Reading for Friday, Dec 7: Revelation 20
John’s series of visions continues into ch20. We begin with an angel who holds the keys to the great abyss. Satan is bound for a thousand years in this pit and much ink has been spilled over the years in an attempt to make sense of this period of time. My own belief is that we should not understand the millennium as something to be charted on a map, but rather we read it as a figurative expression for a period of time prior to the second coming of Christ. In apocalyptic writings, “a thousand” is often used to represent something vast, known only by God. Just as we do not press the 144,000 (12x12x1000) of Rev14 too literally, we should follow suit here as well. What John intends, it seems, is an affirmation of an apocalyptic stream in Jewish and early Christian thought.
From scholar Eugene Boring: “The prophets and seers of the OT had developed basically two different pictures to express the triumph of God at the end of history, which may be called the ‘prophetic’ and the ‘apocalyptic.’ In the ‘prophetic’ view, the world’s evil would be overcome and life would come into its own as it was intended to be in God’s good creation (Isa. 65:17-25; Ezek. 34:25-31). Prophetic eschatology understood salvation in continuity with this world and its history; this world would be the setting for eschatological bliss. In contrast, apocalyptic eschatology saw this world as already too overwhelmed with evil for redemption to occur from within it. The present world must pass away to make way for eschatological fulfillment in the setting of new heavens and a new earth (Isa. 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet. 3:12-13). In this frame of reference, the Messiah was not thought of as a this-worldly royal figure empowered by God, but as a transcendent figure who brings salvation from the other world. In apocalyptic eschatology, the final kingdom of God does not grow out of this world, but breaks into it from the beyond.”
In John’s vision here, we find these two streams culminating (much as they did in Isaiah’s theology, see Isa. 65:17). Rather than being either / or, John’s vision says it’s both / and. John, as we will see in the final chapter, envisions a final scene that hearkens back to the origin of creation: God communing with His creation in a new heavens and new earth, implying continuity with what we already know. And yet, John’s picture of the holy city is one of transcendence: it is lowered down from the heavens to dwell here, the catalyst of the final purge of evil and the restoration of all things.
Chapter 20 gives us two independent views of the defeat of Satan: his binding in the pit and his destruction in the lake of fire. The point is this: evil is not permanent. The Eternal God, in His goodness and mercy, will bring evil to an ultimate and fitting end. Gog and Magog (Ezek. 38-39) represent the powers of this world that seek to wage war with God. But the picture here is clear: God will overthrow systemic evil with an eternal victory.
The lake of fire looms at the end of the chapter as a severe warning. The book of life is opened, “and the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done,” (v12). This scene of judgment is cosmic, encompassing all creation, great and small (v12). And the final words of the chapter ring in our ears:
“And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (v15).