Prophecy: The First Resurrection – Spiritual or Physical?

I’ve been asked to start a discussion of the First Ressurection as appearing in the book of Revelation. Is it spiritual or is it physical?

“Then I saw thrones, and the people sitting on them had been given the authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony about Jesus and for proclaiming the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his statue, nor accepted his mark on their forehead or their hands. They all came to life again, and they reigned with Christ for a thousand years. This is the first resurrection. (The rest of the dead did not come back to life until the thousand years had ended.) Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. For them the second death holds no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him a thousand years.” (Rev 20:4-6 NLT)

We first have some historical views:

The Didache:

Chapter XVI. —Watchfulness; The Coming of the Lord.

1. Watch for your life’s sake. Let not your lamps be quenched, nor your loins unloosed; but be ye ready, for ye know not the hour in which our Lord cometh.

2. But often shall ye come together, seeking the things which are befitting to your souls: for the whole time of your faith will not profit you, if ye be not made perfect in the last time.

3. For in the last days false prophets and corrupters shall be multiplied, and the sheep shall be turned into wolves, and love shall be turned into hate;

4. for when lawlessness increaseth, they shall hate and persecute and betray one another, and then shall appear the world-deceiver as the Son of God, and shall do signs and wonders, and the earth shall be delivered into his hands, and he shall do iniquitous things which have never yet come to pass since the beginning.

5. Then shall the creation of men come into the fire of trial, and many shall be made to stumble and shall perish; but they that endure in their faith shall be saved from under the curse itself.

6. And then shall appear the signs of the truth; first, the sign of an out-spreading in heaven; then the sign of the sound of the trumpet; and the third, the resurrection of the dead;

7. yet not of all, but as it is said: The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him.

8. Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.

I am not convinced of the early date of the Didache, nor of the lack of interpolations, yet, it does serve to show the early traditions of the Church.

Gregory of Nyssa:

Now if we loudly preach all this, and testify to all this, namely that Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, always changeless, always imperishable, though He comes in the changeable and the perishable; never stained Himself, but making clean that which is stained; what is the crime that we commit, and wherefore are we hated? And what means this opposing array of new Altars? Do we announce another Jesus? Do we hint at another? Do we produce other scriptures? Have any of ourselves dared to say “Mother of Man” of the Holy Virgin, the Mother of God: which is what we hear that some of them say without restraint? Do we romance about three Resurrections? Do we promise the gluttony of the Millennium? Do we declare that the Jewish animal-sacrifices shall be restored? Do we lower men’s hopes again to the Jerusalem below, imagining its rebuilding with stones of a more brilliant material? What charge like these can be brought against us, that our company should be reckoned a thing to be avoided, and that in some places another altar should be erected in opposition to us, as if we should defile their sanctuaries? My heart was in a state of burning indignation about this: and now that I have set foot in the City again, I am eager to unburden my soul of its bitterness, by appealing, in a letter, to your love. Do ye, whithersoever the Holy Spirit shall lead you, there remain; walk with God before you; confer not with flesh and blood; lend no occasion to any of them for glorying, that they may not glory in you, enlarging their ambition by anything in your lives. Remember the Holy Fathers, into whose hands ye were commended by your Father now in bliss, and to whom we by God’s grace were deemed worthy to succeed and remove not the boundaries which our Fathers have laid down, nor put aside in any way the plainness of our simpler proclamation in favour of their subtler school. Walk by the primitive rule of the Faith: and the God of peace shall be with you, and ye shall be strong in mind and body. May God keep you uncorrupted, is our prayer. (Letter XVII)

And from Tertullian:

Chapter XXV.—St. John, in the Apocalypse, Equally Explicit in Asserting the Same Great Doctrine.

In the Revelation of John, again, the order of these times is spread out to view, which “the souls of the martyrs” are taught to wait for beneath the altar, whilst they earnestly pray to be avenged and judged: (taught, I say, to wait), in order that the world may first drink to the dregs the plagues that await it out of the vials of the angels, and that the city of fornication may receive from the ten kings its deserved doom,and that the beast Antichrist with his false prophet may wage war on the Church of God; and that, after the casting of the devil into the bottomless pit for a while, the blessed prerogative of the first resurrection may be ordained from the thrones; and then again, after the consignment of him to the fire, that the judgment of the final and universal resurrection may be determined out of the books. Since, then, the Scriptures both indicate the stages of the last times, and concentrate the harvest of the Christian hope in the very end of the world, it is evident, either that all which God promises to us receives its accomplishment then, and thus what the heretics pretend about a resurrection here falls to the ground; or else, even allowing that a confession of the mystery (of divine truth) is a resurrection, that there is, without any detriment to this view, room for believing in that which is announced for the end. It moreover follows, that the very maintenance of this spiritual resurrection amounts to a presumption in favour of the other bodily resurrection; for if none were announced for that time, there would be fair ground for asserting only this purely spiritual resurrection. Inasmuch, however, as (a resurrection) is proclaimed for the last time, it is proved to be a bodily one, because there is no spiritual one also then announced. For why make a second announcement of a resurrection of only one character, that is, the spiritual one, since this ought to be undergoing accomplishment either now, without any regard to different times, or else then, at the very conclusion of all the periods? It is therefore more competent for us even to maintain a spiritual resurrection at the commencement of a life of faith, who acknowledge the full completion thereof at the end of the world.

The discussion among the Church Fathers seems varied. Most likely, Gregory of Nyssa is expressing a deep concern against a ‘literal’ understanding of Revelation because of the Chiliasm which had been rampant. Tertullian, two centuries before rails against the idea of spiritualizing the Resurrection to the detriment of a physical Resurrection that is yet to come.

We know of other types of Resurrections, such as the bones of Joseph being carried to the Promised Land and the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 – both spiritualized/metaphorical. We also know of Paul’s view of a literal resurrection:

Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever. (1Th 4:17 NLT)

Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back. (1Co 15:22-23 NLT)

For Paul is seems that their is a future Resurrection yet to happen in which we follow Christ, caught away.

I would have to agree with John Gill who wrote:

For this resurrection is not meant of a resurrection from the death of sin to a life of grace; though the work of grace and conversion is sometimes so represented, it cannot be designed here; for such a resurrection the above witnesses and worshippers were partakers of before their sufferings, and which was antecedently necessary to their witness and worship; besides, this resurrection was future in John’s time, and was what was to be done at once, and was peculiar to the commencement of the thousand years;

Are you a preterist? If so, how do you see this passage? If not, do you see this passage as a resurrection of the spirits or the bodies, both? Further, do you see the 1000 years as literal or metaphorical?

Please, discuss.

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6 Replies to “Prophecy: The First Resurrection – Spiritual or Physical?”

  1. The real question of the Resurrection is how to understand its significance for us? A new interpretation of the moral teaching of Christ spreading on the web may provide the answer: Quoting a review of The Final Freedoms.

    “Using a synthesis of scriptural material from the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha , The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Nag Hammadi Library, and some of the worlds great poetry, it describes and teaches a single moral LAW, a single moral principle, and offers the promise of its own proof; one in which the reality of God responds directly to an act of perfect faith with a individual intervention into the natural world; correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries. Intended to be understood metaphorically, where ‘death’ is ignorance and ‘Life’ is knowledge, this experience, personal encounter and liberation by transcendent power and moral purpose is the ‘Resurrection’, the justification of faith, and here is where righteousness begins!”

    Thus The resurrection of Jesus made this new resurrection possible for all who have faith. I’m testing it now myself, revolutionary stuff for those who can hanndle it.

    Published [at the moment] only on the web, a typeset manuscript of this new teaching is available as a free [1.4meg] PDF download from a variety of sites including:

  2. Good morning P!
    I believe that the first resurrection is spiritual and so speaks of those who were quickened by the Spirit and were passed from death unto life.They/we took part in the first resurrection “the new birth” and so the second death (the lake of fire/Gehenna) has no power over them and us.Nor can we or they be hurt by it-John 5:24- Ephesians 2:1 and Revelation 20:6 …
    The scriptures speak of a thousand years  or an indefinite period of time…Nowhere do the scripture speak of a literal 1000 years for anything.The scriptures tell us that we who believe in Jesus have been translated into his Kingdom.Yet we are here on earth in these bodies and he is in Heaven. So then this translation must be spiritual,just like the first resurrection is spiritual.
    In this sense,i do not find it hard to believe that those who were born again and have died physically,are said to be living and reigning with Jesus for a thousand years.This is not about an earthly Millennial reign vs no earthly Millennial reign.It really does not matter.Rather the passages speak of  those who were saved,period…  Jesus’ Kingdom does literally exists in Heaven, according to Colossians 1:12-14 and Daniel 7:13,14.
    He is the head of his church (believers) in Heaven and on earth… The church is both his kingdom and his dominion.His dominion is everlasting.His Kingdom,he will be delivered up to the Father… He will reign over the church,till all principalities and earthy rule are put down,and all things are subdued onto him-1 Cor 15:24-27.The scriptures say that he will consume and destroy,with the words or breath of his mouth and the brightness of his coming-2 Thessalonians 2:7-8…
    The last enemy to be destroyed is death.If death is destroyed at the physical resurrection,at the last day,then there leaves only the general judgment and the consummation of the old and or the regeneration of  the Heavens and the Earth- Rev 20:11-15… NOTE verse 15– whosoever was not found written in the book of life???
    If this was only the judgment of the unsaved,then none of their names would be written in the book of life… So it has to be a general judgment without a time separation,like the general physical resurrection…
    Jesus will have preeimenance in the coming earthly Kingdom of God. He is the Son of God and we are the children of God.As the Son he is the first in rank/first born (the Prince) of many brothers and sisters-Romans 8:29… TO the point.
    The scriptures do not teach two or three separate resurrections, rather an order of resurrection.Those who are Christ’s at his coming and next those who are not his… Christ is the First Fruits, of All who have died and will rise again.In Adam there was and is only death to humanity.However,All of humanity will be made alive by Christ.1 Cor 15: 20,21.
    Jesus is the first to have risen from the dead never to die again. So it will it be for humanity at the last trump,at the last day. All who are alive at his coming will be changed.Believers will be changed and be like him-1 John3:2.The Prophet Isaiah states that death will be swallowed up in victory-Isaiah 25:6-8…He also seems to speak of a feast or perhaps the marriage/wedding supper???
    The Apostle Paul confirms that death being swallowed up in victory and believers being changed (corruption putting on incorruption) taking place at the same time… 1 Cor 15:51-54. The Lord Jesus says all the dead will hear his voice and come forth,some to everlasting life and some to everlasting damnation-John 5:28,29…The Apostle Peter speaks of the resurrection (singular) of the just and the unjust-Acts 25:15…
    The rest of the dead spoken of in Revelation 20:5 are those who were NOT born again.They did not take part in the first resurrection.Their being raised after the thousand years are finished,means that many have and many will have been in Hades for an indefinite period of time.
    The Lord Jesus ascended back to Heaven nearly 2000 years ago. Since then,countless souls have perished and are still perishing without him.When he returns they too will be resurrected.This is why they are called the rest of the dead and do live again,until the indefinite period of time ( the thousand years) that the Lord remains in Heaven is complete. For they are not the dead in Christ,who’s souls are already with him-2 cor 5:8
    Great commentaries P. Gregory of Nyssa and John Gill…
    Time for bed…

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