The First Resurrection
My title assumes that all will be raised and that there will be more than one resurrection––for if there is a first, then there must, at least, be a second. However, where the Bible speaks of the first resurrection (Rev. 20: 6) it also speaks of the second death. You might well ask, What is the importance of such phrases to me? My answer is this: You will either have part in the first resurrection or in the second death. It will be one or the other. So what do these terms the first resurrection and the second death mean?
One thing should be immediately clear: You cannot have resurrection without death. All accept the fact of death––it is with resurrection that the arguments begin. There are two great errors in regard to resurrection: One says that there is no such thing; the other says that all men will be raised at the same time in what is called the general resurrection. The short answer to the first error is “the resurrection of the dead” (Matt. 22: 31); the short answer to the second is “the resurrection from among [the] dead” (Luke 20: 35). The first Scripture tells me that the dead, whoever they are, will be raised; the second Scripture tells me that some will be raised while others will be left in death. (If there are those who will be raised from among the dead, then all cannot be raised at the same time, but some are raised with the rest being left in death to be raised later.) Thus resurrection is not general but selective, which is why the Bible speaks of the first resurrection.
However, let me clarify just what resurrection is. A person can only be raised if he has first died. Angels are never raised because they never die (Luke 20: 36). Resurrection then is the undoing of death. But perhaps one should ask, What is death? It is not the cessation of existence, either temporary or permanent. Man is a tripartite being, having spirit, soul and body (1 Thess. 5: 23). Death occurs when the spirit leaves the body: “the body without a spirit is dead” (James 2: 26). We read of dead bodies many times (for example Ps. 79: 2), but never of dead spirits. Angels do not die because they are spirit beings, ministering spirits (Heb. 1: 13, 14); they are not tripartite beings. (The words soul and body are never used in connection with angels, although angels may appear to men in a bodily form). While death is the penalty of sin (Rom. 6: 23), this is only true for man, not angels, even though there are angels who have sinned (2 Pet. 2: 4). Thus, of the morally accountable creation, man alone dies, and man alone will be raised. Hence as death applies particularly to the body so must resurrection (see 1 Cor. 15: 35–44). In death, the soul and spirit are separated from the body and man is no longer in that sense complete. In resurrection, he is complete again. This is the meaning of the word perfect in Heb. 11: 39, 40: “And these all, having obtained witness through faith, did not receive the promise, God having foreseen some better thing for us, that they should not be made perfect without us.” The point here is that the resurrection of the OT saints awaits the resurrection of the NT saints. They will not be made perfect (complete) by resurrection without us.
In the time of Christ the general view in Israel was that when Messiah came, the saints who had died, such as Abraham and David, would be raised for His kingdom. Thus when the Lord says to Martha “Thy brother shall rise again”, she concurs with “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection in the last day” (John 11: 23, 24). Resurrection was part of orthodox Jewish faith; part of “the beginning of the Christ”, and is fundamental to faith in every age, not just to Christianity for the apostle in Heb. 6: 1 urges his readers to “go on [to what belongs to] full growth” (Christianity). However the concept of resurrection from among the dead was something then entirely new as shown by Mark 9: 9, 10. There the Lord spoke of a time “when the Son of man should be risen from among [the] dead” and it goes on to say “And they kept that saying, questioning among themselves, what rising from among [the] dead was”. It was not resurrection that caused the questioning but the selective nature of that resurrection. Hence even when the Lord had risen, and the tomb was empty, we read “for they had not yet known the scripture, that he must rise from among [the] dead.” (John 20: 9). They believed in resurrection but resurrection from among the dead was a mystery to them.
However, just as today there are many who believe the Devil’s lie that ‘when you are dead, you are done with’ so then there were those in Israel who believed that death was the end. Those who denied the whole idea of resurrection were called Sadducees (Acts 23: 8). While the Pharisees accepted the whole of the OT as inspired of God, the Sadducees only accepted the Pentateuch, that is the first five books, as divinely inspired. Now these Sadducees came to the Lord with a very clever question concerning marriage and resurrection. There are three accounts of the incident: Matt. 22: 23–33, Mark 12: 18–27 and Luke 20: 27–38 but I will use Luke’s account as it is the most detailed.
Before the Lord replied directly to this question from the Sadducees, He introduced a truth on His own authority, which was not in the OT and was thus entirely new: “And Jesus said to them, The sons of this world marry and are given in marriage, but they who are counted worthy to have part in that world, and the resurrection from among [the] dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; for neither can they die any more, for they are equal to angels, and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.” (Luke 20: 34–36). In this new revelation He not only opposes their denial of resurrection, but introduces the thought of a distinctive resurrection––resurrection from among the dead. I will return to this, but for the moment let us go on to look at the Lord’s direct reply to their question: “But that the dead rise, even Moses shewed in [the section of] the bush, when he called [the] Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob; but he is not God of [the] dead but of [the] living; for all live for him” (Luke 20: 37–38). He uses that little word but to contrast what He is now saying with what He has just said. In a word, having spoken of the truth of selective resurrection, “the resurrection from among [the] dead”, He now presses the general truth of resurrection by quoting from the very Scriptures that they only accepted as having authority, namely the Pentateuch (Ex. 3: 6). He thus meets them on their own ground.
This is the incident where God speaks to Moses saying “I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”. When Moses heard those words, as the Sadducees well knew, the patriarchs were long since dead. God did not say I was the God of…but “I am the God of…” He does not speak of a past relationship, but of a present one. The Lord quotes this not to show that the patriarchs are alive, but that the dead patriarchs (and hence all) will rise again. Relationships between God and man are not broken by death, even though human relationships are, “for all live for him” on account of resurrection.
Returning now to Luke’s preface of the reply, the Lord divides men into two categories: sons of this world (or age––same word) and sons of the resurrection. In general the Jew owned just two divisions of time: the present age of law, and the age to come when Messiah would reign in His kingdom. Marriage belongs to the present time, not to the age to come. Those accounted worthy to have part in that age, and the resurrection from among the dead, will then no longer marry but be as the angels which are in heaven. The point is that not only is that resurrection selective but that it divides men into these two classes and further clearly shows that the general entrance into the world to come is by resurrection. You either belong to one class or the other.
Resurrection from among the dead does not just mean that men are brought back to life, having died, but that they must have lain in the grave, have been among the dead. Again as it is bodies that lie in the tomb, resurrection applies to the body and not to the spirit. With the exception of Enoch and Elijah (and possibly those of Matt. 27: 51, 52), both saint and sinner have died and await resurrection. Only two have been raised from among the dead––the Lord Jesus and Lazarus. Both the son of the widow of Nain and the daughter of Jairus were raised but they are never said to have been raised from among the dead. Why? Because their bodies were never put into the grave, they never lay among the dead, and hence they could not be said to be raised from among the dead.
When Christ comes all the saints (both OT and NT) who have died will be raised (1 Thess. 4: 13–18). Those saints who are alive will not be raised but changed. They will thus never die and so will need no resurrection. Unbelieving sinners will remain in death. Between this event and the Lord’s appearing in glory, souls will be converted on earth, some of whom will die by martyrdom (Rev. 6: 9–11), and will be raised out of death to enter into the kingdom. (Rev. 20: 6). When the Lord returns in glory the nations will be judged and the unbelieving among them slain (Matt. 25: 31–46). Hence at the commencement of the millennium no saint will remain in death. Now Rev. 20: 5 says “This [is] the first resurrection”. What is? “And they lived and reigned with the Christ a thousand years: the rest of the dead did not live till the thousand years had been completed”. All who are raised before the millennium belong to the first resurrection, they are “sons of the resurrection”, but the “sons of this world” (Luke 20: 34) are left in death until after the kingdom. Just as at the rapture, believers alive at the Lord’s appearing will enter the kingdom and thus never die. I take it that this is the proper fulfilment of the Lord’s words to Martha in John 11: 25, 26: “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believes on me, though he have died, shall live; and every one who lives and believes on me shall never die”. The first clause is straightforward: believers on Christ who die shall live again––by resurrection from among the dead. The second clause says that those who live and believe shall never die. However, believers do die, and yet the Lord clearly says here that they will not. You must understand the Lord’s words in the context in which they were spoken. Martha had said that Lazarus would rise again in the last day (John 11: 24). The last day is the final period of God’s dispensational dealings with men; it is “Jesus Christ’s day” (Phil. 1: 6). It is the 1000 year reign of Christ on earth, (Rev. 20: 4) at the commencement of which the first resurrection takes place (John 6: 39, 40, 44, 54). Every believer still in death will be raised to enter the kingdom; and those who are still alive on the earth and believe shall now never die––for no believer ever dies in the millennial reign of Christ. In a word they will enter into eternal life which has its proper setting in the world to come. Once the Lord has set up the kingdom, no believer ever dies again and eternal life at last is realised on earth in all its fullness.
John 8: 51, where the Lord says “Verily, verily, I say unto you, If any one shall keep my word, he shall never see death”, is similar. The Jews reply that Abraham has died and ask if He is greater than Abraham. The Lord says (v56) “Your father Abraham exulted in that he should see my day, and he saw and rejoiced”. Christ’s day is the day of glory, the millennium. Most commentators spiritualize the verse, but it is clear from the Jews response that physical death is meant: They say that the Lord said “If any one keep my word, he shall never taste death” (v52). This fact of the believer keeping His word and never dying will be literally realised in the 1000 year reign of Christ.
Hence believers are raised in order to enter into eternal life (John 6: 40). Those who die in the kingdom period will be sinners. Is. 65: 20 says “There shall be no more thenceforth an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not completed his days; for the youth shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner being a hundred years old shall be accursed”. Thus death is virtually absent in the conditions spoken of by the prophet, although it still exists as an exceptional instrument of judicial infliction. Man will then fill his days, which he has never yet done. No one has yet lived 1000 years, yet this will be the rule for the righteous who live on earth when the Lord reigns. So thoroughly will death be the exception rather than the rule, that one dying a hundred years old will be but a youth; and even then he that dies at a hundred years old will be a sinner under some express curse. Believers alone, of course, will have eternal life and as enjoying that during the 1000 years cannot die. Men will be born during the millennium and some will not believe. Hence in the final rebellion, when Satan is loosed for a little while to deceive the nations, those who rebel will be slain by God’s intervention (see Rev. 20: 7–10). Then finally at the end of the millennium the rest of the dead will be raised. All who are then raised will be unbelievers and lost. They will appear before the great white throne, be judged and cast into the lake of fire which is called the second death (Rev. 20: 11–15). Those there will be forever separated from “the life of God” (Eph. 4: 18).
Distinctive resurrection was the subject of one of the first preachings: “by Jesus the resurrection from among [the] dead” (Acts 4: 2). It was also the great object before the apostle Paul. In Phil. 3, his great desire was to know Christ and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings , (v10). What kind of resurrection was that? It was “the resurrection from among [the] dead” (v11). That was his goal. He had not as yet been made perfect, he had not as yet experienced resurrection, his “body of humiliation” had not as yet been transformed “into conformity to his body of glory” (v21), but this resurrection from among the dead was his grand objective. He says, “if any way” he did not care what the pathway to it was, as long as he reached the goal. This is the first resurrection. Hence he goes on to exhort “As many therefore as [are] perfect, let us be thus minded” (v15). He is not referring to some already raised. The exhortation is not to be perfect, but to be thus minded. Those he is thinking of, have their perfection in their outlook, the way they thought, the way they minded. Those who were perfect in the sense of spiritual maturity (see Eph. 4: 13). Paul thought like this but he graciously puts himself in the exhortation––let us be thus minded. While the first resurrection has more than one phase––before the tribulation, during the tribulation and after the tribulation––it is all the first resurrection. The timing may differ, but the character is the same––raised for blessing. Those raised at the end of the millennium will all be raised at the same time, but raised for judgement and the second death. Which then is it to be for you, the first resurrection or the second death?