What Does the Resurrection Mean?
What does the Resurrection Mean?
1 Corinthians 15:20-34
by William Klock
For the past two weeks we’ve been looking at the fifteenth chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. In the first week we saw Paul laying out the gospel for them – that the gospel message is specifically this: that Jesus died for our sins (paying the penalty for them and satisfying the just wrath of God), that he was buried (proving that he really did die); and that on the third day he was raised from the dead (proving that he was who he claimed to be, that he was in fact God, and that his death was accepted by the Father). And then last week we saw that Paul had to spell this out for them because they were living as if Christ hasn’t been resurrected. They did believe he had been raised, but they had bought into the Greek philosophy that taught that death was the end when it came to the body – that there was no resurrection for us. And so Paul went through that litany of how we have no hope if there is no resurrection: our faith is empty; our preaching is in vain; the apostles are all liars; we remain dead in our sins; our believing loved ones are simply rotting in the grave; and we ourselves are most to be pitied.
If Jesus was raised from the dead, that fact does mean something in terms of how we live and what we do. So now with verse 20, St. Paul sweeps us across the centuries to show us the ultimate effects. There are three remarkable and amazing things about the resurrection. The first one is to guarantee the physical resurrection of the bodies of all of us who have put our trusting faith in Jesus and his sacrifice. Look at verses 20-23:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
The key to understanding what Paul’s getting at is that word, firstfruits. He’s taking it from Leviticus 23, where God gave the Israelites instructions for the Feast of Unleavened Bread. That feast was to take place the day after the Sabbath that followed the Passover. The priest would offer the firstfruits of the barley harvest. The people were commanded to bring a sheaf of grain, the first of the harvest, so that the priest could wave it before the Lord.
Now notice when that feast took place: the day after the Sabbath following the Passover. By our calendar, that’s the Sunday after the Passover – the same day on which Jesus rose from the dead. The Law is full of “types and shadows” that point to Christ and here’s one of them! Paul’s point is that not only did Jesus rise from the dead on the exact day predicted in that Old Testament feast, but that his resurrection is the firstfruits – the earnest or the guarantee – of the entire “harvest” of resurrections – of our own resurrection.
Paul goes on to make the point that this is what will happen – no question about it. He says, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.” Everyone in the human race is subject to death because of Adam’s fall. Everyone. But that also means that everyone who takes part in Jesus Christ – in the new Adam who purchased our redemption and was raised from the dead himself – we will all take part in his resurrection. As Paul says, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Again, he’s talking about believers. From verse 18, which we looked at last week, we know he’s talking about the people he described as “those also who have fallen asleep in Christ,” and now in verse 23, “those who belong to Christ.”
So Paul says, “in Adam all die.” That’s true of every man or woman – even believers. But for those of us who do believe – who are not only “in Adam” but now also “in Christ,” we have the promise that we will one day “be made alive” just as Jesus was. This is his argument. By the first Adam came the breakout from Eden; by the second Adam came the breakthrough back into Paradise through the resurrection. What he’s saying is that if you are in Christ, your resurrection is just as certain as your death.
It’s sobering to think that as we all sit here this morning, we’re all in the process of dying – some of us are just further along in the process than others. Modern medicine can slow the process and surgery can mask it or cover it up to a point, but we can’t stop it – we are all headed for the grave. As in Adam all die. You don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to work at it – although you can certainly accelerate the process — but given enough time, every one of us will die.
But with just as much certainty, here’s the good news. It’s also not up to you to be resurrected, but it will happen. Just as surely as death is at work in us in Adam, life is at work in us in Christ, if we are “in Christ.” And for that reason, it’s just as certain that one day all of us who are in Christ will be resurrected from the dead and brought into a quality and level of life that we have never known before. Friends, that’s an encouraging certainty! Paul puts it in the strongest terms. Even the dead are resurrected. To be clear, everyone, in and out of Christ will be resurrected on that final day, but we know from Scripture that “resurrection to life” as St. John puts it, is only for those in Christ. A resurrection to destruction and to eternal separation from God is what waits for the rest.
Of course the big question we want to ask then is, “When?”. He said in verse 23, “But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” The answer to “When?” is, “At his coming.” Paul wrote to the Thessalonians:
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice ofan archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 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 Thessalonians 4:16-17)
The second remarkable thing about the resurrection is that it means that Christ reigns today. In verse 24 of our passage, St. Paul moves us into that final scene – to that time when this millennial age is over and to the time when Jesus’ work is completed, his enemies have been defeated, he’s cast the devil and death and hades into the lake of fire, and then delivered the kingdom back to his Father. This is what Paul describes in verses 24-26:
Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroyingevery rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Notice that Jesus’ kingdom is here and now. He is reigning today, and each day his kingdom grows. His mission is to perfect this kingdom into which he has called us until he has put every one of his enemies under his feet. I’ve heard a lot of people say that eschatology (that’s the doctrine of “last things”) doesn’t matter. And to a point they’re right, in that in most cases our faith doesn’t stand or fall on these things, but it doesn’t mean they’re not important. If we understand, as Paul says here and throughout his epistles, that Jesus is reigning over his kingdom today, we have a foundation to steady us when times are hard and when the pressure is on, when we feel discouraged and when we feel defeated. We can fall back on the assurance that Jesus is in control today and that he will be for all eternity. When governments become oppressive, when our freedoms are taken away, even when we’re persecuted for our faith, we need to remember that all this take place under the overall authority of Jesus Christ who said, when he rose from the dead, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).
He lets these things happen in order to accomplish his divine purposes, just as in the Old Testament, God raised up nations like the Babylonians and Assyrians to bring about his purposes for Israel. He allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed; he allowed the Israelites to be taken into captivity, all so that his people would learn the lessons they needed to learn. God brings these things to pass for our sake, and it’s part of the authority of Christ that allows them to happen. We forget that Jesus is reigning, but it’s true – and if we’d live with that profound truth in mind, we’d live with much greater security and assurance!
We have hope even as death continues, because a time will come for each of us when this body will die, but because we are united to Christ, death will be destroyed for us. Paul says, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” On that day when we pass from death into resurrection like our Lord himself, we will never die again. In Romans Paul reminds us that Christ having once died, never dies again, and we share his existence. He is the firstfruits of the great harvest – and we’re part of that harvest. Now look at verses 27-28 where Paul describes the end and Jesus restoring the kingdom to his Father.
For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it [Psalm 8:6] says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he [God] is excepted who put all things in subjection under him [Christ]. 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 Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity, humbled himself two thousand years ago and became a man so that he might be a mediator between us and God. Because of who he is and what he has done for us, Scripture calls us to worship him and to give him honour. Paul tells us in Philippians 2:9-11 that, because of our Lord’s faithfulness,
God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Think of that wonderful scene in Revelation 5 where all of creation gathers around the throne worshipping the Lamb that was slain and crying, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12). Everyone is invited to worship the Son. But why? Obviously because the Son is God, but because he is Lord of all. When the Father sent him, he subjected all creation to Christ so that he could establish his kingdom.
And yet, Paul says, a time is coming when the work establishing that kingdom will done and Christ will hand it back to his Father, having subdued everything that was ever in opposition to God. This is the culmination of all history and shows us why the resurrection of the dead is so important. When Christ was raised from the dead, the Father set in motion a chain of events that can only culminate in the final destruction of death. It’s the destruction of that last element of the fall, of our rebellion against him, that leads God to being “all in all” just as he was in eternity past.
“All in all” is Paul’s way of saying that after God has subdued death – the last remaining enemy of his people – he will be supreme in every quarter and in every way. For Paul that consummation of redemption extends beyond us and includes the entire creation. There’s nothing that exists outside of God’s redemptive purposes in Christ, so at that final day when we see the death of death the final rupture in the universe will be healed and God alone will rule over all, banishing all those who have rejected his offer of life and lovingly ruling over all those who have entered into his gracious rest.
Now there’s a third remarkable characteristic of the resurrection. In verses 29-34, the apostle shows us the motivating power of the resurrection. Look at verse 29:
Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?
Okay, I know, that’s a weird one. This is one of the Bible verses the Mormons use to justify one of the most significant of their religious activities. Ever wonder what goes on inside a Mormon temple? They don’t have any worship services like some people might think. No. Among other things, one of the most important, for them, is that they perform proxy baptisms for the dead – so that all their ancestors and even the great Christian saints who never heard the false Mormon gospel can still be “good” Mormons and get to heaven.
So what’s Paul getting at here? It’s hard to say. The commentaries are all over the map in trying to explain what it means and what the Corinthians were doing. We know from earlier passages in the book that the Corinthians had developed an almost magical view of baptism and so I think it’s probably that they were in fact doing proxy baptisms either for dead relatives or for friends and family who had received the gospel message, but died without being baptised. Whatever the specifics, Paul doesn’t condone it, but uses it as an example to show how absurd it is that they deny a future resurrection of their own bodies.
And that’s his point. Something was motivating these people to take this action – something that had a powerful effect on them, and they were so moved by it that they actually went out of their way to be baptised on behalf of those who had died in the hope that they would experience it too. Whatever the specifics, what Paul’s arguing is that is that the belief in a resurrection has a profound motivational impact on our lives, and it will move us to help others. Believing in the resurrection has an effect on us. It changes our lives. It’ll even drive you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do – like suddenly having a concern for the salvation of souls and going out of your way to share the good news with them. In verses 30-32 Paul talks about the effect the resurrection had on him:
Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus?
He’s talking about the persecution he endured. He’s probably referring to the same event in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9:
For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
That’s the point. To believe that God raises the dead is an amazing encouragement to endure suffering and even physical affliction. The fact that Paul understood this was what made it possible for him to endure those great times of persecution. I think he’s talking figuratively in saying he “fought with the beasts at Ephesus”. It was so bad that it was like going into the arena to fight wild beasts, and yet in a situation that bad he found strength in the hope of the resurrection.
Friend, are you wearing out your life in some unseen corner? Do you feel like nobody will ever hear about you or that they’ll never know the punishment you’ve had to take? Paul gives us hope. He says, “Have no fear!” In 2 Corinthians 4:17 he give that great verse of encouragement:
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
The resurrection gives hope no matter how bad our suffering is on this side of eternity. Paul ends this section with an appeal to us to let the hope of our own resurrection dramatically impact how we live:
If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:32b)
That was the philosophy of the pagan Greeks in Corinth. Since they believed the body existed only in this life and that there was no resurrection, you’d better grab it all in this life while you have the chance. Don’t bother wasting your time on doing things for God. But Paul says in verses 33-34:
Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.
This wasn’t just a Corinthian problem – we have the same problem today. The Christians there were giving in to this “live it up” way of life. Instead of living for the sake of the cross and instead of devoting themselves to spreading the word of truth and instead of giving themselves over to the Spirit of God to be used in ways that would plant seeds of righteousness and love and truth in places where other people were hurting and suffering, they were giving way to the “eat, drink, and by merry, for tomorrow you die” philosophy of life. And not only that, but they were running with that same crowd – letting the pagans influence their thinking and actions. We may live in the world, but we’re not supposed to be of the world and yet they were in the world and living just like it. They were letting worldly company instil worldly thinking and morals in them. And so Paul knocks them upside the head and says, “Wake up, folks! Stop kidding yourselves that what you do in this life doesn’t matter! There’s a battle going on and we have the privilege of living in this time in history and making a difference in the world for Christ. But time is going to pass you by in a hurry, so make use of it for the kingdom! Some of you are even professing to be Christians, but you have no real knowledge of God, because you’re living just like the pagans around you.”
And so Paul closes this section with this note: We are not the creatures of time. We are immortal beings. When we gather at the throne of God, the greatest privilege we will claim for ourselves is that we had the opportunity to labour for his namesake here in this life. If we truly understand that for our sake – for the sake of sinful men and women who rejected him – the Father sacrificed his Son, that his Son was dead and buried, and that he rose in triumph over sin and death – all for our sake – how can we have any priority higher than living for him and for his kingdom. Time is passing by. Paul says, “Make the most of it.”
Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, thank you for the ultimate sacrifice you made for us even when we didn’t deserve it. Forgive us for all the times we forget it and live as if today is all there is – as if the promise of the resurrection isn’t real. Remind us daily as we read your Word and are indwelt by your Spirit, that the gospel places a call on our lives – a call to follow you as Lord and commit ourselves to your service, not out of obligation, but out of loving gratitude for new life and out of hope for our one day being raised to new life. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, the firstfruits of the resurrection. Amen.