by David Vaughn Elliott
Satan is public enemy number one. Among the most important issues in life are the relationships between Satan, God, and man. Does God control Satan? To what extent? Are we stronger than Satan or is Satan stronger than we are? What is meant by the binding of Satan in Revelation 20?
SYMBOLS OF SPIRITUAL REALITIES
Chapter 20, like all of Revelation, is filled with symbolism. In 20:2, we have "the dragon, that serpent of old." This is not simply a literal snake-in-the-grass or a literal Chinese-like dragon, anymore than the Lamb of Revelation is a literal four-legged mammal. Surely, "that serpent of old" takes our minds back to Eden. Also, "Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light" (2 Cor. 11:14). He comes in many disguises. In the case before us, Revelation itself interprets the figure: "the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan" (20:2).
Another symbol is the "key to the bottomless pit" (Rev. 9:1; 20:1). "Key" appears six times in the New Testament. Not once does it refer to a literal, physical key. The "keys of the kingdom" (Matt. 16:19), are surely not physical keys to physical doors. The "key of knowledge" (Luke 11:52), is obviously a spiritual concept. Jesus possesses the keys of Hades, of death, and of David (Rev. 1:18; 3:7). Who would claim that a physical key was passed down from David to Jesus? Nor can there be any physical key to death.
"Keys" in the above cases are clearly the power to make available (to open) and to restrict (to shut). We need not question the shape or size of the "key to the bottomless pit." It is all symbolic of great restrictions placed upon Satan.
"Bound" is another leading word in Revelation 20. "Binding" expresses limitations or obligations. "A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives"(1 Cor. 7:39). Whether God's or men's laws, we often speak of something being (or not being) binding. A wife being bound in no way implies inactivity or inability to influence others. The binding refers to one circumstance only--she cannot leave her husband for another man.
Jesus said of the future teaching of the apostles: "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven" (Matt. 18:18). This binding neither physically limits anyone nor even forces anyone to do God's will. Rather, the apostles' doctrine is binding spiritually with eternal consequences.
To understand Revelation's symbols, we must consider how they are used elsewhere. To understand the admittedly difficult concept of binding Satan, we must consider all that the New Testament teaches regarding limits placed on Satan.
JESUS RESISTED SATAN'S TEMPTATIONS
The great war between God and Satan, which is at least as old as the earth, entered an entirely new phase when Jesus came. Among other things, He came to battle Satan, our archenemy.
Just before the start of His ministry, Jesus was confronted by Satan. Two temptations were initiated with the challenge: "If you are the Son of God" (Matt. 4:3,6). Satan must have known he could not tempt God. He certainly did know he had succeeded in tempting (and causing to sin) every human being who ever lived. Now Satan had a totally new challenge: Deity in the flesh. Thus, these two temptations were challenges for Jesus to prove Himself. "Let's see," says Satan, "if you are really the Son of God. Prove it." Jesus resisted.
The third temptation went at it a different way: "If You will fall down and worship me" (Matt. 4:9). Falling down to worship Satan would disprove Jesus' Deity, since He would be making himself inferior to Satan. Satan and the Word were in fierce combat. Jesus won all three rounds.
JESUS OVERPOWERED SATAN'S DEMONS
Nearly every case of demon possession recorded in Scripture took place during Jesus' ministry. Satan must have realized that Jesus in the flesh was an extremely serious threat to his power. He therefore "pulled out all the stops." He tried everything to overcome Jesus. However, his plans backfired.
The multitudes were so taken with Jesus' power that they seriously considered He could be the promised "Son of David" (Matt. 12:22,23). The Pharisees, quite unsettled, replied that Jesus was casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub (verses 24-27). Their remark offered Jesus the perfect opportunity to make two amazing declarations.
First, Jesus said: "If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you" (verse 28). Jesus' power over demons was evidence of the arrival of God's kingdom. It was evidence that Satan could not stop the kingdom that had been promised by Israel's prophets. No Jewish rejection would stop the kingdom from arriving. Satan himself could not stop it. Indeed, God's spiritual kingdom is precisely involved in overcoming Satan's power in men's lives.
JESUS BOUND SATAN
Jesus made a second amazing declaration that day: "How can one enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man?" (Matt. 12:29). In the context, the strong man is Satan, the house is his sphere of influence (compare Matt. 4:8,9) and the one who plunders the house is Jesus. Casting out demons, as He had just done, is an example of the plundering. In order to plunder Satan's house, Jesus "first binds the strong man." Jesus was right then in the business of "binding" Satan.
"Binds" here is precisely the same English (and Greek) word used in Rev. 20:2! Thus, the concept of binding Satan is not new to Revelation. The binding of Satan need not be relegated to our future. Even before Calvary and the open tomb, the powerful Word of Life was walking this planet, placing limitations upon Satan--"binding" him.
Mark 3:27 reads basically the same as Matt. 12:29. In Luke's parallel text, Jesus' words are stated differently: "When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace. But when a stronger than he comes upon him and overcomes him, he takes from him all his armor in which he trusted, and divides his spoils" (11: 21,22). Jesus says He is "stronger than" Satan, that Satan is no longer "in peace," and that Jesus "overcomes him." Jesus "takes from him all his armor in which he trusted." Jesus "divides his spoils." The Word in flesh was overpowering Satan!
The problem with many believers is that they only think of the "binding of Satan" in connection with Revelation 20. They overlook the "binding of Satan" in the Gospels. The book of Revelation is "The Revelation of Jesus Christ" (1:1). This Jesus Christ is the same Jesus Christ who spoke of binding Satan 65 years earlier in the presence of the same John who wrote Revelation. Matthew 12, Mark 3, Luke 11 and Revelation 20 cannot be isolated from one another. Jesus overcame and bound Satan the first time He came to earth!
"BINDING" IS NOT AN ABSOLUTE TERM
There is much discussion as to how absolute the "binding" of Satan was, is, or will be. An examination of Jesus' earthly ministry furnishes us with important clues. In spite of Jesus talking about binding Satan, Satan still had enormous power at that time. The demon-possessed people showed Satan's power. Satan was working even in the lives of Jesus' apostles. We mourn over hypocrites in the church today, yet even Jesus had His Judas. Look at how the mobs turned against Jesus and pushed Pilate to allow His crucifixion.
In spite of all Satan's activity during Jesus' ministry, Jesus referred to himself as binding Satan at that time. Therefore, there is no Scriptural warrant for forcing the "binding" of Satan in Revelation 20 to be a situation in which Satan is totally inactive, with no more influence over people. Such an interpretation of "binding" is a doctrine of men, with not one Bible text to back it up. Throughout Scripture, spiritual binding refers to placing certain limitations and gaining certain victories. It does not refer to causing a cessation of all power and influence.
Being "chained" does limit a person, but in no way does it restrain the person from all activity and influence. This is readily illustrated in the imprisonment of Paul. While Paul was chained, he converted Onesimus (Philemon 10). In Phil. 1:12-14 Paul says that his being in chains "actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel." Five of Paul's epistles were written while he was in chains. Chains and imprisonment limit people, but in no way do they make them powerless.
SATAN CAST OUT
Jesus used more expressions to declare His victory over Satan. For example, "The seventy returned with joy, saying, 'Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.' And He said to them, 'I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven' " (Luke 10:17,18). Once again, it is power over demons that causes Jesus to announce victory over Satan. Jesus added, "Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy" (verse 19). But lest the disciples, past and present, think that physical power is what it is all about, Jesus continued: "Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven" (verse 20). This is the real victory over Satan!
The week of His crucifixion, Jesus said: " 'Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.' This He said, signifying by what death He would die" (John 12:31-33). Satan cast out! When? "Now... will be cast out." By what means? The "death He would die." We cannot escape the conclusion that at Calvary, Jesus triumphed over Satan, casting him out.
Rev. 12:7-10 teaches the same thing, telling of war in heaven that resulted in Satan being cast out. Verse 11 explains that "they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb." "Overcame." That is the same English (and Greek) word we saw in Luke 11:22, where Matt. 12:29 and Mark 3:27 say "bound." Thus consider: "Overcame him [bound him] by the blood of the Lamb."
Rev. 12:10 further says: "For the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down." Because of Jesus' sacrifice, Satan can no longer accuse men of deserving the death penalty. That is what Romans 8 says: "If God is for us, who can be against us?... Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies... It is Christ who died... who also makes intercession for us" (31-34). Satan is no longer before God to accuse us! Remember Job? Jesus is now before God to intercede for us! Hallelujah!
Calvary was not defeat. Calvary was victory! Jesus was lifted up. Satan was cast out. The two events are inseparable. It is impossible to interpret Revelation 20 correctly if we ignore the great victory that Jesus has already won over Satan.
THE DEVIL DESTROYED
Jesus took on flesh like us, Hebrews says, "that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil" (2:14). In Jesus' death, Satan is destroyed. I do not comprehend it all; but these are strong words. "Destroy" is obviously stronger than "bind," "cast out" or "overcome." Are there some future elements involved here? No doubt. Even when we say that Jesus "saves," there is a future eternal element involved.
However, there is definitely a present element. Verse 15 continues the sentence, "and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage." "Were" all their lifetime. Surely, the implication is that through Christ we are not in bondage to death as the world is. As Paul wrote: "I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13,14). The death and resurrection of Jesus forever changed the dynamics of the universe.
The same John who wrote Revelation, also wrote in his first epistle: "The Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil" (3:8). Why did Jesus come to the world? To seek and to save our lost souls? Surely. But that includes destroying the works of the devil!
Elaborating many of the things involved when Jesus went to the cross, Paul included: "Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it" (Col. 2:13-15). Jesus disarmed His enemies, of whom Satan is number one. He made a public spectacle of His enemies. Jesus triumphed! Satan was disarmed and made a public spectacle! May God help us all to comprehend better the depth and breadth of what happened on Calvary that fateful day when even the sun hid its face and the ground shook at the momentous event taking place.
VICTORY OVER SATAN NOW
The same John who wrote Revelation, triumphantly proclaimed in his first epistle, "He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world" (4:4). Is Satan still active in this world? You had better believe it. However, since Calvary, there is a new dynamic. Our Jesus is greater than the world's devil!
Two chapters earlier, John wrote: "I have written to you, young men, Because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, And you have overcome the wicked one" (1 John 2:14). "Have overcome." Not in the future. Now! John says it even stronger in 5:18. "We know that whoever is born of God does not sin... and the wicked one does not touch him." No, I do not believe that Christians live in sinless perfection. Nor do I believe in "eternal security." But neither do I wish to erase 1 John 5:18 out of the Bible. Whatever exact interpretation a student gives to the verse, it speaks of great power over "the wicked one" in our lives today.
Do not forget the armor of God with "the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one" (Eph. 6:13). "Will be able." And God "will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able" (1 Cor. 10:13). Yes, Satan can still tempt us. However, God puts a limit on the strength of the temptations. God has "delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love" (Col. 1:13). We are in the kingdom now! We have been delivered from the satanic power of darkness now!
Jesus told Paul that He would send him to the Gentiles, "to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins" (Acts 26:17,18). How receive forgiveness? By loosing them from Satan's power.
All these statements of victory over Satan are for those who are born again. Notice the contrast Paul presents in Ephesians. "Dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked... according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience... even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ" (2:1-5). The "before" life was according to Satan. The "now" life is in Christ Jesus. The sons of the kingdom are promised life with power over Satan. The sons of disobedience receive no such promise--unless they turn to Christ.
"DECEIVE THE NATIONS NO MORE"
The only explanation that Revelation 20 gives as to the meaning of the binding of Satan is that "he should deceive the nations no more" (verse 3). What does that mean?
A great change came upon the world through Jesus' first coming. "Remember that you, once Gentiles... at that time you were without Christ... having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ" (Eph. 2:11-13). Before Christ, the Gentiles were without God; they had no hope. Before Christ, God's revelation was given to one nation; He had little to say to the Gentiles. Satan's power was everywhere. The eternal Word entered this world to totally change that situation. True, Satan is still powerful today. However, he is greatly limited in comparison to his influence before Christ's first coming.
"Once Gentiles... without God." The Greek word "ethnos" is sometimes translated "Gentiles" and sometimes, "nations." Ephesians is talking about the condition of the "ethnos" before Jesus' first coming. Rev. 20:3 says that Satan is bound "so that he should deceive the nations ["ethnos," Gentiles] no more." Is not Ephesians 2 an excellent commentary on Revelation 20?
Had it been possible to have the Gospel in Noah's time, the ark could not have held all the righteous people. Speculation? Perhaps. How about homosexual Sodom? If they had had the Gospel, God would have found more than ten righteous people and, honoring Abraham's prayer, would have spared the city. Speculation? Not at all! Speaking of Capernaum, Jesus said that "if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day" (Matt. 11:23). Amazing! Before Jesus came, the nations were deceived and almost totally under Satan's power. With Jesus' first coming, all that changed.
Since the first century, the gospel "is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes"(Rom. 1:16). That power did not exist before Christ came. Christ conquered Satan and unmasked him. We no longer need to be deceived. As Paul wrote: "lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices" (2 Cor. 2:11). That is saying, "we understand how he works; we are not deceived by him." None of which is to deny that we can choose to reject God's Word and therefore fall into deception.
WHAT OF SATAN'S PRESENT POWER?
Both Scripture and experience teach that Satan still has tremendous power in today's world. This is the principal argument futurist premillennialists use to claim that Satan surely is not bound today. This is a strong argument. However, it is not the complete story, as has been seen in this article. Their argument ignores several important facts:
1) The New Testament is filled with declarations of limits already placed upon Satan as a result of Jesus' first coming.
2) Because of the spread of the Gospel in the world, Satan's power over the nations today is considerably less than it was before Christ's first coming.
3) Aside from the admittedly difficult text in Revelation 20, all the texts that mention great limitations being placed upon Satan, are either speaking of the limitations now enjoyed in this age or those to be enjoyed in the New Jerusalem.
One of the futurists favorite verses is 1 Pet. 5:8: "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour." This is correct. But this verse does not present the Christian as a helpless victim. On the contrary, it is an exhortation to be vigilant precisely because Christians have the necessary defenses. The very next verse says, "Resist him, steadfast in the faith." As our brother James said: "Resist the devil and he will flee from you" (James 4:7). What a precious and powerful promise!
As a result of the incarnation, as a result of Calvary, as a result of the open tomb, King Jesus offers victory over Satan now. Yes, many in the world remain deceived. However, in all nations there are those who are no longer deceived by Satan. Before the prophecies begin in Revelation, the Lamb is found worthy to open the seals because "You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation" (5:9). Satan can no longer deceive the nations in the way he did before Jesus came to earth to bind him.
(Scripture in the preceding article is taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)
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