The key to interpreting Revelation 20:4-6 lies in two highly debated areas. Firstly, exegetes are divided as to the nature of the first resurrection (20:5, 6); secondly, the meaning of the verb ezesan (ἔζησαν) translated by the phrase “and they lived” is highly disputed. This verb is the aorist active indicative form of the primary verb zao (ζάω), and occurs twice in this passage, once in verse 4, and once in verse 5. The meaning of the verb ezesan in verse 4 determines the nature of the first resurrection (20:5).
Premillennialists, including Bible Presbyterians, contend that both occurrences of the verb (ezesan) refer to a bodily resurrection. Accordingly, premillennialists – historic and dispensational - see at least a two-phase resurrection in Revelation 20:4-6. George Eldon Ladd is correct to say that “this is the most important word in the entire passage. The exegete must decide whether or not it means resurrection; and upon this decision will be determined how he interprets the entire passage.”
We recall that according to the premillennial understanding of Revelation 20:1-6, this passage necessarily follows Revelation 19 chronologically. This interpretation ignores the evidence for recapitulation in Revelation 20. Premillennialism requires both occurrences of the verb (ezesan) to mean a physical, bodily resurrection. In other words, Premillennialism necessitates two bodily resurrections in Revelation 20:4-6. If this point can be contested and repudiated by exegetes, then premillennialism will not stand. Stanley Grenz, expressing the thoughts of Millard Erickson, perceptively notes that “the linchpin of premillennialism is the doctrine of two bodily resurrections. The first will occur at the Lord’s return. The righteous of all ages will rise in order to share in the millennial reign of Christ. Only after the golden age will the rest of the dead come forth from their graves, an event that, however, will place the wicked in the presence of the judge who will consign them to their eternal destiny.”
Thus, premillennialists find in this passage (20:4-6) two separate physical resurrections: the resurrection of the saints, and the resurrection of the wicked, both of which are separated by the millennium. Premillennialists, such as Ladd, find no other resurrection mentioned in this passage other than two physical resurrections. Ladd writes,
“In Rev. 20:4-6, there is no such contextual clue for a similar variation of interpretation. The language of the passage is quite clear and unambiguous. There is no necessity to interpret either word spiritually in order to introduce meaning to the passage. At the beginning of the millennial period, part of the dead come to life; at its conclusion, the rest of the dead come to life. There is no evident play upon words. The passage makes perfectly good sense when interpreted literally.”
In his commentary on Revelation, Ladd quotes Henry Alford’s well-known words:
“If, in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain psychai ezesan at the first, and the rest of the nekroi ezesan only at the end of a specified period after that 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.”
Premillennialists understand the second resurrection as a resurrection of the wicked, which is followed chronologically by the Great White Throne judgment. They reason that, if the second resurrection is a physical resurrection, then what John describes as the first resurrection must also be a bodily resurrection.
In contrast to the premillennial understanding of ezesan (ἔζησαν), amillennialists do not interpret the first resurrection to mean a physical resurrection. The general teaching of the New Testament elucidates a final, general resurrection (Rev. 20:11-15) of both the just and the unjust. This theological understanding, coupled with the analogy of faith, undergird the amillennial interpretation of Revelation 20:4-6.
Furthermore, we recall that the scene (20:4-6) is set in heaven. The first resurrection, considering the evidence for recapitulation in Revelation 20, occurs prior to the Second Coming of Christ. Taken collectively, all these factors point to the conclusion that a physical resurrection in Revelation 20:4 is very unlikely. But only an exposition of Revelation 20:4-6 will confirm our suspicion.
Amillennialists have, in general, understood the phrase “and they lived and reigned with Christ” to mean either the believer’s spiritual resurrection during conversion, or the believer’s death and subsequent reign with Christ in the intermediate state. The later position is taken by William Hendricksen, Gregory Beale, Anthony Hoekema, Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg, and Meredith Kline. In both cases, the first resurrection is a spiritual resurrection, and occurs prior to the Second Advent of Christ.
The First Resurrection and Hermeneutics
There are serious hermeneutical differences between dispensational and Reformed exegetes. With regard to eschatology, the primary dissimilarity lies in how these scholars interpret Revelation 20:1-6. Reformed expositors tend to apply the analogy of faith, that is, they study Revelation 20 in the light of the teachings of the entire New Testament. The premillennialist, however, finds a two-phase physical resurrection in 20:4-6, and applies this understanding retrogradely into antecedent Scripture. But the entire New Testament is unanimous on the doctrine of the general resurrection. Instead of interpreting the highly symbolical passage of 20:4-6 using clear New Testament passages, the premillennialists insist on imposing a literal reading of 20:4-6 onto plain, New Testament eschatological teachings. George Murray laments:
“The anomaly confronting us here is that one can read the whole Bible without discovering an inkling of this doctrine [the doctrine of two resurrections separated by one thousand years] until he arrives at its third from the last chapter. If, on coming to that chapter, he shall give a literal interpretation to one sentence of a highly symbolical passage, he will then find it necessary to retrace his steps and interpret all the eschatological teachings of the Bible in a manner agreeable to this one sentence. The recognized rule of exegesis is to interpret an obscure passage of Scripture in the light of a clear statement. In this case, clear statements are being interpreted to agree with the literal interpretation of one sentence from a context replete with symbolism, the true meaning of which is highly debatable.”
We have previously discussed the genre of Revelation, as well as the hermeneutical considerations of interpreting such symbolical passages. In the proper interpretation of John’s Apocalypse, we must consider four levels of communication in 20:1-6. “The linguistic level consists of the text of 20:1–6. The visionary level consists of John’s actual visions of a descending angel, a dragon, a pit, the seizing of the dragon, the sealing of the pit, the thrones, and so on. The referential level consists of the historical referents of the dragon, the pit, the thousand years, and the first resurrection. The symbolic level consists of the symbolic significances of the various figures and events depicted.”
Premillennialists, in general, agree that the plain reading of 20:4-6 would support a two-phase resurrection sequence. They contend that a literal rendering of the text will inevitably limit the meaning of the “first resurrection” to a bodily resurrection. Thus, the premillennial exegete finds two physical resurrections in 20:4-6, one in verse 4b, and one in verse 5a. But such a literal approach to this highly symbolical passage does not do justice to the full meaning of the text.
In the previous chapters, it was reiterated that when we consider apocalyptic passages such as the vision of John in 20:1-6, we must not disregard the visionary and symbolical meaning of the text. Poythress correctly perceives that “many premillennialists . . . neglect the possibility of the presence of a visionary and a symbolic level. Instead they move almost immediately from the linguistic level to the referential level. The language of “living” and “first resurrection” is understood in a literal sense. Anastasis (“resurrection”) elsewhere in the NT is always used of bodily resurrection. And, it is claimed, the context of Revelation 20 does not point away from this normal understanding. Hence “resurrection” must here mean bodily resurrection. Hence the first resurrection refers to the bodily resurrection of believers at the second coming.”
Poythress explains that in the communication of the vision to John, the apostle had to see the resurrection of actual bodies. This is an essential element in order for the information to be conveyed to John in visionary format. But the imagery of bodies rising does not in itself determine the referential and the symbolic meaning. What the apostle sees at the visionary stage does not immediately determine the meaning of the vision at the referential or symbolic levels.
“What took place on the visionary level? John saw saints come to life and reign (v. 4). In the context of a vision, one could hardly imagine that John’s experience was anything other than seeing a bodily resurrection and its results. John had to see bodies in order for any information concerning people to be conveyed in a visionary format. The visionary level thus includes bodily resurrection and its results. On the symbolic level the text pictures new life and vindication. And what takes place on the referential level? The referent is some kind of new life, but the exact form remains to be determined. The mere fact that the visionary level involves concrete physical representation does not by itself determine the nature of the referential level.”
Therefore, what is perceived at the visionary level must not be extrapolated immediately to the referential and symbolic levels. If the visions of John’s Apocalypse were to be understood literally, specifically the vision of 20:4-6, then that would be a gross misunderstanding of the genre and worse, to misinterpret the meaning of those texts. Poythress recognizes that the crux of the entire controversy is hermeneutical in nature. The disparity between premillennial, particularly dispensational, hermeneutics and Reformed hermeneutics ultimately constitutes the exegetical differences with regard to the text in question.
With regard to Revelation 20:4-6, Poythress summarizes the weaknesses inherent in premillennial hermeneutics:
“Many premillennialists have thus skirted some key issues when appealing to the supposed literalness of the first resurrection. They have neglected the visionary and symbolic levels of the discourse. In fact premillennial interpreters have often applied a similar literalistic interpretive strategy to the rest of Revelation and to much of OT prophecy as well. In such a strategy, the visionary level and symbolic level are virtually collapsed into the referential level. Throughout Revelation the visions are then understood to be direct transcriptions of future history. Partly for this reason most premillennialists are futurist in their interpretation of Revelation.”
The Meaning of the Resurrection
It is often adduced by Premillennialists that, since ezesan (ἔζησαν) in verse 5a refers to a physical resurrection – and few expositors would ever dispute this point – then ezesan in verse 4b must also mean a physical resurrection. But there are several considerations which are apparently neglected when one attempts to understand this verb too literally.
Gregory Beale writes,
“In contrast to this literal approach, it is important to recognize that ἀνάστασις (“resurrection”) is found in Revelation only in 20:5-6. Moreover, the ordinal “first” (πρῶτος) with “resurrection” occurs nowhere else in the OT or the NT. This is a hint that lexical study of words expressing the ideas of “first” and “second” needs to be conducted in order to comprehend the full meaning of “resurrection” in the present context.”
Therefore, it is paramount that the contextual usage of “first” (Prōtos) must be explored in our interpretation of the phrase “first resurrection.”
Beale argues that “ζάω (“live”) has a more fluid of range of meaning in the Apocalypse and elsewhere (for the sense of physical resurrection outside Revelation cf. Matt. 9:18; Rom. 14:9; 2 Cor. 13:4). In the Apocalypse it sometimes refers to physical resurrection (1:18; 2:8) or more generally to some form of physical existence (l6:3; 19:20), but more often it has a figurative connotation of spiritual existence, especially with respect to God’s attribute of timeless existence (six occurrences). In 3:1 the verb refers to spiritual life (and the uses in 7:17 and 13:14 are probably also figurative).” The Apostle John could very well have intended to convey a spiritual resurrection as opposed to a physical one expounded by premillennialists.
However, according to Beale, the “most striking is the observation that elsewhere in the NT ἀνάστασις and ζάω (or the cognate noun ζωή, “life”) and synonyms are used interchangeably of both spiritual and physical resurrection within the same immediate contexts.” Beale provides Romans 6:4-13 and John 5:24-29 as instances whereby the words “life” and “resurrection” are used together within the same context to convey spiritual and physical realities. “These observations do not demonstrate that the same words are used in Rev. 20:4 and 6 of both spiritual and physical resurrection, but only that they can have that dual meaning elsewhere in the same context.”
The premillennialist’s insistence that the same word cannot possess different meanings within the same context is consequently weakened.
 Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John, 265.
J. Grenz, The Millennial Maze: Sorting
Out Evangelical Options (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992),
128-129. Cf. Millard Erickson, Contemporary
Options in Eschatology: A Study of the Millennium (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker,
1977), 97. In a later edition of the same book, Erickson notes, “The premillennialist
insists that the two resurrections mentioned in Revelation 20:4-6 are both
bodily in nature. Because this point forms the linchpin of the premillennial
position, it deserves close scrutiny.” See Erickson, A Basic Guide to Eschatology: Making Sense of the Millennium, 97. Stanley
 Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John, 266.
 Henry Alford, The Greek Testament (Boston: Lee and Shepard. 1872), IV, 732, quoted in Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John, 267.
 See Hendricksen, More Than Conquerors, 192.
 See Beale, The Book of Revelation, 1002-1007.
 See Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 232-238.
 See Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg, The Revelation of St. John: Expounded for Those Who Search the Scriptures (Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark, 1852; reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2005), 281-282.
 See Meredith Kline, “The First Resurrection,”
Theological Journal 37, no. 3 (1975):
 George L. Murray, Millennial Studies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1948), 153-154.
 Vern Sheridan Poythress, “Genre and Hermeneutics in Rev 20:1-6,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 36, no. 1 (1993): 45-46.
 Ibid., 46.
 Reformed hermeneutics refers to the “historical-grammatical-literary-theological” method of interpretation.
 Poythress, “Genre and Hermeneutics in Rev 20:1-6,” 48.
 See Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation: New International Commentary on the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1998), 366. Mounce writes, “The strong presumption is that the verb in v. 4 should be taken in the same sense as it is in v. 5. In the second case the statement, “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended,” certainly refers to a bodily resurrection at the close of the millennial period. If “they came to life” in v. 4 means a spiritual resurrection to new life in Christ, then we are faced with the problem of discovering within the context some persuasive reason to interpret the same verb differently within one concise unit. No such reason can be found.”
 Beale, The Book of Revelation, 1004.
 Ibid., 1005.