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Abolishing Death


*1 Corinthians 15:20-28 March 31, 2019 Lord’s Day Worship Sean Higgins

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The sermon starts at 17:30 in the audio file.


Or, The Line of Christ’s Dominion

 

The resurrection of Christ from the dead is core event of the gospel. Paul started reminding the Corinthians of the gospel at the start of 1 Corinthians 15 and he will keep doing so through the entirely of this longest chapter in the letter. He talks about no other single doctrinal subject so long as he does the resurrection. Without it there is no good news.

It is good news about what? I don’t mean that as a question about the content of the message again; Paul has reviewed the death and resurrection message preached and believed. We learn from the gospel something about our condition, our need, and our hope. We were in our sins, so Christ died for our sins. If He is not raised then we are still in our sins, we are not forgiven, and we are (spiritually) dead and will be (eternally) dead when we (physically) die. These are very personal problems, and Paul addressed them in verses 17-19. The consequences if Christ has not been raised are disastrous. Faith is worthless and death wins and “we are of all people most to be pitied.” The apostolic logic demonstrates that our is faith empty and futile if Christ has not been raised.

This, however, is not the case. “In fact Christ has been raised,” and insert exclamation point! The logical obverse means that whatever was not true if Christ has not been raised in verses 12-19 is actually true since He has been. So our faith is in a fullness of truth, and it is very fruitful.

But while this paragraph starts with the opposite premise, again, that Christ has been raised, Paul doesn’t return to encourage us about preaching and faith and forgiveness. He seems to be following up on whether or not the apostles were misrepresenting God. The gospel of the resurrection is good news for us, but it cannot be separated from the good news of revelation of God’s nature and God’s purpose for and in the world. The cross and the empty tomb is at the center of God’s work because it is at the center of God.

Verses 20-28 show how God works, and in doing so tell us about God Himself. God’s mission in Christ is about abolishing death for the sake of His full and final dominion.

Resurrection Representation (verses 20-22)

Here is the firstfruits of personal advantages. These verses answer, Who is the resurrection good for?

We cannot appreciate our problem or our salvation or God’s nature without the concept of representation. God likes representatives; He came up with the idea.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. Here is the clear contrast to the false premise of the Corinthians in the previous verses. Christ has been raised from the dead, and this is what’s referred to as a divine passive, meaning that God is the subject behind the action. Christ was raised by the Father, and this is important because anyone who is raised is raised by the same God with resurrection power.

Christ is the firstfruits, a unique word that usually referred to part of the harvest that represented the rest of it. “[T]he term signifies the pledge of the remainder…the assurance of a full harvest…the first installment” (De Boer quoted by Thiselton). Christ comes first and Christ represents those who have fallen asleep, the group Paul mentioned in verse 18 as falling asleep “in Christ,” so those who believed in Christ. Christ is the atoning sacrifice for, the Lord of, and the representative of believers.

Both verses 21 and 22 begin with the word “for”; both offer explanation on Christ as firstfruits.

First, For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection from the dead. We’ll see names for each man in the next verse, but here Paul establishes that death was mediated through a man and resurrection was also mediated through a man. He does not say, “by a man came death, by a man came life.” God is life, God created life, yes. But the gospel offers a particular species of life: resurrection life. It isn’t life that avoids death, it is life that abolishes—puts an end to—death.

Second, For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Because of Adam’s sin all men are in a process of dying, all “go on dying” (Lenski). His disobedience in the garden was like the end of string that cast on and started knitting into a death tangle everyone who was born after him. The verb is a present tense, an ongoing reality for every human being. Adam’s line of ancestry is the deadline; all are dying due to their relationship with him.

In Christ men “will be brought to life,” a future tense, passive mood verb. This is the divine passive again, and those who are part of Christ’s line are part of the lifeline. His obedience through death and resurrection starts to unravel death’s tangle for everyone who believes in Him; we’re tied to Him so that our “resurrection is not merely parallel or similar to Christ’s but is preauthorized, promised, guaranteed, and initiated by” His (Ciampa and Rosner). The second-fruits will follow the first-fruits. We are being loosed from death’s knot, and the results of sin and death are being reversed and restored.

The two “all”s are not the same, though the second is a branch of the first. All those represented by Adam share his flesh. All those represented by Christ receive Him by faith. The first all are born, the second all are born again. It’s not a case of universalism, it’s a case of representation. Christ is the firstfruits of the lifeline for Christians.

Resurrection Consummation (verses 23-28)

Here is the firstfruits of triumph and kingdom. These verses answer, What is the resurrection aiming toward?

The timing of this future resurrection is important, but also the telos, or the goal of the resurrection. The good news is for believers, but it’s bigger than that. The resurrection of all those in the lifeline is not the end.

But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. This is the easiest part to grasp. God already raised Christ. Christ already has His resurrected body. We will, but we don’t yet, nor do those who have fallen asleep in Christ. That will happen in…order, as something arranged properly. The timing will be at his coming, at the parousia (the Greek word), at His adventus (the Latin word). The Greek word was used “for the arrival of a potentate in a formal visit to a place as well as for the epiphany of a deity…. As inhabitants of a Roman colony, the Corinthians would have been fully aware of the pomp and circumstance associated with imperial visits in which sovereigns were honored as gods” (Garland). “Coins were struck, and at times a new era was dated from such a coming” (Lenski). It was often used “of Christ, and nearly always of his Messianic Advent in glory to judge the world at the end of this age” (BAGD).

There is an indeterminate amount of time between the two events: His resurrection and His coming to resurrect those who belong to Him.

But there’s more following His coming, as the rest of the paragraph explains. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. These are all on the side of death, and they must be overthrown, abolished.

When is this then? Is it immediately following His coming, or is there time between when He comes and when He delivers the kingdom just as there is time between His resurrection and His coming (so far almost two thousand years)? This is a question connected to the millennial kingdom referred to in Revelation 20 which talks about 1,000 years of Christ’s reign on earth before the final triumph and the eternal state.

We believe that we are living before this kingdom because Christ hasn’t returned yet. Jesus has “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18), but in the kingdom He will rule with that authority on earth. For now, every rule and every authority and power has not been destroyed.

Verse 25 adds more explanation. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. He absolutely must, it is necessary, it has been arranged. Who are all the “he”s? Is it the same “he” in each pronoun? Or are we talking about the Father and the Son? Paul appears to be referencing, though not quoting, Psalm 110:1.

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”

We would understand this as God, Yahweh, speaking to the King, David, and then clearly in anticipation of the Messiah (as the New Testament writers understood). In Trinitarian terms, the Father promises to defeat the Son’s enemies, though it may be through the Son’s work. In 1 Corinthians 15:25, it seems as if the Son defeats the enemies for the Father.

Whether the rulers are demonic or systemic or presidential, all of the rebels will lose because Christ has been raised. Under his feet is when the victor puts his foot on the foe’s neck. Individual and structural rebellion will be defeated.

Verse 26 has no conjunction but belongs with the defeat of enemies. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. This is the most important enemy, this is the enemy that the gospel addresses, this is the ultimate goal of God because of who He is.

I have heard this verse used as the door to postmillennialism. Some argue that if the last enemy to be destroyed is death, and “at His coming those who belong to Christ” defeat death (verse 23), then Christ must destroy all His enemies before He comes. But this requires one to read the “then”s out of order in these verses. What Paul describes is that Christ comes (and there is resurrection), then He conquers enemies including the final conquering of death before He then He delivers the kingdom. As we read from the apostle John, there is a first resurrection (Revelation 20:5), a sharing in His reign for a thousand years (Rev. 20:6), and then a final defeat of enemies and then of death forever.

Whatever the exact order of future events, the firstfruits and the follow-fruits head toward consummation of all things in God.

For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” This is a quotation that should sound familiar from Psalm 8. It was originally penned as part of David’s praise to God for giving man, Adam, glory and honor and dominion. God created Adam to take dominion as a royal representative. Adam blew it. His sin didn’t remove his responsibilities on earth; David was writing post fall. But there are things about the cultural mandate that Adam coulnd’t get over.

Paul applies Psalm 8 to the second Adam (see 1 Corinthians 15:45) as the “last Adam” and the ultimate Man through whom full and final dominion comes.

Then Paul clarifies that God is not subordinate to Christ. But when it says, “all things in subjection under him,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. In other words, Christ, who is given dominion by God over all things, is not given dominion over God. God is not one of the “all things.”

Instead, 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. The Trinity’s purpose included the Father’s mission to the Son for the Son to defeat enemies to glorify the Father. The Son will defeat those enemies and the Father will glorify the Son. He will put things in order; He subordinates all to Himself.

[T]hat God may be all in all This is not pantheism, an absorption of all things into godness; the telos is too personal for that. The point isn’t that everything somehow becomes part of God or that every part in the universe has God in it. I wonder if the comparative and integrated categories work here (which I first read about in Joe Rigney’s book, The Things of Earth). That God may be all means that, by comparison, no one/thing is higher than Him. He has all of our affections. He is “everything” to us. And that God may be in all means that, by integration, every one/thing is recognized and used as a gift from Him. Our affections for Him are increased not diminished by receiving and enjoying His gifts.

God as “all” is the resurrection God, the God who raises the dead. God as “in all” is the God who enables the resurrected to enjoy all the good gifts of His rule. He rules the world with truth and grace, and comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is turned inside out by resurrection.

Conclusion

When we tell the gospel to our unbelieving family and friends or neighbors, I get that we start with the basics, especially with their individual need to repent and believe that God has raised Christ from the dead. But this pulls them into a massive story, a meta-narrative, with global and historical and yes, personal, implications.

Easter is eschatological. Christ’s triumph over death will inevitably lead to His triumph over all deathly enemies. Be patient, don’t lose heart, the whole lifeline leads to His dominion.


Charge

God has blessed you by making known “His purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10). He is the same one who predestined us to possess an inheritance. And the thing is, “the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” is so rich, you will need God’s resurrection power to know it. Saints, your future is sealed, and glorious in He who is the first-fruits!

Benediction:

[May you know] what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:19–23, ESV)