Revelation – 20:4-5 – Does the “first resurrection” refer to spiritual regeneration or bodily resurrection?

Problem: John writes,

(Rev. 20:4-5) Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. 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. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection.

Postmillennial Kenneth Gentry writes,

According to John the ‘first resurrection’ secures the participation of the saints (both dead and living) in the rule of Christ (Rev. 20:4-6). This refers to the spiritual resurrection of those born again by God’s grace.”[1]
Therefore, according to this view, when John writes about the Christians coming to life in the millennium, amillennials and postmillennials argue that this must refer to our spiritual regeneration—not a literal bodily resurrection. Is spiritual regeneration in view here, or is a literal and physical resurrection in view?

Solution: We will make four arguments in favor of a physical resurrection in Revelation 20:5. We will argue our case (1) grammatically, (2) lexically, (3) contextually, and (4) systematically:

  1. GRAMMATICALLY, the same language is used to describe both resurrections.
    When we read the passage in context, we see that the grammar needs to be consistent throughout these two verses. If the first resurrection is spiritual in verse 4 (“they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years”), then wouldn’t the resurrection of the rest of the dead be spiritual too (“The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed”)? Were the unbelievers spiritually resurrected at the end of the church age? Of course not. Instead, they were physically raised. We feel that it would be inconsistent grammatically to claim that one resurrection is physical, while another is spiritual.

  2. LEXICALLY, the words used here refer to a physical resurrection—not a SPIRITUAL regeneration.
    “Come to life” is the English translation of the Greek word ezeysan. Ezeysan is the aorist, active, indicative, plural form of the verb zao (“to live”) and literally means “lived again.”

John uses this particular form of the verb in Revelation 2:8 (to describe the physical resurrection of Jesus) and in Revelation 13:14 (to describe the Beast’s miraculous recovery from a fatal wound). In Romans 14:9, Paul writes, “For to this end Christ died and lived again (Greek ezeysan).” Ezeysan is also used to describe physical resurrection in Matthew 9:18 and 2 Corinthians 13:4. Thus we are inclined to understand this word to refer to a physical resurrection.

“First resurrection” is protos anastasis in Greek. Anastasis is the Greek word for resurrection in vs. 5. It literally means “to stand up again” and is routinely used to refer to physical resurrection in the New Testament. Anastasis is used only twice in Revelation, in verses 5 and 6 of chapter 20.

There is no precedent in the New Testament for using anastasis to refer to anything but a physical resurrection.[2] Even amillennial interpreter G.K. Beale admits, “Anastasis appears forty-one times in the NT and refers to physical resurrection except in Luke 2:34 and John 11:25.”[3] However, when read in context, even John 11 also refers to a physical resurrection.[4]

  1. CONTEXTUALLY, the passage clearly teaches that it is the martyrs who those who are raised here.
    John tells us that the Christian martyrs (not all believers) are those who are raised here (“…the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus…”). Clearly, the people must have been believers before they were beheaded for serving Christ! Premillennial Robert Thomas observes, “People who have died for Christ can hardly experience a spiritual resurrection. They are already spiritually alive.”[5]

  2. SYSTEMATICALLY, other passages might hint at two resurrections—not one.
    Daniel writes, “Many [not all] of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). By saying “many,” Daniel may be hinting at the fact that there are two different resurrections here—one at the beginning of the millennium and one after it. Like many OT passages, there was a large gap between the two. Both resurrections will happen, as Daniel describes, but they will not happen at the same time.

John writes, “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, 29and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (Jn. 5:28-29). Jesus says that this resurrection of Daniel 12 occurs in an “hour,” but what does he mean by an hour: sixty minutes? We think not. In John 4:21-23, Jesus uses the term “hour” to refer to a gap of time. 1 John 2:18 states that we are currently in the last hour, which extends over 2,000 years. This would imply that a literal hour is not in view. Therefore, Jesus is teaching the universal nature of the resurrection. He is not teaching the chronological nature of the resurrection. Moreover, Jesus spoke of the “resurrection of the righteous” (Lk. 14:14). This seems to be distinguished from the general resurrection of the dead.

For these four reasons, we contend that the resurrection of Revelation 20:5 is physical—not spiritual. We admit that this premillennial perspective is certainly more complicated than the amillennial one, positing two resurrections rather than one. However, the simpler explanation is not necessarily the true explanation. Similarly, a rabbi living in 200 BC believed that there was one coming of the Messiah, but there turned out to be two. We feel that we should follow the text where it leads, rather than simplifying our view.

[1] Gentry, Kenneth. “Postmillennialism.” Bock, Darrell (General Editor). Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond. Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan. 1999. 53.
[2] Dwight Pentecost writes, “In more than forty New Testament references to resurrection, with the possible exception of Luke 2:34, it is always used of a literal resurrection, never in a spiritual or non-literal sense, and has to do with the raising up of the physical body.” Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come: a Study in Biblical Eschatology. Grand Rapids, MI: Academie, 1964. See Chapter 23 “The Resurrections Associated with the Second Advent.”
[3] Beale, G.K. The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1999. 1004.
[4] However, in John 11, anastasis clearly refers to a physical resurrection. In John 11:24-25, despite the death of her brother Lazarus, Jesus promises Martha that Lazarus would rise again. Martha turned to Jesus and said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection (anastasis) on the last day.” Jesus replied, “I am the resurrection (anastasis) and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” To illustrate what he meant, Jesus called Lazarus from his tomb and restored his physical life. This, too, would support a physical—not a spiritual—resurrection.
[5] Thomas, Robert L. Revelation 8-22: An Exegetical Commentary. Chicago: Moody, 1995. 415.

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