"Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their 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 on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years." (Rev. 20: 4-6 NASB)
The Resurrection immediately precedes the rapture (1 Thess. 4:13-17; I Cor. 15: 52). Revelation 20:4-6 shows that "the first resurrection" occurs after the tribulation. This is very problematic for those who affirm that most of the saved were resurrected seven years prior to Rev. 20. In point of time the resurrection of this passage cannot be the first if most of the elect were resurrected seven years previously. The standard pre-trib rebuttal to this is to affirm that "the first resurrection" has stages or phases and that Rev. 20 merely gives the last stage. According to this view, the word "first" (prōtos) excludes any idea of priority of time, but strictly means "first in rank" or importance. Though this is possible, it is highly unlikely.
First, when John says "first resurrection" he implies a second or last resurrection and refers to this last resurrection by the words "the rest of the dead lived not again until." Clearly a time element is involved in his defining what is the last resurrection. In defining the two resurrections mentioned in the passage, they are defined by their being separated by a period of time, "a thousand years." Why is the "first resurrection" first? It is because it occurs before the last resurrection. Thus, if "first" is used to distinguish the resurrection of the blessed and holy from the resurrection of the unblessed and unholy, it is not merely because of rank but of time. The first resurrection is "first" in both rank and time. In speaking of the "second death," the word "second" does not exclude the time element. "Second death" implies a first death, which would be physical death. Both "first death" (implied) and "second death" are used not merely with the idea of rank in mind, but also with the idea of time and chronology.
Second, no one affirms that there are stages to the last resurrection of the wicked. If there are no stages to the final resurrection of the wicked, there is probably none to the first resurrection either.
Third, when John describes the resurrection of the blessed and holy, which includes the tribulation martyrs, he says plainly "this is the first resurrection." He does not say "this is the second or third stage of the first resurrection" or "this is also the first resurrection."
Fourth, in the description of the various groups that are resurrected to sit with Christ on his millenial throne, there is included the saved of the pre-tribulation times, believers from both the old and new testament periods (as we shall see). And, they are resurrected and sit on thrones after the tribulation and coming of Christ.
Fifth, the text says that those resurrected in Rev. 20: 4-6 are resurrected a thousand years before the wicked, not a thousand and seven years.
Sixth, in I Cor. 15: 23-24 there is no mention of multiple resurrections for the righteous. Paul does not say "Christ the firstfruits, afterward, the church age saints, then the tribulation saints seven years later, then the end."
Seventh, in I Cor. 15: 51-52 Paul says "we shall all be changed, in a moment...at the last trump." Were there various stages to the resurrection of the righteous, then Paul would have said "some of us will be changed at the last trump and some at other times." The word "all" refers to the saved of all the ages, both those who have died and those who are alive at the time of the coming of Christ. Notice that it is in the same moment that "all" the saved are changed, which overthrows the pre-trib tenet that says not all are changed at the same time.
According to the pre-tribbers, "the first resurrection" has three stages. Christ, they say, is the first stage. He also experienced the "first resurrection." Next, they say, is the resurrection of all the saved dead when Christ comes (supposedly) in the rapture just prior to the start of the great tribulation. Some even say that the two witnesses of Revelation chapter eleven, who are raised from the dead and caught up into heaven, represent another stage in "the first resurrection." Finally, they say, we have the final stage of "the first resurrection" in Revelation twenty after the tribulation. But, the arguments above disprove this idea. And, Christ cannot be included in those who are in the first resurrection.
The text says, of those who experience the first resurrection, "they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him," but, how can Christ be included in the pronoun "they"? If Christ is included in "the first resurrection," then we may read the verse - "and he shall be a priest of God and of Christ and reign with Christ." How can Christ be a priest of himself and reign with himself? When the Scriptures speak of "the resurrection of the just," it does not include Christ. His resurrection is singular and unique in itself.
In considering Revelation 20: 4-5, Alexander Reese wrote (emphasis mine):
"There are three distinct classes mentioned in the passage.
(a) First, there are those of whom John says: "I saw thrones and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them" (4a).
Who are these? The whole body of saints who live to see the Parousia at this time; they are transferred from earth to occupy thrones in the kingly rule of Christ; it is the Rapture of the survivors in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. It is not said that this class was raised from the dead; but simply that they took the thrones prepared for them. We have seen them suffering and enduring throughout the book; now they are seen as over-comers who inherit the sovereignty in the kingdom. It is here that they receive the Morning Star.
A decisive conclusion follows from the enthronement of the living saints at 20:4a; it is that Darbyist (pre-trib SG) theories are excluded. These presuppose that the heavenly redeemed, including those who survive to the Parousia, occupy their thrones and are glorified several years before the Millennium. We are to see all this in the Twenty-four Elders crowned and seated in chapter 4. But our passage locates the sitting upon thrones at the beginning of the Millennium. The language is clear and decisive on the point. John says: "I saw thrones;" obviously they were empty. Then he adds: "and they sat upon them;" that is, he sees a company in the very act of sitting down on their thrones. It is now, not a generation earlier, that the living saints are rewarded and ascend their thrones. Matthew 19:28, says the same thing of the Apostles, locating their enthronement at this very time.
(b) John mentions a second class that is honored at this time: "I saw the souls of them that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, and for the word of God" (R.V.).
(c) Thirdly, he speaks of "such as worshipped not the beast, neither his image, and received not the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand."
Of these two classes we read that "they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years."
It is contended by theorists that these two classes consist only of saints who are to be converted and martyred after the Church is removed to heaven; they are those who die during, or just before, the Great Tribulation, and have no connection with the Church in Christ Jesus. There is some truth, but more error in these views. It is true that the third class consists of those who fall in the last Great Tribulation. Whether they have any connection with the Church, I leave for the present. But it is thoroughly wrong to limit the second class—those "that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and the word of God" —to latter-day saints, martyred, as Grant says, "in the time of the seals." It is wrong to assert that this class includes no Christians, but is restricted to half-enlightened Jews and Gentiles raised a generation after the Church. The proof of this is simple; the Church herself is not raised until this very time. Such is the doctrine of Christ, Paul, and of John in this very book (Rev. 11:15-18). Secondly, without raising questions to be fully discussed later, it is to be insisted, and strongly insisted upon, that "beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God" is a description, and a glorious description, of the martyrdom of a Christian. Unnumbered multitudes throughout the Church’s history, including Peter and Paul, have been slain "for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God." It is here they rise.
As if to shut out once for all the theories that have been based upon this passage, John himself has interpreted it for us. In chapter 1:9, we read: "I John, your brother, and partaker with you in the tribulation and kingdom and patience, which are in Jesus, was in the isle called Patmos, for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" (R.V.).
Here is the same expression, and it is applied by John the Apostle to himself. In his valuable work on The Seven Churches, Abp. Trench says:
The unprejudiced reader will hardly be persuaded that St. John sets himself forth here as any other than such a constrained dweller in Patmos, one dwelling there not by his own choice, but who had been banished thither "for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ" (p. 21).
We may still be sure that "for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" explained the reason of John’s tribulation in A.D. 96, and the death of martyrs at that time. They were slain, in a word, because they were Christians, that is, they adhered to Christ’s teaching and God’s word, even at the cost of their lives.
Equally certain is it, therefore, that the same expression in Revelation 20:4, must denote the same class of people. To tell us that it means Christians in Revelation 1:9 and non or semi-Christians in Revelation 20:4 is to put an enormous strain on our credulity. No reasonable doubt can exist that when John says that he saw "the souls of them that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God" come to life, he is meaning to depict the resurrection of all who, since the time of Christ, have been slain because of their Christian service and belief. Not one syllable requires us to restrict it to those slain in the time of the Seventieth Week. In contrast to those of the next class—who fall under Antichrist—this one contains the resurrection of all the martyrs slain throughout the history of the Church. And it is to be noted that it takes place at the beginning of the millennium, not several years or decades before it."
"At the Last Trumpet (Rev. 11:18) the saints "appear before the judge" (Cf. 12:12): at 20:4a—which is immediately subsequent—they themselves sit on thrones and "share His glory."
In the light of Daniel 7:9, 13-14, 22, 27, 1 Corinthians 6:2, 4:8, 15:22-23, 2 Timothy 2:11-12, Luke 12:32, there can be no doubt that it is the whole company of the heavenly redeemed—the prophets, saints, and godly of Revelation 11:18—who are here raised or changed at the Parousia, to share the kingly rule of our Lord.
It is wrong, therefore, to assert, as some advocates and most critics of Pre-millennialism assert, that the first resurrection is limited to martyrs. Such an idea is foreign to all Scripture, and is not required by our passage. In Luke 14:14, it is "the just" who are raised; in John 6:39, 44, it is "the Elect" (Cf. Matthew 24:31), in John 6:40, "believers;" in 6:54, those who feed on the Son of Man; in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, "the dead in Christ;" in 1 Corinthians 15:23, "they that are Christ’s;" whilst John teaches in Revelation 11:18 that the whole company of the redeemed will rise and be rewarded; and Revelation 20:4a presupposes it; we have only to interpret the latter Scripture in the larger context of the Apocalypse, and the whole N.T.
In confirmation of our general view of Revelation 20:4, I append the words of two writers with large claims on the attention of students of prophecy. In the first extract Canon Faussett extends the denotation of those in the first class, and, in the last resort, he is right; but, me judice (in my opinion), Zahn is the more accurate. In the "British Weekly" debate of 1887 Faussett wrote: "Three classes are designated to live and reign with Christ as ‘priests of God and of Christ, a thousand years;’ first, the saints caught up to meet and return with the Lord: ‘they sat upon thrones;’ secondly, the martyrs beheaded for the witness of Jesus; thirdly, ‘such as worshipped not the beast’ (world-power)." Zahn interprets in his INT (vol. 3, p. 400).
With this the seventh vision (19:11-21:8) is introduced. Here is at last represented the event which was by intimation anticipated as far back as 8:1, and again in 11:15-18 and 19:7, announced as being in the immediate future. Jesus Himself comes upon the scene of action in order that after overcoming Antichrist and binding Satan, He may enter upon His kingly rule of a thousand years upon earth—a reign in which there shall participate not only the congregation who live to witness His coming, but also those who remained true till death, and who on that day are to be brought to life. Not till the millennium has expired do the general judgment, the destruction of death, and the creation of a new world take place."
"The Apostle has condemned the new program by linking the first resurrection with the millennium; and for most people at least there can be no resurrection before "the first.""