“Who” More Than “How”

Revelation 14 of 16


We’re in Revelation 20 today.
I know! I know! We’re making progress.

After today we’ll only have two chapters left.

Revelation 20 is one of the most controversial chapters in the book of Revelation.

And I think that means (kinda by default) that Revelation 20
is at likely to score gold, silver, or bronze
as one of the most controversial chapters in the entire Bible.

This is a chapter
where speculations abound, where theories multiply, where saints disagree,
and where—tragically—denominations and churches divide.

It makes sense that it would be controversial.

I mean, Revelation is such a stirring
and challenging and mysterious letter
and this is THE climactic, decisive chapter within it.

The bulk of Revelation—
from chapter six to chapter nineteen
has taken us through some hard stuff.

We’ve seen seals and trumpets and bowls
giant hailstones, demonic locusts, monstrous governments—
pictures of worldwide plagues
and horrors and judgment.

But in chapters twenty-one and twenty-two,
we find the happiest ending possible:

Revelation ends with a world remade by love.

A world where death—think about this, imagine this—where death is gone.

Death has died and life flourishes forever.

Where the human race becomes
what it was always meant to be
(cf. 1.6, 22.5).

Where every division in the world—between people and nations—
begin to experience healing and restoration (cf. 22.3).

Where the mysterious Lover who called us into existence
finally shows us his face (22.4) and dwells with us (21.3)
and wipes away our tears (21.4)

The bulk of Revelation has been carnage and struggle
and the end of Revelation is the happiest kind of ending
so what happens to get us there?

Chapter 20 happens.

Let’s read it.

(Rev 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.

So that’s that… Revelation 20.

A heck of a lot happens in the span of 15 verses.

In only 15 verses we find:

Satan sealed in the Abyss (v1-3),
the millennium reign of Jesus (v4-6),
the armies of evil consumed by fire (v7-10),
the great white throne (v11-15),

and then some kind of “Second Death” for the devil (v10),
for anyone not in the Book of Life (v15),
and even for Death itself (v14).

This is a chapter that literally no one can agree about.1

If you read one good scholar on this chapter,
and you’ll wind up hearing a dozen opinions.

With the arrival of Jesus
as the victorious Groom of grooms
last chapter,

Revelation certainly seems to be pointing us toward the future.

It’s not surprising that the climactic, decisive doorway
through which we find the gardens of New Jerusalem
has got a jumbled crowded of opinions trying to figure it out.

We’re all lost in darkness and fog of the world as it is,
and I think we get excited about Revelation
finally showing us our world remade by love.

At this point,
Revelation is like a sign in the fog
pointing us towards where history is headed.

Revelation is pointing a particular direction.

(“God is taking the world’s future THAT way…
Jesus returning, evil destroyed, all reality remade.)

[slide #1]

Maybe we could think of Revelation 20
like one of those old fashioned road signs:

The wooden kind of sign
standing at a crossroads
pointing you in a general direction.

(I think Disneyland and the zoo
might be the only kinds of places
where we still use these.)

We know the particular direction that God is taking the world,
but it’s also still only a general direction.

At the zoo or Disneyland, those general directional signs
are DEFINITELY pointing you the right direction (“you’re not going the wrong way”),
but those signs don’t give you turn-by-turn GPS instructions.

I think a lot of the controversy comes when we forget
that John has been using symbolism and image and metaphor
for literally his entire letter.

He’s never been giving us anything like
a GPS turn-by-turn, play-by-play of the future.

Revelation has never been an almanac about the future’s weather…
it’s always been an apocalypse about God’s character.

[slide #2]
Revelation has always been
focusing our attention on “the Who”
more than “the How.”

“Who is God?”

God is self-giving love revealed in Jesus
the center of all reality (5.6)—the very foundation of the universe—
is a Lamb slaughtered but standing.

“Who is God?”

God is the One who hears
who doesn’t forget his promises or his people or his creation
who hears the cries of injustice (6.10)—
and who will unleash the plagues of Egypt
to overthrow the powers that enslave those he loves.

“Who is God?”

God is the Giver, the Strong, the Judge, the Lover.

The One who—
despite the way things may feel or look or seem—
will save the world.

“How will God do this?
“What will it look like?”
“How does it happen?”

I’m really doubtful John’s vision
was ever meant to tell us that.

And I would be really surprised if suddenly—
at this point in Revelation—for only one chapter
John suddenly abandoned symbolism and image and metaphor
for the sake of trying to give literal descriptions.

It seems really unlikely to me—this is just me personally—
that John is suddenly describing a literal thousand years.

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

Churches and communities and denominations
obsess and argue and divide over verses 4-7.

Entire theological systems get built those verses…
on the millennium reign of Jesus.

This is literally the only place in the Bible
where a 1,000 year reign of Jesus ever gets mentioned.

For that matter (while we’re at it),
verses 4-6 are literally the only place in the Bible
where the resurrection of dead is pictured as happening in two stages.

But “one thousand” is a nice round number,
and it seems like a pretty good candidate to be symbolic.

There are a lot other places in Scripture
that use far less symbolism than John,
where we recognize this.

When 2 Peter says that
“a day with God is like a thousand years” (2 Pet 3.8),
most of us realize that we’re not be invited to start doing math.

We’re being told something in metaphor.

When the psalmist sings that
God owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps 50.10),
most us know that God isn’t wanting us to count the hills.

The psalmist is making a bigger point…
don’t get preoccupied about the number.

We recognize 1,000 as a nice symbolic number
in other parts of Scripture that aren’t crazy-loaded with symbolism,
but for some reason the church argues and divides about it here.

I’ve got to think that’s the Enemy at work.

This is the same book where
the Holy Spirit is described as “seven spirits” (ch1),
where a prostitute rides a scarlet beast in the desert (ch17).

This is the same book where
we’re told about a Dragon
and explicitly told that it’s is symbolic (12.3).

This is the same book where (ch 9)
demon locusts emerge from an evil black hole in the ocean—
what the ancients called “the Abyss.”

That was sure seemed symbolic then
and it sure seems symbolic again here
when the (for-sure) symbolic Dragon is sealed up (v1-3)
in that same Abyss.

This is the same book

where Death is a kind of villain riding a horse (ch6)
with a side-kick called Hades following along after him.

It’s symbolic.

And it sure still seems symbolic in this chapter
when these two villains reappear and get hurled into a lake of fire
at the end of this chapter (v14).

How does one literally grab
Death by the scruff of the neck?—

How does one literally throw
the mythological underworld of the Greeks—

How does John mean any of this literally?
I’m pretty sure he doesn’t.

Revelation 20 is a sign pointing us into the future,
but it’s NOT giving us turn-by-turn GPS directions.

Like the rest of Revelation,
it’s is still pointing us clearly to “the Who”
far more than “the How.”

If we walk through this chapter asking
the primary question of Revelation:
“Who is God? What is God like?”,

I think we get a far clearer picture than asking
“How—in literal details—will the future unfold?”

“Who is God?”

Verses 1-3:

God is the One
who can seal away the great Enemy
anytime with no battle at all.

He’s the all-powerful ground of all reality.

The battle between God and Satan—
between Goodness and Evil, Death and Life
is not a fair fight.

It’s actually no fight at all.

“Who is God?”

Verses 4-6:

God is the Life itself
and loves giving life.

He causes people to come alive
and even begins his rule and reign through them
before the end of history—before the final day of Resurrection.2

“Who is God?”

Verse 7-10:

God is Goodness itself—
he’s good enough to unmake
the forces of evil.

God is the One
who can unmake
the forces of evil in an instant.

In a strange plot-twist,
John describes Satan being released3

and Satan immediately starts doing what he always does:
working to destroy life.

And so with a pair of images borrowed from
the scroll of Ezekiel4
and the story of Elijah,5

John describes God love
vaporizing everything that wants
nothing to do with Life—

everything hell-bent on destroying the world (cf. 11.18).

God is the One who speaks
a fiery “No” to chaos, “No” to Death, “No” to human wickedness,

precisely because he’s absolutely committed to saying
“Yes” to creation, “Yes” to Life, “Yes” to human flourishing.6

God is Good.

And so for that reason (v11-15):

God is the One
who will decisively and finally
sort out the world, right the world’s wrongs,
bring an end to all injustice and rebellion and evil

God is the Judge.

God is the just and merciful Judge
that the world desperately needs…
pictured here with “a great white throne.”7

The books are opened8 (v12)—
no crime is hidden forever, no suffering is forgotten forever—

but in the end,
the only book that matters is “another book”:

The Book of Life.9

That’s John’s symbolic short-hand
for whether or not we allow God to claim us.

Through Jesus we recognize
that God graciously claims us:

In the words of one theologian,
that he is the Judge judged in our place.

“Who is God?”

God is the One who claims you.

If you ache for God, if you hunger to be claimed by him,
if you thirst for things to be made right in the world and in you,10

the good news gives you rest:

The gospel declares
you are already claimed by him.

God has already included you in his book.

And God’s Spirit is already always at work
at writing the words of life into your soul (2 Cor 3.3).

It’s only to those who want absolutely nothing to do with Life—
those as willful and stubborn and unrepentant as the Dragon himself11

that God finally gives them what they want12:
“the Second Death.”

I’m not sure that Revelation 20 tell us
HOW exactly the future will unfold,

but (like the rest of Revelation)
again and again and again it’s pointing us to
WHO exactly will unfold the future.

And that focusing on “the Who”
gives us a clarity that we lose sight of
when we focus on “the How.”

Because the point of the Apocalypse
of Revelation—of this Divine Peek-a-boo
is that we would begin participating in
the real and lasting life of God
right now.13

If there’s one thing about the future
that Revelation reveals to us with certainty,

it’s that Jesus loves
deeply and passionately enough
to save this world by fire (v9):

The forces of evil march across the breadth of the earth,
and surround God’s peoplethe city God loves.

Call them what you want throughout Revelation:
a tabernacle (11.1), a pair of witnesses (11.3f)
a Dazzling Woman (12.1), the city God loves (cf. 11.2b)—
and God saves his people by fire.

It’s almost like the rest of the chapter
is just unpacking that one verse.

Jesus loves
deeply and passionately enough
to save this world by fire.

That’s the movement of chapter 20
into the final two chapters of Revelation:

Jesus saves his people
he creates a new world, he establishes his new city
by rescuing it with fire.14

And I think the heart of John’s letter is an invitation for us
to live as citizens of that new world—of that new city
right now, in the middle of history, today.

Maybe—just maybe—
that’s what John is talking about in verse 4
when he mentions those who are beheaded
“coming alive”
and “reigning with Christ.”

Did you notice that?

That’s really interesting.

It’s only those who are beheaded
who “come to life” and extend God’s kingdom
before the Final Judgment.

I suppose it’s possible
that John is describing a literal 1,000 years

where Jesus rules an earthly kingdom exclusively
with those
who have faced the axe of the Roman Empire
and the guillotine of some kind of future, One-World Government.

For me, arguments about this chapter
aren’t a hill to die on
… I guess that’s possible.

But I think it’s far more likely
that John is using symbolism
to call us into a different kingdom.

Rome didn’t behead just anyone.
Everyone knew that.

It was a relatively clean
relatively painless
relatively humanedeath.

It wasn’t the best way to invoke terror or establish fear…
so most of the time they would crucify people.

The only people Rome beheaded were Roman citizens.

The only people who would get beheaded were the people
absolutely committed to citizenship in Jesus’s kingdom
over and above citizenship in Rome’s kingdom.15

I think John might be challenging his churches:
choose the life that will last.

John is inviting us,
challenging us, calling us:

[slide #3]
Choose to live as citizens
of the world that will last.

Live as citizens
of the city that will last.

Even when it’s costly right now—
even when it’s painful right now—
that’s the way you join the reign of the king.

When they make that comment about us—
that idiotic, offensive, unloving comment

and we refuse to return evil for evil—we refuse to hurt them back—
we’re participating in the kingdom that will last.

When we give to that person
that person who certainly doesn’t deserve it
and we ask for nothing in return,
we’re joining in the reign of Jesus.

When we work to bring people together
striving to bring healing and peace and justice
where others are just writing it off as hopeless—

We’re actually living as citizen of the world that’s coming.

Whenever and wherever we are choose love,
choose hope, choose peace

even when it’s painful, even when it feels like crucifixion,
even when it means “the Powers that be” want our head

we’re actually coming alivelike resurrection before the resurrection.

So may the Spirit help us
approach Scripture
with reverence and humility,
teaching us to cling to “the Who”
and hold “the How” with open hands,

may the Son—our Judge judged in our place—
write his words of life
onto our hearts and into our souls
so we can face the day of love with confidence,

and may our good Father grant us a “first resurrection,”
building his kingdom—his new city—in our lives today
and making us citizens loyal to God’s new world of peace.

  1. The modern church can divide and segregate with speculation about foggy, ultimately unknowable speculations called “premillennialism” (Jesus will return and establish 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 saintly and scholarly company 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).
  2. N.T. Wright writes concerning these verses: “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” (Revelation for Everyone, 179).
  3. It’s a mysterious, seemingly messy story-telling decision John makes 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 be fall (like the city of Rome did in 410CE) and yet history could 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.
  4. 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).
  5. See 2 Kings 1.10-14 where Elijah calls down fire from heaven (twice!) to destroy a couple of military squadrons.
  6. 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).
  7. 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.
  8. 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).
  9. 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.
  10. Matt 5.6, Rom 2.7-8.
  11. 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.
  12. 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 is a sobering 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.
  13. 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).
  14. 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.
  15. 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.

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