Note: This essay is a chapter from my book, The Great End Time Debate: Issues, Options, and Amillennial Answers (Redemption Press, 2022). I have posted it here not only to introduce readers to the Revelation, but also to help them understand its most controversial chapter, Revelation 20. Once you have finished reading the essay, you may wish to continue with the sequel, available here.
Here is a key to some of the acronyms you will find in my books and essays:
DNT = The Didactic New Testament (the teaching portions of the NT)
OTKP = OT prophecies of the Kingdom of God
NCH = New Covenant Hermeneutic (the NT method for interpreting the OT in general, and OTKPs in particular
HP = Historic Premillennialism
PP = Partial Preterism
FP = Full Preterism
Immanuel’s Loftiest Land
Truly, God has situated the Revelation of Jesus Christ in the high places of Immanuel’s Land, for which reason many a biblical traveler, growing suddenly dizzy, has found himself turning back, overwhelmed. And yet the holy terrain ever beckons, being richly favored with tall peaks and lush valleys that God’s pilgrim people long to see and enjoy. The need, then, is not to avoid the Revelation, but to be equipped and prepared so that we can boldly enter in. In the following essay I have done what I can to meet that pressing need.
The year is around 95 A.D. John, in all probability the last living apostle, is now in his 80’s (John 21:21-23). Because of his faithfulness in preaching the Gospel, the Roman authorities have exiled him to a penal settlement on the island of Patmos (Rev. 1:9; John 21:21-23). It has been over 60 years since Christ’s ascension. The Lord is tarrying, and among many believers the expectation of his Parousia is waning (2 Pet. 3:1f). The demonic emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68), a vicious persecutor of the Roman Christians, has come and gone. Titus has decimated Jerusalem (A.D. 70). Under emperor Domitian the persecution of Christians has spread throughout the Empire and reached Asia (A.D. 81-89). More is now looming (Rev. 2:3, 10, 13). And beyond this external threat there are internal threats as well. Heretical “Christian” sects have grown in size and number. Their members are seeking to infiltrate the orthodox churches and draw away disciples (Acts 20:13ff; Rev. 2:2, 6, 14-15, 20-24); some churches are even tolerating their presence (Rev. 2:14f, 20f). The love of certain Christians is growing cold (Rev. 2:4, 3:1-2). Others, having thus far escaped the fires of persecution, are falling in love with the world and sinking into apathy and hedonism (Rev. 3:14-21). The situation is dire. The faltering Church needs a word from the Lord. The Revelation of Jesus Christ is that word.
The author is the apostle John (Rev. 1:1, 4, 9, 12; 22:8), an historical fact confirmed by several of the early church fathers. Significantly, he is now in exile (likely from his home church in Ephesus) and under persecution. In fulfillment of his Lord’s words, he has remained upon the earth for many years; and now, as promised, his Lord has come to him. It is not to take him home, but instead to give him a revelation and prophecy meant for the Bride, the entire Church (John 20:20-23). Like John himself, she will be in exile: not from the presence of her Lord, but from her heavenly home. Like John himself she will (often) be under persecution (Rev. 12:6ff). And so Christ comes to him . . . and through him to her. Through the Revelation he will prepare his Bride for her centuries-long pilgrimage through the howling spiritual wilderness of this present evil world (Rev. 12:6, 14).
It is almost certain that John recorded the Revelation around 95 AD. This is important to keep in mind, since preterist interpreters argue for a much earlier date: sometime between 54 and 68 AD, during the reign of Nero. Based on that assumption, they say that most (or all) of the “comings” and judgments described in the Revelation were actually fulfilled in and around the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. But as indicated above, the internal evidence weighs heavily against it. Accordingly, the vast majority of scholars agree that the Revelation was composed between 81-96 AD, during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian. Notably, at that time Pergamum was the official center of emperor worship in Asia, and the city in which Antipas became a “faithful martyr” for his Lord (Rev. 2:12f). External confirmation of a late date comes from the scholar and bishop, Irenaeus (ca.125-202), who, citing earlier sources, wrote, “John received the Revelation almost in our own time, toward the end of the reign of Domitian” (i.e., AD 81-96).1
The Revelation is a prophecy given by God, through the glorified Christ, his angel, and his apostle, to the universal Church, for the crucially important reason that it is about the universal Church. It is not, as preterists hold, about the Church in and around 70 AD. Nor, as dispensationalists hold, is it (largely) about a band of 144,000 Jewish evangelists proclaiming a millennial Kingdom during a literal seven-year Tribulation. No, it is about all Christians of all times and all places. It is a prophecy meant to edify, exhort, and encourage the universal Church.
The evidence for this crucial thesis abounds.
Revelation 1:1 states that God gave Christ the Revelation in order to show it to his bond-servants. That would be the universal Church.
In Revelation 2-3 we have Christ’s messages to the seven churches of Asia. But the number 7, which symbolizes completeness and perfection, alerts us to the fact that here we have a complete and perfect message designed to perfect the complete Church: the Church of all times and places.
In Revelation 1:9 we hear Christ telling John: “Write down the things you have seen, and the things that are, and the things that will take place soon after them.”
This verse gives us one of the key structures of the book. The things John saw are described in chapter 1: the details of Christ’s self-disclosure to the apostle. “The things that are”—the present condition of the seven churches of Asia—are described in chapters 2-3. “The things that will take place soon after them” are described in chapters 4-22. These are the things that will happen from now on: all the way out to the Consummation and beyond. Why does Christ want all his bond-servants to know about these things? The answer is obvious: It is because he knows these things concern and affect all his bond-servants. The Revelation is for the universal Church because it concerns the universal Church and the things that will affect the universal Church.
In a moment we will discover a second way in which the Revelation is structured. It too will show that the book is for and about all Christians of all times and places.
Nature and Purpose
On six separate occasions John speaks of the Revelation as a prophecy (Rev. 1:3, 19:10, 22:7, 10, 18, 19). Now according to the apostle Paul, he who prophesies speaks to men for edification (i.e., instruction in the faith), exhortation (i.e., warning, admonition), and comfort (i.e., encouragement, the impartation of hope), (1 Cor. 14:3). This short definition wonderfully captures the deep purpose of the Revelation. Everywhere we turn we find the exalted Christ teaching, warning, and encouraging his Bride, so that she may overcome all adversaries, complete her pilgrimage, and safely enter the completed Kingdom of God.
A few examples will illuminate this rich three-fold purpose.
In the Revelation Christ teaches the Church Militant by helping her understand her true place in the world and in Salvation History. In other words, through the use of richly symbolic language he strengthens her grip on the biblical worldview. Here Revelation 12 is central. In a prophetic vision of stupendous theological reach and power, Christ teaches the Church Militant who she is, what she is about, what she can expect, and upon whom she can call and count as she makes her way out of eschatological Egypt, through the eschatological Wilderness of Sin, and into the eschatological Promised Land. Fittingly, this rich chapter stands in the middle of the book, since in many ways it gives us the keys to the whole book. Before wrestling with Revelation 20, it will repay you to study it well.
In the Revelation the Lord exhorts the Church by warning her about the four enemies she will encounter in her long pilgrimage through the wilderness of this world.
The first is the Dragon, that serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan (Rev. 12:9). While he is indeed capable of direct attack upon the saints, in the Revelation he is found using the three remaining enemies as his evil agents and instruments.
The second foe is the Beast (Rev. 13:1-4), the political or governmental face of the world-system, which, when seized and energized by the Dragon, will always persecute the true spiritual Church.
The third enemy is the False Prophet, also called the Beast from the Earth (Rev. 13:11-18, 16:12-16, 19:20, 20:10). This beast symbolizes not simply false religion, but false religion in the service of the self-deifying State, and therefore demanding that the Church worship the State on penalty of persecution or death.
The fourth and final enemy is the Harlot, also called Babylon the Great and the Great City (Rev. 17:1, 3, 5, 18; 18:2). This is the economic, commercial, and cultural face of the world-system. As a general rule the Harlot likes to collude with the Beast and the False Prophet, doing all she can to persecute the Church (Rev. 17:6), even as she entices saints and sinners alike with her allurements and sorceries (Rev. 18:23).
Out of deep love and concern for the Church’s purity, power, and eternal welfare, the High King of Heaven exhorts his Bride to be aware of all her enemies and to come out from among them (Rev. 18:4)
Finally, in the Revelation the heavenly Husband speaks comfort to his Bride, and this in several different ways.
At the very outset of the book he comforts her with a majestic vision of his own divine nature, covenant faithfulness, and Messianic glory (Rev. 1:9-20).
He comforts her with repeated assurances of his presence in, and faithful watch-care over, all his churches, even as he manifests the tough love that he feels for each one of them (Rev. 2:1-3:22).
He comforts her with rich, symbolic representations of his heavenly mediatorial reign, the share that the saints have in it, and his absolute sovereignty over all that remains of Salvation History (Rev. 4:1-5:14).
He comforts her with scenes of the spirits of departed believers safely arrived in heaven, praying for divine justice, and waiting eagerly for the resurrection of their bodies at his return to the earth (Rev. 6:9-11, 20:4-6).
He comforts her with serial portraits of his own Parousia in power and glory at the end of the age (Rev. 14:14-20, 19:11-21).
In conjunction with these portraits he also comforts her with visions of ultimate justice: of final rewards for the faithful saints, and of final retribution against the persecuting and God-hating “inhabitants of the earth” (Rev. 6:9-17, 11:11-19, 15:1-4, 16:17-21, 20:7-15).
He comforts them with several “sneak-previews” of the glorified Church surrounding the throne of the Triune God, exultantly lifting up the eternal worship that will fill the World to Come (Rev. 7:9-17, 14:1-5).
And finally, he comforts her with two luminous chapters supplying mysterious, thought-provoking glimpses of the (eternal) life of the saints in the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 21-22).
Do you consider the Revelation a frightening book? Well, for sinners it is, and is meant to be. But for saints who bravely venture into its depths, it is not only a prophecy that instructs and exhorts: It is also a river of comfort that never ends.
And this is true of Revelation 20 as well.
The underlying theme of the four Gospels is the humiliation of the Son of God: His incarnation as the Last Adam, his righteous life, atoning death, and public ministry on earth as Israel’s Messianic prophet, priest, and king.
The underlying theme of the Revelation is the exaltation of the Son of God: the various ways in which God the Father is pleased to honor his Son, so that in the end every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord: the High Prophet, Priest, and King of the universe (John 5:23; Phil. 2:5-11).
In a moment we will see how the structure and contents of the Revelation reinforce this majestic theme. Here, however, I want to highlight the many ways in which this book sets the worshiping Christian before every facet of the one diamond that is the exaltation of Christ.
The Revelation shines its light on Christ’s resurrection (Rev. 1:18), his ascension (Rev. 12:5), his session at the right hand of the Father (Rev. 5:1ff), his spiritual headship over his Body (Rev. 2-3), his authority and control over all the remaining events of universal history (Rev. 5:7, 6:1), his prophetic proclamation of the Gospel to the inhabitants of the earth through the Church Militant (Rev. 6:2, 11:4-13, 14:6), his faithfulness to his persecuted people (Rev. 12:6, 13ff), his ongoing (providential) judgments against their enemies (Rev. 11:5, 16:1f), his rich provision for the souls of his departed saints (Rev. 6:9-11, 20:4-6), his rush to the rescue of his little flock in the days of the Last Battle (Rev. 16:12f, 19:11ff), his glorious Parousia at the end of the age (Rev. 6:12ff, 11:11ff, 14:14ff, 19:11ff), and, at that time, the final judgment of his enemies, whether human or demonic (Rev. 6:12ff, 11:11ff, 14:14ff, 16:17ff, 19:11f, 20:11ff), the final redemption of his Bride (Rev. 7:1ff, 11:11f, 15:2-4, 14:14-16), and the creation of new heavens and a new earth, the eternal home where he and his beloved Bride will dwell with the Father, the Spirit, and all the holy angels as the eternal family of God (Rev. 21-22).
This manifold revelation of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ is integral to the prophetic character of the book. It is in beholding and contemplating the exalted Christ in all of his offices, prerogatives, judgments, and redemptive acts that the saints are instructed, admonished, and, above all, comforted for their arduous spiritual journey through the wilderness of this world.
Does all of this help us understand Revelation 20? Indeed it does. For if the theme of the book as a whole is the glory of the exalted Christ reflected in the course, character, and consummation of his heavenly reign, how likely is it that the theme of Revelation 20 is the glory, vicissitudes, and final failure of his future 1000 year earthly reign?
No, the Revelation is a predictive prophecy that sings the glory of the High King of Heaven and Earth through and through. To see this is to see the meaning of chapter 20 as well.
The Revelation is an outstanding example of what theologians refer to as biblical apocalyptic. We may define this as a special kind of prophecy in which the Holy Spirit uses symbols—both images and numbers—to communicate divine truth about the course, character, and consummation of Salvation History, and especially about final judgment and final redemption.
We encounter biblical apocalyptic in both the Old and New Testaments. Chapters 24-27 of the book of Isaiah use dramatic OT imagery to speak of final judgment and final redemption on the Day of the LORD. The four beasts of Daniel 7 supply what is likely the single greatest OT picture of the course and character of Salvation History. The mysterious tropes of Ezekiel 38-39 give us the consummation of Salvation History at the Last Battle and the Day of the LORD. The visions and prophecies of Zechariah are apocalyptic through and through. While many NT texts address the course and consummation of Salvation History, the Revelation is the sole instance if NT biblical apocalyptic.
Our definition states that biblical apocalyptic uses vision and symbol to communicate truth about Salvation History. It is vital to understand, however, that in the Revelation the Holy Spirit no longer uses these instruments to veil the truth about things come (as he did in the OT), but rather to celebrate the truth about things previously unveiled in the Gospels, the Acts, and the Epistles. In other words, the Revelation is not really a “mysterious” book, since the DNT gives us the keys by which to understand it (and all the OTKP’s that puzzled the prophets themselves). To see this blessed fact is to receive fresh courage for plunging into its formidable depths.
Method of Interpretation
As an instance of biblical apocalyptic, the Revelation is a book of signs. Therefore we must interpret its images and numbers symbolically, rather than literally.
If you doubt this, simply look at the first verse of the book. There it is written that God “ . . . sent and signified (the Revelation) by his angel to his servant John” (Rev. 1:1). The Greek for “signify” is semaino, a verb etymologically related to the noun semeion, which means “sign.” In using the verb semaino to describe this prophecy, the Holy Spirit is instructing us at outset to interpret the Revelation as a book of signs or symbols. We shall not go far wrong if we do.
It is true, or course, that all interpreters acknowledge the presence of symbols in the Revelation. However, while admitting that it contains symbols, many premillennarians do not acknowledge that it is a book of symbols, which must therefore be interpreted figuratively and symbolically from start to finish.
The result is an inconsistent hermeneutic. For example, pressured by the obvious, the prophetic literalist will concede that the sword coming from Christ’s mouth is a symbol for the word of God (Rev. 1:16), or that the seven horns and seven eyes of the exalted Lamb of God symbolize his omnipotence and omniscience (Rev. 5:6).
When, however, the literalist comes to the 144,000 of all the tribes of the children of Israel (Rev. 7:4), or to the two witnesses who prophesy and (briefly) perish on the streets of the Great City (Rev. 11:8), or to the Church’s 1260 days in the wilderness (Rev. 12:6), or to Christ’s admonition against taking the mark of the Beast (Rev. 13:16-18), or to the gathering of the kings of the whole earth at the Mountain of Megiddo (Rev. 16:14), he suddenly abandons a symbolic hermeneutic for a literal, thereby abandoning a consistent method of interpretation for an inconsistent. Despite all the evidence that this really is a book of signs, he nevertheless imports his literalist approach to OTKP into the Revelation itself, not realizing that the NCH alone can open both to our understanding.
So then: We must recognize that in the Revelation the Holy Spirit is giving us the Bible’s supreme manifestation of biblical apocalyptic, that it is a book of symbols through and through, and that the DNT provides the key for interpreting those symbols with confidence. When we do we will soon understand the meaning of the 144,000, the Two Witnesses, the 1260 days, the Mark of the Beast, the Battle of Armageddon, and the 1000-year reign of Christ proclaimed in Revelation 20.
There is more to be said about the proper interpretation of the Revelation, but before we can say it we must pause for a moment to consider its structure.
At first glance the Revelation is indeed a complex and intimidating book. But when we push past our fears, enter in, and carefully survey the entire terrain, we begin to see things: recurring themes, patterns, and cycles. Suddenly, perhaps after several readings, we realize that this prophecy has a structure: a structure so nuanced, complex, beautiful, and ingenious that the hand of God himself must be behind it. Moreover, when we fully behold this structure we see at once how to interpret the book as a whole, and chapter 20 in particular. We must, then, devote some quality time to this crucial subject.
Having considered a number of different views on the structure of the Revelation, I have found myself returning over and again to the ideas presented in William Hendriksen’s outstanding commentary, More Than Conquerors. I have tried to summarize them in this chart. Let us consider it in some detail.
As you can see, the book is divided into five blocs. The titles beneath each one reflect my best effort to identify the main idea of that particular bloc, while at the same time keeping in view the central theme of the whole book: the Person and Work of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ, the High King of Heaven.
I am very pleased with the fact that the third bloc, which gives us the Investiture of the High King of Heaven (Rev. 4-5), stands mid-way between the other two. This is altogether fitting, since this particular bloc is the theological Mount Everest and center of gravity of the entire prophecy. For consider: Because of his coronation as the High King of Heaven, Christ can come to John in glory (Rev. 1) and speak to the seven churches with supreme authority (Rev. 2-3). Moreover, because of that coronation he can also rule over the universe throughout the remaining years of Salvation History (Rev. 6-20), and then, following his Parousia, usher his glorified Bride into the full and final form of the Kingdom of God (Rev. 21-22). Thus, chapters 4-5 hold the book together, making it a unified celebration of the Person and Work of the High King.
For the purposes of our study, the most important—and most controversial—portion of the chart is bloc four. My name for it, together with its contents, suggest that chapters 6-20 are best understood as six separate apocalyptic cycles or recapitulations, each of which—in its own unique way, and for its own unique purposes—describes the course, character, and consummation of the High King’s heavenly reign.
Since that’s a mouthful, let me break it down a little. This large bloc (Rev. 6-20) is comprised of six sub-blocs or cycles (Rev. 6-7, 8-11, 12-14, 15-16, 17-19, and 20). But in each of the cycles the Holy Spirit is speaking about the same time frame: the time between Christ’s first and second advents; the time during which the exalted Christ reigns as High King of heaven and earth. This means that the fourth bloc of the Revelation—and the great bulk of the book—is actually made up of six separate apocalyptic cycles, with each one using different OT and NT ideas and images to cover the same historical ground: to rehearse or recapitulate the earthly impact of the heavenly reign of Christ.
How do we know this is true? How do we know that the six sub-blocs in this big bloc really do traverse the same historical ground?
While the answers are many, the most important is the way in which the cycles begin and end. In nearly every case it is quite clear that they begin with a symbolic representation of Christ’s session and/or the coming of his spiritual Kingdom on the Day of Pentecost. Similarly, in several cases it is clear that they end with a symbolic representation of the Last Battle; and in all cases it is clear that they end with a symbolic representation of the Parousia, the resurrection, and/or the last judgment. These phenomena are quite compelling, further opening up the deep structure of the book and the proper method of its interpretation.
Implications of the Structure
If this chart really does give us the deep structure of the Revelation, it carries with it two major implications for the interpretation of the book as a whole, and of chapter 20 in particular. Let us attend to them now.
First, if the chart is correct it means we cannot interpret Revelation 6-20 as the preterists do. They say that here the Spirit’s focus is largely, if not exclusively, on events that for us are already past. These events include the fall of Jerusalem, the tyrannical power of Rome, and the vicissitudes of the early Church at the hand of Jews and Romans. But if in fact the Spirit’s focus is on the era between Christ’s two advents, then obviously the preterist interpretation cannot be correct.
Similarly, if the chart is correct it means we cannot interpret Revelation 6-20 as the futurists do. They say that here the Spirit’s focus is largely, if not exclusively, on events that will occur towards or at the very end of the age. Yes, there are some differences among them. Moderate futurists like George Ladd say that these events will befall the Church. Dispensational futurists, like John MacArthur, say they will befall latter day Jews during a seven year Tribulation that begins after Christ has secretly come and taken his Church to heaven. But again, all futurists agree that chapters 6-20 are largely, if not entirely, fulfilled in the last of the last days. However, if these chapters are speaking of the entire Church Era, then obviously the futurist view cannot be correct either.
This brings us to a second and closely related implication. If the chart is correct it means that when the Holy Spirit uses a particular symbol to speak to God’s people, he is not (usually) referring to a concrete historical entity, whether a person, place, thing, or event. If our chart is correct, he cannot be. Rather, he must be referring to a kind of historical entity that all the saints will encounter over and again throughout the entire Church Era.
Let us consider an example. Some preterists say that when the Spirit speaks of the Beast (Rev. 13:1f) he is referring to that arch-persecutor of the early Church, the emperor Nero. On the other hand, most futurists say that when the Spirit speaks of the Beast he is referring to a personal Antichrist who will arise just prior to Christ’s return, whether to persecute the Church or ethnic Israel. If, however, we embrace the cyclical view, we immediately realize that it entails a broader and richer approach: an approach that is capable of affirming the element of truth in both the preterist and futurist views. For now we see that in speaking about the Beast, the Spirit is actually speaking about a particular kind of historical phenomenon—in this case the political or governmental face of Satan’s fallen world system, whenever and wherever it pops up in the course of Salvation History. It is a face that could be embodied in Nero, Domitian, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Ceausescu, Pol Pot, this or that Ayatollah, the (last) Antichrist, or any of the persecuting institutions that these people represent. And what is true of the Beast is true also of the False Prophet and the Harlot: Though their faces change from generation to generation, they are ever present in the world.
We find, then, that the cyclical view of Revelation 6-20 generates a particular hermeneutic; that is, a particular way of understanding and applying the symbols found in the book as a whole. Theologians refer to this as an idealist hermeneutic. On this view, the symbols in the Revelation do not stand for unique historical persons or events, but rather for general ideas or principles that will manifest themselves throughout the Era of Gospel Proclamation, and therefore in any number of historical persons, places, things, or events. William Hendriksen, an enthusiastic advocate of this approach, applies it as follows:
The seals, trumpets, bowls of wrath and similar symbols refer not to specific events, particular happenings, or details of history, but to principles of human conduct and of divine moral government that are operating throughout the history of the world, especially throughout the new (Christian) dispensation.
Now, while this approach is extremely helpful, I would join Hendriksen in issuing two caveats.
First, the Revelation can and does speak about specific times and events in Salvation History. Yes, when speaking of the course and character of Christ’s heavenly reign it uses its symbols to address all Christians of all times. However, in speaking of events destined to occur at the end of the age, it uses its symbols to speak of historical events in which a relatively small handful of Christians will be involved. All Christians should be aware of these events, but not all will experience them. A brief look at Revelation 11:3ff will illustrate my point.
In Revelation 11:3-6 we learn about the spiritual career of the Two Witnesses. Described in imagery reminiscent of Moses and Elijah—but also of the disciples whom Jesus sent out two by two to preach the Gospel to Israel—they represent the witnessing Church. God calls them to prophesy (i.e., to preach the Gospel) for 1260 days, a number that symbolizes the entire Era of Gospel Proclamation as a season of exile, persecution, and divine provision (see 1 Kings 17:1f). So then: All Christians of all times can see themselves in the Two Witnesses.
When, however, we reach verses 7-13 the focus narrows. Now the Spirit is speaking concretely about the last generation of witnessing Christians. This generation will see the completion of the Great Commission (11:7). It will see the Beast—hitherto restrained from thwarting the Church’s mission—rise up out the abyss (Rev. 20:1-3), wage war against them, overcome them, and “kill” (i.e., thoroughly suppress) them (11:7-10). But this is also the generation that will see the return of Christ in glory, the resurrection of the dead, and the Last Judgment (11:11-19). Here, then, the symbols do indeed point to unique events set to occur in a unique portion of Salvation History. Here the universal Church cannot see herself (much as she might like to), but only that portion of the Church that will live and serve Christ during the days of the Last Battle.
This brings us to our second caveat. While it is true that the six cycles of Revelation 6-20 traverse the same historical ground, it is also that there are notable differences between them. In particular, the further we progress through the cycles, the more we learn about the Satanic powers operating behind the scenes of the great clash of the kingdoms, and about the human instruments they use to persecute the Church. Also, the further we progress through the cycles the more we receive clear visions and revelations of the Last Battle, the Parousia, the Resurrection, the Last Judgment, and the World to Come. Referring to this phenomenon as progressive parallelism, Hendriksen writes:
Although all the sections of the Apocalypse run parallel and span the period between the first and second comings of Christ . . . yet there is also a degree of progress. The closer we approach the end of the book the more our attention is directed to the final judgment and that which lies beyond it. The (several) sections are arranged, as it were, in an ascending, climactic order . . . The final judgment is first announced, then introduced, then finally described. Similarly, the new heavens and earth are described more fully in the final section than in those that precede it . . . The book reveals a gradual progress in eschatological emphasis.
So again: All six cycles of Revelation 6-20 give us the course, character, and consummation of the direct spiritual reign of the High King of Heaven and Earth. But they do not all have precisely the same contents or emphases. Also, while all of the contents of the cycles are meant for all Christians, not all of the events symbolized in the cycles will befall all Christians. By keeping these caveats in mind we shall be able to use the idealistic method of interpretation to good effect.
The third and final implication of our chart takes us deep into the heart of the GETD. If indeed chapter 20 properly falls into bloc four of the Revelation; if indeed, like the previous five cycles, it too describes the course and character of the High King’s heavenly reign, then obviously it cannot be speaking of a future earthly kingdom that is destined to appear after that reign. In short, if our chart really does give us the true structure of the Revelation, then the Revelation itself rules out premillennialism once and for all.
Ancillary Purpose: The Grand Finale in the Symphony of Scripture
Think for a moment about your favorite symphony. Now think about its final movement. What is it that makes the final movement into the symphony’s grand finale? Speaking personally, three simple answers come to mind.
First, it appears at the end of the symphony. There is no more music to come. Accordingly, this is the composer’s last opportunity to sum up his message and get it across with a final burst of artistic power and panache.
Secondly, it reprises all the themes heard in the previous movements. However, when it does, it does so “grandly.” That is, the composer skillfully and majestically weaves together all his earlier motifs so that we not only hear them again, but also hear them afresh, and with fresh power. We hear them in new, startling, and beautiful relations with one another. We hear them in such a way that the whole symphony is somehow poured into the last part of the symphony.
And thirdly, because it is a grand finale, it does not typically introduce a new musical theme. Instead, the composer devotes himself more or less exclusively to fresh, inspiring, and deeply impressive recapitulations of the old.
All three of these observations apply to the Revelation, and in a way that helps us understand it to the depths.
Like a grand finale, the Revelation appears at the end of the great symphony of biblical revelation. By God’s wise decree it is the last book of the Bible. What’s more, its contents positively cry out to us that it should be the last book, since it is so thoroughly taken up with the Last Things: the course and character of the Last Days, the Last Battle, the Last Resurrection, and the Last Judgment, the final two of which occur at the Last Coming of the Last Man. The claims of Church History’s false prophets notwithstanding, Spirit-taught Christians find it unthinkable that God, having given us a book like this, would give us any more. And indeed this is the testimony of the Revelation itself (Rev. 21:18-19). The Revelation is the Book of the End; therefore it rightly appears at the end of the Book (Rev. 1:8, 2:26, 21:6, 22:13).
Like a grand finale the Revelation also incorporates and artistically weaves together ideas, images, and texts from the preceding movements of Holy Scripture, whether the Old Testament or the New. Here biblical allusions abound: to the Garden of Eden, Moses, the Exodus, Elijah, Mt. Zion, the Temple, the birth of Jesus, the cruelty of Herod, the preaching of the disciples two by two, Christ’s resurrection, ascension, session, heavenly reign, and Parousia. Westcott and Hort counted nearly 400 references to the OT in the Revelation. Many say there are more. In Revelation 12 alone we find quotes from, or allusions to, Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, Daniel, Zechariah, Matthew, Luke, John, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Jude. Clearly, the Revelation is not simply historical narrative, law, poetry, gospel or epistle. Rather, it is something completely new under the biblical sun: A final prophetic word to the universal Church, clothed in raiment that weaves together all that has gone before it. As such, it is not only a prophetic word, but also the Grand Finale of All Scripture.
If so, the implications are important. If the Revelation really is the Grand Finale of All Scripture, we should not expect it introduce new themes (i.e., doctrines). It is not the purpose of a grand finale to introduce new themes; its purpose is to creatively recapitulate the old. And when we examine the Revelation we find that this is the case. Here there is nothing new, nothing other than what Christ and the apostles have already taught us in the DNT. There is nothing new about the Holy Trinity, the Creation, the Fall, the Eternal Covenant, the nature and structure of the Kingdom, or the Consummation at Christ’s coming again. Rather, we simply find the Holy Spirit speaking over and again about these old and well-established truths. However, when he speaks of them he does so in new and amazing ways: in beautiful, powerful, and supremely inspiring visions and symbols. Here he weaves together all that has gone before in Holy Scripture, even as he celebrates, one final time, the exaltation of him who is the grand theme of Holy Scripture: the High King of Heaven and Earth.
The application to our study is easy to see. If the Revelation really is the Grand Finale of All Scripture, is it likely that just a few measures prior to its end (i.e., in chapter 20) God would suddenly introduce a completely new eschatological theme (i.e., a future earthly millennium)? What if that theme had never appeared in the Revelation itself? What if it had never appeared in the DNT? What if it had never appeared in the OT? What if it could not be harmonized with the Revelation, the DNT, and the OT? And what if it threatened to destroy the harmony that previously existed between them?
In short, is it likely that God would destroy the Grand Finale of All Scripture by using Revelation 20 to introduce a new movement about a future millennial stage of the Kingdom of God?
My answer: Not likely. Not likely at all.
In this essay I have offered a short introduction to the Revelation as a whole in order to help readers better understand the 1000 years of Revelation 20. With that goal in mind, let me summarize what we’ve learned so far.
The book was written by the apostle John, a man in exile and under persecution. As a founding elder and emblem of the Church, it should not surprise us if Revelation 20 speaks of the Church in exile and under persecution (Rev. 4:4).
John wrote the book around 95 AD. Contrary to some preterist views, Revelation 20 cannot be about the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
The intended audience of the book is the universal Church, the purpose of the book is to instruct, exhort, and encourage the universal Church, and the theme of the book is the privileges and prerogatives of the High King of Heaven who rules over the cosmos for the good of the universal Church. It should not surprise us then if Revelation 20 addresses the Church, prophesies to the Church, and speaks of the destiny of Church during the course of High King’s reign.
As to its literary genre, the Revelation is a unique example of biblical apocalyptic. Like all apocalyptic it uses visions and symbols to discuss the course and character of Salvation History. Unlike all other apocalyptic, the meaning of the symbols is not hidden, but disclosed in the DNT. It should not surprise us then if the message of Revelation 20 is couched in symbols that are readily decoded by means of the NCH.
The structure of Revelation 6-20 is such that it gives us six cycles or recapitulations of the heavenly reign of Christ, which is first disclosed on the Mt. Everest of the Revelation: chapters 4-5. Since each of the first five cycles begins with historical events surrounding his session and concludes with events surrounding his Parousia, it should not surprise us if the sixth cycle, Revelation 20, does the same. Also, since the book as a whole gives us a progressive revelation of the High King’s reign during the Era of Gospel Proclamation, it should not surprise us if Revelation 20 uses symbolic language to describe the activity of Satan in history and the Last Battle that he will foment.
Finally, since the Revelation is not part of the DNT, but is instead the Grand Finale of All Scripture, it should not surprise us if Revelation 20 does not introduce new eschatological truth about a future millennium, but instead simply draws upon OT and NT Scripture to speak of its one great theme: The heavenly reign of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ.
Does Revelation 20 confirm our expectations, or will it surprises us after all? To find out, please click here.
1. In defense of an early date preterists cite verses in the Revelation stating that the events in view “must shortly come pass” (Rev. 1:1; 22:6), and that “the appointed time is near” (Rev. 1:3; 22:10). But these texts hardly prove an early date of composition or a strictly 1st century fulfillment of the prophecies. To begin with, the verses from chapter 22 state that all things, including the advent of the World to Come, must shortly come to pass, and that their time is near. So unless one is a full preterist, those verses rule out a strictly 1st century fulfillment of the book. More to the point, the progressive idealist interpretation of the book richly illumines the nuanced meaning of these expressions. Since the Revelation speaks to all believers of all times, it is indeed true that many of its predictions spoke to 1st century Christians, just as they would to believers of subsequent generations. As for the prophecies that speak of the end of the age (i.e., of the Last Battle, the Parousia, the Judgment, etc.), these too will soon come to pass, for against the backdrop of eternity a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it has passed by, and like a watch in the night (Psalm 90:4; 2 Pet. 3:8).