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In a Real Bind


Revelation 20:1-3
April 18, 2021
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

The sermon starts around 18:35 in the audio file.



Series: Just Conquer #54

Introduction

Of the reasons that I chose to preach through the book of Revelation, a fair summary would be that I thought it would be good for us. It’s not that I have end-times fever. There was a decent amount of eschatology talk among us before 2020, and it’s easy to see how numerous events, and some of the commentary on those events, have promoted heightened apocalyptic awareness. I thought Revelation would be good before all of that.

I thought it would be good because many Christians disagree about the end-times within orthodoxy, among denominations, and even within our relatively small flock. That is fine because it is good practice to lock arms with some with whom we may lock heads. The way we learn to get along is not by ignoring all the tricky or difficult or personal subjects. This mindset is out of step the society around us, which makes it unique and important, even if not easy.

Another reason it’s good practice is to read the book of Revelation itself. It is possible to have very strong convictions based on very little details like those “without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Timothy 1:7). Evolution is a great story, until you have to answer all the questions. COVID-19 has a higher survival rate than the COVID vaccine promises, and the prevalence of masks means that our culture has a high immunity from paying attention. My point is that it’s easy to get uptight about eschatology without wrestling with the inspired prophecy. Maybe we can’t answer every question, but we ought to try our best.

We also want to practice not being embarrassed. Revelation is revelation for our blessing and for our boldness. It is written that we might see the parody and envy of the false trinity, that we might recognize the tactics of deceit that are already at work today, let alone that will dominate in the Great Tribulation, and that we might love the Lamb and spend our lives for Him, even if it costs us our temporal comfort.

The book of Revelation corroborates from beginning to end that we have no need to be embarrassed about holding fast to Christ, to the Word of God, and to all that He has told us. His first coming scandalized the expectations of many, it won’t be surprising if the details about His second coming do likewise.

So I’m about to get us to look together at the Millennium. Of the 22 chapters in the Apocalypse, chapter 20 may provoke the most emotions (though the 666 and mark of the beast are particular attractions). There are camps based on the Millennium, and you should have an idea about them, not because this is a seminary class, but because we should all want the profit from this part of God’s inspired word, equipping us for every good work in our part of God’s story.

It’s okay that people have questions, and there will be more questions about the Millennium answered in the upcoming paragraphs. Also some of the difficulty comes from a failure of asking enough questions or being satisfied to easily with a “sense” or a system rather than what can be seen.

Let’s read verses 1-3, observe what is written, then see if we can interpret what sort of bind the dragon gets into and what the thousand years means.

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. (Revelation 20:1–3)

Verse one introduces the prophet’s vision, And I saw, that introduces us to the first main character, another angel. Though we are not told his name, the descriptions of where he came from, what he carries, followed by his conduct in verses 2-3, show him to be a supernatural individual. He’s not a human messenger, and nothing suggests that he represents a human or a collective group (especially of humans).

He is coming down from heaven. Scenes have shifted between earth and heaven in Revelation. We are getting another act on earth, even as the flesh on earth was eaten by the birds in the previous paragraph (19:17-21). The angel is holding two things: a key and a chain. The key opens and closes the “abyss” (NASB), the bottomless pit, from which demons came out in Revelation 9:1. The chain is used in the next verse.

The second character is re-introduced in verse 2, with all the names and descriptions used for him previously in the book: the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan. The dragon is his most frequent title in Revelation (Thomas), a devouring creature, having lost a war in heaven to Michael and been thrown down to earth (Revelation 12:7-8). The ancient serpent identifies him as the creature as far back as Genesis 3 in the Garden of Eden, also the one who has tried to sweep away the Messianic people (Revelation 12:15). The devil is the accuser (Revelation 12:10), and Satan is his name. Jesus was tempted by the devil; God’s people have been hunted by the devil (Revelation 12:15). The devil is “the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9), and he gives his delegated power to the beast in order to deceive the nations (Revelation 13:2). He is also a supernatural individual, connected to lies and sinful rebellion, not merely a figure of an evil force. He is the ultimate face of evil, and he does not easily give up.

There are five things the angel does to the devil: 1) seized, 2) bound, 3) threw, 4) shut, and 5) sealed.

A couple things come together here that need to be considered. Is this binding a symbol? If yes, a symbol of what?

If Satan is not a symbol, then why would his being bound be a symbol? The objection is that angels are spiritual beings, including Satan, so some interpreters say that clearly an actual chain wouldn’t be effective; chain must not refer to a chain. And likewise, pit can’t be a place that contains spiritual beings, and there would be no door to shut and a seal would be useless.

As for the binding, does the angel limit the dragon’s influence, or eliminate the dragon’s influence? Some interpreters think Satan is like a dog on a long chain, even if the chain is metaphorical.

But seized, bound, threw, shut, and sealed are too graphic and emphatic to apply to today or even to be satisfied as putting a damper on his deceiving. The location is different than earth, the locking keeps him away from the nations on earth; shut de door on the devil. “The text does not say that Satan will deceive the nations less than he did in the past—it says that he will deceive the nations no longer” (Waymeyer). This is a real bind, as in, the dragon seems to be in a real bind, and the descriptions put the interpreter who takes it all as symbols in a real bind.

Look at the purpose of the binding and im-pit-ting: so that he might not deceive the nations any longer.

Deceiving the nations has been part of Satan’s work through the beast and false prophet since he was thrown down from heaven (chapter 12:9). That deception has taken a variety of forms, and had varying levels of success. But those who read the binding as limiting, rather than eliminating, either think that we are currently enjoying this reality (most amillennialists) or that this will be a gradually recognized state on earth as the gospel spreads with success (postmillennialists). Here’s a postmillennial example:

“The devil was the spiritual being that gave the beast its great power. So when he was bound, this meant that he would not be able to prevent the successful evangelization of the Empire, which in fact he was unable to prevent.” (Douglas Wilson. When the Man Comes Around)

While there is no doubt that the world was changed in radical ways when Jesus took on flesh, and when He dies and rose from the grave, Easter was not the angel’s chaining of the dragon. The apostles continued to acknowledge Satan’s authority and work on earth post-Jesus’ resurrection (Satan is “the god of this world” 2 Corinthians 4:4; “the prince of the power of the air” Ephesians 2:2, “the evil one” with “flaming darts” Ephesians 6:16, and more). How can Satan be bound and in the pit now, and prowling about like a lion seeking prey (1 Peter 5:8)?

Is it simply that he can’t deceive “the nations”? Are we supposed to think that he can’t deceive governments but he can deceive persons? That would give us a new way of presenting the gospel and a new word: an angel-who is Jesus-chained up Satan so that Congress won’t believe lies, though, of course, you still might.

The end of verse 3 adds a limit to the binding: After that he must be released for a little while. To do what? If he’s merely restricted, we’re supposed to believe that released is merely a dramatic word for less restricted. We find out in verse 7-8 that he is released to deceive the nations again. The dragon’s time in the pit didn’t diminish his wrath. It’s more interesting to think about why this is necessary (that he must be released), but before that theological question, we’re supposed to think that the first coming of Jesus changed the devil’s deceptive global influence and also that this happened chronologically before all the problems of chapters 6-19 (since they all happened post-resurrection)?

The kings had just gathered to make war against the Rider. They had been deceived into it, so chapter 16:13-16. How did that happen, though, since chapter 20 says Satan couldn’t do that very thing?

Or, the alternative is that this binding by an angel Satan hasn’t happened yet. We are still anticipating it.

Which gets us to a phrase used six times in the chapter. It is a piece of eschatology that’s only found in Revelation 20, at least in these specific terms: the thousand years.

  • bound (the dragon) for a thousand years (verse 2)
  • until the thousand years were ended (verse 3)
  • reigned with Christ for a thousand years (verse 4)
  • until the thousand years were ended (verse 5)
  • reign with him for a thousand years (verse 6)
  • when the thousand years were ended (verse 7)

The Latin word for thousand is  mille (the VLG has per annos mille). The Greek word is χίλια (chilia), which gave rise to the pejorative term Chialists. The meaning of the 1,000 years is where Premillennial, Postmillennial, and Amillennial (or “inaugurated millennialism” Beale) come from. There are sub categories and nuances within each, but broadly, a Premillennialist believes that Christ returns in the final parts described in chapter 19 and reigns for a thousand years on earth. A Postmillennialist thinks that the return and reign of Christ happens after the millennium, which probably just means a long time. An amillennialist understands the time between the first coming and the second coming as the millennium, no matter how many calendar years it ends up being. Here is an amillennialist explanation:

“the descending angel in 20:1 introduces a vision in vv 1–6 going back before the time of the final judgment in history, which was just narrated in 19:11–21. The time span of the vision will be seen to extend from Christ’s resurrection until his final parousia.” (Beale)

Christ restrained Satan at His resurrection and is reigning now in heaven in the spiritual realm and the saints with Him, and to a lesser extent through Christians in the church on earth. The binding of Satan is a reduction on his work, but not a removal of his presence, because evil increases alongside the spread of the gospel.

Usually Post- and A- have a symbolic reading of 1,000 and the Pre- usually understand it as measurable by the almanac. If it is symbolic, the thousand years could actually mean thousands of years (as Beale), or it could mean a few days (Kuyper, see his quote below).

We will need to deal with the millennial implications of resurrection and reigning as well as location of that reign in the next paragraph (verses 4-6). But for now, consider, is every number in Revelation literally useless, as in, no use for the cardinal number?

Many (beloved) interpreters point to Psalm 90:4 (and 2 Peter 3:8) to show that a thousand years is figurative.

For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
(Psalm 90:4)

But that observation about God’s eternal nature is impressive because the 1,000 years is a knowable, countable time. It takes over 14 lifetimes to get that far (unless you lived before the flood like Methuselah). To God’s existence it is a drop in the bucket.

That is not the same thing as saying that God doesn’t count. Numeric prophecies about sojourning in Egypt, exile in Babylon, were true in years. Specific details about the first coming of Jesus were demonstrable (even if confusing to the first ones who heard), why not His next coming? What is absurd about an actual millennial binding of Satan and ruling of Jesus?


Before I finish for today, I thought I would take opportunity to point out that two of the men who God has used most to help me understand the world are decidedly opposed to what I’ve said already about what will happen in the world. I’ve already given one alternative provided by Doug Wilson, here’s another:

“I take the one thousand years of Satan’s binding to be a symbolic representation of the Church age, from the time of Pentecost to the Second Coming. The one thousand years represents the fullness and completeness of Christ’s reign, not a literal one thousand times around the sun.” (Douglas Wilson)

Abraham Kuyper has nothing good to say about Chialists, even though he is a futurist amillennialist, as in, he thinks most of Revelation is yet to happen, just not like it says. In his commentary on Revelation Kuyper writes that Chialists offer an “untenable representation,” that is, an impossible to hold or defend position. He claims the only way to interpret 1,000 as ten centuries is to “set aside” the context or treat the rest of Revelation “as though it had not been written.” There is “literally nothing (that) would have happened and nothing would have been accomplished to justify this uncommonly long delay.” It makes it a “futile interval,” and “ten centuries of long, if uninteresting history.” Kuyper was not merely an amillennialist, he was a committed anti-Chialist.

“We can not reckon here with years, yet, if for one moment we might indulge in a play of imagination, we might readily picture to ourselves that the binding and incarceration of Satan were to last but a few days….Thousand then merely means that there is no more reckoning with human data.” (Kuyper)

This is all good, though, because we can talk about it to recognize different positions, including those that are very critical of our own. We can talk about it and recognize that we don’t have to agree with someone on everything to be blessed by them. We can talk about it because Satan is our enemy and accuser and deceiver, not brothers in Christ who love Christ and the glory of Christ and the Lordship of Christ who claims sovereignty over every thumb’s width in the domain of human existence.

Conclusion

At the start of Revelation 20 we see Who: an angel and the dragon. What: binding and sealing in the abyss. Where: from earth to the pit. When: a thousand years. Why: no deceit among the nations.

Is Satan bound now? If he is, then we could be in the millennium, and both Post-mills and A-mills typically understand it that way. I believe that puts them in a real bind, because if it’s all symbol, then (among other problems) it’s hard to say why Christ and resurrection aren’t also a symbols.

Again, there is more about the Millennial Kingdom in verses 4-6, and we’ll keep trying to answer what a thousand years looks like in Jesus’ sight.


Charge

If the devil works to deceive, our response needs not just to be to find the truth, it needs to be to believe. “In all circumstances take up the shield of faith” (Ephesians 6:16). Resist deception not primarily with cynicism, or skepticism, but with faith in the greater Lion (Revelation 5:5). Trust Him, trust His Word, and He will establish you.

Benediction:

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:8–11, ESV)