The first resurrection – Revelation 20:4b-5

Previously: The saints reign – Revelation 20:4

The scripture

Rev. 20:4b – They came to life and reigned with the Messiah for 1,000 years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the 1,000 years were completed. This is the first resurrection. (HCSB)

The first resurrection

John writes, “They [the martyred saints] came to life and reigned with the Messiah for 1,000 years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the 1,000 years were completed. This is the first resurrection” (vv. 4b-5). What does John mean by the “first resurrection?” Certainly, if there is a first resurrection, a second resurrection is implied.

Some interpreters take the first resurrection to be spiritual only, as in being “born again” (John 3:3). This allows for a second, physical resurrection of all people, resulting in final judgment. Others suggest that the first resurrection is influential in nature. In other words, the faithfulness of the martyrs encourages believers who come after them to be faithful. But these views stretch the way in which the term “resurrection” is used consistently throughout scripture.

It seems better to see both the first and second resurrections as bodily in nature. John Gill writes, “It does not mean that they lived spiritually, for so they did before, and whilst they bore their testimony to Christ and against Antichrist previous to their death; nor in their successors, for it would not be just and reasonable that they should be beheaded for their witness of Christ and his word, and others should live and reign with Christ in their room and stead. Nor is this to be understood of their living in their souls, for so they live in their separate state; the soul never dies; God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. But the sense is, that they lived again, as in verse 5; they live corporeally; their souls lived in their bodies, their bodies being raised again, and reunited to their souls; their whole persons lived, or the souls of them that were beheaded lived; that is, their bodies lived again, the soul being sometimes put for their body; and this is called the first resurrection in the next verse” (quoted in The Apocalypse, p. 460).

Resurrection in the New Testament

John A. Seiss further comments, “The word Resurrection is never once used in the New Testament, except to denote the coming up again of the fallen body from the grave. It occurs more than forty times, and always in this one, uniform, and exclusive sense…. If these thrones, this royal judgeship, this reigning with Christ, this thousand years’ dominion and rulership, this lifting of the holy martyrs including prophets and apostles into seats of sovereignty and shepherdizing of the nations, do not belong to the awards which only the Resurrection can bring, it is simply impossible to find any solid basis in God’s Word for any special doctrine of our faith which we claim to derive from that source” (p. 462).

A straightforward reading of the text seems to draw us to the conclusion that the first resurrection is the physical resurrection of the righteous dead. Such a view accommodates many different views of end-time events, whether one sees the resurrection of the just occurring at the same time as the resurrection of the wicked, or separated by 1,000 years or more. John sees people given the authority to rule seated on thrones, implying that they have been glorified and rewarded. He also sees the martyred saints and, in verse 6, other believers who share in the first resurrection.

After these verses, there is no mention of resurrection for the righteous dead, only the resurrection of the unrighteous dead, which results in the second death. Perhaps John is given a glimpse down the corridors of time, as through a telescope, with the resurrection, judgment, reward, and ruling of the saints captured in a single, compressed frame.

Christ the Firstfruits

J.F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck contend that the resurrection of the righteous is by stages. “Christ was ‘the Firstfruits’ (1 Cor. 15:23), which was preceded by the token resurrection of a number of saints (Matt. 27:52–53). Then will occur the Rapture of the church, which will include the resurrection of dead church saints and the translation of living church saints (1 Thes. 4:13–18). The resurrection of the two witnesses will occur in the Great Tribulation (Rev. 11:3, 11). Then the resurrection of the martyred dead of the Great Tribulation will occur soon after Christ returns to earth (20:4–5). To these may be added the resurrection of Old Testament saints which apparently will also occur at this time, though it is not mentioned in this text (cf. Isa. 26:19–21; Ezek. 37:12–14; Dan. 12:2–3)” (The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, Rev. 20:5).

Paige Patterson takes a simpler view, writing, “The first resurrection is not emphasizing order but life. In other words, the first resurrection is a resurrection to eternal life while the second resurrection will be a resurrection to damnation” (The New American Commentary: Revelation, p. 354).

There are many Bible passages that speak of the resurrection of the just. While it’s possible that time separates the resurrection of Old Testament saints and New Testament saints, the result is the same – judgment, reward, and glorification.

We will see God

Consider these verses:

  • Job 19:25-26 – But I know my living Redeemer, and He will stand on the dust at last. Even after my skin has been destroyed, yet I will see God in my flesh.
  • 12:2-3 – Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, and some to shame and eternal contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the bright expanse of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
  • 19:28 – Jesus said to them, “I assure you: In the Messianic Age, when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on 12 thrones, judging the 12 tribes of Israel.”
  • John 5:28-29 – Do not be amazed at this, because a time is coming when all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come out – those who have done good things, to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked things, to the resurrection of judgment.
  • 1 Cor. 15:50-54 – Brothers, I tell you this: Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, and corruption cannot inherit incorruption. Listen! I am telling you a mystery: We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed. For this corruptible must be clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal must be clothed with immortality. When this corruptible is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will take place: Death has been swallowed up in victory.
  • 1 Thess. 4:13-17 – We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus. For we say this to you by a revelation from the Lord: We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly have no advantage over those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord.

In Rev. 20:6, John writes, “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of the Messiah, and they will reign with Him for 1,000 years.” Whenever these 1,000 years take place, whether they are to be understood literally or figuratively, there is little doubt that all the saints may anticipate a glorious time when Jesus sits on His throne, surrounded and served by the redeemed of all ages, who have been resurrected, judged, rewarded, and given authority to reign.

Next: The rest of the dead – Revelation 20:5-6


One comment