The First and Second Resurrection
John is the only writer of Scripture to use the term “first resurrection.” It is found in Rev. 20:4-6.
4 . . . And they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. 6 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.
The fact that there is a “first” resurrection mandates that there be a second to follow at a later time. John makes the point that the first resurrection occurs a thousand years prior to the general resurrection, which he talks about later in the chapter.
In verse 5 he tells us specifically that “the rest of the dead” would remain dead for a thousand years after the first resurrection. He does not define “the rest of the dead,” but he does make it clear that those who are raised in this first resurrection are believers in Christ. He calls them “blessed and holy,” and he calls them “priests of God and of Christ,” called to reign during the thousand years.
Therefore, we can say with certainty that no unbelievers are raised in this first resurrection. John is silent, however, on another intriguing question: Are ALL Christians raised in the first resurrection, or just a portion of them? For the answer to this question, we will look at other passages shortly.
Meanwhile, let us make the point that John is here talking about “resurrection.” By the Hebraic view, this refers to a bodily resurrection from the dead, NOT one’s justification by faith, or going to heaven, or some other spiritual experience. Remember that John himself was a Hebrew, and his writings pointedly denounce the Greek world view that had crept into the Church through what is called “Gnosticism.” Thus, when John talks about the resurrections, one should not adopt a view contrary to what John believed and taught in his other writings.
The Second (General) Resurrection
In Rev. 20 John continues his thought, telling us of a second resurrection that includes ALL the dead who were not raised in the first resurrection.
11 And I saw a great white throne, and Him who sat upon it ... 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds… 15 And if anyone’s name was NOT found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
This is clearly a picture of the great judgment, at which time all sinners will be judged who were not raised in the first resurrection. There are also TWO BOOKS present: the “books” and “the book of life.” All are judged by that which is written in “the books.”
It is a common misconception that these books are the records of every deed done by humanity. Some teach that God keeps a record book on each person in the world. However, this really misses the point. These are the books of the Law, by which all sin is judged. John tells us that “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4), and Paul adds, “where there is no law, neither is there violation” (Rom. 4:15). In other words, the Law of God is what defines sin and righteousness. It is the divine standard by which the works of men are measured. Without a law, there is no crime committed. Thus, the Law is what God uses to judge humanity for sin, or as Paul puts it, “the law brings about wrath” (Rom. 4:15).
So the logical conclusion is that the “books” out of which God judges men are the books of the Law, to which men are held accountable as the divine standard of right and wrong, sin and righteousness. God needs no record book on each person, because in each court case, witnesses will be called to testify (Matt. 12:41, 42). But he does need the books of the Law in order to judge righteously, for “where there is no law, neither is there violation” (Rom. 4:15).
But “the book of life” is also present at this great judgment. If only unbelievers were here to stand before God for judgment, then why would the book of life be there? Furthermore, John’s wording makes it plain that some Christians will indeed stand before God at this judgment. He tells us that only those NOT found written in the book of life will be cast into the lake of fire. The clear implication is that many ARE found written therein.
Is it possible, then, that the general resurrection will include both Christians and nonchristians? We cannot be positively sure from Revelation 20 alone, but the passage does clearly imply this. For clear proof we must go to some other passages.
Righteous and Wicked in the Second Resurrection
Both Jesus and Paul talked about the general, or second resurrection of the dead. There are two very clear statements about this. The first records the words of Jesus in John 5:28, 29.
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.
Here is a resurrection in which both the good and the evildoers shall be raised to life. Both are said to be raised at the same time, for He says, “an hour is coming.” While the word “hour” does not necessarily refer to a sixty-minute period of time, it does indicate that both the good and the evildoers are raised in the same resurrection.
The primary difference between the two classes is that the good will be raised to “life,” while the others will be raised to “judgment.”
Actually, Jesus probably was loosely quoting Daniel 12:2 which we quoted earlier. The similarity of their statements can hardly be missed.
Whatever we say about these passages, one thing is clear: neither Daniel nor Jesus were referring to the FIRST resurrection, which John said was to include only believers. They could only have been referring to the general resurrection of ALL the dead, small and great, who stand before God. It is thus clear that at the great white throne the believers are found written in the book of life, while the unbelievers, or evildoers, are judged out of the law books.
A double witness of this is found in Paul’s defense before Felix, who was the Procurator of Judea at the time. Acts 24:14, 15 says,
14 But this I admit to you, that according to the way which they call a sect, I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law, and that is written in the Prophets; 15 having a hope in God, which these men cherish themselves, that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.
Thus, Paul clearly speaks of a single resurrection in which both “the righteous and the wicked” are raised. This cannot be the first resurrection, wherein only those “blessed and holy” shall be raised. Paul must be referring to the general resurrection of ALL the dead, small and great, including both righteous and wicked people—all who did not inherit the first resurrection.
Paul makes it very clear (as does Jesus) that in this general resurrection there will be found both Christians and nonchristians. The Christians will be found written in “the book of life;” the rest will be judged and “cast into the lake of fire.”
And so it is clear that there will be Christians raised in BOTH the first and the second resurrections. Those raised in the first will reign with Christ for a thousand years; the others will miss this, yet will receive life (immortality) at that later time.
Hence, the Scriptures make a distinction between the Overcomers and the Church in general.
How Christians Will Be Judged
Once we understand the distinction between these two resurrections, we have the means to determine which resurrection is being discussed in other passages of Scripture. These passages also add details to our core of knowledge regarding these resurrections. One such passage is found in Luke 12:35-50, where Jesus speaks of the “faithful and wise steward” who will be made “ruler over His household.”
If this wise steward is to be made “ruler,” then we know he is of the first resurrection, for these rule and reign with Christ a thousand years, as we have seen. The wise steward is one who has learned to be a good servant, one who abides by the laws of the household and does the will of his Master.
Having learned to be obedient, he is now qualified to rule. He has learned that ruling does not mean having servants, but being a servant and having the authority to serve others. This is made plain in Mark 10:42-45,
42 And calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles [ethnos, “nations”] lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. 43 But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.
This describes the faithful and wise servant who will be made ruler over God’s household.
Getting back to Luke 12, Jesus goes on to talk about another kind of servant who is NOT faithful and wise. He is one who mistreats his fellow servants. He is a petty tyrant, characteristic of a big head and a small heart. His is one who has not learned obedience and humility. He is said to be a “servant,” by which we see him as a Christian, but one who has not the heart of a servant. He represents the kind of Christian who will NOT be in the first resurrection. We read in Luke 12:45, 46 from Rotherham’s The Emphasized Bible,
45 But if that servant should say in his heart, My lord delayeth to come! and should begin to be striking the youths and the maidens, to be eating also and drinking and making himself drunk, 46 The lord of that servant will have come on a day when he is not expecting, and in an hour when he is not taking note, and will cut him asunder, and his part with the unfaithful will appoint.
When will this servant get this reward? He will get it “with the unfaithful,” that is, the unbelievers. This does not mean he will get the same reward as the unbelievers. It says he will get his reward, or “part,” at the same time as the believers. In other words, it describes the second resurrection perfectly.
Jesus goes on to tell us more precisely what will be done to those unwise and unjust stewards (NASB):
47 And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, 48 but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required, and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more. 49 I have come to cast FIRE upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!
It is commonly thought that this passage refers to the judgments upon unbelievers. Often people say it means that those who heard of Christ but did not accept Him will receive a “hotter fire in hell,” while those who died without ever hearing of Christ will burn with only a milder flame. However, this passage deals with God’s servants, not those outside His household. It is dealing with believers, not unbelievers.
The fire is symbolic of the judgment of the law in general. In Daniel 7:10 we see that this fire proceeds from the throne of God. A throne is a symbol of law, and when a king sits on a throne, it depicts him ruling according to law and judging by that law. This is the judgment of the law flowing from the throne of God, and it is the same “lake of fire” that John saw in Revelation 20:14 & 15.
So when Jesus said “I have come to send fire upon the earth,” He was talking about the judgment of the law upon the Christians who are raised in the second resurrection. The specific law applicable in this passage is found in Deut. 25:1-3.
1 If there is a dispute between men and they go to court, and the judges decide their case, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked, 2 then it shall be if the wicked man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall then make him lie down and be beaten in his presence with the number of stripes according to his guilt. 3 He may beat him forty times but no more, lest he beat him with many more stripes than these, and your brother be degraded in your eyes.
The wicked servant of Jesus’ parable will some day stand before the Judge of the whole earth, where it will be determined what sort of judgment he shall receive for his treatment of his fellow man. The limit is “forty stripes.” Whether this will be administered literally or not is a side issue, not important to this study. But the divine law will indeed judge the disobedient Christian who has missed the first resurrection.
In general, Jesus calls this judgment a “fire,” because all judgment is by God’s “fiery law” (Deut. 33:2).
Paul was familiar with these teachings as well, for he wrote of this in 1 Cor. 3:11-15.
11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any man builds upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, word, hay, straw, 13 Each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.
This passage does not deal with the judgment of unbelievers. It deals strictly with believers who have laid Jesus Christ as the Foundation of their “temples.” Once that foundation is laid, the man is a Christian. Paul then discusses the works of the Christian in terms of what he builds upon that Foundation. He makes it clear that Christians, at least some of them, will find their works judged by the fire of God. If his works are unacceptable, he will still be saved, yet will suffer loss, for the fiery law of God will burn up all the dross.
This passage is interesting, because it shows there will be Christians in the second resurrection. Further, these Christians will be judged by the same law, the “lake of fire” that will judge the unbelievers. The only difference is that they will be given Life after their works have been tested and revealed in the fire, while the unbelievers themselves will be brought into a longer and more severe judgment as prescribed in the law.
The Resurrection of the Just
Jesus told another parable that sheds more light on qualifying for the first resurrection. It is found in Luke 14:12-14.
12 And He went on to say to the one who had invited Him, When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and repayment come to you. 13 But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 And you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
Jesus is saying here that to attain the first resurrection, “the resurrection of the just,” one must know and practice the principle of grace and agape love. This is the highest form of love, for it is the love of God. There were three types of love in the Greek language, each of which applies to a specific stage of development in maturity.
1. Eros is physical attraction. It is the selfish kind of love that thinks only of personal gratification. It is the kind of love that babies and immature adults have. It is immature love that demands all things, cares nothing about mother’s feelings or condition, and has no patience. It is not necessarily evil, for traces of it are found in the first stage of development in any relationship with another person. Something about the other person is attractive to us, whether it is their spirituality, their looks, their personality, or their money. Nonetheless, it is essentially selfish by nature, for it serves to meet one’s personal needs or desires.
2. Phileo is brotherly love, or the kind of love found among siblings. It is a judicial love. It is most concerned with the idea of “fairness.” Most quarrels between brothers and sisters center around the issue of fairness as they compete for position and work and their rights. This stage causes parents to commit themselves to the asylum, and yet it is the stage in which children are learning to define justice and law. The high point of this kind of love is when children learn to take turns fairly, but is only a 50/50 relationship.
3. Agape is unconditional love. It is a mature love that relatively few achieve. It gives grace to the undeserving; it is selfless and giving; it does not crave “rights.” One’s rights are always subordinate to the needs of others. This is the love of God, and this depicts the spiritual maturity that characterizes those who will rule and reign with Christ.
And so, Jesus’ instruction focuses upon this very principle of selfless giving with no thought of receiving in return. Phileo love always needs a return on its investment, but agape love will be recompensed at the resurrection of the righteous.
Essentially, those who qualify to rule with Christ in the age to come will be spiritually mature. This means their lives will reflect the same agape love that Christ manifested. It is not necessarily the “sloppy agape” that is promoted by many in the Church, nor is it the lawless love that condones promiscuity if done in “love.”
The love that God requires of His rulers is first of all loyal to Christ and the divine law that He gave to provide structure and boundaries to all relationships. Rulers must know the law in order to administer impartial justice and fairness to the brethren. Yet the ruler is one who would give up all his own personal rights in order to please God or to bear the sins and injustices of others as an intercessor (priest).
More importantly, he who would qualify for the first resurrection must have the grace to hold no grudges. He must forgive from his heart the sins (debts) of those who have transgressed against him. This is made plain in many of Jesus’ parables, most notably the one in Matt. 18:21-35. There we find that God will cancel the debts (sins) of those who appeal to Him for grace. He must learn the principle of the Jubilee, the cancellation of all “debt,” for this is the key to receiving one’s inheritance, the promise of God.