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Finishing up the year in the Bible, I heard this passage:

Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.—Revelation 20:4-6 (ESV)

Surprisingly, this seems to be the only use of "resurrection" in that book. It sounds like there will be one resurrection at the start of the thousand years (of those who had been beheaded and remained faithful) and that everyone else will be resurrected at the end of the thousand years.

On the other hand, the immediate referent of the phrase is "The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended." That would imply that, while the martyrs did come to life and reign with Christ, that event was not properly a "resurrection".

Can we know from the text (and not from any particular doctrine of eschatology) whether there are multiple resurrection events or if there is a distinction between coming [back] to life and a proper resurrection?


To clarify: the Jewish conception of resurrection at the time was that God would bring people back to life once and for all to reward them so they could enjoy life forever. (Most likely, the wicked would be returned to life in order to face justice, but the sources are less clear about them.) The event was to occur just once in all of history in the same way that creation only happened once. The rare cases of people being raised from the dead weren't considered resurrections since there was no judgement and the people would die once again.

Paul also speaks as if there will be just one resurrection:

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.—1st Corinthians 15:51-52 (ESV)

So one way we can interpret the Revelation passage above is to see what happened to the martyrs at the beginning of the thousand years as a simple revival from the dead. The pattern would be the Shunanite child revived by Elisha (as suggested here) or Lazarus.

But the literal reading of the passage is that the martyrs are a sort of first wave of the resurrection. Hence the possible contradiction and the question.

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8 Answers 8

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How many resurrections are there?

The immediate referent of "first resurrection" is not, "The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended." Instead it is those that came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. This is made clear by the fact that the author restates that those who participate in the first resurrection are those who "will reign with [Christ] for a thousand years." The first half of 20:5 is therefore better read as a parenthetical remark as the NET has it:

They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were finished.) This is the first resurrection.

Notice also that in these verses there are two separate instances of people who "come to life" (εζησαν). The author uses the same word in both cases. Moreover, he distinguishes between the two using a temporal reference (before or after the thousand years). Lastly, he denotes one as the "first" resurrection, numbering it. It seems to clear to me that the author intends to identify to his readers two resurrections.

The second resurrection, though not specifically named, seems to transpire in verses 11-15 of the same chapter.

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

(Revelation 20:11-15 ESV)

The first highlighted portion is what I think could be referred to as the second resurrection, which happens at the end of the age as compared to the first resurrection which occurs before then (cf. 6-7). The reason I bold the "second death" reference is to point out the textual link to the fact that those who participate in the first resurrection do not participate in the second death. Thus if there is a second resurrection, it must be of those who may participate in the second death (i.e. it cannot be people raised after the second death). Therefore, I conclude that the people raised to be judged in verse 13 in regards to the second death are part of what would be called the second resurrection.

What kind of resurrection is the "first resurrection"?

While some attempt to connect the first resurrection to John 5:25 and therefore insist that the first resurrection referred to here in Revelation 20:5 is a spiritual resurrection, I think there is good evidence to suggest otherwise.

First, as noted above, the same Greek word (εζησαν) is used to describe both those who "come to life" in order to reign with Christ for a thousand years as well as those who "come to life" after the thousand years. It seems to me that the burden of proof lies on anyone who denies that they refer to the same kind of resurrection. If I have correctly identified the second resurrection above, it seems impossible for that also to be the kind of spiritual resurrection that Jesus refers to in John 5:25 of those who have crossed over from death to life so that they will not be condemned. After all, at least some in the second resurrection are condemned to the lake of fire, the second death.

Second, note that at the beginning of your excerpt, the author says "I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded." These souls then "come to life." This suggests also a bodily resurrection rather than a spiritual one. In John 5, the opposite dynamic is in effect: there are people with living bodies who have dead souls, and these souls Jesus raises to life by his "voice." In Revelation 20:4, however, we have living souls with dead bodies, who "come to life."

Lastly, while there is much to recommend the connection of Revelation 20 to John 5:24-29 (e.g. in both passages there are seemingly two resurrections the second of which leads to a final judgment) - a connection made more likely if one accepts common authorship - yet, there are two differences that I find difficult to reconcile:

  1. In Revelation 20:4, those that participate in the first resurrection are identified as "those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God." Especially unusual is the word "beheaded", which is used nowhere else in the Johannine literature, and therefore has no precedent with which to link this passage elsewhere. This identity of martyrs does not seem to be in play in John 5; instead those who come alive are "the dead who hear the voice of the Son of God."

  2. In John 5:25, there is a realized component to the resurrection that Jesus speaks of: "a time is coming and has now come." But in Revelation 20:6, the blessings of the first resurrection all seem future oriented: "they will be priests" and "will reign." There is little to recommend a realized component.

For these reasons, I think it is best to understand the first resurrection as a bodily resurrection.

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The connection to John 5 is stronger if you include verses 25-29 or even more context. I'm not sure I agree with the answer, but you make a very strong case, so +1. Thanks for taking the time to refine your answer. –  Jon Ericson Jan 19 '12 at 17:03
    
@JonEricson I agree about the connection being stronger; I didn't mean to remove the context and hopefully addressed that a little better with my latest edit. Also, I'm not sure I agree with my answer either. :) Anyway, good question; one I hadn't really thought through before. –  Soldarnal Jan 19 '12 at 18:43

The chief thing to notice about the reference to ‘the first resurrection’ in Revelation 20, is that it is contrasted, not with a ‘second resurrection’, but with ‘the second death’ (Rev 20:6). Therefore, understanding what constitutes the ‘second death’ in this passage may throw some light on what ‘the first resurrection' actually refers to. The subjects of ‘the first resurrection’ references in this passage are clearly the martyred saints (v 4). The vision is of souls, not bodies, and appears to take place in Heaven, not on earth (20:4). The point being made is that these saints, though they died bodily, nevertheless lived (i.e. continued to live – as Jesus had promised in John 11:26) and reigned with Christ for a very long period of time, referred to in this passage as ‘a thousand years’. In this they are clearly distinct from the rest of those who have died a physical death (20:5). The scripture then states: “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power (v 6). What is the ‘second death’? We read that the ‘second death’ is the destruction of death itself and of all that falls within its territory (e.g. death, the grave, those not found written in the book of life – v 14-15). The reason the ‘second death’ has no power on those who have a part in 'the first resurrection’ is that they have already “passed from death to life” and that the life they now experience is eternal (John 5:24). In addition, Jesus connects this idea, of believers being raised spiritually from death to life, with the bodily resurrection of all who are in the grave, at the close of the age (v 26-28). In the same way, Paul refers to believers as having been already ‘raised with Christ’ and sharing in both Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension (Col 3:1; Eph 2:6). However, Paul also reveals that this state of being ‘raised with Christ,’ though a genuine spiritual state, is not fully realised until we are absent from the body (he calls it “this body of death” Rom 7:24) and at home with the Lord (2 Cor 5:1-8); as are the martyred saints pictured in the Revelation passage. The vision in Revelation 20 of the martyred saints reigning with Christ presents them as victors rather than victims and provides hope, reassurance and encouragement for those yet facing similar martyrdoms; especially given that a long period of time awaits (pictured here as a thousand years) between these first century martyrdoms and those that will immediately precede the return of Christ (Rev 13:7).

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First of all, it is not a thousand years reign, as the Greek numeric 'Chilioi' as base-10 (10x3rd power) in root Greek 'Chili' represents the sum of (plural) "thousands", and would properly translate as 'Thousands of Years'... and this evident from NT teaching mean the remaining earth age that ends in final judgment. So the reign of saints began with Christ's ministry, and continues after judgment forever. For some reason many miss Rev 20:4-6 reading only about the second group called the martyr, when also are (included) those on thrones with authority to judge. The HS deposit is more than a hope, it is a guarantee involving this earth age, and the eternal to come... also the second "I saw" is not found in the original Greek. Consider in this context, that those 'dead in sin' are made alive again (or) born again, resurrected in truth into the 'new man', serving (or) reigning now in this earth age, and the age eternal to come. I have written a thesis bible study in this context about the first resurrection, offered to all that would like to consider and critique the fact they reign with Christ in His service, and as priests forever (my web page): http://rtpricetag.home.comcast.net/~rtpricetag/First_Resurrection.html

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Hi DeWayne. It sounds like you know a thing or two about the passage. But I can't help but notice that you didn't quite answer my question. (Or at least, I think you mean there is only one resurrection, but you don't come out and say that.) You might answer in your web page, but we are looking for complete and well-supported answers. Have you seen our tour page? It might help you see where we are coming from here. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Dec 9 '13 at 6:23

Revelation must always interpret happenings in the present life, today. Revelation is applicable in all present life, not in the future. The logic is: if you die, there is no hope. According to Ecclesiastes 9:4 "The living has hope." Again what is the logic? Revelation was written for the living people, it will happen today, why? What is the purpose of Revelation if it will not happen to us...the living people? There is no sense to read the Revelation if this is only for the future. Because people are already dead, so, what is the sense of this Revelation if you are dead? Totally nonsense.

In Revelation 20:12-13, speaking of the books, these books is the New & the Old Covenant. According to John 12:48 "there is a judge" and who is this judge? "that very words which I spoke will condemn him at the last day."

The Books (the Word of God John 1:1 Word was God) is the judge. Whatever in the Books that God spoke, (through Jesus Christ John 12:49-50) that it will judge us.

In John 5:25, "the dead (all people: bad or good) will hear the voice of the Son of Man. Those who hear will live." (we should not stop here) We must continue upto v28-29...

5:28-29 for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned. (We have hope to hear the Son)

So, once we hear the Son of God, it is up to us, according to our deeds: "done what is good, or done what is evil."

So when we died... our body, there is no hope. So, this is the second death... our dead body. The first death is the spiritual death, (still we have hope; not the dead body) Ephesians 2:1, 2:5. (Remember: Romans 6:23 The wages of sin is death. & all are dead according to Romans 3:10-12 no one is righteous.

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This parenthetical part of Revelation 20 Vers 5 'the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were over' is actually missing in some of the extant manuscripts:

Codex Sinaiticus, Syriac Peschitta, Manuscripts Nrs. 2030, 2053, 2062, 2077 (the majority texts of Koine, siglum M {k}). It is further missing in two early commentaries to the Apoc: Victorinus von Pettau (3rd cent.) and Beatus. (Nestle-Aland)

It was very likely a glossary remark that originated in a (until today widespread) misunderstanding of this book: it is prophetic, indeed, but not to be understood as a prophetic timetable to the event that chapter by chapter a new millennium has to be revealed. The chapters 19, 20, 21, 22 reveal perspectives to the age to come. Not a chronology that is running head over heels through the ages.

The first resurrection is for a kingdom and priesthood. It is the people that is sanctified to the Most High, like Daniel the prophet saw it. When John writes 'and after this I saw' he introduces what he saw next (in the following vision), not: What will happen a thousand years later. Just because something new is mentioned and shown, it does not mean that it would be superfluous within that same age told about a couple of verses before. And a new chapter does not necessarily mean the same as: A new page (and age) in the Pastor's handbook of timetables. (That medieval monks invention of numbers to verses and chapters is sometimes misleading and too often annoying as is the custom to throw everything into one book to have it all handy (as if being the word of God were a matter of handiness.) )

Are priests supposed to serve themselves? Or kings to lord it over each other? Not so with God. (Even if their bibles would try to talk Him into.)

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Could you provide a source for the textual criticism you present in the first paragraph? It isn't noted in the NET Bible. I also don't find it in this list of variations. –  Jon Ericson Apr 16 '13 at 18:35
    
Hi Jon! The Nestle-Aland shows this part of the verse as missing in the Syriac Peschitta and Sinaiticus and in an early commentary, which author's name I can't recall right now. Thanks! –  hannes Apr 17 '13 at 11:23
    
This part is missing in a whole lot more manuscripts than I remembered: Codex Sinaiticus, Syriac Peschitta, Manuscripts Nrs. 2030, 2053, 2062, 2077 (the majority texts of Koine, siglum M {k}). It is further missing in two early commentaries to the Apoc: Victorinus von Pettau (3rd cent.) and Beatus. –  hannes Apr 21 '13 at 6:24

It might be helpful to read this passage in the light of Matthew 5:28-29 Acts 23:6, 24:15 and Daniel 12:1-4. There will be two and only two resurrections, "The JUST and The UNJUST." The JUST being on the LAST DAY of this Age, Jn.6:39, 40, 44, 54 and Matthew 13:39. The UNJUST 1000 years later, Revelation 20:1-6...

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! I encourage you to edit the answer to be a little be more full. For instance, you could quote one or more of the supporting passages and show the textual links to Revelation. Daniel 12 only mentions the Resurrection of the righteous, as for as I can tell. The connection to the other passages is less then clear (other than dealing with eschatology in some manner). –  Jon Ericson Apr 11 '12 at 15:59

The "first resurrection" refers to a spiritual resurrection in which the martyred saints come to life in heaven to reign with Christ during the present age. (It's possible that all the saints participate in this, but that the author's purpose is to give encouragement especially to those to whom he is writing facing a possible martyrdom.) I believe this can be demonstrated from the text.

Where do the martyrs reign?

To see this, first we need to understand where the beheaded saints reign. There are several clues from the text: 20:4 begins with a vision of thrones (θρονους), there are strong parallels to the martyrs in 6:9, and they are describes as "souls".

Thrones are a common feature throughout the book. In three cases where they are associated with the beast/Satan, they don't seem to have a location (2:13, 13:2, 16:10); but in every other instance, whether the throne of God, or the throne of the twenty four elders, thrones appear in one place: heaven.1

In 6:9, John says he "saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained." Here in 20:4, he says, "I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God." Where are these martyrs in chapter 6? Under the altar in heaven (cf. 8:3,5).

Lastly, we note that John says he saw "the souls of those who had been beheaded." Their spiritual existence again suggests that they are in heaven. Now, we must deal with the objection from my previous answer - that these souls "come to life", which must mean a bodily resurrection. The problem with this interpretation is that it assumes a temporal flow to this vision - first there are souls on thrones, then they come to life and reign. But this interpretation ignores that the thrones are already meant to constitute the substance of the reign. It is not as if souls on thrones in heaven leave their thrones for new thrones on earth. Rather, these souls "come to life" in order to reign on the thrones there in heaven.

This accords well with the rest of the book too. In 3:4, we read, "The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white." And those who were slain in 6:9 receive their white robe in 6:11. Likewise, in 3:21 we read, "To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne." Christ was victorious through his death and so ascended into heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father. Likewise, the martyrs are victorious over the beast through their deaths, and so are raised and seated with Christ in the heavenlies.

When do the martyrs reign?

The other thing helpful in understanding this resurrection is to see when it happens. The proper interpretation of the visions in chapter 20 hinges on a right understanding of its relationship to the visions at the end of 19. It's my understanding that chapter 20 is best seen as a recapitulation of the visions before it rather than a chronological continuation. Most relevant is that I take the battles depicted to be one and the same battle, one at the end of the age at Christ's return. If this is so, then it seems best to understand the one thousand years as constituting the present age and the reign of the seated martyrs as happening in the present as well.

I conclude then that John's vision is one of the martyrs being raised to life in heaven in order to reign with Christ during the present age. John's Revelation, therefore, does not contradict previous understandings of a single resurrection, whether found in Jewish tradition or in 1 Corinthians 15 and elsewhere. There is still only one resurrection of bodies at the end of the age, in preparation for a final judgment before the great white throne.


1 One might quibble that there are instances of thrones on earth in 21 and 22, but these are thrones in heaven come down upon the earth.

All quotations taken from 2011 NIV, with emphasis mine.

Further reading: Sam Storms at Enjoying God Ministries

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Thank you for providing an alternate answer. It does my heart good to know that my question caused so much thought! I especially like it when a question spawns other questions I hadn't considered. :-) –  Jon Ericson Mar 16 '12 at 16:03
    
@JonEricson Well, it's been good for me too; eschatology has always been a topic I just kinda avoided. And really, both this answer and the one I linked are highly indebted to Sam Storms. But thank you for precipitating a lot of my inquiry. –  Soldarnal Mar 16 '12 at 22:48
    
Jesus always seemed to speak of a single ressurection and Revelations is too shaky to me as a single source for introducing new doctrines, that do not seem to fit the rest of scripture. This is why I think this view has a lot of strength. –  Mike Jun 28 '12 at 5:04
    
@ Jon Ericson, Is this Question still open for answer? –  Bagpipes Sep 11 '13 at 18:54
    
@user2572: Absolutely. "Old [Stack Exchange questions] never die; they just fade away." ;-) –  Jon Ericson Sep 11 '13 at 19:10

Based on the comments above, I will try the, "most simple answer":

The first resurrection is for believers, the second you mention in your question. This second resurrection appears to be for judgement.

The first death is natural death. The second is final death after the second resurrection; this second death is apparently hell.

Christians, from the first resurrection, are not subject to the second death, according to the text. Whether everyone in the second resurrection undergoes the second death is not clear from the text.

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