Revelation 19-20: Breakfast with the Bible


CHELMSFORD CATHEDRAL – 29 MARCH 2020 Paul Beasley-Murray

Although because of coronavirus the breakfast was cancelled, this study was emailed out to all.

1. Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns (Rev 19.1-10)

God is repeatedly praised with loud Hallelujahs. Worship is the business of heaven. Indeed, in our weekly Sunday worship we anticipate the day, when in the words of St Augustine, “We shall do nothing more than ceaselessly repeat Amen and Alleluia with insatiable satisfaction”.

Hallelujah is an English transliteration of the word often found in the Psalms and to be translated as ‘Praise the Lord’ Our minds no doubt go to the Hallelujah chorus of Handel – which has been described as an ‘emotional’ commentary on Rev 19, but in fact the only word which the piece has in common with this passage is the word ‘Hallelujah’. Interestingly, the word Hallelujah is only found in this passage in the NT.

The rejoicing over the downfall of Babylon (19.2) is not a gloating over God’s judgment of Babylon but rather “the celebration that God has reversed Rome’s judgments against the Christians in a higher court and has made it manifest that he is the true judge. It is important to John that God’s justice finally prevails and that it be seen to prevail” (Eugene Boring).

“Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (19.9). I find the present tense (a present participle) significant. Although in the first place this is a reference to those who have accepted the invitation, the tense implies that the invitation is still open to those who have not yet decided.

2. The devil and his minions evil are defeated for ever (Rev 19.11-21)

Jesus, the Word of God, is the rider on the “white horse” (19.11). The description of him riding to battle is fearful.

  • “He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (19.11). Clearly the blood is of those who oppose him
  • “He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty”. The imagery is appalling

Yet, notice there is no description of a battle. In spite of the blood-stained garments, “the Word of God” (19.13) simply speaks with a sword in his mouth (19.15) and victory is accomplished.

The battles outcome is gory. The angel cries out to the birds: “Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of the mighty, the flesh of horses and their riders – flesh of all, both fee and slave, both small and great” (19.17,18). This is the ghastly counterpart to “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (19.9). The beast and the false prophet “were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur (19.20). Thank God we are dealing here with a vision which is not to be taken literally, but this makes it no less ‘aweful’.

3. The thousand years

John in his vision describes a period of a “1000 years” (‘millennium’ in Latin) during which Satan is “bound” (20.2) so that he can deceive the nations no more (20.3). Meanwhile those who have been martyred for Christ are brought back to life again (20.4) – “this is the first resurrection” (20.5). They reign with Christ for a 1000 years (20.6). After the 1000 years are over, Satan is released for a short period (20.7) to deceive the nations again (20.8), only to meet with final defeat.

Interpreters of this passage have been divided into three main schools of thought:

  1. Premillennialists argue that Christ’s second coming will precede the millennium. They point to the fact that Rev 20 describes events which follow after what is described in Rev 19.11-16, viz. the return of Christ
  2. Postmillenialists argue that Jesus will come again after the millennium. As Christ increasingly extends his rule, the present age will merge into the millennium (not necessarily a period of exactly a 1000 years). The gospel will triumph, the world will be truly Christianised – though not every individual will be a Christian & sin will not be totally eradicated. Only then will Christ return.
  3. Amillennialists rejects belief in a literal future earthly millennium (the prefix a- in Greek means ‘not’ – so, e.g. ‘atheists’ are people who do not believe in God). On this view Rev 20 is a symbolic description of the present age during which Satan is already bound and the dead in Christ are already reigning with Christ.

In favour of amillennialism are the following points:

  • The structure of Revelation involves parallelism: visions which follow each other in the book do not describe events in a chronological sequence, but rather the same events in different ways or from different angles. The 1000 years of Rev 20 is an example of this pattern: for through his life, death and resurrection Jesus defeated the Evil One.
  • There is nothing about the millennium elsewhere in the NT. Jesus and Paul contrast ‘this age’ with ‘the age to come’ in a way which rules out any long intervening period (e.g. Mark 10.30; Eph 1.21). The final judgment, described in Rev 20.11-15, is elsewhere in the NT linked directly with Jesus’ second coming (Matt 16.27; 25.31,32; 2 Thess 1.7-10; Rev 22.12)
  • The source of the language about ‘binding Satan’ (Rev 20.2) is found in Jesus’ image of the binding of the strong man in Mk 3.27. There Jesus is referring to the overcoming of Satan which he began in his ministry & was demonstrated in his exorcisms.
  • Rev 20.4 does not say that the thrones from which Christ & his people reign are on earth. Like all the other thrones in Revelation, apart from those of Satan & ‘the Beast’, they are in heaven.

In addition, there is a fourth approach, Dispensationalism, developed among the Brethren by JN Darby, taken up by Cyrus Scofield in the Scofield Reference Bible, and popular in North America thanks to the imaginative writings of Hal Lindsay and Tim La Haye. Dispensationalism is a form of premillennialism with a detailed timetable of the End times:  (1) A period of apostasy before Jesus comes; (2) Jesus will come in secret, and will take both dead and living Christians to be with him (the ‘secret rapture’) (3) A 7-year period known as ‘the tribulation; in which the Antichrist will rule the earth (4) Then Christ will appear from heaven openly and will overthrow Antichrist at Armageddon. This will usher in Christ’s 1000-year reign at Jerusalem, and the Temple and sacrificial worship will be restored (5) After a 1000 years Satan will be loosed again and will stir up rebellion against God.  His defeat will be followed by the resurrection and judgment of the wicked.

BUT  (1):The idea that believers will be off the scene before the worst sufferings in history may be comforting, but it contradicts the NT’s insistence that Christians are preserved not from suffering but through suffering (see Matt 24); (2) The NT nowhere talks of two further ‘comings’ of Jesus. Nor does the NT speaks of a ‘private rapture’: instead it talks about Jesus’ coming for all to see (see Matt 24.27,30f)

4. The judgement of the dead

John’s description of judgement reaches its climax in 20.11-15, where “anybody whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (20.15). Some question whether a God of love can condemn any of his creatures to ‘hell’. But

  • It is precisely because God is love, that he pays us the compliment of treating all our actions as significant. If God did not hold us responsible for our actions, then that would mean that ultimately nothing we do is significant. If God were to treat us in that way and not hold us responsible for our actions, then he would be reducing our status as human beings.
  • It is precisely because God is love that he respects our freedom to reject his love. True love never forces itself on its object: if it did so, it would cease to be love. A loving parent – like the father in the story of the prodigal son – may plead with his son not to go away & make a mess of his life. But if he is to be truly loving, he must in the end respect his son’s freedom to choose how he is to spend his life.
  • CS Lewis: “~There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will; be done’. All that are in hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell.”.

“Books were opened” (20.12): the habit of recording all the doings of its citizens had its roots in Persia, where the kings used to keep records (like the Stasi in East Germany). All will be revealed on this day. Never will there be a trial with so much evidence. From time to time in our country there is a miscarriage of justice, but not on the day of final judgment. “The final judgment will be the only judgment in all of time and history which is truly fair” (Milne)

Everybody, “great and small” (20.11) will have to give an account of themselves before God: “No one is so important as to be immune from judgment, and no one is so unimportant as to make judgement inappropriate”. Christians too will be exposed to the all-seeing gaze of God, but thankfully their names will be written in “the book of life” (20.12)

The ‘anti-Trinity’ of the Devil, the Beast, and the False Prophet (Rev 20.10) are the first to be judged and doomed. However, so too are those whose names are not in the book of life (20.15) It has been said that “hell was made for the devil and hence in the first instance not for humankind” (see Matt 25.41) – “that hell should exist also for humankind is the supreme tragedy of existence”. The “lake of fire” although only a metaphor, does not lessen the fact that for those who reject Christ, a dreadful fate awaits them. “The anguish of hell is the anguish of knowing – eternally – that you could have chosen differently, but didn’t” (John White).

As far as John is concerned, this hellish condition is continuous (20.10: see 14.10,11) Does this mean that all those who resist Christ do indeed suffer eternal punishment? Or does the ‘second death’ described by John in Rev 20.14,15 signify the end of individual existence? Some argue that ‘eternal punishment’ means an act of judgment where results cannot be reversed, rather than the experience of being punished for ever. For instance, Stephen Travis: “Eternal torment serves no useful purpose, and therefore exhibits a vindictiveness incompatible with the love of God in Christ… Eternal punishment requires that we believe in heaven and hell existing for ever ‘alongside’ each other. It seems impossible to reconcile this with the conviction that God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor 15.28)”. William Temple: “Annihilation is an everlasting punishment, though it is not unending torment”.

I confess that with so much in the Book of Revelation, I prefer to remain an ‘agnostic’. But the twin realities of heaven and hell cannot simply be attributed to the fevered imagination of John, for no one spoke more about heaven and hell than Jesus himself.

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