Rethinking the First Resurrection

Who likes to be wrong? It’s usually hard to recognize an error and change. Yet if you’re in a field of study where new discoveries are being made, you’ll end up needing to change your views from time to time.

For years, I have regarded the phrase “the first resurrection” as a synonym for “all the righteous dead.” That would include all who have been or will be resurrected. I even threw in those alive at the return of the Messiah, the ones who will be translated from mortal bodies to immortal without ever dying.

Is that really who these people called “the first resurrection” are? Let’s examine the text.

Revelation 20 starts with a description of the binding of Satan for 1,000 years (Rev. 20:1-3). Then judgment is given to an unnamed group seated on thrones:

Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. (Rev. 20:4a)

At that point, a different group, those martyred by the beast (AKA the Antichrist), are raised to life:

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; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (Rev. 20:4b-c)

We learn that they are special in two ways. First, they will reign with the Messiah for the 1,000 years (the Millennium). Second, they have been resurrected 1,000 years before the rest of the dead will be:

The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. (Rev. 20:5)

If my belief is correct, then these particular martyrs were killed after the rapture of the Church. They were killed for their faith in God and His Messiah during the Day of the Lord.

“This is the first resurrection,” Revelation 20:5b says. But what is “this”?

Is “this” the group of martyrs under discussion here, those raised at the start of the Millennium? Or is “this” all believers through the ages? Or some subgroup of the saints that includes those martyred during the Day of the Lord?

The very next verse describes them:

Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years. (Rev. 20:6)

Can all of the saints, the redeemed, be said to be blessed and holy? Will they all reign with our holy Yeshua (Jesus) for 1,000 years? I don’t think so. Part of my reasoning follows:

  • Some saints will be raised later at the Great White Throne Judgment. Their names will be found in the Book of Life, so they will not be cast into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:11-15).
  • The overcomers are a subset of believers, according to what we read in the letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3. Not all of the saved will overcome.
  • Some believers will have all their works burned up. These are generally called “carnal Christians.” They will escape destruction but not receive rewards. Rewards are to be based on deeds. The Messiah will not hand out “participation trophies.” (See 1 Cor. 3:11-15.)

My conclusion is that “the first resurrection” refers to one specific, greatly-blessed group. They have endured the worst of the persecution by the Antichrist. They are, therefore, counted worthy of the greatest honor. They are entrusted with authority, since they have proven faithful even unto death.

How are these, then, the “first” resurrection? We know that others have been raised to new life before them. Yet the Greek word that means “first” allows for more than one interpretation. A thing—or in this case a group of persons—may be first chronologically (in time) or first hierarchically (in honor). We find this also in English. Remember how Henry Lee described George Washington? “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

The Bible Knowledge Commentary states of this “first resurrection” group:

It should be obvious, however, that in no sense could this be the number-one resurrection chronologically because historically Christ was the first to rise from the dead with a transformed, resurrected body. There was also the resurrection “of many” (Matt. 27:52–53) which took place when Christ died.

(Walvoord, J. F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.)

It goes on to ask, “In what sense then can this resurrection in Revelation 20:5 be ‘first’?” Here is my answer:

Many other saints will be quite blessed, but not all rule and reign with the Messiah for the 1,000 years, the Millennium. The “first resurrection” saints will exercise authority under the Messiah throughout the Millennium. Ruling alongside them will be the apostles of the Lamb (as Yeshua promised them in Matthew 19:28) and those we saw in Revelation 20:4a, rulers already seated on thrones before the “first resurrection” saints were brought back to life. About those already seated, we have much to say—in a future blog post.

All Scripture verses are taken from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition (NASU), unless otherwise noted. Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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