In my beginning years in the School of Biblical Studies I spent a lot of time studying and teaching subjects related to eschatology (or the end times). One of these was the millennium, a fancy term for the “thousand years” mentioned in Revelation 20. It has always struck me as odd that this brief passage, just two short scenes (roughly 1.5% of the text) in a book brimming with multi-coloured visionary spectacle, get so much weight in different systems of eschatology – to the point that these systems are even named after the millennium: premillennialism, postmillennialism, amillennialism (more about these terms later).
In this issue and the next I am going to revisit the millennium plus two closely related subjects:
- “The battle” (or “the war,” the same word in Greek; see esp. Rev. 12:7, 16:14, 19:19, and 20:8; in the final three verses, the word is used with the article).
- The binding of Satan, “so that he might not deceive the nations any longer” (Rev. 20:1-3).
In this issue, I will look at the battle; in another issue, I will discuss the millennium.
Before I start, however, let me state my aim. Traditional interpretation has been rigid, often treating this material as chronology. That is, it understands these passages in terms of:
- A concrete and distinct event: a final battle at the end of history.
- A distinct era in salvation history: a long in-between age called the millennium, which follows the final battle and the return of Christ, but precedes the new heavens and the new earth.
In reality, this material is more complex and also more fluid or flexible. Both the millennium and the battle have more to do with the present than most of us are aware. In this issue, I am going to argue that the battle may be thought of as repeated, progressive, or cumulative – or perhaps all three at the same time. In this case, the battle does not only happen at the end of history; it may actually be spread out and take place throughout history.
My aim with these two essays is, therefore, to present a case for a more flexible and fluid understanding of the final battle and the millennium, an understanding that leaves us with less certainty about what the final years of the present age will look like, but makes these two otherwise somewhat arcane theoretical concepts relevant to life today, even if Jesus would tarry for another one thousand years.
A Few Things about the Book of Revelation
Before I take a look at the “final battle” motif in the prophetic writings, there are some things I need to point out about the book of Revelation.
1. Rome. The book has everything to do with the confrontation between the early church and the Roman Empire. Much in the book of Revelation reflects this Roman setting and fits well with the realities of that time. The first readers would have had no trouble making this connection. Both Babylon and the beast are Rome, representing, on the one hand, its economic power and wealth, and on the other, its military and imperial strength.
At the same time, both symbolic realities are bigger than Rome, so Rome and its demise do not exhaust the idea of either Babylon or the beast. There will follow other manifestations of human government and human civilization as tools of the dragon to oppose God and his people.
2. Symbolism. Much in this book is symbolic. A symbol is anything that is used to represent something else. This is part of the core nature of Revelation: the story (in this case, of the end of evil and the full establishment of God’s rule on earth, in other words, of the redemption of creation) is told by means of symbols – a coded language that needs to be decoded by applying the right key. Many things don’t even make sense if taken literally, for instance: a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes; a dragon and a beast with seven heads and ten horns; Christ with seven stars in his right hand and a sword coming out of his mouth. At least in principle, it is possible that the idea of “a thousand years” and the binding of Satan are symbolic as well.
3. Recapitulation. Revelation consists of series of seven (letters, seals, trumpets, seven signs starting in Rev. 11:19, bowls, seven judgment scenes starting in Rev. 19:11). These series are not consecutive; they overlap and to a large extent run parallel, covering more or less the same ground. This is called recapitulation. The clearest example is Revelation 12, where we read about the birth of Jesus – something that was already in the past when John was writing. This follows the seventh trumpet, with which according to Revelation 10:6-7 the entire plan and purpose of God would be brought to completion, without further delays. So we reach the end and then John takes a back to an earlier point; this is something that happens repeatedly in the book.
Here is another example. In Revelation 14:20 we read: “And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia.” Much later, in Revelation 19:15 we read: “He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” What happens in chapter 14 is still future in 19:15.
There is a sequence in the vision that John saw: one scene follows another. Once we recognize there is recapitulation in the vision, we realize that this visionary sequence is not identical to the sequence of events in history. This book is not chronological.
The “final battle” (singular) is recapitulated as well and therefore appears in different places in the book. Instead of a series of distinct battles, there is only one battle throughout the book – therefore “war” would perhaps be the better translation.
4. The “settings”: peeks into heaven. Each series of seven is preceded by a setting, an introductory scene that shows us something of the heavenly temple or the heavenly throne room (the same place). Before we read the seven letters, we see Jesus in the midst of the seven lampstands (Rev. 1:9-20). Before the seven seals are broken, we get an elaborate description of the throne room (Rev. 4-5). Before the seven trumpets are blown, there is a scene around the altar of incense (Rev. 8:2-6), and so on.
When we come to the seven judgment scenes in Revelation 19 and 20 (each of them introduced by “and I saw”), there is such an introduction as well. We find it in Revelation 19:11-16. Therefore, THIS IS NOT THE SECOND COMING. It is another view of the heavenly reality – a reality both past and present as well as future. Jesus is riding out as the Divine Warrior into the battle that is history.
A Few Things about the “Final Battle” Motif
The idea of a “final battle” or war is a familiar motif in the Old Testament prophets. This battle will put an end to the present world order and replace it with God’s rule from Zion. It usually takes the form of many nations attacking the people of Israel. The most elaborate description is found in Ezekiel 38 and 39: the attack by Gog of Magog, a prophecy clearly taken up by John, even if in a radically redefined form. When John reaches back to Ezekiel 38 and 39, the battle is no longer against Israel, but against Christ and his people. And the personal name Gog for a leader of the land of Magog has become a cipher, “Gog and Magog,” for the nations of the world, in as far as they resist God until the bitter end.
The prophets, then, expected some sort of culmination of the perennial conflict between Israel as God’s people and the pagan nations at the end. This would be part of God establishing his rule on earth as part of a new age and a new (or renewed) creation.
But then came Jesus and with him, the future began. The kingdom of heaven was inaugurated. The promise that had been entirely future now became both – in some ways – still future and at the same time a present reality – in some other ways. This has repercussions for the idea of a “final” battle. For one, this battle is redefined in the New Testament: the real opponent is not the pagan nations, but the forces of evil behind those nations. For another, like the kingdom, the battle is not limited to the end but happens within history as well, because history since Christ is the end.
In fact, already in the OT, we find hints that this battle or conflict was not merely and entirely a future and final event. Let’s take a look at Psalm 2:
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.” (Ps. 2:1-3, 6)
This is a messianic Psalm, finding its fulfillment in Christ, but only because it has its roots in David’s experience as the OT prototype of the NT Messiah. Israel’s battles were more than instances of national warfare; they had deep spiritual significance because they were part of the enduring conflict between a rebellious humanity and its creator.
This OT view of the nations gathering together to make war on Israel inspired the battle scenes in the book of Revelation: Armageddon. But it is no longer a literal, military type of battle. Even in Acts, this appears to be the case. In this book, Psalm 2 inspired the prayers of the church after some of the apostles had been arrested and released:
When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,
‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed’—
for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:23-28)
Nations gathered to make war against Christ – this sounds like a small Armageddon. It certainly fulfills Psalm 2, but in an unexpected way, showing that the “final” battle does not only happen at the end. It also shows the war has taken on new forms: it is no longer an ordinary war in which one army battles another.
The Battle: Two? Or One? Or Many(-Fold)?
Okay, so “the battle” coincides with history. But aren’t there two battles at the end of the book of Revelation, and not just one, with the millennium in the middle? Well, no. There is only one battle in Ezekiel 38-39, and both Revelation 19:17-21 and Revelation 20:7-10 borrow heavily from Ezekiel. And both passages refer to “the battle”. Most likely, John wants us to understand both as describing one and the same battle, namely the one Ezekiel wrote about.
What then about the millennium? In the issue about the millennium, we will deal more extensively with Revelation 20:1-6. One possibility is to understand the binding of Satan as a flashback (in his excellent commentary, G. K. Beale argues extensively for this view; 1999:972ff). This is something that happened at an earlier stage. In this view, the binding of Satan took place on the cross. The passage is a parallel to Revelation 12:7-12, where the accuser is thrown down out of heaven, having lost his ability to accuse the brethren, now that Christ has atoned for their sin: “There is therefore now no condemnation” (Rom. 8:1). In fact, even when still on earth, when the 72 returned from their evangelistic outreach, Jesus could say: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Lk. 10:18).
Another option is that “the battle” recurs throughout history, leading to a progressive victory over the serpent as in more and more places more and more people follow Christ. The conflict between the church and Rome was one such instance, a pattern that repeats itself in other places. Will this recurring war end with a climactic final “final battle”? Perhaps, but not necessarily so. It is also possible to think of this battle as progressive or cumulative: the sum of all the historical manifestations together. Revelation leaves this possibility open. We can be certain of victory, but not of how exactly and when it will come about.
Either way, whether the binding is a flashback or the battle plus binding is a recurring pattern, Revelation 19 and 20 deal with the same war that we already read about in Revelation 12. It also appears in Revelation 12:17, 13:7, and 16:14 (the latter verse is about gathering the forces for “the war” in Psalm 2 language).
Knowing there is recapitulation in the book, we can understand why the battle keeps appearing. Compare Revelation 17:14 with Revelation 19:11-16:
They [the beast and the ten kings] will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! … he judges and makes war … And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations … he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
If the beast is the Roman Empire and its emperor, at least in its initial manifestation, then the war or battle referred to in chapter 17 was already in full swing in the first century (see Rev. 12:17, 13:7); it is not an event entirely in the future. The clear parallel between the two passages confirms what was stated earlier: Revelation 19:11-16 does not show us the second coming, but the reality of Christ’s present involvement in the conflict of the ages.
Conclusion: The Battle Is Now
The war between light and darkness that we know from the Old Testament, although essentially decided through the death and resurrection of Christ, has intensified in some respects at the same time (so Rev. 12:7-9).
- It has broadened geographically, from Israel to a worldwide conflict.
- It has become more obvious that it is a spiritual conflict; ultimately, the opponent is Satan.
- It marks the entire age between the birth of Christ and his return in glory, sometimes more, sometimes less.
This conflict, “the battle,” can be seen more readily in some phases and in some places than in others. The early church certainly felt the full brunt of it. So do Christians in a number of places today. We can, therefore, think about the “final battle” in these terms:
- It repeats itself throughout history.
- It has a progressive element: with each confrontation, Satan’s power and influence are diminished. Perhaps we could even say that his “binding” increases.
- In another sense, it is the cumulative effect or the sum of all these manifestations together. In other words, the entire time period between the first coming of Christ and his return is “the battle”.
It makes perfect sense, therefore, to state that the battle is today. And as we will see in the next issue, so is the millennium.
K. Beale (1999), The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans) [The best commentary on Revelation that I am aware of.]
K. Beale & D. Campell (2015), Revelation: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans) [An abbreviated version of the previous title.]
Standard Bible Society (2001), The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Standard Bible Society)
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