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.