Beyond the Lectionary Text: Revelation 20:1-6
by Chelsey Harmon
Much has been written about the infamous thousand-year reign and not much of it agrees. Pick up three different commentaries and it is quite likely that you’ll get three different views about what is actually being described in John’s apocalyptic letter.
Therefore, I believe that it’s only fair to identify myself within a particular tradition and way of reading Scripture when it comes to a passage like this one. I belong to the Reformed tradition, known for its amillenial stance on the thousand year reign. That means that I follow in the way of thinking of Augustine, John Calvin and others who believe that John is describing something already in progress today, during the age of the modern church. I don’t believe that John isn’t describing a literal thousand years (though Augustine believed so, living in the first millennia post-Jesus) but that he is describing Jesus as King already. From the time that Jesus was incarnate, he has reigned as King (though some amillenials also argue that his reign began with the resurrection). Furthermore, I believe that when Jesus comes again (the Second Coming) it will be to usher in the new heaven and new earth.
Varying Christian views on the subject include the understanding that the 1000 years described will occur when Jesus comes again, or that the 1000 year reign precedes Jesus’ return. One view sees the world getting worse before things get better, and one sees it getting better before Jesus comes again. All affirm and hold to the hope of Jesus’ return.
As I was reading for this sermon starter, it struck me that although much is written on these various views, especially in systematic theology texts, I had a harder time finding meaningful spiritual reflections on the biblical text itself. Perhaps that’s the result of being in the amillenial camp, which can have a less frenetic sense or worry about the future than the other viewpoints. (If God is the one waging the battle against evil, and in fact, has already won it, we aren’t out looking for the world to get worse, nor is it our responsibility to win the world over so as to prove it worthy enough for Jesus to return. That leaves us able to carry on with a calm faithfulness each day, waiting expectantly for Jesus’ return, building his kingdom here on earth as a way of celebrating and imaging the glorious reality to come in faithful obedience to what God desires for the world.)
Or perhaps the reason why it’s a little more work to find spiritual reflections is because the controversy swirling around the interpretations has caused too much strife to talk about in our increasingly diverse churches. Each year I spend in ministry I become more and more aware of how different some of the people who sit and serve faithfully from “the pews” (we use chairs) of my church think about tenets of the faith. I must admit that this is the reason why I have stayed away from Revelation in my current charge. There have even been seasons in the life of our church where the Elder board has decided “against adding wood to the fire” and actually advised against preaching from certain hot button areas of Scripture for the sake of unity (especially when dealing with other crises). C.H. Spurgeon even said in a sermon on the beginning of Revelation 20, “I think some ministers would do far more for the profit of God’s people if they would preach more about the First Advent and less about the Second.”
But we ought not be afraid of the good news in Revelation 20.1-6. No matter what view on the thousand year reign you hold to, the picture that John sees, or more precisely the sense that John gets about what he sees and then tries to describe with words, is one of a triumphant God and a blessed, resurrected, secure people.
God (through the angel or as the angel) binds the enemy, keeping the world from experiencing the devil at his maximum power. Notice that John does here as he does in other sections of Revelation, listing all of the names that Satan goes by: “the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan.” There is no denying who God is acting against when he ties up the enemy and throws it into the abyss.
And like many other sections of Revelation, we hear the echoes of other parts of Scripture. In Mark 3.20-29, for instance, Jesus is accused of being on the dark side because he can exorcise demons. Jesus says to his accusers,
“How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up.” (emphasis mine)
Here in Revelation 20.1-6 we hear the same message: Jesus has come and tied up the enemy here on earth. In 2 Thessalonians 2.1-12, Paul describes Jesus as holding back the work of the lawless one (Satan) as well as overthrowing him. He even lays out the ways in which the evil one engages in deception. The imagery of binding the enemy is found even in the Old Testament, like in Ezekiel 37-38. This is the way God works! If one goes back even further to the Hebrew worldview and creation narratives, then God has consistently been binding the chaos and presence of evil in the world by holding back the waters that the Hebrew people believed made up the firmament in the sky.
Those who have lived in faith to Jesus and by God’s word, who have not fallen to the temptation and the lure of satan to doubt the Lord can look forward to full redemption. They also can revel in the security that if you are raised with Christ, you are also seated, safely ensconced with him in glory. (Colossians 3.1-4) The second death, or final judgment, won’t change their place.
Beheading someone during the New Testament era was a statement on eternity. Due to cultural and religious beliefs, executing someone by beheading them, separating their head from their body, was an attempt to keep them out of their eternal home. Yet, John sees those whom evil has tried to keep out of heaven seated in places of honour. The deeds of the devil cannot undo God’s redemption.
I believe that John was shown this particular scene as a way to encourage the church. Not only is the enemy pictured as trapped and contained, but those who lose it all for the sake of Christ and the Word of God are shown what the future glory and promises of the future look like— that no matter what happens here on earth to us, no matter what people try to do to keep us from God, our lives are truly hidden with Christ, secure with him who is at the right hand of God. God is able to— and will— redeem our broken bodies, and those who have died with Christ will also rise with him.
This new life will be eternal. Though a second, even worse death is coming with Jesus’ return and reign, those who have risen have nothing to fear because God blesses them and makes them holy. Those who do not belong will join the devil, the dragon, the ancient serpent, Satan, in the abyss.
When we look for the hope in the text by looking for God and what we learn about him before we start asking what we’re supposed to do from it, we’ll see that in the case of the final victory over evil there actually isn’t anything for us to do! God does the work, we reap the rewards. Our part of God’s plan: believe and testify to Jesus and his word, resisting the temptation and work of the devil. John senses and shares the good news: we’re on the winning team, and though there are times when it will not feel like this is true, we can rest in the work of the King of Kings.
A note about the number 1000
Rather than taking 1000 as a literal number, I appreciate the symbolism of what I believe John is hoping to represent. Remember, John is attempting to describe with words not only what he saw in his visions from God, but also the sense or meaning of it. This leads him to use symbolism to get at the deeper meaning— if not, for instance, what would we make of the image of Jesus as a lamb with seven eyes who roars like a lion?
So what does 1000 symbolize? 10 represents completeness; 3 is a divine number. 10 multiplied by itself 3 times is 1000. Hence, the reign of Jesus is “divinely complete or powerfully long” according to Marva Dawn. The number 1000 is used 5 times in almost as many verses. Reread the text, replacing the number with either “divinely complete” or “powerfully long” and
Satan is in the abyss the divinely complete amount of time.
The devil is not able to deceive anyone for a powerfully long time.
The martyrs reign with Jesus their Saviour a powerfully long time
and they will be priests with God as he deems divinely complete.
Right on! Come, Lord Jesus, Come!
Chelsey Harmon is an ordained minister in the CRC currently pursuing a ThM in Spiritual Theology from Regent College in Vancouver, BC.