This is the 2nd article in the Resurrection Series. The first installment can be found at this link Was Heaven Conjured Up By Man or Was it Revealed to Man from Heaven?
Today we put faith in the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, but imagine the faith of the old testament saints who believed but had no proof yet of anyone rising from the dead. Like many listed in Hebrew’s famous Hall of Faith, Abraham gained approval through faith, but did not receive what was promised (Hebrews 11:39).
“All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”Hebrews 11:13
Why had they not received what was promised?
Who’s on First? The Order of the Resurrection
The men and women of faith listed in Hebrews 11 surely would receive a resurrection to life. But as it says
“all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.”Hebrews 11:39-40
The saints of old would not receive the promise before those addressed in this first century letter referred to as “us.”
Though the old testament saints died desiring the heavenly city and Abraham knew of the resurrection (Hebrews 11:16-19), all the faithful saints remained asleep in their tombs even 3 decades after Jesus had already entered heaven. None had been resurrected to life.
So what was God waiting for?
God had in mind an order to the resurrection.
But the fact is, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.1 Corinthians 15:20
Christ would be first, but who would be second in line?
But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming,1 Corinthians 15:23
Paul comforted the congregations concerning those among them who had “fallen asleep” but assured them that since Jesus was the first to be raised of those who slept, the rest would soon follow (1 Corinthians 15:6, 18-20) This is confirmation from Paul’s earlier epistle to the Thessalonians where he also told them “the dead in Christ would rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). This leaves no room for any old testament saints preceding those who died later as Christians.
In the first century, Jesus displayed His power in awakening various people from a recent passing into death but didn’t resurrect any ancient saints long since decayed (Mark 5:41-42; Luke 7:15; John 11:43-44). The few people He did awaken from sleep did not ascend to heaven though. As John correctly wrote at that time “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.” (John 3:13)
Even 30 years after Jesus ascended to heaven, the evidence within the Bible shows it was in error to promote the idea that anyone else had ascended to heaven. As late as AD 64 the resurrection of the dead had NOT taken place but some were in fact straying from the truth and upsetting the faith of others by saying it had already happened according to Paul’s letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 2:17-18) John also mentions those saints were still awaiting their reward in Revelation 6:9-11.
But does the Bible give us any indication WHEN the resurrection of the dead would happen? Yes, it actually does.
The Resurrection on the Last Day
Jesus promised Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” (John 11:23)
Martha wasn’t surprised by this statement. She understood that the dead slept in Hades but would one day be redeemed from that condition. So she replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” (John 11:24)
No one laid to rest in Hades had risen from the dead before but she was aware of the promises for a “resurrection on the last day.”
She trusted there was a specific time in the future for this to happen. As a Jew, she was trained to believe that all would sleep in the grave until the last day.
We can’t ignore this connection between
the last day and the resurrection of the dead.
Martha understood this timing of the resurrection and Jesus did not correct her. In fact, He had confirmed this same connection of the resurrection occuring on the last day when speaking with some Jews a few days prior to His encounter with Martha.
39 And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of everything that He has given Me I will lose nothing, but will raise it up on the last day.40 For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”John 6:39,40,44,54
44 No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.
54 The one who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.
Four times in John chapter 6 Jesus stated that the resurrection would happen on the last day.
This is why groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that the saints of old along with our dead loved ones today are still asleep in the grave. Since they focus on the last day as yet ahead of us in history, they maintain that the resurrection has not yet occurred. They will often point to passages from Eccleciastes to prove that the dead remain unconscious in the grave (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10). They will also raise questions about the account of Lazarus noting that upon waking up he gave no story of heavenly bliss. Well of course he didn’t! Heaven had not been opened yet to receive the resurrected because even Jesus had not yet died. They dismiss what Jesus was revealing to Martha regarding the time that was at hand.
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.”John 11:25-27
Why would Jesus not simply agree and tell her to put hope in a resurrection thousands of years into the future? Instead Jesus announced Himself as “the resurrection” and asked her to believe that those who trust in Him would never die.
Martha believed His words but this wasn’t the case with some Jews a few days earlier. They considered Jesus to have a demon for uttering such a claim (John 8:51-52)
Prior to Lazarus’ death, Jesus said something similar to a crowd. “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” (John 5:24)
In the same passage, He speaks again of the dead who WILL live, “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25)
Lazarus had been dead for 4 days, but because Jesus is the resurrection, Martha’s brother would rise upon hearing His voice. A very present promise for Martha and powerful demonstration for all who witnessed this authority in Jesus.
Jesus also demonstrated this with Jairus’ little girl and the widow’s son at Nain whom were all raised from the sleep of death (Mark 5:41-42; Luke 7:15)
That is why Jesus proclaimed the present power in John 5:25 as “an hour is coming and now is”
There would be more to come, but His power as the Resurrection was already on display to validate His claim.
Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, and the widow’s son serve as examples of the dead who would hear the voice of the Son of God, and live, But when introducing the events of verse 28 He mentions those “in the tombs” and does not include the phrase “now is” but simply says “an hour is coming.”
Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, 29 and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.John 5:28-29
The mention of tombs makes a distinction from those who who had died but whom Jesus referred to as “asleep.” With the exception of Lazarus, none of the others who rose from sleep had been placed in a tomb. John 5:28-29 refers to those who had physically died and were buried in tombs. He is promising there will be a “resurrection of life” but also a “resurrection of judgment” for some in the “hour that is coming.” But in the case of the dead coming to life in verse 25, the time was referred to as “now is.”
Now pause. Compare verse 24 and 29 for yourself.
One will not come into judgment, the other will.
One “crosses over” from death to life in His hearing, the other is dead and in a tomb but will later hear.
We will explore more about this in later articles, but the point of my sharing all this now is to demonstrate how “death to life” differs from “resurrection.” In the case of John 4:24 there is no mention of a “resurrection” from the dead. Only those passing from a state of death into a state of life. Jesus acknoledged that people would still physically die when he said to Martha, “he who believes in Me will live even if he dies“ and He also promised her that “everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” (John 11:24-25) It’s pretty obvious here that He’s speaking of spiritual life. They could die physically yet never die spiritually.
Those who die in the time known as “now is” would not have to experience death in the same manner as those who died prior to the first fruits offered in Christ’s resurrection. Those who witnessed Jesus’ life and resurrection would receive the promise soon as it was now very near to fulfillment unlike the old testament saints who slept waiting in their tombs for many years yet did not receive the promise. SOON they would receive it together (Hebrews 11:39-40) The “now is” group had the privilege of witnessing Jesus’s power over death when He raised those who had fallen asleep. But He also spoke of a future time in which there would be a resurrection for those who were unable as yet to hear His voice or witness such miracles (John 5:28-29) And as stated earlier, we know that resurrection had not yet happened by AD 64 because Paul wrote;
But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some.2 Timothy 2:16-18
He is addressing an important distinction in this letter. If Hymenaeus and Philetus were able to convince Christians that the resurrection had already taken place, their words would’ve easily been dismissed if the people were expecting to see physical bodies arise from their graves. Therefore, Hymenaeus and Philetus must’ve been spreading the message that a spiritual resurrection was occuring within themselves or saints had already gone to heaven invisibly.
To be sure, there is a figurative use of “death” and of “resurrection” with which we ought to be careful. In one sense, we as Christians can say we “died” at the cross and experienced a “resurrection” to new life. Even Paul used similar terminology here:
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.Galatians 2:20
No one took the position that the apostle Paul literally was nailed to the cross and crucified with Christ. If he was, how could he write this letter to tell of it? But Paul DID NOT view that as a resurrection to life or to judgment that Jesus spoke of at John 5:29. That had not happened yet as his letter to Timothy confirms.
From the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry right on into our day, people respond to the gospel message and continue to “die” with Christ and no longer live for themselves. But this is NOT the same as a “resurrection from the tombs” as Jesus spoke of in John 5:28. That is why Paul is correcting the view of this “symbolic” resurrection not being the same as the literal resurrection in his letter to Timothy. Paul had earlier gone so far as to say our baptism is into Christ’s death where we were buried with Him “so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4) Now, Paul believed that Christ’s death and resurrection was literal and physical, but in this instance, Paul uses the literal and physical reality of Christ as an example of what happens in us as believers in a more symbolic way. We did not literally “die” with Christ and get “buried” in the tomb with Him, but we accept the language of death here to understand the symbolism of our baptisms. Paul walked in the “newness of life” but he also understood his literal, physical death was yet ahead of him because he spoke of his own impending death and departure to be with Christ (Philippians 1:23; 2 Timothy 4:6)
But notice in those passages, Paul did not speak of his “resurrection.” He spoke of it as a “departure” and believed he would immediately “be with Christ” even preferring to be “absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8) In fact, Paul didn’t expect a long wait in the grave like Abraham but rather expected to be “transformed” soon for his citizenship in heaven.
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our lowly condition into conformity with His glorious body, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.Philippians 3:20-21
Why would he say this? Because Paul believed Jesus’ promise that the time was near and at hand. Jesus had already proved He was the promised “resurrection and the life” just as He had said to Martha in John 11:25. He was bringing His followers to life and was preparing a place now for them and for the resurrection of those in their tombs.
Paul understood “the present time” which our Lord called “now is.”
We’ll explore that appointed time in the next article!
Keep yourself in God’s love, Julie