Eschatology Outlines: No. 7D Interpreting Rev 20:4-6
Posted by R. Fowler White
In an earlier post, I indicated that my aim here is to point the way to an interpretation of Rev 20:1-6 that takes full account of what we know from Scripture about God’s combat with beasts and His building work. While appreciating the work of many others, my approach at this moment is to apply the biblical themes of “victory over the dragon followed by house building” to the interpretation of this controversial passage. Since I’ve applied the combat theme to help in understanding Rev 20:1-3, we’ll turn to Rev 20:4-6 in this post.
I. The overall context of 20:1–21:8—Recall what we said before: the sequence of visions in this passage twice repeats the pattern of “victory followed by house [temple] building.”
A. 20:1-3, capture of the serpent = victory over the serpent
B. 20:4-6, first resurrection = temple building
C. 20:7-10, death of the serpent = victory over the serpent
D. 20:11–21:8, resurrection = temple building
Having applied the victory theme to the interpretation of Rev 20:1-3, we can turn to Rev 20:4-6 and the theme of temple (house) building.
II. Rev 20:4—Here we find a vision of that session of the Divine Council in which the heavenly court is authorized to avenge the blood of the martyred saints who, with the living saints (see Rev 20:9), had been built into God’s kingdom-city-encampment of priests through their participation in the first resurrection.
III. Rev 20:5—In this verse John distinguishes the first resurrection from the (second) resurrection in Rev 20:12-13. He makes the distinction by identifying the non-Christian dead as participants only in the (second) resurrection and the Christian dead as the only participants in the first resurrection. In other words, Rev 20:5 is profoundly important: it instructs us readers not to confuse the first resurrection, in which Christians are the only participants, with the (second) resurrection, in which non-Christians and Christians are both participants.
Some interpreters claim that Christians have no part in the resurrection of the dead in Rev 20:13, but they must then explain what Rev 20:5 contributes to this context where two resurrections are presented. We cannot say that because only Christians take part in the first resurrection, they have no part in the second. Nor can we say that because non-Christians take part only in the (second) resurrection, Christians do not take part in it. For either of these statements to be true, we must establish that both resurrections deliver from physical death—and the evidence for such a claim is lacking.
IV. Rev 20:6—A beatitude for the Christian dead. Here we notice that the blessings that belong to those who take part in the first resurrection are described elsewhere as the benefits of Christ’s redeeming work applied to believers before they die.
A. The first phrase of the beatitude: “the second death has no power over them.” According to Rev 20:12-15; 21:8, 27; and 22:15, the second death has power over the resurrected dead who died in bondage to their sins. To say, then, that “the second death has no power” over those who take part in the first resurrection is simply to say that Christ has freed them from their sins by His blood (1:5). In other words, such freedom is a benefit of redemption indisputably applied to believers before they die. To put this truth in the words of Rev 20:4, we say that God’s heavenly court will avenge those who had come to life in the first resurrection and had thereby been freed from the second death’s power, for Christ had freed them from their sins by His blood.
B. The second and third phrases of the beatitude—“they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years”—also reaffirm benefits of Christ’s work applied elsewhere to believers before they die.
1. The beatitude affirms truths that are the equivalent of “he has made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” in Rev 1:6 and of “you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth” in Rev 5:10. The beatitude, together with the new song of 5:10, doesn’t merely view the kingdom as future from the vantage point of the believer’s death. Nor does it view the kingdom’s reign as future from standpoint of the believer’s resurrection from the dead. Rather, the beatitude views the kingdom’s reign as certain from the standpoint of its establishment with Christ’s redemption of many from their sins and from the second death (5:9; 1:5).
2. Because the kingdom is established by Christ’s redemptive work, we may say both that the redeemed will reign in glory on the new earth (Rev 22:5) and that they will reign now on this earth and in heaven, even as Christ Himself has been doing (Heb 2:10, 13a). Still, it is fair to ask, how do the redeemed reign now? They reign now on earth by persevering in faith despite suffering and death. They also reign after death in heaven as they rest in glory from their earthly labors. Again, to put these things in the words of Rev 20:4, we affirm that Heaven’s court will avenge those who had come to life had reigned with Christ for a thousand years, for He had made them a kingdom of priests to His God and Father.
V. Death, resurrection, and temple in the Gospel of John
It is instructive to see the harmony between the Revelation to John and the Gospel of John as it relates the topics of death, resurrection, and temple.
A. John 2:13-22: In this text, John the Evangelist, who is author of the Revelation, portrays Jesus’ death and resurrection as the destruction and construction of the true temple. The death and resurrection of those united with Jesus should be interpreted similarly. That is, the death and resurrection of those in Jesus is the destruction and construction of a temple. In the resurrection of Jesus and the first resurrection (from the second death) and the resurrection (from death) of those in Him, something better than the temple is here.
B. John 5:24-29: Notice here that Jesus speaks of two resurrections, not one. First comes the spiritual resurrection, then the physical resurrection.
1. There is a resurrection in an hour that now is, 5:24-25: it is now ongoing and is seeing the Son’s own raised from spiritual death to spiritual life.
2. There is another resurrection at the last day (6:39, 40, 44, 54; 11:54), in an hour that is to come, 5:28-29. That resurrection will, in the future, raise “all who are in the tombs” from physical death: some to everlasting life, others to everlasting death.
3. Relevance of this point to the two resurrections of Rev 20:4–21:8
a. Participation in the first resurrection from the second death (20:4-6) is the building of the church as the spiritual temple.
b. Participation in the resurrection from death (20:12-13) is the building of the church as the physical temple-city (21:2-3, 9-27).
c. Note: Whether we interpret the first resurrection as spiritual or physical, the concept of resurrection as a divine building project in John’s theology should tell us that the first resurrection marks the building of a holy place.
Certainly, much more could be said. Not least we could show how the victory and house building themes appear in Ezekiel 36–48 and are used by John to help us understand the reimagined depiction of Christ’s work between His two comings and at His second coming and beyond in the visions of Rev 20:4–21:8. All this works together to inspire our confidence in our Lord Christ’s purpose and power to triumph over His enemies and ours as He works invincibly to finish His redemptive mission and to establish His righteous rule. For now, we’ll settle for noticing that when it comes time for the Heavenly Court of God to avenge the saints, martyred or living, those saints will have been built into God’s temple-kingdom-city-encampment through their participation in the first resurrection.