THE BINDING OF SATAN
The text of Revelation 20:1-10 has been given above (p. 98), and some of the important problems it poses for the interpreter must now be considered. In the first place, John describes the binding of Satan, who is seized and thrown into the bottomless pit and there secured and sealed for a thousand years (vv. 1f.). The premillennialist takes this to mean that for the period of one thousand years when Christ, following his second coming, reigns on earth Satan will be immobilized and placed under duress, thus ensuring that this will be a time of peace and blessedness unspoiled by his activities. The purpose of Satan’s binding, however, is defined as being in particular “that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended” (v. 3); and this is better understood, within the perspective of the New Testament, as referring to the present “times of the Gentiles” when the Devil is held under restraint as the Gospel is preached to all nations.
The advent of Christ has brought about a change in the relationship between Satan and the nations. “In past generations God allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways,” Paul told the Gentile crowd at Lystra. But now things are different. That is why he and Barnabas had come to the Gentile territory of Lycaonia and were pleading with them to turn from their vain superstitions to the living God who is the Creator of all (Acts 14:15f.). Later, when he came to Greece, the apostle announced this same change in the situation of the nations to the intellectual audience that had gathered to hear him in Athens. Hitherto, he tells them, “God has overlooked the times of ignorance,” that is to say, the times of Gentile ignorance, during which, so to speak, the nations were in the wings and only the people of Israel were on stage; “but now,” he adds, “he commands all men everywhere to repent.” Why? Because since the advent of Christ, in whom there is blessing for every nation on earth, for Gentile as well as Jew, all men have been brought fully into the scene and it is by him that God “will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:30f.).
Prior to the coming of Christ the nations had been permitted to remain in the darkness and ignorance of that superstition which resulted from Satan’s deception. They had “walked in their own ways.” In striking contrast to this, Israel alone of all the peoples on earth had been entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom. 3:2); they had the knowledge and the enlightenment which God’s revelation brings; and therefore it was required of them that they should be altogether distinct from the nations precisely by walking, not in their own ways (which would be to imitate the nations), but in God’s ways (cf. Dt. 5:32f.; 10:12; 12:1ff., etc.). “You are a people holy to the Lord your God,” Moses reminded them, “and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth” (Dt. 14:2) — but God’s choosing of the Israelites was, as we have earlier observed, for the purpose of bringing blessing to all the nations of the earth, and that purpose has been achieved in and through the coming of Christ.
No longer, then, are the nations left in the shadows. No longer is Satan permitted to blind the nations with his deception. For God’s salvation has been “prepared in the presence of all peoples” and Christ is “a light to lighten the nations” as well as the glory of God’s people Israel (Lk. 2:30-32). Christ’s witnesses are now to proclaim the gospel message to the farthest parts of the earth so that the fulness of the nations may be brought in (Mt. 24:14; Rom. 11:25). The power of Satan over the nations has been broken by the power of the Gospel. The darkness of his deception is dispelled by the light of him who declared, “I am the Light of the world” (Jn. 8:12; 9:5). Thus the presence of Jesus in “Galilee of the nations” means for Matthew the fulfilment of the words spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (Mt. 4:13-16; Is. 9:1f.).
In Revelation 20:2f. the binding of Satan is specifically limited in reference to his deceiving of the nations. The considerations we have given point to the reason for this particular sphere of reference. His binding, therefore, does not preclude the possibility of his continuing activity in the world within the lives of individuals or of society in general. As “the god of this world” his evil work is apparent in his “blinding of the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). He is still “our adversary the devil” who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). But his binding in relation to the nations is nonetheless real as the Gospel multiplies its conquests throughout the world.
Philip Edgecumbe Hughes was Visiting Professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia and Associate Rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania. His other works include Theology of the English Reformers, Commentary on II Corinthians, But for the Grace of God, and Confirmation in the Church Today.
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