Among the many questions that have puzzled readers of John’s apocalypse over the centuries, the meaning of the “first resurrection” in 20:4-6 is probably the most bewildering. Part of the problem is that the rest of the NT, in line with mainstream Jewish eschatology, seems to envision only one all-inclusive resurrection event at the end of the age, but John speaks of two—one at the beginning and one at the end of the millennium (e.g., John 5:28-29; 1 Cor. 15:51-55). This raises the question: Has John split the one resurrection event of earlier Jewish and Christian expectation into two, or is he using the idea of resurrection non-literally to refer to some other kind of life? Is the “first resurrection” the same sort of reality as its implicit follow-up, the first in a sequential series of events of the same kind, or is it something else? Central to the answer of this question is John’s use of the adjective πρῶτος.
Defining the Term
The BDAG defines πρῶτος as “pertaining to being first in a sequence, inclusive of time, set (number), or space, first of several, but also when only two persons or things are involved.”1 The word appears over 90 times in the NT, most often in reference to time and number (e.g., “the first day of the Passover” in Mark 14:12 and pars.), occasionally in reference to rank or value (e.g., “the first will be last” in Mark 10:31 and pars.), and only once in reference to space (the “first section” of the tabernacle in Heb. 9:2, 6, 8).2
In the Hellenistic Greek of the first century, πρῶτος often carries the same sense that πρότερος carried in Classical Greek, that is, “former” in contrast with “latter”, or the first of two.3 This is the sense it carries throughout Rev. 20-21.4
Interpreting the Term
The appearance of πρῶτος in Rev. 20-21 is similar to the usage in Heb. 8-10 and 1 Cor. 15:45-47. Both of those passages employ the word in the contrasting sense of “former” or “preceding” in relation to “latter” or “new”.
In 1 Cor. 15:45-47 πρῶτος appears as the antithesis of δεύτερος (second) and ἔσχατος (last). Here Paul contrasts Christ, as the representative of the new humanity, with Adam, the representative of the old humanity. He uses this antithesis to emphasize the discontinuity between the exalted state of Christ’s resurrection body and the corruptible state of our present bodies. In this context πρῶτος carries the sense of something preliminary and inferior to what follows.
In Heb. 8-10 πρῶτος appears as the antithesis of δεύτερος (second) and καινός (new). Here the “first covenant” (8:7, 13; 9:1, 15, 18) stands in juxtaposition with the “new covenant” (8:8, 13; 9:15) or “second covenant” (8:7). In this context πρῶτος is the equivalent of old, incomplete, outdated.5 Indeed, as the mediator of the new covenant, Christ “abolishes the first in order to establish the second” (10:9).6
The Term Used in Revelation 20-21
In Rev. 21:1-5 πρῶτος is employed in juxtaposition with καινός (new). After the final judgment comes “a new heaven and a new earth” (v. 1), and a “new Jerusalem” (v. 2); indeed, it is the time when God makes “all things new” (v. 5). Similarly to Heb. 8-10, when the word “first” appears throughout this passage, it is used to speak of that which is superseded by the “new”.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away…. See, I am making all things new.”
In this passage, to be “first” means to belong to the old order of the world that will give way to the new when God brings heaven and earth together. In this context πρῶτος does not mean merely the first in a series of like kind; rather it characterizes this world as both different and lesser in kind from the “new” world of God’s consummate redemption. It shows the present transient state of things in contrast with the new creation that will abide forever, just as Paul contrasts our present corruptible bodies with Christ’s exalted body in 1 Cor. 15.
In light of this contextual meaning of πρῶτος, M. G. Kline contends that we should not understand the “first resurrection” in Rev. 20:4-6 as denoting simply the first of the same kind in a temporal sequence of two, but rather a preliminary and inferior sort of resurrection to the ultimate bodily resurrection of the new order.7 It is a proto-resurrection, an advance coming to life of the faithful souls in heaven as they await the new life of the consummation.
This reading gains further support by observing the relationship between the first resurrection and the second death. The “second death” is not simply the loss of physical life which every person must experience, but rather a death after death, an ultimate death reserved for the wicked (20:14-15). Likewise, the “first resurrection” is not simply the return to bodily life which John envisions for all of humanity (20:12), but rather a resurrection before resurrection, a preliminary coming to life reserved for those who were faithful unto death, who are now blessed and holy because they are exempt from the power of the second death (20:6).
In other words, when John speaks of the second death and the first resurrection, he is in both cases explaining a lesser known reality (eternal punishment and the heavenly intermediate state) by the terms of a more commonly known reality (death and resurrection). In both cases the adjective modifies the noun as carrying a metaphorical meaning. In the case of the “second death” it lets the reader know that this is a more ultimate destruction beyond what we normally refer to as death. In the case of the “first resurrection” it lets the reader know that this is a preliminary stage of life which is anticipatory to what we normally refer to as resurrection.
Contrary to what many readers have supposed, John does not envision two separate bodily resurrections. Rather, his use of the word πρῶτος shows that he has something different and lesser than bodily resurrection in mind for the “first resurrection”. Thus a proper understanding of πρῶτος should put to rest one argument that still enjoys the support of many good scholars despite being far past its expiration date. Coming from Henry Alford’s classic work The Greek Testament, this is probably the single most quoted paragraph by modern commentators of Rev. 20:
“If, in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain ψυχαὶ ἔζησαν at the first, and the rest of the νεκροὶ ἔζησαν only at the end of a specified period after that first,—if in such a passage the first resurrection may be understood to mean spiritual rising with Christ, while the second means literal rising from the grave;—then there is an end of all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to anything. If the first resurrection is spiritual, then so is the second, which I suppose none will be hardy enough to maintain. But if the second is literal, then so is the first, which in common with the whole primitive Church and many of the best modern expositors, I do maintain, and receive as an article of faith and hope.”8
The way Alford uses the words “literal” and “spiritual” here is unfortunate, because it confuses the way that words refer to things (literal/non-literal) with the nature of the things themselves (bodily/non-bodily).9 But given the fact that the “resurrection” of Rev. 20:4-6 is modified by the adjective πρῶτος as carrying the metaphorical sense of something preliminary and inferior to the ultimate bodily resurrection of the new order—just as the “death” of the same passage is qualified by the adjective δεύτερος as carrying the metaphorical sense of something greater and more ultimate beyond the initial loss of life—there is no more reason for following Alford’s law related to the “first resurrection” than there is for supposing that the “second death” must be the same sort of thing as the implicit first death. Unless a new generation of millennarians is willing to reduce the meaning of the second death to the strict literal sense that θάνατος by itself would normally carry, it must be conceded that ἀνάστασις does not in this case carry the normal sense of bodily resurrection.
The broader lesson here, however, is that every word of Scripture matters. At first glance the appearance of πρῶτος in Rev. 20:4-6 might seem to be of little consequence, but on closer inspection it becomes clear that this word carries considerable weight for the overall meaning of the millennium.