The 24th Sunday after Pentecost November 11, 2007
609, 656, 660, 429
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished. But after these things he must be released for a little while. And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.
Fellow-redeemed in Christ Jesus, whose life is our life:
What is a thousand years? It is a very long time for most of us. It exceeds the life span of even the oldest of the patriarchs. A thousand years is a good chunk of recorded history. In the last thousand years we have gone from catapults to guided missiles, from gunpowder to the atom bomb, from leeches to laser surgery. A thousand years seems to us like a very long span of time.
Now, mathematically, thousand years is ten to the third power. In the book of Revelation, ten is a number that brings to mind completeness—like a plan laid out and finished to perfection or like a period of time that cannot be cut short, or lengthened, or changed. Revelation chapter 20 speaks about a thousand year period—a “millennium”—that represents a triumph of the Lord and His saints and the defeat and binding of the Dragon, our old evil enemy. But the message held out to the Church in all of this is much more personal than the binding of the Dragon, more personal even than the reign of our Lord. This thousand years is about the martyrs and fallen members of the Church who had given their lives rather than surrender their confession and hope in Jesus the Lord.
The promise in this section of Scripture is to those who confessed the Lord Jesus while on the earth. The promise is that THEY shall reign with Him for a thousand years. As we consider this glorious promise of comfort for the Church, we’ll consider first, what sort of thousand years this is. We’ll see how it will affect the Devil, and we’ll see what it means that the martyrs will reign throughout this time.
Just the mention of “the millennium” raises eyebrows and can generate heated discussions among Christians. There are different ideas among Christians about what this millennium is and what it means. A great number of Christians consider the millennium to be a literal thousand year period of relative peace on the earth and quiet dominion for the Church. Some of these say that the second coming of Christ will come after this millennium. They are “postmillennialists.” Others say that Jesus’ second coming will be before the millennium. They are “pre-millennialists.”
Then there are those of us who say that there is to be no literal millennium, no period of apparent power and glory for the Church here on the earth. The post- and pre- millennial folks are a little offended at this viewpoint and call us “a-millennialists,” which means “without millennium” implying that we don’t believe in any millennium at all.
But we do. We recognize that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Revelation and reveals to us wonderful things, including this thousand year period of glory for Christ and His Church. In fact, when properly understood, this millennium of triumph for the Lord and His Church is very precious to us just because of what we understand the millennium to be. The thousand year period of this chapter refers to the time of revelation of the New Testament Gospel—the Gospel of our salvation. How could this millennium not be precious to us?
As a period of time, the word for “thousand” is only used here in Revelation. When it appears in other places of Scripture it refers to a number of people. But what is this thousand years? What is the key to this and all of Revelation? It is Jesus Christ, our Savior. What is the key to understanding all of Scripture? It is to know Jesus Christ and to know him as our Substitute and Savior. To know the Scriptures is to know that God here gives us the answer to man’s fall into sin and his continuing search for relief from sin, guilt, and death.
In Jesus Christ, God reveals Himself and His gracious nature. In Jesus Christ, we are assured that we are “justified by faith and have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Seeing Jesus throughout Scripture is to understand the simple Gospel truth that God in Jesus Christ has redeemed us from the curse of sin by becoming sin for us. Whoever confidently believes in Him has complete salvation and has conquered sin, death, and the power of the Devil. Paul came to understand that that was the point of the phrase “the just shall live by faith” (cf. Romans 1:17), and Jesus Himself assured His listeners that “whoever believes in Me shall not die, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).
How do we come into possession of this great good news of salvation? God reaches out to us and proclaims this Gospel to us and simply asks us to believe. As Paul said, the Gospel is “the power of God unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (Romans 1:16).
And that is where the millennium is to be found—not in an earthly kingdom, not in a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, not in the political ascendancy of different church leaders, not in the rigid enforcement of outward morality. The millennium of Revelation 20 refers to the risen Christ having finished His work and sending His Gospel out to the four corners of the earth. It is the era in which the knowledge of the true God and His Son Jesus Christ is advanced to every nation so that many might be converted and saved. Christ rules. He rules now. He rules through the Gospel truth of salvation.
That era of triumph through the Gospel has two important results. The first result is that the Dragon is bound for this same thousand year period. Now, you may remember that the Dragon is just another name given to the Devil/Satan who first deceived our race. Satan is also referred to as the Dragon in Revelation chapter 12 where he is found waiting for the woman’s Child to be born so he could devour Him. He’s foiled in that attempt and we hear how Michael the archangel defeats him in the heavenly realms.
All of these things that happen with the Devil point to a couple of things: He is powerful, he is boiling over with hatred, and he doesn’t give up. That makes him a creature about which every one of us ought to be very concerned.
But we need not despair or panic. In all these images, we see that this dangerous foe is already defeated. He can do nothing to overcome Christ and His kingdom. In our text we hear that he is chained up in the depths of Hell and shall “deceive the nations no more.” [v.3] That’s the key to understanding what this chaining is all about. Satan is actively trying to gather the earth’s powers and people to join forces in rebellion against “the Lord and His anointed” (cf. Psalm 2). More often than not, He does this through sheer deception. He convinces people that evil is good and that rebellion is better than obedience.
But he will deceive the nations no more. The Gentiles have now received the Gospel thanks to the energetic efforts of the apostles. Paul carried the message to Greece which was the high point of culture and religion in the Gentile world and there he laid it out: “Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone…. truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained” (Acts 17:29-31).
As the Gospel extends out into the far reaches of this world turning people from idolatry and spiritual darkness, Satan is bound. He cannot hold these people in their idolatry. The Gospel breaks through and makes people free. Not all believe, but those who don’t have chosen not to believe. They’ve rejected the “seal of the living God” (Revelation 7:2) in favor of the “mark of the beast” (Revelation 13:16). Satan’s ability to move and work freely in nations like China, India, Africa has been forever restrained, just as in the early centuries of Christianity it was restrained in Europe, or the New World in the 17th and 18th centuries.
It seems like a strange little note at the end of this section:“But after these things he must be released for a little while.” [v.3] What’s that about? Not everything about this detail is clear to our understanding, but this much is apparent: As the end of this world draws near and God’s day of judgment is at hand, Satan will have a free hand again and will go out and gather nations and rulers and assemble them for all out war against the Most High God. Someone suggested that this might occur at a time after the elect of God have all been brought to faith. That would explain a lot about Jesus’ statement in Matthew that “Unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened.” (Matthew 24:22)
But this great last lunge of Satan will turn out to be an ambush from heaven. The Lord will utterly destroy this vast Armageddon army so there will be no question left in anybody’s mind whether there is anybody like our God.
The other important message that comes out of this lesson has to do with the saints who held fast to their confession of Christ in the face of persecution. Not every martyr for Christ was beheaded—men have devised much more terrible ways to kill their fellow man. But beheading may imply that the point of killing the martyr was to silence him as well as terrorize the rest of the Christian population.
But John tells us “I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God…and they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” [v.4]
“The souls of those who had been beheaded lived and reigned with Christ.” What marvelous and very reliable comfort that was to the children, wives, and fellow members of those martyrs who had been ruthlessly snatched from them: They still lived and reigned! They had been wrongly accused and unfairly tried in the court of human opinion, but now they were the judges.
It is interesting how little of Revelation is new information. Certainly these are truths we’ve heard before. Do those who die in Christ really die? No, Jesus called it “sleep.” He showed us that life begins at the conception of faith in the heart and cannot be quenched by physical death: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He that believes in me, though he may die, yet he shall live. And He who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).
We who live and die with Christ in this world—no matter how unworthy we may have appeared here or how hated by this world—will sit in judgment with Him in the judgment: “But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials. And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22:28-30)
“Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection.” [v.6] This refers to the conversion of the sinner to faith in Christ. In Baptism we die to the flesh and are raised to a new life in Christ. We who believe have a part in that first resurrection. The confidence we now have is that the second death—eternal death—will have no power over us. We are alive and will remain so as long as we continue in the true faith. Satan is in the death business and eternal death is where he will end up along with all his friends. Our God is in the business of life. May we embrace that life, explore it, and turn away from all that might interfere with it. For we will reign with Him who reigns now for a thousand years and more! Amen
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.