Eschatology Outlines: No. 7D Interpreting Rev 20:4-6

Posted by R. Fowler White

In an earlier post, I indicated that my aim here is to point the way to an interpretation of Rev 20:1-6 that takes full account of what we know from Scripture about God’s combat with beasts and His building work. While appreciating the work of many others, my approach at this moment is to apply the biblical themes of “victory over the dragon followed by house building” to the interpretation of this controversial passage. Since I’ve applied the combat theme to help in understanding Rev 20:1-3, we’ll turn to Rev 20:4-6 in this post.

I. The overall context of 20:1–21:8—Recall what we said before: the sequence of visions in this passage twice repeats the pattern of “victory followed by house [temple] building.”

A. 20:1-3, capture of the serpent = victory over the serpent

B. 20:4-6, first resurrection = temple building

C. 20:7-10, death of the serpent = victory over the serpent

D. 20:11–21:8, resurrection = temple building

Having applied the victory theme to the interpretation of Rev 20:1-3, we can turn to Rev 20:4-6 and the theme of temple (house) building.

II. Rev 20:4—Here we find a vision of that session of the Divine Council in which the heavenly court is authorized to avenge the blood of the martyred saints who, with the living saints (see Rev 20:9), had been built into God’s kingdom-city-encampment of priests through their participation in the first resurrection.

III. Rev 20:5—In this verse John distinguishes the first resurrection from the (second) resurrection in Rev 20:12-13. He makes the distinction by identifying the non-Christian dead as participants only in the (second) resurrection and the Christian dead as the only participants in the first resurrection. In other words, Rev 20:5 is profoundly important: it instructs us readers not to confuse the first resurrection, in which Christians are the only participants, with the (second) resurrection, in which non-Christians and Christians are both participants.

Some interpreters claim that Christians have no part in the resurrection of the dead in Rev 20:13, but they must then explain what Rev 20:5 contributes to this context where two resurrections are presented. We cannot say that because only Christians take part in the first resurrection, they have no part in the second. Nor can we say that because non-Christians take part only in the (second) resurrection, Christians do not take part in it. For either of these statements to be true, we must establish that both resurrections deliver from physical death—and the evidence for such a claim is lacking.

IV. Rev 20:6—A beatitude for the Christian dead. Here we notice that the blessings that belong to those who take part in the first resurrection are described elsewhere as the benefits of Christ’s redeeming work applied to believers before they die.

A. The first phrase of the beatitude: “the second death has no power over them.” According to Rev 20:12-15; 21:8, 27; and 22:15, the second death has power over the resurrected dead who died in bondage to their sins. To say, then, that “the second death has no power” over those who take part in the first resurrection is simply to say that Christ has freed them from their sins by His blood (1:5). In other words, such freedom is a benefit of redemption indisputably applied to believers before they die. To put this truth in the words of Rev 20:4, we say that God’s heavenly court will avenge those who had come to life in the first resurrection and had thereby been freed from the second death’s power, for Christ had freed them from their sins by His blood.

B. The second and third phrases of the beatitude—“they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years”—also reaffirm benefits of Christ’s work applied elsewhere to believers before they die.

1. The beatitude affirms truths that are the equivalent of “he has made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” in Rev 1:6 and of “you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth” in Rev 5:10. The beatitude, together with the new song of 5:10, doesn’t merely view the kingdom as future from the vantage point of the believer’s death. Nor does it view the kingdom’s reign as future from standpoint of the believer’s resurrection from the dead. Rather, the beatitude views the kingdom’s reign as certain from the standpoint of its establishment with Christ’s redemption of many from their sins and from the second death (5:9; 1:5).

2. Because the kingdom is established by Christ’s redemptive work, we may say both that the redeemed will reign in glory on the new earth (Rev 22:5) and that they will reign now on this earth and in heaven, even as Christ Himself has been doing (Heb 2:10, 13a). Still, it is fair to ask, how do the redeemed reign now? They reign now on earth by persevering in faith despite suffering and death. They also reign after death in heaven as they rest in glory from their earthly labors. Again, to put these things in the words of Rev 20:4, we affirm that Heaven’s court will avenge those who had come to life had reigned with Christ for a thousand years, for He had made them a kingdom of priests to His God and Father.

V. Death, resurrection, and temple in the Gospel of John

It is instructive to see the harmony between the Revelation to John and the Gospel of John as it relates the topics of death, resurrection, and temple.

A. John 2:13-22: In this text, John the Evangelist, who is author of the Revelation, portrays Jesus’ death and resurrection as the destruction and construction of the true temple. The death and resurrection of those united with Jesus should be interpreted similarly. That is, the death and resurrection of those in Jesus is the destruction and construction of a temple. In the resurrection of Jesus and the first resurrection (from the second death) and the resurrection (from death) of those in Him, something better than the temple is here.

B. John 5:24-29: Notice here that Jesus speaks of two resurrections, not one. First comes the spiritual resurrection, then the physical resurrection.

1. There is a resurrection in an hour that now is, 5:24-25: it is now ongoing and is seeing the Son’s own raised from spiritual death to spiritual life.

2. There is another resurrection at the last day (6:39, 40, 44, 54; 11:54), in an hour that is to come, 5:28-29. That resurrection will, in the future, raise “all who are in the tombs” from physical death: some to everlasting life, others to everlasting death.

3. Relevance of this point to the two resurrections of Rev 20:4–21:8

a. Participation in the first resurrection from the second death (20:4-6) is the building of the church as the spiritual temple.

b. Participation in the resurrection from death (20:12-13) is the building of the church as the physical temple-city (21:2-3, 9-27).

c. Note: Whether we interpret the first resurrection as spiritual or physical, the concept of resurrection as a divine building project in John’s theology should tell us that the first resurrection marks the building of a holy place.

Certainly, much more could be said. Not least we could show how the victory and house building themes appear in Ezekiel 36–48 and are used by John to help us understand the reimagined depiction of Christ’s work between His two comings and at His second coming and beyond in the visions of Rev 20:4–21:8. All this works together to inspire our confidence in our Lord Christ’s purpose and power to triumph over His enemies and ours as He works invincibly to finish His redemptive mission and to establish His righteous rule. For now, we’ll settle for noticing that when it comes time for the Heavenly Court of God to avenge the saints, martyred or living, those saints will have been built into God’s temple-kingdom-city-encampment through their participation in the first resurrection.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7C The Dragon’s Imprisonment in Rev 20:1-3

Posted by R. Fowler White

We have said in a previous post that the best approach to Rev 20:1-6 sees it as a series of visions related to Christ’s first coming and the interadvent age, while Rev 20:7–21:8 is a series of visions related to Christ’s second coming, the general resurrection and judgment, and the new world to come. If our approach is correct, then we need to consider this question: if the text says that Satan the serpentine Dragon is cut off from the earth during the confinement envisioned in Rev 20:1-3, how can we harmonize this vision of his imprisonment during the interadvent age with the clear NT evidence that he is active in the same period (e.g., 1 Thess 2:18; 1 Pet 5:8)? Can we still confess our commitment to a consistent method of historical-grammatical-theological interpretation?

The force of this question is well taken. Yet that force is blunted when we consider Jesus’ saying about the binding of the strong man (Matt 12:29), His vision of Satan’s fall (Luke 10:17-18), and His teaching that His death/exaltation means the judgment of the world, the deposing of the ruler of this world, the exaltation of the Son of Man, and the drawing of all peoples to Himself (John 12:31-32). All those passages give us light on the question before us. We get even more light if we recognize John’s tactical use of the themes of God’s victory and house building. So, back to our question: to what extent should we expect the events in the vision of Rev 20:1-3 to translate into events in history?

I. The fates of God’s enemies in the Bible outside Rev 20:1-3—The answer to our question about the dragon’s imprisonment comes when we examine the relationship between historical events and their reimagined depictions as God’s combat and construction in the Bible. When we study those depictions, we find that the fate of dragons is analogous, not identical to the fate of those characters or entities in history to which the images are applied. To put it differently, while the dragon (serpent, sea beast) may be captured or slain in the reimagined depiction, the enemy depicted in the beastly image is neither captured nor slain in history. We can see this fact in the way biblical writers apply the imagery to the events of creation and release from exile.

A. In Job 26:10-13, we’re told that the creation process involved God smiting Rahab the anti-creation monster and running the fleeing serpent through (presumably with a sword). We read a similar reimagining of the creation plot in Ps 89:9-13. And yet, when compared to the creation account of Gen 1, we find that the deep and darkness, to which Rahab and the serpent correspond, were neither smitten nor run through: they were restrained or compartmentalized.

B. Similarly, in Isa 51:9-11, the exiles’ release from Babylon is compared to God dismembering Rahab and (again) running the dragon through. Yet in history Babylon, to whom Rahab and the dragon correspond, was neither dismembered nor run through by God; rather Babylon, in the person of King Cyrus, was stirred to act on the exiles’ behalf according to the Lord’s good pleasure (2 Chron 36:22; Ezra 1:1; Isa 44:28).

C. For any who might think the distinction between historical events and their reimagined depictions is isolated to the texts just cited, I can only invite them to consider the other texts where biblical authors apply the anti-creative/anti-redemptive animal images to a character or entity in history. In each and every case, they will find that the beast’s fate in the depictions and its fate in history are analogous, not identical. This will be so whether they find the evil animal to have been captured or slain. In all such cases, the beast’s fate represents the truth that the effort of God’s enemies to resist His creative and redemptive work is itself invincibly resisted by God, whether the means He uses is temporary or final.

II. The fate of God’s enemy in Rev 20:1-3

A. Against the background above, we go back to Rev 20:1-3 where the Dragon named “the Devil and Satan” is captured and confined in the abyss. How should we interpret this captivity? We should remember the way biblical authors reimagine historical events using the images of God in battle and God building. We should recall that, both in Revelation as a whole and in the immediately preceding and following contexts of Rev 20:1-3, John, following his biblical forebears, has already adapted those images to interpret the historical events linked with Christ’s death and exaltation.

B. In that light, we’re bound to conclude that the Dragon’s fate in Rev 20:1-3 is analogous but not identical to Satan’s fate in history. Stated differently, while the Dragon is captured and confined in John’s vision, Satan is, like Babylon and the darkness and deep, restrained and even compartmentalized in history, specifically, deprived of his role as deceiver of the world’s nations.

C. The Dragon’s capture in 20:1-3, then, means that Christ’s exaltation has postponed Satan’s age-ending deception of the nations, his corruption of the world into an abomination of desolation, and, most importantly, his final attempt to destroy the church being built by Christ. As we’ll see even more fully from our study of the vision in 20:4-6, the vision of the Dragon’s capture signals to us readers that, despite appearances to the contrary, the exalted Christ is taking the necessary steps to defeat His enemies and to build His kingdom (cf. 1 Cor 15:24-25), even now rescuing His chosen kingdom-citizens from all the nations (5:9-10) while He keeps the wannabe-deceiver of those nations incarcerated until His rescue work is done.

Conclusion: If we desire to practice and protect a valid and consistent method of interpretation, then there is no better place to press the point than right here in Rev 20:1-3. We should recognize that in Rev 20:1-3 and its context, John has adapted the theme of God’s victory over the Dragon to reimagine and thus to illuminate the significance of Christ’s exaltation as it relates to Satan. To recognize John’s reimagining is to appreciate how much of a debt he owed to the heritage of the OT authors. To overlook or ignore that heritage is arguably to be inconsistent in our practice of responsible biblical interpretation, particularly when it comes to a difficult text.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7B Interpreting Rev 20:1-3

Posted by R. Fowler White

All Bible interpreters want to be consistent when they interpret the literature in the Bible, whether it’s apocalyptic material or not. The same applies to Rev 20:1-6 in particular. We all must stick as faithfully as we can to the rules of grammar, to the facts of history, and to sound biblical, historical, and systematic theology. Nobody wants to be uninformed, misinformed, incomplete, or inconsistent. So the aim here is to point the way to an interpretation of Rev 20:1-3 (and later 20:4-6) that takes full account of what we know from the canon of Scripture about God’s combat with beasts and about His building work. As a prelude to what follows, I’m more than happy to recommend the studies of others (Hoekema, Poythress, Beale, Venema, Storms) who have used other good approaches. Yet my own approach is to make use of the biblical themes of “victory over the dragon followed by house building” as the fundamental paradigm for interpreting Rev 20:1-6. We’ll begin by summarizing several main points related to how those themes help us to understand Rev 20:1-3.

I. Overall context of 20:1–21:8—The sequence of visions in this passage twice repeats the pattern of “victory followed by house [temple] building.” N.B. Interestingly, this sequence reflects the gospel of Gen 3:15: “rule the beast and fill the earth.”

A. 20:1-3  capture of the serpent = victory over the serpent

B. 20:4-6  first resurrection = house (temple) building

C. 20:7-10  death of the serpent = victory over the serpent

D. 20:11–21:8  resurrection = house (temple) building

II. The “victory and house building” themes in the Bible: an overview

Consider the following survey of the evidence from the OT and the NT.

A. In the OT—OT researchers have discerned the themes of divine victory and/or house building in both poetic and narrative descriptions of the world’s creation (e.g., Job 26:10-13; Psa 89:9-13), the world’s deliverance in Noah’s day (e.g., Psa 29:9-10; 74:12-17; 104:5-9) and in the Day of the Lord (Isa 27:1), and Israel’s deliverance from Egypt (the book of Exodus, especially chap. 15), from David’s enemies (2 Sam 7), from Babylon (Isa 51:9-11), and from Gog-Magog (Ezek 36-48).

B. In the NT—While studies of God’s combat and construction in the OT has been extensive, research on the NT use of those themes has yielded still more fruit. These themes show up in descriptions of the church’s redemption at Christ’s first advent (Eph 2:14-22 [cf. 4:8]; Col 2:15; 1 Pet 2:4-10) and at His second advent (1 Cor 15:53-57; 2 Cor 5:1-4).

C. In the book of Revelation—Before turning specifically to Rev 20:1-3, take a look at Rev 1:5-6; 5:5, 9-10; 12:11; and 20:7–21:8. Notice how John describes the church’s redemption as Christ’s “battle and building” work.

1. In Rev 1:5-6 and 5:9-10, John compares the Lamb’s redemptive work for the church to God’s victory over Egypt and His constitution of the nation and the tabernacle as His kingdom-dwelling place. Then, in the Divine Warrior victory song of 12:10-12, saints are described as those who have obtained victory over their accuser, the dragon, on account of the blood of the true Lamb (12:11): it is His blood that secures the release of God’s people from their sins. Finally, in 5:5, the victory of the new Lamb is also the victory of the new David. From the context of 1:5-6, we are justified to infer that, like the old David, He turns His attention to building God’s temple-house after His victory. So, when in chaps. 1, 5, and 12 John invokes God’s redemptions of Israel under Moses and David to describe the church’s experience, the point we should not miss is that John employs the “victory and house building” paradigm to explain the significance of the church’s redemption through Christ’s work.

2. Briefly, regarding Rev 20:7–21:8, the combat and construction themes really help our understanding of Christ’s age-ending defeat of the dragon and the nations in 20:7-10 and also our understanding of the resurrection and judgment of the dead in 20:11–21:8. In their application to 20:7-10, the victory theme enables us to see the events depicted there as the Divine Warrior’s final victory over the serpentine dragon who by deception had made a final, failed attempt to destroy God’s kingdom-city. Turning to the visions of 20:11–21:8, the victory theme helps us see the resurrection in 20:12-15 as the Divine Warrior’s victory over His last enemy, death. The resurrection of the dead and the creation’s subequent renovation exhibit the traits of God’s rebuilding project that follows His final victory. This is made all the more interesting by the fact that the saints are portrayed as the holy city (cf. 3:12), while the new heavens and earth appear as the eternal dwelling place of God and man.

From these several examples in Revelation, it seems clear enough that John expects us to understand the significance of the church’s redemption through Christ’s work as both battle and building.

For polemical as well as pastoral purposes, the OT and NT authors depict God in combat with beasts (and other foes), followed by His construction of a holy dwelling place. The point is that these writers adapt ancient battle and building imagery to help us understand certain historical events. This fact should have our attention as we turn to Rev 20:1ff. This should be the case especially when we realize that 20:1-3 is preceded in 19:11-21 by victory over anti-redemption beasts and is followed in 20:4-6 by the establishment of a kingdom-city of saints. What’s more, 20:1-6 is then followed again in 20:7–21:8 by another sequence of victory (20:7-15) and the establishment of an eternal dwelling place for God and man (21:1–22:5).

In our next post, we plan to examine the Bible’s depiction of God’s combat and construction to see how the actions in those images are related to events in history.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7A How Rev 19:11-21 Relates to Rev 20:1ff.

Posted by R. Fowler White

Bible-believing theologians have long recognized that before they can agree on the theological significance of Rev 20:1–21:8, they will have to agree on an answer to the question, Is the relationship between Rev 19:11-21 and Rev 20:1ff. one of historical sequence or historical repetition? In other words, should we read 19:11–21:8 as if the order of the visions represents the actual progress of events in history? Or does 20:7-10 retell the events of 19:11-21, while 20:1-6 tells of events that preceded 19:11-21 and 20:7–21:8?

In another place, I have argued in great detail that Rev 20:1-10 records a series of visions whose contents are related to Christ’s first advent and the interadvent age in 20:1-6 and to His second advent in 20:7-10. I’ll summarize here the three lines of argument that I believe establish this interpretation as the one that is best overall.

1. If the order of the events presented in Rev 19:11-21 and Rev 20:1-3 is interpreted as the actual progress of historical events, it makes no sense to speak of protecting the nations from deception by Satan in 20:1–3 after they have just been destroyed by Christ at His return in 19:11-21 (cf. 16:15a, 19).

2. To encourage the church militant, Rev 20:7-10 retells the story of Christ’s second coming already told in Rev 19:11-21. We know this for four reasons. First, John underlines the historical repetition in 19:17–21 and 20:7–10 by describing both the Armageddon revolt (19:17-21; 16:17-21) and the Gog-Magog revolt (20:7-10) in terms from the same prophetic passage, Ezekiel 38–39. Second, the repeated references to the battle in 19:11-21 and 20:7-10 (not to mention 16:12-16) direct us to understand 19:11–21 and 20:7–10 as parallel accounts of Christ’s second coming. Third, God’s wrath against the Gog-Magog rebels in 20:7–10 and His wrath against Babylon and the Armageddon rebels in 19:11-21 (and 16:17-21) must both fall within the timeframe that Rev 15:1 establishes for the end of His wrath against the unbelieving world in history. Fourth, according to Heb 12:26-27, there is only one remaining instance of future cosmic destruction. Consequently, the scenes of cosmic destruction narrated in Rev 20:9-11; 19:11–21; 16:17–21; and 6:12-17 must all refer to that one event at Christ’s return. All of this tells us John recounts the story of Christ’s second coming in Rev 19:11-21 and 20:7-10.

3. Consistent with the function of angels ascending and descending in Rev 7:2; 10:1; and 18:1, the angel’s descent in 20:1 initiates a sequence of visions that has its ending (20:7–10) in the same setting as Christ’s return in 19:11–21 and its beginning (20:1–6) in a setting before that event.

While these arguments point to the correctness of associating both the Gog-Magog revolt in 20:7-10 and the Armageddon revolt in 19:11-21 with Christ’s second coming, they also perform another service: they constitute substantial evidence that 20:1–6 is a vision sequence, not chronicling events after the second coming, but recapitulating events before it. For more on Rev 20:1-6, stay tuned.