Yesterday in our Revelation series, we saw the fate of those who remained true to Jesus, being invited to the great wedding supper of the Lamb. It was contrasted with the fate of those who remained opposed to him and who mistreated his people: the beast and the false prophet were thrown into the fiery lake, and the rest were destroyed. Today, we look at some final tidying up of things, before we get a glimpse, tomorrow, of our future in the age to come.
The millennium – mentioned only in this small section of Scripture – has strangely divided Christians for a long time into different camps: are you pre-millennial, post-millennial, or a-millennial. (Why? Let’s just say that one particular view tried to hijack the issue and link their way of understanding it to whether you took Scripture “literally” – so if you disagreed with them, it was a sign you were a liberal heretic. Thankfully, those days seem to be on the way out. See my overview on reading Revelation for a longer explanation.)
Revelation 20:1-3 And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. 3 He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time.
Ezekiel is the significant OT background to this. The previous chapter (Rev 19) contained imagery from Ezekiel 39 about Gog and Magog, which continues in this chapter (Rev 20). This section of Ezekiel also speaks much of resurrection (the valley of dry bones in Ezek 38) and restoration of the Messianic kingdom, which probably lies behind the resurrection imagery here.
There are also many connections with some of the Jewish writings “between the testaments” which may explain what John intended and what his first readers would have understood:
- In these writings we see an expectation that the coming messianic age would last a thousand years (e.g. Rabbi Eliezer b. Jose).
- There’s also a theme of history following the pattern of creation week: the messianic age is the seventh age, a sabbatical rest from evil, etc. The timeless age, the eighth day, is the eternal kingdom (See 2 Enoch 32–33; Epistle of Barnabas 15.) Revelation may well be understanding the messianic age as the Sabbath age in which Satan is not allowed to disrupt the world.
- In the book of 1 Enoch, an evil angel is imprisoned for deceiving the inhabitants of the earth until judgement day, and then cast into fire.
And it even touches on Babylonian mythology: Tiamat (the chaos monster of the sea) is imprisoned, but released again at the end of time where the god of light, Marduk, defeats her. (This point will make more sense after next week’s Christmas special on Revelation 12. Save that up for later…)
When does this occur?
The key question is: does Revelation see this as happening after the death and resurrection of Jesus, or at the end of human history?
The obvious answer is: “well, Satan isn’t bound yet!” Maybe not, but in Revelation he’s symbolically bound in an abyss. So although Satan may be still active today, he’s bound in the sense that he is kept from deceiving the nations anymore (verse 3). An amillennial view sees this thousand years as symbolic—the church age—in which the gospel is free to go to the nations, but not implying anything about the physical location of Satan. This is what Jesus instituted in his ministry, then commissioned after his resurrection:
Matthew 12:28-29 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.”
Matthew 28:18-19 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…”
Paul Barnett puts it this way:
While the fact and influence of Satan should not be ignored, Christians must not forget that the Evil One has been defeated by Christ’s death and resurrection, and is bound and limited by the gospel and by courageous Christian witness. There is a tendency for Christians to take a minimal view of the historic victory of Christ, and to emphasise instead various techniques such as exorcism and prayer counselling. Let it be understood that it is not by techniques, but by the redemptive death of Jesus and the ongoing preaching of the cross, that the Devil is defeated and bound. (Paul Barnett, Apocalypse Now and Then, 148.)
The two resurrections
We move then to the two resurrections, which are at the heart of the timing and nature of the millennium:
Revelation 20:4-6 I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.
So what are the different ways to understand this?
Premillennial view: If both resurrections are physical, then the thousand years lie in our future:
Christ returns ==> first resurrection (martyrs? Or all believers?) ==> 1000 year reign on earth ==> second resurrection (unbelievers) ==> judgement ==> second death (eternal destruction)
Yet nowhere else in scripture is this two-stage end spelled out like this. Further, a literal reign on earth is not needed for the promises to Israel to be fulfilled. Christ has already vindicated God by “confirming the promises made to the patriarchs” in the OT (Rom 15:8-9).
Amillennial/postmillennial view: What if the first resurrection is a spiritual one – Ezekiel’s dry bones coming to life in connection with the giving of the Spirit?
John 5:24 ‘I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.’
Col 3:3 ‘For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.’
According to this view, we have a nice parallel between physical/spirital death, and physical/spiritual resurrection:
|First death: physical (all die)||First resurrection: spiritual (believers only)|
|Second resurrection: physical (all are raised)||Second death: spiritual (unbelievers only)|
The final battle
Revelation 20:7-10 When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison 8 and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. 9 They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. 10 And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
All of unredeemed humanity is involved here, and they are devoured by fire. By contrast, Satan joins the beast and false prophet in the lake of burning sulphur for eternal conscious torment.
The Great White Throne
The final judgement scene takes place. The previous scene was about the nations and hostile forces as a whole being defeated – i.e. a big picture, corporate view of judgement. Here, individuals and their conduct are judged:
Revelation 20:11-15 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them.
The old earth and heavens know that their time is up; they have been defiled too much, and need to be replaced/renewed.
Revelation 20:12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.
Deeds are the focus (“according to what they had done”), which is reminiscent of Jesus in John’s gospel:
John 5:28-29 “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.
In the context of Revelation, to have done good is to have resisted the mark of the beast (emperor worship). This isn’t salvation-by-works, simply that works will be the external evidence of whether they are on God’s side or not. Redemption by Jesus and the inner transformation of the Spirit leads to the fruit of that Spirit becoming visible.
Revelation 20:13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done.
The sea gets special mention due to the belief that those who were not buried didn’t make it into Sheol/Hades (the abode of the dead).
Revelation 20:14-15 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.Everyone is judged.
Death and Hades (two symbols) also join the other three in the lake of fire—which is the second death. Here, those whose names are not found in the book of life are also thrown into it.
This ends the judgement scenes. Tomorrow, we end on a cheerier note: a description of the age to come – the eternal reality that awaits those who reject the beast and its mark, and instead worship God alone.