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Revelation 20:1-15 - Part III

It is one thing to offer a critique of a cherished and widely held view of the millennium. It is something else to construct in its place a cogent and persuasive alternative. In the minds of many PMs this has been the principal deficiency in the vast majority of amillennial treatments of eschatology. Whether or not this criticism is justified, I offer this lesson as an attempt to supply what PMs insist has been conspicuous by its absence: an amillennial explanation of the first resurrection that deals fairly and fully with the textual data. Obviously, this lesson does not stand alone. It builds on what has preceded in the two previous lessons. Therefore, in the light of what has already been said concerning this controversial passage, I wish to make four crucial points.


(1)       That John is talking about the intermediate state in 20:4-6 seems obvious once the parallel with 6:9-11 is noted. In my research I have not as yet encountered one PM author who denies that 6:9-11 is a vision of the heavenly bliss of those who have suffered martrydom for Christ. Yet when they encounter virtually the same terminology in Rev. 20 they can only see a post-Parousia millennial kingdom on the earth of embodied believers. A careful examination of these two passages, however, will reveal that they are describing the same experience.



            Revelation 6:9                                    Revelation 20:4


“And . . . I saw” (kai eidon)               “And I saw (kai eidon)


“the souls of those who had               “the souls of those who had

been slain” (tas psuchas ton               been beheaded” (tas psuchas ton

esphagmenon)                                     pepelekismenon)


“because of the word of God”                        “because of the word of God”

(dia ton logon tou theou)                     (dia ton logon tou theou)


“and because of the testimony           “because of the testimony of

which they had maintained”               Jesus” (dia ten marturian

(dia ten marturian hen eichon)           ‘Iesou)



That John is describing the same scene, that of the blessedness of the intermediate state, seems beyond reasonable doubt.


(2)       The emphasis in Revelation on the blessedness of Christian death confirms that 20:4-6 is concerned with the bliss of the intermediate state. We read in 14:13, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on! Yes, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them.” This sabbath blessing, Meredith Kline explains,


"is very much the same as the millennial blessing of Revelation 20:6. For the biblical concept of sabbath rest includes enthronement after the completion of labors by which royal dominion is manifested or secured (cf., e.g., Isa. 66:1). The sabbath rest of the risen Christ is his kingly session at God’s right hand. To live and reign with Christ is to participate in his royal sabbath rest. In Revelation 20:6 this blessedness is promised to those who have part in 'the first resurrection' and in the Revelation 14:13 equivalent it is pronounced on the dead who died in the Lord."


Especially relevant in this regard is the letter to the church at Smyrna in Revelation 2 and its emphasis on the blessedness of Christian death. It also parallels 20:4-6 in several crucial respects.


First, it speaks of martyrdom as the result of steadfast faith (“be faithful unto death”).


Second, the faithful are promised “the crown of life.


And third, the faithful martyrs are exempt from the second death(“he who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death”).


These parallels are certainly more than coincidental. Kline makes this clear:


"The equation of the state of Christian death referred to in this letter with 'the first resurrection' state of Revelation 20 is of course firmly established by the common contextual mention of 'the second death' (not found in any other context), the same assurance of deliverance from this 'second death' being given in both cases. But 'the crown of life' promise in Revelation 2:10 is also a strong confirmation of this equation. The crown, stephanos, though it might be the festive garland might also be the royal crown. If the latter image is intended here, the 'crown of life' promised to the Christian dead is precisely the nominal equivalent of the verbal 'they lived and reigned' in the account of the experience that attends the 'first resurrection' in Revelation 20:4ff."


When taken in conjunction with the promise to the overcomer in Rev. 3:21 that he will be enthroned with Christ(yes, the dead in Christ do reign!), the blessings of the intermediate state are encouragement indeed to those whose physical lives are to be taken by the beast.


Since John (and Jesus) in Revelation 2-3 conceived of the intermediate state as “souls” living beyond death (hence a resurrection), and as an experience characterized by enthronement with Christ (hence reigning with him), we should not be surprised that in Revelation 20 he likewise describes the intermediate state as SOULS LIVING AND REIGNING WITH CHRIST!


(3)       John could hardly have been more explicit concerning the location, and therefore the nature, of the millennial rule of the saints when he said that he saw “thrones” (thronous). Where are these thrones upon which the saints sit, which is also to ask, what is the nature of their millennial rule?


Let's begin with several observations about the use of thronos in the book of Revelation.


·      The word thronos appears 62x in the New Testament, 47 of which are in the book of Revelation.


·      Twice (2:13; 13:2) it refers to Satan’s throne (being synonymous with his authority or power) and once to the throne of the beast (16:10).


·      On four occasions it refers to God’s throne on the new earth in consequence of its having come down from heaven (21:3,5; 22:1,3). In every other instance (40x) thronos refers to a throne in heaven,either that of God the Father, of Christ, of the 24 elders, etc.


·      Why, then, does the PM argue that anastasis (“resurrection”) must mean physical resurrection, although it occurs nowhere in Revelation outside chapter 20, but ignore thronos which never in Revelation refers to anything other than a heavenly throne (and that, in 40 texts!)?


The use of thronos in the rest of the NT.


·      Of the 15 occurrences of thronos outside Revelation, 7 are explicitly heavenly.


·      In Luke 1:52 it refers figuratively to the power and authority of earthly rulers.


·      In Col. 1:16 it refers to angelic (demonic?) beings.


·      In Luke 1:32 the angel Gabriel refers to the “throne” of David on which the coming Messiah will sit in fulfillment of the divine promise, to which Peter makes explicit reference in Acts 2:30. In the verses which follow it is clear that Peter envisioned Christ’s resurrection and exaltation to have resulted in his enthronement at the right hand of the Father in fulfillment of Gabriel’s declaration.


·      There are four additional usages of thronos (Mt. 19:28 [twice]; 25:31; and Luke 22:30), each of which falls in the same category as Rev. 20:4. In other words, whether the “thrones” in these texts are earthly or heavenly is the very point that stands to be proven. Therefore, one cannot appeal to these passages in support of either view. Otherwise one would be guilty of begging the question (petitio principii).


In summary, when we look at all other relevant occurrences of thronos, whether inside or outside the book of Revelation, they are without exception heavenly. There is nothing to suggest that they pertain to a millennial earth, either in location or character.


(4)       The final point I wish to make concerns the significance of the ordinal “first” (protos) in the phrase “first resurrection” (20:5-6), and the theological contrasts that John has established in the text.


Nowhere else in Scripture is the noun “resurrection” (anastasis) qualified as being the “first” (protos). The importance of this for determining the meaning of “resurrection” must therefore be duly noted.


Observe Rev. 21:1ff. There “first” is contrasted with what is “new” (kainos). Note well:


(1) The consummation of history brings 'a new heaven and a new earth' (v. 1) and a 'new Jerusalem' (v. 2). Indeed, God will make 'all things new' (v. 5).


(2) The word first is used for that which is superceded by the new: "the first heaven and the first earth were passed away" (v. 1). Indeed, when God makes all things new, all "the first things" pass away---tears, death, sorrow, crying, pain (v. 4).


(3) Therefore, to be first means to belong to the present state of affairs which is passing away. Meredith Kline explains:


"Protos ("first") does not merely mark the present world as the first in a series of worlds and certainly not as the first in a series of worlds all of the same kind. On the contrary, it characterizes this world as different in kind from the 'new' world [emphasis mine]. It signifies that the present world stands in contrast to the new world order of the consummation which will abide forever."


We also see in Revelation 21 that second (deuteros) is another term for new. Thus, the death that is identified with the lake of fire and is the eternal counterpart to the death that belongs to the order of “first things” (v. 4) is called “the second death” (v. 8). Thus second as well as new serves as the qualitative opposite of first.


In summary, that which is first or old pertains to the presentworld, that is to say, to that which is transient, temporary, and incomplete. Conversely, that which is second or new pertains to the future world, that which is permanent, complete, and is associated with the eternal consummation of all things. The term first is therefore not an ordinal in a process of counting objects that are identical in kind. Rather, whenever first is used in conjunction with second or new the idea is of a qualitative contrast (not a mere numerical sequence). To be first is to be associated with this present, temporary, transient world. Whatever is first does not participate in the quality of finality and permanence which is distinctive of the age to come.


[For similar qualitative contrasts between "first/old" and "second/new", see Heb. 8:7,8,13; 9:1,15,18; 10:9.]


How does all this affect our understanding of the “first resurrection” in Revelation 20? To begin, we should observe that explicit reference to the first resurrection and the seconddeath strongly implies, if it does not demand, a secondresurrection and a first death. Therefore, we have four events, three of which are easily identified.


(1) There is first of all, the first death, which is obviously a reference to physical, bodily death. It is the death to which the martyrs were subjected when the beast beheaded them for refusal to worship his image.


(2) Then we have the second death, that is, a non-physical death which consists of eternal punishment.


(3) Thirdly, the second resurrection, implied by the existence of a first resurrection, is certainly the physical, bodily resurrection of the unjust (cf. 20:11-15).


It seems reasonable, then, that the first resurrection will sustain to the second resurrection the same relationship which the first death sustains to the second death. So what, then, is that relationship?


The first death, as we have seen, is literal and physical, whereas the second death is metaphorical and non-physical. The “first” death, because it is “first”, relates to this present world with its transient and pre-consummative character, whereas the “second” death, because it is “second”, relates to the next world, the consummation, with its permanent and eternal character.


Surely, then, since the second resurrection is literal and physical and pertains to the consummate and eternal order, the first resurrection, because it is “first”, must be metaphorical and non-physical and pertain to the pre-consummative, temporary, and transient order of things.


What all this means is that there are two facts which prevent us from identifying the first resurrection as a literal, bodily resurrection (as the PM insists we must).


(1) There is first of all the ordinal first. That which is “first” belongs to the order of the present passing world. “The first resurrection” must then be something this side of bodily resurrection, some experience that does not bring the subject of it into his consummated condition and final state.


[Note: The PM says that if we have a “first” event, in this case a resurrection, we should expect a “second” one of the same kind (remember Alford’s dictum?). NO! The usage of “first” does not suggest a mere numerical sequence of events of like character, but a qualitative contrast between events of a different character!]


(2) The second factor which excludes the PM view is the contrast that John intended to establish between first and second resurrection as well as between first and second death. These contrasts are represented in the chart at the end of the lesson.


In addition to this, note that when John proceeds to describe the bodily resurrection of the lost in 20:11-15, he avoids using the term “resurrection”. Instead, he refers to it, paradoxically, as the second “death” because of the destiny in which it issues (namely, the lake of fire). That which is bodily resurrection for the lost is in reality their second death.


Similarly, when John proceeds to describe the bodily death of the saved in 20:4-6 he avoids using the term “death”. Instead he refers to it, paradoxically, as the first “resurrection” because of the destiny in which it issues (namely, living and reigning with Christ). That which is bodily death for the saved is in reality their first resurrection. Observe, then, the beautiful irony in John’s language:


·      The believer DIES PHYSICALLY but experiences SPIRITUAL RESURRECTION!


·      The unbeliever is RESURRECTED PHYSICALLY but experiences SPIRITUAL DEATH!


For the Christian, to die is resurrection. For the non-Christian, to be resurrected is to die.


The PM interpretation which says that because the second resurrection is literal and bodily, the first resurrection must also be literal and bodily, fails to consider the significance of the ordinal “first” as well as the ironical and paradoxical language which John employs. In Revelation the apparent defeat of the Christian in physical death is, in point of fact, a spiritual victory that leads to life (see 2:10-11; 6:9,11a; 12:11; 14:13).