POST OVERVIEW. An interpretation of the meaning of “the first resurrection” from Revelation 20:4-6 that occurs during the “thousand years.”
4 Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years. – Revelation 20:4-6 (NAS)
The passage before us presents several interpretive difficulties, but we are going to focus our investigation on the meaning of “the first resurrection” as it appears here. What is the Scripture teaching us here about the resurrection?
As we begin our investigation, the first thing to observe is where this scene takes place. This scene is in heaven. In the book of Revelation, thrones (20:4) are always in heaven, so we know that this takes place in heaven. We also know when this takes place, since it is explicitly stated that this takes place during the “thousand years.”
It is important to observe who this vision sees. John saw “souls.” John did not see glorified saints, but he saw “souls.” This is very similar to the scene described in Revelation 6:9 when John also sees the “souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God.” These “souls” are believers who have physically died but who have not yet been glorified in the Resurrection. And this is exactly what we would expect to find during the “thousand years.” We would expect to find those who had died as faithful witnesses of Jesus and who now await the Resurrection on the Last Day.
EXEGESIS OF REVELATION 20:4-6 ON THE FIRST RESURRECTION
Now we will consider the part of the passage that talks about “the first resurrection.”
“And they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” – Rev. 20:4
Who are these who came to life and reigned? There are two groups of believers included here, and one group is a subset of the other group. The first group, the subset, is “those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus.” These are the martyrs, the ones who had been faithful even unto violent death, “who have been slain because of the word of God” (Revelation 6:9). The martyrs are a subset of all faithful believers, “those who had not worshiped the beast or his image (Revelation 13) and had not received the mark” (20:4).
Therefore, those who came to life and reigned with Christ for the “thousand years” are all faithful believers who physically died during the “thousand years.”
The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. – Revelation 20:5a
This first sentence in Revelation 20:5 should be seen as parenthetical. “The rest of the dead” is referring to all unbelievers who physically died during the “thousand years.” This parenthetical comment about unbelievers makes abundantly clear that not everyone is included in those who came to life. This simple sentence declares that only those who die in Jesus are going to be reigning with Christ during the “thousand years.” Only faithful believers will “come to life.” Only faithful believers are in heaven with Christ awaiting the glorious Resurrection. “The rest of the dead” are elsewhere awaiting the terrifying great white throne judgment that comes later (Revelation 20:11-15).
This is the first resurrection. – Revelation 20:5b
THE FIRST RESURRECTION
Here John mentions “the first resurrection.” Some have been unnecessarily confused and distressed by this expression. John is certainly not here introducing the idea of some sort of two-stage resurrection. There is no biblical support anywhere in the Scripture to suggest that there are two literal Resurrections for the saints. This term “the first resurrection” is meant to be understood figuratively to describe the transition that occurs when any believer physically dies and then “rises” to spend the remainder of the age in the spirit in heaven with Christ awaiting the final, real Resurrection.
What do we know about everyone “who has a part in the first resurrection?” We know that the one who has a part in the first resurrection is “blessed and holy.” We know that “over these the second death has no power,” so we know that they will never be threatened with the lake of fire. We know that all these “will be priests of God and of Christ” (confirm in 1 Peter 2:9). Finally, we know that they will reign with Christ for the “thousand years.”
But not all believers will experience this first resurrection. Some believers will not reign with Christ for the “thousand years.” Why? Because the first resurrection is only for those believers who physically die before the coming of Christ, and not all believers will physically die. We know that “we will not all sleep” (1 Corinthians 15:51). We know that there will be some believers “who are alive and remain” (1 Thessalonians 4:17) when the Resurrection occurs. We know that the Resurrection is for those who have fallen asleep, and it is for those who are still living. These still-living believers will not experience the first resurrection because they will be glorified in the Resurrection without going through physical death.
So, not all believers will experience “the first resurrection,” but all believers will certainly experience the Resurrection on the Last Day.
WHAT ABOUT THE UNRIGHTEOUS?
In commenting about the unrighteous from this passage, the ones referred to as “the rest of the dead” in 20:5a, it should be understood that none of the unrighteous has a part in “the first resurrection.” For this reason, none of the unrighteous “came to life and reigned with Christ for the thousand years.” None of the unrighteous is “blessed and holy.” Over the unrighteous “the second death” has all power, because all the unrighteous will experience both physical death and “the second death.” (For a fuller understanding of “the second death,” see “The great white throne judgment” in Rev. 20:11-15.)
Perhaps these statements will help make things clearer:
- If anyone experiences the first resurrection, then he will not experience the second death.
- If you are a believer, then you are guaranteed the Resurrection on the Last Day.
- If you are a believer, then physical death (the first death) is optional.
- If you are an unbeliever, then you are guaranteed both physical death (the first death) and the lake of fire, which is the second death (Revelation 20:14-15).
In summary, then, “the first resurrection” of Revelation 20:4-6 is a figurative term for the transition that takes place when any believer physically dies and their soul goes to heaven to await their glorification in the Resurrection on the Last Day.
Soli Deo gloria rmb 5/16/2023 #651