Revelation 20:5

But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished.
Live again is ανεζησαν [anezēsan] : used “of the dead become alive again, rise again, return to life.1 The MT and NU texts have ἔζησαν [ezēsan] , the same term described the resurrection of the Tribulation martyrs in the previous verse. “Since all of the righteous are raised during the first resurrection, these designated as ‘the rest of the dead’ must refer to the unrighteous, who are not raised until after the first thousand years of the reign of Christ have transpired.”2

Those amillennialists who are consistent in their exegesis are forced to take this resurrection as a spiritual resurrection, as they do the first resurrection. This places them in a bind because it is clear that these are the unsaved dead who are never spiritually regenerated. Kik illustrates the interpretive gymnastics which result when attempting to overcome the consistent literal meaning of the text:

It might seem that these dead would remain so only during the thousand-year period. They lived not until the thousand years were finished. One might think that when the thousand-year period ended that these dead would live. But the conjunction until is used in the sense “to the time that.” The rest of mankind remained in spiritual deadness to the time that the thousand years ended. . . . Their souls remained dead.3

Kik tortures the word “until” until it finally cries out “never!” But until cannot mean never in this context because we see the rest of the dead resurrected a few verses from now! If the first resurrection is spiritual, then so must be the second. But if the second resurrection is taken as being spiritual, the amillennialist has a problem—after the thousand years the unsaved dead are resurrected: regenerated! Thus, he must make “until” mean “never.” It is difficult to imagine a clearer example of bringing a faulty concept to the text and twisting the interpretation until it yields the desired results. Here we see the most significant danger of amillennialism which is not its denial of the Millennial Kingdom, as serious as that might be, but its proclivity to distort God’s word.

This resurrection is not that of the Church, previously taken up in the Rapture:

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. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. 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. (1Th. 1Th. 4:15-17)

Nor is it the resurrection of the two witnesses which occurred at the rise of the Beast from the abyss at the mid-point of the Tribulation:

Now after the three-and-a-half days the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them. (Rev. Rev. 11:11+)

This is the first of two resurrections subsequent to Christ’s Second Coming, one prior to the Millennial Kingdom and the other afterward. The text describes two resurrections separated by a period of one thousand years.4 This fact is compatible with the many other resurrection passages which indicate this very thing.

As early as the book of Daniel we see an indication of two categories of resurrection: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. Dan. 12:2). The Hebrew in this passage is difficult. The passage makes a distinction between many versus all and between two resulting categories: everlasting life and everlasting contempt:

Tregelles translates Daniel Dan. 12:2 as follows: “And many from among the sleepers of the dust of the earth shall awake; these shall be unto everlasting life; but those [the rest of the sleepers, those who do not awake at this time] shall be unto shame and everlasting contempt.” [S. P. Tregelles, Remarks on the Prophetic Visions in the Book of Daniel, p. 159; words in brackets supplied by Tregelles].5

The true rendering of Dan. Dan. 12:1-3, in connection with the context, is “And (at that time) Many (of thy people) shall awake (or be separated) out from among the sleepers in the earth-dust. These (who awake) shall be unto life everlasting, but those (who do not awake at that time) shall be unto shame and contempt everlasting.” So, the most renowned Hebrew Doctors render it, and the best Christian exegetes.6

Numerous passages in the NT indicate different categories of resurrection:

And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just. (Luke Luke 14:14) [emphasis added]

Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation. (John John 5:28-29) [emphasis added]

Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. (Heb. Heb. 11:35) [emphasis added]

Paul taught that all men will be raised from the dead:

But this I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets. I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust. (Acts Acts 24:14-15) [emphasis added]

Although Paul appears to describe a single resurrection, elsewhere his teaching betrays otherwise: “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Php. Php. 3:10-11). If Paul taught that all men were to be raised (Acts Acts 24:14-15), how could he say he hoped to attain the resurrection from the dead? Here he speaks of a specific resurrection, the resurrection of the just—a separate resurrection from that of the unjust and the subject before us in this verse.

This is the first resurrection.
First is πρώτη [prōtē] which can be used “of time: first, earliest7 or it can describe relative priority: “foremost, chief, most important of all.”8 The various individual resurrections which make up the category of the first resurrection all precede the second resurrection in time. It is also the chief or foremost resurrection, the “better resurrection” (Heb. Heb. 11:35) because participation in the first resurrection indicates a person is saved and participates in the blessings of God’s kingdom on earth.

This resurrection is, therefore, the chief, principal, pre-eminent one, because it pertains to that of the first-born, constitutes the persons embraced in and experiencing its power the first born that belong exclusively—in a particular sense typified by the Jewish first-born—to God Himself. Hence not time but distinction is denoted.9

The expression “first resurrection” has constituted an exegetical problem for all interpreters. Posttribulationalists cite this reference as evidence that the rapture could not occur until after the tribulation. Pretribulationalists have rightly held that the first resurrection is not an event, but an order of resurrection . It is evident that our Lord rose form the dead as the first one to receive a resurrection body—others previously raised from the dead had merely been restored to their former natural bodies. His resurrection, though widely separated from resurrections which follow, is included in the first resurrection, otherwise the event described in Revelation would not be “first.” According to 1 Corinthians 1Cor. 15:20, Christ is “the firstfruits of them that are asleep,” i.e., the first part of the resurrection of all saints. Likewise, the evidence that the translation of the church takes place before the tribulation would point to a large segment of the righteous dead being raised before the tribulation. These also would qualify as taking part in the first resurrection. In contrast to the first resurrection of Revelation Rev. 20:1+ is the resurrection of the wicked dead portrayed in the latter part of the chapter. The first resurrection therefore becomes the resurrection of all the righteous in contrast to the final resurrection which is the resurrection of the wicked. [emphasis added]10

The first resurrection must not be spiritualized into the new birth experienced in this life by every believer, for such is not called a resurrection in Scripture. Many interpreters have been confused by failing to understand the meaning of “first.” “First” is here a term of priority, and the first resurrection includes all the several resurrections of the righteous dead which have occurred.11

Dean Alford (“New Testament for English Readers,” Com. loci) remarks: “I cannot consent to distort the words from their plain sense and chronological place in the prophecy, on account of any considerations of difficulty, or of any risk of abuses which the doctrine of the Millennium may bring with it. Those who lived next to the Apostles, and the whole Church for three hundred years, understood them in the plain literal sense; and it is a strange sight in these days to see expositors who are among the first in reverence for antiquity, complacently casting aside the most cogent instance of consensus which primitive antiquity presents. As regards the text itself, no legitimate treatment of it will extort what is known as the spiritual interpretation now in fashion. If, in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain persons lived at the first, and the rest of the dead only at the end of a specified period after the first—if, in such a passage, the first resurrection may be understood to mean spiritual rising with Christ, while the second means literal rising from the grave; then there is an end of all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to anything. If the first resurrection is spiritual, then so is the second, which I suppose none will be hardy enough to maintain; but if the second is literal, so is the first, which, in common with the whole Primitive Church and many of the best modern expositors, I do maintain, and receive as an article of faith and hope.”12


Notes

1 Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 54, 49.

2 Jerome Smith, The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992), Rev. 20:5.

3 J. Marcellus Kik, Revelation Twenty: An Exposition (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1955), 53.

4 We once listened to a nationally-known radio preacher preach against the idea that there were two resurrections anywhere to be found in Scripture. During his entire presentation—lasting nearly an hour—he never once mentioned Revelation Rev. 20:1+!

5 John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), 282-283.

6 Nathaniel West, The Thousand Years in both Testaments (Fincastle, VA: Scripture Truth Book Co., n.d.), 266.

7 Frederick William Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 725.

8 Friberg, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, 338.

9 George H. N. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1978, 1884), 2:269.

10 Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, 278-279.

11 Smith, The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, Rev. 20:5.

12 Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, 2:291.

Read Revelation 20:5