THE END BEGINS
Hallelujah! (Revelation 19:1-10)
This is the only New Testament passage to use the Hebrew word hallelujah, which was preserved in the Church’s worship as a liturgical term. What is being celebrated is not the destruction of rebellious people, but the end of a system that has opposed God and has itself brought about the destruction of its followers.
One would think that if “the bride has made herself ready” in her gown of pure white linen, readers should soon see her process down the aisle to the sound of heavenly music. But in Revelation’s predictably unpredictable vision of things, events take a different turn. The bride may be ready, but readers will not see her until a thousand years have passed; and while they wait, they see the Lamb – the groom at this wedding – thundering onto the page to slay the adversaries of God.
The Coming of Christ (Revelation 19:11-16)
Several times we have been brought close to the coming of Christ and the final moment of this age. But the final moment arrives. There is nothing more to add, and from now on we will gaze into an eternal future beyond the bounds of history.
The first vision is of a rider on a white horse. It is Christ, coming in glory as he has promised. Behind him stream the armies of heaven, the faithful witnesses (14:1), dressed in the white robes of victory. He wears many crowns, for he is the Lord of lords and King of kings, whose rule far surpasses any dominion claimed by the seven-crowned dragon.
He comes in the white robe of a conqueror, but that robe is dipped in blood. The blood is his own, shed for the sins of the world. The one who comes as conqueror and as judge has first shed his blood to be the Savior.
The Last Battle (Revelation 19:17-21)
It is only at this point that we catch sight of the beast and his armies. The vision of Christ has captured the eye and rendered the great power of the world irrelevant.
And then it’s all over. No gargantuan struggle, no last-minute rallying of the beleaguered forces of heaven for one final victorious push. The last battle turns out to be no battle at all. It is simply judgment. The beast and the false prophet are captured and thrown into a burning lake. Their followers are wiped out by the sword of Christ. The armies of heaven do not lift a finger, for they have already won their fight in the long struggle of the martyrs against the beast.
All that is left is the single question: Have they given themselves body and soul to the way of the world, or have they reached out in desperate trust to the open hand of God? For those who have invested their very selves in the values and structures of this world, there is nothing left. They have built their lives on a foundation without strength. The word of judgment is spoken, and the sword of the rider mows them down. Revelation presents a consistent call to decide between what is offered by this world and what is offered by God.
Binding Satan (Revelation 20:1-3)
Following the victorious return of Christ, an angel is sent from heaven to bind the dragon. Here the devil is given all of Revelation’s titles for him: He is Satan, the devil, the dragon, the great serpent. It is as though John wants us to see the full force of the power of evil. As Satan, he is the accuser of God’s people, the one who points out their sins and proclaims that such have no place in the kingdom of God. As the devil, he is the personification of evil, the focus of all malignity. The dragon is the opponent of all that stands for order and creation. The serpent is the tempter, the one who brought sin into Eden and turned humanity from its first intended destiny.
Evil must be faced as the great and terrible force it is. Yet in the end the dragon is seized by an angel of God and almost contemptuously disposed of. Cast into the pit he is triply imprisoned: bound, locked, and sealed away. Great though evil may be, it is nothing in the face of God. All its despair, destruction, and corruption is unable to quench the life-giving force of the creator.
Why, though, must Satan be released for a time? Evil is resilient. It can never be truly locked away. Sooner or later, no matter what good resolutions, no matter how just a society, human beings may make, evil will return. In this world, all our victories over it are temporary. They are real and good, but the final abolition of sin can come only when the world itself is remade and humanity enters fully into the life of the new creation. So Satan will run free again, to perish entirely in the new world which has no place for him.
Although here the temporary binding of Satan lies in the future, the image is probably drawn from present experience. According to Jesus, it was in his ministry that Satan was bound (Matthew 12:29). He is the strong man who is rendered helpless by the coming of the kingdom, and whose goods are plundered. So he stands by helpless whenever the gospel is received in faith, and sinners freed from his power. Similarly, it was the preaching of the disciples which Jesus saw as casting Satan out of heaven (Luke 10:18). It is the liberating power of the gospel that binds Satan now, and what is now visible only to the eye of faith will one day be apparent to all, as Christ returns in majesty.
Outlasting the Beast (Revelation 20:4-6)
Here is the real point of the millennium. In this world the beast appears triumphant. The true witnesses of Christ are put to death. The power of the godless structures of the world seems irrefutable and irresistible. Yet in the final analysis it is the beast that perishes in flames, and the martyred Church that rises triumphant.
The millennium, though set in the future, confirms the role of the martyr Church in living out, in the presence of the beast, the values of the coming kingdom. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the witness of the Church, the kingdom has a foothold in the world. Those who share in the work of the kingdom here can be assured of a final glorious outcome.
Eternal Consequences (Revelation 20:7-10)
Satan has served a thousand-year prison sentence in the great abyss with no time off for good behavior. But upon his release, he promptly resumes his former way of life by practicing deception and enticing the nations into opposing the people of God. One wonders how anyone on earth would heed the Devil’s call after such a lengthy Satan-free period. John does not explain this, but perhaps a part of the vision’s function is precisely to evoke such astonishment. The passage offers a pointed commentary on the human condition by indicating that whenever Satan is active, some will indeed be responsive to him. Any kingdom short of the new creation, with its new heaven and new earth, will include those who have a propensity to evil. Finally, restraining evil is not enough. Its seductive power must be brought to an end. Those who are drawn by its siren song are warned that disaster waits for those who yield to it.
Nothing less than a new creation will see an end to this pattern, not even the direct rule of the earth by the risen Christ. Satan is now finally destroyed, heralding the coming of the new age, the new creation. He is destined to an eternity of torment in the lake of fire with the beast and the false prophet.
Book of Life (Revelation 20:11-15)
After the interlude of millennium and rebellion comes the last judgment. God appears seated on a throne that is now the white of victory, and creation dissolves at his appearing. All that remains is God, and those he is to judge. Those who did indeed follow the beast, who were not included in the number of the Church are judged.
The judgment is based on not one but two sets of books: the book of life and the books in which people’s deeds are recorded. Each set of books has its own function. The book of life has to do with divine grace while the books of deeds have to do with human accountability. John has already said that people are inscribed in the book of life “from the foundation of the world,” which means that the book of life cannot be accessed by their own efforts, but are included in the book as an act of divine grace.
The other set of books includes the records of what people have done during their lives. On the day of judgment, these books will be opened and people will be held accountable for their actions (e.g., Matt. 25:31-46; John 5:28-29; 1 Cor. 3:10-15; 2 Cor. 5:10).
The thrust of Revelation as a whole forbids a belief that salvation is given without repentance and faith on the part of the saved. Yet John’s ambiguity here is a way of saying that repentance and faith may belong to more than we suspect. We are not given the right, as yet, to judge any. All we may do is proclaim the gospel, joyfully welcoming those who respond visibly, and leaving the final decision to God.
From now on, the first harvest, the gathering in to eternal life governs the visions. Judgment is past, and a new creation is to begin.