And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, and for the word of God, and such as worshipped not the beast, neither his image, and received not the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they lived, and reigned with Christ a thousand years. The rest of the dead lived not until the thousand years should be finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: over these the second death hath no power; but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years’ (Rev 20:4-6).
The main thought of this passage is the millennial reign. This reign takes place during the same period in which Satan is bound. We established from verses 1-3, compared with clear New Testament passages, that the time of Satan’s binding is the interadvent period. So that to fix the time of Satan’s binding is to fix, at the same time, the time of the millennium.
Keeping in mind John’s use of drama, symbols, and numerology, let us examine the stage setting and ‘props’ for this depicted event. Then let us arrive at its message in the light of other New Testament passages. John says the people of this millennial reign are seated upon thrones. He then describes those who are seated on the thrones as persons who were martyred for their faithfulness to Christ, having refused to worship the beast or his image; their faithfulness was evident by their not having the mark of the beast on either their foreheads or their hands. Here, then, are three characteristics of those on the stage of this inspired drama: (1) they are reigning with Christ; (2) they are martyrs for the faith; and (3) they do not have the mark of the beast. Actually, this is a description (in figurative language) of every Christian of every age. Although some feel the word ‘soul’ in this passage can refer only to those who have departed this life, this term is used throughout the Bible to refer to living people (Gen 46:26; Exod 1:5; 12:4; Acts 2:41; 7:14; 1 Peter 3:20).
As for the reign of the saints, John himself referred to the living Christians as kings and priests (Rev 1:6). Certainly a king is one who reigns. Paul speaks in the past tense (Col 1:13) when he pictures the present reign of the saints: Who delivered us out of the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love. Eph 2:6 also is in the past tense: And raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. As to the description of those on the thrones as martyrs, this also can be applied to every Christian, since the words ‘martyr’ and ‘witness’ are taken from the same root word. Every genuine believer is a witness (martyr) and is commanded to sacrifice his life for the Lord. To become a genuine believer, or follower of Christ, is to become, immediately, persecuted – martyred – for his sake. In the Gospel of John, chapter 15, verse 20, our Lord himself tells us what to expect: A servant is not greater than his Lord. If they persecuted me they will also persecute you. In John 16:33 Jesus says: In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. Paul tells us in 2 Tim 3:12, Yea, and all that would live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.
In Revelation 7 John saw the future of all the saints of all time (vs. 9) and described this entire multitude as those who had come through the great tribulation (vs. 13), having been washed in the blood of the lamb. The third characteristic of these saints was their not having the mark of the beast. This would immediately cause a mental picture to form in the minds of the early Christians. The Roman rulers had attempted to deify themselves. The big contest in John’s day was between Christ and emperor worship. John himself was a prisoner on the Isle of Patmos because he refused to substitute ‘Lord Caesar’ for his Lord Jesus. It is a known historical fact that Domitian had statues of himself placed in strategic places and commanded all people to bow down to them. A committee was appointed to see that each person paid homage to these statues, thus acknowledging the emperor as divine. All who complied With this order received an official seal upon a part of the body, and without this mark a person could neither buy nor sell in the Roman world. This was what John called the mark of the beast. The first beast was the emperor, while the second beast referred to the enforcement committee.
In contrast to this mark of the beast, each Christian receives the mark of God’s approval (see 2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:30; Rev 7:3,4). Thus the Christian of every generation is a martyr for his faith, while at the same time he reigns with Christ. Someone has well said that God does not take his people around persecution, but that he protects them through it. Here, then, is a divine paradox: God reigns spiritually in the hearts of his people even while they are persecuted in their physical surroundings. Christians indeed find their lives by losing them.
Those who reign during the millennium are said to have experienced a first resurrection, while the rest of the dead lived not until the thousand years were ended. Premillennialists take this passage to indicate two bodily resurrections, separated by one thousand years. This contradicts many clear passages of Scripture and indeed contradicts the last division of this very same twentieth chapter of the Revelation.
When viewed symbolically, however, this passage coincides nicely with many clear passages from the New Testament. The new birth is spoken of in many places as a resurrection from the dead. Certainly this is the first resurrection. In the Gospel of John the same man who wrote the Revelation records a message of Jesus in which he spoke of two distinct resurrections, one of them being spiritual (the new birth), while the second is physical.
In speaking of the first resurrection (Rev 20:5), John said the rest of the dead lived not (the word ‘again’ is not in the original) until the thousand years were finished. This is in perfect agreement John 5:25, where our Lord said that only those who heard his voice would live. It is, in fact, in agreement with the New Testament, which teaches that all unbelievers remain in trespasses and sin, while all believers have already been made alive – resurrected.
Revelation 20:6 is a restatement of John 5:24, where our Lord is recorded as saying that the believer hath eternal life, and cometh not into judgment, but hath passed out of death into life. Note the of language as John says in Revelation 20:6 that he who has a part in the first resurrection will escape the second death. That second death is spiritual rather than physical is apparent from fact that those cast into the lake of fire – which is the second death (Rev 20:24) – are tormented throughout eternity. It is incongruous to have John say that a physical resurrection guarantees against a spiritual punishment. Both are spiritual, both the first resurrection and the second death. Blessed and holy is he that hath part first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power (Rev 20:6).