|Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 30, July 20 to July 26 2008|
Philip Edgecumbe Hughes was Visiting Professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia and Associate Rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania. His other works include Theology of the English Reformers, Commentary on II Corinthians, But for the Grace of God, and Confirmation in the Church Today.
It is, of course, as the ascended Lord that Christ is now crowned with glory and honor. His enthronement at the Father's right hand is on high. Now, obviously, our understanding that this is the millennial reign of Christ depicted by the seer is incompatible with the premillennial interpretation, according to which the thousand-year rule of Christ is not present but future, and is exercised not from heaven but on earth. Actually, there is no indication in the passage before us that Christ's millennial reign is or will be an earthly reign. Nor, for that matter, does it state that it is a heavenly reign; though, as we shall show, the context does support the rightness of the latter conclusion.
The apostle John writes that he "saw thrones" upon which were seated "those to whom judgment was committed"; and he goes on to designate more fully the identity of those who were thus enthroned, as follows:
I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshipped the beast and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years (v. 4).It is important to notice that he is speaking of souls, that is to say, persons who have died and are in the disembodied state. It is true that the Greek word translated "souls" here (psychai) is also used in the New Testament of persons who exist bodily on earth — as, for example, in Acts 2:41 where it is said that about three thousand souls were added to the number of believers on the Day of Pentecost, and in 1 Peter 3:20 where we read that eight souls were saved in the ark at the time of the flood. But this sense is inappropriate to the term in the present passage which is concerned with persons who have suffered physical death and yet who live and reign with Christ during the thousand years. This description of Christians who have departed this life corresponds with an earlier passage in which John tells how he saw "the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne," and who cried out, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?" (Rev. 6:9f.). Though killed, and no longer themselves dwelling upon earth, their souls were living in the divine presence.
Such language fits in well with the teaching of Paul that the Christian who has died is "away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8), and that "to die is gain" because it means "to depart and be with Christ" (Phil. 1:21, 23). When speaking of those souls who live and reign with Christ during the millennium, John, apparently, is not speaking exclusively of those who have suffered martyrdom; for he envisages two groups of persons: (1) those "who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God," and (2) those "who had not worshipped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands" — those, in short, who have been faithful unto death (Rev. 2:10), whether that death be a violent one or not. This principle is well illustrated by the lives and deaths of the brothers James and John, who, when Jesus asked them, "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?", replied, "We are able," and to whom Jesus then said, "The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized you will be baptized" (Mk. 10:38f.). Such words speak of "the fellowship of Christ's sufferings" (Phil. 3:10) which is the very essence of Christian martyrdom, for Christian martyrdom means faithful witness to Christ not only in death but also in life. In the case of James and John, the former was the first of the apostles to be "martyred" (Acts 12:1f.), whereas the latter lived on into old age and did not "suffer a martyr's death"; yet he drank the cup of suffering and was baptized with the baptism of persecution no less than his brother. So also in John's vision the souls he sees reigning with Christ are the souls of those who have been faithful witnesses both in life and in death. They are a manifestation of the truth of the declaration, "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord" (Rev. 14:13).
The blessedness of the dead who die in the Lord has already been affirmed, though in different words, in the earlier part of John's Revelation, where the members of the church in Ephesus are told that they must expect tribulation, but are encouraged with these words: "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life," and with the assurance that "he who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death" (Rev. 2:10f.). This passage clearly has a close affinity with the millennial passage which we are discussing. The souls of those who die in the Lord, John teaches, live and reign with Christ a thousand years. These are the dead who in fact are living. With them the rest of the dead, that is, those who die in unbelief, have no part; they do not participate in what John calls the first resurrection, for what awaits them is the judgment of the second death. But, again (as in 14:13), the blessedness of the dead in the Lord is proclaimed: "Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power" (vv. 5f.).
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