In part one, I touched upon four things: 1.) the preceding context to the fifth beatitude in the book of Revelation; 2.) the relationship between chapters nineteen and twenty; 3.) the participants of the first resurrection; and 4.) the different schools of thought regarding the thousand years. Each of those points lays the foundation for today’s discussion primarily regarding the meaning of the first resurrection. There is scholarly consensus when it comes to interpreting the phrase “the second death,” which makes my life much easier. Here is the beatitude in bold along with the preceding verses for the purpose of context:
4. “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. 5. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6. 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).
Based upon my reading of this passage, I embrace the view that the first resurrection refers to the bodily resurrection of believers at the second coming of Christ. There are a couple of reasons to support this interpretation. First, the independent clause in verse four, “they came to life,” seems best taken as a physical resurrection. Second, the word resurrection in the fifth and sixth verses is anastasis in the Greek text, which is used forty-two times in the New Testament (NT). In forty of those uses it always means a physical rising from the dead. There are two exceptions: one undisputed reference is found in Luke 2:34; however, the second example is our text, which is highly disputed to the nth degree. Third, the ones who come to life and experience the first resurrection are contrasted with “the rest of the dead” who do not come to life. Lastly, those who experience the first resurrection had been beheaded or physically killed. I will discuss each of these points in turn, and there might be overlap.
The independent clause “they came to life” is a translation of the Greek word ezesan. It may or may not refer to bodily life after physical death. We must rely on the context of the passage in order to determine the meaning of ezesan. In the above text, all NT scholars agree that “the rest of the dead” who do not come to life during the first resurrection will rise from the dead in their physical bodies for the final judgment (Rev. 20:12-15, ESV). Presumably, this is the implied second resurrection. Here is the kicker from my perspective. If all scholars agree that “the rest of the dead” come to physical life in the second resurrection, then the same thing occurs for the those in the first one. I find no evidence in the text to interpret the Greek word ezesan in two different ways, especially considering the fact that the apostle John qualifies ezesan as the first resurrection. There are objections to my interpretation, but for the sake of time and space, I will bypass them.
Earlier in this post, I stated that the Greek word anastasis means a physical resurrection in forty of the forty-two uses in the NT. This alone seems to seal the deal for the view that the first resurrection is a bodily one. There is another factor to consider, which involves the Greek word ezesan. This word pops up in two earlier passages in the book of Revelation to denote Christ’s resurrection from the dead and the beast’s falsified one (Rev. 2:8; 13:14, ESV). To say that Christ’s coming to life is a true resurrection, and that the beast’s is false, demands that the Greek word ezesan mean the same thing in both passages. If this is not the case, then there is no real difference between Christ’s coming to life and the beast’s. It is my contention that this truth applies to the distinction between the two resurrections in Rev. 20:4-6. If the Greek word ezesan, that is qualified by anastasis, does not mean a bodily resurrection, then it is pointless to distinguish between those who rise in the first resurrection and the rest of the dead who rise after the thousand years have ended.
Now that the worst part is over, I want to address briefly the phrase the second death. According to the beatitude in Rev. 20:6, those who participate in the first resurrection do not succumb to it. Another way to say this is that they overcome the second death in Christ. I hear the question in my ears: “That sounds nice, but what does the second death mean?” Thankfully, the apostle John gives the answer in the fourteenth verse of the twentieth chapter. The second death is the lake of fire, which is the place of eternal punishment for the wicked after the final judgment (Rev. 20:14-15; see Rev. 21:8, ESV). It is a horrendous place no matter how one slices it. Some see the depiction of the lake of fire as merely metaphor, but that avoids the objective reality that the metaphor depicts. The second death is not something to embrace or set as a life goal. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus does not use the phrase second death, but he uses similar language like “…the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41, ESV). I doubt that there will be any celebrating in the lake of fire. The company itself sounds dreadful.
I love this beatitude about the first resurrection. It is such a glorious promise of reward and victory. My sufferings and trials in this life will be in the distant past; however, this promise is not only individual, but corporate. All those who follow Christ will rise with a glorified body and reign alongside him. The second death will be under their feet because they are in Christ, who stands in victory over Death and Hades (Rev. 1:18, ESV). Does this mean that those who follow the Good Shepherd lack a present vindication from him? According to the apostle Paul, the redeemed exhibit an inkling of the blessings of eternity in a couple of his letters to the early church (Eph. 2:4-6; Colossians 1:13-14, ESV). There is a present, but partial fulfillment, which serves as a guarantee for the fullness of it in the age to come. What a wondrous day that will be to receive a glorified body. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.