Through Death to Life

Revelation 20:4-6

Message by Bernard Bell at the funeral of his father

W. Rowland Bell (1927-2008)

I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years. (Rev 20:4-6 NIV)

Although these verses deal with life and death, and would therefore seem most suitable for a funeral service, the mention of “a thousand years” means that this passage is more likely to feature in a prophecy conference. It is unfortunate that John’s vision of death and life is postponed to some future millennium, for it was intended to give his readers a heavenly perspective on death and life for their present time.

Verse 4 contains four clauses, the first three of which are governed by the opening verb, “Then I saw.” In his vision John saw those seated on thrones, those beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, and those who had not worshiped the beast. English versions show confusion over whether this is one, two or three different groups of people. By paying attention to how the terms are used elsewhere in the book, it is clear, I think, that there is but one set of people. Furthermore, the four clauses of the verse are chiastic, that is the first and the last go together, while the two middle ones form a pair. We’ll start with this middle pair.

Who are these people? Stated positively they have been killed because of the testimony of Jesus and the word of God. Stated negatively they have not worshiped the beast or his image, nor received his mark on their foreheads or hands. These are the martyrs: those who have borne faithful witness to Jesus, who is himself the faithful witness of God, the very word of God. They have been faithful to the end, even unto death.

The imagery of Revelation is binary, black and white. There are only two groups of people. One group worships the beast, bears the mark of the beast, dwells in Babylon, and is described as the earth-dwellers; this group has been deceived by the false prophet into worshiping what is false. The other group worships God and the Lamb, bears the seal of the name of God and the Lamb, and is on its way to the New Jerusalem; this group has been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, and now worships what is true. The book makes it clear that those who bear faithful witness to Jesus and the word of God must expect to die, for they are opposed by Satan and his henchmen, the beast and the false prophet.

But, turning now to the outer pair of clauses, John sees these faithful witnesses now seated on thrones. Most English versions say that to these saints was given “authority to judge,” evoking the picture of them sitting in judgment on others. But the original reads that “judgment was given to them” (as per NASB). It fits the OT background of Daniel 7 and the rest of Revelation much better to understand this as God’s judicial ruling concerning these dead witnesses. The effect of that ruling is given in the final phrase of the verse: “they came to life.” God has ruled in their favor: death cannot hold them. He vindicates them by resurrection.

In this, as in all things, the faithful witnesses follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, following the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4). Jesus is “the faithful witness, firstborn from the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). Jesus was the archetypal faithful witness, for which witness he was put to death by a hostile world. But God ruled in his favor: Death had no hold over him. He was dead but came to life again (1:18; 2:8). God vindicated him by raising him to new life, and further vindicated him in exaltation and enthronement at his right hand. It is Jesus who now holds the keys to Death and Hades; he is able to unlock the gates for those who follow him. The saints are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, in faithful witness even to death, through death to new life, and exaltation to heaven. This is what John sees in 20:4 and in several other visions in the book.

In contrast, the rest of the dead do not come to life during this period that is symbolically described as a thousand years. These are those who worship the beast, who bear the mark of the beast on their forehead; they have lived their lives without reference to God. For them death leads into Hades, the holding place for humans pending final judgment. They remain dead until, at the end of time, death and Hades give up the dead to be brought before the judgment throne (20:13). Their destiny is the lake of fire, the second death. NIV helpfully sets v.5a in parentheses, because in 5b-6 John returns to those seen in v4.

In v.6 John pronounces a beatitude, the fifth of seven in the book. Blessed are those who participate in the first resurrection; the second death has no power over them. The first resurrection and the second death are explicit; there is also an implicit first death. The first resurrection is obviously this immediate passage of the saints through death into life beyond. The unmentioned first death is presumably the physical death they suffer at the hands of the beast. The second death is the lake of fire (20:14), into which all God’s enemies are ultimately hurled. They will have remained dead in Hades until Death and Hades have to give up their dead.

Throughout the past 2000 years many faithful witnesses have been killed violently by forces opposed to God. But in the final analysis it matters not whether the death be violent or not. All those redeemed by the Lamb are called to follow him in faithful witness even unto death. Death itself is wrong. We sense that every time a loved one dies, every time we gather for a funeral such as today. Death is not a natural part of God’s creation. Death entered because of human sin, behind which lies Satan. Death is the domain of Satan. Death is an enemy. But we have good news to proclaim: it is Jesus not Satan who has the keys of death and Hades. Those who follow the Lamb need have no fear of the first death; they will follow the Lamb through this death into life unending.

We have gathered today to bid farewell to a faithful witness. More than sixty years ago he passed from death to life when the Lamb redeemed him to be a member of God’s family. This first passage through death to life is symbolized by baptism in which we die to the old self and are raised as a new creation. Since then he had followed the Lamb in faithful witness, faithful to the very end, to death. He has now received God’s judicial ruling: that death cannot hold him. Though he died, yet he lives. Set free from Death’s realm by Jesus Christ, who holds the keys of death and Hades, he has entered God’s presence, there to be greeted, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You are my son and I am your father.” Though his body here decays, yet he lives.

But there is a yet more glorious day. At the end of time as we know it, he will receive a resurrection body. His body, already so frail and weak has continued to decay, though he is now absent from it. We will shortly lay that body in the ground, where the decay will continue. But when the Lord returns he will receive a new body, imperishable, immortal, incorruptible, as we heard in our reading from 1 Cor 15. We have the pattern for this in our Lord Jesus Christ, who, in the middle of time, received his resurrection body. In the plan of God, we must await the end of time to receive our new bodies.

Today we celebrate the life of Rowland. He was a faithful witness to the end. Though he died, yet he now lives. Blessed and holy is he for he has had a part in the first resurrection.

Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.