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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Revelation 20

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-15

Chapter 20

THE THOUSAND YEAR REIGN OF CHRIST AND THE SAINTS (Revelation 20:1-15 )

Since the great importance of this chapter is that it is what might be called the foundation document of Millennarianism or Chiliasm, it will be better to read it as a whole before we deal with it in detail.

20:1-15 1 And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven with the key of the abyss, and with a great chain in his hand. 2 And he laid hold of the dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a 3 thousand years, and cast him into the abyss, and locked him in, and set a seal over him, that he might no longer deceive the nations, until the thousand years were completed. After that he must be set free for a little time. 4 And I saw thrones, and those who had received the privilege of judgment sat upon them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their witness to Jesus, and for the sake of the word of God, and such as had not worshipped the beast nor his image, and who had not received the mark upon their forehead, and upon their hand. And they came to life again, and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life again until the thousand years were completed. This is the 6 first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has a share in the first resurrection. Over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. 7 And whenever the thousand years shall have been completed, Satan will be loosed from his prison, and 8 he will come forth to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth, that is, Gog and Magog, to assemble them for war; and their number will be as the sand of the sea. 9 And they came up over the broad plain of the earth, and they encircled the camp of God's dedicated ones, and the beloved city; and fire came down from 10 heaven and devoured them; and the devil who deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where both the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tortured day and night for ever and ever. 11 And I saw a great white throne and him who sat upon it. Earth and the sky fled from his presence, 12 and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne; and books were opened. And another book was opened, the Book of Life; and the dead were judged by that which was written in these books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea rendered up the dead in it, and Death 14 and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the 15 second death, the lake of fire; and everyone who was not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.

Millennium means a period of one thousand years; and chiliasm is derived from the Greek chilias (Greek #5505), a thousand. To put it briefly, the commonest form of Millennarianism teaches that for a thousand years before the end Christ will reign upon this earth in a kingdom of his saints; and after that will come the final struggle, the general resurrection, the last judgment and the final consummation.

We note two general facts: First, this was a very common belief in the early church and it still has its adherents. Second, this is the only passage in the New Testament in which it is clearly taught.

The picture is that first of all the Devil will be bound in the abyss for a thousand years. Then those who have been martyred for Christ, although the rest of mankind, even the Christians among them who did not suffer martyrdom, will not be resurrected. There will then be a period of a thousand years in which Christ and his saints will reign. After that for a brief time the Devil will be released. There will follow a final struggle and the general resurrection of all men. The devil will be finally defeated and cast into the lake of fire; his supporters will be burned up with fire from heaven; those whose names are in the Book of Life will enter into blessedness, but those whose names are not in the Book of Life will also be cast into the lake of fire.

This doctrine does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament but it was prevalent throughout the early church especially among those who had received their Christianity from Jewish sources. Here is our key. The origin of this doctrine is not specifically Christian but is to be found in certain Jewish beliefs about the Messianic age which were common in the time after 100 B.C.

Jewish Messianic beliefs were never an unvarying system. They varied from time to time and from thinker to thinker. The basis was that the Messiah would come and establish upon earth the new age, in which the Jewish nation would be supreme.

In the earlier times the general belief was that the kingdom so established would last for ever. God would set up a kingdom which would never be destroyed; it would break in pieces the other kingdoms, but it would stand for ever (Daniel 2:44). It was to be an everlasting dominion (Daniel 7:14, Daniel 7:27).

From 100 B.C. onwards there came a change. It was felt that this world was so incurably evil that within it the Kingdom of God could never finally come; and so there emerged the conception that the Messiah would have a limited reign and that after his reign the final consummation would come. The Apocalypse of Baruch foresees the defeat of the forces of evil; then the principate of the Messiah will stand for ever, until this world of corruption is at an end (Baruch 40:3). One section of Enoch sees history as a series of weeks. There are seven weeks of past history. The eighth is the week of the righteous, when a sword is given to the righteous and sinners are delivered into their hands, and the house of God is built. In the ninth week the evil are written down for destruction, and righteousness will flourish. In the tenth week comes judgment; and only then comes the eternal time of goodness and of God (Enoch 93:3-10).

There was much rabbinic discussion of how long the Messianic age would last before the final consummation arrived. Some said 40, some 100, some 600, some 1,000, some 2,000, some 7,000 years.

We look particularly at two answers. 2 Esdras is very definite. God is represented as saying: "My Son the Messiah shall be revealed, together with those who are with him, and shall rejoice the survivors for four hundred years. And it shall be, after these years, that my Son the Messiah shall die, and all in whom there is human breath. Then shall the world be turned into the primaeval silence seven days, like as at the first beginnings, so that no man is left." And then after that the new age comes (2 Esdras 7:28-29). This passage is unique in foretelling, not only a limited reign of the Messiah, but the Messiah's death. The period of four hundred years was arrived at by setting side by side two passages from the Old Testament. In Genesis 15:13 God tells Abraham that the period of the affliction of Israel will last for four hundred years. In Psalms 90:15 the prayer is: "Make us glad as many days as thou hast afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil." It was, therefore, held that the period of bliss, like the period of affliction, would last for 400 years.

More commonly it was held that the age of the world would correspond to the time taken for its creation and that the time of creation was 6,000 years. "A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday" (Psalms 90:4). "One day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day" (2 Peter 3:8). Each day of creation was said to be 1,000 years. It was, therefore, held that the Messiah would come in the sixth thousand of the years; and the seventh thousand, the equivalent of the Sabbath rest in the creation story, would be the reign of the Messiah.

Although the reign of the Messiah was to be the reign of righteousness, it was often conceived of in terms of material blessings. "The earth also shall yield its fruit ten thousand-fold, and on each vine there shall be a thousand branches, and each branch shall produce a thousand clusters, and each cluster shall produce a thousand grapes, and each grape a cor (120 gallons) of wine" (Baruch 29:5, 6)Baruch 6:1-73). There will be no more disease, no more untimely death; the beasts will be friendly with men; and women will have no pain in childbirth (2Baruch 73).

Here, then, we have the background of the idea of the Millennium. Already the Jews had come to think of a limited reign of the Messiah, which would be a time of the triumph of righteousness, and of the greatest spiritual and material blessings.

On the basis of this passage of the Revelation Millennarianism or Chiliasm was very widespread within the early Church, although it was never universal.

For Justin Martyr it was an essential part of orthodox belief, although he agreed that there were good Christians who did not accept it. "I and others, who are right-minded Christians at all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built adorned and enlarged as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare" (Dialogue with Trypho 80). Irenaeus also (Against Heresies 5: 32) firmly held to the belief in a Millennium upon earth. One of his reasons was the conviction that, since the saints and the martyrs had suffered upon earth, it was only just that upon earth they should reap the rewards of their fidelity. Tertullian also insisted upon the coming of the Millennium. Papias, the second century collector of so much material upon the Gospels, insisted that Jesus taught the doctrine of the Millennium, and he hands down as the words of Jesus a passage which foretells the wondrous fertility of the earth which is to come: "The days will come in which vines shall grow each having ten thousand shoots, and on each shoot ten thousand branches, and on each branch again ten thousand twigs, and on each twig ten thousand clusters, and on each cluster ten thousand grapes, and each grape when pressed shall yield five and twenty measures of wine. And when any of the saints shall have taken hold of one of their clusters, another shall cry, I am a better cluster; take me, bless the Lord through me. Likewise also a grain of wheat shall produce ten thousand heads, and every head shall have ten thousand grains, and every grain ten thousand pounds of fine flour, bright and clean, and the other fruits, seeds and the grass, shall produce in similar proportions, and all the animals, using these fruits which are products of the soil, shall become in their turn peaceable and harmonious, obedient to man in all subjection." Papias gives this passage as an actual saying of Jesus, but it can be seen that it is very close to the passage of 2Baruch which we have already quoted.

We have already said that, although many in the early church accepted the belief in the Millennium as a part of orthodoxy, many did not. Eusebius almost contemptuously dismisses Papias' report. "I suppose he got those ideas," he says, "through a misunderstanding of the apostolic records, not perceiving that the things said by them were said mystically in figures. For he seems to have been of very limited understanding" (Eusebius: The Ecclesiastical History 3: 38).

One of the things which brought discredit upon Millennarianism was the fact that it undoubtedly lent itself to a materialistic interpretation in which it offered physical as much as spiritual pleasures. Eusebius tells how the great scholar Dionysius had in Egypt to deal with a certain much-respected bishop called Nepos who taught "a millennium of bodily luxury upon this earth" (The Ecclesiastical History 7: 24). Cerinthus, a heretic, deliberately taught a millennium of "delights of the belly and sexual passion, eating and drinking and marrying" (Eusebius: The Ecclesiastical History 3: 28). Jerome spoke contemptuously of "these half-Jews who look for a Jerusalem of gold and precious stones from heaven, and a future kingdom of a thousand years, in which all nations shall serve Israel" (Commentary on Isaiah 60:1).

Origen rebuked those who looked for bodily pleasure in the Millennium. The saints will eat, but it will be the bread of life; they will drink, but it will be the cup of wisdom (De Principiis 2. 11. 2-3). It was Augustine, however, who, we may almost say, dealt Millennarianism its death blow. At one time he himself had been a Millennarian, although it was always spiritual blessings for which he longed. H. B. Swete summarizes Augustine's position: "He had learned to see in the captivity of Satan nothing else than the binding of the strong man by the stronger than he which the Lord had foretold (Mark 3:27; Luke 11:22); in the thousand years, the whole interval between the first Advent and the last conflict; in the reign of the saints, the entire course of the kingdom of heaven; in the judgment given to them, the binding and loosing of sinners; in the first resurrection, the spiritual share in the Resurrection of Christ which belongs to the baptised" (Augustine: The City of God 20: 7). Augustine spiritualized the whole idea of the Millennium.

Millennarianism is by no means extinct within the Church; but it has never been the universally accepted belief of the Church, this is the only passage in the New Testament which unequivocally teaches it, its whole background is Jewish and not Christian, and the literal interpretation of it has always tended to run into danger and excess. It is a doctrine which has long since been left behind by the main stream of Christian thought and which now belongs to the eccentricities of Christian belief.

The Chaining Of Satan (Revelation 20:1-3)

The abyss was a vast subterranean cavern beneath the earth, sometimes the place where all the dead went, sometimes the place where special sinners were kept awaiting punishment. It was reached by a chasm reaching down into the earth and this the angel locks in order to keep the Devil in the abyss.

It was the abyss which the devils feared most of all. In the story of the Gerasene demoniac the request of the devils was that Jesus would not command them to leave the man and to go out into the deep, that is, the abyss (Luke 8:31).

The seal is set on the chasm to ensure the safe-keeping of the prisoner, just as the seal was set on the tomb of Jesus to make sure that he would not escape (Matthew 27:66).

The Devil is to be kept in the abyss for a period of a thousand years. Even the way in which the word thousand is used in Scripture warns us against taking this literally. Psalms 50:10 says that the cattle on a thousand hills belong to God; and Job 9:3 says that a man cannot answer God once in a thousand times. Thousand is simply used to describe a very large number.

At the end of the period the Devil is to be let loose for a little time. H. B. Swete suggests that the reason for the final loosing of the Devil is this. In a period of peace and righteousness, in a time when the opposition, so to speak, did not exist, it might easily happen that people came to take their faith unthinkingly. The loosing of the Devil meant a testing-time for Christians, and there are times when a testing-time is essential, if the reality of the faith is to be preserved.

The Privilege Of Judgment (Revelation 20:4-5)

In the first resurrection only those who have died and suffered for the faith are to be raised from the dead. The general resurrection is not to take place until after the thousand year reign of Christ upon earth. There is special privilege for those who have shown special loyalty to Christ.

Those who are to enjoy this privilege belong to two classes. First, there are those who have been martyred for their loyalty to Christ. The word used for the way in which they were killed means to behead with an axe, and denotes the most cruel death. Second, there are those who have not worshipped the beast and have not received his mark on their hand or on their forehead. H. B. Swete identifies these, as those who, although they were not actually martyred, willingly bore suffering, reproach, imprisonment, loss of goods, disruption of their homes and personal relationships for the sake of Christ.

In the ancient Church in the days of persecution two terms were used. Martyrs were those who actually died for their faith; confessors were those who suffered everything short of death for their loyalty to Christ. Both he who dies for Christ and he who lives for Christ will receive his reward.

Those who have been loyal to Christ are to receive the privilege of judgment. This is an idea which occurs more than once in the New Testament. Jesus is represented as saying that, when he returns to sit on the throne of his glory, his twelve apostles will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28). Paul reminds the litigious Corinthians that the destiny of the saints is to judge the world (1 Corinthians 6:2). Again we do not need to take this literally. The idea symbolized is that the world to come will redress the balance of this one. In this world the Christian may be a man under the judgment of men; in the world to come the parts will be reversed and those who thought they were the judges will be the judged.

The Privileges Of The Witnesses Of Christ (Revelation 20:6)

(i) For them death has been utterly vanquished. The second death has no power over them. Physical death for them is not a thing to be feared, for it is the gateway to life everlasting.

(ii) They are to be the priests of God and of Christ. The Latin for priest is pontifex, which means a bridge-builder. The priest is the builder of a bridge between God and man; and he, as the Jews saw it, is the one man with the right of direct access into the presence of God. Those who have been loyal to Jesus Christ have the right of free entry into the presence of God; and they have the privilege of introducing others to Jesus Christ.

(iii) They are to reign with Christ. In Christ even the most ordinary man becomes a king.

The Final Struggle (Revelation 20:7-10)

At the end of the thousand years the Devil is to be loosed, but he has learned no lesson; he begins where he has left off. He will assemble the nations for the final attack on God.

A final attack on Jerusalem by the hostile nations is one of the standard pictures of the last times in Jewish thought. We find it especially in Daniel 11:1-45 and in Zechariah 14:1-11. The Sibylline Orders (3: 663-672) tell how the kings of the nations shall throw themselves against the land in troops, only to be ultimately destroyed by God.

But here we come on a picture which etched itself deeply, if mysteriously, on Jewish thought, the picture of Gog and Magog. We find it first in Ezekiel 38:1-23; Ezekiel 39:1-29. There Gog of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and of Tubal, is to launch the great attack upon Israel and is to be in the end utterly destroyed. It may be that originally Gog was connected with the Scythians whose invasions--all men feared.

As time went on, in Jewish thought Gog (Hebrew #1463; Greek #1136) and Magog (Hebrew #4031; Greek #3098) came to stand for everything that is against God. The rabbis taught that Gog and Magog would assemble themselves and their forces against Jerusalem, and would fall by the hand of the Messiah.

The hostile armies under the Devil's leadership come up against the camp of God's people and against the beloved city, that is, Jerusalem; the hosts are consumed with fire from heaven, the Devil is cast into the lake of fire and brimstone to share the fate of the beast and of the false prophet, and the triumph of God is complete.

(1) The Final Judgment (Revelation 20:11-15)

Now comes the final judgment. God, the Judge, is on his great white throne which symbolizes his unapproachable purity.

It may be that some will find a problem here. The regular picture of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ is judge. John 5:22 represents Jesus as saying: "The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son." In the Parable of the Sheep and Goats it is the glorified Christ who is the judge (Matthew 25:31-46). In Paul's speech at Athens it is said that God has appointed a day in which he will judge the world by Jesus (Acts 17:31). In 2 Timothy 4:1 Jesus is the one who is about to judge the living and the dead.

There are two answers to this apparent difficulty.

First, the unity of the Father and the Son is such that there is no difficulty in ascribing the action of the one to the other. That is in fact what Paul does. In Romans 14:10 he writes: "We shall all stand before the judgment seat of God." But in 2 Corinthians 5:10 he writes: "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ."

Second, it may be that the real reason why God is the judge in John's Revelation is that the whole background of the book is Jewish; to a Jew, even when he became a Christian, God stood unique; and it would seem natural to him that God should be judge.

As John tells the story, the judgment begins with the passing away of this present world; earth and sky flee from his presence. John is thinking in pictures which are very familiar in the Old Testament. God laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of his hands. None the less it is still true that "they will perish ... they will all wear out like a garment; thou changest them like raiment, and they pass away" (Psalms 102:25-27). "The heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment" (Isaiah 51:6). "Heaven and earth will pass away" (Mark 13:31). "The heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up" (2 Peter 3:10). The new man in Christ must have a new world in Christ.

(2) The Final Judgment (Revelation 20:11-15 Continued)

Now follows the judgment of mankind.

It is the judgment of great and small. There is none so great as to escape the judgment of God, and none so unimportant as to fail to win his vindication.

Two kinds of book are mentioned. The first contains the records of the deeds of men. This is a common idea in Scripture. "The court sat in judgment," says Daniel, "and the books were opened" (Daniel 7:10). In Enoch the sealed books are opened before the Lord of the sheep (Enoch 90:20). The Apocalypse of Baruch foretells the day when "the books shall be opened in which are written the sins of all those who have sinned, and again also the treasuries in which the righteousness of all those who have been righteous in creation is gathered" (Baruch 24:1). When the present age passes away, the books will be opened before the face of the firmament, and all shall see together (4Ezra 6:20).

The idea is simply that a record of all men's deeds is kept by God. The symbolism is that all through life we are writing our own destiny; it is not so much that God judges a man as that a man writes his own judgment.

The second book is the Book of Life. This, too, occurs often in Scripture. Moses is willing to be blotted out of the Book of Life if it will save the people (Exodus 32:32). It is the prayer of the Psalmist that the wicked will be blotted out of the Book of the Living and not written with the righteous (Psalms 69:28). Isaiah speaks of those who are written among the living (Isaiah 4:3). Paul speaks of his fellow-labourers whose names are in the Book of Life (Philippians 4:3). It is the promise of the Risen Christ to the Church at Sardis that the name of him who overcomes will not be blotted out of the Book of Life (Revelation 3:5). Those whose names are not written in the Book of Life are given over to destruction (Revelation 13:8). The idea behind this is that every ruler had a roll-book of living citizens under his control; and, of course, when a man died, his name was removed from the roll. Those whose names are in the Book of Life are those who are living, active citizens of the kingdom of God.

At the time of judgment it is said that the sea will give up its dead. The point is twofold. First, in the ancient world burial was all important; if a man did not obtain burial, his spirit would wander, homeless, neither in earth nor in heaven. And, of course, those who died at sea could never be buried. John means that even such as these will appear before the judgment seat of God. Second, H. B. Swete puts the matter in a more general form. "The accidents of death," he says, "will not prevent any from appearing before the judge." No matter how a man dies, he will not escape his punishment nor lose his reward.

Finally, Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire. As H. B. Swete puts it, these voracious monsters who have themselves devoured so many are in the end themselves destroyed. In the judgment those who are not in the Book of Life are condemned to the lake of fire with the Devil, their master, but for those whose names are in the Book of Life, death is for ever vanquished.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Revelation 20:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/revelation-20.html. 1956-1959.

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