One of the primary themes in the book of Revelation is the paradox of the Christian life. Believers are united to Christ, the Lamb who was slain but now reigns as the Lion from the tribe of Judah (Rev. 5–6), and they are "more than conquerors" even when they experience trial, persecution, and martyrdom for their testimony concerning Jesus Christ. G.K. Chesterton once remarked that a paradox is "the truth stood on its head to get our attention." The depiction of the reign of believers with Christ for one thousand years in Revelation 20:4–6 is an instance of such a paradox. Nothing can separate the believer from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Even in the face of death, believers live and reign with Christ.
Where are the saints whom John sees?
After describing the binding of Satan in verses 1–3, the vision of Revelation 20 changes its angle to focus upon a scene in which the Apostle John sees the saints, those who participate in the "first resurrection," reigning with Christ during the millennial period:
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 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. . . . 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. (vv. 4–6)
There are two questions that are immediately prompted by this vision. First, where does the scene that John sees in this vision take place? Is this a scene of the saints in heaven or the saints upon the earth? Second, who are these saints whom John sees? Are they the full company of believers? Are they believers who have died and now reign with Christ in heaven? Or are they only martyred believers who enjoy the special privilege of reigning with Christ as a reward for their fidelity to Him?
In answering the first question, it is especially significant that "thrones" are the first thing the Apostle John sees. The likeliest location of these thrones is in heaven. Heaven is the place of the throne of God and the Lamb in the book of Revelation. But it is also the place where the saints who have died or who have been martyred have a share in the reign of Christ. In all of the references to thrones in the book of Revelation (forty-seven instances), only three refer to some other place than heaven (2:13; 13:2; 16:10). For example, in Revelation 3:21 we read this promise of Christ: "The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne." Were the thrones of Revelation 20 located on the earth so that the reign of these saints is not only over but also upon the earth, they would not be consistent with the common imagery of the book.
Furthermore, the fact that the Apostle John speaks of the "souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus" adds to the likelihood that the scene is a heavenly one. This language is reminiscent of that used earlier in the book of Revelation to describe "the souls of those who had been slain for the Word of God and for the witness they had borne" (6:9). These souls were seen by the Apostle "under the altar," that is, before the throne of God in the heavenly sanctuary. Though the language of "souls" need not require that these saints are no longer dwelling in the body, the reference to their beheading implies that this is the case. When it is noted further that these saints are contrasted in verse 5 with "the rest of the dead," it becomes increasingly certain that John is seeing a vision of the saints in glory, those believers who have died and are translated into the presence of Christ in heaven. The fact that the vision later speaks of some who are subject to the "second" death further confirms that these are believers who have died and who enjoy life and blessing in the face of the first death from which unbelievers are excluded.
Of course, it must be admitted that the location of these saints, whether in heaven or upon the earth, also depends upon the meaning of their participation in the "first resurrection," a topic treated in a separate article in this issue of Tabletalk. If the first resurrection is a bodily resurrection, as premillennialists typically argue, then it would seem to follow that their reign is from and upon the earth. According to premillennialism, the vision of Revelation 20 is a picture of the resurrected saints reigning upon the earth during the entire period of the millennium. However, the natural reading of this vision favors the position that these saints are reigning with Christ in heaven, in an intermediate state subsequent to death but before the resurrection of their bodies.
Who are the saints whom John sees?
The answer to the second question—who are these saints?—is also disputed. Premillennialists commonly argue that John sees a vision of all the saints, believers who come with Christ to the earth after the tribulation period as well as believers who are alive at His coming, who reign with Christ upon the earth for a thousand years.
Most amillennialists (or, as some prefer to term this position, "now-millennialists") regard these saints as the saints in glory, especially the martyred saints. However, some amillennialists say that these saints are only the martyred saints who enjoy a peculiar privilege during the millennium of reigning with Christ. In this understanding of the vision, John is calling attention to the privilege enjoyed by martyred saints who reign with Christ during the period of the millennium. According to this view, verse 4 describes a limited group of believers, those who are martyred for their devotion to Christ, and not all the saints.
However, there are good reasons to take the saints in this vision to include all the saints in heaven, especially but not only the martyred saints. Those who would restrict these saints to marytrs do so by insisting that the conjunction and in the phrase also I saw the souls be translated in the sense of "namely." On this translation, the verse should be read to say, "Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed, namely the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus." Though this is a possible reading of the verse, the ESV renders it properly when it renders the word also in the sense of "especially" before the description of the martyrs. Upon this reading, the privileges enjoyed by the saints—judging, reigning with Christ, not being subject to the second death—are shared by all the saints in heaven. But the martyred saints are singled out from among them as special beneficiaries of these privileges. Far from being excluded from these privileges, the martyred saints' enjoyment of them is emphasized. Not only does this reading fit well the natural meaning of the word and in this verse, but it is also consistent with a theme that runs throughout the book of Revelation: those who are faithful to the Lord and their testimony are more than conquerors through Christ (see 2:7b, 10–11, 17, 26–28; 3:11–12, 21). At the same time, this reading does not require that these martyred saints enjoy privileges exclusive to them. They exercise judgment, reign with Christ as priests, enjoy immunity from the power of the second death—privileges known to all those who belong to Christ (John 12; Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1; 1 Peter 2:9–10; Rev. 5:9–10).
The scene, then, that opens before the Apostle John is that of the saints in heaven before the throne of God and the Lamb. Among these saints, John singles out for special emphasis those who were beheaded and martyred for their testimony and faithfulness. What he sees is that they all, including the martyred saints, are enjoying during the period of the millennium a most remarkable set of privileges—they are seated upon thrones, reigning with Christ and serving as priests of God and of Christ. Far from losing their immunity from the power of the "second death"—separation from God and His Christ—through death or martyrdom, the saints in glory share in Christ's victory over the power of death. Despite death and martyrdom, these saints cannot be deprived of their part in the triumph of the Lamb who was slain and who is the Lion from the tribe of Judah.