THE FIRST RESURRECTION
We must now consider what is meant by “the first resurrection.” In the first place, it must be emphasized again that in this passage the first resurrection is the blessed experience of the souls of those who are in Christ, and with Christ, though “dead and buried” as far as this world is concerned. It is not the experience of “the rest of the dead.” Secondly, Scripture elsewhere contemplates only one bodily resurrection of the dead, which, because it involves the raising of all men, has customarily been known as the general resurrection. The Athanasian Creed, for example, after affirming Christ’s ascension into heaven and his session at the right hand of the Father, “from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead,” declares that at his coming “all men shall rise again with their bodies, and shall give account for their own works.” This is a straightforward summary of the biblical doctrine. Thus in the book of Daniel we read that “those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). Otherwise, however, the teaching of resurrection is not clearly developed in the Old Testament, although there is a definite expectation of future life in the presence of God for those who fear him.
In the New Testament there is a great advance in the understanding of this subject, which is not surprising in view of the centrality in the gospel message of the bodily death and resurrection of Jesus. The general resurrection is explicitly announced by Christ himself in these words: “The hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (Jn. 5:28f.). That this does not mean two resurrections, but one resurrection involving the classification of all into two groups, the justified and the wicked, so that the resurrection has a twofold outcome, either life or judgment, depending on which group one is in, is confirmed by the parable of the separation between the sheep and the goats at the return of Christ, the former passing into eternal life and the latter into eternal punishment (Mt. 25:31ff.), and by Paul’s assertion that “there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15). The reality of the resurrection is implicit also in Christ’s admonition to his disciples that, rather than fearing men who can kill only the body, they should fear God “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28).
Now it is evident that the persons whose souls live and reign with Christ during the millennium are awaiting the general resurrection, when the nakedness of separation from their bodies will cease as, clothed with spiritual bodies, they are conformed to the body of Christ’s glory (2 Cor. 5:1-4; 1 Cor. 15:42ff.; Phil. 3:20f.). Yet even now, as they await this great and ultimate transformation, they are said to share in the first resurrection. Plainly, therefore, there is a resurrection that precedes the general resurrection. And the New Testament does indeed have much to say about another, earlier resurrection, itself an event of the greatest possible moment — the resurrection, namely, of Jesus from the dead. This is the only other resurrection, and it is well qualified to be designated “the first resurrection.” (The miraculous restoration to life of some persons, such as the son of the widow of Nain and Lazarus, while significant of the power of God to raise the dead, is a lesser and temporary kind of resurrection, since for such persons it means a return to this present earthly life, only, sooner or later, to die again.) Christ’s resurrection is the first resurrection not only in point of time but also in point of significance; for, as Paul says, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). His rising is the guarantee and the dynamic cause of the second resurrection. It is the gage of the full harvest. It is the assurance to his followers that the same power of God that raised him will also raise them to eternal life and glory (2 Cor. 4:14), and to his despisers, conversely, that they will be raised to judgment and destruction (Acts 17:31).
Christian believers share in the blessedness of this first resurrection. Through faith and by God’s grace they become one with Christ; and so intimate is this identification that his destiny becomes their destiny. This is the deep significance of Christian baptism: his resurrection from the dead is our resurrection from the dead, even now in this present life, and even in the interval between physical death and the glorification of the second resurrection. In baptism we are not only buried with Christ, but are “also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12). Similarly, Paul tells the Romans: “We were buried with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). And, highly significant in the light of John’s vision of the souls of believers living and reigning on thrones with Christ, there is the assertion, which could hardly be plainer, that God “raised us up with him, and made us sit with him [on thrones!] in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6; cf. Col. 3:1).
Wonderful as the reality of this union with Christ is for the believer here and now while he is still on earth, it is still more wonderful when, at death, he departs in his soul to be with Christ and finds himself exalted and enthroned in his presence. Here, crucially, is a still greater proof of the blessing that flows from that first resurrection and the evidence that the Christian truly has a share in it; for he now, through his own death, experiences the great truth that in Christ the sting of death and its fear have been removed (1 Cor. 15:56f.; Heb. 2:14f.), and finds that to be at home with Christ, though away from the body, is “far better” (2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23). Blessed, indeed, and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection! But most wonderful of all will be the moment of Christ’s return at the end of this age, when in the second resurrection soul and body (now glorified) will be reunited, and in the fulness of his humanity the Christian believer will at last be totally and everlastingly conformed to the glorious image of the Son (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 3:21; 1 Jn. 3:2). Thus the full harvest of which the first resurrection is a surety will be brought in.
Philip Edgecumbe Hughes was Visiting Professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia and Associate Rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania. His other works include Theology of the English Reformers, Commentary on II Corinthians, But for the Grace of God, and Confirmation in the Church Today.
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