Eschatology Outlines: No. 7E More on Interpreting Rev 20:4-6

Posted by R. Fowler White

As I suggested in a previous post, the vision of Rev 20:4-6 concerns that session of the heavenly council of God in which authorization is issued to avenge the blood of the martyred saints whom Christ, with the living saints, had built into God’s kingdom-house of priests through their participation in the first resurrection. Let’s narrow our focus in this post by looking in some detail at John’s description of the saints’ worship, name-bearing, first resurrection, and reign in 20:4-6.

1. Background. Before we get to 20:4-6, let’s recall that in 1:5-6 and 5:9-10 John implicitly compares the Lamb’s redemptive work for the church to God’s victory over Egypt and His subsequent constitution of Israel (with her tabernacle) as His kingdom-dwelling place. Then, in 5:5 the Lamb’s redemptive victory becomes the victory of a new David, that lion-warrior of Judah who was given rest from his enemies before turning his attention to building the Lord’s temple-house. Finally, in the Divine Warrior victory song of 12:10-12, saints are described as those who have obtained victory over their draconic accuser on account of the blood of the true Lamb (12:11), whose blood, unlike that of the first Passover lamb, secures the release of God’s people from their sins. Thus, when in Rev 1, 5, and 12 John invokes the redemptions of Israel under Moses and David to describe the church’s experience, the point we should not miss is his willingness to employ the battle and building themes of the OT to explain the significance of the church’s redemption through Christ’s work. With this background, we have good reason to expect these same themes will help us clarify the interpretation of 20:4-6, especially since that vision follows a vision of divine victory over the dragon in 20:1-3.

2. Worship and name-bearing. So, what can we say about the saints’ worship and name-bearing in 20:4? We agree with those who see those activities as issues that led to the saints’ martyrdom. Probing more deeply, it’s interesting to notice that John’s description here connects back to these saints’ participation in the new exodus and their re-creation as the Lamb’s kingdom. The connection comes to light in Rev 14:1-4. There, John links worship and name-bearing with redemption by the Lamb (14:3-4) by recalling the lyrics of the Divine Warrior victory song in 5:9. The word redeemed (by the Lamb) also reminds us of the victory lyric in 12:11, compelling us again to connect the saints’ redemption with Israel’s exodus. To speak of the saints’ worship and name-bearing, then, is to speak of their participation in the new, Messianic exodus and of their reconstitution as Messiah’s kingdom.

3. Parallels to Ezek 36-37. Coming to the saints’ participation in the first resurrection and their reign as the kingdom of priests, let’s consider briefly the parallels between 20:4-10 and Ezek 36-39. Like the sequence in Ezek 36-39, the sequence in Rev 20:4-10 has the saints’ resurrection and reconstitution preceding God’s victory over the Gog-Magog rebels (we’ll get to them later, God willing). To get the meaning of the resurrection in 20:4-6, we should consider the meaning of the resurrection in Ezek 36-37. The OT prophet uses the metaphor of physical resurrection to describe the spiritual re-creation of Israel as God’s kingdom of priests. In fact, the metaphor describes Israel’s transformation into a temple for God’s Spirit. In keeping with the parallel in Ezek 36-37, then, we should interpret the saints’ first resurrection and reign in 20:4-6 as their spiritual re-creation as God’s kingdom of priests, as their transformation into a dwelling place of God’s Spirit.

4. The beatitude of 20:6. Confirmation of the interpretation above comes in 20:6 where John describes the blessing of partaking in the first resurrection by way of a contrast. On the one hand, the blessing announces the partakers’ redemption from the power of the second death (20:6b). But, on the other hand, the blessing records their constitution as a kingdom of priests to God and Christ (20:6c). Yet there is more.

Wise as God is in the application of redemption to Christ’s people, He ensures that neither bodily death nor eternal (i.e., the second) death will frustrate the final redemption of His people. As a result, the Spirit of Christ applies His victory to His people in a particular sequence. To be specific, since there must be no threat of eternal death to Christ’s people after they’re delivered from bodily death, the Spirit delivers them from eternal death before He delivers them from bodily death. Likewise, since there can be no deliverance from eternal death after bodily death, the Spirit delivers Christ’s people from eternal death before their bodily death. The beatitude of Rev 20:6 distills the point: the Spirit’s application of redemption delivers Christ’s kingdom-people from the second death before He delivers them from death, lest the second death still threaten them after their deliverance from death (thus the first [spiritual] resurrection in 20:4-6 precedes the general [bodily] resurrection in 20:13-14a; cf. John 5:24-29). Likewise, the Spirit’s application of redemption delivers Christ’s kingdom-people from the second death before their martyrdom occurs, lest their death prevent their deliverance from the second death.

5. Summary. The first resurrection and reign of the saints in Rev 20:4-6 highlight two blessings bestowed on the church: 1) their spiritual resurrection that takes place before both their physical death and their physical resurrection, and 2) their transformation into the kingdom-temple built by Christ (just as we saw in John 2:19-21; 5:24-29). Having been united even now with the Lamb in His resurrection and reign (cf. Eph 2:5-6; Col 3:1), the saints take courage in the authorization of God’s heavenly court to avenge their blood, should martyrdom be their portion. In the truths of the vision and beatitude of Rev 20:4-6, then, the saints will find the comfort and hope they need to persevere in the face of marginalization, persecution, and even death.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7F Interpreting Rev 20:7-10

1 Comment

  1. December 20, 2021 at 6:49 pm

    […] Eschatology Outlines: No. 7E More on Interpreting Rev 20:4-6 […]


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