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the first resurrection, revelation 20:4-6

Jesus’s binding of Satan at the cross enables Christians to sit on heavenly “thrones” during the present age (Rev 20:4). These are not literal thrones. John is describing the Christian’s death as coming “to life” and reigning “with Christ for a thousand years.” Deceased Christians are now part of God’s heavenly court (cf. Dan 7:11-14, 18, 27; Rev 2:26-27; 3:21; 4:4; 11:16; Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30).

For the deceased who don’t believe in Jesus, “the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended” (Rev 20:5). But for “Anyone who believes in me,” Jesus says, they “will live, even after dying” (John 11:25). John calls our death-to-life moment “the first resurrection” (20:5). Why?

In Scripture, resurrection always means bodily resurrection. The Bible never speaks of death as the resurrection of the soul. To suggest that heaven is filled with disembodied souls is damaging to the Christian faith.

Scripture presents two bodily resurrections. The first bodily resurrection is Jesus’s resurrection in real time and space in history. Every time the word “first” modifies “resurrection” in the New Testament, it is a reference to the resurrection of Jesus. He is the first to rise from the dead, the firstborn from the dead, the firstfruits from the dead (1 Cor 15:20; Col 1:18; Acts 3:26; 26:23). Jesus’s resurrection is the first resurrection.

The second bodily resurrection is a future universal resurrection in real time and space in history. For believers, it will be “a resurrection of life” (Luke 14:14; Dan 12:2). Death is our enemy, but in Christ it is a defeated enemy. For unbelievers it will be “a resurrection of judgment” that leads to “the second death” (John 5:28; Acts 24:15; Rev 20:14-15). Dying once is hard enough, but the “second death” will be much worse.

Notice, “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years” (Rev 20:6; this is one of seven beatitudes in Revelation; cf. 1:3, 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 22:7, 14). “Though our outer self is wasting away,” we will share in “the first resurrection” (the resurrection of Jesus Christ) and be “further clothed” (2 Cor 5:1-5). Nothing shall separate us from Jesus—not even death (Rev 20:6; Rom 8:38-39).

Jesus’s resurrection was a resurrection that his followers are to participate in. When we are baptized into Christ, we become united in his death and his resurrection (Rom 6:5). The first resurrection, Christ’s resurrection, not only guarantees our future bodily resurrection, it also inseparably unites us to Jesus. At death, we share in Christ’s resurrection (Phil 3:10-11). “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22).

So, if we partake of Jesus’s resurrection when we die, will God “download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves” in our resurrected bodies on the new earth (John Polkinghorne)? I don’t know. Scripture does not tell us.

But I do know that the gospel is way more focused on our life now and our life after our life in heaven. And we should be, too. “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). We are forever in Christ! Be encouraged, my friends, and wait eagerly and patiently for “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23, 25).