Home > Book of Revelation, Christ's kingdom, The 1,000 years, The Gospel > A note on ‘beheaded’ in Revelation 20:4

A note on ‘beheaded’ in Revelation 20:4

March 13, 2012

In Revelation 20:4 John says “and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God…” The word translated “beheaded” is πεπελεκισμένων, pepelekismenōn which is derived from pelekizó, Strong’s 3990:

pelekizó: to cut off with an ax, esp. to behead

Original Word: πελεκίζω
Part of Speech: Verb
Transliteration: pelekizó
Phonetic Spelling: (pel-ek-id’-zo)
Short Definition: I behead
Definition: I behead (with an axe).

Albert Barnes wrote:—

That were beheaded – The word used here – πελεκίζω pelekizō – occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It properly means, “to axe,” that is, to hew or cut with an axe – from πέλεκυς pelekus, “axe.” Hence it means to behead with an axe. This was a common mode of execution among the Romans, and doubtless many of the Christian martyrs suffered in this manner; but “it cannot be supposed to have been the intention of the writer to confine the rewards of martyrs to those who suffered in this particular way; for this specific and ignominious method of punishment is designated merely as the symbol of any and every kind of martyrdom” (Prof. Stuart).

[Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament: Revelation]

A few translations give another word instead of “beheaded.” J. B. Phillips rendered it: “Then I saw the souls of those who had been executed for their witness to Jesus and for proclaiming the Word of God.”

GOD’S WORD® Translation has: “Then I saw the souls of those whose heads had been cut off because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God.”

The Aramaic Bible in Plain English has: “And I saw seats, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them, and these souls who were cut off for the testimony of Yeshua and for the word of God…”

We might note that John’s own brother, James, was killed by the sword. [Acts 12:2]

John might have alluded to the use of the axe, in a spiritual sense, which would be similar to that associated with the sword. In the last verse of the previous chapter, he wrote, “And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth…” This clearly identifies the sword with God’s word.

When in 20:4 he speaks of those who were “beheaded,” or cut off with an axe, John is not referring to martyrs. Only a minority of those who were martyrs suffered beheading. Others died in the arenas, or by crucifixion, or burning at the stake. John however, may allude to a spiritual process, such as John the Baptist referred to in his preaching. Luke’s account says: “Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.”

A similar metaphor, of using an axe to cut down trees that do not bring forth wholesome fruit, may be present in Revelation 20:4.

Jeremiah said, the Lord’s people are his battle axe.

Jeremiah 51:19-20
The portion of Jacob is not like them; for he is the former of all things: and Israel is the rod of his inheritance: the LORD of hosts is his name.
Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms;

John Russell Hurd wrote:—

‘And I saw the souls of them that were beheaded,’ &c. The word translated beheaded is from the verb πελεκίζω, to strike with an axe. The kind of axe with which the blow is struck, must be gathered from the circumstances of the case. The noun πέλεκνς may signify a common axe, a battle-axe, or the axes borne by the lictors amongst the Romans before their consuls (Donnegan). The term occurs nowhere else in the New Testament; in the Septuagint it is applied to the instruments of stonecutters and carpenters, or their uses. The custom of bearing axes by the lictors, probably arose from the previous very general use of the pole-axe in the field of battle. Taking into consideration the peculiarity that the assembly now described is supposed to be called together immediately after a great military conflict, we think that the allusion here is to the use of the battle-axe. Our translators have employed the term beheaded apparently from associating with the Greek word the idea of the use of the axe by order of the civil magistrate only.

[John Russell Hurd. Hyponoia. Apocalypse, chap. xx., p. 507. Quoted in: Augustus Clissold, The spiritual exposition of the Apocalypse, 1851. Volume 4 p. 347.]

  1. Sandy Buch
    May 22, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    It’s a spiritual beheading. Putting off the teachings of man and putting on the mind of Christ. So many people think carnally rather than spiritually. God is a Spirit. The plagues in revelation are spiritual. When the Truth is preached to the deceived it hurts.

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