From: Reinterpreting Revelation Twenty Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2014
The First Millennium,
of the Martyrs—The Gospel Age
20:4 (KJV): 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.
NASB: And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshipped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.
1. The meaning of “a thousand years” (20:1).
The dominant interpretation of this verse among theological conservatives is almost certainly that a literal thousand years is under discussion. Indeed, the militant form of conservatism called “Fundamentalism” is often defined, in part, in terms of accepting such a belief.
When it comes to the Apocalypse, would be “literalists” are prone to astoundingly fanciful exegesis. R. G. Currell and E. P. Hurlbut are venting some of their frustration at such behavior when they write:
Considering that the Revelation (the only book in the Bible in which this number appears in reference to Christ’s reign) is one of the most symbolic books in all of the Word of God, we should have little qualms about construing the number “1,000” as figurative. Indeed, the number 1,000 is used more than 20 times in Revelation, and not once is it meant literally.
And even some of the “letteristic” premillennialists (cf. Hal Lindsey’s There’s a New World Coming) take the locusts of chapter 9 metaphorically; they say they’re helicopters! In fact, others have understood verse 6 of the same chapter (“And they had hair like the hair of women. . . .”) to mean that the locusts were “hippies”; this was a particular popular opinion during the counter-cultural decade of the ‘60s
[Page 123] So, if we can “spiritualize” some passages in this highly imagistic book, why balk at spiritualizing a number? If the texts were direct in style and mood (as in a doctrinal section, for instance), then we should be very careful about interpreting them in a figurative sense; in fact, it would be difficult to do so and remain true to context at the same time. But most of Revelation is so apocalyptic in nature, so bulging and burgeoning with visions and symbols, that we shouldn’t choose to understand it literally unless the setting of its composition indicated as much.
Take one text that has nothing to do with premillennialism and in which the interpretation seems as close to absolutely certain as you can possibly find: the Lamb that is honored in chapter 5 being Jesus. Is that to be taken as literally as the thousand years? Is either description literal? As an appropriately cynical book reviewer once commented, “Though the lamb is commonly interpreted as Jesus, the philosophical issue remains of how one can actually interpret this book literally and still place it in our known universe.”
I once mischievously suggested that if the way some individuals interpreted prophecy were applied to the “thousand years” itself, that they would result in a “millennium” many times over that in actual length. And, to my surprise, I later discovered an author who took exactly that approach in the last quarter of the nineteenth century: “If the thousand years are a prophetic thousand, there will be three hundred and sixty thousand years, according to our usual computation of years, and I lean towards this opinion, for our Saviour must ‘see the travail of his soul and be satisfied.’ Isaiah 53:11.”
[Page 124] Actually it could be far longer than even than that. If a day is as a thousand years to the Lord (2 Peter 3:8), wouldn’t we have 365 days in each of the thousand years? This would equal 365,000 years, but that is for only one year of the full thousand. Would not each and every other day be 365,000 years long as well?
If one wished to take the time, one could multiply the exegetical excesses of premillennialism at great length. Such cases warn us to be cautious when we approach those texts that are especially crucial to their doctrine and the current verse (Revelation 20:4) has to be placed at or near the top of the list.
The sad fact is that to interpret “literally” when the text is not intended to be taken literally, is to do injustice to the passage. The preceding verses should warn us against committing this folly with the expression “a thousand years.” And, again, in the same chapter: Where would one find a literal bottomless pit? Where would one find a literal chain adequate to bind Satan? How could Satan literally be both a serpent and a dragon simultaneously? We have no more need to make “a thousand years” literal than we do these other expressions.
Indeed, we have strong textual evidence of an even more immediate nature against even the possibility of a literal construction. If one accepts the contention—and we believe we have strongly vindicated it—that two millenniums are under consideration, the post-resurrection one must, by the very act of coming after that event, be picturing eternity under the image of a millennium.
[Page 125] So if the second millennium is inconceivably longer than a literal thousand years why should the first millennium be arbitrarily limited to a mere thousand earth years? If eternity itself can be pictured as that long, then any extremely protracted period of—from our human standpoint—indefinite duration can rightly be pictured the same way. The Reign of Martyrs has now lasted nearly two thousand years; it may end as you read this book or it may not cease for a thousand more earth years. Either way, the symbolic usage of the expression “thousand years” is quite adequate to cover such an extended period.
Not only are we compelled to give up any idea of a literal thousand years if we accept Bimillennialism, the Scriptures contain a number of cases where the symbolic usage of the language is clearly present. (The real challenge would be to uncover a text where, outside a census, the number is used literally.)
A “thousand years” is used to show that an indefinitely lengthy period of time is of no significance go God Almighty:
For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it passes by, or as a watch in the night. You have swept them away like a flood, they fall asleep; in the morning they are like grass which sprouts anew. In the morning it flourishes and sprouts anew; toward evening it fades and withers away. (Psalms 90:4-6)
But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9)
“Thousand” is used non-literally as equivalent to a huge number:
The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude. May the Lord, the Lord of your fathers, increase you a thousand-fold more than you are, and bless you, just as He has promised you! (Deuteronomy 1:10-11)
“A thousand-fold more” than the number of stars in the physical heavens—the size of population they already are! Literal in either case? Or used as symbols of vast, “uncountable” numbers?
“For every beast of the forest is Mine; the cattle on a thousand hills.” (Psalms 50:10) Literally a “thousand”? Then what of the other tens of thousands of hills in the world or even just the few (?) thousand other hills inside geographic Palestine alone? Surely symbolic of vast numbers rather than literal!
Even if the other man lives a thousand years twice and does not enjoy good things—do not all go to one place? (Ecclesiastes 6:6) If he lives for three thousand years, will it then be different? No! The idea is clearly of a vast, “unimaginably long” lifespan. It isn’t meant as literal numbers.
Hence “thousand” is used in the sense found in regard to the two millenniums—as equivalent to unlimited, unending, and permanent. Depending upon textual intention it may seem to be such from our limited human lifespans (as in the First Millennium) or literally so (as in the Second Millennium of eternity). To provide only two additional texts that point us in that direction:
“Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His longingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments.” (Deuteronomy 7:9)
Remember His covenant forever, the word which He commanded to a thousand generations. (1 Chronicles 16:15)
Are these to be taken literally? Does God’s love grind to a halt at the 1,001st generation? Does the obligation to obey God similarly cease with the 1,001st generation of humanity? The point in both texts is that of permanency, transcending time limitations. God’s love is unlimited in time, unending and unceasing: it extends, if you will, to “a thousandth generation”—to every generation both before and after that as well. God’s law is likewise unending and permanent. Furthermore, note in 1 Chronicles 16:15 that “a thousand generations” is expressly equated with “forever,” further verifying our point.
[Page 128] From the above scriptures we amply establish the symbolic use of a “thousand” as indicating duration so indefinitely long as equivalent to eternal—either in comparison with our finite, highly limited lifespan or as literally so. Either approach firmly wrenches us away from literalism for the term. Indeed, as we are arguing both senses are used in Revelation 20: The First Millennium as something so indefinitely long as functionally equivalent to “forever” and “eternity” and the Second Millennium which literally is such.
2. The Jewish interpretation of the length of Messiah’s reign.
When John spoke of the Messiah’s reign in Revelation 20, he was not raising a subject that had never previously been considered among Jews. Just as it was natural to consider in what form and in what manner the Messianic prophecies would be fulfilled, it was also natural to speculate on how long the Messiah would rule once He came. Since this is a subject rarely touched upon in detail, it would be useful to do so at this point.
(As I prepared the final edit of this volume, I uncovered some original notes on this theme that had apparently not been included in the manuscript and placed it in a previous chapter. When I reached the current point, I discovered that a drastically modified form including this material was already present. Since the earlier material hit hard on two useful points not emphasized here, I decided to leave the two sections separate rather than merge them together.)
Jewish thought as it has survived in various non-Biblical sources provide different figures for the reign of the Messiah. In some places it describes it as eternal. In the Psalms of Solomon 17:4 we read, “And the kingdom of our God is for ever over the nations in judgment.”
In First Enoch 62:13-14 it is said, “And the righteous and the chosen will be saved on that day, and they will never see the face of the sinners and the lawless from then on. And the Lord of Spirits will remain over them, and with that Son of Man they will dwell, and eat, and lie down, and rise up for ever and ever.”
This concept seems to have been widely popular in the first century for we read in John 12:34, “The multitude therefore answered Him, ‘We have heard out of the Law that the Christ is to remain forever; and how can You say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?”
7,000 Year Reign
The Rabbinic thought that has survived provides an array of figures to choose from short of eternal, of which this is the largest. “Abimi the son of R. Abbahu learned: The days of Israel’s Messiah shall be seven thousand years, as it is written, ‘And as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over them’ [Isaiah 62:5]” (Sanhedrin 99).
Reign of Unidentified Number of Thousands of Years
They had specifically in mind the number of years from Genesis 1 until their own time, presumably upon the assumption that it was most appropriate for God to bless the world in this manner for as long as fallen mankind had ruined it previously.
“Rab Judah said in Samuel’s name: The days of the Messiah shall endure as long as from the Creation until now, as it is written, ‘[ . . . ] as the days of heaven upon the earth’ ” (Sanhedrin 99).
R. Nahman b. Isaac and “said: As long as from Noah’s days until our own, as it is written, ‘For this is as the waters of Noah, which are mine, so I have sworn etc.’ [Isaiah 54:9]” (Sanhedrin 99).
2,000 Year Reign
A rabbi named Joshua spoke of a two
thousand year reign, according to the German commentators Strack and
Billerbeck. This rabbi is dated by them as 90 A.D.,
though whether this refers to the time of his death or the center of his active
adult life is not stated. According to
Ford’s summary, the two German scholars note that “a number of rabbis about
A.D. 90 said two thousand years.”
Rabbi Kattina’s disciples took the same approach:
It has been taught in accordance with Rav Kattina, Just as every seventh year is a year of sh'mittah [letting the land lie fallow], so it is with the world: one thousand years out of seven are to be fallow — as proved by the following three texts taken together [in which the key word is day]: The Lord alone will be exalted in that day (Isaiah 2:11); A psalm and song for the day of Shabbat (Psalm 92:1), meaning the day that is entirely Shabbat; and, For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past (Psalm 90:4). The school of Eliyahu teaches: the world exists for six thousand years — two thousand of them tohu ["void"]; two thousand, Torah; and two thousand, the era of the Messiah. But because of our numerous iniquities many of these years have been lost (Sanhedrin 97a-97b).
1,000 Year Reign
Eliezer ben Hyrcanus refers to the Messiah’s reign as of this duration. Strack and Billerbeck provide 90 A.D. as the date for this rabbi and his speculations.
Oddly, in contrast, we later provide quotations seemingly attributed to the same rabbi that refer to a mere 40 year reign. Perhaps we have two different rabbis of the same name. Adding further confusion, some scholars deny he taught anything at all about the period!
[Page 132] According to Ford, “The Samaritans entertained the belief in a temporary reign of the Taheb (their name for the Messiah) who would restore the nation to God’s favor for a thousand years and then would die until the time of the general resurrection.”
Did this strain of thought originate in Samaritanism or was it borrowed from Judaism? The wide variety of Jewish opinion on the matter would indicate that if it had such a Jewish source, it was only one of a number of competing views available. On the other hand, to the degree that Jews conceived of the figure as uniquely “Samaritan” to that extent their prejudices would have caused the figure to be frowned upon within their own community.
Some have found a thousand year millennium implied in Second Enoch, chapters 25-33. The reasoning is that the “Enochian writer” portrays the history of the world as seven “days” long, each apparently a thousand years in duration. After the final Sabbatical millennium of Messiah’s reign, eternity begins.
600 Year Reign
According to Strack and Billerbeck, this was the length of messianic rule adopted by Rabbi Dasa (180 A.D.)
400 Year Reign
“R. Dosa said: Four hundred years. It is here written, ‘And they shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years’ [Genesis 15:13]; whilst elsewhere it is written, ‘Make us glad according to the days thou hast afflicted us’ ” (Sanhedrin 99).
Turning to Fourth Ezra (Esdras) 7:27-33 we find the same sentiment:
(27) And everyone who has been delivered from the evils that I have foretold shall see my wonders. (28) For my Messiah shall be revealed with those who are with him, and he shall make rejoice those who remain for four hundred years. (29) And after these years my son (or: servant) the Messiah shall die, and all who draw human breath.
(30) And the world shall be turned back to primeval silence for seven days, as it was at the first beginnings; so that no one shall be left. (31) And after seven days the world, which is not awake, shall be roused, and that which is corruptible shall perish. (32) And the earth shall give back those who are asleep in it, and the dust those who rest in it; and the treasuries shall give up the souls which have been committed to them. (33) And the Most High shall be revealed upon the seat of judgment, and compassion shall pass away, mercy shall be made distant, and patience shall be withdrawn.
365 Year Reign
An unidentified “Rabbi said: Three hundred and sixty-five years, even as the days of the solar year, as it is written, ‘For the day of vengeance is in mine heart, and the year of my redemption is come’ [Isaiah 53:4].”
In a footnote, Freedman cites a Rashi Maharsha who also spoke of the punishment of God’s enemies lasting this length of time (Sanhedrin 99). Note that in both cases, the Messianic reign is equated with a period of punishment for the wicked as well.
About a 100 Year Reign
An unidentified “Rabbi said: Three generations; for it is written, ‘They shall fear thee with the sun, and before the moon (they shall fear thee), a generation and generations’ [Psalm 72:5]” (Sanhedrin 99). Freedman’s footnote interprets this, I believe correctly, as intending three generations—note the singular and plural generations; interpreted in a rabbinic style this easily creates three generations. Defining how one defines a generation, this can result in three generations being between 90 and 120 years in length. Of course, the longer the rabbi considered a generation to last—which we do not know—the longer this period could have been.
70 Year Reign
“R. Eleazar b. Azariah said: Seventy years, as it is written, ‘And it shall come to pass in that day, that Tyre shall be forgotten seventy years, according to the days of one king’ [Isaiah 23:15]. Now, who is the one (uniquely distinguished) king? The Messiah, of course” (Sanhedrin 99). This rabbi is dated 100 A.D. by Strack and Billerbeck.
600 Year Reign
This was the figure preferred by Rabbis Jose of Galilee (dated 110 A.D. by Strack and Billerbeck).
40 Year Reign
“R. Eliezer said: The days of the Messiah will last forty years, as it is written, ‘Forty years long shall I take hold of the generation’ [Psalms 95:10]” (Sanhedrin 99).
Then at greater length we have another citation from the same religious leader, “R. Eliezer said: The days of the Messiah will be forty years. Here it is written, ‘And he afflicted thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna’ [Deuteronomy 8:3); whilst elsewhere it is written, ‘Make us glad, according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us’ [Psalms 90:15” (Sanhedrin 99). Note how Rabbi Dorsa (above) used the same “scriptural” reasoning to come to a 400 year reign by invoking the suffering in Genesis 15:13.
[Page 136] Neither of these two citations is included in Strack and Billerbeck’s in regard to a forty year rule, but the name of Rabbi Akiba is and he is dated 135 A.D.
The Messianic Reign is Past History
and Does Not Lie in the Future
“R. Hillel said: There shall be no Messiah for Israel, because they have already enjoyed him in the days of Hezekiah” (Sanhedrin 99). Freedman quotes a modern Jewish commentator who suggests that Hillel may have been driven to this conclusion by the Christian exegesis of Old Testament passages and their applying them to Jesus of Nazareth.
We see from this collection of quotations that Jewish opinion was very divided. It would seem fair to see in the opinion of those who saw a relatively short (century or less) reign, individuals who conceived of the Messiah as a strictly human figure, with a more or less natural lifespan. When one ventures into the citations that refer to a 400-7,000 year reign, their kind of Messiah clearly has supernatural overtones (to say the least!) for how else could he survive such an extended period of time?
To us today, these citations should warn us that John was not working in a vacuum: due to our ignorance of other Jewish sources, “the thousand years” may [Page 137] leap out at us as if it were the only possible figure for a Messianic reign that he could have used. John utilized the figure—under Divine inspiration—because it best fitted with the message he wished to convey: the Messiah reigns so far yet into the future that its duration (from our modest lifespan) is as if it’s a thousand years. Twice over. For its duration in our current cosmos is but its beginning for an yet longer period when earth time has ceased to exist.
3. The personal characteristics of those who reign in the First Millennium.
a. They were “beheaded” for their faithfulness.
Revelation 20:4 tells us that John “saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God. . . .” These might be labeled their positive virtues: they upheld the commitment to the Lord and to God’s word even at the cost of their lives. Their negative virtues follow: They refused to worship the beast and his image; they refused to be marked by the beast.
[Page 138] Nowhere in this short list of their creditable characteristics is there any mention of their moral character. This absence is not intended to imply that their martyrdom cancelled out any character weaknesses—an erroneous assumption that gained currency a century or so later. The New Testament is quite clear that however brave and laudable martyrdom is, that it will not compensate for ethical failures in life. Paul touches on this in his famous chapter praising love, “And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3).
Nor should the lack of any explicit reference to their moral excellence be taken as a hint of any notable failures in this area. Rather it is to be assumed that because of their loyalty to Christ and to God’s law (which is explicitly asserted) that they lived up to the moral demands of both.
Being “beheaded” was the traditional Roman form of punishment. In fact it might well be called a mark of (comparative) honor since being executed by the sword was specifically reserved for Roman citizens. Of the various means of judicially ordered death (the common crucifixion; death in the arena; etc.) John selected this particular to make his point of the price they paid for loyalty. Indeed the unique “Romanness” of it may lie behind its selection: The martyrs were composed not merely of provincial “rabble;” they were composed of the kind of honorable men that a Roman citizen was supposed to be—an unknown percentage were probably such citizens literally.
It has been suggested—and it seems reasonable—that “beheading” is intended as representative rather than the exclusive means whereby these believers were executed. Indeed, why would a person beheaded for his faith deserve a role in the Martyr Millennium while a person crucified did not? Would it make any sense for a man like Stephen (who was stoned) to be excluded from the class of reigners because of the method of his death?
[Page 139] In addition to the inherent logic of the situation, Revelation 6:9-11 should also be considered. In that text what appears to be the same group of martyrs is under discussion. They are pictured not in the narrower sense of “beheaded” but in the broader sense of “slain because of the word of God and because of the testimony which they had maintained” (6:9). Hence beheading was representative of their manner of death rather than being the exclusive means. Martyrdom was still the result.
Other reasons for “beheading” being specified could include such factors as the large number who were Roman citizens who died and were entitled to such a means of execution. Also these were “citizens of the/God’s kingdom” and they were being given a death worth of “citizens of the/Roman kingdom.”
They refused to worship the “beast” and his “image” (Verse 6).
Satan desires worship of himself and of any entity that serves him for worshipping that is giving honor and religious reverence to its master, Satan, as well. During the forty days of wilderness temptation, he offered to trade Jesus “all
[Page 140] the kingdoms of the world and their glory” . . . if He would worship him (Matthew 4:8-9). Whether Satan really had the power to give it is really irrelevant in this context; what is of importance is what he considered so vital to his own ego and success: being “worshiped.” The Beast in Revelation 20:4 naturally desires and demands worship for he is the agent, representative, proxy of Satan.
In Revelation 13, there are two Beasts present but they both serve the same function as oppressor of the faithful and the power of one is exercised in behalf of the other; hence Revelation 20 can rightly speak in terms of the “Beast” singular. In actual life the “Beast” might take multiple forms, but one ultimate evil power lay behind it and all the specific manifestations represented arms of that Satanic original.
Of the first Beast, Revelation 13 says, “And the dragon [i.e., Satan] gave him his power and his throne and great authority” (verse 2). This Beast in turn passes his own Satanically originated power to the Second Beast, “And he exercises all the authority of the first beast in his presence” (verse 12a) This Beast forces the “worship [of] the first beast” (verse 12b).
The two Beasts are normally interpreted to refer to all religious power in the (probably unknowing) service of the Devil and all secular/state authority that is perverted into an instrument of demonic control. Aligned together they seek the power that will both establish their own ends as well as that of their master.
What was sought was not merely the “worship” of the “beast,” but also of “his image.” In other words, an expression of overt idolatry is sought. Just as generic man can not serve two masters, neither can he worship two masters. Idolatry is an outward proof that the object/person being worshipped is the wrong one.
[Page 141] It is unlikely that literal worship of Satan’s representatives was the only acceptable form of worshipping the “image” of the beast though it would be the one a hostile state and polytheism would be most likely to insist upon (i.e., if nothing more than the proverbial pinch of incense at the emperor’s altar). From Satan’s spiritually perverse standpoint, giving to any person, institution, or movement the service, dedication, and supreme loyalty that is due to God and Christ alone would be, effectively, worshipping the “image” of the Beast.
False religion (including its pseudo-Christian hybrids) demands just such loyalty: absolute adhere to the system, to the religious bureaucracy even when its decrees and edicts are in such blatant contradiction to the will of God that even the most unlearned should recognize the discrepancy. Disguised by appeal to its own (rather than Biblical) precedent and fleshed out in the rationalizations of its scholarly theology.
It rests confident that it has established both the usefulness and the necessity for the course it demands. In its full modern arrogance it even attempts to tell secular power “the” solution to its problems even when in reality there is nearly always more than one path that will accomplish the sought moral goal. Thus it does when the political establishment is hostile to their preferred alternatives.
It does so even more enthusiastically when the current regime’s political philosophy is in accord with what it is pleading for—and “the pedal is put to the metal” in its most extreme form, when the political philosophy is deemed so “right” that any inhibiting religious/moral objections are automatically dismissed as “bigotry” and “prejudice.” Political ideology becomes the actual “soul” of it as it fully transforms into a modern dangerous Beast and any scripture that stands in the way is “interpreted” out of the way. When a religion has become so politicized that it is virtually little more than the religious garb for furthering the same religio-political agenda as the government—one hostile to the Bible--you have the kind of situation depicted in the Apocalypse.
[Page 142] When moral restraint is stigmatized and unrestrained sexual and behavioral excess are glamorized as the ideal, taught as normal in the schools and public forums, and opposition is branded as bigotry and denying others their “rights”—when such is embraced by a political system, do we not have a Satanic political Beast in existence? When such is rationalized, embraced, and praised by religious leaders and denominational church institutions, do we not have a religious Beast in existence? Both opposed to the teachings and power of Jesus and the Father—both in service to the Satan who furthers their base distortions, misrepresentations, and (sometimes) outright lies?
What John has in mind is a parallel situation in which secular and religious power have both come down hard in suppression and persecution of the moral dissenters. Via the “mark of the beast”—demanding words and behavior supporting their agenda—the effort is made to economically crush them: “he provides that no one will be able to buy or to sell, except the one who has the mark, either the name of the beast or the number of his name” (13:17). The determination that the anti-Christian Beast(s) will win at all costs is taken to its logical outcome: to the point of even exterminating those who refuse to yield their scruples.
c. They refused to accept the mark of the beast (Verse 4).
They “had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand . . .” (verse 4). Why these two “physical” locations? On the more “literal” level, one thing they share in common is their visibility: in other words, others could personally observe whether someone bore the demanded mark.
On a more metaphorical level, it would surely be that the “forehead” has reference to the impact of the one doing the marking upon one’s intellect, thinking, and reasoning. The Beast wants to transform you into its moral image and to assure that its depraving “standards” are so deeply embedded in the thinking that you will not be able to comprehend how anyone could possibly think differently. And a thick wall is erected against you ever being convinced otherwise.
The reference to the hand would then refer to the Beast’s impact upon behavior and conduct. For example: If “there’s nothing wrong with it,” why aren’t you doing it? Or at least encouraging those whose predilections are already in that direction? We humans are creatures of habit. If our habits habitually encourage the worst aspects of our nature, we create a “behavioral narcotic” that assures we will continue acting that way.
The two are never totally independent: How we think reinforces behavior and how we act shapes our thinking. We inevitably try to bring the two into accord to reduce and eliminate anxiety and contradiction.
The observer can detect our sentiments by what we say or by our behavior. By adopting the Beast’s standards and conduct, we pattern ourselves after the model of Evil and not of good.
[Page 144] Refusing the Beast’s mark went hand-in-hand with rejecting worship of the Beast. An individual did both or did neither. Revelation 13 records these demands being made:
And I saw another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spoke as a dragon. And he exercises all the authority of the first beast in his presence. And he makes the earth and those who dwell in it to worship the first beast, whose fatal wound was healed.
And he performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down out of heaven to the earth in the presence of men. And he deceives those who dwell on the earth because of the signs which it was given him to perform in the presence of the beast, telling those who dwell on the earth to make an image to the beast who had the wound of the sword and has come to life.
And there was given to him to give breath
to the image of the beast, that the image of the beast might even speak and cause
as many as do not worship the image of the beast to be killed. And he causes all, the small and the
great, and the rich and the poor, and the free men and the slaves, to be
given a mark on their right hand, or on their forehead, and he provides
that no one should be able to buy or to sell, except the one who has the mark,
either the name of the beast or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the
number of the beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is six
hundred and sixty-six. (Verses
Refusal to worship the Beast and the image are the official reason for the [Page 145] death of the Christians (verse 15). But if, somehow, this edict should be frustrated, the oppressor has another arrow in his bow: prohibiting all economic activity—either buying or selling—by those who refuse to wear the mark (verse 17). This would prevent the believers in Christ from being able to economically support themselves and their families; it would starve them to death by prohibiting others from selling them even food and the other basic necessities of life. Economic strangulation and starvation and the resulting death would be the bitter fruit of the policy—if successfully carried out.
In other words, martyrdom would still be the outcome. Or, for that matter, the unsuccessful boycotting could be assumed to lead to the execution. Either way, one dies for one’s faith.
Christians were easily subject to both dangers: It was (at best) a borderline “cult” and, at worst, an explicitly illegal religion. So long as Christianity appeared to the authorities as a mere variety of Judaism, it enjoyed de facto protection due to the special status of that faith. As it grew more numerous, the Gentile proportion of the church became numerically large and then dominant, outsider Gentiles became increasingly aware of not only the similarities but also the profound differences between the two movements. As the result, it inevitably became recognized not as a tolerable sect of Judaism, but as a competitor to it.
Thereby it stood stark naked before the Roman legal system. With no official protection, with no recognition, all the anger at monotheism that could not legally be inflicted upon the hated Jews could be poured out upon the Christians.
[Page 146] In the first century, the Empire did not normally go out of its way to encourage overt repression of a any illegal “sect,” including Christianity. The greatest danger lay not in an empire-wide persecution, but in local pogroms stirred up by either Jewish or pagan adversaries; Christianity’s perilous legal status could easily be used to accomplish what argumentation could not.
Such legal and/or mob violence could be unleashed at any hour of any day, given the right set of local conditions. Hence the threat of persecution and death hung over every Christian—not necessarily as happening right now, but as a storm cloud in the distance that might (or might not) be moving in their direction.
They also faced potential economic strangulation. If the pagan merchants refused to sell or buy from Christian merchants, they could be put out of business. Overt government action would not even be necessary; just the ruthless boycott of those daring to be faithful to God in a faithless age.
Indeed, even the “neutrality” of the government in doing nothing to protect the believers could be interpreted by the persecuting element as constituting implicit approval of their own destructive actions. If a defense (besides economic self-interest) were required, one lay readily at hand: they were only doing what the government should be doing to protect them against such an “illegal” group of religious “extremists.”
Hence guild or large scale individual reaction by outraged pagans could accomplish the task of making life difficult or impossible for converts to the new faith. If Christian merchants were obviously in an exposed position, to a lesser degree was any and all believers. Regardless of the occupation or social position, if his economic welfare were in any way subject to business dealings with outsiders he was subject to potential retaliation—which would cover just about all Christians.
[Page 147] By refusal to partake in immoral and idolatrous practices connected with their society and business guilds, they would stand out like a sore thumb. A modest number of zealous idolators (or outraged ultra-orthodox Jews of the day) and the economic screws could be turned tight. And then violence.
These independent mob actions might well gain a certain “legality” in the public eye by the intentional non-action by the local government: “Silence is consent,” is a handy euphemism for “you do the dirty work while I get to play innocent.”
But what we have specifically in mind in Revelation 13:17 is something far above and beyond this: the text presents the economic embargo as not merely accepted by the government, but at least, at that particular point in time, as both initiated and required by the government. Explicit legislation or decrees could be under discussion; however the advocate of such measures could just as well argue that such local actions were implicitly authorized by any laws that supported the suppression of an illegal religion.
The nature of the “authority” authorizing the economic repression would, in part at least, hinge upon what geographic area John has in mind and the length of time he assumes the policy is carried out. The larger the area and the longer the duration, the more likely for some type of explicit government support of the suppression.
Of course de facto law—custom as expected and customary to follow—would have the same result as specific legislation. And the Roman legal structure of punishment was of such a nature that the latter would seem, inherently, far more probable to have in mind.
[Page 148] The “mark” that was required would symbolize whatever un-Christian religious or moral practices—adultery, ritual prostitution, drunk partying, offering incense at a pagan altar, etc.—whereby the pagan would recognize a spiritual compatriot. By refusing to practice the immoralities and idolatries of a decayed society, the Christian would “visibly” manifest the lack of the mark.
The pagan would see one friend go into a brothel; he would see another stoned drunk at a business guild party; he would see a third worshipping an idol. In a hundred and one small and major ways, he could deduce from the behavior of others that they were fellow pagans. But the manifest lack of such conduct would “expose” the Christian by his or her abstinence; the moral restraint would become the very grounds for condemnation.
The same, we might add, is also true today.
d. Their “souls” do the reigning.
In our four comparisons between the two millenniums we stressed the fact that the reigning parties are identified as “souls” in verse 4 while those who partake of the Millennium of Eternity enter that realm via resurrection (verses 5-6). The specification of “souls” is normally sufficient to indicate that the part of us that survives death is under consideration, especially when it is contrasted with a resurrection in the following verses.
[Page 149] Although not conclusive in itself, the “normal usage” is just that—the typical, the traditional, the standard. Any divergency from that usage shifts the burden of proof to the individual who claims that a particular text manifests such a departure. Statistically, a “spiritual” (rather than materialistic) meaning for the word is not just dominant but overwhelming.
George L. Murray performed such an analysis and came up with this conclusion, “The Greek word translated ‘souls’ is psueke; and while used in one hundred and five places in the New Testament, there are only five places in which it can possibly have reference to the body, and some of these five are debatable.”
An early twentieth century writer ably points out a major additional difficulty of equating the term “souls” with living beings in physical bodies:
The gloss that souls stand for persons, as the seventy souls in the house of Jacob, and the two hundred and seventy-six souls with Paul in the ship, stand for so many persons, is wholly inadmissible [in this context]. If he had simply said “souls,” without any qualifying word, the explanation might stand. But “souls of beheaded people” would hardly mean the people themselves any more than the head or limbs of beheaded people would mean the living people.
Herman Hoeksema points out that whenever “souls” is used in the Bible as equivalent to a physically embodied human being,
uniformly a numeral is used in connection with it. . . . Seventy souls came with Jacob into Egypt (Genesis 46:27). Eight souls were in the ark (1 Peter 3:20). Three thousand souls were added to the church (Acts 2:41). Two hundred seventy-six souls were in the ship (Acts 27:37). But in Revelation 20:4 we simply read, “And I saw the souls.”
Even here one might suspect that the term is used not because physical bodies are strictly equivalent to “souls” but because each human body has a soul embodied within. Body count is not what is important, but the soul count.
It is sometimes objected that however appealing such reasoning as that of Hoeksema may be, in itself, these “souls” are identified as wearing clothes (Revelation 6:11); hence they must be in (an earthly sense) bodily form. This text is well worth consideration since it not only represents commentary on the nature of the “souls” but seems to concern the identical group of souls:
And when He broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, should be completed also. (Revelation 6:9-11)
If in their state as “souls” they were wearing literal clothes (verse 11) were they also walking around and even verbally communicating as in the text (!) without anything above their shoulders? If they are the same group as in Revelation 20:4—and it must be if the “embodied soul” argument is to hold up and if we are to avoid there being two different sets of righteous deceased envolved—then they had been beheaded!
Whatever “embodiment” they may have, it is not in the kind of body promised in 1 Corinthians 15. That is for eternity and not before. And whatever kind of “embodiment” there is in the interim until then—and the story of the beggar Lazarus surely argues there is some kind—it can’t be parallel to that which we have here and which is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15.
Furthermore, in chapter six they are described as if literally beneath the altar (verse 9), like sacrificed animals under the Old Testament? How much literalism will be dare force on this image?
Consider this thought: how could you picture post-death “souls” as if they were doing something—anything—without using bodily imagery? To picture action we have to supply the imagery of bodies for it to make sense; we know of no other manner for real activity to occur. We have no precedent in real life.
In regard to spiritual matters we recognize there are severe limitations on how far symbolism represents the objective reality. God is repeatedly presented in anthromorphic terms, yet only extreme sectarian groups teach that the Father possesses an actual body of flesh and blood. Yet being in such bodies ourselves—and having no experience of anything else—we mentally require such imagery in order to communicate the idea of genuine existence and real activity.
[Page 152] The Revelation text adopts such terminology so that we can obtain the necessary images of authentic events occurring yet it warns us against naïve literalism by filling chapter twenty with imagery that cries out figurative: Can we imagine a literal chain holding Satan in the other realm of reality? A literal dragon? And if we can make our way through those, does anyone really want to tackle what a bottomless pit looks like?
To repeat ourselves: If we equate the “soul” with the “inner person,” how else can we conceive of that soul when separate from the body except in images that at least partially reflect what we see and experience in the here and now? i.e., the soul acting within an outer “shell” of a “body” of some sort.
Yet the fact that we have the soul “in” the current physical body also argues that we must be extremely cautious in adopting any strictly “physical” existence of a soul when separated from the body. We simply don’t have precedents from our life experience—and that of others—to work from.
4. Do more than just martyrs reign in the First Millennium or are they representative of all who stay faithful until death?
Consider carefully the description provided in Revelation 20:4 of those who reign:
And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.
So far we have tried to consistently refer to these reigners as simply “martyrs.” It should be recognized, however, that there are responsible interpreters who are convinced that two categories of Christians are under consideration: real martyrs and the broader category of faithful Christians who did not pay that ultimate price for their loyalty and steadfastness. They do this by dividing the text after “the word of God,” accomplishing this result:
Martyrs: “Those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God.”
Confessors/faithful Christians who had not paid the price of death: “And those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand.”
This approach has the advantage of placing all Christians of the time at the same place, with the same reward. Since they were all potentially subject to the same death sentence, this would be extremely appropriate. Those who aren’t martyrs are all potential ones.
On the other hand, we have two “ands:” “and those who had not worshiped,” indicating the broader group of Christians. But then what of “and had not received the mark”? Are two groups of non-martyrs under consideration? How far do the “ands” disintegrate the text into separate groups or are they intended to do so at all?
On behalf of the all explicit martyrs scenario, Revelation 6:9 may prove helpful. There we read that those being discussed were “the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained.” Here it is hard to see what the “and” introduces other than a description of the same group of people. However the “and” functions in 20:4, in 6:9 it clearly sets up an additional description of the same disciples.
However, there is also evidence for including both explicit martyrs and those suffering sanctions for being believers as lumped together in the same group in chapter 13. After all, Satan was (and is) an opportunist and is willing to use whatever tool is available. Hence he used government sanctioned killing (13:15) but in addition he was quite prepared to utilize economic destruction as well (13:16-17), i.e., to kill them by other means than directly ordered death. To make conditions so miserable for them that, with good fortune—from Satan’s standpoint--they would ultimately die as well. Both groups are, in effect, actual or potential martyrs for their faith.
[Page 155] Of course we can also take the approach that the death sanction comes to all those who survive the economic sanction—when that has failed to work. Either way they all seem to clearly belong in the “martyr” category, do they not?
5. Where do the martyrs reign: on earth or in heaven?
Both the earthly and heavenly scenarios have their strengths and difficulties. Either one, however, is compatible with our assertion that all Christians living since the first century have lived within the period of the First Millennium. The interpretive options would include:
· We could either say that martyrs reign exclusively in the next world . . .
· Or we could assert that the martyrs reign on earth as part of the general Christian reign, while coming into their special and unique reign responsibilities and duties only after suffering death for their faith . . .
· Or we could argue that all faithful Christians both reign in the current world and in the next because they are all potential martyrs.
Whatever approach one embraces, the need is to accept both strains of Bible thought—current earthly reigning and post-death reigning--and unite them into one scenario rather than build a system of interpretation solely around one theme alone.
a. The heavenly scenario.
Perhaps the two strongest arguments
in this direction are (1) it is their
“souls” that are reigning, imagery that best fits with occurring after
their earthly demise. (2) They were beheaded and yet were
reigning. Those who have already
been beheaded aren’t going to be “reigning” in any sense involving actual
behavior and actions on this earth are they? The description is fully consistent with them
being rewarded in the next life rather than this one.
Also pointing in the same direction is the fact that the martyrs are pictured as with Christ. As Bengel argues it, “They shall be with Christ (verse 6), and with God (verse 6), not Christ and God with them. Therefore that kingdom will be in heaven.”
The text Bengel quotes is verse 6, which refers to the Second Millennium rather than the First. The same fact, though, can be found in verse 4 where it is the dead martyrs who “came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” Again, “they shall be with Christ . . . not Christ with them.”
[Page 157] Yet on the other hand, the scriptures picture us as symbolically / metaphorically with Christ already due to our conversion:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6)
Hence, in this type of imagery, being “with Christ” would not require us to be there “physically.” A “physical” presence is not required for reigning in this sense for it speaks not only of being “with Him” but also of being “in Christ Jesus” as well. Consider:
(1) Both millenniums in Revelation occur after human death—not while still alive, as in this Ephesians text. Hence something significantly different must be under discussion. (Caveat: This assumes that the vast bulk of Christians that are in the Second Millennium via resurrection will far outnumber those currently alive at that event.)
(2) In this passage we are simultaneously on earth, alive while simultaneously being “with” and “in” Him in heaven. In Revelation it is after death, period.
[Page 158] We rule with Him in heaven now because we are “in Christ Jesus” and since He is in heaven, we are there with Him while He reigns. Hence we can be described as reigning in heaven because our Lord—of which we are part—is already there and in power. It is not because we personally and individually are literally there.
Another major argument that in the Martyr Millennium the martyrs do their reigning in heaven itself is based upon the fact that they are pictured as being on “thrones.” Eugene C. Caldwell argues the significance of this from two different perspectives. First, he contends that this approach best fits the use of the term throughout the Apocalypse:
The word “throne” occurs 45 times in Revelation and in all but two passages the throne is in heaven. The two exceptions are 2:13 and 16:10, where we have the throne of Satan and the throne of the beast, referring to Pergamum as the centre of Caesar worship in the province of Asia. Deducting these two, we have 43 “throne” texts, of which we know that 42 refer to a throne in heaven. Hence it is highly probable that the 43rd text, in 20:4, relates to the martyrs and confessors enthroned in heaven.
Having examined the question from a book-wide approach, Caldwell next suggests that the same result is produced by a concentration on chapter twenty by itself:
In this very 20th chapter we have three references to a throne. In verse 11 we read, “And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat upon it, [Page 159] from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away.” In verse 12 we read, “And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne: and the books were opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of the things that were written in the books, according to their works.”
In these two passages the reference is to a throne in heaven. Hence we infer that in the third passage also (verse 4) the thrones on which the martyrs sit are in heaven and not on earth.
Of all the texts that mention the “throne” in Revelation several explicitly and the remainder implicitly indicate that it is in heaven. Nor does it profit to contend that he is speaking of “throne” singular while Revelation 20:4 is speaking of “thrones” (plural). The plural is used twice:
Revelation 4:4: Around the throne were twenty-four thrones; and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their head.
Revelation 11:16: And the twenty four elders who sit on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God.
Revelation 11:1-4 makes plain that these “thrones” (plural) are in heaven as well:
(11:1) After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven, and the first voice which I had heard, like the sound of a trumpet speaking with me, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things.” (20:2) Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne was standing in heaven, and One sitting on the throne. (3) And He who was sitting was like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald in appearance. (4) Around the throne were twenty-four thrones; and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads.
So both the Divine “throne” and the Divinely given “thrones” are in heaven. Only the Satanic or Satanically given throne are placed on earth.
Finally, we know that this is a reign of martyrs and that in the previous references to martyrs being alive they are pictured as with God (i.e., in “heaven”). In Revelation 6:9-11 they are pictured as “souls” whose bodies had been martyred for the faith (verse 9), that is killed (verse 11):
(6:9) And when he broke the fifth seal I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; (6:10) and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (6:11) And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, should be completed also.
Note the contrast between when they are where their persecutors are and when they are not: the manslaughters were “on the earth” while they are in the presence of God which such folk are excluded from.
On a different theme raised by the verse, it would be only a “little while longer” before “the Lord” would “judge and avenge” their persecutors “on the earth” (i.e., on this side of the final judgment). It has been suggested that in Revelation 20, the martyrs themselves carry out this task. Although this may be true, that particular text does not directly assert it and Revelation 6 only attributes it to God Himself.
The “judging and avenging” under discussion lay, chronologically, only “a little while longer” in the future. It is not the reign of the martyrs that lay in the future, but God striking out against those who had made them martyrs. Nor could one properly resort to this text to prove that “a little while” can last the “thousand years” of Revelation 20. Indeed, in the latter passage, a synonymous term (“a short time”) is contrasted with “a thousand years” (20:3).
But now we start shifting to evidence that would point to the heavenly aspect of the martyrs’ reign as continuing a status they already had in this current world. Which would argue that the evidence we have examined only describes part of a more complex reality.
Revelation 7 and
Where the Reign of Martyrs Takes Place
As to the location of the martyrs/reigners in chapter 20, we are provided evidence from Revelation 7:13-17, where they are portrayed as worshipping God in His heavenly temple:
And one of the elders answered, saying to me, “These who are clothed in the white robes who are they, and from where have they come?” And I said to him, “My lord, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason, they are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne shall spread His tabernacle over them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne shall be their shepherd, and shall guide them to springs of the water of life; and God shall wipe every tear from their eyes.
Although describing the martyrs in heaven, there seem undeniable allusions to their spiritual condition while on earth as well—to things that either entirely occurred on this side of eternity or which began in this current world and continued into the next. In the former category is that they had “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” This was done prior to their death, at their conversion:
For if the blood of goats and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:13-14)
The shed blood continues to cleanse throughout one’s life as a loyal disciple, “But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7)
The concept behind “washing” one’s robes and being made white in Christ’s blood is clearly implied. Revelation 22:14 goes a step further and applies not just the idea but the actual phrase “wash their robes” to those then alive in the first century, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates in the city.”
The washing of the robes through faith--and a changed intellectual orientation that puts God first—and persistent moral behavior as well—none of these wait until death; they occur in this life if at all. “For this reason” (verse 15)—i.e., their being washed in the blood of Christ and remaining faithful in spite of facing death—“they are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple. . . .”
A second allusion, this time to something heavenly that had already begun to occur while alive on earth, is found in the reference to the fact that “the Lamb in the center of the throne shall be their shepherd.” For His earthly followers, Jesus already functions in that role; it does not wait until death to begin:
“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . . I am the good shepherd; and I know my own, and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And I have other sheep which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice; and they shall become one flock with one shepherd.” (John 10:11, 14-16)
Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will. . . . (Hebrews 13:20-21)
For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. (1 Peter 2:25)
A third major allusion to something happening in the after-life existence that is duplicated current life lies in the fact that “the Lamb . . . shall guide them to springs of the water of life. Jesus develops the same idea when He speaks to the Samaritan woman of the “living water” that produces “eternal life:”
Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” She said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get the living water? You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself, and his cattle?”
Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water shall thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” (John 4:10-14)
Since it would produce or result in “eternal life,” this “living water” was something accessible and available in the current life of that woman at the well; they did not have to wait for death to receive it.
A fourth allusion to a heavenly phenomena that is also duplicated on earth is the promise that they would not “thirst any more.” In John 4, which we just quoted, Jesus gave the woman that very pledge, “But whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst . . .” (John 4:14).
[Page 166] Is it likely that this one element was fulfilled in this life, but not the closely related promises as well? I.e., “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun beat down on them, nor any heat” (Revelation 7:16).
The fulfillment of one argues for the accomplishment of all of them. Indeed, spiritual hunger is satisfied in this life; the spiritual thirst that indwells all human beings is fully satisfied; all the spiritual discouragements that have come our way—the “sun” and “heat” of earthly discouragements—is wiped away as if it had never happened through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Heaven on earth? Of course not. But what about a heavenly satisfaction on earth?
It is hard to reach any other conclusion than that these (or similar) references are intended to come to our mind as we read Revelation seven. It might be tempting to say, therefore, that these verses are a conscious “projection” into a heavenly setting of the spiritual blessings of Christians in the present world. Or that the earthly references are a “projection” backwards from the heavenly realm into the current world.
But the most accurate way to say it would seem to be: the parallels are present not because of “projection” but because what begins on earth only blossoms into full bloom and development in heaven. In other words, it isn’t a matter of choosing either/or, but to recognize completion and maturity in heaven in matters that, so to speak, are only foreshadowed on earth.
There we have the master portrait fully completed; comparatively speaking, what happens on earth is only an introductory sketch. To use the language of Paul, though from a much different context, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Furthermore of the four allusions to earthly events found in Revelation 7, only one had to take place exclusively on earth and that was the securing of salvation through being washed in the blood of Christ (verse 14). Indeed verse 15 indicates that what happens in heaven only begins at that point: Because of what they had done and endured on earth (note the “for this reason”), they now served God in the heavenly temple.
As to the other three examples, there is no inherent reason why they would not represent phenomena found both in heaven and on earth. We would expect Jesus to act as Shepherd in both for He was and remains their leader. We would expect Him to guide them to true “springs of life” in both places for He is passionately interested in their welfare.
This is the key to the presence of such phenomena on both sides of the earth time/eternity barrier: Christ plays a similar role and function in such matters both on earth and in the afterlife. There is nothing unique to either location in such actions.
Finally, as to the “earthlizing” of the reference to not “thirst[ing] any more” by Jesus using such language to the Samaritan lady, the words were clearly figurative in nature: that well in front of them was not going to give her that “living water” that would produce that result. But the earthly “well”—Jesus—did stand in front of her and His teaching could provide it to her. Note the two symbolic usages of language in the same passage. Literal images were being used to portray spiritual truths.
[Page 168] Those images were relevant in both earthly and heavenly contexts. In its heavenly context such imagery serves to promise us a perfect relief from the hurts and aggravations of our temporal/this world living. In its earthly context it promises us an earthly introduction to blessings that will be brought to completion only after our passing on to the next world.
Hence the language is germane to both locations—heaven and earth—and therefore the use of it does nothing to exclude the application of it to the other place.
b. The earthly scenario.
Some of these evidences we have already discussed. The strongest evidence in its favor can be found in the fact that Christians are discussed as if now/currently reigning with the Lord (see our discussion in the following section). If our reign is currently going on, then it is quite literally true that we are reigning “on the earth”—this earth, at this time, though not in the carnal literalistic fashion millennial expectation attributes to the reign of Revelation 20.
This would not require the conclusion that it is entirely carried out on earth; there would remain plenty of room for the martyrs to continue whatever new special role God has assigned them in heaven. Or for the current earthly reign to be for all believers while the martyrs enter into their special reigning role only upon death, fulfilling whatever special role that has been assigned by God to them in Heaven.
[Page 169] The strongest evidence against the reign being in heaven comes from the fact (seen earlier in our book) that the Bible describes the faithful believer as going to the Hadean world at death—NOT to heaven. Yet the arguments we have examined hinge upon the “proof texts” referring to heaven itself. How can they do so if believers don’t enter there until after the resurrection?
One way around this difficulty would be to contend that for martyrs in particular God makes a special exception. Having given that much . . . their very lives . . . an exceptional reception into the next world would seem quite appropriate—which doesn’t prove that it happens, only that it would not be illogical in any way. If one goes this route, one has to strongly insist that this group of reigners is composed only of actual martyrs rather than including potential ones as well. If one does not, one lands up with no believers going to the Hadean world at all.
(One could argue that this was true of the early generation(s) of Christians, but not of later ones. But that introduces difficulties also.)
Another approach would be to make the abode of the righteous in the Hadean world Heaven itself. However if this equating on the reward side is correct, we would naturally expect an equating of Hadean punishment with the final Hell (Gehenna) itself. Yet Revelation 20 distinguishes between the two places of punishment:
And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Verses 14-15)
[Page 170] (There would also be the significant problem that if the Hadean world is conceived of as including Heaven and if Hades, as our text says, is “thrown into the lake of fire,” that Heaven itself is destroyed.)
As to objections to the earthly reign scenario, we have already examined two of them in the previous section and briefly examined ways of reconciling the text with a this-world-today millennium. Also the fact that “souls” are reigning would be interpreted to stress the spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom rather than the absence of physical bodies.
The fact that they are all pictured as martyrs is not contrary to the reality of what happens in the world, for so long as sin permeates the life of man, all believers are potential martyrs. Hence the depiction as a Reign of Martyrs. Only good fortune, the accident of time and place, and God’s blessing stand between a believer and such a death.
In our judgment, such reasoning remains inadequate to justify converting the Martyr Millennium to a strictly temporal basis.
The strongest objection lies in the internal chronology of the reign,
And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not [Page 171] worshipped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:4)
Note that they were beheaded and then entered the “heavenly” reign by being brought to life. This fits the individual martyr entering the reign upon his execution, but if it refers to this life what is the “beheading” the Christian goes through first? It can’t be conversion for this is certainly not a punishment inflicted upon the believer! Can we have them reigning before they’ve met the prerequisite for reigning—martrydom?
In all fairness, the text could be read to mean that martyrdom did not stop them from continuing to reign—this time in Heaven. We have “read” the text as one traditionally does and made our argument based on it. But we could argue that this would be the superior way to approach the passage:
The verse actually—read it closely--does not introduce them as martyrs and then mention them reigning. Only after they are described as setting on “thrones” is the subject of how they got there introduced—their execution for being faithful to Christ.
This would be quite amenable to the construction that they are already reigning before they were murdered. The point would be that their execution had not stopped their reign; rather they were returned “to life” and continued what they had already begun. But in a new place with new responsibilities.
This ties into a neat package two seemingly demonstrable facts: (1) Christians are described as if reigning in the current life, prior to death (see the next section for additional discussion of the evidence); (2) the martyrs are represented as reigning in heaven. Accept both assertions and one could have this situation: the Martyrs, indeed, reign in heaven, but while in their flesh and blood bodies they joined with all other faithful Christians in reigning upon the earth.
[Page 172] Neither reign would match the traditional picture of millennial speculation, but they do match the demands of the various Biblical texts. In heaven, it is currently a reign of martyrs; on earth it is a reign of believers in general.
6. The reward received by the martyrs.
a. They sat on “thrones” / they “reigned with Christ.”
Continually, this is placed as occurring in Heaven. The martyrs participate with Jesus in His reign, being present on “thrones.” The nature of their duties and obligations are not discussed except in the immediately following reference to the fact that “judgment was given them.” Whether there are any other functions is not stated and is really irrelevant; John isn’t trying to provide all the details of this heavenly reward; he is simply trying to picture for the reader its essence, its honor, and its glory in a few short penstrokes.
[Page 173] That the martyrs “reign” with Jesus is a logical outgrowth of two Bible techings: (1) that Christians reign in the here and now with or through Jesus and (2) that they will continue to reign in heaven. Hence one would not be surprised that in this special reward the martyrs receive in Revelation 20, that they continue--in a presumably dramatically enhanced form--of what they already were doing and would continue to do in eternity.
Believers in general are presented as having the power and authority that can be fairly described by the terms “reigning” and “sitting on thrones:”
So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God. (1 Corinthians 3:21-23)
Revelation 5:10 may be a direct textual assertion that believers are currently reigning on earth:
And Thou has made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.
[Page 174] The key here is the “will”—does it belong in the text? Normally it is placed there. The ESV, God’s Word, Holman, ISV, NASB, NIV, NKJV reflect this dominant approach.
Those omitting the “will” include the American Standard, the English Revised, and the World English Bibles. As the Weymouth New Testament words it, with the omission: “And hast formed them into a Kingdom to be priests to our God, and they reign over the earth.”
A commentator who does not believe that “John is here referring to a present spiritual reign of believers,” concedes that, “Textual evidence is rather evenly divided between ‘they reign’ (ASV) and “they shall reign’ (RSV), although the latter is favored both by the Nestle text (25th edition) and the United Bible Society text (3rd edition).”
The text assures us three facts about believers and the internal logic of the text argues for a this current world application:
* He made them a “kingdom”—Already FULFILED according to 1:13 itself which
refers to them as such a kingdom already: “have made them to be a
kingdom.” Other texts refer to this
as well: “For He rescued us from the
domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved
Son” (Colossians 1:13).
* He made them “priests”—Already FULFILLED according to 1:13 itself, which describes them as having been made “a kingdom and priests to our God.” Other texts refer to this as well: “you also, as living stones, are [Page 175] being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).
* He gave them a “reign upon the earth—After the other two FULFILLED items, would one not expect this to be in the same time frame as well? Furthermore if they were already a “kingdom”—both Revelation and Colossians above us tells us that they were—wouldn’t it be incongruous if they weren’t also reigning in it in some meaningful sense? At this point aren’t we teetering at the edge of necessary inference? (If not clearly crossing over.)
Hence the “will” seems inherently unlikely to be intended—unless we read it as implicitly carrying the message of “they will continue to reign upon the earth”--and in light of a divided textual tradition there is no necessity to insert it in the present passage.
Believers are even painted as, in a sense, currently reigning in heaven: they are said to be “seated” with Christ (i.e., on His heavenly throne) by virtue of their conversion:
Even when we were dead in our transgression, He made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:5-6).
Faced with such imagery of ruling with Christ, is it any surprise that the martyrs are pictured in heaven as unquestionably and explicitly reigning? If their earthly status as believers carried at least serious overtones of such status, would one not anticipate it being made definite, clear-cut reality when it came time to enter heaven?
[Page 176] If one wishes to consider the current “earthly” reign of believers as the preliminary stage for completion of the Martyr Millennium in heaven . . . followed afterwards by Jesus’ return to gather His people and inaugurate a heavenly and eternal Second Millennium of all the Triumphant Saints, feel free to do so. As to the reality of Bimennialism this has no impact at all; it simply concerns the shading with which the few details we are given are filled in. In other words, we have been shown the framework, but nothing more . . . leaving what the details will be a matter of speculation such as we have been engaged in.
Of this we can be certain—all believers and not merely martyrs—will play a similar role of “reigning:”
If we endure, we shall also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us. (2 Timothy 2:12)
“He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.” (Revelation 3:21)
(We have interpreted these as they traditionally are—which is the approach that, indeed, seems the best. Yet perhaps we should ponder just a little longer: Could not both texts fairly be said to carry the overtone of not just faithfulness to death but to martyrdom as well? And if that be the case, might the reference be specifically to the Reign of Martyrs in particular? But since that element is not explicitly introduced, we seem to have simply a promise of a place in Heaven regardless of how we die—so long as we are faithful—a pledge that could equally well be fulfilled in either Millennium.)
Other Possible Evidence
of a Current Reign of Believers
From considering Christians at large, it would be useful to turn to that inner core of leadership which Jesus left in the early church. From the example of the apostles, we have evidence that at least for them the Christian function of “ruling” and “judging” began in the first century. (In the apostolic earthly sense, judging carries with it an even stronger corollary: that of being lawmakers, i.e., that of being inspired to reveal Divine law, of making definitive Divinely backed judgments as to what is right and wrong and desirable versus undesirable [John 15:13-15]). The apostles were concerned with their status as followers of Christ and Jesus responded by referring to this blessing:
Then Peter answered and said to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You: what then will there be for us?” And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed me, in the regeneration, when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matthew 19:27-28)
The “regeneration” refers to the salvation that is available in the Christian dispensation:
He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5; cf. the similar concept—but not the word “regeneration” in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”)
Hence they began to reign with Christ after the gospel plan of salvation was announced to the world. They began to reign in their current lives—in the first century. If post-apostolic traditions are anywhere near accurate about their fates, nearly all (if not all) of the apostles were martyrs as well. As such they would not only have “reigned” and “judged” in the initial sense spoken of in Matthew 19:27-28, but joined the other martyrs in heaven to reign with those who shared with them in paying the ultimate price for their convictions.
All this is quite logical, but logical is not always right. We have to also consider what comes immediately after Matthew 19:27-28: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life” (verse 29). Could this be said of what they receive in the current life?
[Page 179] If they are promised eternal life upon faithful obedience, do they or do they not have it in the current life? If not, how are they part of God’s people? If they do, is not the promise of this verse fulfilled? As to receiving a recompense far above and beyond what we have lost in property and kin, that we gain in faithful friends and support should occur in this life as well—and abundantly more in the next one.
However accurate the salvation aspect is and however technically true all the remainder could be, it still remains very hard to see that the reference is—at least primarily—to the current world. But taken on those terms, those elements that do occur in the here and now might well be looked upon as an earthly foreshadowing of the fully developed accomplishment in the next one. Hence a case of what begins now but is continued and fully received only in the next life.
This might well be the intended construction, but it still seems so far from the probable intent that we only include it for your consideration and evaluation. It affects in no way the superstructure that we have erected—only an element of possible evidence that may not have worked out the way we thought it might.
b. “Judgment was given to them.”
“Judgment” is the carrying out, the application, the implementation of royal power and law. Making judgments based upon the royal law, if you will.
John is far more interested in the fact that martyrs judge than in explaining just what it encompasses. It is quite natural, however, that “judgment” in some form be given to them since in a passage even clearer than the ones presented in the preceding section, the apostle Paul teaches that believers judge both in this life and in the one to come as well:
Does any of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more matters of this life?
If then you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren, but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers? (1 Corinthians 6:1-6)
“Judging” is a flexible concept. In the final verses of this text, it includes settling disputes between brethren; yet the initial verses clearly hint at something far more profound. (As Weymouth renders it: “you are the court before which the world is to be judged”) Yet Paul leaves the details vague and unclear. Perhaps to shun the human pride it might inflame; perhaps because, as mortals, we are not yet ready psychologically or spiritually to grasp the full significance of that future task.
[Page 181] Various New Testament texts touch upon the characteristics that should accompany a believer’s judging in this current life. There must be fairness and equity that penetrates beneath surface appeals and animosities. “Do not judge according to appearance,” warns the Lord, “but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24). The standard of judgment is the revealed word of God: Christ’s judgment was based on what he “hear[d]” of God; combining this hearing with seeking to do the will of God produces “judgment [that] is just” (John 5:30).
There is a form of prohibited judgment that is widespread in this world (Matthew 7:1): condemning others for their sins while ours are far, far worse (verses 2-5). The solution to that is to get rid of one’s own impairment first; then one will be in a position “to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (verse 5). Note that the purpose of this kind of moral criticism/judging is not empty condemnation but to help the person with his or her particular weakness. A criticism that is purely negative and holds no willingness to assist with curing the problem is empty posturing.
When we pass to the martyr’s judging in heaven, we are faced with the more difficult question of how and in what senses they did/do such. At the very minimum there is a very real sense that the very lives of these martyrs were the embodiment of judgment upon the world:
1. They proved that intelligent, rational individuals could believe. They were all types of men and women, from all types of places, with all [Page 182] types of trades and backgrounds. What united them was the conviction that Christianity gave them a heavenly promise so certain and so worthwhile that nothing was worth rejecting it.
2. They proved that the Christian life could be lived successfully. The enduring myth is “everyone does it”—whatever sin “it” may be. Well these Christians didn’t. Thereby proving that sin did not have to have the victory, that sin conquers only when it enjoys a willing victim.
3. They proved that Christianity can give one the strength to survive all the difficulties of life. The pressures of life did not weaken and evaporate their faith. Even the oppression of cruel, unthinking governments did not guarantee the triumph of evil over their souls. These iniquities served as a convenient (and even understandable) rationale for the weak and the wavering to reject their faith, but the persevering minority proved that it did not have to have that outcome.
In such ways, their lives declared a judgment upon the failures and sins of this life. In what additional senses the martyrs “judge” from heaven, we do not know. That they have been assigned that function strongly argues that it must take some positive, useful form in the Divine scheme. Far more than the pious rhetoric of encouragement is being presented, but an allusion to an important function whose details were only revealed to the martyrs when they assumed their heavenly task.
c. “They came to life”
Both because it sounds good on its own merits and to avoid conceding the viability of Bimillennialism, it is natural to equate “they came to life” (verse 4) with “the first resurrection” (verse 5). If there were only one difference between the two millenniums, the strength of the argument would be far, far greater.
When there are at least four differences between the Millennium of the Martyrs and the Millennium of All the Triumphant Saints, the existence of three additional discrepancies causes one to become extra cautious in any a priori judgment that “came to life” and “resurrection” are intended here as synonymous terms. If anything, the existence of these additional contrasts create an automatic suspicion that the two descriptions of the dead do not describe the same group.
We can responsibly go even further than that: isn’t it conclusive evidence that the “aliveness” language was never intended to be taken as inherently carrying the meaning of physical resurrection—at least in the book of Revelation context? Doesn’t it reign as one of the ultimate laws of linguistic analysis that language must be interpreted in light of usage and context? Hence valid interpretation must take both factors into consideration. And we have—though it leads to a thoroughly unconventional interpretation.
[Page 184] The same Greek expression rendered “came to life” (or its kin) is used in several different senses in the Apocalypse. At most, sometimes it may equate to resurrection, but even there it seems the means of being alive rather than being intended as the definition of the “aliveness”—the latter being the core truth being driven home; furthermore, other usages of the expression are clearly dominant. (All of the following Revelation texts use the same underlying Greek term. For a concise list see Strong’s Concordance either in print—under entry 2198--or on-line at such sites as: http://biblehub.com/greek/strongs_2198.htm.)
The two places where the usage is closest to that of a resurrection are Revelation 2:8 (“The first and the last, who was dead, and who has come to life” [S2198]), and Revelation 1:18 where a parallel concept is used (“I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold I am alive [S2198] forevermore”). In both of these texts, though physical resurrection was the methodology, the emphasis is still on result, not the method, on the fact that the “dead” is now alive and not on the means by which this was accomplished.
Hence the fairest interpretation would seem to be that the resurrection was the tool whereby the Lord was “made alive” rather than being merely a synonym for the resurrection—though the latter appears the traditional interpretation. In other Revelation texts, the usage of such language moves even further away from the requirement that it functions as a synonym for physical resurrection—even the possibility that it does. This reduces even lower the essentiality—hence the probability—that it must carry this connotation in Revelation 20.
[Page 185] A third somewhat similar passage to these two is Revelation 1:17-18 (“I am the first and the living [S2198] One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive [S2198] forevermore”). Yet is not the central point here nowhere near that of physical resurrection—though it unquestionably was involved in producing the desired result—but that He is living because it is His inherent nature to live: “I am the first and living One”?
Hence death could not triumph over him for “I am alive forevermore.” The point is that nothing could triumph over His “aliveness.” When there was such a thing as death, then it simply had to be removed—and was. But, again, the core point is He is Life Triumphant, unconquerable life, unextinguishable life. Even in physical incarnation, death is shaken off as nothing more than a dirty piece of linen.
The language of “living” is also used of the reality of God being alive (i.e., not a myth, a “dead” idol, etc.): He is the “living [S2198] God” (Revelation 7:2). This is living in a sense that cannot be applied to humankind because the “living” is described as inherently eternal, “as “liv[ing] forever and ever” (Revelation 4:9-10 [S2198]; 10:6 [S2198]). No beginning and ending. While we will have no ending (because of God’s grant of eternal life) we did have a chronological in-time beginning. And we have even that life without end because God wills it; not because we want it, have earned it, or can create it.
The word used to describe the condition of the beast and the prophet when they receive Divine punishment is that of living:
And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshipped his image; these two were thrown alive [S2198] into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone. (Revelation 19:20)
Here it carries with it the ideas of consciousness, awareness, existence—not resurrection.
Turning to Revelation 13:14, we find the word used to describe the fact that the “dead” Beast now has life again (surely not referring to a bodily resurrection!):
And he deceives those who dwell on the earth because of the signs which it was given him to perform in the presence of the beast, telling those who dwell on the earth to make an image to the beast who had the wound of the sword and has come to life [S2198].
Most translations think the phrase has the connotation of “yet lived” (ESV, ISV, God’s Word, Holman, NIV). Weymouth’s modern speech version goes with the similar “yet had recovered.” All of these opt for a meaning very different than resurrection yet the language is remarkably similar: “has come to life” (13:14) and “came to life” (20:4).
Furthermore Revelation 13:14 describes the injury as a “fatal wound.” Hence he was dead and yet he “has come to life”—without any intervening bodily resurrection. If it can happen to “evil incarnate” (or whatever roughly equivalent expression you may prefer), why would it seem incredible for it to happen to righteous martyrs?
[Page 187] Finally, the word is used in Revelation not of physical life and death, but of one’s spiritual condition:
And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: “He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars, says this: I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive [S2198], but you are dead.” (Revelation 3:1)
So we are face to face with the fact that in Revelation (1) the word has several usages that do not relate to a physical resurrection and (2) that even in the strongest texts pointing in that direction, the term is NOT a synonym but arises, at the best, only to the level of a verbal allusion to that sense.
This is what we would expect if the Bimillennial scenario is valid: It reinforces the conclusion that by putting the resurrection at the end of the reign of the martyrs (20:5) that the text is warning us that “came to life” (verse 4) refers to a different phenomena. (Passing from Hades to Heaven or even something else perhaps. It is not really a necessity to explain how it was done, just that it was done without physical resurrection being envolved.) The fact that the martyrs reign as “souls” (verse 4) rather than as resurrected “bodies” also points to the same fact that the bodily resurrection does not occur until the end of their reign.
Some way was needed to show that these martyrs enjoyed, a real, objective, tangible existence—that John was not merely engaged in verbal rhetoric to appease the hearts of the suffering righteous still on earth—that the martyrs among them had already accomplished a triumph over death . . . of being brought to the role of “judges” even though their physical resurrection would only occur later. “Came alive” allows him to accomplish this goal.
[Page 188] What kind of “embodiment” they may have in order to be able to judge we have no idea. Just like the souls in Hades in the story of the righteous beggar Lazarus, they clearly have it in some form. By putting the resurrection at the end of their millennium of judging, John warns the readers that the physical resurrection (such as mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15 and promised in other places) won’t occur until afterwards. And it should be remembered that our restored physical bodies won’t be such for long. Even there it is but for that brief interim until “we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (15:51-52) to an embodiment that is not subject to aging or decay as is the physical one we currently occupy.
Additional Thoughts on “Coming to Life”
As Not Requiring a Physical = Fleshly Body
Although we have presented considerable textual support for our proposed distinction between “come to life” and physical/fleshly resurrection in Revelation 20:4, there is one other strand of evidence from the Apocalypse that is definitely worth considering as well. We have further precedent for the propriety of “coming to life” as being equivalent to something non-physical in regard to the Christians in Sardis. In Revelation 3:1 we read how those Christians had the reputation for being “alive [S2198], but you are dead.” If they reversed their perilous situation, would it not be true to say, “You were dead, but you have come to life”—though no physical resurrection was involved?
[Page 189] In other words spiritual rejuvenation, turning (or returning) to the Lord could legitimately be pictured as “coming to life.” For those totally alien from God’s ways, conversion would be the means of accomplishing this goal in the here and now. For the faltering and failing Christian, it would be repentance and renewal of his prior vow of faithfulness. And for the dead Christian who is made to “come alive” prior to the physical resurrection?
We aren’t provided the definition but one of those that might well fit would be that of being brought from an existence involving non-intervention in earthly affairs—as in the story of Lazarus the beggar in Hades—to having heavenly responsibilities of “judging” that do—in some significant form—involve an earthly impact. Being “made alive” to new responsibilities and duties. (Intervention from Hades was explicitly ruled out by the patriarch Abraham in Luke 16:27-31.)
Or, for that matter, an impact upon those unbelievers passing from life into the world of the dead. What that impact is, in either case, I have no ability to define beyond the fact that the text itself says it involves, somehow, in some way, in some manner, “judging.”
I would love to have an answer. But the scriptural text simply does not provide it. The question really is: Will we accept what the text says and leave the defining of method and manner to the Lord, who is the only one who really knows what it is fully about?
Outside the Apocalypse, we have yet additional examples of “alive”
language being utilized independent of a reference to bodily resurrection.
John 6:50-58 describes partaking of Christ as resulting in being alive: “will live” [all S2198] in verses 51, 57, and yet again in verse 58.
Jesus refers to how one can be spiritually “alive” whether the body is or not in John 11:25-26: “will live” [S2198] in verse 25 and “lives” in verse 26.
Other passages use the imagery of continued discipleship as making alive and maintaining believers alive:
Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live [S2198]? (Hebrews 12:9)
For now we really live [S2198], if you stand firm in the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 3:8).
Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive [S2198] to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:11)
“For in Him we live [S2198] and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His offspring.’ ” (Acts 17:28)
Again, nothing involved in a physical resurrection. The different usage yet again shows that the language is capable of other, alternative applications. And is so used in Revelation 20:4.
[Page 191] Hence the terminology of “came to life” is fitting and appropriate both in reference to this life and as a description of a pre-physical resurrection state of the rewarded martyred dead. Perhaps for this very reason John selected this terminology; it allows disassociation from the physical aspects conveyed by the “resurrection” at the end of the First Millennium and it provides a point of linkage between the lives they lived on earth and the lives they live in Heaven.
There may well be additional reasons as well and, if valid, they further disassociate the necessity of “coming alive” from any physical resurrection. We quote the following two authors not as providing decisive argumentation but because their thoughtful remarks on the subject have a relevance to our present theme. (Both were believers in traditional monomillennialism.)
Samuel Fuller suggested over a century ago that the implications behind the word choices used by John may well shed light on their meaning and also show that a non-fleshly restoration to “life” would fit the text’s intent quite reasonably:
Our next resort for an explanation of “are living” must be to the context. In the context, “are living” is contrasted with “beheaded.” But beheading implies both degradation and misery. The opposite of degradation and misery is exaltation and happiness. “Are living” may, then, mean the martyrs are exalted and happy. They are living an exalted and happy life.
[Page 192] Henry Cowls suggested at an even earlier date that the contrast in “came to life” is not between life and death, but between real, enjoyable, desirable life and its burdened, discouraging and frustrating form:
The state here tacitly antithetic to “life”—out of which they come when they begin to live—was not nonexistence, but was suffering, trial—the state of the praying and struggling martyred souls as shown (6:9-11). And this is the common usage of the word “live” taken figuratively:
“Now we live (i.e., in real life and blessedness) if ye stand fast in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 3:8).
“Shall we not much rather be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live”—be richly blessed by means of our affliction yielding the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:9).
So the “eternal life” of the righteous is by no means a mere eternal existence. The tree of life is not so called because it barely [= merely] prolongs existence. If this were its only significance, the devil himself and all the damned might eat of it. A little attention will show that this usage of the words “live,” “life,” prevails throughout the Bible.
If you consider the reasonable speculations of either of these gentlemen appealing, then they provide yet further evidence of how the martyrs “came to life” in Revelation 20:4. The langiage did not have to have in John’s mind the concept of a physical resurrection. Even rejecting what these two writers have suggested, our [Page 193] earlier evidence still establishes it as a responsible interpretation of the text. Not to mention being required to explain why there are four separate differences mentioned between the two millenniums. To do full justice to the text, whatever explanation of “came to life” we embrace, must do full justice to that reality.
 R. G. Currell and E. P. Hurlbut. The Ruler of the Kings on the Earth: A Clear Look at Amillennialism for the Lay Person. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1982. Pages 51-52.
 Quinn A. Clark. “Don Koenig's The Prophetic Years”: A Critical Assessment.” Dated November 18, 2010. Accessed October 2013. At: http://revelationcourse.blogspot.
 J. M. Connelly. Revelation Explained. Houston, Texas: E. H. Cushing, 1876. Pages 187-188.
 “Psalms of Solomon.” Translated by J. A. Emerton. In The Apocryphal Old Testament, edited by H. R. O. Sparks. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.
 “Enoch.” Translated by Michael Knibb, with unspecified “very slight alterations” by an unidentified party, in The Apocryphal Old Testament.
 All quotations from Sanhedrin 99 in the Talmud, unless otherwise noted, come from H. Freedman, editor, Sanhedrin (Chapters viii-xi). London: Soncino Press, 1935. The relevant citations and quotations are found on pages 668-670.
 As cited by J. Massyngberde Ford. Revelation. In the Anchor Bible series. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1975. Page 353. All references to Strack and Billerbeck come from this source.
 The text is quoted from the translation of David H. Stern in his Jewish New Testament Commentary as found at: John Shepherd. “Jewish Millennial Concepts.” Dated April 8, 2002. At: http://www.northforest.org/Eschatology/JewishMill.html. Accessed October 2013. For most readers this is probably a more useful translation than that found in “Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin (Folio 97)” at http://www.come-and-hear.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_97.html#PARTb. Accessed October 2013.
[Page 194]  “One important theme is remarkable for its absence and that is the Messianic expectation. Eliezer has no Messianic sayings. The composite of his sayings about the age and its destiny leaves no room for a Messiah, a Messianic war, or a Messianic general.” Jacob Neusner. Eliezer Ben Hyrcanus: The Tradition and the Man (Volume 2). Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1973. Pages 420-421.
 Citing the work of several earlier scholars, J. Massyngberde Ford. Revelation. Page 352.
 See the discussion in Ford, 352-353.
 Laying aside its premillennial intentions, there is still some very useful comments on the flexibility of “generation” in Biblical usage in J. Michael Hile’s article, “The Last Generation” on the Rapture Ready website. At: http://www.raptureready.com/rr-last-generation.html. Accessed: October 2013.
 George L. Murray. Millennial Studies: A Search for Truth. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books House, 1948. Page 183.
 James Stacy. Handbook of Prophecy. Richmond, Virginia: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1906. Page 120.
 Herman Hoeksema. Behold He Cometh: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1969. Page 647.
 John A. Bengel. Gnomon of the New Testament. William Fletcher translation. Page 368.
 Eugene C. Caldwell. Reprint from Union Seminary Review. Volume 31, No. 2 (April 1920). Pages 210-211.
 Ibid., page 211.
 Robert H. Mounce. The New International Commentary on the Book of Revelation. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977. Page 149.
 Samuel Fuller. The Revelation of St. John the Divine Self-Interpreted. New Edition. New York: Thomas Whittaker; copyrighted 1884; 1885 edition. Page 330.
 Henry Cowles. The Revelation of John. New York: D. Appleton and Company; copyrighted 1871; 1884 edition. Page 221.