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Deceiving the nations

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Revelation 20:1-3 claims that Satan is cast into the abyss, which is "shut" and "sealed" for 1000 years, and verses 7-10 add that at the end of the 1000 years, Satan will be released to gather the nations against the beloved city of God until they are devoured. What kind of restraint is being put on Satan? Is he utterly powerless? And, what's the point of the release at the end of the millennium?

Beale offers a number of compelling arguments for suggesting that the restriction of Satan in Revelation 20 is a specific and not a general limitation of Satan's activity. Grammatically, the purpose clause in verse 3b specifies the rationale for the binding and sealing of vv 1-3a; Satan is bound, thrown, shut, and sealed "so that he should not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed." That is the specific purpose of the binding; that is the specific limitation of Satan's power that is noted in the text. Further, Beale explores the use of "binding Satan" language in the gospel, and argues that this binding (in, eg, Mark 3:27) does not restrict Satan in every respect. Further, the notion that Satan is "sealed" in the abyss does not limit it totally: "'Sealing' may connote an absolute incarceration, but could just as well connote the general idea of 'authority over,' which is its primary meaning also in Dan. 6:17 and Matt. 27:66. . . . God's 'seal' on Christians does not protect them in every sense but only in a spiritual, salvific manner, since they suffer persecution in various physical ways [citing Rev 7:3; 9:4]. Conversely, God's seal on Satan prevents him from harming the salvific security of the true church, though he can harm it physically." (I'm not perfectly content with the way Beale says this, but the point is correct.) Finally, Rev 20:7-10 describes Satan's activities at the end of the millennium, when he is "released from his prison, and will come out to receive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth" (v 7-8a). Satan does after the millennium what he has been prevented from doing throughout the millennium - deceiving the nations. In the context of Rev 20, this deception has the specific purpose of uniting the nations against the saints. So, Satan is bound and restricted insofar as he is under the authority of Christ (the God-MAN) and insofar as he is unable to deceive the nations in order to unite them against the "camp of the saints" (v. 9).

This conclusion can be filled out by exploring Satan's role in the rest of Revelation. Satan is first referred to in connection with the "synagogue of Satan," the false Jews who are guilty of blasphemy and lies (2:9; 3:9). I take the other references to Satan in the seven letters ("Satan's throne," 2:13; "deep things of Satan," 2:24) in relation to the synagogue of Satan. That is, Revelation first talks about Satan (the "accuser") as the power behind the Jewish and Judaizing opponents of the Christian church (cf. John 8). This makes sense within the double narrative of John's gospel and apocalypse: The Jewish leaders took the role of Satanic accuser in relation to Jesus, and they do the same toward His followers. When Satan appears in the vision of Revelation 12, he is described as the "accuser of our brethren" who "accuses them before our God day and night" (v. 10).

Revelation 12 is the first time in the book that Satan is described as a "deceiver" (12:9), and he is called this as he is thrown down from heaven. There appears to be a sequence here: While he has access to the heavenly court, he can function as an accuser; that is the role he has played since the fall of Adam (Job 1-2; Zech 3). But once Jesus ascends to heaven, Satan is cast down from that position, and no longer has a standing to accuse the saints. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has justified us; who can condemn? But that does not end Satan's campaign. Instead, he changes tactics. Instead of accusing, he begins to deceive, returning to the original strategy he employed in the garden of Eden. Through the rest of Revelation, Satan and the beasts he calls up from the sea embark on a propaganda campaign to deceive the "whole earth" [12:9; Greek, GE]; "those who dwell on the earth" [13:14; Greek, GE]. With James Jordan, I take GE here to refer specifically to the land of Israel (this is very evident in the contrast of land and sea beast in chapter 13). The specific point of this deception is to entice the people of the land to make an image of the sea beast (Rome) and do homage to it (vv. 14-15), and to persecute anyone who refuses to do homage to the beast (v. 15). Those who refuse to accept the mark of the beast, who refuse to do homage to Rome, will not be able to engage in the "buying and selling," the liturgical exchanges of the Jewish temple. Because of the deceptions of Satan working through the false prophet, those who refuse to swear allegiance to Caesar are cast out of the synagogue (cf. John 9). In short, instead of attempting to turn God against His people by accusations in the heavenly court, Satan deceives the Jews to cooperate with Rome to destroy the church.

There is a kind of chiasm to Satan's career:

A. Deceiver in Eden
B. Accuser
A'. Deceiver of the new Eden of the church

Satan's deception is not, however, restricted to the "people of the land." The climax of the prophetic denunciation of the merchandizing of Babylon in Rev 18 is the judgment that Babylon/Jerusalem has "deceived" the nations (Greek, ETHNE) "by your sorcery" (18:23). This is immediately followed by the charge that "in her was found all the blood of prophets and of saints and of all who have been slain on the earth" (18:24). Thus, the deceived people of the land become deceivers for the whole world. Sound familiar? Liberal churchmen deceive the nations into an ideology of tolerance and pluralism.

When the city falls, Jesus makes war against the kings of the earth, who have been enticed by the sea beast and the false prophet (= land beast) and tosses them into the lake of fire (19:19-20). Those particular carriers of Satanic deception are destroyed. And Satan himself is prevented from carrying out a similar scheme during the 1000 years of the millennium. Though deceived religious leaders will continue to deceive political leaders in order to persecute the church, Satan will not be able to unite all the nations to battle the saints until the millennium is complete. That is the specific limit on his power during the present period. Like an imprisoned Mafioso, Satan is still able to pull strings, foment confusion, and harass the church. But he does not have the power to unite the nations against the Lord and against His Anointed.

Why would he be given that power and permission at the end of the millennium? Let me suggest, tentatively, that this is part of the church's outliving of the life of Jesus. Jesus cast out demons and claim to have bound Satan to plunder his house. But at the end of his ministry, Satan worked through Jews and Romans to put Jesus on the cross. At his resurrection and ascension, however, He cast Satan out. That was the end of Satan's power to accuse in heaven. This whole story is played out on a broader scale in the history of the church. The church's history begins with the restriction of Satan's power to deceive. But at the end of the church's story, Satan will again unite the nations against the Lord and against His anointed, until fire falls from heaven, and Satan is thrown, with the beast and the false prophet, into the lake of fire.

posted by Peter J. Leithart on Saturday, May 07, 2005 at 11:11 AM

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