How this scene is to be understood is hotly disputed. In particular, there is disagreement on how to understand the thousand year reign of Christ, known as the millennium.
- Premillennialism holds that Christ will return to earth, destroy the forces of evil, and reign on earth for a thousand years. This period will end with the rebellion and destruction of Satan and his accomplices. This will be followed by the final judgment and then the beginning of the future age.
- Amillennialism holds that the thousand year reign of Christ symbolizes the current church age between the first advent and second advent of Christ.
- Postmillennialism holds that the millennium will be a period of triumph for the gospel and peace prior to the second coming of Christ. Christ’s return will be the end of the millennium.
Below, I will primarily follow G. K. Beale and the amillennialist position. But keep in mind that this is the only passage in the Bible that directly speaks of the millennium. While we can debate different positions on the millennium we should not lose sight of the bigger picture: God is is sovereign and the saints will be vindicated.
Notes (NET Translation)
1 Then I saw an angel descending from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the abyss and a huge chain.
The word “then” (kai) indicates that this vision follows the vision from ch. 19 from John’s perspective (cf. 7:2; 10:1; 18:1), not that the events of ch. 20 will follow the events of ch. 19. As in 9:1, an angel descends towards the abyss. Whereas in ch. 9 a plague of demonic locusts was unleashed, here the angel is going to bind Satan with a huge chain.
2 He seized the dragon – the ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan – and tied him up for a thousand years.
The identification of the dragon is unambiguous (cf. Gen. 3:1; Rev. 12:7-9, 12, 15). The repetition of the phrase “thousand years” shows that it is important. But, as with most numbers in the book, we should not insist it is to be taken literally (cf. Ps. 50:10; 90:4; 2 Pet. 3:8). The millennium, as it is called, is a lengthy period of indeterminate duration. The number 1,000 is the cube of the number 10 and is therefore a number signifying completion.
3 The angel then threw him into the abyss and locked and sealed it so that he could not deceive the nations until the one thousand years were finished. (After these things he must be released for a brief period of time.)
The purpose of Satan’s imprisonment is so that he cannot deceive the nations (cf. 12:9) to wage war against the saints (20:7-10). This means that this verse does not touch on all of Satan’s activities. The fact that Satan is still deceiving in the present age (cf. Luke 22:3; John 12:31; Acts 5:3; 2 Cor. 4:3-4; 11:14; Eph. 2:2; 6:12; 1 Thess. 2:18; 1 Tim. 3:7; 2 Tim. 2:26; 1 Pet. 5:8) does not require seeing the millennium as a future event. The image of sealing connotes Christ’s authority over Satan and the spiritual protection of the saints (cf. 7:1-8; 9:4).
4 Then I saw thrones and seated on them were those who had been given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. These had not worshiped the beast or his image and had refused to receive his mark on their forehead or hand. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.
The Greek behind v. 4 is difficult to translate and interpret. For brevity, I shall refer to those who reign with Christ for a thousand years as the faithful witnesses. Their exact identity is a matter of dispute to be discussed below.
Who sits on the thrones? Up to this point, the only positive characters who have been seated on thrones have been the twenty-four elders (4:4; 11:16). But, if the twenty-four elders are intended here, we may wonder why they are not named as they are in the earlier passages. My preferred interpretation, not evident in the NET translation, is that the souls of the faithful witnesses are the ones seated on the thrones. This takes the Greek word kai epexegetically: “Then I saw thrones and seated on them were those who had been given authority to judge, that is, I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded. . . .” This would see v. 4 as the fulfillment of the earlier promise that the saints would sit on thrones to rule the nations (2:26-27; 3:21).
What is meant by the phrase “had been given authority to judge”? One option is that the faithful witnesses will in some way judge alongside Christ. Perhaps they will agree with and praise Christ’s judicial decisions. Another option, noting the similarity to Dan. 7:22, suggests that a better translation might be: “judgment was given in their favor.” This would mean that the souls of the faithful witnesses are being vindicated before the heavenly court (cf. 6:10). The two options are not mutually exclusive.
Who are the faithful witnesses? Does this group contain just martyrs or anyone who refuses to worship the beast? While not all martyrs were (or are) literally beheaded, the Greek term (pepelekismenon) could be a summary term for martyrdom. Hence, at least martyrs will reign with Christ for a thousand years. Based on the grammar of v. 4, commentators seem divided over whether those who had not worshiped the beast is a further description of the martyrs or whether it refers to a broader body of believers. In my opinion, the subsequent verses equate the faithful witnesses with all believers and therefore we should see those who do not worship the beast in v. 4 as all the saints.
The fact that this scene is in heaven and contains parallels with the heavenly scene of 6:9-11 suggests that disembodied souls are in view. While the phrase “came to life” can speak of bodily resurrection, the context here implies it is speaking of the intermediate state between physical death and physical resurrection (cf. Luke 20:37-38; 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:21, 23; 1 Pet. 4:6; Rev. 6:9-11; 7:14-17). The millennium corresponds to the intermediate state of believers during the present church age.
5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were finished.) This is the first resurrection.
The rest of the dead are the unbelievers who will face the second death (20:6). They are mentioned to highlight the fact that they do not participate in the first resurrection, the reigning with Christ of the saints in the intermediate state.
6 Blessed and holy is the one who takes part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.
Believers are blessed in three ways: the second death has no power over them (2:10-11; 20:14-15; 21:7-8), they will be priests of God and Christ (1:6; 5:9-10; 7:15 22:3), and they will reign with Christ for a thousand years (20:4). These blessings are elsewhere applied to believers as a whole, which confirms our interpretation of 20:4 as speaking of the saints in general.
7 Now when the thousand years are finished, Satan will be released from his prison 8 and will go out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to bring them together for the battle. They are as numerous as the grains of sand in the sea.
The events of vv. 7-10 occur at the end of the church age (the millennium) but before Christ’s second coming and the resurrection of the dead. The reference to the “four corners of the earth” indicates the global scale of Satan’s deception (cf. 12:9; 13:14; 19:20; 20:3). The reference to Gog and Magog, symbolic figures representing the final enemies of God, alludes to Ezekiel 38-39. The gathering for battle against the saints echoes the battles of 16:14-16 and 19:17-21. This passage provides yet another description of the final battle.
9 They went up on the broad plain of the earth and encircled the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and devoured them completely.
The encircling of the camp/city reflects ancient siege warfare. The terms “camp” and “city” refer to the body of believers. As in 19:17-21 no battle is described. The fire may be figurative for divine judgment.
10 And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet are too, and they will be tormented there day and night forever and ever.
The beast and the false prophet were cast into the lake of fire in 19:20. Amillennialism holds that Satan is cast into the lake of fire at the same time as the beast and false prophet. This makes more sense to me than premillennialism which holds that Satan is cast into the lake of fire a thousand years after the beast and false prophet, cohorts of Satan, are cast into the lake of fire. Since Satan is a spiritual being we should be alert to the fact that the lake of fire is not a literal, physical fire. The exact nature of the torments are not spelled out.
11 Then I saw a large white throne and the one who was seated on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them.
Commentators, regardless of their view on the millennium, hold that the events of vv. 11-15 will occur at the end of this age. The throne is large in immensity and majesty. The color white symbolizes purity, holiness, and vindication. The one seated on the throne is likely the Father (Rev. 4:2, 9; 5:1, 7, 13; 6:16; 7:10, 15; 19:4; 21:5; cf. Dan. 7:9) and possibly also Christ (Rev. 5:6; 22:1-3; cf. Matt. 25:31ff.; John 5:22; Acts 17:31; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Tim. 4:1). Heaven and earth flee from God’s presence in preparation for the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21:1; cf. Isa. 51:6; 2 Pet. 3:7, 10; Rev. 6:14; 16:20).
12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne. Then books were opened, and another book was opened – the book of life. So the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to their deeds.
All the dead, both the saints and the reprobate, stand before the throne of God for judgment (cf. Dan. 7:10; 12:2; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15). The books are an indication that God knows the deeds of everyone. The book of life contains the names of those who will enter the New Jerusalem (21:27; cf. Dan. 12:1-2) and not be thrown into the lake of fire (20:15).
13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each one was judged according to his deeds.
This verse reiterates the point of v. 12: that all the dead are judged according to their deeds.
14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death – the lake of fire.
Paul says that death is the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26, 54-55). In the new heavens and new earth there will be no death (21:4). The second death is the torment in the lake of fire.
15 If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that person was thrown into the lake of fire.
The question about this material that is often raised by later readers has to do with to what degree is one to take any of this literally—to which question there is no easy answer. The eschatological point is both its certainty and thus the divine justice that is here in evidence; and these are the two realities that those who believe in the inspired nature and divine certainty of Scripture should be happy to cling to. (Fee 288)
Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.
Boxall, Ian. Revelation of Saint John, The. Black’s New Testament Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009.
Fee, Gordon D. Revelation. Kindle ed. New Covenant Commentary Series. Cascade Books, 2010.
Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Revised. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.
Osborne, G. R. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.