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I recently had the privilege and challenge of preaching from Revelation 20:1-6. This is where we find the binding of Satan, the thousand-year reign of Christ and the mention of the first resurrection and second death. It’s been my experience that the hope and optimism that believers are meant to walk away with from this passage is often lost in the theological dissection of and debate over the passage. So, one of my goals that I had in that sermon (you can listen to it here), was to avoid that mistake. Moreover, I have only been presenting a survey and overview of the book. Therefore, a lot of the verse-by-verse explanation that I could have shared was left out. And so, for all those who are interested in learning more, I have prepared the following verse by verse exposition of Revelation 20:1-6:
First, let me just say that I love to study the Bible, and I love its clarity and unity as a whole when I do. However, there are some passages that are harder than others to make sense of and synthesize with the rest of Scripture. Revelation 20:1-6 is definitely one of those passages. It is one of the most debated sections in all of the Bible. And so, whenever you come to a passage like this, it requires two things: humility and wisdom. It requires the interpreter to have humility in recognizing that many orthodox, faithful and godly men and women have disagreed throughout the centuries on how this should be viewed. Therefore, it should not be approached in an extremely dogmatic fashion. It also requires wisdom in comparing Scripture with Scripture. In other words, whenever you have a passage that is unclear, the best approach is to compare it with other Scriptures that are more clear. The following exposition is my best attempt at presenting my interpretation of this difficult passage with humility and wisdom.
Verse 1: Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain.
Who is this figure who’s holding this key and great chain? It could be the arch-angel Michael that you read about earlier in Revelation 12:7, who was fighting against Satan. However, Jesus said at the beginning of the book, “Behold I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev.1:18). Having the key to something was an ancient symbol for having the authority and control. The context of Revelation 20 is that Jesus is the exalted Lord who is in control. You could also say that this is the theme of the entire book. So, a great case could be made that this angel is Jesus (remember that the word for angel in the Greek, angelos, could literally be translated as messenger, and Jesus is the messenger and mediator of the New Covenant). In the beginning of Chapter 10, I believe you have the same type of thing going on. In that passage, the mighty Messenger was either representing Christ or is Christ himself. Additionally, the only other times that the binding of Satan is even mentioned in the bible is in Matthew 12:29 and Luke 11:22, and Jesus is the only one who is doing the binding. And so its seems to be that Jesus is taking his all-encompassing authority (c.f. Matthew 28:18) which is symbolized by the key and using it to bind Satan with the chain. Remember the majority of the early Christians who received this letter could not read, and so what’s one of the best ways to get them to remember things? Give them pictures. Give them vivid symbols. This is what’s happening in the book of Revelation. John is giving the Church spiritual pictures (his visions) to drive home spiritual principles (God’s truths).
Verses 2-3: 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.
John wants to make it very clear who he’s dealing with here. And so he gives four titles for the arch-enemy of God's people. Now, the mention of the ancient serpent is very important because John is clearly connecting what is being described in this passage with the fall of mankind in Genesis 3. In Genesis 3, Satan deceived Adam and Eve, but then was warned that a male offspring from the woman would come to ultimately destroy him. One of the things that the Apostle John stressed in his writings was that Jesus is this promised offspring whose redemptive work destroyed the various works of the devil (c.f. Jn. 12:31; 1 Jn. 3:8). Other writers pick up on this same thing (see also Col.2:15 and Heb.2:14). But when it comes to the activity of Satan in this verse, two key questions must be answered as it relates to the binding of Satan: First, when does this binding happen? And second, what does this binding mean?
When does the binding begin?
When answering the first question interpreters should compare this passage with the only other references to the binding of Satan that you find in the Gospels. In both of those passages (referenced above), Jesus explains that his ministry of casting out demons was proof that the kingdom of God had come upon the world. In short, the various works of Satan were now being destroyed by the promised offspring. This is why he gave the example of having to first “bind the strong man” before you can plunder his goods. Clearly, Jesus himself believed that already in his earthly ministry Satan was being bound by him. This cross reference is extremely important in accurately interpreting the binding of Satan in Revelation 20. We can conclude by this that the binding of Satan at least began with Jesus' earthly ministry, and most likely extended through his death, resurrection, and ascension. This, I believe is the answer to the first question of when. One of the objections to this view is that Satan is obviously still active in the world, so how can he be said to be bound? Well, keep in mind that apparently Jesus understood that Satan could be bound but not completely limited. So, what does the binding mean?
What does this binding mean?
John makes it clear in the middle of verse 3 that this binding is not a description of Satan’s total inactivity or defeat, but a hindering of a particular activity, namely the deceiving of the nations. The particular work or activity of Satan that is being described here is Satan’s ability to deceive the nations (the Gentile world). Before the incarnation of Jesus, it is clear that Satan had a level of authority over the pagan nations and the kingdoms of the Gentile world. This is why he tried to offer this authority to Jesus in his temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (c.f. Mt. 4:8-9). The coming comprehensive defeat of the Devil by Jesus was manifested here by refusing Satan’s offer and instead perfectly following the will of God for his life. Therefore, Jesus acquired this global authority not through prideful grabbing, but through humble obedience (see Phil.2:5-11). It was in his temptation that Jesus was showing us that he is the better Adam. While Adam was tempted by Satan in a garden and was overcome by it; Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness and overcame it. Therefore, in his humanity, Jesus has proven that he is the greater Adam and promised offspring who is now ruling over God’s creation and fulfilling the Cultural Mandate of being fruitful and multiplying through the sending of his Spirit and the making of disciples. All of this begins to make sense when you read the end of Matthew and Jesus combines his global authority along with his command to disciple the nations. What I believe John is giving to the church here in Revelation 20:1-3, is the spiritual picture of what Jesus had already pronounced at the end of Matthew. The reason the Church is to disciple the nations is because Satan can no longer deceive the nations as a whole. Therefore, the success of the Great Commission is assured.
Another objection to this view is the verse in 1 John 5:19 which talks about the whole world lying in the power of the Evil One. So, the thinking goes, how can Jesus be reigning when it’s clear that Satan is in full control? Well, every verse must be read in its context. In his writings, John uses the word “world” in different ways. Not making that distinction can lead to many errors. For example, John tells us in that same letter to “not love the world” (1 John 2:15a). Wait a minute? Doesn’t God love the world? Aren’t we supposed to love it too? In that passage, John is not talking about the world as the entire cosmos. He’s using the word “world” to mean the entire evil system in the world. That is John’s point in the verse under consideration as well. The Devil is the one who is running the world’s system of rebellion against God. Like Al Capone still running the streets of Chicago even while he was behind bars, Satan is still powerfully influencing this world even though he’s now prevented from deceiving the nations as a whole. Like a Father rocking his baby to sleep, the Devil is rocking all unbelievers to spiritual sleep and keeping them in spiritual darkness. This is the same type of thing that Paul stressed in Ephesians 2:1-3 as he described even believers before the work of God on their behalf.
Verse 4: 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 for the word of God, and those who had not worshipped 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 vision of thrones here and the mention of souls takes the reader into the heavenly realm, but the Church’s reign with Christ does not need to be limited to heaven as a place completely separate from all activity here on earth. Jesus, Paul and others make reference to the Church here on earth participating in the heavenly ministry and authority of the Church in heaven (c.f. Matt.16:19; Eph.2:6,6:12; Heb.12:22-24). The souls that were beheaded (martyrs) and those who did not worship the beast or receive its mark (the faithful) were the early Christians alive before 70 A.D. who did not turn from Christ to align themselves with pagan Rome and had died and were now in the presence of Christ. The Beast, as I’ve argued in previous sermons, was the Fourth Beast from Daniel 7. Daniel foretold of a fourth tyrannical pagan empire that would be ruling at the time of the coming Messiah. This is why when Luke described the birth of Jesus he made sure to point out that Jesus was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus (see Lk.2:1), the fourth Beast. Receiving the mark of the Beast was not a literal mark just as worshipping the beast wasn’t playing songs or literally bowing down; it meant who you gave your spiritual allegiance to. This is why believers are said to have a mark as well, the mark of the Lord (c.f. Rev.14:1). For more on all this you can listen to a sermon in this series on the mark here.
I take the "coming to life" here as the fullness of the spiritual life that all believers have in Christ for a number of reasons. It’s important to note that life in the bible is described as a union between two things and death is described as a separation between two things. The early Christians were meant to be encouraged knowing that at death, even though their souls would be separated from their bodies, they would be elevated into the fullness of union with God to reign with Christ. So in that sense they would “come to life.” Jesus refers to it this way when he said, “Whoever believes in me though he die, yet shall he live” (Jn.11:25). So upon the physical death of believers, their souls go to be with the Lord and the union with God (spiritual life) that all believers now have (c.f. Jn.5:24, Eph.2:5) is brought into its fullness (see Eph.2:6). Again, that’s why Jesus could go on to say, “And everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Jn.11:26). The life in Christ goes on yet becomes life with Christ. This is what the Apostle Paul looked forward to (c.f. Phil.1:21-23).
Verse 5: The rest of the dead did not comes to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection.
The main confusion in verse 5 seems to be John’s placement of the reference to the first resurrection. John is making a parenthetical point. He briefly addresses where “the rest of dead” go before he comes back to his main focus on the first resurrection that he had mentioned in verse 4. The bible only speaks of two resurrections. Spiritual regeneration is the first resurrection (that refers back to verse 4 and forward to verse 6). The second resurrection is the resurrection of new physical bodies at Christ’s final coming (c.f.1 Cor.15:52). It’s clear in John 5:24-29 that even Jesus had only these two resurrections in mind (first spiritual and then physical).
Now, because we know that all believers upon physical death go to be with the Lord (c.f. Lk. 23:43, Phil. 1:21; 2 Cor. 5:8;), I believe it makes the most sense to take the rest of the dead here to be unbelievers. This is the same group as “the rest who were killed” who were the unbelievers just mentioned in the previous chapter (Rev. 19:21). Unbelievers must wait until the thousand years are over (the reign of Christ) to experience any type of life. We’re told in Scripture that even the unbelieving dead will come to physical life at Christ’s final coming (c.f. Dan. 12:2; Jn. 5:25-29) before they experience the second death mentioned in verse 6 (eternal separation from God and all that is good). So, if the second death is not physical, then why must the first resurrection be physical? It makes the most sense to view them both as spiritual. All unbelievers are currently separated from God because of their sins (the first death) and if they do not receive Christ will one day be eternally separated from God because of their sins (the second death).
Verse 6: 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.
The first resurrection and second death
John now returns back to his main focus on the first resurrection and the reign of Christ. Believers are currently united to God through Christ and experience the blessing and holiness of the new life offered in Jesus. And the second death (eternal separation from God) has no power over the believer. John wants to assure every believer, that union with God now means that this union with God will last forever. As Paul said, “Neither death nor life … will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom.8:38,39).
The present reign of Christ
In my opinion, there are many really good reasons to understand this “1,000 year reign of Christ” to be the period in which we live. Here are just a few:
1) The many other New Testament references (outside of Revelation) to Jesus being born King (Matt.2:1-12, Lk.1:32-33), Jesus proclaiming the kingdom is at hand (Mk.1:15) Jesus being regarded as the current King (Jn.1:49, Acts 17:7), Jesus claiming to have a Kingdom (Jn.18:36, Lk.23:42-43), Jesus entering into Jerusalem as the King (Matt.21:1-9, Jn.12:12-15), and Jesus currently reigning as the King (Acts 2:30,36, 4:25-28; 28:31, Eph.1:20-22, Phil.1:9, Col.1:13, 1 Cor.15:24-25, etc.). If someone looks up all these references (and there’s many more that could be shared), I’m not sure how you can’t conclude that Jesus is currently reigning as King. So what seems to make the most sense is that the binding of Satan for a thousand years paralleled with the reign of Christ for a thousand years means that Jesus is presently reigning and expanding his kingdom to the nations. Christians move out into the world because Jesus is the King, not to make him the King.
2) The number 1,000 used throughout the Bible often means a multitude. In Psalm 50:10, you read that God owns the cattle on 1,000 hills. Are we meant to understand that all the hills after the first thousand are not his? Of course not. The number means a multitude. In 2 Peter 3:8, he asserts that a day to the Lord is like 1,000 years. Again, the number is used to refer to a multitude. And in Revelation 20, I believe it refers to the perfect multitude of time. It stands for the perfect multitude of time between Christ’s first coming and his final coming.
3) The nature of Christ’s kingdom. The Kingdom of God was thought by many in Jesus’ day to come immediately and in a very obvious manner. Therefore, Jesus corrected that type of thinking by the description of the kingdom in so many of his parables. Jesus explained that the Kingdom would expand slowly and in a hidden way. He said that it would be like a mustard seed starting small and then slowly but eventually growing into this great big tree. He said it would be like leaven put into a lump. It’s work would be slow and hidden but eventually it would leaven the entire lump. This is exactly the way Daniel explained the coming Kingdom of God. The stone (kingdom) would start small but slowly it would turn into a great big mountain covering the earth (see Dan.2:31-45). In fact, this is precisely what history has shown us as the gospel has effectively spread to more and more nations. So, just because there's still great evil in the world, doesn't mean that Jesus is not the reigning King. The Apostle Paul reminded us that, "IN all these things we are more than conquerors" (Rom.8:37). God moves in a mysterious way. The way his kingdom was established (through faith, obedience and suffering) is the way that it will be expanded. So, let us take up our cross, and follow him.
Now, as I said in the beginning, this is a very difficult passage to interpret, and good men and women who love the Lord have disagreed on how to look at it. However, I am fully convinced that the Lamb is on the throne, the Spirit is on the move, and the Devil is on the run. Many Christians wonder why we're not gaining so much ground in the culture. It may be because too many of us are living with a "God, get me out of here" type of mentality instead of a "God use me while I'm here" type of mentality. I hope that more and more believers live with hope and optimism that comes from knowing that Jesus IS the King, and with the freedom and joy that comes by living under his present reign. Let's work together to make this world, our King's world, a better place to live. For as the Apostle Paul said, "He must reign until he puts all his enemies under his feet" (1 Cor.15:25).