Christians can never see each other for the last time. Although they may be separated by years of time, distance of miles, or the shadow of death, they know that they will meet again because they have the promise of resurrection to immortality. The believer's blessed hope is to be raised from the dead to immortality when Jesus comes.
When Jesus comes, all true Christians, "the dead in Christ," will be resurrected to immortality. This raising of believers from death will constitute the first resurrection. Believers who have died are unconscious in their graves; they will remain in death until the resurrection. In the first resurrection, all believers will be raised from the dead to immortality and will receive their rewards at the same time. Living Christians will be changed instantly from mortality to immortality at the time of the first resurrection, and, with the resurrected Christians, they will be caught up to meet Christ in the air. They will be glorified with Christ and will be made joint-heirs with Him.
1. Time of First Resurrection. The first resurrection will occur at the second coming of Christ. "For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:16, 17).
2. Participants in First Resurrection. The first resurrection is for Christians. Dead sinners will remain in their graves until the final resurrection. Those who take part in the first resurrection are designated as: "the dead in Christ" (1 Thess. 4:16), "they that are Christ's" (1 Cor. 15:23), "they that have done good" (John 5: 29), and "the just" (Acts 24:15).
When Jesus comes, all Christians will have been divided by life and death into two groups. First, believers who have fallen asleep in death during the centuries will be waiting unconsciously in their graves until Christ's return. Second, some believers will be alive when Jesus comes. The benefits of Christ's return will be bestowed upon both groups of Christians, those who are living and those who are dead. "Whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him" (1 Thess. 5:10).
Dead Christians. During the apostolic age, believers began to die as martyrs in the persecutions which Christians experienced. Believers in the church at Thessalonica began to wonder whether dead Christians would receive any benefit from Christ's second coming. By falling asleep in death, would Christians miss immortality, glory, and joy which will result when Christ returns? Paul wrote his first church letter, a letter to the church at Thessalonica, to explain that living Christians will have no priority over dead Christians when Jesus comes. He said, "But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep" (1 Thess. 4:13-15). Living Christians will have no advantage over dead Christians when Jesus comes. In fact, dead Christians will be resurrected before living Christians are transformed. "The dead in Christ shall rise first" (1 Thess. 4:16). Believers, therefore, need to have no fear to fall asleep in death because they have hope of resurrection to immortality. Death is like dreamless sleep; one has no knowledge of the passing of time. After death, the Christian's next conscious experience will be his resurection from death. It matters not how long one has been dead nor where he may be buried. God knows the resting place of each saint. One may be buried in some obscure cemetery; his grave may be covered with weeds; his tombstone may have crumbled to dust; men may have forgotten his name. But that matters not. God has not forgotten; He will always remember. At the appointed time, He will raise that believer from the dead to immortality.
Living Christians. Christians who are living when Jesus comes will be glorified with those raised from the dead. Living Christians will be transformed, transfigured, changed from mortality to immortality. This change will occur instantly when Christ returns. Paul explained this fact: "Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (I Cor. 15:51, 52). Living Christians will be transformed before they realize what has happened. The transforming change will occur "in the twinkling of an eye." Whether believers are walking down a street, working in a factory, washing dishes in a kitchen, sitting at a desk in school or an office, or fishing in a boat on a lake, they will be changed instantly from mortality to immortality and will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air. Jesus said, " I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken and the other shall be left. Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left" (Luke 17:34-36).
3. Nature of First Resurrection. When resurrected or changed, believers will possess immortality. Immortality is inability to die. An immortal person is one who is not mortal, not subject to death. He cannot be tempted, cannot experience suffering, and cannot die.
Man needs to experience a physical change in order to dwell in God's eternal Kingdom. Paul wrote, "Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption" (1 Cor. 15:50). Suppose one were mortal during eternity and one's body were still subject to disease, deterioration, and decay. Before a person were six hundred years of age, he would be weak and frail; his sight would be poor; and he would be unable to get around very well. He would not be in proper physical condition to enjoy the coming Kingdom. Men, therefore, need more than extended duration of life; they need a new physical nature.
What will believers be like after they have been made immortal? Will they be transformed into angels? Will they have bodies? If they have bodies, will they be immaterial, invisible, and ghostly? Will the redeemed become like some science fiction mythical creature from another solar system? Will they be reincarnated in another person? Speculation is unneeded. The Bible reveals what immortal believers will be like. In immortality, believers will have real, literal, material bodies of flesh and bones. They will be like the glorified Christ. "We know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2). He "shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body" (Phil. 3:21).
One can know what Christians will be like in immortality by knowing what Christ is like. After His resurrection, Jesus had the same body He had before He died, except it had been changed from mortality to immortality. When Jesus appeared to His disciples, they recognized Him as their beloved Master who had risen from the dead. During the forty days between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus appeared to His disciples many times and revealed Himself in His resurrection nature. He wanted the disciples to know that He had really risen from the grave and that He had a real body. He told them that He was not immaterial, indistinct, and ghostly, but that He had a real body of flesh and bones. (Luke 24:36-39.) The disciples saw Him (Luke 24:40) and touched Him. (Luke 24:39.) He walked among them and talked with them. He ate fish and honey in their presence. He showed them the nail prints in His hands and feet.
When believers become immortal in the first resurrection, they, too, will have real bodies. They will be able to walk and talk; they will recognize one another and will be reunited with loved ones. Suffering, sorrow, and sadness will be removed. The redeemed will have eternal joy in God's perfect eternity. God's plan of salvation for believers includes not a redemption from the body, but a redemption of the body. The believer's body will not be exchanged; it will be changed. Christians will be glorified, not apart from their bodies in some indistinct, misty, immaterial condition, but in their bodies which will be transformed from mortality to immortality.
God intends for Christians to be "conformed to the image of his Son" (Rom. 8:29). He plans for them to become like Christ today in their thoughts, attitudes, and actions. He plans for them to become like Christ in His immortal physical nature at the resurrection. (1 John 3:2; Phil. 3:21.) If a person wants to experience a change in physical nature at the resurrection, he must experience a change in standing before God and a change in character and conduct today. Outward transformation in God's Tomorrow depends upon inward transformation in the Christian life today. One's having a spiritual body at the resurrection depends upon his having a spiritual mind today.
If a person wants to be with Christ (1 Thess. 4:17; Rev. 3:21; 17:14; 20:6) at His return and in His future Kingdom, he must be in Christ (Rom. 8:1; 2 Cor. 5:17; John 15:4, 7; 1 Thess. 4:16) and permit Christ to dwell in him. (Gal. 2:20; John 15:4; Rev. 3:20; Rom. 8:9, 10; Col. 1:27; 2 Cor. 13:5.) The believer enters into Christ at conversion; Christ enters into the believer when He dwells in Him through His Spirit.
(Adapted from Systematic Theology, by Alva Huffer, published by Church of God General Conference, Oregon, Illinois 61061, U.S.A.)
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