WHEN DOES CHRIST RETURN? PART TWELVE
It becomes apparent when comparing all the Scriptures that bear on the subject, that redemption, salvation, resurrection and entering the Kingdom, were all part of the same process that Christians were experiencing in the first century in anticipation of the return of Christ. All things reached their fulfillment in the complete dissolution of the Old Covenant system. This complete removal of the old system opened the way for the complete implementation of the New Covenant system and the opportunity for eternal life, which the old system could not accomplish.
The whole of God's involvement with man appears to revolve around moving from the first covenant system, which resulted in human spiritual death, to a second covenant system that results in spiritual life. Since we all die physically, regardless of which covenant we live under, it should be apparent that when life and death are spoken of in relation to covenant, it is spiritual life or death that is being addressed. Therefore, resurrection has to do with moving from the ministration of spiritual death to the ministration of spiritual life. From a spiritual body of death to a spiritual body of life. From the Old Covenant to the New Covenant system.
When Paul speaks of the redemption of our bodies, he is not speaking of biological resurrection. Paul is speaking of our sinful nature, which is redeemed through the death and resurrection of Christ. Let’s once again look at what Paul teaches in his letter to the Colossians.
Colossians 2:11-14: In Him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature (body in KJV), not with a circumcision done by hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with Him through your faith in the power of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumsion of your sinful nature (“body” in KJV), God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins. Having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.
Paul is writing about spiritual death versus spiritual life. Spiritual life is given as a result of the forgiveness of sin. The forgiveness of sin removes the spiritual death penalty, which results in a new man. In Colossians 3:9-10, Paul speaks of taking off the old self and putting on the new self. In Ephesians 4:22-24, Paul speaks of putting off the corruptible self and putting on the righteousness of God.
To be forgiven of sin is to experience resurrection. The forgiveness of sin facilitates the passing from spiritual death unto spiritual life. It involves the moving from a perishable human nature to an imperishable spiritual nature. It involves moving from being a natural man to being a spiritual man. It is that imperishable spiritual man that enters the kingdom and upon physical death will continue to live for eternity. A converted Christian is one who has been spiritually born again and resurrected to spiritual life. For the first century Christian this was a process in the making as the resurrection to life was not fully available until the return of Christ in A.D. 70. That’s why Paul said what he did about striving to attain the resurrection. “I want to know Christ and the power of the resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Was Paul talking about becoming like Christ in physical death? No he wasn’t. Paul knew that he would die physically like everyone else. Paul was talking about participating in Christ’s destruction of sin death, which would lead to spiritual resurrection.
In Hebrews 11 we see a contrast between physical and spiritual resurrection. This passage shares the experiences of Old Covenant personalities as they looked forward to the promises of salvation.
Hebrews 11:35: Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.
That better resurrection was in contrast to the physical resurrection experienced by some in Old Testament times. This better resurrection was a spiritual resurrection, which equates with the salvation that the first-century Christians would receive at the revealing of Christ. The writer of Hebrews declares:
Hebrews 11:39-40: These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Being made perfect was accomplished through the righteousness of Christ applied to us so we could become perfect before God. This perfection was accomplished at the “last time” when salvation was consummated at the revealing of Christ. Apostle Peter shows that the salvation to be revealed in the last time is tied to the revealing of Christ. We have already shown that the revealing of Christ was considered imminent to the first-century Christians. Therefore, the “last time” was something to occur in the first century and not thousands of years into the future and counting. Let’s again look at what Peter said:
1 Peter 1:3-7: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade-kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith-of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire-may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
Here we find Peter teaching that salvation is something yet future to them. It would occur at a period called “the last time.” The last time period is tied to the revealing of Christ. As has been shown, the revealing of Christ is associated with His return.
RESURRECTION AND THE CORINTHIANS:
The fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians speaks a great deal about resurrection. Most Christians look at Paul’s references to resurrection in this chapter and conclude he is speaking of biological resurrection. It is concluded Paul is discussing the raising of physical bodies from physical graves at a point in time still future to us. If this is the case, then Paul is speaking here about rising from the dead in stark contrast to how he speaks of this subject in many other areas of Scripture, many of which we have already covered in this book.
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church deals with a variety of problems and issues that this Church was dealing with at the time. A major problem was that various Corinthian brethren were aligning themselves with specific Christian leaders and, in so doing, causing division in the Church. Paul also had to deal with immorality, lawsuits, questions about marriage, foods sacrificed to idols, spiritual gifts and the proper way to keep the Lord’s Supper. In addition, Paul had to deal with some Corinthians believing there was no resurrection of the dead. What kind of resurrection was being questioned?
The Corinthian brethren were Gentiles who became Christian as a result of hearing and believing the gospel message. The foundation of that message was the death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life. To be Christian was to believe in the resurrection of Christ. The whole focus of the preaching of Paul, Peter and every other apostle and minister, was the death and resurrection of Jesus. Both Jews and Gentiles became Christian because of their belief in the resurrection of Christ. Being a Christian was defined by belief in the resurrection. How then, could some of these Corinthian Christians question the reality of resurrection?
1 Corinthians 15:12: But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
In verses one through eleven of this chapter, Paul sets out to remind the Corinthians that the gospel he had preached to them was defined by the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul relates that it is this gospel that the Corinthians believed and on which the Corinthian Christians have taken their stand. It would, therefore, appear that the resurrection of Christ is not what is being questioned. In essence, Paul is saying that since Christ is preached as having been raised from the dead, which is what you believe and base your Christianity on, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? It is apparent that these Corinthians were not questioning Christ’s resurrection. They were, however, questioning resurrection of the dead. Paul goes on to show the absurdity of questioning resurrection of the dead in view of their belief that Christ was resurrected from the dead.
1 Corinthians 15:13-19: If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
Paul here shows the contradiction that exists if the dead are not raised. The purpose of the resurrection of Christ was to facilitate the passing from death unto life for the believer. If a believer doesn’t believe there is a passing from death unto life, which is what resurrection is all about, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. Neither will those who have died in Christ be resurrected. Paul is showing the folly of their thinking. Paul is saying you can’t believe Christ was resurrected and not believe that resurrection is now unavailable. The question that remains is this. What kind of resurrection do some Corinthians doubt? Are they thinking in terms of physical bodies rising from graves, or is there another kind of resurrection being considered? Are those Corinthians that are questioning resurrection, questioning it only for some and not for others?
It must be remembered that only some Corinthians were questioning resurrection. It’s apparent they were not questioning Christ’s resurrection. They apparently were not questioning resurrection for those who died in Christ, as their resurrection would be assured.
The death of Christ involved the physical shedding of His blood and His momentary spiritual death. The shedding of Christ’s blood facilitated forgiveness of sin. The writer to the Hebrews wrote, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). It took both these dynamics to occur for Christ to facilitate reconciliation with God.
Sin produces both physical and spiritual death. Spiritual death is immediate while physical death most often comes later. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were separated from God immediately. They didn’t physically die until much later. We all physically and spiritually die because of sin. If physical death alone were the payment for sin, we would all be paying for our own sin because we all physically die. Christ paid the full penalty for sin. He died physically, shedding His blood, and He died spiritually when He experienced a separation from God.
Since we all continue to physically die, it’s apparent the death of Christ does not free us from physical death. While it could be argued that our physical death is only temporary, if you believe that we will be physically resurrected, temporarily or not, we still experience physical death. Christ said over and over again that those who believe in Him would never die. Paul reiterated this theme over and over again in his writings.
When Jesus took our sins upon Himself, it caused Him to experience both physical and spiritual death. After Jesus was resurrected, He could never die again. Christ’s resurrection also set the process in motion for our never dying again. Since we still physically die, it should be apparent that it is spiritual death that Christ eliminated. After Paul shows the Corinthians the absurdity of believing in the resurrection of Jesus and yet denying resurrection, he defines more clearly the significance of Christ’s resurrection.
1 Corinthians 15:20: But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Colossians 1:18: And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
If physical resurrection is under consideration here, then Christ was not the firstfruits or firstborn from the dead. As covered earlier, there had been various physical resurrections prior to Christ. Christ performed some during His ministry. Being the firstborn from the dead had to do with spiritual rebirth. Christ had said to Nicodemus that one must be born again. He wasn’t talking about physical rebirth. When Christ died spiritually, He became the first to be born again spiritually.
While Christ Himself never sinned, he virtually became a sinner by taking our sins upon Himself. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Becoming the righteousness of God is to experience a change in spiritual status before God. When sin separates us from God, it produces spiritual death. Paul speaks of our being dead in our sins. When Christ took our sins upon Himself, He experienced the same separation from God that we do. Christ, however, couldn’t remain separated from God. He personally never sinned. God resurrected Jesus from sin death and restored to Him a righteous status before God. Our faith in, and acceptance of, Christ’s sacrifice, is what facilitates our righteous status before God.
The whole focus of salvation teaching in Scripture is the elimination of spiritual separation from God. Elimination of spiritual death is what the salvation process is all about. When the Scripture discusses death in relation to salvation, it is addressing spiritual death. Avoidance of physical death and resurrection from physical death is not the focus of Scripture. The focus of Scripture is our change in spiritual status before God. Salvation is reconciliation with God. Physical resurrection has nothing to do with this. Being raised from spiritual death is what salvation is all about. It is spiritual death and resurrection that Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians the fifteenth chapter.
1 Corinthians 15:21-26: For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
When Paul writes about death in this passage, he is writing of spiritual death. The Scriptures clearly teach that starting with Adam, all have sinned. Therefore all die. Do we all die physically? Yes we do. Are we all made physically alive in Christ? No we are not. Physical death and physical life are not the issue here. Our spiritual death in Adam is what Jesus came to eliminate. Christ was the firstfruits of this process. Next it would be those who belong to Him at his coming. As shown throughout this presentation, that coming took place in the first century. Some of those who belonged to Christ had died before His return. Others that belonged to Christ were still alive at His coming. If physical resurrection is the focus here, then how could those alive at Christ’s coming be resurrected? Whether you look at resurrection as a past or a future event, resurrection still involves having died and then being brought back to life. In both 1 Corinthians 15 and in 1 Thessalonians 4, it is shown that some would not have physically died at Christ’s return and yet they would still be part of the resurrection. It should be apparent that spiritual resurrection is the focus here.
Paul says, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). The Greek word translated “to be” is in the present passive tense. This passage should be translated “The last enemy being destroyed is death.” Greek scholar Kenneth S. Wuest, translates this passage this way: “As a last enemy, death is being abolished, for all things He put in subjection under His feet.” Misplaced Hope author Samuel M. Frost translates it this way: “The death is the last enemy being destroyed presently.” Christ spoke of this process in the book of John.
John 5:24-25: I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.
Christ speaks of the time being then present (“has now come”) and also of a time in the future when those that hear the message of Christ and believe would live. Those living in the present, and hearing this message were physically alive. Christ wasn’t speaking to physically dead people. Yet Christ told them that if they hear His words and believe Him who sent Christ, they have crossed over from death to life. Christ was speaking to spiritually dead people and showing how they could be resurrected from that spiritual death.
Death was in the process of being, at that time, destroyed. The Old Covenant was the ministration of death. It was this covenant that was being removed and with its removal, death was being destroyed. If the last enemy to be destroyed is physical death, then that destruction has not yet taken place as people have continued to physically die for the past 2,000 years. Yet Paul says that death was being destroyed in the first century. It was the death of spiritual separation from God that was being destroyed and that destruction of spiritual death was consummated in the return of Christ during the Roman-Jewish war. This destruction of spiritual death made it possible to be spiritually reconciled to God. Physical death and physical resurrection are not the subject of Paul’s teaching.
Christ, at His resurrection, became the first of the firstfruits to receive eternal life. Those that belonged to Christ at His appearing were the next to be granted eternal life. The period between the resurrection of Jesus and His return was the period of time when the Old Covenant system of death was being phased out and replaced with the New Covenant system of life. This is evidenced by the many Scriptural passages that speak of the first-century Christians looking and waiting for salvation to be revealed at the appearing of Christ. Those that accepted Christ in the first century received the Spirit of God as a down payment of salvation. This salvation was consummated in the return of Christ in A.D. 70. This salvation has been available ever since in Christ.
The first-century Christians were considered firstfruits of the salvation process. Christ was the first of the firstfruits to be born from the dead. Christian converts made up the remainder of the firstfruits in the first century. This firstfruits designation was especially applicable to Israelites who accepted Christ. As cited above in Romans 11:16, the Christian Jews of the first century were considered the firstfruits of a much larger group involving the rest of Israel. The implication was that the rest of Israel would be accepted by Christ and that such acceptance would be considered life from the dead for Israel (Romans 11:15). Apostle James spoke of first-century Christians being firstfruits.
James 1:18: He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
Christ explained to Nicodemus that to be born again involved a spiritual event. James uses the word birth in connection with being firstfruits of all God created. The firstfruits were to receive salvation at the appearing of Christ. This association of rebirth and firstfruits shows the spiritual nature of this event. We find the firstfruits motif prominent in the yearly harvest festival of Old Covenant Israel. This motif is used by New Testament writers to demonstrate the purpose of God relative to salvation. That purpose was to resurrect Israel from her bondage to sin death by making reconciliation to God possible through what Christ did. The reconciliation of Israel made it possible for the Gentiles to also be reconciled to God. Christ said salvation is of the Jews. Only through Israel’s salvation could the human race escape eternal death.
The coming of the end as described in 1 Corinthians 15:24, shows the continuum of events leading to the destruction of death through the complete removal of the Old Covenant system which was the basis for death. Christ reigned through His Church during the forty years between His ascension to the Father and His return. It was during this period of time that the old system was being removed and the new system was being implemented. This was synonymous with moving from death unto life, a process that was consummated with Christ’s return in the first century.
Paul wrote that Christ must reign until all enemies were destroyed. The last enemy to be destroyed would be death. That enemy was not completely destroyed at the cross or at Christ's resurrection. If it were, there would be no reason for Paul to speak in terms of its first being destroyed at Christ’s coming. Neither would there be reason for first-century Christians to be looking to a future revealing of Christ to bring them salvation from death. Christ put the final nail in the coffin of death with his appearing and intervention in A.D. 70. If the reign and coming of Christ are still future to us, then death has yet to be destroyed and we will not be given eternal life until sometime in the future. Such a conclusion runs contrary to everything the Scriptures teach about salvation.
The Christian community of the first century, in being the firstfruits of eternal life, became the forerunners of the much greater harvest of souls who were in their graves. Daniel was told that it would be at the time when the power of the holy people is broken that the dead would be raised. As shown elsewhere in this series, it was at the destruction of Jerusalem that the power of the holy people was broken. It is at this time that resurrection took place. Because the first-century Christians were the first fruit forerunners of this resurrection, Paul sees their baptism into Christ as foundational to the bringing in of the rest of the harvest. Without the first fruit Christians of the first century, the rest of the harvest could not be brought in. This is why Paul says what he says about being baptized for the dead.
1 Corinthians 15:29: Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?
Baptism is symbolic of being buried with Christ in His death to sin, and rising with Christ in His resurrection to life. Baptism is not symbolic of passing from physical death to physical life. Baptism symbolizes passing from spiritual death to spiritual life. Paul is speaking of the Corinthians being baptized as a symbol of the removal of sin death, not only for themselves, but also as a setting of the stage for the raising of the spiritually dead at the appearing of Christ. It was through the first fruit accomplishment of Christ and the first fruit resurrection of Christian converts that the harvest of those long dead was brought in. Paul is saying that if the dead are not raised, then those being baptized are being baptized in vain. If they are being baptized in vain, then those who have died have no hope either.
In examining the issue of some Corinthians denying resurrection, it appears some believed that salvation had been denied to Israel because of their continuing rejection of the Christian message. The Gentiles were very aware that because of the Jews’ hostility toward the gospel, the Gentiles had been given opportunity for eternal life. At the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he had to deal with divisions among the Corinthian Christians. Some Gentile converts at Rome, as discussed earlier, had come to believe the Israelites had been rejected from obtaining salvation. This would be the same as concluding the Israelites would not be resurrected from spiritual death. Paul had to constantly remind the Gentile converts that their salvation was possible only because Christ came to bring salvation to His people Israel. Without Israel’s salvation, there would be no salvation for anyone. If the spiritually dead Israelites are not raised, no one is raised. Paul then argues that since Christ is raised, all of Israel will be raised, and through Israel, the Gentiles will also be raised. This raising, however, is not associated with physical bodies coming out of graves. This raising has to do with the collective body of Israel being raised from sin death under the Old Covenant to a status of righteousness before God under the New Covenant.
HOW ARE THE DEAD RAISED?
Having established that resurrection is a matter of rising from sin death, Paul continues to discuss resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 by dealing with potential questions about how the dead are raised. If indeed it is spiritual death that we rise from, how is this accomplished?
1 Corinthians 15:35-38: But someone may ask, ‘How are the dead raised? [Present passive is used here to signify “being raised.”] With what kind of body will they come?’ How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.
Paul shows that what is sown must first die before it can come to life. Paul seems to compare the sown body to a seed. A seed dies in the process of generating new life. In this respect the seed and the plant it produces are in continuity, insomuch as the seed provides the raw materials for the new plant and therefore becomes part of the new plant. Paul’s seed analogy appears to parallel baptism. In baptism we bury the natural man so that the new spiritual man can be raised in newness of life. Therefore, we already have the new spiritual man abiding in us and upon physical death the physical body is transformed into a spiritual body. This is what Paul appears to mean when He says the body that is planted is not the body that will be.
1 Corinthians 2:14 (KJV): But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
2 Corinthians 5:17: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!
When Paul speaks of the natural man or the natural body, he may be referring to the body of sin and death. This body must be buried before the new spiritual body of life is able to rise up. Paul is speaking of the death of our sinful nature through Christ. We bury that sinful nature in accepting the sacrifice of Christ and are consequently raised to a righteous status before God. In so doing, we become a new creation in Christ. The old that is gone is the old sinful status before God. The new is the righteous status attained through Christ.
The reader is asked to carefully read Romans chapter 4 through Romans chapter 8. In these chapters, Paul discusses the putting to death of our sinful nature through the death of Christ. Paul shows how the sinful nature is the body of sin that is buried in Christ. The burial of the body of sin results in rising to a new status of life in Christ. The body of death encompasses the law system. Christ came to replace the law system with the grace system. It is the grace system that facilitates the spiritual body of life.
The whole focus of the Christian system is a change in status before God. Sin separates us from God. Perfect righteousness reconciles us to God. Since we can’t produce perfect righteousness, Christ did it for us. It’s His righteousness that is applied to us and is what makes us reconciled to God. Our being reconciled to God is to pass from death unto life. It is the putting off of the mortal, perishable natural body of death and the putting on of the spiritual body of life.
1 Corinthians 15:42-49: So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being, the last Adam, a life giving spirit.’ The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.
It should be noted that the phrase, “so will it be with the resurrection of the dead” is better translated, “so also the resurrection of the dead.” There are no future tense verbs in this passage. Phrases such as “is sown,” and “is raised,” in the Greek, are in the present tense and mean, “are being sown” and “are being raised.” This all shows how this change was a present process at the time Paul was addressing this issue. When Paul writes of bearing the likeness of the man from heaven as opposed to the likeness of the earthly man, Paul was not writing of biological likeness. Christ bore the biological likeness of Adam just as we do. Christ did not bear the nature of Adam like we do. The goal of first-century Christians, as should be our goal, was to replace the nature of Adam with the nature of Christ. This change in nature became fully available at the return of Christ in the first century. Bearing the nature of Christ is what resurrection is all about.
Paul wrote of the natural body of sin and death being raised to a spiritual body of life. A change from the earthly nature to the heavenly nature. This is not something that happens as a yet in the future biological, physical resurrection. This happened for the first-century Christians when Christ returned in A.D. 70 to bring salvation to those waiting for Him. Those Christians who had died were raised to eternal life in the heavenly realm. The living Christians were given a new nature, which included eternal life to be resident within them.
Please note: Since writing this material back in 2004, I have done additional study on the issue of resurrection which has led me to see that the living first century saints not only passed from spiritual death unto spiritual life while still physically alive at the coming of Christ, but were also translated into the heavenly realm along with the resurrected deceased saints. Please go to "What is the Kingdom of God: Part Two" for elucidation of this issue.
Paul shows we cannot be in the Kingdom as flesh and blood, perishable Beings. We must be transformed into a Being of different composition, an imperishable Being that will live forever.
1 Corinthians 15:50: I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
As shown in the Chapter in this series on the Kingdom, we, while still physical, can participate in the spiritual dynamics of the the Kingdom. Those dynamics pertain to our conduct before God and man. While physical, we can also have imperishable eternal life abiding in us through the action of the Holy Spirit. In this respect, we are provisionally in the Kingdom. Christ came to raise Israel from their Old Covenant natural, mortal body of death, into a New Covenant spiritual body of life. Because of God keeping His promises to Israel, the rest of humanity is also given opportunity for this same transformation from spiritual death unto spiritual life. This transformation is not fully accomplished until the time of our physical death when we are given a body of different composition in the heavenly realm.
1 Corinthians 15:51-57: Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed-in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul says, “we will not all sleep.” Many Christians view this as an editorial "we" in that Paul means those Christians alive at a yet future return of Christ. However, it is evident from the entire corpus of Paul's writings that he believed and taught that Christ would return in his generation and this is when resurrection would occur. Thus the “we” he is addressing are the Corinthian Christians. Paul is not addressing people living thousands of years into the future. Paul is speaking of an event that he anticipated would take place shortly before some of those he was addressing would die. Paul says the “we” will be changed. That change for the “we” would take place at the same time the dead in Christ were receiving their change.
It was at this moment in history that Christ consummated the process of change from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. The power of sin to produce eternal death was broken. The victory over death was won and continues won to this day. There is every scriptural reason to believe that the "we" of the past 2000 years and the "we" of today and the future will experience, upon physical death, the same transformation the Christians of Paul's day experienced.
RESURRECTION AND THE THESSALONIANS:
Paul addresses the Thessalonian Christians in much the same way regarding the return of Christ and the resurrection. Let’s take a look at how he addresses the Thessalonians regarding this matter.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-17: Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
Throughout this series of essays we have cited dozens of Scriptural passages that show the return of Christ was going to occur in the lifetime of the first-century Church. Christ taught that this event would occur before the generation He was addressing would pass. The apostles all taught that the return of Jesus was about to occur. As covered previously, the Thessalonian Christians were expecting relief from persecutions when Christ returned. Now Paul is telling them that some of them would be alive at Christ’s coming. The context is clearly first century. Paul is not speaking of Christians thousands of years into the future still being alive at a yet future return of Christ. Paul is speaking about an event that would occur while some of those he was addressing would still be alive. Paul’s reference to meeting in the clouds is symbolic language. As shown earlier, such language was commonly used by Scriptural writers to describe the power and glory of God as He intervenes in the affairs of men. The birth, death, resurrection and return of Christ in the first century were the most significant interventions of God in the affairs of men since creation. This intervention brought redemption through reconciliation with God. This redemption has been available ever since.
A reading of the full context of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian Christians should make it apparent Paul was addressing what he believed to be a first-century event in speaking of Christ’s return and being raised to meet Him. Let’s look at what Paul says just a little farther along in this same letter.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-4: Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief.
Paul has just told the Thessalonian Christians that when Christ comes, the dead would rise and those of them still alive would also be caught up to be with Christ. Now Paul is telling these same Christians that Christ will come as a thief in the night. Has Paul changed the subject here? Has Paul suddenly shifted from discussing a return of Christ involving the saints rising to meet Him, to discussing some other coming that would be totally unexpected? If, as is largely believed by much of present day Christendom, Paul is speaking about Christ coming as a thief in the night as an event yet future to us, then these Thessalonian Christians are still alive and living among us today. That, obviously, is not the case.
Paul said very straightforwardly, “But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief” (1 Thessalonians 5:4). How could this day not surprise the Thessalonian Christians like a thief if they are all dead in their graves and this event was to first take place thousands of years into the future? Paul is obviously telling these Christians that because they live in the light of the truth, they will see the day of Christ approaching while others will not. They would escape the coming destruction while others would not.
This destruction is the same destruction prophesied by Christ and all the apostles. This is the wrath to come that John the Baptist spoke about. This destruction and wrath to come was the Roman-Jewish War of A.D. 66 to 73 that physically destroyed the temple and the city of Jerusalem, and spiritually terminated the Old Covenant system. Now let’s read more of Paul’s letter.
1 Thessalonians 5:23: May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Here again Paul speaks of these Thessalonian Christians being alive at the coming of Christ. Paul speaks of their “whole spirit, soul and body” being kept blameless (preserved blameless in the KJV) at the return of Christ. You don’t find any preserved bodies of Thessalonian Christians walking around in the 21st century still waiting for Christ to appear. It should be obvious that Paul is anticipating a first-century event.
In this letter to the Thessalonian Christians, Paul speaks of the persecutions being experienced from those opposed to the gospel message. Paul then speaks of these persecutors experiencing the coming wrath and destruction while those responding to the gospel would be granted salvation. In chapter one, verse ten, Paul speaks of them waiting for Christ to appear in order to rescue them from the coming wrath. In chapter five, verse nine; Paul speaks of the Thessalonian Christians not being appointed to experience the coming wrath but instead salvation through Christ.
The entire context of this letter relates to an event about to occur. Even if one disagrees with the perspective of resurrection discussed in this book, the fact remains that the return of Christ and the resurrection had to take place in some fashion in the first century. The wrath and destruction that the Thessalonians were to escape was not a wrath and destruction to occur thousands of years into the future. Such a conclusion would be ludicrous.
In Paul’s letters to both the Thessalonian and the Corinthian Christians, Paul is addressing resurrection within the context of an imminent return of Christ. This return brought wrath and destruction upon those in opposition to the gospel. This return brought salvation to those that received the gospel. This return also provided salvation to the dead in Christ, those who had accepted the gospel message but who died before Christ’s return.
The Scriptures indicate that many who had died in past generations would also rise up at the time of Christ’s return. Some would rise to life while others would rise to condemnation. The dynamics associated with this process are unclear in Scripture. The fate of the unsaved dead, both past and future, is a subject I address in a separate series of essays on this website entitled, What Happens After Death.
The foregoing view of resurrection is sometimes referred to as the "Collective Body view." As indicated above, since publishing this material some ten years ago in my book entitled, "When Will Christ return," I have modified my view of the resurrection in that I believe the NT Scriptures clearly indicate the saints who were alive at the time of Christ's return in the first century were given immortal spiritual bodies and were translated into the heavenly realm along with the resurrected dead saints. Please go to "What is the Kingdom of God: Part Two" for a discussion of this issue.
For the reader that desires to explore in greater detail the "Collective Body" view of resurrection as discussed above, I recommend The Cross and The Parousia of Christ, by Max King. The word “parousia” is a Greek word translated as “coming” in the New Testament narrative. Its basic meaning is "presence." It is interesting that the New Testament writers used this word to describe the coming of Christ. In his Companion Bible, Bullinger footnotes “parousia” in Matthew 24:3 to explain that the “Papyri show that from the Ptolemaic period down to the second century A.D. the word is traced in the East as a technical expression for the arrival or visit of the King or emperor.” This Greek word can also mean the coming of a “divinity who makes his presence felt by a revelation of his power.” (See, A Greek-English Lexicon, by Arndt, Gingrich and Bauer).
God made His presence felt by sending His glorified Son back to earth to resurrect us out of the old age of eternal death into the new age of eternal life. Christ continues to facilitate our resurrection through reconciliation with His God and Father.