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Insight #111 – The “First Resurrection” (kingdom series, 7 of 8)

June 13, 2003.

What Is the Millennium? Which millennium? Any period of one thousand years is a millennium. Since January 1, 2001, we have been living in the third millennium since Christ. However, when Christians speak of “the” millennium, they refer to the thousand-year period mentioned six times in Revelation 20:1-7. What is that millennium?

Most would admit that the question of the millennium is not an easy topic. Regardless of one’s understanding of the matter, there are hard questions to answer. No view is without difficulties. But which view has the least difficulties? Which view harmonizes most with the rest of the Bible? With these questions in view, the present Insight was preceded by six others regarding the kingdom. Readers may find it easier to properly appreciate and evaluate the current Insight if they have carefully considered the issues and the Scriptures studied in the previous six Insights on the topic. They dealt with kingdom teachings in Daniel, the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles, and Revelation.

A Christian cannot hope to gain an understanding of Revelation 20 without first resolved the question of the kingdom. Were God’s promises in the Old Testament strictly for the Jews, or did God have us Gentiles in mind? Is Jesus’ kingdom present in the world today, or is he not yet a king? Is Jesus’ kingdom to be a material, earthly, physical Jewish kingdom with headquarters in old Jerusalem, or is His kingdom “not of this world”? It is impossible to rightly interpret Revelation 20:1-7 without first giving a Scriptural response to such questions. The purpose of the first six articles in this series was to offer such a Scriptural response.

The sixth Insight in the series, Insight #105, also examined Revelation 20:1-7 to see what the millennium is not. There are so many things that Revelation 20 does not teach.

It is now time to consider what Revelation 20 does teach. How can we properly harmonize some puzzling statements in Revelation 20:1-7 with the rest of the Word of God? In addition to the kingdom question, there are at least two very important expressions that must be studied. First of all, what is meant by the “first resurrection”? Secondly, what is meant by Satan being “bound”? Once these questions are resolved, the rest can much more easily fall into place.

Everyone Has Problems with Literal View

Anyone who studies Revelation 20 as an isolated text might easily gain the impression that there will be two future resurrections separated by one thousand years. Such a scenario, however, is difficult to harmonize with other Scriptures regarding end times. Some of these Scriptures were examined in two previous Insights: Insight #78, “The Rapture” and Insight #105, “The Millennium is Not…” In the present Insight, we will examine the evidence for interpreting the “first resurrection” as a spiritual resurrection, which takes place when a person is converted to Christ.

Before hastily brushing aside such an interpretation, one must fully understand the futurist-premillennial alternative. The “first resurrection” of Revelation 20 is actually not the first resurrection in the futurist scheme of things. According to their own teaching, the “first resurrection” of Revelation 20 takes place a full seven years after their real first resurrection. Obviously, they must find some way to explain such a contradiction. Tim LaHaye, coauthor of the “Left Behind” series, explains it as three “phases” of the first resurrection, as follows:

1. First phase of first resurrection: (1 Thessalonians 4) “church age saints” raised at the rapture– the rapture being the first phase of Jesus’ second coming;
2. Second phase of first resurrection: (Daniel 12) Old Testament saints raised just before the second phase of Jesus’ second coming; and
3. Third phase of first resurrection: (Revelation 20) “tribulation saints” raised at the second phase of Jesus’ second coming (“Revelation Unveiled,” 1999, Tim LaHaye, pages 325-26).

Are you confused? You should be! Why not call Jesus’ future coming “the second phase of His first coming”? How about Columbus? He came to the new world in 1492, 1493, 1498 and 1502. So Columbus’ first coming was in 1492. The first phase of his second coming was in 1493. The second phase of his second coming was in 1498. The third phase of his second coming was in 1502. Would anyone accept a history book with such nonsense?!

“First” meaning “second” or even “third” is simply not the type of literal interpretation which futurists claim as their bedrock. Since futurists put the “third-first resurrection” of Revelation 20 seven years after “the first-first resurrection,” they cannot complain that we do not interpret it literally, either. They invent “three phases of the first resurrection,” nowhere spoken of in Scripture. Rather than accepting man’s invention, why not examine the Holy Spirit’s explanation of a resurrection which certainly is the first resurrection in the life of every child of God.

The Case for a Spiritual Resurrection

Revelation 20 is the only text in the Bible that specifically says “first resurrection.” Not only so, but neither Revelation 20 nor any other text in the Bible specifically speaks of a “second resurrection.” In 20:14, “the lake of fire” is identified as “the second death.” However, nothing is specifically identified as being “the second resurrection.” Since a “second resurrection” is nowhere identified as such, we must exercise great care in attempting to determine what is meant by the “first resurrection.”

“The dead in Christ shall rise first,” in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, is not a reference to any “first resurrection.” The rising first in that context has nothing to do with the resurrection of other dead persons. Rather, “first” in that text is in relationship to the living saints when Jesus comes. It says, “The dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up.” It is simply saying that the dead saints will be raised first before the live saints are caught up in the air with them.

There are no verses in Scripture that name a “second resurrection.” Indeed, there are several texts that clearly appear to rule out the idea of two future resurrections separated by hundreds of years. Some of these texts were examined in previous Insights.

One must keep in mind that the book of Revelation is highly figurative, including chapter 20. Nobody understands the dragon-serpent of verse 2 as an actual snake or Chinese-like dragon. The verse itself says it represents Satan. Nobody understands the beast in verse 4 as a literal four-legged-wild animal. All consider it to be an anti-Christian entity or individual. Who takes literally the key, the chain or the seal? There is therefore a strong possibility that the “first resurrection” could also be a spiritual, rather than a physical resurrection.

Resurrection in a figurative sense is not unknown to Scripture. “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac… accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure” (Hebrews 11:17-19). Literally, Isaac neither died nor was he raised from the dead. However, since Abraham was at the point of slaying him, he was as good as dead. Abraham, in his mind, had it all figured out. He firmly believed that after he killed Isaac, God would raise him from the dead “from whence also he received him in a figure.” Thus, in this case, Scripture itself says it is speaking of being raised from the dead in a figurative sense.

What Did Jesus Say?

Apart from the case in Hebrews, there is a spiritual resurrection which is spoken of several times in Scripture. It would seem that the account of the prodigal son gives an explanation that anyone can understand. It concerns a young man who had to get out on his own and live it up. He enjoyed a loose, wasteful and prodigal lifestyle. When he came to his senses and humbly, with repentance, turned back toward home, his father received him with great joy. The father exclaimed, “This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24). Does anyone have trouble understanding this? The young man was “lost” and “dead” spiritually. He was “found” and “alive again” spiritually. It is Jesus who put these words into the father’s mouth–words which equate conversion with resurrection.

In John 5:28-29, speaking of the far-off future, Jesus said: “The hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” Here are two resurrections. However, Jesus spoke of two kinds, not two times. “The hour is coming… ” Two kinds of resurrection at the same time.

But before Jesus mentioned those future resurrections, he spoke of a resurrection which is here and now. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that hears my word, and believes on him that sent me, has everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live” (John 5:24-25).

A careful study of the context will make it easier to grasp the major differences between these closely related verses. Within six verses, Jesus spoke of three resurrections: He spoke of an “hour” in the future when all those in the graves would experience either a resurrection of life or a resurrection of condemnation. However, the first resurrection He mentioned is one that takes place here and now. This resurrection involves only those who hear and believe. They pass from death to life. Both in the order mentioned in these verses and also in the historical order involved, this is the first resurrection. A resurrection here and now for those who believe. Jesus said so.

Inspired Apostles Confirm and Amplify

Paul used the same terminology in Ephesians 2:5-6: “Even when we were dead in sins, [God] has quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) and has raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Both the death and the resurrection referred to are spiritual in nature. “Were dead in sins,” “has quickened us” and “raised us” are all three past tense–a resurrection that has already taken place in this life.

Paul adds a new dimension in his letter to the Colossians, when he connects the process to baptism: “Buried with him in baptism, wherein also you are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who has raised him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, has he quickened [made alive] together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses” (2:12-13). A sinner is dead in sin. The dead person must be buried. Once buried in the watery grave, the person is “risen with Him through the faith… quickened together with him.”

Baptism is not arbitrary. God did not pick just “any old thing.” The symbolism in baptism is most impressive. The physical act of immersion in water portrays a death, burial and resurrection. The significance is double. Baptism pictures the death, burial and resurrection of Christ Jesus, through whom only there is forgiveness of sin. Baptism also pictures what spiritually is happening to the person at the moment of baptism. A person has died to sin, now buries the “old man” of sin in the watery grave and then rises to walk in a new life.

Paul spells it all out in that great Romans text: “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know you not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life… knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him” (6:2-6).

Far from being a meritorious work, baptism is an act of deep faith. That must be why so many stumble over it. Just as many “worldly” persons have a hard time accepting a blood sacrifice as the means of forgiving sin, so many “religious” persons have a hard time accepting water as having any relationship to salvation. The ones want to be saved without blood; the others, without water. However, as seen in Romans 6, God united blood and water. We are “baptized into his death.” This is no work of righteousness.

In baptism, we show our faith in Jesus’ death, blood and resurrection. “In baptism… risen… through the faith of the operation of God” (Col. 2:12). That is why infants cannot be baptized–they are incapable of faith. Sad to say, the “faith only” people lack faith in “the operation of God” in baptism. They dismiss baptism as a “work.” However, the inspired apostle Paul connected it to faith: “In baptism… risen… through the faith.”

Nobody Accepts “Faith Only”

In reality, nobody believes that salvation is by “faith alone.” If salvation is by faith alone, why does the preacher urge you to come down the aisle? Why does he ask you to “pray this prayer with me”? Every invitation, every tract ends with “pray this prayer.” Even though they say “faith alone,” in their innermost being they realize that we must “do something.” Jesus agrees. However, Jesus did not say, “He who believes and says the sinners’ prayer will be saved.” Never! Jesus said, “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). Man has substituted the sinner’s prayer for sinner’s baptism. Thereby they miss the first resurrection!

Just as Jesus taught that “he that believes and is baptized shall be saved,” so He taught that one must be “born of water and of the Spirit” (John 3:5). It does not take much thought to realize that being born again, on the one hand, and passing from death to life, on the other hand, are two figures which vividly refer of the same process. Just as conversion is a new birth, so is it also a death, burial and resurrection. The spiritual reality is invisible. Jesus’ death was visible; that it was for the forgiveness of sin is a matter of faith. Water baptism is visible; that it is for the forgiveness of sin is a matter of faith. “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38).

The Best Revelation Commentary

Scripture interprets Scripture. Many of the figures in the book of Revelation are found elsewhere in the Word of God. The book of Revelation must not be divorced from clear Christian doctrine. Outside of Revelation, it is Scriptural to say that the Christian has already been raised from the dead. When we turned our back on sin and were buried with Christ in the watery grave of baptism, we then arose to walk in newness of life. What better explanation than this can be given for the “first resurrection” of Revelation 20?

Colossians then adds (in 3:1-2), “If you then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.” The message is not to look forward to a future “first resurrection” followed by a reign of Christ upon this earth. No. Rather, Paul speaks of the Christian’s resurrection as an accomplished fact and affirms that, because of that resurrection, Christians should set their minds on heavenly things, not earthly things. Or, as he expressed it in Philippians 3:20: “Our citizenship is in heaven.” Our citizenship is not in a thousand-year-earthly kingdom. It is in heaven.

This explanation of the “first resurrection” is based on solid apostolic doctrine. Other explanations of the “first resurrection” are speculations by way of isolating the expressions in Revelation 20 from the rest of the Bible. The “first resurrection” known outside of Revelation 20 is the resurrection that was experienced by the prodigal son, he “was dead and is alive again.”

What Is the Millennium?

It is true that the view presented in this Insight is not the most popular view, nor is it without its difficulties. However, the popular futurist view also has its difficulties. Since both views have their difficulties, we must search and determine which view has the least difficulties. The view presented here has the advantage that it puts Revelation 20 in harmony with the rest of the New Testament in at least four important aspects:

1. It acknowledges the first resurrection that Christians do experience, albeit a spiritual resurrection;
2. It agrees with the various texts which present the physical resurrection of the righteous and the wicked as taking place at the same time;
3. It agrees with the spiritual nature of the kingdom as taught by Jesus and the apostles; and
4. It upholds the concept that Christians have “one hope” as mentioned in Ephesians 4:4 and as explained in 1 Peter 1:3-4: “hope… in heaven.” The futurists, on the other hand, have two hopes. They hope first for “the millennium” and secondly for “eternal life.”

According to the view of the first resurrection presented here, the “thousand years” is a symbolic term referring to an indefinitely long period of time. It is a time that embraces the totality of the “gospel age” or “church age.” Some believers, reading Revelation 20:4, notice that reference is made to those who had not worshipped the beast. This causes them to believe that the “thousand years” must be a period of time after the beast appears, or even after the “forty and two months” (1,260 prophetic years) during which the beast holds sway (Revelation 13:4-5). This concept is not without its merits.

In either of these two cases, the millennium is seen as taking place during the present gospel-church age–either the entire age or a portion of it. These two views totally reject a claimed future thousand-year-political reign of Jesus on earth with earthly Jerusalem as capital and in which the inhabitants of the earth are forced to live a decent life. Rather, they agree that God’s kingdom is here now. They agree that Jesus is King now. They agree with Jesus when He said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” They agree that we have already been raised from the dead “through the faith of the operation of God.” They agree, as the song says, “This world is not my home”–not now, nor for a thousand years.

Others in series: (1 of 8) (2 of 8) (3 of 8) (4 of 8) (5 of 8) (6 of 8) (8 of 8)