The Millennium: Part 6

The Millennium: Part 6

(Part 1)

“and they came to life and reigned with the Messiah for a thousand years. This is the first resurrection” (καὶ ἔζησαν καὶ ἐβασίλευσαν μετὰ τοῦ Χριστοῦ χίλια ἔτη. οἱ λοιποὶ τῶν νεκρῶν οὐκ ἔζησαν ἄχρι τελεσθῇ τὰ χίλια ἔτη. Αὕτη ἡ ἀνάστασις ἡ πρώτη). Verses 4e-5 are in series with the rest of verse 4 and relate to each other in a positive negative relationship. Verse 4e and 5 are the most contested sections of the whole passage because how one takes ἔζησαν in 4e determines his view on the millennium. Ladd says, “The crux of the entire exegetical problem is the meaning of this word,” and “The exegete must decide whether or not it means [physical] resurrection; and upon this decision will be determined how he interprets the entire passage.”[1]

Premillennialists make two main arguments for exclusively physical resurrections in Revelation 20:4-5. First, they argue that ἔζησαν must have the same meaning in verse 4 as in verse 5, and since verse 5 is universally agreed to speak of a physical resurrection, so also must verse 4. [2] To support this view, they point out that John uses ζαω in 1:18 and 2:8 to refer to Christ’s resurrection and in 13:14 to refer to the beast’s parody-resurrection.[3] In fact, Henry Alford has gone so far as to say that if ἔζησαν has two different meanings in two consecutive verses, “Then there is an end of all significance in language and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to anything.”[4]

Second, they argue that in the New Testament ἀνάστασις uniformly refers to a physical, bodily resurrection (with the lone exception of Luke 2:34). Against such a consistent usage and placed in the context of an undisputed bodily resurrection in 5a, the burden of proof is on anyone who argues that ἀνάστασις refers to something other than bodily resurrection.

Four responses are in order. First, we concede that John saw a physical, bodily resurrection in 20:4-5, yet the premillennial view does not follow from such a concession. We must keep in mind the four levels of meaning present in prophetic-apocalyptic literature. Premillennialists argue that because ἔζησαν and ἀνάστασις denote a physical, bodily resurrection; therefore the saints will in history experience a bodily resurrection separated by a millennial reign from the resurrection of unbelievers. Such reasoning jumps straight from the linguistic meaning of the words to the referential meaning, and bypasses both the visionary and symbolic meanings. John has repeated the phrase καὶ εἶδον twice in this section already – signaling to his readers that what follow is the account of a vision. Therefore, it does no harm to the amillennial view to recognize that John is indeed describing a physical resurrection because that is what he saw. However, we must keep in mind that, “The mere fact that the visionary level involves concrete physical resurrection does not by itself determine the nature of the referential level.”[5] Furthermore, we have seen and will see below that Revelation 20 begins a new section of recapitulation and does not follow chronologically from Revelation 19. With all of that in mind, we ought to seek an interpretation of the visionary resurrection which does justice to the recapitulatory time-frame as well as to the language of resurrection.

Second, John has already described physical resurrections in Revelation which have a symbolic meaning and do not refer to a bodily resurrection at the referential level. These two occasions are Revelation 11 and 13. In Revelation 11, John portrays the faithful church as two witnesses[6] who are eventually overcome and killed by the beast and then raise to life again by the “breath of life from God”, an allusion back to Ezekiel 37:5, 10. John applies the visionary and symbolic language of valley of dry bones to the vindication of the church. Just as the two witnesses are not “literal” but symbolic of the whole church, so the focus is not on a physical resurrection but on the vindication of God’s people and the judgment of their enemies.[7]

John also speaks of a symbolic resurrection in Revelation 13:14 when he refers to the beast who was “wounded by the sword and yet lived.” At the visionary level, John saw (13:1, 11, καὶ εἶδον) a beast that was wounded by the sword “unto death” (εἰς θάνατον, 13:3), and yet lived (ἔζησεν, 13:14). Yet how we are to understand the referential meaning of this is not at all clear. If one takes the view that the beast is representative of wicked governments throughout history (as the combination of the beasts from Daniel 7 suggests) who oppose Christ and His people, then the wound and subsequent resurrection are symbolic of a real defeat and apparent revivification throughout history.[8] Given these two prior symbolic resurrections, we should not rule out the possibility of the resurrection of the saints in Revelation 20:4-5 as being primarily symbolic.

Yet premillennialists argue that just because it is possible does not mean it is probable, and that we must provide positive evidence that the resurrection is symbolic. Their point is well taken, and that brings us to our third and fourth arguments: the use of πρῶτος and the background of Ezekiel 36-39. Meredith Kline has argued that in Revelation (as well as select passages elsewhere) πρῶτος can mean more than simply the first iteration in a chronological sequence.[9] He points to Revelation 21:1 where the current created order is called  πρῶτος οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ πρώτη γῆ (“the first heaven and the first earth”, see also 21:4 where the current created order is called τὰ πρῶτα, literally, “the first things”) in contrast to the “new (καινός) heaven and new earth” (21:1). He also points out that the counterpart to the “new” blessed creation is called the “second (δεύτερος) death” (21:8). On the basis of these observations, he argues that for John, “new/second” refers to the consummated order of things, where as “old/first” refers to the current order of the cosmos.[10]

Therefore, Kline argues that the “first resurrection” implies a second/new resurrection and that the “second death” implies a first/old death.[11] The first death is implied in Revelation 20:4-5 is ordinary, physical death. The second death is John’s paradoxical way of referring to the resurrection of the unjust, because it is not a resurrection unto life but unto eternal torment in the lake of fire. The first death is preliminary, the second death is final and consummate. Likewise, Kline argues that if we understand the second resurrection to be final and consummate, and the first resurrection must be preliminary and non-consummate. He says, “If the second resurrection is a bodily resurrection, the first resurrection must be a non-bodily resurrection.”[12] There is, therefore, a “criss-crossing pattern” between the two sets, the first resurrection and second death are matched as figurative and symbolic while the first death and second resurrection are matched as literal.[13]

What is the first resurrection if not a bodily resurrection? Kline answers that in the same way the second death is a paradoxical way of referring to the resurrected and consummate state of the unbeliever, the first resurrection is a paradoxical way of referring to the death of the believer and his entrance into heaven.[14] This view finds further support in the benediction of verse 6.

Before we move to a discussion of the benediction, we must make our fourth argument, namely, that John’s reliance on Ezekiel 37 in Revelation 20 supports the amillennial interpretation of the first resurrection. Broadly speaking, Revelation 20-22 follows the outline of Ezekiel 37-48. Ezekiel sees a vision of a resurrected Israel (37), an eschatological battle with God of Magog (38:1-16, 39:1-4a), the defeat and judgment of Gog and Magog by Yahweh (38:17-23, 39:4b-24) followed by a consummate recreated temple (39:25-48). In the same way, John saw a resurrection (20:1-6), a battle with Gog and Magog (20:7-9a), the defeat of Gog and Magog and the eschatological judgment (20:9b-15), and the New Heaven and New Earth created as a consummate temple (21-22).[15] Knowing that Ezekiel is in John’s mind, let us narrow our focus on the resurrection in Revelation 20:4-5 and Ezekiel 37:5-10. Like John, Ezekiel too saw a vision (καὶ εἶδον 37:8) involving a resurrection. Significantly, the LXX of Ezekiel 37 uses the verb ζαω five times to refer to the resurrection of the dry bones, including in verse 10 the exact same form John uses in 20:4-5, ἔζησαν. Furthermore, in Ezekiel, the valley of the dry bones is a visionary and symbolic interpretation of God’s restoration promise of chapter 36:

36:26 – ‎“and a new Spirit I will place within you”
36:27 – ‎“And my Spirit I will place within you”
37:14 – “And I will place my Spirit in you”

Therefore, within the OT background for Revelation 20 we find an explicit visionary account of resurrection, which utilizes the same vocabulary as John, interpreted symbolically by Ezekiel himself.


[1] Ladd, Revelation, p. 265.

[2] Ladd, The Millennium, p. 169. Blaising, p. 68-69. Waymeyer, First Resurrection, p. 7. Deere, p. 67. Osborne, p. 707.

[3] Osborne, p. 707.

[4] Alford, Henry. The Greek Testament. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1872, vol. 4, p. 21-22; quoted in Ladd, Revelation, p. 267.

[5] Poythress, Genre and Hermeneutics, p. 46.

[6] See Beale, NIGTC, p. 574-575 for this identification of the witnesses.

[7] Op. cit., p. 597. Poythress, Genre and Hermeneutics, p. 48.

[8] Poythress, Genre and Hermeneutics, p. 47.

[9] Kline, Meredith G. “The First Resurrection.” Westminster Theological Journal, Spring 1975: 366-375.

[10] Op. cit., p. 367-369.

[11] Op. cit., p. 370-371.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. For a premillennial response to Kline, see: Michaels, J. Ramsey. “The First Resurrection: A Response.” Westminster Theological Journal, Fall 1976: 100-109. For Kline’s response to Michaels, see:  Kline, Meredith G. “The First Resurrection: A Reaffirmation.” Westminster Theological Journal, Fall 1976: 110-119.

[15] See White, R. Fowler. “The Millennial Kingdom-City: Epic Themes, Ezekiel 36-39, and Rev 20:4-10.” Evangelical Theological Society. Kansas City, MO, November 21, 1992. And, Kline, Meredith G. “Har Magedon: The End of the Millennium.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 1996: 207-222.

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