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THE FIRST RESURRECTION

 

 

And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years. Revelation 20:4–6

 

The everlasting gospel binds the work of Satan so that it cannot affect God’s people. Now John sees people sitting on thrones. Who are these people and why are they sitting on thrones? A throne represents a seat of authority. Here we see the people that respond to the everlasting gospel during the end-time revival are elevated to positions of authority in the kingdom of God. The positions of authority are not places of leadership in the church; the authority has to do with the result of their obedience to the everlasting gospel which is called the first resurrection in verse five.

Every person on earth has a ruling influence that dominates his life. Paul writes in Romans 6:12–13, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” The unregenerate have sin reigning in their lives. Sin so dominates their moral nature that it is the strongest motivating influence in their lives. Paul tells the Romans that they do have a choice in this matter but the power behind that choice is not simply their will. The power that changes their moral perspectives and their behavior is nothing less than spiritual life and the righteousness of God.

Paul precedes his statement with Romans 5:21, “Sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The substance being that a person does have a choice in which influence rules over his life. Sin reigns in the life of those that are spiritually dead. But those who respond to the gospel of salvation from sin through Christ receive a grace to reign over sin that leads to eternal life. In this statement we find a hint to the meaning of a first resurrection: A previous condition of death in sin and a resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ.

As John gazes on those sitting on the thrones he observes that judgment is committed to them. The word judgment is a strong and sometimes negative word that means a legal decision against a crime. It is translated in the King James Version as judgment, damnation, condemnation, be condemned, go to law, and avenge. The people that accept the end-time revival and hold to the everlasting gospel are moved strongly against sin and religious error and take a firm stand for the righteousness of Christ given to them so that their testimony firmly rebukes religious error and demonstrates the righteousness of Christ lived in the redeemed life.

At what point in time are these people privileged to sit on their thrones? Jumping ahead to verse six, we read that they “shall reign with Him a thousand years.” From this we see that they reign with Christ for one thousand years, which means they will reign over sin and in the righteousness of Christ during the entire end-time revival. If we are now in the beginning of the end-time revival, it means that there are actually people on earth who are reigning over sin and living out the righteousness of Christ in their lives.

John is in awe of what he sees on the thrones and quickly his attention is drawn to “the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God.” First, notice that John sees souls, not bodies. This is significant in the light of millennial teachings, especially premillennial teaching. Premillennialism teaches a literal resurrection of the just prior to Christ’s coming to reign on the earth for one thousand years. The verses we are studying today are used to support that teaching. However, notice that John sees souls and not bodies. This cannot refer to a literal resurrection of the dead. Albert Barnes sees the obvious that others overlook:

 

And I saw the souls of them. This is a very important expression in regard to the meaning of the whole passage. John says he saw the souls—not the bodies. If the obvious meaning of this be the correct meaning; if he saw the souls of the martyrs, not the bodies, this would seem to exclude the notion of a literal resurrection, and consequently overturn many of the theories of a literal resurrection, and of a literal reign of the saints with Christ during the thousand years of the millennium. The doctrine of the last resurrection, as everywhere stated in the Scripture, is, that the body will be raised up, and not merely that the soul will live, (see 1 Corinthians 15:1 and 1 Corinthians 15:1) and consequently John must mean to refer in this place to something different from that resurrection, or to any proper resurrection of the dead as the expression is commonly understood. The doctrine which has been held, and is held, by those who maintain that there will be a literal resurrection of the saints to reign with Christ during a thousand years, can receive no support from this passage, for there is no ambiguity respecting the word souls as used here. By no possible construction can it mean the bodies of the saints. If John had intended to state that the saints, as such, would be raised as they will be at the last day, it is clear that he would not have used this language, but would have employed the common language of the New Testament to denote it. The language here does not express the doctrine of the resurrection of the body; and if no other language but this had been used in the New Testament, the doctrine of the resurrection, as now taught and received, could not be established. These considerations make it clear to my mind that John did not mean to teach that there would be a literal resurrection of the saints, that they might live and reign with Christ personally during the period of a thousand years. There was undoubtedly something that might be compared with the resurrection, and that might, in some proper sense, be called a resurrection, (Revelation 20:5–6,) but there is not the slightest intimation that it would be a resurrection of the body, or that it would be identical with the final resurrection.

 

John describes the souls he sees as martyrs who had not worshipped the beast or received his mark. This describes people that have left all religious Babylon to be nothing else but the body of Christ, the church of God. While this appears to indicate God’s people other than those John sees on the thrones, it is actually a character description of the same people. They were reigning over sin and living in the righteousness of Christ as seen by their sitting on thrones. And, we see that they are people that have committed themselves to the word of God and are standing apart from all false and apostate religion. However, they are described as having been beheaded for their witness. Again, beheaded here is a symbol and not a literal condition. Beheading here signifies that they have allowed Christ to be their head. We find this addressed by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians 1:22, “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Christ is the only head of His church and the only spiritual authority to which we submit ourselves regardless of the cost we may incur in the face of all other religions. Ephesians 4:15, “But speaking truth in love, we may grow up in all things into him, who is the head, even Christ” (American Standard Version). Not only is Christ the authority over the church, He is the only authority over the spiritual lives of the redeemed.

John says the people who sit on the throne and accept Christ as their head live and reign with Christ for a thousand years in verse five. The premillennial doctrine has the unsaved from all time being resurrected to live during its millennium. These verses give no account of unsaved people living during the one thousand years. Some teachings in premillennialism have the righteous living and reigning on earth during the millennium giving instruction on the gospel to the damned of all ages so that they may have another opportunity to get saved, which they associate with Satan being loosed in verses 7–8. But, there is absolutely nothing in the twentieth chapter that says anything about lost souls being resurrected and living on earth for one thousand years.

After introducing us to those that sit on the thrones, John then calls this one thousand year symbol the first resurrection. He writes in verse 5, “But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.”

Before we explore the first resurrection, we must find out who these people are the John calls “the rest of the dead.”  He tells us they do not live again until the thousand years were finished. The rest of the dead are identified in Ephesians 2:1, “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” Inasmuch as we have people reigning on thrones at the beginning of the end-time revival, we see here people who are sinners that are accepting the gospel, repenting their sins, and being saved. This is obvious because the purpose of the end-time revival is to preach the everlasting gospel to the lost so they can be saved.

One might quickly object because it says they do not live again until the thousand years were finished. The Greek word finished does mean to come to an end; however, it also means to fulfil and to accomplish. So, we are to understand that as people respond to the gospel and are saved from sin, the work and purpose of the end-time revival is accomplished in their lives. So, they, along with those sitting on the throne at the beginning of the revival are included in the first resurrection. They enjoy the transition from spiritual death to spiritual life through the new birth and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

What is the first resurrection of which John speaks? We see that this resurrection imparts two special blessings to people who participate in it: They are blessed and holy; and the second death has no power over them.

Jesus taught of this resurrection in John 5:24–25, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.” Passing from spiritual death into spiritual life is the first resurrection because Jesus speaks of another future resurrection in verses 28–29, “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” This is the general resurrection of all the dead at the end of time.

Paul comments on the attribute of the first resurrection Romans 6:4, “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” The ordinance of baptism pictures our death to sin and our resurrection to spiritual life. The attribute Paul particularly speaks of is the newness of life brought about by the new birth as Barnes comments on this passage: “The argument in this verse is, therefore, drawn from the nature of the Christian profession. By our very baptism, by our very profession, we have become dead to sin, as Christ became dead; and being devoted to him by that baptism, we are bound to rise as he did to a new life.” Paul teaches the spiritual nature and source of the newness of life that results from the first resurrection in Romans 8:11, “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.”

The first resurrection is nothing more or less than the new birth; the resurrection from spiritual death to spiritual life through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. John points out that those who are saved under the everlasting gospel during the end-time revival are blessed and holy and the second death, in this case, eternal death, has no power over them just as it has no power over the redeemed in any generation. Verse six shows that these converts join with all God’s people in reigning over sin and serve God together with Christ’s church: “They shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.”

Observe a critical note on the texts of verse four and verse six. Verse four tells us that those that left false and apostate religions lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. Verse five starts with the word BUT, bringing up a contrast and brings up the topic of the first resurrection which follows the thousand years of verse four. Verse six tells us the people experiencing the first resurrection will also reign with Christ for a thousand years. This verse has the first resurrection following the thousand years in verse four and lasting for a thousand years. So, in reality, if the thousand years is to be taken literally, there are two periods of one thousand years—a total of two thousand years, one following the other. This fact is always overlooked by millennialists and it is further justification for explaining the thousand years as a spiritual attribute of the end-time revival. Those God uses to initiate the end-time revival and those that accept the everlasting gospel during the end-time revival all receive the same spiritual benefits of salvation through the atonement in Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.