light of clearer ones.  This is especially the case with apocalyptic literature with which Revelation and most of the book of Daniel is composed. 

The dispensational approach to Revelation creates a number of problems.  The idea of a millennial age dominated by a return to the Old Testament redemptive way of life is just not possible.  While premillenarians tell us what is depicted here is a golden age on a partially renewed earth after Christ's second coming, postmillenarians see this period as a golden age for Christ's church during this present evil age, in which the nations are Christianized, and the vast majority of the earth's citizens come to faith in Jesus Christ.  Both forms of golden age millennialism build their cases on the assumption that what is depicted in Revelation 20 is like that foretold in the second chapter of Isaiah when the nations "beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nations will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4).  However, the amillennial position interprets this period of one thousand years as anything but a golden age when lions and lambs play together.  This period is marked by conflict, martyrdom, and revolt against God.  Revelation 20 depicts the church militant, not the church triumphant!  What is described in Isaiah 2:4 has to do with the renewed earth, not the millennial age.  The events described here are much more likely to be a description of this "present evil age" rather than a future millennium.  There is a real millennium despite the amillennial nomenclature.  The millennial age in which Christ rules, however, is a present reality and not a future hope!

I see Revelation 20 as the weak link in any form of premillennialism, even so dispensationalism.  If the premillennial position is correct, the golden age of the millennium where Christ reigns for one thousand years ends with glorified men and women revolting against the visible rule of Christ when Satan is released from the abyss at the end of that time.  By viewing this conception of the future millennial age through the analogy of faith, the idea of a "second fall" at the end of the millennium is so highly problematic that most amillennial interpreters like me rule out all forms of premillennialism.  A fall of glorified humanity into sin after Christ's second coming means that eternity is not safe from the apostasy and the spontaneous eruption of sin in the human heart.  This is why I build on clear texts in the Gospels and Paul's letters, such as the phrases like this age and the age to come.  I interpret the symbolic and apocalyptic language used by John in Revelation in light of how these symbols are used elsewhere in Revelation and throughout the Bible.

Let's look at Revelation 20:1-10 in what appears to be its natural divisions. Verses 1 through 3 deal with the binding of Satan, while verses 4 through 6 deal with the contrast between the first resurrection and the second death.  The third section is verses 7 through 10 and it describes the rebellion which transpires when the thousand years are over and Satan is released from the abyss.

Revelation 20:1 - 3

On the face of it, the millennium has certainly not arrived yet.  Television, radio and the newspapers remind us daily (though not in these words) that Satan is alive and well and living on the planet earth.  How can he be said to be bound and sealed in the bottomless put?  This vision depicts an even which is still in the future, like the battle which takes place in the last three verses of chapter 19.  BUT WHAT IS EXACTLY SAID HERE? 

Let's first look at the deed.  Satan is seized and bound.  Whatever interpretation may seem to be placed on this by the many commentators, preachers and teachers or by the state of the world around us, Christ's own words must carry the greatest weight.  In Mark 3:27 we find the only other reference to the binding of Satan in the Bible.  The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke relate the parable of the "strong man, fully armed," who "guards his own palace" so that "his goods are undisturbed."  The story goes on to describe the coming of "one stronger than he," whose object is to plunder the strong man's property.  The newcomer "binds" - Matthew and Mark use the word "binds."  Now we know from the context that this story was told expressly to illustrate something which happened to Satan, and which happened to him at the time of Christ's first coming.  With Christ's first coming, the kingdom of God had come, and He went about casting out evil spirits to demonstrate precisely this - that Satan, for all his strength, had been seized and bound.  We may still question what was actually implied by his "imprisonment," since he seems to have continued very much at liberty; but there is no escaping the fact that the same word and action, the binding link in Revelation 20-:2 with Mark 3:27.

Secondly, let's look at the object.  Satan is thrown bound into the pit in order "that he should no longer deceive the nations."  Here again, it may seem quite untrue to say that he is even now prevented from deceiving the nations, and indeed has been unable to do so ever since the time of Christ; surely he does still deceive them and that this also indicates that the millennium is yet to come?

But again, consider what is said about the nations in the rest of Scripture.  Genesis 22:18 states that their blessing will come through the seed of Abraham, Genesis 49:6 says that their light through the promised servant of the Lord; and when Christ is born, Luke 2:32 says that the aged Simeon recognizes that the baby in his arms is Himself the Seed and the Servant, a light for revelation to the nations as well as glory for Israel.  During the earthly life of Jesus, the undeceiving of the nations is foreshadowed by the visit of the wise men (Matthew 2:1-11), and exemplified by His contacts with a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13), a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28), and a company of Greeks (John 12:20).  The same pattern is repeated in the life of the church: "men from very nation under heaven" come to its cradle on the Day of Pentecost, and its career is marked by the conversion of Samaritans, Romans and Greeks.  Alongside Christ's prediction that the gospel will be preached to all nations (which is so often understood as something which will be achieved only shortly before his second coming) we have to place Paul's startling claim, that already, in the middle of the first century, it "has been preached to every creature under heaven (Colossians 1:23).  What do the apostle's words imply?  Clearly, the worldwide evangelism of which he speaks cannot mean an actual preaching to each individual race, let alone to each individual person.  But what has happened is that the gospel has been made available for the nations in general, instead of being restricted to the Jews.  Since the time of Christ is has been a universal gospel, in a way that it never was before in "the times of ignorance" (Acts 17:30).

Therefore, it seems to be quite in accord with Scripture to see in the millennium of Revelation 20:3 a period during which Satan is no longer able to keep in his custody the nations which, till Christ came to bind him and to steal them away from Him, were altogether in his power.  With this would agree the links which Christ makes between the casting out of Satan and the visit of the Greek enquirers in John 12:20-32, and between Satan's downfall and the early evangelistic campaign of Luke 10:17 & 18.  Every time we see a new convert added to the church, Satan's inability to deceive the nations is proclaimed afresh.

The "thousand years," which on our view began with Christ's first coming, are thus still in progress!  But at the end of that period there will come a time (according to verse 3) when, "for a little while" Satan will be freed from the restraints which the church age has placed upon him.

There are parallels to this end-of-the-millennium release which are readily to be found both in Revelation and elsewhere, and which support the interpretation we have been following.  In Revelation 11:3-14 God's two witnesses, who have preached unhindered for "three-and-a-half years" are then silenced for "three-and-a-half days".  In Revelation 13:1-10 we see the beast from the sea revive after it had been fatally wounded; and though we have taken this to be a perennial characteristic of Satan's godless society (Anti-Christian government), we should not be surprised to find it is true also as the over-all pattern of Satan's own career.  Then, in Revelation 17:7-18, the period of the "seven heads" (which to John is in the present tense), is followed by the period of the "ten horns" (which to John is in the future).  It seems again to indicate a great resurgence of evil at the end of time.  So here in Revelation 20:1-3: "When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be loosed from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations" (see verses 7 and 8).

Paul describes in II Thessalonians 2 what will immediately precede the return of Christ" "The rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed" (verse 3).  For the present, a divine power "is restraining him," though in some respects, of course, "the mystery of lawlessness is already at work" (verses 6 & 7).  But when the restraints are off, the world will see again "the activity of Satan ... with all wicked deception" (verses 9 & 10).  Paul's non-symbolic predictions tally so remarkably with the symbolic prophecies of Revelation 20 that it is hard to see how the two passage could refer to different circumstances.

If the Thessalonian passage describing the end of the church age is indeed parallel to the Revelation one describing the end of the millennium, it settles the relationship between millennium and parousia (second coming).  Because in it we are told that it is the glorious second coming of Christ - "the appearance of His coming" - which will put an end to the last outbreak of evil, which in its turn will have brought to an end the thousand years' restriction on Satan's activity.

It will again be obvious that the order in which John receives his visions is not the order of the events of history.  The Book of Revelation is not a single continuous view of the history of the church age, rather it repeats itself in various visions and this repetition illustrates history in various ways.  The seven seals of Revelation 6 and 7 takes us to the end of the age with the seventh seal bringing silence (God's judgment) and then, the beginning of the seven trumpets in Revelation 8 takes us back to the beginning.  The fact that John saw the beast destroyed before he saw Satan bound has nothing to do with the order in which these things actually happen.  That must be determined by what each vision is found to mean in the light of the rest of Scripture.  Compare, for example, the millennium of Revelation 20:1-10 with the chapters in Ezekiel to which it is linked by the use of the names Gog and Magog (20:8).  The sequence of events in Revelation 20 is the defeat of Satan, the resurrection of the saints to a thousand-year reign, the rebellion of Gog when Satan returns, and the last battle, followed in chapter 21 by the establishment of the new Jerusalem.  The last chapters of Ezekiel show a remarkable parallel: the defeat of Edom and the resurrection of Israel to prolonged peace (chapters 35-37), then the rebellion and defeat of God (chapters 38 & 39), followed by the vision of the new Jerusalem (chapters 40-48). 

So, Revelation 20:1-3 is concerned with the binding of Satan which takes place between the time of Christ's first coming and just shortly before His second coming.

Revelation 20:4-6

In verse 4 John writes as though he is distinguishing between two groups: "those who sat on the thrones and to whom judgment was committed," and "those who had not worshipped the beast or his image and had not received the mark on their forehand and on their hand."  But the Greek text of verse 4 reads: Then I saw thrones, and those who sat on them, and to them judgment was give and the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus....  In the King James and many other versions, the editors insert a full stop within that sentence as if to make John say two sentences.  The phrase "I also saw" or "and then I saw" are not present in the original language!  What John wrote was more like this: And I saw thrones (and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them), and the souls of the beheaded, and such as had not worshipped the beast; and they lived and reigned.  From this it seems more likely that the thrones of judgment are occupied by a single group, the living, reigning saints who have suffered execution and refused to worship the beast.

Even with that clarification, the millennial reign of the saints here in verse 4 is, at a first reading, as mysterious as the millennial binding of Satan in verses 1-3.  It begins with "first resurrection."  It involves those who have been beheaded for Christ's sake, so its setting is presumably a world beyond death.  In it they appear as "judges," which brings to mind the church's authority over men and angels spoken of in I Corinthians 6:2 & 3.  In whatever world it is set, it is certainly a thing of the future.  Yet all this takes place before the general resurrection of verse 5a.  Looked at in this way, the reign of the saints, though still apparently a part of time, not eternity, does indeed seem to be far removed from the here and now.

On the other hand, verses 1 through 3 seemed to show that the millennium is yet another symbol of the present church age.  And when we ask if the description of it in verses 4 through 6 necessarily places it a world away from our present existence, the answer is NO.  It is quite possible to understand it in terms of this world.  Here, in this age, God's people are already reigning as kings and priests.  John told us so in Revelation 1:6.  Paul makes his statement about the church's future authority in I Corinthians 6:2 & 3 precisely in order to show that the church is already competent "to judge ... matters pertaining to this life."  The "first resurrection" is a perfectly understandable way of referring to what the New Testament in many places describes as a passing from death into life.  This mean a person's rebirth as a Christian!  The saints are all who enjoy this new life and perhaps in verse 4 John is distinguishing between those who have and those who have not yet gone through physical death, but even so they all live and reign with Christ.  Verse 5 can be taken in the same sense; if God has not "made us alive together with Christ" (as Paul says in Ephesians 2:4 & 5) we shall remain "dead through our trespasses" (Ephesians 2:1) for the rest of this age, until the day when even the wicked rise - though not to eternal life - at the voice of the Son of God (John 5:28 & 29).

The "second death" mentioned in verse 6 implies that there is a "first death."  This first death doesn't have power over the saints, and is presumably the death of the body.  The "second death" is mentioned again later in this chapter in verse 14 where John defines it as being the Lake of Fire.  He also mentions that death itself (meaning the "first death" or physical death) and Hades (the state of the physically dead) are cast into the "second death."  These two deaths are no doubt what Christ had in mind when, in Matthew 10:28, He said: "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell."  Those exempt from the second death are those who live and die for Jesus Christ.

Revelation 20:7-10

With verse 7, the first two sections (verses 1-3 and verses 4-6) converge.  The thousand years, during which the saints have reigned and the devil has been held in check, end in a cataclysmic war.  Names and places are different, but there can only ever be one battle which is both so universal and so final as this one.  It must be the same as the Armageddon mentioned in chapter 16 where "the kings of the whole world" are assembled for "the great day of God the Almighty (Revelation 16:14).  Again this shows how John's Revelation, indeed how much of apocalyptic literature, is repetitious.  Verses 7 through 10 show the clash between the ten horn-kings and the Lamb who is King of kings (Revelation 17:14).  It portrays the war already described in the preceding chapter of the book where the beast gathers "the kings of the earth with their armies" to fight against the Rider on the white horse, and perishes with all his host (19:19-21).  In each case the disorder and chaos is too complete for these passages to be anything other than varied descriptions of the same event - that is, the last battle of history.

Whatever actual enemy went by the name of "Gog, of the land of Magog" in Ezekiel's prophecy (Ezekiel 38:2), in Revelation he cannot be any particular power, or even bloc of powers: the scale of the conflict makes it impossible.  Notice the breadth of vision, which sees gathered beneath the banner of Gog not merely "the kings of the whole world," but "the nations which are at the four corners of the earth ... like the sand of the sea."  Notice the depth of meaning when two powerful images are merged in one to describe the church - at once the heavenly strangers and exiles on the earth (Hebrews 11:9 & 10).  Also notice the height from which the enemy's destruction falls, when God Himself intervenes, and "the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire" (II Thessalonians 1:7).  Finally notice the length of the punishment which follows the ultimate downfall of Satan, "tormented day and night for ever and ever."

These are the ultimate realities.  The name of Ezekiel's Gog is extended to cover all "who do not know God and ... who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (II Thessalonians 1:8).  This is how things are in the last analysis.  In the end there is only Christ or Satan.  That is to say: Christ who lives forever, and those with Him, and Satan who dies forever, and those with him.  It is between these two that men are choosing daily - while they may.

In the light of this understanding of Revelation 20:1-10, five things can be adduced:

  1. 1)  We, as Christians, currently live in the millennium;

  2. 2)  Satan has no control over Christians and his power to deceive all people has been seriously curtailed;

  3. 3)  Christians have been raised from sin and death - this is the first resurrection.  There is a second to come;

  4. 4)  Christians escape the second death;

  5. 5)  Satan will be released just before the end of time and during this very short period, the Antichrist, man of lawlessness, will be revealed but quickly defeated, this is at the end of the millennium not during a Tribulation seven year before the millennium.

This interpretation presupposes that John's Revelation is a series of visions in which God repeats the scheme of history from different views and points to the entire church age and beyond with several different colors and nuances.  We will be presenting the use of "recapitulation" or "repetition" in our class study on the Revelation.

Next week, I'll debunk the rapture using Dispensationalists favorite verses with a view to proving the Second Coming of Christ is a singular event and not a series of events strung out over 1007 years.

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