December 17: Revelation 20:1-3

Revelation 20

The four-part vision in chapter 20 may be read two ways: (1) as a continuation of the visions in chap. 19, and (2) as a parallel depiction of the end-time Judgment, emphasizing its heavenly aspect rather than its earthly aspect. In terms of the structure of chapter 20, it contains two alternating visionary themes, each with a pair of related visions:

    1. The period of a thousand years (Millennium)—vv. 1-3, 7-10
    2. The heavenly Judgment before the throne of God—vv. 4-6, 11-15

Each of these four visions will be discussed in a note, along with a short supplemental study on the concept among early Christians of a Messianic Kingdom on earth (and its relation to the “Millennium” in chap. 20).

Revelation 20:1-3

“And I saw a Messenger stepping down out of heaven, holding the (key) closing the (pit) without depth [i.e. bottomless] and a great chain upon his hand. And he took strong hold of the Fabulous Creature [dra/kwn], the Snake of the beginning, which is the (One) casting (evil) throughout [dia/bolo$] and the Satan, and bound him (for) a thousand years, and (then) cast him into the (pit) without depth and closed (it) and sealed (it) up above him, (so) that he should not lead astray the nations any longer, until the thousand years should be completed—with [i.e. after] these (thing)s it is necessary for him to be loosed (for) a little time.”

This vision alludes to the fifth trumpet-vision in 9:1-11, with its reference to the a&busso$ (ábyssos), with literally means “without depth”, i.e., a place without any end to its depth (bottomless, limitless). In the ancient cosmology, this generally refers to the vast space underneath the earth (parallel to the space above). It is largely synonymous with the unseen realm of Death and the dead ( %A[i]dh$,  )Ai+/dh$), though stretching even far below that. Also, in at least one strand of Greek cosmological tradition, this deep abyss (called ta/rtaro$, tártaros, of uncertain derivation) was the location where an earlier generation of divine beings/powers (“Titans”) was imprisoned following the rise of the current generation (led by Zeus)—cf. Hesiod’s Theogony lines 841, 851, note also 119). A similar idea was preserved in Jewish tradition (e.g. 1 Enoch 10:4-6ff; 88:1-3; cf. also 20:2; 53:3-5; 54:1-6; 2 Baruch 56:13), whereby the Angels who rebelled during the early period of Creation were thrown down beneath the earth, into the abyss. In the New Testament, 2 Peter 2:4 expresses this rather clearly, using the denominative verb tartaro/w, essentially meaning “place/consign (someone) into the ta/rtaro$“. According to Theogony 821ff, the multi-headed serpent creature Typhoeus (Tufweu/$) was born from the union of Earth and Tartarus; this mythic being is quite similar in many respects to the Dragon (Dra/kwn) of the book of Revelation (cf. the recent article in the “Ancient Parallels” series).

In the book of Revelation this abyss (a&busso$) under the earth is the place from which evil and demonic beings emerge. The Jewish tradition cited above, of the heavenly beings who rebelled and were thrown down to earth, is referenced in 12:8-13, as also in the context of the fifth trumpet-vision (9:1). The fantastic demon-beings in 9:1-11 emerge from the a&busso$ (v. 2), and are ruled by a “Messenger (Angel) of the a&busso$” (v. 11), presumably to be identified with the Satan. The identity of the Messenger who hold the “key” to the abyss (v. 1) is not as clear; overall the imagery may suggest a demonic figure (cp. 12:4), but the parallel here in 20:1 indicates the control over the abyss by a true Messenger of God. It is also out of the a&busso$ that the “wild animal” (qh/rion), i.e. the Sea-creature of chapters 13ff, emerges (11:7), a point further made in 17:8, where the reference apparently is to a demonic future ruler who will be virtually an incarnation of the evil Sea-creature. According to the Lukan version of the Gerasene exorcism miracle, the demons recognize that their place is in the a&busso$ and hey plead with Jesus not to be sent back there (Lk 8:31). The word a&busso$ occurs in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) some 50 times, usually in a general (cosmological) sense—in Gen 1:2 it is used to translate Hebrew <ohT=, a reference to the dark and chaotic mass of primeval waters (“Sea”) that was thought to precede the Creation proper (according to the ancient Near Eastern cosmology). God establishes the ordered universe in the midst of this a&busso$.

Returning to the vision of Rev 20:1-3, clearly the idea is of the evil Dragon being sent back to the a&busso$ from which it came, and to which it ultimately belongs—i.e., the dark and chaotic realm of evil, symbolized (concretely) in the terms of the ancient cosmology as a space underneath the earth. A Messenger descends from heaven holding a key (klei/$) for this abyss; on the relationship of this Messenger to the figure with the key in 9:1, cf. my earlier note. The noun klei/$ properly refers to something which closes shut (vb klei/w); of course, a key also opens, but here the emphasis is on closing. The Messenger holds both a key and a great chain, indicating two distinct actions to be taken: (a) binding the Dragon (vb de/w), and (b) closing him up within the abyss. The intermediate action of casting/throwing him down into the abyss reflects a subtle wordplay with the title Diabo/lo$ (Diábolos, English “Devil”), which literally means something like “one throwing over, one casting through(out)”—i.e. casting/throwing accusation, slander, and all sorts of evil—based on the verb ba/llw (“throw, cast”). The Fabulous Creature (dra/kwn, English “Dragon”) of chaps. 12-13 is here identified with the ancient cosmological Serpent (and the Serpent of Gen 3), as well as the Satan and the “Devil”—in other words, the primary figure of evil, the Evil One, who is opposed to God (cf. also 12:9).

In the context of the visionary narrative (continuing from chap. 19), following the great battle that symbolized the end-time Judgment on earth (i.e. its earthly aspect), the Sea-creature, together with his ally the Earth-creature (False Prophet), was captured, so as to face the great Judgment in its heavenly aspect—i.e. being thrown into the “lake of fire” (19:20). The Sea-creature ultimately serves the Dragon, whom he so resembles (12:3; 13:1); and now the Dragon also is captured and thrown into place where the heavenly Judgment likewise awaits (20:10, already alluded to in 12:12). This Dragon is the supreme manifestation of the forces of evil, and his punishment will be given a climactic position, centered between the two heavenly Judgment visions in chapter 20. The chain the Messenger holds for binding him is called “great” (mega/lh); according to the law Digest of Justinian, the larger the chain used for binding a prisoner indicated a more severe punishment (48.19.8.6; Koester, p. 769).

The most difficult and problematic detail in this vision, and for chapter 20 as a whole, is the time-span of a thousand (xi/lioi) years. As with all such details in the book of Revelation the number itself is symbolic; however, the idea that an actual period of time is here envisioned, between the earthly and heavenly Judgments, must be taken seriously. This has led many commentators to assume that there will, in fact, be an extensive period of time, after the initial Judgment, during which a Messianic Kingdom (ruled by Jesus) will be established and in force on earth. Certainly, such a Millennial/Messianic Kingdom is indicated by verses 5-6, the language and imagery of which will be discussed in the next daily note. In terms of the vision of vv. 1-3, it must be pointed out that the focus is on the imprisonment of the Dragon (Satan), the “thousand years” being the time of his imprisonment. The purpose of imprisonment is so that the Dragon will “no longer lead the nations astray”, which does suggest a time in which people will be able to follow/worship God without being influenced by the forces of evil. It is unquestionably an ideal for humankind, one which is to be realized in the Age to Come, but we must consider carefully just how the visionary narrative of Revelation understands the place of this ideal within the early Christian eschatology.

The above comments are based on reading 20:1-3ff more or less as a continuation of the visions in chap. 19. However, given the way that the visions (and vision-cycles) in the book of Revelation are interlocking, with a tendency to repeat certain themes and to present the same eschatological event using different imagery, it is worth considering chap. 20 as a separate vision-sequence, depicting the same Judgment scenario in different terms. This will be discussed further in the upcoming notes, but here I will suggest at least one way to interpret chap. 20 as a self-contained set of visions that summarize the early Christian eschatology:

    • Vision 1 (vv. 1-3)—The heavenly defeat of the Dragon (Satan), similar to that described in 12:7-12. There his defeat and downfall corresponded to the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus, and so it perhaps should be understood here as well. According to this line of interpretation, vv. 1-3 are not necessarily connected with the Judgment scene and battle of chap. 19.
    • Vision 2 (vv. 4-6)—The resurrection of believers, which elsewhere in early Christian tradition is tied to the end-time return of Jesus (1 Thess 4:14-17, cp. Mark 13:26-27 par). Though Jesus’ return is not specified here, it is depicted at similar points in the earlier vision-sequences (14:14-16; 19:11-16); the gathering of believers (including the resurrection of the dead?) is certainly described in 14:15-16.
    • Vision 3 (vv. 7-10)—Another vision of the great end-time Judgment on earth, parallel to that in 14:17-20; 19:17-21, involving the judgment/punishment of the nations and the final defeat of Satan.
    • Vision 4 (vv. 11-15)—The final Judgment in its heavenly aspect, taking place before the throne of God.
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