Today’s beatitude occurs within the most contested passage of the entire bible. In fact, the very interpretation of it causes sharp disagreement among bible scholars, ministers, and laypersons. Before I expand upon the beatitude itself, I want to point out that my previous post focused on the blessing of participating in the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-10, ESV). Now, it is time to dive headlong into the deep end of the pool. These are the words of God:
“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” (Rev. 20:6, ESV).
Regardless of where anyone lands with respect to the meaning of this verse, it is crucial to allow these words to marinate in one’s heart and soul. I want to highlight a couple of things about this beatitude before delving into the more controversial aspects of it. First, the blessing is an exclusive one, or it is restricted to a specific group, namely those who participate in the first resurrection. Second, those who share in this first resurrection serve and reign as priest-kings alongside God the Father, and Christ, the Son. There is much more to say on that topic, but I want to emphasize one more point. It is vital to remember that this beatitude comes from the Lord. He is the one who declares the promise, and he is the one who brings it to pass (2 Corinthians 1:20-22; 2 Peter 1:3-4, ESV).
When anyone reads the preceding verses to Rev. 20:6, there are several questions that pop up: what does the phrase the first resurrection mean; what do the thousand years represent; what is meant by the second death; and when do these things take place? The answers that I will give to these questions form the crux of the controversy. They will reveal the eschatological position that I embrace. I realize that I stated in my introductory post to this series that I would avoid the controversy surrounding the interpretation of the book of Revelation. It appears that I was a little naive, so forgive me. Now it is time to focus on the preceding context to Rev. 20:6 in order to help us answer those questions. I stated earlier in this post that this beatitude applies to a specific group. The apostle John defines its participants with two, if not three, traits depending upon how one reads the passage.
In the vision of Rev. 20:4-6, John sees people (those) seated on thrones; he sees the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God; and he sees those who had not worshiped the beast or allied themselves to him (Rev. 20:4, ESV). The last two descriptions portray followers of Christ martyred for their faith in him. These Christian souls obeyed their savior unto death, so their reward is the first resurrection that leads to their thousand year reign. The reason for highlighting the martyrs is to demonstrate God’s answer to their plea earlier in the book of Revelation (Rev. 6:9-11, ESV). Their vindication occurs at a specific time in redemptive history: the first resurrection and the thousand years. One other thing bears mentioning at this point. The identity of those seated on the thrones is not encompassed fully by the martyrs. Let me explain what I mean.
Based on my reading of the text, the martyrs are in the spotlight; however, I do not believe that they exhaust the full identity of those seated on the thrones. It seems to me that the pronoun “those” in Rev. 20:4a refers back to the armies following Christ in Rev. 19:14. My reasoning is a grammatical one. For any pronoun to make sense, it must have an antecedent, which is a noun replaced by the pronoun. Of course, this begs the question as to the nearest noun for the pronoun those. Here is the point that I want to convey. To determine the identity of the pronoun those in Rev. 20:4a, one must look backward rather than forward in the text for its identification. The nearest antecedent that makes any sense for the pronoun those is the plural noun armies in Rev. 19:14; therefore, the Messianic army contains not only Christian martyrs, but believers throughout all ages. This means that it is the redeemed who participate in the first resurrection and the blessings appended to it such as the thousand year reign and the avoidance of the second death.
Because I see a grammatical link between the pronoun those in Rev. 20:4a and its antecedent armies in Rev. 19:14, then it goes without saying that I view the thousand years as subsequent to Christ’s second coming. Another textual clue that suggests a connection between Revelation chapters nineteen and twenty has to do with the clause “then I saw” or “and I saw.” This clause occurs six times between Rev. 19:11 – 20:15. Each occurrence reveals a vision, which follows the one before it (Rev. 19:11, 17, 19; 20:1, 4, & 11, ESV). From my point-of-view, the six uses of “then I saw” or “and I saw” present a strong case for a sequential reading of Revelation chapters nineteen and twenty. There are bible-believing men and women who disagree with this interpretation. These brothers and sisters in Christ assert that the relationship between Revelation chapters nineteen and twenty is one of recapitulation rather than sequence.
Someone might ask, what does recapitulation mean? **When it comes to the book of Revelation, recapitulation is the view that the visions contained in this book cover the same period in history from different vantage points. Those who espouse this view are amillennialists and postmillennialists**. For example, both camps argue that the nineteenth and twentieth chapters of Revelation conclude with the same event: the final battle (Rev. 19:17-21 & 20:7-10, ESV). Both the amillennialist and the postmillennialist view Christ’s return as subsequent to the thousand years; however, they differ on the nature of the millennial age. Amillennialists fall into one of two camps regarding the millennium: the minority view sees it as the rule and reign of Christ in the hearts of his people through the church between the two comings of Christ; and the dominant view sees the millennial reign of the saints with Christ as occurring in heaven until his second coming. In either case, the amillennialist denies two things: 1.) an earthly manifestation of the millennial kingdom either before or after Christ’s second advent; and 2.) a literal rendering of the number 1000.
When it comes to postmillennialists, many agree with the amillennialists that the number 1000 symbolizes the time period between the two comings of Christ. In the past, some postmillennialists interpreted the number 1000 in literal years, but not anymore. All post-mill advocates side with the amillennialist in believing that the thousand years occur before Christ’s second coming; however, where these two camps part ways is that the former believes in an earthly manifestation of the millennial kingdom at some point during the present, church age. For the postmillennial Christian, the preaching of the gospel by the Holy Spirit is the only way to establish the thousand year reign of righteousness and peace upon the earth. The post-mill view enjoyed a storied history between the 17th and 19th centuries; however, it fell on hard times in the 20th century due to World War I and II. There are still vocal advocates of postmillennialism in our day, but they remain a minority.
In the next entry, I will explore the nature and meaning of the first resurrection and the second death.
** There are past and present advocates of premillennialism who do see some of the visions in Revelation as either cyclical, parallel to each other, or covering the same events from different angles. There are other premillennialists who reject this outright. Here are a few examples of premillennialists who see some recapitulation (or repetition) going on in Revelation:
** Past: A. R. Fausset; this 19th century pastor-scholar co-wrote and co-published the well respected commentary commonly referred to as Jamieson (Robert Jamieson), Brown (David Brown), & Fausset. Fausset wrote the commentary on the book of Revelation and interprets it from a premillennial standpoint.
** Present: Thomas Schreiner and James Hamilton; these two men are colleagues at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Schreiner and Hamilton advocate what is known as classic or historic premillennialism. Both men preached through the book of Revelation several years ago. I’ve provided links to their sermon podcasts.