Exposition of 1 Corinthians 15:20–28 God’s orderly process and resurrection

1 Corinthians 15:20–28

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

Starting in verse 20, Paul reverses the argument and begins from the true premise that Jesus was raised from the dead — by God the Father — with the current and enduring result that Jesus now lives. Paul is more forceful than the NIV (“indeed”) indicates: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20, NLT, ESV, CEB). The standard Greek lexicon uses the phrase “but as a matter of fact” and says that the Greek word introduces “the real situation after an unreal clause or sentence,”[1] referring to the unreal assumption that there is no resurrection.

For the seventh time since verse 4, Paul uses the relatively rare Greek perfect tense (passive voice) to refer to Jesus’ being raised. The seven verbal forms are identical, so it is plain Paul is making a point. What is the point? As before, the Greek perfect stresses the current result of a past action; here the current result is that Jesus lives after being raised by the Father. This force is hard to express briefly in a Bible translation.

The next critical fact is that Jesus is called “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20b). The concept of Jesus as “firstfruits” is metaphorical. The Law of Moses called on the Jews to offer annually a sheaf of grain from the very first harvest to God (Lev. 23:10–11). David Garland reminds us that the feast of firstfruits occurred on Nisan 16 every year, and Jesus was resurrected on Nisan 16 in 33 A.D.[2]

But the metaphor of firstfruits is more expansive than what has been described so far. Anthony Thiselton explains that firstfruits embodies both a temporal logic and representative logic.[3] As firstfruits, Christ is not only the first to be raised from the dead but also the representative of the full harvest to come. Note carefully that Jesus is the firstfruits “of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20b), a phrase that always refers to Christians. We who are “in Christ” will take part in the full harvest of resurrections of which Christ’s was the first.

Verses 22 and 23 must be interpreted together. Garland gives his interpretation, with which both Thiselton and Gordon Fee agree: “All those bound to Adam share his banishment from Eden, his alienation, and his fate of death for that death becomes the common lot of his posterity. All those bound to Christ receive reconciliation and will share his resurrection and heavenly blessings. Not all humans are in Christ, however.”[4] Those who are “in Christ” include those who have fallen asleep (verse 20) and those who belong to Christ (verse 23).

The other theme introduced in 1 Cor. 15:23 is order. The verse begins with a military term to describe something placed in its proper order, and it is easy to see a definite sequence of events which climaxes in verse 28 with “that God may be all in all.” Paul is showing the Corinthians that events are unfolding in an order that God intended.

Paul has made no attempt to account for what eventually happens to all humanity. It has been his purpose to establish the resurrection of Christ and then the raising of all who are in Christ. A few interpreters have attempted to drag the unsaved dead into the picture by saying that the term translated “the end” (verse 24, Greek telos) necessarily includes them, but that was not the concern of the Corinthians, and the great majority of interpreters rejects the idea for several reasons. The fate of the unsaved dead is recorded in Rev. 20:5, 11–15 (see the study guide titled Apocalypse). In fact, the consummation of world history is seen in verse 24 to be about God rather than about us or the unsaved dead.

Verse 24 contains the phrase “all dominion, authority and power” as a list of those powers Christ would nullify, and that statement might have made some in Roman Corinth nervous. After all, the Roman emperor was portrayed as both divine and the spiritual Father of the empire, but Paul is replacing that imperial propaganda with a picture of Christ voiding all powers and giving everything to his Father. In 1 Cor. 15:25, Paul includes an indirect reference to Psalm 110:1, and putting enemies under one’s feet is a metaphor meaning to bring them into subjection. Jesus is even now bringing all his enemies into subjection, and the last to fall will be death (1 Cor. 15:26). But fall it will!

Verse 27 is tricky because the subject shifts from Christ taking action in the earlier verses to God taking the action in verse 27. Garland explains it by showing an identity in brackets with each pronoun: ”When it says, ‘All things have been made subject’ [by God], clearly that excludes the one [God] who made all things subject to him [Christ].”[5] Paul was being careful to prevent some foolish person from using the phrase “all things” to include God. The scope of the word “all” is always an issue for interpretation.

We can use the same technique to make sense out of 1 Cor. 15:28: “When he [God] has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him [God] who put everything under him [Christ], so that God may be all in all.” Thiselton brings to our attention a subtle idea from another scholar: “’There is no order without subordination.’”[6] Sin threw the world into chaos, but the Son was willing to subordinate himself to the Father as part of the plan to redeem humanity and make a new creation in which God and his people could dwell forever.

Though Paul’s meaning is complex and taxes our minds, we see in verse 28 the culmination of God’s orderly process of redeeming lost humanity and defeating his enemies through Christ. Christ, though equal to the Father and of the same substance, voluntarily subordinated himself to the Father as part of this long salvation process (Phil. 2:6–11). Nevertheless, they remain one, along with the Spirit, and their purpose remains one. Thiselton says, “Thus God remains the source and goal, Christ remains the means through which the goal which God purposes comes to be brought about.”[7]

In Roman Corinth there were other factors in play that likely caused Paul to express himself in this way. Thiselton explains that in the surrounding Greco-Roman culture it was common for various religious groups to gather around their own favorite divine hero, such as Asclaepius the healer, and to worship that divine hero without ever including any serious reverence to a supreme deity, such as Zeus.[8] The supreme deity effectively dropped off their list.

Remember 1 Cor. 8:5, where Paul told us that in Roman Corinth “there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords.’” Paul did not want anyone to see Jesus as just another of the many “lords,” and he did not want them to see God the Father as just some vague, mysterious idea. No, he wanted them to see God as “all in all,” the supreme creator and sovereign ruler over all the world.

Copyright © 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] BAGD, nuni, as a matter of fact, q.v.

[2] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 706, footnote 4.

[3] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 1223–4.

[4] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 707, and see 709. (Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1227; Gordon Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 750.)

[5] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 713.

[6] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1224, quoting T.C. Edwards.

[7] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1236.

[8] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1237, citing J. Moffatt.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!