Listen, I Tell You A Mystery
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he gives us a comprehensive discourse on the resurrection of the believers. First he assures us of the fact of Christ’s resurrection and then he explains the importance and purpose of Christ’s resurrection for the believers.
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes [parousia], those who belong to him (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
Here Paul explains the order of the resurrection of believers. First Christ was resurrected from the dead and then at Christ’s return all believers will be resurrected. Since we have already studied the meaning of the Greek word parousia, we recall that it signifies the arrival of Jesus Christ to earth.
As Paul is concluding his teaching on the resurrection of believers, he tells us a mystery about the resurrection of believers. Paul has previously defined what he means by the term “mystery” in Ephesians 3:4-5. He said a mystery is something which was previously not made known but is now revealed to the Church. This understanding of what Paul means is further strengthened by a look back to the Greek. The Greek word for “mystery” is musterion. Musterion means “a secret, mystery (of something formerly unknown but now revealed).”1 Paul is revealing something which was previously not known. Therefore, the “mystery” must be something not previously revealed. Let’s study the Scripture to see if we can determine what the mystery is. Read carefully this passage to find the clues Paul provides.
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed-- in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." Where, O death, is your victory? Where O death, is your sting? (1 Corinthians 15:51-55)
The mystery is not the resurrection of the dead.
The resurrection of the dead itself is not the mystery because, at the time of this letter the resurrection of the dead had already been written about extensively. The resurrection is described in the Old Testament, taught by Christ Himself and also previously taught by Paul in the letters to the Thessalonians. Let’s examine some Old Testament prophecies first.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, (Psalms 16:9, 10)
But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You, who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy (Isaiah 26:19).
At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people--everyone whose name is found written in the book--will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:1, 2).
I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction (Hosea 13:14)?
The term “resurrection” was not actually used in the Old Testament. However, the prophets clearly describe for us how God’s people will be raised from the dead. During Jesus’ ministry He also taught regarding the resurrection of the righteous which is recorded in all four gospels.
Jesus replied, "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection of believers people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven (Matthew 22:29, 30).
When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. (Mark 12:25)
and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous (Luke 14:14).
For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:40)
Since the Resurrection of the dead is well established in both the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus, it is already known and therefore cannot be the mystery. What is the mystery? Let’s look at the beginning of the passage again.
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed (1 Corinthians 15:51, 52).
The mystery is not the resurrection of the living
Paul reminds us that at the resurrection of believers, all believers will be changed. First he says that not all believers will sleep which means not all believers will die. Then he says, but all believers will be changed, those that have died and those that are still alive, at the time of the resurrection. By implication Paul is saying that at the time of the resurrection some believers will still be alive. At this point he goes on to indicate that the resurrection of all believers will take place in an instant. Paul explained how this would happen, a few years earlier, when he wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians. Let’s see how he describes it.
According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming [parousia] of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).
Here Paul describes to us the catching up of living believers, those who are left alive, at the time of the resurrection. This catching up is what is commonly referred to as the rapture. So, in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul is repeating what he has previously written in 1 Thessalonians 4, the dead and the living in Christ will be resurrected together.
Notice, in this passage, that Paul says, “according to the Lord’s own word ... we who are still alive” will also be gathered. Paul was apparently aware that Jesus had taught that the living in Christ would also be changed at the time of the resurrection. Paul may have been aware of the Lord’s teaching as recorded in the gospel of John.
Jesus first told us, in His own words, that the living will also be changed in the resurrection when He and Martha were discussing the resurrection following the death of her brother Lazarus. John recorded the following conversation between Jesus and Martha.
Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this’ (John 11:23-26)
Jesus was telling Martha, that in the resurrection of believers at the last day, those that have died would rise to life. He then went on to say that the believers, who are still alive at the last day, would never die. This teaching reveals that at the last day all believers will be resurrected together.
Jesus also described the resurrection of all believers when He said the angels would gather His elect, the living from earth and the dead from heaven. See the commentary on Matthew 24:31 in chapter 2, According to the Lord’s Own Word.
It is clear that Jesus taught that those alive in Christ will be part of the resurrection of believers and that Paul had previously taught this as well. Therefore, the mystery cannot be about who will be in the resurrection, because it was known that all believers, the living and the dead would be part of the resurrection.
What is the mystery?
There is, however, something else in this passage that Paul reveals which had never been revealed in Scripture, before he wrote it here. Let’s re-examine the passage to see if we can identify what the real mystery is.
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed--in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." Where, O death, is your victory? Where O death, is your sting? (1 Corinthians 15:51-55)
As we look carefully we find that there are three references contained in the text that give indications of the timing of the resurrection of believers. First, we see that the resurrection occurs “at the last trumpet.” We have already studied several Scripture verses where a trumpet sounds in connection with the resurrection of believers (1 Thessalonians 4:16; Matthew 24:31).
However, this is the first time in Scripture that the trumpet is identified as “the last trumpet.” The Greek word eschatos is translated “last.” Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament translates eschatos in this passage as “the trumpet after which no other will sound.”2
So, the mystery that Paul is describing could be that the resurrection of believers will take place “at the last trumpet.” This would be a very significant revelation because during the Jewish Feast of Trumpets, many trumpets are sounded. Also as we will see when we study Revelation that there are seven trumpets described in relation to the end times. The last trumpet we find in the biblical record is the seventh trumpet which is first mentioned in Revelation 10:7. Compare this passage in Revelation to 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 and see the similarities.
But in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets" (Revelation 10:7)
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet (1 Corinthians 15:51, 52).
The similarities in these two passages are not coincidental. They both indicate that “the mystery” will be accomplished “at the last [seventh] trumpet.” Therefore, if “the last trumpet” is the “seventh trumpet” of Revelation then we would expect to see evidence that the resurrection of believers will take place when the seventh trumpet sounds. When we examine Revelation 11:15-18, we see several things taking place when the seventh trumpet sounds.
The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.’ ‘you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations were angry and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead and rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great - and for destroying those who destroy the earth’ (Revelation 11:15-18)
When the seventh trumpet sounds, first, we see that the Lord has established His Kingdom on earth. Next, John tells us that the nations are angry because the wrath of God has come. The wrath of God as we know occurs on the Day of the Lord as revealed throughout Scripture, see Isaiah 13:9 and Zephaniah 1:14-15 for examples.
Next, John tells us that it is time to judge and reward all the believers. In order to judge the believers the Bible clearly states that they must first be resurrected and gathered, see Psalm 50:4-5. Therefore, John is describing for us the resurrection of all believers at the seventh and last trumpet. This is confirmation that the resurrection of believers occurs at “the last trumpet” just as Paul prophesied in 1 Corinthians 15:51, 52.
While this seems to be conclusive evidence, that the resurrection of all believers takes place at “the last trumpet,” some may ask for more. For those, notice that there are two additional time indicators in 1 Corinthians 15:51-55, Paul says,
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." Where, O death, is your victory? Where O death, is your sting (1 Corinthians 15:54, 55)?
To paraphrase, Paul is telling us that when we have been changed, then death will be defeated. Paul is connecting the timing mystery to passages in the Old Testament which foretell the victory over death. The two clearest connections are in Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14. Paul is confirming the timing of the resurrection as the mystery when he makes reference to these expressions. First, let’s look at Isaiah’s prophecy.
On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine-- the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The LORD has spoken. In that day they will say, Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation. The hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain; (Isaiah 25:6-10)
This beautifully descriptive passage in Isaiah opens with the Lord preparing what can only be the wedding feast between Christ and His bride, the Church. The Lord has returned and established the Kingdom of God on earth. Isaiah says “[i]n that day,” when Jesus returns to earth “death has been swallowed up in victory” which is a change that occurs in our bodies at the resurrection. See how Jesus describes this,
But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God's children, since they are children of the resurrection (Luke 20:35, 36).
These are characteristics of what will happen when Jesus returns on the Day of the Lord to establish the Kingdom on earth.
The wording in Hosea is slightly different from Isaiah, but it is equally descriptive of the victory over death which occurs at the resurrection.
I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction (Hosea 13:14)?
At the resurrection of believers, death will have been defeated. Both Isaiah and Hosea describe this as happening at the restoration of Israel when Christ establishes the Kingdom of God on earth.
In Revelation at the seventh trumpet we see the resurrection occurring at the time that the Kingdom is established on earth. In Isaiah and Hosea we see the same thing, the resurrection occurs at the time that the Kingdom is established on earth. Therefore, when Paul wrote, “Listen, I tell you a mystery,” he was revealing the timing of the resurrection of the living and the dead. The resurrection of believers will take place at the last trumpet when Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of God on earth.
So far in our study, through the teachings of Christ, the prophecies of Daniel and now the writings of Paul, we have seen a clear and consistent picture. The resurrection of all believers will take place after the Great Tribulation when the Jesus returns to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, on the Day of the Lord.
Now let’s look at Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians where he is trying to clear up some confusion they were having regarding the return of the Lord and the gathering of the Church.
Richard H Perry