Previously: For 1,000 years – Revelation 20:2-3
Rev. 20:4 –Then I saw thrones, and people seated on them who were given authority to judge. I also saw the people who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of God’s word, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and who had not accepted the mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with the Messiah for 1,000 years. (HCSB)
The saints reign with the Messiah
In verse 4 John records, “Then I saw thrones, and people seated on them who were given authority to judge. I also saw the people who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of God’s word, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and who had not accepted the mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with the Messiah for 1,000 years.”
Who are the people seated on thrones and given authority to judge? Certainly they are God’s people, as indicated in Daniel and the writings of Paul.
In Daniel 7 we read, “As I kept watching, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took His seat…. But the holy ones of the Most High will receive the kingdom and possess it forever, yes, forever and ever…. the Ancient of Days arrived and a judgment was given in favor of the holy ones of the Most High, for the time had come, and the holy ones took possession of the kingdom…. The kingdom, dominion, and greatness of the kingdoms under all of heaven will be given to the people, the holy ones of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will serve and obey Him” (Dan. 7:9, 18, 22, 27).
The apostle Paul builds on this when he writes, “Or don’t you know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest cases? Don’t you know that we will judge angels – not to mention ordinary matters?” (1 Cor. 6:2-3). Finally, earlier passages in Revelation assure us that Jesus is to share His sovereign rule with believers (Rev. 2:26-28; 3:21; 5:9-10).
The judgment seat of Christ
All believers will stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of our lives, resulting in rewards or the loss of rewards (see Rom. 14:10-11; 1 Cor. 3:11-15; 2 Cor. 5:9-10; 1 John 2:28). This judgment does not determine our eternal destiny, for that is fixed on this side of death with the believer’s decision to trust in Christ. As Jesus said, “I assure you: Anyone who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).
The believer’s judgment – the so-called bema judgment taken from the Greek word for a raised platform from which judges place laurel wreaths on the heads of victorious athletes – is where Christ rewards His followers based on how faithfully they manage the time, talents, spiritual gifts, and other good things they have been given. Every Christian is a winner because Jesus has secured his or her eternal life through His finished work on the cross. But not every Christian is rewarded equally.
But who, specifically, are the ones seated on these thrones? Could they be the apostles, who Jesus says will sit on thrones and judge the 12 tribes of Israel (Luke 12:29-30)? Could they be the 24 elders of Rev. 4:4? Could they be all Christians, who Paul says will judge fallen angels (1 Cor. 6:3)? And if so, why does John distinguish those on the thrones from the martyred saints?
Complicating matters is the fact that numerous judgments are connected with the last days. For example, the beast and the false prophet are cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 19:20). Satan is cast into the abyss, and later into the lake of fire Rev. 20:1–3, 10). The martyred saints are rewarded (Rev. 20:4). The Gentiles are judged (Matt. 25:31–46). Believers are judged (Rom. 14:10). Unbelievers are judged (Rev. 20:11-15). Death and Hades are cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). Finally, our sinful and fallen creation is purged and made new (2 Peter 3:11-13).
While we may not know with certainty who sits on these thrones, we may be confident they are a group of God’s people who themselves have been judged and are now rewarded with the authority to judge – not in the place of Jesus, to whom all judgment is given (John 5:22) – but with Jesus.
A different view
Jurgen Roloff offers a different view worth considering. He sees those on the thrones, along with the martyrs, representing all believers to whom the Lord restores earthly dominion. In this verse in Revelation, God “restores to them [the saints] the dignity and honor that was robbed from them by the powers that rebelled against him … The thrones, therefore, are thrones of dominion; in other words, here we see the fulfillment of what was promised in [Rev.] 3:21 to those who overcome…. This ruling cannot mean a forceful suppression of hostile people and powers, since such will no longer be present; rather, it has to do exclusively with bringing to bear the saving will of God for the world” (Revelation: A Continental Commentary, p. 227).
Roloff further suggests that all believers may identify with the martyrs because as true followers of Christ they prove their faithfulness to Jesus in their steadfast testimony about Him regardless of the circumstances – some in life and some in death.
Joseph A. Seiss expands on this view: “The Sitter on the white horse conquers in the Battle of the Great Day, and by virtue of that triumph he becomes the Supreme King. But with him through all the mighty engagement were his glorified saints, in white apparel, on white horses, indicative of their character of associate governors and judges…. Thus the sitters on these thrones are none other than Christ’s saints whom John saw following their Lord when he came forth to make an end of the antichristian domination, and inaugurate his own shepherdizing of the nations…. The work of shepherdizing the nations with a rod of iron necessarily involves intrustment with discretionary power to act; and this is the office and power here said to be given to these sitters on these thrones” (The Apocalypse: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation, p. 457).
Seiss further envisions a day when the tables are turned. “Once it was the fate of believers to be judged by the ungodly world-powers,” he writes. “But man’s day has a limit, and then comes another order … when the Pauls shall be the royal judges, and the Felixes, and Festuses, and Agrippas, and Caesars, then in place, shall be obliged to accept the sentences of heavenly justice from God’s immortal potentates, who once stood helpless at earth’s tribunals” (p. 458).
Next: The first resurrection – Revelation 20:4b-5