The Reign of the Martyrs (20:4-6)

John's vision of the dragon's fate (Greek eidon, "I saw," v. 1) is interrupted by another vision (eidon, "I saw," v. 4) of "thrones, and those seated on them" (NRSV; literally, "thrones, and they sat on them"). In effect, all of verse 4 is the object of I saw (see Michaels 1992:90-91). John sees thrones first, then actions (literally "they sat" and "a judgement was given for them"). Only then does he recognize the people involved (the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God). The scene recalls the vision in chapter 4, where an action came first, a throne being set up with an indefinite "someone" sitting on it (4:2), and a brief description followed of the one seated there (4:3). Even more strikingly, it resembles the opening of the fifth seal in chapter 6, where John had seen "under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained" (6:9). These "souls" had cried out, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (6:10).

The present passage is God's answer to their prayers. The point of verse 4 is not that they were now "given authority to judge" (NRSV) or that at some previous time they had been given authority to judge (NIV), but (literally) that "a judgment was given for them," that is, a divine verdict was handed down in their favor. Their prayer was, "How long . . . until you judge," and now, finally, God has stepped in to pass judgment on their behalf. Nothing in the text suggests that they are given the right to judge others. These martyrs are priests of God and of Christ (v. 6). In a sense they are kings for a thousand years, but not judges. That prerogative is reserved for God and the Lamb.

The martyrs in chapter 6 were said to be "slain" or "slaughtered." Here they have been beheaded. They are actual martyrs because in John's visions all faithful Christians have been killed. They are not an elite group that is more "spiritual" than other believers. The further description of them as those who had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands (v. 4) places the accent not on their martyrdom as such but on the faithfulness that made martyrdom inevitable.

Throughout the book of Revelation the Greek word martyria refers to faithful testimony, not necessarily violent death. Those who reign are not martyrs because they were slain or beheaded. On the contrary, they were killed because they were already "martyrs" in the sense of bearing faithful testimony to the truth about Jesus. They are simply the "victorious" Christians of chapters 2-3 (see especially 3:21, "to him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne"). They are those who "follow the Lamb wherever he goes" (14:4), who are therefore "his called, chosen and faithful followers" (17:14). To John, they are the true Christians, and he seems to know of no other kind.

John continues his brief description of these "souls" by explaining what brought them to these thrones of honor. Once dead, they came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years (v. 4). The rest of the dead, John adds parenthetically, did not come to life until the thousand years were ended (v. 5). How he knows this is uncertain. It is as if he anticipates what will come later in his vision (vv. 11-15).

Nothing is said of the location of the martyrs' reign. Some commentators assume it is in heaven, since in Revelation heaven is the appropriate place for thrones, whether God's throne or those of the twenty-four elders (4:2, 4). Yet the "souls" in 6:9-11 were "under" the heavenly altar, therefore presumably on earth. Moreover, the promise held out in chapter 5 to the redeemed "from every tribe and language and people and nation" was a promise of becoming "a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth" (5:9-10, italics mine). In the present context, when John refers to "the camp of God's people, the city he loves" (v. 9), it is fair to assume that this is the place on earth where the martyred saints have reigned a thousand years on their thrones. Presumably "the city he loves" is Jerusalem, only partially destroyed in the "severe earthquake" of 11:13 and spared in the bloodbath of judgment "outside the city" in 14:20.

John now interprets and summarizes what he has just seen: 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 (vv. 5-6). The contrast between first resurrection and second death (compare 2:11) is striking. First resurrection seems to imply a "second": the rest of the dead will come to life (v. 5). Yet when they do (vv. 12-13), it is not called "the second resurrection," only "the second death," or "lake of fire" (vv. 14-15). The first resurrection is the only true resurrection John knows, and the second death is the only death that matters. If others are raised to eternal life after the thousand years (vv. 11-15), we learn nothing about them. At most we can speculate that if the martyrs are in some sense priests of God and of Christ (v. 6), they might mediate salvation to others on the earth, but we have no explicit evidence that this is the case.

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