The Revelation: The Meaning of the Millennium
NOTE: This is the last of three essays dealing with the Revelation and the meaning of the Millennium (to read the first, click here; to read the second, click here). All three are excerpts from my book, The High King of Heaven: Discovering the Master Keys to the Great End Time Debate. I pray that these writings will enable you to read, enjoy, and profit from the Revelation as never before, and that they will fill you with courage, confidence, and holy expectancy as we journey together through the wilderness of this world to a glorious new life in Immanuel’s Land.
IN THE PRECEDING essays I sought to lay a good foundation for the study of what is arguably the most controversial text in all Holy Scripture: Revelation 20. Along the way we considered the purpose and literary genre of the Revelation, as well as its structure and the key symbols involved. In particular, we looked long and hard at the idea that Revelation 20 is a sixth and final recapitulation of the central theme of chapters 6-20, and of the book as a whole: The course, character, and consummation of the spiritual reign of the High King of Heaven. So now, with our foundation solidly in place, we are ready to plunge into the text itself, in order to see how well or poorly the material found in chapter 20 confirms our thesis.
Interpreting Revelation 20
Revelation 20 falls nicely into four sections of roughly equal length, each one containing a mini-vision that is closely related to the others. The unifying theme is the thousand years. The first speaks of the binding and imprisonment of Satan for a thousand years (20:1-3); the second of the saints reigning with Christ in heaven throughout the thousand years, and also of the first and second deaths, and the first and second resurrections, (20:4-6); the third speaks of the Last Battle and the Judgment of Satan at the end of the thousand years (20:7-10); and the fourth of the Last Judgment of all mankind at the Great White Throne, also at the end of the thousand years (20:11-14). In surveying this rich material, I will first offer a brief amillennial interpretation of each section, and then address, at some length, the key questions, interpretations, and arguments advanced by our premillennial brethren.
I. The Binding and Imprisonment Satan (20:1-3)
According to premillennarians, Revelation 20 follows Revelation 19 chronologically; that is, it speaks of events that will happen after the Parousia described in 19:11-21. Amillennarians disagree. They argue that in Revelation 20 the Spirit is once again tracing the course of the whole Era of Proclamation, but for a very special purpose, and with a high degree of “progressivity.” The purpose, as we shall see, is two-fold: to inform the saints that the Era of Proclamation may indeed last longer than they expect, and also to assure them that even if they should die before the Lord’s return, they will know the unspeakable joy of living and reigning with Christ in heaven during the Intermediate State. As for “progressivity,” we will see that this chapter speaks uniquely of the ultimate demise of Satan, and also—in extraordinarily sobering terms—of the Last Judgment of all mankind. Revelation 20 serves, then, as a fitting conclusion to the serial visions of the course, character, and consummation of Christ’s heavenly reign, even as it prepares the way for a glorious revelation of the full inheritance of the saints: Eternal life with the Triune God in the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 21-22).
Bearing these preliminaries in mind, let us now consider 20:1-3 in amillennial perspective.
In verse 1 John sees an angel coming down from heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. The language is apocalyptic and therefore symbolic. The angel symbolizes divine agency. Certainly the events in view here could involve an actual ministry of angels, but in the end they are preeminently a ministry of the Spirit of God. The keys symbolize divine authority to act (1:18, 14:6-7), the chain divine power to restrain (2 Thess. 2:6). Verses 2-3 depict a temporary binding and imprisonment of Satan. The holy angel lays hold of the evil angel, binds him with the chain, throws him into the abyss, shuts it, and seals it over him, so that for a thousand years he can no longer deceive the nations. A job decidedly done! As we shall see, the whole picture is highly reminiscent of Revelation 12:7-9, and, according to amillennarians, conveys much the same message: Throughout the Era of Proclamation, here symbolized by a thousand years, the High King of Heaven, by the hand of the Holy Spirit, will restrain Satan in such a way that he can neither prevent the spread of the Gospel throughout the earth, nor gather together the nations for the Last Battle against Christ’s Church. However, at the close of the thousand years (i.e., at the end of the Era of Proclamation), Christ himself will indeed, for wise reasons, remove all spiritual restraints on Satan and his demonic hosts. This will result in the stupendous climactic scenes of Salvation History: The rise of the Antichrist, the Last Battle, the Parousia, the destruction of Satan and his evil angels, and the Last Judgment of all mankind—all followed by the advent of the new heavens and the new earth (20:7-15).
Needless to say, our premillennarian brothers sharply disagree with this characterization of the Millennium. The controversy swirls around four crucial questions. Let us carefully address each one now.
1. In this text, where are we, chronologically speaking? Are we dealing here with events subsequent to the Parousia described in Revelation 19:11-21, as premillennarians hold; or are we back at the beginning of the Era of Proclamation, as amillennarians hold?
For a number of reasons, I would argue that the amillennial view is much to be preferred.
First, a close reading of 19:11-21 makes it quite clear that the judgment there described is not partial, such that any men or nations could safely pass through it and enter a subsequent millennial stage of the Kingdom. To the contrary, Revelation 19:15 strongly implies that when Christ comes, he will smite all the (unbelieving) nations, shattering them with a rod of iron and treading them down in the winepress of the wrath of God (Psalm 2:7-9, Rev. 2:27). Similarly, 19:18 explicitly states that the birds of mid-heaven will feast upon the flesh of all (unbelieving) men, both free and slave, small and great. Who, then, would be left to enter a future millennium, such that God might protect them by binding Satan from his deceptive work?
Based on a faulty reading of Matthew 25:31-46, dispensationalists reply that the survivors are individual Gentiles (or nations) who have treated Israel well during the Tribulation (see chapter 23). However, neither Revelation 19 nor any other NT text describing the Judgment teaches this. As for historic premillennarians, many say that the survivors are the children of unbelievers. But again, Revelation 19 says no such thing. Moreover, we cannot find a single NT text to support this highly speculative solution. Who would raise such children? Angels? Glorified saints? Truly, the premillennarian thesis strains all credulity. Far better, then, to see 19:11-21 and 20:7-15 as parallel passages; to see them both as depicting the Last Battle (19:19, 20:7-9), the Parousia (19:11-16, 20:9), and the Last Judgment of men and angels (19:20-21, 20:10-15). Far better, also, to consider that in that day all children beneath the age of accountability will likely be found among the elect, brought to faith, transformed and glorified with the living saints, and so spared from the wrath to come (Psalm 68:5, Mt. 19:14, Rom. 1:18f, 1 Cor. 15:50f, 1 Thess. 4:15f).
Secondly, in the course of our survey I have tried to show that all five cycles found in chapters 6-19 begin at the beginning of the Era of Proclamation and end with the last Judgment. Admittedly, this pattern is clearer in some cycles than in others. Nevertheless, there is more than enough evidence in each one to suggest that the pattern is indeed pervasive. Is it not reasonable, then, after such a majestic depiction of the Parousia and the Last Judgment (19:11-21), to expect that 20:1-3 begins a new cycle, taking us back to the onset of the Era of Proclamation?
Along these lines, consider also how counter-intuitive it would be for the Spirit to give us only five cycles depicting the Era of Proclamation, rather than six. Because of its symbolic power, the number six definitely makes better sense. Six reminds us of the six days of God’s creative work, followed by a seventh, in which he rested. Analogously, six cycles of the Era of Proclamation would speak of Christ’s redemptive work, while a seventh (found in 21-22) would speak of redemptive rest, both Christ’s and our own (Heb. 4:1-13). Biblical numerology clearly favors the 6-1 structure of Amillennialism over the 5-1-1 structure of Premillennialism.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have the evidence found in the text itself; evidence that repeatedly carries us to parallel passages, both in the Revelation and the rest of the NT; evidence that shows beyond any reasonable doubt that Revelation 20 does indeed traverse the same familiar ground: the Era of Proclamation. In the next three questions, we will examine this evidence with some care.
2. What is the Binding and Imprisonment of Satan?
With insufficient regard for the apocalyptic character of the imagery involved, premillennarians interpret the binding and imprisonment of Satan more or less literally: A literal angel will literally throw Satan into the literal abyss, thereby removing him from the earth, so that he can no longer deceive any men or nations into following him. One author writes, “This refers to Satan’s complete banishment from earth, so that while sin is still to exist in individuals, it is no longer to be a power forming a fellowship, and thus making a kingdom of sin and Satan.” Not surprisingly, such an interpretation emboldens premillenarians to envision a vastly improved world, one befitting the presence and rule of Christ upon the earth: “The Millennium is . . . a time of universal peace, prosperity, long life, and prevailing righteousness.” It also emboldens them to poke fun at their amillennial brothers, asserting that if Satan is presently bound and imprisoned, he must be attached to a very long chain!
It is easy to see, however, that the literal approach has weighty problems of its own, and not a few. Yes, there is indeed such a place as the abyss (Luke 8:31), just as there are also such things as keys and chains. But do we really want to say that the key in the angel’s hand is literal, rather than a symbol of God-given authority; or that the chain is literal, rather than a symbol of divine power? Also, how exactly would an angel shut the abyss, or seal it over the devil’s head? Clearly, we are dealing here with a spiritual event befalling a spiritual being or beings. Therefore, we must try to discern the spiritual meaning behind the physical symbols. Moreover, we must do so consistently. If the key is a symbol, and the chain is a symbol, then hermeneutical consistency requires us at least to ask if here the Spirit is using Satan himself as a symbol (e.g., of all the fallen angels, Satan included), or the abyss as a symbol (e.g., of spiritual imprisonment, confinement, restraint), or the thousand years as a symbol (e.g., of the Era of Proclamation, in which Satan is indeed restrained as never before).
It appears, then, that sensitivity not only the literary genre of the Revelation, but also to the minutiae of the text itself, requires a symbolic interpretation along the lines given above. If so, the message here is that throughout the “thousand years” God will restrain the activity of Satan and his demonic hosts, rather than remove it (and them) altogether. Importantly, this approach corresponds very well to the world in which Christians now live. On the one hand, it is a world in which Satan is present and active, sometimes painfully so (1 Peter 5:8). On the other, it is also a world in which God does indeed restrain Satan, and has for two millennia, preventing him from achieving two of his most cherished goals: 1) deceiving all the nations by means of false religion and philosophy, so as to keep the whole world in the dark about the one true God and his plan of salvation, something he was allowed to do prior to the first advent of Christ and the completion of his redemptive work (20:3; Mt. 16:18, 24:14, Luke 4:4-6); and, 2) deceiving all the nations so that he can call up and fashion an eschatological Beast capable of suppressing the missionary outreach of the Church and launching the Last Battle against the NT people of God (2 Thess. 2:6, Rev. 9:14, 16:12).
When we consult the rest of the Revelation, as well as related NT texts, we find that they consistently favor this more symbolic approach. On the one hand, neither of these two Scriptural witnesses says a single word about a future, intermediate stage of the Kingdom from which Satan has been temporarily banished. On the other hand, they have a great deal to say about a world in which Satan has been temporarily restrained from deceiving God’s elect about the truth of the Gospel, and also from gathering “the inhabitants of the earth” to the Antichrist for a final spiritual and physical war against the Church.
Considering the importance of this question, let us pause for a moment to consider some especially relevant NT passages.
Beginning with the Revelation itself, we have seen that in a number of places the Spirit richly pictures the infallible worldwide spread of the Gospel throughout the Era of Proclamation. Even now the Rider upon his white horse is going forth into the earth, conquering and sure to conquer in the cause of the Gospel; and he has been doing so from the very beginning (6:2). Even now God is holding back the four winds of eschatological judgment (and conflict) until all his servants are sealed upon their foreheads; and he has been doing so from the very beginning (7:1-8). Even now the powers of hell are restrained from moving the nations to join forces with the Beast in order to prosecute the Last Battle; and they have been thus restrained from the very beginning (9:14). Even now the two witnesses—measured for spiritual protection—are prophesying to the nations; and they have been doing so from the very beginning (11:1-6). Each of these texts depicts the infallible progress of the Gospel in the Era of Proclamation. Why is that progress so certain? Because even now Satan is bound from deceiving the nations; and he has been from the very beginning!
In this connection, we must not fail to pay special attention to Revelation 12, a chapter that runs closely parallel to our text at many points. There we first read of the exaltation of Christ, which occurred at the beginning of the Era of Proclamation (12:1-6). Then we read of a great spiritual war that immediately ensued, a war in which Satan—the deceiver of the whole world—is cast down to the earth (12:7-9). As I argued earlier, these three verses picture the progressive collapse of Satan’s worldwide Kingdom throughout the entire Era of Proclamation. Because of the preaching of the Gospel, he is no longer able to deceive the elect of all nations about the identity of the true God, or about the way back into fellowship with Him. This is confirmed by 12:10-12, which announces the advent and infallible progress of (the first stage of) Christ’s Kingdom through the faithful testimony of the saints. Observe also from 12:14-17 the many ways in which the Spirit restrains Satan from destroying the Woman, and from hindering her fruitfulness in begetting children for Christ. He gives her the wings of the Great Eagle (12:14), he nourishes her in the wilderness (12:14), and he opens up the earth in order to swallow the floods of ungodliness that pour forth from the Dragon’s mouth (12:15-16, 16:13).
Here, then, we have nothing less than an inspired commentary on 20:1-3. What does the Spirit mean by the binding and imprisonment of Satan, such that he can no longer deceive the nations? According to 12:1-17, he means that beginning with the exaltation of Christ—and all throughout the Era of Proclamation—God will restrain Satan from deceiving his world-wide elect about the truth of the Gospel, and will also restrain Satan from driving the true, world-wide spiritual Church underground until all her children are born from above and her work on earth is done (Rev. 11:7f).
This brings us to other NT texts that illuminate the binding and imprisonment of Satan. They are legion, but two are of special importance.
First, we have Matthew 12:22-29, in which we find Jesus healing a demon-possessed man. Speaking of this power-encounter, he likens himself to a holy thief who has just entered a strong man’s house, tied him up, and carried off his property. In a microcosm, Jesus has just invaded and torn down Satan’s kingdom, and plundered his (human) goods (Luke 10:18). After Pentecost, when the New Covenant has been sealed in his blood and the Spirit has been poured out on the Church, he will do so in a macrocosm; that is, he will do so on a global scale through the universal proclamation of the Gospel. Through the foolishness of preaching, the High King of Heaven will invade Satan’s worldwide kingdom, restrain him from deceiving the elect any longer, open their hearts and minds to the truth of the Gospel, and transfer them into his own spiritual Kingdom of light and love (Col. 1:13). This is the binding of Satan pictured in Revelation 20:1-3, a binding that begins at the beginning of the Era of Proclamation and lasts until its dramatic closing scenes at the end.
Similarly, we have the testimony of John in 12:20-33. John relates that towards the end of Holy Week certain Greeks desired to talk with Jesus. The disciples brought him the news, but Jesus, having been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, refused to grant the interview. Rather, he chose instead to speak at length about his imminent death. Concerning that death, he said, “Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world shall be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself” (12:31-32). What was the Lord saying here? He was saying that on the Cross, the Father will judge Jesus for the sins of his chosen ones: for the sins of the world of elect sinners presently living under Satan’s rule, but whom the Father has predestined to become a new world of saints living under the rule of Christ. In short, Christ will die so that God’s people may be transferred from Satan’s kingdom into Christ’s kingdom, and live.
But how will this transfer be accomplished? It will be accomplished, Jesus says, by his being “lifted up”—first in death, then in exaltation to the Father’s right hand, and finally in preaching. Here then is how God binds Satan from deceiving the nations any longer. First, he destroys Satan’s evil kingdom at the cross—in principle. Then, throughout the entire Era of Proclamation, he further destroys it—in practice. How? By sending the Church with the message of Christ’s finished work to every land; by restraining Satan from blinding the eyes of his people any longer (2 Cor. 4:4); by casting down the devil from his former place of rulership over them (Rev. 12:9); and by infallibly drawing them into the Kingdom of his Beloved Son (John 12:32, Col. 1:13). How marvelously, then, this rich NT text illumines the deep meaning of Revelation 20:1-3!
We must briefly mention some other NT passages, as well.
Preaching to the Athenians, the apostle Paul declares that formerly God “winked” at the times of ignorance, in which they foolishly worshiped their idols. Now, however, he is commanding all men everywhere to repent. Why? Because Christ has been exalted, the Gospel is going to the nations, and God is binding Satan from deceiving his people any longer, with the result that they can and will be saved (Acts 17:30-31, 26:17-18).
Writing to the Corinthians, Paul states that through the preaching of the Gospel he and his fellow apostles are casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). Here again we see the hand of God binding Satan from deceiving his elect among the Gentiles.
In 1 Cor. 15:20-28, the apostle speaks of the heavenly reign of Christ, and of how, throughout that reign, the High King is placing all his enemies underfoot. This also pictures the binding of Satan, which results in the progressive demise of his worldwide kingdom through the preaching of the Gospel.
Finally, we have such texts as Ephesians 1:19-23 and Colossians 2:8-15, which associate the exaltation of Christ with the subjection of the demonic rulers and powers in the heavenly places. This in turn leads to the gathering of Christ’s elect out of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. Such didactic passages give us the rich NT theology underlying Revelation 20:1-3. The Holy Spirit assumes that we understand it well.
We conclude, then, that Revelation 20:1-3 does indeed take us back to the beginning of the Era of Proclamation; that it uses apocalyptic symbolism to depict, one final time, the assured results of the finished work of Christ and the subsequent proclamation of the Gospel. Henceforth, God will continually restrain Satan in such a way that he can no longer deceive the elect of all nations with false religion or philosophy, nor hinder them from coming to Christ, nor gather the world-system against them in order to prevent them from completing their mission. The OT prophecies of the Messiah’s universal Kingdom will be fulfilled (Psalm 2:7-8, Isaiah 42:1-4, Amos 9:11, Micah 4:1-5). Christ will build his Church (Mt. 16:18, 24:14, John 10:16, Rev. 5:9). How do we know this? Because until the very end of the age, Satan will be bound.
3. What is the meaning of the thousand years?
I have suggested that the thousand years of Revelation 20 is a symbolic number depicting the entire Era of Proclamation, a number characterizing it as a lengthy period in which God, through Christ, will complete his redemptive work by fully gathering in his elect. This is clear both from the biblical use of the number and from its mystical meaning.
As to its biblical use, the OT repeatedly employs the number 1000 to convey the idea of magnitude (Gen. 24:60, Ex. 20:6, Deut. 1:11, 32:30, 33:2, Psalm 68:17, Dan. 7:10). The NT follows suit (Heb. 12:22, Jude 1:14, Rev. 5:11). Notably, Revelation 7 equates the 144,000 eschatological Israelites (7:4) with “a great multitude whom no one could count” (7:9). All this invites us to see the thousand years as a symbol of temporal magnitude. In particular, the Spirit apparently chose this number in order to teach the saints that the Era of Proclamation and Probation would be lengthy: much longer than first-century Christians believed, and significantly longer than Christians of most any century might expect. It therefore serves as a warning. The saints must not interpret “the beginning of birth pains”—the tokens of final judgment scattered all along the length of the Era of Proclamation—as signs that the Parousia is imminent (Mt. 24:6-8). Nor must they allow themselves to be disheartened by scoffers if the Lord seems to tarry: To the Lord, a thousand years is as a single day (2 Peter 3:1f)! Rather, they must persevere in worship, prayer, and service, trusting that Christ will delay no longer than the demands of his own redemptive purpose require (Luke 18:1-8, 2 Peter 3:15).
As to its mystical meaning, we have discussed this earlier. 1000 = 10 x 10 x 10. That is, 1000 is the number of completeness (10) raised to a power of three, the number of the triune God. Therefore, in addition to magnitude, it symbolizes the designated space of time within which the triune God will complete his redemptive purpose; within which he will bring all of his chosen ones into the fold, after which the end shall come (Mt. 24:14). As we have seen, this is the supreme purpose of the Heavenly Reign of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ, and also of the Church Militant: the fulfillment of the Father’s good pleasure in the plan of salvation, which is the heading up of all things in and under his Son through the preaching of the Gospel (Eph. 1:10, 22, Col. 2:10).
Is there further evidence to support this interpretation of the thousand years? Yes there is, and not a little.
First, there is the reasonable presumption, discussed above, that Revelation 20 is indeed a recapitulation of the course of the heavenly reign of the High King of Heaven. If so, it is clear that the thousand years must symbolize that reign, which is now some 2000 literal years old.
Secondly, there is the literary genre of the book: biblical apocalyptic. Recognizing this genre, we ought immediately to incline to the view that not only are the images of the Revelation symbolic, but its numbers as well. Careful study bears this out. The book contains a whole host of numbers—2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 42, 144, 666, 1240, 1600—which, as I tried to show in the preceding survey, are all used symbolically. In view of such precedents, it would actually be quite unreasonable to interpret the thousand years literally.
Thirdly, we have the numeric evidence found in Revelation 12-14, a cycle that runs closely parallel to Revelation 20. For example, in Revelation 12 the Spirit very clearly designates the Era of Proclamation as 1260 days (12:6; 11:3, 13:5), and also as “a time, times, and half a time” (12:14). By means of these two numbers, he characterizes that Era as a time of exile and tribulation, but also as a time that the Lord, in his mercy, will cut short. We see, then, that for wise reasons the Spirit uses different numbers to characterize the same period; but it is the same time period, after all. Might not 1000 be among them?
Finally, we have the evidence of parallel passages depicting the Last Battle. Especially notable are 11:7-10, 16:12-16, and 19:19-23. In each case, it is clear that we are indeed dealing with the Last Battle, a battle that will take place prior to the Parousia, at the end of the Era of Proclamation. However, Revelation 20:7-10 also gives us a battle. Moreover, when it does, it uses OT language and imagery, just as its three predecessors did. Indeed, Revelation 20:8 speaks of this battle as “the war,” as if to assure us that this war is the very same war spoken of earlier in the prophecy (16:14)! Is it not reasonable, then, to assume that “the war” of Revelation 20:7-10 is the Last Battle itself? If so, the thousand years must be symbolic, depicting the period of time between the binding of Satan at Christ’s first advent, and the loosing of Satan just prior to his Second.
For all these reasons we conclude that the biblical evidence weighs heavily in favor of the view that the thousand years of Revelation 20—just like 1260 days, 42 months, and “a time, times, and a half a time” found in related passages—symbolize the entire Era of Proclamation, the full course of the spiritual reign of the High King of Heaven.
4. What is meant by the release of Satan?
Revelation 20:3 states that after the thousand years, Satan must be released for a short time. Verses 7-10 explain what will happen when this occurs. I have just shown that evidence found in other portions of the book favors the view that this release occurs at the end of the Era of Proclamation, immediately prior to the Last Battle. In a moment, we will see if verses 7-10 support this conclusion. So far, however, we have certainly found nothing to indicate that Revelation 20 speaks of a future thousand-year reign of Christ upon the earth, but much to indicate that it does indeed recapitulate, one final time, the entire Era of Proclamation.
II. The Reign of the Saints with Christ (20:4-6)
Of the four mini-visions comprising Revelation 20, this is certainly the most difficult and controversial. Nevertheless, I would argue that the amillennial approach gives us a remarkably clear, consistent, and exegetically natural interpretation of this notoriously challenging text.
Having opened the chapter with a revelation of the temporary binding of Satan, the Spirit now addresses a question that will naturally arise in the minds of every reader and hearer: A thousand years bespeaks a long time; what will happen to the saints who die while Satan is still bound and imprisoned? As if in response, John now sees “thrones and those who sat upon them,” of whom it is written, quite cryptically, that “judgment was given to them” (20:4). Then, by way of explanation, he sees the souls of two categories of believers: 1) martyrs, and 2) those who refused to worship the Beast or his image, and who had not received his mark upon their forehead or their hand. These, John tells us, “came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (20:4). Verse 5 completes the thought, telling us that “the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed,” and that this “coming to life to reign with Christ” is called “the first resurrection.” Verse 6 pronounces a great blessing upon all who have a share in “the first resurrection,” since in their case “the second death” has no authority over them, and since they will be priests of God and Christ, reigning with him (Christ) for a thousand years.
Very briefly, the amillennial interpretation is as follows: Those seated upon the thrones are indeed souls, the souls of all who remained faithful to Christ during their portion of the Era of Proclamation. Because of their faithfulness—because they refused to follow Satan through his three worldly helpers—these died in the Lord, and so, in “the first resurrection,” came to life in heaven as disembodied spirits, there to await the resurrection of the body at the end of the age. Throughout this Intermediate State their blessings are many: They reign “in life” with Christ over all the power of sin and death; they serve as priests in the heavenly worship of their God and King; they now have a share in the Last Judgment at Christ’s return; and—unlike “the rest of the dead” who will only “come to life” in the second (bodily) resurrection, and will only experience eternal punishment—they are forever secure against the second death, which is the Lake of Fire.
Needless to say, our premillennarian brothers are not enthusiastic about this interpretation. Indeed, they would challenge it at no less than five separate points. Let us therefore take a close look at their arguments, and see where the weight of biblical teaching actually leads us.
1. Who are these saints?
According to most premillennarians, John is beholding the physcially resurrected people of God of all generations: the patriarchs, the apostles, and the saints of Old and New Testament times. This interpretation flows naturally and necessarily from their assumption that here the Spirit is unveiling the onset of a future millennial reign of Christ: Who else could or would rule with Christ during such a Millennium? Dispensationalists, bound by their commitment to a pre-tribulation Rapture, assert that these particular saints are the Tribulation martyrs. However, they too, like their historic premillennarian brethren, hasten to add that the saints of all ages will also rule with Christ during the Millennium.
We have already shown why this view is untenable: Numerous lines of evidence indicate that the temporal sphere of fulfillment of Revelation 20 is not a future millennium, but the Era of Proclamation. But does a sound exegesis of the text itself (20:4-6) support this conclusion?
Indeed it does. Note first that 20:4 swiftly supplies the best explanation of the occupants of the throne: They are souls, souls who have “come to life.” At the very least, this is a broad hint that here we are dealing with believers in the Intermediate State; believers who are living with Christ in heaven as disembodied spirits throughout the course of his mediatorial reign, even as many other NT texts so richly promise (2 Cor. 5:8, Phil. 1:21-3, Heb. 12:22-24, Rev. 6:9-11). The rest of verse 4 favors this interpretation. Why are these saints in heaven? Why are they privileged to live and rule with Christ? Because on earth they had been faithful unto death (Rev. 2:10); because they had not worshiped the Beast or his image, or taken his mark, but had taken only the mark of Christ and worshiped him faithfully to the end, in some cases even unto martyrdom (Rev. 2:13, 7:3, 9:4, 14:1, 22:4).
Observe also that while this is the most extensive promise of the blessings of the Intermediate State to be found in the Revelation, it is not the only one. Much like our present text, Revelation 6:9-10 also pictures the souls of the martyrs dwelling safely in heaven, albeit crying out to God for justice and vindication. Similarly, in Revelation 14:13, we hear the Spirit saying, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on . . . that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them.” Revelation 20:4 is clearly meant to depict this very blessedness; to give tempted and persecuted saints of all times and places an encouraging peek at the rich rewards awaiting them in heaven, should the Lord tarry and they die in the faith.
2. Where are they living?
While acknowledging that John begins by beholding the souls of the saints, the majority of premillennarians nevertheless assert that in “the first resurrection,” which allegedly occurs at the Parousia (19:11-21), these saints will “come to life” in their new glorified bodies in order to live and rule with Christ upon the earth for a literal thousand years (20:5-6). However, on this point some premillennarians disagree. Such interpreters are honest enough to admit that the text itself says nothing about an earthly reign, and that the commingling of glorified saints with mere natural men upon the earth poses grave difficulties. Accordingly, they argue that the resurrected saints will reign with Christ from heaven during the thousand years. However, this view is even more problematic than the first, since the vast majority of OTKP’s, literally interpreted, require Christ and the saints to dwell upon the earth. Troubles like these suggest that the root of the problem is the premillennial scheme itself. Is there, then, a better solution, built upon a better foundation?
Yes there is, and our text points the way. Observe first that these saints are seated upon thrones. According to Sam Storms, this word occurs 47 times in the Revelation. On three occasions, it refers to the throne of Satan and the Beast (2:13, 13:21, 16:10). On four it refers to God’s throne situated in the new, glorified earth (21:3,5, 22:1,3). However, on the other 40 occasions it refers exclusively to heavenly thrones, whether God’s, Christ’s, or those of the 24 elders. And whenever and wherever the saints are mentioned, the thrones are heavenly (3:21, 4:4, 11:16). We may safely assume, then, that these saints are indeed living in heaven.
Moreover, we also may safely assume that they are not living in heaven during a future millennium, but throughout the entire course of Christ’s heavenly reign. Why? Because our text says that they will reign with Christ for a finite period of time (20:6), and because every other passage in the Revelation that depicts a temporary reign of Christ refers, not to a future earthly reign, but to a present heavenly reign spanning his two advents (Rev. 5:1f, 6:1-2, 12-17, 12:1-6, 14:14-20). Again, this idea of a temporary, heavenly reign of Christ is the central theme of the entire Revelation. Would it not be strange, then, if the reign of Christ depicted in 20:4-6 was something other than the central theme of the book? And if any doubt remained on this matter, the Gospels, the book of Acts, and the epistles would clear it up completely, seeing that the only temporary reign of Christ they acknowledge is his heavenly Messianic reign (Mt. 13:1ff, Luke 19:11-27, Acts 3:19-24, 1 Cor. 15:20-28, etc.). Concerning a future, earthly, thousand-year reign of Christ they are completely silent, as, indeed, all honest premillennarians will confess.
We conclude, then, that our text itself, along with various parallels in the Revelation and the rest of the NT, confirms that the saints of 20:4-6 are living in heaven during the Era of Proclamation, during the course of Christ’s heavenly mediatorial reign.
3. What does the Spirit mean when he says that the souls of the millennial saints “came to life?”
Speaking of the souls he has just seen, John tells us, “They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (20:4). Then, in verse 5, he goes on to identify this “coming to life” as “the first resurrection.” What do these expressions mean?
Premillennial interpreters insist that the reference is to a bodily coming to life: to the bodily resurrection of all the saints at Christ’s premillennial return. They base their case on the first part of verse 5, which says, “The rest of the dead did not come to life (Greek: ezesan) until the thousand years were completed.” This particular “coming to life” is “the second resurrection,” and all interpreters agree it is indeed a bodily resurrection that will occur at the end of the millennial era, however that era is understood (20:11-15). Therefore, if the Spirit used the same word (ezesan) to describe both the first and second resurrections, does it not stand to reason that the first, just like the second, is bodily? On this point, premillennarian George Ladd is emphatic:
The language of the passage is quite clear and unambiguous. There is no necessity to interpret either word spiritually in order to introduce meaning into the passage. At the beginning of the millennial period, part of the dead come to life (ezesan); at its conclusion, the rest of the dead come to life (ezesan). There is no evident play on words. The passage makes perfectly good sense when interpreted literally. Natural, inductive exegesis suggests that both uses of ezesan are to be taken in the same way, as referring to a literal (i.e., bodily) resurrection.
These are forceful words, words that have persuaded many. However, is it really true that there is “no necessity” to interpret either word spiritually in order to introduce meaning into the passage? Does not the text itself make an evident and potentially significant distinction between the two “comings to life”? Indeed it does. The first coming to life, which is also the first resurrection, occurs “a thousand years” prior to the second coming to life, which is the second resurrection. Surely, then, we ought not to let the fact that the Spirit (no doubt quite intentionally) used the same Greek word to describe the two “comings to life” blind us to an equally important fact: These are two different “comings to life,” which may well differ not only in timing, but also in nature.
And as a matter of fact, both our text and the Revelation as a whole strongly indicate that they do differ, and that the first coming to life is indeed spiritual only, while the second is bodily.
Consider first the logic of verse 4. John sees thrones and “they” who are seated upon them. Who are “they,” and how is it that they are sitting upon these thrones? In the sentence that follows, the Spirit answers: They are the souls of the martyrs, and of all who remained faithful against every temptation of the Dragon and his helpers. Therefore, at the moment of death, they “came to life.” That is, they entered heaven as disembodied souls, sat down upon thrones, and began living and reigning with Christ throughout (the remainder of) his thousand-year reign. While this may not be the only possible exegesis of verse 4, it is at least as “natural” and ‘inductive” as Ladd’s.
Moreover, verse 5 supports this interpretation. It speaks of “the rest of the dead”: of those whose souls are presently in Hades, but who, at the end of the thousand years, will “come to life” bodily, though only to experience a second death in the Lake of Fire (20:14). This implies that the souls whom John sees in verse 4 are also among “the dead,” but the dead who presently live in heaven with Christ till the end of the age. Thus, it appears from the overall teaching of the NT that these souls actually “come to life” three separate times: Once at the new birth (Eph. 2:4-5, 1 Peter 1:3), once at the moment of their death when they, as disembodied souls, enter heaven (Rev. 20:4), and once at the bodily resurrection, when Christ returns to usher them into the World to Come (Rev. 20:12, 14). More on this in a moment.
Further confirmation for our view is found in verse 6. John writes, “Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no authority.“ Why are the saints who attain the first resurrection blessed? They are blessed because, having entered heaven at the moment of death, they are henceforth delivered from every temptation of the Dragon’s helpers, made perfectly holy in spirit, and therefore rendered eternally secure in their salvation. They can now rest in complete assurance that the second death has no authority or power over them whatsoever, and never will.1
All of this harmonizes perfectly with the prophetic nature of the book. Why has the glorified Christ given his people the Revelation? He has given it so that they will remain faithful until death; so that they will be able to enter God’s consummated Kingdom (2:10). Therefore, he instructs, warns, and promises. And here in 20:4-6, he does that very thing, warning them one final time against succumbing to the Beast and his image, but also promising heaven to all the faithful who die before the Parousia. “If you persevere until the end,” says the heavenly Prophet to his pilgrim Church, “you will ‘come to life’ and attain ‘the first resurrection.’ In other words, at the moment of your death, your spirits will rise into heaven, where you will live and serve with me, seated on thrones, fully secure from from every possibility of enduring the second death, and eagerly awaiting the resurrection of your bodies at the end of the ‘thousand years’—at the end of my heavenly reign—when I come again. Therefore, see to it that you persevere!”
This promise is not new. Why did Christ earlier show us the souls of the martyrs beneath the altar of heaven (6:9-11)? Because they were faithful until death, and therefore “came to life” (6:9-11). And why did he say that from now on the saints who die in the Lord are blessed (14:13)? Because if indeed they die in the Lord, their souls will attain “the first resurrection.” But here in 20:4-6, for those with eyes to see it, he gives us what is arguably the richest biblical picture (and promise) of the blessedness of the saints in the Intermediate State. As ever, he does so because he loves his people, and because he wants them to attain that blessedness.
It remains, however, to ask, with Ladd, why the Spirit would use the same Greek word to describe two different kinds of coming to life, two different kinds of resurrection. In reply, I would suggest that the answer is found in the progress of biblical revelation concerning the Intermediate State, and also 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 at the end of the age all (deceased) mankind will “come to life” in a single bodily resurrection (Luke 20:27-40, John 5:26-29, Acts 24:15, 21, 1 Cor. 15:50-58, 1 Thess. 4:13ff). However—as the NT itself makes clear—many were confused and uncertain about the condition of believers after death but prior to the resurrection (2 Cor. 5:1-10, 1 Thess. 4:13f). As we have seen, in their letters the apostles addressed this uncertainty more than once. However, as the NT canon neared completion, it appears that the High Prophet of Heaven was pleased to do so one final time, and that quite fulsomely.
Accordingly, here in Revelation 20 he offers a climactic word of instruction, exhortation, and encouragement on the theme of the Intermediate State. I would paraphrase it this way: “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, one that supplies a foretaste and a guarantee of the final resurrection of their body; a first ‘coming to life’ of their spirit in heaven, one that supplies a foretaste and a guarantee of their final coming to life—body, soul, and spirit—in the World to Come; a first reigning in heaven with Me, one that supplies a foretaste and a guarantee of their final reigning with Me in the new heavens and the earth (2 Tim. 2:12, Rev. 3:21, 5:10, 22:5). Therefore, armed with these glorious promises, see to it that you overcome!
We find, then, that the Lord used the same word to describe two different “comings to life” because the two—much like the two stages of the one Kingdom—share the same fundamental nature, though the first is only temporary and spiritual, while the final is eternal, spiritual, and physical. Thus did it please the High Prophet of Heaven to speak to his people, further illuminating the glories of the Intermediate State, giving them fresh hope, and moving them to gospel faithfulness throughout all the days of their pilgrimage upon the earth (John 11:26, Rev. 20:6).
4. What does the Spirit mean when he says that the millennial saints “reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (20:4b, 6)?
Premillennarians understand the millennial reign of the saints in terms of verse 4a: To reign with Christ is to receive from him the right to rule and judge the nations during the millennial era. As we have seen, there is considerable debate among them as to where, exactly, this ruling and judging will occur. Some, like Biederwolf, say the saints will reign from heaven. Most, like Ladd, say they will reign upon the earth. Walvoord, trying to reconcile quarrelling brethren, argues that the commingling of glorified saints with men on earth “… seems to be limited to a few specific functions, while the primary activity of the resurrected saints will be in the new and heavenly City (above the earth).” All agree, however, as to the governmental nature of this reign: In ways that the NT does not spell out—and that we can barely imagine—the resurrected saints will allegedly rule over the nations as princes of the High King himself, giving and administering judgments and decrees at his command.
In the paragraphs ahead, I will argue that the reigning and judging of the millennial saints are actually two completely different things. Here, however, it is important to touch on some of the NT Scriptures offered in support of the premillennial view, in order to show that in fact they do not support it at all.
Ladd, for example, assumes that in Rev. 2:26-27 Christ is promising the Thyatiran overcomers authority to rule over the nations in a future millennium, when in fact he is speaking of the role the saints will play in the Last Judgment. He also argues that Rev. 5:9-10, which promises that the saints will reign upon the earth, is fulfilled in an earthly millennium, when in fact it is fulfilled in the new heavens and the new earth (11:15, 22:5). He states that 1 Cor. 6:2 looks ahead to the millennial rule of the glorified saints, when both the context and several parallel NT passages indicate once again that the Last Judgment is in view (Rom. 16:10, 1 Cor. 6:1-4).
Meanwhile, Walvoord cites Mt. 19:28 as proof that in the millennium the apostles will sit on twelve (earthly) thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. But this text says nothing whatsoever about a millennium. To the contrary, it explicitly states that the apostle’s rule will occur “in the regeneration.” In other words, it will occur in the new heavens and the new earth, when the former things have (completely) passed away, and when all things have been made new (Rev. 21:1-5; Rom. 8:18-22, 2 Peter 3:8-13, Rev. 21:14). He also cites 2 Timothy 2:12, which says nothing at all about a millennium, but simply looks forward to the eternal reign of the saints with Christ in the World to Come (Luke 19:15f, Rev. 5:9-10, 22:5).
But if the millennial reign of the saints has nothing do with ruling over the nations or giving judgments upon the earth, what does it mean? While the Revelation itself does supply some important clues, I reckon that on this score the single most helpful NT text is Romans 5:17. It reads:
For if, by the transgression of the one (i.e., Adam), death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.
Here, Paul is saying that through the work of Christ the saints will (note the future tense) reign over sin and death in life. And when, exactly, will that be? The NT offers this answer, and this alone: First it will be in the Intermediate State, and then it will be in the new heavens and the new earth.
Revelation 20:4 and 6 certainly seem to say the same thing: When overcomers die and their spirits enter heaven, they will receive, as it were, their first share in Christ’s absolute victory over sin and death; they will reign with him, in life, in heaven, as perfected spirits, for the duration of his heavenly reign (styled as “a thousand years”). Then, following the bodily resurrection of the dead, they will fully reign with him over physical death as well in new glorified bodies perfectly fitted for the World to Come.
Several texts in the Revelation itself support this view. Revelation 11:15 closely associates the (eternal) reign of God and Christ, not so much with governing authority over the nations, as with final victory over the forces of evil. Similarly, 22:5 associates the (eternal) reign of the saints, not with rulership over their brethren, but with final rescue from the curse, and with complete enjoyment of the fullness of the light and life of God (22:1-5).
Again, these texts appear to illuminate 20:4-6. If so, the message of the latter is this: Just as there are two different but closely related “comings to life”—a spiritual, followed by a physical—so also there are two different but closely related “reignings with Christ.” The first—the millennial reign of the saints—is spiritual. It begins when the believer’s spirit enters heaven and partakes of Christ’s complete victory over all spiritual evil, suffering, and death. The second is physical. It begins at the end of the “thousand years,” when Christ comes again to raise the dead and make all things new; when he welcomes believers into the World to Come, where henceforth they will partake of his complete victory over all physical evil, suffering, and death. Blessed is he who attains to the first “reigning,” for it is certain that such a one will attain to the second, as well!
5. What does the Spirit mean when he says that judgment was given to the saints?
Our text opens as follows: “And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them” (20:4a). As we have seen, premillennarians interpret this as saying that Christ will give the saints a right of governance and judgment in his earthly millennial kingdom. However, we have also seen that the text does not really support this view; that whatever this judgment is, it does not belong to resurrected saints living after the return of Christ (whether they live in heaven or on the earth), but to the souls of those who die in the Lord and enter heaven prior to his return. What, then, might this judgment be?
In order to arrive at a reliable answer, we cannot fail to interact with Daniel 7, to which the Spirit here alludes no less than three times. Daniel 7:9 depicts the Ancient of Days taking his seat for final judgment. But just before he does, “Thrones were set up.” Then, a few verses later (7:21-22), Daniel again refers to the Consummation, telling us that the Ancient of Days “came” in order to rescue his beleaguered people, after which “judgment was given in favor of the saints of the Most High,” so that they took possession of the Kingdom. Finally, we have Daniel 7:26-27. This again refers to the Last Judgment, telling us that in that Day “the court will sit,” the rule of the Antichrist will be destroyed forever, and dominion over every kingdom under the whole of heaven will be given to the saints of the Most High, not just for a thousand years, but forever. What light do these three texts shed upon Revelation 20:4a?
It is tempting to follow Dennis Johnson, who says that the decisive text is Daniel 7:21-22. He writes:
As in Daniel, so in the Revelation: The thrones appear before their royal occupants … The wording of the last clause (“judgment was given to them”) so closely resembles Daniel 7:22 in the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek Old Testament), that we should probably translate it, “Judgment was given in their behalf”—the verdict of the heavenly court came down in their favor and against their persecutors” (see Rev. 18:20).
So then, Johnson, modifying the text itself, has 20:4 depicting a definitive acquittal or vindication of the (spirits of the departed) saints.
The difficulty with this approach—quite apart from the modification of the text—is that it does not harmonize well with the rest of Scripture. On the one hand, Daniel declares that judgment is passed in favor the saints, not when they die and enter heaven (as here in 20:4), but at the Last Judgment (Dan. 7:22). On the other hand, our Lord himself tells us that the saints receive the favorable verdict of heaven, not when their souls enter heaven, but when they believe in God’s Word about his Son, and so pass from death to life (John 5:24-25). From the moment of faith, God’s verdict is: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1)! Yes, it is true that the believer who takes part in “the first resurrection” is thereafter perfectly secure against the second death (20:6). But to judge from the rest of the book, this security results from his having overcome and persevered in life, rather than from a special verdict given in his favor at the moment of death (1:9, 2:7, 11, 17, 14:13; John 17:15, 1 Peter 1:5, Jude 1).
We do best, then, to follow what the Greek actually says: Judgment was given to them (Greek, autois). But in what sense? The answer, I think, is found both in Daniel and the Revelation. Daniel 7:9 tells us that prior to the Last Judgment thrones were set up. Why? So that the saints could sit on them and participate in the judgment. Similarly, Daniel 7:26-27 tells us that at the Last Judgment “the court will sit.” But who constitutes “the court?” The context strongly suggests that it is the saints themselves. As we have seen, other passages in the Revelation confirm this idea. It is particularly clear in 3:26-27, where the Lord promises to the overcomers in Thyatira that they will have a share in the Last Judgment. We also see it in a closely parallel text, 19:11-15, which tells us that the armies of heaven, clothed in fine linen, will follow the glorified Christ as he returns to the earth, at which time both he and the armies will be to the nations as a shepherd wielding a rod of iron. From their attire, we know that these armies are (or at least include) the saints (19:8). And again, we have the teaching of the rest of the NT to the effect that believers will definitely have a role in the administration of final judgment at Christ’s Parousia (Rom. 16:20, 1 Cor. 6:1f).
We conclude, then, that the meaning of 20:4a is this: At the moment of death, overcoming saints not only enter heaven, but also enter into their privileged role as co-executors of the Last Judgment at Christ’s coming again. Yes, for a little while they must wait patiently while their brethren on earth suffer, and while the High King of Heaven gathers in his elect (Rev. 6:9-11). But they can rest assured that in due season they will indeed fulfill their judicial role. Already they know that Christ has seated them upon thrones; already they know he has appointed them to shepherd the nations with a rod of iron; already they know that judgment has been given to them. And when they administer it, the entire world will know that God himself has indeed given judgment in favor of the saints of the Most High (Esther 9, Dan. 7:21-22, Rev. 20:12, 15).
III. The Last Battle and the Judgment of Satan (Rev. 20:7-10)
In verse 3 John told us that at the end of the thousand years Satan must be released for a short time. Revelation 20:7-10 explains what he will do when he is. Once we realize that the thousand years symbolize the Era of Proclamation, it is quite easy to see that this is the Revelation’s final depiction of the Last Battle, followed by its first depiction of the judgment of Satan. Let us take a moment to mine our text for further details.
Verses 7-8 tell us that at the end of the thousand years, Satan will be released from his prison; that he will come out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—, and that he will gather them together for “the war.” They will be as the sand of the seashore for multitude.
I would interpret verse 7 as follows: At the end of the Era of Proclamation, symbolized by the 1000 years, the Holy Spirit will cease to restrain Satan as previously. As a result, the situation, in some respects, will revert to what it was at the beginning of the Era of Proclamation: Apart from Christ’s flock—which, owing to increased eschatological lawlessness, will be relatively small—the whole world will lie in the power of the evil one (1 John 5:19; Luke 4:6). At this point, few if any new believers will be added to the Church. She will have finished her testimony, and all or most of God’s elect will have been gathered in (11:7).
All this, however, is not the true burden of our text. Its true burden is found in verse 8, where we learn why the Spirit will cease to restrain Satan: so that he (Satan) might gather the nations together for “the war.” As we learned earlier, throughout world history Satan has attempted to consolidate the world-system into a single religious, economic, and political empire, a counterfeit Kingdom of God (Rev. 13:1f). Throughout world history he has also tried to use his serial empires to destroy the Woman and her Seed (Rev. 12:1f). And throughout world history, he has been frustrated in his efforts (12:5ff). Now, however, the Spirit of God, for wise reasons, will stand aside, letting the Adversary gather together all nations for “the (final) war” against Christ and his Church.
The Spirit has already spoken of this. It is none other than the war to be waged by the Beast who will rise out of the bottomless pit to overcome the Two Witnesses (Rev. 11:7-10). It is none other than the Battle of Har-Magedon (Rev.16:12-16). It is none other than the war from which the Heavenly Rider will deliver his beleaguered people at his Coming (19:19-23). In short, it is the Last Battle: the battle by which Satan purposes to destroy the Church, but also the battle by which God—with a view to the largest possible display of his glory—purposes to destroy both Satan and his Domain of Darkness at the Parousia of Christ.
Again, verse 8 states that in order to wage this war Satan will deceive the nations. How exactly will he do this? The High King has already told us: He will put lying spirits in the mouth of the Beast and the False Prophet, in order that he (Satan) might gather together the kings of the whole earth for (what will turn out to be) the war of the great Day of God, the Almighty (16:12-16). The apostle Paul, in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, gives us the meaning of these images: When the Spirit finally removes all restraints, Satan will raise up, indwell, speak through, act through, and even perform miracles through the Man of Lawlessness, a personal Antichrist who will both imitate and oppose the one true Christ. When he arrives on stage for the closing scenes of Salvation History, God will send a deluding influence upon the truth-rejecting multitudes, so that they will worship him (the Man of Lawlessness) as God, believe his false Gospel, and persecute the true spiritual Church of Christ to her apparent destruction. Our text speaks of the power and scope of this deception: It will reach to “the four corners of the earth” (20:8; Mt. 24:5, 11, 24); the whole world will be taken in: “as many as the sands of the seashore” (20:8; Rev. 16:14). Just as the prophet Ezekiel had foretold, Gog and Magog—the Antichrist and his subservient nation of (confederate) nations—will launch a suicidal attack against the Church, the eschatological Israel of God (Ezek. 38-39, Gal. 6:16).
Very succinctly, verse 9 depicts that battle one final time (11:7-10, 16:12-16, 19:19-21). John writes, “They came up upon the breadth of the earth.” This means that under the leadership of the Antichrist, the nations will assault Christian people and institutions worldwide, wherever they may be found. Observe John’s mixed metaphor for the Church, which confirms our need of interpreting the passage symbolically and ecclesiologically: The nations will “surround the camp of the saints,” as Amalek did when he came out against Israel in the wilderness (Ex. 17:8); and they will surround “the Beloved City,” as Assyria did in the days of Hezekiah and Isaiah (Isaiah 36-37). The Church is that Camp, the Church is that City (Rev. 12:6, 21:2). Drawing yet again from Ezekiel’s prophecy, the Spirit here casts the final deliverance—to be wrought at Christ’s Parousia—in terms of fire coming down from heaven to devour the adversaries (Ezek. 38:22, 39:6; 2 Thess. 1:6-10). Importantly, here the last reference to the Last Battle is rendered in a single verse, as if to underscore its brevity; as if to remind us that Satan’s release is indeed for a very “short time” (20:3).
In verse 10 the Revelation reaches a climax of sorts, in that the great spiritual Adversary of Christ and his Church—the devil, the Dragon, Satan himself—is finally judged and forever swept off the stage of cosmic history. And how will this occur? At his Parousia the High King of Heaven—no doubt at the hand of the holy angels, and perhaps at the hand the saints themselves—will crush the head of the Serpent, casting Satan, his demons, and all his human political and religious puppets (the Beast and the False Prophet) into the Lake of fire, where they will be tormented day and night forever and ever (Gen. 3:15, Mt. 13:39, Rom. 16:20).
We find, then, that Revelation 20:7-10 is very simply and reasonably interpreted along amillennial lines. It remains, however, briefly to pose three challenging questions, two of which provide some very rough going for our premillennial brethren.
1. Assuming that premillennialism is true, how could the thousand-year reign of Christ and his saints prove so ineffectual that it ends in near universal apostasy?
This is, or should be, a deeply troubling question for premillennial interpreters. The whole premise of their system is that OTKP’s must be fulfilled literally in a future millennium under (a modified form of) the New Covenant. If so, then we may reasonably assume that during the millennium God will pour out his Spirit upon all flesh; that he will circumcise all hearts, both Jew and Gentile (Isaiah 19:24-25, 32:15, Joel 2:28-32, Jer. 31:33f, Ezek. 36:26). How then, at the close of such a richly spiritual reign, shall “as many as the sand of the seashore” fall away, especially when Jeremiah so pointedly stressed that the glory of the New Covenant consists, above all, in the fact that saints living under its control cannot fall away? Does the Millennium take us back to the Old Covenant after all? And besides all this, how shall the Father allow his Son’s visible reign upon the earth to come to such an inglorious end (John 5:20f)?
In response to these criticisms, some premillennarians assert that only the nations that have not heard of Christ will rebel; only those living in “the four corners of the earth,” at a great distance from Jerusalem (Rev. 20:8). Alas, this solution raises more questions than it answers. How is it that Christ would let these nations remain untouched by the Gospel, seeing that they are so densely populated? What will the believing nations—and the resurrected saints—be doing when multitudes of these far-flung infidels arrive at Jerusalem to attack the little camp of the saints? And how can we square all of this with OTKP itself, which says that in the days of the Kingdom, God will gather all nations and tongues to behold Christ’s glory (Isaiah 2:2-4, 66:18f); that “all the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations will worship before him” (Psalm 22:7)?
2. Assuming that premillennialism is true, why does the Bible give us two attacks of Gog and Magog?
It is obvious that Revelation 20:8 references Ezekiel 38-39. However, nearly all premillennarians agree in saying that Ezekiel’s prophecy is fulfilled at the end of the Era of Proclamation, just prior to Christ’s return. For example, commenting on Ezekiel, Dispensationalist John MacArthur writes, “The time of the invasion is best understood as the end of the future tribulation period of 7 years.”9 Similarly, historic premillennarian A. R. Fausset places its complete fulfillment in the days of the Antichrist. Accordingly, Revelation 20:8 requires our premillennarian brothers to assume that there are two attacks by Gog and Magog: the first at the end of the Era of Proclamation, and the second at the end of the Millennium. Thus, MacArthur writes, “The battle depicted in verses 8-9 is like the one in Ezekiel 38-39; it is best to see this one as taking place at the end of the Millennium.”
But surely it is simpler—and far more reasonable—to say that both texts refer to the one Last Battle. On this view, the Spirit mentions Gog and Magog in Revelation 20 quite intentionally, in order confirm in our minds precisely what the whole structure of NT eschatology, and the whole structure of the Revelation, would lead us to believe: There is only one Last Battle, and the OT prophets, Christ, and the apostles all spoke it. By referencing Gog and Magog, it is as if the Spirit were saying, “Yes, Ezekiel’s prophecy does indeed refer to Last Battle, the very same battle that Christ and the apostles predicted, and the very same battle I referred to earlier in the Revelation, (Mt. 24:20-27, 2 Thess. 2:1ff, Rev. 11:7-10, 16:12-16, 19:19-21).”
In sum, the premillennial view of our text has the Spirit introducing new eschatological information (i.e., information about a second attack of Gog and Magog at the end of the Millennium), while the amillennial view simply has him confirming old information, found both in the Old and New Testaments. But if the Revelation is indeed the Grand Finale of the Bible—not meaning to introduce new eschatological truth, but simply to sing the glory of the High King of Heaven in the language of all Scripture—then surely the amillennial view is correct.
3. Does Revelation 20:10 assume that the Beast and the False Prophet were cast into the Lake of Fire a thousand years prior to the devil himself?
Premillennarians cite Rev. 20:10 as proof of a literal thousand-year hiatus between the judgment of the Beast and the False Prophet on the one hand, and the judgment of Satan (and his evil angels) on the other. John Walvoord writes:
As Revelation 20 makes plain, Satan is to be loosed at the conclusion of the Millennium, at which time he will be cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, into which the beast and the false prophet had been previously cast at the beginning of the Millennium (Rev. 20:10). The final judgment of the wicked angels apparently occurs at the same time as Satan’s final judgment, when he is cast into the lake of fire and brimstone.
It cannot be denied that Walvoord’s reading is possible. But is it necessary? Does the rest of the Revelation, and the NT as a whole, teach and require it? In my view, the answer to these important questions is a resounding “no.” As for the Greek text itself, the relevant phrase has no verb at all. Quite literally, it reads, “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where also the beast and the false prophet; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Clearly, the emphasis here is not upon when these two were thrown into the Lake of Fire, but upon the comforting fact that they also will be in the Lake of Fire with their master, the devil. For this reason, the NAS rightly translates, “Where the beast and the false prophet are also.” Indeed, one could just as well translate, “Where the beast and the false prophet also were thrown.” Walvoord claims to deduce premillennialism from this text, when in fact he is reading premillennialism into it.
Nevertheless, the question remains as to which reading and which interpretation is best. How shall we decide this? Obviously, we have no choice but to look to the context, and to the rest of NT theology. When we do, our answer quickly comes into focus. As we have seen, the Revelation itself has already given us five depictions of a single judgment at the end of the age. Surely it is more than reasonable to infer that here in 20:10-15 we have a sixth. Moreover, if there were any doubt about this, the rest of the NT should remove it completely, teaching as it does, over and again, that there is but a single universal judgment of men and angels at the Parousia of Christ (Mt. 11:22, 12:36, 41f, 25:31ff, Acts 17:30-31, Rom. 2:3-11, 2 Thess. 1:3-12, 2 Peter 3:7, Jude 1:6). Along these lines, Romans 16:20 is of special importance, for there Paul tells us that Christ, at his Parousia, will “crush” Satan; which is to say, he will finally and completely judge him (Gen. 3:15, niv). Similarly, we have 1 Cor. 15:24, where Paul states that Christ, at his Parousia, will “abolish all rule, authority, and power.” How then shall Christ crush and abolish Satan’s rule, authority, and power a second time at the end of a future millennium?
We conclude that the theological sense of 20:10 is as follows: “And the devil who deceived them will be thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet also will join him; and together they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
IV. The Judgment at the Great White Throne (20:11-14)
Our chapter concludes with the Revelation’s final—and most solemn—vision of the Last Judgment, this time of all human beings who have ever lived, saints and sinners alike. Once again I will offer a brief exegesis in amillennial perspective, and then probe some of the more controversial questions involved.
In verse 11, John beholds a great white throne, and One seated upon it. The imagery is drawn from the judgment scene of Daniel 7. There, the divine Personage upon the throne is clearly the Father, the Ancient of Days (Rev. 4:2). Here, however, we may safely surmise that it is the Father indwelling and acting through Christ, who, according to the entire NT, is the divinely appointed executor of the Last Judgment (1:8, 11, 19:11f, 21:6; Mt. 3:12, 13:41-43, 25:1f, John 5:27, Acts 17:31, Rom. 14:10, 2 Cor. 5:10). Will Christ actually sit upon a visible throne suspended in vacant space, as depicted here? It is entirely possible (Mt. 25:31, 2 Cor. 5:10). Nevertheless, this throne is above all an emblem of Christ’s sovereignty: of his God-given right to judge, and of the perfect holiness with which he will do so (14:14). Verse 11 also tells us that earth and heaven will flee from the face of the Righteous Judge. Here, as elsewhere in the Revelation, we have an apocalyptic picture of the final conflagration; of the dissolution of the created cosmos by fire, in preparation for the emergence of the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 6:12-17, 11:11-13, 16:17-21; Rom. 8:21, 2 Peter 3:10-12).
In verse 12, John sees the dead, both great and small, standing before the throne of Christ. Who are they? According to amillennarians, they are all human beings who have ever lived, raised from the dead by the voice of Christ at his Parousia, in order to stand before him for final judgment (John 5:28-29). Revelation 11:18 confirms the universality of this judgment, teaching as it does that “the dead” (and “the great and the small”) include the prophets, the saints, and all who fear God’s name. Here John also sees multiple books being opened, as well as a single book: the Book of Life. The multiple books—one for each person—contain the record of everything that person thought, said, or did during his days upon the earth (2 Cor. 5:10). All the dead—both saints and sinners—will be judged from their individual book, that is, (as the Belgic Confession teaches) from the contents of their own memory and conscience, illumined by the Spirit of Holiness (Rom. 2:6). In the case of the saints, their evil deeds will have been forgiven by Christ—blotted out of their book—, while their good deeds will receive a reward (1 Cor. 3:12-25). In the case of sinners, their evil deeds remain to condemn them to one degree or another of eternal punishment (Luke 12:47).
Verse 13 backtracks just a little, and reiterates the thought of verse 12: All will be raised, all will be judged by their works. Here too the NT doctrine of a general resurrection and judgment is apparent: The sea—which certainly contains both saints and sinners—gives up its dead. As for Death and Hades, these two appear together elsewhere in the Revelation. The risen Christ holds the key to Death and Hades, and delivers the saints from both (1:18); the ashen horse called Death—sent forth from heaven to judge the wicked oppressors of the Church—is closely followed by Hades (6:8). These precedents illumine the meaning of our text: Hades, which holds the wicked in a condition of spiritual Death throughout the Intermediate State, will also give up its dead in the general resurrection. Thus shall all—both saints and sinners—appear before the throne of Christ, there to be judged according to their deeds.
In verse 14, John tells us that Death and Hades were thrown into the Lake of Fire. Note carefully that he does not say “the dead” were thrown into the Lake of Fire, for some of the dead—the saints—are now alive forevermore, and will soon inherit the World to Come (1:5, 11:18, 14:13, 20:12). What, then, does he mean? As we have just seen, Death is the condition of the wicked in the Intermediate State, and Hades is the place of the wicked in the Intermediate State. Thus, John is telling us that with the advent of the Lake of Fire, the Intermediate State of the wicked is brought to a close. The “first death” of the souls of the wicked in Hades is swallowed up and abolished by the second death of the resurrected wicked in the Lake of Fire.
Verse 15 discloses the true basis of salvation. John writes, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the Book of Life, he was thrown into the Lake of Fire.” The rest of the NT fills in the meaning. If judgment were based on “the books” alone—upon the deeds done in the body—all would perish, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rev. 5:3-4; Rom. 3:23, Gal. 2:16). However, to the saint’s everlasting joy, the Father graciously and mercifully provided a way of salvation: the Lamb of God, whose righteous life and atoning death purchased men from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (5:9; John 3:16). Throughout the Era of Proclamation, the Church announced this way of salvation (11:3, 14:6). If anyone believed, his name was written in the Lamb’s book of life (John 3:36, 6:47). Or rather, if he believed, he soon came to see that God had written his name in the Lamb’s book of Life before the foundation of the world; that he had ordained them to eternal life (13:8, 17:8). However, he also saw that in order to inherit that life, he must “overcome” (2:17, 11, 17, 26, etc.); he must persevere in the faith (3:5; John 15:6, Rom. 11:22)—as indeed he will, through the preserving purpose and power of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (John 6:37-40, 17:15, Jude 1:1).
Here, then, in Revelation 20:15, we have all such believers—and all the rest of mankind—appearing in their resurrection bodies before Christ, who makes, as it were, a final inquiry into each man’s standing before God (3:10). If that man believed, if he overcame, if he died in the faith and thus attained the first resurrection—or if he was found alive and faithful at the Lord’s return—then his name will appear in the Lamb’s book of life, and he will enter the World to Come (3:5l; 21:1f). If not, he will be thrown into the Lake of Fire. It is certainly not easy to preach the Gospel from this unspeakably weighty text. However, amidst the growing lawlessness of these last days, it may be more necessary than ever.
Disagreements over Revelation 20:11-15 center around two main questions. As we bring our survey of Revelation 20 to a close, let us briefly consider both.
1. Are “the dead” of 20:12 the same as “the rest of the dead” in 20:5, the unbelieving wicked only? Or are “the dead” all human beings who have ever lived and died?
With rare exceptions, premillennarians assert that the theme of 20:11-15 is the resurrection and final judgment of the unbelieving wicked. John MacArthur writes:
These verses describe the final judgment of all the unbelievers of all ages … Our Lord referred to this as the “the resurrection to judgment” (John 5:29) … All the unrighteous dead will appear at the Great White Throne. None will escape. All the places that have held the bodies of the unbelieving dead will yield up new bodies suited for hell.
Expressing considerably less dogmatism, George Ladd nevertheless agrees with MacArthur, saying, “This statement (verse 12) clearly implies, if it does not explicitly affirm, the resurrection of ‘the rest of the dead’ (verse 5) who did not experience the first resurrection.”
It is easy to see why this issue is so important to premillennarians: If 20:11-15 is giving us the general resurrection and the general judgment of historic Catholic and Reformation eschatology, then “the first resurrection” of 20:5 must be spiritual only, and the entire premillennial scheme is robbed of its most important biblical foundation. We must, therefore, examine this matter with some care.
Summing up the arguments of premillennial commentators, Biederwolf offers four reasons for believing that our text refers to the wicked dead only. I will cite and respond briefly to each one.
First, he asserts that the phrase “the dead” as used by John in the Revelation always refers to the wicked only. In proof of this, he cites 11:18 and 20:5. However, the truth is that John explicitly uses this expression not only to refer to the saints who die in the Lord (14:13), but also to Christ himself (1:5)! Furthermore, it is not at all evident that 11:18 uses “the dead” to describe unbelievers only. To the contrary, the exact words of 11:18, along with its close association with 20:11-15, argue forcefully that all the dead—saints and sinners alike—are in view in both passages.
As for 20:5, we remember that it reads, “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed.” Here, amillennarians and premillennarians agree: The reference is indeed to the souls of the unbelieving dead in Hades, souls that will “come to life” in the resurrection on the Last Day. Note, however, that this verse demonstrates the exact opposite of what Biederwolf claims, for it clearly presupposes that some of “the dead” are saints (i.e., those who have attained the first resurrection), while the rest of the dead are the unbelieving wicked. We conclude, then, that in the Revelation the phrase “the dead” can indeed refer both to saints and sinners, and that it usually does! Amillennarians, reasonably enough, contend that 20:11-15 is no exception.
Secondly, Biederwolf appeals to John 5:24, which states that the believer in Christ does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. His thought is: If believers do not come into judgment, how can they be present in 20:11-15, which is clearly a judgment scene? The answer to this question involves a crucial distinction, one that appears throughout the NT: The believer in Christ does not come into judgment for his sins, since he has savingly believed on the One who paid for them all (Rom. 8:1f). However, he does come into judgment for the quantity and quality of his works, since it will please God to reward him for all he did in life through Christ (Rom. 2:6, 2 Cor. 5:10). As we have seen, Rev. 20:11-15 depicts both of these judgments, for both are involved in the one judgment that Christ will administer at his return. Therefore, John 5:24 does not rule out the participation of the saints in the judgment depicted in our text.
Thirdly, Biederwolf observes that, “The judgment takes place according to (i.e., it is based upon) what is written in ‘the books,’ and the books are expressly distinguished from ‘the book of life.’” This is a true statement. However, in making it Biederwolf is operating according to a false assumption, and therefore draws a false conclusion. He assumes that the judgment based upon “the books” is with a view to determining one’s legal standing before God. Therefore, with Hengstenberg, he regards them as “books of guilt, condemnation, and death.” And if they are books of condemnation, then the unbelieving wicked must be the ones who are judged out of them.
But again, Biederwolf is making a false assumption. One’s legal standing before God is not based upon “the books.” Rather, it is based upon his faith in Christ, or lack thereof. It is based upon the presence or absence of his name in the Book of Life. As for the judgment based upon “the books,” it is meant only to determine degrees of reward or punishment based upon deeds done or left undone. In the case of the saints, no punishment is involved, for Christ was punished for their every sin upon the cross. For them, this judgment is simply an evaluation of their works, made with a view to determining the measure of their reward. Thus, contrary to Biederwolf, there is no biblical or theological problem with the saints being judged out of “the books.”
With respect to this important question, it remains only to review, one final time, all the positive evidence favorable to the idea that 20:11-15 does indeed give us the general resurrection and judgment of the classic Protestant eschatology. It includes: 1) The numerous NT texts teaching a single general resurrection followed by a single general judgment, cited above; 2) the Revelation’s five preceding depictions of the Consummation, all of which either presuppose or explicitly teach a single general resurrection and judgment at the Parousia; 3) the contents of the text itself, affirming that the saints, as well as the unbelieving wicked, are very much on the scene (e.g., the saints are among “the dead” (vv. 12-13), they arise out of the sea (v. 13), they are judged out of “the books” (v. 12), and their names are found in the Book of Life (vv.12, 15)); and, 4) Rev. 11:18, the seed-text out of which 20:11-15 grows, and a verse that explicitly posits the presence of the saints at the last judgment, where they will be rewarded for their good works.
We conclude, then, that “the dead” of 20:12 are not the unbelieving wicked of 20:5, but rather all who have ever lived or died, saints and sinners alike. Therefore, sound exposition of Revelation 20:11-15 does not support premillennialism, but actually favors the classical amillennial eschatology of the Reformation.
2. If 20:11-15 speaks only of the resurrection and judgment of the unbelieving wicked, when will the saints who live and die during the Millennium be raised and judged for their works?
As is clear from the marked differences of opinion among them, this question greatly troubles premillennarians.
Some say the millennial saints will be raised and glorified all throughout the Millennium, each at the moment of his or her death. Such a procedure is barely imaginable, and totally incredible. More importantly, there is not a shred of biblical evidence to support it, and much to speak against it, since, as we have seen, the NT consistently teaches a single general resurrection at the end of the age.
Others say the millennial saints will be raised close to the end of the Millennium, just prior to the resurrection and judgment of the wicked described in 20:11-15. If those who hold this view are historic premillennarians, they are effectively positing three separate resurrections (one at the Parousia, two at the end of the Millennium). If they are dispensationalists, they are effectively positing four resurrections (the three of historic premillennialism, plus an additional one at the Rapture)! Here again we see that premillennialism, by its very nature, shatters the glorious unity and simplicity of the Consummation, even as it breeds unwarranted speculation and a needless multiplication of eschatological acts and events. Far better, then, to hug closely to the pervasive NT doctrine of a single general resurrection, and to let it shape our interpretation of Revelation 20.
Finally, some premillennarians concede that the millennial saints will indeed be raised and “judged” (i.e., rewarded) at the same time as the unbelieving wicked (i.e., at the end of the millennium); however, they insist that 20:11-15 says nothing at all about these saints, but focuses exclusively on the unbelieving wicked. We have seen, however, that the text itself readily accommodates the idea of a general resurrection and judgment, that other passages in the Revelation do the same, and that this is, in fact, the eschatology of the whole New Testament. Why, then, should we look for anything else?
The High King’s Completed Kingdom (Rev. 21-22)
Before summing up what we have learned about Revelation 20, it remains to add a few words about the fifth and final bloc of the book, Revelation 21-22, in which the heavenly Prophet comforts his Church with a vision of the Kingdom to come; a vision of the Kingdom in its complete and eternal form.
These chapters are, of course, the Grand Finale of the Grand Finale of all Scripture. Here the river of Salvation History finally empties into the infinite ocean of the new heavens and the new earth.
Previously, we had six difficult but short “days” of God’s redemptive work through Christ and the Church; here we have an eternal seventh Day, in which they and all creation enjoy the manifold blessings of complete redemptive rest.
Previously, we had the High King of Heaven opening the seven seals on the Father’s last will and testament; here we behold the lavish fullness of the inheritance that he prepared for his covenant children before the foundation of the world.
Previously—and especially in OTKP—we read of the promise of the Eternal Covenant: Full deliverance from the curse of God, elevation of the Mountain of God, glorification of the City of God, Beatification of the Bride of God, and eternal restoration of the Paradise of God. Now we see all these promises fulfilled.
In sum, these two concluding chapters give us the end of all the former things, and the goal towards which they ever flowed; but they also give us the beginning of all new things, and the fountainhead from which they will flow forth into all eternity future. They are indeed the Grand Finale of the Grand Finale of Salvation History, but also a divine Overture to the World to Come.
This final bloc of the Revelation may be divided into three parts. As we are about see, each one is loaded with OT imagery, usually drawn from OTKP. In what follows, I will try to open up the rich spiritual meaning that shines through the manifold symbols employed.
1. The Covenant is Fulfilled (21:1-8)
In 20:11-15 John beheld the dark side of Christ’s judgment: retribution to his enemies, who were all consigned to the Lake of Fire. Here he beholds its bright side: reward and rest to his friends, all who have faithfully endured the rigors of the Great Tribulation. The controlling idea of this pericope is found in verses 3 and 7: Henceforth, the saints will fully be God’s people, and God will fully be their God. In the glorious World to Come, the promise of the Eternal Covenant will be fully fulfilled.
How exactly does this occur? Christ, at the judgment, will create new heavens and a new earth (1). Then the Church, adorned as a Bride with the beauty and glory of God, will descend to the earth, her eternal home (2). In this World, every burden of the curse will be lifted, every spiritual and physical defect cast off (4). In this World, God and Christ, by the Holy Spirit, will dwell with their people in perfect fellowship; heaven and earth will become one (3). For all who overcome, this promise is sure; so too is the threat of the Lake of Fire to all who spurn the covenant blessings of the Gospel in order to walk in sin (5-8).
2. I Will Show You the Bride (21:9-22:5)
In this long section the Spirit draws richly from OT history and Kingdom prophecy to depict the eternal blessedness of the Church in the World to Come. Two metaphors dominate: The Church as the Bride of Christ, but also—and especially—the Church as the Holy City, the New Jerusalem (9-10). Let us call her the Bride-City.
Henceforth, the Bride-City has the glory of God: Having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing, she shines like the sun in the Kingdom of her Father (11; Mt. 13:43, Eph. 5:26-27).
Because of the work of her heavenly Husband, she is eternally secure in the enjoyment of God’s blessings: He safely surrounds her with high walls of salvation (12, 17; Isaiah 26:1, John 10:28-29).
Here she enjoys complete and perpetual access to God, and he to her: Twelve gates, with the names of the twelve sons of Israel inscribed upon them, remain forever open (12-13, 21, 25; Rom. 5:2, Eph. 2:18, 3:12).
Here she is settled forever upon the sure foundation of Christ’s Person and Work, and also upon the apostolic testimony about them that she savingly believed: Twelve precious foundation stones, each with a name of one of the twelve apostles of the Lamb written upon them, undergird the City (14, 19-20; Eph. 2:20, 1 Thess. 2:13).
The Bride-City fills the whole earth with the people of God; it is laid out as a square, 12,000 stadia on each side. Like the Sanctuary in Ezekiel’s vision, she is also a perfect cube, signifying that she is perfectly holy (16). God and Christ themselves are the Temple in which she lives (22; John 14:20, 17:21, Thess. 1:1, 2 Thess. 1:1); she herself is the Temple in which God and Christ live (3; Eph. 2:22).
Here there is no night, and hence no luminaries; for God and Christ, by the Spirit, are the Light emanating from all things (21:3, 5, 22:25; John 8:12).
By this light the nations of the redeemed—the City herself—will walk forever, therein bearing the glory of God to one another (21:24-26; Mt. 5:14).
Here in the eschatological Eden, the Bride-City will perpetually drink from the river of the water of the divine life; water given by God, secured by Christ, and bestowed by the Holy Spirit (22:1-2; John 4:10, 7:37).
Here in the eschatological Paradise, she will fully partake of Christ—the fruit of the Tree of Life—, so that to all eternity she remains healed from every wound of her former sins (22:2-3).
Here, God in Christ is King; here, his servants will serve him; and here—seeing his face and fully belonging to him—they will reign in life, through Christ, with Christ, forever (22:3-5).
3. Concluding Affirmations, Promises, Warnings, and Exhortations (22:6-21)
The third and final section of Revelation 21-22 brings the book to a close with various affirmations, promises, warnings, and exhortations. Verses 6-9 assure the saints that the entire prophecy is true and trustworthy. Also, they pronounce a blessing—the supreme blessing—upon everyone who takes it to heart. Verses 8-9 warn against a besetting NT temptation, the worship of angels, even as they remind and exhort the saints to worship God alone (Col. 2:18, Heb. 1:1ff).
Verses 10-15 serve a number of purposes. They assure Christians that “the time is near,” that the fulfillment of these visions does not lie in the distant future, but is already upon them. Indeed, by God’s reckoning, the Parousia itself is at hand (10, 12). They warn the reader that his response to the Gospel—and especially to the contents of the Revelation—will set and seal his course into eternity. They also give us the voice of the High King himself, affirming his soon return (12), reminding us of his divine role in Creation and Consummation (13), promising believers access to God and the Tree of Life, and warning the impenitent wicked of eternal exclusion from the City of God (14).
Verses 16-17 supply a holy antiphony: Christ affirms that he is the divine-human Messiah, the God-appointed King of the World to Come (16). In reply, the Spirit-filled Church not only beseeches Christ to come to her, but likewise beseeches the (unconverted) elect to come to him, so that they might receive from him the water of life.
In verses 18-19 John places the words of this prophecy in the category of sacred Scripture, threatening eternal destruction to any who would add to them or subtract from them.
Verse 20 gives us still another antiphony: Christ declares that he is coming quickly; in reply, John sounds forth the heart-cry of the Universal Church itself, beseeching him to do that very thing.
In verse 21 the apostle concludes the book with a benediction, praying God’s grace upon all, not only that they should hear, but also that they should continue to believe, trust, and obey. He desires them ever faithful to the end, ever hopeful of a new and glorious beginning.
Summary and Conclusion
We have completed our expository journey through Revelation 20. My primary goal has been to show that its theme is indeed the course, character, and consummation of the spiritual reign of the High King of Heaven. We have encountered many lines of evidence favorable to this conclusion. Let us briefly summarize them.
Like all the other chapters, Revelation 20 is a prophecy. This means it was given for the edification, exhortation, and comfort of Christ’s Church. This in turn means that it concerns Christ’s Church, and says nothing at all about ethnic Israel in a hitherto unmentioned stage of the Kingdom yet to come.
It is also an instance of biblical apocalyptic, a literary fact of life that requires its images and numbers to be interpreted figuratively. As we have seen, many of the difficulties into which premillennarians plunge themselves arise from a failure to understand the genre of the book, to interpret it accordingly, and to do so in a consistent manner. Moreover, the NT itself—and especially the epistles—commend this figurative approach: Having explicitly taught us to employ the NCH in our interpretation of OTKP, it implicitly teaches us to do the same here in the Revelation, where OT Kingdom prophecy so frequently reappears in the NT itself!
As for its key ideas, we found that they run closely parallel to those of the other visions in bloc four of the book, implying that this vision also recapitulates the course of the Era of Preparation, just like its predecessors. In particular, we saw that its symbols speak yet again of the infallible march of the Gospel through the earth; the promise and comfort of the Intermediate State to all believers who remain faithful till death; the certainty—and brevity—of the Last Battle; and the still greater certainty of the Consummation to follow, which consists of the Parousia, the Resurrection, the Last Judgment of men and angels, and the purging of the created cosmos by fire, all leading up to the manifestation of the new heavens and the new earth.
In sum, we have found that premillennial interpretations of Revelation 20 shatter the simplicity, vitiate the power, and becloud the glory of NT eschatology, thereby plunging Christ’s Church into needless confusion and controversy. Meanwhile, the amillennial interpretation achieves the exact opposite: It wonderfully opens up the meaning of the text itself, further illumines the structure and message of the book as a whole, harmonizes perfectly with the rest of NT theology, sheds precious light on the interpretation of OTKP, and prepares, strengthens, and encourages Christ’s pilgrim Church with a simple, powerful, and unspeakably majestic vision of the Consummation of all things at the end of the age.
Have we not therefore arrived at the meaning of the Millennium?
1. In so speaking, I do not mean to deny the eternal security of the saints who are yet on pilgrimage in the earth, or the possibility of their being fully assured of their eternal salvation. Many NT texts affirm these blessed truths. However, many others also teach that as long as the saints still on pilgrimage there remains a possibility of falling away from the faith, for which reason they are under strict orders to persevere in it. In short, there is a sense in which the saints remain on probation before the Lord, to see if they will remain true to him. Revelation 20:4-6 tells us that at the moment of their death this probation will be over, and the peril of the Second Death removed once and for all. A blessed hope indeed! For a close study of this nuanced subject, see my book In Search of the Golden Strand, chapter 7.