Text: 1 Corinthians 15:20-28
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.
I have a theology question for you. At what point in history would say “the kingdom of Christ” begins? For some, this sounds like an “end times” kind of question. And yet, would you believe it, the Apostle Paul says that the answer is Easter. The reign of the messiah began at the Resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says that Jesus is presently reigning, sitting on the throne in heaven, and He must continue to do so until God “has put all enemies under His feet.” So this morning we are going to see how the resurrection of Jesus means that the reign of the messiah has begun.
I want to make three points from the text and then give some “So what?” meditations and points of application. My first point is that the Resurrection of Christ is a firstfruits of the resurrection of the dead at the last day. My second point is that that the reign of Christ ends at the Second Coming. My third point is this then means that the reign of Christ had to begin at His resurrection.
The Resurrection of Christ is a Firstfruits of the End
The first point is that the resurrection of Christ is a “firstfruits” of what we will all experience on the last day. Paul writes:
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. (1 Cor. 15:20-23)
Now, what is a firstfruit? On its face it just sounds like the first fruits which a plant produces. But there is a religious significance to this word, of course. You see, in the Old Testament, the first fruits from any harvest had to be sacrificed to the Lord. There was even a specific ritual when the Israelites inherited the Promised Land, where they had to offer from the fruits that were already there in the land, waiting for them. Those “firstfruits” signified the reception of the whole, the fulfillment of the promise that they were finally receiving. Deuteronomy 26:9-10 says this, “He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’; and now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land which you, O Lord, have given me.” Dedicating them to the Lord was an admission that the whole harvest really belonged to God. All of the good gifts were given by God, and so the people returned a portion to show their gratitude.
This is what the resurrection of Jesus Christ was. It was the very first resurrection, a symbol of the whole general resurrection of all humanity which will come in the future. And Jesus’ resurrection was itself given to God, as Jesus ascended to Heaven to be with Him. This all means that we will follow after His pattern. All that happened to Jesus in the resurrection will also happen to us, but He went first. “But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (1 Cor. 15:23).
The Reign of Christ Ends at the 2nd Coming
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. (1 Cor. 15:23-28)
Let’s now move from the firstfruits to the final harvest. Paul says, “Then comes the end.” And what does he go on to describe? He does not describe the kingdom of the Messiah but rather the Messiah delivering the kingdom over to God the Father. This means that Christ’s kingdom comes to an end, and it comes to an end at the 2nd Coming.
What is especially fascinating, but also especially puzzling, is the fact that this final state is said to be one which abolishes “all rule and all authority and power.” Commentators are divided over this. Some say that this only refers to those rulers or powers who are “enemies.” After all, the very next verse says “He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet.” And yet, if we keep reading, we find out that not only enemy powers are brought to an end, but so too is the messiah’s own kingship. “He delivers the kingdom to God the Father” and 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).
This is profound and mysterious. Evil powers will come to an end, but so too will a great many of the good and legitimate powers. This certainly ties in to the teaching that marriage will not continue in the New Heavens and New Earth. This is also most likely the same reality which allows Paul to say “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). I do not think that this means that our creational attributes will be obliterated. How would we even recognize ourselves if we were fully stripped of our ethnicity and sex? But what I do think it means is that the final state will be one of full equality of authority, office, and jurisdiction. The arrangement of authority and rulership which currently come with those distinctions will be wholly fulfilled in Christ.
We need to adnit that we currently have little to no understanding of what this kind of reality will look like. The distinctions of authority are not currently separable from our existence, and so there will be some major, call it cataclysmic, transformation after the 2nd Coming. We cannot and should not try to envision any eschatological progress which is nothing but a steady and continuous ascent to the final state. The reality is that even with great temporal progress, there will also be a dramatic transformation brought from outside, when the messiah transfers the kingdom to God the Father and puts an end to all rule and all authority and power.
The Reign of Christ began at Christ’s Resurrection
Now, if Christ’s kingdom comes to an end at the 2nd Coming, then this means that it must begin prior to that point. Here we have what I believe to be the simplest demonstration of post-millennialism. I am not really concerned about the question of a literal “thousand year” kingdom, of course. I’m just talking about the reign of Christ in general. And here in 1 Corinthians 15, it seems inescapable that this reign began at the Resurrection of Christ in the 1st century and will continue until the 2nd Coming of Christ at the end of history. “For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet” (vs. 25).
That expression, “He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet,” is reminiscent of Psalm 110:1-2:
The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at My right hand,
Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.”
The Lord shall send the rod of Your strength out of Zion.
Rule in the midst of Your enemies!
We learn the same truth in that psalm as we do in 1 Corinthians 15. God the Father seats the Messiah at His right hand, and God puts down all of the enemies of the Messiah. This is not a one-time action, however, but instead the Messiah rules in the midst of His enemies. And according to the Apostle Paul, the Messiah begins His reign in the midst of enemies and continues it until all of the enemies are defeated. And what is the last enemy? “The last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26). Jesus Christ will reign as His enemies are progressively defeated, and the last defeat will be the defeat of death itself. This happens, I believe, simultaneously with the 2nd Coming and the general resurrection of the dead, and so the defeat of the last enemy is itself the transition point into the New Heavens and New Earth where the messiah gives His throne back to God.
And so if Christ’s kingdom began at His resurrection and continues until the last day, then we are presently living under the reign of Christ. More still, if Christ must reign until all of His enemies are put down, and if the last enemy is death, then we will see a progressive toppling of those enemies until the last enemy is defeated. This means that we should see a movement from more enemies to fewer enemies, and this will happen during the time between the first Easter and the 2nd Coming.
Resurrection Life and Kingdom Life
Now, this teaching has profound implications for our life today. Paul was pointing out that the messiah’s reign had not yet finished in order to combat the false teaching that there would be no future resurrection or that it was all just some spiritual reality. To the contrary, the Resurrection has real-world implications, and they are presently unfolding. They have not all been realized, and so we ought to expect more blessings in the future, even on this earth.
The first thing that this means for us is that we should be optimistic. We should be optimistic about the fate of this world. The picture is not one of a sinking ship but rather of a slow march of conquest by a victorious army. You have heard this explanation before, I am sure, but it’s good enough to repeat from time to time. When Jesus said, “on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18), we often give others the wrong impression of what this image means. We regularly make it out as if the gates of Hell are constantly attacking the church, and Jesus promise is that the church will be able to withstand this. But if that was what was meant, then the imagery was totally inappropriate. Think about it. Gates are defensive structures. They don’t move. Gates are meant to regulate what enters and what exits. They are meant to keep things out. So the point of saying that the gates of Hades to not prevail against the church is not that the church is defending itself from the attacks but instead that the church is on the attack. We are on the attack precisely because Christ is now on the throne. We are in the service of the true king.
Now, this doesn’t mean a blind optimism or any thought that the kingdom is an easy incline towards glory. No, the rule of the messiah begins in the midst of enemies. “The Lord shall send the rod of Your strength out of Zion. Rule in the midst of Your enemies!” (Psalm 110:2). This means that the kingdom is born of conflict and will continue to experience conflict as it goes. We might experience higher or lower points in this conflict, and we are never promised any easy life. To the contrary, we are told that suffering will be a normative experience for all believers. And so our confidence is one based on the sure knowledge of the conclusion of the matter, but it is not an opiate which numbs or distracts us from the challenges we will continue to face every day.
Secondly, this teaching about the messiah’s kingdom should make us progressive in the true sense. I don’t mean that we throw aside traditional teachings about morality or religion. That’s the false progressivism of the world. We believe that truth is always true, and so any progress must be cumulative, a building on top of earlier good things. But still, we are not returning backwards in history to our original state. No, we are going forward to the end. The messiah’s reign has begun and it is going somewhere, to the New Heavens and New Earth. We ought to then be able to embrace advancement. If death is the last enemy, then we ought to be making progress against it. That might sound strange at first. We will never defeat it fully prior to the Resurrection. But we will and have already made great strides against it. Modern medicine is a powerful example of this. Generally speaking, people live longer now than they have for thousands of years. Diseases which once devastated entire continents are now eradicated totally or are of but little concern, treated in days by readily-available medicine.
We should not be primitivists then. I do think there is good reason to question the current state of food technology, and so do not misunderstand me. The “organic” movement and other similar ones have lots of good points going for them. Not all progress is good progress and not all technology is used ethically. But we shouldn’t mistake a valid criticism against harmful technology for a criticism against all technological advancement. Abuse does not take away use. And you might be surprised to learn just how many things which we now take for granted are the product of such advance. For instance, corn has not only recently been genetically modified but in fact was continually modified by the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan Indians. Historical records show that corn plants originally only produced one small ear of corn per plant. Through the use of even very simple technology, Native American farmers were able to create a new source of food which now keeps much of the human race alive. Dogs are also interesting to think about as well. Nearly all of the major breeds we know today are less than 300 years old. The history of the Jack Russell Terrier is delightful to tell. An English parson named John Russell enjoyed fox hunting, but he felt that the dogs being used to hunt foxes at the time were too big, not energetic enough, and too violent. He wanted a smaller dog with lots of energy and tenacity, but one which would hold back from actually biting the fox. And so, beginning around 1819 or so, Parson Russell selectively bred different kinds of terriers until he came up with what we know today as the Jack Russell Terrier. He changed their size and their temperament. This isn’t exactly a new species, but it is a sort of “new creation.” What further developments can we hope to see in a hundred years or a thousand years?
And finally, we must remember that it is not we who defeat the enemies. Though we are privileged enough to participate in the kingdom through our worship, testimony, and discipleship, we have to remember that it is actually God who does all of the work. “He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet.” It is not we who put the enemies under Christ’s feet, but rather He. Now those pronouns can be a little confusing. We have at least two hes in the sentence. But it is referring to the relationship between Jesus and the Father. He, the messiah, must reign until He, God the Father, has put all enemies under His, the messiah’s, feet. And so Jesus reigns. We proclaim it and live accordingly. And God Himself conducts the warfare, defeating the enemies and bringing about the progress.
The fact that God is the worker is the reason that we can and must be busy about our faith and yet, at the end of the day, we confess to having done nothing. All we do is believe, profess, and live our lives in faith and charity. God does all the heavy lifting. He does the work, through the power of His Spirit, and for this reason we can say that it does not depend upon us. We do not trust in princes. We do not trust in horses or chariots. We do not trust in the work of man’s hands, not even our own hands. We trust in God. And so we are busy about the kingdom, actively promoting its ends, all the while being at peace in the knowledge of its assured victory through Jesus Christ and the power of God.
Easter means kingdom victory, and it means kingdom victory now. This is why we can be optimistic. This is why we can be active and even, perhaps, aggressive, though a kind and gentle aggression. We are on the move. We know that the kingdom is going somewhere, and so we follow its path. And yet Easter also means rest because “It is finished.” The strife is o’er, as the old hymn puts it. The battle is won. “The powers of death have done their worst, but Christ their legions has dispersed. Let shouts of holy joy outburst. Alleluia!”
A repeated theme that I will be giving you this Easter season is that of a calm yet joyful optimism. This should not make you passive or oblivious to challenges. Nor should it make you cocky and self-assured. No, you are Christ-assured. You know that there are hardships, but you know that none of them hold a candle to death. And death was defeated already in Christ’s resurrection, and death will be defeated finally on the last day. Christ is risen. Everything else is a footnote. And so let this faith give you confidence. Let it give you a firm assurance. Let it give you peace.
So, use all of those gifts to spread the message. Use those gifts to live the life. Use those gifts to embody the kingdom in your families, in your communities, and in this church. Let us be a microcosm of the harmonious and victorious kingdom of Christ so that the outside world can see it and take note of what is coming their way soon.
Let us pray.