Studies in Revelation—Lesson 33
by Reta Halteman Finger
An angel, a dragon, a bottomless pit, thrones and priests, a lake of fire! As we near the end of human history in John’s narrative, familiar images are mixed with new ones like “Gog and Magog,” and the story now stretches over a thousand years!
This lesson covers the fourth and fifth of the seven visions introduced in Lesson 31. In the fourth vision (Rev. 20:1-3), an angel seizes Satan and throws him into the bottomless pit, “so that he would deceive the nations no more” (v. 3) until the end of a thousand years.
The fifth vision has two parts. Verses 4-6 describe an interlude where John sees thrones occupied by “the souls” of beheaded martyrs and other faithful Christians who have died, (Recall Rev. 6:9-10). Now they have come to life and reign with Christ. John calls this “the first resurrection,” although there is no distinctly labeled “second resurrection.”
The fifth vision then reverts back to Satan who has been released from his prison at the end of the millennium. He again deceives the nations and gathers them for battle (Rev. 20:7-8). They surround “the camp of the saints and the beloved city” (v. 9)—but, as before in 19:19-21, no battle occurs. Fire consumes all of them, and the devil is thrown into “the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” to join the beast and the false prophet (19:20). This time the banishment is forever. Evil is destroyed, and the end has come!
Familiar symbols repeated again
Whatever John sees in these visions is consistent with previous images and symbols he has used, as well as additional ones from earlier apocalypses. With the exception of 2 Peter 3:8, the use of “the thousand years” is mentioned only here (vv. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 of Rev. 20). “As a cube of ten, a thousand years represents a total and complete period,” says James Resseguie (p. 244). Tens always stand for total power, such as the dragon’s ten horns and the beast’s ten diadems and horns (Rev. 12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 7, 12, 16). Other multiples of ten, such as the 144,000, represent the total people of God.
The four words used for the source of evil in 20:2—dragon, ancient serpent, devil, Satan—refer back to Revelation 12:9 where the dragon is cast down to earth. Now the angel binds the dragon, and he descends in chains to the underworld. Charles Talbert, familiar with many Jewish apocalypses, notes that “ancient Judaism knew of a temporary binding of evil powers before the final judgment” (see Isaiah 24:21-22 and the inter-testamental apocalypses, 1 Enoch, Jubilees, and the Testament of Levi) (The Apocalypse, p. 91). Jesus also speaks of “binding the strong man” before plundering Satan’s house in Mark 3:20-27 (par. Matt. 12:29; Lk 11:17-23) (Miller, Revelation, p. 167).
With the total destruction of human armies in Rev. 19:17-21, scholars debate whether Satan’s army in 20:8-9 may instead represent a demonic army of the dead. As possible evidence for the latter, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza cites an ancient belief that “the doors to the underworld were thought to be located at the four ends of the earth” (Revelation, p. 107). In addition, “Gog and Magog” (Ezekiel 38-39) had become mythical names even before John’s time.
If so, concludes Schüssler Fiorenza, this vision may refer to the army described already in 9:1-11 and 16:13-16. “The ‘events’ described in these visions,” she continues, “do not take place in time and space but belong to the ‘beyond’ of human history; therefore, they are depicted in very ancient mythological language and imagery.”
An interlude of reassurance
Sandwiched between Satan’s binding and final destruction is the first half of John’s fifth vision (vv. 4-6). This scene recapitulates the sealing of the 144,000 in 7:1-8 and the measuring of the temple in 11:1-2—to assure John’s audience of God’s protection of those who had not worshiped the beast (20:4c). These martyrs and other faithful dead were given two roles: to reign with Christ, and to serve as priests (vv. 4, 6), echoing 1 Peter 2:9 where Peter’s marginalized, immigrant audience is called “a royal priesthood.” (As we picture this, do not forget that at least half of this group are women!) These participants in “the first resurrection” receive a blessing in Revelation 20:6, the fifth of seven beatitudes scattered throughout this apocalypse.
That mysterious millennium
Though mentioned only here in Revelation, the concept of the millennium has dominated the eschatology of some Jewish and Christian groups. Some readers recognize this term in recent popular books like The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey and the Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. In a later lesson, I will discuss millennial theories in more detail and relate it to current views of “Christian Zionism.”
But its roots began in the Hebrew Bible with two different kinds of eschatology. “Prophetic eschatology pictured a this-worldly fulfillment of God’s purpose,” says Eugene Boring in his commentary. Evil would be overcome, and God’s millennial reign would flourish. In contrast, apocalyptic eschatology saw this world as hopelessly evil. The Messiah would be a transcendent figure, announcing an other-worldly salvation. By John’s time, these two views had been combined. First, a this-worldly messiah would bring salvation during a transitional kingdom, followed by eternal life in a new world (Boring, p. 207).
Keep these eschatological tensions in mind as we work through the final chapters of Revelation.
Questions for discussion or reflection
- Are you familiar with any end-time teaching from your church background or from popular culture (books, films, TV preaching, or end-time websites)?
- The devil is characterized as one who “deceives the nations” (Rev. 20:3, 7-8). How are people deceived today through fake news or the addictive nature of “persuasive technology”? (See Time, “The Masters of Mind Control,” April 23, 2018, pp. 30-37.)
Boring, Eugene. Revelation. Interpretation Commentary. John Knox Press, 1989, p. 207.
Miller, John M. Revelation: Making Sense of Its Message in the 21st Century. Leola Publisher, 2009, p. 167.
Resseguie, James L. The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009, p. 244.
Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Revelation: Vision of a Just World. Proclamation Commentary. Augsburg Fortress, 1991, pp. 107-108.
Talbert, Charles H. The Apocalypse. Westminster John Knox, 1994, p. 91.