Though Revelation’s meanings are disputed and debated, believers acknowledge that the truth is contained in its verses and that God seeks to share wisdom and knowledge through its pages. A serious excursion into its dark verses and enigmatic visions can be precarious, so the cautionary advice of theologian N. T. Wright should act as a guiding light. “Perhaps above all, and throughout our study of this book, it doesn’t do to be too dogmatic about details. We must hold on to the central things which John has made crystal clear: the victory of the Lamb, and the call to share his victory through faith and patience. God will then do what God will then do.”
John’s vision occurred during a time of persecution which threatened the early church. Through the vision God was responding to the needs of the early Christians. Today’s Christians ask if these verses were meant for people 2000 years ago, how are they relevant to us today? While it is important to study this book within its historical context, this does not mean that these scriptures were only meant for the 1st century. Christians today can still draw guidance from its ancient message.
It should not be restricted to an historical viewpoint either. Revelation is a visionary work which guides the early Christians through the turmoil of Roman injustice by giving them hope for the future. Modern readers must always be aware that the imagery and predictions John reported in his writings were meant for the people of his time and the challenges they faced. Yet the real meanings of these scriptures transcend the ages and provide guidance for the modern age. While it is a book of history, recording the events of the 1st century, it is also a letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor warning them of the dangers threatening the faithful. As a work of prophecy it provides assurance and warning to the faithful. And finally it is an apocalyptic work which uses vivid symbols and language as commentary on the state of the world and the conflict between God and the social/political realm. Focusing exclusively on one viewpoint gives an erroneous interpretation of the book’s meaning and purpose. All perspective is necessary to fully engage in its meaning and to comprehend God’s purpose in revealing the vision to the author.
In their book, “The New Testament: Methods and Meanings”, authors Warren Carter and Amy-Jill Levine bring these viewpoints under two categories; predictions or proclamations. “Seen as prediction, Revelation becomes a code that, with the right key, details the end of the world and the fates of those who follow or do not follow Jesus.”[ii] Classified as a prophetic work pertaining to future events, Revelation is often viewed by many Christians, both laity and clergy, as predicting a planned and certain future. Carter and Levine further state, “Seen as proclamation (especially but not exclusively for first-century Jesus-followers), Revelation becomes the cry of the powerless against all opponents, whether the Roman Empire or any empire or rival ecclesial groups or people who reject Jesus or who behave in ways contrary to what the writer and reader consider to be the divine will.”[iii] If Revelation tells of a predictable future revealed by divine vision but has no certain timeframe then perhaps all generations should prepare themselves for the final judgment. As a proclamation we should always direct our lives with mercy, truth, justice and love to those who are oppressed under any political or social-economic system and responding to God’s compassion shown through Jesus.
Analyzing Revelation and specifically Chapter 20, requires us to determine which model we choose to follow; the predictive or the proclamation. Can they be of equal merit, two paths leading to the same place? Or is there only one path that reveals the meaning of these scriptures while the other can be misleading? Does Chapter 20 prophesy what God will do, or is it an edict that God expects us to respond to? Both paths have value and should be followed if not simultaneously, then at least with awareness that there is another path.
Apocalyptic symbols and signs add more complexity to John’s vision. Understanding them is critical to applying their meanings for the 1st century and the ages since. The serpent who ruled the world is the devil. The Great Whore is the city of Rome from which the empire is ruled and Babylon is the idea that an exploitive human government has greater authority and status than God. The two beasts are the narcissistic Roman emperors, and the greedy, covetous merchants and vassal kings who suppress the people for their own wealth, power and greed. In John’s vision, God is declaring that these entities must be overthrown in order for the followers to experience the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom.
This leads to another perplexing question which underlies the narrative. Are the human institutions of government and society innately corrupted or have they been contaminated by Satan who draws people away from God? More precisely is the corrupted political system the source of evil or are political empires corrupted by evil? So was John’s vision pronouncing that the short-term fear was to persevere against the Roman Empire which was controlled by Satan, or to the long view to persevere over Satan so that human government cannot be corrupted? In the final book of the Bible we are challenged by a perplexing question; is God’s creation the source of evil and only God can rid man of his inherent corruption, or are human intrinsically good but corrupted by another force and only God can restore human goodness?
How does Revelation answer this question? The vision showed the consequences of false or misguided devotion to things other than God for people of all the ages past and present. Succumbing to a society controlled by Satan or being obedient to the Devil himself amounts to the same thing. In admonishing Peter, Jesus warned us not to follow worldly values that are corrupted. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. (Mark 8:33)”.[iv] Whether inherently evil or corrupted by evil, God’s vision shows that salvation and redemption of man is the purpose of the Messiah’s works. Only through God the Son can corruption be banished, regardless of the source.
Revelation’s first chapter indicates that it is a letter written to the seven churches in Asia Minor. There is no agreement as to whether it was written by John the Apostle or someone named “John the Elder”, an early church leader. Nor is it certain that it was written during the reign of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (54 to 68 AD) or Titus Flavius Caesar Domitianus Augustus (81 to 96AD). Both were Roman tyrants who heavily persecuted the Christians. Historically the vision occurred during the same period of political corruption and describes the persecution of a faith struggling to survive during the latter half of the 1st century. Thus the underlying cause and response spans the same time and place.
Chapter1 implies that these events were forthcoming. “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place;”[v] Much like when Jesus assured the crowd, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens.” (Luke 12:54)[vi], Jesus asserts that if people are aware of the imminent approach of rain, they should also be aware of the impending works of God and the threats of Satan. John is writing to the churches that Satan is undermining their good works now and they should be diligent in affirming the work of God through Christ in the present age. “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.” (Revelation 1: 3)[vii]
These words are prophetic in the sense that since human nature and institutions of the present still retains the same flaws of the past, then the same dangers that the first generation of Christians faced is present today. This is not to say that the human spirit and human society is inherently evil but they are intrinsically flawed which makes them susceptible to corruption. Thus each generation should heed the writer’s words as they apply to a new time and circumstances. We should also be assured that the promise of a new kingdom remains real and God has not abandoned that promise.
Chapters 4 to 19 emphasize the authority of Christ, the manifestations of Heaven and the work of God’s will in the world. They also speak of the conflict between good and evil, the source of those conflicts and their resolution by God and His heavenly forces. They are filled with symbols and themes that drew upon Hebraic history, contemporary knowledge of the 1st century world and pedantic language necessitated by people facing persecution.
It is in Chapter 20 we hear how Heaven and earth shall come together through God and the works of the angels. The chapter needs to be understood as God’s assurance that the evil which faced the churches will be nullified. Verse 2 begins when an angel “… seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years… and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended.”[viii]
It is an angel acting on God’s behest who cast the source of evil into the pit. This conflict between good and evil is waged beyond human involvement and may suggest that humans, though imperfect, are innocent of inherent evil. They do not carry the seeds of their own suffering and are simply responding to the evil that is in the world. Satan is taken away so he “would deceive the nations no more”. God’s vision to John implies that we have a choice between God and Satan but the battle must be fought by angels and demons. In binding him for a thousand years, this verse states that Satan is the actual cause of evil. If people and our institutions were evil then they would be bound up. God does not see us as people needing to be reformed or punished, but as souls seeking salvation. Chapter 20’s message is that man cannot overcome evil alone. We need God’s help which is given through Jesus Christ. As John the Baptist proclaimed, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world![ix]
John sees people on thrones that were give authority to judge. Exactly who they are is a matter of conjecture. Where they the twelve Apostles? This is supported in Matthew 19:28 “Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”[x] It also resembles verse 9 in chapter 6, “…When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given;”[xi] If the writer of Revelation was the same man who wrote the Gospel of John then he would not be looking upon himself. If the writer is another John then he may have indeed witnessed the twelve disciples of Jesus.
John also saw “the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God.”[xii] These souls may well be those in 6:10, who “… cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?”[xiii] These people have witnessed to their faith and were persecuted for it. Thus they were judged and given a place in the millennial reign. The intent of these scriptures may have been to reassure those being prosecuted by Rome that they would be vindicated by Christ, that “… they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him a thousand years.”[xiv]
These opening scriptures of chapter 20 also involved the thousand years millennial. In his book “Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey” theologian Mark Allan Powell categories millennial theology into “premillennial”, “amillennial”, and “postmillennial”. Premillenialism is also broken into Pretribulationism. Midtribulationism and Posttribulationism. These interpretations becomes an endless cyclical debate concerning the precise meaning of narrative in Revelation which revolves around when the millennial will occur, its precise timeframe and whether it is in heaven or on earth. Rather than become entwined in the theology of millennialism, it may help to recite N.T. Wright’s earlier quote as a mantra while delving into the intriguing and mysterious meaning of millennial doctrine. “It doesn’t do to be too dogmatic about details… it doesn’t do to be too dogmatic about details … it doesn’t do to be too dogmatic about details”. [xv]
The numbers John uses throughout Revelation may not have specificity other than to indicate a large span of time or a large number. N.T. Wrights states “In addition, since John has used all kinds of symbolic numbers throughout his book, we should take this number symbolically also.” [xvi] The scriptures do not attempt to pinpoint the precise time or place for the millennial period. Focusing on these details can often blind us to the overall meaning of the chapter and the whole book. Millennialism, though fascinating for serious theologians, can blind us to the core message of God’s vision to John: the ultimate victory of Christ over the world and the invitation to share in that victory.
No longer disguised as a dragon, Satan is released after one thousand years to once again “deceive the nations”[xvii] He no longer has the two Beasts who were imprisoned in the fiery pit in chapter 19 or Babylon which fell in chapter 18, nor is the “Great Whore” in chapter 17 able to assist him. Satan was forced to find another ally which John described by invoking a familiar image from Ezekiel 38 and 39, Gog and Magog. Who they represent in John’s vision, or if they forewarn modern people of contemporary threats, is intently debated. They may be nations familiar today such as Russia, China, and Iran though why the people of the 1st century would need to know about the state of the world 2000 years in the future is uncertain. They may embody a political, economic or religious struggle of ideas between Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Communism, Socialism or Democracy. Again why would these future ideologies, so distantly separated by time, matter when they were desperately facing persecution in their own time?
- T. Wright suggests that “There remain the last great powers: Death and Hades.”[xviii] Others may argued that corruption and deceit are the final enemies, or even greed, selfishness, hate, injustice, prejudice and various other human foibles which separate us from God. The one thing in common for all humans is death. Therefore Satan may still believe that through corruption he can steal souls from God for his own kingdom of Hades. There is no worldly army which can defeat these two adversaries; it is for God to destroy Satan’s most powerful weapons of eternal death and ceaseless condemnation.
Perhaps the true meaning of verses 7-10 is that Satan had to be released so he would bring out his last weapons which are not human institutions such as nations and ideology, but machinations of the devils. Exposing his weapons would allow God to utterly destroy them so Satan was at last subject to God’s overriding will. This is a battle only God can win and he will do so decisively. As N.T. Wright points out, “…it is clear that the one who wins the victory is the creator God, who does so to defeat and abolish death itself and so to open the way to the glories of the renewed creation. That is what matters.”[xix]
Another viewpoint is that the “fear” of death and Hades needed to be destroyed. Fear of something, whether it is real or imagined is often the more powerful weapon. Even if people choose not to believe in a satanic being or a physical Hell they can still be in fear of the idea of death and suffering. Such foreboding can only be defeated by works of the Triune God.
After the final defeat of Satan, John’s vision revealed that “…the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them.”[xx] Does God intend to destroy the world and start anew? Perhaps it was not that the Creator wished to create a new world, but rather to cleanse the world of the corruption which Satan had polluted the earth with. To attempt to have done so while Satan still had influence would have been futile. With his chief rival forever banished God could complete the work of genuine salvation and restoration He began with Jesus. It may also have indicated that the world will no longer dictate the course of human destiny. God was fully in charge and would judge solely by His standards and not those of the natural world, man or the devil. According to N. T. Wright, “Now with all obstacles to the ultimate goal having been removed, the corrupted versions of earth and heaven can make way for the final reality to which they were advance signposts.”[xxi]
Since Death and Hades “… were thrown into the lake of fire”[xxii] then those who had died could now be judged. It appears that the entirety of humanity, great and small, living and dead would now stand before the “great white throne”[xxiii] and be judged solely by God and not influenced by human efforts which have been clouded by the Devil. The question now is: how will He judge?
In verses 11-15 great books are opened which determine who will be judged worthy or unworthy. These books recorded the deeds, good and bad which each human has done and it is upon these deeds all shall be judged. (20:13) However, being judged is not the same as being condemned or saved. These books show our works and God hope they will reveal good works although He knows that Satan has led us toward corruption as well. Our true fate lies in the single edition of the Book of Life whose author is Jesus Christ. N.T. Wright states, “John has mentioned the book of life several times before (3:5; 13:8; 17:8), where it is said to be the Lamb’s book of life, and to have been written before the foundation of the world. This is a vivid way of safeguarding the truth taught by Jesus in John’s Gospel, “You did not choose me, but I chose you,”…”[xxiv]
This single book was written by the Lamb of God, before the world began. Yet repeatedly John declares in 3:5, 13:8 and 17:8 that those names not written in the Book of Life will not enter into heaven. Have some names been predestined for inclusion and other excluded? The words of Jesus in Revelation 3:5 may clear up just who does and does not receive redemption. “If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels.”[xxv] This suggests that all names are included however they can be blotted out by what is written in the other books. We are saved by God’s work through Jesus and not our own. Still it is implied that our salvation can be jeopardized by our sinful deeds written in the other books. Jesus’ prayer for his disciples and the people they ministered to may help us understand the role Christ plays in God’s judgment, “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:26)[xxvi]
Jesus is our advocate and having suffered on the cross for us will continue to ask God not to remove our names from the Book of Life. His prayer for the disciple in John17 demonstrates how he will continue to advocate for us. What is happening is that God is not attempting to judge who is worthy – all names are written in the Book of Life. God is judging who is unworthy by their rejection of Christ. While it is God the Father who sits in the “great white throne” and judges, it is our acceptance of God the Son which keeps our names from being blotted out. “But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’(Luke 13:27)[xxvii]
The focus of Revelation is on Christ, his second coming and the battle against the agents of the Serpent. However in chapter 20, Christ is only mentioned twice in verse 4. The narrative is on Satan and God’s complete dominance of him. The saints who sacrificed their lives for their faiths are also noted and comforted that God will judge them with righteousness and grace.
This chapter reassures the faithful that God is the supreme and sovereign power. He alone can rid the world of all evil and will judge all nations and peoples according to His will. Mark Allan Powell states, “Revelation not only exposes the corruption of the world and its power systems; it also pulls back the veil of heaven to reveal who truly is in control of history. In so doing, it provides an ultimate proclamation of confidence and hope. God alone is Lord of history, and so the forces of evil will not prevail.”[xxviii]
 N. T. Wright. Revelation (N. T. Wright for Everyone Bible Study Guides) (Kindle Locations 849-851). Kindle Edition.
[ii] Carter, Warren; Levine, Amy-Jill. The New Testament: Methods and Meanings (Kindle Locations 6852-6856). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition
[iii] Carter, Warren; Levine, Amy-Jill. The New Testament: Methods and Meanings (Kindle Locations 6852-6856). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 60003-60004). Harper Collins,Inc.Kindle Edition
[v] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 69379-69380). Harper Collins,Inc.Kindle Edition.
[vi] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 61388-61389). Harper Collins,Inc.Kindle Edition.
[vii] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 61388-61389). Harper Collins,Inc.Kindle Edition.
[viii] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 69991, 69973-69974 ). Harper Collins,Inc.Kindle Edition.
[ix] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 62282-62283). Harper Collins,Inc.Kindle Edition.
[x] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 58888-58890). Harper Collins,Inc.Kindle Edition.
[xi] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 69543-69544). Harper Collins,Inc.Kindle Edition.
[xii] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 69986-69991). Harper Collins,Inc.Kindle Edition.
[xiii] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 69544-69545). Harper Collins,Inc.Kindle Edition.
[xiv] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 69979-69980). Harper Collins,Inc.Kindle Edition.
[xv]N. T. Wright. Revelation (N. T. Wright for Everyone Bible Study Guides) (Kindle Locations 848-849). Kindle Edition.
[xvi] N. T. Wright. Revelation (N. T. Wright for Everyone Bible Study Guides) (Kindle Locations 848-849). Kindle Edition.
[xvii] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Location 69973). Harper Collins,Inc.Kindle Edition..
[xviii] N. T. Wright. Revelation (N. T. Wright for Everyone Bible Study Guides) (Kindle Location 828). Kindle Edition.
[xix] N. T. Wright. Revelation (N. T. Wright for Everyone Bible Study Guides) (Kindle Locations 851-853). Kindle Edition.
[xx] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Location 69987). Harper Collins,Inc.Kindle Edition.
[xxi] N. T. Wright. Revelation (N. T. Wright for Everyone Bible Study Guides) (Kindle Locations 863-864). Kindle Edition
[xxii] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Location 69990). Harper Collins,Inc.Kindle Edition.
[xxiii] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 69991). Harper Collins,Inc.Kindle Edition.
[xxiv] N. T. Wright. Revelation (N. T. Wright for Everyone Bible Study Guides) (Kindle Locations 835-837). Kindle Edition.
[xxv] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 69456-69457). Harper Collins,Inc.Kindle Edition.
[xxvi] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 63027-63028). Harper Collins,Inc.Kindle Edition.
[xxvii] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 61427-61428). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
[xxviii] Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Kindle Locations 11849-11851). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
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- Encyclopædia Britannica-https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nero-Roman-emperor
- Encyclopædia Britannica -https://www.britannica.com/biography/Domitian