Text: Rev 20:1-10
NT Parallel Text: John 12:31-32 "Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
Featured Verse: Rev 20:7-8 And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea.
Main Idea: This vision of the Millenium (1,000 years) in which Satan is bound and prevented from deceiving the nations is a recapitulation of Church history that shows Satan's power limited by the resurrection of Jesus. The passage offers (yet) another look at the last battle in which the nations gather and God brings final victory.
Ok, hang on to your seats. These 10 verses are among the most hotly debated in the book of Revelation. We will spread this section out over two posts and two days. We'll start by trying to understand what this 1,000 period of time refers to and then tomorrow we will discuss in greater detail why this matters.
When we step back and look at it, this vision refers to a 1,000 year period of time in which good things are happening. Satan is bound and prevented from deceiving the nations. (20:1-3) The saints are alive and reigning. (20:6) Eventually, Satan is released, and there is a final battle before the cosmos is undone and Satan is finally sent to the lake of fire. (20:11-15) So, it ends brutally, but all-in-all, this is a fairly pleasant appearing section of time. Based on this vision alone, a person might say, "I would like to live during the Millenium." Today I will (1.) share what I think is the best way to interpret these verses (2.) compare that to other Millennial views, and then, (3.) defend that in more detail. Depending on how deep you want to go, you may not keep following past the first section. But, before we dive in, let's briefly consider the significance of this.
When viewed alone, the Millennium can be an attractive vision. But it is also very confusing. In fact, it may be tempting for us to say, "This is all too confusing, I don't think it is worth discussing." Therefore, we need to see up front - there are very practical implications. In his commentary on Revelation, Tim Chester shares a summary of why Millennial views matter. While we will dive into this more tomorrow, we can simply say that the search for the Millennium is the search for a "golden age" of human flourishing. As, I will argue today, that is probably the wrong way of thinking about this, but nonetheless, that is how the discussion normally goes. Tim Chester detailed how particular views of the Millennium drove Christian behavior in history. Sometimes people were convinced that they were about to enter the golden age of Christianity and that the normal expectations for the Christian life were about to be upended. For some folks, the golden age of triumphal Christian living could be ushered in by our activism. For others, the Millennium was so far in the future that they gave up any hope in this present world. Finally, Chester noted that secular variations of the Millennium drove Marxist hopes and the Nazi dreams of a "Third Reich" that would last 1,000 years.* Subdued versions of this seem to animate the hopes of modern-day progressives who long to be "on the right side of history" and finally reach a place free from human conflict. Certainly, John Lennon's memorable song, "Imagine" seems to be calling his listeners to imagine a secular millennium.
In other words, the question about when we can "find a golden age of human flourishing" is a powerful idea which haunts even the dreams of our secular neighbors. How we think about this will say a lot about our theology.
I shared in a prior post that this series has been written from the viewpoint of what can be called an "Idealist-Amillennial View." This view relates to much we have seen in the book. We understand Revelation as a prophetic book in which John reveals spiritual truths about the history of the world by using symbolic images. We are not looking for the images to fit together in a linear sequence, rather, we expect that they are often stacked on top of each other. Like an anatomy book that shows multiple layers of different systems in the same body, John is frequently laying his visions on top of each other, as they recapitulate key sequences of events from different perspectives.
In short, the view I am espousing understands this vision to be one large recapitulation. The 1,000 Millenium is a symbolic number for the age of the church.** It begins with Satan being bound after the resurrection of Jesus. This is a recapitulation of a prior vision in which Satan is cast out of heaven. (12:10) During this 1,000 period of time (throughout the age of the church), Satan is not absolutely bound, but he is constrained in his ability to "deceive the nations." (20:3) This is why the Church is growing throughout all people groups on earth. Satan is still our enemy, but he is limited in his ability to stop the kingdom of God. Derek Thomas wrote, "Satan is on a chain." Like a leashed dog, he can growl and threaten, but he cannot truly harm those who are in Christ. If we resist him, he will flee. (James 4:7)
During this time, those who have died faithfully in Christ experience a spiritual resurrection. They are spiritually present with Christ - a reality that we have already seen in the vision of the fifth seal as they gathered beneath the altar of God in heaven. (6:9) This is the first resurrection, a spiritual resurrection. The second will be at the final judgment when all of the dead are raised. That is the second resurrection, the resurrection of the body. This first resurrection is for all believers, but those that are killed for their faith are especially emphasized and are representative for the way in which all of God's people suffer in this present age. The "rest of the dead" (20:5) refers to those who die outside of Christ and are consigned to Hades as they wait for the final judgment.
At the end of the church age, Satan's constraints will be lifted and he will then be free to deceive the nations and gather them for a final battle against the church. This is the same final battle that we have seen so many times before. Essentially, we are arguing that Armageddon (16:16), the Battle of the Rider in White (19:19), and the Battle at Gog and Magog (20:8) are all the same climactic battle. Following this we see the final judgement (20:11-15), which will be discussed in a separate post.
This vision is another layer onto the anatomy of the Church age. We have seen how the period between the resurrection of Jesus and his return is characterized by the dominance of Babylon (chapters 17-18), and that God shakes the heavens and earth through a series of judgments to allow his unshakeable kingdom to be established. (I am explaining the 4 series of judgements in chapters 6-16 with the language of Hebrews 12:26-29.) At the same time, Satan's power is limited, and the church is growing... spreading to every tongue, and tribe and nation, because Satan is constrained from deceiving the nations. Together with the other visions in the book, we see a complete picture of the reality of the Church age. In that time, the church is growing and spreading... but the kingdom of darkness is also growing. Our view is one in which real advance for the Gospel is expected, but the opposition is not about to vanish any time soon. Satan is loud, but he is on a chain. Babylon, the City of Man is radiant but hollow and doomed for destruction. At the same time, the people of God share in the weakness of the Lord, even as he makes his glory known through them to the ends of the earth.
Compared to Other Millennial Views
Ok, maybe you are satisfied with that explanation. I once heard it said, that anyone can feel like Revelation is easy if you only read one commentary. When there is only one explanation present, the answer may seem plausible. But if you have been exposed to very different ways of reading this book, and in particular different ways of understanding the Millennium, then everything gets a lot more complicated. Let's briefly return to the topic that was introduced in an earlier post - comparative views of the book of Revelation. Tim Chester included a chart in his commentary. It summarizes how various views of the Millennium understand the connection between, (a.) the return of Christ, (b.) the Millennium, and (c.) the final judgment. (Note, there are variations of each view and this is therefore a necessarily oversimplified chart.)
Pre-Millennialism - This understands the connection between the vision of the Rider in White (19:11-21) to happen chronologically before the Millenium. Jesus comes back before ("pre") the Millenium. The idea is that all of the stuff in this vision of the Millenium happens after Jesus returns, but before the final judgement. Obviously, the Millenium would be very different from the Church age as we know it now. This view has been very popular in America over the last 150 years. I think it is fair to say that proponents of this view see the golden age as something that happens only after Jesus returns and are therefore pessimistic about the hope for this present age.
Post-Millennialism - This understands the vision of the Rider in White to be something other than the literal return of Jesus, but represents some climactic moment during the Church age in which we enter into a new period of growth and flourishing. Tim Chester listed ways in which some form of this view shaped church life after Constantine converted to Christianity and after the Reformation. I think that it is fair to say that proponents of this view see the golden age as attainable and are therefore optimistic (even triumphalist) in regard to life in this present age.
Amillennialism - This understands the Millennium to be one of many layers of visions which describe life in the present Church age. It is not a literal 1,000 years (hence the "a" which means "not" in the title "A-millennial.") Of course, when someone presents two extreme options and then offers their own, exactly in the middle, Goldilocks smiles and nods. (It's not too hot, or too cold.) All joking aside, I think it is fair to say that proponents of this view expect to see both a growing Kingdom of God in fellowship with Christ, and increased opposition from the world, culminating in a climactic conflict (of some sort) at the end of the age.
A Defense of an Amillennial View
Tomorrow, we will consider in greater detail the implication of these views. But I want to write a little more about why I am convinced that this interpretation is the best way of reading the text. In the interest of brevity on an already extremely long post, I will write in bullet point "Q&A" comments.
Why is it attractive to see the (a.) return of Christ, (b.) final judgement, (c.) and the resurrection of the dead as grouped together? The rest of the NT directs our hope to the return of Christ as the focus of our future orientation. The idea of a millennial "golden age" that occurs prior to the final judgment is not supported by any other clear teaching of Scripture. Furthermore, the return of Jesus is always associated with the final judgment (See Matt 25) and the resurrection of the dead (I Cor 15, 1 John 3:1-2.) Peter writes that we should "set our hope fully on the grace that will be ours when Christ is revealed" (1 Peter 1:13), and the Apostles Creed says he is "returning to judge the living and the dead." A 1,000 year gap between the return of Jesus and the final judgment seems to confuse both of those statements of faith.
Why should we understand the Millennium to be figurative and not a literal period of 1,000 years? Nearly all of the numbers in Revelation are symbolic. We already saw that there are "seven Spirits" before the throne of God and we understand that there is only one Holy Spirit. Also, the 144,000 saints are parallel to a "great multitude that no one could number." (7:9) Obviously, there must be more than 144,000 of them, if they cannot be numbered. If the 1,000 was a literal 1,000-years it would be nearly the only number used in Revelation that is not symbolic. Finally, the number 1,000 is used often in the Bible to refer to a long period of time. (See Psalm 90:4)
Why does this all seem to happen after the other visions? It is natural for us to think that a literary sequence would imply a historical sequence. But that is not how prophetic visions work. We have already seen many examples of this in the OT and the book of Revelation as a whole, so I will not repeat it here. But it is a critical point for our interpretation. "The order is not chronological, but theological."***
Why do you think this recapitulates other visions? This is really important to see. There is huge linguistic overlap between this vision and prior visions. In particular, the "Last Battle" is described with the same language in three places, and referred to in many others. (16:4, 19:19, 20:8; 11:7, etc.) Furthermore, the destruction of the cosmos is described in similar terms in both 16:17-21, and 20:11. Both occur after a description of this final battle. Clearly, that is not something that could happen more than once.
How can we say that Satan is bound now, if the NT warns about the realities of Spiritual warfare? If we read this as one vision of many, describing the Church age, we get a remarkably familiar perspective about spiritual warfare. First, it seems that the binding of Satan (20:1-3) is the same as Satan being thrown down from heaven, and no longer able to "accuse the brethren." (12:10) The NT as a whole portrays spiritual conflict as one in which Jesus has already won the decisive battle through his death and resurrection. Satan is not yet removed (12:10), but his power is limited. In reference to fighting the Devil, Jesus said, that "no one can plunder the house of a strong man, unless he first binds the strong man" (Matt 12:29) Because Satan is specifically said to be constrained in his ability to "deceive the nations", the binding of Satan during the Millennium makes possible the realization of the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) as the church grows among all nations in ways never witnessed before the Resurrection of Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus himself connects the "casting out" of the ruler of this world, with his death and resurrection. (John 12:31-32)
What does it mean for Satan to be released at the end of the Church age? This seems to be similar to a warning that the Apostle Paul gives to the Thessalonians, that at the end of the age, "a man of lawlessness" will no longer be "restrained" and will create havoc, until "the Lord Jesus will kill him by the breath of his mouth." That seems very much to relate to the final battle which is described in both Rev 19:19-23 and 20:7-10. Beyond those bare details, we don't know much, but this fits into a harmonious picture.
How can John describe saints as already experiencing the first resurrection during this present age? John describes a first and second resurrection. If those are two phases of physical resurrection, then it would seem to contradict the NT hope of a singular resurrection of all believers at the return of Christ. (1 Thess 4:13-18) By contrast, the NT does regularly use the term resurrection to describe either a spiritual resurrection or a physical resurrection. (Rom 6:4-13) We know that those in Christ who are absent from the body are present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8), which clearly implies a spiritual vitality for those in Christ, after their physical death. We see exactly that picture in Rev 6:9-11, where those who have died for their faith are in heaven, "under the altar" and crying out for justice. It seems far less problematic to assume John describes this reality as the "first resurrection" than it is to upend the clear teaching of other Scriptures with a doctrine that portrays various stages of physical resurrections.
How did you have time to write all of this? Well, I will admit this has been more time consuming than I had expected. But I find this to be enjoyable and I have really appreciated the feedback people have been giving. The bigger question is, "how did you have time to read all of this?" If you are still chugging along through this enormous post, my hat is off to you. I hope you found it to be helpful! Let us set our hope fully on the grace that will be ours when Christ is revealed!
*Tim Chester, Revelation for You, 147-152.
* In that sense, it is similar to the earlier phrases which are equivalent to 3.5 years, 42 months, or 1260 days, or "time, times and half a time." They are all ways of referring to the period of time between the resurrection of Jesus and his return, which we call the "Church Age."
*** Derek Thomas, Revelation for You, p161.