The Destruction of the Last Enemy
Text: 1 Cor. 15:20-26
But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.
What happens after we die? This is a question that many people ask themselves, and many people spend their lives searching for the answer. And it is a good question. As Christians, we affirm that there is life after death, and we affirm that the only way to experience everlasting life is through faith in Christ. But let me ask you another question. What happens after all that? What happens after death, and then what happens next?
If you are theologically advanced, you might say something about the resurrection and the 2nd Coming of Christ. Maybe, even, you will say something about the Last Judgment. I wonder, though, if anyone would think to talk about the cosmic war between Christ and the Devil, the nature of Christ’s kingdom, or what happens after all that.
Now, at this point you might wonder if I’ve gone beyond the limits of what we should really talk about in a sermon. Isn’t this a little spacey and far out? You might have a point there. These are deep waters, and we should be careful not to presume to know more about them than we do. But I am going here because our text goes here. It talks about the future kingdom of Christ and what will happen on the Last Day. And it’s important to see that it anchors all of this in the resurrection of Christ.
Yes, you see the resurrection is properly eschatological. Everything hinges on it, and it serves as the basis for our future and Christ’s future. The end shall be like the resurrection. We will see three more things in our passage from 1 Corinthians. The first is that Christ’s resurrection is the firstfruits of the final resurrection. The second is that Christ’s resurrection inaugurated His kingdom. And thirdly, the final resurrection of the dead will bring an end of sorts to Christ kingdom, as He will transfer it over to God the Father. Again, the resurrection is eschatology, and in it God gives His future to us.
Christ is the Firstfruits of the Resurrection
The Apostle Paul begins this section by writing, “now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (vs. 20). That word “firstfruits” is a reference to the Mosaic Law. The firstfruits were the initial part of the harvest which were offered to God in order to bless the whole harvest (Ex. 23:19). They represented the whole, which was to come later. And so Paul is using that as a metaphor for the way in which Christ’s resurrection relates to ours. It is the firsfruit, and our resurrection will come later. But, importantly, our resurrection is guaranteed by His.
The reason that Christ’s resurrection can guarantee our resurrection is because it is, in fact, a cause of it. Christ is, in this way, a new Adam. Indeed, He is the last Adam. He does the kind of thing that Adam did in the beginning, only where Adam brought sin and death, Christ brings righteousness and life:
For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. (vs. 21-22)
You should notice two different tenses. By Man came the resurrection of the dead. In Christ, all shall be made alive. Christ has definitely achieved the future resurrection in and through His own resurrection. And so it has “come.” And yet, we still look forward to the resurrection, to our resurrection at the end. As Paul puts it, “each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (vs. 23).
We are currently living in between these resurrections. Christ has been raised, and so we know that the resurrection is real. Furthermore, we have been spiritually raised with Christ, and so we can speak of living “the new life” or the “resurrected life” now, though that is meant in a spiritual sense. But we are still awaiting our physical resurrection. That resurrection is still in the future. We look forward to it. We expect it. We prepare for it.
Christ’s Resurrection Marked the Beginning of His Kingdom
Next, Paul appears to change topics. He moves to the kingdom of Christ:
Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. (vs. 24-25)
But as we will see, this isn’t a new topic. It is directly related to the resurrection. We see this when Paul adds, “the last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (vs. 26).
When we put this together, we get a mostly coherent picture of the kingdom and reign of Christ. Christ has been given a kingdom from the Father, and He will reign in that kingdom until He has put all enemies under His feet. He will do this until He defeats the last enemy, and the last enemy is death. Then, mysteriously, Christ will “deliver the kingdom to God the Father.” This will be the end of history as we know it and the beginning of the New Heavens and New Earth.
But let me ask you a question. We know when this reign will end. When does it begin?
Paul is speaking as if this kingdom has already begun, even in his own lifetime. Paul looks forward to its completion. So, when did Christ begin reigning over His kingdom? Think back to that psalm which is being referenced in vs. 25, Psalm 110.
Psalm 110:1 says, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.’” This seems to be what Paul has in the background of his thought when he says, “He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet.” And so we have a good framework. Christ began reigning in His kingdom when He sat down at God’s right hand. So when was that?
It happened at the ascension of Christ. When He ascended into heaven, He then sat down at the right hand of God the Father almighty. There’s no need to contrast this against the resurrection. The two events are often connected in Scripture. For instance, Peter says in Acts 2:
This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear. (Acts 2:32-33)
The resurrection and the ascension go together. Both are times in which Christ was “raised” and “exalted,” and the ascension follows the resurrection as a necessary result.
So, put all of this together. Jesus Christ began reigning over the kingdom at His ascension, when He sat down at the right hand of the Father. He will continue to reign in this kingdom until God puts all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. Then Christ will deliver the kingdom over to God the Father and the end of history as we know it will come.
This simple timeline has some radical implications. For one thing, it tells us that Christ is reigning now. We are not waiting for Jesus to take the throne. He is already on it! And if He is reigning, then the conquest has begun. God is currently in the process of putting down Christ’s enemies. All of this means that we are living in the kingdom now. The Holy War is underway, and the enemies of the messiah are in the process of being defeated. And they must all be defeated before Christ is finished with His reign.
Christ’s Reign Will Come to an End
Our third point is a difficult one. Indeed, it may be one of the most difficult concepts in all of the Christian religion. Christ’s reign will come to an end at the final resurrection. “He will deliver the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power” (vs. 24). “When all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all” (vs. 28).
I will admit to you that I’m tempted to shut off the recorder right now. These are jarring verses, and I spent the better part of the week trying to figure out just what to do with them. Few Christians talk about this, and a more than a few try to find ways to escape the force of these verses. Verse 28, in particular, makes one fear for their orthodoxy.
But these verses are here, and they are every bit as inspired as the rest. Whenever we come to “problem passages,” we must remind ourselves that the problem lies with us and not the passages. This is the Word of the Lord, and must treat it as such. So what is Paul saying here?
In some respect, Christ’s kingship will come to an end. This is what Paul writes. Now, note well, the kingdom does not come to an end. We’ve been told all along that it is “without end.”
To Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed. (Dan. 7:14)
There’s also Luke 1:33, where Gabriel tells Mary, “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” We could read many more texts like this. The kingdom is eternal. It does not end.
But, the way in which the kingdom is ruled changes. One “reign” in this kingdom comes to an end, and another reign comes in its place. It might be even more precise to say that the rulership is transferred. And—this part really blows our minds—it is transferred from the godman, Jesus Christ, to the Godhead, the Father of all and through Him the whole Trinity.
Again, this is the kind of subject that requires great care. We should not say too much. But what we have said so far does seem to be demanded by the Scriptures. This does not mean Jesus stops being incarnate. That is a heretical impossibility. It also does not mean that the Son is subordinate or inferior to the Father. That is another heresy, and more than a few have fallen into it on account of vs. 28. But no, 1 Cor. 15:28 does not mean that the eternal Son of God, of the same substance with the Father, will somehow move to an inferior position.
No, verse 28 is repeating verse 24, and it is speaking of the incarnate Son acting as messiah. It means that the messiah, who is the Son in action, will be subject to God. Then it concludes with the fact that God will be “all in all.” The idea seems to be that the deity, the Father’s deity, but also the Son’s deity, will permeate all of the redeemed, in a similar if not identical manner that it permeates Jesus’ human nature. We will all see God, and we will worship Him forever. As amazing, overwhelming, stupefying, and terrifying as it is, we will spend eternity in the direct presence of the one true holy God. In the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism, we will be “filled with inconceivable joys, made perfectly holy and happy both in body and soul, in the company of innumerable saints and holy angels, but especially in the immediate vision and fruition of God the Father, of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, to all eternity” (WLC 90).
This will happen at the resurrection, at our resurrection on the last day. Once the last enemy is destroyed, Christ’s work will be complete. He will deliver His kingdom to the Trinity, and we will worship the One God forevermore.
Application and Conclusion
So we see the resurrection in each of these points. Christ’s resurrection is the firstfruits of the final resurrection. It secures it because it accomplishes it. Christ’s resurrection also inaugurates His reign over the kingdom. It is the beginning of His conquest which continues on now, even this very day. And when Christ’s reign reaches its goal, which is the resurrection of all things, then it will come to its end, leaving us an eternity of worshipping God’s glory. This should change how we think about resurrection. This should change how we think about the future. Indeed, it should change how we think about the present.
The resurrection is already, and the resurrection is not yet. We are living in the middle of that tension. And that means, among other things, that we are living in the middle of the conquest. Christ is reigning on His throne now, and God is putting down His enemies. We need to notice this. We need to identify who those enemies are. We need to make sure that we are not among those enemies.
And, you know, we are participating in that conquest in our way. We speak truth to the powers in the heavens. We tear down strongholds. We shine light into the darkness. We catch men and disciple the nations. And we mortify our sin.
The 20th century Russian writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, famously wrote, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” But that is exactly what the reign of Christ calls us to do. We must die to ourselves and kill our worldly loves. We must give them to Christ so that we can live for Him. And so the resurrection points us to repentance, so that we might rightly participate in Christ’s conquest. We must repent in order to live in the kingdom of Christ.
And the resurrection also points us to the future, to that final day of resurrection and judgment, when all enemies are put down. And so we know that the time we have now is a preparation for that day. Use your time wisely. Meditate, not just upon your death, but upon what happens after death. What sort of “account” will you give at the final resurrection, when Christ presents us to God?
That question should scare you. You shouldn’t be too confident in how you’ll turn out. The reason is simple. You should know your sin. You should be aware of the reality. And this is good and right. But, once the reality of your sin is known, remember the reality of the gospel. Christ came to save sinners, and that’s exactly what he did. If you have placed your faith in Him, you are forgiven. You are cleansed. And you can live for Him.
So do not be haughty or proud, but take heart. By faith you can prepare for the last day, and you can have sure knowledge that you will be acceptable in God’s sight, because of Christ. Indeed, you will be able to dwell in the House of the Lord forever. And so use your time now as a time of preparation. Use your remaining days to make yourself ready to be given to God forever.
Let us pray.