The twentieth chapter of Revelation presents us with some curious puzzles. Who was the angel that bound the devil and what was the great chain that he used to do this? In fact, what does it mean for Satan to be bound? How will the saints judge during the thousand years? What is the first resurrection? What is the second death? These and many other questions surface as one studies this intriguing section of God’s Word.
It is my opinion that the interpretation of this chapter given by the Reverend J. Marcellus Kik in his book, An Eschatology of Victory, is simply unsurpassed. A lot of what I have to say is based on his work.
The Binding of Satan
The first three verses of Revelation 20 describe the binding of Satan. Assuming that most of Revelation will be fulfilled in the future, premillennialists say that the binding of Satan will occur at the second coming of the Lord. They argue that evil would not be present in the world if the binding of Satan had already taken place.
However, there are four passages in the New Testament that teach unmistakably that Satan is already bound, that he has been judged and cast into the abyss. All of this took place during, and because of, the earthly ministry of Christ.
We’ll begin with Luke 10:18. The seventy disciples whom Jesus had sent out to preach the gospel came back amazed that even the demons were subject to them. Jesus replied simply, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven — a past event. Because Satan had already fallen, the disciples had authority to trample him and his cohorts into the dust.
Matthew 12:22-30 is also to the point. After Jesus cast a demon out of a blind and mute demoniac, the Pharisees accused him of doing so by the power of the devil. In response Jesus made several things clear. First, no empire can withstand the kind and degree of internal division that would be necessary for Satan to cast out Satan (vv. 25–26) without destroying itself. Second, if the exorcism of demons requires Satanic power, then the Pharisees also condemn themselves and those who followed them because they too practiced exorcisms (v. 27). In fact, exorcisms were fairly common among the Jews in the first century. Josephus, for example, tells about exorcists who used Solomon’s ring to pull demons out of a man through his nose (Antiq. 8.45–49). Third, in light of this the only acceptable interpretation of a real exorcism is that it was done by the finger or Spirit of God, which would also mean that the kingdom of God was already present during Christ’s ministry (v. 28). But before a kingdom can be established, its enemy must be restrained (v. 29). Thus, the fact that Jesus cast out demons shows unmistakably that Satan had been bound beforehand — that is, prior to the events of Matthew 12. He was bound prospectively during the wilderness temptation. Later, at the cross he was bound climactically.
This also fits in with our third verse from the twelfth chapter of John. Here Jesus prayed that the Father would glorify himself in the death of his Son. The Father responded in an audible voice that those who stood by heard but apparently couldn’t understand. Jesus explained that the voice spoke for their sakes, so that they might understand that the judgment of their generation was at hand. He said, Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out (John 12:31). Note here that Jesus used the word now twice to emphasize the imminence of this judgment. In fact, it was so close at hand that he spoke of it in John 16:11 as if it had already happened. He said, The prince of this world is judged (κέκριται: the prefect tense is proleptic, i.e., emphasizing the certainty of a future fulfillment). Just as important is what Jesus said next in John 12: And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me (v. 32). Here the word translated be lifted up literally means to exalt, to raise in dignity and honor. So, ultimately, the lifting up of Christ refers to the fact that he will reign over his kingdom at the Father’s right hand. When he does so, he will draw all men to himself. But in John’s gospel the word is even more specific. It’s not just that Christ will reign, but that he comes to reign by being lifted up in death. The death of Christ, then, marked his triumph over the devil, which then opened the way for the gospel to go out to all the nations.
Before we look at the last of the four verses that show that Satan is already bound, let’s compare this to Revelation 20:3. John wrote that the binding of Satan means that he should deceive the nations no more. Because Satan has been conquered, he can no longer keep the nations in darkness, as he had done before the Lord’s first advent, when it was mostly Jews who believed. Now that he is bound and the nations are no longer under his unrestrained sway, King Jesus will draw unto himself people from every nation, tribe, kindred and tongue on the face of the earth. The gospel will triumph.
And our last verse is Hebrews 2:14, which says that Christ assumed a complete human nature so that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil. The death of Christ rendered Satan’s sway ineffective.
From these passages, we can put together a sound interpretation of Revelation 20:1-3. Here’s what we have:
1. The angel that bound Satan was Christ himself. In the Old Testament, Jesus sometimes appeared as the angel of the Lord. This seems to be what we have here. This view is confirmed, I believe, by the fact that he was declared to be the only one worthy to unseal the scrolls of judgment in chapter 5. If he was the only one worthy to unseal the scrolls that unleashed God’s judgment on apostate Jerusalem, then how much more so is he the only one worthy to bind Satan and cast him into the bottomless pit for a thousand years.
2. The great chain that binds Satan is the work of Christ (his life and especially his sacrificial death), and the key to the bottomless pit is the gospel (cf. Matt. 16:19). There is no literal chain or key. The binding of Satan is figurative. Through the gospel of Christ’s victory, Satan is restrained.
3. Satan was bound in regard to his deception of the nations. He can no longer prevent the advancement of the church throughout the world. This does not mean that sin will cease in the millennium or that everything will eventually be made perfect. To the contrary, the fact that Satan is able to muster an army for a final rebellion (vv. 7–9) shows that he still has some power. It does mean, however, that the gospel will prevail in the hearts of everyone whom God the Father elected unto life and for whom God the Son gave his life.
4. John says that Satan will remain bound for a thousand years. He has already been bound for two thousand. This means that the number one thousand is also figurative and was chosen solely to indicate a very long period of time.
The Reign of the Saints
The next three verses describe what the saints are, and will be, doing during the period of Satan’s binding. Kik says that the key to understanding these verses is the end of verse 5: This is the first resurrection.
Premillennialists have a very odd interpretation of these words, claiming that they describe the physical resurrection of believers only. After believers rise from the dead, Christ and his saints rule in Jerusalem for a thousand years and then comes the resurrection of unbelievers. Thus, they maintain that there will be two resurrections, separated from each other by a thousand years. This interpretation, however, is not what the Bible teaches. According to the Bible, when Jesus returns he will immediately resurrect all men (believers and unbelievers alike), judge them, and send them to their eternal destinies.
The following verses support the idea of a general resurrection of all men. Daniel 12:2 — And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And Acts 24:15 — And have hope toward God, which they themselves also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust.
In regard to Revelation 20, the general resurrection and judgment of all men actually takes place after our text in verses 12 and 13. John wrote, And 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. And 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.
Now, if there is only one resurrection of the dead, and if that resurrection occurs later in this chapter, then the first resurrection must be something else. The word first does not endorse a theory of two bodily resurrections, but rather two kinds of resurrections.
That this is so can be seen in John 5, where Jesus described the two kinds of resurrection. The first is in verse 25: The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live. This cannot be a bodily resurrection for two reasons. First, the hour of this resurrection has already arrived: it now is. And second, it is also a conditional resurrection: only those who hear the voice of the Son of God will live.
The first resurrection is the resurrection of the soul to new life in Jesus Christ. Adam’s sin brought death to all mankind. Because he didn’t die physically at that moment, it is clear that his ‘death’ was primarily spiritual. It was a break in the communion that he previously had with his Maker. His separation from divine fellowship was the first death. The second death is eternal punishment (Rev. 20:14). The first resurrection corresponds to the first death. It is the restoration of communion with God brought about by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. In fact, in Ephesians Paul described regeneration as a resurrection. He wrote, Even when we were dead in sins, [God] hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:5–6).
The Spirit of God raised men to new life in the first century, and he continues to raise men to new life today. Those who hear the voice of the Son of God live.
The second resurrection is in John 5:28–29: Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. This has to be the general resurrection and judgment. Look how it differs from the first resurrection in verse 25. The hour of this resurrection is coming, i.e., it’s a future resurrection. Not one word is said about it being a present reality. Nor is it conditional. All men, good and evil alike, will hear Christ’s voice and be raised from the dead at the same time. All men will come out of their graves and immediately go forth to judgment. Some will participate in the resurrection unto life, while others will be raised unto damnation.
Revelation 20 and John 5 give us exactly the same picture. Those who have experienced the first resurrection (viz., the regeneration of the soul) will also have their bodies restored to life in the second resurrection (viz., the general resurrection of all men). But those who did not experience the first resurrection, i.e., those who had been regenerated by the Spirit of God, according to Revelation 20:5, will not live again until the thousand years are finished, which is a euphemistic way of saying that, although their bodies will be resurrected, their resurrection will not be a resurrection unto life. They were spiritually dead on earth, and they’ll be eternally dead in hell.
Further, according to verse 4, those who partake of the first resurrection will also sit on thrones and exercise judgment during the millennium. This is a description of the Christian life. We are kings in Christ’s kingdom. In the first chapter of Revelation, John reminded his readers that we are already kings and priests before God (Rev. 1:6). The Spirit of God works in and through his Word to make the promises of the gospel a reality in our lives. This is true for all believers.
Some commentators think that the judgment that’s given to Christians here means that we will judge unbelievers in the final judgment. But this is obviously not the case. For one thing, we must also appear before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of what we have done in the flesh (II Cor. 5:9). For another, the judgment of verses 4 through 6 takes place during the millennium, not at the end of it as the final judgment will. Therefore, the power of judgment that is given to believers must be something other than judging unbelievers.
What is the power of judgment then? The difficulty here is that we’re used to thinking of judgment as something that only takes place in a court of law, but this is only one of its meanings. In the book of Judges, for example, a judge was not an adjudicator as much as he was a ruler. And this is really what we have in our text. We reign with Christ as his subjects (II Tim. 2:11–12; I Cor. 3:21–22), conquering sin in our lives and extending his glorious kingdom.
But there are two problems with this view.
The first is relatively minor, but we have to consider it since some commentators make a point of it. We have said that Christ reigns through his Word and Spirit operating in the lives of his people. Verses 4 and 6 add that the saints reign with Christ. Now, if Christ is in heaven and we are on earth, how can we reign with him? The answer to this is that the question makes an unnecessary assumption, viz., that Christ will reign physically on earth. Once we get this out of our thinking, the problem disappears. It’s no harder for us to reign with Christ in the present arrangement than it is for Christ to dwell in us.
The second problem is a little more substantial. It concerns the middle of verse 4. John saw thrones and judgment. Then he saw martyrs — the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God. Then at the end of the verse he says that they, i.e., which seems to be the martyrs that he had just spoken of, lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. Here’s the problem: if verses 4 through 6 describe the church on earth between the two comings of Christ, how is it that martyrs, who are no longer on earth, live and reign on earth? Obviously, they cannot.
The answer to this seems to be that the entire statement about the martyrs in the middle of verse 4 is parenthetical. John added it to comfort the people of his day, knowing that they could easily find themselves in the same situation in the very near future. To calm their fears, John informed them that, although the martyrs were not reigning on earth, they had nonetheless overcome and defeated the adversary. Consequently, they were safe in heaven. In fact, they were not only safe but their blood had finally been avenged (cf. Rev. 6:9–11). After noting the blessedness of the martyrs, John returned at the end of verse 4 to the church on earth, and further defined what it meant for believers on earth to sit on thrones and judge. We sit on thrones and judge by living and reigning with Jesus Christ.
Verses 4 through 6 remind us all that we are more than conquerors through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
When is the millennium. It’s right now. Satan is bound, Jesus Christ reigns, and the word of the gospel is victorious. This is the way it was when the beast and the false prophet were cast into the lake of fire at the end of the previous chapter (Rev. 19:20), and this is also how it will continue until the devil himself and all his cohorts are cast into hell, where they will be tormented day and night forever and ever (Rev. 20:10).
Today the church needs to see that the battle has already been won and, therefore, the kingdom of Christ moves forward. The church has the gospel. And it has Christ’s promise of victory. Amen.