New Testament Reading: Revelation 20:1-10
“Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” (Revelation 20:1–10, ESV)
I am well aware of the fact that Revelation 20 verses 1 through 6 is perhaps the most hotly debated text in the book of Revelation.
The question before us today is, when will the things that are described in this passage happen in relation to the second coming of Christ? More specifically, when will the “the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, [be] bound?”
The post-millennialists and the a-millennialists both agree that this binding of Satan as described here in Revelation 20 comes before the second coming of Christ. In other words the so-called millennium, or the 1,000 year reign of Christ as described here in Revelation 20, precedes Christ’s return, according to the post and a-millennial positions. Put yet another way, when asked the question, when will Christ return in relation to the so-called millennium, both post-millennialists and a-millennialists respond saying, “after! Christ will return after the millennium”. First the 1,000 reign of Christ, and then his second coming. This has been the majority position held throughout the history of the church.
Now, while these two positions (post- and a-) agree on the chronology of things, they disagree as to the starting point of the millennium and also the nature of it.
Stated simply, the post-millennialists believe that millennium is still in our future. According to their view, the kingdom of God will continue to advance on earth so much so that an idealistic millennial age will be ushered in, where Christ reigns in a pronounced way, where Satan is bound and the cultures of this world will be so Christianized that the church will enjoy great peace and prosperity. Some postmillennialists take the number1,000 literally, whereas others take it as symbolic for a long period of time. But all post-millennialists agree (as far as I know) that the millennium is yet in our future, and then after that, the return of Christ, the final judgement, and the new heavens and new earth.
Though many good and godly men have held to this view, it is problematic for a number of reasons. My simple and very brief critique of the position is this: the scriptures say plainly that the whole time between Christ’s first and second coming will be marked by tribulation for the people of God. The kingdom of Satan will always be hostile to the kingdom of God. This is what Christ plainly taught, and this is what the book of Revelation has plainly described – a church ever under attack in this age. And if there is progression communicated in the book of Revelation concerning the relationship between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of Christ, it is not in the direction of ever increasing peace between the two, but in the direction of ever increasing hostilely, so that when Christ returns, he will return, not to a Christianized and saved planet, but to save his people who are under assault like never before.
Now please hear me. I agree with our post-millennial brothers and sisters that the kingdom of God will indeed advance in this world. Indeed, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18, ESV). But I do not believe that the advancement of the kingdom of God will lead to a time of peace on earth for the church in some ideal earthly millennial age. In fact, the opposite seems to be true – as the kingdom of God advances in this world the church will find herself under ever increasing pressure.
And so we who are a-millennialists agree with our post-millennial friends that the 1,000 year reign of Christ and the binding of Satan described here in Revelation 20 will come before the second coming of Christ, But we disagree about the starting point and also the nature or character of this so-called millennium.
So when did this reign of Christ begin? When was Satan bound as Revelation 20 describes? The a-millennialist answers the question saying, “at Christ’s first coming! It was when Christ first came, and particularly at his death, burial, resurrection and ascension that Satan was bound!”
And what is the nature of this millennium? What is it like? Well, it is not an idyllic age; one that is free from all hostility; one where all conflict between the kingdom of Satan and the kingdom of God has ceased. It is not that. But it is one where Christ does indeed rule and reign, for he has taken his seat at the Father’s right hand, has he not? And it is an age where Satan has indeed been bound, not entirely as if he were rendered completely powerless and inactive, but bound, as the text so clearly says, “so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended.”
I will present the a-millennial interpretation of this passage more thoroughly in a moment. For now recognize that while the post-millennialists and a-millennialists agree that Christ will come again after the millennium, we disagree rather significantly over the nature or character of that millennium and also the starting point of it.
As you probably know the popular view today is that of pre-millennialists. The pre-millennialists say, “the things described in Revelation 20 will happen after Christ returns.” Stated differently, the pre-millennialists say, “first Christ will return, and then he will reign for a thousand years as this text describes.” That is why they are called “pre-millennialists”, for in their view Christ will return before (pre) the millennium.
This is the popular view today. If you read popular books or watch movies about the end times it is probably the pre-millennial scheme that is being presented. This view has not always been the popular view, but it has taken root in modern times.
I used to be a pre-millennialist, being raised in a pre-millennial church and attending pre-millennial schools for ministry preparation. But now I am, as you know, an a-millennialist, believing that the things described in this text are present realities, having begun at Christ first coming.
It was probably 7 or 8 years ago now that I started to really question the pre-millennial system. I will not spend to much time here explaining the process that eventually lead to my abandonment of it, but I did begin to question the complexity of that system of doctrine.
I began to wonder why the New Testament never mentions a millennium following the return of Christ but instead always speaks with utter simplicity concerning the last days. In the time between Christ’s first and second coming there will tribulation. Christ will return suddenly. On that day he will rescue those who belong to him and pour out wrath upon his enemies. There will be a bodily resurrection on that day. The righteous (those in Christ) will go to eternal life, the unrighteous (those who remain in their sins) to judgement and to everlasting destruction. And then the final state – the new heavens and earth. This is the way the New Testament consistently speaks concerning the last days. Nowhere in the Gospels nor in the writings of Paul or Peter or the other Apostles is a future, earthly millennium mentioned.
Of course the pre-millennialists will say, “but you have forgotten Revelation 20:1-6! That text teaches that Christ will reign on earth for a thousand years after he returns, and that at the end of that time Satan will be released again to deceived the nations. And then Satan will be judged fully and finally!” I’ve heard pre-millennialists say, “even if Revelation 20:1-6 be the only place in the whole Bible that tells us about this future, earthly reign of Christ, then we must believe it!” And hear me now: with that premiss I whole heartedly agree! If the word of God says something, even if it only says it once, then we are bound to believe it, for it is God’s word, and God cannot lie.
But wouldn’t you agree that it is valid to at least ask the question, if indeed there will be a millennium following the return of Christ – one where the physical temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt, and animal sacrifices resumed – why is the New Testament so silent about this? Why didn’t Christ ever mention it? Why didn’t the Apostles ever say anything about it? Certainly Christ and his Apostles had a lot to say concerning the end of time, and yet they never mention a millennium like this, with the exception, perhaps, of this one text in Revelation 20, according to the pre-millennial interpretation of it.
But does Revelation 20:1-6 teach that there will be a literal, earthly reign of Christ that lasts for a 1,000 years following Christ’s returns for his bride? Not at all. In fact, a careful consideration of this text reveals that the period of time signified by the number 1,000 is not future to us, but it is here now. This I will demonstrate today and on the next two Lord’s Days.
Friends, it is far better to see that Revelation 20:1-3 describes, not something future, but the time between Christ’s first and second comings.
The book of Revelation recapitulates. It repeats. It provides for us different camera angles, as it were, upon the same period of time, and it does do over and over again. You experience something like this when you watch football on TV. One play will be shown again and again from different angles, and at different speeds. And with each view you gain a better and more complete perspective on what happened. How many times when watching football have you yelled at the TV saying, “that wasn’t a fumble!”, only to sit back in your chair in shame after watching the reply over and over again. That is what Revelation does for us. It provides us with different perspectives on the same periods of time so that we might see things clearly, as the title of the book implies.
Beginning in Revelation 12 the enemies of God and of the people of God were introduced to us one at a time – the dragon, then the beast from the sea, then the beast from the land, who is called the false prophet, and then the harlot, who’s name is Babylon.
Beginning in chapter 18 we were shown the judgement of the harlot, and then the judgement of the two beasts. So which of the four enemies of God is left to be judged? Only the dragon remains! He is the one who has motivated and empowered all of the opposition to God and the people of God. Now in chapter 20 everything finally comes to focus upon him, his binding, and his judgement.
In verses 1 through 3 we read, “Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while” (Revelation 20:1–3, ESV).
The pre-millennialist assumes that the word “then” in verse 1 indicates chronological sequence in relation to historical events. They read the text as if it said, first the events of chapter 19 will happen, then (or after that) the events chapter 20 will happen in human history. But the text does not say that. Instead the word then pertains the sequence of the visions that John received. What John actually says is, first I saw the visions as described in chapter 19, and then (or after that) I saw this vision, which I am about to describe to you.
In other words, the vision that John describes in chapter 20 came to him after the visions that he described in chapter 19. First he saw the one and then the other. But when we consider the order of things historically, they are reversed, for Revelation 19:17-21 describes the second coming of Christ, whereas Revelation 20:1 describes things that happened at Christ’s first coming, upon his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension to the Fathers right hand.
If you are surprised at this, then you haven’t been paying attention in this sermon series, for the same thing has happened over and over again in the book of Revelation. If you need another example I would say go and read the end of chapter 11 and then the beginning of chapter 12 again. For chapter 11 clearly takes us to the last day when “the kingdom of the world [will] become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15, ESV), and then chapter 12 clearly takes us back to the time of Christ’s birth. So there in the transition between Revelation 11 and 12 we move forward in the book of Revelation, but backwards in human history to consider the church age from yet another perspective. This is what we call recapitulation, and the book of Revelation does it often.
So when was Satan bound?
Will it be after Christ returns, as the pre-millennialists say? No.
Will it be before Christ’s return, but in our future as the post-millennialists say? No.
The answer is that Satan was bound at Christ’s first coming, particularly when he rose from the dead and ascended to the Fathers right hand.
Notice that the text does not describe Satan as bound completely, but as bound “so that he might not deceive the nations any longer” (Revelation 20:3, ESV). This is a crucial observation that is often overlooked. This passage does not describe Satan as bound completely so that he be utterly inactive, but bound specifically “so that he might not deceive the nations any longer” (Revelation 20:3, ESV).
The words “any longer” at the end of verse 3 indicate that before this moment (whenever it was) Satan did have the power to deceive the nations, but after this moment, that power he once had was taken from him. He was at this moment bound or restrained from doing what he one freely did, namely, keep the nations in darkness and in deception.
When, in the history of redemption did this (or in fairness to the other views, will this) take place? The answer is that it took place at Christ’s first coming. Before Christ came the nations were in darkness, the gentiles, with very rare exceptions, did not have access to the promises of God. But after Christ came the gospel of the kingdom was preached to the Jews first but then to the Gentiles.
Listen to the way that Paul speaks concerning this transition. When writing to the predominantly Gentile church in Ephesus he said, “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:11–13, ESV).
What marked the change that Paul speaks of here? What was the event that prompted Paul to utter the words, “but now”? Was it not the arrival of the Christ, and the proclamation of the Gospel to the nations?
Friends, the binding of Satan corresponds to this. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV). The Gospel is for the world. Christ is the Savior, not of the Jew only, but of the world. He is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Satan was bound at Christ first coming so that kingdom of God might spread amongst the all the nations of the world. And indeed this is what has happened. Under the Old Testament the gospel of the Christ was confined to Israel, under the New it has spread throughout the whole world. Why? In part because Satan was bound when Christ first came at his death, burial resurrection and ascension to his throne on high.
This is what Jesus himself taught.
Do you remember how in the book of Matthew the unbelieving Jews began to say that Jesus was casting out demons in the name of Satan, or by the power of Beelzebul. That he was casting out demons and hearing the sick the could not deny. They came to a crossroads, therefore. That had to either admit that he did so by the power of God, or by another power, and the chose the wrong road. How did Jesus answer them? “Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house” (Matthew 12:25–29, ESV).
What did Christ mean by this? He was saying to the non-believing Jews, Satan’s kingdom is not divided against itself, but instead you are witnessing before your very eyes the in-breaking of the kingdom of God up on the kingdom of Satan. Jesus was saying, when you see me cast out demons, and when you see your sons do it (those Jews who were disciples of Christ), it is a demonstration of the fact that the kingdom of God has come with power. Jesus said, in other words, I have come to plunder Satan’s house (this world of which he is prince), and what you are witnessing is a demonstration of the fact that he is being bound so that I might plunder it. Just as a robber would bind a homeowner before proceeding to steal the homeowners possessions, so too Christ bound Satan at his first coming so that he might steal what once belonged to him.
The binding of Satan at Christ’s first coming corresponds to the Great Commission given by Christ to his disciples. Listen it to it carefully with this topic in mind:“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20, ESV). The disciples of Christ obey the Great Commission confidently, in part, because they knew that authority had been taken from Satan, and given to Christ. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”, he said. Satan was bound at Christ’s first coming.
And do you remember Jesus’ words from our study of the Gospel of John, when he said to his disciples, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31–32, ESV). He again we have reference to some binding of Satan that did happen when Christ first came. And do you notice the connection between this casting out of Satan and the world missions? Again, “now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
And this concept, that Satan was bound at Christ’s first coming, also matches what has been communicated already in the book of Revelation concerning the restraint of the Satan during the time between Christ’s first and second coming. I have in mind Revelation 12, the barring of Satan from heaven as the accuser of the brethren and the preservation of the women and her offspring in the wilderness.
And so when was Satan cast down from heaven, restrained, and bound? The answer is at Christ’s first coming – not prior to the second coming but in our future, and certainly not after Christ’s second coming – but at Christ’s first coming.
So what are we to make of the fact that the text says he will be bound for 1,000 years, given that is now 2018?
Put simply and briefly, the number 1,000, like every other number in the book of Revelation, is symbolic.
The burden of proof is upon the literalist to prove that it is to be taken literally when every other number in this book has symbolic force.
Notice the obvious symbolism surrounding the mention of 1,000 years. Satan is said to be a dragon and a serpent. This is symbolic, for Satan is not a dragon or snake, but is a spiritual being, a fallen angel. And when he is bound he said to be bound with a chain and shut up in a pit which is locked with a key. Is this to be taken literally? Clearly not.
Brothers and sisters, it is far better to see that the number 1,000 is symbolic for a long and complete period of time.
Do you remember how Christ told the Christians at Smyrna that they would “be tested, and for ten days [would] have tribulation” (Revelation 2:10, ESV)? Did that mean their tribulation would last ten days, literally? No, it meant that they would suffer persecution for a relatively brief and limited time. God had set the beginning and end of it. They were to be faithful, therefore, to the end.
And the same is true of the time between Christ’s first and second comings. God knows the beginning and end of it. Though it may seem open ended to us, not to him! The difference here is that the time is long. It is a long but complete period of time during which Satan is restrained by God, and his people preserved.
If the 1,000 year period begins at Christ’s first coming and ends at his return (which it does) then it cannot be literal, for Christ made it plain that no one knows the hour of his return.
Two points of application come immediately to mind.
First of all, these truths should produce boldness in world missions.
Secondly, these truths should drive out all fear.
Fear is not becoming of a child of the King.