This sermon on Revelation 20:1-6 provides a natural opportunity to briefly mention some useful resources produced within the WELS regarding the proper interpretation of this book. The late Dr. Siegbert Becker’s eight-part series of lectures on Revelation can be heard on the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary website. Dr. Becker’s professional commentary may be purchased through Northwestern Publishing House (NPH), as well as Pastor Wayne Mueller’s commentary from the People’s Bible series. Individual and group Bible studies in digital format on Revelation are also available through NPH.
SPIRITUAL CERTAINTY AMIDST GLOBAL UNCERTAINTY
Satan’s certain defeat
Christians’ certain reign
Text: Revelation 20:1-6
To say that the news headlines last week were not good might qualify as the understatement of the year. California unemployment is over eleven percent—the worst rate since 1941. North Korea appears to be ready to test a long-range nuclear missile, a missile whose range could reach the western United States. There is great unrest in Iran as citizens protest an election whose results many believe were rigged. Throw in your own set of personal problems and trials, and weeks like the one just completed are weeks we would rather not repeat. Sometimes life’s uncertainties are a little too turbulent for our tastes.
Life is filled with uncertainty. That was as true in the early church as it is today. Perhaps it was even more the case in the early church. Persecution for the first generations of Christians didn’t come in the form of name-calling like “intolerant” and “unenlightened.” Persecution came in the form of beheading. Persecution meant that you had to flee for your life and possibly face a martyr’s death. But the message that the apostle John—a man who faced persecution in the form of a forced exile—had to say in our Second Lesson was intended to bring comfort to troubled Christians in the early church. And John’s message from the final book of the Bible also brings us comfort amidst the turmoil and instability of our world. This is the message that John’s Revelation preaches to us: In Christ, we have spiritual certainty amidst global uncertainty.
The book of Revelation is easily misunderstood. If we’re going to draw the proper message out of these words, it is important that we get our details straight. And the first details we should clarify are the major “players” in John’s words. “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.”
We are introduced to the first two players: an angel and a dragon. When we hear the word “angel,” we often think of those special spiritual beings created by God to watch over his people. But the term “angel” simply means messenger. At one point in Revelation, the word angel seems to refer to pastors. In this case, the “angel coming down out of heaven” is Jesus himself. He was the messenger sent by God the Father to come into this world and do battle with Satan, and that battle is depicted in this section.
We’re in the third-last chapter of the Bible, and this chapter is explained in part by the third chapter of the Bible, Genesis 3, where today’s First Lesson is found. In Genesis 3, immediately after our first parents traded God’s perfect love for the serpent’s outright lies, God promised a Savior. This Savior would be a future descendant of Adam and Eve, and he would destroy the serpent’s power. And if there was any doubt who the serpent was, Revelation 20 answers the question. “He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan.” The angel comes down with the key to hell and a great chain, and he seizes Satan—the fallen angel who leads all the angels who rebelled against God and got the divine “boot” from heaven.
We’ve established the major players. Now let’s look at the scene that plays out in John’s vision. “[The angel] seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, … 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.”
Remember that John uses symbolic language throughout Revelation. Numbers are a part of that symbolism. The number ten and its multiples express completeness. So the 1,000 years John mentions represent the complete time that Satan is bound. And during that time, he is “[kept] … from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended.” The Greek word for “nations” often referred to the Gentiles in the New Testament—the non-Jewish peoples who for the most part did not know about or believe in the Messiah. Throughout Old Testament history, the church was primarily confined to the Jewish people; very few Gentiles came to believe in the God of Israel.
Jesus’ arrival into this world and his resurrection victory over brought in a new era. During this symbolic 1,000 year time—whatever the complete time span of the New Testament era will be—the devil will be chained up and unable to deceive the Gentiles to the degree he once did because the Word of God will be preached and heard throughout the nations of the world. Only at the end of the New Testament era will there be a short time when Satan is loosed and his ability to stifle the gospel message grows significantly. Though there is uncertainty in the world around us, this spiritual certainty is sure: Satan’s defeat, even before the final judgment, is certain.
But we forget that so easily. We forget that truth just as quickly as Adam and Eve forgot God’s command in our First Lesson. “Did God really say?” was all it took for them to forget God’s good command and gracious gifts. And though Satan is chained up, he still lunges at us as far as that chain will allow and whispers the same kind of deceit into our minds:
- Did God really say that Christ rules over all things for the benefit of the church (Ephesians 1:19-23)? But one look at the front page of the daily paper and it certainly doesn’t look like Christ is in charge or the devil’s defeat is certain.
- Did God really say that he will make sure your daily needs are always provided (Matthew 6:25-30)? But if unemployment is as bad as it’s been in this state since World War II, it certainly doesn’t look like God’s providence is a sure thing.
- Did God really say that seedtime, harvest, days, and seasons will continue to exist as we know them (Genesis 8:22)? Every day I hear that global warming is destroying the planet. It looks like Satan is getting his way with our world more than God is.
Pick your issue. Pick your fear. It comes out the same. These are all variations of the same problem, the failure to trust that Christ has indeed defeated Satan and sin. And these are all manifestations of our sinful nature’s repetition of the sin of our first parents, who did not take God’s words and promises to heart. And these manifestations of our sinful nature deserve the same death and condemnation that the sin of our first parents merited.
Yet, in spite of it all, our sin does not and cannot negate Christ’s victory. Rather, Christ’s victory has negated our sin! For after the sin of our first parents, God issued the first promise of a Savior. “He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel,” was the first gospel promise issued by God and heard in today’s First Lesson. And John’s Revelation shows us that Christ has seized the serpent’s power and bound him for time even while we wait for Satan’s permanent confinement to hell at the end of time.
Satan does not have free reign with you or the world, because God’s Word reveals his deceit and his defeat. Christ seized his power when he defeated Satan’s temptations throughout his thirty plus years in our world. Christ undid sin and death when he paid for your sin and died your death on the cross. Christ’s certain victory was proclaimed and proven by his resurrection. No modern theory or political threat or economic downturn can erase Satan’s certain defeat. That is part of the spiritual certainty you have through faith in Christ.
We’ve talked about two “players” so far in this chapter of Revelation. Now a new set of players is introduced in the second half of our reading. Listen carefully to their description. “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 for Jesus and because of the word of God.” John describes Christians who have died because they stood up for their faith. In other words, he sees martyrs in his vision.
Some Christians have not read these words carefully enough and assumed that John is talking about a resurrection of believers and millennium-long reign of Christ before the Last Day. But look carefully at the words. John sees “the souls of those who had been beheaded.” Their bodies are in the grave. Their souls have gone to be with Christ in heaven.
Some more clarification is needed as we read on. The rest of verse four reads, “They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” The phrase, “They came to life,” is misleading. A better translation would simply be, “They lived.” John is not previewing a resurrection prior to a millennium. He sees believers’ souls remaining alive after physical death. And we can easily get tripped up with the next expression, “They…reigned with Christ a thousand years.” Think of it this way. Every time my family goes on vacation to visit our extended families, we live with my parents and my in-laws for several days. Can you tell how long our parents have lived in their homes from that statement? Of course not! That’s the principle that applies to John’s words. John is talking about the souls of believers reigning with Christ from heaven during the complete New Testament era. That doesn’t suggest anything about the length of Christ’s reign. So we ought not read any millennial ideas into John’s words. Rather, we let the words stand as they are. John wants his readers to know that just as Satan’s defeat is certain, so is the fact that they will reign with Christ from heaven after their physical life on earth comes to an end.
There are a few more details we should clarify in this reading. The last two verses say this: “(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 have part 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.” The expressions “first resurrection” and “second death” will make more sense if we understand what death really means. Perhaps the best definition of “death” I have heard is to not enjoy the blessings of God. Physical death means someone no longer enjoys the physical blessings of God. Spiritual death means that someone does not enjoy the spiritual blessings of faith in Christ. Eternal death means that someone is permanently separated from any and all blessings of God.
The believers in heaven are part of the “first resurrection.” Their souls have been brought to heaven to reign with Christ. They await the second resurrection at the end of time, when soul and body are reunited for eternity. And these believers have no reason to fear the “second death.” Physical death is the first death. Eternal death (hell), is the “second death” John speaks about. When Christ’s victory is given to his people, when their souls are brought out of this world and to him in heaven, and when hell is no longer a threat, then believers in Christ will truly be “blessed and holy” because they “have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them.”
In times like these, don’t you wish your investments had a guarantee? Don’t you wish your retirement plan was set in stone? Don’t you wish that national security was secure?
But that is why John’s message is so wonderful. Certainty in this world is a fleeting thing. But you have spiritual certainty amidst global uncertainty. If you ever feel uncertain about God’s love for you in Christ, listen to John’s certain message: “If anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2). If the instability of life ever makes you wonder about the stability of God’s promises to you in Christ, then listen to Paul’s certain message: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). If fears of death and what lies beyond the grave ever cause you to doubt what God has in store for you through Christ, listen one more time to John’s words in our reading: “Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them.” Amidst all of life’s uncertainties, your certain reign with Christ remains sure and it remains yours through faith in Jesus Christ and his victory over death.
One of the reasons I chose to preach on this Revelation lesson is our upcoming Sunday Bible Class on the book of Revelation, which starts on July 12. Revelation is a fascinating and rich book, but it is also a frequently misunderstood book. It deserves some time and attention in Bible study, and I hope you’ll join us for our eight-week study that starts in a few Sundays from now.
But the real beauty of the words we studied today is not in their ability to recruit bodies for Bible Class. The real beauty of John’s inspired words is from the spiritual certainty they give in the midst of our global and political and economic and personal uncertainties. Nothing can undo Satan’s defeat and Jesus’ victory. Nothing can undo God’s promise that you will reign with his Son from the day of your death through all eternity. Nothing is so certain as the sure and stable promises of God! Amen.