What is the “first resurrection”?
Answer: From a New Testament perspective, it is baptism into Christ.
The Book of Revelation is remarkably symbolic throughout. Rarely is it relating to literal occurrences, other than perhaps chapters 2-3 regarding the seven churches. Even then, metaphorical language appears in those chapters as well (seven stars, seven lampstands, etc.). Of course the pervasive symbolism correlates to actual, historical events. It is the interpretation of those events that leads to controversy.
Since the natural man/woman is dead to God, the "first death" should be understood as our condemnation as sinful human beings. The only means by which we may obtain life in God is through the blood of His Son and our faithful obedience to His Word.
At least two passages speak directly to this remedy:
- Colossians 2:13: "When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions"
- 1 Corinthians 15:22: "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive" (cf. Col. 2:13).
Here is an extract from the passages in the OP:
- Revelation 20:6a: "Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power..."
If we are "dead," how then can we be "made alive"? Clearly, since we are "made alive in Christ" it naturally follows that this constitutes a form of resurrection, that is, our "first resurrection." Most understand that the "second resurrection" occurs when we are transformed, bodily, into imperishable immortality:
1 Corinthians 15:51-53: "Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the [physically] dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality" (emphasis added).
Paul is describing our transcendence into the paradise of God. The faithful will, therefore, never encounter spiritual death. This is not true of the faithless and disobedient whose destiny is too horrific to contemplate. However, we will definitely be changed — although we may not now understand what that means:
1 John 3:2-3: "Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. 3And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure" (emphasis added).
Spiritual death is the "second death" of Revelation 20:6a. Here, suppose we consider the surrounding text at this point in the chapter for context:
Revelation 20:4-6: "4Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.
5The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. 6Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years."
What does this mean? Before we dissect these passages, let us observe another verse of great significance:
1 Peter 2:9: "But [the saints] are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies [Scripture] of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light"
With this is mind, let us examine Revelation 20:4-6 step-by-step with bracketed notation and commentary:
I. 4a"Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them." The ones on the thrones appear to be the saints, those who constitute the "holy nation" in 1 Peter 2:9. Additionally, let us not miss the fact that the saints are to judge the world: 1 Cor. 6:2: "Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world?" That is what this clause seems to be conveying.
II. 4b"And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God" Again, this is speaking of all saints. Over the past 2,000 years the saints have been persecuted including beatings, torture, beheadings and so forth. Who among the faithful has not watched the news and put their head in their hands asking themselves: "How long, Sovereign Lord, until you avenge the injustices of the world?" (cf. Rev. 6:10).
III. 4c"[Those] who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand" It is a well-known fact that Roman Caesars expected to be worshipped as gods. This became so widespread that those without the proper identification, whatever that may have been, no one was allowed to buy or sell in the Roman marketplaces without it.
IV. 4d"[They] came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years." We have already demonstrated that we are "made alive in Christ". There should be no mystery that saints are priest of God and of Christ just as 1 Peter 2:9 tells us. The faithful are a "chosen race", a "royal priesthood", etc. Note that all Christians are royalty. This verse is merely stating that Christians — in their entirety — will reign with Him throughout His Dynasty.
[NOTE: The expression "reigning with Christ for a thousand years" represents the the holy, royal nation of saints (1 Pet. 2:9) of all periods until the end of the world, priests of God at this very moment. Unfortunately, this figure is often stretched well beyond its intent. Some recognize that this period is merely an indeterminate amount of time until the end.
It represents the totality of "this age", one that will cease upon Christ's reappearance at the end of the world, the end of time. Many hermeneutics simply cannot, or will not accept this as a figurative duration. Suppose we consider a passage from Psalm 50 to underscore the point:
Psalm 50:10: "“For every beast of the forest is Mine, The cattle on a thousand hills."
It this a literal 1,000 hills? Obviously, God is declaring that every beast on all hills — everywhere, belong to Him. It is surprising how many will claim that this reference in Psalm 50 is symbolic, whereas the 1,000 years in Revelation must be literal. This is terribly unfortunate, because the Book of Revelation is a treasure trove of O/T symbolism.]
V. 5"The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed." Again, outside the saving blood of Christ we are dead. "The rest of the dead" in this clause merely represents those who have rejected God's offer. Their eventual "coming to life" occurs at the end of time — which simply means they will rise to face God's judgment. They never experienced the "first resurrection" due to their faithlessness. Again, the "thousand years" looks toward the conclusion of the material universe (2 Pet. 3:10ff.).
VI. 5-cont"This is the first resurrection." It is unfortunate that this tiny clause appears where it does because the "first resurrection" does not apply to "the lost" whatsoever: it only applies to those who have accepted the free gift of Christ. This is believed to instead be applicable to those in the next verse: Rev. 20:6.
VII. Here, I will paraphrase the verse using bracketed notation:
6Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection [baptism into Christ]; over these [Christians] the second death [spiritual death] has no power, but they [Christians] will be priests of God and of Christ [all Christians are priests of God and of Christ] and will reign with Him for a thousand years [until the end of the age, the end of time]" (emphasis added).
Once this occurs, we are reigning with Christ now, on earth, as the saints of God in His Kingdom:
2 Timothy 2:11-12 "It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; 12If we endure, we will also reign with Him" (emphasis added).
If we are willing to put aside our preconceived ideas and accept the interpretation of the symbolism in the Book of Revelation (allowing Scripture to explain itself), we may then gain a much greater understanding of this enigmatic text. The celestial imagery of a dozen books in the O/T appears throughout this Book. It is only when we put those pieces together that we can begin comprehend the great meaning being conveyed to us by God.
As one studies many O/T prophecies on the subject, it should become evident that the "first resurrection" is baptism into Christ, the "second resurrection" is the transformation of the saints into their imperishable, immortal form (1 Cor. 15:50+), while the "second death" is spiritual separation from God: first in Hades, and ultimately, the Lake of Fire.