‘And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, the old serpent, which is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and cast him into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more: until the thousand years should be finished: after this he must be loosed for a little time’ (Rev 20:1-3).
A close reading of these verses makes it obvious that they contain one central thought – a binding of Satan. It is also obvious that the thought is conveyed through symbolism. Even those who insist on a literal one thousand year binding of Satan hasten to say that most of the other symbols are to be interpreted spiritually! They admit that the key, the abyss, the chain, the sealing, etc., are obviously figures of speech; they also agree that Satan is not literally a dragon and at the same time a serpent, but that John is describing him poetically. While these folk insist on taking part of this chapter hyperliterally, they can see the incongruities involved in binding Satan, a spiritual being, with physical chains and keys. This is why they admit that parts of this section of Revelation are to receive a figurative interpretation.
The question arises here, as in all parts of the Revelation, as to just who is to be the judge in deciding what parts of a given verse are to be interpreted literally and which parts symbolically. Who gives the millennialist the right to decide that one word is literal while the very next word is symbolic, then to ostracize another Christian for daring to suggest that both words might be symbolism? To say that Satan is to be bound after Christ comes the second time, then released again, contradicts many clear passages of Scripture. Assuming this to be so, and assuming that one Scripture passage does not contradict another, let us search out clear teachings of the New Testament concerning a binding of Satan. It is to be noted that John nowhere fixes the time for this event.
Only one event coincides with John’s picturesque language here in Revelation 20:1-3 – this event is the defeat of Satan brought about by Christ’s first advent and crucifixion. For those who object that Satan still has much power today, let it be noted that John does not picture him as obliterated, but merely imprisoned. Many a prisoner has been known to operate from inside barred windows through henchmen on the outside. And many a dog, though bound, has bitten people who came within the confines of his chain. Satan is bound, but with a long chain. Our Lord certainly overcame him and pronounced sentence upon him (John 12:31); however, the sentence will not be completely executed until the second coming (2 Thess 2:7,8). Satan was eternally doomed when, on the cross, Christ bruised the head of the serpent in fulfillment of Genesis 3:15.
Floyd E. Hamilton (The Basis of Millennial Faith) makes some helpful observations on the subject of Satan’s being bound.
‘I suppose that no one would insist that Satan is to be bound with a literal chain of iron or some other metal, for Satan is a spirit and material chains could not hold him captive for a moment. Binding always means the limitation of power, in some way. When men bound themselves with an oath not to do something, they agreed to limit their own power and rights to the extent of their oaths. A man and wife are bound by their marriage vows, but that does not mean that they are bound in respect to other relationships in life. A slave is bound to his master, but he lives his life as a human being with freedom to do countless other things which do not interfere with his relationship as a slave to his master. So Satan’s being bound does not mean that he is powerless to tempt people, and we know that he does. It is merely limitation of Satan’s power in one particular respect especially, that of ability to deceive the nations. During the interadventual period the gospel is to be proclaimed to all nations, and Satan is powerless to prevent it. The way of salvation has been opened to all nations and there is nothing that Satan can do to block that way’ (pp. 131-32).
‘In Hebrews 2:14, the writer tells us, that through death He might bring to nought him that had the power of death, that is, the devil. Christ brought the devil to nought, that is, He limited the devil’s power in such a way that all his efforts amounted to nothing, and his power was definitely frustrated. All these things show that in the New Testament Christ claimed that in a very real sense he had bound Satan, and limited his power. In Revelation 20, one particular aspect of that binding is before us, namely, the limiting of Satan’s power to deceive the nations as he did before the coming of Christ. From that time forward during the whole of the interadventual dispensation Satan is defeated in fact. He can still go about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, but in this particular respect he is a caged lion’ (ibid., pp. 132-33).
When Jesus sent the Twelve on a preaching mission (Luke 9:1) he gave them power and authority over all demons. He also sent seventy disciples on a similar mission, and they returned rejoicing in the fact that even the, demons are subject unto us in thy name (Luke 10:17). Then it was that Jesus said to them that he beheld Satan fall from heaven. We take this as a reference to his defeat of Satan at the cross (see Rev 12:7-12). Our Lord went on to say to the seventy disciples, Behold, I have given you authority … over all the power of the enemy (Luke 10:19).
Matthew records a time during our Lord’s earthly ministry (Matt 12:22-29) when the enemies of Christ accused him of casting out demons in the power of Satan himself. Our Lord took this opportunity to point out that his mighty works proved (1) that he had established his kingdom (vs. 28), and (2) that he, being stronger than Satan, had come into Satan’s house (this world) and bound him (vs. 29).
Following the Temptation, our Lord issued a command to Satan which was immediately obeyed (Matt 4:10,11). Our Lord referred to his crucifixion as the casting out of Satan (John 12:31-33). Paul also refers to the cross as follows: Having despoiled the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it (Col 2:15). John informs us (1 John 3:8): To this end was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Paul shows the defeat of Satan’s power when he says (Eph 4:8): When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive . The writer of Hebrews (2:14) says that through his death our Lord brought to nought the devil. This shows conclusively that our Lord bound Satan (i.e., limited his power) at the first advent.
We concur with Hamilton that John, in Revelation 20:1-3, refers to only one facet of that limitation, that is, Satan’s power to deceive the nations by keeping them from hearing the gospel. Before Christ came, only the Jew (except for the rare instances when Gentile proselytes were circumcised and made partakers with Israel) was offered the plan of salvation. Thus Satan was able to deceive the nations (Gentiles) by keeping them from hearing the gospel and being saved. After Calvary, however, Satan’s power to do this was bound. Our Lord then said: All authority bath been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations (Matt 28:18,19).
Having said that Satan was bound, John went on to say that he would be released at the end of the millennium for a little time (Rev 20:3). Now this also is in keeping with the clear teachings of the New Testament. This loosing, I believe, corresponds with the appearing of the man of sin referred to by the apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12. Paul’s statement, The mystery of lawlessness doth already work: only there is one that restraineth now, until he be taken out of the way, corresponds perfectly with what we have said about the limiting of Satan’s present power. This restrainer is taken to be the Holy Spirit. This also points up the fact that Satan is bound, having only such power as God grants him. Whenever God is ready, he will remove the restrainer; that is, the Holy Spirit will be taken out of the way (2 Thess 2:7). Then, says Paul, the lawless one (man of sin) will be given full power to deceive them that perish (vs 1O). Paul goes on to say that the Lord Jesus Christ will slay the man of sin (Satan) at His second coming. Compare this teaching and order of events with John the Revelator’s teaching in Revelation 20. John says that after the millennium Satan, who has been chained during that period, will be loosed for a little time (vs. 3) and that he will then go about to deceive the nations. John says, in symbolic language (vs. 9), that fire from heaven will put down Satan and his followers. A comparison of 2 Thessalonians 1 and 2 with Revelation 20 cannot help but reveal that Paul and John both speak of the same events. And both passages agree entirely with many other clear passages of the Bible dealing with our Lord’s second coming and events preceding it.