What is Resurrection
The Scriptures as a whole find their focus upon Jesus. The hope of all mankind from the beginning to the end rests upon Him and His work and ministry. Thus, it is self evident that the concept of resurrection in both the Old Testament and the new should be defined and understood in terms of Jesus’ resurrection. Whatever one says about resurrection, where one is raised from the dead to immortality, Jesus’ resurrection is the only real pattern we have. All other patterns, while helpful, are limited, because those raised from the dead later died as mortals.
The Pattern of Jesus’ Resurrection
The first and most important pattern is that Jesus was raised bodily from the tomb. The disciples came to the tomb to look for Him, but He had risen. His resurrection was NOT the same thing as His ascension, or going to heaven. It was a physical, literal event, “as He said” (Matt. 28:6). In other words, when Jesus talked of the resurrection prior to that time, He meant to convey the literal meaning of the term, not a “spiritual” event in the sense that some take it.
The only real question is “with what body do they come?” (1 Cor. 15:35? Is the resurrected body physical or spiritual? The answer is: BOTH. He had a heavenly Father and an earthly mother, and the resurrected body was the culmination of that relationship. He could enter the spiritual dimension (“heaven”) or the physical, earthly dimension at will. His Father had given Him all authority in BOTH realms, even as He said in Matt. 28:18 (NASB),
18 . . . All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.
As a result, He could take a physical form where the disciples could touch Him and see the wounds of His crucifixion (John 20:27). He could also eat food with the disciples (John 21:13; Luke 24:43). Then He could vanish (Luke 24:31) just as suddenly by taking spirit form. The question of whether Jesus was merely a spirit or if He had physical characteristics is faced and answered squarely in Luke 24:36-43.
36 And while they [disciples] were telling these things, He Himself stood in their midst. 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. 38 And He said to them, Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me, and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see that I have. 40 And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. 41 And while they still could not believe it for joy and were marveling, He said to them, Have you anything here to eat? 42 And they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish; 43 and He took it and ate it before them.
Jesus went out of His way to prove to them that He was not a spirit and that he had “flesh and bones.” He showed the disciples His physical scars, which no spirit would have. Then He asked for something to eat. A spirit cannot eat physical food.
Most commentators point out the fact that Jesus said nothing about having blood. He only spoke of “flesh and bones.” While this is certainly true, the greater truth that He was raised with a physical body is often overlooked. And yet this is Luke’s prime focus in the passage above, because it was the main truth that Jesus was revealing to the disciples at that moment.
This is not to say that Jesus was limited by His flesh to the physical world. The marvel of the moment was that Jesus, though physical, could move just as freely in the spiritual dimension as well. He was not confined to the spirit world, nor was He limited to the physical world. He had free access to both, because, as we have already pointed out, He had all authority in both heaven and earth, the spiritual and the physical realms.
Jesus said to the Samaritan woman in John 4:24,
24 God is Spirit; and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.
The Father, in other words, has generally limited Himself to the realm of the spiritual world. Man is likewise generally limited to the physical world. But Jesus is the Mediator, the Bridge between heaven and earth. More than that, He is our resurrection Pattern, our Example, by which we can know our destiny as well. What He is, we are becoming, for He is our Forerunner.
Jesus is limited by neither the spiritual world nor the physical world. He has all authority in BOTH realms. And so, even though we do not know very much about the nature of the resurrected body, the Bible makes these essentials very clear, because the nature of His resurrected body has become the pattern for our own resurrected body.
Two Priesthoods of Different Orders
The dual authority in both heaven and earth that will be enjoyed when men are resurrected is prophesied in Ezekiel 44 as well. In this chapter we see that after the first resurrection (of the overcomers), there will be two classes of “priests” on the earth: the “idolatrous priests” who minister in the “outer court,” and the “sons of Zadok” who will have the authority to minister to God in the inner court as well as to man in the outer court (the flesh).
We are told in Ezekiel 44:10-14 that the “idolatrous priests” would be limited to the “outer court” in ministering to men.
10 And the Levites that are gone away far from Me, when Israel went astray, which went astray from Me after their idols; they shall even bear their iniquity. 11 Yet they shall be ministers in My sanctuary, having charge of the house and ministering to the house; they shall slay the burnt offering and the sacrifice for the people, and they shall stand before them to minister unto them. 12 Because they ministered unto them before their idols, and caused the house of Israel to fall into iniquity; therefore have I lifted up Mine hand against them, saith the Lord God, and they shall bear their iniquity. 13 And they shall NOT come near unto Me to do the office of a priest unto Me, nor to come near to any of My holy things in the most holy place; but they shall bear their shame and their abominations which they have committed. 14 But I will make them keepers of the charge of the house, for all the service thereof, and for all that shall be done therein.
While Ezekiel seemed to speak of the time of an earthly temple being built, complete with sacrifices, we must understand this in a New Testament sense. God does not plan to revert back to an Old Testament sacrificial system with Levitical priests in a physical temple. Jesus has already made the full and final sacrifice for sin. (Heb. 7:27).
In this “temple,” Ezekiel tells us, the idolatrous Levites will be allowed to minister to the house and to the people in the “outer court.” One might think that idol worshippers would be unbelievers, and that God would not allow them access to this temple at all. However, the fact that God allows them to minister to the people in the outer court of His temple shows that these are believers with heart idolatry. Their priorities are wrong. Perhaps their love of money has caused them to set aside the divine law against fraudulently extracting money from their congregations. Perhaps they love the Church more than they love God and are willing to sacrifice their relationship with God in order to maintain their membership or position in the Church.
There are many ways for a believer to harbor heart idols. They are Christians, but they are not of God’s elect, the Melchizedek Order. The Bible here makes a clear distinction between these two groups.
These idolatrous Levites are allowed to minister to men in the fleshly body—the outer court. In one sense, we are the temple of God. The temple had an outer court (body), a holy place (soul), and a holy of holies (spirit). Ezekiel is telling us that these carnal, leavened Christians will be allowed to do the work of God in that day, but they will be limited to the fleshly body. They will not inherit the first resurrection, nor will they be endowed with the fullness of God’s Spirit at that time. Later, we will show that they will have to await the second, general resurrection at the end of the thousand years (Rev. 20). Only then will they be raised or changed into a glorified, spiritual body of the type that Jesus had at His resurrection.
Ezekiel goes on to tell us of the other priests, the “sons of Zadok” (Melchi-zedek Order) who will be allowed to minister to God in the inner sanctuary (spiritual realm; heaven) as well as to the people in the other court (earthly realm in a physical body). Ezekiel 44 continues,
15 But the Levitical priests, the sons of Zadok, who kept charge of My sanctuary when the sons of Israel went astray from Me, shall come near to Me to minister to me; and they shall stand before Me to offer Me the fat and the blood, declares the Lord God. 16 They shall enter My sanctuary; they shall come near to my table to minister to Me and keep My charge. 17 And it shall be that when they enter at the gates of the inner court, they shall be clothed with linen garments; and wool shall not be on them while they are ministering in the gates of the inner court and in the house. 18 Linen turbans shall be on their heads, and linen undergarments shall be on their loins; they shall not gird themselves with anything which makes them sweat. 19 And when they go out into the outer court, into the outer court of the people, they shall PUT OFF their garments in which they have been ministering and lay them in the holy chambers; then they shall put on OTHER GARMENTS [woolen] that they may not transmit holiness [perfection and immortality] to the people with their [linen] garments.
Ezekiel is telling us that these “sons of Zadok” have authority to move in the inner sanctuary of God (which represents the spiritual realm) as well as the outer court (the earthly realm). In other words, they will move with the same calling and anointing that Jesus had after His resurrection. They will have authority in both the spiritual and the physical worlds.
Thus, when they minister to God in the spiritual realm, they put on their linen “garments;” but when they come into the physical world, they put on their “woolens” (fleshly bodies). In essence, when Jesus suddenly appeared to His disciples in that closed room, He had simply “put on His woolen garments.” Wool comes from animals; linen comes from plants. In His woolen garments, He showed the disciples His hands and feet, and He ate fish and honey in their presence. When He finished ministering to His disciples in the “outer court,” dressed in His “woolens,” He simply changed into His linen garments (spiritual body), stepped into the sanctuary of heaven, and disappeared before their eyes.
At the first resurrection, the overcomers who are raised from the dead will be the Melchizedek Order under Jesus, the High Priest of that Order (Rev. 20:6; Heb. 7:17). They will minister to both God and men in both realms, heaven and earth. In contrast, however, will be those “idolatrous priests” whose heart idolatry disqualified them from the first resurrection. After they have repented, God will allow them to minister to the people on earth, but they will have to do so with the limitations of the flesh during the next thousand years.
As we will see more clearly in our next chapter, those Christians who do not qualify for the first resurrection will attain the second a thousand years later. Meanwhile, during that thousand years, God will use them in a more limited way to begin the work of teaching all nations the Word of God (Is. 2:2, 3).
The Hebrew and Greek Views of Matter and Spirit
Some believe that the first resurrection is merely the life that a Christian receives when he is justified by faith. To support this view, they cite Scriptures exhorting us to “die daily” and be raised in newness of life. This view attempts to deny the bodily resurrection of the dead in favor of a more spiritualized view. This was the view of the Sadducees who denied the resurrection altogether (Matt. 22:23; Acts 4:1, 2).
A variation of this view teaches that the first resurrection is spiritual, but the second is physical. This variation does not actually deny the resurrection of the dead, but these do not understand that there are two bodily resurrections that are yet future. I believe that when the full picture is known, as revealed in the rest of this booklet, it will be apparent that neither of the spiritualized views above are accurate. On the individual, personal level we are indeed to “die daily” and be raised with Christ daily. But this is only a type and shadow of resurrection. Our justification by faith is not resurrection itself.
The spiritualizing of resurrection has its roots in the Greek world view; the idea of the bodily resurrection has its roots in the Hebrew world view. I believe that if we go back to the beginning and study the foundations of these views, we can come to the truth of the matter.
Before the earth was created, God ruled a perfect universe by His sovereign power. Because God is a Spirit (John 4:24), there was probably a time when the physical universe did not exist, at least not in its present form as we know it. God was all in all on the spiritual plane, filling all things and manifesting Himself on the spiritual plane. Then He did something new. He decided to create a physical universe, particularly the earth, in order to manifest that power on a physical level. We know it as the “Creation.” He did not create it out of nothing; He created it out of Himself. The universe became His physical expression or manifestation. It was quite literally, “heaven on earth.”
Physical matter was not meant to be something in opposition to spirit. It was meant to manifest spirit on an additional level to what already was in heaven. It was to be governed by the same spiritual laws that governed the spiritual realm, except that the laws were to be applied and adapted according to the limitations of the physical plane. Likewise, in creating man as a moral creature, those same spiritual laws were adapted to man’s plane of existence. All of God’s laws are spiritual (Rom. 7:14), but may be adapted to other dimensions as God sees fit.
Thus, man was created a physical being, but he was ordained to manifest a spiritual reality. Man is really a manifestation of spirit on a physical plane. In other words, matter is spiritual. This is proven by Jesus’ resurrected body, which was physical, yet spiritual. Spiritual flesh is not a contradiction. It is flesh as it was originally intended. Such is the purpose of all created matter and is what shall be when God fills all in all (Eph. 1:23). We too shall manifest the spiritual in our resurrected or changed body when we are “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19).
Matter was not created evil. God created all things and then pronounced it “very good” (Gen. 1:31). This is how God views creation, which establishes the foundation for the plan of God for the earth. Any view that deviates from this foundation, teaching that matter is inherently evil, is teaching from a Greek perspective, not from a Biblical, Hebraic perspective. Unfortunately, once the early Church was scattered by persecution into the Greek-speaking culture and philosophy, it did not take long for the Church to forget the Hebraic view of creation. This affected many Church doctrines and is with us yet today.
The Greek philosophers taught that spirit was good, and matter was evil. They taught that the body was a prison for the “spiritual soul,” and that the only means of escaping the evil of this physical existence was for the flesh to die, so that the spiritual soul might be free. This disparaging view of matter caused some to teach that Christ, the Word (Logos) did NOT really come in the flesh, for how could a good God ever come into contact with evil matter and remain untainted by it?
Consequently, John addressed this view in the first part of his gospel and again in his letters. He says very specifically, “and the Word was made flesh” (John 1:14) and that any man who denied that Jesus Christ was come in the flesh was “not of God” (John 4:3), but of that “antichrist” spirit.
In other words, this view of matter and spirit is a prime issue that lies at the heart of the difference between the Greek and Hebrew religions. One’s view of creation at the beginning will ultimately affect one’s view of the end, the purpose of creation and the goal of history in the plan of God. The earth has a distinct purpose for existence. Though sin has invaded the creation, sin is not an eternally intrinsic part of matter. It is a temporary condition, which the work of Jesus counteracts. The goal of history is to eradicated all sin and death (1 Cor. 15:26) and replace it with God, until finally God is “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).
The earth is NOT destined to be destroyed or burned up entirely by fire, as some have taught. It is destined to be filled with the glory of God, who manifested Himself by FIRE, as Israel saw in the wilderness (Deut. 4:12). The earth is destined to be purified and cleansed by this same fire of the divine presence. Why? Because God has always had a purpose for creation, and He will not be turned from His purpose until He succeeds. God is NOT a failure, nor has any part of His plan failed.
The purpose of God has always been to manifest Himself in the physical creation, so that He receives glory not only in the spiritual dimension (the heavens) but also in matter. The goal is for God’s Kingdom to come to earth, and for God’s will to be done “in earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). The crescendo of this goal is for God to manifest Himself in man, who was created of the dust of the ground, whose name (Adam) means “earthly.”
Man is a microcosm of the earth itself, a little earth. It is God’s purpose to manifest Himself in man specifically, and in the earth in general. This is why he seeks to pour out His Spirit upon “all flesh” (Joel 2:28). It is the beginning of this manifestation of God in the earth in matter. The ultimate purpose for the resurrection of the dead is to prepare a body that is fit for the fullness of God’s Spirit to indwell.
If we proceed from the viewpoint that all things were created “very good,” and that sin and death have invaded creation, then we have laid a proper foundation of truth and can begin to understand the overall plan of God. The plan is to restore all things, not to destroy all things. The plan is for all things to be placed under the rulership of Jesus Christ, not to retreat and leave most of creation to the devil. The plan is to resurrect the dead into a perfected, restored body (after the pattern of Jesus’ resurrected body), not to leave the physical existence and remain in a purely spiritual body in heaven.
The Greeks taught that the earth was a springboard to heaven; the Hebrews taught that heaven was a springboard to the earth. In other words, the goal is not to escape matter and go to heaven in spirit form; it is rather that God created matter in order to manifest Himself on this level in the physical plane. Heaven is thus coming to earth in what is called the kingdom of heaven, “and we shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:10).
But let us return to our topic, dealing with those who spiritualize or redefine resurrection to mean either becoming a Christian or going to heaven when we die. While there is certainly a spiritual application of the concept of resurrection, we must not redefine it. By faith in Christ, we do inherit Life, but this is not resurrection itself; it is only a spiritual application of the principle of resurrection in our lives today. Paul spoke of baptism in terms of a symbolic death-to-life experience (Rom. 6:4), but this did not stop Paul from also speaking of a future physical resurrection after the manner of Jesus’ resurrection (1 Cor. 15; 2 Tim. 2:18). This should be self evident, so we will not spend any more time on it.
The Promises Received at Resurrection
We do not want to engage in debate here of the state of the dead, whether the dead are in heaven, in the ground, or in limbo. We have discussed this issue more fully in our book, The Judgments of the Divine Law. Insofar as the doctrine of the resurrection is concerned, it makes no difference where they are or whether they are conscious or otherwise, so long as we understand that they have not yet reached the state for which they were originally created.
For instance, if they are asleep in the earth as some believe, they must be raised into that new type of spiritual flesh to receive their reward. If, on the other hand, they go to heaven when they die and are “with the Lord” in a spiritual state, as others believe, they still must return to earth in a body of spiritual flesh, for their inheritance is to receive authority in both heaven and in earth.
Either way, we must be careful not to undermine the doctrine of the resurrection by saying that dead believers have now attained their final blessed state. Such a concept makes resurrection a regression, rather than a blessing. It must be clear in our minds that in order for any man to receive the fully blessed state promised from the beginning, one must have the ability to manifest the full presence of God in a glorified, but physical body as well as in a spiritual body.
This need for resurrection is made evident by Hebrews 11:13, 39 and 40, where we are reminded of those who had lived and died in faith in ages past. We read of them:
13 All these died in faith, without receiving the promises ... 39 And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
The important thing to recognize here is that whether they went to heaven or not at their death, they were not perfected. The real promise, which entails the entire purpose for creation, is that man would display the glory of God by means of spiritual flesh as we have already seen. This cannot be done in a purely spiritual existence in heaven. It requires the same kind of body that Jesus had after His resurrection.
Many teach, of course, that these Old Testament saints remained dead until Jesus took them to heaven with Him, at which time they did receive the promise of perfection. It is outside our scope to discuss whether they went to heaven with Jesus, but if so, we must yet insist that they did NOT receive the promise. There is still more that they must yet attain. In fact, they must wait for us. They CANNOT inherit the promise apart from us. Rev. 22:12 says,
12 Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according as what he has done.
This is a reference to Isaiah 40:10, which says:
10 Behold, the Lord God will come with might, with His arm ruling for Him; Behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him.
No matter what the state of the dead, and no matter if the Old Testament saints were taken to heaven or not when Jesus ascended one thing is clear: they without us cannot be perfected. This perfection must await the day when the full corporate body has had a chance to be born and attain to this resurrection. God is doing a corporate work here, and men are not going to be perfected piecemeal, one at a time, at the moment of death.
On the other hand, we ourselves are not going to receive the promise ahead of those who have lived and died in the past. Paul says in 1 Thess. 4:15,
15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming [parousia] of the Lord shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.
In other words, we will not be perfected without them being present. This is the purpose of resurrection. It is to raise the dead to stand along side the living, so that all may receive the promise at the same time.
This is well illustrated in the story of Israel in the wilderness under Moses. Caleb and Joshua wanted to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, but because the others lacked faith, all were held back for 40 years. Even Caleb and Joshua could not receive the promise by themselves. They had to wait for the generation that was to receive the promise. Then they crossed the Jordan together.
In the same way, the Church has been in a “wilderness” for 40 Jubilees since Pentecost. Because this is a greater fulfillment, involving a longer period of time, the Calebs and Joshuas of this age have had to die. Yet the promise is that they will be alive to cross over “Jordan” into the promise. That is why the overcomers must be raised from the dead first. It is because they have the same promise as that given to Caleb and Joshua. They must be raised from the dead in order to receive that promise at the same time as the end-time overcomers.
Those That Deny Resurrection Altogether
A more extreme spiritualized view today denies ANY physical resurrection at all, with the possible exception of Jesus’ resurrection. These believe that men simply go to heaven at death, where they receive the full promise of Scripture, attaining the greatest state of bliss that they will ever achieve. This view completely destroys any need for resurrection, and the purpose of mankind, they say, is to shed this material body in favor of the purely spiritual existence. To return to a physical body would be a regression.
A similar view was apparently held by the Sadducees in Jesus’ day. Matt. 22:23 says,
23 On that day some Sadducees (who say there is no resurrection) came to Him and questioned Him . . .
This verse is repeated in Mark 12:18 and Luke 12:27. The Sadducees were NOT atheists who believed death ended one’s existence forever. They were a religious party that taught the Greek view of the immortality of the soul and believed that the dead went immediately to heaven. In their eyes, this eliminated any need for resurrection.
Paul found it necessary to deal with this issue in 1 Corinthians 15, where he devoted an entire chapter to this very question. Paul had been a Pharisee before his conversion, and so it is likely he had debated this very question with the Sadducees in his early years. Somehow this Sadducee doctrine had been introduced to the Corinthian church, and Paul felt that this teaching threatened the very foundations of Christianity. First he reminds the people that Jesus had been physically raised from the dead, with eyewitnesses to prove it. Then he says in verse 12,
12 Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching vain, your faith also is vain… 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.
Paul makes it clear that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the pattern for our own resurrection as well. The only reason we shall be raised from the dead is because Christ was raised as the Pattern Son.
Paul’s argument shows the inherent contradiction of this Sadducee doctrine. If there is no such thing as resurrection, but that man simply goes to heaven when he dies, then Jesus was not raised. But if Jesus was not raised, then we are yet in our sins, because he “was raised again for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). So the only way we attain the promise of God is if Jesus was raised from the dead. But if He was, it is the pattern of our own resurrection as well. That is the path of Paul’s logic.
Most Christians today do not hold the Sadducee position which denies the resurrection of the dead. Yet there are teachers today, claiming to be Christians, who do deny this. Like the Sadducees, they do not comprehend the importance of “the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23). Paul calls it “the adoption” and the great “hope” of the Christian (Rom. 8:24)). Without this “hope,” death is the end, and we are of all men most to be pitied.
Of course, as we have said already, most Christians do not hold to such an extreme position. Yet the seeds of that view were laid when men spiritualized the first resurrection. This was accomplished by redefining resurrection in terms of justification by faith. Once spiritualized, it was an easy transition into a total denial of the bodily resurrection of the dead.
The Scriptures do tell us that through faith we move from death into life. However, the actual word “resurrection” (Gr. anastasis) is never used to describe the process by which one becomes a Christian. Every passage clearly speaks of resurrection in a literal sense, where those who have died rise to stand upon the earth.
Job described his belief quite explicitly. He says though the worms will eventually destroy his body, “yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:26). Daniel, too, describes the resurrection clearly in terms of physically awaking from the sleep of death in the ground. Daniel 12:2 says (Rotherham’s The Emphasized Bible):
2 And many of the sleepers in the dusty ground shall awake--these shall be to age-abiding life, but those to reproach and age-abiding abhorrence.
Jesus essentially quoted Daniel in John 5:28, 29. In so doing, He confirms Daniel’s view. He says,
28 Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, 29 and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.
Since spirits do not awake from the ground, nor are spirits resurrected from tombs, we cannot spiritualize this resurrection without distorting the obvious meaning of the Word.
Has the Resurrection Already Taken Place?
The Apostle Paul denounced certain teachers in his day who were teaching that the resurrection had already taken place. 2 Tim. 2:17, 18 says,
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 thus they upset the faith of some.
What were these men teaching? How did it differ from the teachings of Paul? The first question we must answer is: To which resurrection is Paul referring?
If Hymenaeus and Philetus had taught that Jesus’ resurrection was already past, Paul would have agreed with them. This is self-evident. So the problem was NOT that Hymenaeus and Philetus were preaching that Jesus already had been raised from the dead. It must be a different problem.
It was also quite well known that the general resurrection of the dead had not already occurred. After all, when that takes place, all the dead, great and small, will stand before God. Since Hymenaeus and Philetus themselves had not yet stood before God, it is unlikely that they would have taught this. If they had done so, they would have looked quite foolish, and Paul probably would not have bothered mentioning it, since almost no one would have believed their doctrine.
Lastly, it is very unlikely that they held to the doctrine of the Sadducees. They apparently did not deny the basic concept of resurrection, saying that men simply went to heaven when they died. From Paul’s description, these two teachers did believe in resurrection, but they taught that a resurrection of believers had already taken place.
The only plausible explanation here is that these two teachers were telling people that the first resurrection had already taken place. If so, then it is almost certain they taught that the limited resurrection mentioned in Matthew 27:50-54 was the first resurrection, and that this had occurred around the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. This passage states:
50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. 51 And behold, the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth shook; and the rocks were split, 52 And the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, Truly this was the Son of God!
Matthew is the only one who records this event. There are few details given. And so we are left with many unanswered questions. First, the way it is written, it is hard to say if this occurred at the time of the crucifixion or at the time of the resurrection. Matthew seems to identify the event with Jesus’ death when the veil was rent in two; and yet, he seems to say they arose “after His resurrection.”
Further, Matthew 28:2 tells us that an earthquake occurred at his resurrection. Matthew is the only gospel writer to tell us that an earthquake occurred at His death, and is associated with the tearing of the temple veil.
It is hard to picture dead people being raised at the moment of Jesus’ death. That would seem out of place. One would think they would be raised at his resurrection, if anything.
Another unanswered question is whether these people were raised incorruptible, or if they were simply raised to mortal life in the same manner as Lazarus was raised. Lazarus later died, and his tomb is in southern France today, where he served as a missionary for many years.
It is all quite confusing, but we must not stray too far from our original question. We are discussing the doctrine of Hymenaeus and Philetus, wondering if perhaps this is the passage they used in teaching that the resurrection is already past. We cannot say for sure, of course, but I see no other possibility.
If this were the case, Paul was contradicting their teaching, telling us that Matthew 27:50-54 did NOT record the first resurrection. In other words, the first resurrection of Rev. 20:4-6 was yet future and had not yet occurred when Paul mentioned Hymenaeus and Philetus.
There are some teachers today who say that the first resurrection occurred in 70 AD at the destruction of Jerusalem. The Jehovah’s Witnesses say the resurrection occurred in 1914 A.D. when it looked like the earth was about to go into “the tribulation” of World War I. When World War I ended with no visible sign of Christ’s return, they spiritualized its fulfillment, rather than join the ranks of the mistaken prophets of the past.
The problem is, no one can point to any resurrected saint and say, “See, that man died a hundred years ago and is now alive, immortal, and incorruptible. Let’s elect him as our president so that he can rule and reign on the earth as the Scriptures say!”
If the resurrection is already past, then where are they? Why are they not ruling? Why have they not “bound Satan” (Rev. 20:2)? Why are they not administering true justice and righteousness in the earth by the Law of God? Why do evil men yet flourish?
Once again, the only explanation we get is that they were “raised spiritually” in such a manner that no one perceived it. We are asked to see it with “the eye of faith,” because it all happened in secret, and these saints are all in heaven and have little or no influence in the government on earth.
All these views redefine resurrection in terms of the dead going to heaven in some spiritual state, rather than in the likeness of Jesus’ resurrected body. Whenever men say that the resurrection occurred in the past, yet they cannot point to resurrected saints to support their view, they have redefined resurrection and adopted the pagan Greek view of resurrection. They are saying that when the dead are raised, they go into a spiritual state that is apart from matter. All these views destroy the doctrine of the resurrection.
So if any man comes teaching that the resurrection is already past, whether they say it occurred in Matt. 27, or in 70 AD, or in 1914 AD, it is simply an extension of the doctrine of Hymenaeus and Philetus. Be careful not to be among those whose faith is overthrown.
With this background on resurrection itself and its purpose in creation, we now move on to show the clear distinctions between the first resurrection and the general resurrection.