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Posts Tagged ‘Revelation 20’

I mentioned a while back that I’ve been listening to some of Tom Schreiner’s sermons on Revelation, given at Clifton Road Baptist Church (I’m not sure how long the audio will be on the site, so check it out now).  I just finished listening to his sermon from 6/14/09 on Revelation 20, the infamous Millennium passage.  I was intrigued, because I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to a sermon on the Millennium before.

I thought he did a good job.  There’s a lot to tackle in preaching this passage, not least of which is properly respecting other views held by believers but not causing more confusion than necessary by summarizing those positions.  What made it even more interesting is that he changed his view on the Millennium about a month before preaching this sermon.  He jokes about it at the beginning; I appreciated his humility and honesty.

Also of interest to me were the reasons he gave for this change.  He changed from being an Amillennialist to a Premillennialist.  I enjoyed his reasons, though probably because they were incredibly similar to my reasons given in a post about a month ago.  Hmmmm…, who knew Tom Schreiner reads BBG (I’m joking, by the way).  He even jokes about N T Wright on this passage, something I like to do in my teaching.

Anyway, in case you’re wondering how anyone could preach on this passage, go check out Dr Schreiner’s sermon, and some of his others on Revelation while you’re at it.

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I originally posted this on my old blog, but since I’ve been working through Revelation again I decided to post it again here.  As I read back over this, I’m still convinced that these are valid points that need to be considered, though they are still thoughts in progress.

One of the most debated passages in the Bible is Rev 20:1-6. What do we make of the “1000 year” reign of Christ and His people? I cannot pretend to have figured this passage out perfectly; it seems to me that each position has its share of problems. Here are the main views taken by scholars, all of which have a good history of interpretation within the church:

Postmillennial– this view sees the millennium happening at the end of the “church age”, preceding Christ’s return. To put it simply, the world will be essentially Christian before Christ returns and His followers are resurrected.

Amillennial– this view sees the millennium beginning with Christ’s first coming and continuing until His return, the picture of Christ and His people reigning in Rev 20 is a present reality. In my opinion, the best recent commentary on Revelation is Greg Beale’s commentary, who is an amillennialist.

Premillennial– this view sees the millennium as a future time after Christ returns to this earth and His followers are resurrected. Within this view are 2 main camps: dispensationalist (one form of which can be seen in the Left Behind series) who add their own distinct flavor (pretribulational rapture, distinction between the Church and Israel), and historical premillennialists, who essentially hold to what I just said above.

I would be classified as a historical premillennialist, but a slightly odd one, because my reading of Revelation often looks more like something an amillennialist would hold (I won’t bother getting into this now, just trust me). I had a friend in seminary who describe me this way: an anti-dispensationalist historical premillennialist with amillennialist tendencies. I’d say that’s pretty accurate.

Anyway, I want to state from the outset that I think each of these 3 views are well within the realm of orthodoxy. This is not a hill I want to die on, I think we can find ways to coexist just fine (though I admit my pleasure in taking shots at dispensationalism). But the millennium, whatever we make of it, is in Scripture so I figure it’s worth at least forming an opinion, no matter how tentative. I’ll say a couple quick things before I begin my short list: 1) I don’t take the 1000 years literally, I think it is a symbolic number just like the other numbers in Revelation; 2) I’m trying to restrict my comments to Revelation 20:1-6 and other passages in this book, since I could go on forever by including every conceivably important verse in the Bible; 3) I do think there are plenty of holes in the premillennial position- it’s just that I think it has fewer big holes than the other positions. Without further ado, here you go:

1 And I saw an angel coming out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. 3 He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time. 4 I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.

1) The issue of Satan no longer deceiving the nations. I’ve often heard a caricature of the premilliennial position that we sit in fear of the devil and his schemes. I’d rather say, in the words of one of my pastors, that we are “in awe of God but aware of the devil” (this, of course, can be true of any of these millennial positions). Elsewhere in the NT Satan is seen as active in our time (1 Peter 5:8-9), which may be enough to see Satan being bound happening in the future. But even more convincing is Revelation 12:12, where Satan is said to be filled with anger because he has little time left. So, as the following verses show us, he decides to wage war on God’s people. That is hard to reconcile with the picture of Satan being bound for a long period of time and his powers of deception being taken away. It is said by some that the words and picture in Rev 20 do not necessarily have to mean that all of his powers are thwarted (Beale gives his reasons for this in his commentary). But I wonder what language John would use if that were exactly the picture he wanted to draw. If he wanted to show that Satan’s powers were no longer useful, what would he say, since apparently “seized”, “bound”, “locked and sealed… to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore” are not strong enough? (And it can’t be something along the lines of “annihilated” since that doesn’t happen until later in the chapter.)

2) Witnesses or judges? Throughout Revelation God’s people are called to be and are portrayed as witnesses in this world. The word “witness” recalls the courtroom, where witnesses offer evidence which may assist in convicting or acquiting someone. God’s people act as witnesses in that they testify for God, and their testimony condemns the world (or can vindicate some if they repent). Throughout this book God’s people are called to be faithful witnesses unto the very end, even if that means their death (that is, after all, following in Christ’s footsteps, see 1:5). However, in Rev 20 they are now seen as judges with Christ. This reflects a change in the Christian’s current state and their state to come. This change comes when Christ returns and takes His throne on this earth, and His followers reign with Him.

3) The martyrs under the altar or reigning with Christ? Ben Witherington points out that the martyred souls in Rev 6:9-11 are under the altar awaiting the judgment of those responsible for their deaths. In Rev 20, the souls of the martyrs are seen as reigning and judging with Christ. In Rev 6, they are told to wait. In Rev 20, they don’t seem to be waiting for anything, they are finally fulfilling their roles as a “kingdom and priests” that is seen in Revelation. In other words, there is a change in their position, a change which is a result of the resurrection.

4) Addressing Beale’s claim that beheaded souls must refer to non-material bodies. Beale claims that psuche (traditionally translated “soul”) does not have to refer to a physical body (as it does in Rev 8:9, 12:11, 16:3- in these passages “living body” may be the best translation), and this is true (Rev 6:9 is a perfect example of this). He also claims that it cannot refer to a physical body here because these folks were beheaded: “an awkward picture emerges: ‘bodies of beheaded people'” (pg 998). This, however, is not a problem if you see these folks as those who have been resurrected. In other words, John sees “the souls of those who had been beheaded” but were now resurrected (therefore no longer missing their heads).

5) If “came to life” refers to physical resurrection in v5, then it is likely to in v4. Beale argues that the meaning of this verb can change within one verse, which is true. But one must provide strong evidence that this is the case. It is possible John changes the meaning that quickly, but doing good exegesis in difficult passages isn’t about proposing what is possible but what is most likely.

6) The problem of “resurrection.” In v4, the “souls” of the martyrs “come to life” and reign with Christ. This is, in John’s words, “the first resurrection” (v5), as opposed to when the “rest of the dead” come to life. For an amillennial or postmillennial interpretation to work, “come to life” and “resurrection” in v4 have to be taken in a “spiritual” sense (though I hate that term, because I don’t think that’s how the Bible uses “spiritual” at all, but it’s the common lingo so I’ll adopt it here) rather than physical. If “first resurrection” refers to a non-material resurrection, then when does the physical resurrection take place? I guess I have a problem with any view that sees “resurrection” as anything other than a bodily resurrection (to be clear, amillennialists and postmillennialists do believe in a bodily resurrection of believers, they just don’t think that’s what’s in view here).

You’ll notice that one of the common themes in these is the change in these verses from the rest of the Book of Revelation. The way the martyrs are described is different from elsewhere in the book. God’s people have now come to life and are resurrected. Satan’s work is described differently here than elsewhere in Revelation (see chapter 12). Something has changed to make all this happen. In my opinion, the best explanation for this is that these verses are speaking of a different time from the rest of the book of Revelation. We are still waiting for these verses to be fulfilled, when Christ will return and His followers will be resurrected just as He was.

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