Sermon: Revelation 20:4-6: This Is The First Resurrection

New Testament Reading: Revelation 20:1-10

“Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. 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. And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” (Revelation 20:1–10, ESV)

Introduction 

In the previous sermon I presented you with a very brief overview of the pre-millennial, post- millennial, and a-millennial positions that are held by Christians today. The pressing question is, when will the things that are described here in Revelation 20 verses 1-10 happen in relation to the second coming of Christ? In other words, when will the period of time signified by the number 1,000 come into existence in relation to Christ’s bodily return. 

Remember that the pre-millennialists believe that the millennium (Latin for 1,000 years) will come after Christ returns. Now is the present evil age, then the bodily return of Christ, after that the earthly 1,000 year reign of Christ, which will eventually give way to the new heavens and new earth. This is the popular view today.

And remember that the post-millennialists and the a-millennialists have a different view. They agree with one another that the period of time represented by the number 1,000 here in Revelation 20 will be present before the bodily return of Christ. So, first the millennium, and then after that, the return of Christ, followed by the new heavens and new earth.

But the a-millennialists and post-millennialists basically disagree over two things: One, the starting point of this millennium. And two, the nature or character of this millennium.

The post-millennialist believes that the millennium is yet in our future. First, this present evil age as we know it, and then an earthly millennium – a golden or idyllic age; a kind of Christianized utopia.

I misspoke a bit last week, and I’d like to set it straight. Last week I said that post-millennialists believe that Satan will be bound in the future, implying that, in their view, the binding of Satan would coincide with the start of their millennium. In fact, there are some, maybe many, post-millennialists who would agree with us that Satan was bound at Christ’s first coming. But, as far as I know, all post-millennialists believe in a millennium that is yet to come. In other words, though some may admit that Satan was bound at Christ’s first coming, the millennium – and by that I mean, a golden and idyllic age marked by the “worldwide spread of the gospel among nations” combined with the “overwhelming fruitfulness of this evangelistic advance in the salvation of individuals and in the transformation of cultures, countries, and world civilization as a whole (Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, 280) – is in their opinion, yet in our future. Perhaps some would say that the millennium is actually present now, but it is progressing, not being here in fulness. However they put it the point is this: when the post-millennialist thinks about the future they imagine a utopia or golden age prior to the bodily return of Christ – an age that is not quite the new heavens and new earth, but one that is far better than what now have.

We a-millennialists say, “no, the millennium is here now.” It began at Christ’s first coming. Satan was bound then from deceiving the nations any longer. Christ is ruling and reigning now in heaven. Those who have died in Christ are also with him, not in body yet, but in soul. They have been vindicated and they too do rule and reign with him.

And so it is obvious that, if we who are a-millennialists say they the millennium is here now, we must disagree rather significantly with the post-millennialists and the pre-millennialists over the nature or character of this millennium, for when we look around us it is abundantly clear that we do not live in a utopia. Far from it!

Both the pre- and post-millennialists view the millennium as producing a kind of utopia or golden age on earth. It will be, in their view, a state of existence that comes short to the new heavens and new earth, but is far better than what we experience this present evil age.

When we who are a-millennialists read Revelation 20:1-6 we do no see an earthly millennium. The a-millennialist does not expect to see a radical transformation of the cultures and civilizations of this world. We expect the kingdom of God to advance in the world – the gates of hell will not prevail against it! We expect the gospel to go forth to all nations. And we do believe that God will save many from theses nations. Indeed the four living creatures and 24 elders of Revelation 5 were right when they sang to Christ, “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 on the earth” (Revelation 5:9–10, ESV). Indeed, Christ did ransom individuals from every tribe and language and people and nation by his shed blood. And indeed these will, in due time, be brought to salvation by the proclamation of the gospel and by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, all of this is true! And also I do believe that, from time to time, the success of the gospel in a particular culture may have a positive impact upon that culture. But nowhere do the scriptures teach that the cultures and civilizations of this world will be radically transformed and Christianized, being turned into a kind of utopia – “a semi-curse-free, semi-suffering-free era within the context of the ‘first heaven and earth,’ prior to the consummation of the new creation with the new heaven and new earth, the home of righteousness” (Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, 282). No friends, Babylon will be Babylon until the Lord returns. She will always be as she is now – a harlot – a constant source of temptation and opposition to the people of God. Her character will not change. She was a harlot in the days of Rome and she will be a harlot when the Lord returns. Her seductiveness will not decrease, but, if anything, will increase to the time of the end. The same can be said of the beast and the false prophet who symbolize world powers and their cultures – they will always assault the people of God. And when Christ returns he will slay them with the word of his mouth. So while the post-millennialist and a-millennialist agree upon the placement of the 1,000 year period of time mentioned here in Revelation 20, we disagree as to the start of it and the nature of it.

The prefix “a-“ means “no” or “not”. So technically a-millennialism means the belief in “no millennium”. The name can be misleading, for we do believe in a millennial reign of Christ. But we believe that it is here now, that he is ruling and reigning in heaven, that the number 1,000 is to be taken as symbolic for a long and complete period of time, and that what is described to us in this passage (and book) is not a utopia, but is what we have and will experience throughout this age between Christ’s first and second comings. In other words the 1,000 year reign of Christ runs concurrent with this present evil age. Indeed, Satan has been bound and is held back from deceiving the nations any longer. Indeed, Christ’s church has been preserved by God. Indeed, the church has served as “witnesses [to Christ] in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth’” (Acts 1:8, ESV). And so we do believe in the so-called millennium. What we reject – what we are saying “no” to – is the future and earthly millennium of the post- and pre-millennialists. That is what we are saying cannot be found in the pages of Holy Scripture.

Friends, please know that I am painting with very broad brush strokes here. I’m providing you with very brief and general overviews of each of these positions. It’s not my intention to misrepresent any of these positions or to fail to present the strongest case for each. I simply don’t have the time to do it in this sermon.

I do hope to convince you that the a-millennial interpretation of Revelation 20:1-10 is the right one. I hope that I was successful last Sunday in my attempt to convince you that it is best to see the binding of Satan as described in Revelation 20:1-3 as having happened at Christ’s first coming. It was then that he was bound from deceiving the nations any longer. This interpretation agrees with what has been said in the rest of the book of Revelation concerning God’s restraint of the evil one. This interpretation agrees with what it said in the rest of the New Testament concerning the binding or casting out of the evil one a Christ’s first coming.

But the a-millennial position must also square with what is said in verses 4 through 6 of Revelation 20 if it is to be accepted. For these verses do provided us with yet another perspective on what will happen during the period of time signified by the number1,000.

So the question is the same as before. When will the things described here in Revelation 20:4-6 happen in relation to the second coming of Christ?

Let us simply read the text and then we will make two observations.

In verse 4 John writes, “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)

All agree that this passage describes the rule and reign of Christ with his people. The vision is of thrones. Christ is described as reigning and his people are seen with him also ruling a reigning. They are seated upon the thrones. We are told that they are martyrs – “those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God”. They are also those who had been faithful to Christ to the end – these “had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands.” “They will be priests of God and of Christ”, we are told. There is no reason at all to limit this group to only a particular kind or class of Christian. Indeed, all who were faithful to Christ until death, be it a natural death or martyrdom, are here seen ruling and reigning with Christ.

The question is, when will this be so? When will Christ and his people rule and reign as described here in Revelation 20:4-6?

Will it be in the future after the return of Christ, as the pre-millennialist say?

Will it be in an future golden age, as the post-millennialists say (though some might believe that these things are true now, but will progress and culminate in a future and earthly millennium)?

Or do Christ and his people rule and reign now in heaven, as the a-millennialists say?

Two crucial observations about this text well help us get to the bottom of it.

First of all, notice where this vision is situated? 

Does this vision describe something that will happen on earth, or in heaven? We have grown accustom to the book of Revelation shifting in focus from earth to heaven and back again. Sometimes the book describes how things will be on earth for the people of God. Sometimes the book describes how things are in heaven, even now, while the people of God live upon the earth in this present evil age. We are on earth now. But where is Christ seated? He is in heaven. We are on earth now. But where are those Christ-followers who have died physically? Their souls are in heaven. The book of Revelation has, time and again, shifted it’s focus from earth to heaven and back again.

You remember, no doubt, what John saw when the fifth seal was opened way back in Revelation 6. “When [Christ] opened the fifth seal, [John] saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’” (Revelation 6:9–10, ESV). Where were these who cried out for justice? They were in heaven, situated under the heavenly alter. And they were heard crying out to God for justice on earth. “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” And so the scene does shift over and over again in the book of Revelation from heaven to earth and back again. Where is the scene of Revelation 20:4-6 situated? Is the scene heavenly or is it earthly?

The answer is that the vision is situated in heaven. The reign that is described here is heavenly and spiritual, and not earthly and physical. To put it another way, John did not see believers in their resurrection bodies sitting on physical thrones situated on planet earth. Instead, he saw the souls of those who had died physically who were now in the presence of Christ spiritually, who do rule and reign with him in heaven even now.

At the beginning of verse 4 we read, “Then I saw thrones.” It should be noted that the word “throne” (θρόνος) appears 47 times in the book of Revelation. In almost every instance the throne, or thrones, are situated in heaven, and not upon the earth. Read again Revelation chapters 4 and 5 to see this, for those chapters focus in upon the throne of God that is in heaven now. Also the book of Revelation makes frequent mention of the 24 thrones upon which the 24 elders sit. Where are these thrones except in heaven and before the throne of God?

I could only find four exception to the rule where a throne is said to be on earth in the book of Revelation. Three of these references to and earthly throne refer, not to the throne of God or to the thrones of his people, but to the throne of Satan. For example, to the church in Pergamum Christ said,  “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells” (Revelation 2:13, ESV). See also Revelation 13:2 and 16:10 for the other instances.

The fourth exception to the rule comes at the very end of the book of Revelation with the ushering in of the new heavens and the new earth, for it will be then that God’s throne is in the midst of us when heaven and earth become one. Revelation 22:3 speaks of the new heavens and new earth when it says, “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him” (Revelation 22:3, ESV).

I’m not claiming that this observation about the first four words of verse 4, “then I saw thrones”, proves the a-millennial position, but it does set us out in that direction, for the book of Revelation often speaks of the thrones that are in heaven now, and looks forward to the day when the throne of God will be on earth, not in some half-baked millennium, but in the new heavens and new earth, that is, in the final state. It is likely, therefore, that John is here being provided with yet another perspective on what is going on in heaven even now in the heavenly throne room of God.

Furthermore, notice that later in verse 4 John says, “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” (Revelation 20:4, ESV). The point here is that John saw the “souls” of believers, and not believers in their resurrection bodies.

The scene here in Revelation 20 verses 4-6 is heavenly, and not earthly. The reign that is described here is spiritual, and not physical. The scene corresponds perfectly to the one that that we encountered Revelation 6:9-10 where John “saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’” (Revelation 6:9–10, ESV).

Already then we see that a-millennial interpretation of this passages fits better than post-millennial one, and much much better than the pre-millennial one, which understands this reign to be earthly and physical.

Secondly, notice that it is the first death, which coincides with the first resurrection, that marks the beginning of the Christians reign with Christ as described in this passage. 

At the end of verse 4 we read that those who had died in Christ “came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Revelation 20:4, ESV). Verse 5 says, “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection” (Revelation 20:5, ESV). In verse 6 we read, “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 20:6, ESV).

A careful consideration of this passage reveals that there is a first death and there is a second death. Also there is a first resurrection and there is a second resurrection. Two of these things will be experienced by all humans (unless you are Enoch, Elijah, or a Christian alive when Christ returns). One will be experienced only by those who are in Christ. The other will be experienced only by those not in Christ.

The first death is physical death. All who are human experience this (unless you are Enoch, Elijah, or a Christian alive when Christ returns). Those in Christ and those not in Christ experience physical death.

The first resurrection is a spiritual resurrection. What is taught here in this passage is that when the one who has faith in Christ dies physically, really he lives. He, as the text says, “[comes] to life and [reigns] with Christ for a thousand years.” This is called the “first resurrection”. “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power.” So the first death is physical death (experienced by all), and the first resurrection is a spiritual resurrection (experienced by those with faith in Christ). To die in Christ is really to live with him. When the body dies, the soul of the Christian goes to be with the Lord to rule and reign with him in the heavenly places.

The second death is the spiritual death that will be experienced only by those not in Christ at the judgement. They, by then, will have experienced the first death – that is, physical death (see the end of Revelation 19), but at the judgement those not in Christ – that is, those who are still in their sins – will experience a second death, – that is, a spiritual death also.

Look ahead to Revelation 20:11 and following where John writes, “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” (Revelation 20:11–14, ESV). So here is the sobering thought: Those not in Christ will die, not once, but twice, and the second death will be far more severe than the first.

The second resurrection, though not called by that name in this passage, is implied. And it is a physical resurrection that both the one in Christ and the one not in Christ will experience. Paul speaks of the bodily resurrection of the Christian in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 and following where he says “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, ESV). Here in Revelation 20:4-6 is the physical resurrection of he wicked that is in view when we read, “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended” (Revelation 20:5, ESV). This too is the focus in the Revelation 20:11 and following where John says, “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” (Revelation 20:13, ESV).

The passage here in Revelation 20:5-6 is complex, but what we have is a first death and a first resurrection, and both belong to this present evil age. Both happen this side of Christ’s return. People die physically now. And those with faith in Christ, having died the first death, are also raised with him in now, their souls being present with him.

The second resurrection and the second death belong to the world to come. The will happen after Christ returns. When Christ returns the dead will be raised. Those in Christ will go to glory. Those not in Christ to eternal damnation. This is the second death.

Notice that this is how the designation “first” is used in this section of the book of Revelation. It is used to refer to that which belongs to current order of things, this present evil age, which is before the return of Christ. Revelation 21:1 says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1, ESV). In this passage is the things that are designated as “first” belong to this world. The things designated as “second” belong to the world to come.

So when do Christians experience the first resurrection and begin to reign with Christ as this passage describes? Is it off in the future sometime? Is it after the return of Christ only? No, it is when they die the first death. It is when they pass from this world. It is when their bodies are laid in the grave and their souls do raise to the Savior to rule and reign with him.

Remember that this is what was promised to the Christians at Laodicea back in Revelation 3:21. Christ said to them, “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21, ESV).

This is also what was promised to the Christians in Smyrna. To them Christ said, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death” (Revelation 2:10–11, ESV).

What was promised to these Christians at the beginning is now shown to them at end. What then should they do? They should persevere. They should live without fear. They should overcome and conquer just as Christ has commanded them. For to die is to live, and to live in Christ is to live forevermore.

Conclusion

If you are in Christ, do not fear death, neither the first nor the second.

“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’” (1 Corinthians 15:54–57, ESV)

If you are not in Christ, then fear death, the first, but especially the second.

“And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…” (Hebrews 9:27, ESV)

Are you in Christ Jesus?

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