Chapter 22: The Kingdom of Priests (Revelation 20)
Narrated By: Daniel Sorenson
Book: Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion
Topics: Doctrinal Studies, Eschatology, Theology
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Who, then, is He Who has done these things and has united in peace those who hated each other, save the beloved Son of the Father, the common Saviour of ours, Jesus Christ, Who by His own love underwent all things for our salvation? Even from the beginning, moreover, this peace that He was to administer was foretold, for Scripture says, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into sickles, and nation shall not take sword against nation, neither shall they learn any more to wage war” [Isa. 2:4].
–St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation 
THE KINGDOM OF PRIESTS
There are three main systems of interpretation regarding the Millennium, the ”thousand years” of Revelation 20. The Premillennialists say that this passage teaches that Christ will return and resurrect Christians before (pre-) the Millennium, which is to be a literal 1000 years with Christ reigning in Jerusalem as a political, earthly ruler of the nations. The Amillennialists say that there is not and will never be a “millennium” of any kind on earth; instead, they say, Revelation 20 refers to the state of Christians who have died and are now “reigning” in heaven. The Postmillennialists say that the Millennium refers to the period between the First and Second Advents of Christ; the Millennium is going on now, with Christians reigning as kings on earth.
Which of these three positions is correct? As I have tried to show throughout this book, the answer is of more than casual significance for our practical attitudes and actions in working for God’s Kingdom. As I have also tried to show, the answer is given throughout Scripture. Postmillennialism – the eschatology of dominion-is the message of the whole Bible. It is time now, however, to show that it is taught in Revelation 20 as well.
The First Resurrection
The key to the interpretation of the chapter is what John tells us about what he calls the First Resurrection:
And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the Word of God, and those who had not worshiped the Beast or his image, and had not received his mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not live until the thousand years were completed. This is the First Resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the First Resurrection; over these the Second Death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Christ for a thousand years.
In the first place, we can dispose of the Amillennial position right away, by pointing out the obvious: this is a resurrection, a rising again from the dead. Dying and going to heaven is wonderful, but, for all its benefits, it is not a resurrection. This passage cannot be a description of the state of disembodied saints in heaven; moreover, the context as a whole is set on earth (cf. v. 7-9).
Second, however, this is not a bodily resurrection. John gives us a clue that he means something special by calling it the First Resurrection. What could this mean? We saw in a previous chapter that there is only one bodily resurrection, at the end of the world. To find the answer, we again go back to Genesis, which tells us of the First Death: “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘From every tree of the Garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die’ “ (Gen. 2:16-17). As we know, Adam and Eve did not actually die physically on the day that they ate the forbidden fruit. But that was the Day of their Spiritual death, their alienation from God. This Spiritual death was inherited by the children of Adam and Eve, so that we all are born “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). The First Death is this Spiritual death. And thus the First Resurrection is Spiritual as well:
God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus.
–Eph. 2:4-6; cf. Col. 2:11-13; 1 John 3:14
It is the bodily, physical Resurrection which takes place at the Last Day, when “there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked” (Acts 24:15). But would John have used the term resurrection in two radically different senses in the same passage? Certainly – and with excellent precedent, for Jesus did so Himself, in another passage recorded by John:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My Word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear shall live…. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.
–John 5:24-25, 28-29
We who believe in Him are now partakers in the First Resurrection, Jesus said; and some day all men, the just and the unjust, will rise out of the graves. The First Resurrection is Spiritual and ethical, our regeneration in Christ and ethical union with God, our re-creation in His image. This interpretation is confirmed by the Revelation’s description of those in the First Resurrection: they are blessed and holy; the Second Death has no power over them; they are priests (John began the Revelation informing us that all Christians are priests: Rev. 1:6); and they reign with Christ (the Bible says we are now seated with Christ, reigning in His Kingdom: Eph. 1:20-22; 2:6; Col. 1:13; 1 Pet. 2:9). The greatest error in dealing with this passage is the failure to recognize that it speaks of present realities of the Christian life. The Bible is clear: we have been resurrected to eternal life and rule with Christ now, in this age. The First Resurrection is taking place now. And this means, of necessity, that the Millennium is taking place now as well.
The Binding of Satan
And I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain in His hand. And He laid hold of the Dragon, the Serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he should not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed; after these things he must be released for a short time (Rev. 20:1-3).
The binding of the Dragon expresses in symbolic, prophetic language much of what we have seen in previous chapters: Christ’s defeat of Satan. The angel (messenger) with the controlling authority over the abyss is the Son of God (cf. Rev. 1:18; 10:1, 18:1) who “appeared for this purpose, that he might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). As we have noted, our Lord began “binding the strong man” during His earthly ministry (Matt. 12:28-29). The New Testament (cf. Luke 10:17-20; John 12:31-32; Eph. 4:8; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14) stresses that Satan was definitively defeated in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. And he is overcome daily in the experience of Christians as we resist him (James 4:7) and proclaim the Word of God (Rev. 12:11). The Kingdom has come!
We should note, too, the specific sense in which Satan is said to be bound: it is with reference to his ability to deceive the nations. Before the coming of Christ, Satan controlled the nations. But now his death-grip has been shattered by the gospel, as the good news of the Kingdom has spread throughout the world. The Lord Jesus sent the Apostle Paul to the Gentile nations “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:18). Christ came “to rule over the Gentiles” (Rom. 15:12). That Satan has been bound does not mean that all his activity has ceased. The New Testament tells us specifically that the demons have been disarmed and bound (Col. 2:15; 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6), but they are still active. It is just that their activity is restricted. And, as the gospel progresses throughout the world, their activity will become even more limited. Satan is unable to prevent the victory of Christ’s Kingdom. We will overcome (1 John 4:4). “Let it be known to you therefore, that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen” (Acts 28:28). Satan will be crushed beneath our feet (Rom. 16:20).
A Thousand Years
Like the other numbers in Revelation, the “1,000” is symbolic, a large, rounded-off number. Where seven connotes a fullness of quality in Biblical imagery, the number ten contains the idea of a fullness of quantity; in other words, it stands for manyness. A thousand multiplies and intensifies this (10 x 10 x 10), and it is used in Scripture much the way we, with a more inflationary mentality, use the term million: “I’ve told you a million times!” (Perhaps “literalists” never talk that way, but I’m sure the rest of us do on occasion.) There is a difference, however. When the Bible speaks of 1,000, it is not really for the purpose of exaggeration, the way we do, but simply to express great vastness. Thus, God claims to own “the cattle on a thousand hills” (Ps. 50:10). Does Hill No. 1,001 belong to someone else? Of course not. God owns all the cattle on all the hills. But He says “a thousand” to indicate that there are many hills, and much cattle. (For some similar uses of 1,000, see Deut. 1:11; 7:9; Ps. 68:17; 84:10; 90:4.) In the same way – particularly with regard to a highly symbolic book-we should see that the “1,000 years” of Revelation 20 represent a vast, undefined period of time. It has already lasted almost 2,000 years, and will probably go on for many more. “Exactly how many years?” someone asked me. “I’ll be happy to tell you,” I cheerfully replied, “as soon as you tell me exactly how many hills are in Psalm 50.”
According to some, Christ’s Kingdom will begin only when He returns in the Second Coming; then, they say, Jesus Christ will actually take up residence in Jerusalem, where there will be a restored, active Temple, with real sacrifices – sometimes I wonder if these dear people ever read the New Testament! None of these ideas are contained in this text (or any other, for that matter). As we have repeatedly seen, Jesus. Christ is reigning now (Acts 2:29-36; Rev. 1:5), and He will remain in heaven until the Last Judgment (Acts 3:2).
The thrones in Revelation 20:4 stand for the reign of the saints, the faithful overcomers who are victorious over the Dragon and the Beast (Rev. 12:9-11). Our rule is going on now, on this earth (Matt. 19:28; Luke 18:28-30; 22:29-30; Eph. 2:6), and the extent of our rule coincides with the progress of the gospel. As it increases, so does the dominion of Christians. The two go together, as Jesus stated in His Great Commission (Matt. 2:18-20): we are to teach and disciple the nations, and as they are discipled to the commands of God’s Word, the boundaries of the Kingdom will expand. Eventually, through evangelism, the reign of Christians will become so extensive that “the earth will be full of the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9). Edenic blessings will abound across the world as God’s law is increasingly obeyed (Lev. 26:3-13; Deut. 28:1-14). What a tremendous motive for worldwide evangelism! In fact, this view of worldwide conversion has been the basic inspiration for missionary activity throughout the history of the Church, particularly since the Protestant Reformation (for documentation of this, see lain Murray’s excellent book, The Puritan Hope: Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy).
The Last Battle
The Bible does not teach that absolutely everyone in the world will be converted. The symbolism of Ezekiel’s prophecy suggests that some areas of the world will remain unrenewed by the River of Life (Ezek. 47:11). And we know that both the wheat and the tares will grow together until the harvest at the end of the world (Matt. 13:37-43). At that point, as the potential of both groups comes to maturity, as each side becomes fully self-conscious in its determination to obey or rebel, there will be a final conflict. The Dragon will be released for a short time, to deceive the nations one more time in a last-ditch attempt to overthrow the Kingdom (Rev. 20:7-8).
In describing this, John uses the vivid imagery of Ezekiel 38-39, which prophetically depicts the Maccabees’ defeat of the Syrians in the second century B.C.: the ungodly forces are called Gog and Magog. According to some popular writers, this expression refers to Russia, and foretells a war between the Soviets and Israel during the “Tribulation.” Of the many problems with this hypothesis, I will mention just two. First, Revelation 20 says that the war of “Gog and Magog” takes place at the end of the Millennium; these prophecy writers are sneaking Gog and Magog all the way back to a point before the Millennium even begins! Second, the expression Gog and Magog does not, and never did, refer to Russia. That has been entirely made up from whole cloth, and simply repeated so many times that many have assumed it to be true.
To return to reality: Satan’s final rebellion is shown to be a disaster. He is overthrown, his followers are devoured by fire falling from heaven, and he is cast into the Lake of Fire for eternal torment (Rev. 20:9-10). At this point, the end of the Millennium, the Resurrection takes place (Rev. 20:5), and all men are judged (Rev. 20:11-15).
The purpose of Revelation 20 is not to give a detailed outline of the end of the world, for that does not fall within the scope of the book. Revelation was written to tell first-century Christians about things which were to happen shortly, especially dealing with the Church’s struggle against the Beast, the False Prophet, and the Harlot. These all meet their doom by the end of the prophecy. But, of course, behind all the evil conspiracies of the· Church’s enemies is the shadowy figure of the Dragon. So John gives a brief sketch of his fate, from Christ’s definitive triumph over him until the Last Day, when the Dragon and his evil seed are destroyed and the people of God are fully and finally victorious; when Paradise, in the most complete sense, is restored and consummated.