Here’s a portion of my second sermon on Revelation 20:1-6. It’s a bit long to read in one sitting, but maybe some will find it helpful.
There is a third question that we will look at in detail this morning.
Question Number Three: How are we to understand, the end of verse four, where it says, “They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.”
Now I hope you are a little bit awake, at least, this morning and can think of with me, now, for the next several minutes. I’m going to do some teaching now, but at the end we will get back to some preaching, and I’ll probably start sweating and all sorts of stuff. We will finish with a bang, hopefully. But now we have to do some teaching on this first. So you need to think carefully with me. What does this mean, “They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years”? Because here is what premillennialists would say, “Christ comes back, and the dead in Christ, those who believe in Jesus and are dead, they are raised up from their graves, bodily, and they meet Christ in the air and they go back up to Heaven. Then Christ establishes his thousand-year reign on the Earth. It is a literal 1,000 years, where he is on a literal throne in Jerusalem. At the end of that Millennium Age, then those who did not believe in Jesus, their bodies are now resurrected and they are sent off to judgment.”
So the premillennialists would see there are two resurrections. There is a first resurrection, the believing dead, and then a thousand years later, the unbelieving dead. This is not a terrible interpretation. Many godly people would offer that. It is just not what I think that the text teaches. So we are going to move through this beginning at verse four.
In order to answer this question, we need to start by figuring out where are we? What are we looking at in this text? The simple answer is we are looking at a scene in Heaven. This isn’t Earth. This is Heaven. We know that, because we see thrones. Almost every other time in Revelation where there are thrones, it is a Heavenly scene. Think back to Revelation Chapter 4, John’s vision of Him who sits on the throne, holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty. He is on the throne. And around that are what? Twenty-four other thrones on which sit 24 elders representative of the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Lamb. Twenty-four being a symbolic number, not for a cool TV show that gets kind of old after a while, but Christ’s people in both Testaments, old and new, 24 being Christ’s people. And they are sitting on thrones. That is Heaven.
We also know this is Heaven, because we are looking at disembodied souls. The second sentence in verse four says, “I saw the souls of those who have been beheaded.” This is similar to the heavenly scene described in Daniel Chapter 7. Daniel said,
“I looked and thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took His seat. His clothing was as white as snow. His hair was white as snow. His throne was flaming with fire. A river of fire was flowing coming out before Him thousands upon thousands attended Him. 10,000 times 10,000 stood before Him. The court was seated and the books were opened.”
So what we are looking at is a heavenly scene.
Now, who are talking about? Well it is one group of people described in two different ways. Narrowly, the group of people we are talking about are martyrs. “I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the Word of God.” Now, Revelation does this in a number of places. It looks at God’s people in one sense as martyrs, because many of them were, but that is also something of a metaphor. God’s people here are facing the temptation to compromise. So if they withstand this temptation, they maintain their testimony to Jesus in one sense they will all be persecuted. They will all be martyrs of a type. So, narrowly, what we are looking at are those who literally were killed because they were Christians. But more broadly, we are looking at anyone who has maintained faithful testimony to Jesus. Look at the next sentence in verse four. So first they are described as martyrs, and then it says, “They had not worshiped the beast, or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands.” So we are talking, narrowly, about martyrs, more broadly about God’s people, about overcomers, about you, I hope, who do not receive the mark of the beast, but maintained your faithfulness to Christ. Revelation 3:21 says, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.” So we are looking at Christians who did not give in, did not compromise. These are overcomers. And they have received their reward, now, in heaven, sitting on thrones. So these are dead Christians in heaven as disembodied souls sitting on thrones with the authority to judge. And we will say more about that at the end.
So this brings us to the end of verse four, our question: “They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” Now that is just a summary sentence of what I have just explained. This is a picture of believers who upon death come to life as disembodied souls and reign with Christ. Now, let me deal with a couple of problems with this interpretation. The first is the Greek word “zao.” Zao means “they came to life.” They live. Think of the word zoology. It has that Greek prefix of life, of living things. Zao means to live. And zao, often in the New Testament, means a physical resurrection. Matthew 9, Romans 14, I could give you a number of passages. But I want to argue that this is not a physical resurrection here. When it says, “They came to life,” it does not mean that their bodies came out of the ground and were made immortal. It is talking about a spiritual resurrection upon death. As a Christian, our ultimate hope it is the resurrection of the dead. But there is what theologians call an intermediate state. Before Christ comes back, and before they resurrection, our souls are with Christ in Heaven. They are not asleep. They are not just bodies in the ground, and we go out of existence for a while. Our souls–I do not know how it works–but our souls are separated from our bodies for a time during this intermediate state.
Remember premillennialists will say, “There is a first resurrection, that is the believers. And there is a second resurrection, and thousand years later, that is the unbelievers.” But Scripture seems to teach consistently that there is only one resurrection. Daniel 12:2, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the Earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” You do not get the sense that there is a thousand years between this. But all people are brought up out of their graves. Somehow, Christ puts all of their atoms together again, and some are sent to their reward, and some to punishment. Jesus says the same thing in John 5, “Do not be amazed at this, for an hour…” He means a specific time, a moment. Not over the course of a thousands of years. “…An hour is coming when all who are in their tombs will hear His voice and to come out.” Just like Jesus said, “Lazarus, come forth.” What is Lazarus going to do? He is going to come forth. That is what Christ will say, “Dead, arise.” And in a twinkling of an eye, all of these atoms from in the ground, and decomposed into the earth, and in urns somewhere, are all going to come together. And Christ says, “Those who have done good will go to the resurrection of life. And those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” So Christ talks about this resurrection of the good and the bad happening at the same time.
And there is confirmation that zao does not refer to physical resurrection here. There’s confirmation from 1 Corinthians 15. Now, just follow this train of thought with me. 1 Corinthians 15 is where Paul is talking about the resurrection. And he says in verse 54, “When the perishable,” that is our dead bodies, “have been clothed with imperishable,” our new resurrection bodies, “and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true. Death has been swallowed up in victory.” In verse 26 of 1 Corinthians 15, he says that “Death is the last enemy.” So do you follow what Paul is saying? When the resurrection happens, when our bodies are clothed with immortality, then we will know that death has been defeated. Death is finally over. Death, our last enemy, has been conquered. And yet if verse four is talking about a physical resurrection, and then another thousand years, and then another final battle royale, we can hardly say that death has been conquered. We can hardly say that there are no more enemies, because we have a thousand years and we still have the whole thing to finish. There is plenty of death left to come. So Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15 would not be true that when we have our new resurrection bodies, then we know death has been defeated.
So zao, this word, they live, they come to life, means that they live with Christ in heaven. What John sees here are believers who, though dead, are more alive than ever before. The coming to life describes the souls of believers who have died, but now share, even without their bodies, in the reign of Christ. Think of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:8 where he says, “I would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Or Revelation 14:13, “Blessed are those who die in the Lord.” Or look at Luke Chapter 20:38. If you read the books that I do, people will say, “Well, this Greek word zao it never means this kind of spiritual resurrection. It always refers to real flesh and blood kind of life.” Except for Luke 20:38. This is where the Sadducees and Pharisees are arguing. Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, and the Sadducees didn’t. And so they are having this debate. And Jesus takes the side of the Pharisees, because he believes in the resurrection. And there was the sort of intramural Jewish debate about whether the Torah, or anywhere in the Old Testament, taught the resurrection. Could you prove the resurrection from the books of Moses? This sort of what rabbis might do for a good time.
And so Jesus weighs in on this. And he solves the riddle, maybe not to their satisfaction, but he solved the riddle. And he says, “God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” And they are saying, “Yes, that is true.” And then he says, “God is the God of the living, not the dead.” Zao, there. In other words, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living in a very real sense. They are living and yet there bodies are in the ground, not resurrected. Jesus used that to demonstrate to the Sadducees that there will be a resurrection, because we already have life in heaven. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living, are zao.
So the hope offered to the saints in verses four and five is the same hope that has been offered time and time again in Revelation. This vision is saying, “Look, Christians, it may appear that evil is winning.” Why do we have 24-hour news channels? I don’t know except to make us all scared and paranoid, so we can know every single time some child somewhere is missing; every time someone in the country has been killed. It is fearful. But this vision says, “Christians, take heart. If you overcome in this life, you will be triumphant in death.” This is the picture right now, the saints–some of your kids, some of your grandparents, some of your siblings, some of your spouses–saints already sitting on thrones, judging, reigning with Christ during this thousand years; living as glorified souls in heaven even as they await their final hope, the resurrection from the dead. That is the first resurrection. The first resurrection is the saints who died, whose souls now reign with Christ in heaven. It is the reality of 2 Timothy 2, “If we died with Him, we will also live with Him. If we endure, we will also reign with Him.” So that if you experience the first resurrection, where you live and reign with Christ after death, then you will not experience the second death.
One More Issue
We come now to verse five. There is one more issue to deal with before we can be fully convinced of the interpretation of I am giving you. Verse five, the NIV puts it as parentheses, which I think is the sense of things. “The rest of a dead” — so we have been talking about the believing dead, now, this is the unbelieving dead. “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.” So here’s the problem. Okay, if what I have been saying is true, and coming to life, this first resurrection, means that you live and reign with Christ, what about verse 5? Verse five seems to be saying, “Well, the rest of the dead, the unbelieving dead, after the thousand years or over, they are going to have the same life.” And we know that that is not true, because it says that “They who do not experience the first resurrection will experience the second death.” Do you see why this book is confusing? So how does that work? Because we do not want to say, “Yes, if you are an unbeliever, you die and you just lay there, but then a thousand years from now, when this church age is over, then you’re going to reign with Christ.” That clearly is not what Revelation teaches. So some have argued that, well, we are talking about two different kinds of coming to life. Verse four is talking about a spiritual resurrection, and verse five is talking about a physical resurrection. So when it says, “The rest of the dead do not come to life,” it just means they did not have their bodily resurrection until the end of the Millennium. And that is possible, but it seems unlikely that zao — it is the same word — would be used in two totally different ways so close together. And besides, the points of verse five seem to be one of contrast. That while the dead, the deceased saints had the privilege of coming to life, those who do not believe in Christ did not have the privilege. So if this contrast is to hold, the coming to life must be of the same kind. In other words, you say, “Well, they came to life and the rest of them, well, they didn’t have this totally other kind of coming to life.” The contrast doesn’t fit then.
So how are we to resolve this difficult that the unbelieving dead do not live or reign with Christ during the thousand years? They have no part in the first resurrection. They did not share in the privilege of reigning with Christ in Heaven, nor will they ever have that privilege. What do we do? The key to understanding this verse is the little word “until.” Do you see that and verse five? The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. Let me give you just one more Greek word. It’s the word achri. Most of us have probably read it to mean something like this. “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended, and then after the thousand years they did come to life.” We read “until” as indicating a change in their situation after the thousand years. But I want to argue that that is not how we should read “until.” The word “until” can have the force of during, or right up to, or throughout, and does not have to indicate a change in the circumstances after the time. Let me give you an example, because is probably murky in your head.
I sang in the choir in college. Our favorite stuff to sing was usually spirituals. And so we sang the song, “I’m Gonna to Sing ‘Till the Spirit Moves in my Heart.” And I was a tenor. And it was a great song for tenors, because tenors get to start out. “I’m going to sing until the spirit moves in my heart.” You do all this little cool stuff. And the basses come in and do their stuff. And at the end of it, it would just keep repeating, I’m going to sing till the spirit moves” — and then you say, “I’m going to sing till Jesus comes. I’m going to sing till Jesus comes.” That is what the basses do. “I’m going to sing until Jesus comes.” Now would you understand that song to mean, “And then after Jesus comes, I stop singing”? “I’m going to sing until Jesus comes, and when he comes back I’m done singing.” I think we instinctively understand ‘until’ in that sentence means I’m going to sing right up to when Jesus comes. All the way until Jesus comes. And it doesn’t give any indication of, “Well, when he comes, I stop singing.”
Or let me give you another example. Suppose you are out of town for a day, and you get one of these nice young ladies here to babysit. And you return late at night and you ask how the kids did. “Well, the two oldest did really well. They were obedient. The youngest was just squirrely. Was just acting up. I don’t understand.” And then the next day, you are talking with your friends who have kids, and they are also thinking about blowing this joint and dropping their kids off somewhere. And that sounds like a good idea to them. And they say, “So how did it go? With the babysitter? How did your kids do? Being away from them for a whole day?” “I don’t understand it,” you say. “You know, our youngest was just so rascally and disobedient, and the two oldest kids were obedient right until we came home.”
Now, you would probably understand that to mean our kids, the two older, were obedient and respectful the whole time we were gone. You would not be praising them if you meant, “They were obedient until we came home, and when we set foot in the door, they got out the matches and started lighting things on fire.” You instinctively know until does not always mean that the situation changes after the given time.
Now, let me just give you some verses where this happens in Scripture. And then, we will be wrapping up the answer to this question. Acts 23:1, I’ll just read it. Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience until (achri) this day.” Now, does Paul mean I’ve been fulfilling my duty until this day, and starting right now, I don’t have to do my duty anymore? No. In Acts 26:22 Paul says, “But I have had God’s help to (achri) this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike.” Until, achri, this very day. Now, does Paul mean that God has helped me until this day, and I’m glad that I made it here. But after today I am not going to get any help? No. He doesn’t mean to say that until indicates a change in circumstance. Romans 5:13, “For before the law,” actually, until (achri) the law, “was given sin was in the world, but sin is not taken into account where there is no law.” So until the law was given, sin was in the world. Does Paul mean that after the law was given, then sin was no longer in the world? No. He is clearly making the point right in up until this time, this was true. I will give you one more. Romans 8:22, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to (achri) the present time.” Right up to the present time. Nobody understands Paul to be saying, “All of creation has been groaning and suffering until I wrote this down in 60 A.D., and now creation has stopped suffering.” No, the “until” has the force of right up to, or during.
So go back to verse five. We will put this together. “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.” This does not mean that they then came to life after the thousand years were ended, and suddenly reigned with Christ. All it means is right up to the end of the Millennium, during this whole church age, the unbelieving dead did not have the privilege of living and reigning with Christ. If it was to indicate that something changed after the thousand years, it probably would have said so. Look at verse three for example. “He threw the Devil into the abyss. Locked and sealed it over him to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended,” and now it makes it clear that something changes. “After that, he must be set free for a short time.” So there we have “until,” but it shows us very clearly that a change is indicated–after that time the situation will be different. But it does not say that in verse five. So the point is that the unbelieving dead will not be made to live with Christ during this age, nor ever. Meanwhile, the believers who die, once they die, will live and reign with Christ as disembodied souls awaiting the resurrection during this church age. And those who live with Christ now in heaven will not die later in hell. And those that are not living with Christ, now, will experience the second death later in the lake of fire.
Two More Points of Application
All right. So what? That’s a lot of little Greek words. Let me just close by hopefully making this seem real and important by giving you two points of application. Just a couple observations from the text.
Number one, death means reigning with Christ. Not just going to Heaven and you won’t hurt, you won’t have pain, death means, right then, you live and you reign with Christ. Now, what does it mean? We could think about this a long time. What does it mean that your grandmother, my grandmother, is on a throne, not as big as Christ’s throne, but is on a throne? She’s got a crown. She lays it out at Jesus’ feet. But she is still on a throne reigning. Does that mean she is affirming Christ’s judgments? Certainly. Does it mean that her being there, your loved ones being there, is a kind of a vindication on all of those who oppress us, or made war with Christians? Does it mean that your loved ones, who believed in Christ, are somehow under the sovereignty of God, participating in decision making for the Earth? Meditate on that for a while—Jesus asking, “Grandma, what do you think? Bill, what do you think we should do here?” Somehow the saints are now reigning with Christ.
I think at the very least, the presence of believers in heaven as overcomers will be a testimony to their innocence and to the guilt of those who persecuted them. But I think it’s more than that. I think it means that we will be restored to our rightful place of God-given dominion over the earth. Genesis 1 says we are image bearers. What do we do as image bearers? We replenish the earth, and we subdue it. We are given to be creation kings over the earth. You do not just die and learn the harp. You do stuff. You make decisions. You think. You reign. In some mysterious way we will be co-laborers just like we are co-laborers with Christ, now. And if we can participate with Christ and his work here on earth, cannot we also, as glorified souls, participate with Christ in his reign in heaven. He uses angels, and he uses our loved ones who have died. Under his sovereignty of course, but making judgments, working with Him as He works out His will on the Earth. You get to be a little king, a little queen, with Christ. You want to be a somebody? You want to have authority? You want to make decisions? You want to have significance on the Earth, you’re not going to get much more impact than that. Reigning with the King of Kings!
And here is the last observation or application. Death means reigning with Christ, and therefore death means life. Most often when someone you love dies, it is not pretty. There are times someone dies peacefully in their sleep, and that is wonderful. Much more often, somebody is shot in battle. Somebody is mangled in a car accident. Somebody has cancer, which literally can eat away at the flesh. And they can look shriveled, or they can look diseased. All of us have had the experience of being at the funeral home, going up to a casket, and saying, “That just doesn’t look like Dad. It just doesn’t look like Grandma.” And it’s sad, the deterioration of our physical bodies. And what we need to have assured in our head is that we will stand at those caskets, and look at those made-up faces and know, right at that very moment, she lives. You look at father lying in his casket, dead. But he lives!
Death for the Christian means life. And when they die, they live and they do not die again. They will be priests of God and Christ and will reign with Him during this entire church age. Now, I hope you know this. And believe it. There are people that are not Christians in the world who never think of death. They do everything else except their own mortality. Our whole culture, sometimes it seems, our economy is built on not dying, getting healthy, getting fit, having all the insurance you need, always being safe, and never dying. I understand that a non-Christian would feel that way. What I don’t understand is the way some Christians talk. You would be hard-pressed to think that life after death even matters.
I read one author who explained why eternal life is called eternal. Eternal life is called eternal, he says, not because it has to do with eternity after we die, but because it touches God the Spirit, who is eternal. So we have this life here on earth, which is kind of an eternal life that touches the spirits. That’s not the whole story, not by a long shot. There are other Christians, and I want to say this with all due respect, because I do not want to exchange one imbalance for another, but there are some Christians who are so busy only–that is the important word — only talking about making the world a better place, or bringing shalom, or renewing creation that they never talk about what happens when you die. But face it, you are going to die. I am going to die. And we can talk all about how we follow Christ and we make the world a better place. And we help the poor. And we want to help the poor, but you also have to think what are the new heavens and the new Earth? It is just not no more cancer, it’s not just that people are no longer sad. The new heavens and the new earth is where God reigns and is All in All, and where we are ultimately, abundantly satisfied in Christ. And if that is not part of your mission to the poor, you’re not fully bringing the kingdom that is to come.
If your Christian faith does not help you die well, then either your faith isn’t worth much, or your Christianity isn’t worth much. People live and talk and preach and they make decisions in life as if there were no eternity. And it is an absolute travesty that it happens in the church. I’m fired up because I spent a week at our denomination’s General Synod and I wondered, “Does anybody here believe that Hell is real? That Heaven is real?” Or are we just playing games. Do we mourn as those who have no hope, or more likely, do we live as if there were no hope beyond this life? Paul says it very clearly, “There is no hope beyond this life, if there is no resurrection.” If there is no living and reigning with Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. If you don’t get anything with Christ after you die, forget it. Don’t put another dollar in the plate, walk out of here, forget it. You are wasting your time as a Christian. If you do not really believe that something happens after you die, do not come here. Well I shouldn’t say that. Come and learn, but don’t just sit and pretend like you’re a Christian.
Death means life. It is always sad when someone is sick. It is always sad when somebody dies. It is always sad when someone is dying. But as Christians we do not mourn as those who have no hope. Pity those who are left behind, no pity for those who go ahead of us and die and reign. You see this Millennium, which Christians argue about, it is not some esoteric thing to write PhD’s on. If I am correct in what I have explained this morning, the Millennium is a great engine of hope. This is what it was meant to do for the first Christians. This is what it is meant to do for us. Love has won. Christ has conquered. The nations belonged to Him. All of you who call upon the name of Jesus belong to Him. And in a moment of your death — and you’ll have loved ones who will mourn and weep and right they should. But in the moment of your death, you go on to live and reign for a thousand years. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ as they will reign with Him a thousand years.