In my last post, I discussed (in what to some must appear to be excruciating detail) the earliest confessional formulation of the “gospel,” cited by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. This confession reads as follows: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures … he was buried … he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and … he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.” From this formula it is evident that the Christian “gospel” consists of theologically interpreted historical events. To be more specific, I defined this good news as the proclamation of the historical events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, interpreted in accord with the Old Testament scriptures as the climactic saving acts of God for Israel and the world. This gospel is thus not a message detailing “how people get saved.” Indeed, it is the message through which people “get saved” when they believe, and take their stand on, its content.
So far, so good. Nonetheless, some questions remain. Modern “evangelical” Christians have no problems with the traditional notion that “Christ died for our sins.” Indeed, this “message of the cross”—which expression (ὁ lόgoς ... ὁ toῦ stauroῦ) Paul uses earlier in this letter as a convenient “handle” for the gospel message (1 Cor 1:17-18)—forms the most foundational of evangelicals’ bedrock theological convictions, so much so that the role of the resurrection in the gospel is either marginalized or misunderstood. This is why 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 is so important, for it is in these verses that Paul articulates why the resurrection of Christ plays such an essential, non-negotiable role in the saving message.
As I mentioned last time, Paul’s detailed argumentation in 1 Corinthians 15 was precipitated by the denial made by “some” (tineς, 15:12) in the Corinthian church that their ultimate future involved bodily resurrection. To Paul, such a denial amounted to a fatal theological inconsistency on their part. That is why he cites the traditional formulation of the gospel and the detailed list of “witnesses”—climaxing in the experience of Paul himself as an ἔktrwma (“abortion, miscarriage”)—to Christ’s bodily resurrection in verses 1-11. He is reminding them that they had staked their very existence on a message that involved, as a necessary constituent element, the bodily resurrection of the one who “died for [their] sins.” Implicit, of course, is the conviction that the bodily resurrection of Christ and that of Christ’s people either stand or fall together.
It is this mutual interdependence that the apostle explores in 1 Corinthians 15:12-28, first negatively (verses 12-19), and then positively (verses 20-28). Negatively, if there is no future resurrection, then the metaphorical branch they had been standing on is cut off from under their feet: Christ himself has not been raised, either (15:13). And the consequences of this supposition are too horrible to contemplate:
· Both the apostles’ proclamation and the Corinthians’ faith are a waste of time[i] (15:14)
· The apostles are false witnesses against (katά) God (15:15)
· The Corinthians “faith” is futile (mataίa) (15:16-19)
Indeed, if Christ has not been resurrected, the Corinthians are still “in their sins” (15:17)[ii], which implies that their deceased brothers and sisters have indeed “perished” (ἀpώlonto)[iii] (15:18). The upshot is that such would entail that they have no future hope and are thus the most pathetic[iv] of all people (15:19). As Richard Hays says, if Christ has not been raised, “… those who follow the example of Jesus and Paul are chumps missing out on their fair share of life’s rewards.”[v]
In verses 20-28, Paul counters such hypothetical implications with his assertion of both the fact of Christ’s resurrection and the irreversible consequences, and hence significance, of that event. The text reads as follows (from the NIV):
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.
As is often the case with Paul, the apostle states his main point at the outset before drawing out the implications flowing from it: “But, as a matter of fact,[vi] Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have ‘fallen asleep.’” The imagery of the “firstfruits” (ἀparcή) is familiar from the Old Testament, not least from the Levitical legislation pertaining to the feast of that name (Lev 23:10-14).[vii] The “firstfruits” referred to the initial portion of the harvest that the Israelites were to consecrate to God in acknowledgement of his ownership of, and gracious provision for them.
The imagery of “firstfruits” carries within it three interlocking ideas: (1) temporal priority; (2) representation of the remainder of the harvest yet to come; and (3) the assuring promise that the harvest will indeed come in its fullness.[viii] Paul, by applying this metaphor, thus asserts his contention that Christ’s resurrection is the “first sheaf” of the eschatological resurrection of the dead. Christ’s resurrection is thus part of the same “harvest” as that of his followers. This unity, moreover, entails the necessary corollary that Christ’s bodily resurrection constitutes God’s own pledge of the inevitable resurrection of his people. Here, in a nutshell, we have Paul’s theological interpretation of the significance of the historical event of Christ’s resurrection, and why this is an integral part of the gospel message he, in company with the apostles before him, proclaimed. In verse 21-28 the apostle proceeds to unpack the theological significance and corollaries of this affirmation. He makes two major points.
First, Christ’s resurrection signifies the reversal of the Adamic curse and guarantees the resurrection of all who belong to him (1 Corinthians 15:21-22). In these two verses, Paul explains how Christ’s resurrection has such implications for his followers. Each of the verses is set out in neat parallelism, thus making his point elegantly as well as clearly. Verse 21 may be set out as follows (with wooden literalism to emphasize the parallelism):
For since through a human being[ix] (came) death,
also through a human being (comes) the resurrection of the dead.
Behind Paul’s assertion in this verse lie both the story of Adam’s sin in Genesis 3 and the unshakeable theological axiom that God’s designs for his human creatures, based in Genesis 1:26-28, were not thwarted by the Fall. If indeed death—in its full, theological significance—invaded the cosmos via human disobedience and thereby distorted humankind’s ability to function as God’s image-bearing vice-regents, it is fitting, so Paul reasons, that this unfortunate, tragic state of affairs should likewise we reversed through a human being, indeed the true human being, as well. He elaborates this thesis in verse 22, drawing a theological parallel to fortify the firstfruits metaphor introduced in verse 20 and explain how it is that death and resurrection result(ed) from the activity of these two human beings:
Just as in Adam all die,
So also in Christ will all be made alive.
This is the earliest articulation of Paul’s famous “Adam Christology” that he develops more fully in Romans 5:12-19 and (by implication) in Philippians 2:6-11. For the apostle, Adam—here clearly assumed to be a historical figure[x]—and the Messiah are to be understood as “inclusive,” representative figures whose actions in some way carried within them the destinies of those who belong to them.[xi] “Sin and death,” as C. K. Barrett shrewdly remarks, “are a description of humanity as it empirically is.”[xii] He continues: “Sin and death (to change the metaphor) are in possession of the field, and if they are to be driven from it this must be by the arrival of new forces which turn the scale of the battle, that is, by a new event.”[xiii]
This “new event,” according to Paul, was what scholars are wont to call the “Christ event,” summarized in the apostolic proclamation of the gospel. The new humanity, which is freed from the deleterious consequences of Adam’s sin, is bound together in the corporate solidarity associated with the “last Adam” (1 Cor 15:45), whose representative death for sins and vindicating resurrection thus count for it, and thereby determine both its existence and its future.[xiv] Christians, in other words, are guaranteed future resurrection because they belong to the one who representatively acted in their stead to free them from the consequences of sin and death they had incurred by virtue of their natural solidarity with Adam.
Implicit in this comparison, as Paul indicates by his use of the title “Christ,” is that Jesus performed his role as the “last Adam” precisely in his Messianic capacity of Davidic King. It is to this notion that Paul turns in verses 23-28.
Paul’s second major point in this paragraph is that Christ’s resurrection signifies the ultimate Davidic victory over all cosmic opposition to God and his purposes (15:23-28). Fundamental to Paul’s theological outlook is the belief that Jesus’ death and resurrection were “eschatological” events. In other words, it is by virtue of these events that God definitively launched the longed-for new creation in the midst of the old. By means of these events, God had, as Gordon Fee states, “set in motion the events of the End in such a way that they must of divine necessity be brought to consummation.”[xv] This means, of course, that sins have been dealt with, but all human beings remain sinners. Death has been overcome in Jesus’ resurrection, but death remains the inevitable lot of all, even those who claim the risen one’s name. To deal with this tension, Paul introduces the concept of conquest: Christ, the risen one, has set in motion the eschatological resurrection and will complete his conquest at the time Paul refers to as the “End” (15:24).
In keeping with the conquest theme, the apostle introduces the theme of “orders” or “ranks”: all with be made alive, Paul affirms, “in its own order” (15:24).[xvi] There are two such orders: (1) Christ, the “firstfruits;” and (2) those who “belong to Christ” (oἱ toῦ cristoῦ), who will be raised at Christ’s parousia.[xvii] “Then” (eἴta)[xviii], Paul says, “comes the end.” The apostle then associates two events temporally with the end. First, when the “end” comes, Christ will turn over the reins of the kingdom to the Father. Secondly, the “end” will come only when[xix], as demonstrated by the resurrection of his people, Christ[xx] has destroyed[xxi] all hostile spiritual and/or structural opposition[xxii] to God and his purposes. How this destruction will take place, and the theological framework within which it must be understood, will occupy Paul in the remainder of the paragraph.
Paul’s argument in verses 25-28 revolves around his Christological interpretation of two Psalm texts. The first is Psalm 110:1, which he introduces via a clear allusion in verse 25. Messiah must continue to reign in his kingdom[xxiii] “until he shall have put all enemies under his feet.” This is obviously an interpretative adaptation of the Psalm text, which reads, “The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet” (NIV). Paul’s “he must continue to reign” corresponds to YHWH’s elevation of David’s “lord” to a position at his “right hand.”[xxiv] By doing so, the apostle interprets the psalm as finding fulfillment in the present reign of Christ on the Davidic throne.[xxv] Christ’s resurrection (and, by implication, his ascension), in other words, was his enthronement as Messiah and Lord in fulfillment of the Davidic promise poetically celebrated in Psalm 110.
The ultimate goal of this Davidic reign, according to Psalm 110, was for YHWH to place all enemies under his feet (Ps 110:1). Paul likewise adapts the text in two significant ways. First, for the apostle it is Christ who subdues all his (and God’s) enemies. And—more significant to Paul’s argument—whereas in the psalm, the enemies were Israel’s political adversaries, for Paul they include all opposition to God’s purposes. That is why, for Paul, the ultimate, and last, enemy to meet its doom at the hands of Christ is death itself (1 Cor 15:26). Hence Paul interprets Christ’s resurrection as the opening salvo in a long, drawn out war with death. Yet, for the apostle, this salvo was the decisive victory that guarantees the eventual, final vanquishing of death at the resurrection of Christ’s people. Death is annihilated through resurrection.
The second Old Testament text utilized by Paul is Psalm 8:6. Paul adapts the language of the LXX by changing the ὑpokάtw tῶn podῶn aὐtoῦ of the psalm text to ὑpὸ toὺς pόdaς aὐtoῦ in order to conform the language to that of Psalm 110:1, to which he alluded in verse 25. By doing this, he utilizes a common rabbinic technique by which one scriptural passage could be interpreted in light of another.[xxvi]
God, says Paul, has placed all things under the feet of Christ—and that includes death, from which God raised him, never to die again, and because of which the ultimate resurrection of Messiah’s people is likewise guaranteed. What is significant here is the original meaning of Psalm 8. Psalm 8 is a poetic reflection on Genesis 1:26-27, where God creates humankind to be his “image,” reflecting God’s wise and benevolent rule on earth. Paul refers this directly to Christ. In doing so, he is emphatically not viewing the text as a “prophecy” about Christ and thus misunderstanding it. The point is rather that human beings have abdicated their role due to sin. But God did not thereby have to search for a plan B. He still intended for human beings to carry out their role in fulfillment of the creation mandate. For Paul, it was Jesus the Christ who was this truly human one. Most significantly, Christ’s Davidic reign is the divinely-ordained means by which God’s intended role for humanity will be realized.
In verse 28 Paul provides a glimpse of the ultimate goal of the process. When Christ has subdued all enemies—i.e., when death, the last enemy, has finally been subdued—he will hand over the kingdom, over which he has reigned since his resurrection, to the Father. And the purpose of this is so that God will be “all in all” ([tὰ] pάnta ἐn pᾶsin).[xxvii] The goal of salvation-history, with Christ’s Davidic reign as its penultimate stage, is the unchallenged rule of God alone.
What does this have to say about the gospel? Quite a lot, actually, for it indicates that the intended horizon of understanding is emphatically not limited to the “spiritual” salvation of individuals from sin. It is rather the larger one of God’s purposes for his world in history. The gospel is about the eschatological fulfillment of God’s purposes, adumbrated in Scripture, by means of the expiatory death and resurrection of the Messiah, who now reigns as Lord until the time when his people are raised, death is defeated, and God can be all in all. To put it as simply as possible, the gospel is the message of the kingdom of God. It speaks of both its inauguration and guaranteed consummation through the death and resurrection of Messiah Jesus. Most importantly, an understanding of the gospel as Paul develops it in 1 Corinthians 15 enables us to go back beyond Genesis 3 to Genesis 1, and thus to see it as the means by which God’s ultimate design for humanity is fulfilled in Christ. Soli Deo Gloria.
[i] kenόn/kenή, “devoid of intellectual, moral, or spiritual value” (BDAG, 539).
[ii] Here may be deduced that part of the significance of Jesus’ resurrection is in testifying to God’s validation of his death for sins. Indeed, without the resurrection there would be no reason to suppose that such sins had been dealt with adequately.
[iii] “Perishing” here must be distinguished from the “stingless” death (1 Cor 15:55) that Jesus’ followers experience as (metaphorical) “sleep” (1 Cor 15:18, 20; 1 Thess 4:13-15) as they anticipate their resurrection.
[iv] ἐleeinόteroi, “most ‘deserving of sympathy for one’s pathetic condition, miserable, pitiable’” (BDAG, 315).
[v] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1997) 262.
[vi] Greek nunὶ dὲ. Whereas elsewhere it has a temporal force (e.g., Rom 3:21), the expression here is used to introduce the real situation after the previous unreal scenarios (BDAG, 682). The REB nicely renders it, “But the truth is …”
[vii] Cf. also Exod 23:16, 19; Num 18:8, 12; Deut 18:4; 26:2, 10; 2 Chron 31:5; Neh 10:37.
[viii] Similarly, A. C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans/Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 2000) 1223-24. Cf. especially the discussions of the image’s logic in M. C. deBoer, The Defeat of Death (JSNTSup 22; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1988) 109; and Joost Hollemann, Resurrection and Parousia (NovTSup 84; Leiden: Brill, 1996) 49-50.
[ix] The noun is ἄnqrwpoς, not ἀnήr, and so the point lies on Jesus’ nature as a human being rather than on his maleness. Thus the persistence of new translations such as the ESV and NIV 2011 in retaining “man” as their renderings would appear to be an unfortunate “political” move on the part of their evangelical translators not to appear as “feminist” as, e.g., the NRSV, which more accurately renders this verse, “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being.”
[x] No matter how stylized and metaphorical the creation and fall accounts of Genesis 1-3 may be. This is acknowledged even by evangelicals who deny the historicity of Adam. See, e.g., Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012).
[xi] The best summary of Paul’s Adamic Christology remains that found in Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (trans. John Richard deWitt; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 58-64.
[xii] C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (HNTC; New York: Harper & Row, 1968) 353.
[xiv] I.e., the “all” in each line of the comparison—as almost all scholars acknowledge—are not coterminous. The issue in the paragraph is not the general resurrection, but the “resurrection to eternal life,” as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer puts it. The “all” in verse 22b is defined immediately in verse 23 as “those who belong to Christ” (oἱ toῦ cristoῦ).
[xv] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 746.
[xvi] Greek tάgma. The term was originally a technical term for military orders, divisions, or ranks (BDAG, 987-88). By extension, as here, it was used to refer to a “group” or “class,” but the military overtones remain significant in the present context.
[xvii] The term parousίa denotes “presence,” but often is used with reference to “arrival” as the first stage of presence, hence “coming” or “advent” (cf. BDAG, 780-81). Paul uses the term repeatedly in his Thessalonian correspondence to refer to what is usually called Jesus’ “second coming” (1 Thess 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess 2:1, 8). Cf. Robert H. Gundry, “The Hellenization of Dominical Tradition and Christianization of Jewish Tradition in the Eschatology of 1 and 2 Thessalonians,” NTS 33 (1987) 161-78. Most famously, Paul utilizes this term in his portrayal of Jesus’ return as a victory procession of a conquering, victorious general in 1 Thess 4: 15ff.
[xviii] The term eἴta, along with its correlative ἔpeita, is used in enumerations to refer to items or events that are “next” in order of time (BDAG, 295). Some scholars, picking up on this, assume that at the “end” there will be another “order” of resurrection, perhaps that of the general resurrection of those who don’t belong to Christ (most notably Johannes Weiss and Hans Lietzmann). Others, mostly dispensationalists, have picked up on this to argue for an implied millennium here (cf. esp. W. B. Wallis, “The Problem of an Intermediate Kingdom in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28,” JETS 18  229-42). Against Weiss and Lietzmann, Paul only speaks of two orders. In any case, he is only intent to argue that Christ’s resurrection guarantees the resurrection of his own people. Against Wallis, the adverb certainly might indicate a period of greater or lesser time between the parousia and the end, but it does not necessarily do so (BDAG). Furthermore, the context gives no indication of a long, intermediate kingdom, whose concerns are extraneous to Paul’s purposes here. Certainly it is possible that Paul, like John in Revelation 20, believed in such an intermediate kingdom, but I would be hard-pressed to find any definitive evidence of such a belief.
[xix] The two clauses are coordinated grammatically, but the second clause is logically prior to the first. Christ’s handing of the kingdom to the Father is logically and temporally subsequent to his having destroyed all hostile opposition to that rule. Thus, as Raymond Collins (First Corinthians [Sacra Pagina; Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1999] 553) suggests, the verb should be translated with a future perfect nuance: “when he shall have destroyed …”
[xx] There is debate, because of verse 27, whether the subject should be understood as Christ or God. But such debate is needless. Paul is not citing scripture here, and the implied subject is grammatically identical to the subject of the first ὁtάn clause, viz., Christ.
[xxi] Greek katargήsῃ. Christ will, according to Paul, “render inoperative” or “annihilate” such opposition.
[xxii] Paul speaks often, and with varying terminology, of these powers. Cf. James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1998) 105 n.14, for a helpful chart of the apostle’s usage of these terms. In the present context, where “death” is the most formidable of these powers, it would be unwise to dispute the notion that Paul had in mind oppressive structural powers “against which the individual qua individual is helpless and held in bondage as victim” (Thiselton, First Epistle, 1232, following Walter Wink). Nevertheless, embarrassed scholars notwithstanding, we shouldn’t limit them to such structures, especially if they are understood as being bereft of personal, spiritual essence. Cf. Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians: Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesus in Light of Its Historical Setting (SNTSMS 63; Cambridge: CUP, 18989) 47-51. For a helpful, balanced discussion, cf. Ernest Best, Ephesians (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1998) 174-80.
[xxiii] So Barrett (First Epistle, 358) renders the infinitive basileύein, correctly depicting the progressive note implied by the present tense.
[xxiv] In ancient literature the “right hand” is often used as a symbol of the sovereign exercise of power on behalf of the god who holds the position of supreme honor. Cf. Walter Grundmann, TDNT 2:37; Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002) 275 n.3.
[xxv] As is often pointed out, Paul thus is the earliest extant witness to the Chritological interpretation of Psalm 110 (cf., e.g., Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul [New Haven: Yale, 1989] 84). Judaism commonly applied Psalm 110 to either Abraham (b. Ned. 32b; Lev. Rab. 25.6 [on 19:23]) or to both the Messiah and Abraham (e.g., T. Job 33.3; 1 Macc 14:41; T. Levi 8:3; 19:1-3, 8, 12). Cf. Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53 (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996) 1638-39. Jesus, in line with this latter view—amd the clearly idealized language of the psalm—is reported to have interpreted the text messianically and eschatologically of the Messiah’s enthronement alongside YHWH himself (Mark 12:35-36 et par.; 14:62 et par). The early church quickly picked up on Jesus’ use of the psalm and consistently applied it to his resurrection-exaltation. Cf. Acts 2:34-35; 5:31; 7:55; Heb 1:3; 8:1; 10:12-13; 1 Pet 3:22. Of the voluminous literature on the use of Psalm 110 in the NT, see especially D. M. Hay, Glory at the Right Hand: Psalm 110 in Early Christianity (SBLMS 18; Nashville: Abingdon, 1973); Martin Hengel, “’Sit at My Right Hand!’ The Enthronement of Christ at the right Hand of God and Psalm 110:1,” in Studies in Early Christology (ET; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1995) 119-225.
[xxvi] This technique is known as gezerah shawah and, dare I say, it is not unique to the rabbis.
[xxvii] Fee (First Epistle, 759) notes that this expression is a Pauline idiosyncrasy (found as well in Col 3:11 and Eph 1:22), and that it must be understood in light of verses 54-57 or Rom 11:36.