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Who shared in the first resurrection of the dead?

4a And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them and judgment was given to them,

4b and the souls of those beheaded on account of the testimony of Jesus and on account of the word of God,

4c and whoever did not worship the beast, not even his image, and did not receive the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand.

4d And they lived and reigned with the Christ a thousand years.

5a And the rest of the dead did not live until the thousand years might be finished.

5b This is the first resurrection.

6 Blessed and holy is the one having part in the first resurrection; over these the second death does not have authority, but they will be priests of God and of the Christ and will reign with him a thousand years.


Peter Wilkinson has disputed my argument about the resurrection of the martyrs in Revelation 20:4. I think that John has in mind a more or less literal resurrection of those who were martyred during the course of the early church’s clash with an idolatrous Roman imperialism. Peter thinks that this apocalyptic stuff is all somehow just a metaphor for being a Christian. He argues i) that there are at least three groups in view in Revelation 20:4; ii) that these groups are not raised but simply “live”; and iii) that “resurrection” is to be “taken in its secondary sense as the triumph which believers already share with the risen, ascended Christ”.

Here’s why I think he is wrong, though looking at the passage again has made me modify my view slightly.

John first sees an unspecified group who are given the authority to judge and who sit upon thrones (4a).

He then sees are the souls of those who were beheaded because they bore witness to Jesus and proclaimed the word of God (4b). The relation of these “souls” to the people seated on the thrones is not explained.

Do we have a third group in verse 4c: “whoever did not worship the beast”, etc.? I used to agree with Aune here, who comments: ”It is more natural to construe the text as referring to a single group of martyrs, who had been executed for both positive reasons (v4b: their obedience to the commands of God and their witness to Jesus) and negative reasons (v4c: their refusal to worship the beast or its image and to receive its brand on their foreheads and right hands)” (David Aune, Revelation 17-22, 1088). But now I’m not so sure.

Those who share in the “first resurrection” (I’ll come to the meaning of this in a moment) are said to be “priests of God and of the Christ”, who will “reign with him a thousand years” (20:6). This idea is found in two earlier passages, where it appears to refer to a larger group than the martyrs:

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1:6)

And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign [over] the earth. (5:10)

We still have to reckon with the fact that they are defined specifically by their refusal to worship the beast, etc. Does this symbolism locate them in the particular story of the early church’s refusal to participate in Roman idolatry? Or does it have a much more general frame of reference, encompassing all faithful believers throughout the ages? I don’t think we do justice to the apocalyptic genre to generalize it in this way. This is not Pilgrim’s Progress.

So if the martyrs and those who did not worship the beast, etc., are distinct, they still form together a group that will participate in the “first resurrection” following judgment on demonic Roman imperialism. This might be understood to correspond roughly to Paul’s distinction between the dead and the living at the parousia in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17. It is a slightly different way of saying that the faithful community as a whole, with special consideration given to those who died as martyrs, will be vindicated for having stood firm against the full savage force of pagan opposition to their God and his Christ.

But are we really talking about resurrection here? Does “they lived” (4d) mean “they came to life”—that is, were raised from the dead? Or does it just mean that they were alive, living, had new life in Jesus, etc., so that we could say that the “1000 years is a metaphor of time and triumph, encompassing all the faithful - alive and dead”? This question is simply answered by noting the following texts where zaō occurs in the aorist and refers to the resurrection of Jesus:

For to this end Christ died and lived (ezēsen), that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. (Rom. 14:9)

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life (ezēsen).’ (Rev. 2:8)

These are “ingressive aorists”: they emphasize “the beginning or initial entrance into that condition or state” (Aune, Revelation, 1073 4.m-m).

There is no “again” in verse 5—I don’t know where that idea came from. The martyrs “came to life” (ezēsan) or “were raised”; the rest of the dead “did not come to life” (ouk ezēsan) or “were not raised”.

There appears to be no good reason, therefore, to question the view that “they lived” means “they came to life”. The subject of the verb is either the martyrs and those who did not worship the beast, etc., or the martyrs who did not worship the beast, etc. This coming to life is the “first resurrection”. It would also seem natural to identify the martyrs with the otherwise unspecified group seen seated on the thrones. The martyrs are raised to life and “reign with the Christ”, presumably on those thrones.

The point of this is well expressed by Caird, who argues—rightly, I think—that this passage stands in a tradition of interpretation of the judgment scene described in Daniel 7:

Those who are seated on the thrones must then be those to whom the right has been given to act as judges, not those in whose favour judgment is given. What is much more important, however, is that in Daniel the judgment is not the last judgment, but one that happens in the course of history. In the earlier chapters of Daniel we have been told that ‘the Most High controls the sovereignty of the world and gives it to whom he wills’ (Dan. iv. 17, 25, 32), and in the judgment scene God is simply taking the sovereignty from one nation and giving it to another. ‘The court shall sit in judgment, and his empire shall be taken away…. The sovereignty… shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High’ (Dan. vii. 26 f.). The judgment committed to the martyrs is thus not the right to determine the ultimate destinies of men—this God reserves within his own authority—but the right to assume the empire of the defeated monster. (G.B. Caird, The Revelation of St John the Divine, 252-53)

The phrase “the rest of the dead” (5a) appears to imply that however many groups are mentioned in 4a-c, they are all dead—not metaphorically dead, but dead in the same way that those who will be raised at the final judgment are dead.

It could be objected here that a literal first resurrection of the martyrs would have required the disappearance of their bodies from their graves. My response would be that this “proto-resurrection” of the martyrs would be more like the final resurrection of the dead than Jesus’ resurrection. No one seriously suggests that at the final resurrection the decomposed or incinerated bodies of the dead will somehow be raised directly. At the resurrection the corruptible body is simply replaced by an incorruptible body (cf. 1 Cor. 15:42-49; 2 Cor. 5:1-5).

“The rest of the dead” (hoi loipoi tōn nekrōn), however, may not mean “the rest of humanity”. The account of judgment on Rome concludes with the capture of the beast and the false prophet, who had done the signs by which those who worshipped the beast were deceived. The beast and the false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire, but “the rest (hoi loipoi) were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse” (Rev. 19:21). Satan is bound in the abyss, and then we have the vision of the thrones, etc. Within this apocalyptic narrative, it would appear that what we have in 20:4-6 is a statement of what will happen to those who have been killed in the course of this eschatological crisis: the faithful martyrs will be raised; the dead who worshipped the beast or fought against Israel’s God will not be raised at this juncture but at the end of the world, as part of the second resurrection of all the dead.

This apocalyptic narrative also, I think, rules out the suggestion that the “first resurrection” is spiritual or the first stage in a two part process. It is a story about “warring nations”, to use Tom Wright’s phrase, not about personal salvation. I think Aune again gets it mainly right:

However problematic the conception of two resurrections might be, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that precisely such an innovation has been formulated by the author. (Aune, Revelation, 1090)

I would argue, however, that, terminology aside, this “first resurrection” is not such an innovation. I think it is of a piece with, for example, Daniel’s belief that there would be a limited resurrection of the dead at the time when Israel is delivered from the imperial oppressor (Dan. 12:1-2) and with Paul’s argument in 1 Thessalonians about a resurrection of the dead in Christ (1 Thess. 4:14-17) when he comes to deliver them from their persecutors. And a whole lot of other stuff.

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