Before there can be a resurrection, there must be a death. Elijah’s translation to heaven was not a resurrection. We must differentiate between resurrection and translation; they are two different things.
Many Bible scholars agree that the first resurrection covers the span of time from Christ’s resurrection until the events of Revelation 20:5-6. It is this span of time that we want to study now.
- Christ’s Resurrection – Christ was the first to be raised from to incorruption, thus setting in motion the first resurrection. “That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead” (Acts 26:23). Christ was the first to be raised from the dead to die no more. The first recorded resurrection in the Scripture is that of the widow’s son in 1 Kings 17:17-23; but this was a temporary restoration to life, and the widow’s son had to face death again. Christ is alive forevermore and will never see corruption (Acts 13:34; Romans 6:9; Hebrews 7:16; Revelation 1:18). Jesus Christ is (1) the first-begotten from the dead (Revelation 1:5), (2) the first fruits of those who sleep (1 Corinthians 15:20-23), and (3) the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:18). Jesus Christ set in motion and established a resurrection order of which we all desire to be a part.
- Resurrection of Old Saints – Some saints came out of their graves at Christ’s resurrection (Matthew 27:50-53). They did not actually do so until after He arose, thereby retaining the order of the first resurrection with Christ as the first fruits.
Apparently these were Old Testament saints, and obviously all the Old Testament saints did not rise from the dead at this time, since the Scripture only says “many” (Matthew 27:52). It appears that these saints did not die again but were raised to incorruption. If so, they were caught up to heaven and are now living in the presence of God with a glorified body. God’s Word is silent on many details such as this, but as 1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “… now I know in part, then I shall know fully.”
- A Spiritual Resurrection – Some passages of Scripture speak of a spiritual resurrection here and now, rather than the physical resurrection of the future. (See John 5:24-25; Romans 6:1-11; Ephesians 2:1-6.) We were dead in trespasses and sins, but God raised (resurrected) us up and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
John 5:24-29 covers both a spiritual and physical resurrection of the dead. Verses 24 and 25 deal with those who have not died physically but who pass from spiritual death to spiritual life. Verses 28 and 29 deal specifically with those who are in their graves, which indicates physical death.
- Catching Away of the Church – The English word rapture does not appear in the Bible, but it means a catching away, and it is often used in reference to the catching away of the church at the return of Christ. (See John 5:28-29; 1 Corinthians 15:1-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.)
At the catching awayof the church, there will be a resurrection of the dead in Christ for those who died in the faith with victory over sin. This group extends from the formation of the church at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) until the catching away of the church. All who have died in Christ (Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:27) will be resurrected at the catching away of the church.
When the catching away occurs, the dead in Christ will be resurrected and rise first, and the living saints will be caught up immediately behind them. Both groups will unite in the clouds as they meet the Lord in the air to be with Him forever (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). We await this event with great anticipation.
- Palm Bearers – Apparently the white-robed palm bearers in Revelation 7:9-17 are martyrs who are killed after the catching away of the church. At the opening of the fifth seal, we see the souls under the altar who were slain for the Word of God. They cry for their blood to be avenged; but for the time being, they are given white robes and told to rest a little season until their fellow servants and brethren who will be killed are slain (Revelation 6:9-11(. Between Revelation 6:11 and Revelation 7:9, this slaughter of martyrs takes place. During this time known as the great tribulation, the Beast (Antichrist), in unity with the mother of harlots, will kill those who stand for the Word of God (Revelation 6:9). Since the church will already be caught away at this time, apparently these are honest-hearted people who never heard the truth before but who then take a stand for God’s Word and lose their life as a result.
During this horrible time of tribulation, God will resurrect them from the dead to stand before His throne (Revelation 7:15). In the chronology of events, others will be killed following the resurrection of the white-robed palm bearers.
- Two Witnesses – The two witnesses of Revelation 11 may be Moses and Elijah, sent to the earth during the Tribulation to prophesy for 1,260 days. Miraculous God-given powers will be manifested as these men exercise their ministry while on earth. After these days are accomplished, the Beast out of the bottomless pit will overcome them and kill them. For three and a half days their bodies will lie in the street, while the entire world beholds them, sends gifts to one another and rejoices over their death. With modern technology, this can easily be accomplished, with the world viewing, if not their death, their bodies immediately after death. After this, they will be resurrected from the dead and caught up to heaven while their enemies behold them (Revelation 11:1-11).
- The Beheaded – After the two witnesses are resurrected, we see the Antichrist in his greatest fury. The false prophet, also called a beast, will cause an image to be made of the Beast (Revelation 13:10-15; 19:20). This false prophet will have power to give life to the image, and all who do not worship this image will be killed (Revelation 13:11-18). Revelation 14:13 mentions others who die during this time. No doubt these will be beheaded for the Word of God, for refusing to worship the Beast or his image, and for refusing his mark upon their foreheads or in their hands (Revelation 20:4).
Prior to the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth (the Millennium), those who have been beheaded will be resurrected from the dead to reign with Christ on earth. When this group is resurrected, the Bible declares that “this is the first resurrection” (Revelations 20:5).
We should also note that 144,000 Jews will be sealed during the Tribulation, according to Revelation 7:1-8. Revelation 12:1-5 speaks of a male child being caught up to heaven. Some interpret the child as the 144,000, while others say the child is Christ. In either case, although the 144,000 will be caught up to the throne of God, they will not be part of the first resurrection (Revelation 14:1-5). There is no indication that any of the 144,000 will die. They will experience a translation, not a resurrection.