“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.”
—John 5:24-26, NIV (Jesus speaking)
Jesus speaks of the dead being resurrected by the sound of His voice. When will this resurrection take place? There are three possible resurrections that this verse could refer to:
The first possibility
It could be a prediction of Jesus’ own resurrection. However, the sentence construction isn’t terribly conducive to that interpretation, because the ‘Son of God’ and the ‘dead’ appear to be different people, and the ‘dead’ are plural. Jesus did predict His own resurrection, but this statement probably doesn’t refer to that, mainly because it awkwardly requires the Son of God to awaken Himself with His own voice!
The second possibility
It could be a reference to the Resurrection on the Last Day. We know that Jesus teaches this doctrine explicitly, and discussed it in detail with Martha right before he resurrected her brother Lazarus from the dead (John 11). This fits the wording better, because we can think of the resurrection as Jesus waking the believing dead with His voice at the end of time. However, a problem remains: the wording also implies that the resurrection would take place right away. He said that time has now come. So we must conclude either that Jesus incorrectly expected the course of His passion, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection to be capped by the end of time, the general resurrection and the end of the world. This isn’t very likely, because Jesus is otherwise a very shrewd, perceptive, and realistic person. The gospel accounts are filled with story after story about how He quickly and accurately sizes up people and events and eludes difficulties through His insight.
One possible solution would be to stretch the ‘time’ to refer to all the events between the crucifixion and the end of time (which is admittedly some stretch!) or to take a clue from Paul and view Jesus’ resurrection as an integral part of the resurrection at the end; as sort of a demonstration, a sampler, a preview, or as Paul put it, the ‘first fruits’—the first fruits being the small amount of fruit that ripens early, signaling that the rest will certainly follow.
However, this interpretation poses another problem. Jesus implies that the believing comes after the hearing, which leaves us with the unrighteous dead awakening to eternal life on the Last Day, a doctrine not otherwise found in scripture.
The third possibility
However, Jesus’ meaning seems to me to be that the word of the Son of God in the preaching of the apostles would bring spiritual life to the spiritually dead. This neatly solves the problem of the resurrection happening ‘now,’ and it plugs into other scriptures very nicely. Paul spoke of two resurrections that we each can experience: the first resurrection is spiritual, when we become Christians. Paul specifically described the act of baptism as an acting out of our death to sin (when we ‘bury’ the ‘dead’ body in the water) and our resurrection to a new life in Christ (when we raise up the body out of its watery ‘grave’); and a second physical resurrection at the coming of the Lord. Also the wording is reminiscent of Isaiah who proclaimed, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” Elsewhere Jesus teaches that He is Life, that hearing and obeying His words gives life, and other things that fit in quite nicely with this passage.
Recent resurrections from the dead
Have you seen how the dead hear the voice of Jesus and come to life? I have. Here are only two examples; I’m sure you can think of some.
I remember a woman whose mother raised her in a legalistic religious environment that stripped her of all sense of self-worth and self-esteem. She walked around all hunched down, deprecated herself, drank too much, and had difficulty holding down a job. But she heard the voice of the Son of God in church. She kept hearing the message that although she was as unworthy as she believed herself to be, the Son of God loved her and cherished her as His own. This message was reinforced by others. Finally, standing up in her life as the prodigal son stood up in the pig sty, she decided she could do better. So she got into an Alcoholics Anonymous group and got psychiatric therapy for her depressive disorder. The last I saw her, she had a good job, had bought a new car on her resurrected credit; she stood up straight, and best of all her eyes sparkled and she had learned to laugh!
I remember a young man who lived a furtive life of desperate sin, because he was convinced by some overzealous ‘anti-sin’ preacher that he was going to hell no matter what. Since he believed he was going to hell anyway, it obviously didn’t matter what he did on the way. What a pitiful, miserable man he was! I asked him why he believed it, and he cited several Bible passages that he had been taught, and despaired that they excluded him forever. So I got out my Bible. I remember how he trembled in fear at the sight of a Bible, and how his apprehension grew as I brought it nearer. I sat down next to him and went through every passage that he named, and explained them to him as he looked on.
He was very quiet when I was through. Then, in a loud and quavering voice he cried out, “Nobody ever explained it that way before!” and fell on the floor, sobbing and crying loudly. A great and heavy burden fell away. Now the way was open for repentance and healing, because now he had hope.
The hour is now. If you are part of the body of Christ, your mouth should say the words that His mouth would say. Seek out the spiritually dead; let the voice of your mouth be the voice of the Son of God. Jesus commands you to preach the good news of salvation; stick to that. The dead shall hear and come to life. It is a marvelous work and a wonder; and you can see it with your own eyes.