14. “Who” More Than “How”

(Revelation 20)

And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. 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.

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 worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who share 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.

When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done.

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

The crowd roars. Three athletes stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Their faces wear descending smile sizes as three medals are awarded: gold, silver, and bronze. Everyone wants that dazzling yellow, but they have all achieved all-time, world-class greatness. There are few human beings who ever even stand in that company.

So too with Revelation 20. Few passages of scripture achieve the level of controversy achieved by this chapter. With these 396 Greek words, speculations abound, theories multiply, saints disagree, scholars speculate, and (tragically) churches divide. Revelation 20 might not take home the gold for controversy, but it certainly stands on the platform.

It makes sense that this climactic chapter of Revelation would be controversial. It’s the gateway from horror to happily-ever-after in only 15 verses.

The bulk of Revelation (ch6-19) has taken us through hard stuff. We’ve seen seals, and trumpets, and bowls; giant hailstones, demonic locusts, monstrous governments; pictures of worldwide plagues and horrors and judgment. And by the end of Revelation (ch21-22), we’re ushered into find the happiest ending imaginable: a world remade by love. A universe where death has died, and life flourishes forever.

The bulk of Revelation (ch6-19) feels like suffering and struggle
and the end of Revelation (ch21-22) shows the happiest of endings
and this chapter (ch20) carries us from one into the other.

In one chapter we find…
Satan sealed in
“the Abyss” (20v1-3),
millennium reign of Jesus (20v4-6),
Satan released and his armies consumed by fire (20v7-10),
and judgment at
a great white throne (20v11-15).

Then the chapter ends with…
something called “the second death” for the devil (20v10),
and even “Death and Hades” themselves (20v14),
as well as anyone not in “the Book of Life” (20v15).

Heaven transforms the world in a mere 15 verses.
(That is one hard-working chapter!)

This is a chapter that literally no one can agree about. If you read one good scholar on this chapter, you’ll hear a dozen opinions. It almost invites sensational speculation because it’s (almost certainly) about the future. With the arrival of Jesus as the Groom of grooms in Revelation 19, we we’re glimpsing what’s coming. It’s natural that the mysterious doorway opening to the gardens of New Jerusalem is crowded with people trying to “figure it out.”

At this point, Revelation is a sign in the fog pointing us into the future. It’s pointing a particular direction: We are headed THIS way: Jesus returning, evil destroyed, reality remade. It’s like an old-fashioned road signs, the wooden kind standing at a crossroads pointing you in a general direction. Places like the zoo or Disneyland are the only places we still see them.

Disneyland directional signs are
simultaneously specific and general.

They point us in a specific direction,
orienting us on the right way to go.

(“We need to head THAT way, on the other side of Space Mountain.”)

But we’re not given turn-by-turn GPS instructions;
they only point us in a general direction.

(“We still have to navigate our way around Space Mountain.”)

The destination is clear,
but the path still holds twists, turns, and surprises.

Most of the controversy surrounding this chapter comes when demand GPS directions from John’s general direction. We try to turn John’s sign into Siri, a guide who can answer all our questions. And when we do that, we forget his entire letter is written in symbolism, image, and metaphor. John has never been giving us anything like a play-by-play of the present or the future.

Revelation has never been an almanac about the future’s weather; it’s always been an apocalypse about God’s character. Revelation has consistently focused our attention on “the Who” more than “the How.” So when our questions orbit “who God is” instead of “how will the future play out,” our answers find reliability, stability, and sanity.

“Who is God?”

Revelation answers that God is self-giving love revealed in Jesus, the center of all reality (5v6), the very foundation of the universe (13v8), the Lamb slaughtered but standing.

Revelation declares that God is the One who hears (8v4), who doesn’t forget his promises to his people or his creation, who hears every cry of injustice (6v10), and who will unleash Egypt-overthrowing power to free those he loves.

God is the Child who chooses us as siblings (12v5), the Crucified Conquerer (5v9) leading an army in the way of the cross (12v11), the Saving Judge (11v18), the Lover of the Cosmos (19v7). God is the One who—despite all we cannot see and the despair we feel (5v4)—will save the world.

We hear this and find uncountable questions bubbling up within us:

How will God do this?
How will the future unfold?”
How does it all play out?”

But I’m increasingly convinced that John’s vision was never meant to tell us much in the way of “how.” And it would be quite surprising if suddenly at this point in Revelation—for only one chapter1—John suddenly abandoned symbolism, image, and metaphor for the sake of trying to give literal descriptions. Revelation gives us reality through sacred art.

For example, John describes a millennial reign of Jesus (20v4-6). This 1,000 year period is one of the most divisive and controversial parts of the chapter. No agrees what it means.2 From where I sit, however, it seems unlikely that John has abandoned his consistent symbolism to suddenly describe a literal thousand years.

“One thousand” seems like a good candidate for symbolism. Other biblical authors recognize this. Like when 2 Peter says that “a day with God is like a thousand years,”3 most of us understand that we’re not invited into a math problem. We’re being told something in metaphor.

When the psalmist sings about God owning the cattle on a thousand hills, most us know that God isn’t wanting us to count the earth’s ridges. The psalmist is making a bigger point about God and would be heartbroken if you got preoccupied about the number.

We recognize 1,000 as an easy symbolic number in other parts of Scripture that aren’t soaked in symbolism, but for some reason the church argues and divides about it here. That’s got to the Enemy at work.

It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic:

Churches, communities, denominations obsess over verses 4-7. Then they argue about them. Eventually they divide over them. Entire theological systems get built around these verses—on the millennium reign of Jesus. But this is literally the only place in the Bible where a 1,000 year reign of Jesus ever gets mentioned. Think about that… it’s the only place.4

This is the same letter where the Holy Spirit is described as “seven spirits” (1v4). It’s the same book where demon locusts emerge from an evil black hole in the ocean, what the ancients called “the Abyss” (9v2-3). We’ve seen a hooker rides a scarlet beast in the desert (17v3) and Dragon soars through the sky… and we’ve been explicitly told “this is symbolic” (12v3). If that was symbolism—artistic ways of representing inexpressible realities—why would we suddenly think that “the Dragon” sealed in “the Abyss” for “a thousand years” is a literal description? Here we have real realities but not literal descriptions.

Symbolism helps us make sense of two villains hurled into a lake of fire at the end of this chapter (20v14). Since the breaking of the seals, Death has been a lurking supervillain who can ride a horse (6v8) and hold people captive (20v13). He has a side-kick called Hades who tags along with him. Literally they make zero sense. Death cannot be grabbed by the scruff of the neck. The mythological underworld of the Greeks, Hades, cannot be handcuffed and hogtied. These are not people you can literally toss into a lake of fire. Revelation is giving us graspable pictures of ungraspable realities.

Revelation 20 gives us a sign pointing us into the future;
it’s not giving us turn-by-turn GPS directions.

Like the rest of Revelation, questions about “who God is” give us clearer answers than “how will it play out?” We should read this chapter always asking the primary question: “Who is God? What is God like?” Then we we get a far clearer picture than asking, “How—in literal details—will the future unfold?”

“Who is God?”

God is the One who can seal away Evil and the Enemy anytime with no battle at all (20v1-3). He’s the all-powerful ground of all reality. The battle between God and Satan—between Goodness and Evil, between Death and Life—is not a fair fight. It’s actually no fight at all.

God is Life itself and loves giving himself away (20v4-6). Those desperate for him will not be disappointed. He gives people people a taste of resurrection—and even begins to rule and reign through them—before the end of history.5

God is All-Powerful Goodness (20v7-10). He is the One powerful enough to unmake the forces of evil in an instant. And he is good enough that it will happen.

And God is patient (20v7). He’s patient enough to give second chances… even to the worst of us. In a strange plot-twist, John describes Satan being released6… and that snake immediately starts doing what he always does: working to destroy life.

And so, in a pair of images borrowed from the prophet Ezekiel7 and the story of Elijah8, John describes God’s love vaporizing everything that wants nothing to do with Life—everything hellbent on destroying the world (cf. 11v18). God speaks a blistering “No” to chaos, death, and wickedness precisely because God is absolutely committed to saying “Yes” to creation, life, and human flourishing.9

God is the One who will sort the world (20v11-15). He will sort out the messes, right the wrongs, solve injustice, end rebellion, eradicate evil. God is the just and merciful Judge that the world desperately needs… symbolized here with “a great white throne.10 There the books are opened11 (20v12) and the hidden made manifest. No crime hidden, no act of love wasted, no suffering forgotten.

But in the end, there’s only book that matters.
Another book… the Book of Life (20v12).

It’s mysterious to be sure,12 but “the book of life” seems to be John’s symbolic short-hand for whether or not we allow God’s love to embrace us. The heart of Christianity insists that that God graciously claims us… and we’re invited to trust that. His choice for us, and our trusting him, is all that matters in the end.

God is the One who claims you… in his “book.” That’s the good news gives us rest: We’re invited to trust that God has already included us in his book… before we do—or ask or pray—anything. And God’s Spirit is already always willing to write the words of Life on our souls.13

Only those wanting nothing to do with Life—those as willful, stubborn, and unrepentant as the Dragon himself14—are handed over to the Second Death.15 Reality really is this binary. If we don’t want God, Life Himself, we’ll get what we want.

When we focus on “the Who”
we regain the clarity we lost
focusing on “the How.”

If there’s one thing about the future revealed to us with certainty, it’s that Jesus loves us deeply and passionately enough to save us by fire:

(20v9) [The nations] marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them.

The forces of evil may march across the horizon and surround God’s people. But God saves his people. Or his “city” (11v2). His “tabernacle” (11v1). His pair of witnesses (11v3f). His dazzling Lady (12v1). It’s almost like the entire chapter is unpacked in that one verse. Jesus loves deeply enough to save this world by fire.16

Fire is how the world goes from horror to happily-ever-after. The fire of Revelation 20 ushers us into the gardens of New Jerusalem. Jesus saves his people, creates a new world, establishes his new city, by rescuing with the fire of his presence.

John’s letter invites us to live as citizens of Jesus’s new world right now. We’re invited to lives as citizens that new city right now, in the middle of history. Perhaps that’s what John is suggesting when he mentions those who are beheaded “coming alive” and “reigning with Christ” (20v4).

Did you notice that? It’s really interesting. It’s only those who are beheaded who “come to life” and participate in God’s kingdom before the Final Judgment. Rome didn’t behead just anyone. Everyone knew that. It was a relatively clean—a relatively painless, relatively humane—death. Not exactly the best way to invoke terror or establish fear. If want to achieve that, you’ve got to crucify people. Rome only beheaded its own citizens. The only people beheaded were those absolutely committed to citizenship in Jesus’s kingdom over and above citizenship in Rome’s kingdom.17

John is summoning us with symbolism into a different kingdom.

John is challenging his churches to choose the life that will last, calling them to live as citizens of the city that will last: “Live as citizens of God’s new world. Live that way right now. Resist Babylon. Even when it’s costly, even when it’s painful. That’s how you join the reign of our Crucified King.” And that’s near the heart of Revelation: know God-revealed-in-Jesus and participate in his Life right now.18

Whenever we follow the Lamb (14v4)
in the way of self-giving love (12v11),
we’re resisting Babylon.

When we respond in love to that comment (that idiotic, offensive, unloving comment!) and refuse to return evil for evil, we’re participating in the kingdom that will last. When we give to that person (who has blown every chance and certainly doesn’t deserve it) and ask for nothing in return, we’re joining in the reign of Jesus. When we strive to unite people, when we work to bring healing, peace, justice, when we forgive sins, speak honestly, and lay down our lives for each other… we’re living as citizens of the world that will last.

Whenever and wherever we follow Jesus by choosing love, faith, hope, peace, even when it hurts like crucifixion, even when it means “the Powers that be” want our head—we’re actually coming alive. Like resurrection before resurrection day.

Consuming Fire, teach us to approach Scripture with reverence and humility. Help us to cling to You (“the Who”) and hold “the How” with open hands. May Jesus, the Judge judged in our place, write his life into our souls so we can face the Day of Love with confidence. May your Spirit grant us a “first resurrection,” building your kingdom, that lasting city, in and through our lives today.

  1. The new creation of Revelation 21-22 is described in striking and obvious symbolism (see chapter 15).
  2.  The modern church often divides herself up with foggy speculations called “premillennialism” (Jesus will return before establishing his millennial reign), “postmillennialism” (Jesus is establishing a progressive reign of peace through the church before his return), and amillennialism (varying views that the millennium functions symbolically), A church or Christian finds themselves in good company—saintly and scholarly—no matter their position (Irenaeus held to a premillennial view very early in church history, Jonathan Edwards advocated a postmillennial view, Origen and Augustine taught various amillennial views).
  3. 2 Pet 3.8
  4. While we’re at it, verses 4-6 are also the only place where the resurrection of dead is pictured as happening in two staggered stages.
  5. “But, before can this [the final defeat of evil] happen, the reign of Jesus, with and through his millennial people, must be established by the first resurrection. John itemizes these people not just as martyrs (as opposed to other Christians) but specifically as those who had been beheaded for their witness. We should, I presume, take that symbolically. It may hint at something to do with their true citizenship in Jesus’ kingdom; it was Roman citizens who were beheaded, a greatly preferable death to many of others the Romans devised, not least crucifixion itself. It seems, in any case, contrary to John’s normal line to suggest a radical difference between one set of martyrs and another” (Wright, Revelation for Everyone, 179).
  6. It’s a mysterious, seemingly messy story-telling here. The story would felt tidier if it had gone from 19.20-21 straight to 20.10f. Perhaps John recognizes that false beast (for him, Rome) and false prophet (for him, local imperial cults) could fall (like the city of Rome did in 410CE) and history experience relative peace and prosperity under the already ruling Jesus (Matt 28.18, 1 Cor 15.25-28) before the great and final crisis of history.
  7. Ezekiel had spoken prophetically against a foreign king named Gog form the land of Magog (38.2f). John seems to adopts these exotic, barbaric-sounding names in verse 8 (as others before him had) as archetypal enemies of God. So Eugene Boring: “By John’s time, Jewish tradition had long since transformed ‘Gog of Magog’ into ‘Gog and Magog’ and made them into the ultimate enemies of God’s people to be destroyed in the eschatological battle” (209).
  8. See 2 Kings 1.10-14 where Elijah calls down fire from heaven (twice!) to destroy a couple of military squadrons.
  9. Mangina: “If the millennium is the visible sign of God’s ‘yes’ to his creation, then the lake of fire symbolizes the divine ‘no,’ his rejection of all that would threaten it” (232).
  10. In an effort to avoid contradicting Paul’s (quite correct) insistence that we’re adopted into God’s family by God’s action and mercy (we’re “justified” by grace alone) many teach that all who stands before the Great White Throne will be consigned to the lake of fire… that literally no one will be found in the Book of Life. The interpretation holds that “the judgment seat” (Rom 14.10, 2 Cor 5.10) is for Christians while this “great white throne” is for non-Christians. This interpretation seems strained as “the dead” (v12) seems to be an exhaustive group (“great and small”) to the point where everyone—even those in Hades and in the Sea (two different realms in ancient thinking)—surrender their dead. It would seem John truly means to indicate ALL the dead. And “the book of life” is the symbolic clue that John agrees with Paul.
  11. This entire scene (like much in Revelation) owes much to Daniel 7. The scene there, in 7.9-10, depicts the Ancient of Days (an appropriately mysterious name for God) bringing order to a world dominated by chaotic monster-nations (7.1-8). It’s significant in John’s vision that although some kind of judgement occurs according to people’s deeds (20.12… “the books were opened” as in Daniel 7.10), the ultimate judgment and destiny hinges on something entirely different than human deeds… the book of life (20.15).
  12. The symbol of “the book of life” seems to have developed slowly (over centuries), with seeds perhaps found in Isaiah (4.3), Malachi (3.16), the Psalms (69.28) and Daniel (12.1). By the time of John’s writing, it had become an easy short-hand for those whose sharing in True Life now and in the future (Phil 4.3). Consistent theology of God being the effective agent (2 Cor 5.14,19) of salvation by his grace alone (Eph 2.8-9)—and textual evidence within John’s letter itself (Rev 3.5)—indicates that the book of life is not something we choose to opt into (through a sinner’s prayer, etc) but something we choose to opt out of. God already always includes us… and “hell” is our willful, conscious, torturous rejection of his embrace.
  13. Cf. 2 Cor 3.3.
  14. Perhaps John’s seemingly messy story-telling about releasing Satan from the Abyss also shows something of the patience and mercy of God—God never defaults to the (second) death penalty. The Enemy is effortlessly locked up, incarcerated, for a symbolically long time, and his cosmic “time out” does nothing to change him. After his release, he immediately deceives the nations again (v8). Perhaps the text is nodding to the possibility that personalities (such as the Enemy) can become so corrupt that they are incapable of repentance (and thus redemption). But this eternal abuse of our agency is the only reason for (self-)exclusion from the universal embrace (Eph 1.10, Col 1.15-20, 1 Tim 4.10, 1 Jn 2.2) of God.
  15. We would do well to remember that the textual function and momentum of 19.19, 20.10, 14-15 is encouragement and hope addressed to a tired, persecuted church… not a threat addressed toward those outside the church. When read in light of chapters 2-3, the list of 21.8 looks like a sobering charge for church itself not slide away from Jesus into a “second death” (cf. 2.14-16, 20, 3.9, etc.) but to courageously persevere and “be victorious” (2.7, 11, 17, 26; 3.5, 12, 21). The fact of Revelation being addressed to the Church is explicitly reinforced at the end of the book in 22.10-11.
  16. It’s always worth remembering that fire has more to do with the purifying presence of God (Ex 3.2, 19.18; Deut 4.24; Dan 7.10a; Lk 3.16; Acts 2.3-4, Heb 12.29) than the presence of evil.
  17. John’s churches probably never read Paul’s letter to the Philippians, but they’re hearing the same message right here. It would seem that the straightforward prose of Philippians 3.20 is driven home in Revelation 20.4 with image and symbol.
  18. Revelation 1.3 (ESV): “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” The invitation to participation runs throughout the book and is repeated at its end (22.17).
Categories: Revelation