Holy Scripture has its own rules for interpretation and only the Holy Spirit can open to anyone the true meaning of a passage or even of the whole Book.
A passage may become a stumbling block if we ignore the main principle of biblical interpretation – namely, that the best interpreter of the Bible is the Bible itself.
Take one example – John 5:25. It says, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live’.
My personal problem with this verse was as follows – I could not believe that the time of resurrection came during Christ’s lifetime. I expected that resurrection would be in the future at his Second Coming. How, then, could Jesus say the time ‘now is’?
Why did I have such problem? Because nobody taught me the doctrine of the first resurrection – the new birth. I almost became a sceptic, saying, ‘Please, show me at least one resurrected man and I will then believe that the Bible is a serious book’.
So it was that a couple of years after my conversion I moved to embrace liberalism. I thought that many stories in the Old Testament were myths. Yet the starting point of my slide was the misunderstanding of John 5:25 described above. How important it is that Christians should be taught the meaning of Scripture by faithful and careful exposition.
The power of the Word
The power of the Word of God is tremendous and his mercy has no limit. The Almighty helped me work things out for myself. He pointed me to Revelation 20:6 – ‘Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power’. I began to see that there is a first resurrection and a second resurrection.
My Lord gave me a promise: ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life’ (John 5:24). Stop! If I had ‘passed from death to life’ it meant that I had been ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ but had now been raised to life in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-6). I had experienced the first resurrection!
Analysis of this text and context draws an amazing picture. All people are dead and ‘walk according to the course of this world’, but some of them are raised up or ‘resurrected’. They were dead in sins, but God has quickened them and they are alive for ever. They participated in the first resurrection and the second death has no power over them.
The second resurrection
So in John 5:25, Jesus Christ tells us that the first spiritual resurrection has come already – and is still at work as people are born again. But Jesus not only declares the good news of the gift of spiritual life – he also warns about the future:
‘Marvel not at this, for the hour is coming in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation’.
For some this future resurrection will be the second one (‘Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power…’). But for others who have not known the first resurrection, it will lead to judgement and the second death.
We read in Revelation 20:11, ‘I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away’. John sees ‘the dead, small and great, stand before God’.
But those who took part in the first resurrection will not come under judgement, for they have already ‘passed from death unto life’ (John 5:24). Only those still ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ will be condemned: ‘And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works’ (v.13).
All whose names are not written in the book of life – and who had not therefore believed in Christ – suffer the second death: ‘And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire’ (Revelation 20:14-15).
Why will you die?
So, here is the eschatological ‘bottom line’:
All believers in the Christ, by definition, participate in the first resurrection. They hear the voice of the Son and are born again. Some will die in the Lord (the first death) and others will live till the Second Coming. ‘For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout … 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 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
Some believers will not taste the first death, so will not need the second resurrection, but all will be changed by God. None of the redeemed will suffer condemnation because Jesus Christ has already been judged in their place.
But non-believers who expire before Christ returns must taste two deaths. The first death is a natural one from which they will be resurrected – but only for judgement and the second death.
The conclusion is very simple. The Lord says: ‘Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed, and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God. Wherefore turn and live’ (Ezekiel 18:31-32).
The author is pastor of Christ’s Covenant Church, Minsk, Belarus