This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
1Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain.2And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years,3and 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.
4Then 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.5The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection.
6Blessed 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.
This text is the most controversial in the book of Revelation, and interpreters debate the credibility of various millennial views. A brief sketch of the positions advocated should prove helpful. Postmillennialists maintain Christ will return after a long period of blessing on earth, hence the prefix post, meaning “after”: Christ will come after the millennium. After the millennial reign, the new heaven and earth will arrive. The one thousand years are not literal but signify a long period of time in which the world is transformed by the gospel. Some postmillennialists believe the thousand years begin at an undefined time in history—some point after the resurrection of Jesus. Other postmillennialists believe the thousand years began at the resurrection. The timing of the millennium is not vital for the post- millennial position.
Amillennialism literally means “no millennium,” but such a label is not the best descriptor of the position. Realized millennialism is better. The thousand years in this view stand for a long period of time and do not designate a literal thousand-year reign. Amillennialists argue that the millennium began with the resurrection of Jesus and will last until the second coming. During this time, deceased believers reign spiritually with Christ in heaven in the intermediate state, awaiting their physical resurrection and the renewal of all things, and Satan is bound in the sense of being bound at the cross while the gospel goes out to the nations (Matt. 12:29). Other amillennialists think the saints’ coming to life refers to regeneration (Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1) instead of reigning in heaven, and thus there is some diversity within amillennialism concerning what it means to come to life and reign with Christ.
Premillennialists say Christ will literally return to earth before the millennium (hence the prefix pre) and will reign one thousand years on earth before bringing an end to everything at the end of the millennium. Most premillennialists believe the thousand years designate a literal period of time, but such a view is not necessary for the position, for one could believe in a literal reign of Christ on earth for a long period of time other than exactly one thousand years and still be premillennial. Premillennialists are divided into historic and dispensational premillennialists. Some are called historic premillennialists because they identify themselves with premillennial church fathers, including Papias, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. Dispensational premillennialists, who first appeared in the nineteenth century, are distinguished from historic premillennialists by arguing for a secret rapture seven years before Jesus returns to inaugurate the millennium. Dispensational premillennialists emphasize the fulfillment of promises to the Jewish people during the millennium.
Is Chronology Significant?
A new section begins with “Then I saw” (kai eidon), a very common phrase in Revelation, occurring thirty-two times. Premillennialists maintain the phrase has chronological significance, but amillennialists say this is not necessarily the case. Given the diversity of usage of the phrase, it is difficult to argue that it clearly points to a new section chronologically. It is quite possible that 20:1–10 describes from another angle the events recorded in 19:11–21, as we have often seen Revelation recapitulate the time of the end.
Satan’s power is limited and circumscribed by God, while God’s plan for his own will be realized, and hence we can be full of hope for the future.
One significant problem with the premillennial view is that Jesus had destroyed all unbelievers at the end of chapter 19; thus it is difficult to understand how anyone could enter the millennium with an unglorified body. Why would Satan need to be bound if the armies opposing God were destroyed at the second coming? Historic premillennialists argue the armies in chapter 19 do not represent all people—some were not destroyed at the second coming and thus enter the millennium. However, nowhere else is there any indication that some human beings are not judged at the second coming. Perhaps there is ammunition for the premillennial view in Zechariah 14; there the Lord judges and slays those opposed to him (Zech. 14:12), but some remain who refuse to worship the Lord, and because of their recalcitrance the Lord withholds rain (vv. 17–19).
Angels descending from heaven are a common feature in Revelation, and here an angel holds in his hand the key to the abyss and a great chain (cf. Rev. 9:1, 11; 11:7; 17:8; cf. also Luke 8:31; Rom. 10:7). The angel seizes the dragon, the great monster opposing the people of God, and binds him in the pit for a thousand years. We see an interesting parallel text in Isaiah 24:21–22: “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.” The dragon is described further (cf. also Rev. 12:9) as the ancient serpent who deceived Eve (Gen. 3:1, 2, 4, 13, 14; cf. Ps. 91:13; Isa. 27:1; 2 Cor. 11:3) and as the Devil (the slanderer of God’s people) and Satan (the adversary of God’s people).
The angel throws Satan into the pit and locks him in. Thus Satan is unable to deceive the nations for one thousand years. Near the end of the thousand years, Satan is released for a short time to wreak havoc. Premillennialists say the events in verses 2–3 occur when Christ returns to earth, arguing that Satan cannot be locked up before Jesus returns, for he is alive and well during the present evil age, standing behind the beast and false prophet, deceiving (13:14) and inciting the people of the world to persecute Christians (13:1–18). Satan is called the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31), and elsewhere John writes, “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). It is difficult to see how, according to premillennialists, these statements can be true if Satan is confined to the abyss. In Revelation 12 Satan is cast from heaven to earth, and the point there, though certainly symbolic, is that Satan has no ground to accuse believers before God since the death of Christ has removed their guilt. It seems here, however, that John goes a step further, the symbolism indicating Satan is absolutely restricted from acting on the earth.
Amillennialists suggest the locking away in a pit is symbolic and does not mean Satan is absent from earth. The text says he can no longer deceive the nations. Some interpret this to mean that Satan, during the present evil age, is unable to deceive the nations into gathering at Armageddon. According to this reading, the text does not say Satan does not deceive anyone; the point is that the nations are not deceived to the extent that they wage final war against God’s people. Another way of interpreting this from the amillennial perspective is that the deception relates to the spread of the gospel. With the coming of Christ, the gospel now goes to the ends of the earth. In the OT salvation was confined to Israel, and the nations of the world were deceived. Now the gospel is believed in all nations, and thus Satan no longer deceives the nations as he did in the OT era. Unbelievers are still deceived by Satan, but the deception over all nations that characterized the OT period is now lifted, so that some believe from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. Satan was bound at the cross (Matt. 12:29; cf. John 12:31; Col. 2:15; Rev. 12:9), say amillennialists, prevented from gathering and uniting all nations to oppose the Christ and his people until the time of the end.
Judgement and Resurrection
John’s vision shifts to human beings. He sees thrones, and those who sit on them are given the responsibility of judging. He also sees martyrs, those beheaded because of the “testimony of Jesus” and the “word of God.” The testimony of Jesus has played a significant role in the book (cf. comment on 1:2; cf. also comments on 1:9; 12:17; 19:10), as has the word of God (cf. 1:2, 9; 6:9). Rule is given to those who suffered for Jesus’ sake, who gave their lives because of the word of the gospel (cf. Dan. 7:22; Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:30; 1 Cor. 6:2; Rev. 3:21). As in 6:9, John sees their “souls,” introduced with the word kai, which may have the sense of equivalent (“even”) or of additional (“also”; ESV); in either case John likely refers to all believers. In a sense, the entire church is viewed as a martyr church, as those who have given their lives for Jesus Christ. In this particular verse, those who have been given “the authority to judge” have faithfully refused to compromise with the beast. They did not worship the beast or its image, or receive the mark on their hand or forehead. John has earlier made it very plain that those who worship the beast or its image or receive the mark will suffer torment forever (Rev. 14:9–11). On the other hand, the saints triumph over the beast and its image (15:2). Judgment and reward belong to faithful believers, to those who give their lives to Jesus and overcome until the end. In other words, eternal rewards are granted to all true believers. The reward specified here is that they “came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”
Premillennialists understand this passage to refer to the physical resurrection. Those who were martyred are vindicated by God and come to life again. The verb zaō can refer to the resurrection of Christ (2:8; cf. also Ezek. 37:10; Rom. 14:9), and it is argued that the same is true here, especially when correlated with the first resurrection of Revelation 20:5. Scholars holding this view point out that this is the only verse referring to the resurrection of believers in the book, and that seeing this as a reference to the resurrection shows the victory of the saints more fittingly than the amillennial reading, which sees the saints reigning in heaven during this present evil age. Furthermore, the notion of souls coming to life supports the notion that souls are raised to a life new and better than mere existence in the intermediate state.
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Amillennialists find the reference to “souls” here to be signifying that the souls come to life during this present evil age (cf. Rev. 6:9–11). In other words, coming to life here refers not to physical resurrection but to life in the intermediate state. The souls of believers reign with Christ in heaven now — the word “thrones” elsewhere in Revelation refers to heaven, and thus it does not fit for it to refer here to the reign of saints on earth. We see in Revelation 14:13 that death is blessed for believers as they are given the crown of life for persevering until the end (2:11). Other amillennialists understand the coming to life here to be conversion — those who are converted are now raised with Christ (Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1).
The rest of the dead do not come to life until the thousand years have ended. If only martyrs come to life in 20:4, the remainder of the dead includes all unbelievers and all other believers. If 20:4 refers to all believers, the rest of the dead refers only to unbelievers. It is much more likely, as argued above, that the latter view is correct, as the entire church is viewed as a martyr church (without requiring the idea that all are literally put to death). John pauses and remarks, “This is the first resurrection,” clearly referring to the coming to life of the martyrs and saints described in verse 4.
Premillennialists understand the first resurrection to refer to physical resurrection. Unbelievers are raised from the dead after the thousand-year reign of Christ, but this is distinguished from the first resurrection, which refers to the physical resurrection of the martyrs and believers mentioned in verse 4. One of the strongest arguments for the premillennial view appears here; the noun “resurrection” (anastasis) invariably refers to physical resurrection in Jewish thought. Indeed, there is no clear example of it not referring to physical resurrection. Also, the sequence here presents a good argument for premillennialism, for the rest who come to life a thousand years later do not experience a different kind of resurrection. Almost all agree that the rest experience a physical resurrection, but if that is the case, the first resurrection is likely physical as well. We have not two different kinds of resurrection here but two stages in which the dead are raised physically. One objection to the premillennial view is that John 5:28–29 presents the resurrection of those who are good and evil as occurring at the same time. Premillennialists respond that the book of Revelation clarifies that there is an interval, and it is not necessary for every statement about the resurrection to also mention an interval between the two resurrections.
Amillennialists argue, on the other hand, that the first resurrection is a spiritual resurrection. Even if the term “resurrection” (anastasis) refers to physical resurrection elsewhere, we should not be surprised by a symbolic meaning in apocalyptic literature; there are texts speaking of a spiritual resurrection conceptually (Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1) elsewhere as well. The first resurrection means life in the intermediate state (or, alternatively, conversion), while the second refers to physical resurrection. Similarly, the first death is physical death, while the second death is final judgment. This is an intriguing suggestion, though it should be noted that John never specifically refers to a “first death” or a “second resurrection” (see table 9.10).
I noted above that premillennialists argue that the relationship between the two resurrections indicates they are of the same nature, i.e., they are both physical. But if the schema advanced here is correct, the two resurrections are not of the same nature. The premillennial reading is certainly possible, and may very well be right, but it is also possible that the first resurrection anticipates and looks forward to the second resurrection, so that the first is spiritual and the second physical. The words “first” (prōtos) and “new” (kainos) should be distinguished, according to amillennialists. “New” refers to the coming new creation. “A new heaven and a new earth” are coming (Rev. 21:1) — a “new Jerusalem” (21:2) — and God will make “all things new” (21:5). The new heaven and earth are contrasted with the “first heaven and the first earth” (21:1). “First” refers to life in this present age, for the “former [i.e., first] things” (prōta) have passed away (21:4). If we follow this pattern, the first resurrection is the pre-consummated resurrection, the spiritual resurrection occurring in this age, and the second resurrection is the physical resurrection — the final resurrection to be enjoyed by all believers in the age to come. Similarly, the first death is physical death, which all experience, in contrast with the “second [deuteros] death” that the wicked will suffer forever (2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8). According to this reading, what is “first” refers to this present world, while what is “second” or “new” refers to the coming new world.
One of the seven blessings of the book (cf. comment on 1:3) is now pronounced over those who enjoy the first resurrection. The first resurrection is so wonderful because the second death has no power over those who experience it (cf. 2:11; 20:14; 21:8). In other words, those who experience the first resurrection will avoid the lake of fire. Instead, participants in the first resurrection will be priests of both God and Christ. We see here that God and Christ share the same stature, that Jesus is fully God; it is inconceivable, e.g., that the author would say they are priests of God and of angels. The picture of believers as priests mediating God’s blessing has been present since the outset of the book (cf. 1:6 and 5:10) — believers are priest-kings, like Adam in the garden, and will reign with Christ one thousand years.
Premillennialists understand this rule to refer to a thousand-year (or very long) reign on earth after Christ’s return — if the resurrection here denotes the physical resurrection promised to believers. Amillennialists take it to refer to the rule of deceased saints in heaven between the first and second coming, if the first resurrection refers to life given in the intermediate state—a spiritual, not physical, resurrection. Other amillennialists see a reference to regeneration, the new life believers enjoy as born-again Christians.
This article is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation: Volume 12 edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr, and Jay Sklar.