Wednesday, April 8, 2020

A Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (Part Four)

The dead in Christ shall rise first

When the “trumpet of God” is sounded by Christ (and the “last trump” referred to by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:52 occurs), there will be an immediate resurrection/vivification of every member of the body of Christ (i.e., those who were called by God through the evangel that was entrusted to Paul, and which he was heralding among the nations during his apostolic ministry). Thus, as far as the enjoyment of our eonian life is concerned (and our removal from the earth to meet Christ in the air), those believers who will still be alive when Christ comes to deliver his body will have no advantage or precedence over those saints who died. Before living believers are snatched away, the dead in Christ will be raised. This is, of course, a remarkable revelation in and of itself. However, what some believers fail to fully appreciate is that the scriptural revelation concerning the time of the resurrection of “the dead in Christ” referred to in 1 Thess. 4:17 stands in stark contrast with what Scripture reveals concerning the expectation of the saints among God’s covenant people who will be dead when Christ returns to earth.

As noted earlier, there is nothing said about a resurrection of the dead taking place at the time when, in fulfillment of Zech. 14:4 and Matt. 24:30-31, Christ returns to earth to deliver Israel from her enemies. We are told in Matt. 24:31 that those whom Christ referred to as “His chosen” will be assembled through the agency of messengers, but the larger context of this chapter indicates that this group of people will consist of believing Israelites who will have survived the time of great affliction and lived to see Christ’s return. It is these whom Christ said would be saved if they endured to the consummation (Mt. 24:13), whom Christ said the great signs and miracles being performed by false prophets during the great affliction could deceive, if possible (v. 24), and for whose sake these perilous days would “be discounted” (v. 22). Absolutely nothing is said about anyone being resurrected or vivified at this time. And considering the huge significance of such an event as the resurrection of Israel’s saints, its absence from this passage is especially glaring.  

So when will the saints among God’s covenant people be raised, if not at the time of Christ’s return to earth? In Daniel 12:3 it was prophesied that, “From those sleeping in the soil of the ground many shall awake, these to eonian life and these to reproach for eonian repulsion.” Since Daniel will undoubtedly be among those believing Israelites who will awake to eonian life in the kingdom of God, it follows that if we can determine when he will be raised, we can determine when the rest of Israel’s saints will be raised as well. In Daniel 12:5-7, we read about the last half of Israel's 70th “week” or heptad (a 3½ year-long period referred to as “a season, seasons, and half a season,” or 1,260 days). We know that this period of time will conclude with the return of Christ to earth in glory and power. One of the reasons for believing this is as follows: the wicked world ruler described in Revelation as the “wild beast” is going to be given authority over the entire world for 42 months, or 1,260 days (see Rev. 13:5). This period of time is the second half of the 70th seven-year heptad prophesied in Daniel 9:24-27. We also know that it is at Christ’s coming in his kingdom with all his holy messengers that the reign of this wicked ruler will be brought to an end (see Rev. 19:19-20). So it follows from this that Christ is going to return to the earth at the very end of the final week of Daniel’s “70 weeks” prophecy. It is this glorious event that will bring this present wicked eon to a complete end, and usher in “the eon to come.” 

Another (related) reason for believing that Christ's return to earth concludes the second half of the 70th heptad is as follows: After escaping from the deadly persecution of the “serpent”/”dragon” (i.e., Satan) and fleeing into the wilderness, we read that the “woman” referred to in Rev. 12 (who, as I’ve argued elsewhere, likely symbolizes the believing Jewish remnant who will be dwelling in the land of Israel at this time) is to be “nourished a season, and seasons, and half a season, from the face of the serpent” (Rev. 12:14). Again, this refers to a period of 1,260 days (v. 6), or 3½ years – i.e., the second half of the final heptad prophesied in Daniel 9. Since the people symbolized by the “woman” are to be protected from Satan for this exact period of time, it follows that they will no longer need the sort of miraculous protection they’ll be receiving in the wilderness after this period comes to an end. But the only reason this could be the case is if this period of miraculous nourishment in the wilderness is to end with Christ’s return to earth to deliver faithful Israel from her enemies and set up his kingdom (cf. Luke 21:27-28).

Now, at the end of Daniel 12 we read, “And from the time that the regular burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that makes desolate is set up, there shall be 1,290 days.” Here Daniel is told of a period of 1,290 days which will follow the midpoint of the 70th heptad. It is, in other words, the last half of the 7-year period plus an additional 30 days (1,260 days + 30 days = 1,290 days). In the next verse, we read: “Blessed is he who waits and arrives at the 1,335 days. But go your way till the end. And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days. The “1,335 days” refers to the last half of Israel’s 70th heptad plus an additional 75 days (1,260 days + 75 days). Apparently, something of great importance – something those who are alive at the time will be blessed to see – is going to take place on the 1,335th day. But what event could this be?

Notice what the messenger’s next words to Daniel are: “And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days. In other words, Daniel was being told that he would “rest” (that is, die) and then “stand” (be resurrected) at the end of the days being referred to here (interestingly, the word translated “resurrection” in the Greek scriptures – anastasis – literally means, “to stand up” or “to stand again”). Thus we see that the resurrection of Israel’s saints will take place 75 days after Christ’s return to earth – i.e., the last day of the 1,335 days spoken of by the messenger (the “end of the days”). Significantly, Christ several times spoke of the resurrection of believing Israelites (those among the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” whom he said he came to save; Matt. 15:24) as something that will take place on the “last day” (John 6:39, 40, 44, 54). Martha believed that her brother Lazarus would rise on the “last day” as well. They were evidently familiar with Daniel’s prophecy that the resurrection of Israel’s saints will take place on the last day of the 1,335 days referred to at the end of the book. 

One proponent of the view that the sounding of the trumpet by the seventh messenger is the “last trump” referred to by Paul attempted to tie these passages together by claiming that, when the seventh messenger sounds his trumpet, there “is a resurrection of Israel’s saints.” However, we aren’t told that there will be a resurrection of Israel’s saints (or any resurrection at all) when the seventh messenger trumpets. What we are told in Rev. 11:18 is that, after the sounding of the seventh angel’s trumpet, the twenty-four elders declare that,

“...the nations are angered, and Thy indignation came, and the era for the dead to be judged, and to give their wages to Thy slaves, the prophets, and to the saints and to those fearing Thy name, the small and the great, and to blight those who are blighting the earth.”

That which is said to have come is the “era” or “season” (karios) in which this event (as well as others) takes place, and not the event itself. There is no mention whatsoever of a resurrection taking place when the seventh messenger trumpets.

That the resurrection of Israel's saints is going to take place 75 days after Christ returns to earth (rather than when he returns) is further confirmed by the chronology of the events prophesied in the book of Revelation. According to the chronology of Revelation, the order of events around the time of Christ’s return to earth is as follows: 

1. The wild beast, the kings of the earth and their armies gather for “the battle of the great day of God Almighty” and mobilize “at the place called, in Hebrew, ‘Armageddon’ (16:14-16; cf. 19:17-19).  

2. Christ returns in glory and power, accompanied by “the armies of heaven” (Rev. 19:11-18). 

3. The wild beast and his armies are defeated by Christ (19:20-21).  

4. Satan is cast into a prison (the “submerged chaos”), where he must remain bound for a thousand years (20:1-3). 

5. The “former” resurrection takes place, and the thousand year reign of Christ and his saints begins (20:4-6).[1] 

6. The thousand-year imprisonment of Satan ends, and he is “loosed a little time.”

We could, of course, go on listing events until we get to the creation of the new heaven and new earth and the descent of New Jerusalem, but the point is that there is a clear chronological order to the events that are prophesied as taking place in Revelation. Notice that there is no mention whatsoever of a resurrection taking place at the time of Christ’s return in Revelation 19. It is not until after the enemies of Israel are defeated that the resurrection of the saints (the “former resurrection”) is referred to. This order of events simply does not match what we find revealed by Paul in 1 Thess. 4:15-18 and 1 Cor. 15:50-53. However, the chronology revealed in Revelation fits perfectly with what we’re told in Daniel 12 concerning when Daniel (and, by implication, the rest of Israel’s saints) will be resurrected. We therefore have good reason to believe that the resurrection of Israel’s deceased saints and the resurrection of “the dead in Christ” referred to in 1 Thess. 4:16 are completely different events taking place at completely different times.

[1] We know that this resurrection isn’t limited to the martyred saints referred to specifically in this passage, since we're told that “they ALSO LIVE and reign.” Since the reference to their “living” speaks of their being resurrected in the “former resurrection,” we know that there are others who will be resurrected at this time as well (for example, those who will be seated on thrones and judging). The martyred saints are simply emphasized here because Revelation deals primarily with the time period during which their martyrdom takes place (i.e., the second half of Israel’s 70th week, during which time the wild beast will be doing battle with the saints and conquering them; Rev. 13:7). But the fact that the martyred saints are specifically mentioned here completely undermines any attempt to argue that the “former resurrection” referred to in Rev. 20:4-6 is only for believing Israelites who lived and died before Christ’s death and resurrection (such as Daniel). It will include those believing Israelites who were alive when Christ was ministering on the earth, as well as those who will live and die during the final years of great affliction preceding his return.

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