The Thousand Years of Revelation 20An essay in 3 parts by Fernando D. SaravŪ*
It is my contention that present Christian teaching concerning the last things relies too much on the belief of a future earthly millennial kingdom. Therefore, it may be profitable to see whether the idea that the thousand years mentioned by John refers to a future kingdom is consistent with what the NT , and Revelation in particular, teaches on Satanís binding, the resurrection and the reign of the saints. Additionally, we should explore the clues provided by Revelationís literary framework, style and structure, as those arising from the biblical use of the expression "one thousand years".
1. On whether there is chronological continuity between Revelation 19 and 20
Fundamental to a belief on a wholly future earthly millennial kingdom is the assumption of a chronological continuity between the visions of Chapter 19 and those of Chapter 20; that is, the defeat of the beast, the kings of the earth and their armies is temporally followed by Satanís binding and the coming to life and reign of beheaded saints. However, that this is the case is by no means obvious. Most students of Revelation have long ago noticed that while in each vision there is some kind of orderly intensification (the seals, the trumpets, the vials), there are also discontinuities among them, as if each series of visions showed at least partially overlapped events.
From written records, we learn that the first to point out this characteristic feature of Revelation was the millennarian Church Father, Victorinus bishop of Pettau (who died ca. 304). At the end of his remarks on Ch. 7 he wrote, concerning the similarities between the seals, the trumpets and the bowls: "We must not regard the order of what is said, because frequently the Holy Spirit, when He has traversed even to the end of the last times, returns again to the same times, and fills up what He had [before] failed to see. Nor must we look for order in the Apocalypse; but we must follow the meaning of those things which are prophesied." (Commentary on the Apocalypse; in A. Roberts & J. Donaldson, Ed., The Antenicene Fathers; Repr. 1989, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 7:352). In other words, the Seer from Patmos leads us time and again from the beginning to the end of salvation history, in several partially paralel sections that follow a pattern of repetition with elaboration. This approach, later called recapitulation, is one of the keys for understanding Revelation.
Most interpreters from different schools agree that there is an evident discontinuity between Chapters 11 and 12: From the apparent end ushered by the seventh trumpet we are unexpectedly carried back to the time before Jesus Christís birth. Now, we can find clues that allows us to delineate seven sections in the book:
. The glorious Savior ruling His churches : Ch. 1-3 (Introduction, messages to the Churches; turning point: John is called up to heaven).
. The Lamb as the revealer and executor of Godís plan: Ch. 4-7 (heavenly vision, God & the Lamb, the book, the seals; turning point: "God will wipe away every tear...").
. The proclaming of Godís rule and warnings of the coming judgments: Ch. 8-11 (The censer, the trumpets, the temple, the two witnesses; turning point: the opening of Godís heavenly temple).
. The Battle of Satan and his followers against Christ and His church: Ch. 12-14 (The Woman, the male Child and the Dragon; the beasts; the Lamb & the 144,000, the great multitude in heaven; turning point: the harvest of the earth).
. The wrath of God poured on earth: Ch. 15-16 (The plagues, the bowls; turning point: judgment, "the plague was so terrible").
. The victory of the Lamb over the unrighteous of the earth: Ch. 17-19 (Babylon, her downfall, heavenly celebration, judgment; turning point: "The rest of them were killed...").
. The final triumph over Satan and the eternal blessing of the saints: Ch. 20-22 (Satanís binding, the saints raised and reigning, Satanís final attack, general resurrection and judgment, new heavens and earth, heavenly Jerusalem, epilogue).
Colin Brown, Editor of the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975-1978), says that "there is a very strong case for seeing the whole book as structured in seven series of visions corresponding to the seven days of the creation story in Gen. 1, each of which looks at the Church in the gospel age. The visions are thus seven sets of parallel visions of the church and its tribulations between the two advents of Christ. In this view the period of a thousand years refers to the present era culminating in a final outburst of Satanic activity prior to the final destruction of all the evils that afflict man." (sub voce "chilias", 2:702). I agree, and let me show you why I believe that Chapter 20 does not follow chronologically Chapter 19, but starts another section, the last one, culminating with the eternal state. At the start of Chapter 20 we learn that Satan has been bound. with a goal thatís carefully specified by John: "to keep him from deceiving the nations any more...". So we must accept that there are still nations that can be deceived, and 20:7f dramatically confirms this. However, in 19: 11-21 we have learned that all earthly foes of God have been utterly destroyed, so nobody is left that may be deceived!
2. The binding of Satan (Revelation 20:1-3)
To understand what John wants to convey with this vision, we first must look to other NT texts related to the binding of Satan. He was initially defeated by Jesus in the desert (Matt. 4:1-11). Afterwards, he suffered defeat after defeat during Christís ministry. To those who accused Jesus of driving out demons by Beelzebubís (= Satanís) power; He answered that it was actually by Godís power that he drove them out, and asked: "how can anyone enter a strong manís house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house" (Matt 12:29). It should be pointed out that the Greek verb deŲ, to bind, here translated "ties up" is the very same verb used of Satanís binding in Rev 20. Those who object that Satan is still struggling to carry out his deceptive work (e.g., 1 Cor 7:5; 2 Cor 3:15; 11:3f, 13-15) overlook that the binding implies a restriction, not total neutralization. For example, the very same verb (deŲ) is employed of John the Baptistís binding by Herod (Matt. 14:3), which nevertheless didnít prevent John from sending his disciples to Jesus (Matt. 11:1-7). Another example of this verb used to depict a relative restriction is found in Romans 7: 2 , "For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to [her] husband as long as he lives."
Jesus massive atack against Satanís kingdom is stressed in many NT passages. For example, Jesusí remarked that "the gates of Hades" would not prevail against the Church (Matt. 16:18). The image is that of a city (Hades) besieged by an adversary (the Church) strong enough to throw down the cityís gate, thus indicating the offensive power of Godís people. The Lord declared "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven" in connection with the mission of the 72 (Luke 10:18, cf. Rev 12:9!). Similarly we read: "now the prince of this world will be driven out"; "the prince of this world now stands condemned"; he has no hold on Jesus (John 12:31; 16:11; 14:30).
Paul asserted that in his ascension, Christ "led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men" (Eph 4:8, quoting Ps 68:18); "And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Col 2:15). The decisive battle was, then, already won at the cross, as also Hebrews reminds us: "he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy (katargesei, "render powerless") him who holds the power of death Ėthat is, the devil" (Heb 2:14).
Thus, the uniform teaching of the NT is that the decisive victory over Satan was won at Christís FIRST COMING; it was then that Satan was bound.
It is on this ground that the victory of believers against the devil is boldly proclaimed. Paul was commissioned by the Lord himself to "open their (Jewsí and Gentilesí) eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God" (Acts 26:18). Believers are more than conquerors (Rom 8:37-39). They are aware of Satanís schemes (2 Cor 2:11). They have been rescued from the realm of darkness (Col 1:13). The Father and Jesus protect them from the Evil One (John 17:15; 2 Tess 3:3; 1 Pet 1:1; 1 John 5:18). Christians can stand against Satanís plots with the armour of God, and they can succesfully resist the devil (Jas 4:7; 1 Pet 5:8). In a real sense, believers already "have overcome the evil one" (1 John 2:13b, 14b).
The NT clearly teaches that the time during which Satan is prevented from deceiving the nations is the present Gospel era. So Simeonís praise, the Nunc Dimitis, finishes thus: "a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel" (Luke 2:32). In the ministry of John the Baptist, Luke saw the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3-5, and said "and all mankind will see Godís salvation" (Luke 3:6). When Jesus saw the centurionís faith, He said: "many will come from the east and west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 8:11). To the Samaritan woman He said: "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem." (John 4:21). After the resurrection, He commanded the eleven to "go and make disciples from all nations" (Matt 28:19), or, in Lukeīs account, "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8), since "repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47). Furthermore, after Jesus healed the man with a shrivelled hand on a Sabbath, Matthew lets us know that "This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ę ... in His name the nations will put their hopeĽ " (Matt. 12:17,21).
Throughout the Book of Acts we witness the promise to the nations becoming a tangible reality. Thus, the gospel is first addressed to Jews "from every nation under heaven" and they convert to Christ by the thousands (Acts 2:5, 41, 47; 5:16, 42; 6:1,7). After Stephenís death, the Gospel reaches the Samaritans and the Ethiopian (Acts 8), and then other Gentiles (Acts 10). This calling of the Gentiles was seen by James as in agreement with the Scripture as signalling the time when "the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord" (Acts 15:13-18, quoting Amos 9:11f).
When people attempted to perform sacrifices to Barnabas and Paul in Lystra, Paul said: "We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God...In the past, He (God) let all nations go their own way" (Acts 14:15f, emphasis mine). Returning to Antioch in Syria, Barnabas and Paul reported that God "had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles" (v. 27). Similarly, in his address in the Areopagus Paul said: "In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17:30f, emphasis mine). Furthermore, Luke reports that at Gentile Christians at Ephesus burned their sorcery scrolls (19:19). To unbelieving Jews at Rome, Paul remarked "I want you to know that Godís salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!" (28:28). Paul explained to Timothy that Christ "was preached among the nations" (1 Tim 3:16). From the resurrection on, Satan can only blind those who stubbornly refuse to accept the Gospel (Rom 1:18-32; 2 Cor 4:4; 1 Tim 1:20; 5:15).
In the very book of Revelation, the devil cannot prevent, notwithstanding his furious efforts through his allies, the Gospel from being preached "to every nation, and tribe, and language, and people" (Rev 14:6; Cf. 10:11). Also, the gathering before Godís throne of people from all nations, that Satan could obviously not deceive, is clearly described: "with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation"; "there before me there was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb" (Rev 7:9; 14:6).
Finally, from 2 Thessalonians 2 we may infer still another sense in which Satan is restrained, and this is that he cannot set up the kingdom of the Man of Sin. Even when it is very debatable who and what is hindering him, there is no question an obstacle, most probably a God ordained one.
In conclusion, if Satan was bound at Christís first coming, it follows that the period styled by John as "one thousand years" is not some future earthly kingdom, but the present Gospel age. As we pursue this study, further evidence for this view will be presented.
In the first part of this essay one of the outstanding events that occurs during the thousand years, namely Satanís binding, was analyzed and interpreted within the framework of NT teaching. Now it is the turn of the remaining major event, namely the resurrection and reign of the saints. This is what the text , Rev 20: 4-6, actually says (the former is a translation as literal as possible; the later is the text from NIV):
3. Those who reign with Christ (Revelation 20:4-6)
"And I saw thrones and they were seated on them, and judgment was given to them, even [or and] the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and who did not worship the beast nor his image and did not receive the mark on their forehead and on their hands. And they lived [again] and reigned with the Christ [for a] thousand years. The other dead did not come back to life until the thousand years were finished. This [is] the first resurrection. Blessed and holy he who has a part in the first resurrection; the second death has no authority over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and will reign with him for the thousand years."
"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 for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years (the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended). This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part 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." (NIV)
The right interpretation of these verses is a much debated issue among committed Christians. The task is difficult, but not hopeless. We should begin from the immediate context, the larger context of the book of Revelation, and the even larger context of the Bible as a whole. We should employ the principle of the analogy of faith, i.e., that Scripture interprets Scripture; thus we can gain a better understanding of difficult texts if we see them in the light of clearer texts. This is particularly important when we deal with a writing that makes liberal use of symbolic language as the present one.
For a proper understanding of what this controversial passage says, it may be profitable first to note what it fails to mention. The reason for this unusual approach is that, believe it or not, many interpreters put into this text a lot of things that simply are not there. They assume Ėusually on the basis of a preconceived framework- that these things are implicit. I will not challenge, for the time being, the validity of this assumption, but simply point out that the following things are not actually mentioned:
 Location. We are not told if the reign John saw took place in a heavenly or earthly realm.
 A temple. In fact, no building at all is mentioned.
 Sacrifices. No worship is described.
 Jerusalem. Neither heavenly nor earthly Jerusalem are mentioned.
 Israel. Any mention of the land of Israel (Eretz Israel) is lacking
 The Jewish people. Not a single Jewish name, no tribe at all, is mentioned.
 The Gentile nations. They are not in sight in this part of Johnís vision.
 Earthly life conditions. Peaceful living, the birth of babies, house building, harvesting and the like are conspicuously absent.
Therefore, those Christians who believe that this text depicts an earthly kingdom are forced to supply some or all of these things to Johnís succint description. They usually draw plenty of material from OT prophecies that speak of a glorious future Davidic kingdom. Many of those who embrace this approach adhere to it because they believe it to be required by a literal interpretation of the Bible.
However, a little reflection will show that this approach falls short of a so called "consistent literalism." Some early Church Fathers -most notably Irenaeus of Lyon- thought that here an earthly rule of the Church after Christís second coming is envisaged. No early orthodox millennialist entertained for a minute that the thousand years would be a Jewish kingdom. Therefore, they had to apply all OT prophecies not to Israel as a nation, but to the Christian church.
On the other hand, some current day exegetes start from the basic assumption that prophecies addressed to Israel must be fulfilled physically (although they call it a literal fulfillment, actually a physical, as oposed to a spiritual, fulfillment is intended). Since this did not happen in the past, these prophecies must be fulfilled in the future, and they find no other time for this but the thousand years of Revelation 20. Some relevant prophecies in this regard are found in Isaiah (9, 11, 24-27, 35, 65-66), Ezekiel 37-48; Zechariah 12,14,etc. However, in order to apply all these prophecies to the one thousand years period mentioned in Revelation 20, some significant concessions have to be made. This is because these prophecies depict the glorious future of Israel with a language clearly resembling OT culture, to wit:
 The kingdom will be established and kept by sheer power.
 The nations will serve Israel
 Transportation will require ancient means, like asses, horses and chariots.
 Weapons will be old fashioned (spears, swords, shields and the like).
 Sacrifices will be restablished as under MosesíLaw
 New Moons, sabbath days and all OT feasts will be celebrated again.
For belief in a literal earthly kingdom to be sustained, at least some of these things must be understood in figurative, or at least typical ways. But in so doing, the very same principle on which this view is based is undermined. Those who believe in a future Jewish millennium cannot have it both ways.
On the other hand, some of the Scriptures on which this view is based , if taken literally, seem to contradict this futuristic view. For example, in Isaiah 25:8 we read that God "will swallow up death forever", yet Isaiah 65: 20, literally interpreted, implies that death is still there. In Isaiah 11:9 it says that "the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea". Notwithstanding this bright text, we learn that at the end of the millennium there are vast God-hating hordes waging war against Godís people. In Isaiah 9:7, another Scripture applied to the millennial kingdom, it is said that "Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end." This is simply not true if there will be a worlwide rebellion at the end of this period. At its best, this millennial kingdom would have a "peace" that would be a lack of war out of fear, not willing submission and knowledge of the truth.
Another example concerns the duration of the kingdom. The kingdom spoken by OT prophets was clearly to be eternal: "He will reign on Davidís throne ... from that time on and forever" (Isaiah 9:7, Cf. Ezekiel 36:26ff). Of course it may be argued that the kingdom that begins with the millennium will stand forever, but then, why the segregation of its first thousand years?
Finally, one of the main texts advanced as proof of this view, namely Isaiah 65:17-25, begins with the words: "Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth". In the NT, this promise is understood to be fulfilled after this present world has passed away: "But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness (2 Pet 3:13, see vv. 10-12). Similarly, the new heavens and the new earth are not mentioned in connection with the thousand years. They are, however, seen in Revelation 21:1 after the millennium is over.
The above discussion is meant to show the problems arising when attempts are made to make too much of the thousand years kingdom, and particularly when it is understood as an earthly political rule of Christ. Therefore, we must turn to the NT, which is both Godís final revelation and His inspired interpretation of the OT prophecies. We will start from the text, continue to the context provided by the book of Revelation, and finally examine the broader NT teachings on the kingdom.
At this point, it will be useful to read again very carefully the text of Revelation 20:4-6. John has just seen Satanís binding. Now the scenario changes: He sees thrones. Where are they? As pointed out before, the text itself does not tell us this. Thrones are mentioned 47 times in Revelation. Only three times earthly thrones are mentioned, and invariably they belong to evil powers: Satanís throne once (2:13) and the beastís throne twice (13:2; 16:10). The other 41 instances besides 20:4, the thrones belong to God (1:4, etc; 37 times), to the Lamb (3:21; 22:3) or to the 24 elders (4:4; 11:16). In all these instances, heavenly thrones are meant. Therefore, it is possible that the same be true for the thrones John saw. To whom do these thrones belong?
The description of those who took their seats on the thrones is intriguing. Some say that they are a group distinct from those mentioned in the same phrase, but I find no firm basis for this. This company is described in the following clauses of the same verse. John says that he saw the souls (tas psychas) of those beheaded (pepelekismenŲn, literally those killed with an axe) because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God. This description, however, is very similar to what John saw at the opening of the fifth seal: "I saw under the altar the souls (tas psychas) of those who had been slain (esphagmenŲn) because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained" (6:9). To these white robes were given.
Might both of these groups of souls be one and the same company? If we turn to the messages addressed to the churches, we notice that to those who overcome both white robes and the privilege of sitting with Christ in His heavenly throne are promised (3:4f; 3:21). The overcomers in white robes have been seen by John in heaven (7:9, 13f), and the Bride herself, a figure of the Church, is dressed in fine linen, a symbol that corresponds to the "righteous acts of the saints" (19:8). Furthermore, about those souls seen by John in 20:4-6 it is declared that the second death has no power over them. This matches Jesusí promise to the overcomers in 2:11, "He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death".
The nature of the victory of the saints has little to do with earthly power. This is an important point, which is at the heart of Revelation. It is true that the book was written to reveal things that "must soon take place" (1:1), and that one of its goals is to strengthen believers facing persecution. But there is a deeper aspect, one that runs throughout the book, namely that in Godís plan, believers are expected not just to endure tribulation, but to boldly overcome through tribulation. It is the same pattern of Jesus Christís decisive victory on the cross. To the Lamb it is said: "you are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain..." (5:9, my emphasis). The heavenly court also sang: "Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!" (5: 12). The same Greek verb, sphagmŲ, is used for "slain" here and in 6:9, where the martyrs are seen under the altar.
Jesus himself says that this is Godís path to real, eternal victory: "To him who overcomes ... just as I overcame..." (3:21, emphasis mine). Similarly, in 12:11 it is said that "They overcame him [the dragon, i.e. Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death". Those who sit on the thrones fit the description of the overcomers: they were "beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God", and this also means that they refused to worship the beast or his image and to receive his mark. Although this is not explicitly mentioned here, in the message to the Church in Philadelphia Jesus says that the overcomers will have the name of God, the new name of Jesus (the Lamb?) and the name of the new Jerusalem written on them (3:12). We can further speculate, although I would not press on this, that the names written on them are equivalent to "the seal of the living God" that protects His servants against the plagues unleashed not by unrighteous powers but as a result of Godís judgment over the "inhabitants of the earth" (7:1-8; 9:4).
Now we come to a paradox. These saints have been defeated by the beast, who has killed them. In previous chapters it is said that the beast was given power to conquer the saints and to kill the witnesses (13:7; 11:7). But it is also said that they overcame the dragon, who is the beastís master, and they are unmistakably depicted as conquerors in Chapter 20. How can they be simultaneously losers and overcomers? Actually they cannot be both things at the same time and in the same sense.
The short answer is that our perspective will determine our assessment as to the winner in this spiritual war. They are losers in a sense and at the same time overcomers in a different sense. Again, this is the pattern followed by the Lord. From their own, limited earthly perspective, at first His disciples only saw a tragedy in Jesusídeath (Luke 24:20f; John 20:10f). However, the crucifixion was actually Jesusí path to enter His glory and to receive all authority on heaven and on earth (Luke 24:26; Matt 28:18). As noted above, this was also the occasion of His decisive triumph over the powers of darkness. The risen Lord himself showed the heavenly perspective, which is the true one, to His disciples.
The same happens with Christís followers. For an earthly observer, they have been utterly defeated and killed. Their life has come to an end; they are no more, and this is their sad fate. But as God sees them, nothing could be farther from the truth. In His controversy with the Saducees, Jesus refuted their unbelief in resurrection with this conclusion: "For He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him." (Luke 20:38).The faithful martyrs and confessors are alive; not just alive, but also reigning with Christ, even as Christ is reigning now! Thus, Johnís vision stresses not just that the faithfulness of true believers will be rewarded in the end, but that it is being rewarded right now; and that to boldly face suffering as Christ did is the path to overcome as He did (by the way, itís interesting to note that the cowardly rank first among those excluded from the heavenly Jerusalem, 21:8!).
In what sense did these souls "came to life"? This is a much debated issue. As a rule, those who believe in an earthly millennium assert that a physical, bodily resurrection is here intended. However, this is by no means obvious. John calls the coming to life of those reigning with Christ "the first resurrection". In his vision, he saw the souls of those beheaded,etc. He says that they "lived" (ezŽsan). The tense conveys the meaning "they come to life", or "they lived again". This reminds us the answer that Jesus gave to Martha: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live (zŽsetai) even though he dies" (John 11:25). In fact, there are many Scriptures that depict salvation as life eternal and even resurrection; for example, see the following Scriptures:
"unless you can eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will rise him up at the last day ... the one who feeds on me will live because of me... he who feeds on this bread will live for ever" (John 6: 53f, 57f).
"Because I live, you also will live" (John 14:19).
"In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Rom 6:11).
"But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness ... if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live..." (Rom 8: 10,13).
"...God... made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions ... And God raised us up with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus..." (Eph 2:4f).
"having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God..." (Col 2:12).
"Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God" (Col 3:1).
"Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him" (2 Tim 2:11f).
"He himself bore our sins ... so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness" (1 Pet 2:24).
"He [God] sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him" (1 John 4:9).
Thus, there is no a priori reason why the "first resurrection" must necessarily be understood as a physical one, first because John is speaking about souls and second because the NT frequently uses the terms "to live" and even "to be raised up" in a profoundly spiritual sense. Furthermore, it should be remembered that in Revelation John is displaying before us things from a heavenly perspective, as God sees them: For the world, martyred Christians are dead, but in truth they are alive, reigning and judging with Christ. Those who were under the earthly kingsí rule, now are themselves heavenly kings; those condemned by the earthly judges are now judges belonging to the highest court.
One of the promises earlier made to the overcomers was that they canít be harmed by the second death (2:11). Again, John says here that "the second death has no power over them" (20:6). An intriguing feature is that while both the first resurrection and the second death are mentioned, neither the second resurrection nor the first death are. However, the later are implied by the former. Following this logic, the first death must be physical death (Cf. Heb 9:27), and the second resurrection must be that described in 20:12f. This is obviously a physical resurrection.
Some interpreters contend that if the second resurrection is a physical one, then the first one should be of the same kind. But this is arbitrary, as can be readily seen when we consider the nature of the first and second deaths. Our Lord spoke of spiritual and physical death in the same verse: "let the dead bury their own dead" (Matt 8:22). And again, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul [first death]. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell [second death]" (Matt 10:28). If there is both a physical (first) death and a spiritual, eternal, second death, it seems reasonable to assume that the same thing may be true of the resurrection. Thus, if the second resurrection is physical, the first must be spiritual. To sum up this chiasm:
First resurrection (spiritual); First death (physical)
Second resurrection (physical); Second death (spiritual)
Therefore, those who partake in the first resurrection will also partake in the second one, but they wonít go through the second death. Actually, this pattern is also found in Jesusí words during His earthly ministry:
"I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live ... a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out Ė those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned" (John 5:25, 28f).
In Christís own words, there will be a "resurrection of life" and "a resurrection of condemnation." At the Lordís return, only two fates are possible: resurrection (transformation) for life eternal, or resurrection for eternal punishment. There is no indication whatsoever that any believer still alive at the time of the Parousia will remain in his physical, corruptible body; nor there is any hint that unbelievers may remain in that condition after that time. Rather the opposite is taught by 2 Thessalonians 1 and 2 Peter 3.
In summary, that company of overcomers first seen under the heavenly altar, and then singing praises to God before the heavenly throne, is now seen enthroned, as heavenly priests, kings and judges with Christ. There is obviously a progression in their perceived status as the revelation unfolds.
[Part 3 and last]
4. The final rebellion (Rev 20:7-10)
Again, I provide a literal translation along with the NIV text.
"And when the thousand years are finished, Satan will be set loose out of his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them in war, of whom the number [is] like the sand of the sea. And they went up over the breadth of the earth and encircled the camp of the saints, even the beloved city; and fire came down from heaven and swallowed them up; and the devil who 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 to the ages of the ages"
"When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth ĖGog and Magog- to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the sea shore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of Godís people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. 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" (NIV).
In part 1 of this series, Satanīs imprisonment was dated at Christís first coming, based on the teachings of the NT. This event was followed by the vision of the overcomers reigning. Both things are said to last a thousand years. John saw both things; however, it is dubious whether he saw them in real time. How did he know that they lasted exactly a thousand years? No appeal to an angelic revelation is present. John somehow knew it. But if it was not a "real time" vision, what is the meaning of the thousand years? I submit that it stands for a long period of time. It lasts for as long as Satan is bound and the deceased saints reign with Christ in heaven.
It should be borne in mind that nowhere else does the Bible speak of this particular period during which just two concrete things are known to happen for sure: Satan is imprisoned and the saints reign. Anything else added to the picture that John presented is at best mere guess, or wishful thinking at worst. Although many Christians are eager to fill the perceived gaps of the millennium with material supplied mostly by OT prophecies, I see no valid reason for accepting these addenda.
If we turn to the Bible, we will soon discover first that the number one thousand is often used as a full number, to indicate something that is complete: "a thousand generations" (Deut 7:9; Ps 105:8) , "a thousand hills" (Ps 50:10), "a thousand days" (Ps 84: 10), "a thousand shields" (Song 4:4).
Second, we will find out that outside Revelation 20, there are only three texts that mention a thousand years. Ecclesiastes 6:6 says that a stillborn has more rest than man, "even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity". The obvious meaning is that an ungrateful man will be always restless, no matter how long he lives. Psalm 90:4 reads, "For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night". Finally, there is 2 Peter 3:8f, "But do not forget this one thing, dear friends. With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance". In these three and only instances outside Revelation 20, the expression "a thousand years" is uniformly used of a very long period as reckoned by manís standards. The latter two texts also say that it is actually a short time as measured by Godís standard. Given the use of the expression "a thousand years" outside Revelation, I can see no reason for assuming that John is talking about a precisely defined time span.
As the beginning of the thousand years is started by the binding of Satan, this long period finishes with his unleashing. As the binding implied a restraint of his freedom of action, the loosing means that this restraint is removed. The fact that Satan has to be unbound to wage war against the saints implies that he can perform his evil deeds only when and to the degree that God allows him to do so. We are not told who looses the Devil, nor exactly why he must be loosed; but this event indicates that the day of salvation approaches its end as the time of Godís patience draws to its close. All the "inhabitants of the earth" have had the opportunity of taking heed to the witness of the faithful overcomers. Now the consumation is quickly approaching, and evil must be definitively destroyed before the kingdom of God is made manifest in all its glory in the new heavens and the new earth.
Interestingly, John does not go into a long depiction of this last satanic offensive. John soberly points out that as soon as Satan is again allowed to deceive the nations he goes back into business with amazing success. His followers do not belong to a particular nation, but to many nations; the reference to the "the four corners of the earth" means that they come from everywhere. The names Gog and Magog appear in genealogies (Gen 10:2; 1Chr 1:5; 5:4) but the allusion here undoubtely refer to Ezekiel 38-39, where unrighteous rulers attempting to destroy Israel are intended. God says to Gog, "You will come against my people Israel like a cloud, to cover the land. It will be in the latter days that I will bring you against my land, so that the nations may know me, when I am hallowed in you, O Gog, before their eyes." (Ezekiel 38: 16). W. Boyd Carpenter explains:
Gog and Magog stand for the great hosts of the nations, and their leaders, who would break forth into uncalled-for hostility against the people of the Lord. It must be remembered that the imagery is derived from the history of Israel. Jerusalem, the beloved city of the true Israel of God, looks out upon her foes ... Gog and Magog are thus used as typical names (C.J. Ellicott, ed., A Bible Commentary for Bible Students; London and Edinburgh: Marshall Brothers, n.d. [ca. 1890], 8: 625).
Probably the "camp of the saints" and "the beloved city" are parallel expressions that depict one and the same thing under different images. The image of a camp is a military one, which would be appropriate for those who are overcomers; a besieged city seems to stand for all the saints living on earth at this time. The word translated "camp"is parembolŽ , a military term used for the fortified camp of Israel (Hebrew mahaneh) in the LXX (Exo 29:14; Lev 4:12, 21; 10:4f) and in Hebrews 13:10,13. The expression immediately brings to mind the previous descriptions of the Lordís army on earth, depicted as 144,000 Israelites from the twelve tribes , who have been sealed (7: 4-8). In chapter 14:1-5 this army is depicted on Mount Zion, as following the leadership of the Lamb and strictly complying the purity regulations appropriate for holy war (cf. Deut 20; 23:9f).
It has been remarked that "the camp... assumes its significance simply because it is adjacent to the tabernacle, the dwelling place of Godís presence" (R. Laird Harris et al., Eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament; Chicago: Moody Press, 1980, 1:300). And, of course, the beloved city is the place where Godís temple stands on earth. It is hardly a reference to earthly Jerusalem, which in 11:8 seems to be equated with Sodom and Egypt, symbols of idolatry and filthiness.
So both the camp and the city have this in common, namely the presence of the living God, and therefore they are the only place for Godís army to gather around when the satanic hosts charge against them. The image of Christian soldiers completely surrounded by the forces of evil which far outnumber them dramatically pictures the seemingly desperate situation of Godís people.
However, the final battle actually never happens. The saints do not even need to engage in combat, because "fire from heaven" completely consumes the approaching hosts. The utter destruction of Satanís minions immediately reminds us of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24f). An even more relevant parallel, though, is found in the New Testament:
Destruction by fire is also prominent in 2 Peter 3, the only NT text outside Revelation 20 that also mentions "a thousand years":
"By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare." (vv. 7-10, NIV; italics mine).
Although neither Peter nor John make an explicit mention of the coming of Jesus Christ in connection with this flaming havoc, the Apostle Paul does:
"God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you." (2 Thess 1:6-10, NIV; italics mine)
The same idea surfaces again a few verses ahead, while Paul is teaching about the destruction of the Man of Sin (2:8): "And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming." (NIV). Here the "splendor [ephiphaneia] of His coming" seems to refer to the "blazing fire" mentioned before. In the LXX words related to epiphaneia are used to translate both the Hebrew íor , to cause to shine and noraĎ, terrible, in the context of Godís glorious manifestation in redemptive acts (Deut 33:2!) and judgment (Joel 2:31, cf. Acts 2:20). Thus, it depicts "Yahwehís marvellous rescuing and redemptive vindication of his people in the sense of the OT theophany" (B. Gšrtner, in Colin Brown, o.c., 3:318). In the NT context, it is Jesus Christ who brings forth the final deliverance of the saints and the destruction of all evil forces.
A description of the final demise of Satan follows: he joins the beast and the false prophet in the lake of fire. Those who believe that Chapter 20 follows chronologically Chapter 19 understand that the Beast and the false prophet have been there since just before the beginning of the millennium, since their confinement in the lake of fire is narrated in 19:20. However, as already stated (see above 1. On whether there is chronological continuity between Revelation 19 and 20) there are good reasons to think that there is a discontinuity between both chapters. In this view, chapter 20 recapitulates the whole present gospel era, and 19: 11-21 is a parallel account of 20: 9-10; both depict the final defeat of Satan and all his allies. It should be noted that in passing that the reference to the beast and false prophet in 20:10 lacks a verb, although most translators supply one (for example, "are", KJV, NKJV; "were", NRSV; "had been thrown", NIV). This addition improves the language but obscures the point that John is probably making, namely that Satan shares the stark destiny of his assistants.
5. The judgment (Revelation 20:11-15)
And I saw a great white throne, and the [One] sitting on it, from the face of whom the earth and the heaven fled, and a place was not found for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another scroll was opened, which is the [book] of life. And the dead were judged out of those [things] written in the books, according to the works of them. And the sea delivered the dead in it, and the death and the Hades delivered the dead in them. And they were each one judged according to their works. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And if anyone was not found having been written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 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. 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 he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyoneís name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (NIV).
After the ancient serpent is confined to his place of eternal punishment, a new scenario ensues. John sees a throne and the One who was seated on it. The allusion to heaven and earthís flight probaly underlines the solemnity of the trial which is to follow.
In order to understand this event we must relate it to other judgment descriptions found in the Bible.
At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people--everyone whose name is found written in the book--will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever (Dan 12:1-3).
From this passage we learn that the people of God will go through an unprecedented time of distress, or tribulation, just before their ultimate delivery. It is at that time that the resurrection both of the righteous and the wicked will take place. Jesus made an obvious allusion to this text from the book of Daniel when he explained his parable of the tares and the wheat.
Jesus told them another parable: "Let both grow together [that is, the wheat and the weeds] until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'" (Matthew 13:30).
"He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawnessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! (Matthew 13: 37-43).
Here Jesus clearly teaches that the final separation of the children of God and the children of the Devil will not occur until the end of the age. Tares and wheat grow together until the time of the harvest. At that point evil will be completely and definitively erradicated from heaven and earth. This text speaks about the fate of both the just and the wicked. In other texts, the focus is on the destiny of one or the other of these two groups. For example, in another parable found in the very same chapter, our Lord spoke about the fate of the lost:
"Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous. and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13: 47-50).
The same stress is put in 2 Peter :
By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men ... But the day of the Lord will come as athief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. (2 Peter 3:7, 10)
Notice that this will happen in the same occasion in which the old heavens and earth will be no more, that is, after the period depicted by John as a thousand years:
Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13).
On the other hand, in the following text the accent lies on the lot of the righteous:
Immediately after the distress of those days "`the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.' At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other (Matthew 24: 29-31).
The same may be said about 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-52.
In the same chapter 24 of the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus Christ stresses the need for watchfulness, lest his coming takes believers by surprise. Of course, unbelievers will certainly be caught off guard, since they do not take heed of Christís words.
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? (Matthew 24: 37-45)
The wise servant, of course, is no other than each watchful believer, who always does what he should do as if the Master was there . When the Lord comes, there will be no further opportunity to repent; the final fate of each member of the human race will be settled forever.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, `Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' The King will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' Then he will say to those on his left, `Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' They also will answer, `Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' He will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Matthew 25: 31-46).
Although the above quoted text does not mention the resurrection of the dead, we learn that it will happen just before the final judgment, as succintly but clearly recorded by John:
Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out--those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned (John 5: 28-29).
The Apostle Paul taught essentially the same doctrine at Athens:
Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone--an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead (Acts 17: 29-31).
In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul put as clearly as words allow the fact that the ultimate joy of the saints would begin at the same event as the final destruction of the wicked:
... we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure, which is manifest evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you also suffer; since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are trounled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed. (2 Thessalonians 1: 4-10).
Writing to the Corinthians, Paul stressed
everyone, including believers, would go through the judgment. Although
believers already have life eternal in Christ, their works will be
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames (1 Corinthians 3: 11-15).
So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience (2 Corinthians 5: 9-11).
Returning to Revelation 20:11-15, the first thing we notice is that, as predicted by Jesus and Peter, the old heavens and earth pass away and humankind is gathered before the throne of God. Every human being that has existed from Adam on, small or great, will certainly be there. No appeal to a higher court will be possible. Those whose names are not written in the Book of Life will share the lot of the Devil, the beast and the false prophet, while the righteous will enter their eternal state in new heavens and a new earth, in the new Jerusalem.
Paul said that the very last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:26) and that this will happen when believers are either resurrected or transformed:
Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed Ė in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must be put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory". "O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:51-57).
Here Paul, as John in Revelation, depicts the last enemy to be destroyed as death (and Hades). Since its destruction immediately follows the transformation and resurrection of believers in 1 Corinthians, it may be safely concluded that the same is true about Revelation 20.