Why the Resurrection Matters

| 1 Corinthians 15:20-28,54-58

Week of April 19, 2020

The Point:  The resurrection of Christ changes everything.

Christ the Firstfruits:  1 Corinthians 15:20-28.

[20] But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. [21] For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. [22] For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. [23] But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. [24] Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. [25] For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. [26] The last enemy to be destroyed is death. [27] For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. [28] When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.  [ESV]

“[20] In 15:20-28 Paul indicates that the final stage of the plan of redemption and the end of the present world order have already commenced: just as Christ was raised by God, so the church will be raised. Although the world of hostile sinners and the machinations of the devil are realities, God is in supreme control and will be seen to triumph over all enemies. Skepticism wearies the apostle. For his part, he will not allow the Corinthians to wallow in the unbelief to which they are being enticed by some among them, But in fact meaning ‘this is how matters are’. Paul has shown that God did not abandon Christ in the tomb and has advanced testimonies to this effect [15:5-8]. Therefore, the schismatics’ view is wrong and negative inferences flowing from their assumption must be discarded. In that Christ has been raised from the dead, he remains in a state of ‘risen-ness’. This is the last occasion in the chapter in which the resurrection of the Lord is mentioned, the reason being that Paul is no longer defensive: assuming the reality of the empty tomb, he will detail its consequences for believers. Whereas the sceptics have persuaded themselves that the resurrection of the body – anyone’s body – is impossible, Paul reasons in the opposite direction. In that the resurrection of Christ actually occurred, it is the grand precedent: the living Lord is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. The reference, again, is to the sleeping bodies of deceased saints rather than to those who die in unbelief. The apostle is not concerned here with the resurrection of all men, just and unjust, although he believed it. In the Old Testament, the presentation of the firstfruits of the land by Israel had a dual significance: the act pledged the coming harvest to God, but in the belief that he would honor his pledge of a harvest. Paul’s letters advance both principles. After our Lord rose and ascended, he fulfilled his earlier promise and sent the Spirit. Paul teaches that the Spirit has become the indwelling pledge that believers, too, must be raised from sleep and be like their Savior. [21-22] The fact that Christ’s resurrection anticipates and exemplifies that of all believers is given further consideration. As in 15:12,13, we are pointed to the resurrection of the dead, although there is a shift in the frame of reference: whereas sceptics at Corinth denied the possibility of any resurrection, whether of saints or sinners, Paul focuses upon that of the former. Two separate constituencies rather than one were always in his mind. And there is a further qualification: aware that the souls of Christians leave this world when their bodies fall asleep, the apostle indicates that this process will come to an end: the final resurrection will not be ‘from’ the dead, those who rise leaving others behind them in bodily sleep; it will be ‘of’ the dead, that is, embracing all God’s people. The present verses compare and contrast Adam and Jesus, the argument being that just as a man, Adam, affected the human race that issued from him, another man, Christ, has a lasting effect upon all who belong to him. This is the parallel drawn between the two. But whereas Adam’s sin led to spiritual and physical death for his descendants, Jesus is the source of spiritual and physical resurrection for those for whom he died and lives. Clarification is given. All in Adam – that is, the totality of the human race – die. Because mankind was contained, so to speak, in its first parent, alienation from God and physical death became universal and permanent when the first man apostatized. And Paul is consistent: he does not write that Adam’s race ‘sleeps’, reserving this description for believers only. With regard to Adam, verses 21 and 22 assume that he performed an act that brought about his own ruin and that of his children. We have to turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans to learn more. According to this epistle, men suffer death, by which is meant estrangement from God together with all its numerous consequences. Romans 5:12-19 is incapable of any other interpretation. The flow of thought in this crucial passage is that Adam sinned and that the predicted penalty, death, a penalty designed to follow the offense, came upon Adam and all his posterity in that they were all deemed to have ‘sinned’ in his person. This is because the aorist verb ‘sinned’ implies a single apostasy perpetrated by humanity as a whole at one place and at one point in time. And there is more: this estrangement was by no means the end of the tragedy, men everywhere compounding their predicament by heaping up offenses for which they would pay [Rom. 1:32; 2:2,6-8; 3:9-10]. Returning to 15:21-22, if there is a bond between sinful Adam and his fallen people, there is a no less strong union between Christ and all who are in him. This oneness leads to a radically different effect: all concerned shall be made alive, by which is meant physical resurrection at the end of time following spiritual renewal within time. In the New Testament to be made alive means entrance into fellowship with God through Christ [15:45; John 5:21; 6:63]. [23-24] Order means ‘sequence’. Paul shows that Jesus’ resurrection must lead to the resurrection of all who belong to him, but at a later time. Whereas some at Corinth repudiate belief in the resurrection, the apostle demonstrates that although sin and death have not yet been banished, the axe has been laid to the root of the tree in that the crucified Christ lives. Although the resurrection of Christ and that of believers are in principle one single event, it is an event considered sequentially in two stages: initially the historic glorification of Christ; and next, and of necessity, that of the church. The analogy of firstfruits and the coming harvest is exact. The second stage will occur at his coming. Our bodies are to emerge from their long sleep and stand up when the Lord arrives in this world. Three questions arise. Initially, what is the end? Then, when will the end be? Finally, what does Paul mean when he predicts that at the end Christ will deliver the kingdom to the Father? End means the conclusion, or even the intended completion of a program. Both emphases may be present here. Although Paul does not specify what the end is, there is no doubt as to his meaning: the plan of redemption is destined to reach a climax leading directly to Jesus’ transfer of the kingdom to the Father. The perfected salvation of the church precipitates the end of this world. The driving principle is that, although the welfare of the church sometimes appears to be subject to the caprice of evil men, it remains in the hands of the Lord of heaven who rules the disordered system in which we live. He, and none other, leads his people on. It is this truth which surfaces here. When the gospel has done its work, Jesus will lay down his kingdom, his supervision of the entire world of rebellious men and evil spirits. His enemies pass from the scene; the old, sinful universe ends. We know from 15:23 that the resurrection of the church will occur when Christ comes. Further, the New Testament indicates that the world must end with the final advent of the Lord, whence it follows that the resurrection of the church takes place at the end of the world rather than at some earlier time. Compare with John 6:39-40 and 11:24, which refer to the last day. The kingdom is Christ’s dominion of a passing world order. At the moment when glory supervenes, our Lord, having completed all his work, will return his seal of office to his Father. [25] Within the plan of God it is essential for the risen Jesus to control and administer the entire world order, but only until every enemy is vanquished. When this happens there will be no sinful world to subjugate. Jesus, standing over every prostrate opponent, will return his scepter to the Father who commissioned, sent and honored him. Psalm 110, and particularly verse 1, is recalled: Yahweh pledges David’s Lord that he will be raised to sit at the right hand of the enthroned God until all his enemies become his footstool. The promise was honored when Christ ascended. However, whereas the psalm states that Yahweh subdues every enemy, 15:25 asserts that Christ conquers, Paul adapting the psalm. The Son of God acts as his Father’s agent until the footstool is fully in place, at which time the Son’s provisional kingship arrives at its conclusion. [26] Death is the last enemy, the assumption being that Jesus progressively overthrows his opponents. Although physical death was overcome by Christ in his person when he rose, it holds sway elsewhere – yet only because it is permitted to retain its grip. When Jesus comes, it will be annihilated. This verse, then, has a remarkably broad sweep, addressing a program which has already begun and which will encapsulate the events of the end. The present tense inherent in to be destroyed would, then, mean that prior to the Second Coming, death is being led inexorably to its final doom. [27-28] Psalm 8:6, which looks back to creation, when the natural order was subjected to Adam and his children, is invoked to show that all things must submit to Christ the King, the one who, in terms of 15:45,47, is alike the last Adam and the second man. Paul invites his readers to imagine the end of the world: when it says, “all things are put in subjection”, the apostle means subjected to Christ. Says may best be understood as that which the Father will declare in fulfilment of Psalm 8, rather than what he asserts now, just as delivers [24] concerns the eventual surrender of our Lord’s administrative authority. Verse 27 parallels verse 24. Neither there nor here is Jesus said to surrender his personal lordship of the church. He gives up no more than his supervision of all things in a fallen world which, upon his second advent, must cease to exist. He resigns both in commission and himself to the Father. No longer is he required to exercise authority, alike in judgment and in the outworking of salvation. Yet he remains the eternally divine Son of God and by incarnation the human head of the church. If ‘God’ points to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, rather than to the Father alone, the meaning would be that the Trinity is to be worshipped by the holy angels and by a church restored fully and eternally from sin. Nothing can disturb the glory of the new creation.” [Naylor, pp. 431-442].

Victory Over Death:  1 Corinthians 15:54-58.

[54] When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” [55] “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” [56] The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. [57] But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. [58] Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. [ESV]

“[54-55] Paul repeats the clothing terminology in 15:53, but the when in 15:54 introduces a subtle, though significant, advance in thought. He moves from what ‘must’ take place [53] to what will take place when the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality. The prophecy from Scripture seals its certainty and draws out the theological implications. The citation combines Isaiah 25:8 with Hosea 13:14. From Isaiah 25:8, Paul gleans that death will be swallowed up. Paul treats the realm of death as a power in its own right that destroys earthly life and looms as an unremitting threat. Death, for him, is not a blessed release but the annihilation of the human person by an alien, inimical power. Victory makes clear that the ultimate destruction of death requires the resurrection of the dead. The rhetorical questions in 15:55 now sneer defiantly at death’s impotence before the power and mercy of God, who wills to forgive sins and to raise the dead. Sting is synonymous with power in 15:56. It enables death to exercise its dominion over the entire world, but its venom has been absorbed by Christ and drained of its potency so that the victory over death now belongs to God and to God’s people, who benefit from it. [56] Paul adds a theological aside that identifies the sting of death as sin, and the power of sin as the law. The relationship between sin and the law is developed in Romans [5:12-14; 7:7-13], which most believe was written in Corinth, but not in this passage. One should not assume, however, that Paul had not yet fully thought through this connection until he finally worked it out in Romans. The letter to the Romans is written to a community he had never visited. Presumably, what he writes to them he had taught others before. Here, he must assume that the Corinthians would understand this theological shorthand. He did not need to provide an in-depth explanation on the connection between sin and the law, because he had articulated this idea previously, and the law as a delusive basis of salvation is not at issue. From its mysterious laboratory where death distills its poisons, it unleashes the power of sin. Death gains its power over humans through sin because sin demands capital punishment as its moral penalty [Rom. 6:23]. The law, not only unable to arrest sin, spurs it on and pronounces death as its sentence. Paul assumes that his readers understand that through Adam came sin and death [15:21-22]. Through Moses came the law. The law brings awareness of sinfulness [Rom. 4:15; 5:13,20; 7:7; Gal. 3:19], provokes impulses to sin, which then become deliberate transgressions, with the result that death tightens its stranglehold. The law cannot give life or impart righteousness [Gal. 3:21] but brings only condemnation [2 Cor. 3:6]. Through Christ alone come the gracious forgiveness of sins, redemption from the law, and the resurrection from the dead. It is this last element, the resurrection of the dead, that is at issue and that the Corinthians fail to grasp. The resurrection does not simply overturn death’s destructive forces of decay but prevails over sin’s deadly poison. Christ’s death for the forgiveness of sins causes death to lose its ultimacy, because when sin is overcome, death is robbed of its power. Christ’s death and resurrection signify that Christians are delivered from the fallen world under the tyranny of the triumvirate of sin, law, and death and await only the final manifestation of Christ, which will inaugurate their final transformation. [57-58] In 15:57-58, argument gives way to praise as Paul offers thanks to God for the victory won through Christ and the salvific benefits of the resurrection. The Corinthians would have been familiar with the songs of victory celebrating the feats of athletes at the Isthmian games. But Paul does not celebrate the victory of Christians over death. It is God’s victory – but a victory in which all believers are graciously allowed to share. The present participle gives reveals that Paul understands the victory over death to be certain because of the resurrection of Christ, who is now a life-giving spirit [15:45] and redeems us from sins [15:3]. Christians will not be the most pitiable of human beings [15:19], because their hope is assured. But the present tense also indicates that Christians experience forgiveness of sins now and can celebrate this victory proleptically in their daily lives [2 Cor. 3:18]. Paul concludes this second stage of his argument on the resurrection with a moral word to the wise, just as he did the first stage in 15:34. The affectionate address my beloved brothers reveals that he is not engaging in hot polemic. He has been teaching them. The exhortation consists of three parts. The first part, be steadfast, immovable interlocks with his opening admonition in 15:1-2. There, he reminds them about the gospel he preached to them, in which you stand and by which you are being saved, with a significant proviso: if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. They should not allow anything to knock them loose from the moorings of the testimony about Christ [15:3-5] that has been established among them [1:6]. If they lose their grip on the foundational truth that Christ was raised as the firstfruits of the dead and move away from it, they will have believed to no avail. The second part, always abounding in the work of the Lord, recalls his earlier language describing the Corinthians as the work of God because of the labors of God’s servants [3:5-15; 9:1; 15:10]. The exhortation ‘to abound’ or ‘to excel’ also appears in 14:12 and is connected to building up the church. Putting these two pieces together may shed light on the meaning of the ambiguous phrase abounding in the work of the Lord. It would be related to whatever contributes to building up the church. The third part, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain, recalls the statement in 15:14: And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. Paul connects the adjective ‘vain’ to his own labor in 15:10: But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. Convinced of the resurrection of the dead, the Corinthians also know that their labor for Christ [3:8], which may lead them into life-threatening peril, is not in vain. God will use it to give growth and will give the laborer the due reward in the end [3:8]. Until the end, the present is marked by struggle and labor. It is an existence under the cross, sustained by the hope which is based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The reality of the future colors the reality of the present, which is why Paul uses the present tense, your labor is not in vain, rather than the future tense, ‘your labor will not be in vain.’” [Garland, pp. 744-748].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is Paul teaching us when he calls Christ the firstfruits [20]? How does this teaching sustain you in this life and give you hope?
  2. Why does Paul use the comparison of Adam and Christ to prove the truthfulness of the resurrection? In what sense are all in Adam? All in Christ?
  3. After his extended treatment in chapter 15 on the importance of the resurrection, Paul concludes with a praise (But [57]) and an exhortation (Therefore [58]). Will you join Paul in daily offering praise and thanksgiving to God for giving you this victory over death through our Lord Jesus Christ? And, as the result of this victory, will you seek to be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord? Note, for Paul, how the desire and strength to obey the exhortation is found in knowing that God is always faithful to his word. How strong and consistent is your knowledge of this great truth?

References:

1 Corinthians, David Garland, ECNT, Baker.

1 Corinthians, Peter Naylor, Evangelical Press.

The Message of 1 Corinthians, David Prior, InterVarsity.

1 Corinthians, Mark Taylor, NAC, Broadman Press (ebook).

The purpose of this article is to provide additional reference material for those Sunday School teachers who use Lifeway’s Bible Studies for Life material.