The book of Revelation is one of the most misunderstood books in all of Scripture. Most religious people today view Revelation as a book of prophecy to be used to predict the future of man. But is it truly a book of prophecy? Consider what the very first verse of the book says, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants things which must shortly take place (Rev. 1:1). Notice this Revelation is to deal with things which must shortly take place. Addressed to Christ s servants of that time, Revelation is largely fulfilled in the events of that day. Consequently, what was a book of prophecy for those Christians that lived in the first century, becomes, for the most part, for us a book of history. Written likely about A.D. 95-96 during the reign of the Roman Caesar Domitian, the Revelation was recorded by John while in exile to prepare the saints in Asia for the enormous persecutions they would soon have to face. It was written at a time when the faith of Christians was put to the ultimate test, as they were forced to deny their faith in the Lord and worship Caesar, or face torture and death. It informed them that although some would die physically, the cause for which they died would ultimately emerge victorious, and the kingdom of God would indeed endure.
The very first verse of the book of Revelation not only points out that the book concerns things which must shortly come to pass, it says these things were signified to John by the Lord. What this means is that the method of communication was through signs or symbols to express the message. One of the great mistakes made in understanding the book is to disregard the symbolic nature of the text. If we take language that is intended to be figurative and make it literal we do great violence to the text and to the truth it contains. Because the times were very dangerous it was necessary to write the book in signs and symbols. The message had to be kept concealed from the enemy. If a Roman soldier were to find in a Christian s possession a message from John saying the emperor was a false god and that Rome would fall, that Christian would be arrested as a traitor, and the scroll confiscated. But if the soldier read that Babylon is fallen, the language would not be understood, and both the message and the Christian would be protected. We must, therefore, recognize the symbolic nature of the text and the circumstance under which it was written in the first century to understand the message of the book of Revelation. If we take literally that which is intended to be figurative we pervert the truth.
It was pointed out last week that the book of Revelation communicates through the use of signs and symbols as these things were signified to John by the Lord (Rev. 1:1). To understand the meaning of the book we must recognize this language as symbolic. This is especially true with reference to the use of numbers. The apocalyptic writings employed numbers in a symbolic manner, with certain numbers carrying a definite meaning. To take these numbers literally, is to miss the teaching of the book and pervert the message. The numbers one, two, three, four, six, seven, ten and twelve are all used in symbolic fashion throughout the book. For instance, the number three became the symbol of the divine as it represented the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In contrast, the number four represented the world in which men lived, worked, and died. Reference is often made to the four corners of the earth: north, south, east and west. By combining numbers, other symbols resulted. When the number four (world ) is added to the number three (divine ), the result is seven, the most sacred number among the Hebrews. Seven was considered to be the perfect divine number and indicated that which was whole. The careful student will recognize the symbolic nature of numbers in the book of Revelation.
As pointed out last week, if we are to understand the book Revelation we must recognize the symbolic use of numbers in the book. For instance, Revelation 7:4 says that the number of those who were sealed was 144,000. Many have taken this number literally believing it refers to the number of people who will be in heaven, or that this number of people will have a special place in heaven. The number twelve represents God s people. In the Old Testament there were twelve patriarchs, and thus the twelve tribes of Israel constituted God s nation, and in the New Testament the twelve apostles were the ambassadors of Christ. The number ten came to mean completeness. A person with ten fingers and ten toes has a complete number of fingers and toes. When multiplied by itself three times (10 x 10x 10) the number becomes one thousand and signifies complete fullness. One Hundred Forty Four Thousand is a multiple of the number representing fullness (10 x 10x 10 = 1000) and the number representing God s people (12 x 12 = 144). Multiply these together and 144,000 is reached (1000 x 144 = 144,00), signifying the full number of God s people or the total number of God s faithful servants. If we understand the number 144,000 to be literal we misunderstand the teaching of the book.
More than any other passage, Revelation 20 has been a favorite of religious speculators. From the first seven verses theories have arisen concerning a future thousand year reign of Christ on the earth. This theory is so widely accepted and so enlarged upon by its advocates that one might be led to think it is found throughout the Bible, but these are the only verses in Scripture that mention a thousand year reign. Once again, the symbolic nature of the book is either ignored altogether or inconsistently applied in interpretation. Last week we saw that the number 1000 was symbolic of completeness or fullness, and so in this passage signifies a complete or full period of time. Many ignore specifics that are stated in Revelation 20 and embellish the text with many assumptions that are not stated. For example, Revelation 20 does not mention: (1) the second coming of Christ; (2) a bodily resurrection; (3) a reign on earth ; (4) the literal throne of David; (5) Jerusalem or Palestine; (6) us instead of they who lived and reigned; (7) Christ on earth. Sound exegesis does not add to the word of God, and those who do so should heed the closing warning of the book (Rev. 22:18, 19). We must not get sidetracked from what is written by speculation over what is not written.
The defeat of Satan is the theme of Revelation 20:1-10 and not the thousand years. Any accurate interpretation of this chapter must have been relevant to the first century recipients, it must agree with other visions found in Revelation, and it must not contradict other clear and plain Bible passages. In this passage there is a vision of Satan being bound in a bottomless pit for a thousand years; during which time the souls of beheaded martyrs live and reign with Christ. After the time is completed, Satan is loosed again until he and his followers are devoured with fire from heaven and cast into the lake of fire and brimstone. We must remember the book is written to Christians suffering enormous persecution by the world rule of the Roman Empire. These persecuted disciples needed to understand that while Satan was trying to use the Roman Empire to destroy the Lord s church, and while it may have appeared that he would succeed, such was not the case, for ultimately victory was theirs in Christ. Rome would fall and Satan would be bound in that he will not have the power to elevate any world kingdom to deceive nations and unite them to wage war against God and His people as Rome did. Earthly kingdoms would come and go, but the kingdom of God will last forever. Satan cannot and will not destroy the church.
The notion that Christ will return to the earth to establish His kingdom and reign with the saints for 1000 years is a popular one. It is based upon Revelation 20:4-6 which says, And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But does this passage teach the establishment of an earthly kingdom and a thousand year reign of Christ with the saints? Notice first that the thousand years of this passage corresponds with the thousands years that Satan is bound in the bottomless pit of 20:2-3. As pointed out last week, this number is not literal any more than the chain that binds Satan or the abyss in which he is bound. The number 1000 symbolizes completeness or fullness and refers to the complete period of time Satan is bound. However long that is, Christ s reign is the same period of time. But who reigns with Christ? John says, And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands (v. 4). These martyrs lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. Neither the return of Christ to the earth, the establishment of an earthly kingdom or His reign on earth with His disciples for a literal thousand years is in this verse. So what does it mean? Find out next week.
Towards the end of John s great vision he sees Satan bound in a bottomless pit for a thousand years (Rev. 20:1), while Christ and the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus reign for that same period of time (Rev. 20:4-6). It s important to remember this vision is written in symbolic language (Rev. 1:1) familiar to Christians of the first century as similar figures were used in the apocalyptic language of Ezekiel and Daniel. The contrast in John s vision between the binding of Satan and the reigning of Christ is obvious. Interestingly, John refers to the reign of Christ and these martyrs as the first resurrection (20:5). Does this imply there is more than one resurrection from the dead? Many believe this to be so. Jesus, however, clearly taught there would be only one literal resurrection of the dead from their graves (John 5:28-29), and Paul says, that there shall be a resurrection both of the just and unjust (Acts 24:15). In the vision of John, the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God were under the altar when the fifth seal was opened (Rev. 6:9). They cried out, How long ... until You judge and avenge our blood (v. 10). Now in Rev. 20:4-6, we see these slain martyrs being raised from under that altar to reign with Christ. This is the first resurrection (20:5).
In our discussion of Revelation 20, we have seen the figurative binding of Satan in a bottomless pit only to be released for a little while after a thousand years (Rev. 20:1-3). In contrast to this, we see Christ and martyred souls resurrected to reign during this thousand year period (20:4-6). This figurative language shows the cause of Satan being crushed while the cause of Christ is resurrected. Satan was using the Roman Empire and emperor worship in an attempt to destroy the church of the Lord. Revelation was written at a time when it seemed this might actually happen. But God wanted persecuted Christians to know that Satan would fail, that Rome would fall and their persecutors would be brought to an end. Therefore, this great vision figuratively describes the saints triumph over Satan. Their faith would be victorious as Satan would be bound, Rome would fall and they would be joyously rewarded. This figurative language is similar to that describing Israel s triumph over idolatry and the Assyrian captivity (Isa. 26:19; Hos. 13:14) and Judah s return from Babylonian captivity (Ezek. 37:10-14). Never again would God allow a world power to deceive the nations and unite them against the church in an attempt to annihilate His people. Satan cannot destroy the church of Jesus Christ!
In our study of Revelation 20, we ve seen the figurative resurrection of the souls of those martyred because they had not worshipped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands (v. 4). The beast referred to is first introduced in John s vision in chapter 13. In fact, there are two beast introduced, one rising up out of the sea (13:1) and another beast coming up out of the earth (13:11). You can read the fantastic descriptions of these beasts with their heads and horns in these verses. But remember: the language is figurative. What these beasts represent is real, but the description is not of a literal beast. When we remember the context of Revelation is to encourage Christians of the first century who were under enormous persecution from Rome, it becomes apparent the sea beast represents this world empire. Satan was using the Roman Empire in attempt to destroy the Lord s church. Satan had used other empires in times past, but they had been destroyed as is symbolized by the healed deadly wound on one of the beast s seven heads (13:3). The land-beast appears to represent false religion; in fact, in all other references to him he is known as the false prophet (16:13; 19:20; 20:10). This beast represents the pagan false religion that worshipped Caesar as god.
The subject of the mark or number of the beast has been much disputed for centuries. As discussed last week, the beast symbolically represents the Roman Empire that was persecuting those Christians who refused to worship the emperor or pledge allegiance to him above the Lord. Revelation 13:18 says the number of the beast is the number of man: And his number is six hundred and sixty-six. Many see the number 666 as some type of numeric formula that identifies a particular person in history. A cryptic method that assigns a numerical equivalent for letters of the alphabet has been used to identify such individuals as Nero, Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler and even Saddam Hussein. Interestingly, scholars of the Reformation used 666 as a cryptographic reference to the Catholic Pope, while Catholic scholars applied the same method to fit Martin Luther and John Calvin. But all such modern applications of 666 would have had no significance to first century saints needing encouragement. In Revelation, the number 7 symbolically represents that which is perfect and divine. The number 6 stands for that which is human. Thus, the number 666 stands for the authority of the beast rather than for a secret code of a particular wicked ruler. Any occasion where man is in conflict with God, man will fail.
Revelation 20:7-10 describes Satan being released from his prison and going out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle. Some believe this to be the battle of Armageddon as described in 16:14 while others see this as one last physical battle in which the forces of evil attempt to destroy God s people with the instruments of modern warfare. Before we discuss the battle of Armageddon or any other battle described in Revelation, we must remember two facts set forth in the very first verse of the book: 1) these things must shortly take place, 2) they are signified in symbolic language. Understanding this, does this language refer to some physical conflict to take place in the Middle East of the future? Physical warfare has never been used to advance the kingdom of Christ, nor shall it ever be. Jesus said, My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would fight (John 18:36). And the apostle Paul said, For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal (2 Cor. 10:4). Therefore, this last battle described in Revelation 20:7-10 refers not to a war with modern weapons invented by men set in the contemporary Middle East, but rather to a battle that tests the faith of the citizens of God s kingdom.
Revelation 20:8 says that Satan shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. In Ezekiel 38 and 39, the prophet mentions Gog, the king of the land of Magog. They symbolically represented the pagan forces that fought against the kingdom of God as Ezekiel wrote about a battle that involved the fleshly kingdom of Israel. These wicked forces destroyed the temple and took the people of God into bondage. Now in Revelation 20:8, the same figures of God and Magog are used to symbolize the world s pagan forces that would come against God s spiritual kingdom, the church. As pointed out last week, the conflict is not physical, but spiritual in nature. The fact is, Satan s allies are abundant: secularism, humanism, materialism, atheism, astrology, false religion, fleshly lusts, drug cults, and all manner of evil. Today the Lord s church is under attack from paganistic advocates who tolerate and promote every conceivable immorality, from abortion and homosexual marriages to the abolition of any faith that advocates trust in God. It is at the altar of self that many worship today as they attempt to gratify every selfish lust. Though not a physical one, this battle is very real.
And they gathered them together to the place called in Hebrew Armageddon (Rev. 16:16). This is the only place in all of the Bible that we find the term Armageddon or in the Hebrew Har-Magedon. The term Har-Magedon literally means hill of Megiddo and is derived from an actual place located in the Valley of Jezreel. The history of the plain of Megiddo is very interesting, for a number of Old Testament conflicts occurred there. It was famous for the victories of Deborah and Barak over the Canaanites (Judg. 4:15), and of Gideon over the Mideanites (Judg. 7), just to name a couple. But is the battle described at Armageddon a literal or figurative battle? If it is a literal physical battle there are some problems. 1) The generals would look like frogs (Rev. 16:13). 2) An army of 200 million horsemen could not physically march in formation in an area only 20 miles wide and 14 miles long (9:16). 3) A great river of blood 200 miles long would not fit in this valley (14:20). The fact is, the battle is between the spiritual forces of righteousness and evil, God and Satan. It was a battle fought and won by the Lord with the complete defeat of the Roman Empire and god-Caesar paganism. Revelation 19:19-21 portrays the Lord as the victor, and His kingdom of righteousness shall stand forever.
In our study of the book of Revelation, we must remember that John writes of events that are signified and of things which must shortly take place (Rev. 1:1). This means that while the book was prophetic to those of the first century, it is for us today a book of history. It was a time in which Satan used the Roman Empire and the pagan worship of Caesar in an attempt to destroy the church of God. Just as the physical enemies of God s physical Kingdom of Israel had been defeated on the plain of Megiddo centuries before, now the vision describes a figurative battle fought at Armageddon (cf. Rev. 16:16). In this figurative battle of Armageddon’the world forces of evil are brought against the people of God. But in the vision the forces of Satan lose, as the beast and the false prophet are no match for the Divine Warrior. Both are seized and cast alive into the lake of fire (19:20). The Roman Empire with its pagan god-Caesar worship was destroyed and with it the world wide persecuting force against the church was brought down. Never again would a world power such as Rome be used by Satan to advance his cause. Never again would a world government that enforces pagan false worship be used by Satan to turn men away from God. The battle of Armageddon was won. But what about the war?
Last week we saw John s Revelation depict the Battle of Armageddon; a figurative battle that brought the world forces of evil in the form of the Roman Empire and pagan god-Caesar worship against the people of God. The forces of Satan lose this battle and both the beast and the false prophet are cast alive in the lake of fire (19:20). Rome eventually falls and with it pagan worship of Caesar. It is in this way Satan is bound for a thousand years (a complete period of time), Rev. 20:2. He will never again use a world empire to attempt to destroy the church of God. And although this battle is won, the war is not over, for after these things he must be released for a little while (20:3). In fact, Satan s onslaught against God s people continues to be worldwide (20:8). But the vision shows Satan losing this battle too, and this time he shall be cast into the same lake of fire where earlier his allies had been cast (20:10). The ultimate end of Satan and all his followers is eternal punishment (cf. Matt. 25:41, 46). As our study of Revelation 20:1-10 comes to a close it becomes obvious that the underlying theme is not the thousand years, but rather the defeat of Satan. And while it may appear at times he has the upper hand, in the end he will fail, for this is the victory that has overcome the world our faith (1 John 5:4).