Interpreting Revelation 20
The Book of Revelation is one of the most difficult books in the Bible to understand. Cautious Bible students quickly recognize they must never be dogmatic interpreting the book. There are numerous speculations offered by various millennial and dispensationalist interpreters, most of which fall far short of making anything like sense out of the book. Today, on this broadcast I will present some general principles that are intended to make sense of the book and offset some of the false notions being offered by over zealous speculators.
Rev 20:1-6 reads: “And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, the old serpent, which is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and cast him into the abyss, and shut (it), and sealed (it) over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years should be finished: after this he must be loosed for a little time. And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and (I saw) the souls of them that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, and for the word of God, and such as worshipped not the beast, neither his image, and received not the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they lived, and reigned with Christ a thousand years. The rest of the dead lived not until the thousand years should be finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: over these the second death hath no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.” Please consider the following principles in order.
1. The Book of Revelation contains nothing that is not found elsewhere in the Bible. The teaching in Revelation may be couched in figures of speech, visions, and symbolism, but the message of the book illustrates plain teaching found elsewhere in the Bible. Millennialists, who believe in an imaginary millennial (thousand year’s) reign of Christ here on earth when he returns, object to this.
Dr. William Milligan, in The Baird Lectures, said: “By these passages (Rev. 20:1-6) more than any others of the book, may we test the theory that the Apocalypse is no more than the expansion, in its own peculiar form, of ideas contained in other passages of the New Testament.” (Lectures on the Apocalypse, Macmillan and Co, New York, 1892, page 194.
2. Revelation 20 must be understood in the setting of the entire book and in harmony with the entire Bible. Rev. 14:8 shows Babylon, the degenerate apostate city, has fallen. Revelation 19 begins with praise to the God of Heaven who has opened the heavens and the victorious Redeemer comes forth on a white horse. His armies from heaven follow, “clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses.” (Verse 11). The final triumph is announced. Every foe shall be vanquished and Christ will be Lord over all. The vision shows Christ dressed with great symbols of authority and power. On his head is a crown of many diadems, symbols of the many kingdoms who now recognize Him as King of kings, and Lord of lords. On his thigh a name is written, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”
The enemies of the Lord gather together to meet their doom. The kings, captains, mighty men are obviously symbols of those who defy Christ and harm his people. Verse 19 reads, “And I saw the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army.” Again, Dr. Milligan remarked, “The battle is not to be thought of as literal. It is but a figure to set forth the fixed, undying hatred of the world to God and his people.” (Ibid., page 195).
The battle ends when the beast and the false prophet are cast into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone and the remainder are slain with the sword by the Lord himself. This cannot be literal! The fact that the sword of the Lord is wielded from the Lord’s mouth is proof plenty that it is absurd to interpret this literally. Of course, many literalists have little reluctance to interpret the book of Revelation to make it present a ludicrous, impossible, and absurd view. Who really believes Jesus will be swinging a sword around holding it only in His mouth! That may be good science fiction, but it is not Bible.
3. Revelation 20 must be understood in close relation to the passages preceding and following it. This vision John saw is in no way new to the book of Revelation. The previous chapter shows three great foes of God and his people -- the devil, the beast, and the false prophet. From the time they are introduced they are shown trying every possible method to disrupt and destroy the purpose of God and his people. For a time they appear to be successful. They instigate persecution against the saints. The saints flee for safety. Many of them are slain. The message of this great book is one of promise and hope. God’s people will recover and ultimately be victorious.
The l9th chapter indicates the victory is not far away. Through the book of Revelation one sees the tide gradually turning away from the success of evil to the ultimate victory of good. Under the leadership of Christ, King and Lord, the final conflict with evil will be won. It is sacrilegious and foolish to make this a literal battle with Christ as the commander-in-chief. The best explanation of the beast is that it represents ancient imperial Rome, and the false prophet represents the false worship of the Roman Caesar. This is a divine prophecy of the eventual fate of the ancient Rome. The devil is dealt with in chapter 20.
4. The main idea of Revelation 20 is not the millennium but the victory over Satan. There are those who think the entire message of Revelation is either leading up to the millennium or is the actual millenium. Both views are totally out of harmony with the remainder of the book. Elsewhere, events are introduced by angelic beings, who either open seals, sound trumpets, or pour out bowls of God’s wrath. No such thing is found in the first ten verses of chapter twenty. No fresh series of visions is introduced. The mention of the “thousand years” is merely incidental to the main topic of the vision. The culmination of a complete victory for God and his people is the subduing of Satan and all his forces. The beast and the false prophet (Rome and Caesar worship) have already been crushed.
Some may ask, “What then does the thousand years mean if it doesn’t mean the literal and earthly millennial reign of Christ from Jerusalem, where he is to occupy the literal throne of David?” “What is meant by the binding of Satan?” These and other questions must be considered -- not because they are important to our salvation or the enjoyment of serving the Lord, but because of the multitude of unwarranted speculations the millennialists have generated.
There are some general considerations that will help us understand some of these questions. The thousand years cannot be a literal time period because:
1. The thousand years is supposed to follow the resurrection of the dead and to take place here on earth. The saints are allegedly to be the ones to enjoy this in a body very similar to the one they now have. If this idea is true, it is out of harmony with everything else the Bible says about the resurrection of the body. Christians are urged to look forward to a glorified body, a glorified existence, not merely a rejuvenated earthly body. “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself” (Phil. 3:20-21). Lazarus was raised from the dead (John 11) and returned to his daily affairs in life with his family and friends. That is not what the Christian is offered. There is no real hope in merely coming back to life here on earth in this old body. What the Christian should hope for is a home in heaven, where Christ has gone. Jesus did not rise from the dead to remain on earth, nor to return to earth. There is not a passage in the Bible that teaches that Jesus will ever again set foot on this earth. If you think there is such a passage, please let me know where it is. You won’t find it -- it is not there.
2. Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of God. “For he who has entered his rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:10) Also, “He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things” (Eph. 4:10). There is absolutely no basis for the kind of existence the millennialists, the so-called Jehovah’s Witnesses, or other dispensationalists claim for this fictional millennium.
3. The difficulty is compounded when verse three is read. Notice: “and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished. But after these things he must be released for a little while.” The devil is to be cast into a “bottomless pit.” Think about that -- a pit with no bottom? The devil is to be locked in this pit -- but with no bottom? How could a bottomless pit contain anything? Millennialists – will you interpret this as literal as you do the thousand years? I trow not!
4. Satan is to be locked in the pit, shut up, and retained for a thousand years. After that is to be released for a short while. During this thousand years the devil is kept away from “the nations.” These nations are those outside of the Kingdom of Christ. They are prepared to wage war against the kingdom of Christ the very instant the thousand years are finished. The millennialists have to deal with the problem of sin during this period of time. What is the source of evil during this extended millennium? The text says that just as soon as the devil is released from the bottomless pit he goes forth “to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth (by the way, the earth has no literal “corners,” does it?)” (verse 8). Sin originates with Satan. Let some millennialist find how sin will be kept in existence during this fictional millennium.
5. If the expression “thousand years” means a literal thousand years, this is the only place in the entire book of Revelation where numbers can be taken literally for certain. Even the most rabid dispensationialist does not take other numeric designations in Revelation literally. And Revelation uses numeric values repeatedly. Who has not heard of “666,” the number of a man (Rev. 13:18). Or take the numbers 12, 10, 3 1/2, and 7. These all have a symbolic meaning and are not to be taken literally. But the millennial speculators must take the thousand years of chapter twenty literally. Who is willing to explain all the other numeric time values in the book and show how they are not literal but the thousand years is? It would be fascinating to hear someone make such an endeavor.
Do not be misled into thinking there will come to this earth a millennium of peace, prosperity, and bliss. That won’t be realized till faithful saints are called away from this world to heaven. Look for the next installation of this topic.
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