Revelation 20

Chapter 20

v1-3: The chapter that gets so much attention begins. Another angel another section. But is it chronological? We have already argued it isn’t. The language of Gog and Magog that ends chapter 19 (cf. Ezek 39) is that which ends 20v1-10. So 20v1 takes us to 1000 years before the destruction of Babylon and final gathering against God’s people. The angel comes from heaven and so with the authority of Christ to lock up the dragon, who is identified as the devil. The significance of the key in hand is that this is his mission. The dragon is “the ancient serpent|” referring to his work in deceiving, and “Satan” his accusing of the saints. The sense is that his incarceration will keep him from these things, and especially his deception – enabling the gospel to go to the nations. The absolute security of his prison is stressed throughout. He is locked, chained with a “great” chain, thrown into the pit, which is then shut and sealed over. The point is that there is no getting out to deceive until God determines.
     But to what does all this refer? “The bottomless pit” or “abyss” is the one unlocked by an angel with a key in 9v1, letting out demonic spirits dressed for battle and led by a ruling angel named “destruction.” In the light of the wider book this must refer to the release of Satan to gather the nations for battle in 20v7ff, which is in turn the time of the beast’s end time rising to make war on God’s people (11v7, 17v8). This confirms the trumpets do not span the church age but come towards the end of it. The abyss was thought to be under the sea, explaining the sea being the place the beast rises from (13v1). In short, it is the abode of the dead (Rom 10v7) where Satan and his demons are imprisoned awaiting judgment (Jude 6, Lk 8v31).
     The obvious question is when is Satan confined there? There are three plausible explanations. First, 12v9 speaks of him with the same description in the context of being cast out of heaven, and that marking the beginning of a period of salvation as Christ’s authority is expressed. And the gospels seem to portray this same event of Satan “falling like lightening from heaven” (Lk 10v18) as one when Jesus has “bound” Satan (Matt 12v29) and has power to send demonic powers to the “abyss” (Lk 8v31). The problem is that in Revelation 12 Satan is cast down to the earth and sea and not into an abyss. It is possible that because the abyss was thought to be under the sea, we should see these ideas as assuming his being in the abyss. In this, the abyss may simply refer to the evil spiritual realm outside of heaven when demonic powers reside. The point would be that incarcerated there Satan has no access to the realm of heaven to accuse the saints or hinder God’s purposes. A second alternative is that 20v3 refers to Satan being cast into the Abyss after his initial raging against the church and before the time John wrote. This certainly fits the pattern of the beast who is Satan’s human incarnation. In John’s day it “was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction” (17v8, 11v7). 20v3 would therefore be explaining why the beast itself currently “was not.” A third view is simply that John is using different images – chapter 12 explaining Satan’s hostile presence and 20 his limited activity.
     It strikes me that option one or two is most likely. But whatever the case, the links between chapters 12 and 20 suggest Satan’s sealing in the abyss is linked to his being cast from heaven, beginning the church age and explaining the progress of the gospel. We should therefore take the millennium as figurative for the long period (10x10x10) between the two comings of Christ in which his kingdom grows throughout the earth by the gospel. At the end of that period, Satan will be released to deceive again “for a little while” as explained in 20v7f.
     v4: Now John sees “thrones” on which people are seated with authority to judge. These must be God’s people. They are said to be on Christ’s throne (3v21) but represented by the 24 elders on theirs, and explicitly said to be those who exercise Christ’s judgement of the nations (2v27, cf. Ps2). This is confirmed as John immediately says he saw “the souls” of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and commitment to the gospel. This is a second category, probably as a subset of the first. They are no doubt mentioned as assurance that those most tragically oppressed are safe with Christ and involved in judging their oppressors. The note that they had not worshipped the beast or his image, nor received his mark of belonging, encourages the reader that they are intended to reject such allegiance even if it means death, confident that they will pass to Christ’s presence.
     The “they” that “came to life” and “reigned” with Christ for the 1000 years probably therefore refer to those on the thrones (all believers) with a focus on the martyrs. What they do there in reigning with Christ is not spelled out. Verse 6 does however imply a ruling activity during the millennium – ie. the church age. Perhaps it is to be party to Christ’s decisions about human history. Perhaps it is to be involved in his decisions about the nature of the temporal judgments he dispenses throughout the book in response to the persecution of his people. Certainly, they will somehow be involved in the final judgment described later in the chapter (1 Cor 6v1-3).
     There is much debate about the idea of first and second resurrections here. Elsewhere John does allude to the difference between a spiritual coming alive at conversion and the physical resurrection of the last day (John 5v25). However, this first resurrection seems to mark a life after death. Is it then a reference to souls being alive with Christ awaiting their bodies at the second resurrection? The problems here are that the language would imply the first is a similar kind of resurrection to the second. It would also suggest a sort of soul sleep for the unregenerate, strongly countered by Jesus’ story of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk 16). More like, “came to life” here refers to escaping hades as the realm of the dead (v13). The point is that the redeemed are immediately released from that realm, whilst the rest suffer in Hades before being raised to judgment and then cast into hell.
     V6: Those who pass straight to be with Christ are described as “blessed” in knowing the joy of escaping the second death, but especially in being “holy” as those now set apart for the service of “God and Christ” – a pairing that assumes Christ’s divinity. This service is to be in two ways: First, they will serve as priests. This implies they offering themselves to him in service and perhaps caring for the environment of heaven (and ultimately the new creation) as priests cared for the temple. Second, they serve as kings in that they will “reign” for the millennium (though ultimately over the new creation). We have seen this has a special focus on judging - as mentioned above. But here we see that this will involve temporal judgments during the church age. It is this dual service of God and Christ that will bring such joy and blessedness to believers within the inter-mediate state as they await the resurrection and renewal of all things.
     v7-8: When the millennium is “ended” – giving a sense of when the time for Christ’s return has come, Satan will be released from his prison in the abyss. The assumption is that God’s will lies behind this. Throughout we’ve seen this is likely to coincide with “the beast” as the ruler he works through (9v1, 11v7-8). He arises to do what he has done since the beginning – “deceive.” Here he deceives “the nations” who should be under Christ’s rule. The four corners stresses the universal nature of this. “Gog and Magog” looks us formally to Ezekiel 39. There God promises to bring “Gog” – a prince with nations as allies – against Israel, before defeating them on Israel’s behalf, giving their bodies as food for birds. He also declares he will destroy “Magog,” and that this will cause the nations and Israel to know he is the LORD. John’s vision tells us this is fulfilled in this final battle, with their armies numbering “like the sand of the sea.” This ungodly host is therefore a parody of the children of Abraham.
     v9-10: The detail suggests John is actually seeing this in his vision. They march over a broad plain and surround “the camp of the saints and the beloved city.” This could be figurative for the entire church wherever they are in the world, but seems to imply Christians have gathered in and around the actual Jerusalem (the new Jerusalem has not yet descended from heaven) – perhaps in response to their knowledge of this prophecy! Whatever the case, battle is never joined. Instead, God fights for his people sending fire from heaven and consuming his people’s enemies just as the fire Elijah called down consumed his. It is absolute and final, showing just how futile hostility to God’s people is, and how any hostility we do experience must therefore be by God’s permission.
     The devil’s fate is however different. Whereas the armies are burnt up and die (Ezekiel 39 describes how the bodies will then be buried to cleans the land), their deceive who has no body to be consumed, is thrown straight into the “lake of fire and sulfur” where the beast and false prophet were. This doesn’t mean this must be 1000 years later. The point is that they share the same fate. They are throne there when their armies are defeated and the devil whom they serve then joins them. “They” – that is this unholy trinity, will there be “tormented day and night forever.” This is the language of hell from 14v11, used there of all who worship the beast and its image who we will later see cast in to join them (20v15). These texts are some of the clearest to teach everlasting conscious torment in hell. We have seen the beast and false prophet to be particular individuals representing principles of rule, and so they, with the devil, will know no end to their torment. This should be a huge comfort to those who suffer at their hands, not only at the justice finally done, but the absolute nature of their removal.
     v11: The final vision begins with the now familiar “then I saw.” John sees God’s throne. It is “great” in symbolising his awesome majesty and power, and “white” in signifying his holy purity. We are not told exactly who is seated on it, but know by now God and the Lamb share it (3v21, 5v6, 7v17, 12v4). But as it is the Lamb who was worthy to open the scroll, we have hints it is him pictured here – which is confirmed elsewhere (John 5v16ff). He is sitting in judgment as kings would, and around him the earth and sky flee as if disappearing like in being rolled up (6v14). In wider theology this seems to be the moment in which the old heavens and earth are destroyed or purged (2 Pet 3v10). Now there is “no place” for them, signalling that the old order of death and decay and so corrupted by sin has passed (21v1-4).
     This implies the judgment takes place in the spiritual realm of heaven itself. All the dead are then seen raised from death (Jn 5v24ff) and before the one to whom they must give account. Our achievements are put into perspective as judgment levels the playing field between “great and small.” It matters not what one has achieved if one isn’t for Christ.
     Various books are opened, dramatizing the producing of evidence against which none can argue. The books of deeds record everything anyone has ever done, which is truly sobering. And the dead, which would include those just consumed in the final battle, are judged according to them. One presumes here is found not only the grounds that determine the degree of torment unbelievers receive in hell (Rom 2v5-6), but also the proof of whether the faith of those who confess Christ is genuine (Lk 6v46ff, Matt 12v37). However, it is not that proof saves them. God’s mercy does, as there is one more book that has been opened – the book of life. This is the Lamb’s book, and so records the names of those who have given their allegiance to him rather than the beast, and persevered in faith so being victorious over trial and temptation (3v5, 13v8). Their names have been in it from before creation showing ultimately they are aligned with Christ only by God’s eternal decree and purpose (17v8). John sees “the sea” give up the dead in it. As the sea was the place from which the beast arose (13v1), it most probably represents Hades as the realm of the unregenerate dead and perhaps of the abyss. The regenerate stand “by” the sea (15v2). So we then read that death and “Hades” (the place of the dead) gave up the dead in them, portraying these states as realms that Christ has the key to (1v18). Each of these were then judged according to what they had done, found wanting and so guilty, and thrown with death and Hades themselves into the lake of fire that we’ve only recently been reminded involves everlasting torment. This is the baptism they experience. The lake of fire symbolizes immersion in God’s wrath with great pain and utter destruction. So whereas we've seen torment experienced for just five months (9v5) and for the duration of Babylon’s fall (18v7-15), those who do not repent when faced with such those temporal judgments will eventually experience a never-ending one.

     This is called “the second death” to highlight the first is not the end and perhaps to contrast the two resurrections at the same times - when physical life ceases and at Christ’s return. In context it also brings home the greater severity of the second. The description of death and Hades in the lake stresses the final removal destruction of all that came with sin. There will no longer need to be a place for those who die as death will be no more. But we are reassured, any whose name is in the book of life have nothing to fear – they will not be thrown in. Indeed, it may be we should be understanding that they were never in the sea, death or Hades at all, having always been with the Lord. What confidence the Christian can have!