- As we have noticed throughout the book, martyrs are a synecdoche for all Christians. All Christians are martyrs in the spiritual sense; they have given up their lives for Christ. The promise to reign with Christ and alongside him we read earlier in Revelation is a promise made to all the saints (e.g. 2:26; 3:21). Even the actual martyrs were not all killed by beheading. So we should think of those who were beheaded for their faith as all the martyrs and the martyrs as all Christians.
- Gog and Magog are names taken from Ezekiel 38-39. They are storied names that serve there as here as symbols for the enemies of God; as we might refer to someone as a new Hitler or Stalin. As with the beast and the false prophet, there is a final confrontation but he and his hosts are easily defeated.
So far in our sermons on Revelation I have been largely able to avoid discussions of scenarios, by which I mean an outline of specific events following one another in time: interpreting Revelation to predict that first this is going to happen and then that; the sort of interpretation of Revelation that is very popular in certain circles and always has been. I don’t believe, as I have more than once told you, that we have anywhere in the book the forecast of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 or the rise or fall of Russia or the European Union. I don’t believe that the figures identified in Revelation as the beast or the false prophet can be compared to any figure of modern history or even that the reference to Armageddon actually refers to a military engagement to be fought somewhere southwest of the Sea of Galilee by armies moving from the east and the north. Revelation’s depiction of the past, present, and future is more conceptual than it is literal, more an account of the nature of history than a prophecy of a series of specific events that will come to pass at some future time.
I do believe, as I have said, that Revelation prepares us for a great intensification of the persecution of the church at the end of the age and, as well, for a climactic confrontation between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world at the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. The great tribulation and the Second Coming, taught in many other places in the Bible, figure also in the account of the consummation of history as it is described in Revelation but otherwise we are given little else in the way of a forecast of specific events, much less a timetable. We said many times that the descriptions of the progress of history that we are given in the central section of the book, in the three series of sevens (the seven seals, the seven trumpets, and the seven bowls), describe the world as it has been and will be to the end, with that unprecedented intensification of evil at the very end. John’s account of his vision, as I have often reminded you, was written for the blessing and encouragement of his first readers. Its meaning must have been accessible to them which would not be the case if John were, in fact, describing specific political and military events in a remote future. They knew Christ was coming again, they knew that persecution was to be the lot of the faithful followers of Christ, they knew that meantime the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the Devil were locked in a death struggle, but they would have known nothing about the geopolitical landscape or Middle Eastern tensions in our 21st century.
But now we come to a question of scenario – of a sequence of events – that cannot be got round. These verses we have read are what are called a “crux.” By crux is meant the main or one of the main texts around which a particular question of biblical interpretation revolves. And the particular debate that turns on this text is that concerning the millennium. The very term millennium – which literally means a period of a thousand years – comes from the mention of a thousand year period six times throughout our text. Such a thousand year period is nowhere else mentioned in the Bible. Now, there is no need to take the number 1,000 literally. Like every other obviously symbolic number in Revelation, whether the number 7 or the number 666, 1,000 is also a figure of speech. It describes a time of fulfillment and consummation. B.B. Warfield suggests we understand the number this way:
“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 seer has said all he could say to convey to our minds the idea of absolute completeness.” [“The Millennium and the Apocalypse,” Biblical Doctrines, 654]
So the significance of 1,000 is not a literal number of years, but a time of triumph for the kingdom of God. It is an ideal time of human life, however long or short it may be. But if the name “millennium” comes from this text, the idea comes from a great many biblical texts that prophesy a time of gospel and kingdom triumph in the world, the “golden age,” so to speak, of the kingdom of God in history. Think of those texts that foretell a time when the knowledge of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea or when the wolf will live with the lamb or when men will beat their swords into ploughs and no longer make war.
Many of you are aware that there are broadly three theories of this golden age or millennium. The fact that each of the three schools of thought is given a name that amounts to a version of the word “millennium” is another indication of the importance of Rev. 20:1-10 to the debates about biblical eschatology or the doctrine of the future. Amillennialists – the “a-“ is a privative, a negative prefix; so amillennialism means non-millennialism – maintain that there is no golden age in history in the sense of a time of the world triumph of the kingdom of God. They maintain either that the golden age texts are describing heaven itself or that they are describing by hyperbole or exaggeration for effect the entire course of the gospel’s progress through history. According to this later viewpoint we have been living in the millennium, such as it is, since the ascension of the Lord Jesus to heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The knowledge of the Lord does cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, they remind us, in the sense that one can find Christians everywhere in the world and wherever the gospel goes you find peace between men, a peace beautifully but figuratively described as the lion lying down with the lamb.
Postmillennialists maintain that the golden age has not yet occurred but will occur in history and before the Second Coming. They are postmillennialists because in their view the Second Coming of Christ occurs post or after the millennium. In their view the millennium will be brought to pass by the Holy Spirit’s unprecedented blessing of the ordinary means of grace. In other words, the millennium will be the greatest revival in history by far. It will be worldwide in its scope make every previous revival, every earlier period of gospel advance seem puny in comparison. To add to the confusion but in the interests of accuracy, that revival period is not the thousand years of Rev. 20; not to a postmillennialist. He usually thinks of the millennium of Rev. 20 much as an amillennialist does.
Premillennialists, on the other hand, maintain that there will be a golden age in history but that it will come after the Second Coming. They are premillennialists because they hold that the Second Coming will occur pre or before the millennium. In their view this golden age is utterly unique not simply because of its scope but because Jesus Christ will reign personally and visibly in the world and because the church will have risen from the dead at his Second Coming and will be present in the world as glorified human beings, body and soul in immortal perfection, living among and ruling over other still mortal human beings. The question whether some or many of those who are unbelievers when Christ returns to earth might be saved during the millennium is an open question. Premils differ among themselves. Dispensationalism, the popular eschatology of many Western Christians for the last nearly two-hundred years, is a variation of premillennialism. Dispensationalism, as you may know, adds a series of beliefs to historic premillennialism – I would say quite eccentric beliefs –: the hard and fast distinction between Israel and the church, the rapture of the church preceding the Second Coming by seven years; the millennium as an entirely Jewish affair, and so on. Historically, premillennialism is not dispensationalism; it is simply the view that the golden age comes after the Second Coming.
These three approaches or schools of interpretation have been around from the church’s early days and there is little to suggest that one or the other of them is finally going to prevail. We will be having this debate until the Lord returns – either before or after the millennium!
In our Presbyterian Church in America the majority of ministers are probably amillennialist. The next largest group would be postmillennialists. The smallest number would be those who espouse premillennialism. We are not dispensationalists in the PCA but there are a number of historic premillennialists. Now what does all of that have to do with Revelation 20? Well, this. Not to put too fine a point on it, Rev. 20 is why there is such an idea as premillennialism. Premillennialism is an ancient viewpoint, being found in the early church fathers. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian were all premillennialists, though, of course, no one used the term in those days. And they were premillennialists because that is how they read Revelation 20. Premillennialists are fond of pointing out that Irenaeus, the great 2nd century missionary and theologian, was a premillennialist and he was a disciple of Polycarp who was himself a disciple of 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 the vision he had seen. Alas no such luck. But the point is that the early church was widely premillennial because of Rev. 20. And ever since Revelation 20 has been the most important text in the Bible for premillennialism. And it is not hard to see why.
- We have just read a lengthy account of the Second Coming in chapter 19. The events of chapter 20 seem to follow directly upon the events described in chapter 19. Hence the millennium obviously follows the Second Coming.
- Those who reign with Christ during the millennium, as we read in vv. 4 and 6, are the dead in Christ now having come back to life in what is described in v. 5 as the first resurrection. The resurrection occurs at the Second Coming so, once again, the millennium follows the Second Coming.
As one contemporary premillennialist summarizes the text we have read:
“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 a 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, for example, 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 premillennial. Most 17th century Puritans were postmillennialists and so is the WCF. 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 his English Calvinistic Baptist circles were traditionally not. And so on.
Now, as you expect, amillennialists and postmillennialists, neither of which group sees described here a golden age or ideal time that follows the Second Coming have their counter-interpretation. They point out that the binding of Satan for the thousand years happened already in the ministry of Christ (Matt. 12:29). He himself, as you remember, spoke of binding the strong man, by whom he meant the Devil or Satan. By that binding, they say, the Devil is kept from interfering with the progress of the gospel through the world. What is more, they argue, the “coming to life” of which we read in v. 4 doesn’t necessarily mean the resurrection at the Second Coming. It could refer instead to a man or woman’s being born again, a kind of spiritual resurrection, or it could refer to the believers’ coming to life in heaven after their death on earth. They take the thousand years then to refer to the entire inter-adventual period, the entire time between the first and Second Coming of Christ. What we have in Rev. 20:1-6 then, in their view, is another of Revelation’s recapitulations; starting over again at the beginning of the age and taking the story to the end of the age at the Second Coming. In this way these verses are just a short form of the same story as was told previously in the account of the seven seals, trumpets, and bowls.
Most interpreters of Revelation are willing to admit that, on its face, Rev. 20 is more easily read in the premillennialist way, as a description of what happens at and after the Second Coming of Christ. But, they argue, taking all things together, despite appearances, it does not teach a golden age after Christ’s return after all. There are, however, major problems with the amillennial and postmillennial interpretation of Revelation 20. Let me mention briefly just two.
First, there is the matter of the souls of the righteous “coming alive” in v. 4. The word translated in v. 4 “came to life again” is not used in the New Testament to describe either a “spiritual resurrection” or “the intermediate state in heaven” as the amils and postmils propose for its meaning here. What is more, it is used elsewhere in Revelation for the resurrection of the body (1:18; 2:8).
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 in the entire NT for that matter. What is more, the fact that this “coming to life again” relates to the second resurrection (we read of the rest of the dead coming to life after the thousand years in v. 5), which everyone admits is a reference to the physical resurrection of the body, makes taking the word “resurrection” in v. 4 as referring to something else entirely even more difficult. We would naturally assume that the word referred to the same thing in both instances. We know what a resurrection is. The conversion of a sinner or the saints living in heaven after they die is not what the Bible anywhere calls or thinks of as 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. That is what the Bible means by resurrection. 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?
Second, there is the matter of the binding of Satan as another problem with the amil and postmil interpretation of Rev. 20. It is not at all 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 is the same thing as 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 was not the binding described here in Rev. 20. Christ came, we read in 1 John 3:8, that he might destroy the works of the devil, and so he did; but, only by guaranteeing ultimate victory. Satan 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. 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 in one place. Augustine’s description of the Devil as now “like a barking dog that is chained” has long prompted the cynical reply of many premillennialists: “A mighty long chain.” 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 Rev. 20:2-3 describes the current situation and not a different and future one is compounded by the absoluteness of the language: Satan, we read here, 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 the thousand years; 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 briefly after the thousand years. But, if this Rev. 20 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, at this moment, bound in the sense of Rev. 20:2-3, then Satan will not ever and cannot ever be free from that binding even for a short period of time! Christ’s victory will never, can never be undone! But if the binding of Satan in Rev. 20 is a different, greater limitation of his power than the world has ever known, it is possible that his ordinary power would be given back to him for a brief time at the end.
Now let me bring all of this to some kind of conclusion. In chapters 17 through 19 we are given an account of the judgment and destruction of Babylon, the City of Man, and the beast and the false prophet that made Babylon so powerful as the enemy of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. We have yet to hear of the fate of the first and principle member of that false trinity: the Devil himself. He is dealt with upon the Lord’s Return as described in vv. 1-10. The beast and the false prophet have been judged and thrown into the lake of fire. Now the same fate awaits the Devil. This suggests to me that we do not go back to the beginning and start again in Revelation 20:1. John is continuing his account of the consummation of history. Part of the story has been told; now comes the rest of the story. What happens next, after the Second Coming is the millennium and, after that, the judgment of Satan.
In my opinion the conclusion to which one comes, the view he or she comes to favor among the millennial alternatives, is not finally based on exegesis or the interpretation of various texts. We all want to believe that is how we are making our choice, of course, but I very much doubt it is. We want to believe that if we just applied ourselves to the careful interpretation of the important texts of biblical eschatology and then toted up the results, lo and behold, we would find that our conclusions amounted to amillennialism or postmillennialism or premillennialism.
I have told you that I think Rev. 20 is much easier to read in a straightforward and contextual way as a statement of premillennialism: first the Second Coming, then the golden age. But, in all honesty, I would say that Romans 11, another crux, is easier to read in a post-millennial fashion. This is so for the advocate of every position: exegetically some texts are easier to explain in terms of his favored viewpoint but other texts have to be got round. I think that what actually happens is that for other reasons one of the schools of interpretation appeals to a mind or heart and it is really chosen for those other reasons. For example, for some, both amillennialism and premillennialism are too pessimistic; they expect no gospel triumph before Christ’s return. For others postmillennialism is too triumphalistic. And so on.
I remain a premillennialist for a variety of reasons but the most important one has nothing to do with the exegesis of various passages in the Bible, even Revelation 20. I am a premillennialist, cautiously, for this reason. I believe the Bible gives me reason to think that the history of the church, the body of Christ, will mirror the history of Christ himself, the head of the body. Where the head has gone, the body will go. Christ’s personal history is the template of the church’s history.
For that reason I favor premillennialism because it is the only system of biblical eschatology in which the church exactly recapitulates the history of her Head. Jesus, remember, came into 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 also lives in the world. She also dies as the generations of believers come and go. At the Second Coming of Jesus the church also rises from the dead to new and bodily life. Then she also remains in the world for a symbolic period of time (not forty days but a thousand years) and then, and only then, she also goes to heaven. The premillennial scheme has the great advantage of reproducing the pattern established in the life history of Christ, from whose life history the life story of the church is derived.
Many objections that have been raised against premillennialism are answered by this recapitulation of Christ’s life history in the life history of the church. Sometimes you will hear amillennialists and postmillennialists scornfully point out that in the premillennial scheme resurrected and glorified saints would be mixing in the world with natural and mortal human beings, as if such a thing were preposterous. But, fact is, it has happened once before. During the forty days after his resurrection, the glorified Christ mixed with mortal men. What wonderful days those were for just that reason! If premillennialism is correct, that situation is certainly interesting and delightful to contemplate. What would it be like? We can hardly imagine!
Or the advocates of the other schemes will complain that in so many other descriptions of the Second Coming in the N.T. nothing is said of any millennium to follow. We read of the Lord’s return, of the last judgment and of heaven and hell. Where is the millennium? Why is not mentioned? But the same thing is true of the forty days. Before his death Christ told his disciples repeatedly that he was returning to his Father, that he was leaving the world to prepare a place for them, that he was going where they could not follow and so on. He virtually never intimated that there was to be a time between his resurrection and his ascension in which he would see his disciples again. In that also the forty days of Jesus after his resurrection is like the thousand years of the church after her resurrection.
So, what does any of this mean for us? The problem with such a sermon as this is that I am not sure the application to our own lives would be very different if we took Rev. 20:1-10 as the Amils or Postmils do.
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 then what is there to comfort, console, encourage and sustain us 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 it makes to have Christ one’s king. To know that, to be sure of that has sustained the church through centuries of trial and should sustain us today.
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. If he is not bound today, it is because the Lord would have you fight him! This is a philosophy of history that you and I need constantly to take to heart and impress upon our minds and the minds of our children. It is designed to make us a peaceful, calm, confident, and cheerful people, no matter the difficulties we face.