revelation 20… the millennium

Revelation 20 the millennium

The final aspects of the salvation story are unfolding (19-22). We have seen the end of the beast and false prophet and all who side with them. We are about to see the end of Satan. We are introduced to the reign of Christ and his people, particularly those martyrs found under the altar who call out ‘how long’ (6:10). The final threads are being drawn together.

Rev 20:1-10 is a controversial text, perhaps the most debated in the book. Quite different ways of interpreting it have emerged over the centuries. These tend to have wider implications for how we construct the Bible story. I outlined these in a previous post and said that my (tentatively) preferred perspective is premillennial. Premillennialism believes that Rev 20 describes the consummated messianic reign following the Second Coming and preceding the eternal state – the period Jesus calls ‘the age to come’ (Matt 12:32; Lk 18:30, 24:34-36; Eph 1:21; Hebs 6:5) and ‘the kingdom of God’ (Matt 6:10; 8:111,12. Cf. Acts 3:21).

In Revelation, other time-frames exist but none approximates to a 1000 years. It is a unique time period in the book. Even if the number is symbolic it signifies a very long time in marked contrast to the earlier dominant time-frame of three and a half years. All agree the three and a half years describe a period prior to the Second Coming. The contrast argues for a premillennial perspective rather than some form of recapitulation as in, for example, amillennialism; it’s unlikely Revelation suggests the present age will last a thousand years as amillennialism suggests since in Revelation this age is envisaged as short… the time is near.

We should, however, remember that ‘the kingdom’ is eternal. It seems the millennium and the eternal state in some sense merge into each other (despite an intervening transformation of a new heavens and new earth). We should remember that here as elsewhere in Revelation we are seeing visions that teach about future realities. We are not seeing the reality itself but images that help us grasp what is important about it.

In Rev 19 we are told ‘the Lord our God the Almighty reigns’. Rev 20:1-10 is one of a series of visions (some say seven) that fall between 19:7-22:5 revealing different implications of the reign of God.

Daniel 7 probably stands in the background. There, once the final enemy of God’s people is overthrown, the little horn, Christ and his people receive the kingdom. There too we read of thrones set up for judgement (Dan 7:10, 26; Matt 19;28). I take the ‘little horn’ to be the final persecuting enemy of God’s people, the AntiChrist, or, in Revelation, the ‘beast’(Ch 13). Now that he is overthrown and cast into the lake of fire (19:20) God’s people receive the kingdom and begin to reign.

Perhaps we should observe that this kingdom description in Rev 20 is relatively sparse in detail. Much of what we think belongs in it we import from elsewhere – other Scriptures and sometimes our imaginations.

There are three main foci in this kingdom vision

• Satan’s imprisonment

• Raised and reigning saints

• The final battle

satan bound

1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

The first focus is the binding of Satan. God reigns over Satan. There is a strong continuity with the previous chapter leading us to expect progression and not recapitulation in the narrative. The Beast and the False Prophet have been thrown into the lake of fire. Now the fate of Satan himself, the third and leading member of the trinity of evil is revealed. His identity is spelled out in full lest we are in any doubt; he is the dragon, that ancient serpent, the devil, the slanderer, and Satan, the adversary (Cf 12:9). In all these roles he is about to be curtailed. Appropriately, as the chief architect of all opposition to God, his end is the last to be implemented. He is initially chained and and locked up for 1000 years in the bottomless pit or Abyss; chains were used to bind war criminals (2 Kings 25:7). He who had instigated the captivity of the saints is now a defeated captive (2:10.11, 13:10). Satan is not confined by God or Christ or an archangel; his imprisonment is assigned to an angel; his humiliation is complete.

This apparently lesser fate is unexpected. We expect him to be immediately cast into the lake of fire. It appears he has a further part to play in God’s purpose (v3). For now he is incarcerated. Large chains and a locked prison convey both his ignominy and his containment. Satan is vanquished. His powers are radically curbed. Most importantly he cannot deceive the nations. He is locked up for a 1000 years (mentioned six times in these verses). The number may be real or figurative but it represents an idealised lengthy period of time in sharp contrast to the previous 3½ years when he had been allowed to run havoc (Rev 12). The stated purpose of his imprisonment is that he might no longer deceive the nations (v3). Deceiving, however, is more than preventing the spread of the gospel or even blinding minds to it; it involves incitement against God’s people (20:8). Later, when he has fulfilled God’s purpose, he is cast into the lake of fire along with the beast and the false prophet and all who oppose God (Isa 27:1 Cf. Isa 24:21-23). In the meantime he is a prisoner bound and chained in the deepest prison. Christ’s reign with his people is free from his baneful influence. It’s important to grasp that Satan is bound before the millennium and freed after the millennium. During the millennium he has no influence to deceive.

But who are the nations that he cannot deceive? Clearly they are not the martyrs or church who reign with Christ. It is easy to assume that all who are not believers are already destroyed (ch 19). However, this does not seem to be the case. There appear to be nations who did not align themselves with the beast (Cont. 16:14). Perhaps it is over these nations God’s people reign (2:26-28, 3:21; Dan 7:27: Matt 19:28; 1 Cor 6:2). Some texts suggest the possibility of sin in the messianic kingdom (Isa 65:17-25). Are these nations converted? The NT teaches that only those who are born again inherit the kingdom of God (Jn 3:5; 1 Cor 15:50). And are not all who survive the Second Coming part of the church? Are not all others, God’s enemies, destroyed at the Second Coming (2 Thess 1:8)? Difficulties exist for premillennialism as well as amillennialism.

Amillennialists, who believe Rev 20:1-10 is a recapitulation rather than progression and believe the millennium describes the gospel age before Satan is released to attempt to create havoc at the end of the age, argue the imprisoning of Satan is the binding that took place in the gospels and through his defeat at the cross (Matt 12:29; Jn 12:31). The gospel is now reaching out to all nations because Satan is locked up and unable to deceive. Yet, the NT tells us, Satan is presently blinding the minds of those that do not believe (2 Cor 4:4; 1 Tim. 3:7; 1 Jn 5:19). Importantly, he is deceiving the churches in Revelation with false teaching (Ch 2,3) and by the nations who attack them. In the apocalyptic world of Revelation, Satan is thrown out of heaven but he is not locked up in the Abyss (Ch 12) Only in Rev 20 is he confined to the abyss before being consigned to the lake of fire. It’s hard to see an amillennial interpretation in Revelation 20.

resurrection and reigning

4 Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who 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 for 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 is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.

At the heart of this paragraph is the vindication of the martyrs and perhaps others who have died naturally but not worshipped the beast during the tribulation. Other believers are evidently there but in the background seated on thrones of judgement (v4, 3:21; Matt 19:28; 1 Cor 6:2,3). The parallels with Dan 7:9,10, 22 seem to place Rev 20 in a post-beast, post-3½ years consummated kingdom. Christ is reigning and with him, it seems, his people (those to whom authority to judge is committed) with special mention given to those who martyred during the final holocaust.

We have seen that a basic continuity seems to exist with what has gone before (the Second Coming) and what comes after (the judgement seat). It may be safe to assume that those alive at the Second Coming naturally enter the kingdom but what of those who died – the souls under the altar who cried out ‘How long’ (6:9-11) and others who died during this period? The question is similar to that asked by the Thessalonian and the answer is the same; they will be raised to share in the reign of the kingdom (1 Thess 4:13-17). All who suffer with Christ reign with him. Those who conquer through sacrifice will like their Lord be exalted as victors. Those who have been publicly humiliated will be publicly honoured (Cf. Lk 12:8; Rev 3:21, 5:9-10; Matt 18:28; Dan 7:27). The martyrs who gave the most, most deserve vindication (6:10) and are singled out for recognition. Though perhaps in Revelation all God’s people are viewed as martyrs. Certainly they are a kingdom of priests (1:6, 5:10; Ex 19:6); they reign as King-Priests mediating God’s rule in the world.

We are told the martyrs ‘came to life’. This phrase, and the word ‘resurrection’ are really important expressions in the chapter. Perhaps the greatest hurdle for amillennialism in Rev 20 is dealing with the references to resurrection. It views resurrection as spiritual, either the resurrection of initial spiritual life in Christ or a metaphor for the reign of deceased believers presently with Christ (Eph 2:4-6). These are contextually weak readings. Resurrection in the Bible is normally bodily resurrection; if not this is contextually indicated. Where people are physically dead resurrection is to a new bodily life. Here the language ‘came to life’ also applies to the resurrection of the unconverted and gives little room for manoeuvre; the ungodly clearly are not raised to any form of spiritual life. The most natural reading is the most compelling; John is describing the resurrection life of those who have endured the final times of persecution and not loved their lives unto death.

In fact, in Revelation this is the only explicit and protracted reference to resurrection – an otherwise major eschatological theme. It would be surprising if resurrection – the great hope of God’s people were absent. However, it is not absent and although implied in other texts it is here made explicit. Moreover, it is framed in one of the seven beatitudes of the book further stressing its significance. Living and ruling are the two hallmarks of God’s people in the millennium. God’s people are vivified and vindicated,

Although only the martyrs are explicitly mentioned the first resurrection applies to all believers since none are involved in the second death (21:8); a definite contrast in security and destiny is flagged. It is probably for rhetorical impact John contrasts the first resurrection with the second death; the resurrection of the damned scarcely merits the expression ‘resurrection’. Nevertheless we are confronted with a two-stage resurrection. The just and the unjust are separated in resurrection by 1000 years. This distinction may be implicit in the words of Jesus when he speaks of the resurrection of believers ‘from’ or ‘from among’ the dead (Luke 20:24).

The first resurrection assures exemption from the second death (2:11; 3:5; 20:14). The first death is physical the second is eternal in the lake of fire. The church (all the people of God who conquer) are those who participate in the first resurrection. Those who are alive at Christ’s return are not mentioned here. We have to turn to other Scriptures to see that they and resurrected saints together meet the Lord in the air and are forever with the Lord (1 Thess 4:13-5:11).

the final battle

7 And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8 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. 9 And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

The greatest problem for premillennial interpreters surfaces in vv 7-10. It seems from the sweep of Scripture that the final battle occurs at the Second Coming; it is then we expect sin, Satan and death to be overthrown. And certainly for the church this is the case. Yet it. Seems their final demise awaits the completion of the millennium. In, what appears to be the consummated messianic kingdom Satan is released and incites revolt among the nations.

In the messianic kingdom it seems there are unconverted people; sin, it appears is present and Satan is set freed to organise a massive revolt against God’s people. I suspect a main reason for amillennialism is the difficulty of reconciling this revolt with the rest of Scripture. Does not the return of Christ overthrow sin and rebellion once for all? Are we to build a two-stage resurrection and the presence of sin in Christ’s messianic kingdom on one chapter in a book that is highly symbolic and not always easy to understand? Weighty questions. Yet not perhaps as weighty as we first think. At least part of our difficulty lies with our unfamiliarity with the OT. For it is not only Revelation that envisages sin and rebellion in an ideal kingdom, the OT seems to envisage the presence of sin in the messianic kingdom too. In fact, key to understanding the final rebellion in Rev 20, is Ezek 38, 39.

John’s reference to ‘Gog and Magog’ throws us back to Ezekiel 38,39 where we read of a renewed Israel (Ezek 37) living in idyllic conditions in the last days. They live in unwalled villages without fear of attack. However, Gog of Magog and other nations, believing God’s people to be an easy target, conspire to attack Israel. It is this event that John’s vision expresses. The nations come to attack ‘the camp of God, the beloved city’. The camp of God is a reference to Israel in the wilderness; the ‘camp’ suggests her apparent vulnerability and need for divine protection. Or perhaps it suggests that as long as evil is still present the church has not yet fully arrived at her final rest. ‘The beloved city’ is a reference to Jerusalem. (Ps 87:1,2). Here John appears to do what he often does in Revelation, namely introduce a player before later developing him more fully. Both here and in 21:2 the people of God as a city is introduced before being later described. We should notice that although the city is surrounded it is never in danger (Ps 48:1-8, 76:1-12). Fire comes from heaven (a common judgement of God) and consumes the rebels (LK 9:54.; Gen 19:24;; Rev 11:5). A similar point is made in Ezek 39.. Indeed, in Ezek 38 God’s wrath against the nations has all the hallmarks of a day of the Lord (Ezek 38:18-23). Whatever sin menaces the kingdom it is summarily crushed.

Why a final rebellion?

In Ezek 39 God raises up enemy nations to attack his restored people but his purpose in doing so is very different from past occasions when nations were raised to attack his people. In the past he had raised up nations to punish his people. The Babylonians attacked israel and removed her from the land. It was the Lord’s just punishment for her sin. However, doing so shamed both Him and his people. It gave the nations the impression that he was unable to protect his people. Now he demonstrates otherwise. He saves his people because they are now a holy people; now their assailants and not his people will come into judgement. The nations see that the only reason God had not delivered Israel previously was because she was sinful. It was his holiness not his powerlessness that led to his people’s exile. But now, the Holy One and his holy people are one, there is no sin creating a chasm. Now, however huge the army or apparently vulnerable their situation, he will deliver them. He will be a wall of fire around his people (Zech 2:4,5) This final battle, if it can be called a battle, vindicates God and his people just as it also demonstrates the invincible wickedness of the human heart; sin is not primarily environmental it is endemic. The battle demonstrates the absolute sovereignty of God in Christ who reigns until every foe is vanquished (1 Cor 15:24-25).

Satan finally joins the Beast and the false prophet in the lake of fire. The conclusion that the end of ch 19 demanded is realised. The ancient serpent who appeared in the third chapter of the Bible is finally banished to eternal destruction in the third last chapter (Isa 27:1). That the beast and false prophet are still there demonstrates the lake of fire is an image of agony not annihilation.

This post is finished. Have I questions? Yes, many. Some I’ve already mooted. The presence of sin is difficult to square with the impression elsewhere in the NT that all evil is defeated at the Second Coming. How do we square sin in the millennium with entry to the kingdom of God requiring new birth (Jn 3:5; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Eph 5:5)? Within Revelation, it is hard to see where the nations come from who populate the millennium; they are clearly not the reigning people of God and the impression we have of the Second Coming is that all who oppose God are destroyed. Why are there so few OT texts we may associate with less than perfect millennial reign? Why is it that the language of OT passages that may seem to describe a millennium are used by John to describe the eternal state (Isa 65:17-25; Rev 21:4)? When is the earth renewed, at the beginning of the millennium or the beginning of the eternal state (Cf Matt 19:28)? There are answers to many of these questions with varying degrees of satisfaction. I find myself persuaded by premillennialism because Rev 20 seems to demand it.

Further observations.

Henry Alford famously said about the interpretation of resurrection in Rev 20

‘If, in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain psychai ezesan [“souls came to life”] at the first, and the rest of the nekroi ezesan [“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 of all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to anything.’

Alford’s criticism has weight.

Many, including dispensationalists, take the view that Ezekiel’s prophecy concerning Gog and Magog is fulfilled before the Millennium. Certainly Rev 19 draws its description of the ‘great supper of God’ the carrion feast that describes the end of those who oppose Christ from Ezek 39. While the attack on an apparently defenceless city living in peace in Rev 20 is drawn from Ezek 38. Amillennialists will understandably respond that this is because both are describing the same event. However, John may use OT images with more freedom than perhaps we allow. Or it may be that John is showing that history will repeat itself as long as Satan and sinful nature are present; the heart of man is the same at the end of the golden age of Christ’s rule as it was before it.

Incidentally, the possibility of ordinary mortal bodies mingling with glorified people is not so difficult to accept. Jesus in his resurrection body mingled with those in mortal bodies (Acts 1:3). The idea is not without precedent.

A number of commentators (Mounce, Michaels, Berkouwer, Bauckham etc) treat Rev 20 as a sort of parable. In their view, it as a premillennial reign intended to vindicate the martyrs but with no temporal reality. It is merely a metaphor. But why limit this hermeneutic to Rev 20? Why not have every symbolic picture in Revelation as an atemporal metaphor? John’s symbolism has empirical engagement. John is not dealing in myths but is consistently eschatological and deals with God’s redeeming and retributive acts in history. I find the merely a metaphor reading a strange hermeneutic. Yet while rejecting it, we should not forget that we are reading symbolism, symbolism or metaphor, however, which corresponds with reality.

Observe too, that in Revelation 20, there is no mention of a millennial temple or sacrifices etc. We must go to the OT to find these – things that Paul says are shown in the time of fulfilment to be weak and beggarly elements. (Gals 4:9). The writer to the Hebrews says they were shadows – things that God neither desired nor took pleasure in (Hebs 10). The New Jerusalem we are explicitly told has no temple.

Amillennialism is neat and I like neat. Perhaps it is too neat. Perhaps God’s ways are not our ways. Premillennialism may seem the worst of all interpretations of Rev 20 until the alternatives are considered.


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