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Dead Certain (1 Corinthians 15:20–28)

by Doug Van Meter | 1 Corinthians Exposition

Paul was dead certain that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and therefore dead certain that the dead in Christ will rise again. He was absolutely certain that those who die in Christ will rise again like Christ and therefore was certain that this truth will shape how Christians live. Because Christians are absolutely certain that death is not the final word on our bodily existence, we live in this world as though what we do in this world matters. Being certain of God’s new creation, secured by Christ’s resurrection, equips Christians to always abound in the work of the Lord in this old creation (v. 58). This is the theme Paul begins to unpack in these nine verses.

Certainty is a theme in this passage, as well as in the entire chapter. Paul wants the Corinthian church to be absolutely, unwaveringly certain in the conviction that, because Jesus Christ bodily rose from the dead, so will they. They should be dead certain that Jesus Christ, the last Adam, rose from the dead inaugurating a new creation. They should be biblically certain that there will be a full consummation of this new creation, a full consummation of the kingdom of God.

This certainty, however, is to be practical, not simply theoretical. Orthodoxy should yield orthopraxy. The gospel promise of bodily resurrection must make a difference in how they live. We will seek to unpack some of this today under three major headings:

  1. Dead Certain about the Resurrection (vv. 20–22)
  2. Dead Certain about the New Creation (vv. 23–27a)
  3. Dead Certain about the Consummation (vv. 27b–28)

Christians are Dead Certain about the Resurrection

First, Paul shows that Christians are dead certain about the resurrection: “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” (vv. 20–22).

Inevitable Certainty

Verses 12–19 describe the dismal logical consequences if Jesus had not risen from the dead. But “Paul’s “litany of woe” could be sustained no longer, and he gives way to a sudden burst of triumph” (Ellsworth). “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (v. 20).

The little conjunction “but” carries huge implications. Ephesians 2:4–5 is a case in point. Having described the hopeless situation of dread and damned sinners (vv. 1–2), Paul exults: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” We can read “but” in the same celebratory voice as he contrasts the negative logic (vv. 12–19) with the positive logic (vv. 20–28). That is, if Christ is still dead, we can be certain of perishing, but this is not the case for, in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead! Ellsworth comments, “Paul’s sudden burst of euphoria ministers to all of us who are carried along by the tides of every day cares and who are caught in the clutches of secularism and scepticism.” As Paul will explain, Jesus” resurrection vindicates his person, his purchase, his people, and all his promises to them, including the promise of bodily resurrection (John 5:25–29; 11:25–26) and the promise of the new creation (Matthew 19:28–30; John 14:1–3; etc.). This makes all the difference how Christians live in the world, how they die in this world, and what they will bring into the next world (Matthew 6:19–24).

Paul was absolutely certain about this. He was dead certain that, because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, so will all those who belong to him rise from the dead and therefore he writes that Christ was “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

This agrarian terminology was familiar to both farmers and those who knew the old covenant with its various offerings and feasts. The firstfruits were the first part of the harvest in which the farmer rejoiced, assuming the inevitability of more to come. That is the word picture Paul draws here. When God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, it was the “down payment”—an inevitable unbreakable guarantee—that all who are in Christ (defined here as “those who have fallen asleep” [see v.18]) will also rise from the dead. Another way to put this is that Jesus Christ will receive his full reward.

The harvest is certain for those who are in him. Are you? Will you fall asleep in Jesus or will you simply die? Will you be present with the Lord when your heart stops beating or will you merely “pass away”? These may sound like morbid questions, but they are eternally important.

Inexplicable Certainty

Paul grounds his celebratory optimism in what he previously had taught them concerning the biblical truth ofcorporate representation, also known as “federal headship”: “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” (vv. 21–22).

Everyone born into this world was represented by Adam, and therefore what happened to him happens to us: sin and (spiritual and bodily) death. But Jesus Christ is also a corporate representative, for what happened to him also happens to those who are in him: everlasting spiritual and bodily life. Whereas Adam brought death, Jesus Christ brought life. Adam brought the fall with its certain, inescapable death penalty while Jesus Christ brought redemption with its promised, inexplicable resurrection! It is on this truth that all certainty about our future hangs.

The word “man,” found twice in v. 21, is generic rather than gender specific. Though Adam and Jesus were, of course, males, Paul’s point here is wider than gender, for these persons represent everyone who has or will ever lived: man or woman. It was through a human that sin and death came, and it was through a human that righteousness and resurrection to life came. This is an important point in Paul’s theology of the resurrection. It was because of the incarnate Son of God that there is the certainty of resurrection. For human beings to have hope of resurrection God would need to become a human. He would need to take on flesh and blood if our flesh and blood is to be redeemed. This becomes clearer as the chapter unfolds, and v. 22 gets us closer to this point.

Paul explicitly identifies Adam as the federal head of sinners—which is everyone—and therefore death has come upon all whom Adam represents. Yet, by the miracle of God’s sovereign grace, not all will die in Adam. Rather, by God’s saving grace, some will be translated from Adam into Christ and these, though dead, will be made alive. All of them (see John 11:25–26). To summarise, “If Adam’s sin had far-reaching consequences, so had Christ’s resurrection” (Morris). This is an inexplicable, indescribable, inexpressible, inscrutable truth (2 Corinthians 9:15).

Thomas Goodwin, a seventeenth century Puritan pastor, famously described the truths of this passage (and those in Romans 5) this way: “In God’s sight there are two men—Adam and Jesus Christ—and these two men have all other men hanging at their girdle strings.” Sarah Sampson helpfully explains, “Goodwin imagines two giants standing before God—Adam and Christ, each representing a group of people. Each giant has a large belt around his waist with tiny hooks, and everyone who has ever lived is hanging on one of the two belts. On Adam’s belt are those who are still dead in their sins and trespasses. On Christ’s belt are those who have been justified through faith.” Quoting Ted Donnelly she continues,

Can you visualize the picture? You and I, and all humanity are hanging either at Adam’s belt or at Christ’s belt. There is no third option, no other place for us. And God deals with us only through Adam or through Christ. If you are hanging at Adam’s belt, you share in the experience of sinful, fallen Adam, and your entire relationship with God is through him. But if you are hanging at Christ’s belt, all God’s dealings with you are through Christ. When you received Jesus as your Savior, you were involved in a massive and momentous transfer. The Almighty himself unhooked you from Adam’s belt and hooked you onto Christ’s. So you now have a different Head, a different Mediator, a new representative. You have passed from Adam into Christ, and whereas God formerly dealt with you only through Adam, he now deals with you only through his Son. You are in Christ unchangeably and forever.

Sampson concludes with a provocative question: “Are you hanging in there or are you hanging onto Christ?” Great question.

Don’t miss Paul’s certainty. Just as Paul was certain about death, and just as we are certain of death, so Paul was certain about resurrection life, and Christians should be equally certain of resurrection life in Jesus Christ. Just as the existence of the local cemetery is undeniable, so is the existential reality of a future resurrection of Christians to everlasting life.

On numerous occasions in my pastoral ministry, I have stood by many graves and watched as caskets were lowered into the ground. Each of those bodies was there because its lineage was traced back to Adam. Because those people sinned in Adam when he sinned (Romans 5:12), it was a fact of life, when they were born, that they would one day die. But by God’s grace he saved those we have buried. Because they died in Christ, we are certain that one day those graves will open at the voice of an archangel and the dead in Christ will rise in glorified bodies (some gloriously short and some gloriously tall!). And this is because of the good news that we were reminded of in the opening verses.

The body of Jesus Christ was “planted” in the ground and, from his death and subsequent resurrection, a whole harvest of Christlike people will rise from the dead one day (see John 12:20–26).

Brothers and sisters, our resurrection to everlasting life is as inevitable as it is inscrutable. And yet it is not incredible. It is believable.

One more truth needs emphasising: the Christlikeness of every person who is truly in Christ.

It does not take long for that precious baby to reveal her likeness to Adam! As the child grows as a person, her sin and sinfulness is manifested. She looks more and more like Adam. Likewise, when someone is in Christ, his righteousness and reverence and holiness and love and joy and peace are clearly manifested in that person’s life.  Christ’s likeness is manifested in all those he saves.If we resemble the first Adam more than we resemble the last Adam (v. 45), we have little reason to be dead certain about a future resurrection. In other words, “Christlikeness” is not reserved for so-called “super saints” but is rather the hallmark of everyone who has truly believed the gospel. Thiselton asks, “Do we regard ‘Christlikeness’ as an optional extra for especially holy Christians or as what defines our very being and identity as Christians?” Everything that Christians are and have is derived from being in Christ. Examine yourself as to whether you are in the faith.

Christians are Dead Certain about the New Creation

Having established that, with Christ’s resurrection, those who “have fallen asleep in Christ” (vv. 18, 20) have the certainty of a future bodily resurrection Paul unpacks the “order” of this resurrection. In doing so, he provides us with a brief but sweeping description of Jesus wrapping up human history as he brings the establishment of his kingdom to a climax. In short, Paul is applying the resurrection to the new creation, a new creation that that exists by the grace of God in Christ.

But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every 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. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.”

1 Corinthians 15:23–27a

Let me briefly summarise before I apply.

In v. 23, Paul reminds us that Jesus Christ was the first to be “made alive” from the dead to never die again. At his return (“his coming”), those who belong to him will also be made alive to never die again. They will be raised to everlasting life. The harvest will be complete.

At Christ’s coming and resurrection (and glorification) of believers, the eschaton (“the end”) comes.

“The end” will have come because, at this point, the Lord Jesus will have subdued every human and spiritual authority that opposes him. Ciampa and Rosner observe, “Clearly, by ‘all dominion, authority and power’ Paul means all the competing, corrupted, and perverted dominions, authorities, and powers that have been unleashed through Adam’s idolatrous perversion of the reign given him by God in Genesis 1.” They will have all bowed the knee to Jesus, calling him Lord and thereby bringing glory to God (Philippians 2:9–11).

The nations will therefore have all either been discipled or destroyed. And with this, the promised, inaugurated, advancing-though-opposed kingdom of God will fully come and the Lord’s Prayer will be fully answered. All glory to God!

Believers, in resurrected and therefore glorified bodies, will enter into this new creation kingdom.

From v. 25, Paul provides biblical support for this certainty. He reminds readers that, in the meantime, Christ isruling and reigning. Paul wants his readers to look to the future, which will sustain them in the present. He does so by allusions to Psalms 8 and 110.

Before unpacking this, don’t miss Paul’s certain conviction that Jesus Christ is ruling and reigning now. He is not waiting to reign until he returns, he is king now (Psalm 2).

The task of the church, as Sproul said, is to make the invisible rule of Jesus Christ visible in this world. We do that primarily by living under his lordship and discipling others to live under his lordship. This is why discipleship should not be put on hold! Do it now!

The phrase repeatedly alluded to—“under his feet”—is found both in Psalm 8:6 and Psalm 110:1.

In v. 25, Psalm 110:1 is the referent. Upon Jesus’ ascension, the Father told him to sit at his right hand while his enemies were made his footstool. The primary way that Christ’s enemies are conquered is through the gospel. But they are also defeated by God’s sovereign acts of judgement. Perhaps recent elections in various parts of the world are examples of this. But the point is that Jesus is ruling. He is doing his thing. “He must reign until” is a present reality and it is time that Christians take this seriously. Morris, commenting on the words “he must reign until,” writes, “It is a thought well worth keeping in mind when the powers of earth and hell seem strong.”

Jesus Christ is King and we are to proclaim his kingship while living as his faithful subjects. I weary of Christians who complain about earthly rulers and their failed leadership while they themselves demonstrate little loyalty to the King of kings whom they claim love and serve. Let’s agree: If you refuse to fulfil your responsibilities in this “embassy” of Christ’s kingdom, then keep quiet about your unhappiness with those in other domains who are also dishonouring Jesus the King.

If you are unfaithful to gather with the saints for worship, don’t gripe about ministers who fail to show up at Parliament. If you refuse to be faithful in stewardship, then don’t grumble about politicians who steal from taxpayers. If you refuse to serve the body of Christ, don’t point fingers at government officials who refuse to serve their constituency.

Verse 26 is the apex of Jesus’ rule and reign. We are promised that, one day, the enemy of death will be destroyed under his. This is the last enemy of Jesus Christ, and the last enemy of God’s people. And yet, in the meantime, death marches on as an enemy of both God and man.

I saw pictures of a friend recently who, as I write these words, is perhaps only hours away from death. I could see, in his deteriorating body, the presence of an enemy. When I was in hospital and facing death, I did not view my deteriorating condition as a friend but as an enemy. I was not afraid to die (most the time) but I did battle with a fear of the process.

God declared death to be the penalty for sin. Death therefore entered the world through the evil and ugly vehicle of sin. “Death and decay in all I see” wrote the hymnist, and “nature is red with blood in tooth and claw.” Death is a violent attack on God through attacking his good creation. Death seeks to remove people from physically serving and glorifying God. Whether death by war, murder, disease, neglect, or any other means, death is an attack on God who created life. Death mars God’s good creation. Death seemingly gains the victory over God. And the way God overcomes this apparent victory is by resurrection.

We can be absolutely certain he will do this for, as Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Hades means the realm of the dead. Jesus was saying that his enemy, the devil, and sin can try its greatest weapon against him, and he will win for he will raise his church. He will raise his people from the dead.

One day, death will be forever destroyed. No caskets nor morticians, no hospitals, no terrible phone calls, no bearing of bad news. When Christ returns to resurrect his people, this last enemy will be destroyed. Hallelujah!

Verse 27 opens with a quotation from Psalm 8:6, and the conjunction “for” connects with what was just said. In other words, the “all things” subjected to Christ includes the last enemy, death. As Ellsworth notes, “For Jesus’ victory over his enemies to be complete, the bodies of the saints have to be raised. Death must not have the final word! Thank God it will not!”

Psalm 8 portrays mankind as God intended: responsibly exercising dominion over God’s creation. Here, Paul makes clear that Jesus is that ideal man who, by his righteous life, redemptive death, and justifying resurrection was given all authority over all of creation, both old and new. He is doing so now and will ultimately do so at his return when he resurrects his people and restores the world.

This is why death must be and will be defeated by the Lord Jesus. For death can have no part in the new creation. It will have no part because there will not be any sin. Christian, be absolutely certain about this.

Both Psalms 110 and 8 speak of the ideal man who is also the ideal king. That is, they speak of Jesus Christ, God’s Son who is the God-Man, the perfect Son of David. They reveal Christ’s rule and reign over God’s kingdom, which encompasses the earth. This promise of our Lord’s complete victory has implications for us now. This passage sharpens our eschatology.

 I don’t mean that we will all necessarily hold to the same end-times theology. We will not all necessarily reform to the (correct!) theology of partial-preterist postmillennialism. But each of us will be better equipped to live in light of the end.

Eschatology proper is not about pre-, a-, or post-millennialism. It is not primarily about how you interpret the mark of the beast or the Olivet Discourse or the book of Revelation. Rather, biblical eschatology has everything to do with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his bringing the “end” into the here and now. The new creation of which Christians presently participate (“already/not yet”) is certain. The day will arrive when Jesus Christ will return in glory and every one of those he has saved by his death and resurrection will rise from the dead with a glorified body to live forever in a glorified universe. As glorious as Eden was, the new creation, formed by Jesus Christ, will be infinitely more glorious. We will enjoy it, interact in it, and function in it bodily. This eschatological vision is what keeps us “steadfast, immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that our work in the Lord” matters—that it is not in vain (v. 58).

So many Christians live vain, empty lives precisely because the “last thing” is the last thing they think about. But because of the grace of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ, our death and resurrection and the new creation should be at the forefront of our minds, values, aspirations, pursuits, and plans.

When we face the reality of physical death, it tends to reshape what should be of the greatest importance. But let’s remember that we stress all dying—and live like it.

Please hear a word from a pastor’s heart: Don’t delay discipleship, church membership, ministry, or whatever God calls us to until your “schedule lightens.” When Jesus said to lose our life now by taking up our cross, he made it clear that he meant now. Let the dead bury their dead while you choose life.

Dead Certain about the Glorious Consummation

Finally, Paul expresses certainty about the consummation of all things: “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. 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” (vv. 27b–28). These remaining words are pregnant with meaning but let me summarise.

Jesus Christ, as the last Adam and the incarnate Son of God, was appointed by God to establish God’s kingdom. He inaugurated that work with his death on the cross and secured it when he was raised from the dead. In the meanwhile, he is extending the kingdom by ruling it as the last Adam. When he returns, this work will be gloriously consummated. And when it is, then he will say to the Father, “Here it is. I have done what you asked of me. The entire universe has been rescued, redeemed, and restored to glory in accordance with your glory.” But what does it mean the “the Son himself will also be subjected to him”?

The Son of God is equal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, so this cannot be teaching what is called the “eternal subordination” of the Son. What it is declaring is that, with Christ’s return and his people’s glorious bodily resurrection, his work will be finished and the triune God, including the Son, will be forever and fully glorified. No more brokenness on the earth, no more discord in the universe, no more alienation anywhere in creation. Things will be as God originally designed them to be—but even more glorious! This is the glorious consummation we await, long for, and for which we should be living.

Christian: this empowers us to persevere, forgive, evangelise, disciple, raise a godly family, and build a biblically faithful church. It equips us to face our trials with hope, including the most difficult of trials: when death comes knocking on the door. Knowing that we and our believing loved ones will rise from the dead, let us live well.

Non-Christian, you can share this worldview, if you acknowledge that you are dead in your sins, under God’s wrath because you are “hanging onto Adam.” Repent, trust in Jesus Christ alone for forgiveness and reconciliation with God. He is trustworthy because he lived a sinless life, died a substitutionary death, and was raised from the dead to save sinners like you and like me. And of this, I am dead certain.