The book of Revelation has often been the most neglected book of the Bible. This is due mainly to the form, symbolism, prophetic nature, and the vivid imagery that at times stretches the imagination. The order in which the events are placed in this book can be at times confusing at best. God, knowing this, promised a blessing for reading the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:3) and is the only promised blessing for reading of a book of the Bible. To come to a correct understanding of the text of Revelation 20:1-10 one must look at the Bible as a whole for insight on how to wrestle with key terms that are the focus of most of the confusion surrounding Revelation 20:1-10. However, in this paper I will mainly look at the text of Revelation 20:1-10 with some references to Old and New Testament passages that relate directly to this passage.
John’s book of Revelation has several themes that most Christians agree on, if not all evangelicals, and that is that Jesus Christ is returning as the triumphant king. Also many agree that the purpose of Revelation is to “comfort the militant church” or give “encouragement to the believer”. Revelation, being the only New Testament apocalyptic book, deserves some special attention. As for what has happened up to this point in Revelation we will turn to Dennis Johnson’s outline of the book found in His commentary on Revelation:
Letter to Churches (1-3)
Trumpets: Warning Signals of Coming Judgment (8:2-11:18)
The Dragon and the Lamb: The Heart of the Conflict (11:19-15:4)
Bowls: God’s Wrath Completed (15:5-16:21)
The Harlot Babylon (17:1-19:10)
Thousand Years, Last Battle, and the Last Judgment (19:11-21:8)
The New Creation and the Bride Jerusalem (21:1-22:21)
I will break Revelation 20:1-10 into three sections: Section 1 (1-3) Section 2 (4-6) and Section 3 (7-10)
There are many points of controversy in the Revelation 20:1-10 passage where how you interpret the passage gives support to a certain view of the millennium. Though there are many disagreements of how we look at the text there is little variance in English translations overall which is probably why George Ladd makes the comment that “the main contents of the book are easy to analyze”. Though structurally and syntactically this passage and most of Revelation for the most part is non-controversial, I will stop and take a closer look at the Greek when appropriate. As we move through Revelation 20:1-10 I will try to give a balanced approach to the interpretation of the passage without following preconceived ideas led by a specific millennial view. In my opinion, the text itself does not lend itself completely to support one line of reasoning over another. Because the text is so controversial, many are forced to first take a position and then consistently interpret the passage from that point of view to form their eschatological beliefs. For example regarding whether the 1000 years found in Chapter 20 should be taken literally or figuratively, Robert Mounce says, “Nothing in the immediate context favors either interpretation. It is the larger concern to find a consistent millennial position that leads exegetes to commit themselves on the meaning of the 1000 years.” Because I am not approaching this from a specific position, I will note opinions from opposing views (amillennial and premillennial) and avoid entering the theological debate.
Section 1 Revelation 20:1-3 (NASB95)
1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand.
2 And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years;
3 and he threw him into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he would not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed; after these things he must be released for a short time.
From the first two words (καὶ εἶδον translated: Then I saw) of the chapter there are those who disagree as to what is being implied. In reading John MacArthur’s commentary on Revelation he would lead you to believe that these first two words indicate “chronological progression”. However, when you turn to Henry Barclay Swete’s commentary he says, “the formula καὶ εἶδον does not, like μετὰ ταῦτα εἶδον, determine the order of time in which the vision was seen relatively to the visions which precede it”. It seems from the text it would be hard to determine the order either way.
As we continue in the text we see an angel coming down from heaven with a key to the abyss and a great chain. This verse seems to be very symbolic in nature using the logic that there is no literal key that locks the abyss and that there is no literal chain that in verse 2 will hold the spiritual being Satan. This symbolism continues as we move to verse 2 as Satan is being described as “the dragon” then John tells us exactly who he is symbolizing and that is the Devil or Satan. He then describes the binding of Satan for a thousand years. The question of why Satan is being bound is answered in verse 3 and that is to “no longer deceive the nations”. From the wording, it appears that the binding of Satan sets the beginning of what we know as the millennium. The words, “thousand years” are seen several times throughout the passage. Whether or not this is a literal thousand years or figurative for a very long time, the repetition of this phrase leads us to believe that each reference is referring to the same timeframe. However, it is important to ask when the binding of Satan is taking place – the present age or after the second coming. Unfortunately, there is very little indication of this from the text itself.
Proponents for the amillennial view refer back to passages in the Bible, such as Matthew 12:28-29, Luke 10:17-18, and John 12:31-32 as evidence that Satan has already been bound at the first coming of Christ and is still currently bound. They even take it a step further by looking at the Greek word, ἔδησεν, which comes from the root, δέω, and is the same root of the word that is used in Matthew 12:29. This similarity in the use of the Greek would lead some to think that the binding of Satan that is described in Revelation 20 had already occurred in Matthew 12.
Premillennialists will also site passages from the New Testament, such Luke 22:3, Acts 5:3, 2 Corinthians 4:3-4; 11:14, Ephesians 2:2, 1 Thessalonians 2:18, 2 Timothy 2:26, and with great emphasis placed on 1 Peter 5:8 to show Satan as being active in the present age. Mounce refers to the key, chain, and abyss as elaborate measures which were taken to insure his custody and states that these measures “are most easily understood as implying the complete cessation of his influence on earth (rather than a curbing of his activities)”. However, R. Fowler White refers to the premillennial explanation of the chronological order and the binding of Satan when he states, “it makes no sense to speak of protecting the nations from deception by Satan in 20:1-3 after they have just been both deceived by Satan (16:13-16, cf. 19:19-20) and destroyed by Christ at his return in 19:11-21 (cf. 16:15a,19)”. Both groups do agree that after the millennium Satan will be released for a short period of time to once again deceive the nations.
Section 2 Revelation 20:4-6 (NASB95)
4 Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their 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 the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.
5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection.
6 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 Him for a thousand years.
As we move to verse 4, John’s vision seems to jump to another scene where he sees thrones, those who were beheaded, and those who had not taken the mark of the beast. This leaves us with several questions –Where are these thrones? Who are sitting on the thrones? How many groups of people are there? All these questions come from the study of the text and yet, the text itself lends no clear answer; however, I will try to remark on each.
As to the questions of where and when this scene takes place, I will present some options of possible interpretation. By looking strictly at the English translation, it would seem that this takes place in heaven. In the same vision of the thrones, John sees souls of those who follow Christ. Seeing souls, not physical bodies, leads us to think this is taking place in heaven. William Hendriksen adds evidence to this position saying, “the Lamb is represented as taking the scroll out of the hand of Him that sat on the throne (Rev. 5).” Then he refers to Revelation 12 and that Christ was caught up to God in heaven. Also, if we look closely at the word study of throne (θρόνος) which is found 45 times in Revelation outside of verse 4, and of the 45, all but three refer to heavenly thrones. The other three refer to Satan’s symbolic throne (2:13; 13:2; 16:10). This would further impact the interpretation later in the passage where it refers to those who reign with Christ. If it is taking place in heaven, it is more likely to be talking of a spiritual reign, not an earthly one. However, there is evidence for a bodily resurrection, which we discuss later in this paper, which could indicate an earthly physical reign.
Next, I would like to look at the people described in the vision. There are several groups of people described and it is not immediately apparent whether they are separate groups of people or a description of the same group. There are those who are on the throne, those who have been beheaded, and those who have worshipped the beast and taken the mark. The question of who is on the thrones is not clear from the text and leaves us with few options. Therefore, as Mounce suggests, “it would be wise not to go beyond suggesting that they may be a heavenly court (as in Dan. 7:26) that will assist in judgment”. For the next two groups, the beheaded and those who did not worship, there is an indication in the Greek that these are referring to the same group of people. The use of the relative pronoun, οἵτινες, in the sentence shows that the second group is merely a clarification of the first group. Daniel Wallace explains, “Relative pronouns (ὅς and ὅστις) are so called because they relate to more than one clause. Typically, they are “hinge” words in that they both refer back to an antecedent in the previous clause.” There is also the logical argument that refers back to the visions in Revelation 13:15 where all those who did not worship the beast were killed as martyrs. But in order to accept this explanation alone, you would have to first accept that the visions are happening in a chronological order.
Now that we have looked at who is in the passage, we need to address the action that takes place at the end of the verse – the resurrection. The question is whether this is referring to a physical or spiritual resurrection. The phrase “they came to life” comes from the Greek word ἔζησαν which is used as a bodily resurrection and never a spiritual one in the New Testament. The closest that we can come to mean a spiritual resurrection in found in John 2:5 in the story of the prodigal son coming to life. However, this refers to the beginning of a new spiritual life rather than a spiritual resurrection. Therefore, from this understanding of the usage of this Greek word the two times this word is being used (v. 4 and v.5), it most likely means a bodily resurrection. This does not completely rule out that there is a spiritual resurrection but shows a stronger connection with a physical resurrection and therefore stronger evidence for a physical reign.
The beginning of verse 5 refers to the rest of the dead not included in verse 4, which Mounce calls a parenthetical statement, while reference to the first resurrection refers back to those in verse 4. The question or clarification here lies with both verse 5 and 6. Amillennialists believe that “the correlations between the first and the second deaths and the first and second resurrections suggest that the first resurrection refers to the spiritual life of the martyrs who reign with Christ between the time of their martyrdom and the Second Coming”. While premillennialists would say the first resurrection coincides with the Second Coming. For those who participate in the first resurrection, the second death (spiritual or eternal death) has no power over them and they will also reign with Christ for a thousand years.
Section 3 Revelation 20:7-10 (NASB95)
7 When the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison,
8 and will come out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war; the number of them is like the sand of the seashore
9 And they came up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, and fire came down from heaven and devoured them.
10 And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
The third section has very little variance from translation to translation. As with all of these sections the controversy lies in our perspective. After the millennium has been completed, Satan is going to be released to once again to deceive the nations for a short time. Both premillennialists and amillennialists agree that this time will be an ushering in of the persecution of the Church. The difference is that premillennialists believe this refers to a physical battle while amillennialists refer to this as a spiritual battle. “The four corners of the earth” symbolize a worldwide persecution. Gog and Magog refer to Ezekiel’s prophecy “which has the same basic structure as Rev. 20”. More interesting is in the Greek Septuagint Ezekiel 37:10 uses the same Greek word ἔζησαν (“they came to life”) as is used in verse 4 of our text. In Ezekiel it is used to symbolize Israel’s restoration from Babylonians captivity, picturing it like a resurrection. This would have more significance with the interpretation of verse 4 than it does here. Gog and Magog, being symbolic of very evil forces, and the parallel structure with the restoration that is described as a resurrection, would give support to the first resurrection in verse 4 of being a spiritual resurrection.
Then just as Satan’s forces are about to devour God’s people, God steps in with fire from heaven. Then, Satan and all who followed him are thrown in to the “lake of fire” to be tormented forever. This vision has come full circle starting with section one having Satan bound to not deceive the nations and now in section three he is released to do what he had done prior and that is to deceive the nations. However, there is judgment for his actions and soon after his release, he is thrown into the “lake of fire”.
When we come to Revelation 20:1-10 there is one theme that is clear and that is that Jesus Christ is triumphant. The forces of Satan will not be able to prevail against our God. This should be a great encouragement to all those place their hope in Jesus Christ. We must be careful as believers as not to divide each other on the issue of the end times when we have such a clear point of agreement. Unfortunately there have been people, as well as denominations, that have isolated themselves over differing views of the end times. May that not be the case with us, rather let us be united, serving a Triumphant King.
Hendriksen, William, More than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1967.
Hoekema, Anthony A., The Bible and the Future. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. E. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1979.
Johnson, Dennis E., Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001.
Kik, J. Marcellus, Revelation Twenty: An Exposition. Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1955.
Ladd, George Eldon, A Commentary on the Revelation of John. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972.
MacArthur Jr., John, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Revelation 12-22. Chicago: Moody Press, 2000.
Mounce, Robert H., The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.
Poythress, Vern, The Returning King: A guide to the Book of Revelation. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2000.
Swete, Henry Barclay, The Apocalypse of St. John, 2d. ed. New York: The Macmillan company.
Wallace, Daniel B., Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan Publishing House and Galaxie Software, 1999; 2002.
Vern Poythress, The Returning King: A guide to the Book of Revelation
(Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2000), 12.
 William Hendriksen, More than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1967), 7.
 J. Marcellus Kik, Revelation Twenty: An Exposition (Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1955), 15.
 Dennis E. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 347-349.
 George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), 14.
 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 362.
 Most of my resources dealt mainly with the amillennial and pre-millennial positions. Many scholars dismiss the view as no longer relevant to the eschatological discussion.
 John MacArthur Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Revelation 12-22 (Chicago: Moody Press, 2000), 233.
Henry Barclay Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John, 2d. ed. (New York: The Macmillan company, 1907), 256.
 Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. E. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1979), 229.
 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 362.
 Dennis E. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001),285.
 William Hendriksen, More than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1967), 192.
 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 365.
Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan Publishing House and Galaxie Software, 1999; 2002), 335.
 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 370.
 Vern Poythress, The Returning King: A guide to the Book of Revelation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2000), 182.
 George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), 269.