Revelation (Part 20): The Advent Series
Revelation 20:1-10 emphasizes again for us in pictorial form what we already know preached throughout the rest of the New Testament. Revelation is a difficult book to understand only when we insist that it must be something new and different from what God has shown us of faith, love, relationship, and life all along. Once we turn back from our wide-eyed, wild fancies and imaginative speculations insisting Revelation is a different world, to realize that John here concentrates on purpose and reason rather than event and form, we find the story of Revelation settling in on the Bible’s firm foundation.
As we have studied before, God’s essence is his truth, goodness, and beauty (TGB). Human essence is our physical materiality. In Revelation, God uses imagery of event and action (something our essence readily understands) to facilitate our understanding in teaching us the TGB of his essence. It is therefore hermeneutically incorrect to insist on literal interpretation. That flawed method demands understanding the metaphor as reality in place of the truth the metaphor is supposed to teach. While it may always seem somewhat close to truth (it is after all a metaphor), it will always fall short and therefore never satisfy in providing purpose and reason.
Here in Revelation 20, we are shown purpose and reason. We are told the importance of Christ’s mission in his first advent. We are shown the opportunity presented in this age because of it. We see the completed result. And we find reason for Christ’s return. There is nothing wildly new here; it is the gospel story.
The chapter begins with the chaining of the Evil One. His names given here tell his story. He is God’s adversary (Satan), slyly (as a Serpent) deceiving (as the Devil’s name implies) God’s image bearers, promoting fascination (as a Dragon) of distraction to turn us away from God to the worship of the material, which is ourselves. But Jesus (the Angel-Messenger), through the gospel message of his death victory, binds that Evil One. That is imagery. It tells us that the gospel message of God’s desired relationship in his truth, goodness, and beauty is stronger than Satan’s deception message of self-focus (self-love and selfish desire). That’s the image given in verses 1–3. That’s what happened at Christ’s first advent—at the cross. Satan’s deceptive message was effectively chained as the full revelation of the gospel message was released to bring the world to relationship with God.
Fast forward now to the end of this section—verses 7–10 of Revelation 20. Here we see the Adversary released. How is he released? Did Jesus lose his grip? Were the supernatural chains broken by some supernatural chain cutter? Remember that this is imagery to show spiritual truth. The only way for the deceptive message to return to its dominance over the gospel message is if the work of the gospel message is at its end.
All around us, since Christ arose, individuals war in their own hearts. Truth in revelation from God for relationship stands against desire for self-focus. Through his Spirit, God involves himself actively and passionately in this world through his infinite knowledge of his creation and of possibility to work all things for good—the greatest community congregation for his everlasting love relationship. But love relationship starts with faith—that desire for relationship. Those who choose for self (those who do not have faith) do so having rejected the revelation of God. God, not wanting any to perish, maneuvers, coordinates, engineers all events—all things—for that greatest scope of opportunity. It is not a failure of God’s that there are those who choose self. After all, God does not coerce. Love cannot coerce and remain love. And with the rejection of God’s revelation in the choice for self, the heart becomes harder. In combination with other hardened hearts, the evil grows.
There will come a time when no more coordination is possible—when the hardness that has fed on hardness has no malleable spot left. When all opportunity that God can coordinate no longer turns the hearts of any of the self-focused, the end will come. That “short time” (20:3) will see Satan and his deceptive message—no longer hindered by the gospel reaching in to transform hearts—gathering, solidifying, cheering on the vast armies of the hard-hearted, covering the whole earth (20:9a). Self-focused deception will appear to have won (the surrounding of the saints’ camp—20:9b). But the deception is indeed short lived. Christ returns, and the hard-hearted will be destroyed (20:9c; 2 Thess 1:7b-8).
But, and importantly, where does that leave us? Revelation 20 is not given simply to recount events. It is written to us—all of us in this age who live between that first advent of Christ in victory in 20:1–3 and the final advent of Christ in victory in 20:7–10. Between those two passages—those two advents—lies 20:4–6, this present age.
Verse 4 describing this present age begins with thrones and judging. Certainly we remember Jesus’s promise to the disciples that they would sit on thrones when Jesus ascended to his. And both Paul and Priscilla say that Jesus is seated with God (Eph 1:20; Heb 1:3). Thus, we too are seated, reigning with Christ (2 Tim 2:12; Rev 1:6). But what is it to reign with him? Who are you judging? Who am I judging? Who are you telling what to do? Who listens to me as an authority? Well, it doesn’t seem like anybody does. Even my children are grown and gone and now simply smile sweetly and condescendingly at my judicial pronouncements. If I’m on a throne, reigning with Christ, how come I don’t know of any certain number of people he has assigned to my control? I want to start commanding someone!
Well, no. That’s not how it works, and that’s not what reigning with Christ means. Whenever we hear of reigning with Christ—seated on thrones, judging the world, having any kind of authority—our minds ought immediately to fly to the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem 2000 years ago as Jesus stood before Pilate and said to him, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Understanding that statement is the only way to understand our reign in Jesus’s kingdom.
Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. It is not like the authority structure of this world. It is not about taking control over anybody’s thoughts or actions. Jesus said this to his disciples in Matthew 20:25–28: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles (more precisely ethnon: nations, peoples; in other words, the world) dominate them, and the men of high position exercise power over them. It must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life—a ransom for many.” Jesus told us that to achieve, to have power, to reign means to give up yourself for the benefit of others. Love is the characteristic of Christ’s kingdom. We, as image bearers in the kingdom of God and Christ, reflect his image—we shine forth the truth, goodness, and beauty of God. That’s reigning, just as Christ reigned and is reigning. And everything in contrast to God’s beauty, truth, and goodness, is then shown to be false; that’s judging. Of course, Pilate didn’t understand Jesus’s remark. Pilate wanted to know if Jesus was a king with a kingdom according to Pilate’s (and the world’s) notion of king and kingdom in domineering control over people. But Jesus told him that his kingdom was not like that—it was not of this world and this world’s self-focused evil. Reigning in Jesus’s kingdom is relational; it is loving in truth, goodness, and beauty.
We are to do that—to reign with Christ—now in this age. And so at the beginning of discussing this age in Revelation 20:4, the first thing we see is that people (Christians—us) sit on thrones, reigning and judging, but not in domineering control. Rather we are to reign and judge—to live—in love now, reflecting our God.
This reign will not sit well with the self-focused of this world. They will cut us off. Note that most translations mention beheading here. The root of the Greek does mean to chop. But the idea here is not to emphasize martyrdom by beheading. It is to emphasize the oil-and-water difference of us in the world. The world has its own standard for its own kingdom and will have nothing to do with those who stand for the TGB of God. And those who do stand for God, do not receive the mark of the beast. We will talk about that mark in more detail in chapters 12-19, but this mark of the beast or antichrist is a self-focused love of the world.
Those who reign in Christ’s kingdom—those without the beast’s mark—will come to life (20:4b). We have discussed countless times that life means association with God and death means separation from God. Those coming to life, then, are those coming into relationship with God. Do we not characterize our salvation—our new birth—as a coming to life (John 5:21)? Surely, if we keep our minds focused on the message of Revelation as the continuing message of the whole New Testament, we can easily understand that people of this age who come to life are people who are being born into the family of God.
And for a thousand years (long period of this age) those who come to life—to relationship with God—reign with the Messiah—exhibit the TGB of God in love. The rest of the dead do not come to life (association with God) until the end of this age (20:5). And there they will face the second death—the eternal separation from God. We who have come alive in relationship with God in the first resurrection—through salvation now—don’t fear a second death; we will never be separated from our God.
The outline that chapter 20, verses 1 through 10, has for us, then, is simple. Christ came first to bring the gospel message binding Satan’s deception (20:1–3). That gospel revelation gives life (relationship with God) to all those who believe (20:4–6). When all who will believe are united with God, the gospel message is complete and Satan’s deception has no hindrance. But with the end of the gospel’s transforming work, Christ returns to remove all evil from this world (20:7-10).
The final image scene of chapter 20 is the scroll scene at the great, white throne. Again, this is imagery. There is no physical throne in heaven. The Great White Throne imagery speaks first of judgment, as all throne imagery does. The throne is Great—the final contrast between God’s kingdom of truth, goodness, and beauty in love (symbolized by the purity of White) and the world’s self-centeredness. Earth and heaven fly away (20:11b). This is an imagery reference to Isaiah 65:17, which talks about a new heaven and earth coming in which past events will not be remembered. The human-focused rule is gone. It cannot stand before God. It flies away, just as shown in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of world governments being destroyed when the stone mountain of God’s kingdom strikes and shatters the statue (Dan 2:35).
And then the scrolls (books) are opened. It is interesting here that the scrolls of those facing the second death are set in contrast to THE scroll of life. We’ve talked previously of the scroll images in Revelation 5 and 10 picturing not only the plan and action of God in fulfilling his relationship purpose through redemption, but that this is the very heart of God. In chapter 5 we see Jesus take the heart (scroll) of God from God’s hand, making it his own. In chapter 10 we see the heart (scroll) laid open as Jesus there accomplished (through his death) redemption’s plan for the world. And now we see this heart of Jesus in chapter 20—called the book of life (relationship with God)—with the names of his redeemed written there. Our names are written on his heart! And that means we belong in relationship to God.
Note though the other scrolls—the other hearts. Those who are not written on the heart of Jesus are judged based on the deeds done of their hearts. The contrast—the judgment—is certain. These plunge into the second death—eternal separation from God—imaged as the lake of fire.