Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV) (Crossway. ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Good News Publishers, 2008.)
This post studies Revelation 20:4-6. As a simplified organization, I shall ask and answer a series of questions.
1. What all is covered under “I saw” of verse 20:4? This is not a critical question in the analysis. John begins chapter 20 with “And I saw an angel…” In 20:4, he announces, “And I saw thrones…” In 20:11, he states, “And I saw a great white throne…” In chapter 21, verse 1, he says, “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth…”The phrase/clause “I saw” is a prevalent introduction to material throughout the book, as follows.
a. In chapter 5, he says: “then I saw in the right hand…a scroll…”
b. Chapter six begins (in Greek): “And I saw…”
c. Chapter 7 begins: “After this I saw four angels…”
d. The second verse of chapter 8 begins: “Then I saw the seven angels…and seven trumpets were given to them…”
e. Chapter 9 tells how, after the fifth trumpet is blown, John “saw a star fallen from heaven to earth…”
f. Chapter 10 relates how John “saw another mighty angel…”
g. This pattern is broken in succeeding chapters, but chapter 12 begins with “a great sign appeared in heaven…” which is an implication of the process of “seeing.”
h. Chapter 13 begins: “And I saw a beast rising out of the sea…”
i. Chapter 14 contains implications of seeing:
i. 14:1 is the image of the 144,000
ii. 14:6 begins “Then I saw another angel…”
j. Chapter 15 begins “Then I saw another sign…” (This begins the narrative of the seven last plagues which continues through chapter 16.)
k. In 17:3, John, in the Spirit, says: “and I saw a woman…” (This begins the account of Babylon and its fall, which carries through chapter 18 and into chapter 19.)
l. Chapter 19:11 begins “then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse!” Thus begins the description of the Battle of Armageddon.
m. So, the pattern throughout the book is an ACCOUNT OF WHAT JOHN SAW. Revelation begins: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.” (1:1-2, emphasis added)
n. Throughout the book almost every new topic is introduced by John’s relating that he saw something. This reminds us that John had a series of visions. So, chapter 20 begins with John’s seeing the angel that captured Satan. Then, in verse 4, John saw the thrones. He is changing the topic to the thrones and those who sat upon them. Everything that follows in 20:4-6 is the vision of those on the thrones. John SAW it all.
2. Who are included among those who were beheaded and how are they connected to those who sat on the thrones? Note the categories that are listed.
a. In the Greek these categories are as follows:
i. Those who sat on the thrones
ii. The souls of those who were beheaded on account of the testimony about Jesus and the word of God
iii. Whoever did not worship the Beast nor his image and did not accept the Mark on their forehead or their hands
b. The Greek does not carefully group these, but it is logical to group these as follows:
i. I saw: all of the groups
1. Those beheaded: probably this group includes all that follows
ii. So we could indicate the inclusiveness of categories, as follows: I saw: Those on thrones to whom judgment was given, including those who were beheaded
1. On account of the testimony about Jesus
2. On account of the word of God
3. Because they did not worship the Beast or his image
4. Because they did not receive the Mark on their forehead or their hands (although it is possible that the last two groups were not among the beheaded)
3. What is the “First Resurrection?” I believe that this is one of the crucial questions in the interpretation of this passage. First, we need to divide the question into two parts: (a) How should verse 20:5 be understood? (b) How does the first resurrection compare with the data in I Corinthians 15, I Thessalonians 4, and John 5?
a. How should verse 20:5 be understood? Verse 5 begins by stating that the “rest of the dead did not come to life” until after the thousand year period. Then, there follows: “This is the first resurrection.” The question would be: “Is the ‘first resurrection’ that which takes place when the ‘rest of the dead’ come to life?” The arrangement of the clauses, including those in verse 20:4, could imply this. This is because the statement on the “first resurrection” is delayed until after the statement on the resurrection of the “rest of the dead.” However, if one counts, in order, the resurrections, there are two and the first is described in verse 20:4. Despite the insertion of the statement about the “rest of the dead,” it is logical to infer that the “first resurrection” is that of the martyrs of verse 20:4 (as well as all other Christians of other ages—see below). We then must conclude that the sentence regarding the “rest of the dead” is parenthetical. Although, to my knowledge, Greek did not have parentheses, parenthetical material does not seem to be totally unexpected. This parenthesis is a brief explanation that helps the reader keep track of all the cast of characters and events. It also is further explained in verse 20:6. I shall discuss that later.
b. How does the “first resurrection” compare with the data in I Corinthians 15, I Thessalonians 4, and John 5? There are three major descriptions of the resurrection in the New Testament. I shall consider them out of order. Each serves a different purpose.
i. I Corinthians 15 is Paul’s in-depth discussion of the resurrection that ties Christ’s resurrection to the salvation and to the resurrection of all the righteous. It goes on to give some understanding of the physical/metaphysical nature of the resurrection. It goes on to introduce the rapture of living Christians as an adjunct to the resurrection. This powerful presentation was written to the church at Corinth and includes admonitions that are applications of the truth of the resurrection. Paul calls his readers to join him in facing persecution with confidence in the resurrection (15:30-32), to live sober lives as reflections of the truth of the resurrection, to be “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” in the light of the resurrection. Note that Paul is presenting the resurrection as the certain future of Christians of the first century (and beyond) and not only the martyrs of the last days.
ii. I Thessalonians 4:13-18 is Paul’s answer to those who are concerned about their loved ones who have died. He wants them to know that they will be reunited with those loved ones in the resurrection/rapture. He describes that set of events in the following order: (1) a complex of almost simultaneous events consisting of a “cry of command, with the voice of the archangel,” “the sound of the trumpet of God,” and the descent of the Lord from heaven; (2) the resurrection of the “dead in Christ”; (3) living Christians are “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (the Rapture). (4) And “so we will always be with the Lord.” This is written as an encouragement to Christians (of the first century and beyond) about their loved ones who have died (verse 4:13 and 4:18). It describes their resurrection at the coming of Christ. They certainly would not be among the last-day martyrs.
iii. John 5 (especially 5:19-29) After Jesus healed the man born blind, which is related in John 5:1-17, Jesus spoke to his Jewish opponents in a lengthy discussion (5:19-47) regarding his divine nature, power, and prerogatives. It comes out of this comment by John (5:18b): “…not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” Jesus began (5:19-29) by focusing on the power to raise the dead that is possessed by the Father and the Son. (5:21) Associated with the power of resurrection is the prerogative of judgment (5:22), because the outcome of judgment is either life or death. For example, Jesus said in 5:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” Jesus goes on to specify the ultimate separation in association with resurrection (5:25): “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” He expands and explains this further (5:28-29): “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” Jesus is dividing all humanity into two camps: those who hear his “word and believe him who sent me” (5:24) and “those who have done evil (5:29). The category of the righteous is not limited to last-day martyrs. In fact martyrdom is not the ultimate criterion for the “resurrection of life.” Rather, saving faith in Jesus Christ is the deciding factor.
iv. In conclusion, the “first resurrection” of Revelation 20:5 includes all the righteous dead who are raised at Christ’s return, as related especially in I Thessalonians 4. It also includes those who are raptured in that same complex of events. Since the martyrs during the reign of the Beast (a period often referred to as the Tribulation) would be included among the righteous dead, they would join the righteous of previous centuries in this great gathering together of those who experience the “resurrection of life.” (John 5:29)
4. Who will reign with Christ for 1000 years? (verse 20:6)
a. There are two groups who are said to reign with Christ. The first is the group of martyrs that are listed in verse 20:4. They are as follows.
i. They proclaimed the testimony of Jesus
ii. They proclaimed the word of God
iii. They had refused to worship the Beast or its image
iv. They had not received the Mark of the Beast
v. These all are said to come to life and reign with Christ
b. The second group is defined in 20:6 as those who experience the first resurrection. In my discussion above, I conclude that this group includes all the righteous dead. They will be from all generations. (I’ll discuss the “Old Testament” righteous elsewhere.)
c. I conclude that those who reign with Christ will be all the righteous dead. Yet, a special place of honor seems to be reserved for the last-day martyrs. They are defined by their verbal witness, their defiance of the order to worship the Beast and his image, and their refusal to receive the Mark of the Beast.
d. I believe that the message to all Christians of all ages is to follow the example of these last-day martyrs. There may not be a Beast demanding worship and loyalty overtly as is the case of the Beast of the last days. However, there are always pressures to go along with whatever this world is currently holding up as worthy of worship. It may be a teen-age idol, the latest fashions, some video game that has created a sensation. It may be abortion rights or the homosexual agenda. It may be a harsh dictator. It may be those powerful temptations that I John 2:14 lists that have always drawn people away from loyalty to the Father and the Son. In every case there are consequences to refusing to worship the gods of this world. The consequence may not be to experience a martyr’s death; it may simply to be shunned or to find one’s career is in jeopardy. The martyrs of the early Christian centuries as well as those who suffer today, especially in North Korea, China, and Muslim countries—all of these serve as examples for us to follow. Finally, we have the example of the last-day martyrs. Let us pray for faithfulness and courage and deep love for God to be worthy fellow servants with all of these heroes of the faith.
5. What is the “second death” (verse 20:6)? This question is answered directly in 20:14: the second death is to be thrown into the Lake of Fire. This topic will be discussed in another post when I consider 20:11-15. In a previous post, I diagrammed how all (or most) humans experience a “first death.” Those who are saved experience also a “first resurrection.” The rest experience a “second resurrection” and a “second death.” This will be expanded in the material on 20:11-15.