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Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:22-24,
22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own order [tagma, “squadron”]; Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, 24 then comes the end, when He delivers up the Kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power.
“All will be made alive,” Paul says, just as all died in Adam. But not all will be raised at the same time. In other words, there is more than one resurrection, and everyone will be “in his own squadron.” Paul uses this military term to show that the resurrections do not occur individually but to groups.
There are some who say that resurrection happens when a person obtains faith in Christ, or when he is baptized. Resurrection life is indeed imputed to each person by faith, as we see in Rom. 6:5, but this is not the resurrection Paul was discussing here.
In this resurrection chapter Paul was painting a much bigger picture, showing first the problem that began with Adam, and then showing how that problem is to be overcome through Christ toward the end of history. In other words, “in Christ all will be made alive, but each in his own order.” They will not all be raised at the same time.
As far as I have been able to tell, the rabbis in Judaism did not contemplate more than a single resurrection at the end of the age. They disputed the scope of the resurrection, of course. Some thought only Israelites would be resurrected; others thought it would include all of mankind. They agreed that the dead would be judged at a great final judgment at the resurrection, but they did not have the insight that there would be more than one resurrection a thousand years apart (as John says in Rev. 20:5).
John tells us clearly that a thousand years will separate the two resurrections. Some mistakenly dispute this on the grounds that chilia, John’s word for “thousand,” is plural. But those objections are based on a basic misunderstanding of Greek grammar, which insists that the adjective must agree with the noun that it describes. Since the full phrase is “thousand years,” chilia must agree with the word “years,” which is plural. Hence, chilia is proper grammar. The proper English translation is “thousand” (singular).
Furthermore, rabbinical thought had already set forth the idea of a Sabbath Millennium known as the Messianic Age, which was to be the culmination of the Great Week. Hence, The Jewish Encyclopedia, under “Messiah,” defines the term this way: “The name or title of the ideal king of the Messianic age.”
John gives us no reason to believe that he differed with this view. If he had differed from the commonly held Jewish view, it is highly improbable that John would have mentioned the thousand years without some type of correction. In later years, Jewish thought increasingly adopted the Greek view, substituting immortality of the soul for resurrection. However, John gives no indication that he himself had adopted the Greek view.
The Apostle Paul does not mention John’s thousand-year Messianic Age between the two resurrections. Yet Paul distinguishes between the resurrections, and in this way his teaching agrees with that of John in the book of Revelation.
The first squadron is “Christ the first fruits.” This translation seems to be accurate, given the fact that a few verses earlier in 1 Cor. 15:20 Christ is said to be “the first fruits of those who are asleep.” The difficulty, however, is that Jesus Christ was an individual, not a squadron. Having already established the fact of Jesus’ resurrection in verse 20, Paul has now moved on and has turned his attention in verse 23 to “those who are asleep.”
For this reason, I believe this should be translated, “the anointed first fruits,” referring to the first squadron of believers raised from the dead. These would be the ones raised in “the first resurrection” (Rev. 20:5, 6).
The term, I believe, comes from the law in Lev. 23:11-13, which speaks of the sheaf of barley that was to be waved in the temple on the first Sunday after Passover. As we have already shown, this was known as the first of the first fruits (Exodus 34:25, 26), that is, the first of three first fruits offerings during the year.
Of this barley sheaf, we read elsewhere in Leviticus 23:13,
13 Its grain offering shall then be two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed [balal] with oil, an offering by fire to the Lord for a soothing aroma, with its libation, a fourth of a hin of wine.
The Hebrew word balal can also be translated “anointed,” as we see in Psalm 92:10, where we read, “I have been anointed with fresh oil.” So the grain offering of the first of the first fruits is said to be an anointed first fruits offering.
The three first fruits offerings each year (barley, wheat, grapes), were offered at each of the three main feasts and are prophetic of those people (“squadrons”) being offered to God. The barley company of overcomers is the first and smallest squadron that will be presented to God and given immortal life. This is a very limited number of people, for John says in Rev. 20:5,
5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection.
Verse 6 tells us that only believers will be given immortal life in the first resurrection. In the next resurrection “the dead, the great and the small” (Rev. 20:12) will be summoned to the Great White Throne for judgment. This is also “the rest of the dead” from verse 5. Hence, any who did not make it in the first resurrection will be raised in the second a thousand years later.
This general resurrection, then, is the second “squadron” in Paul’s exposition. Paul describes this squadron in 1 Cor. 15:23, saying, “after those who are Christ’s at His coming.” Most people assume that Christ’s “coming” refers to the second coming of Christ. But the word translated “coming” is parousia, which means “presence.” Which “presence” (or coming) is this? If the first squadron has already been raised earlier at the second coming of Christ, then this must be another occasion. Indeed, it is where the second squadron, along with the rest of the dead, are summoned to the Great White Throne to stand in Christ’s presence.
In other words, it is not the occasion where Christ leaves His throne to come to them, but when they are summoned to the throne of Christ. The Greek phrase literally reads, “in the presence of Him,” as The Emphatic Diaglott renders it. The people are summoned into His presence.
John and Paul were in agreement, though they used different words to describe it. No doubt John remembered Jesus’ words in John 5:28, 29 where He described this general resurrection, saying,
28 Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, 29 and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.
In this “squadron,” both believers and unbelievers will be raised. Jesus says that the believers will be raised “to a resurrection of life,” while the unbelievers will be raised “to a resurrection of judgment.” So it is clear that this is not the first resurrection, which is limited to believers only. Jesus spoke of the general resurrection a thousand years later.
Obviously, then, the rest of the believers, though not called as rulers, are certainly called to be citizens of the Kingdom. Nonetheless, they will not receive immortality until the Great White Throne judgment. In Luke 12:46 (KJV), Jesus says that these believers will receive their reward at the same time that the unbelievers are judged. That is consistent with His teaching in John 5:28, 29.
So the Scriptures paint a picture of the great Messianic Age, the culmination of the ages, the ages of the ages (aionas ton aionian, used in Heb. 13:21; 1 Peter 5:11; Rev. 1:6, etc., but is mistranslated “for ever and ever.”). The first of these ages is the Messianic Age of a thousand years, during which time the overcomers of the first squadron will reign with Christ on the earth in immortal bodies.
The second age will begin with the Great White Throne judgment and continue, as Paul says, until the last enemy (death) is destroyed and all things have been put under the feet of Christ.
Beginning in 1 Cor. 15:24, Paul speaks of the third squadron, saying,
24 then comes the end, when He delivers up the Kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power.
This is “the end,” that is, the goal (telos), the final result of the divine plan for His creation. The end does not come until “He has abolished all rule and all authority and power.” He does not plan to abolish His own authority, of course, but the power of sin and death which has enslaved the creation.
The power of earthly governments will end at the Great White Throne, but there is more to be abolished in the next age.
At the Great White Throne, there will be no unbelievers, for then the truth will be apparent to all. No one will be able to argue their case before the Judge or to dispute His verdicts. This is when, as Paul says, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess Christ (Phil. 2:10, 11). Or, as Isaiah 45:23, 24 puts it, “to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance.”
Their confession of faith does not allow them to avoid the divine judgment. All of these former unbelievers will be judged by the law according to their deeds (Rev. 20:13), for they must experience the great baptism of fire that we, as believers, experience in our own walk with Christ.
This is the “fiery law” that Moses described in Deut. 33:2 (KJV). It is the same “river of fire” that proceeds from the fiery throne in Dan. 7:10. This “river” is the process of divine judgment, where His verdicts are issued from the throne upon the great mass of humanity. When all of His verdicts have been rendered, this river of fire becomes a “lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14, 15) for the duration of the age.
The fire was never meant to be taken literally. Scripture shows clearly that the character and nature of God is pictured metaphorically as fire (Deut. 5:24-26). Most of the people in Moses’ day were afraid of this fire, thinking that it was literal, and so they shrank back from it, not wanting to die in its flames. But they misunderstood it, for the fire of God was designed only to kill the flesh, in order to make people into His image—not to torture people or to destroy them. Moses knew this, and so he went up the Mount into the fiery presence of God.
The age of judgment will be a time where the former unbelievers must pay for their sins, because they did not know how to present their case properly in the divine court. Such is the nature of unbelief. Instead of trying to set forth their good deeds in the attempt to outweigh their bad deeds, they ought to have claimed Christ’s death as payment for their sins. They should have had faith in the promise of God, rather than in their own fleshly ways that attempt to do good.
The Judge at the Great White Throne will add up the debt that each sinner must pay, because all sin is reckoned as a debt. Since none of them will be able to pay their debt, they will be “sold” into slavery, for it is written, “He shall surely pay restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft” (Exodus 22:3).
I believe that the Judge will sell each sinner to a believer, who will then be given authority over him. The believer will be charged with the responsibility of teaching the sinner “righteousness.” So Isaiah 26:9 says, “when the earth experiences Thy judgments, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.”
The purpose of this age of judgment, then, is to teach these new believers the ways of God. As slaves, they cannot escape, nor will they be allowed to fulfill the desires of their own flesh. They will not have “free will” to do as they please. Their redeemers will exercise authority over them—and be responsible to show them by example the righteous character of Christ. In this way, the slaves will grow spiritually to a place of maturity.
In this way, all rule, authority, and power that is contrary to the nature of Christ will slowly be abolished as the new believers learn to be led by the Spirit and to allow the baptism of fire to cleanse and purify their hearts.
At the end of the age of judgment, there may still be much remaining debt to be paid, but at that point the law demands a Jubilee, in which all remaining debt is cancelled, and every man returns to his inheritance (Lev. 25:10, 11, 12, 13). Such grace is demanded by the law, which is the expression of God’s character.