What We Believe
i

It would be nearly thirty years after his 1946 student paper, “A Study in the Structure of the Revelation of John,” before Meredith Kline turned his full attention back to the book of Revelation.[1] After his graduation from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1947, he received a call to Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Ringoes, New Jersey, approximately ten miles from Princeton. On March 5, 1948, he was ordained and installed as the pastor of Calvary Church.[2]

As pastor of the ninety-two-member congregation at Ringoes, Kline kept busy. He preached two sermons a Lord’s Day, conducted a Wednesday night prayer meeting, and visited the members. Still, he retained a connection to the academic world and to Westminster Seminary. His undeniable exegetical gifts had been noticed by the faculty of Westminster, which was seeking help for Edward J. Young in the Old Testament department. Kline began teaching two Old Testament courses a week in fall 1948. Then, in 1950, he accepted a full-time position at the school in the Old Testament department.

Once teaching at Westminster, Kline’s days were packed. He taught a full load of courses, began work on a PhD at Dropsie University, and even wrote Sunday school lessons for the OPC’s Great Commission Publications. This heavy load of teaching, studying, and writing for publication was all with a growing family as Kline and his wife, Grace, were blessed with three sons born between 1945 and 1950, Meredith, Sterling, and Calvin.[3]

In 1955, he finished his doctoral dissertation at Dropsie, The Ha-BI-ru: Kin or Foe of Israel? The extra time that Kline now had allowed him to publish at an accelerated rate compared to his first few years at Westminster. During the period from 1956 to 1959, Kline published eight book reviews and seven articles, including three in the periodical Christianity Today. His publications caught the attention of Calvin Theological Seminary, and the school invited him to join its faculty in both 1958 and 1959. He also received an invitation in 1958 from Gordon Divinity School (later renamed Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary). He declined the offers from both schools, but, according to his son Meredith, he was unhappy with his teaching load and class assignments at Westminster.[4] When Gordon made another offer to him seven years later with the promise to oversee its Old Testament department, Kline accepted.

During his first decade at Gordon, he remained active in writing. His published works from 1966 to 1975 included eight reviews, nine articles, one minor commentary on Genesis, and his books By Oath Consigned in 1968 and The Structure of Biblical Authority in 1972. These writings, much like his writings during his fifteen-year tenure at Westminster, were predominantly Old Testament studies.

That changed in 1975. Two articles in the Westminster Theological Journal, one in 1973, James Hughes’s “Revelation 20:4–6 and the Question of the Millennium”[5] and one in 1974, Norman Shepherd’s “The Resurrections of Revelation 20”[6] had piqued Kline’s interest. Both articles had attempted to refute the premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20. Although Kline agreed with the authors that the “the first resurrection” in Revelation 20 is not a bodily resurrection, he also believed that the exegetical argumentation could have been stronger. Stating that the issue in Revelation 20 has “a quite decisive bearing on the whole millennial issue,” he responded with the article “The First Resurrection.”[7]

“The First Resurrection”

In the opening sentence of the article, Kline declared, “One of the critical points in the exegesis of Rev 20 is the interpretation of prōtos in the phrase, “the first resurrection” (v. 5). Premillennarians understand prōtos in the purely sequential sense of first in a series of items of the same kind. Consequently, premillennarians interpret “the first resurrection” in Revelation 20:5 as a bodily resurrection, “But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.”[8] They also interpret the resurrection event described in Revelation 20:12–13 as a bodily resurrection, “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.”

Kline opposed such a reading of the first resurrection on exegetical grounds. He argued that the contextual usage of prōtos (“first”) in Revelation 20 does not support a sequential understanding as premillennialists put forth. Rather, the exegesis “points compellingly to an interpretation of ‘the first resurrection’ found in (so-called) amillennial exegesis.”[9] In making his argument, Kline turned to the usage of “first” in the immediate context of Revelation 21 to explain the correct understanding of the usage of “first” in Revelation 20.

“First,” “New,” and “Second”

In Revelation 21 John employs “first” as the opposite of “new.” At the consummation, God will usher in a “new heaven and a new earth” and a “new Jerusalem” (Rev. 21:1–2); he will make “all things new” (Rev. 21:5). When this takes place, when God makes all things new, “the first things” pass away—tears, death, sorrow, pain (Rev. 21:4 ASV). Here “first” means to belong to the order of the present world, which is passing away. That which is “new” supersedes that which is “first.”

However, in Revelation 21, it is not just “new” that John uses in opposition to “first.” He also uses “second” in antithesis to “first.” The second death that belongs to the lake of fire in Revelation 21:8 does not pass away. It is the eternal counterpart to the death listed in Revelation 21:4 (ASV) that belongs to the order of “first things.” That is, the second death does not involve what we know as physical death but is the eternal perdition that the wicked experience after they have been raised in the resurrection of damnation.[10] Although the first death is the loss of bodily life, the second death is not the same kind of death. The second death is death in a metaphorical sense, not a literal sense.

 In John’s terminology, then, “first” describes the present world; “second” and “new” are used in connection with the future world. Against the premillennial contention, then, Kline maintained from Revelation 21 that “first” does not merely mark the present world as the first in a series of worlds, or as the first in a series of worlds of the same kind. He said, “On the contrary it characterizes this world as different in kind from the ‘new world.’ It signifies that the present world stands in contrast to the new world order of the consummation which will abide forever.”[11]

New Testament Use of Prōtos in Antithetical Pairs

Kline moved next to examine other New Testament passages where prōtos appears, particularly as prōtos appears in antithetical pairs in the book of Hebrews and in 1 Corinthians 15. In Hebrews 10:9, “He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second,” Kline noted the term “second” is used to describe the new covenant. Thus, in Hebrews 10, just as in Revelation 20 and 21, “second” is used as an alternate for “new” in contrast to “first.”

Still, Kline realized that some would interpret the use of “first” in Hebrews 8:7, “for if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second,” as confirming a priority in a series. However, the author of Hebrews expressly observes in 8:13 in speaking of a new covenant that God made the first one old or obsolete. The significance of “first” in this context is not so much priority of series but opposition to “old.” In Hebrews, as in Revelation 21, “first” is used to represent a historical stage, provisional and passing away, that stands in contrast to that which is consummative, final, and enduring.

According to Kline, Paul used prōtos in a similar manner in 1 Corinthians 15:45–47. In the contrast of the two Adams, the “first man Adam” in 1 Corinthians 15:45 is not the first in the sense of a series of Adams, but first in the antithetically qualitative sense of being the counterpart to the “last Adam.” There are no “Adams” between the first and last. Echoing Geerhardus Vos, Kline wrote,

The first Adam is earthy and psychical; the last Adam is heavenly and Spiritual (vv. 45, 47). Because of the federal position occupied by the two Adams, the qualities of each one also inform the life sphere at the head of which he stands (vv. 44–49). “First” is thus correlated with the preliminary, pre-consummative phase of kingdom development over against the eschatological final stage of the kingdom which bears the image of last Adam.[12]

Kline then observed that both 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21 use “first” in antithetical fashion in putting forth an age-spanning structure of biblical eschatology that divides universal history into stages: this world and the world to come. “First” means to be assigned a place in the present world with its transient order that is passing away. In neither passage does “first” function as a mere ordinal in the process of counting objects similar in kind. Kline concluded from the exegetical study of Hebrews, 1 Corinthians 15, and Revelation 21 that “that which is ‘first’ does not participate in the quality of consummate finality and permanence which is distinctive of the new kingdom order of the world to come.”[13]

The Meaning of “The First Resurrection”

Kline further defended his belief that “an interpretation of prōtos in keeping with the usage and meaning of the word found in Revelation 21 is required in Revelation 20, specifically in the expression ‘the first resurrection.’”[14] In addition to the proximity of Revelation 20 and 21 and the thematic continuity, he argued that there exists an interlocking pattern, first-(second) resurrection and (first)-second death, in the thousand years context. In the post-millennial resurrection for those who are not found in the book of life, the final judgment for them is “the second death, the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14 ESV). Nine verses earlier in Revelation 20:5b, 6a, Kline noted that John employs the term “second death” within the explanation of what the first resurrection is, “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.”

This crisscrossing pattern of connection between “first resurrection” and “second death” was decisive for Kline. He stated, “Clearly the usage of prōtos in the first-(second) resurrection pattern must be the same as the usage of prōtos in the intertwined (first)-second death pattern, which is itself part of the broader first-new things pattern of Revelation 21.”[15] This antithetical usage of prōtos reveals a great error in premillennial exegesis. Rather than using prōtos to indicate sequential ordering in bodily resurrections, John uses prōtos to indicate different kinds of resurrections. Textually, Kline argued, “If the second resurrection is a bodily resurrection, the first resurrection must be a non-bodily resurrection.”[16] The crisscrossing pattern then teaches that the “first resurrection” and the “second death” are metaphysical in meaning; “first death” and “second resurrection” are literal in meaning.

But, if the “first resurrection” was not a bodily resurrection, then what did John mean in using that phrase? Kline answered, “Just as the resurrection of the unjust is paradoxically identified as ‘the second death’ so the death of the Christian is paradoxically identified as the ‘first resurrection.’”[17] John sees the Christian dead in Revelation 20:4. The meaning of their passing from earthly life is found in the heavenly state where they as royal priests live and reign with Christ. “Hence the use of the paradoxical metaphor of ‘the first resurrection’ (vv. 5-6) for the death of the faithful believer. What for others is the first death is for the Christian a veritable resurrection!”[18]

Kline concluded, then, that Revelation 20 and 21 did not support the argument that the “first resurrection” is first in a series of bodily resurrections. It is not man’s bodily introduction to the permanence of the world to come, for the contextual force of “first” is descriptive of the pre-consummation stage of things.

The Beatitude of the Christian Dead

Kline emphasized that there is a blessedness to Christian death. He said succinctly, “For the Christian, to die is resurrection.”[19] According to Kline, that this theme should pervade Revelation should be of no surprise given the book’s origin and purpose. What he endeavored at the close of his article “The First Resurrection,” was to show the parallels in concept and terminology in the book leading up to Revelation 20. 

In Revelation 20:6, the first resurrection prospect takes the form of a beatitude, “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.” This is the fifth of seven beatitudes in Revelation, the others being found in Revelation 1:3, 14:13, 16:15, 19:9, 22:7, and 22:14. Kline pointed out that Christian death is also the subject of the second beatitude, Revelation 14:13, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.” He believed that the promised sabbath rest blessing of Revelation 14:13 was very much the same as the millennial blessing of Revelation 20:5–6. Sabbath rest in the Bible includes enthronement after the completion of labor. The risen Christ’s sabbath rest is his kingly session at God’s right hand. For the believer, to live and reign with the risen Christ is to participate in his sabbath rest. This is the blessing promised to those who die in the Lord in the beatitude of Revelation 14:13, but it is also the blessing promised to those in the beatitude of Revelation 20:6 who have a part in the first resurrection.[20]

Kline noted that the letter to Smyrna in Revelation 2 also contains a section that closely resembles Revelation 20:4–6 in its treatment of the blessedness of the Christian dead. In listing the parallels, Kline indicated that both texts proclaim that Christian martyrs through their death will secure a crown of life and will not be hurt by the second death (Rev. 2:10, 11; 20:4, 6). Both texts reference the activity of Satan (Rev. 2:9, 10; 20:2, 7).[21] There is also, in Kline’s words, “the intriguing possibility” that a connection exists between the numerical symbols of the ten days of tribulation in Revelation 2:10 and the thousand years of reigning in Revelation 20:4 and 6. The intensifying of the numerical ten to a thousand and the lengthening of days to years might suggest that the momentary affliction and tribulation of this life works a far greater glory to be experienced even in the intermediate state.[22] Finally, in Revelation 2:10 the “crown of life” promised to the Christian dead includes the exegetical possibility that it is the nominal equivalent of the verbal “they lived and reigned” in the account of the experience that attends the first resurrection in Revelation 20:4 and following.

The Thousand Years

Kline finished the article by arguing that the way John identifies the first resurrection in Revelation 20: 4–6 with living and reigning with Christ a thousand years has the effect of connecting the qualifying force of prōtos directly to “the thousand years.” According to Kline, the result is that “the millennium as such is virtually called a ‘first’ age. It falls within the days of this present passing world characterized by ‘the first things.’ The Parousia with its concomitant events of resurrection and judgment must then follow these ‘thousand years.’”[23]

This textual conclusion led Kline to discuss the three major millennial options regarding the understanding of the thousand years and the millennium. According to Kline, the premillennial view of Christ’s second advent is excluded since the thousand years are a first age after which the consummative events of resurrection and judgment must follow.

But, just as Kline was not shy in pointing out from a proper exegesis that the premillennial view was excluded, he also did not hesitate in declaring that the postmillennial reading of the thousand years in Revelation 20 would not do either. If the thousand years are a late concluding phrase of the interadvental age and Revelation 20 is the only place where this special kingdom development is mentioned, as postmillennarians hold, then, “it would not seem possible to discover a satisfactory explanation for the almost exclusive focus of this one and only millennial disclosure on the intermediate state.”[24] For postmillennarians to account plausibly for the total concentration of the intermediate state in the Revelation 20 description of the millennium, they would have to justify “the assumption that the features here assigned to it in the intermediate state were at least peculiar to the millennial phase of it. But if the millennium is restricted to a late phase of the church age, such an assumption is quite unacceptable.”[25]

The reason that Kline found the assumption quite unacceptable is that those who live and reign with Christ in Revelation 20:4 are the beheaded faithful. This includes the believers persecuted for the testimony of Jesus with whom John identified himself in his own day.

Kline believed the approach that fit Revelation most faithfully was the amillennial viewpoint, in which earthly developments in the church and the world for the time denoted by the “thousand years” are dealt with throughout the book. The amillennial view also does justice to Revelation’s teaching concerning the Christian dead and the intermediate state that the thousand years of Revelation 20 describes. According to the perspective of the Apocalyptic beatitudes to which Revelation 20:6 belongs, the dead in Christ have participated in the blessedness of the millennial first resurrection. They are those who enjoy the blessedness of royal rest in the intermediate state in their Savior for the voice from heaven in Revelation 14:13 said to John, “Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth.”

Endnotes

[1] The author would like to thank Meredith M. Kline for his research in ascertaining the correct date of his father’s ThM thesis at Westminster Seminary. Meredith G. Kline took Ned B. Stonehouse’s class on Revelation in the fall of 1945. Kline completed the final exam in early January 1946 and began research for the paper. He completed the paper on April 12, 1946.

[2] A little over two months later on May 13–18, Kline attended the Fifteenth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church held at Calvary Church in Wildwood, New Jersey.

[3] Interestingly, the Kline and Young families during the 1950s and early 1960s lived in homes in the Philadelphia suburb of Willow Grove that were next to each other with their yards connecting.

[4] Meredith M. Kline, “Meredith G. Kline: A Biographical Sketch,” in Essential Writings of Meredith G. Kline (Peabody MA: Hendrickson, 2017), xxi.

[5] James A. Hughes, “Revelation 20:4–6 and the Question of the Millennium,” Westminster Theological Journal 35, no. 3 (Spring 1973): 281–302.

[6] Norman Shepherd, “The Resurrections of Revelation 20.” Westminster Theological Journal 36, no. 1 (Fall 1974): 34–43.

[7] Meredith G. Kline, “The First Resurrection.” Westminster Theological Journal 37, no. 3 (Spring 1975): 366–75.

[8] Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture citations in this article are to the King James Version.

[9] Kline, “First Resurrection,” 366.

[10] In his commentary upon Gen. 2:17, Kline wrote, “Surely die (v. 17). A curse balanced the covenant’s blessing, symbolized by the tree of life and Sabbath, threatening the opposite—not physical death but eternal perdition (later called ‘second death’).” In the footnote that accompanied the comments, Kline referenced pages 367, 371, and 373–374 from “The First Resurrection.” See, M. G. Kline, Genesis: A New Commentary, ed. Jonathan G. Kline (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2016), 20. See also, Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue (South Hamilton, MA: Meredith Kline, 1991), 63–64.

[11] Kline, “First Resurrection,” 367.

[12] Ibid., 368. In his Genesis: A New Commentary, Kline elaborated on the connection between Gen. 2:7 and 1 Cor. 15:42–49. He wrote, “The Hebrew wordplay is reflected in Paul’s commentary that the first Adam was fashioned in a natural body for earthly existence. The apostle further observed that the last Adam shared in the earthly state in order to secure for fallen man in the resurrection the spiritual body of imperishable glory (1 Cor. 15:42–49), the prospect forfeited by the first Adam” (18–19). 

[13] Kline, “First Resurrection,” 369.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 370.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 371.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 372.

[20] Kline observed that a similar promise of rest is given to the martyrs in the opening of the fifth seal in Rev. 6:11, “And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.” Ibid., 373.

[21] In his 1986 article, “Death, Leviathan, and the Martyrs: Isaiah 24:1–27:1,” Kline connected Satan and the second death in a direct fashion in Rev. 20. He wrote that in Rev. 20:10 “the devil’s doom takes the form of the lake of fire, that realm is one of forever continuing torment (10b), and accordingly, the fate of Satan and others relegated to it is not absolute erasure from existence. The second death is existence on the other side of an impossible gulf from the cosmos proper. To be cast into the lake of fire is to cease to figure or function in heaven or earth as the consummated Kingdom of God. Satan slain, or banished to the second death, no longer participates in the creation proper. He no longer functions as the power of death or otherwise affects the glorified saints.” Meredith G. Kline, “Death, Leviathan, and the Martyrs: Isaiah 24:1–27:1,” in Essential Writings of Meredith G. Kline (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2017), 228.

[22] Earlier Kline made clear that Rev. 20:5–6 had in view not the final state of believers, but the intermediate state. He said, “For bright as is the prospect that is opened up in the identification of dying in Christ as a resurrection to heavenly glories with exemption from the power of the second death assured (v. 6), that state is still not the ultimate glory of the Christian. It stands on this side of consummation. It is only the intermediate, not the final state.” Kline, “The First Resurrection,” 371.

[23] Ibid., 374.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 375.

Danny E. Olinger is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, June 2021.

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Ordained Servant: June 2021

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