Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Survey of Revelation 20:1-6

Revelation 20:1–6
"[1] Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. [2] And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, [3] 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. 
[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 and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped 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. [5] The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. [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."
Revelation 20:1-6 has been a much debated passage in discussions about what the Bible teaches about the future. Its mention of a "thousand years" has given rise to the common labels for eschatological views (i.e. views of the future): premillennialism (i.e. Christ returns before the thousand years), amillennialism (i.e. there is no literal or earthly thousand year reign), and postmillennialism (i.e. Christ returns after the thousand years, whether literal or figurative). Here I give a brief survey of this passage, first giving the premillennial explanation (Mounce, Bauckham, Keener), and then responding with the amillennial (Beale) and postmillennial (Mathison, Chilton) explanation. 

How bound is Satan? Is this a total or partial restriction of activity?

Some would interpret the binding of Satan in this passage to be a “complete cessation of his influence on earth.” They would appeal to the way words like “bound,” “threw,” “shut,” and “sealed” are used in this passage (Mounce, 360-362).

Others, though, point out that the binding of Satan is defined and qualified by the purpose clause, "so that he might not deceive," in verse 3 (Mathison, 155; Beale, 428-429; Chilton, 499-504). Satan is bound in such a way as to not deceive the nations anymore. He is unable to prevent the spread of the gospel. Satan is defeated, although not inactive. Scripture is quite capable of speaking this way about Satan current condition resulting from Christ’s work during his first coming (binding of the strong man: Matt. 12:19, Mark 3:27; fall of Satan and the authority given to disciples to trample him: Luke 10:18-19, John 12:31, Rom. 16:20; disarming demonic forces: Col. 2:15; rendering Satan powerless: Heb. 2:14). This passage also seems to describe the same events of Revelation 12:7-12, which would place the timing immediately following Christ’s ascension (Rev. 12:6).

When are the thousand years? Are they literal or figurative?

A number of people will take this passage to refer to a literal 1,000 year period (many premillennialists and some postmillennialists). Others, on the other hand, take it as a symbol that teaches us a truth, without reference to how it works out historically. “John expected the martyrs to be vindicated, but the millennium depicts the meaning, rather than predicting the manner of their vindication” (Bauckham, 108; see also Mounce, 369).

I would agree with Beale in understanding this millennium as figurative and historical, referring to the time between Christ’s first and second comings. Beale describes several reasons to take the millennium figuratively, such as the figurative use of numbers in the context and in Revelation in general, the use of “thousand years” figuratively elsewhere in Christian and Jewish literature, and the fact that this is the only time that a millennium is mentioned in Scripture (Beale, 435).

Are the thousand years before or after Christ’s coming? 

Some would argue that the millennium follows Christ’s coming and precedes the final judgment (Keener, 463). This view depends on a reading of Revelation that takes the visions John sees as describing events that all happen one after another. They will point out that chapter 19 describes Christ’s second coming, so Revelation 20:1-6 must describe a period after this.

On the other hand, I believe that the visions of Revelation sometimes describe the same events. Even in our passage, verses 1-3 describe the whole millennium and then verses 4-6 (introduced by another “and I saw”) describe the same millennium, this time focusing on the faithful, rather than on the dragon. Likewise, it is argued that Revelation 20:1-6 does not follow after the events of 19:11-21, but that it recaps the events from Christ’s first coming to His second. Beale argues that 19:11-21 is parallel to 20:7-10, and that the vision of 20:1-6 is therefore prior to 19:11-21 (Beale, 420-426). Chilton argues that 19:11-21 presents the spread of the kingdom in general, especially against Rome, and that it parallels the millennium (Chilton, 506-507; Mathison, 154-155; in favor of this, it can also be said that Christ describes his activity in the 1st century in 2:16 in the same terms as are used in 19:11-21). Either way, the millennium does not follow Christ’s coming. (See also the discussion of Satan’s binding, above.)

Who is ruling with Christ?

Some would argue that only the martyrs participate in this millennial reign, reading verse 4 to refer to one group of people (Mounce, 365-368; Bauckham, 106-108). Others would argue that all deceased Christians participate in this reign (Beale, 437). More convincing is the idea that the whole church, on earth and in heaven, shares in this reign, although the passage emphasizes the reign of the martyrs because they in particular appear defeated (Mathison, 156; Chilton, 508-515; Osborne, 703-704). Verse 4 seems to speak of two groups: (1) the martyrs in particular and (2) whoever had not worshiped the beast. This would also fit with what other passages say about the authority and heavenly position given to all believers (Luke 10:19, Dan. 7:22-27, Eph. 2:6, Rev. 12:11, 15:2).

What is the “first resurrection”? In what way do the martyrs and faithful come to life in verse 4?

This first resurrection is taken by some to be the bodily resurrection of the martyrs (or all Christians), while unbelievers await resurrection unto the second death at the end of the millennium.

Beale argues that this first resurrection is a spiritual exaltation in the intermediate state (Beale, 438-451). He describes it as the “ascent of the soul at the time of death into the Lord’s presence” (Beale, 443). The reference to the “souls” of the martyrs coming to life (rather than the body) would be part of the argument for this position.

Others would agree that there is only one general bodily resurrection, but explain the first resurrection as our regeneration and coming to new life in Christ (Mathison, 156). John, the author of Revelation, made a similar point in his gospel when he recorded that Jesus spoke of some of the dead coming to life now and all the dead coming to life in a bodily resurrection later (John 5:25, 28-29). The first resurrection is therefore not merely a sign that one is blessed and holy, free from the second death, and priests and kings, but it is what actually makes them so. Being born again in this age is the key to your spiritual position now and your destiny following the general resurrection on the last day.


Bauckham, Richard. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1993.
Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.

- Chilton, David. The Days of Vengeance. Horn Lake, MS: Dominion Press, 2006.
- Keener, Craig S. Revelation. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000. 
- Mathison, Keith A. Postmillennialism. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub, 1999.

- Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., 1977.

- Osborne, Grant R. Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.

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