Can we know for sure if some of the anointed are
already in heaven with Jesus, or is this still future?
A: Although the Society has revised and even discarded many of Rutherford’s teachings over the past decades, yet they still hold to most of his teachings regarding "the holy ones," and that includes their resurrection. It is still claimed that the heavenly resurrection began in Rutherford's day, some time before 1935; with one recent Watchtower article even suggesting that these already resurrected anointed ones "may be involved in the communicating of divine truths today" to the the governing body.—w07 01/01 pp. 27-28.
Are the dead "who died in union with the Lord" already with him in heaven? Has the first resurrection begun? Can we know for sure? Yes, we can, if we accept the apostle Paul's words on the subject, for he received the information "by a word from the Lord." (1 Thess. 4:15, ESV; 1 Cor. 11:23; 2 Peter 3:15-18)
In both of his letters to the congregation in Thessalonica, the apostle Paul explains when and under what circumstances the "holy ones" will be united with Jesus, revealing that this will take place immediately after "the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his powerful angels in a flaming fire, as he brings vengeance upon those who do not know God and those who do not obey the good news about our Lord Jesus. These very ones will undergo the judicial punishment of everlasting destruction from before the Lord and from the glory of his strength." According to Paul, it is after the destruction of the ungodly at Armageddon that the time arrives for Jesus "to be glorified in connection with his holy ones and to be regarded in that day with wonder in connection with all those who exercised faith." (2 Thess. 1:7-10; 1 Peter 4:17-18; Rev. 19:11-21)
Note how Paul describes this to take place: "For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming [presence, παρουσία] of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord." (1 Thess. 4:14-17; ESV)
Paul assures the disciples that whether they will fall asleep in death, or are alive at the time Jesus returns, none—neither the dead nor the living—will precede any of the others; for they will all of them, together, at the same time be united with the Lord. He explains that this will be made possible because "the dead in Christ will rise first." That means that all the holy ones who died since the time of the apostles will be raised from the dead. This is the "first" or "the earlier resurrection from the dead," that Paul himself was hoping to attain; and regarding which the apostle John writes: "Happy and holy is anyone having part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no authority, but they will be priests of God and of the Christ, and will rule as kings with him for the thousand years." (Phil. 3:11; Rev. 20:6; Dan. 7:13-14, 27)
This first resurrection is not a rising up from the dust (grave) straight into heaven, as is commonly taught, but a return to life in order for them to join their brothers who are living at the presence of the Lord. Jesus will be glorified when he resurrects his holy ones, in the same way he and his Father were glorified when he raised Lazarus from the dead. (John 11:4, 25-26, 38-44) Upon their resurrection, they will then, as one group, be caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so [they] will always be with the Lord."
Paul explains that when Jesus is "glorified in connection with his holy ones," he will also "be regarded in that day with wonder in connection with all those who exercised faith, because the witness we gave met with faith among you." (2 Thess. 1:10) Forty days after his resurrection, while Jesus was with his closest disciples, encouraging them, they stared in wonder as they beheld Jesus being lifted up before their eyes, ascending to heaven, until "a cloud caught him up from their vision." Two angels then told them: "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus who was received up from you into the sky will come thus in the same manner as you beheld him going into the sky." (Acts 1:9-11) Yes, Jesus will return in the same manner he left two thousand years ago, but this time he will not return to his Father alone; for he will bring with him his holy ones, his bride of 144,000. (John 14:1-3; Rev. 1:5-7, 14:1, 3; 19:7-9)
And just like on that first occasion, when his apostles stared in wonderment as Jesus was lifted up before their eyes, so too those "who exercised faith" will wonder in amazement as they witness this thrilling event. These ones are the survivors of the great tribulation, who the apostle John saw in vision, "standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white robes, and crying with a loud voice, saying: 'Salvation we owe to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.'" (Rev. 7:9, 13-17) They will forever serve as witnesses to the reality of God's kingdom, having met its rulers and observed their ascension to heaven. I know that you already understand much of this, but I am including these additional points simply to show that the first resurrection could not possibly have already started, not according to what Paul writes, because these things are still future. (Rev. 7:1-3, 15; 20:3-4; Zeph. 1:14, 18; 2:2-3)
According to the apostle Paul, not all the holy ones will be in need of a resurrection, since some of them will still be alive at the time Jesus returns, as he clearly says in his letter to the Thessalonians. He further leaves no doubt about that in his explanation of the resurrection to the congregation in Corinth, where he says: "Look! I tell you a sacred secret: We shall not all fall asleep in death, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, during the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised up incorruptible [imperishable], and we shall be changed. For this which is corruptible [perishable] must put on incorruption, and this which is mortal must put on immortality." (1 Cor. 15:50-54)