The phrase, the “first resurrection” is used twice in Scripture.
“But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection” (Rev. 20:5).
“Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years” (Rev. 20:6).
In context, the First Resurrection is explained with a specific image in mind.
John saw thrones in heaven.
John saw individuals sitting on the thrones in heaven.
John saw the ability to pass judgment was given to those individuals sitting on the thrones in heaven.
Who were these honored figures on thrones of judgment in heaven?
They are identified as martyred souls.
John saw the souls of those who had been behead for the witness of Jesus, and for the Word of God.
John said they were beheaded because they had not worshipped the Beast.
John said they were beheaded because they had not worshipped the image of the Beast.
John said they were beheaded because they had not received the mark of the Beast upon their foreheads, on in their hands.
John saw that those who sat upon the thrones, the martyred souls who had not honored the Beast, lived.
John saw that those who sat upon the thrones, the martyred souls who had not honored the Beast lived, and reigned with Christ for a thousand (Gk. chilioi, plural of uncertain affinity) years.
John said this was the First Resurrection.
John calls the enthroned and judging reigning souls of the martyred dead the First Resurrection.
Since John saw thrones in heaven, and individuals sitting on the thrones in heaven, and since theses individuals are referred to as souls (Gk. psuche, breath, [i.e., by implication] spirit), since they are referred to as being dead (Gk. nekros; a corpse), the question can be asked whether or not the First Resurrection must be understood literally, as of a bodily resurrection, or is there a spiritual reality in view?
Concerning the bodily resurrection of the dead, the Church has consistently taught the resurrection to be a literal, physical, bodily resurrection.
Apostle’s Creed: c. AD 340
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic* church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
*That is, the true Christian church of all times and all places
Nicene Creed: AD 325 / 381
…And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life.
He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.
He spoke through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
and to life in the world to come. Amen.
Athanasian Creed, AD 360
…He suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, on the third day
arose again from the dead, ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead;
at His coming all men have to arise again with their bodies and will render an account of their own deeds: and those who have done good, will go into life everlasting, but those who have done evil, into eternal fire.
Is the First Resurrection another name for the bodily resurrection of the saints when they shall assume their glorified bodies and its perfect consummation and bliss?
Is the First Resurrection only an initial one in a series of bodily resurrections? Or is something else in view?
Since the language of John in Revelation 20 takes place in heaven, and speaks about the souls of the dead, perhaps a spiritual understanding of the First Resurrection is warranted.
Prior to being given his vision in the Revelation of Jesus Christ, John had written what Jesus had said about a spiritual resurrection.
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live. 26 For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself” (John 5:25-26).
Notice the language.
“The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God and live.”
Are not the dead in this passage those who are unconverted, those who are dead in trespasses and sin, and those who have yet to hear the gospel call? Though the Natural Man is dead in the sight of God, new life can be given when there is a positive response to the effectual call of Christ applied to his soul.
This would be the First Resurrection for the dead in sin are summoned to rise from the dead that Christ might give them light.
And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1).
“But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever doth make manifest is light” (Eph. 5:13).
The idea that the First Resurrection is a spiritual one is supported in other language and arguments of New Testament writers.
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. 25 Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live” (John 5:24-25).
“For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Rom. 6:5).
“And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:15).
“Buried with him in baptism, where in also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12).
In Revelation 20, there is no reason to restrict the word “resurrection” to a literal meaning. What is important in the Revelation is that the saints have life beyond the grave.
It should also be noted that the word for first (Gk. protos) conveys the idea of something that is foremost (in time, place, order or importance).
Surely salvation, the resurrection of the spiritually dead to eternal life, is the most important issue for it provides assurance of salvation and hope of life beyond the grave, which what John sees in his vision.
“If this resurrection means bodily resurrection, it coincides with the Second Coming (1 Cor 15:51-57; 1 Thess. 4:13-18) and the premillennialists are correct (vv. 1-10 note). On the other hand, the language concerning the second death in vv. 6,14 and 21:8 suggests a contrast between the first death and the second. The first death is bodily death, but it is only preliminary, not ultimate. The second death is ultimate and spiritual in character.
Likewise, the first and second resurrections may be preliminary and ultimate, respectively. The first is spiritual, the second is of the body. The first resurrection is then to be understood as coinciding either with spiritual new birth (John 5:24,25) or with going to be with Christ at the time of bodily death (6:9,10; 2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23).”*
*The Reformation Study Bible, Copyright © 2005 by Ligonier Ministries. All rights reserved.