Chapter 20: The Seven Bowls, Part 3


1. And I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. 2. And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3.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.


Like a canoe emerging from shelter into an ocean gale, this early part of chapter 20 is, for most who journey through the book of Revelation, a hotbed of contention (See Robert G. Couse, ed. “The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views” (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity, 1977)). The dispute focuses primarily on the meaning of the millennium (1000 years) described in verse 2, and there are three main bodies of thought battling for the allegiance of Christians of all persuasions.

The most popular theory at present is “pre-millennialism”, a doctrine that teaches (with variations) the near-future takeover of earth’s political institutions by Antichrist, the physical rapture of the Church and physical return of Christ and the Church to defeat Antichrist and to set up an earthly political/religious kingdom in Israel that will rule the earth/or 1000 years. Following this millennium, there will be a short battle with satanic armies that will usher in the end of all things and the last judgment.

The second interpretation is called ‘a-millennialism’. Its exponents teach the establishment of the kingdom of Christ on earth at His resurrection and ascension, and the numerical growth of that kingdom for a long period of time (not an exact 1000 years), followed by a short battle with satanic  armies. Then will occur the second coming and final judgment.

Thirdly, ‘postmillennialism’ teaches the establishment of the kingdom of Christ at the resurrection and ascension, the numerical and cultural growth of the kingdom of Christ throughout the entire world for a long period of time (not an exact 1000 years) until God’s original vision for His world is completed. At the completion of this time there will occur a short Satan-led rebellion that will bring on the second coming and the last judgment.

A comparison of these quick summaries shows several important points. To begin with, the second and third views are very similar. They both teach a symbolic 1000 years, and they both teach the postmillennial return of Christ at the end of history, rather than at the mid-point. The factors that divide the a-millennial and Post-millennial theories are their understanding of the degree of individual and cultural victory the Gospel will produce. The post-millennial view is more positive.

Pre-millennialism, however, is a completely different theory. It teaches the still future kingdom of Christ, the defeat of the Church in the near future in regard to its mission statement (Mt 28:18-20), satanic control of the earth for a short period, an exact 1000-year kingdom, an earthly reign of Christ enforcing His will upon all earthly inhabitants and institutions, and the re-involvement of physical Israel in the plans of God. Each of those features is theologically unsound, and it is no accident that the historically orthodox view of Church leaders such as Augustine (St Augustine, “The City of God”, Book xx.), Luther, Calvin ( Greg L. Bahnsen, “The Prima Facie Acceptability of Post-millennialism” from “The Journal of Christian Reconstruction”, Vol.111, No.2 (Winter, 1976-77), pp. 48-105), the Puritans, John Owen, Benjamin B. Warfield, Jonathon Edwards and the modern missionary movement ( John Jefferson Davis, “Christ’s Victorious Kingdom” (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), p.7) have encompassed the first two views in varying forms.

The Bible does not speak of a 1000-year binding of Satan and earthly reign of Christ outside of Revelation 20, a highly symbolic passage in a highly symbolic book. It is highly unlikely that something as important as a 1000-year reign of Christ on earth would be found nowhere else after all the prophetic announcements concerning His first coming. It is unorthodox to suggest there will be a second redemptive action by Christ before the last judgment, that the kingdom is still a future event, that a gospel of volunteerism will transform itself into a kingdom of force, and that the nations will be discipled by Antichrist instead of Christ. It is also highly unlikely that a teaching popularised only in the past 150 years would be the correct view of scripture (Jay Adams, “The Time is at Hand” (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. (1966)), 1970).

Revelation 20:1

The fourth vision in this series begins with Christ, the great angel of heaven. As in Revelation 10:1 and 18:1, He is descending with the key of the abyss and great chain in His hand. The key and the chain symbolise His absolute control and authority over the Abyss, and this opening scene sets up a stark contrast between Satan, who fell from heaven and was briefly given the keys, and Christ, the owner of the keys.

Revelation 20:2

The various descriptions of the evil one used in other parts of the book are brought together by John to highlight the terrifying nature of the enemy. However, the description only serves to highlight the greatness of the conqueror who has completely destroyed Satan’s power. Satan is easily laid hold of and bound by Christ, a process that took place during Christ’s ministry. This event began with the triple temptation, where obedience triumphed over both power and a demonically cheeky offer of the earth’s kingdoms for a price. It continued with the casting-out of terrified demons (Mt 8:29, Mk 1:24, Lk4:34) and the general plundering of the strong man’s house (Mt 12:28-29). The plundering continued through the disciples (Lk 10:18-19) and culminated in the sting of the cross. Satan seduced the first Adam and cast him down to death. By killing the second Adam, he lost the progeny of the first. Satan is now definitively bound and the rest is history.

Satan is bound for a thousand years, according to John. Debate rages about whether this figure is literal or figurative. To obtain an accurate understanding, one must look at all the other references to large numbers in Revelation. Chapter 5:11 tells us of the myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands of angels encircling the throne of God, clearly a vast multitude, not an exact figure. Chapter 7:4-8 describes the 144,000 believers, made up of exactly 12,000 from each tribe who were called out of Israel before its destruction. This is another symbolic number representing the many (indicated by the multiples of 1000) priests (indicated by the number 12) to be saved before 70AD. Chapter 9:16 describes the 200-million-strong army of judgment coming across the Euphrates. The armies that did come were clearly not that large. It is another figure designed to convey to us the immensity of the attacking force. Chapter 11:3 speaks of 1260 days of prophecy, a figure that is part of a symmetrical pattern of 42, 3 ‘/2, and 1260, and which forms a broken-seven pattern, a symbol of destruction and judgment  that actually did last 42 months. Chapter 12:6 mentions the 1260 days again. Chapter 14:1 mentions the 144,000 saints again. Chapter 14:20 tells us of blood flowing out of the winepress of God’s judgment for 200 miles, the length of Israel. Blood cannot flow 200 miles, so the narrative is once again telling the reader of the total destruction of the civilian population of the land, which brings us up to our present verse and the dilemma of 1000 years. No other large numbers in this book are literal (with the partial exception of 42 in chapter 11:3), so the weight of evidence lies with a symbolic interpretation, which essentially boils down to a long period of time, similar to our modern ‘month of Sundays’ and ‘not in a million years’. This view is reinforced by Psalm 50:10, where God claims to own the cattle on a thousand hills, hills which, if taken literally, beg the question: ‘Who owns the cattle on the 1001st hill?’ God owns all hills and all cattle and He uses 1000 to indicate there are many of both. Similarly, the 1000 years of Revelation 20 represent a vast, undefined period of time, the time it will take for the stone of Daniel’s prophecy (Da 2:35) to consume the whole earth, the time it will take for the mustard seed to become the biggest tree in the garden (Mt 13:31-32), and the time it will take for the leaven to have leavened the whole loaf (Mt 13:33).

Revelation 20:3

The reason Satan is bound for this thousand years is so that he should not deceive the nations any longer. That he has been bound does not mean that demonic activity has ceased, but that it has been restricted and is in retreat at the advance of the Gospel. The situation as it now stands is that Satan is unable to prevent the victory of the Kingdom. In the era before Christ, demonic activity and spiritism went unchecked in all cultures. A study of ancient writings quickly highlights the influence of demons and demonology in these civilizations. From the gods of the Greeks and the demon-pacifying rituals of the Asians, to the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, the ancient world was a dark place. We have now been told to disciple the nations—Satan, however, has been told he can no longer deceive the nations. This is the ongoing process of the cross, resurrection and ascension, it is a continuous, progressive victory (Ac 26:18, Ro 15:12, Col 2:15, 2Pe 2:4, Jude 1:6). It first involved the nations outside Israel when Paul unapologetically went to the Gentiles (Ac 28:28). It involved Israel when their attempted deception resulted in national annihilation. It involved Rome as its cruel persecutions evolved into Imperial conversion. From there, Christianity and its culture have freed deceived cultures and nations around the world.

This process has been going on for 2000 years and will probably go on for a long time yet. God’s Kingdom/city/rock/mustard seed/loaf must be fully mature before Satan can be allowed to regroup, so for now he is held at bay. When these things are completed, he must be released for a short time. It is Satan’s nature to fight God, so he has been bound to prevent a premature, eschatological mother of all battles. When released, he will do exactly as predicted and, amazingly, this is in the plan of God. At every point, Satan’s activity takes place under the strict government of God. Why God will choose to release Satan at the end of our age is unclear, verses 7-10 of this chapter tell us what will happen at that point in history, but the reason remains God’s secret.


4. And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshipped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand,  and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5. The rest of the dead did not live until the thousand years were completed. This is the First Resurrection. 6. Blessed and holy is the one who has part in the first resurrection, over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years.

Revelation 20:4

In this next vision, John gives us an inside picture of the 1000-year kingdom. He describes three groups of people who represent: 1, the historically present church, 2, the faithful church that has gone to its rest in death, and, 3, those who are spiritually dead outside the church.

Firstly, we are not told who John sees sitting on thrones. However, he only uses the plural ‘thrones’ when talking about the twenty-four elders (Rev 4, 4, 11:16) who represent the church as kings enthroned in heaven and as saints living on earth. Part of the role of a king was to judge (2Sa 15:2, 1Ki 3:16-18), so John tells us that these people have been given authority to judge. This privilege was given to the church definitively at its inauguration, and increases as the dominion of the saints begins to progress through history. This judging is the dividing of truth from error, holiness from sin, and Godly law from rebellion using the word of God as the standard.

John now goes on to describe those who have died as faithful Christians in the battle against sin and Satan. He calls them the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshipped the beast or his image. This reference probably refers to both the Old and New Testament believers who were faithful to the word of God and Christ to their dying breath and who had passed into physical death. They are represented here by the beheaded martyrs and those who resist tyranny as typified by John the Baptist (Lk 24:25-27, Jn 5:45-46, Ac 10:43, Ro 1:1-3, 3:21-22). John is telling us that the believers, although dead physically, are still included in the first resurrection, which we call salvation, there is no distinction between Old and New Testament spiritual condition. He is also telling us that they now reign along with the earthly Church for the millennium, but from their home in heaven, they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.

The Church’s reign takes place in heaven or on earth. The living and dead saints are both enthroned in heaven (Eph 2:6) with Christ, while the living saints exercise dominion and authority on earth. The Church is both heavenly and earthly. Likewise, the Church’s sphere of rule includes the earth and heaven.

Revelation 20:5

This section begins with a comment about the rest of the dead. This is the third group that John sees in this vision. Those that live and die outside salvation are the rest of the dead. They form a contrast to the saints who are either physically alive or deceased, but alive spiritually. John is telling us that there are two classes of people. The first class is those who are alive with Christ and have come from both covenants. These people live and reign with Christ for 1000 years in His kingdom though they are physically dead or living. The second group is comprised of those who are spiritually dead outside Christ, the unbelievers. They do not come to life until the thousand years are ended, that is, until the end of history when God is ready for judgment (Rev 20:11-15).

The text then continues with John’s definition of the saints’ millennial reigning with Christ. It is described as the first resurrection. This implies that there will be two resurrections for believers, and that this first one is the more important of the two. This first resurrection is a common theme throughout the New Testament writings and is simply the believer’s salvation. Here are Paul’s thoughts on the topic:

“But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies.” (Ro 8:11)

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ.” (Eph 2:4-5)

“Having been buried with him in baptism in which you were also raised up with him through faith in working of God.” (Col 2:12)

Christ taught on the same topic in John 5:25: “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear shall live.” Thus, the first resurrection is pictured in the rite of baptism. It is our salvation into the Kingdom, the journey from spiritual death to spiritual life and our spiritual imitation of Christ’s physical journey to the grave and back.

Revelation 20:6

The idea of resurrection implying salvation is strengthened by the statement: “Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection.” John does not say that the believer is resurrected, but that he or she has a part of this resurrection, they share the resurrection of Christ. This is precisely what Paul was punching at in the quotations, above. Christ did it, we share in it.

This vision finishes with more clues about the identity of the participants in this first resurrection. Each clue portrays something