The vision of Revelation 20:1–6 is, as we have previously noted, divided into two sections. The first, verses one through three, describes the binding of Satan for a period of one thousand years. The second, verses four through six, describes the reign of the saints with Christ during this millennial period, and includes a reference to the saints who participate in the first resurrection and are not liable to the second death.
Now that we have considered some of the broader issues of interpretation relating to the vision of Revelation 20—the pre-millennialist case for its reading ofthis passage, and the relation between the visions of Revelation 19 and 20—we are in a position to take up directly the interpretation of the vision itself. In this article, I will begin with the first section, the vision of the binding of Satan. In my next article, I will consider the more difficult section, the vision of the millennial reign of the saints with Christ.
THE “BINDING OF SATAN”
The vision of Revelation 20 begins with a striking portrayal of the binding of Satan:
And I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he should not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed; after these things he must be released for a short time (verses 1–3).
Though there are differences among interpreters as to how literally the details of this vision are to be pressed, the main emphases of this section of the vision are little disputed.1 The apostle John sees an angel descending from heaven in order to carry out God’s will and purpose. The whole vision suggests that this angel’s divine authorization and power to carry out his assigned task is invincible and unassailable.
This angel is equipped with the key of the abyss, language which is suggestive of the power to open and to close, to unlock or to lock (compare Rev. 3:7; Matt. 16:19). The abyss is elsewhere described in the book of Revelation as the dwelling place of the demons. In Revelation 9:1–6, there is a vision of a bottomless pit out of which demonic locusts swarm forth to afflict those who dwell upon the earth. It is into this place that the angel comes to cast Satan. In addition to the key, representing the power to loose or unloose Satan, the angel has in his hand a great chain. Some have suggested that this chain represents the Word of God (compare Rev. 19:13, 15), though the precise identification of this chain remains uncertain.2 What is clearly represented by the key and the great chain together is that the angel is properly equipped to execute God’s purpose to bind and restrict the activities and wiles of Satan.
At this point, the focus of this first section of the vision is fixed upon the actions of this angel in laying hold of Satan who is variously named “the dragon, the serpent of old…the devil.” The angel seizes Satan, casts him into the abyss and seals it over him. The language of sealing is symbolic of the complete and sovereign control that is being exercised over Satan (compare Dan. 6:17; Matt. 27:66). Thus, when Satan is released for a short time after the period of one thousand years, the language of the vision makes clear that this will occur only by the permission and under the complete control of God. This emphasis is underscored by the expression, “after these things he must be released for a short time.”
The key question of interpretation of this first section of the vision concerns the exact nature and implications of the binding of Satan. Historic pre-millennialists, dispensational pre-millennialists, and, for that matter, post-millennialists, all concur that this binding must be understood as an action that completely curtails the actions of Satan. The restriction implied in this binding represents an unprecedented limitation upon Satan’s activity, one that distinguishes the millennial period from all previous redemptive history. Though premillennialists argue that this millennial period commences after the return of Christ and post-millennialists argue that it occurs at some point in history before the return of Christ, they agree in their insistence that the binding of Satan during the millennium cannot be identified with the present period of history. The vision of Satan’s binding is too powerful in its implications to be taken as a symbolic representation of the present period of history. Who would dare argue that the present period of history is one in which the millennium of Revelation 20 is being fulfilled, that even now the millennial binding of Satan is a reality? Do we see concrete evidence today of the kind of limitation upon Satan’s activity that this vision of his binding requires?
Though this objection sounds initially rather powerful, upon further reflection it loses some of its punch. There are good biblical reasons why the present period of history—taking the vision of Revelation 20 as a description of the period between Christ’s first coming and His second coming at the end of the age3—represents the period of Satan’s being bound so as not to be able to deceive the nations.
If you consider the biblical story of the history of redemption and the Lord’s dealings with His people, it becomes evident that there is significant change in the new covenant from the old covenant in terms of the nations of the earth. Whereas in the old covenant, the Lord called Abraham from Ur of Chaldees and dealt primarily with the nation of Israel, in the new covenant the gospel is being preached in the whole world (Matt. 24:14) and the nations are being discipled (Luke 24:47; Matt. 28:16–20). This is not a difference in covenant administration that affects the substance of the covenant of grace—the Lord who created the heavens and earth and all peoples, already in the first promise to Abraham spoke of the blessing that would come to all the peoples/nations through his seed—but it does affect the way in which the good news is being preaching to all the nations of the earth.
Compared to the extension of the kingdom of God in this present age, prior to the coming of Christ in the fulness of time the nations of the earth remained predominantly under the deception of Satan. Though the Lord’s dealings with Israel were never narrowly ethnic, they were restricted in ways that, in the present age, are no longer true.4 Those who are members of the new covenant church of Jesus Christ are apt to forget the greater richness of saving blessing that has been poured out upon the nations of the earth in these last days. The light of the gospel that has shone among the nations of the earth in the present age contrasts vividly with the darkness in which the nations dwelt during the period of the old covenant.
It is vitally important to note that the language describing the binding of Satan in Revelation 20 associates this with a restriction upon his activity such that he “should not deceive the nations any longer.” This is the one great purpose and effect of Satan’s binding, so far as the explicit language of Revelation 20 is concerned. Satan is bound so that he can neither prevent the spread of the gospel among the nations nor effectively deceive them. This vision, accordingly, confirms the teaching that the period between Christ’s first coming and His second coming is one in which the gospel of the kingdom will powerfully and effectively go forth to claim the nations for Jesus Christ. It confirms the confidence and authority with which Christ, after His resurrection, commissioned the disciples to go into all the earth and make disciples of the nations. This commission was given in the context of Christ’s having been given “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:16). It was also concluded with the promise that Christ would be with His disciples until the end of the age. Consistent with Christ’s confident declaration to His disciples that “they will come from east and west, and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29), the vision of Revelation 20 declares that the great obstacle to the evangelization of the nations—Satan’s deceptive hold over them—has been removed.
Furthermore, if the vision of Satan’s binding is interpreted in the broader context of the book of Revelation and the teaching of the gospels, it corresponds quite closely to the biblical understanding of the present period in the history of redemption.
In an earlier vision in the book of Revelation, the apostle John saw a great war in heaven that was concluded with the casting down of the dragon, the serpent, to the earth (12:7–12). In this vision, Satan is described as the one who “deceives the whole world.” But now that Satan has been defeated in heaven and cast down, a loud voice in heaven is heard to say, “Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been cast down….And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even to death” (12:10–11). Though the language of this earlier vision in Revelation is different than that used in Revelation 20, it seems to be a description of the same realities of which the latter vision speaks: Satan’s ability to deceive the nations and prevent the coming of the kingdom of God has been effectively destroyed. Now has come the kingdom of God. Now the nations are being discipled. Now the power of Christ’s gospel is being revealed in the earth.5
In the gospel accounts of the preaching and teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ, there are also passages whose language finds an echo in the vision of Revelation 20. These passages provide the biblical context within which the vision of Revelation 20 becomes clear.
In the gospel of Matthew, there is an account of Jesus’ healing a demon-possessed man who was brought to Him. When the multitudes hear of this miraculous healing, they are “amazed” and wonder whether Jesus might be the Son of David (Matt. 12:23). However, the Pharisees, upon hearing of this healing, are reported to have declared, “This man casts out demons only by Beelzebub the ruler of the demons” (v. 24). In response to this unbelief and blasphemy on the part of the Pharisees, Jesus notes that no kingdom divided against itself can stand. He then claims that His power to cast out demons is a demonstration of the presence of the power and kingdom of God:
But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house (verses 28–29).
In this response to the Pharisees, Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God has come and is among them in His person and work. The healing of this demon-possessed man illustrates the presence of the kingdom and confirms that Satan has been bound so that he is no longer able to prevent the plundering of his house. It is interesting to observe that the word used to express the restraint placed upon Satan, to bind, is the same word used in the vision of Revelation 20 to describe the binding of Satan.
On another occasion in the gospel accounts of Christ’s ministry, we are told that He sent out seventy disciples, two by two, to go ahead and proclaim the nearness of the kingdom. In the charge given to the seventy, Jesus commissions the disciples to go into the field of harvest which is plentiful and “heal those who are sick, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near you’” (Luke 13:9). When the disciples return from fulfilling this commission, they return with joy, reporting, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name” (Luke 13:17). In His reply to their report, Jesus says, “I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning. Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall injure you” (v. 19). In this and other passages in the gospels, Christ’s coming and ministry is a concrete realization of the coming and presence of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that plunders and destroys Satan’s household and releases those who are captive to sin and the demons. Christ has now been given all authority in heaven and on earth, so that the demons flee before Him, the captives are set free, the sick are healed and the nations discipled.6
In another significant passage in the gospel of John, the coming of Christ is associated with a dramatic curtailment of Satan’s activity among the peoples of the earth and the missionary expansion of the church. Predicting His death, Christ declares, “Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world shall be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up. from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (12:31–32). This passage speaks of a casting out in judgment of the ruler of this world, and it speaks of the crucified Christ who will draw all men, Jew as well as Gentile, from among the peoples of the earth to Himself. In these ways it parallels the thought of the vision in Revelation 20, that the kingdom of Christ will be realized through the binding of Satan and the gathering of the nations. Furthermore, as was true of the passage in Matthew 12, the language employed to describe Satan’s judgment is very similar to that employed in the vision of Revelation 20. In Revelation 20, we read of the casting down of Satan. In John 12, we read of the casting out of Satan.7
If it is a standard rule of thumb in reading the Bible that Scripture should interpret Scripture and that the more obscure passage should be interpreted in the light of the more clear passage, the conclusion that best fits this evidence is: the vision of Satan’s binding in Revelation 20, so that he is no longer capable of deceiving the nations, is a representation of the events coinciding with the coming of Christ in the fulness of time. Christ has come and won a decisive victory over the evil one. This victory is variously revealed to us in the gospels and throughout the New Testament. With His victory over Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, His declaration and exhibition of the power of the kingdom in casting out demons and plundering the enemy’s stronghold, His vanquishing of sin and death upon the cross, His resurrection from the dead, His ascension to the Father’s right hand, and His pouring out of the Spirit of Pentecost—in this entire complex of Christ’s saving work He has won a decisive victory over Satan. No longer is Satan able to deceive the nations. The promise of Psalm 2, that the nations will be given by God the Father to His Son as His rightful inheritance, is being fulfilled (vv.7–9). Between the time of Christ’s first coming and His second coming, the millennial reign of Christ upon the earth is being manifested for all to see.
This means that the binding of Satan in Revelation 20 should not be taken as a complete and absolute restriction upon any activity on his part. Rather, it refers to the present age in which the nations are being gathered to Christ by the work of His Spirit and Word.
“FOR A THOUSAND YEARS”
One of the intriguing features of the vision of Revelation 20 is its reference to a period of one thousand years. Only Revelation 20 uses the language of a one thousand year period and it uses this language no less than six times. From this language is derived the terms, millennium and millennialism, which are based upon Latin roots and equivalents of the language in Revelation 20.
For most pre-millennialists, this language must simply be taken literally as a reference to a distinct period in history, after the return of Christ, that will have a duration of one thousand ordinary years.8 Particularly within the context of dispensational pre-millennialism with its commitment to a literalistic reading of the Bible, the language of Revelation 20 is regarded as sufficient to prove the error of amiIlennialism and post-millennialism. Because these two views treat the language of one thousand years in Revelation 20 non-literally, as referring to a long period within God’ s superintendence during which Satan is bound and the kingdom of Christ is manifested, they are charged with wrongly spiritualizing the meaning of this language. One thousand years means one thousand years, argues the premillennialist. Furthermore, if it be objected that this is the only passage in Scripture which speaks of a one thousand year period, the pre-millennialist response is typically that one passage should be more than adequate to make the point. If this passage clearly teaches a literal millennium of one thousand years, who has the right to deny its teaching?
There are two general observations that I would like to make regarding this premillennialist claim before looking at the language of one thousand years more directly. First, the insistence that the language of Revelation (and of all Scripture) be taken literally betrays a way of reading the Bible that we have earlier contested. In a book like the book of Revelation, with its rich symbolism and use of biblical types and figures, there is no obvious reason why the language of one thousand years should be taken literally. If much of the book is written in language that is clearly not literal, some reason needs to be given why this must be the case in the vision of Revelation 20 with its use of the language of one thousand years.
Second, there is reason to pause before conceding the argument of premillennialism here precisely because no other passage of Scripture speaks of a literal period in history of one thousand years (whether before or after Christ’s return). One of the great difficulties in the case for pre-millennialism is the relative lack of support for its doctrine of the millennium from other passages in Scripture. This suggests that, before we concede as self-evident the claim that one thousand years must mean a literal one thousand years, we consider whether Scripture might not support a different reading of this language.
Those who argue that the language of one thousand years is not to be taken literally often note that it is a perfect cube of ten, ten being a number of completeness. This would suggest, then, that the reference to a one thousand year period should be taken as symbolic of a perfect and complete number within the will and purpose of God. This is a plausible way of reading this language, but it tends to be too general and abstract. It still remains to ask, do the Scriptures elsewhere use the language of one thousand in a symbolic way which might cast some light upon the language of the vision in Revelation 20?
As a matter of fact, there is a usage of the language of one thousand in the Scriptures that seems quite pertinent to the interpretation of Revelation 20. Though there are instances where the language of one thousand may be quite literal (e.g., Gen. 20:16; Ezra 1:9–10) or possibly literal as well as symbolic (e.g. Judges 15:15–16; 1 Chron. 29:21), there are instances where it has a clearly symbolic meaning. In Deuteronomy 7:9, the Lord is described as a “faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments.” In the summary of the law given in Exodus 20, a contrast is drawn between the Lord’s visiting of judgment upon the third and fourth generations of those who hate Him, and His “showing lovingkindness to thousands” who love Him and keep His commandments (Ex. 20:5–6). Similarly, in the Psalms we read that the “cattle on a thousand hills” belong to the Lord (Ps. 50:10–11). The Psalmist also speaks of how a “day in Thy courts is better than a thousand, I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God, than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Ps. 84:10). In the well-known words of Psalm 90, the believer confesses that “a thousand years in Thy sight are like yesterday when it passes by, or as a watch in the night” (v. 4). Responding to the mockers who mocked the promise of the Lord’s coming, the apostle Peter notes that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Pet. 3:8).9
What these passages indicate is that the number one thousand is often used in the Scriptures to refer to a great or extensive period of time. The use of one thousand years in Revelation is, when interpreted against the background of this usage of the symbolism of one thousand, likely a reference to a period of fulness, completion and perfection so far as God’s redemptive plan is concerned. This language does not mean to teach that the millennium will be a period of 365,000 days, not one more nor one less. Just as God’s faithfulness is perfect and never failing (unto one thousand generations), so the times within His redemptive purposes are perfect and never failing. The most that can be concluded, then, from the language of one thousand in Revelation 20 is that the period of Satan’s binding will be great and full, not small and empty of years. That this is the sense of the vision is only reinforced by the contrasting language which describes Satan’s season of rebellion as a little season, suggesting that it is a meager and limited period of time within the will of God.
In this first section of the vision of Revelation 20, we have a representation of that period of history between the time of Christ’s first coming and His return at the end of age, in which Satan has been bound so as no longer to be able to deceive the nations. The millennium is now, the period in which Christ’s kingdom is advancing by His Spirit and Word and the nations are being discipled. This period is not a literal period of one thousand years, but the entire period, perfect, complete and extensive, between the first and second comings of Christ. Compared to the vast expanse and power of the kingdom of Christ, the period of Satan’s rebellion at the end of the age prior to Christ’s return, will be pathetically small and limited in scope.
To state the matter otherwise and in short form—the vision of the binding of Satan is a grand picture, comforting to the believing church of Jesus Christ, of the fullness and scope of Christ’s gathering of the nations under His authority during the course of history prior to the end of the age.
1. The hermeneutic or method of reading Revelation that always insists that the text be taken literally (e.g. dispensationalism) runs into obvious difficulties when it comes to the vision of Revelation 20. This is a vision that portrays events in the form of images and symbols, many of which can hardly be interpreted literally. Are the key and chain used by the angel a literal key and chain? Is the abyss a literal place of confinement for Satan in the depths of the earth? Simply to ask these questions exposes the problems of a literalistic hermeneutic. A similar difficulty emerges, as we shall see, with the language of one thousand years in this passage.
2. E.g., G.R. Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation (The New Century Bible Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), pp. 284–5.
3. In my previous article on the relation of the visions of Revelation 19 and 20, I presented a case for taking the vision of Revelation 20 as descriptive of the entire inter-advental period between Christ’s first coming and His return at the end of the age.
4. It should be noted here that, contrary to popular prejudice, Israel was never a ethnically defined people. Abraham was called from Ur of the Chaldees. Among his descendants, the children of Israel, were many who were gathered from the Gentile nations (e.g.: Rahab, Ruth). Provisions were made in the law for the incorporation of aliens into the people and inheritance of Israel. Nevertheless, it has often been noted that the Old Testament does not have the same kind of missionary impulse as is found in the New. After a long period of redemptive-historical preparation, the Christ, the true seed of Abraham, is born in order to bring to fruition the promise of the covenant of grace, that in Abraham’s seed, all the nations will be blessed (Gal. 3:15–22).
5. Pre-millennialists typically regard this, vision in Revelation 12 to refer to a different even and history than the vision in Revelation 26. There are differences as well in the way it is understood by historic and dispensational pre-millennialists. Because the loud voice in heaven goes on to speak of Satan’s being cast down to the earth, “having great wrath,” it is argued that the situation is substantially different from that in Revelation 20 where Satan is cast into the abyss. However, the meaning of the two visions, though different in their imagery and symbolism, seems to be identical: Satan has been decisively defeated and rendered incapable of deceiving the nations any longer. Contrary to the claims of pre-millennialists (and some post-millennialists), there is nothing in the vision of Revelation 20 that demands the conclusion that Satan is no longer capable of doing any harm. The only thing that is specifically emphasized in the text is that he can no longer deceive the nations. And that is certainly true of the period of history since Christ’s first coming and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.
6. Compare the following passages which also speak of Satan’s defeat before the power of Christ expressed in the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom: Matt. 13:24–30,47–50; Acts 2:14–36; 4:23–31; Rom. 16:20; 1 Cor. 15:20–28.
7. The verbs used in these passages, ekballo in John’s gospel and ballo in Revelation 20, are virtually identical, the former simply having the prefix ek (“from”) added.
8. John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody, 1966), p. 293, makes a representative comment: “The expositor is not free to spiritualize the interpretation of the vision but must accept the interpretation in its ordinary and literal meaning. If this is done, there is no other alternative than the premillennial interpretation which holds that at the second coming of Christ, Satan will be bound for a thousand years.”
9. Perhaps the Lord’s rebuke to Elijah, that there were still seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal, could be mentioned here (1 Kings 19:18). This number, whether to be taken as a literal reference to seven thousand or not (not one more nor less), clearly has symbolic significance. The Lord is saying to Elijah—“I have many, many more than you realize, who are faithful” (compare Rom. 11:4).
Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Seminary in Dyer, IN.