Geerhardus Vos has famously written, “Eschatology precedes soteriology.” Of the many important meanings of that sentence, we understand at least that one's understanding of the end of redemptive history bears significance for the whole of redemptive history - and one's view of the millennium (described in chapter xx of the Apocalypse of Saint John the Divine) practically defines the shape of his eschatology. The meaning, then, of the millennium is of the utmost importance to the Christian Church, as that meaning shapes her very identity and vocation.
Its pressing relevance notwithstanding, the Apocalypse has historically been treated as a work shrouded in mystery. Not only is the apocalyptic language frighteningly bizarre to many readers, but the picture that is painted is so richly symbolic that many simply conclude the book escapes their own hermeneutical capacities. The book, then, is largely left untouched, with the exception of a few blinkered literalists with a knack for fantasy. But these things need not be so. The book itself is written in order to be a blessing, not a trial.1 It is my intention here to demonstrate that the good news of this book is that Christ has been granted all authority on heaven and earth, and presently reigns at the right hand of the Father until he returns to judge both the quick and the dead.
While our subject is the millennium depicted specifically in verses 1-6, context requires that we briefly address verses 7-10 as well.
While there are a number of different millennial views, the most fundamental question that pastors, theologians, and biblical scholars attempt to answer is whether or not the millennium precedes or follows the second advent. While both historic and dispensational forms of premillennialism eagerly await the second coming in order to usher in the reign of Christ, amillenialists believe that the millennium denotes the period between the first and second visitations of the Lord. Postmillenialism is an interesting case because its generic version is premillenial in that it places a gap between the first advent and the millennium. However, preterist or partial-preterist postmillenialism is amillenial in that, though it places the millennium some time after the first advent, that portion of time is so narrow (about forty years) that the millennium virtually composes the whole period between the comings of Christ. All agree there is a millennium. (Except, perhaps, Bauckham2) Some wait for it, while others wait for it to end.
Once we affirm (as Wright3 and[!] Horton4 remind us) “what time it is,” further qualification is made as to the nature of the millennium. While the premillenialist can allow for a degree of diverse opinion on the subject, the question seems most pressing for the amillenialist as he understands the time to be now. The amillenialist view is also known as the “inaugurated millennialist” view. With the millennium already inaugurated, the amillenialist has to account for the differences between the present and future fulfillment of the millennial period. The tension is often described as “the already and the not yet.” That tension will be clearer as we move on to examine the passage in question.
The beloved John is befallen by an image of angel † coming “down from heaven” (And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man). This is Johannine Incarnation language,5 so we know that the angel is the second person of the Trinity, the Son. No substantial arguments can be brought against this. Even if one is insensitive to biblical patterns of language, this is yet clear: the angel overtakes the “serpent of old.” That is, the angel accomplishes what the seed of the woman6 was always destined to do: he overcomes the wicked deceiver. Jesus, the Evangelist Matthew says, is the long awaited son who will save his people.7 These things being true, we mustn't mimic any commentator's reluctance to equate the two, the angel and the Christ.8 Why did John the Divine employ the angelic metaphor? Who can say? If one wishes to speculate into the authorial psyche of John, we can say that the a;ggelon is a “messenger” and Jesus Christ is the lo,gon tou/ qeou9 - that is, the “message of God.” Regardless, we must affirm against Mounce that, even beginning with the first half of verse 1, the first advent is in view.
Noting this first point, we have an important hermeneutical key: this passage is not to be entirely understood as a forecast. The Apostle is grounding his apocalypse in history. This means, at the very least, that the events described in connection with the Incarnation are to be understood as having already come to pass as well.
The Son, then, is said to have keys.10 Keys, with their ability to bind and loose, are icons of control, authority, and power.11 He has the keys to the abyss, the bottomless pit, the grave – our Lord has dominion even over death itself. “O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting?”12 In verses 2-3, we are to understand that this power is (was) executed to overcome the serpent/dragon and thus begins the era in question, the millennium. Harrington, drawing upon the work of Boring,13 points out that the threefold description of Satan's imprisonment has the same force as the idiomatic expression, “signed, sealed, and delivered.”14 Thus, the first aspect of the millennium is that during the era, Satan is to be understood as virtually powerless, dead even (as that is what the Abyss symbolizes).
Interestingly, we read in verse 3 that there is a specific end in mind for the imprisonment of Satan: it is for the sake of “the nations.” This is not an arbritrary revelation of God's decree. Rather, it is a reiteration of a trans-covenantal theme: Salvation was never intended for the Jews alone. The scope of redemption is, and always has been, universal. Thus, in reading “the nations” we should understand something with all the biblical-theological connotations of “ha goyim.”
We note well that verses 4-6 indicate a second aspect to the millennium. Not only is it an epoch of a bound deceiver, but it is an epoch of regency. Christ is said to be seated upon a throne (as are those faithful to him). The millennial reign of Christ is not to be understood apart from his dominion over the devil. Indeed, they are intimately related. This is the point of the Ascension: that the Son might take his rightful place as at the right hand of the Father.15 The Ascension, then, is an ascension to a heavenly throne and the author of Hebrews says it is just that ascension which enables Christ to “bring many sons to glory.”16 And this is exactly why the Great Commission is given at the Ascension: because without Christ's reign over sin and death, neither Jew nor Gentile would be able to repent. (This, of course, means that one lacks the theological basis for missionary work if one fails to recognize that the Christ's reign in heaven over earth has already begun.)
There are two resurrections mentioned in this passage. This is intriguing, first of all, because one would assume that one can only be (and would only need to be) resurrected once. What seems to be necessary, is to understand that there are two sorts of resurrection. Kistemaker speaks of a “spiritual” and a “physical,” but in order to discourage physical/spiritual dualisms, we will speak of a heavenly and an earthly resurrection.17
There is no reason to suppose that the “witnesses” who reign/judge with Christ are exclusively those who have been martyred. We can assume this on two grounds: one, because no account of how the unmartyred church would be treated is given; secondly, because the concept of martyrdom receives very little theological play in Scripture – it would be peculiar if that were Blessed John's intention. More likely, it seems to me, martyrdom is employed as an icon of the sort of faith and dedication that all the saints are called to mimic.
With that said, Kistemaker outlines the double resurrection thusly:18 the saints and the wicked each experience an earthly death. The wicked, however, experience a heavenly death as well. The saints, at that same time (more or less), experience a heavenly resurrection where they reign with Jesus in the present. But saint and sinner alike will experience a final earthly resurrection where they will be judged for eternity. (v. 10) Applying these categories to the biblical text, we would identify the first resurrection with the heavenly resurrection (v. 5) and the second death (v. 6) with the heavenly death.
Quite interestingly, there is not a seamless transition from the millennial reign of Christ to the second coming. We read that Satan will be briefly released at the fulfillment of the “ci,lia e;th.” Much more, this is for the sake of war. John employs an allusion to rivals of Israel (“Gog and Magog”), numbered in parallel with the descendants of Abraham, to describe a sort of Last Battle. Israel is depicted as the encroachee and right before the wicked from all the deceived goyim close in, they are consumed in Elijahidal19 flames. Subsequently, Satan and his nations are permanently placed in a place of eternal punishment.
Hopefully, what we have seen here, in this brief reading of the text, is the exegetical necessity of reading these verses in the context of all revelation and of attending to the various biblical theological and systematic themes to which it pertains. The book is intended to be a blessing, and as we learn to read it in light of the good news that the eschaton has already arrived, I believe it can be a an excellent means of encouraging the Church to press on to maturity, towards the end of the millennium where the Dragon is finally laid to rest.
1 The Apocalypse of Saint John the Divine i, 3.
2 Bauckham, pp. 106-8.
3 Wright 1996, pp. 467-472.
5 cf. The Gospel According to Saint John i, 9, 14; vi, 14, 33, 38, 41, et cetera.
6 cf. Genesis iii, 14-15.
7 cf. The Gospel According to Saint Matthew i.
8 Mounce, pp. 360-3; Kistemaker, pp. 533-36; Morris, pp. 227-30.
9 cf. John i.
10 cf. The Apocalypse i, 17-18.
11 cf. Matthew xvi, 13-20.
12 Hosea xiii, 14. cf. I Corinthians xv, 55-56.
13 Boring, M. Eugene. Revelation. (Louisville: Knox, 1989) p. 200.
14 Harrington, p. 196.
15 cf. Psalm viii.
16 Hebrews ii, 10.
17 Kistemaker, p. 540.
18 Substituting in, of course, my earthly/heavenly categories.
19 That is, heavenly fire such as appeared in I Kings xviii.
- Bauckham, Richard. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. (New York: Cambridge, 1993 )
- Caird, G.B. A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine. (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) pp. 248-259.
- Carson, D.A. and Douglas Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992 ) pp. 697-725.
- Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 3rd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987 )
- Harrington, Wilfrid J. O.P. Revelation. (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1993) pp. 194-202.
- Horton, Michael S. “How the Kingdom Comes.” Christianity Today. (January 2006) Volume 50, Number 1. p. 42.
- Kistemaker, Simon J. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Book of Revelation. (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2001) pp. 531-545.
- Morris, Leon. The Book of Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969 ) pp. 227-233.
- Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Revised Ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977 ) pp. 360-374.
- Weinrich, William C. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament XII – Revelation. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2005) pp. 320-343.
- Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992)
- Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996)
The twentieth chapter of the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine, verses 1-6:
- Kai. ei=don a;ggelon katabai,nonta evk tou/ ouvranou/ e;conta th.n klei/n th/j avbu,ssou kai. a[lusin mega,lhn evpi. th.n cei/ra auvtou/Å
- kai. evkra,thsen to.n dra,konta( o` o;fij o` avrcai/oj( o[j evstin Dia,boloj kai. o` Satana/j( kai. e;dhsen auvto.n ci,lia e;th
- kai. e;balen auvto.n eivj th.n a;busson kai. e;kleisen kai. evsfra,gisen evpa,nw auvtou/( i[na mh. planh,sh| e;ti ta. e;qnh a;cri telesqh/| ta. ci,lia e;thÅ meta. tau/ta dei/ luqh/nai auvto.n mikro.n cro,nonÅ
- Kai. ei=don qro,nouj kai. evka,qisan evpV auvtou.j kai. kri,ma evdo,qh auvtoi/j( kai. ta.j yuca.j tw/n pepelekisme,nwn dia. th.n marturi,an VIhsou/ kai. dia. to.n lo,gon tou/ qeou/ kai. oi[tinej ouv proseku,nhsan to. qhri,on ouvde. th.n eivko,na auvtou/ kai. ouvk e;labon to. ca,ragma evpi. to. me,twpon kai. evpi. th.n cei/ra auvtw/nÅ kai. e;zhsan kai. evbasi,leusan meta. tou/ Cristou/ ci,lia e;thÅ
- oi` loipoi. tw/n nekrw/n ouvk e;zhsan a;cri telesqh/| ta. ci,lia e;thÅ au[th h` avna,stasij h` prw,thÅ
- maka,rioj kai. a[gioj o` e;cwn me,roj evn th/| avnasta,sei th/| prw,th|\ evpi. tou,twn o` deu,teroj qa,natoj ouvk e;cei evxousi,an( avllV e;sontai i`erei/j tou/ qeou/ kai. tou/ Cristou/ kai. basileu,sousin metV auvtou/ Îta.Ð ci,lia e;thÅ
- And I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.
- And he seized the dragon, that serpent of old, which is the Devil, the Satan. And he bound him for a thousand years.
- And he threw him into the bottomless pit and locked him up. And he put a seal upon him so that he would not deceive the nations until the fulfillment of the thousand years. After that, however, he must be freed for a brief time.
- And I saw thrones. And seated upon them were appointed judges: I saw the souls of those beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, for the word of God, men which had neither worshiped the beast nor his image, nor received his mark on their forehead or their hands. And they lived and reigned with the Christ for a thousand years.
- The rest of the dead did not come alive until fulfillment of the thousand years. This is the first resurrection.
- Blessed and holy is the one who participates in the first resurrection. On such the second death has no power, rather they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him a thousand years.