What is the first resurrection?

By Rev. Charles Cooper

"The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years."

With these words in Revelation 20:5-6, the apostle John introduces a new concept—the first resurrection. A natural implication in the mind of some is the notion that if there is a "first resurrection," there must be at least a "second resurrection." Scholars are divided over what constitutes the resurrection. In other words, is there one general resurrection or is there a multi-phased resurrection of the righteous separated by a thousand years from a final resurrection of the wicked? Revelation 20:5-6 clearly indicates a separation between those raised at the beginning of the 1000-year period and those raised at the end of it. What, then, is the first resurrection?

The New Testament does not have a single term for the resurrection. John 5:28-29 indicates that there will be a resurrection to life and a resurrection to judgment. However, no indication is given that these two events will not happen at the same time. It is the apostle Paul who delineates stages or groups of the resurrection. He writes, "…by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end…(1 Cor. 15:21-24a)." It is clear that Paul saw the resurrection of Christ and "those who are Christ’s at His coming" as two distinct aspects of the resurrection.

Paul designates the Lord’s resurrection as "first fruits." This is important. The term fruits in the Greek is a singular term, but represents a plural number (what is called a collective noun). The concept of a "first portion" or "first fruit" is a familiar one. In the natural order, the first fruit of any crop would involve more than one, thus, the NASB’s translation first fruits. Interestingly, Matthew 27:52-53 states, "and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many." These individuals should be included in the first fruits of the general resurrection.

The essential point that we can deduce from 1 Corinthians 15 is that the separation of one phase of the resurrection from another does not nullify the designation the general resurrection. Therefore, the indication in Revelation 20 that a resurrection will occur in close proximity to the beginning of the millennium is consistent with the teachings of the apostle Paul. John limits this particular resurrection to those beheaded for refusing to actively participate in the worship of Antichrist. Killed for their faithfulness to Christ, the beheaded faithful are blessed because they have "a part (literally, to experience along with others [Louw/Nida, § 90.83]) in the first resurrection." Only by spiritualizing this passage and ignoring the textual details can this group be made to represent all believers of all the ages. John clearly intends a smaller group, every single one of them, beheaded.

Consequently, we are able to posit that John’s resurrection to life and his first resurrection both refer to a general multi-phased resurrection of the righteous. It stretches from the resurrection of Christ and those raised with Him (Mat. 24:52-53), to those raised at the Rapture/Parousia (1 Cor. 15:23), to those beheaded martyrs raised in close proximity to the beginning of the millennium (Rev. 20:4-5). This is the first resurrection.

John does not designate the resurrection that will follow the millennium as the "second resurrection." Probably the reason John does not do this is that the resurrection after the millennium will be distinctively different from the first. In Revelation 20:5, John records that "The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed." This by definition must involve the wicked that have not been raised to this point in biblical chronology. Revelation 20:11-15 describes the resurrection unto judgment, which John alluded to in John 5:38-39. This judgment is generally called the white throne judgment. John states that anyone’s whose name is not found in the book of life such a one will be thrown into the lake of fire—the second death.

That the book of life would be consulted at this point highlights the fact that both believers and unbelievers will be present at this judgment. Isaiah 65:17-25 supports this conclusion. There, Isaiah indicates that those who enter the kingdom in physical bodies will live long lives during the temporal kingdom on earth. However, he also indicates that these people will die. While the resurrected saints will not die, those Jews and Gentiles who survive the sheep and goat judgment of Matthew 25:31ff will enter the kingdom, but will not live the entire 1,000 years. Thus "the white throne judgment" will involve all the wicked dead of all the ages – with the exception of Antichrist, the false prophet (Rev 20:10) and the goats from the sheep and goat judgment of Matthew 25:41 – and the righteous dead who died during the 1000 years.

 

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