For all its doctrinal complexity, this lengthy eschatological text was written primarily out of deep pastoral concern. As verses 1–2 make plain, a rumor was circulating among the Thessalonian house churches to the effect that the Day of the Lord had come: that it was imminent. Since this rumor was troubling the brethren, distracting them from their spiritual mission and daily responsibilities, Paul addressed it pointedly. His message is clear: The Day of the Lord will not come until certain things happen first; until certain unmistakable signs appear on the historical horizon. Therefore, until you see those signs, stand firm (v. 15) and stay busy (v. 17; 3:6–13).

Because this passage informs the Church about important events leading up to the Consummation, it demands close attention. My approach will be to give the gist of each section and to spotlight the many characteristics indicating that Paul presupposed a single Consummation at the Parousia of Christ.

An Urgent Request (vv. 1–2)

Verses 1–2 give us the apostle’s urgent request. The subject matter is threefold: The Coming of Christ (1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23), the gathering together of the saints to him (i.e., the “Catching Up” of 1 Thess. 4:17), and the Day of the Lord (1 Thess. 5:2). Dispensationalists assert that the gathering together is distinct from the Day of the Lord, with seven years between the two. But Paul says no such thing. On the contrary, the juxtaposition of these closely related subjects makes it quite clear that he has in mind a single Consummation. Yes, each is a discrete event; but the discrete events are elements of a single Momentous Event. If the concerned apostle and pastor thought otherwise, would he not have said so?

As for the request itself, it may be paraphrased thus: “Don’t let any evil spirit, any false teaching or prophecy, or any fake letter as if from one of us apostles persuade you that the Day of the Lord has come, and so shake you from your proper spiritual composure” (see Mark 13:5–6). Concerning the crucial verb “has come,” the NIV Study Bible well remarks: “Obviously, Christ’s climactic return had not occurred, but Paul was combating the idea that the final days  had begun and their completion would be imminent.” “No,” says the apostle, “certain things must happen first; certain signs must appear on the stage of history.” This simple truth, directly contradicted by dispensational teaching on the Rapture, is of great importance for all of God’s people, but especially for those who will live and serve in the last of the last days. By holding firmly to it, Christians should be well able to keep their cool, even at the end of the world.

It Will Not Come Until (vv. 3–5)

What exactly are the telltale signs that will enable them to do so? In the Olivet Discourse the Lord had identified several. Here, Paul focuses on just two, presumably because they are especially important and will occur closest to the end. They are the rebellion (Greek: apostasia) and the revelation of the Man of Lawlessness (or the Antichrist).

Concerning the first of these, it is true that the New Testament anticipates a large-scale apostasy, or falling away from the (profession of) faith, at the time of the end (Matt. 24:10–12; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1–9). Here, however, the close association of the apostasia with the revelation of the Man of Lawlessness strongly suggests a causal relation. If so, it is surely best to follow the NIV and ESV in translating apostasia as rebellion. On this reading, Paul is saying that the Day of the Lord will not come until the corrupt world system fully and finally rebels against the Law and Gospel of God, paving the way for Satan to go public with his counterfeit christ, and for the fallen world system to follow after him (vv. 10–11; Matt. 24:12; Rev. 13:3).

As for the Man of Lawlessness, Paul draws freely upon OT prophecy to give us the gist of his character and very short career (vv. 3–4; Dan. 7:8, 20–21, 25; 9:26–27; 11:36). Though Paul does not use the word, it is clear that he thinks of this man, above all, as an antichrist. As the apostle John would put it, he is the final human embodiment of “the spirit of Antichrist,” and so is the Antichrist himself (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3).

Very importantly, the Greek word anti means against or instead of. We see both meanings here and throughout our text. The Man of Lawlessness will act against Christ, even as he blasphemously tries to act instead of Christ as the appointed prophet, priest, and king of the world. Verses 3–5 give us several illustrations of this all-pervading motif.

Like Christ at his first and second comings, the Man of Lawlessness will be revealed in his proper time; his time, however, will be (cut) short, since he, unlike Christ, is “a son of destruction”—that is, a man “doomed to destruction” (v. 3; 2 Thess. 1:7; 2 Tim. 1:10; 1 Peter 1:7, 13; 1 John 3:2).

Unlike Christ, who loved the Father and delighted to do his will, the Man of Lawlessness will oppose every so-called god or object of worship, including the one true living God and his divine Son (vv. 4, 8; John 8:28; Heb. 10:7). He will stand against the triune God and his people.

Finally, acting instead of Christ, the Man of Lawlessness will exalt himself, “taking his seat in the sanctuary [or, temple] of God, displaying himself as God” (v. 4). This verse calls to mind the sin of (the archangel?) Lucifer, who, from the very beginning, has sought to exalt himself above God, and to usurp the worship that properly belongs to the LORD (Is. 14:13–14; Matt. 4:9). In the Man of Lawlessness—who will present himself as God incarnate—he (Satan) will briefly achieve his goal: The whole (unregenerate) world will worship him (Rev. 13:8).

This, I believe, is the sense of Paul’s words about “the sanctuary,” (Greek, naos: the inmost, and therefore most sacred, part of a temple). He is not looking for the Man of Lawlessness to seat himself in the temple at Jerusalem, from which, in Paul’s day, he could hardly have been expected to gain a worldwide following. Still less is he looking for him to seat himself in the Church, since at the time of this letter the Church had neither institutional status nor spiritual credibility in the eyes of the Gentile world (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21). Rather, he is simply looking for the Man of Lawlessness to present himself as God incarnate, thereby seating himself in the place of the universal worship rightfully belonging to God and Christ (Is. 14:13-14).1

Note from verse 5 that Paul had previously taught the Thessalonians about these things, and is therefore surprised that they have already forgotten them. Now if, as dispensationalists admonish us, the Church is to look only for Christ (i.e., at a secret Rapture), and never for the Antichrist (i.e., as a sign of Christ’s Coming), why does Paul tell the Thessalonians to do the exact opposite? The answer is clear: He never told them to look for a secret Rapture. Rather, he told them to look for the one Coming of Christ, but also for the foremost sign of that Coming: the appearance of the Antichrist. Armed with such wisdom, no believer can fall prey to false prophecies about an “any moment” return of Christ—as all too many of our dispensational brethren have.

The Restrainer (vv. 6–7)

Seeking to keep the Thessalonians on their spiritual toes, Paul now reminds them that the mystery of lawlessness is already at work (v. 7). He means that the spirit of Antichrist (i.e., Satan and his demon hosts) is now abroad in the world, eager to raise up the Antichrist himself: the Man of Lawlessness (1 John 2:18). For the moment, God is restraining Satan from doing so—through what instrumentality, Paul does not say, since he spoke of this earlier when he was with them. Possibly he has in mind a (Roman) ruler (something he would be loath to mention in a letter), or an angel, or simply the power and person of the Holy Spirit himself (Rom. 13:1–7; Rev. 12:7). In any case, his inspired words assure the Church that the restrainer will continue to restrain Satan until God, at his good pleasure, takes him out of the way. Since this must happen, and since it could happen without warning, the saints must stand watch.

In passing, let us note how closely these verses parallel the teaching of Revelation 20 (Rev. 20:1–3, 7–10). In both cases we learn that Satan is bound and the Church free to fulfill her mission of global evangelism until God removes the restrainer, thereby, in swift succession, releasing the devil for a little season, bringing forth the Man of Lawlessness, bringing on the Last Battle, and bringing back the High King of Heaven and Earth. Thus shall the sovereign God work all things together for the good of those who love him, of those who are the called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28 NKJV).

The Deceptive Career of a Counterfeit Christ (vv. 8–14)

In verses 8–12 Paul again takes up his theme of the revelation of the Man of Lawlessness, this time going into greater detail about his brief, dramatic, and dangerously deceptive career. In so doing, he also gives us an astonishing disclosure, not simply of a sovereign God, but also of a sovereign God with a flair for the dramatic.

In particular, for wise reasons God has ordained that at the end of Salvation History Satan will be allowed to raise up a counterfeit prophet, priest, king, kingdom, and “god-man” who, in many ways, will darkly mirror the Person and Work of the true Christ. Here we have the final manifestation of the principle laid down in the Protoevangelium and the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares: Both Christ and Satan will have their own kingdom and people, sown together in the same earth, growing side by side, and running closely parallel to each other until the Day of Judgment and final separation at the end of the age (Gen. 3:15; Matt. 12:22–30; 13:36–43; Luke 4:6; Rev. 14:14–16). Knowing this, the apostle is at pains to show that the Man of Lawlessness is doubly an antichrist: Not only does he oppose Christ, but he also apes him—powerfully, deceptively, and dangerously. Yet for all that, he and his evil career are in the omnipotent grip of the true God and the true Christ, who will by no means allow his little ones to be deceived (Matt. 24:24; John 10:5).

Accordingly, Paul begins by telling the Thessalonians what will happen when the restrainer is removed: The Lawless One will be revealed, much as Christ was revealed in the days of his flesh (and will again be revealed in the Day of the Lord). Unexpectedly, yet quite significantly, Paul does not immediately describe his evil career. Instead, he first speaks of his destruction: The Lord himself will slay him with the breath of his mouth at the appearing (epiphaneia) of his coming (parousia) (Is. 11:4). The message here is both clear and comforting: The career of the Lawless One will be exceedingly short, brought swiftly to an end by the return of Christ in judgment. Therefore, the revelation of the Man of Lawlessness is the single most important sign of the imminence of the end—and, in its own way, a great encouragement to the (suffering) saints of God (Luke 21:28).

In verse 9 Paul resumes his teaching about the career of the Lawless One. Now, however, he speaks of his coming. Again, this word denotes the arrival of a powerful dignitary, as of an emperor or a king. Just as Christ, in the days of his flesh, arrived on the scene with great power and authority, so too will the Lawless One. Just as God the Father enabled Christ to perform signs and true wonders, so too will Satan—the spiritual father of the Lawless One—enable his son to perform signs and “lying” (i.e., real, but misleading) wonders (John 8:44; Rev. 13:2, 4). The Lord Jesus himself warned his disciples of this very thing (Matt. 24:24). Later, John the Revelator will do the same (Rev. 13:13–14; 16:14; 19:20). Let not the saints forget.

According to verse 10, when the Lawless One appears he will come not only with counterfeit miracles, but also with “every deception of wickedness.” This deception will include “the lie”—a false but very winsome gospel: a new, alternative religion. It will work. Multitudes who did not welcome the true Gospel of Christ will believe the false gospel of the Antichrist, and so perish (v. 11; Rev. 13:3).

Because the Lawless One will gain a large following, and because it is important for the saints to understand why, Paul is moved to explain. He does so in verses 11–13. He has just said that the Man of Lawlessness will deceive multitudes because “. . . they did not welcome the love of the truth” (v. 10). The Greek here is dechomai, a word that can mean to welcome or to receive. In this case, both senses are applicable, bringing into view the biblical tension between man’s freedom and responsibility on the one hand, and God’s sovereignty on the other.

Why will latter day unbelievers fall prey to the deceptions of the Antichrist? It will be because they did not welcome the message of the truth, but chose instead to take pleasure in unrighteousness (v. 12; Eph. 1:13). Consequently, the God of judgment will hand them over to a deluding influence, so that they will believe “the lie” and stand condemned, together with their god. Here Paul depicts unbelievers as free agents who are responsible to take and pass the Gospel test (John 3:16-21; Acts 13:46).

Nevertheless, through a fervent personal expression of thanksgiving, he would teach his converts always to ascribe their salvation to God: the God who loved and chose them from the beginning, and who—through the proclamation of the Gospel, and by the sanctifying work of the Spirit—called them to saving faith Christ (vv. 13-14; Eph. 1:3–14). The Thessalonians are to realize that they freely welcomed the truth of the Gospel only because they had received the love of the truth as a gift from the sovereign God (Matt. 5:6; 13:10–17; John 8:43–45; 1 Thess. 1:2–5).


Reading this challenging text, Christ’s Church is taught to understand, fear, and rejoice. One day up ahead Satan will unveil his man. When he does, few on earth will discern or resist him since his person and work will hew so closely to Person and Work of the true Christ. Like Christ, the Antichrist will have a coming and a revelation. Like Christ, he will have a spiritual father who leads and empowers him. Like Christ, he will perform supernatural signs and wonders. Like Christ, he will proclaim a gospel of salvation. Like Christ, he will have a flock and a kingdom, both of which will seem larger and more powerful than those of the Good Shepherd.

In short, things will be just as the Truth himself said: “For false messiahs and false prophets will arise; and they will display great signs and wonders, so great that even the elect would be led astray, if that were possible” (Matt. 24:24). Let his little flock therefore give thanks to the sovereign God who has chosen them, and who has promised to keep them from all deception. But let them also be ever vigilant to receive and welcome the love of the truth, both now and in the dark days immediately prior to the Second Coming of the Light of the World (2 Thess. 2:9, 13). For it is he who endures to the end that will be saved (Matt. 24:13; Jude v. 24).


     1. All that said, we should not rule out the possibility that the eschatological Antichrist may emerge from, or be associated with, a nominally Christian institution. For the moment, the Roman Catholic Church appears to be the likeliest candidate. Here are some further remarks on this subject, excerpted from my book, The High King of Heaven.

During and after the Reformation most Protestant leaders taught that 2 Thess. 2:4 was/is fulfilled in the papacy. For them, the institution itself was the Antichrist, a spiritual usurper that for centuries had lawlessly seated itself in the temple of God (Christ’s Church), distorted the Gospel, and opposed and persecuted the true spiritual Church through the evil offices of compliant kings and princes. Given the nature of their vicissitudes, it is easy to see how the Reformers arrived at this conclusion. However, the conclusion itself does not fit well with the actual data of Scripture or history. The reasons are many. Paul represents the Antichrist as an individual man, not an institution. Strictly speaking, the popes did not exalt themselves above God, but at least postured themselves as his servants. Similarly, they directed men’s worship to God and Christ, even if they also misdirected it to Mary, the saints, the angels, and themselves (Rev. 19:10, 22:10). They did not claim to be God or Christ, but only to act as their vicars (i.e., representatives) on earth. They were not (preeminently) governmental or military leaders, as both the Old and New Testaments depict the Antichrist (Dan. 7, 11, 12; Rev. 13). Finally, they did not perform amazing miracles, as Paul says the Man of Lawlessness will. It appears, then, that the papacy is not Paul’s Man of Lawlessness. On the other hand, whatever Paul’s private opinion may have been, there is nothing in his inspired words to rule out the possibility that one day up ahead an individual pope, promulgating an egregiously mutant and highly politicized form of Catholicism, could become (or abet) the kind of Antichrist Paul here envisions. Unlikely as it may now seem, Christians should not rule out this possibility. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest religious institution in the world; it has a long history of skillfully lending the venerable name of Christ to its unscriptural teachings; it has an ugly history of persecuting the true spiritual Church; and even today it appears to be looking hard for ways to welcome (unconverted) Jews and Muslims into its fold. If, at the end of the age, there is to be an anti-christian one-world religion, surely the Roman Catholic Church is one of the best candidates presently on the scene to lead it. Alert Bible Christians, living in the last perilous days of deepest deception, would be wise to keep a sharp eye on what comes out of Rome. For more, see Kim Riddlebarger, The Man of Sin (Baker Books, 2010), chapter 7.

     2. This essay is taken from my book, The Great End Time Debate (Redemption Press, 2022). Available here.

THE LORD is mid-way through his Olivet Discourse. He has just revealed to his disciples the various signs that must occur prior to his providential coming in AD 70, and also to his supernatural Coming at the end of the age. In a moment he will complete the discourse by speaking of the Judgment (Matt. 25:31–46). However, before doing so, he desires to draw out some practical applications of the truths he has spoken so far.

He begins by admonishing his disciples—all of them—to watch for the signs of his Coming. To this end he bids them learn a lesson from the fig tree: When they see it put forth its leaves, they know that summer is near. Likewise, when they see “all these things”—all the signs he has just spoken of—they can know that his eschatological Coming (vv. 29-31) and the end of the present evil age are at hand (vv. 32–33).

But how do we know that he has his eschatological Coming in view, and not his providential coming? We know it because “all these things” (i.e., all these signs) include events that did not occur prior to 70 AD: the global proclamation of the gospel (v. 14), the universal hatred of Christians (v. 9), the appearing of the eschatological Abomination that Causes Desolation (i.e., the Antichrist; v.15), unprecedented and unparalleled tribulation (v. 21), false messiahs and false prophets who work deceptive signs and wonders (v. 24), and dreadful portents in the sky and sea (v. 29; Luke 21:25-26). All the saints must watch for all these things; and when they see that all have happened, they must lift up their heads, for in those days the Parousia, the Consummation, and the fullness of their redemption will be near, even at the door (v. 33; Luke 21:28).

Having thus outlined the remaining years of Salvation History, the Lord now solemnly pledges: “I tell you the truth: This generation will by no means pass away till all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matt. 24:34-35). These verses are quite difficult, and have therefore generated a host of interpretations, some of which I will touch on before briefly sharing my present view.

Note first his preface: “I tell you the truth.” This strong affirmation fits hand in glove with verse 35, where he states that heaven and earth will pass away, but his words will never pass away. His meaning? “My words—my predictions, warnings, and promises—come straight from the divine Creator and King of the universe. They are everlastingly true and trustworthy. In the face of all events, temptations, and persecutions you can take them to the bank.”

In much the same spirit, he then says, “This generation will by no means pass away till all these things have taken place.” What did he mean by “this generation”? We cannot answer with confidence until we know what he meant by “all these things?” Now in light of verse 33, it is possible that he meant the various signs previously mentioned, excluding the Parousia itself. Here, however, the expression certainly seems to be all-inclusive. His solemn “I tell you the truth,” plus his subsequent reference to the passing of the (present) heavens and the earth (v. 35), both suggest that in addition to the signs of his Coming, he also had in mind his Parousia, the Consummation, and the advent of the eternal cosmos to come.

What, then, did he mean by “this generation”? The Greek is genea. Undeniably, the Lord customarily used this word to refer to his contemporaries: the Jewish men and women of his own generation (Matt. 11:16; 12:30, 38-42; 16:4; 17:17, etc.). Insisting that he was doing so here, theological liberals, rejecting a divine Christ and an inerrant Bible, assert that he was simply wrong. We dare not follow them.

Others—our preterist brethren—agree that Jesus was referring to his own generation, but assert that in speaking of the signs of his Coming (vv. 3-28), and of the Coming itself (vv. 29-31), he was largely using figurative, apocalyptic language to describe the events of AD 33-70, events that would culminate in Titus’s destruction of Jerusalem. But this “mystical” interpretation cannot possibly be correct, since it is obvious that throughout his discourse the Lord was actually making straightforward historical predictions about his providential coming on the one hand, and therefore straightforward historical predictions about his eschatological Coming on the other. The former has come to pass. The latter—and many of the events that must precede it—has not. And so we watch.

Still other interpreters, noting that genea can sometimes mean race, believe that the Lord was referring to the Jews (cf. Matt. 13:15; 15:8, Luke 21:23), whether as an obdurate people who will remain under God’s wrath until the Judgment (so Anthony Hoekema), or as a favored people from whom God, in love and mercy, will continually save a remnant down to the very end (so William Hendriksen). Seeing, however, that the thrust of Jesus’ teaching was to prepare the whole Church—both Jew and Gentile—for her centuries-long pilgrimage to the World to Come, this ethnic interpretation seems far too narrow, and therefore highly unlikely.

Given, then, the vast historical scope of the discourse, my view is that here the Lord was using the word genea in its widest possible sense: as referring to the fallen, guilty, but beloved and eminently redeemable generation (i.e., offspring) of Adam and Eve; as referring to Jews, Gentiles, saints, and sinners of all times and all places; as referring to the one generation comprised of his own generation, the last generation, and all the generations in between.

Admittedly, such usage is rare; however, the disciples’ two-fold question, the historical reach of the Lord’s reply, and the very words he used in this short pericope, all seem to demand it.  Moreover, this usage is not unprecedented. Earlier, Jesus had said, “In their dealings with their own generation, the sons of this age are wiser than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8; cf. 29:34-35). Similarly, the apostle Paul would soon refer to God’s saints as those who shine like lights amidst a crooked and perverse generation (Phil. 2:15). In both of these texts the word genea is being used to describe huge blocs of certain kinds of people; kinds of people who, since the fall of man, have always been with us, and always will be.

So again, may it not be that in speaking to us as he did, the Lord was assuring all his disciples that this generation—this seed of Adam himself (and also, perhaps, the present evil age out of which many of his kind will be rescued)—will not pass away until the divine Creator, Judge, and Redeemer of heaven and earth fulfills all of the words he has so solemnly, graciously, and comfortingly spoken to the world in his great Olivet Discourse?

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

Intended Audience    

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.

Underlying Theme

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.

Literary Genre

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).

Are we living in the last days?

Yes, I know we are, for the Bible says that we have been ever since the Son of God came into the world to purchase our redemption (Heb. 1:1-2).

But are we living in “the last of the last days”? Are we nearing the final scenes of world history, the Second Coming of Christ, and the Consummation of all things?

Well, only God knows. Nevertheless, I will say that I think we are; and in this essay I want to explain why, and also why I  believe that amillennial eschatology alone will adequately prepare us for them.

The Last of the Last Days    

For two millennia the Church has encountered what our Lord referred to as the beginning of birth pains (Matt. 24:8). These include wars, rumors of war, famines, earthquakes, pestilence, the deceptive teachings of false christs and false prophets, and the ebb and flow of persecution. All such things are part and parcel of the Great Tribulation, out of which the sovereign God has been faithfully rescuing his beloved children for generations, uniting them by faith to his Son, and planting them safely on the Zion up above, where they eagerly await the glories of the Zion up ahead (John 4:22-24; Gal. 4:26; Heb. 12:18-24; Rev. 7).

Today, however, the universal Church is witnessing a notable intensification of the birth pains. Christendom is in collapse. European churches stand largely empty. Whole denominations, rich with Christian history and culture, are now infected with the spirit of the age and slide into compromise and apostasy. Outspoken (and soft-spoken) atheism is on the rise, even in America, a historic citadel of the faith. The Western intelligentsia speaks openly of a “post-Christian” society. As in the days of Noah and Lot, world culture swiftly descends into lawlessness: gratuitous violence, murder, polymorphous sexual immorality, theft, kidnapping, slavery, drug abuse, lying, profanity, greed, fraud, occultism, fanaticism, and anarchy. Meanwhile, the persecution of biblically faithful Christians increases. Courts, universities, employers, political parties, and media outlets drive believers to the margins of society. Freedom of religious speech, practice, and assembly is curtailed, if not canceled. While estimates differ widely, all agree that thousands of believers are dying annually for their faith. Day by day the souls of the martyrs flow into heaven, taking their place beneath the altar of God (Rev. 6:10).

But in the midst of all this gloom there is good news as well. Just as God promised, where sin abounds, grace much more abounds. Yes, the true spiritual Church is a little flock, but the glory of the Lord remains upon her. She alone is the one true hope of the world: a city set upon a hill, a light shining in the deep darkness that covers the peoples. Through the global preaching of the gospel, men and women of every nation are coming to the brightness of her light and streaming into the City of God. Amidst the raging storm the Lord is still building his Church (Is. 60 1-3; Matt. 16:18, 24:14; Rom. 5:20).

But are the birth pains really coming to an end? Has a world mysteriously pregnant with eternal life reached transition? Is the day of delivery upon us? Are the Parousia, the Consummation, and the rebirth of the universe now at hand, even at the door (Matt 24:33)?

No and yes. No, because we have not yet witnessed three special signs that our Lord taught us to look for—signs that herald the imminence of the end. But yes, if we pause to consider why they may soon be upon us.

Consider first the Great Commission. The Lord said, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come (Matt. 24:14). Has the Church reached the whole world with the gospel? No, not yet. According to the Joshua Project, there are currently more than 17,000 people groups in the world, of which about 7,000 remain technically “unreached.” This is over 40% of all people groups, 2.9 billion souls. It is a staggering number, largely representing the Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Communists, and animists who inhabit the so-called “10/40 window.”

We must remember, however, that the gap between “reached” and “unreached” has never been smaller; that the pool of potential missionaries has never been larger; that people movements are continually springing up in many lands; and that modern advances in communications technology are bringing the gospel to multitudes, thereby facilitating rapid church growth even in supposedly “closed” nations. Yes, much work remains to be done, and many pioneer missionaries are needed to do it. Nevertheless, it is not wishful thinking to say that today’s Church is powerfully “hastening” the coming of the Lord, and that the completion of the Great Commission is near (2 Peter 3:12). Says the Joshua Project, “We are within range of penetrating every people group on the planet with the light of the gospel, and with more momentum than ever before in history.”1

Secondly, it is also true that we have not yet seen the large-scale conversion of God’s ancient covenant people, ethnic Israel—a blessed hope which I believe is indeed promised in Scripture (Rom. 11). However, the stage is certainly set for it. Globally, anti-Semitism is on the rise. Many of the sons of Jacob have returned to their former homeland, a staggering feat of providence that can hardly be without redemptive significance. Ethnic Israel’s spiritual wealth is inversely proportional to their material: From Christ’s perspective, they are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, naked—and deeply loved (Rom. 11:28; Rev. 3:17). Even now there is a great famine in their land, such that one day soon—perhaps amidst the birth pains of persecution and war—multitudes of Jews will finally cry out to God’s greater Joseph: first for forgiveness, and then for food, drink, and the perfect safety of a far better homeland where righteousness dwells (Gen. 45:1-28; 2 Peter 1:13).2

Finally, it is also true that the Man of Lawlessness has not yet been revealed, and that the Last Battle and the greatest tribulation have not yet begun (Matt. 24:9-28, 2 Thess. 2:3-12; Rev. 11:7-10, 13:6-10, 16:12-16, 19:17-21, 20:7-10). As never before, however, there are signs that the final clash of the kingdoms is drawing near. I have just cited rapidly increasing lawlessness, apostasy, and persecution, all of which may well herald, or even presently fulfill, the “rebellion” of which Christ, the apostle Paul, and the Revelator all spoke (Matt. 24:4-28; 2 Thess. 2:1ff; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; Rev. 9:20-21, 16:8-11).

Alongside these we also observe a fresh upsurge of the Babylonian tendency in world history (Gen. 11:1-9; Dan. 7; Rev. 13, 18). Guided as if by an invisible hand, an emerging network of powerful elites—corporate, governmental, bureaucratic, military, scientific, educational, journalistic, and technocratic—militates against democratic and nationalist impulses, working instead toward a Great Reset of human nature and society. What’s more, recent history has shown that by means of powerful propaganda this network is quite capable of manipulating huge swaths of humanity toward their chosen ends. Though God’s prophetic word indicates that their path to a global utopia will be strewn with the thorns of war (Dan. 11:36-12:13; Rev. 17:16), it is nevertheless clear that the unthinkable has now become thinkable: A final world empire, ruled by a final world tyrant holding the family of nations in a twofold iron grip: the hope of heaven on earth, and the fear of annihilation for those unwilling to comply. Happily, the gospel continues to go forth with good success to every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, so that new churches are springing up in their midst. Yet even as it does, a world-system given over to idolatry—and drunk with pride, wealth, sensuality, and the lust for power—grows increasingly hardened. Like Egypt of old, at any moment it could turn en masse against God’s eschatological Israel, thinking to pursue her to the death through a Red Sea of religious cleansing.

Amillennialism: Scripture’s One True Eschatology

Yes, the Church may well be entering the last of the last days.3 And if so, it’s more important than ever that she be anchored to the Bible’s one true eschatology. My conviction, defended from Scripture in two books and several essays, is that this high honor rightly belongs the amillennialism, the classic eschatology of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communions.

What exactly is amillennialism? The simplest answer is based on the word itself. Literally, it means “no 1000 years.” But amillennarians do not deny the existence of a millennium (which is clearly taught in Revelation 20), only that the 1000 years are literal, that the millennial reign of Christ begins after his Second Coming, and that it takes place on the earth. In other words, they are not premillennarians, who believe that Christ will return before a literal 1000 year reign centered in earthly Jerusalem. Instead, they are best referred to as present-millennarians, believing that the 1000 years of Revelation 20 symbolize the present heavenly reign of Christ, who rules spiritually over his Church and providentially over the whole world. In short, amillennarians believe we are living in the millennium now, and that we have been for some 2000 years. As we’ll see in just a moment, this view has an enormous impact on how we think about the Consummation of all things.

But, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the simplest answer has not resolved the Great End Time Debate (GETD) that currently roils the evangelical world. For this reason I have found it helpful to explain amillennialism in terms of the four biblical themes that underlie this particular contest. In what follows I will sketch them briefly without the proof texts and biblical illustrations that I have provided elsewhere.  

The first (and most fundamental) theme is the Kingdom of God (KOG). According to amillennarians, the Kingdom is the direct spiritual reign of God the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit, over all that the triune God has redeemed and made his own. It is the realm of God, beneath the reign of God—a realm that therefore partakes of the glory of God.

This Kingdom enters history in two simple stages. First, there is a temporary heavenly reign of God’s incarnate Son and Messiah, a reign that is spiritual only, and entered by the new birth, repentance, and faith in Christ. Then comes an eternal earthly reign of the Father (and the Son), a reign that is both spiritual and physical, and that is entered through the Resurrection at Christ’s return. Very importantly, the two stages of the one Kingdom are separated by a single Consummation, set to occur at the one Parousia (i.e., Coming in glory) of the Lord Jesus Christ at the end of the present evil age.

The second (and most challenging) theme is the proper interpretation of Old Testament prophecies of the Kingdom (OTKP). According to amillennarians, all such prophecies are veiled revelations of the two-staged Kingdom introduced by Christ and the New Covenant. They speak either of the temporary heavenly reign of the Son, or of the eternal earthly reign of the Father (and the Son), or of both. Amillennarians contend that in OTKP the Holy Spirit was pleased to use images drawn from physical life under the Old Covenant to speak typologically and figuratively about spiritual life under the New Covenant.4 Thus, the true sphere of fulfillment of OTKP is not a future earthly millennium, but the two-staged spiritual reign of God and Christ, a reign that is created by the New Covenant, and that is experienced by the one true family,and nation of God, comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles of all time. New Testament revelation enables the Church to unveil and decode OTKP, and therefore to see that in it God was speaking of—and to—her!

The third (and most controversial) theme is the millennium, the 1000-year reign of Christ (exclusively) spoken of in Revelation 20. Amillennarians believe that the 1000 years symbolize the inter-adventual era: the season between Christ’s first coming and his last. During this era (now some 2000 years long) the Holy Trinity (3) applies the redemption accomplished by Christ, and so completes (10) the ingathering of the Church (10 x 10 x 10). During this era the High King of heaven rules directly over the Church, and providentially over the whole world. During this era he empowers the Church to preach the gospel to all creation. And during this era grants her good success, for because of his work on earth Christ has bound Satan so that he cannot deceive the nations. That is, he cannot prevent God from shining the light of the truth of the Gospel into the hearts of his elect people, nor can he (until the very end) use his deceptive powers to assemble the nations for the Last Battle against the Church.

The fourth (and most fascinating) theme is the Consummation. Amillennarians teach that there is just one of them, set to occur at the one Parousia of Christ, when he returns in glory with all the holy angels to rescue his Bride from the Last Battle, raise the dead, transform the living, judge the world in righteousness in the skies above the earth, consign evil men and angels to eternal punishment, and create new heavens and a new earth: the eternal home of the triune God, all the saints, and all the angels. Here we encounter the glory of amillennial eschatology, which alone sets before us the majestic manner in which God the Father will be pleased to cap the redemptive work of his Son, and crown his exaltation. Again, this soul-stirring scenario has been the majority view of the universal Church up until modern times.

Amillennialism: An Eschatology for These Last Days

For the last 150 years the evangelical Church has been deeply embroiled in the GETD. As many of us know all too well, eschatological views abound. Curious Christians must now reckon with amillennialism, (two varieties of) historic premillennialism, postmillennialism, dispensational premillennialism, and (two varieties of) preterism. In my books and essays I have tried to help believers process each of these views. And along the way I have shared and defended my conviction that amillennialism is indeed the true teaching of Scripture.

In the following remarks I again want to address all Christians, but especially Christian leaders. Here I will spotlight five crucial characteristics of amillennial eschatology, characteristics that demonstrate its spiritual power and importance, and that show us why it is perfectly suited to carry the true spiritual Church safely through the last of the last days, and on into the consummated Kingdom of God.

First, amillennialism powerfully caps and crystallizes the entire biblical worldview. The reasons are many. It gives us the one true timeline of Salvation History: Creation, Probation, Fall, the OT Era of Promise and Preparation, and the two-staged NT Era of Fulfillment, comprised of the temporary spiritual Kingdom of the Son, the Consummation at Christ’s return, and the eternal earthly Kingdom of the Father (and the Son) in the World to Come. It gives us the heart of Salvation History: the Eternal Covenant in Christ, planned before the founding of the world; similarly, it also gives us the body of Salvation History: the various administrations of the Covenant, from creation to consummation. Finally, it gives us the capstone of biblical cosmology, which, in order to be complete, must include not only of the origin, purpose, and structure of the universe, but also its final destiny: the Consummation of all things. All of us have a God-given desire to behold “the Big Picture” of the universe, life, and man; all of us desire to discover and embrace the one true worldview. Amillennialism alone supplies it.

Secondly, amillennialism opens up and integrates the entire Bible. Here again several steps are involved. The journey begins at the Mount of Transfiguration, where amillennarians bid us hear afresh God the Father identifying his Son as the supreme spiritual Teacher of the human race (Matt. 17:1-8). Yes, in the past Moses and the OT prophets spoke truth to us, but only in “many portions and various ways,” (Heb. 1:1). Therefore, we dare not take our theological cues from them, for in the progress of divine revelation Christ alone has brought us “true truth,” complete truth, definitive truth. Only in Christ, and not in Moses or the prophets, can seekers find all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, including eschatological knowledge (Col. 2:3).5

Accordingly, we must turn first and foremost to the Didactic New Testament (DNT): the specifically teaching portions of the Gospels, the book of Acts, and the Epistles. Here we have the one classroom in which the Teacher unveils God’s definitive truth, and also the one courtroom in which all theological disputes must be decided. Here we receive clear answers to the four underlying issues in the GETD. Here we discover the New Covenant Hermeneutic (NCH): the New Testament method for interpreting the Old Testament in general, and OTKP in particular. Here is where we learn to decipher, understand, and enjoy the “dark” (i.e., typological) sayings of  OT history, the Mosaic Law, OTKP, and the Revelation.

And the result? Suddenly the thousand tiles of biblical revelation coalesce into a single, stunningly beautiful mosaic. Suddenly we behold the face of Christ, the blessings of the Eternal Covenant, and the two-staged Kingdom of God throughout all Scripture: whether darkly prefigured, promised, and predicted in the Old Testament, or brightly manifested, proclaimed, expounded, applied, and eagerly embraced in the New. Gladly and gratefully we now realize that the Lord has definitively opened our minds to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:25), and that now our Bible is fully illumined, integrated, and unveiled (Matt. 13:51-52; 2 Cor. 4:1-6).

Lest she be swept away by the strong ideological crosscurrents of the last days, the Church must be anchored to total truth. By opening up and integrating the entire Bible, the DNT and the NCH—twin pillars of a soundly biblical eschatology—give her total truth. As she takes fresh hold of it, the Lord takes fresh hold of her, keeping her safe, sound, and strong all the way to the end.

Thirdly, amillennialism strengthens the preaching and teaching ministry of the Church. This is a corollary of the previous two points. By giving God’s people total biblical truth, amillennialism enables them to proclaim that truth. In particular, it empowers evangelists, pastors, and teachers not only to preach Christ from the four Gospels and the epistles, but also from OT history and Law, OTKP, and the Revelation. It empowers them not only to proclaim the Lord’s birth, life, death, and resurrection, but also his ascension, session, present heavenly reign, and future coming again. And it mightily empowers them to proclaim the one Consummation that Christ will effect at his return: the one Resurrection, the one Judgment, the one Regeneration of all things, and the one new World to Come. Amillennialism enables God’s gospel messengers to bring the full force of his total truth to bear upon saints and sinners alike. The saints and sinners of these last days will need it as never before.

Fourthly, amillennialism prepares the Church for the Last Battle. Like the good Father who gave it to us, this eschatology does not indulge in escapist fantasies or wishful thinking. It tells us honestly and comfortingly that the true spiritual Church (Rev. 11:1-3) is destined to follow in the footsteps of her Master; that for a brief season at the end of the age she will endure severe marginalization, unfair vilification, gross injustice, widespread rejection, and (institutional) death. However, it also tells us that at the Parousia she will swiftly rise again to final vindication, eternal life, and joy inexpressible and full of glory. As it is written, “A disciple is not above his teacher, neither is a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple to be like his teacher, and a servant like his master” (Matt. 10:24-25). The saints will be like their Master in (re)birth, life, ministry, joy, hardship, death, resurrection, ascension, and eternal glory. To all eternity they will confess that it was enough and more than enough (Col. 3:1-3; Rev. 11:1-14).

Finally, amillennialism revives the Church with a fresh revelation of the glory of Christ. It does so by opening her eyes to the true nature of her Lord’s exaltation, especially to his session, heavenly reign, and return in glory for the Consummation of all things. For a longish season smoke ascending from the abyss has obscured this particular sun (Rev. 9:1-2). Now, however, the Lord is clearing the air. As he does, the Bride beholds her King afresh: not only up above, but also up ahead. The vision is breathtaking, filling her eyes with his deity, sovereignty, mighty power, and fervent love for his people. As never before she beholds the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and is thereby changed from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18).

In sum, amillennialism is indeed an eschatology perfectly suited for these last days. Opening a window onto the one true Consummation, it lets in light from God’s one true future, pouring that light into the perplexing present, and filling the souls of the saints with clarity, conviction, joy, and the zeal of Christ himself.

Thus filled, the Bride becomes sound in faith, strong for outreach, steady in the midst of birth pains, proof against lies and error, holy against the rising tide of lawlessness, and courageous in the face of persecution—always looking beyond the Last Battle to the eternal joys of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

Indeed, as her heavenly Husband washes her eyes with the water of his Word, the veil between the present and the future grows strangely thin—so thin that she seems to see him standing right before her.

With love and longing, she cries, “Come!”

With love and longing he replies, “Yes, my Beloved, I am coming quickly. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life!”



  1. For a short introduction to the state of world missions see this excellent essay, posted at the Joshua Project.
  2. For two essays dealing with God’s plan for ethnic Israel, click here and here.
  3. Here are some further recent developments suggesting that the Consummation may well be near: (1) the current breaking off of (many of) the Gentile nations, which, according to my reading of Romans 11:15 and 21, precedes the grafting in of latter day ethnic Israel and “life from the dead”; (2) the sudden advent of modern communications and military technology, with their extraordinary power to spiritually corrupt and physically destroy; (3) the fact that the apostle John said he was living in “the last hour” (1 John 2:18), implying (for at least one pastor I know) that we must be living in “the last second”; (4) the plausible eschatology of Irenaeus, who suggested that God meant each of the six days of creation to correspond to 1000 literal years, which, if true, would place us at the dawn of the seventh day, the eternal day of mankind’s eschatological rest.
  4. The NT requires us to distinguish between two kinds OT Messianic prophecy. The first I call “simple OT Messianic prophecy.” It is simple in the sense of being straightforward; that is, all such prophecies were literally fulfilled at or around the first coming of Christ, between the time of his incarnation and his session at the right hand of the Father. The second I call “Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy” (OTKP). Prophecies in this category are more complex. They are fulfilled on or after the Day of Pentecost, when the KOG entered the world and the New Covenant went into effect. Prophecies of this kind use OT types and shadows to speak figuratively of the two-staged Kingdom of God created by Christ under the New Covenant. Accordingly, it is necessary for the NT interpreter to employ the New Covenant Hermeneutic (NCH)—the NT method for interpreting the OT generally, and OTKP in particular—in order to decode these  “mysterious” OT utterances.  For more on this subject, click here.
  5. This, I believe, is the fundamental misstep of dispensational premillennialism. Neglecting the DNT and the NCH, dispensational interpreters have chosen instead to build their system on OT ground, and in particular on literalist interpretations of the prophecies of Daniel, Zechariah, and the Revelation (which, in some ways, is the most Old Testament of New Testament books). In so doing they have entangled huge swaths of the evangelical church in a faulty theology that (unintentionally) dishonors God’s appointed Teacher, and therefore greatly confuses his people. My hope and prayer is that the High King will soon visit my dispensational brothers and bring them (and the whole evangelical Church) home to the classic amillennial faith of our Protestant forefathers.

4 Then I saw thrones, and they sat upon them; and authority to judge had been given to them. And I saw the souls of those who were beheaded because of their testimony concerning Jesus, and because of the word of God. And I saw those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead or on their hand. And they all came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the 1,000 years had come to an end.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection: Over these the second death holds no sway, but they will be priests of God and of Christ; and they will reign with him (throughout) the 1,000 years. — Revelation 20:4-6


BY AND LARGE, amillennial interpreters agree that in Revelation 20 the Holy Spirit, for a sixth and final time, has used Old and New Testament imagery to symbolize the Era of Gospel Proclamation: the season between Christ’s first and second advents.

Accordingly, this chapter also speaks of certain key eschatological events that will occur in that era. In particular, the first of its four sections speaks of the binding and imprisonment of Satan at the beginning of the 1,000 years (Rev. 20:1-3). The second speaks of the First Resurrection and the blessings of those who reign with Christ throughout the 1,000 years; correspondingly, it also speaks of the Second Death of persons who did not attain the First Resurrection or the millennial reign of Christ (Rev. 20:4-6). The third section speaks of the Last Battle and the judgment of Satan, set to occur at the end of the 1,000 years (Rev. 20:7-10). The fourth and final section speaks of the Judgment of all mankind at the Great White Throne, which also occurs at the end of the 1,000 years (Rev. 20:11-15).

In this essay I want to focus on the second section of Revelation 20, found in verses 4-6. Of the four, this is certainly the most difficult and controversial, and therefore merits special consideration. I will begin by offering my own amillennial interpretation, after which I will interact with premillennial views and defend mine at greater length.

An Amillennial Interpretation of Revelation 20:4-6  

John has opened the chapter by giving us a revelation of the binding and imprisonment of Satan, both of which will last for 1000 years. Here the Spirit is using the number 1000 symbolically: it is a sign, signifying the entire era of Gospel Proclamation (Rev. 1:1). This era began when Jesus Christ—through his atoning death, resurrection, session, and ensuing heavenly reign—bound (i.e., restrained) Satan from deceiving the nations any longer (John 12, 2 Thess. 2, Rev. 12). In particular, Satan can no longer deceive God’s worldwide elect in such a way as to keep them in his thrall and prevent them from coming to Christ. Similarly, he cannot (yet) deceive the multitude of unregenerate persons in such a way as to gather them together for the Last Battle against Christ and the Church (Rev. 20:7-10). Here we are told that this era will last a long time (1000), but only long enough for the triune God (3) to complete (10) the ingathering of his people (10 x 10 x 10). Once that is accomplished, the end will come (Matt. 24:14).

Having opened the chapter in this way, the Holy Spirit now addresses a question that will naturally arise in the minds of every believer. One thousand years bespeaks a long time. What will happen to the saints who die during that season? Our text supplies the answer. The amillennial interpretation is as follows:

Those whom John sees seated on thrones are souls: the souls of the saints who remained faithful to Christ throughout their portion of the Era of Proclamation, died, and entered Heaven (v. 4). In partial fulfillment of Daniel 7:9, at the moment of their death authority to judge was given to them; that is, God authorized them to participate with Christ in the Judgment (v. 4).

Some of these saints died as martyrs, but all were loyal to the Word of God (v. 4). All refused to worship the Beast (i.e., the self-deifying, anti-Christian State). All refused to worship the image of the Beast (i.e., to participate in the religious cultus of the anti-Christian State) (v. 4). And all refused to take the mark of the Beast upon their forehead or their hand (i.e., to identify themselves, in thought and deed, as loyal followers of the Beast).

As a result of their covenant loyalty to the Lord, these saints “came to life and reigned with Christ during the 1,000 years” (v. 4). That is, at the moment of their death God raised their souls to spiritual perfection for life in Heaven with Christ throughout the (remainder of the) Intermediate State. The Holy Spirit identifies this spiritual coming to life as “the first resurrection”. Later on, at the end of the 1,000 years, this spiritual coming to life will be followed by a physical coming to life; the first (spiritual) resurrection will be consummated by a second (bodily) resurrection that will equip the saints for the fullness of human life in the new heavens and the new earth (v. 5).

In speaking of these things, and by way of a warning to all, the Holy Spirit also mentions here the destiny of unbelievers. They too will “come to life,” but only at the end of the 1,000 years, when their souls, previously in Hades, are joined to resurrection bodies and then subjected to “the second death,” which is the Lake of Fire (vv. 5, 14).

Our passage concludes with John identifying three blessings that God has prepared for the saints who attain the first resurrection.

First, the second death now holds no sway [lit. has no authority] over them. Having triumphantly passed their probation on the earth, they are eternally secure from all possibility of apostasy and perdition. Henceforth, admonitions and warnings to remain faithful will neither be needed nor heard.

Secondly, they will be priests of God and Christ. Spiritually, they will enter fully upon their eternal ministry of worship and service to the triune God (1 Peter 2:9-10).

And thirdly, they will reign with Christ throughout the 1,000 years. That is, having attained to the fullness of eternal life through the entrance of their spirits into Heaven, they, like Christ, will reign victoriously over every deadly spiritual enemy that previously opposed them during their time on earth.

Summing up, (many) amillennarians believe that Revelation 20:4-6 gives us a final biblical depiction of the Intermediate State. At the moment of their death the spirits of the saints who have persevered in the faith enter Heaven, where they come to the fullness and perfection of eternal life. The Holy Spirit identifies this special coming to life as “the first resurrection” because it is analogous to, and guarantees, a second resurrection (of the body) at the Lord’s return at the end of the age. Herein lies a great a hope for all Christians, a hope that will encourage and enable them to persevere in their difficult pilgrimage through the wilderness of this present world.

This Interpretation Defended

Alas, our premillennarian brethren cannot agree. They say that the “coming to life” of verse 4 is not strictly spiritual, but rather physical: At the Lord’s premillennial return he will join the departed souls of faithful Old and New Testament believers to their new resurrection bodies. Henceforth they will sit upon thrones and reign with him for 1,000 years. This coming to life is called “the first resurrection” because it is the first of two bodily resurrections. The second will occur at the end of the Millennium when God raises unrighteous and unbelieving persons for the last judgment.

Premillennarians defend this view by citing the parenthetical remark found in verse 5. It reads, “The rest of the dead did not come to life [ezesan] until the thousand years were completed.” All interpreters agree that “the rest of the dead” are the souls presently in Hades, souls that will come to life at the resurrection of their bodies. “But,” say the premillennarians, “if the Holy Spirit used the same Greek word (ezesan) to describe both the first (v. 4) and second resurrections (v. 5), how can you possibly assert that the first is spiritual but the second physical?”

At first blush this argument seems compelling. But what if there was solid evidence to show that the Spirit, for wise reasons, intentionally used the same word in two different senses? What if there was evidence to show that the two “comings to life” differ not only in timing, but also in nature? Needless to say, amillennarians are convinced that such evidence does indeed exist.

But let us begin at the beginning: with the various evidences favorable to the amillennial view.

First, we have just seen from verse 4 that the entire scene is heavenly. John has explicitly referenced souls, and Revelation 6:9 strongly suggests that they are in Heaven. He has explicitly mentioned thrones, and in the Revelation they are always situated in Heaven when associated with the saints (Rev. 4:4, 11:16, 19:4). Moreover, he says not a word about the bodily resurrection of these saints.

Secondly, the parenthetical remark found in verse 5 actually supports the amillennial interpretation. John writes, “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the 1,000 years had come to an end.” The premillennial reading is: “The dead referred to in verses 4-5 come to life bodily at the beginning of the Millennium and reign with Christ for 1,000 years. The rest of the dead will not come to life bodily until the 1,000 years are over.” The amillennial reading is: “The dead are divisible into two groups: the dead whose souls John is seeing in Heaven, and the rest of the dead whose souls are still in Hades. The former come to life spiritually at the moment of their death, but not yet bodily (Rev. 20:13). The latter will never come to life spiritually, but will indeed come to life bodily, but only to be thrown into the Lake of Fire.” The evidences previously cited, together with the eschatology of the DNT, strongly favor the amillennial view.

Thirdly, we have John’s remark found in verse 6: “Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection: over these the second death holds no sway.” This is a glorious promise, given to conscientious saints struggling to pass all tests and resist all temptations so that they may complete their earthly pilgrimage victoriously. But if, as premillennarians assert, the first resurrection is bodily, then this promise, far from being a blessing, opens a door to all manner of doubts and fears. Henceforth, premillennarians are left to wonder: “When I die and my soul enters Heaven, will it still be in danger? Must I still take tests and wrestle with temptations? Might I yet apostatize? Do I really have to wait until the Lord’s return and the resurrection of my body before I can rest assured that the second death will hold no sway over me?”

“God forbid!” cries the amillennarian. “The first resurrection is not bodily, but spiritual. It is the holy moment when you transition from earthly life to the Intermediate State. It is the triumphant conclusion of your Gospel probation upon the earth. Henceforth you will be perfectly holy in spirit. Henceforth you can never fall away from God. Henceforth the second death has no authority over you, as indeed it would if, while still living upon the earth, you fell into temptation and denied your Lord (2 Tim. 2:12); which, by the way, is something that the Good Shepherd will never let one of his true sheep do (John 10:27-29)!”

We find, then, that verse 6 powerfully illumines the true meaning of the saints’ “coming to life” and “the first resurrection.” These picturesque expressions speak of their souls’ victorious entrance upon the glories of the Intermediate State.

It remains to ask, however, why the Holy Spirit would use the same Greek word (ezesan) to describe two different kinds of coming to life: two different kinds of resurrection. The answer, I believe, is found in the progress of biblical revelation concerning the Intermediate State, and in the prophetic purpose of the Revelation.

 Think back to the days of the early Church. Having been well taught by the apostles, most Christians would have understood that “soon” all (deceased) human beings will come to life in a single bodily resurrection of the dead (Luke 20:27-40; John 5:26-29; Acts 24:15, 21; 1 Cor. 15:50-58; 1 Thess. 4:13-18). However, as the Lord tarried, and as some of the saints began to die, surviving believers would naturally be concerned about the condition of departed loved ones after their death but prior to the bodily resurrection. The apostles understood this and addressed their concern by teaching them about the Intermediate State (2 Cor. 5:1-10; Phil. 1:21-24; 1 Thess. 4:13-17; Heb. 12:22-24). However, as the NT canon neared completion, it pleased the High Prophet of Heaven to do so one final time.

Accordingly, here in Revelation 20 he gives the Church Militant a climactic word of instruction, exhortation, and encouragement concerning the Intermediate State. I would paraphrase it as follows: “Yes, in the general resurrection all people will come to life bodily. However, should I tarry, always remember that for those who believe, overcome, and die in the faith there awaits a first resurrection of their spirit that supplies a foretaste and guarantee of the final resurrection of their body. There awaits a first coming to life in Heaven that supplies a foretaste and guarantee of a final coming to life in the World to Come. And there awaits a first reigning with me in Heaven that supplies a foretaste and guarantee of a final reigning with me and my Father in the new heavens and the new earth. So then: Armed with these glorious promises, see to it that you overcome!” (2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 3:21; 5:10; 22:5).

We find, then, that the Lord used the same word to describe two different “comings to life” because the two comings to life—much like the two stages of the one Kingdom of God—share the same fundamental nature: the first is unto spiritual perfection, and lasts a little while; the second is unto spiritual and physical perfection, and lasts forever. Thus did it please the High Prophet of Heaven to further illuminate the glories of the Intermediate State, thereby giving his people fresh hope and moving them to stay faithful throughout the remainder of their difficult pilgrimage upon the earth (John 11:26; Rev. 20:6).