20:4,5 THE FIRST RESURRECTION
“And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast, or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection” (Revelation 20:4,5).
John saw the righteous raised to life in “the first resurrection.” At first glance it may appear that only the martyrs ("those that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus") are resurrrected. But John first saw a general overview of a who will live during the millennium ("I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them") and then the vision focuses in and gives him a view of the martyrs ("those that were beheaded"), especially those who had gone through the horrors of the time of trouble ("who had not worshiped the beast, or his image, and had not received his mark"). Just as in the judgment in chapter , the martyrs are given an "honorable mention" because of the specia devotion they have displayed (see 6:9,10 Souls Under the Alter).
This scene obviously takes place at the Second Coming of Christ, because in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 Paul says that “the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.” “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming… in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:22,23,52).
In Revelation 20 this is called the “first resurrection.” There is also a "second resurrection," which takes place after the 1000 years—“but the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished.” Jesus also mentioned these two resurrections: “The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28,29).
Those who are raised in the first resurrection, as well as the righteous who are alive at His coming (“who had not worshiped the beast, or his image, and had not received his mark”) will "live and reign with Christ a thousand years" before the "rest of the dead" are resurrected. What is the purpose of this thousand-year "reign"? We might consider this period to be an orientation to eternal life. God at the resurrection will "transform our lowly bodies that they may be conformed to His [Jesus'] glorious body" (Philippians 3:21) but there is no indication that He is going to "download" new minds. Many of us will be woefully lacking in the concepts and principles of heaven. Considering how warped our minds have been by the life of sin we have experienced and how little we really know of what it means to love the Lord with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves, a thousand years is not really such a long time to learn all that we will need to know in order to carry out the elevated and glorious "job description" that God has prepared for us. Fortunately we will have a universe of angels and holy beings and God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be our teachers!
A major part of our preparation will be to thoroughly learn how noxious and destructive sin has been. We will gain this understanding through a work that we will do during the "thousand years"—“judgment was given to them.” Paul said, “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?…Do you not know that we shall judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6:2,3). Apparently “the saints” will examine “the books” which contain the records of the lives of those who were not a part of the first resurrection, because “the dead [will be] judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works” (Revelation 20:12).
This does not mean that the saved will decide who will have eternal life—that will already have been decided by God, which is why they will have had a part in the first resurrection. But those who are given eternal life will have the opportunity to be fully satisfied that God’s judgment has been just and righteous. They will be able to see not just the behavior but also the history and circumstances that have shaped the lives of those who rejected God, to a degree that will far surpass any reality TV program! They will see how sin has ruined lives and marred the image of God in humanity and will understand why those who were not granted eternal life could never be happy in a holy universe. No doubt there will be some surprises and even grief concerning those who were not a part of the first resurrection. In this work of judgment all questions will be settled “and God will wipe away all tears from their eyes” (Revelation 21:4).