September 28, 2003
Revelation 20


We are in a subsection of our series on the Bible’s doctrine of the future. Having considered a number of the motifs or major themes that the Bible uses to describe the future (the seed, the land, the Day of the Lord, the Last Days, the Judgement of the Nations, the Restoration of the Jews, the Renewal of the Cosmos) we are now considering several of the most important and controversial texts, one’s interpretation of which largely determines to what eschatological school one belongs. We had already considered Romans 11 in connection with the question of the restoration of the Jews. Post-mils and pre-mils read Romans 11 one way, a-mils read it another. Last time we considered Matthew 24. Pre-mils and a-mils read that chapter one way and post-mils another. Now we come to Rev. 20 which a-mils and post-mils read one way and pre-mils read another. In other words, we have three great texts, each of which is read one way by two of the three schools of interpretation and another by the third, and in each case it is a different school that reads the text differently. I hope that simple fact reminds us both of the difficulty of these questions and the unlikelihood of the believing church reaching a consensus on these questions. The various viewpoints have been around almost since the beginning and still very wise, devout, able students of Holy Scripture cannot come to an agreement as to the interpretation of several very important texts. That suggests to me both that the problem is insoluble at this point and that nothing very important hinges on the outcome of the debate. Others think differently, of course. But on to Revelation 20.

Read Rev. 20:1-10

Text Comment

v.2 “Thousand years” is obviously symbolic. The sacred number seven in combination with the equally sacred number three forms the number of holy perfection, ten, and when this ten is cubed into a thousand, the writer has said everything he could say to convey to our minds – in a symbol-laden work such as Revelation – the idea of absolute completeness. I don’t myself think there is any need to treat it as a literal number of years. It is a period of time marked by an unprecedented degree of completeness, finality, and consummation. The millennium is an ideal time, however long or short in years it may be.

v.4 “Those beheaded” or the martyrs are mentioned here, it appears, as a group representative of the saints as a whole, for the promise to reign with him and alongside him was made by the Lord not only to the martyrs but to his disciples in general a number of times in the New Testament. Indeed, that promise is made even in Revelation to the saints as a whole (e.g. 2:26; 3:21).

Now, not to put too fine a point on it, Rev. 20 is why there is such a thing as premillennialism. Premillennialism is an ancient viewpoint, being found in the early church fathers. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian were all premillennialists, though, of course, no one used the term in those days. Premillennialists are fond of pointing out that Irenaeus, the great missionary and theologian, was a premillennialist of the later 2nd century who had personally studied under Polycarp who knew personally the Apostle John, the author of the Revelation! It would make a better story, of course, if Irenaeus had somewhere written that Polycarp had told him that John, on his deathbed, had told him always to be a premillennialist, as premillennialism was what the Lord had taught him. Alas no such luck.

Premillennialism is the view, as you remember, that Christ will come back before (pre-) the millennium and that it will be his appearance, in fact, that will usher in the golden age of the kingdom of God in the world. And you can rather easily see why people understand this to be the teaching of Rev. 20:1-10. That text comes immediately after the account of the second coming in 19:11-21, so what it describes seems rather obviously to follow the second coming. These verses give an account of the binding of Satan, and of a reign of Christ together with his saints on the earth for a thousand years. The mention of a thousand years, of course, is the origin of the term “millennium,” which is Latin for a thousand years (mille + annus). Premillennialism is sometimes also called chiliasm from the Greek word for a thousand. (To be entirely accurate, postmillennialism is also a form of millennialism or chiliasm because it too looks for the kingdom’s golden age in history, even though it does not characteristically find that golden age here in Rev. 20. In fact, in scholastic Reformed theology, which was mostly amillennial, premillennialism is known as “gross” or “crass” chiliasm and postmillennialism as “subtle” chiliasm. You can tell which they saw as the lesser of two evils.)

As one contemporary premillennialist summarizes this view:

“The second coming of Christ will not bring about the immediate end of earthly existence. It will be followed by a final era of human history, when the kingdom of Christ will be manifested in the world for a thousand-year period before the final consummation…. Only at the end of the millennium will the final consummation take place. Only then will death and evil be destroyed and the present order of existence replaced by an new heaven and a new earth..” [George Ladd, Jesus Christ and History, 12-13]

The straightforward sense of Rev. 20:1-10 seems to confirm this and explains why there have always been premillennialists, even in the Reformed church which has never been widely premillennialist. William Twisse, the president of the Westminster Assembly that produced the Westminster Confession of Faith and the two catechisms, was a premillennialist, as was Thomas Goodwin, one of its brightest luminaries, though the confessional documents the Assembly produced are not. The saintly Scottish pastors, Robert McCheyne, Horatio and Andrew Bonar were premillennialists, though their church, the Free Church of Scotland, was not. Charles Spurgeon, the great London preacher, was a premillennialist though English Calvinistic Baptist circles were traditionally not. The church historians at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Paul Wolley and then Claire Davis were premillennialists in an otherwise amillennial faculty. And so on.

I was raised a premillennialist and am happy to say today that, as an interpretation of Scripture, it has some impressive evidence in its favor. It shares with postmillennialism the expectation that the gospel will be vindicated in history. I think that is certainly the likeliest reading of many passages of Scripture that speak of the triumph of the gospel and the kingdom of God in the world.

What is more, and very important in my view, it is the only system of interpretation in which the church exactly recapitulates the history of her Head. Jesus was in the world. He died. He rose again. He remained in the world for a symbolic period of time (40 days). And then he went to heaven. In the premillennial scheme, the church is in the world. She dies, as the generations come and go. She rises again to new life. She remains in the world for a symbolic period of time (a thousand years) and then she goes to heaven. Sometimes you will hear the advocates of other eschatological viewpoints scornfully point out that in the pre-mil scheme, resurrected and glorified saints would be mixing in the world with still natural and mortal human beings, as if such a thing were preposterous. But the pre-mils’ simple reply to that is that it has happened before. Christ in his glorified body mixed with mortal human beings for those forty days and what wonderful days they were!

It is true, of course, that the Bible characteristically pictures the consummation as happening at Christ’s second coming, not a thousand years later. However, it is fair for premillennialists to point out that that sort of foreshortening, presenting the second coming and the consummation as one event and omitting mention of the interim period in between, is precisely characteristic of biblical prophecy. We have seen how often Christ’s first and second comings were united by the prophets in a single prediction of the future with no hint really that there would be two comings of the Messiah and that they would be separated from one another by an entire age of human history.

However, I am not at all unwilling to admit that premillennialism faces punishing objections that rise directly from biblical data. Let me mention one that seem to me particularly consequential. Premillennialism requires two resurrections, one of the saints when Christ returns and one of the unbelieving dead at the end of the millennium. Rev. 20:4-5 supplies those two resurrections very nicely. However, the premil scheme also requires two judgments, one for the righteous and one, much later, for the wicked. Nowhere does the Bible say that there are two judgments; what is more, every judgment scene the Bible paints has the righteous and the wicked together before the Judge of all the earth. Think of Matthew 25 and the separation of the sheep and the goats. Premillennialism must assume that the Bible’s accounts of the last judgment, in effect, bring together in what seems to be a single moment, a process that is, in fact, spread over a long period of time and separated into two distinct events, the judgment of the righteous, on the one hand, and the judgment of the wicked on the other. That may be so, but it is not obviously so!

Now a-mils and post-mils obviously have an answer to the pre-mil contention that Rev. 20:1-10 clearly teaches that the millennium or golden age follows the return of Christ and separates his return from the consummation of all things by a period of time. Generally, the proponents of amillennialism and postmillennialism, who generally agree as to the meaning of Rev. 20, contend that the millennium here described is, in fact, the entire period between Christ’s ascension and his second coming, not a period after his second coming. We are in this millennium right now. What this means, then, is that

1. Satan is bound right now. It is not an absolute binding, of course, but it is the limiting of Satan’s power to deceive the nations as he did before the coming of Christ. Satan is, Augustine said, “like a barking dog that is chained.” Here is how a modern postmillennialist understands the statement about Satan being bound and thrown into the abyss.

“Previous to the first coming of Christ, the Gentile nations were under the complete control and dominance of Satan. All nations were pagan and without true religion. But with the coming of Christ this was all to change. Nations were not to be deceived entirely. This does not mean that individuals within nations or even a great portion of them would not be deceived. But during the period of the binding of Satan the nations would not be entirely deceived as were Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. … To that end Satan was bound.” [Kik, Eschatology of Victory, 194] That is, Satan is bound only in the sense that he can’t keep people all over the world from learning the truth about Jesus Christ. [Hoekema, The Bible and the Future,, 228]

Jesus, remember, during his ministry spoke of “binding the strong man” in regard to his sovereignty over the powers of the Evil One in the world (Matt. 12:29). And when the seventy disciples came back from their preaching tour, they told the Lord, “Even the demons are subject to us in your name.” And Jesus replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” [Luke 10:17-18] Remember, also, the Lord’s statement in John 12:21-32: “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” So, Rev. 20 does not continue the account begun in chapter 19. It isn’t telling us what will happen after the second coming. Rather Rev. 20 recapitulates – which Revelation often does – and takes us back to the beginning of the epoch that began with Christ’s resurrection and his ascension to the Right Hand. After the account of the second coming in chapter 19 we go back to the beginning again and trace the history of the entire epoch between the two comings of the Lord. That is what amils and postmils think.

2. Further, not only is already Satan bound, but the phrase “they came to life” in v. 4. must refer not to the resurrection of the body, but to the believer’s being alive in heaven after he died on earth. What we see in v. 4 is what is called the “intermediate state,” the condition of believers between their death and their resurrection. Premillennialists, of course, read v. 4 as meaning that these people who had died in Christ rose again and reigned with Christ. That it refers to a resurrection seems confirmed by the fact that in v. 5 the event is referred to as “the first resurrection.” But, so say the amils and the postmils, it must be a spiritual resurrection not the physical resurrection that takes place at the second coming. That resurrection is the second resurrection described in Rev. 20:11-13.

Now, those are impressive arguments and have led many to reject the premillennial interpretation of Rev. 20 which most are willing to admit is the simpler reading of the text. But, as you have heard me say so often, while the arguments by which many reject the premillennial interpretation of Rev. 20 are plausible, it is by no means certain that they are correct. Let me draw your attention to just a few problems.

1. The word translated in v. 4 “came to life again” is not used in the New Testament to describe any such “spiritual resurrection” as the amils and postmils propose as its meaning here. What is more, it is used elsewhere in Revelation for the resurrection of the body.

a. 1:18 “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive [our word] for ever and ever.” A reference to Christ’s bodily resurrection.
b. 2:8 “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” Another reference to Christ’s resurrection.

Amils and postmils of the better sort realize that this is a large problem for their interpretation of the passage, and labor manfully to get round it, but at the end they are asking you to give to a very important biblical word a meaning it has nowhere else in Revelation or the entire NT for that matter.

Of course, the fact that this “coming to life again” relates to the second resurrection, which everyone admits is a physical resurrection of the body, makes taking “resurrection” in v. 4 as something else entirely even more difficult. We know what a resurrection is. The saints living in heaven after they die is not what the Bible anywhere calls or thinks of a resurrection; quite the contrary. But, souls coming to bodily life, which is what is described in v. 4, is precisely what the Bible teaches us to expect at the second coming of Christ. Take note, at last, of the flow of John’s thought. He sees the souls in heaven. Those souls come to life. That must be a reference to their resurrection. If it is a reference to their being alive in heaven, they had already come to life before he saw them sitting on thrones. Is that not the inexorable logic of John’s statements?

Words written by Henry Alford, the 19th century Anglican bishop, biblical scholar, and hymn writer, have often been quoted but only by premillennialists.

“If, in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain [souls came to life] at the first, and the rest of the [dead came to life] only at the end of a specified period after the first, – if in such a passage the first resurrection may be understood to mean spiritual rising with Christ, while the second means literal rising from the grave: – then there is an end to all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definitive testimony to anything.”

That, at least, gives you some sense of how unimpressed many have been by the attempt to interpret v. 4 as something other than the resurrection of the dead such as occurs at the second coming. The problem is severe enough that some amils have suggested other interpretations, such as “came to life” means conversion not living after death. But the problems with those interpretations, in my view, are greater still.

2. Furthermore, it is not obvious that the binding of Satan mentioned here in v. 2 and his being cast into the abyss so that he cannot deceive the nations can be accounted for simply by the victory the Lord won over the Devil by his life and death and resurrection.

While there certainly was a binding of Satan in the time of Christ’s ministry, it seems clear from the rest of the NT that such a binding did not bring an end to Satan’s baleful influence upon mankind. Christ came, we read in 1 John 3:8, that he might destroy the works of the devil, and so he did, but, so far, only by guaranteeing ultimate victory. He is the prince of this world; men are his followers and subject to his rule, and everywhere in the NT we see the fierce conflict being waged between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the Devil. The fatal blow may have been struck, but the fighting is hardly over. D-Day, the Normandy invasion, may have dealt a deathblow to Nazi Germany, but most American soldiers were killed after D-Day, not before it. Peter’s image of the Devil as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour, is not easy to reconcile with the idea that the Devil is chained. “A mighty long chain,” as more than one premillennialist has scornfully remarked. We are taught in the NT that Satan still takes away the good seed that is sown in human hearts, he sows his own children in the field of the church, he keeps men under his power (Acts 26:18), and so on.

The problem posed for the idea that Satan is already bound is compounded at Rev. 20:2-3 by the absoluteness of the language: he is seized, bound, thrown into the abyss, and that locked and sealed over him. And the result of all of that is that he cannot deceive anymore. It is the nature of the Devil to deceive. That is what he does, that is how he enforces his rule in the world (John 8:44). He has been a liar from the beginning. If he can’t deceive, he can’t do anything! But here we read that Satan cannot deceive, not for that time, but once released he will deceive again. Even earlier in Revelation we have reference to Satan now deceiving the nations. In 12:9 we read of “that ancient serpent, the Devil or Satan, who leads the whole world astray.” [cf. 16:14] And the flow of thought in Rev. 20 confirms this. What Satan is said no longer to be able to do, he will do again after an interval. But, if the binding of Satan happened at and because of the victory of Christ on the cross and in his resurrection from the dead, so that he is now bound in the sense of Rev. 20:2-3, then Satan will not ever and cannot ever be free from that again! But if the binding is a different, greater limitation of his power than the world has ever known, it is not impossible that such power would be given back to him for a time at the end.

That is enough of that. I know some of you have followed me and some have not. But, that too makes an important point. Every great prophetic text has these vexing problems of interpretation attached. The various texts do not fit neatly and easily together into a single theory of interpretation. Christians largely agree on what the Bible says will come to pass, but they disagree about the details: the order in which things will occur, the exact nature of the various stages of fulfillment and so on.

This calls for modesty on our part and for the recognition that God’s purpose in telling us these things was not that we might know in advance exactly how everything will fall out. He was more interested in the impact of the Bible’s great vision of the future on our living today than on satisfying our curiosity about future events that Christians will not see, except those Christians of the last generation, the generation on the earth when Christ comes again.

And what is the great lesson for today in Rev. 20? Well, surely, it is the lesson of Revelation as a whole: the ultimate victory that Christ will achieve over all his enemies and the ultimate vindication in due time of those who have trusted in him. Revelation was written to a tried and afflicted church. The persecution and opposition of the world was beginning to bite and to bite deep. If there can be no deliverance from the present trial – and Christ tells us often enough that we must suffer persecution and we must go through many trials – then what is there to comfort, console, encourage and sustain but the knowledge and the conviction of ultimate victory?

Beyond and above the chaos of this world there stands a throne and on that throne sits the Lord Christ, revealed in his glory as the King of Kings in the first chapter of Revelation. Christ’s throne will someday be revealed – the world will know his reign and will experience what a difference Christ makes. To know that, to be sure of that has sustained the church through centuries of trial and should sustain us today.

It is said that when Winston Churchill received news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor he breathed a sigh of relief. He knew that the war was won and that victory would ultimately be his. Why? Because the United States was now in the war. The immensity of its industry and its manufacturing capacity, its virtually limitless supply of young men, its thirst for vengeance made Churchill sure that it was only a matter of time before Germany and Japan would be defeated. Well Christ has entered the field and delivered the death blow to his enemies. There may be fierce fighting still to be done and much pain and sorrow yet to be suffered, but of the ultimate issue there can no longer be any doubt. That is what Revelation is about and what Rev. 20 is about. The Devil will do what he may while he is permitted. The day will come when he will be permitted no more. That is how completely he is under the control of the Almighty. The difference should be very great that this knowledge makes in our view of the unbelieving world, in our encounters with unbelievers and in our endurance of suffering. We should face the world and the struggles of Christians in the world with that cheerful confidence, even fundamental unconcern, that comes from knowing that the victory is ours and that when all is said and done it will be the Lord and his people who remain standing in the field.