The Millennium (Part two) – the First Resurrection and the Second Death

An exposition of Revelation chapter 20

“I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years” (Revelation 20:4-6 see also 21:8).

This article deals quite literally with matters of life and death – not merely physical life and death but spiritual life and spiritual death. One of the writers of the Proverbs wrote: There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death (Proverbs 14:20 and 16:25). Most people are heading blindly and recklessly down the path that leads to the second death due to their refusal to hear the word of God that brings life. According to statistics over 60 million people die every year, which translates to about 1.92 people every second. Every person who has ever lived will one day be raised from the dead. However, only those who have had a part in the first resurrection, through faith in Jesus Christ who isthe Resurrection and the Life, will not be hurt by the second death. The rest will be raised to face eternal condemnation in the lake of fire, which is the second death, having forfeited the opportunity to receive eternal life!

In part one of this exposition of Revelation chapter 20 we endeavoured to show from the Scriptures that Jesus bound Satan through his death and atoning sacrifice on the cross so that all who believe the good news may be set free from the power of Satan to enter the kingdom of God. We also argued that the period referred to as a thousand years is symbolic of the present reign of Christ who is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven, having been given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28 cf. Psalm 110). This period ends with the appearing of Christ (the Parousia) from the heavenly realm when he will finally destroy all rebellion and create a new heaven and a new earth (2 Peter 3:13).

We now turn to the subject of the first resurrection (which takes place at the beginning of the thousand year period) and the second death (which takes place after the thousand year period). Those who have a part in the first resurrection reign with Jesus for the symbolic period of a thousand years. But before we expound upon the first resurrection and the second death, we must determine who were those seated upon thrones who were given authority to judge. These issues are related as will hopefully become evident by what follows.


Will all Christians who have remained faithful to the point of death be seated with Christ upon his throne or is this a special privilege confined to those who have been martyred for their faith? Are we to assume that it is exclusively those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus who are seated upon thrones? The apostles James and Paul were literally beheaded, but Peter and many others were crucified and many were killed by wild beasts and in various other ways.

Jesus promised even the lukewarm believers at Laodicea: “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. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”(Revelation 3:21-22).

The writer to the Hebrews said that we, the church of Jesus Christ who still live in this world in this mortal body of flesh, are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). It is reasonable to conclude that all those who persevered and overcame, remaining faithful until death, are, in accordance with the Lord’s promise, now seated with Christ upon his throne. They proved their faithfulness to the kingdom of God by refusing to bow down to idols of any sort in spite of what it cost them.

However, we who still live within this mortal body are being tested in our faith to prove our fitness to rule with him even as we are “provisionally” seated with Christ. Jesus told the parable about the talents to illustrate that those who have proven themselves trustworthy in smaller things are given greater authority (Lk. 19:17). If we keep in step with the Spirit, teaching others to obey all that Christ has taught (the great commission), then we effectively also rule with him in his kingdom as co-workers and ambassadors of the kingdom of God in this world. But we must persevere and remain faithful to the point of death, which, as Hendriksen1 points out, does not mean simply until we die, but even if it costs us our life (Revelation 2:10).

Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

When earthly kings issued royal decrees their officials were responsible to see that they were publicized and obeyed and treason was punishable by death. Jesus, the King of kings, is enthroned in heaven and he has indeed commissioned his servants to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. The good news is that He is offering forgiveness and mercy to all men who are already condemned by their sins if they will repent and turn to Him. It is not the duty of Christians to condemn anyone, but to appeal to all men to be reconciled to God in the time of His favour. Those who refuse God’s mercy will die in their sins and be subject to the second death. In this way we reign with him upon the earth, not in the manner of the Gentile rulers who lorded it over the people, but in humility and complete submission to our King.

The authority formerly vested in the Sanhedrin was transferred to the Church. The apostles were given the keys of the kingdom of God which have also been entrusted to the elders of the church (Matthew 16:19).2 The mature elders within the body of Christ have been given authority to judge matters within the church and to expel impenitent, immoral people from the church (see 1 Corinthians 5:12-6:6).

Paul wrote concerning those who have been raised to life through faith in Jesus Christ:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:1-7).

This passage, like Revelation 20, links being “resurrected” or “raised up with Christ” with being seated with him in the heavenly realms, and here it is clearly in reference to this present age.

Revelation chapter 5 describes the twenty-four elders before the throne of God singing a new song to the Lamb:

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9 -10).

This echoes the calling of the people of God in Exodus and is repeated by the apostle Peter where he designates the church as a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9). The role of the priesthood was to act as mediators between God and man and we fulfil our priestly duty by preaching the gospel which makes all men accountable to God.


Who or what is (or was) the beast and what is his mark of ownership? Is it a literal mark, such as a micro-chip inserted under the skin as speculated by many modern teachers or is it symbolic of what we really worship?

Jesus said that we cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24). Elsewhere in Scripture, notably the book of Daniel, beasts are used to symbolise the kingdoms of this world. In the first century Christians who refused to participate in the feasts of the heathens and pay homage to their gods – including the deities that represented the various trade-guilds – would become social outcasts and seriously jeopardise their ability to trade and earn a living. The challenge may seem less obvious in modern times but it still remains that we cannot serve both God and money. Those who bow to the pattern of this world in which money is paramount are in grave danger of effectively receiving the mark of the beast (a symbol or mark of ownership) in that they remain enslaved to the god of this age and the kingdoms of this world. In contrast, those who belong to Christ are sealed with the Holy Spirit, the mark of ownership that we belong to God:

Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory (Eph. 1:13, cf. 2 Cor. 1:22).


Jesus said, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:37-39).

Those who try to cling to their sinful lives in this present world remain in spiritual darkness, enslaved by the sinful nature, spiritually dead in their sins. Jesus implied that there are people who are alive as far as their mortal bodies are concerned, yet are dead in their sins and unbelief when he said, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22). On the other hand, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life (John 5:24).

I suggest that the Apostle John’s reference to the first resurrection in the book of Revelation, consistent with the symbolic language employed throughout the book, is symbolic of our spiritual regeneration through faith in Christ.

In the second part of John 5:24 Jesus said,

“I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” (John 5:25-29).

Most people think of this in terms of the bodily resurrection at the end of the age, but it should be noted that many people have already been bodily raised from the dead. After Jesus was crucified,

the tombs broke open and the bodies of many people who had died were raised to life.They came out of their tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people (Matthew 27:51-53).

These saints indeed participated in a resurrection of their mortal bodies. However, in spite of being raised, literally, from their tombs, there is no indication that they received immortal bodies. They certainly did not die again and neither are they still living among us in this earthly realm so we must assume that they were taken (bodily) into the heavenly realm to be with Christ where they await, together with all the saints who have died, the appearing of Christ from the heavenly realm when they will appear with him and be given immortal bodies. Of course we know that Jesus ascended bodily into the heavenly realm. We can only surmise that those who came out of their tombs also participated in the first resurrection, the resurrection of their souls to spiritual life, which in their unique case included the resurrection of their mortal bodies from the grave (sheol), but not yet the final resurrection spoken of by the apostle Paul in Corinthians 15:50-58 when we will be transformed to the immortal state.

With this in mind, we may understand how some people, whom Paul said had wandered away from the truth, said that the resurrection has already taken placeand in this way they destroyed the faith of some (2 Timothy 2:15-18). It is evident from what Paul said, that these people falsely taught that the resurrection – referring to the physical resurrection to the immortal state of those who have died – had already taken place.

At what precise moment in the process of metamorphosis does the caterpillar become a butterfly? When are believers raised to new life so that they become a new creation? Is it not while they still live by faith within this mortal body? The apostle Paul describes us as outwardly wasting away, yet inwardly being renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4:16). Jesus raised many people from the dead including Lazarus who had been dead for four days so that his body would have already begun to decompose (see John chapter 11). In the first resurrection people are not raised with immortal bodies, but, having been dead in their sins and transgressions, they are raised to life through faith in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation(Galatians 6:15).

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ (Colossians 2:13)

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Col. 3:1-4).

Throughout his epistle to the church at Rome, Paul underscores the fact that though we possessed physical life we were dead in our sins, but now, through faith in Christ, we have been raised to new life and have become a new creation even while we continue to live in this mortal body which remains subject to physical death.

…count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:11-13).

It is impossible for those who are dead in their sins and transgressions to obey Christ’s teaching. Those who are controlled by the sinful nature are hostile towards God and cannot please him. To borrow an illustration from N.T. Wright,3 some boats are powered by wind, others by steam. They may both be constructed out of the same material but it is what powers them that makes them different. Those who have a part in the first resurrection have the same mortal body but are now animated by the Holy Spirit, and it is precisely because we have already been raised to spiritual life by the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead that we anticipate the resurrection of our bodies which will be raised imperishable at the end of the present age, figuratively referred to as a thousand years.

Even now we are being raised to life by the Spirit: And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you (Romans 8:11). In other words the question of whether or not we have participated in the first resurrection does not depend upon any change to the form or substance of our present mortal bodies but to what “powers” – or controls us: Are we controlled by the Holy Spirit or by the sinful nature? As the apostle Paul taught, the mind and body controlled by the Spirit will live whereas the mind and soul controlled by the sinful nature will surely die – obviously in the second death.

The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness (Romans 8:6-10).

It should be noted that although believers have been raised to life in Christ they must persevere in their faith to the point of death in order to receive the crown of life:

“Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death” (Revelation 2:10-11).

Those who fall away from the faith are worse off than before and are considered as twice dead (see Jude verse 12 and 2 Peter 2:20-21). A seed must first die before it grows. Believers are baptised into Christ’s death and must put to death the sinful nature in order to be raised to immortality (see 1 Corinthians 15:37 and John 12:24). Through baptism we have been united with Christ in his death… so that we have now died with Christ and so we believe we will also live with him (see Romans 6:5-8). This is surely why Paul wrote concerning his perseverance in the faith: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:10-11).

Those who contend that the thousand years is a future literal period must of necessity also conclude that the first resurrection will be a resurrection of the righteous to their immortal bodies and that the second resurrection will also be a bodily resurrection of the unrighteous a thousand years later – at which time the wicked will be judged and eternally condemned. This implies that immortals will be living alongside mortals who have not participated in the first resurrection. However, the logical conclusion of this would be that none of those mortals living in the millennial period will escape the second death since they did not have a part in the first resurrection.

A more literal translation of Revelation 20:4, which the NIV renders, “They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years,” differs slightly, but rather significantly, from the NIV translation. Rather than “they came to life,” it says simply that “they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” In other words when they died they continued to live – and this because they had already participated in the first resurrection by receiving eternal life through the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. This agrees with what Jesus taught:

“He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die (John 11:25-26).

By partaking in the first resurrection now by faith we are assured that we will never die. Even though our mortal bodies will indeed die we shall continue to live in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the glorious victory of the kingdom of God!

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” [i.e. the second death] (Matthew 10:28). To finally overcome all temptation in this world means that we do not love our lives so much as to shrink from death (Revelation 2:11). Rebellion and treason against God’s Anointed King is punishable by the second death which is eternal condemnation (see Deuteronomy 18:18; Psalm 2 and Proverbs 24:21).

Paul said that to die is gain for it is then that we are finally done with this body of sin (see Philippians 1:21) and are set free from temptation.

We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Paul made it quite clear that all believers will be raised with immortal bodies at the coming of Christ, not in two stages with a thousand year interval between.

Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

Elsewhere in the Scriptures it is clearly implied that there will be one bodily resurrection of the just and the unjust, at which time the saints will inherit the new heaven and new earth, and the unrighteous will be condemned to hell – both body and soul. The apostle Paul said, “I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked (Acts 24:14-15).

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself (2 Timothy 2:8-13).

1. W. Hendriksen – More than Conquerors, p. 65
2. See article “Binding and Loosing” by Peter Cohen MGN 2nd Quarter 2003.
3. Surprised by Hope p.155