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We continue our study of the Book of Revelation with Revelation 20, which is excluded from the three-year Lectionary.

As such, it is part of the ongoing Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential for our understanding of Scripture and God’s plan for His people.

Today’s reading is taken from the King James Version.  Exegetical sources are given at the end of the post.

Revelation 20

1And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.

2And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,

3And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.

4And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.

5But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.

6Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.

7And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison,

8And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog, and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.

9And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.

10And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

11And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.

12And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.

13And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.

14And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.

15And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

————————————————————–

If you have been following this series, you will have noticed that I have relied on a Lutheran pastor’s writings for much of my exegesis of Revelation.

The Revd Thomas C Messer, of Peace Lutheran Church in Alma, Michigan, has studied the Book of Revelation closely, written about it and given a course on it to his congregation.  For today’s post, I shall be using not only his notes on the whole of Revelation 20 but also a lengthy paper which examines verses 1 – 6 in greater detail.  Pastor Messer has one of the best examinations of amillenialism online — in fact, it might be the only one in a sea of dispensationalist interpretations of this great and final book of the canon.

Those who believe in a literal translation say that Revelation 20 is a chronological follow-on from Revelation 19.  However, Pr Messer and other mainline Protestant and Catholic scholars posit that Revelation 20 is an overall view of Satan between Jesus’s life on Earth and His Second Coming.  Pr Messer explains (emphases mine throughout):

Chapter 20 is not a continuation of 19, but rather shows another depiction of Satan’s doom (the two beasts were manifestations of Satan and thus, when they’re thrown into the lake of fire, it is Satan who is thrown in). Thus, when we get to 20:1, we are beginning with the casting out of Satan from heaven (Rev. 12), which is depicted as being bound and thrown into the Abyss. Then, we get a look at the entire NT era, in which the saints rule with Christ for “1000 years.” Then, we see Satan’s release (short season) just before the Parousia and, finally, his ultimate judgment (thrown into lake of fire). Thus, what we see in Chapter 20 is a picture from the crucifixion to the Second Coming.

The angel in verse 1 is Christ Jesus, recalling Revelation 5:5, wherein only He had the authority to open the scroll with the seven seals.  Pr Messer writes:

First, this Angel has the key to the Abyss, which is the same thing as having the key to death and hades (1:18), which Christ says of Himself. Also, Christ has the power and authority to bind Satan. He speaks of binding Satan in Matt. 12:25-29, where He binds the “strong man.” Confer also, John 12:31, where Christ speaks of the “ruler of this world” being cast out as a result of His ministry and crucifixion.

The binding of Satan in verse 2 began with Jesus’s ministry on Earth and achieved completion at His death and resurrection.  This binding does not mean that Satan’s powers are null and void but that he no longer can confer directly with God to cast aspersions on people as he does in the Book of Job.  Recall that Revelation 12 describes St Michael the Archangel throwing Satan and his angels out of Heaven.  Here, among saints and sinners alike, Satan does his work against his foe Christ Jesus and His bride, the Church.  Satan cannot prevent the spread of the Gospel.  Pr Messer describes him like this:

He is like a chained dog, who will bite you if you come into his sphere, but cannot harm you as long as you stay out of reach. Since Christ’s crucifixion, “one little word can fell” Satan. He is judged and cannot harm us, unless we fall under his sphere of influence by entering his world of evil. We have a beautiful and comforting picture of the extent to which Christ’s work has bound Satan in this passage.

Before Christ comes again, Satan must be ‘loosed a little season’, for reasons best known only to God.  During this time, he will be able to prevent the spread of the Gospel, which will result in great apostasy.  He will manifest his power through the End Time Antichrist for a final assault on the Church.  It is, therefore, unsurprising that many believers think we might be in the last throes of the world right now.  How many of our churches preach and teach Holy Scripture?  How many Christians are true to Christ?

The ‘thousand years’ in verse 3 pose a problem for many.  Are they literal or in line with the traditions of Messianic literature, therefore, meant to be interpreted as symbolic of completion? As we saw in Revelation 7, numbers in this tradition signify perfection and/or completion.  Therefore, these thousand years should be interpreted in the same manner and not taken literally.

In verse 4, St John is given a divine vision of the saints in Heaven, those who suffered in Christ’s name and did not bear the spiritual mark of the beast.  The thousand-year reign also refers to the whole of the New Testament era, regardless of its length.

So, how do we understand verse 5, which speaks of a later time and the first resurrection?  Pr Messer tells us:

First resurrection = conversion (not a reference to a physical resurrection) (cf. John 5); Second resurrection = bodily resurrection of all people on the Last Day.

and further to this in verse 6, which mentions a second death with no power:

First death = original sin (according to some) or physical death (according to most); Second death = eternal death. Everyone is born spiritually dead, but those who are brought to faith through the Gospel by the Holy Spirit, are born again from above and made alive in Christ. For these, the “second death” has no power over them. The second death is total separation from God and includes everlasting punishment. It is much, much worse than the first death, for people live under God’s providential care while on this earth. But, if they die in unbelief, they will experience complete death. They will be raised on the Last Day and see what true life is, but they will not be permitted to experience it. They will be cast into Hell bodily forever.

We see reference to the second death again in verse 14, confirming the everlasting judgment of the ‘lake of fire’ for unbelievers.

I realise that this is alarming for some passers-by to read.  This is why it is essential to ensure we have our souls in order at all times.  We do not know when Christ will return.  It could be soon or it could be long after our deaths.  This makes the prospect of our own death an even more urgent matter.  Would we be ready to pass from this mortal coil today and face our Saviour?  Have we done a personal housecleaning and taken an inventory of the state of our own hearts and souls?  Something to think about!

Verse 7 reiterates verse 3 regarding Satan’s ‘little season’, which will be infinitesmal by comparison with the New Testament era, yet will be long enough to cause real suffering to believers around the world as he is unleashed to ‘deceive the nations’ one final time.

Again, this will be a battle of persecution and belief.  True Christians will suffer physically or psychologically during this terrible time.  However, although Gog and Magog are mentioned in verse 8, this will not be an actual warlike battle.  Pr Messer writes:

“Gog and Magog” are not literal nations! They represent all the pagan nations of the earth that Satan will raise up in opposition against the Church (cf. Ezek. 38 and 39, where “Gog and Magog” represent the archenemies of Israel). What we have depicted here is another picture of the battle of Armageddon (cf. Rev. 16:16), in which Satan gathers his army for the final assault on Christ’s Church.

And (see PDF pages 38 – 40) of  verses 8 – 10:

Satan’s “little season” will not be a literal, physical battle between the forces of evil and the church of Christ. Revelation makes it very clear throughout that Satan has already been completely defeated by the Lamb who was slain. Christ and His saints need not engage in physical warfare with the devil, for Christ has already won total victory through His
physical death on the cross …

What Daniel prophe[s]ies about here is the Antichrist, the End-Time opponent of Christ, who will appear for a “little season” (“time, times, and half a time”) shortly before the Second Coming of Christ. That this is related to Satan’s “little season” is made even more clear in Dan. 8:23-27 …

We also have further OT evidence that helps us to understand Satan’s “little season.” Ezekiel 38-39, especially 38:18-23, describes “Gog” coming against “the land of Israel.” The context of those chapters shows that this “Gog” refers to the End-Time opponent of Christ, who makes war on the church for a “little season” during the “last days.” This is the very language that John uses in Rev. 20:8, showing the continuity between the accounts …

2 Thessalonians 2 provides the clearest picture of the nature of this End-Time opponent … Like Dan. 8 above, his power is not his own, but he comes “by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders” (v. 9) … This passage ends with perhaps the greatest indication as to why God must allow Satan’s “little season,” for it is to send them (unbelievers) “a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (vv. 11-12). This is all that God reveals to us as to why this is necessary and to speculate any further is futile, as stated above. That the activity of this “man of lawlessness” is synonymous with Satan’s “little season” is made clear by the text when it notes that when the “lawless one will be revealed, the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming” (v. 8 ). In sum, this “man of lawlessness” is the Antichrist, the End-Time opponent of Christ, through whom the activity of Satan is manifest in order to deceive the nations for a “little season.”

So, in verse 10 — Satan (the Devil, the dragon of Revelation 12) along with his blasphemous manifestations in the beast (the false Christ) and the false prophet (the false Holy Spirit) meet their eternal punishment of fire and brimstone.

Verses 11 – 15 show us the Final Judgment.  On that fateful Last Day, everyone — believers and unbelievers — will appear before that ‘great white throne’.  Agnostics and atheists absolve themselves from this final judgment.  To say they will be surprised and shocked to find out otherwise is an understatement.

Many Christians — not just children — have difficulty understanding what happens between our deaths and the Final Judgment.  Pr Messer explains this clearly — and this is something you can pass on to the young ones in your family:

All people will appear before Christ on that great and dreadful Day. Those who have died will be resurrected, both unbelievers and believers. Their spirits, which have been residing in either heaven or hell, will be reunited with the bodies they had while living on earth. Those who are living will appear in their bodies before the throne of Christ. Believers have the promise that their resurrected bodies (or “changed” bodies, if they are alive when Christ returns) will be glorified and perfect (cf. 1 Cor. 15 – The Great Resurrection Chapter). Unbelievers will go into eternity in their corruptible bodies.

That ‘there was found no place for them’ means that our universe will have been transformed to reveal Christ to everyone, no matter where they are.  That day will be so awe-inspiring and fearsome for unbelievers and indescribably joyful for the faithful. If this isn’t an image with which to conjure over the coming weeks, particularly as we head towards Lent, I don’t know what is.

Verses 12 and 13 describe us all standing before God, the great books in front of Him.  He will judge unbelievers by the sins they have committed — their works against Him — all of which will have been documented.  ‘Another’ book will contain what we hope are our names inscribed therein — the Book of Life.

Note that verse 14 again mentions ‘the second death’ of verse 6.  This second death is everlasting punishment and torment for unbelievers, including a separation from God which has no end.  Those who deny God have not truly thought this through.  If they have an ounce of interest or curiosity in the Word, may they pray: ‘Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief’ (Mark 9:24).

For some of us, verse 13 may confuse the question of faith versus works.  Pr Messer tells us:

It is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, that we are declared righteous (cf. Rom. 3:28). We cannot merit this grace by our works. But, the Final Judgment is based on works. It is not merely arbitrary. There will be no cause for complaint or appeal, for it will be shown to all what each person has done. Believers, since they are clothed in the righteousness of Christ and forgiven of all sins, have no bad works to be put on display. Only the good work that they have done, or rather that Christ has done through them, will be revealed. Unbelievers, on the other hand, have absolutely no good works. Even the most civilly decent among them, those who may have accomplished many wonderful and charitable works while living on earth, have no good works, for all their works are tainted with sin. Thus, they only have bad works put on display on that Day. So, in the end, the Final Judgment is actually based on whether or not people believed in Jesus Christ, since their works are completely dependent upon that.

It is difficult to imagine what this day will be like.  Because we cannot fully comprehend the nature of God or His Son, this, too, is equally difficult to understand. For unbelievers (verse 15), it is the beginning of a never-ending death sentence.

However, for those whose names are written in the Book of Life, this will be the beginning of a glorious eternity, where we reign with Him in unending joy and true happiness.

Next week: Revelation 21:8-21

Further reading:

‘Living and Reigning with Christ’ – The Revd Thomas C Messer (LCMS)

‘Revelation – Chapter 20 Notes’ – The Revd Thomas C Messer

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