The first resurrection – Revelation 20:4b-5
Previously: The saints reign – Revelation 20:4
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).
10 truths about the return of Jesus
Few passages of scripture cause more controversy among evangelical Christians than Rev. 20:1-10, in which John mentions a 1,000-year period six times. The main point of debate is whether the “millennium” should be understood literally or figuratively.
Generally, those who believe the 1,000 years are literal and in the future are called premillennialists. They look for Christ to return and establish a “millennial kingdom,” or a reign of 1,000 years, after which He puts down Satan’s final revolt, resurrects and judges unbelievers (Christians are judged before the millennium), and creates new heavens and a new earth.
Those who believe Christ is returning after the millennium are called postmillennialists. The 1,000 years are not necessarily a literal time frame, but they represent a period during which much of the world turns to faith in Jesus.
Those who see all references to the 1,000 years as figurative and without merit as a reference point concerning the timing of the Lord’s return are called amilllennialists.
There is diversity within each of these camps as to the order of events surrounding the second coming.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it’s important to follow a biblical principle for exploring tough passages: Start with the simple and straightforward teachings of scripture, and seek to understand the difficult passages in the light of the simpler ones.
With that in mind, let’s rally around 10 simple truths regarding the return of Jesus.
The great day of Their wrath has come — Revelation 6:12-17
Previously: “Fall on us and hide us” — Rev. 6:12-17
Rev. 6:12 – Then I saw Him open the sixth seal. A violent earthquake occurred; the sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair; the entire moon became like blood; 13 the stars of heaven fell to the earth as a fig tree drops its unripe figs when shaken by a high wind; 14 the sky separated like a scroll being rolled up; and every mountain and island was moved from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth, the nobles, the military commanders, the rich, the powerful, and every slave and free person hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16 And they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the One seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 because the great day of Their wrath has come! And who is able to stand?” (HCSB)
The great day of Their wrath has come
Why are the wicked hiding? Because “the great day of Their wrath has come” (v. 17a). The word “Their” no doubt refers to the Father and Son, although some manuscripts read “His,” likely referring to the Son since the Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son (John 5:22).
In closing out chapter 6, John quotes the wicked, who ask, “And who is able to stand?” The obvious implication is that no one is able to stand. This may be taken in one of two ways. First, who is able to withstand God’s judgment? No one. All of the wicked will be consumed. Second, who is able to stand justified before God? Again, the answer is no one. Believers already have been justified – declared righteous before God; acquitted of their sins – by faith. The wicked, who have no faith in God, who have not received God’s gracious offer of forgiveness, have no works to offer on their own behalf. If they did, God would not accept them.
As Paul declares, “He saved us – not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). God does not need our works; He delights in our faith. “Now without faith it is impossible to please God, for the one who draws near to Him must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). It’s not that the wicked have no works. Clearly they do. But when these works are examined before the great white throne, they will not determine degrees of reward but degrees of punishment (Rev. 20:11-15). “And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire,” reads verse 15. How are names entered into the book of life? By God’s grace through faith.
Drawing a parallel between God’s judgment of Israel in 70 A.D. and His judgment of the wicked at the end of time, Matthew Henry writes, “As men have their day of opportunity, and their seasons of grace, so God has his day of righteous wrath; and, when that day shall come, the most stout-hearted sinners will not be able to stand before him: all these terrors actually fell upon the sinners in Judea and Jerusalem in the day of their destruction, and they will all, in the utmost degree, fall upon impenitent sinners, at the general judgment of the last day” (Rev. 6:9-17).
The great day
Finally, what are we to make of the phrase “the great day?” Likely, this is a reference to the oft-mentioned Day of the Lord. In the Old Testament this phrase sometimes is aimed at God’s judgment of Israel for her unfaithfulness, or the promise of deliverance from evil enemies (Isa. 13:6, 9; Ezek. 30:3; Obad. 15). “The Day of the Lord is thus a point in time in which God displays His sovereign initiative to reveal His control of history, of time, of His people, and of all people,” according to the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (p. 397-98).
New Testament writers pick up this expression to point to Christ’s return and use several expressions: “day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6); “day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:8); “Day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Thess. 5:2); “day of Christ” (Phil. 1:10; 2:16); “day of judgment” (1 John 4:17); “this day” (1 Thess. 5:4); “that day” (2 Tim. 1:12); and “the day of wrath” (Rom. 2:5).
Futurists often interpret these New Testament terms differently, with some referring to the rapture, or the tribulation or the millennium. Others see these terms as synonymous, describing in general terms the full work of Christ in His return, judgment and establishment of His kingdom. In any event, we may be sure that one day God will exercise His sovereignty over the earth, judge all people, usher in His kingdom, and create new heavens and a new earth.
Four major views
So, how do proponents of the four major interpretations of Revelation see the sixth seal?
- Preterists – who see the seal, bowl and trumpet judgments as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age, either at the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. or at both the fall of Jerusalem and later at the fall of Rome in the fifth century – say this vision depicts the end of the Jewish state and the fall of its leaders. While most of the language is to be regarded figuratively, some may be taken more literally, such as the Jews’ seeking to hide in the rocks and caves. Jewish historian Josephus writes, “So now the last hope which supported the tyrants and that crew of robbers who were with them, was in the caves and caverns underground; whither, if they could once fly, they did not expect to be searched for; but endeavored, that after the whole city should be destroyed, and the Romans gone away, they might come out again and escape from them. This was no better than a dream of theirs; for they were not able to lie hid either from God or from the Romans” (Wars, 6:7:3).
- Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – say these apocalyptic signs symbolize the fall of paganism to Christianity in the Roman Empire, associated with the conversion of Constantine. Others, however, place the events later in the history of the empire, either its division into East and West or the invasions of the Goths and Vandals in the late fourth century and early fifth century. Earthquakes, they argue, are symbolic of political or spiritual revolutions. And the sun, moon and stars are metaphors for earthly dignitaries – the “pagan firmament” as some call them.
- Futurists – who argue that the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – tend to see these events as future signs of Messiah’s imminent return. Not all futurists see these events literally; some read them figuratively or as a combination of literal and symbolic. Others, however, insist this prophecy is to be taken at face value. These catastrophic events are calculated “to strike terror into the hearts of men living on the earth…. At this point men will know assuredly that the tribulation has begun, for they recognize it as ‘the great day of his wrath’” (Henry Morris, quoted in Revelation: Four Views, p. 125). Hal Lindsey, author of The Late, Great Planet Earth and other futurist commentaries, argues that the sixth seal describes an exchange of nuclear weapons, leading to what astronomer Carl Sagan once called “nuclear winter.”
- Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – are divided. Some say the sixth seal describes God’s final judgment upon the earth, while others contend it is too early in the book for the return of Christ; rather, they say, these calamities represent the judgment of God upon those oppressing believers in John’s day. Some point out that this seal features seven structures of creation (earth, sun, moon, stars, sky, mountains and islands) and seven classes of people (kings, nobles, military commanders, the rich, the powerful, slaves and free persons) in order to symbolize the universality of these disasters, thus spelling the end of the universe as we know it.
Next: The sealed of Israel — Rev. 7:1-8
A quick look at post- and amillennialism
This is Part 2 of a series on the end times. Click on the drop-down menu in the upper right-hand corner of the screen to access all lessons under the heading, “End Times.”
LISTEN: Podcast – “A quick look at post- and amillennialism
The word millennium means “one thousand years” and for our study purposes comes from Rev. 20 where the word is used six times in the first seven verses:
1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the abyss and a great chain in his hand. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for 1,000 years. 3 He threw him into the abyss, closed it, and put a seal on it so that he would no longer deceive the nations until the 1,000 years were completed. After that, he must be released for a short time. 4 Then I saw thrones, and people seated on them who were given authority to judge. [I] also [saw] the souls of those 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. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the 1,000 years were completed. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! The second death has no power over these, but they will be priests of God and the Messiah, and they will reign with Him for 1,000 years. When the 1,000 years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison … (HCSB)
When do these 1,000 years take place? Have they already occurred, or are they in the future? Are we to take the millennium literally or figuratively? Is it possible we are in the millennium today? Christians have answered these and other related questions differently throughout the church age and in some cases have argued heatedly for their particular point of view. The purpose of our study is to identify and understand four major views of the millennium: postmillennialism, amillennialism, historic premillennialism, and dispensational premillennialism. This document will briefly highlight these views.
Generally speaking, the millennium describes a period in which Christ and His followers reign; when Satan is bound; when righteousness overshadows (but does not yet eliminate) wickedness; and when, according to some views, there are significant (but not yet perfect) improvements in nature and the animal kingdom. Whether one understands the millennium literally or figuratively has a lot to do with his or her view as to when and where these events take place. All of the views call us to look for a future, visible, physical return of Christ and to anticipate the time in which He creates new heavens and a new earth. The primary differences center around whether Jesus returns before or after the millennium; whether the events described take place in heaven or on earth; whether the 1,000 years are literal or figurative; whether Christ’s return is a singular event to a two-stage event (the Rapture and the Glorious Appearing); and whether Christians will endure some or all of the tribulation – a time of intense persecution prior to the second coming.
As we look at different views of the end times, it’s important to note the biblical truths affirmed by all of these views: 1) Jesus will return physically, visibly and personally in the future; 2) Jesus will resurrect all people, who will stand in final judgment resulting in heaven or hell; and 3) He will create new heavens and a new earth where righteousness dwells and in which Satan, demons and unbelievers have no part.
The postmillennial view
The prefix post means “after.” According to this view, Jesus will return after the millennium, a lengthy era of peace and righteousness not necessarily 1,000 years in length. Basically, postmillennialists believe that as the gospel spreads and the church grows, a larger proportion of the world’s people will become Christians. This will have a positive impact on society at all levels – government, commerce, social interaction, etc. – resulting in a world that functions more in accordance with God’s standards. In effect, the world will be Christianized. Gradually, a “millennial age” of unprecedented godliness will prepare the way for the return of Christ. When He comes, He will resurrect all people, judge them, create new heavens and a new earth, and usher in the eternal state.
The postmillennial view is optimistic about the power of the gospel to change lives and permeate society in a positive way. This view is most popular when the church is experiencing revival and when there is a general absence of war, international conflict, and suffering.
Arguments in favor of postmillennialism are:
- The Great Commission leads us to expect a Christianized world. Jesus said all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him, and He has promised to be with us as we take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Therefore, we have every reason to believe the gospel will triumph in the hearts of individuals and around the world.
- Jesus’ parables of the kingdom indicate that the gospel will permeate the whole world. The parables of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31-32) and leaven (Matt. 13:33) are specifically cited.
- The world is becoming more Christian. Christianity, for example, is the largest religion on earth, far outpacing Islam, Hinduism and other major world religions.
Arguments against postmillennialism are:
- Although Christ does indeed have all authority in heaven and on earth, and while people from every tribe, nation, and language will be in heaven (Rev. 5:9), this does not mean a majority of the world’s people will become Christians or that the world will dramatically improve prior to Christ’s return.
- While the parables of Jesus indicate that the kingdom of heaven will begin humbly and then grow dramatically, they do not tell us the extent to which this growth will take place. In fact, other parables of Jesus indicate there will be much wickedness leading up to the days of Christ’s return (e.g., the parable of the dragnet in Matt. 13:47-50 and the parable of the sheep and goats in Matt. 25:31-46).
- While Christianity is indeed the world’s largest religion, evil is rampant and spreading. Two world wars and numerous other conflicts in the 20th century put a damper on postmillennial fervor.
The Amillennial View
The amillennial view is the simplest of the four major positions on the end times. The prefix “a” means “no,” and therefore those who hold this view believe there is no future millennium to which believers should look. Amillennialists say Rev. 20:1-10 describes the present church age, not some future era of 1,000 years. Presently, Satan’s influence over mankind has been great restricted so that the gospel may reach the ends of the earth. Those said to be reigning with Christ for the 1,000 years – which are not to be taken literally – are saints who have died and are with Jesus in heaven. Christ’s reign in the millennium is not His physical presence on earth but His authority being exercised in heaven as He sits at the Father’s right hand, having received all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). The exact duration of the millennium / church age cannot be known and the phrase “thousand years” in Rev. 20 is simply a figure of speech to indicate a long period of time during which God accomplishes His will on earth.
According to this view, the millennium / church age will continue until Christ returns. All people will be resurrected and brought before Christ in final judgment. Believers will receive glorified bodies and stand before the judgment seat of Christ, where they will receive rewards for their earthly service. Unbelievers will be brought into final judgment and sent to hell. The eternal state will begin immediately as God brings about the new heavens and new earth.
Arguments in favor of amillennialism are:
- In all of scripture, only one passage (Rev. 20:1-6) mentions a 1,000-year earthly reign of Jesus, and this passage is obscure. It is best not to base a major doctrine on a single passage in the Bible. Instead, Rev. 20:1-6 is better interpreted as describing the present church age.
- The scriptures teach only one resurrection, not two (or more) separated by 1,000 years. Dan. 12:2, John 5:28-29, and Acts 24:15 indicate a single, or general, resurrection of all people.
- It seems unreasonable to think glorified believers, unglorified believers and lost sinners would live on earth at the same time, even if only for 1,000 years.
- If Jesus is literally ruling the earth from the throne of David in Jerusalem, it seems unreasonable that people would continue to reject Him and persist in sin.
- There seems to be no ultimate purpose for a literal 1,000 reign of Christ on earth. Once Jesus has returned, what’s the point of delaying the eternal state?
- Scripture seems to indicate that all the major events of the end times will occur at once, not spread out over 1,000 years or more.
Arguments against amillennialism are:
- In response to the statement that only one passage (Rev. 20:1-6) mentions a 1,000-year earthly reign of Jesus, it may be said that even if this were true, the Bible only needs to say something once for it to be true and to command our belief. Further, premillennialists do not find this passage obscure by any means, and they see numerous Old and New Testament passages that indicate a long period of time in the future, yet before the final state, during which Messiah reigns.
- Revelation 20 speaks of the “first resurrection,” implying there will be a second one. It also addresses those who have no part in the first resurrection; they will come to life after the 1,000 years and experience the “second death.” A straightforward (not figurative) understanding of this chapter seems best.
- The idea of glorified believers, unglorified believers and unbelievers inhabiting the earth at the same time may be difficult to understand but is not impossible. The resurrected and glorified Christ walked among believers and unbelievers in their natural state after His resurrection.
- Jesus’ physical presence on earth following His return does not rule out the possibility that many will reject Him. He was rejected by many during His earthly ministry as the Suffering Servant. Even Judas, who shared in Jesus’ ministry for three years, ultimately betrayed Him. We should not underestimate the ability of sinful and fallen people to resort to the greatest evil.
- An earthly millennial reign of Christ would show “the outworking of God’s good purposes in the structures of society” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 1121).
- The amillennial view lacks a meaningful purpose for Revelation 20.
Next: Historic and Dispensational Premillennialism.
What every Christian should believe about the end times
LISTEN: Download podcast: “What every Christian should believe about the end times”
Our life group at Brentwood (Tenn.) Baptist Church has begun a study of the end times, the events surrounding the return of Christ. I have to confess that I am less than thrilled with the assignment to teach this course — not because the Day of the Lord is unimportant, but because for centuries Christians have focused more on debating the details of Christ’s return than understanding the clear teachings about it in Scripture and heeding our Savior’s call to “be ready” by living in the light of eternity.
So, whether you’re a pre-tribulation-rapture premillennialist, an amillennialist, a postmillennialist, a panmillennialist (“it will all pan out in the end”), or someone else altogether in your view of the end times, I offer these 10 simple truths every Christian should keep in mind:
- Jesus has finished the work of salvation and today is seated at the right hand of the Father as our Mediator and Intercessor.
- Jesus is coming back to earth one day personally, physically and visibly.
- There will be a resurrection and final judgment of all people.
- Jesus will create new heavens and a new earth completely purged of sin.
- Believers will spend eternity with Christ and enjoy face-to-face fellowship with Him.
- Unbelievers will spend eternity separated from Christ in hell.
- The kingdom of heaven is here now (in the hearts of believers) but will be fully revealed and established at the return of Christ.
- Christians who uphold the truth of Scripture may disagree about how to interpret the prophetic passages about the end times, but they should never be disagreeable.
- End-times prophecies that generate confusion now will become crystal clear when they are fulfilled.
- The teachings of Jesus and the apostles concerning the Second Coming urge us to be prepared.
READ: Download Word document, “What every Christian should believe about the end times”