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Cracking the Book of Revelation

Resident Faculty, Dennis E. Johnson   |   July 26, 2010   |  Type: Articles

Pre-mill? Post-mill? Or A-mill? The subject of the millennium, often portrayed as a period of unprecedented peace, ironically has been a theological battlefield for millennia. Missions agencies have refused missionaries, churches have rejected pastors, and seminaries have dismissed professors for lacking proper millennial credentials. Such conflict might tempt us to shun John’s Revelation visions and prefer Scripture’s clearer, safer waters. However, the Bible’s last book promises to bless both reader and hearer (Rev. 1:1-3) and should not be ignored. Its strange scenes are for all of God’s servants—to fortify us to fight, not each other, but our real enemy.

To crack Revelation’s code we must recognize how it uses paradox and recapitulation. Revelation offers a peek behind the veil of history, enabling us to glimpse unseen realities. Things are not always what they seem—the shiny apple is poisonous, and a beggar’s rags disguise a king. In the same way, Revelation’s pictures speak in paradox: the Lion triumphs as a Lamb slain, and martyrs defeat the dragon by losing their heads for Jesus.

Recapitulation is the literary counterpart of video replay in sports broadcasting. Television viewers see every touchdown from several perspectives: one camera focused on the quarterback, another on the wide receiver, a third on the running back cutting up the middle—not three touchdowns, but one viewed from different angles. Likewise, Revelation 12, for example, has two different perspectives on the epoch-changing conflict in which the dragon is decisively defeated but not utterly destroyed. The first camera angle shows that the dragon cannot consume the heavenly woman’s child, so Messiah’s mother flees for safety into the desert (vss. 1-6). The second camera angle shows the dragon expelled from heaven, disbarred from accusing believers. In frustration it pursues Messiah’s mother, who flees for safety into the desert (vss. 7-13). These are two perspectives on Christ’s redemptive work—his incarnation, obedience, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension—expelling the prince of this world (John 12:31). These visions exclaim that Satan could not destroy our Warrior-King, whether it be through Herod’s holocaust, temptation, or Roman cross. He cannot accuse us of sin, for Jesus’ blood cleared our criminal record once-for-all. Nor can Satan destroy God’s people through lies or violence—Messiah’s mother is safe in the desert.

The millennial vision of chapter 20 gives us an additional “camera angle” of the same battle discussed above in Rev. 12. Here again we see the dragon decisively defeated—bound, prevented from deceiving Gentile nations—but not yet destroyed. His fourfold name, “dragon, ancient serpent, devil, Satan,” is repeated from Rev 12: 9 to reinforce the bond between these two visions. Here, as in chapter 12, it is Christ’s work in his first coming that binds the dragon, launching the era that John sees symbolized as 1,000 years. That is, Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension inaugurated the millennium so that it is not a future hope, but a present reality.

However, the mere suggestion that the millennium has already begun and continues to exist raises objections in many minds. Answering these objections will help us grasp both Revelation’s meaning and its encouragement to us: 

(1) Doesn’t “1,000 years” mean 1,000 years? Some argue that the millennium could not have begun with Christ’s ascension, or else Christ would have returned a mere 1,000 years later! The short answer is that numbers are symbolic in Revelation. Rev. 4:2 and 5 provide an example on which everyone agrees. John is caught up to heaven by “the Spirit”—one Spirit of God. In heaven he sees seven lamps that symbolize God’s seven Spirits. Without ceasing to be one, the Spirit is seen as seven to signal that he is fully present with the Father in heaven and with the church on earth, seven being the number of fullness or completion. Likewise, “one thousand years” should not be taken literally but symbolically. It signifies a very long time between Christ’s binding of Satan at his first coming and his final judgment of Satan at his second coming.

At both ends of Revelation, Christ insists that its visions concern trends soon to commence, not events removed from John’s first-century readers in some distant future (1:1, 3; 22:10; contrast Dan 12:1-4). The millennium was a present reality for his readers. Yet this “soon-ness” theme is only part of the truth. The culmination of the millennium has yet to occur. Because God’s timing is not ours, God’s “soon” may not feel soon to us. We must recognize that the Lord’s apparent tardiness is not negligence but patience, as he woos all his elect to faith (2 Pet. 3:9). The Lamb will not return until he has gathered everyone whose name is written in his book of life. In the meantime, Christians must dig in for the long haul and boldly bear the gospel testimony by which the Spirit gathers Jesus’ sheep.

(2) Doesn’t the battle at Armageddon come before and not after the millennium? Some argue that the battle at Armageddon (found at the end of Rev. 19) must precede the millennium of Rev. 20. If they are right, how could the millennium begin with Christ’s first coming when the battle at Armageddon has yet to occur?  However, the battle at Armageddon does not come before the millennium. We must keep in mind Revelation’s use of recapitulation or video replay.  Rev. 19 gives us the first of two views of the last battle. It shows us the nations gathered to wage the battle and its disastrous outcome for the beast and false prophet. The second view of the same last battle is found in Rev. 20:7-10 which clearly describes a conflict after the millennium. Just like the first view, we see nations deceived and gathered for the battle. Unlike the first view, this camera angle focuses on Satan, the archenemy behind the activity of the beast and the deception of the false prophet. He tries to erase Jesus’ testifying church from the earth, but he will fail and be thrown into the lake of fire. As a result, the two camera angles of Rev. 19:19-21 and Rev. 20:7-10 allow the reader to see the complete picture of the last battle that occurs at the end of the millennium.

(3) World conditions don’t look as if Satan is bound. We must remember that Satan still prowls like a lion seeking prey (1 Pet. 5:8). Knowing that his days are numbered, he vents his rage on God’s children (Rev. 12:12, 17). But note, specifically, what the binding prevents him from doing: he cannot deceive the nations as he once did. Therefore he can no longer assemble the nations into a global coalition to try to snuff out the church. Other New Testament scriptures confirm this. Because Jesus came to bind Satan and release his captives (Matt 12:28-29), God’s light now shines into the Gentiles’ darkness (Matt 4:15-16). Formerly God had left the Gentiles in their ignorance, but no more (Acts 14:15-16; Acts 17:30). In Jesus, the light of the world, Gentile nations behold God’s glory (Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47). Try as he might, Satan cannot prevent the gospel from reaching the ends of the earth.


The millennium declares that the Lamb is on the throne, the dragon is on its last legs, and the light of the gospel is piercing the nations’ darkness. To see this, of course, we must look past surface appearances. We cannot estimate who is winning the cosmic conflict by opinion polls, attendance statistics, cultural trends, election results, or legislative actions. But that should not surprise us. After all, the triumph of Judah’s Lion did not look like victory, but like the shameful execution of a criminal.  That dark afternoon Satan seemed to have the upper hand; but in such weakness our Champion disbarred the accuser and bound the dragon. The spread of the gospel among all peoples proves that Christ’s cross has indeed broken Satan’s stranglehold on the nations. Gospel witness proves that the millennium is now.

Therefore, the book of Revelation gives great encouragement to missionaries and the church’s work of missions. Since Jesus has bound the strongman, we can throw ourselves confidently into gospel witness to the ends of the earth.  We inhabit the age between Jesus’ ascension and his return, the age in which God dispels the darkness that once engulfed the nations. Through his witnessing and suffering church, Jesus assembles a crowd “from every nation, tribe, people and language” to sing forever: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

First published in Evangelium, Vol. 2, Issue 4

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