Friday, September 17, 2010

Revelation 20

(Author's note:  As I did recently with a post from my New Testament Chapter Summaries, I wish to put this post on Revelation 20 on my main Bible blog so that readers who have been slow, or amiss, in reading that blog will be able to study this much-discussed Biblical chapter.  Hopefully, this article will whet the appetite of more readers, who will then go to my Revelation blog and give further attention to the matters written there.)

The overthrow of Satan (vs. 1-9)--There is very little that is easy about this chapter and I won't pretend that there is. I hesitate not in saying that I do not know all of what is being conveyed here, but I do think the basic ideas are clear; let us be reminded of Revelation 1:3 which pronounces a blessing on anyone who reads the book. If total understanding of this chapter is lacking, then there could be no blessing accruing from it. So there are some wonderfully comforting thoughts here which can inspire and solace us. And while I may not know all of what this chapter means, I do know what it does NOT mean, and it does not teach that there is going to be a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth. This chapter says nothing about a reign of Christ on earth and, in keeping with the very nature of apocalyptic literature, the 1,000 years is almost surely symbolic as well. The whole concept of a 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth is taken from this one passage; there is no other passage in the Bible that even remotely hints of such a thing. To build an entire system of Biblical interpretation on one passage, and one that is in the midst of the most symbolic, figurative book in Scripture, is shaky hermeneutics indeed. It should not be done. What does the Bible say, clearly, in other locations? Figurative passages should be interpreted in line with the plain passages, not visa-versa. And if the 1,000 years in this passage is literal, then why not the key to the bottomless pit, the great chain, the binding of Satan (and is he a dragon or a serpent?). To be consistent, these things should be interpreted literally as well. But no one does this.

The major thrust of this passage is the final defeat and overthrow of Satan. As I noted in the last chapter, the enemies of God and His people are introduced in chapter 12. In that chapter, Satan comes forth. In chapter 13 come the two beasts, and in chapter 17, the harlot. Then, in reverse order they are all defeated--the harlot in chapter 18, the beasts in chapter 19, and now here, in chapter 20, Satan is finally and forever conquered. That's the point of this chapter, not the 1,000 years. If verses 4-6 of Revelation 20 were not in the Bible, no one would ever have conceived of a 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth. Again, as best, it is very, very poor scholarship and handling of God's word to base a system of theology on three verses in the Bible. Yet, premillennialism is a materialistic philosophy; people love the things of this world and want God to give this earthly junk to them for as long as possible. That's just not what the Bible teachers. We are not love this world or the things thereof (I John 2:15). Our treasures are to be placed in heaven, not the earth (Matt. 6:19-20). God is spirit, not flesh, and the true reality, true happiness, eternity, lies in spiritual matters, not physical. We simply must get our minds and hearts out of this world and into the next one.

Ok, given that, what does Revelation 20 mean? As repeated ad infinitum in this blog on the book of Revelation, how would John's beleaguered readers in 95 AD understand the passage? They would see their greatest adversary, the devil, effectively stopped from deceiving the nations (via emperor worship and the Roman Empire). An angel bounds Satan with a chain (vs. 1-2) and casts him into a bottomless pit for 1,000 years (vs. 2-3). The limiting of Satan's power is obviously in view here, not his final destruction, and that's the main point. John's readers perhaps--and I have no intention of being dogmatic or absolute here--would see this as Satan no longer being able to deceive the nations through the emperor worship demanded by the Roman Empire. Frequent reference has been made in earlier chapters to the "kings" and "nations" and their obsequious obedience to Rome. That's going to end. The 1,000 years may refer to a complete period of time (10x10x10), or it may mean the completeness of the destruction of the Roman Empire and not a time period. Be that as it may, after the 1,000 years--the ability of the devil to no more "deceive the nations" (via Rome, v. 3)--he will be "released for a little while" (v. 3). The Roman Empire is not the end of the work of Satan.

But it was the problem that John's readers faced. And with Rome "bound," the oppressors are defeated and the oppressed are victorious, enjoying total victory with Christ. Who the "they" are in verse 4 is unclear; perhaps the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, since the godhead ultimately works in tandem in judgment. The victory and reigning of those "who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands" (v. 4) is called "the first resurrection" (v. 5). The "rest of the dead" (v. 5) perchance refers to the faithful of God who had not lived under Roman domination. This is difficult, I make no bones about it, but I always come back to John's readers--they are the ones who need comfort here so the message applies primarily to them. They did not serve Rome, they were willing to die for the Lord, and thus they will reign with him. Over them, "the second death has no power" (v. 6). Again, this passage says nothing about a reign of Christ on earth; indeed, the martyrs were already in heaven (Rev. 6:9).

But Satan is relentless (vs. 7-10). After the Roman Empire, Satan was "released from his prison" (v. 7)--he still plagues us today, and will continue to "deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth" (v. 8). These nations are called "Gog and Magog," who have been enemies of God's people since Ezekiel 38 (the only other location in Scripture in which they are mentioned). They attempt to make war against the saints and persecute them (v. 9), but "fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured them" (v. 9)--we are saved by Him, not by ourselves. Satan and his emissaries are then "cast into the lake of fire and brimstone" where "they will be tormented day and night forever and ever" (v. 10). Folks, Satan is not in hell right now; he's on the earth. Hell is reserved for him, too. This is not just the teaching of this passage, but other, plainer, passages elsewhere (cf. I Pet. 5:8). Satan will ultimately be defeated where he can tempt us and destroy our souls no more. What greater, more comforting knowledge is there than that? Emphasizing the 1,000 reign in this chapter completely misses the magnificent promise of the final defeat of our greatest enemy.

The great white throne (vs. 11-15)--God is there on that throne (v. 11-12), and "the dead, small and great" will someday stand before Him (. 12). No escapes the final judgment. The "books" (the Bible) were opened, as well as the Book of Life; that these first books refer to the Bible is evident in that all will be judged "by the things which were written in the books" (v. 12). And we will be judged "according to [our] works" (v. 12)--there is indeed a part man plays in his own salvation. Again, all, even those who are dead at the time of the final judgment, will face God. When that judgment is over, there will be no more death, and no more Hades, which is apparently the resting place of the soul before the final judgment (v. 14). The saved will be with God (as described in the next two chapters) and the lost will be "cast into the lake of fire" (v. 15). God's people will live forever; God's enemies will live forever, too--but not in His presence.

I do believe I've captured above the general essence of Revelation 20, "general" being the point of apocalyptic literature anyway. The specifics have been debated since the book was released to the public almost 2,000 years ago. The earthly 1,000 year reign has been propagated ever since, but again, I find no warrant for such a doctrine anywhere else in the Bible. Indeed, when it speaks clearly, without a figure, inspiration tells us of heaven, not the earth. Victory, a heavenly home with God for eternity, is what we await.

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