Friday, March 24, 2017

The Reign of Souls


“And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years (Rev. 20:4-6).”

As we begin our exposition of Revelation 20:4-6, we recall that a period of “a thousand years” was described in 20:1-3. Although it is possible to interpret the “thousand years” of 20:4-6 as being distinct from the millennium mentioned in verses 1-3, there are no compelling reasons within the context of the passage to do so. The majority of exegetes, if not all expositors today, agree that the “thousand years” in 20:4-6 is the same millennium described in 20:1-3. Hoeksema concurs,

“It is evident that “a thousand years” refers to the same period during the whole new dispensation as that in which the devil is bound with respect to Gog and Magog.”[1]

This “thousand years” period spans the entire New Testament era, from the First Advent of Christ to just before the Second Coming of our Savior.
The Thrones

The first three verses of Revelation 20 describe a scene on earth, whereby the abyss is the spiritual realm in which the devil and his minions operate. But where is the location of the scene in 20:4-6? When we read verse 4, we notice that there are thrones mentioned in John’s vision. The term “throne” is doubtlessly symbolical, and it is unlikely that in 20:4, John is referring to literal sets of chair for people to sit upon. “There can be little doubt that the portrayal of beings sitting on “thrones” is not intended to express the literal idea of people sitting on actual pieces of furniture and ruling from there. This is, rather, a figurative way of saying that they reign over a kingdom.”[2] The imagery of souls sitting upon thrones signifies the reign of these souls.

Where is the domain of this reign? The location of the thrones will assist us in determining the exact locale of John’s vision. G. K. Beale elucidates that the word “throne” usually refers to a heavenly scene. He writes,

“The heavenly location of the thrones in 20:4 is apparent from the observation that forty-two of the forty-six occurrences of “throne(s)” (θρόνος) elsewhere in the book clearly locate the thrones in heaven. The remaining three uses refer either to Satan’s or the beast’s throne, which is likewise not earthly but located in a spiritual dimension. The “thrones” in Dan. 7:9 also appear to be in heaven (cf. Dan. 7:10-13).”[3]

E. Müller adds that, since the thrones of the enemies of God are located on Earth elsewhere in the Book of Revelation, it is very likely that these thrones of the saints are located in Heaven.[4]

The Souls

Within the context of verse 4, John sees in his vision “the souls of them that were beheaded.” Premillennialists interpret this phrase as describing resurrected saints in glorified bodies, who are seated upon thrones and reigning with Christ in the earthly millennium.[5]

They argue that the expression - “the souls of them that were beheaded” - is a figure of speech called synecdoche, by which a part is put for the whole. For example, we say that there are a hundred sails, meaning a hundred ships. Occasionally, the Scripture does use the word “souls” to represent persons. “Thus all the souls that came with Jacob into Egypt were threescore and ten (Gen. 46:27). In the ark a few, that is, eight souls were saved (1 Pet. 3:20). On the day of Pentecost about three thousand souls were added to the church (Acts 2:41). There were in all two hundred threescore and sixteen souls with Paul in the ship (Acts 27:37). Hence the chiliast argues that we must interpret the expression “the souls of them that were beheaded” in the same figurative sense as referring to resurrected persons.”[6]

But there are serious problems with this premillennial interpretation. Hoeksema argues, “The first objection is that whenever synecdoche is employed, whether in our daily language, in secular literature, or in Holy Writ, uniformly a numeral is used in connection with it.”[7] This is very clear when we peruse the examples provided above (i.e. Gen. 46:27; 1 Pet. 3:20; Acts 2:41, 27:37). Eight souls, and not simply “souls,” were saved on Noah’s ark. There were two hundred threescore and sixteen souls with Paul aboard the ship. Scripture always uses a numerical qualifier to accompany the word “souls” whenever it is used as a synecdoche.

The word “soul” (ψυχή), therefore, is not used as a synecdoche in 20:4, and does not refer to living bodies. Beale explains that,

“Though “soul” (ψυχή) can be a substitute for “living body” (8:9; 12:11; 16:3; cf. 18:13), here its combination with “beheaded” is best suited to indicate a distinction between soul and body, as the almost identical combination “soul of those who were slain” clearly indicates. If such a distinction of soul and body is not held, an awkward picture emerges: “bodies of beheaded people.’”[8]

Consequently, based upon word usage and context, “soul” does not refer to physically living saints sitting upon thrones. Besides, “the noncorporeal sense of “soul” is suggested further by its close connection with thrones that are in heaven, not on earth.”[9]

Understood collectively, the thrones and the expression “the souls of them that were beheaded” likely describe a heavenly scene, and not an earthly millennium. This fact alone is devastating to the premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20:4-6, which requires this passage to describe the millennial reign of saints on earth.

The Saints

In his vision, John saw “the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years (Rev. 20:4).” Who exactly are these souls? In order for us to understand verse 4 fully, as well as the identity of these souls who reigned with Christ, we must look at the immediate context of this passage, particularly verses 5-6. It is written in verse 5 that “the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished,” and that the “rest of the dead” will participate in the “second death (Rev. 20:6, 14-15).” It is evident that the “rest of the dead” are unbelievers who shall be “cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15)” at the final judgment of Christ.

Therefore, John is clearly describing the souls of saints in verse 4. According to verse 6, those that participate in the “first resurrection” shall not be harmed by the “second death.” By implication and simple deduction, the “souls” mentioned in verse 4 should encompass all the saints, that is, the Church invisible.[10]

Stephen Smalley notes that “the prophet-seer does not specify the identity of those who are ‘seated on thrones’; nor are the subjects in any part of this scene mentioned by name. But their character and activity make it plain that John is referring broadly to the faithful saints of God. They are the ones who are involved in judgement, and suffer for Christ, and who worship Him rather than the beast; these are also priests of God, who rise and reign with Christ for a thousand years and more.”[11]

Smalley proceeds to argue that “they are ‘souls’ (τὰς ψυχὰς, tas psychas) who had been martyred for their Christian testimony, and existed therefore in that spiritual state which obtains between death and the final resurrection (verse 4a); and, second, they are faithful witnesses who have testified loyally to Christ, and continue to do so, without being called to seal their faithfulness with martyrdom (verse 4b; cf. 13.11-12).”[12]

Beale concurs that the souls in 20:4 refer to the souls of saints who have died, “some through martyrdom and others of natural causes, though maintaining their faith to the end (cf. 14:13: “blessed are the dead who die in the Lord”).”[13] He adds that “it is possible that only literal martyrs are spoken of in 20:4, but, if so, they might be portrayed as representative figures for the whole of the church.”[14] The case, therefore, is strong that the “souls” described in 20:4 represent or refer specifically to the souls of the saints.

Charles Alexander emphasizes the fact that the true Church is a suffering Church. Indeed, it can rightly be called a martyr Church. He writes:

“But the Church as a whole is a martyr Church. Some in recent times have yielded up their lives to cruel death, in faithfulness to Christ, but most of the Lord’s people have been permitted throughout the ages to end their days in peace. Yet what is common to all true believers is that they bear their witness in a world which is hostile to Christ and at enmity with God.”[15]

The martyr Church - the souls of the faithful - will be protected from the “second death (Rev. 20:6, 14-15).” They will reign with Christ for a thousand years in their intermediate state, before the final resurrection of the bodies.

The Reign

It is described in both verses 4 and 6 that the disembodied souls of the saints shall reign with Christ for a thousand years. This reigning with Christ reinforces the point that the vision is not located on earth, but in heaven where Christ is. Hendricksen elaborates further,

“The thousand year reign also occurs where Jesus lives, for we read ‘And they lived and reigned with Christ. . . .’ The question is, where, according to the Apocalypse, is the place from which the exalted Mediator rules the universe? Where does Jesus live? Clearly, it is in heaven. It is in heaven that the Lamb is represented as taking the scroll out of the hand of Him that sat on the throne (Rev. 5). Revelation 12 clearly states that Christ was ‘caught up to God and to his throne. . . Therefore, rejoice O heavens, and ye that dwell therein’. We may safely say, therefore, that the thousand year reign takes place in heaven.”[16]

According to Premillennialism, this reign lasts for a millennium on earth, and spans the entire period during which Satan is bound. It, however, does not last “for ever and ever (Rev. 22:5).” The amillennialist contends that, if these souls are to be physically resurrected at Christ’s Parousia and to be given glorified bodies as Premillennialists claim, they will reign not only for a thousand years, but for all eternity (Rev. 22:5) from the New Jerusalem. In the new, heavenly Jerusalem (21:2), there shall be no more curse (Rev. 22:3), no more death (Rev. 21:4; 1 Cor. 15:53-55), and no more night (Rev. 22:5).

Revelation 20:4, therefore, describes the reign of souls in their intermediate state with Christ, and not the reign of resurrected saints during the alleged Davidic Kingdom on earth. However, this does not settle the millennial issue. The nature of the resurrection (in 20:1-6) lies at the very heart of the millennial controversy. There will be no resolution concerning the millennial debate unless exegetes can agree upon the meaning of the “first resurrection (Rev. 20:5-6).”


Note concerning abbreviated references: Please refer to previous posts for more details of repeated references

[1] Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 560.
[2] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 995-996.
[3] Ibid., 999.
[4] See E. Müller, “Microstructural Analysis of Revelation 20,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 37: 233.
[5] For example, see Stephen Khoo, The Book of Revelation (Singapore: Far Eastern Bible College, n.d.), 99-100. These are printed course notes used in Far Eastern Bible College. Rev Stephen Khoo is the pastor of Bethel Bible Presbyterian Church in Australia.
[6] Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 561.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 998.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Cf. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 999-1000. Beale writes, “Of course, if only literal martyrs are the focus in v 4, then “the rest of the dead” in v 5 includes believing together with unbelieving dead who are to be resurrected subsequently. The problem with this is that v 6 says that those partaking of the first resurrection of v 4 will not be hurt by the “second death,” and 20:14-15 does not limit the promise only to martyrs or a segment of believers but applies it to all of God’s people who trust him throughout their lives.” See Beale, The Book of Revelation, 999.
[11] Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 505-506.
[12] Ibid., 506.
[13] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 999.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Alexander, Revelation Spiritually Understood, 503.
[16] Hendricksen, More Than Conquerors, 192.

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