Prof. Engelsma is professor emeritus of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: February 15, 2009, p. 223.
As I wrote in the previous article, “Reformed dogmatics must establish the right doctrine of the millennium, and expose the errors of both forms of millennialism, at the very outset of its treatment of cosmic eschatology.” Also, “the eschatological topic of the millennium concerns the thousand-year period ofRevelation 20. The truth of the millennium is established by sound interpretation of Revelation 20:1-10.”
Generally, Revelation 20:1-10 is a symbolical, or figurative, description of the entire age of the new covenant from Christ’s exaltation at the right hand of God in the Ascension until shortly before His second coming.
Revelation 20 is a vision. John begins the chapter, “I saw.” The vision certainly teaches certain important events belonging to the things that must shortly come to pass as Christ returns quickly, but in the manner of a vision. The manner of teaching of a vision differs from that of a historical account. No interpreter of Revelation 20 is able to explain the passage “literally,” regardless of his insistence or boast. Satan is not “literally” an aged snake, nor can he, being a spirit, “literally” be bound with a key and a large chain.
This vision reveals especially two truths about the last days that began with the exaltation of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. One is the life and glory of the faithful believers in heaven in the “intermediate state.” The other truth is the binding of Satan.
The main specific teachings of this passage include the following.
First, in perfect keeping with the symbolic, or figurative, nature of apocalyptic prophecy (prophecy of the second coming of Christ and of the end of the world), in perfect keeping with the symbolical nature of the book of Revelation, and in perfect keeping with the obviously symbolical nature of the twentieth chapter of Revelation, the one thousand years, or millennium, ofRevelation 20 is a figurative reference to the entire time of the new covenant, as a fullness, or complete unit of time, from Christ’s exaltation until shortly before His bodily return. One thousand is the number ten to the third power. Ten in Scripture represents the fullness of a thing as determined by God, for example, the fullness of His righteousness in the ten commandments or the fullness of His wrath in the ten plagues upon Egypt.
To the question, “With respect to what is the millennium the fullness?” the answer must be that it is the fullness of the age of the New Testament gospel and of the gathering of the elect church out of all nations. Peter described the age, or period, of the last days that began with the outpouring of the Spirit as the time of the salvation of the New Testament church out of all nations when he explained the events of Pentecost: “Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). Paul indicated the fundamental nature of the present age when he called it the day of salvation: “Behold, now is the day of salvation” (II Cor. 6:2). That the first seal opened by the Lamb is the running of the white horse with its crowned rider, “conquering and to conquer,” representing the victorious preaching of the gospel in all the world, characterizes the New Testament age as supremely the period of the gospel of Christ and its saving of the elect church (Rev. 6:1, 2). II Peter 3:9 clearly implies the dominating characteristic of the present age by God’s decree when it teaches that the one thing that explains what to us appears as the delay of the return of Christ is the necessity that all of us come to repentance under the preaching of the gospel of Christ.
Revelation 20 itself makes plain of what the one thousand years are the fullness. The souls of those who live and reign with Christ are the martyred and triumphant church in heaven, the great harvest throughout the present age of the preaching of the word of God. And, rightly understood, the binding of Satan has as its purpose that the gospel may run its God-appointed course, something that would be impossible were Satan to deceive the nations prematurely.
Second, the one thousand years begins with the binding of Satan (vv. 1-3). This is the work of the risen Jesus Christ upon His ascension into heaven and sitting at God’s right hand. In His sovereign lordship over all things, as the reward of His obedience in redeeming God’s elect, Christ nations bound Satan so that He might carry out the gracious will of the Father, which is also His will, that by the gospel all the church be gathered. The binding of Satan was contemporaneous with the casting of Satan out of heaven as revealed in Revelation 12.
Third, the binding of Satan represents Christ’s sovereign restraint of Satan keeping Satan from deceiving the nations: “that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled” (v. 3). Satan’s deception of the nations will be his uniting of the nations under Antichrist in the worldwide Kingdom of Man. The rising of this kingdom will involve an all-out assault upon the kingdom of Christ, which is the true church. This assault upon the church will be the main purpose of Satan in rearing up his kingdom, for the church is the bride of the hated Jesus Christ and the bearer of His name in the world. Verses 7-10 describe the assault upon the church and its outcome.
Christ’s binding of Satan for a thousand years is related to the restraining of the man of sin foretold in II Thessalonians 2:6, 7 (A.V.: “withholding” and “letting”), so that the “lawless one” (A.V.: “that Wicked”) does not come before the time God has appointed.
The binding of Satan does not indicate inactivity on Satan’s part throughout the present age. It does not mean that he cannot instigate great wickedness in all nations; that he cannot be filling the cup of the world’s iniquity; that he cannot effect the cruel persecution of the early church by the Roman empire and the equally cruel persecution of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands and France at the time of the Reformation by states under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church; that he cannot accomplish the apostasy of much of the post-apostolic church into the false church of Rome and the apostasy of much of Protestantism today into the false church; or that he cannot lay the groundwork for the deception of the nations over the course of centuries by education that trains the people to regard the Bible as a merely human book, to dismiss the God of the Christian faith as a superstition, to remake Jesus into a purely this worldly savior (along with the saviors of all the other great religions), and to view man, the end-product of the evolutionary process, as lord and god.
One thing he cannot do, one thing he must not do, strive as he will. He cannot deceive the nations for a thousand years, for Jesus will gather the church, whom He loves and whom He redeemed with His precious blood, out of the nations.
Fourth, during this present age—the time of the millennium—particularly the martyrs live and reign in heaven with Christ in the intermediate state (vv. 4-6). John saw “souls” sitting on thrones, and these were “the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God” (v. 4).
As I demonstrated at some length earlier in this series, in the intermediate state, immediately upon death, the believer begins to enjoy in his soul the reward of conscious life and glory that will be his perfectly, body and soul, in the eternal state. This is the promise ofRevelation 20 to the suffering members of the church in the world, encouraging us to be faithful to Christ even unto death. The millennial reign of the saints with Christ ofRevelation 20, about which both dispensational premillennialists and postmillennialists make so much in the interests of their respective carnal kingdoms of Christ on earth, is in heaven as the intermediate state. Souls of those who have been beheaded do not reign on earth during present history.
That the reign of the saints with Christ in Revelation 20refers to the intermediate state has always been the interpretation of Reformed orthodoxy. Francis Turretin has written:
John [says] “they lived” (to wit, a happy and glorious life in heaven, contrary to what the enemies of the church by a foolish judgment supposed, for they thought that those whom they had beheaded, perished miserably; but the beheading was life to them and their extermination was their reign with Christ). And if it is said, they will reign with Christ, it must not at once be understood that they will reign on the earth, since it can best be said that they will reign with Christ in heaven.1
Herman Bavinck also explained the life and reign of the saints with Christ of Revelation 20 as realized in heaven. “The life and rule of the believers who remained faithful in the great tribulation take place in heaven, not on earth. Not a word is said about the earth…. The thrones he [John] saw (Rev. 20:4) are located in heaven (Rev. 4:4, 11:16), and the souls of the martyrs are seen here (Rev. 20:4), as in every other passage, in heaven (Rev. 6:9, 7:9; Rev. 14-15; Rev. 11:12; Rev. 14:1-5; Rev. 18:20;Rev. 19:1-8)…. Now, in heaven, this kingship is temporary: it lasts a thousand years.”2
Even B.B. Warfield, ardent postmillennialist though he was, acknowledged that Revelation 20:4-6 describes “the ‘intermediate state’—of the saints of God gathered in heaven away from the confused noise and garments bathed in blood that characterize the war upon earth, in order that they may securely await the end.”3
Although verses 4-6 refer particularly to the martyrs, all genuine Christians are included. All who are faithful to Christ to the end, holding fast and overcoming, in the language of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, live and reign with Christ in heaven in their soul in the intermediate state. In truth, all true disciples of Christ are in a certain sense martyrs. Such is the Christian life of struggle against Satan, against the wicked world of the ungodly, including the apostate churches, and against his own sinful flesh that, as Paul declares in the name of all believers, “for thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter” (Rom. 8:36, quoting Ps. 44:22). Christ forewarned every follower that “he that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 10:39). Losing one’s earthly life in various ways short of physical death for Christ’s sake is a form of martyrdom.
The life of the soul of the believer in the intermediate state is the “first resurrection” (v. 5). These souls “lived,” we read in verse 4. They lived genuine, full, spiritual life. They lived perfect eternal life. Their living this life immediately upon their death in the body on earth is a real resurrection because it is the act of Christ raising them, through death, into heavenly, sinless life, which even their souls did not perfectly enjoy on the earth. This, I have explained more fully in my earlier treatment of the intermediate state.
If the life of the soul of the believer in heaven is the first resurrection, his second resurrection will be the resurrection of his body. Corresponding are two stages of death for the reprobate unbeliever. His first death is his suffering of the torments of hell in his soul at the moment of his physical death. His second death will be Christ’s casting of him into the lake of fire, resurrected body and soul (vv. 14, 15).
Fifth, at the end of the thousand years, Satan will be “loosed a little season” (v. 3). He will be permitted to succeed in uniting the nations of the world in one grand, but godless, kingdom under the Antichrist. The antichristian nature of these united nations and their attack on the true church of Jesus Christ are described in verses 7-9.
This visionary prophecy of the very end of earthly history as the rearing up of a satanic world-power harmonizes with Paul’s teaching in the “little apocalypse” of II Thessalonians 2 that in the future the one who now restrains the man of sin so that he cannot be revealed before his God-appointed time will be taken out of the way. “And then shall that Wicked [literally, the ‘Lawless One’] be revealed” (II Thess. 2:8). He will be on the scene, according to II Thessalonians 2, when the Lord returns from heaven, for the Lord will “destroy [him] with the brightness of his coming” (v. 8).
Indeed, the warning of all the New Testament is that this age will conclude with abounding lawlessness, apostasy, and the great tribulation for those who “keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 12:17).
This warning, believers and their children living in the world in the twenty-first century must take to heart. It is not impossible that Satan has already been loosed, finally to achieve his great goal.
In no way does this imply fear on the part of the saints—not in light of Revelation 20. The time of the rampaging enemy of God and us is merely a “little season.” Christ’s and our kingdom is everlasting. When Satan and his terrorizing troopers have done their worst, they send us on our way to thrones in heaven where we live and reign with Christ (and being “with Christ” is better than the thrones). Besides all this, the doom of Satan, his kingdom, and his assault upon the church is sure. It has been written down on the pages of the word of God, which cannot err. “Fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them. And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (vv. 9, 10).
The victorious Jesus Christ will sit upon the throne of judgment, before whom the nations will appear to give account (vv. 11ff.).
1 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, tr. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr., vol. 3 (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 1997), 580.
2 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4:Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, tr. John Vriend, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 679.
3 Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Millennium and the Apocalypse,” in Biblical Doctrines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1929), 649.