1-19-2020 For a Thousand Times Revelation 20:1-3
Following the return of Christ in 19:11–21, we read of the imprisonment of Satan in 20:1–3 in preparation for the millennial reign in 20:4–6. Throughout Revelation, Satan appears not as a “figure of power … but a figure of deception, and his only triumph is to deceive the ungodly masses into opposing God and worshiping the beast and himself.”1 The judgment of Satan occurs in two stages: his temporary imprisonment in the Abyss in the present passage, followed by his eternal torment in the lake of fire (20:10). The visions of Revelation 20 reaffirm God’s sovereignty, even as they signal Satan’s demise.
This passage reminds us that God’s sovereign plan includes the destruction of his archenemy, Satan. The New Testament records multiple defeats or falls of Satan: being cast from heaven to earth (12:7–9; also perhaps Isa. 14:3–21), being defeated during the ministry of Jesus (e.g., Luke 10:18; John 12:31; 16:11; Heb. 2:14; 1 John 3:8), being cast into the Abyss (Rev. 20:1–3), and finally being thrown into the lake of fire (Matt. 25:41; Rev. 20:10). The head of the serpent has been crushed (Gen. 3:14–15). The ancient dragon—Leviathan or Rahab—has been slain (Isa. 27:1; 51:9–11). Although he tempts, accuses, and tries to deceive now, his time is limited and his doom is certain.
I. Pre-Millennial Circumstance
John frequently uses the expression “and I saw” (kai eidon) to move from one vision to another, but not necessarily to indicate a chronological sequence (e.g., in the immediate context in 19:11, 17, 19; 20:1, 4, 11, 12; 21:1). He prefers time-specific terms when wanting to indicate chronological sequence, terms such as “until” (20:3, 5), “after that” (20:3), and “when” (20:7). What is striking at first glance is that God delegates the imprisonment of Satan to an anonymous angel. This divine delegation once again stresses that Satan is God’s opponent but not God’s opposite. God simply tells an angel to take care of it. This could be the same angel that unlocked the Abyss to release the plague of locusts in 9:1–2, but we can’t be sure. He holds the key to the “Abyss” (lit. “without depth”), a term used seven times in Revelation to refer to the prison of demonic spirits (9:1, 2, 11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1, 3; cf. Luke 8:31; 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). There are four “keys” mentioned in Revelation: the “keys of death and Hades” (1:18), the “key of David” (3:7), the “key to the shaft of the Abyss” (9:1), and “the key to the Abyss” (20:1). With the exception of the more positive image in 3:7 (cf. the “keys of the kingdom” in Matt. 16:19), the other three uses describe God’s sovereign control over Satan and his demonic army.2 The angel stands ready to harness the dragon with a “great chain” and confine him to the subterranean prison house.
II. Millennial Situation
The names for Satan used throughout Revelation are now pulled together: “dragon, ancient serpent, the devil or Satan” (cf. a similar list in 12:9). This is in keeping with the ancient practice of naming a person to demonstrate having power over them. As the dragon, Satan was defeated by the archangel Michael in the heavenly war (12:7–8). He is now also explicitly identified as the ancient serpent of Genesis 3, who tempted Adam and Eve and who subsequently tried to destroy the messianic community (12:15; cf. Luke 10:18–19; Rom. 16:20; 2 Cor. 11:3, 14). Last, he is the devil, or Satan, meaning “adversary” or “accuser,” who knows his time is short and devotes his dying energy to attacking the people of God (12:10–12). Satan is imprisoned for a thousand years. Although some interpreters claim this refers to a literal thousand years, most treat the number one thousand as symbolic of a full and complete but indefinite period of time, a conclusion in keeping with the symbolic role of numbers throughout the book. Since the number ten represents fullness and completeness, the cube of ten would represent a complete but indeterminate period of time. The Latin translation combines mille (“thousand”) and annus (“year”) to give us the English term “millennium.” The millennium is based on both Old Testament and Jewish expectations
When it comes to interpreting Revelation 20, there are three basic millennial options.a Premillennialists believe that Christ will return to earth, destroy the forces of evil, and reign with his people for an indefinite period of time. This time will be followed by Satan’s ultimate defeat, the final judgment, and the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21). Within premillennialism, you will find historic premillennialists and dispensational premillennialists (of either the classic or progressive variety). Amillennialists do not believe there will be a visible, earthly millennial reign of Christ. Rather, they see the thousand-year period as symbolizing either the heavenly reign of Christ with Christians who have already died or the present spiritual reign of Christ in the lives of his followers. Satan is currently bound by the gospel of Christ, and when Christ returns there will be a resurrection of all people for final judgment, followed by the eternal state. Postmillennialists believe the millennium will be a period of peace and righteousness on earth brought about by the progress of the gospel and the work of God’s people. After the millennium, which is viewed as a spiritual reign of Christ, he will return to raise the dead, judge humanity, and usher in the eternal kingdom. In my view, the historic premillennialist option makes the best sense of both the text of Revelation 20 and the overall flow of the book (e.g., the millennium follows the tribulation). Unlike most historic premillennialists, however, I see the millennium as inaugurating life in the new heaven and new earth.
III. Post-Millennial Instruction
Satan is powerless to fight against the angel’s arrest. Notice the string of forceful verbs used to highlight Satan’s imprisonment: seized, bound, threw, locked, sealed. Here, the text itself points to a complete and total binding of Satan at the end of the age (premillennialism) rather than to a mere curtailing of his activities during the present age (amillennialism). This conclusion is also supported by the absence of deception (see 20:3b), an evil tactic consistently linked to Satan in Revelation. While the first coming of Christ certainly dealt a death blow to Satan and his empire to be sure (e.g., John 12:31; Col. 2:15), the New Testament also makes it clear that Satan continues to do extensive damage during the present age (e.g., 2 Cor. 4:3–4; Eph. 2:2; 2 Tim. 2:26; 1 Pet. 5:8). Here we see Satan on total lock down, with no possibility of escape.
to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time. The purpose of Satan’s imprisonment is to prevent him from deceiving the nations for a time. The “nations” could refer to the unbelievers who are still present on earth and were not part of the “rest [who] were killed” in 19:21 or, more likely, to the rest who were killed but will later be pulled back from the dead to be deceived by Satan (20:8–9). The “nations” here are equivalent to the “rest [who] were killed” in 19:21, the “rest of the dead” in 20:5, and the “nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog” in 20:8, meaning the “nations” represent all unbelievers or human beings who have rebelled against God.3 During the millennium they are in the place of the dead with Satan.
The text simply says that Satan won’t deceive “until the thousand years were ended” and “after that” he will be set free for a time to deceive again. Satan’s chief power consists of his ability to deceive unbelievers and put them in bondage (see sidebar in 18:1–8). Currently, Satan does not seem to be restricted in his ability to deceive unbelievers (e.g., 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2; 6:12; 2 Tim. 2:26; 1 Pet. 5:8), but during the millennium that ability will be eliminated entirely. After the millennium, Satan “must” (dei) be released to deceive again for a short time (on dei as divine necessity, see also 1:1; 4:1; 10:11; 11:5; 17:10; 22:6). One purpose of the millennium is to show the just nature of God’s judgments against unbelievers. Even after spending one thousand years imprisoned with Satan, they are still willing to believe his deceptive lies and rebel against their Creator. Mealy writes, “The great irony (cf. Rev. 20:8) is thus that when the unrepentant are released, they are immediately willing to forget the truth that they have just been compelled to face for a thousand long years.”4
This passage offers insight into the larger spiritual battle in which believers are engaged.
1. The dangers of deception. Although this passage speaks of a time when Satan will not be able to deceive, one application relates to the present dangers of deception. Perhaps surprisingly, God’s archenemy is known not for using brute force but for accusing and deceiving (see sidebars in 12:7–12 and 18:1–8). He’s the ultimate shyster who preys upon the unrepentant, but also upon “cultural Christians,” whose faith is more tied to folk theology and cultural traditions than to God’s Word. Jesus repeatedly told his followers not to be deceived by false christs, meaning that deception would often come dressed in religious garb (e.g., Matt. 24:4, 11, 23–26). Ironically, our own God-given curiosity can sometimes work against us. When we absolutely cannot live with any tension or loose ends or unanswered questions about how the world will end, we are susceptible to authoritative, airtight answers and systems that foster an unbiblical kind of fear and compromise when it comes to truth. Beware of theological wild-goose chases when Jesus’s commands are clearly set before us. We do not know the future, but we do know Jesus, who holds our future.
2. The strategy for believers is not to fear Satan but to stay alert to his schemes. Interestingly, the first mention of the millennium is connected with the judgment of Satan, not the reign of believers. The role for believers comes soon enough, but we shouldn’t miss the present implication: do not fear Satan, but be alert to his deceitful schemes. Although Satan remains a dangerous enemy, he has been defeated and will eventually be destroyed. As Osborne observes, “the great victory in the Apocalypse occurs not at Armageddon but at the cross.”5 Our present strategy includes putting on the full armor of God (Eph. 6:11), resisting the devil (1 Pet. 5:9; James 4:7), exercising spiritual authority (2 Cor. 10:3–4), responding with God’s Word (Matt. 4:1–11), forgiving and dealing quickly with anger (2 Cor. 2:10–11; Eph. 4:26–27), and relying on God’s faithfulness even as we remain faithful (1 Cor. 10:13; Rev. 12:11; 16:15).
3. Trust in God’s sovereignty. Throughout Revelation, God stands sovereign over Satan and all other evil powers. In 12:7–9 it is Michael the archangel rather than God himself who wages war and casts down the devil. At the famous battle of Armageddon, the victory is reported almost as an afterthought: “But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet” (19:20a). Again, in 20:1–3 “an angel” rather than God himself binds and imprisons Satan. God then says that Satan “must” (divine necessity) be set free after the millennium for one final attack, only to state (in the passive voice) that “the devil … was thrown into the lake of fire” where he will be “tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10). While we don’t have all the eschatological answers that our curiosity craves, we do know beyond all doubt that God is in control!
1. The dangers of deception
2. The strategy for believers
3. Trust in God’s sovereignty
▪ The dragon, also known as the ancient serpent, the devil, or Satan, uses deception as his primary weapon.
▪ Satan’s temporary imprisonment in the Abyss verifies God’s sovereignty, prevents him from deceiving the nations, and foreshadows his coming destruction.