The Saint's Reign and Satan's Defeat
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. 7 And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8 and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. 9 And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
Of all the questions I’m asked on Revelation, most are about the millennium. “Where do you stand on the thousand years?” I think I found a fitting answer. Walter Mallory was a long-time associate of Thomas Edison. He once learned that Edison tried over nine thousand experiments to devise a new battery. But none of them worked. Mallory says to Edison: “Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?” “Edison turned…and with a smile replied: ‘Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.’”[i] My attempts to interpret chapter 20 feel like that.
But if we try, I think the Lord will bless our efforts and send us away nourished with hope. Blessed is the one who hears and keeps the words of this prophecy.
How does Revelation 20 advance the story?
I’d like to answer five questions. First, how does Revelation 20 advance the story? Revelation is about God’s work in Jesus to replace all rebel kingdoms with his own kingdom. And we learned from 11:18 that, to get there, Jesus must first destroy the destroyers of the earth.” Chapters 12-17 then unveiled the destroyers of the earth. In 12:1-17 we met a Dragon. In 13:1-18, the Beast and False Prophet rise to execute the Dragon’s plan. Then, in 17:1-12, we learned of Babylon the Great.
To bring heaven on earth, Christ must first destroy these destroyers; and that’s what John’s vision reveals from 17 onward. Only it does so in the reverse order.[ii] At the end of 17 and into chapter 18, Babylon falls. Christ then conquers the Beast and False Prophet in 19:20. All that remains is the Dragon. Chapter 20 advances the story by telling us how the Lord will end Satan forever. But in the process, it also speaks to the saints’ vindication, which Jesus promised to all who endure.
Where are these ideas rooted?
Second question: where are these ideas/themes rooted? Once again, John’s vision combines multiple Old Testament contexts. One is Genesis 3. In verse 2, you heard John name the Dragon “that ancient Serpent.” That Serpent who was more crafty than any beast of the field. That Serpent who first said, “Did God actually say?” Adam and Eve enjoyed a paradise like no other, until the Serpent deceived them. In Revelation 20, the Serpent seeks to destroy a new creation ruled by a new Adam. But this Adam succeeds in ending the Serpent’s crafty plots forever.
Another Old Testament passage is Isaiah 24. Isaiah 24 speaks of a future judgment, and verse 21 says this: “On that day the LORD will punish the host of heaven, in heaven, and the kings of the earth, on the earth. They will be gathered together as prisoners in a pit; they will be shut up in a prison, and after many days they will be punished. Then the moon will be confounded and the sun ashamed, for the LORD of hosts reigns on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and his glory will be before his elders.”
Revelation 19-21 follows this prophecy. God punishes the kings of the earth in 19:19-21. Chapter 20 then shows the imprisonment of Satan, who leads the rebellious hosts of heaven. Then, after many days—perhaps symbolized by a thousand years—they will be punished. Chapter 21, the glory of Christ’s reign then shames the sun.
Daniel 7 is another passage. In Daniel 7 we find God ruling in favor of the saints after defeating the worst of the beastly kingdoms. This horn would make war against the saints on earth and he prevails over them, “until,” Daniel 7:22 says, “the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom.” Revelation 20 draws from this prophecy but helps us see its fulfillment in the work of Jesus.
One more…though far too briefly—Ezekiel 38-39. Ezekiel presents a mysterious ruler named Gog from the land of Magog. He’s the worst of the worst. He gathers a mysterious army, and I say mysterious not only because the army is so vast but also because he’s the “chief prince of Meshech and Tubal.” Ezekiel 32:26 describes Meshech and Tubal as already lying dead in Sheol. So, it’s possible that Gog’s army is a rather unconventional one. He rules evil nations likened to those from the underworld. They are diabolical enemies. The bigger picture, though, is that Gog gathers a vast army against the saints dwelling safely in a new Jerusalem under the rule of a new David. But no matter how great the enemy, they remain safe in God’s presence.
I won’t pretend to have Revelation 20 figured out. But I can say with confidence that if you’re going to understand the broader points, these Old Testament passages are crucial to keep in mind.
What does the vision itself portray?
Third question: what does the vision itself portray? First scene—John sees Satan bound. An angel descends from heaven, holding a key. Elsewhere, to have a key symbolizes authority over a certain realm.[iii] This angel has authority over the bottomless pit (or “the abyss”). Remember from 9:1, an angel releases demons from the abyss. It’s the holding place for demonic powers.[iv]
The angel seizes the Dragon, binds him, throws him into the pit, shuts it, and seals it over him for a thousand years. This differs from what happened in 12:9. There, at Jesus’ ascension, Satan was cast from heaven to earth; and he came with great wrath. Satan is very active on earth. He has followers—those who reject Jesus are called a “synagogue of Satan” in 2:9. In 2:13, his throne is on earth. Evidence of his throne is idolatry, false teaching, and persecution—2:10, 24 and 3:9. Satan tries to devour God’s people in 12:13. Satan empowers the Beast to deceive the nations against the church in 13:7. And he’s allowed to do this for 42 months,[v] which we learned symbolizes the entire history of the church between Jesus’ resurrection and his return.
But here God binds Satan to the abyss. He will not be able to deceive the nations any longer—verse 3—until the thousand years were ended. Now, folks debate whether to take the thousand years literally or symbolically. I lean toward the symbolic. Elsewhere John uses multiples of 1,000 to signify completeness—like 144,000 in 7:4 or the dimensions of 12,000 in 21:16. Sometimes 1,000 appears figuratively in the Old Testament—like when the Lord stresses the enduring nature of his faithfulness “to a thousand generations.” It symbolizes a long time. Others have suggested a nod to the Jewish literature of John’s day, in which a thousand years signified the ideal reign of Adam.[vi] Adam never reached that ideal. He only lived to 930 because of sin and his failure to crush the Serpent. By contrast, Jesus starts the final state with a thousand-year rule over the Serpent—he’s the new and better Adam.[vii]
The next scene comes in verses 4-6, the saints reigning. John sees thrones and those seated on thrones include the martyrs.[viii] He sees “the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God.” The next group may further describe the martyrs. But more likely John broadens the group to all “who had not worshiped the Beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands.” Notice, Revelation identifies Christians by the way they live in obedience to Jesus. They bear witness in word and deed even if it means death. They are shunned, hated, decapitated by the world, but here they sit enthroned.
The ESV says “[to them] the authority to judge was committed.” But the way it’s worded clearly alludes to Daniel 7:22; and in that context judgment was given not to the saints but for the saints, meaning for their advantage. That’s the better translation. For centuries God’s people suffer. The souls of these martyrs have cried out, “How long, O Lord, before you will judge and avenge our blood?” (Rev 6:10). And here God finally vindicates them—judgment was given for the saints.
With that also comes their reign. End of verse 4, “They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” Now, some take that to mean they came to life spiritually in this age, like when they’re seated with Christ in the heavenly places—Ephesians 2, or when they die and their soul goes to be with Jesus—Philippians 1. John must be seeing the saints as they are now, spiritually reigning with Jesus.
But I don’t think that works. This word, “they came to life,” is also said of Jesus in 2:8—“he died and came to life” not spiritually but bodily.[ix] Also, look at verse 5: “the rest of the dead [meaning the ungodly dead] did not come to life until the thousand years were ended,” and nearly everyone recognizes that “coming to life” refers to a bodily resurrection for judgment later in verses 11-15. He also says in verse 5, “This is the first resurrection,” and resurrection everywhere else in Scripture refers to bodily resurrection. So, I take John to see the church risen and reigning bodily with Jesus while the ungodly dead stay in their graves for the thousand years.
Verse 6 says, “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power; they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.” If you belong to Jesus, you only die once and then Jesus will raise you bodily to reign with him forever. If you reject Jesus, you will stay in the grave until Jesus raises you to die again, only that second death will be worse than the first. Not the grave again but the lake of fire.
Which brings us round to a third scene in John’s vision: Satan vanquished. Verse 7, “when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea.”
Where’d they come from? Who are they? That’s a natural question, especially after 19:21—the nations were slain by the sword that came from Jesus’ mouth. This has led some to see verses 7-10 narrating the same battle mentioned in 19:11-21. If it’s the same battle, then these nations are not a new group. Rather, John is retelling the same story as before. Chapter 20 has taken us backwards—we’re now viewing the present age from a different angle, and it’s running us to the end again with Armageddon. That’s a valid approach. But I’ll speak to the weaknesses of that view in a minute.
Another option says that some from the ungodly nations survive Jesus’ return. Perhaps they’d point to places like Daniel 7:12 or Zechariah 14 or Isaiah 65. People from many nations live and procreate during the thousand years. They tolerate Jesus’ rule, but their true colors shows when Satan is released once more. I struggle with that take also, because it seems clear that none from the rebel nations survive the second coming.
That has led others to say the nations must be “the rest of the dead,” which John said in verse 5 wouldn’t “come to life until the thousand years were ended.”[x] In this view, the four corners of the earth are like gates to the underworld. In 7:1, angels held them back. But the idea here would be that now the dead are raised and released for a final assault with Satan at the helm. Or, another option, the nations could symbolize an army of demons and spirits of the dead.[xi] Angelic armies sometimes represented earthly nations—like in Daniel 10.[xii] Gog is already a mysterious evil ruler in Ezekiel. He’s like the Dragon in Revelation. His armies are diabolical, likened to cities from the underworld. Gog and Magog may point to Satan and his final army of demons.
Whoever they are, they march up over the broad plain of the earth. They surround the camp of the saints and the beloved city.” Some take that to mean the earthly city of Jerusalem or as symbolizing God’s people. I think “the beloved city” is the New Jerusalem of the new creation already present when this happens. In 19:6-7, the marriage of the Lamb to his Bride happens at Jesus’ return, and 21:2 indicates that the Bride is the New Jerusalem.[xiii] In other words, I’m seeing the thousand years as the inaugural stage of the final state. The saints reign with Jesus in the New Jerusalem, and their security will never be shaken even when God releases the wicked for judgment. Fire comes down from heaven and consumes their enemies. Verse 10, “the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” That is the swift end of the Dragon and his evil hordes. They don’t even touch the saints.
When do these events occur?
That’s the gist of the vision—at least from the way I’m putting things together. Of course, my take also implied some things about timing. Which leads us to question four: when do these events occur? This is hard to figure out because visionary sequence is not always historical sequence. Just because John sees things in a particular order doesn’t always mean it transpires that way in history. Historical sequence is something we must infer by bringing together Scriptures both inside and outside Revelation; and sometimes we just don’t have enough information or we’re just blind to what’s there. Besides that, you must account for the symbolic nature of this prophecy.
Some would say these events happen prior to Jesus’ return. They take what’s called a postmillennial view. Millennial refers to the thousand years. Post means after. They believe Jesus returns after the thousand years. They see chapter 19 as already fulfilled at Jesus’ ascension and the judgment on Jerusalem in AD 70. Satan is then bound such that the gospel will advance without hindrance until humanity progresses to a golden age on earth, lasting a long time. Only then does Jesus’ return.[xiv]
I find this view the least compelling. Nothing close to the universal events of Revelation 19 transpired in AD 70. Also, Revelation doesn’t present history progressing to a golden age prior to Jesus’ return. We can agree that the gospel advances to all nations unhindered. But it does so in the face of great tribulation and increasing persecution until Jesus returns. That’s the consistent witness of the New Testament.
Another approach is the amillennial view. That’s not the best label. They believe in a millennium; they just believe it started with Jesus’ ascension. Perhaps it’s better to call it inaugurated millennialism. This view recognizes that John alludes to Ezekiel 38-39 in both 19:17-21 and in 20:7-10, and in both places John calls it “the war.” So, he must be describing the same event. Also, it makes no sense to bind Satan from deceiving nations, if all the nations are killed in 19:21. Following that line of thought, it must mean that chapter 20 recapitulates—it goes back in time before running us to the end again. Which, for this view, means that the thousand years are now—they symbolize our spiritual life and reign with Jesus throughout the present age.[xv]
That’s more compelling. But if you take that view, it requires you to say that the binding of Satan is not absolute when that seems to be exactly what verses 1-3 are saying. There’s a contrast between 12:12, “Woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath…”—that’s this age—and the age of chapter 20 where Satan can’t deceive the nations at all. Also, the amillennial view requires that the resurrection in v. 4 is spiritual, not bodily; and that doesn’t fit the language or context.
Then there’s the premillennial view—Jesus returns before the millennium. Chapter 20 doesn’t recapitulate. It describes how Jesus’ return initiates the fulfillment of numerous promises given for the suffering church earlier in the book—promises like the saints reigning on the earth and sitting on thrones with Jesus. I also believe the temporal markers of this passage place the thousand years following Jesus’ return.[xvi] For example, when the Lord casts Satan into the Lake of Fire, the Beast and the False Prophet are already there and were put there at Jesus’ return in 19:20.
But even the premillennial view isn’t without difficulties. How, for example, does John use the same prophecy from Ezekiel 38-39 to describe two separate battles? In verse 7, where do the ungodly nations come from, if Jesus already bumped them off at Armageddon? I gave you some options earlier. Also, instead of seeing the resurrection of the just and the unjust as one event at Jesus’ return, this view separates them on either side of the thousand years; and you’ve got to account for that.
Which has also led a few others to say our questions press the symbolism too far. Yes, the millennium follows Jesus’ return, but it has a narrower function. The vision isn’t meant to answer our chronological curiosities. It’s only meant to picture the meaning of the martyr’s triumph. To quote Richard Bauckham, “The theological point of the millennium is solely to demonstrate the triumph of the martyrs: that those whom the Beast put to death are those who will truly live…and for much longer, a thousand years.”[xvii] It’s a state that evil can never again reverse.
So, that’s a few ways the church has tried to figure out the timing of these events. You can have fun with all that! More seriously, these difficulties should make us slow to elevate our millennial position as a test for fellowship in a church and quicker to pray, “Lord, give us eyes to see and ears to hear.”
How should this vision impact us?
No matter where we fall on the timing, though, how should this vision impact us? For starters, the bigger question isn’t when the millennium comes but whether you’re with Jesus in it. Who do you belong to? Who rules your life now? Have you turned from evil and chosen to follow Jesus? The millennium is for the faithful who follow Jesus. The blessing of the first resurrection belongs to those who turn from the Beast and devote their lives to making Jesus known. If you seek power in this world without Jesus, you’ll be sorry. You will perish with Satan. Your end will be the lake of fire. But if you humble yourself to serve Jesus, if you trust in his power to save you and forgive you and lead you, then you will rule with him. His blood will cover your sins. He will save you from the second death, because he died that death in your place.
Also, remember that evil will not prevail. I mentioned earlier Satan’s throne on earth. 1 John 5:19 says the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. 1 Peter 5:8 says that Satan roams around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Elsewhere Satan’s work is tied to tempting with sin, blinding the ungodly, snatching the gospel, standing behind idols, deceiving the world, threatening with death, hindering missionary travels, accusing the saints, persecuting the church, harming the sick. Live long enough in this present evil age with that Dragon, and doubts start rising.
But Revelation 20 reminds us that God has absolute power over the Dragon. Satan is not God’s equal opposite. God’s victory is never in doubt. Satan is under God’s control, and he has an end. Chapter 12 showed us how Jesus’ cross and resurrection already ousted Satan from having a place in heaven—we conquer him by the blood of the Lamb. Then here we see just one angel binding Satan to the abyss. At the end, the Lord casts Satan into the lake of fire. The new and better Adam will not allow Satan to threaten his new and better creation. The state of the saints after Jesus returns will be even better than it was in Eden. Do not fear the Dragon. Do not listen to his lies. Good will prevail over evil. Jesus will finish the victory over evil that he secured at the cross.
The millennium also encourages us to stay faithful in suffering. Consider how this vision would’ve helped the saints in Smyrna? In 2:9, Jesus says to them, “I know your tribulation and your poverty…and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” If you got a message from Jesus like that, what would you be thinking about? Prison? What about the kids? What are they going to do to us? What does tribulation mean? Starve? Threaten? Interrogate? Torture? Rape?
In that moment, what keeps you faithful unto death? A vision of you risen and reigning with Jesus a thousand years. “Satan’s going to imprison you ten days. But I’m going to raise you to reign with me a thousand years.” That’ll keep you holding on. And maybe it’s not ten days for you but ten years, or forty years of suffering. But set it next to the millennium and then an eternity with Jesus in the new heaven and earth—Paul’s words are true: “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed” (Rom 8:18). In comparison, these afflictions are “light” and “momentary” (2 Cor 4:17). “Let’s go! Let’s hold fast to his name and lay down our lives! Those who suffer with Christ will reign with Christ—2 Timothy 2:12. Let’s go!”
That’s how this vision keeps you faithful. These brothers and sisters were faithful unto death—because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. They spoke about him to others. What are you afraid of? Who are you afraid of? Is there some kind of suffering you’re avoiding in the path of obedience? Some awkward conversation you don’t want to have? It’s not worth forfeiting this glory. Let this vision keep you faithful. And if you’re being faithful, let this vision encourage you. I know some of you have taken a stand at work. Morally, you haven’t gone along with the jokes or the so-called “locker-room banter”—you haven’t bowed the knee to the Beast—and that hasn’t made you very popular. It’s made you the target of ridicule. You’ve become the brunt of everyone else’s jokes for staying faithful to Jesus—and some days that means it’s hard to keep showing up to work. Jesus is going to raise you up and let you reign with him. The millennium says, “It’s totally worth it. Don’t give up.”
Finally, trust in the Lord to bring the kingdom. Listen to this word from I. Howard Marshall: “[The millennium] stands as a reminder…that human effort will not bring about the golden age. The hope of the millennium signals the bankruptcy of human hopes and reminds us that we cannot build the future on secular hopes and promises. There is a paradox about progress. On the one hand, we have seen and continue to see dramatic advances in technology which becomes ever more intricate and effective. But on the other hand, moral and spiritual progress is a different matter. Our generation has seen human cruelty on a scale unheard of before.”
Marshall then recounts the numerous atrocities of the 20th century and asks, “Is it fair to draw the lesson that human inventiveness and skill has no answer to the dark side of life today?”[xviii] I think we’d all say, “Yes, that’s a fair assessment.” I even discussed this with our women last Wednesday in relation to government—that while government is a legitimate provision, it’s temporary. It’s not our ultimate hope. Human governments will not bring utopia. The perfect comes with Jesus. So, set your hopes in his kingdom and pray for it to come on earth as it is in heaven.
[i] Frank Lewis Dyer, Edison: His Life and Inventions (South Carolina: Create Space, 2017), 125.
[ii] Koester, Revelation, 750.
[iii] E.g., Rev 1:18; 3:7; 9:1; cf. Matt 16:19.
[iv] Cf. 2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6.
[v] Rev 12:6, 14; 13:5.
[vi] E.g., Jub 4:30; 23:15; 2 Bar 17:2.
[vii] Charles E. Hill, “Revelation,” in A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament: The Gospel Realized, ed. Michael J. Kruger (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 553.
[viii] Literally, “And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given for them, and the souls of those who has been beheaded…” Left unspecified, verse 4 may allude to Daniel 7:9. More likely, though, John doesn’t identify those on the throne until later in verse 4 (especially since they “reign”).
[ix] Cf. also the apparent physical resurrection in Rev 13:4.
[x] J. Webb Mealy, After the Thousand Years: Resurrection and Judgment in Revelation 20, JSNTS 70 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1992), 120-42.
[xi] Hoskins, Revelation, 405-13.
[xii] Also, Joel’s prophecy has a locust army that anticipates a human army that, a we saw in Revelation 9, anticipates a demonic army.
[xiii] Paul M. Hoskins, “The New Jerusalem as the Beloved City of the Millennium in Revelation 20,” TrinJ 42 (2021): 151-66.
[xiv] Keith A Mathison, Postmillenialism: An Eschatology of Hope (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1999), 154-57; Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., “Postmillennialism,” in Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 50-55.
[xv] R. Fowler White, “Reexamining the Evidence for Recapitulation in Rev 20:1-10,” WTJ 51 (1989): 319-44; G. K. Beale, “The Millennium in Revelation 20:1-10: An Amillennial Perspective,” CTR 11/1 (Fall 2013): 29-62.
[xvi] Eckhard J. Schnabel, “The Viability of Premillennialism and the Text of Revelation,” JETS 64.4 (2021): 785-95.
[xvii] Richard Bauckham, Theology of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1993), 107-08.
[xviii] I. Howard Marshall, “The Christian Millennium,” EQ 72:3 (2000), 217-35.