What comes to mind first when you hear the phrase kingdom of God? For some, it’s a future era of global peace with Christ reigning for 1000 years.
John saw a vision in which Satan was imprisoned to prevent him deceiving the nations, and decapitated martyrs rose to share Christ’s reign:
Revelation 20:4–5 (ESV)
4 Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection.
Some understand the 1000 years as a symbol of the present age (amillennial), or as the later part of this age that leads into Christ’s reign (postmillennial). Others expect a literal 1000-year utopian reign in the future (premillennial).
These arguments have stalled around the question of when. To make progress, we need to ask a different question: what, how, or who?
The who question is interesting. The vision is explicitly about martyrs: not dead Christians in general, but those killed for being witnesses to Jesus’ kingship. Problematically, only these beheaded witnesses are said to rise in this first resurrection. John is quite clear: “the rest of the dead did not come to life” at this point (20:5).
Nevertheless, with a few exceptions (Aune, WBC, 3:1090, Charles, ICC 2:184–85), most commentators treat the martyrs as representing all deceased believers. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we miss the main point of the vision.
The Bible’s narrative is about God as king. There’s an enemy that fights to unseat him. This enemy deceived the nations so they don’t recognize their true sovereign. When the Son came proclaiming the restoration of God’s reign, the powers under Satan’s dominion did what they always do with difficult enemies: they put him to death. But they did not have the last word. God raised him from the dead, giving heaven and earth into this hand. Jesus’ servants are living evidence of his kingship in the world. This is “game over” for Satan if he can’t stop that truth being proclaimed.
So the old enemy puts its powers to work threatening — and even killing — the living witnesses to Jesus’ kingship. This injustice is a key theme in Revelation. “The word of God and the testimony of Jesus” is the reason John was in exile (1:9). Like Jesus in 1:5, Antipas was a “faithful witness,” killed where Satan dwells (2:13). Those who’ve been slain over “the word of God and the witness they bore” cry out, “How long?” (6:9-10). Two witnesses were killed by the beast in the city where their Lord was crucified, and resurrection was God’s answer for them (11:7-11).
In Revelation 20, God’s answer for the martyrs is the same as God’s answer for Jesus’ death. Like the Lord they proclaimed, they are raised to life. Just as death could not harm him again, there is no second death to harm them either. Raised to life, they share in the reign of God’s Anointed (20:6).
When? It may not make sense to try to fit this vision into an earthly chronology. What matters is that this vision, like all the others in Revelation, is about the gospel of the kingdom — the announcement that Messiah Jesus is raised up as king by divine decree, that all creation belongs under his kingship, that no enemy can block his kingship, not even death!
That has been the message of Revelation from the first chapter. The final foe cannot hold followers of the Lamb, for their Lord has overcome:
Revelation 1:18 (NIV)
I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
And that is the message of this vision. It makes no sense to privilege a single text (Revelation 20:2-7) as the lens through which to filter the Bible’s core message of the kingdom. Rather, this vision of the martyrs encourages bold proclamation — the promise of resurrection for those who lived and died for his kingship. Like their master, they are raised to life, participants in his life and reign.
What others are saying
David E. Aune, Revelation 17–22, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 1089–1090:
There have been two major ways of interpreting the thousand-year reign of Christ, the literal or realistic way and the spiritual way. The literal interpretation of the thousand-year millennium characterized many of the early fathers of the church (e.g., Justin, Irenaeus, Melito, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Methodius). …
The second line of interpretation may be called the spiritual view, maintained by both Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Augustine popularized the view, now called amillennialism, that the reign of the saints with Christ was not a future expectation but rather the present situation of Christians who had been “raised with Christ” and “enthroned in heavenly places with Christ” (Col 3:1; Eph 2:6; Augustine De civ. dei 20.6–20).
Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (San Francisco: Harper, 1988), 174:
Many people want to go to heaven the way they want to go to Florida — they think the weather will be an improvement and the people decent. But the biblical final destination is not merely heaven, it is new heaven and new earth. It is not a nice environment far removed from the stress of the hard city life. It is the invasion of the earthly city by the heavenly one. We enter this final destination not by escaping what we do not like but by the sanctification of the place in which God has placed us.
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