Revelation chapter 20 enjoys an unenviable reputation as a controversial chapter. It consists of two scenes – the thousand year reign of Christ on earth with his saints and the Great Assize – the great courtroom scene of the final judgement all flesh.
To get this chapter we need key perspectives. First, doctrinally Revelation follows the same a pattern of eschatological events widely agreed in Scripture and confessed by all orthodox Christians in the Nicene Creed: the coming of Jesus, who appears as a rider on a white horse in Revelation 19; the resurrection of the dead and the judgement of the living and the dead (they’re here in Chapter 20) and the New Creation which begins in next chapter. But what Revelation chapter 20 does that is unique in the New Testament is place a thousand year reign of Christ on earth between the first resurrection of the righteous and the later resurrection of the unrighteous. Second comes Scripture’s big story. Combining the six plus one creation week of Genesis 1 with Psalm 90.4 (‘a day is a thousand years in your sight’) gave early believers the idea of a world-week: that the world will have six days or six thousand years of labour and then a glorious final day of Sabbath rest for 1000 years. After that (on the second Sunday of creation – the day of new creation) God will make a new world. Third Revelation follows the sequence of a key text – rather surprisingly in the book of Ezekiel. Revelation follows the sequence of Ezekiel’s final chapters: after the resurrection of the dead in Ezekiel 37 and before the new Jerusalem in chapter 40-48 there are two chapters that describe a war between God’s people and …here we go… Gog the prince of the land of Magog. Combine these three things and you get the doctrine that after the resurrection of God’s holy people at his return, they will reign with Jesus on earth for the 1000 years of its sabbath rest. Then with Satan’s release, all the final remnants of evil will be gathered together and simply be despatched in a final decisive divine conflagration.
The point of the thousand year rule of Christ on earth whilst Satan is bound is simple: imagine the world with Satan’s power is banished and with Jesus ruling with his people. Imagine if those who were oppressed, persecuted, and put to death, came to life and reigned with Jesus in his upside down kingdom. God has plans this chapter says, to renew the face of the earth in this way before creating new heavens and a new earth. If God did not give the world its Sabbath rest, He might be saying that this world is so problematic that it won’t fulfil God’s intention for it. It would simply need to be demolished to make way for a better world. And all your green theology based on valuing creation goes up the spout. No. God will first perfect this world so that we remember that this is the world that he looked at and said: ‘it is good’. This world will have its Shabbat – it’s Sabbath rest. Only then will God create again and make a place where we can live with Him forever. Message: God’s world is his good creation and he will not allow the evil that despoils it to have sway forever. The Lamb will take his great power and begin to reign. And the kingdoms of the world will become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.
The message of the five verse judgement scene is stark and simple: God has legal authority over death and Hades: when he calls they must give up their dead to the author of life and only completely just judge. God remembers all our deeds in his book. No-one’s deeds are hidden forever. It’s a more moral world than most people imagine because our good and just God is the last and best authority. There are no exceptions, no excuses and no escape. Not for anyone, not Hitler, not Stalin, not Pol Pot. Not me. That’s the bad news.
Interviewed on BBC radio Lord Hailsham, Quintin Hogg, lawyer, politician and former Lord Chancellor who knew quite a bit about courts was asked as an old man if he feared death. ‘No’ he said ‘but I fear judgment. I shall plead guilty and throw myself on the mercy of the court.’ The book of our deeds records only our filthy rags. But the other book, the second book, the book of life, the book of God’s mercy in Christ is what counts not our deeds. That’s the good news.
Lord, forgive us when we take your lovely world for granted and treat it as if we are its Lords, not stewards holding it in trust for you, who is its Lord and ours. And Lord, help us to remember that you both call us to account for our actions and lavish your mercy on us each day.