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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges

Revelation 20

Verses 1-99

The Binding of Satan. The First Resurrection. Chap. 20 vv. 1 6

1. the bottomless pit ] See on 9:1.

in his hand ] Lit. on his hand hung over it.

2. that old serpent ] 12:9.

3. and shut him up … upon him ] Read, and shut and sealed [ it ] over him : the opening of 9:2 is undone.

he must be loosed ] 5:7.

4. thrones ] Daniel 7:9 . “They” who sat upon them, to whom judgement (i.e. the right of judging: see 1 Corinthians 6:2 , 1 Corinthians 6:3 ) was given are identified by Daniel 7:22 as “the saints of the Most High” saints, plainly, in the modern sense, as distinguished from angels.

[ I saw ] the souls ] Cf. 6:9.

beheaded ] Lit. struck with the axe , the old Roman mode of execution by sentence of the supreme magistrate. Capital punishment of citizens had been virtually abolished for the last years of the Republic: and when the emperors assumed the right of executing men for treason, it was done as though by military law (cf. St Mark 6:27 ), by a soldier with a sword. But the old constitutional punishment was inflicted on provincials down to the fall of the Republic (Cic. Phil. XIII. xvi. 33): and it is not impossible that it was revived when it was desired that a citizen should be executed in due form of law. Thus it is not unlikely that St Paul will be included among those thus designated.

which had not worshipped &c.] 13:12, 15, 16.

reigned with Christ ] 2 Timothy 2:12 . This “reign” was foretold in 5:10. “The nations” of the world continue to exist as usual (5:3), so it is no doubt over them that the saints and martyrs reign.

a thousand years ] Only in this passage is the kingdom of Christ on earth (which is of course one of the most frequent subjects of prophecy) designated as a millennium or period of 1000 years. It may be added, that this is the only prophecy where there is at all good reason for supposing that the Millennium of popular belief is indicated, as distinct on the one hand from the Kingdom of God which already exists in the Christian Church, and on the other from that which will be set up at the last day.

Nevertheless, this passage is quite sufficient foundation for the doctrine, even if it stood alone: and there are many other prophecies which, if not teaching it so plainly, may fairly be understood to refer to it, if the doctrine be admitted to be according to the mind of the Spirit. We therefore have to consider the question, Is this prophecy to be understood literally? Is it meant that, for a period of a thousand years (or more), before the general Resurrection and the end of this world, this earth will be the scene of a blessed visible Kingdom of God, wherein the power of the Devil will have vanished, and that of Christ be supreme and unopposed? wherein Christ shall either reign visibly on earth, or at least shall make His presence felt far more unmistakeably than at present; while the martyrs and other great saints of all past time shall rise, and, whether on earth or in heaven, share in the glory of His reign?

Down to the fourth century, the decidedly dominant belief of Christendom was in favour of this literal interpretation of the prophecy: since then, at least till the Reformation, it has been still more decidedly against it. In the second century, Papias, who seems to have been more or less personally acquainted with St John himself, taught Millenarian doctrine decidedly: and St Irenaeus and others derived it from him. In the same age St Justin accepted the doctrine, though admitting that Christians were not unanimous on the subject: but he considers St John’s authority, in this passage, decisive.

And in fact, the rejection of the doctrine was usually on the part of those who rejected or questioned the authority of the Revelation as a whole: it was held to discredit the book, that it taught the doctrine. Thus in the third century, Caius the Roman Presbyter seems unmistakeably to ascribe the book, not to St John but to his adversary Cerinthus; on the ground of its teaching this carnal and Jewish doctrine of an earthly kingdom of Christ. And St Dionysius of Alexandria, who, though not admitting the book to be the work of St John the Apostle, yet on the whole recognises its inspiration and authority, thinks it necessary to refute a suffragan bishop of his own, who adopted Millenarian views, as though he were at least on the verge of heresy.

The case seems to have stood thus. The doctrine of the Millennium was current in the Church, but was most insisted on in that section of the Church whose Jewish affinities were strongest: and it is asserted it is very likely true that the heretical Judaizers expressed their millennial hopes in a coarse and carnal form. Orthodox Christians condemned their language: but while some of them, like Justin, felt bound, in obedience to the plain teaching of St John, to believe in a Millennium of spiritual blessedness on earth, others, like Caius, rejected altogether the doctrine of the Millennium, and rejected, if necessary, the Apocalypse as teaching it.

But when St Dionysius proposed to reject millennial doctrine without rejecting the authority of the Apocalypse, a course was suggested which, if less critically and logically defensible, was theologically safer than either. The Apocalypse was declared not really to foretell a millennium, but only such a kingdom of Christ as all prophecy does foretell, viz. a Church such as now exists. To expect His more perfect kingdom to be an earthly and temporal one was pronounced a heresy, a falling back to Judaism.

St Jerome who, living in Palestine, knew more than most men of the Judaizing heresies which still existed in his time, and had once been formidable, spoke very strongly (as his manner was) in condemnation of the Milliarii (this, not Millenarii , is the ancient Latin name of the sect). He apparently grouped together all believers in the earthly kingdom, whether they regarded its delights as carnal or not: and it seems that his strong language frightened the Church of his time into giving it up. St Augustine had held and taught the doctrine, of course in a pure and spiritual form: but towards the close of his life he abandoned it, and though admitting his old belief to be tolerable, he echoes Jerome’s condemnation of the Judaizing caricature of it. The opinion of these two great Fathers was adopted by the Church down to the Reformation, not formally or synodically, but as a matter of popular tradition.

At the Reformation, the Anabaptists proclaimed an earthly kingdom of Christ in the Millenarian sense, and certainly did all they could to discredit the doctrine, by the carnal form in which they held it. There was a tendency to revive the doctrine, among sober Protestants: but the alarm raised by the Anabaptists at first went far to counteract it; e.g. in England one of the 42 Articles of a.d. 1552 condemned it as “Jewish dotage.” But when the controversies of the Reformation quieted down, and both the Romanist and the Protestant Churches formulated their own beliefs, the former adhered to the tradition of SS. Jerome and Augustine, while the latter, for the most part, as was natural, went back to the literal sense of Scripture and the older tradition.

It thus appears, that Catholic consent cannot fairly be alleged either for or against the literal interpretation. Catholic feeling does of course condemn a Judaizing or carnal view of the nature of Christ’s Kingdom: but whether He will have a kingdom on earth more perfect, or reign more visibly, than is the case now, is a point on which Christians may lawfully differ; the Church has not pronounced either way.

If the question be theologically open, it appears that, as a matter of opinion, the literal sense is to be preferred: “when the literal sense will stand, that furthest from the letter is the worst.” Can anyone honestly say, that Satan has been bound during the time (already far more than a thousand years) that the kingdom of Christ on earth has already existed? that he deceives the nations no more till the present dispensation approaches its end in the days of Antichrist? It is far easier to hold that he will be bound for a long time (probably more rather than less than a thousand literal years), after Antichrist has been overthrown, but before the actual end of the world.

5. But ] Should be omitted; there is more authority for reading “and.”

This is the first resurrection ] Here, as with the Millennium, there is the question whether these words are to be understood literally. In fact, the interpretation of these words, literally or otherwise, is the turning-point of the Millenarian controversy.

The plain meaning of the words is, that after the overthrow of Antichrist, the Martyrs and other most excellent Saints will rise from the dead and have their part in the Millennial kingdom: the rest of the dead, even those finally saved, will not rise till later. But at last, after the Millennium, and after the last short-lived assault of Satan, all the dead, good and wicked, will rise.

Now no Christian doubts, that the second or general Resurrection described in v. 12 will be literally realised. It is therefore very harsh to suppose that the first is of a different kind. Such is, however, the view which since St Augustine’s time has been usually adopted by Catholic theologians. The first Resurrection is understood to be the resurrection “from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness.” It admits men into the kingdom of Christ, i.e. the Church, within which the power of the Devil is restrained, so that, if he can seduce some to sin, he cannot seduce them to actual idolatry or denial of God. This state of things will last through the whole course of the present dispensation, which, whatever its actual chronological length, is symbolically described as a thousand years. When that ends, there will ensue the three and a half years’ struggle with Antichrist vv. 7 16 being regarded as a new description of that period. If anyone can think this a legitimate interpretation of St John’s words, he may: and for the coupling of a spiritual with a literal resurrection, St Augustine, and those who follow him, compare St John 5:25 , John 5:28 . But it seems straining the view of “resumptions” very far, not to take the whole of this chapter as chronologically subsequent to the preceding: and really any view but the literal one seems exposed to insuperable exegetical difficulties.

If the true sense be not the literal one, it is safest to regard it as being as yet undiscovered.

6. Blessed and holy &c.] He is sure of eternal blessedness, absolutely and indefeasibly consecrated to God. “Holy” refers to the relation to God into which this brings him, not to the foregoing faithfulness that is implied in his being admitted into it.

the second death ] See 2:11, and v. 14. Cf. Romans 6:9 , Romans 6:10 .

they shall be priests ] Cf. 1:6, 5:10.

of God and of Christ ] The strongest proof, perhaps, in the book of the doctrine of Christ’s coequal Deity. If we read these words in the light of St John’s Gospel, or of the Nicene Creed, they suggest no difficulty, but without the doctrine there taught, they make salvation to consist in the deadly sin which the Moslems call “association” the worshipping the creature by the side of the Creator. Notice, however, that the word “God” in this book always means the Father; and so throughout the N. T., with few exceptions.

thousand years ] We should probably read, “ the thousand years.”

The Loosing of Satan, the War of Gog and Magog, the Judgement on the Devil, the Beast, and the False Prophet, vv. 7 10

7. Satan shall be loosed ] “for a little season,” as we heard in v. 3. The words are different from the “short time” of 12:12, and we have no reason to understand that they refer to the same period: still the two passages to a certain extent illustrate one another.

8. the nations which are &c.] It almost seems as though the kingdom of Christ and of His Saints had not been world-wide, but had been, like the Roman empire of St John’s day, or the Christendom of our own, a wide but limited region of light in the midst of a barbarous world. It is not therefore certain that the coming of the kingdom must be postponed till Christianity has gained its victory over the compact mass of nations which, from China to Guinea, still hold out against it: and we ought to remember the possibility, that they may prove as dangerous to the fabric of modern civilisation as the barbarians of Scythia, Germany, and Arabia proved to the ancient. But it is possible that this prediction refers, not to an incursion from outlying heathens, but to an apostasy of outlying Christians. If so, this may be illustrated by the way that the remoter provinces of Christendom fell into heresy in the fifth and following centuries, and were, in great measure as a consequence, absorbed in Islam afterwards. We may also think of the many wild and unchristian sects rising in our own time in America and in Russia the countries of Christendom remotest from its centres of intellectual life.

quarters ] Better, corners .

Gog and Magog ] See Ezek. 38, 39 a prophecy which may , for aught we know, have had some nearly contemporary fulfilment, but which the Jewish traditions interpret of a war in the days of the Messiah, nearly as here. Magog is given in Genesis 10:2 as the name of a son of Japhet, the eponymus, there is no doubt, of one of the nations lying near the Black Sea, and called by Europeans Scythian in the wide sense. Gog appears in Ezek. l.c. to be not a national name, but the name, whether personal or dynastic, of the king of Magog and the neighbouring or kindred tribes of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal. The resemblance of two of these names to the modern Russia and Muscovy is merely accidental: but it would be rash to deny the possibility, that the geographical or ethnological suggestion is to be taken literally, and that St John does foretell an invasion, something like that of the Huns, or Tartars, and falling on Christendom from the same quarter.

to gather them &c.] Nearly a repetition of 16:14, 17:12, 14, 19:19. Yet it can hardly describe the same event: it seems plain that, whatever be the meaning of the first resurrection and the thousand years’ reign, they intervene between that war and this. Moreover, the former war was on the part of the rulers of the civilised world, this on the part of the outer barbarians.

9. And they went up &c.] The Seer does not pass easily over the immense space of time during which the world is too happy to have a history. He sees the establishment of the earthly kingdom of Christ, and foretells its end: it is only gradually that he comes to see the end also brought before his view as present.

the breadth of the earth ] Perhaps rather, of the land ; they overspread the whole land of Israel, against which, as we see from the next clause, their attack is directed.

the camp of the saints ] God’s people assemble in military array, and stand on their defence against His enemies. They are probably prepared to fight, but as in 19:21, they have no need.

the beloved city ] i.e. Jerusalem, which, it appears from this place only, will be the seat and capital of the millennial kingdom. It appears that in the popular millennial anticipations, which discredited the literal interpretation of this prophecy, this localisation of the kingdom was much insisted on, and it was even thought that the Jewish law and the sacrificial worship would be revived. This of course is utterly incredible to most Christians: but there is no difficulty in supposing that the Kingdom of God may literally have an earthly centre in the Holy City and the Holy Land. Even if the literal view be not taken, the prophecy can hardly imply less than a future purity of the Church far exceeding the present; and it may be that this purified Church will recognise a better Papacy at Jerusalem, one not too proud to learn either from the excellences or from the faults of the Roman.

and fire came down &c.] Cf. 2 Kings 1:10 , and ch. 11:5, and even 13:13. This does not agree with the description of Gog’s overthrow in Ezekiel 39:0 , where the army lie slain till they are buried, and their weapons are broken up for firewood.

from God ] Should probably be omitted.

10. And the devil that deceived them ] Lit. that deceiveth , but the sense is general: as if we were to say “their deceiver.”

into the lake &c.] 19:20.

where ] Read, where also .

the beast and the false prophet are] It might be better to supply were cast . That they are there still, not consumed by their more than thousand years of torment, is not stated in this clause but is in the next.

shall be &c.] To prevent ambiguity we should render, they shall be , all three of them.

for ever and ever ] Lit. to the ages of the ages , as strong an expression for absolute endlessness as Biblical language affords. The expression “day and night” seems hardly consistent with the view often expressed, that the eternity here spoken of is unaccompanied with a sense of duration like that which we call time.

The great white Throne, the General Resurrection, the Judgement on all the Dead and on Death and Hell, vv. 11 15

11. a great white throne ] Probably not absolutely the same as that of 4:2 &c.: the King is to sit now not as Lawgiver or Administrator but as Judge. Possibly it is called “great” as compared with the thrones of v. 4; “white,” of course, as symbolical of the holiness and purity of the judgement to be administered.

and him that sat on it ] This has throughout, from 4:2 onwards, been universally the title of God the Father. Moreover, the description of the Great Assize here is substantially the same as that of Daniel 7:9 , Daniel 7:10 : and there the Ancient of Days, Who sits on the throne, is plainly distinguished from the Son of Man. Therefore we are no doubt to understand the presence of the Father here, in spite of St John 5:22 , John 5:27 . There is no contradiction, if we take a duly high view of the relation between the Father and the Son. St Paul’s doctrine, Acts 17:31 ; Romans 2:16 (allowing that Titus 2:13 is ambiguous), shews the accurate relation between the two sides of the truth: and 3:21, compared with our Lord’s own words in St Matthew 16:27 and parallels, shews the propriety of this image.

from whose face &c.] The passing away of earth and heaven is spoken of in Isaiah 51:6 , St Matthew 24:35 and parallels; but the strong expression of their fleeing before God’s presence is peculiar to this place: Psalms 104:32 , however, is something of a precedent. That the destruction will be by fire is not stated here, or anywhere but in 2 Peter 3:10 , 2 Peter 3:12 , and perhaps 2 Thessalonians 1:7 , 2 Thessalonians 1:8 . In St Peter l.c. we have this destruction of the world by fire compared with the destruction by the Flood, and this parallel seems to have been recognised in popular Jewish belief. Popular Christian belief continued the series, by interpolating between the two a purely mythical “flood of wind;” an idea also found, curiously enough, in the Mexican mythology, which completed the elemental series with a destruction by earthquakes. The lesson of all this seems to be, that the Deluge is a matter of universal tradition, and that the destructibility of the world is recognised by a universal instinct: but that the manner of its destruction is not so revealed, that it can safely be conceived by us in picturesque detail. The destruction of our globe, perhaps of the whole solar system, by fire is quite within the bounds of possibility, even according to the known laws of nature; but those laws more naturally suggest the world literally “waxing old like a garment, and them that dwell therein dying like a moth,” and the elements rather congealing with cold than “melting with fervent heat.” On the other hand, passages like Acts 10:42 ; 1 Thessalonians 4:15 ; 2 Timothy 4:1 ; 1 Peter 4:5 seem plainly to prove that the human race will not be extinct when that Day comes, but that there will be “the quick” as well as “the dead” ready to undergo the Judgement. But the judgement of the dead only is described here. St John had learnt, as St Paul had not, that the dead would be the larger class of the two: whether he learnt it from his own longer life, or from the length of time implied in this vision.

and there was found no place for them ] The phrase is a reminiscence of Daniel 2:35 ; we had a similar one in 12:8.

12. small and great ] Read the great and the small . The sense, as in 19:5, is probably to indicate the nothingness of human distinctions before God. Those who are “great in the Kingdom of Heaven” have been raised already, vv. 4, 5.

before God ] Read, before the throne . This verse therefore does not absolutely prove Who it is that sits on the throne, but shews how it was understood by the Church, in which the common text grew up and was received.

the books were opened ] Rather, simply books : see Daniel 7:13 , where also the article (or equivalent form) is wanting.

and another book was opened ] The salvation of those who are saved is not due to their own works, but to God’s electing love, which (however we punctuate 13:8) preceded any work of theirs. Yet reference to their works is not ignored, but the “books would be as it were vouchers for the book of life.” (Alford); shewing that those written in that book had lived as became the grace given to them.

the book of life ] See 3:5, 13:8, 21:27: also note on 5:1. The image is used exactly in this sense in Daniel 12:1 , though the phrase “Book of Life ” is not used. We have a near approach to that in Psalms 69:28 , but there and in Exodus 32:32 , Exodus 32:33 it is not equally certain that eternal life is meant. Words and meaning are exactly the same in this book as in Philippians 4:3 .

the dead were judged &c.] We see then that “the books” contained the record of “their works.” Thus this passage justifies, in some measure, the modern popular myth of “the recording Angel.”

according to their works ] St Matthew 16:27 ; Romans 2:6 .

13. death and hell ] See 6:8. Sheol , the Hebrew equivalent of Hades , seems not quite determined in meaning between the receptacle of the bodies of the dead and of their souls, but is sometimes translateable as “the grave.” Here it seems implied that those who died in the sea are not in Hades, as those who were buried are: but all, whether buried or unburied, are raised and judged.

14. And death and hell were cast &c.] They are enemies of God, 1 Corinthians 15:26 , and to be destroyed at Christ’s triumph, ib. 54. But though no doubt presented to St John as individual demon figures (see 6:8), we are probably not to understand that they are real persons, like the Devil and those represented by the Beast and the False Prophet: and hence we are not told that, like them, they continue to exist in torment in the lake of fire.

This is the second death ] Add, the Lake of Fire . We have learnt already, that temporal death does not hinder eternal life, nay, may secure a better and an earlier resurrection thereto. We now learn the opposite doctrine, that there is a resurrection not to life, but to a death far more terrible than that which ends this life. Cf. St John 5:29 . It is quite true, however, that both in popular Jewish belief, and in the language of the N. T., when the Resurrection is spoken of, it is ordinarily conceived as one to life. This does not prevent the more terrible side of the doctrine from being also taught in the Gospel, but it does indicate which side is the healthier, as well as the pleasanter, for our thoughts to dwell on.

15. And whosoever &c.] “By the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.” Any who are not in the number of those saved by God’s free grace, are sure to have sins recorded against them, sufficient for a judgement “out of those things which were written in the books” to end in this terrible sentence. Cf. St Matthew 25:41 .

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Revelation 20". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". 1896.