The First Resurrection

Revelation 20 is dangerous ground upon which to walk. To comment on it assumes so much. It assumes a particular way of reading the whole apocalyptic drama. It assumes a particular structure to the book. Consequently, there are many ambiguities, varied understandings and even some nasty polemical controversies associated with this text.

Nevertheless, I will venture into these choppy waters in order to make a very specific point based upon my understanding of this text. And I do so only to share a pastoral meditation that I find quite meaningful.

In Revelation 20:1-3, Satan is bound. Whatever that means, it means he is not destroyed but only limited. Simultaneously, in Revelation 20:4-6, the martyred saints (those beheaded) and others who have overcome (they did not worship the beast) reign with Christ on thrones. Those who overcome sit down with Christ on his thrones–it is a co-regency (cf. Rev. 3:21). They share in the glory of the kingdom of God. These thrones, as are all thrones in Revelation, participate in heavenly glory–they exist in the throne room of God, in the heavenly sanctuary, the heavenly dwelling place of God.

These saints (“souls”) participate in the “first resurrection.” This resurrection is described at the end of verse 4 as: “they came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” I believe is this an affirmation, similar to the picture in Revelation 7 or Revelation 14:13, that those who have passed from earth to heaven, those who have died in the Lord actually come to life when they pass through the portals of death. When the saints of God die, they come to life. They enter the presence of God and reign with Christ on his throne. They are seated on thrones surrounding the throne of God himself. They share the heavenly glory of Christ himself.

The “rest of the dead” –apparently those who do not share in that glory–do not “come to life” until the judgment day when everyone experiences the “second resurrection” (or the resurrection from the dead where bodies are raised to meet God). I tend to think that the righteous dead, according to this text, life with Christ, but the unrighteous dead (the rest of the dead) are not conscious of their state until the “second resurrection” (that is, the general resurrection of the dead when all will be raised with bodies once again).

Those who participate in the “first resurrection” will not participate in the “second death.” The “first” and “second” imply a contrast with missing components. What is the “first” death and the “second” resurrection? I believe the first death is physical death. The souls enthroned with Christ experienced the first death but as participants in the “first resurrection” they will not experience the “second death.” These “souls”, however, await the newness of creation–the time when creation will be renewed, including their own bodies in a (second) resurrection. The “new heavens and new earth” will appear along with a “new Jerusalem.” This newness is the (second) resurrection of the cosmos–a renewed creation with renewed, transformed bodies in which the saints participate.

Where are the saints who have died in the Lord? They have experienced the first resurrection. They came alive in their death. They live in the presence of God, reigning with Christ as they await the final consummation; as they await the renewed heaven and earth. They are not dead, but alive. But they are not yet complete, not yet all that God intends them to be….they wait for the new heavens and new earth just as those living upon the earth do. But though they died, they are yet alive.

If you are interested in a more detail presentation of this perspective, I suggest reading the excellent article by Don Garlington.

8 Responses to “The First Resurrection”

  1.   JD Says:

    Very interesting. There are so many questions about the afterlife. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. They ring true, though I’m sure much debate/discussion could ensue with someone brighter than me. I am thankful for God’s provision of life.

  2.   Keith Brenton Says:

    I just finished teaching a short elective course at church on eschatology, and told the folks in my class they wouldn’t get the full picture if they studied Revelation 20 without reading the next chapter … and all the chapters preceding it!

    Like you, I’m leery of reading too much realism into a book of deep symbolism, but there certainly are deep truths to be found there.

    What I draw from it is that character of God does not change in judgment; He is still just, He is still merciful. Thanks for the benefit of your research, your good thoughts, and the article link as well.

  3.   Dee O'Neil Andrews Says:

    I haven’t been commenting, but I have been reading all of your posts on life after death to this planet, earth, and have been thinking a lot about all you’ve had to say having lost several members of my immediate family from this world.

    You’ve given me a lot of new things to think about and a new perspective just when I thought I had it all figured out, which I appreciate very much.

    I look forward to all you have to say on the subject as it is something I think about a lot.

  4.   dagwud Says:

    John Mark,

    I have a lot of appreciation for your brief commentary here. The assurance of immediate blessing on the other side of death is precious to me.

    I think, though, that this passage suggests that there is a special blessing for martyrs, those who have died specifically because of their faith. They go straight to heaven, and to the greatest of blessings, that will not be given to the rest of the dead until the second resurrection. Of course, even then, only God’s people will enjoy the blessings. The rest will be in the lake of fire.

    This is in contrast to what happened in chapter 19 to the beast and false prophet who, in an action different from the rest of then enemies, were “thrown alive” into the fiery lake.

    Without going in to much detail, I think Revelation 19 and 20 teach that the horrible persecutors of God’s people went straight to hell, bypassing the judgment. Those who were killed for the faith went straight to heaven, bypassing the judgment.

    That says nothing about my belief in immediate blessing for the dead, just about special blessing for martrys.

  5.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    Your interpretation of the enthroned ones in Revelation 20 as limited to the martyrs is one way of reading the text. There are many who would agree with you.

    However, Revelation 20:4 refers to two groups who are present “alive” in the presence of God. The first group is (1) the “souls” who were beheaded, and (2) those [souls] who did not worship the beast and did not receive the mark of the beast. There is a break in the text between the “souls” beheaded and “whoever” (the ones who) did not worship the beast.

    The NIV breaks it into a new sentence.The later is more inclusive than the former. The NASB represents the grammar more faithfully. NASB: “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.” I would remove the comma, however, after the word “image” as there is no relative pronoun to indicate a break at that point.

    Revelation is concerned not just about the martyrs but about all those who “overcome” through faithul endurance. These are those who “die in the Lord” (Rev. 14:13).

    I grant, however, that there is room for ambiguity here. Neither interpretation can be absolutely demonstrated. But I think my reading of Rev. 20:4 is consistent with other texts in Revelation that are more inclusive than just the martyrs.

    Thanks for the comments, and to JD, Keith and Dee…thanks for sharing your perspectives.

  6.   Alvin Says:

    Do you suppose that the First resurrection consists of the O.T saints? Or do you think they have already been resurrected (together with NT Saints) at the Rapture?


  7.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    We may have different understandings here and that is ok.

    The first resurrection refers to those who have died in the Lord, and this would include OT saints. The second resurrection–which is the resurrection of the dead at the rapture as per 1 Thess 4 (in my opinion)–has not yet happened. But the “first resurrection” is something that has already happened.

    Even now saints reign with Christ in divine throneroom. After the second resurrection, they will reign with him on the new heaven and new earth.

  8.   wgmn Says:

    John Mark,
    Your take on Rev 20 and the “1st Resurrection” makes total sense.
    If this interpretation be true, you eliminate the problematic view of having immortal saints ruling over mortals on earth for a thousand years with the returned glorified Lord Jesus.It also allows for the Lord Jesus to return BODILY at the end of the thousand year Millenium for the climatic destruction of all evil.

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