REVELATION - CHAPTER 20
A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough
Copyright 2000 James Melough
20:1. “And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.”
How long Satan has existed is not revealed, but here we are being shown what will be virtually the end of his long career of evil, for following this thousand year imprisonment, the only other activity permitted him will be the brief final rebellion at the end of the Millennium, that will result in his being consigned to the eternal torment of the lake of fire, (v.10).
20:2. “And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,”
Commentators almost invariably have taken the word “dragon” to refer to a literal sea creature, though there is very little to validate this view. Clearly Satan is the dragon, pictured, not by a literal sea creature, but by the constellation Draco, depicted in all the ancient star maps as a great serpent writhing through the heavens, the connection with the sea being derived from the fact that the one represented by the dragon writhes also through the sea of the nations, (Isa 57:20, as noted already, declares the troubled sea to be symbolic of the nations).
Space precludes the possibility of discussing this subject further here, but to readers interested in pursuing the study, the following books are recommended: The Gospel in the Stars by Dr. J.A. Seiss; The Witness of the Stars by Dr. E.W. Bullinger, both published by Kregel; and God’s Voice in the Stars by Kenneth C. Fleming, published by Loizeaux Bros.
All of these are available at your Christian book store, and for those who want a simple less detailed book, I’d recommend the one by Fleming.
Others have pointed out that “the dragon” depicts Satan as the fearsome king of terrors; “the old serpent” as the subtle deceiver of the human race; “the Devil” as the great tempter; and “Satan” as the great adversary of God and man.
Concurrent with the period of Satan’s imprisonment will be the millennial reign of Christ, the peace and blessing of which will be in no small measure attributable to that imprisonment.
20:3. “And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.”
Undoubtedly it was Satan who prompted the Jews to demand that the tomb of Christ be sealed, so that there is peculiarly fitting irony in that a seal will yet be placed on what, for all practical purposes, will be his own tomb, preventing his activity for a thousand years, but unlike Christ, he will be unable to break that seal.
All question as to the nature of his present activity amongst the nations is settled by the assurance that during the Millennium “he should deceive the nations no more....” He is the arch deceiver.
That his activity past, present, and future is only by God’s permission, is assured by the announcement “that he must be loosed a little season” after the Millennium. And an obvious question is, Why is his release necessary? The answer appears to be, For the testing of humanity. Every dispensation has been a period of such testing to reveal what is in the heart of fallen man, and the testing of the final dispensation will reveal, as has every other, that even under the ideal conditions of the Millennium, “The heart (of man) is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9). Nothing but a new birth can change man’s sinful heart.
Satan’s final activity however, will be of brief duration - “a little season.”
20:4. “And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.”
The identity of those sitting upon these thrones of judgment is not revealed, but there can be little doubt that they are the believers of this present Church age, for we are assured that we shall judge the world and angels (1 Co 6:2-3).
There is disagreement among interpreters as to whether these resurrected martyrs, on behalf of whom judgment is given, are Tribulation age believers only, or whether they include also the OT believers. Since the resurrection of the OT and Tribulation age saints won’t occur till the end of the Tribulation, there seems to be good reason for believing that both are included here. The words “... for the witness of Jesus” don’t necessarily limit the number to the Tribulation age martyrs only. The witness of believers in all ages is to the Lord Jesus Christ.
John was shown the reward of these faithful ones who counted not their lives dear. Their faithfulness to the Lord Who had died to redeem them, and for Whose sake they themselves were willing to die, has a full reward. They are seen here resurrected to the enjoyment of eternal life, to live and reign with Christ over His millennial kingdom, and then to pass from that age of bliss into the enjoyment of eternal blessings, when a new heavens and a new earth will replace those now existing.
As has been noted in earlier studies, those resurrected ones reigning with Christ in the Millennium will do so from the heavenly, not the earthly Jerusalem. There is nothing in Scripture to indicate that any resurrected individuals will be on the millennial earth. They will rule over the earth, but from the heavenly Jerusalem.
20:5. “But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.”
“... the rest of the dead” are the unbelieving dead of all the ages, for, added to those in that state when John beheld the vision, will be also the unbelievers of the millennial age. The resurrection of all these unbelievers will not occur until after the Millennium. It will be what the Lord Himself called “the resurrection of damnation” (Jn 5:29).
The words, “This is the first resurrection,” refer of course to the resurrection of life (Jn 5:29); and summing up what is declared in Scripture concerning that resurrection we learn that it will be in three stages: “Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming” (1 Co 15:23). The first coming, to effect the second stage of that resurrection of life, will be to the air to rapture the Church (1 Co 15:51-52); and the next coming, to effect the third and final stage, will be His return to the earth at the end of the Tribulation to establish His millennial kingdom, and resurrect the OT and Tribulation age saints. Since no believers will die in the Millennium, the resurrection at the end of the Tribulation will complete the resurrection of life.
20:6. “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.”
The impossibility of measuring the blessedness of the saved is declared in 1 Co 2:9, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” It is equally impossible to measure the holiness of the saved, for as those possessing Christ’s life and nature, we are as holy as He in God’s sight. The flesh however, impairing our understanding, prevents our comprehending fully the holiness of Christ, and therefore hinders our manifesting that holiness in our lives. In our resurrection bodies however, there will be nothing of the flesh to obscure and hinder, so that, as the hymn writer has so aptly put it, “Then we shall be what we should be.”
“... on such the second death hath no power.” The “second death” is the consignment of body, soul, and spirit into the eternal torment of the lake of fire, see verses 11-15. Only unbelievers will die this second death.
Having shown us what we have been saved from, we are now told what we have been saved for. We shall be “priests of God and of Christ.” The distinction of that office may be assessed in some small measure from a consideration of the honor with which the Levitical priests were invested, and by remembering that the Lord Jesus Christ is our great High Priest.
The equality of the Father and the Son is declared in the words “of God and of Christ.”
And as if these blessings were not enough, there is the added assurance that we shall reign with Him, not only for a thousand years over the millennial earth, but for ever and ever (Re 22:5).
20:7. “And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison,”
20:8. “And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.”
The fact that Satan doesn’t escape from the abyss, but is loosed by God, continues to remind us, that powerful as he is, he can do nothing apart from what God permits. God alone is omnipotent. It is this knowledge that comforts the saint in the midst of adversity, reminding him that “All things work together for good to them that love God” (Ro 8:28).
It might have been presumed that after a thousand years of Christ’s glorious reign over the earth there would be no heart capable of entertaining the thought of rebellion; but the Millennium, like every other dispensation, will reveal that fallen man is an incorrigible rebel, in desperate need of a new birth through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior.
Other references to Gog and Magog are found in Ge 10:2; 1 Chr 5:4, and Ezekiel chapters 38 and 39, where the reference is to both a person and a place, and the context appears to have reference to the Tribulation. Here both Gog and Magog seem to be descriptive of those of the millennial age earth, whose obedience will be compelled rather than voluntary, and clearly the time is at the end of the Millennium. Premillennial Gog and Magog are accepted by most commentators as referring to a northern power or powers from the general area of Russia, but in spite of much speculation as to the location of postmillennial Gog and Magog, the question of the location still remains unanswered. It seems therefore better to simply accept them as being descriptive of the rebels who will flock to the banner of Satan after the end of the Millennium, to aid him in his final abortive attempt to usurp divine power.
Some have suggested that in the Millennium, those who are rebels at heart will move as far away as possible from Jerusalem, the center of divine administration on the earth, so that Gog and Magog are descriptive of those parts of the earth to which the rebels will gravitate. Against this however, is the fact that in the Millennium there will be no part of the earth where the rule of Christ will be less than in any other.
When we remember that Abraham’s earthly posterity were likened to the dust, in contrast with the spiritual posterity who were likened to the stars, the reference to Gog and Magog’s being as numerous as the sand of the sea may be pointing also indirectly to the fact that they will be like all unbelievers, earthy, in contrast with believers who are heavenly.
20:9. “And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured them.”
It is unclear what is meant by “the breadth of the earth,” but since the term “the earth” is sometimes used symbolically of the land of Palestine, the reference may be to their assembling there just as the Gentile coalition will gather there in the Tribulation, and for the same purpose: to destroy Israel.
Unlike the end of the Tribulation however, there will be no battle. The rebels will be consumed by divine fire sent down from heaven, just as in the days of Elijah, see 2 Kings chapter 1.
20:10. “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”
Following the judgment of the nations at the end of the Tribulation, the unbelievers will be dismissed from the earth with the command of Christ, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.... And these shall go away into everlasting punishment....” (Mt 25:41-46). He for whom that dreadful place was first prepared, will be cast into it following his final rebellion at the end of the Millennium, and the unbelievers of all the ages will be with him eternally in that awful place of torment, having chosen it as their eternal abode, because they refused to choose Christ as their Savior when they were on earth.
It should be noted that hell and the lake of fire are two separate places, hell being the prison of the souls of all unbelievers until the resurrection of damnation and the judgment of the great white throne at the end of the Millennium, the bodies, souls, and spirits of these unbelievers then being cast into the lake of fire. Hell and the lake of fire are both places of torment, unquenchable fire being the element of torture in both, so when we read of unbelievers being banished into everlasting fire and everlasting punishment at the end of the Tribulation, we must
realize that they are banished into hell to await the resurrection of damnation, and the judgment of the great white throne, following which they will then be cast into the lake of fire. The punishment in hell is eternal in the sense that it will be continued eternally in the lake of fire.
This Scripture refutes the false teaching of those who preach the eventual salvation of all men, as it does also that of those who contend for a heaven, but who refuse to concede the existence of hell. Nor is there any Scriptural support for the idea that God is too loving to send anyone to hell. God is as righteous as He is loving, and all who refuse to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior will exist in eternal torment with the devil and his angels in the lake of fire.
20:11. “And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.”
Since no unconverted will ever enter heaven, and since the present earth and aerial heavens will cease to be after the consignment of Satan to the lake of fire, the great white throne seen by John can be nowhere else except in space, held there by the same divine power that presently holds the universe in place. And as is made clear by the verses that follow, it is set there for the final judgment of the unbelievers of all the ages, the Judge being none other than the Lord Jesus Christ into Whose hand all judgment has been committed (Jn 5:22).
20:12. “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.”
This is the resurrection of damnation spoken of by the Lord in Jn 5:29, and as noted already, it consists of the unbelievers of all the ages. “Small and great” reminds us of earthly distinctions. Some, on earth, were kings; some, beggars; some, on earth, were educated; others, illiterate; some, on earth, were moral; others, profane; but at that great white throne there will be no earthly distinctions. All in that vast assembly will stand on common ground, sharing the same condemnation. They will be those who died without having trusted in Christ as Savior.
Since Christ will be the Judge at that final great assize, its being said that they stood before God, reminds us that Christ is God. As He Himself told Philip, “... he that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (Jn 14:8), “I and my Father are one” (Jn 10:30).
It is generally agreed that the opened books are the record of the lives of those arraigned there for judgment, a fact which has led some to the wrong conclusion that the purpose of that judgment will be to determine who will enter heaven, and who will be cast into the lake of fire. The awful truth is that all who stand at that great white throne will be consigned to the eternal torment of the lake of fire. None will enter heaven.
The contents of those books will determine, not whether the individual may enter heaven, but the degree of his eternal punishment in that terrible lake of fire, for just as there are degrees of eternal reward in heaven for the faithful service of the saved, see e.g., Mt 25:14-23, so are there also degrees of eternal punishment in the lake of fire corresponding to the sinfulness of the life lived on earth, see e.g., Heb 10:29.
In connection with the “other book,” i.e., the book of life, the question presents itself, Since those standing there are condemned without hope of mercy, what is the purpose in opening the book of life, since, clearly, their names are not inscribed there. As has been pointed out by others, It is opened to verify that the name is not written there. All who enter the lake of fire will be those whose names are not in the book of life, because during their earthly lives they refused to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior.
There is peculiar propriety in their being described as “the dead,” for they will be those who during their earthly lives were spiritually dead, and who will now have also died physically, their resurrection being simply for this final judgment which will be followed by the second death, i.e., their consignment to eternal existence in the torment of the lake of fire.
20:13. “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.”
Hell, since the Lord’s resurrection, is the prison house of the souls of all who have died in unbelief. For the resurrection of death, hell will deliver up those souls, as death (the graves) will deliver up their bodies; and while the sea is generally accepted as being literal, it may be that the reference is to the sea of the unbelieving nations (Isa 57:20) upon the earth at the end of the Millennium, for it must not be forgotten that while the Millennium will begin with only believers on the earth (all unbelievers having been banished into hell following Christ’s judgment of the nations at the end of the Tribulation), the children born during the Millennium will be born as all men are born: they will be sinners requiring the new birth to fit them for heaven when the Millennium ends.
Many of those will accept Christ as Savior, but many will not, and while some of the rebels will join the army gathered by Satan (v.8), and will be destroyed by the fire from heaven (v.9), it is possible that many will continue to pursue their normal activities, just as at the end of the Tribulation, the rebel armies assembled for the battle of Armageddon will be destroyed by Christ returning in power and glory, while the remaining rebels among the nations will then be gathered together for the judgment of the nations, following which they will be banished bodily into hell.
So, it would seem, will it be at the end of the Millennium: those given up by the sea may be the unbelievers physically alive following God’s fiery destruction of their fellows in Satan’s army.
As noted already, their being judged every man according to their works, is not to determine whether they may enter heaven, but rather, to determine the degree of their eternal punishment in the lake of fire.
20:14. “And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.”
While death and hell are taken literally by some, the better interpretation appears to be that the reference is the consignment to the lake of fire of what is in death (the grave), i.e., the bodies; and of what is in hell, i.e., the souls and spirits of all unbelievers.
20:15. “And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.”
This declares the imperative of the new birth which alone fits men for heaven, and without which they must exist eternally in the torment of that dreadful lake of fire, their torment compounded by the knowledge that they themselves have chosen this as their eternal abode when they could have chosen heaven by simply trusting Christ as Savior.