It is worth mentioning at the outset that Ezekiel 37 – 48 serves as strong conceptual background for the latter chapters of Revelation. So, the interpreter must bear this fact in mind as he considers the “first resurrection” of 20:4—5.
In Ezekiel 37 the prophet portrays the vision of the valley of dry bones. In this passage the image of the dry bones represents exilic Israel as spiritually dead (v. 11f.). YHWH promises that these bones, however, will live again. Ezekiel is to prophesy to the bones, saying, “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath/spirit (rûach) to enter you, and you shall live” (v. 5). The prophet is then commanded to beckon the breath to come into the bones (v. 9). The result was that “the breath came into them, and they lived...an exceedingly great host” (v. 10). The imagery of resurrection in this passage is clearly figurative, looking forward to the restoration of Israel. Three very intriguing points flow from this passage into the Johannine concept of resurrection.
First, there is the phrase in verse 10, “and they lived,” which was the first result of the pneumatic life entering. In the Septuagint, this phrase is rendered καὶ ἔζησαν (kia ezēsan), which is the aorist active indicative of the verb zaō. This is precisely the same phrase and form that John uses to express what is translated as “and they lived” in Revelation 20:4, describing the “souls” of the “blessed and holy” saints who enjoy the “first resurrection” (vv. 4, 6). Therefore, in the strongest allusive background for this section of Revelation, there is in Ezekiel 37 a figurative, or better spiritual, resurrection presented in the terms of καὶ ἔζησαν, the very phrase that John uses to describe the event of the first resurrection of 20:4—6. There is, then, good evidence to recognize John as intending the first resurrection to be understood as spiritual. This conclusion is corroborated by two other Johannine passages.
Second, then, is John’s further allusive use of Ezekiel in the third chapter of his Gospel. In his dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus presents the condition of being “born again/from above” (“born anew,” so RSV) as the precondition to seeing “the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3). This concept is explicated by the twofold effect of being “born of water and the Spirit” (v. 5). The Old Testament background for the water/Spirit connection is, again, Ezekiel 36 and 37 (see, esp., 36:25—27; 37:1—10). In this, John is bringing forward the spiritual resurrection motif of Ezekiel as the redemptive-historical grid for understanding regeneration and Christian baptism, or what Paul refers to as “the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Tit. 3:5). So, on two counts, John’s apparent use of Ezekiel 36 – 37 serves as the coloring for the image of figurative or spiritual resurrection both in his Gospel and the Revelation.
A third Johannine passage of great import is John 5:24—29. In this passage Jesus speaks of the believer passing “from death into life” (v. 24), which is what happens “when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live” (v. 25). This is the “the hour,” which “is coming, and now is”; that is, the spiritual resurrection of regeneration. The transmission from death into life is “eternal life” and is that which characterizes those who “shall not come into condemnation” (v. 24). This parallels John’s conception of the “first resurrection,” and the fact that for those who partake of the first resurrection “over such the second death has no power” (Rev. 20:6). If, as has been argued, the “first resurrection” is spiritual, regeneration, and the “second death” is condemnation to the lake of fire (20:14—15), then the clear teaching of John 5:24f. provides the paradigmatic parallel for understanding Revelation 20:4—6.
It may be added that both of these Johannine passages go on to speak of the general physical resurrection of both the just and the unjust, which is at an hour still coming, at the completion of the millennium (Jn. 5:29 // Rev. 20:5). Therefore, John 5 offers a clear and parallel passage for understanding Revelation 20:4—6 as presenting both a spiritual resurrection, which begins with the dawn of the Christian era and runs continuously throughout, and a general physical resurrection at the close of this age, the millennium.