1 Corinthians 15:20-28
Corinth was an important and wealthy city on the isthmus (narrow strip of land) separating Northern and Southern Greece. The Apostle Paul spent eighteen months there on his Second Missionary Journey and established a church there. Acts 18 gives us considerable detail about Paul’s work in Corinth during that time.
At the conclusion of his visit to Corinth, Paul left to visit Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (5:9), but that letter has been lost to us.
Paul is writing this letter in response to a report from Chloe’s people about problems in the Corinthian church (1:11). In this letter, he provides apostolic guidance for dealing with those problems.These included:
• Questions about Paul’s apostolic authority (chapters 1, 4)
• Divisions in the church (chapters 3-4)
• Sexual immorality (chapter 5)
• Lawsuits among believers (chapter 6)
• Questions about marriage and sexuality (chapter 7)
• Questions about eating food sacrificed to idols (chapters 8-10)
• Abuses at the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11)
• Issues regarding spiritual gifts (chapters 12-14)
These were (with the exception of questions regarding Paul’s authority) moral and ethical issues—issues related to how the Corinthian Christians behave. However, now in chapter 15, Paul begins to deal with a doctrinal issue—and issue related to what these Corinthian Christians believe. The doctrinal issue is the resurrection of Christ—and how that belief undergirds the belief in the resurrection of deceased believers.
In chapter 2, Paul dealt with Christ’s crucifixion. Now, in chapter 15, he deals with the resurrection, both Christ’s resurrection (15:1-11) and our own (15:12-58). Chapters 2 and 15, then, serve as bookends around the parts of this letter that deal with ethical issues.
Some Corinthian Christians have questioned the resurrection of believers. Their doubts arose from two sources:
First, some of them are Jewish, and Judaism was divided regarding the issue of resurrection. The Old Testament speaks of Sheol as the abode of the dead—a place where those who have died are separated from the living and from God. In their early history, Jewish people tended to think of Sheol only as the grave. As time progressed, their belief system progressed in the direction of resurrection. While the Old Testament doesn’t use the word resurrection, it does include several allusions to resurrection:
• “I kill, and I make alive” (Deuteronomy 32:39).
• “Yahweh kills, and makes alive. He brings down to Sheol, and brings up” (1 Samuel 2:6).
• “But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives. In the end, he will stand upon the earth. After my skin is destroyed, then in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26).
• “He has swallowed up death forever [and] will wipe away tears from off all faces” (Isaiah 25:7-8).
• “Your dead shall live. My dead bodies shall arise” (Isaiah 26:19).
• “Behold, I will open your graves, my people… You shall know that I am Yahweh, when I have opened your graves, and caused you to come up out of your graves, my people. I will put my Spirit in you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:12-14). However, these words from Ezekiel were intended to portray the rebirth of Israel as a community of faith rather than the resurrection of faithful people as individuals.
• “After two days he will revive us. On the third day he will raise us up, and we will live before him” (Hosea 6:2).
By New Testament times, some Jews (such as the Sadducees) denied any possibility of resurrection or life after death, while other Jews (such as the Pharisees) did believe in the resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18).
Second, Corinth is a Greek city, and Greeks have been heavily influenced by Platonic dualism. Dualism divides things into two parts, such as good and evil or matter and non-matter. Many dualists considered matter (such as our bodies) as unimportant and/or evil and non-matter (such as our souls) as good. Plato taught that our physical bodies are imperfect copies of ideal Forms that exist in a spiritual realm. He taught that our bodies are mortal but our souls existed prior to our life on earth—and will continue to exist beyond this life. Greeks (including these Corinthian Christians), raised in a dualistic environment, found it difficult to believe in the resurrection of the body. For them, the body was something to leave behind gladly—good riddance. Their focus was the preservation of the soul.
Judaism, however, emphasized the wholeness of the person—body and soul. That emphasis continued in the Christian church. Paul wants the Corinthian Christians to know that belief in the resurrection—both Christ’s resurrection and the general resurrection of believers in the last days—is foundational to the Christian faith.
Later in this chapter, Paul will explain that the resurrected body is different from the body as we know it now. He says, “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” (15:42-44).
As noted above, in this chapter Paul deals both with Christ’s resurrection (15:1-11) and with our own (15:12-58).
1 CORINTHIANS 15:19. MOST PITIABLE
19If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable.
“If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable“ (v. 19). In verse 16, Paul outlined four consequences IF the dead are not raised (a condition contrary to fact):
1. “Neither has Christ been raised” (v. 16).
2. Then “your faith is vain; you are still in your sins” (v. 17).
3. “Then they also who who are fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (v. 18).
4. Then “we are of all men most pitiable” (v. 19).
This is the fourth and final consequence if there is no resurrection. If there is no resurrection, then the only benefits we can derive from faith are those that we can gain in this life. There would be no future life, and therefore no future benefit.
We need to stop here and acknowledge that there are benefits to be gained in this life by faith in Christ. Just look at the people in your congregation. They might or might not be kings and princes—movers and shakers—but they are very likely better off than they would have been without faith. Many of them are devoted to their spouse and children, in part, because of their love for Christ. That has benefits for the whole family. Many of them try to love their neighbor because Christ told them to do that. That has benefits for the person who ends up with love rather than poison in his/her heart, but it also has benefits for the community. Many Christians feel a great sense of purpose because of their religious beliefs. They can face illness and death with the assurance that God is with them even through the valley of death. Paul says that, if there is no resurrection, the only benefits we can experience from our faith are those that we experience in this life. However, we need to acknowledge that these are substantial.
However, there is another side to it. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christians are “most pitiable,” because they have staked their lives on a lie. Being a Christian is a costly enterprise. Christians can expect to be persecuted for their faith (Matthew 10:16-25). Christ expects Christians to take up their cross and follow him (Matthew 10:38; 16:24). He expects us to leave behind things that we treasure to follow him (Matthew 8:22; 19:21). If we have made these sacrifices in behalf of a lie, then we are “most pitiable” because we have staked our lives on something that is not true.
1 CORINTHIANS 15:20-23. THE FIRST FRUITS OF THOSE WHO ARE ASLEEP
20But now Christ has been raised from the dead. He became the first fruits of those who are asleep. 21For since death came by man (Greek: anthropou—from anthropon), the resurrection of the dead also came by man (anthropou). 22For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. 23But each in his own order (tagma): Christ the first fruits, then those who are Christ’s, at his coming.
“But now Christ has been raised from the dead“ (v. 20a). In verses 13-19, Paul outlined the consequences, all negative, if there is no resurrection of the dead. However, he has not been arguing that there is no resurrection—quite the opposite. He was only outlining the consequences if there were to be no resurrection.
Now he says once again that “Christ has been raised from the dead.” This is something to which Paul can speak authoritatively, because he saw the risen Christ on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-9). Peter also writes of being an eyewitness of Christ’s risen majesty (2 Peter 2:16).
In verses 3-8, Paul gave a capsule summary, including Christ’s resurrection appearances to hundreds of people. The Corinthian Christians have not denied Christ’s resurrection—they have denied only the resurrection of believers. However, Paul has shown that Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of those who believe in Christ are inextricably tied together.
“the first fruits of those who are asleep“ (v. 20b). The requirement for Israel to offer their “first fruits” to the Lord is found in the Torah. God required the Israelites to bring their first fruits as an offering to God (Exodus 23:19; Leviticus 23:9-10; Numbers 15:17-21; Deuteronomy 18:4; 2 Chronicles 31:5; Nehemiah 10:35). When they planted trees, they were to not to touch the fruit for three years. On the fourth year, they were to set apart the fruit “for giving praise to Yahweh.” Only in the fifth and subsequent years were they allowed to keep the fruit of their trees (Leviticus 19:23-25).
The term, “first fruits” could also be used metaphorically. The prophet Jeremiah said, “Israel was holiness to Yahweh, the first fruits of his increase” (Jeremiah 2:3).
The idea behind the first fruits, of course, was that the first fruits of any harvest are especially valuable. Those of us who have waited all winter for a decent tomato know the joy of the first ripe tomato of summer. Yahweh required Israel to sacrifice their first fruits as a way of acknowledging Yahweh’s priority in their lives.
But the joy of the “first fruits” is not just in the eating of fresh fruit for the first time in months. The real joy of the “first fruits” is that the privation of winter has come to an end. The “first fruits” signal the abundance of fruit that people can expect to eat in months to come. The “first fruits” signal that there are good days ahead.
When Paul says that the resurrected Christ is “the first fruits of those who are asleep,” he is telling these Corinthian Christians that Christ’s resurrection is just the beginning. His resurrection signals the abundance of resurrections yet to come—the resurrection of all those who have placed their faith in Christ.
“For since death came by man” (anthropon—man, as in mankind or humankind) (v. 21a). In verses 21-22, Paul introduces what some have called an Adam-Christ typology.
Typology is a hermeneutical method—a method of interpreting scripture. Think of a “type” as similar to an analogy. An analogy takes something that we understand (such as a pump) and uses it to help us understand something that we might not otherwise understand (such as our hearts). “Types” do something similar, and are used in both Old and New Testaments. For instance, Melchizedek is a type of Christ (Genesis 14-18; Hebrews 5:10; 6:20; 7:1-28) and Jerusalem is a type of the heavenly kingdom (Isaiah 60:14; Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 14:1).
In the “type” of verses 21-22, Paul says that “death came by man,” and then goes on to say that “the resurrection of the dead also came by man.”
When Paul says, “death came by man,” he is talking about the man in the Garden of Eden. In that familiar story, Yahweh put the man in the garden, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). However, the serpent tempted the woman, who ate of the forbidden fruit and then gave it to the man, who also ate (Genesis 3:1-6). In meting out punishment for this sin, Yahweh said to the man, “By the sweat of your face will you eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
When Yahweh said, “you are dust,” he was alluding to the creation story where Yahweh “formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). So when Yahweh said, “to dust you shall return,” he was telling the man that he would die and his body would become as dust once again. This curse affected not only that man, but his descendants as well, because they too became subject to sin.
But the death of the man and his descendants was not only physical death, but spiritual death as well—separation from God. If that tragedy is to be redressed, it must include reconciliation with God as well as physical resurrection.
So the death of the man and his descendants serve as the first part of the Adam-Christ type. We are familiar with sin and death, because we have seen both time after time. Anyone familiar with the Genesis story understands the link between sin and death.
“the resurrection of the dead also came by man” (anthropon) (v. 21b). Now Paul introduces the second part of the Adam-Christ type. Just as a man (Adam) sinned and died—and brought sin and death into the world—so also a man (Jesus Christ) was raised from the dead and brought about resurrection. In other words, Jesus Christ reversed the curse that Yahweh placed on the man in the Garden of Eden.
We must keep in mind that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Though he was “existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). He is our high priest, “who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin” (Hebrew 4:15). “Though he was a Son, yet learned obedience by the things which he suffered. Having been made perfect, he became to all of those who obey him the author of eternal salvation” (Hebrews 5:8-9).
So death came through a human being (Adam), but resurrection also comes through a human being (Jesus Christ).
For more on this Adam-Christ typology, see 1 Corinthians 15:45-19 and Romans 5:12-21.
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (v. 22). Paul is not espousing universalism—a belief that Christ will save all people, regardless of their spiritual status. In verse 18, he talks about “they…who are fallen asleep in Christ.” In verse 23, he talks about “those who are Christ’s” as those can expect to be made alive in Christ. In his letter to the Romans, he says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1; see also Romans 6:11, 23; Galatians 3:26, 29; Ephesians 3:6).
Paul uses this phrase, “in Christ,” frequently to describe a saving relationship between the person and Christ. He says, “For you are all children of God, through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27). It is those who are “in Christ” whom Christ will make alive.
“But each in his own order (tagma): Christ the first fruits“ (v. 23a). The word tagma was sometimes used for military organization. In this verse, it suggests a particular sequence. Christ was the first to be raised from the dead—the first fruits of those who would be raised (see comments on first fruits above—v. 20).
“then those who are Christ’s, at his coming” (v. 23b). The resurrection of those who belong to Christ will take place at his Second Coming (see Matthew 24:29-31; 2 Thessalonians 2; 1 John 2:28).
The idea behind Christ’s Second Coming has its roots in the Old Testament “day of Yahweh” (Isaiah 13:6, 9; 58:13; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezekiel 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obadiah 1:15; Zephaniah 1:7-8, 14, 18; 2:2-3; Malachi 4:5). The Jewish people thought of themselves as God’s chosen people but, for most of their history, were overshadowed by larger, more powerful nations. They lived in the confident hope that God would break into history and re-establish them to their rightful place. They called that intervention The Day of the Lord. They expected that God would usher in that day with a period of terrible turmoil and judgment, but the final outcome would be a new and triumphant age.
In Christian thought, the Day of the Lord will come at an unexpected time. Thus it is important to be prepared for its coming. By the time that the day of the Lord takes place, people’s fates will have already been finalized. For the faithful, it will be a day of vindication, but for the unfaithful, it will be a day of judgment (Matthew 7:21-23; 11:20-24; 24:15-51; 25:1-46).
1 CORINTHIANS 15:24-28. THE LAST ENEMY THAT WILL BE ABOLISHED IS DEATH
24Then (Greek: eita—then, after this) the end (telos) comes, when he will deliver up the Kingdom to God, even the Father; when he will have abolished all rule and all authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy that will be abolished is death. 27For, “He put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when he says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that he is excepted who subjected all things to him. 28When all things have been subjected to him, then the Son will also himself be subjected to him who subjected all things to him, that God may be all in all.
“Then (eita—“then” or “after this”) the end (telos) comes” (v. 24a). After the resurrection of those who are in Christ comes the telos—the end. The word telos has the sense of completion or fulfillment. In the New Testament, it “denotes the ‘end’ of the age, the time when God will consummate his redemptive purposes for humankind that will include both the judgment of the wicked and the salvation of the righteous—all to take place when Christ returns for the last time” (Renn, 328).
In this verse, therefore, telos comes closer to meaning the beginning than the end. It speaks of a time when God will unveil creation as he intended it—rather like the grand opening of a great show.
“when he will deliver up the Kingdom to God, even the Father; when he will have abolished all rule and all authority and power” (v. 24b). The sequence here is that Christ will first bring to an end all earthly power and authority—in the process restoring the Godly reign that existed prior to the introduction of sin into the world. Then, once the restoration is complete and the world is once again what God created it to be, Christ will hand over “the Kingdom to God, even the Father.”
“For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (v. 25). The symbolism here comes from the practice of earthly kings sitting on elevated thrones with their feet higher than the heads of their subjects. When a king conquered an enemy, he could place his feet on the neck of the conquered king, symbolizing the conquered king’s utter subjection to the victorious king.
This verse tells us that Christ must reign until he has utterly defeated all God’s enemies—until he has put his foot on their necks. As noted above, once the creation is restored to pristine condition, Christ will hand over “the Kingdom to God, even the Father.”
“The last enemy that will be abolished is death” (v. 26). The destruction of death involves the resurrection of the dead, but it also involves spiritual liberation. In his letter to the Romans, Paul said, “What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me out of the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24). The context for that verse shows Paul struggling to do God’s will, but failing. He said, “For I delight in God’s law after the inward man, but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity under the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:22-23). There is, therefore, the sense that there is a kind of spiritual death that we experience while still alive.
The author of Ephesians reinforces the idea of being spiritually dead while physically alive. He says, “You were made alive when you were dead in transgressions and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the children of disobedience; among whom we also all once lived in the lust of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:1-6).
Once death, both spiritual and physical, has been conquered, Christ will hand over the restored kingdom of this world to God the Father (v. 24).
Just imagine that! So much of life today is stained by evil—terrorism, tyranny, politicians whose concern is reelection rather than the well-being of their people, criminal behavior, business executives who fill their personal pockets while running their businesses into the ground—etc., etc., etc. As I was writing this, my wife and I were talking about an over-the-counter decongestant that is no longer easily available because drug users have learned how to abuse it. She commented, “It gets really tiresome having the course of our lives dictated by the lowest common denominator.” It really does.
But when Christ comes again and puts God’s enemies under his feet, all the evil that now stains our daily existence will come to an end. Hallelujah!
“For, ‘He put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when he says, ‘All things are put in subjection,’ it is evident that he is excepted who subjected all things to him” (v. 27). While this verse isn’t in the lectionary reading, it is foundational to verse 28, which is in the lectionary reading.
The sentence, “He put all things in subjection under his feet,” comes from Psalm 8:6. In its original context, it celebrates the fact that God has given man dominion over all things and has put the rest of creation under his feet. However, in this letter to the Corinthian church, Paul adapts that wording to say that God has put all things in subjection to Christ. The only exception to that rule is God—the one who put everything at Christ’s feet.
“When all things have been subjected to him, then the Son will also himself be subjected to him who subjected all things to him, that God may be all in all” (v. 28). “This presents a difficulty, for it appears to some that one member of the Trinity is seen as inferior to another. But we must bear in mind that Paul is not speaking of the essential nature of either the Son or the Father. He is speaking of the work that Christ has accomplished and will accomplish” (Morris).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2012, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan