“At thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16:11).
“And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. 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. 20:4–6).
And so John saw multiple thrones, which we should understand as being located in Heaven. They are most likely the thrones of the 24 elders, which have already been mentioned (Rev. 4:4). In addition we also see the martyrs, who were assembled earlier under the heavenly altar (Rev. 6:9). In that earlier place, they were crying out for a vengeance that had not yet happened. “How long?” But now that the great blow has fallen, bringing an end to the old Judaic aeon, these martyrs enter into their share in the rule of the world, in and through Christ. The martyrs are identified as those who refused to participate in the worship of the beast, or of his image, and who refused to accept his mark upon their heads or hands. In this image of their martyrdom, they had been beheaded, which meant that the heads that refused the mark were separated from their bodies—but when that beheading occurred, their heads were unblemished by that particular corruption. They lost their heads, but they were undefiled heads.
Having entered into glory, they continued to live on, and they participated in the reign of Christ over all the nations of men. They are kings and priests together with Him.
What does John mean by “this is the first resurrection”? I believe the best explanation is that the first resurrection is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the second resurrection is the general resurrection of the dead at the end of all human history. John’s expression in v. 6 points toward this understanding. The first resurrection is something that we are blessed to “have part” of. Christ rose from the dead as the first fruits of those who had died (1 Cor. 15:20)—His resurrection was the first fruits for others. In another place, He is described as being the firstborn from among the dead (Col. 1:18)—again, His resurrection was a resurrection that others were to participate in. When we are converted, by faith we are made partakers of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. He was raised to life for our justification (Rom. 4:25). “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). If we are baptized, we are baptized into His death, and it is not possible to be baptized into His death without participating in “newness of life” (Rom 6:4).
John also adds the detail that the “rest of the dead” would not be raised until the thousand years, which is the Christian aeon, was completed. I take this as referring to the resurrection of the unjust, the resurrection of the unbelievers. That there is such a resurrection is plain in Scripture.
“And have hope toward God, which they themselves also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust” (Acts 24:15).
“Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation” (John 5:28–29).
So every believer who is truly converted throughout all church history is made a partaker of the resurrection of Jesus, the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them—which means they can look forward to the general resurrection as a great hope. In addition, they are included in the reign of Christ over the nations, which is taught in multiple other places. For just one example, consider this: “And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). And so the shared rule with Christ is not limited to first century martyrs. It applies to every believer who trusts in Christ at any point in the millennium.
There is no need to take the reference to this millennium, this one thousand years, as a literal one. This is a symbolic number, in a symbolic chapter, in a highly symbolic book. Throughout Scripture, it is used as a place holder for a very large number—the number of hills where God owns the cattle (Ps. 50:10), the number of enemy soldiers that one Israelite will pursue (Josh. 23:10), and the number of generations with whom God keeps covenant (Deut. 7:9). And references to a thousand years are also obviously figurative. “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night” (Ps. 90:4; cf. Ecc. 6:6, 2 Pet. 3:8).