1Corinthians 15:20-28

Sep 11, 2012


This passage has much in the way of teaching and the Apostle Paul’s rhetorical structure, once exposed, helps to make it clear.  The passage is composed of one main chiastic structure joined to another large chiastic sub-structure.  The transition between these two large chiastic structures is the classic pairing of 15:23, “But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then those who are Christ’s, at his coming.” These two events encompass the beginning and “end” per se of the resurrection. Christ’s parousia (perhaps awkwardly translated as his “coming presence” above, but I will explain) constitutes the “end,” in the sense that it signals the completion of the resurrection harvest at the end of the age.  Paul’s doctrine is not new. It is in keeping with the teaching of Christ (e.g., in Jesus’ explanation of the kingdom parables, “The harvest is the end of the age” Matt 13:39).  

I normally try to keep these notes about the structure, but there is one brief grammatical / theological observation that I wanted to make regarding vs 22 (“for as in Adam all are dying”). Note the present active sense of the Greek verb. This tense preserves a needed perspective and helps to guard the proper concept of the so-called doctrine of “original sin” (termed “ancestral sin” in Orthodoxy).  Here Paul says that humankind “in Adam” is presently dying. They are not already judicially dead in Adam as some suppose. This assertion of v21, and the language used in vs 21, certainly recalls Paul’s similar language in Rom 5:12-21. I would invite the reader to a reconsideration of that passage and any western assumptions as to what Paul is presumed to be teaching both there and here.

In any case, we have a certain hope of the resurrection because it has begun with Christ -  and we are connected to this event because we are in Christ.  Paul teaches that those “who belong to Christ” (vs 23) will also be “made alive” (vs 22)... “in his coming presence.”  The phrase “belong to Christ” is probably basically synonymous with being “in Christ.”  Note that, in my awkward translation, I have tried to preserve the more literal “in” his presence idea (Greek “en,”) in addition to the “at his coming” idea that is also present in the Greek word parousia.  Basically I think Paul is saying that we will be made alive in his presence at his coming.  However, the shortest way of saying that is “coming presence.” John 5:25 says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Just as Jesus, later in John’s gospel, illustrated this by the resuscitation and raising of Lazarus, so also, we shall hear the voice of the Son of God and be made alive eternally - “in his coming presence.”

While the main terms of the first chiastic structure are not difficult to see and address major theological themes, the main terms of the second structure, are not at first apparent, yet deliver more in terms of interpretive assistance to this explanatory section.  The outer terms are related to the chronology of the resurrection.  The inner terms are related to important qualifiers - what is included and who is excluded as related to his chronology.  Although I have used the idea of “Phases” in the outline, that term is less than ideal since the second “phase” is not a process; it is actually “the end” (vs 24).  Premillennialists see Paul here describing several time periods marked by these events.  Because of the sequential use of “then,” they see a time period for the earthly Millennial kingdom, before the end.  This grammatical observation seems reasonable and convincing at first, but Paul’s overall analogy is built on the idea of the harvest.  There are only two parts, of which Christ is the firstfruits, and then, naturally, the main portion of the harvest.  The completion of the harvest constitutes the end of this age (not 1000 years later with a mixed population of raised believers and unbelievers in between).  Of course, it is still possible to see, as many interpreters, an earthly kingdom as part of the the new age (after the end of this age) - the new heaven and the new earth.  Note well, that those who look strictly to the future for Christ’s reign are in great danger of not appreciating it now!  This passage assumes that a kingdom exists now.  Using wording of the outline above, it is explicitly this “kingdom” that is ultimately (that is, lastly) delivered to God the Father (vs 24, 28).  The structure also indicates that, penultimate to this delivering event, every rule and authority and power is to be abolished.  Paul is preparing to support this chronological teaching from the Old Testament Scriptures. 

He will allude to Psalm 110:1 (Ps 109:1 LXX),

“The Lord said to my lord, “Sit on my right until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”

He will also quote from Ps 8:6 (Ps 8:7 LXX),

“You set him over the works of your hands; you subjected all things under his feet.” 

Psalm 110:1 is quoted and alluded to quite often in the New Testament and several perspectives are expressed by different authors using this same verse.  On the one hand, similar to our 1Cor 15:25  allusion, the writer to the Hebrews says the various enemies are not yet subject to him:
But he, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until his enemies be made a footstool for his feet. Hebrews 10:12-13

On the other hand, the Apostle Peter seems to say they are subject to him:
Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him. 1 Peter 3:21-22

This is not a contradiction; both statements are true in their own ways.  This is because different powers are referred to. There are those powers still in the physical body.  Earthly authorities are not yet subject to Christ, but some day every knee will bow when he comes.  There are also the spiritual orders. Heavenly angelic powers are either already subject to Christ, as is the case with the holy angels (see Eph 1:20-23), or destined to be subject to him after a time, as is the case for the Devil and the demonic powers.  The Devil is said to be both free enough to be a prowling danger to the saints (1Pet 5:8), yet “bound” enough that he cannot deceive the nations (Rev 20:2).  Regardless of the extent to which the various powers and enemies have been or will be subjected to Christ, the apostle goes on to say that the last enemy to be subjected is death.  This is an implicit reference to the resurrection.  The resurrection is the means of countering and destroying death. To miss this reference to the resurrection is to miss a major point in this passage (and that, in the context of the resurrection chapter of the NewTestament ;>).   In my outline I was not able to include any reference to the neat transitions between Paul’s logical points.  Just to document them, vs 25 transitions into his next point in vs 26 via the use of “enemies.”  The next transition between his two points in vs 27a and 27b is nicely accomplished via “all things.”  One other note - regarding the * in the text - “He” may refer to Christ (God’s anointed agent) in the single “he” usage of v24, but after that, the pronoun refers to God in the following Psalms double usage of “he/him.”  Minor notes include color coded x/y terms marking two sets of parallel thoughts and one incidental parallel regarding God subjecting all things (outline italics vs 27-28).  Lastly, note that I tried to make Paul’s emphasis and play on “all” more obvious by the use of quotes in the translation of vs 28.