I have taken up a brief, exegetical study of Revelation 20:1-10. With this post I want to consider the subject of the First Resurrection.
Is the resurrection written about by John a physical resurrection of the saints from the dead, or does the Apostle mean to convey the idea of spiritual resurrection, as in being born again at salvation?
Those who read Revelation 20 according to a Reformed, typological hermeneutic generally interpret the “first resurrection” of 20:4, 5 as meaning a spiritual resurrection. What is also termed in the NT as regeneration or the new birth.
There are a handful of NT passages that liken spiritual new life with resurrection. For example, in Romans 6:4-6, Paul uses the imagery of Christ’s death, burial, and Resurrection to illustrate the spiritual new birth Christians experience at salvation. Paul also uses similar imagery in Colossians 2:12, 13 where he describes the believer’s new life as having been buried with Christ in baptism and raised with Him through faith. In Ephesians 2:4-6, Paul speaks of our spiritual birth as having been made alive and raised up to sit in the heavenlies with Christ.
The difficulty with using those passages as proof-texts for interpreting the first resurrection in Revelation 20 as spiritual, however, is that Paul merely contrasts the spiritual birth of a believer with the physical Resurrection of Christ. He does not call the spiritual regenerating experience a “resurrection.”
Certainly there is a picture of new spiritual life as opposed to an old spiritual life dead in sin. On account of Christ’s physical Resurrection, the believer can be certain of the efficacy of spiritual regeneration and fix his hope in a future physical resurrection. However, the actual word “resurrection” is reserved to describe a real, physical event: A dead body brought back to physical life.
Yet, when we come to Revelation 20:4-6, can the concept of the “first resurrection” genuinely mean a spiritual new birth? Would this be the one place where the terminology of “resurrection,” a word meant to describe a physical event, be used to describe a spiritual reality? I don’t believe so, and in point of fact, one strains the exegetical-grammatical boundaries of the text of Scripture in order to turn the first resurrection in Revelation 20:5 into a spiritual one rather than a physical one.
Let me examine three key, exegetical points from John’s discussion of the first resurrection that demonstrates this resurrection is physical and not spiritual.
The exclusive use of the word resurrection. The English word “resurrection” is translated from the Greek word anastasis and it basically has the idea of “raising up.” Anastasis is used 42 times throughout the NT, and it is used almost exclusively to describe a raising up of the physical dead. A person dies, but then at a later point in time is fully brought back to life. Lazarus in John 11 serves as a perfect picture of the use of the word anastasis. If anastasis is meant to convey a spiritual new birth here in Revelation 20, it is the only place in the entire NT where this usage is to be found.
The near exclusive use of anastasis in the NT to describe physical resurrection ruins the view of this “first resurrection” in Revelation 20:5 as being spiritual. It is such a major grammatical point that those who interpret resurrection to mean spiritual new birth in chapter 20 have a difficult time explaining how it fits into their system. Probably the most popular explanation is the one set forth by Meredith Kline which is repeated by Kim Riddlebarger in his book on Amillennialism, [Riddlebarger, 218-223].
It centers on the word protos, which is translated as “first” in the phrase, “the first resurrection.” Kline argues that rather than understanding protos to mean first in a chronological, sequential manner, first, second, etc., protos should be understood as referring to “a different kind,” that being something new replacing something old. In this case, the second resurrection, which is understood as the physical resurrection of the saints is different in kind to the first resurrection that was a spiritual new birth.
Kline (and Riddlebarger following him) appeal to Revelation 21:1 where John states how the new heaven and new earth replace the first heaven and the first earth, which is understood as being obviously different in kind. He also appeals to the use of first-second/old-new in Hebrews 8-10 and 1 Corinthians 15 and then applies them all to interpreting 20:5. However, as Steve Sullivan points out, “the chronological usage of protos is overwhelmingly used in the NT and especially in the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:17; 2:4, 5; 2:8; 4:1,7; 8:7; 13:12; 16:2)” [Sullivan, 35]. Additionally Sullivan writes,
“It is also important to stress that the subject is resurrection (20:5) and “came to life” (vv. 4, 5) in combination of with protos. … the concept of first (first fruits) is found with “has been raised” (having the thought of resurrection) in 1 Corinthians 15:20 and 23. We find no antithetical aspect to Paul’s order of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:20 and 23. Christ’s first fruits of resurrection is followed by the same concept of resurrection for “those who are Christ’s at His coming” (v. 23). ” [ibid]
So rather than this being a different kind of “resurrection” in that it’s another way of saying spiritual “regeneration,” the clearer meaning of the text, especially when all the exegetical data is considered, tells us that a physical resurrection precedes another physical resurrection that is separated by a period of time, i.e., a geo-political kingdom that lasts 1,000 years.
The use of the word ezesan – “to live.” The word ezesan is translated as “they lived.” In other NT contexts the word can mean coming to life spiritually as in the new birth. But in the context of Revelation 20:4, 5, the subject is physically dead people who are brought back to life.
There is one important detail to consider between these two verses. Ezesan is used to describe those coming to life at the first resurrection, as well as those coming to life at the second resurrection. If the first is meant to be taken as speaking of spiritual resurrection, then why are we to understand the exact same word used in the same context in an entirely different way? That being, to describe those who came to life physically during the second resurrection? If a spiritual resurrection is meant with the first (vs. 4), but a physical resurrection with the second (vs. 5), such suggests an arbitrary change in meaning that is not indicated by the text.
The presence of martyrs. One of the more glaring problems with the spiritual resurrection position is the fact of martyrs being described as those who lived again and partook in the first resurrection. Those are individuals who had been beheaded for their witness of Christ and because they would not worship the beast. As Seiss notes, “Spiritual resurrection is out of the question, for they were spiritually resurrected before they became martyrs, and could not be holy martyrs without it” [Seiss, 460]. In other words, for them to actually be martyrs — to be beheaded for their witness for Christ — they had to have been spiritually resurrected before then. Martyrs are martyred for their faith, a faith that comes at spiritual birth.
Kim Riddlebarger, The Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End-times. (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI, 2008).
J.A. Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation. (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 1973).
Steve Sullivan, Premillennialism and an Exegesis of Revelation 20. On-line paper.
Matthew Waymeyer, Revelation 20 and the Millennial Debate. (Kress Christian Publications: The Woodlands TX, 2004).
The New International Dictionary of NT Theology (Vol. 3), ed. Colin Brown. (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2003).