Summary: Published March 2023: Although the Revelation is a prophecy that involves many types and symbols needing proper interpretations, there are parts of John’s book that are somewhat direct and literal. The first resurrection mentioned in Revelation twenty is one of these literal topics. Still, answering all the questions surrounding it does present some difficulties for some believers.
Revelation 20:4-6 (NKJV)
4 And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.
This is the initial mention of the phrase “the first resurrection” in Scripture – twice here in Revelation twenty. Those who have part in the first resurrection are promised to never be touched by the power of “the second death.” This later is another phrase which only appears in the Revelation (Rev. 2:11. 20:6, 14, 21:8). The next two passages define for us what “the second death” is:
Revelation 20:10-15 (NKJV)
10 The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
11 Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. 14 Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. 15 And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.
Revelation 21:8 (NKJV)
8 But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
The second death is when a person is condemned by God and confined for eternity in the lake of fire. It is a place of suffering and torment, away from the presence of God. It is reserved for the unbelieving and wicked. Three individuals are sent into the lake of fire before the great white throne judgment takes place (Rev. 20:10) – the devil (Satan), the beast (the last Caesar), and the false prophet (the antichrist). Then all the dead, up to this final point of time, are raised to have their works judged by Jesus sitting on the great white throne (John 5:26-27; Rev. 20:12 should read “…standing before the throne,” not “…standing before God,”). Without exception, all who are raised are thrown into the lake of fire.
Why would being confined for eternity to the lake of fire be called the second death? Because “…it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” (Heb. 9:27) Adam’s sin brought mortality and the expectation of physical death upon every human. But physical death comes first. We could call it the first death. Then there is judgment – all the dead are raised to face judgment/condemnation before the great white throne. We could call this the second resurrection – Jesus calls it, the resurrection of judgment (John 5:29). Their sentence is eternity in the lake of fire, the second death.
Jesus spoke of two resurrections, one of judgment and the other of life (John 5:29). The first resurrection is the resurrection of life. All saints are saints because God has given them eternal life. Therefore, the resurrection of life, the first resurrection, is of all the saints who have died. Being direct, this resurrection does not take place at one point in time or in one day. Different companies of saints will be raised at different times. The first resurrection speaks of the character of eternal life instead of the day or time it takes place.
Rev. 20:4-6, the passage from the beginning of the article above, identifies the three different groups of saints who will be raised as part of the first resurrection.
- The first group mentioned are the ones sitting on the thrones – “And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them.” John saw this group before. These are those represented by the symbol of the twenty-four elders on endowed thrones around the throne of God in chapter four (Rev. 4:5). This symbol represents the Old Testament saints and the New Testament church caught up together and brought to heaven between the end of chapter three and the beginning of chapter four. This catching up is commonly called the rapture.
For most of these saints included in the “rapture,” it will be a resurrection from the dead – all the Old Testament saints and most of the New Testament body of Christ have died with bodies corrupting in the grave. Of course, there will be Christians who are alive when the Lord comes for us. As Paul said, “For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep…and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:15-17). For that group that is still alive it isn’t exactly resurrection, but more a metamorphosis – as for their bodies, its mortality is swallowed up by life (2 Cor. 5:1-4).
I believe Jesus referred directly of this future event when He spoke to Martha outside of her brother’s grave. He said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live (resurrection). And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die (life swallowing up mortality).” This exactly mimics what Paul said to the Thessalonians and Corinthians.
Some teach that the Old Testament saints will not be part of the rapture. However, all should agree that the Old Testament saints must be part of the first resurrection. The second resurrection is of the wicked dead at the time of the great white throne judgment (Rev. 20:11-15) – this second resurrection becomes “the second death” for everyone is thrown into the lake of fire. It is obvious the Old Testament saints are not part of this resurrection but are part of the first. Our passage from Revelation twenty defines the three groups who are part of the first resurrection. It is equally obvious the O.T. saints are not part of the last two groups of tribulation martyrs. If they are part of the first resurrection, they must be part of the first group – the twenty-four elders on thrones in heaven (Rev. 4:4).
- The second group which will have part in the first resurrection is mentioned next in the passage from Revelation twenty – “And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God…” These are the saints who lost their lives in the first half of the future tribulation. They are the souls seen under the altar in heaven when the 5th seal is opened (Rev. 6:9-11). The opening of the first seal begins the seven-year tribulation (Rev. 6:1-2). The souls under the altar must have been martyred during the time of the first four seals, the tribulation’s first 3½ years.
They are told to be patient with their cries for vengeance, for another group of martyrs would be joining them soon – “…rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.” This refers to our next group.
- The third company that will have part of the first resurrection is mentioned last in our passage – “…and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands.” Many good translations properly add the conjunction that separates this group of tribulation martyrs from the ones of the first 3½ years. This is understandable because we are told earlier in the Revelation that the beast was given by Satan his power, his throne, and great authority, to continue for forty-two months (Rev. 13:1-5). This measure of time equals 3½ years, the last half of the tribulation. The head of the beast is the last Caesar, the imperial ruler of a revived Roman empire that rises up in power during the future tribulation – “…a beast rising up out of the sea…” The antichrist is the second beast described in this chapter – “…coming up out of the earth, and he had two horns like a lamb…” (Rev. 13:11-17). Out of the sea is Gentile (the beast); out of the earth is Jewish (antichrist).
It is the antichrist who is given power by Satan to do signs and wonders and to mandate the idolatry of the first beast. This causes many who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed (Rev. 13:15). The circumstances surrounding this third group are given more details in the next chapter:
Revelation 14:9-13 (NKJV)
9 Then a third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”
12 Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.13 Then I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ”
“Yes,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them.”
These same martyrs are celebrated at the beginning of chapter fifteen. Back in chapter four we saw the sea of glass confirming the purity and glorification of the twenty-four elders; now the sea of glass is mingled with fire, the symbol of judgment – it confirms these are the martyrs of the great tribulation, the last 3 ½ years of the seven-year tribulation. This time will be the worst in human history (Dan. 12:1, Matt. 24:21-22). These saints lose their lives under the tyranny and unbridled persecution of the Roman Caesar and Jewish antichrist (the two beasts of Rev. 13).
Revelation 15:2-4 (NKJV)
2 And I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire, and those who have the victory over the beast, over his image and over his mark and over the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, having harps of God. 3 They sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying:
“Great and marvelous are Your works,
Lord God Almighty!
Just and true are Your ways,
O King of the saints!
4 Who shall not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name?
For You alone are holy.
For all nations shall come and worship before You,
For Your judgments have been manifested.”
Being part of the first resurrection means you will have from God an eternally glorified physical body (2 Cor. 5:1-5). When Adam sinned, this thing called sin came into the world as a nature that became part of the human body. From that point on all humans were mortal, all the descendants of Adam were subject to death (Rom. 5:12). For anyone to live eternally with God and to be able to stand in His presence and glory, not only must they be saved and have eternal life (spirit and soul), but the sin nature inherited from Adam must be removed from their flesh (1 Cor. 15:42-56). God accomplishes this glorification of the saints through sovereign grace, and it is specified in one of two ways (1 Cor. 15:53) – mortal puts on immortality (the living) or corruption puts on incorruption (the dead). We know there is one group at the time of the rapture who will not taste death – Paul says, “…we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord…then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air…” (1 Thess. 4:15, 17) It is remarkable how often the New Testament implies this resurrection and its results (Luke 14:14 – resurrection of the just, John 5:29 – resurrection of life, John 11:25-26, 14:1-4, Rom. 8:11, 22-25, 29-30, 1 Cor. 15:12-23, 42-55, 2 Cor. 5:1-5, Eph. 5:25-27, Phil. 3:9-14, 20-21, Col. 3:1-4, 1 Thess. 4:13-18, 2 Thess. 2:1, 1 John 3:1-2).
If we are wise spiritually, we can see and understand the final destinies of all humankind as shown in the Revelation. This shouldn’t be surprising. It is a book of prophecy, so it would be about the future until the future comes to pass. And it is the last book of the cannon of Scripture. Let’s see if I can show you this:
- Those who are part of the first resurrection (Rev. 20:4-6) – the Old Testament saints and the New Testament body of Christ (church) as represented by the twenty-four elders on thrones, first seen in Rev. 4:4. These were resurrected and perfected, conformed into the image of the God’s Son, in the rapture that took place between the end of chapter three and the beginning of chapter four. Added later to this company as part of the first resurrection are the tribulation martyrs: those of the first half as seen under the fifth seal (Rev. 6:9-11) and those of the last half as seen in Rev. 15:2-4. It is difficult to say exactly when these last two groups were raised and glorified by God, but their resurrection has taken place before the millennial reign of Christ begins (Rev. 20:4 – “…they lived and reigned with Christ…”)
- The two groups who dwell on the earth during Christ’s millennial reign are shown in Rev. 7 – the Jewish remnant and an innumerable mass of Gentiles out of the nations. Both groups are saved, have eternal life, but remain on the earth in natural bodies for the duration of the millennium. They will have children and repopulate the earth in the earthly kingdom of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man. The children of the Jewish remnant will all be saved for the thousand years, God writing His law on their hearts and minds (Ez. 37:21-27, Heb. 8:6-12). Children born of the saved Gentiles may or may not eventually be saved during the millennium. The spiritual condition of man will by no means correspond with the outward millennial blessings. Even the manifest connections of righteousness and prosperity cannot avail to make men love righteousness. Nor can the goodness of God, though evidenced everywhere one may look, bring men to repentance. It is an incredible indictment of the character of the human nature (in Adam) that after 1000 years of Christ’s peaceful and prosperous reign over the earth, Satan will be loosed from his prison and will be able to deceive to rebellion the Gentile nations in the four corners of the earth (note: as far away as they can be from the central glory of earthly Jerusalem and God’s people – Rev. 20:7-9).
- “But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished.” (Rev. 20:5) All who remain dead until the end of the millennium will be raised to be judged at the great white throne and confined to the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11-15). This judgment is the second death. It is their eternal condemnation. Which groups are included in the raising of the dead before the great white throne? The wicked and unbelieving of the Old Testament; the wicked and unbelieving of the New; the wicked and unbelieving of the tribulation, and the same from the millennium. All will have died and remain dead until this second and final resurrection. All will realize their final destiny apart from God and in the lake of fire.