Christians disagree over how to interpret Revelation 20 and some Christians hold very, very strong views about how this chapter should be interpreted. In particular, Christians disagree over how to interpret the thousand years which John mentions in several places.
Before going any further, let me summarise the passage briefly. So, in this, John’s latest vision, he saw in verses 1 to 3 that an angel seized the Dragon, the Devil, and bound him for a thousand years in order to keep him from deceiving the nations any more until the thousand years were ended. Then in verses 4 to 6 John saw how the souls of believers came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years, although the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.
Then, in verses 7 to 10, John tells us what happens after the thousand years have passed: Satan will be released and will go out to deceive the nations throughout the earth in order to gather them for battle against God’s people. However, in John’s vision, fire came out from heaven and devoured them. The Devil was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the Beast from the sea and the Beast from the earth — also known as the false prophet — had already been thrown. And they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
And then, in verses 11 to 15, John describes the Day of Judgment when all people are judged. Death and Hades, or death and the grave, were thrown into the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found in the Book of Life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
So, the Devil was bound for one thousand years, during which time the souls of believers came to life and reigned with Christ. Then, after the thousand years, the Devil was released in order to raise an army to fight a final battle against the Lord’s people. However, the Devil was defeated; and then the Day of Judgment comes. So, that’s a summary of the chapter. What are we to make of the thousand years?
There are three main views concerning the thousand years. There’s the Premillennial view; there’s the Postmillennial view; and there’s what’s known as the Amillennial view. The word ‘millennial’ comes from the Latin word for ‘one thousand’; and the prefixes pre- and post- are added to show how the thousand years relate to the second coming of the Lord. Pre- means ‘before’; and so the Premillennialists think that the Lord will come again before the thousand years. Post- means ‘after’; and so the Postmillennialists think that the Lord will come again after the thousand years. A- means ‘not’; and so the Amillennialists don’t believe in the thousand years. Of course, that’s not strictly accurate; they believe in the thousand years, but they don’t believe what the Pre- and Postmillennialists believe about it.
Let me put my cards on the table: I side with the Amillennialists. So, I believe in the thousand years; but I believe in the thousand years rightly interpreted. And rightly interpreted means interpreted in view of what is taught elsewhere in the book of Revelation and elsewhere in the New Testament.
But before we look at the text, let me say a bit more about these three views. Premillennialists think the Lord will come again before the thousand years. One reason why they believe this is that they say chapter 20 follows chapter 19 chronologically. So, in chapter 19, we read about the coming of the Lord, who was depicted as a rider on a white horse, who came to overthrown his enemies. Then, after that happened, after the coming of the Lord in chapter 19, we have the events of chapter 20 which tell us how the Devil was bound for a thousand years. So, the Lord comes first; then Satan will be bound; and the Lord will reign on the earth with his people for a thousand years. And it will be a golden time, when sin and the effects of sin will be virtually wiped out. However, at the end of the thousand years, the Devil will be released for one final battle. But he will be defeated. Then the new heavens and the new earth will appear. Some Premillennialists interpret the thousand years literally; others interpret it symbolically to represent a long period of time. So, that’s roughly what the premillennialists believe.
Postmillennialists think the Lord will come again after the thousand years. So, Satan is bound for a thousands years; and there will be a golden time, when the gospel will be preached throughout the world; and gospel preaching will be overwhelmingly fruitful so that many, many, many people will be converted to faith in Christ; and societies will be transformed by the gospel and made godly. However, just before the end of this thousand year, golden time, there will be a short time of intense rebellion and persecution. But then, after the thousand years, the Lord will come again to raise the dead and to judge the nations and to bring in the new heavens and the new earth.
Those are views of the Premillennialists and the Postmillennialists. The Amillennialist view is that we should interpret the thousand years symbolically. After all, throughout the book of Revelation, that’s how we’ve been interpreting the numbers which are mentioned. And the thousand year period of chapter 20 began with the Lord’s first coming — when he was born and when he died and when he was raised and when he ascended to heaven. And it will end shortly before his second coming. So, when he came the first time, the Devil was bound in order to prevent him from deceiving the nations any more. And the Devil will remain bound like that until just before the Lord comes again. Just before the Lord comes again, there will be a brief time of intense persecution. But then the Lord will come to raise the dead, to judge the nations, and to bring in the new heavens and the new earth.
That’s the Amillennialist understanding of the thousand years. It’s my understanding too. Let’s turn now to the passage to see how the passage supports the Amillennial view.
When was Satan bound?
In verses 1 to 3 we read about the binding of Satan, who was bound to keep him from deceiving the nations any more until the thousand years were ended.
When was Satan bound? According to other places in the New Testament, it happened when the Lord first came into the world. For instance, in Matthew 12 the Lord spoke about how he cast out demons by the Spirit of God. And then he went on to use the parable of entering the strong man’s house and binding him before carrying off his possessions. In the Lord’s parable, the strong man is Satan; but the Lord Jesus is the even stronger man who has bound Satan in order to deliver his people from Satan’s tyranny. There’s the Lord saying that Satan has been bound.
In John 12, the Lord spoke about how now is the time — now that he has come to die and to rise — now is the time for the prince of this world to be driven out.
In Colossians 2 Paul writes about the Lord, disarming the powers and authorities, and triumphing over them by the cross. In Hebrews 2 we’re told how the Lord shared in our humanity and died for us in order to destroy him who holds the power of death, that is, the Devil. In 1 John 3 we’re told that the reason the Lord appeared was to destroy the works of the Devil. And then, back in the gospels, in Luke 10, we read how the 72 whom the Lord sent out to preach returned and reported what they had seen. And the Lord said in response:
I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.
The Lord has come; the gospel has been preached; and Satan has fallen.
That passage from Luke 10 is similar to what we read in Revelation 12 which many scholars see as a parallel to Revelation 20. In Revelation 12, we read about the Dragon who wanted to kill the male child who was about to be born to the woman in John’s vision. The male child symbolises the Lord Jesus. And the Dragon wasn’t able to kill the male child, because the male child was snatched up to heaven. But then John saw a battle in heaven and how the Dragon was hurled down from heaven. In other words, because of what happened on the earth — which includes the birth of the Lord Jesus and his death on the cross and his resurrection and ascension — because of what happened on the earth, the Devil was thrown down and defeated.
So, we have these passages in the New Testament about the coming of the Lord and his death and resurrection and ascension; and how his coming meant that the Devil was bound and cast down and defeated. So when we turn to Revelation 20 and the binding of Satan, the rest of the New Testament helps us to see that he was bound like that whenever the Lord first came into the world.
How was Satan bound?
But in what sense is he bound? After all, he’s still a roaring lion, isn’t he? He still blinds the minds of unbelievers and prevents them from coming to know the true God? In what sense is he bound? Well, he is a roaring lion, but he’s a roaring lion who has been chained. Think of what the world was like before the coming of the Lord. Before the coming of the Lord, the Devil was able to deceive every nation apart from the Jewish nation. Apart from the Jewish nation, every other nation was deceived and the people worshipped false gods instead of the one, true and living God.
But that’s no longer the case. Following the Lord’s death and resurrection, he commanded the Apostles to go to all the nations and to make disciples for him. And yes, the Devil is still able to deceive many people throughout the world; but nevertheless he’s not able to blind the minds of every person, because the Lord makes his light shine in the hearts of many people in every nation to give them the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
Once — before the coming of the Lord — the Devil was able to deceive all the nations; but no longer is that the case. And he’s certainly not able to do now what he will do in the future in that very brief time before the Lord’s second coming, which we read about in verses 7 to 10. At that time, he will once again deceive all the nations to gather them together for battle against the church. That day will come; but it hasn’t happened yet. And for now, he’s not able to do that, because for now, he’s been conquered by Christ and he’s very much under Christ’s control, because Christ is the stronger man who has come and who has bound the Devil for now.
That’s as far as we’ll go today. Next time, we’ll look at the remainder of this passage. But this passage was written to encourage us. Yes, during this time, the church will be persecuted and it will be opposed, because while the Devil is bound, he’s still active and he’s still able to cause much harm in the world. He’s not able to deceive everyone, but he’s able to deceive some; and he’s able to cause them to persecute the church.
Nevertheless, we need to remember that he is bound; he is defeated; he has been conquered by Christ. And so, while he’s a roaring lion, he’s a roaring lion who has been chained. And while he’s able to deceive some, he can’t deceive everyone. And so, that’s an encouragement for the church today as we seek to make the gospel of Jesus Christ known. While we can expect that many will not believe — because the Devil is able to blind their minds — nevertheless the church can expect many to believe, because the Devil’s power to deceive is restrained, and the Lord who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ is able to make his light shine in the hearts of men and women and boys and girls throughout the world in order to give them the light of the knowledge of glory of God in the face of Christ. And so, through the generations since Christ’s first coming, preachers have gone out boldly into all parts of the world to declare the unsearchable riches of Christ. They have gone boldly, because they have believed that Satan has been bound, and God is able to deliver his people from out of Satan’s grip through the preaching of the gospel.
And so, while we wait for the Saviour to come again, we should pray and we should keep praying, for the Lord to raise up and to send out preachers into all the world to preach with boldness the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, because while the Devil is still able to deceive some, he’s not able to deceive all; and there are still many, many, many who will come to know the one, true and living God.