The Order of Resurrection
1 Corinthians 15:20-28 takes us from Christ the first fruits to the end of redemption.
Last week we looked at seven serious spiritual consequences for denying the bodily resurrection of Christ.
Paul was arguing that if there is no bodily resurrection then...
Christ is not risen.
Preaching is vain.
Faith is vain.
The Apostles are false witnesses.
You are still in your sins.
The dead in Christ have perished.
We are the most pitiful people.
So, the the bodily resurrection isn’t just a side issue; it’s essential for Christians to believe.
The goal of salvation isn’t to transcend beyond the body into a completely spiritual state. Christ's mission on the earth was not to rescue our spirits trapped inside "evil bodies" but to bring resurrection life to what God created in the garden and called "very good."
For the Christian, then, the body is not a thing to transcend, but to resurrect. And to deny this is to deny the very heart of what it means to trust in Christ because Christ came to earth to redeem and restore not just our souls, but our bodies, too.
Now, in the next section Paul shows us even more clearly how all of this is relevant to us. And he does so by explaining the order of resurrection and where we fit in God’s plan. So first is...
1. Christ the First Fruits
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20).
The phrase “But now” moves us from the negative to the positive. Instead, of focusing on all those negative consequences, Paul now focuses on the truth that "Christ has been raised from the dead."
This is a statement of fact (see Acts 3:15) that doesn't need any more proof than what Paul has already given in the first eleven verses and has been encouraging us to keep believing.
Paul doesn't say “if Christ has been raised” anymore; now he says dogmatically that Christ has been raised from the dead.
Now, in regards to the order, Christ is "The first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" meaning Christ is first in order of sequence and in order of importance.
In regards to Christ being first in order of sequence, there have been others who were resurrected, like Lazarus, but they eventually died again. Jesus is the very first to be resurrected with a glorified body that would never die. Everyone else has to wait for the bodily resurrection at the time God has appointed.
You might say “But what about Enoch and Elijah?” Well, they were taken up in heaven without dying but their bodies weren’t glorified. So, Christ is unique. He’s the very first to die and then be resurrected with a glorified body that would never die. Jesus is the first in sequence.
Now, Paul’s point in calling Jesus the first fruits seems to be that the full harvest won’t happen until after the first fruits are given. Like in the days of the Israelites, the first fruits must be given before the full harvest otherwise there might not even be a full harvest.
So, Jesus isn’t just the first in order of sequence, he’s also the first in order of importance. Jesus’ resurrection is the greatest resurrection and always will be even though it points to a much larger harvest.
Normally, in Scripture, everything points to Jesus but this is one of those times when something Jesus does actually points to something else. It’s not that our resurrection is greater than Christ’s but that the resurrection of the dead magnifies and makes Christ’s resurrection even more amazing in what it accomplishes.
The resurrection of Christ makes death seem like “sleep.” When we die, our spirit goes immediately into God’s presence as it says in 2 Corinthians 5:8 (see also Phil 1:23) but our body goes to “sleep” until our own resurrection. In a normal night’s sleep we lay down, close our eyes, and trust that God will wake us up again in the morning. That’s what death is like for the believer. That’s what Jesus’ resurrection accomplished in being the first in order of sequence and importance.
Next, we come to a greater explanation in the text of why the resurrection of Christ is needed. Why didn’t God just make us all live for ever in the first place? The answer to that is found in understanding how we are...
2. In Adam and in Christ
For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:21-22).
The words "for since" point to the reason death came into the world: sin. Because Adam didn’t listen to God, and ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, God sentenced him, and all of us, to a life of hard labor leading to eventual physical death (see Genesis 3:17-19).
Of course, there is physical death and spiritual death, but Paul’s emphasis here is on the physical. When Adam sinned, we not only died spiritually but our bodies became subject to eventual physical death. So, when Adam sinned every one else was affected. When Adam sinned, we all sinned. When Adam died, we all died.
We might say, “Well I have free will and I make my own choices. Adam doesn’t make them for me.” Okay, but name me one single person that hasn’t sinned and isn’t going to die (except for Enoch and Elisha which we’ve already mentioned). See, everyone dies because everyone sins so we aren’t free to save ourselves through good behavior.
Augustine, the early church father, says helpfully, "Before the fall, Adam was able to sin or not to sin: after the fall, he was not able not to sin." What he means is that before the Fall Adam had the ability not to sin but once he rebelled he lost that ability and passed his inability on to us.
So, through Adam's disobedience, the entire human race is “unable to not sin.” We might have free will but we are not free to do what goes against our nature. In Adam, we all sin and we all die.
Thankfully, though, if we can all be negatively affected by one man, we can also be positively affected by one man. See, parallel to death being the result of one man’s sin, is eternal life being the result of one man’s righteousness.
So, the good news is that by one man, Christ, who lived obediently without sin, his people are given eternal life (see Romans 5:12, 18). Now, you’ll notice I said his people are given eternal life, and not all people. That’s because, as verse 22 says, only those who are “in Christ” are saved.
Everyone will be resurrected but not everyone will be saved, only those who are in Christ are saved. Daniel 12:2 (see also See Matthew 7:13) says, "Those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.”
So the phrase "in Adam” and "in Christ” indicates that, like Adam is head of the human race, Christ is the head of God's people. Every human being is in Adam but not everyone is in Christ, and only those in Christ will be made alive.
So in Adam we all die, but in Christ, the first fruits, we are made alive. But now what about...
3. The Rest of the Harvest
But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming (1 Corinthians 15:23).
Paul’s point is simple: Christ receives a glorified body first then everyone else who belongs to him follows. So, there are really only two categories of order mentioned here: Christ, himself, is resurrected and then "those who are Christ's.”
Now we get a couple subcategories in 1 Thess. 4:16-17 where we learn God's people are resurrected in two stages: first the dead in Christ are raised and then the rest of the believers who are still alive. 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17 says…
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.
Again, Paul’s point seems to be simple: Christ is resurrected first and then the rest of the harvest happens at his coming (see also 1 Corinthians 15:52). There’s no mention of post millennial, premillennial, or dispensational views here.
Christ is resurrected first, then the rest of his harvest. That’s the order stated so simply by Paul. And then there’s what the Bible calls...
4. The End
Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power (1 Corinthians 15:24).
After our resurrection, "Then comes the end." In other words, the conclusion of Christ's redemptive work comes after the resurrection of God's people. With this culminating event, salvation is complete for God’s people and Christ’s work is done. It’s the end, but that doesn’t mean nothing else happens.
Then “He hands over the kingdom to God the Father.” And when Christ hands the kingdom over to the Father I think Paul is primarily talking about the people He has redeemed, the church, those that have been completely transformed in body and spirit. In the Garden of Eden we were his greatest creation. In Adam we became corrupted by the Fall, but in Christ we will be completely restored and given back to the Father.
But that’s not all! In the end, Christ’s complete authority over all spiritual forces will be fully established...
For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death (1 Corinthians 15:25-26).
Death for thousands and thousands of years has been like a foreign enemy that invaded and took charge of our world. Jesus conquered this enemy, death, through his resurrection, and it will be completely abolished in the end, as God’s people are resurrected (Revelation 21:4).
So, know this: death doesn’t have a hold on you. You will die if Christ doesn’t return before then, but that’s not the end of you. Your body will live again, just like Jesus’ body did.
It’s a promise because...
He has 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 put all things in subjection to Him (1 Corinthians 15:27).
The phrase "He has put all things in subjection under His feet” comes from Psalm 8:6 which we usually interpret to refer to mankind and our authority over the animal kingdom. But like most of Scripture, there is a greater fulfilment in Christ. Here, Paul uses it to refer to Christ’s authority over everything, even death.
So, we have every reason to believe in God’s promise. We don’t need to fear death because everything is under Jesus' authority except, of course, God the Father — which is what it means when Paul says, “He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him.” And, last of all…
When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).
As God, Jesus is fully equal with the Father and yet, in authority, Jesus willingly subjects himself to the will of the Father’s and will continue to do so for all eternity. Why? “So that God may be all in all.” It’s not that God hasn’t always been all in all, but in the end, everything and everyone will fully acknowledge it.
And then things will start to get really interesting! These verses may describe the end of God’s redemptive plan for us but I’m certain we aren’t going to sit around and get bored after it’s all finished.
The end is really just the beginning because God loves to keep perfecting things. I’m confident there will be plenty of exciting things to do once we have been fully redeemed. The end of redemption will be just the beginning of all we will do for the glory of God when we aren’t limited by sin and death anymore.