Paul continues arguing that resurrection is an essential element of Christianity —
(1Co 15:17-19 ESV) 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Again, if Christians don’t experience a resurrection, leaving behind empty graves, then neither was Jesus resurrected. If God can’t resurrect Christians, then why believe that he resurrected Jesus?
“Fallen asleep” is a standard Jewish (and now Christian) euphemism for death. The point is not that people are unconscious, but that from the perspective of those who survive, their loved ones are as though asleep — and they’ll awaken when Jesus returns. How death appears to the dead pending the resurrection is quite another question (and discussed in the Wineskins series although not discussed by Paul in this chapter).
Finally, Paul makes clear that the hope of Christianity is in the afterlife, after the resurrection. He considers the blessings of being a Christian today, before the return of Jesus, insufficient. Indeed, without the resurrection, we are “most to be pitied.”
There is a brand of Christianity that denies miracles and hence denies the resurrection of Jesus — and many Christians prefer to focus on “salvation” as being primarily about the blessings of the Christian life lived rather than looking to the return of Jesus as our essential hope. And Paul would find such pretensions foolish, laughable, and sad. He is all about the hope found in the resurrection of Jesus when we will become like him and join him in the afterlife.
Paul would not deny the blessings of the present life lived in Jesus, but then he was also beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and jailed for his faith. He assumed that other Christians would likely suffer for their faith, too. And so he looked to the resurrection to make his sufferings all worth while.
Those who preach a salvation in today’s blessed existence are grossly insensitive to the sufferings of our brothers and sisters across the globe who are being persecuted today for their faith.
(1Co 15:20 ESV) 20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Paul refers to Jesus as the “firstfruits” of the the dead. The “firstfruits” are the first grains or fruit of the harvest to ripen. We live in an age when fresh apples and strawberries are available year round, but when I was a child, strawberries ripened in May and apples in the fall — and the rest of the year, you did without. When the grocery stores and farmers markets had their firstfruits of a particular kind, it was a day of celebration. At last we have strawberries! And we knew that if strawberries came on sale on Monday, we would keep on having strawberries for a month or two. The firstfruits promised the coming of the rest.
(1Co 15:21-22 ESV) 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
Paul next uses Adam as an antitype of Jesus. Adam brought death and Jesus brings life. Adam brings the curse. Jesus undoes the curse.
Notice how Paul blames Adam for the fall of man in this passage (and in Romans). He says nothing of Eve (although she catches blame in 1 Tim 2:11-15 and 2 Cor. 11:3). But in Paul’s thinking, Eve is an example of being deceived (both passages), but the blame for the curse on creation goes to Adam (here and in Rom 5:14). Why? Well, because humanity was not corrupted until both Eve and Adam sinned, and because Adam was not deceived. God told Adam, before Eve was made, not to eat of the tree. He rebelled — and rebellion is the sin that damns.
(1Co 15:23 ESV) 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
And so the resurrection of Jesus undoes the curse — death — that came from Adam’s sin. The curse is partly undone by the resurrection of Jesus, which demonstrates God’s ability to overcome the consequences of sin. But only at the resurrection will God complete his victory. Thus, the resurrection of Jesus announces the coming victory not yet fully realized.
(1Co 15:24-25 ESV) 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
Between the two resurrections, Jesus wages war against “every rule and every authority and power” including death. We now live in the in-between times, certain of the victory although it hasn’t yet been won.
N.T. Wright draws a comparison to D-Day. Once the Allies established a beachhead at Normandy, Germany was going to lose — but only at the cost of tens of thousands of lives and bitter fighting one village and one hedgerow at a time. But Berlin was going to fall to the Allied forces for sure.
Just so, we know Jesus will prevail, even he has not yet prevailed. The victory is certain, but the war must still be fought.
The reference to “every rule and every authority and power” is rarely dealt with by Western commenters in any real depth. We covered it in this earlier series:
In short, in Paul, references to “rule” (often translated “principality”), “authority,” and “power” generally carries a double meaning of both earthly and spiritual powers. After all, Paul lived in a world where the Caesar claimed to be a god and where gods were seen behind the authority of every nation and secular power.
Some see the language as accommodationist, that is, Paul is speaking in terms designed for his readers recently converted from paganism, who likely considered these gods quite real but inferior to YHWH. Others see Paul as quite serious but a victim of a pre-scientific age. And a few of us think Paul might have known what he was talking about.
Most of the Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias handle the topic very poorly, but Eerdmans takes the trouble to get it right —
PRINCIPALITY (Gk. archḗ “beginning, first cause”).* A cosmological power whose authority can work with or against the lordship of Christ. A “principality” can be a civil authority before which Christians may be brought for judgment (Luke 12:11; RSV “rulers”; KJV “magistrates”; cf. 20:20; RSV “authority”) but to which they must nevertheless submit (Titus 3:1). In the Pauline literature archḗ is most often found in the plural paired with exousíai (“principalities and powers”), referring to aspects of a complex structure of primal forces that include “thrones,” “dominions,” and “authorities” (Rom. 8:38; 1 Cor. 15:24; Eph. 1:21; 3:10; 6:12; Col. 1:16; 2:10, 15; KJV, RSV sometimes “rule”); according to a widespread first-century viewpoint, this structure stands behind natural and human events and influences them.
While first-century A.D. non-Christian writings on the “principalities and powers” are concerned to define the various cosmological factors and to relate them to each other, Paul mentions them only in establishing the absolute superiority of the dominion of Jesus Christ. Whatever principalities his Gentile converts believe to exist, they must now recognize the incomparably higher authority of Christ.
Christ’s supremacy has a double basis: he had a part in the creation of the principalities and powers (Col. 1:16), and he confronted and “disarmed” the rebellious principalities on the cross (2:15; cf. RSV mg.). Their potency remains, however, it is against these principalities that Christians struggle (and not against the human agencies under their sway, Eph. 6:12). But the conquest Christ has already achieved supplies daily assurance and effectiveness to the Christian (Rom. 8:38–39; Eph. 6:13) even as it is bringing about the final universal acknowledgment of the lordship of Jesus Christ “to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9–11).
Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, 1987, 850.
Thanks to the work of John Howard Yoder, who takes these obscure, largely ignored references and builds a theology on them, most commentators now speak in terms of “the powers.” Yoder sees the atonement as being about Jesus’ defeat of the powers by taking the worst they could dish out — the crucifixion — and defeating them, based on such key passages as —
(Col 2:15 ESV) 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
This is another reference to Jesus’ defeating the powers by the resurrection. How does he take his beginning victory — his beachhead — and turn D-Day into VE (Victory in Europe) Day? Well, through the Kingdom — his church. It becomes the task of the church to stand up to the powers, confident and empowered by faith in the coming resurrection — so that Jesus prevails over all powers that threaten his rule.
Ephesians is not about the ordering of the church by the gospel for its own sake. ‘Ecclesiology’ may sound secondary and irrelevant to some ardent enthusiasts for the ‘old perspective’, but that could just be because they are unwilling to face the consequences of Paul’s ecclesiology.
For him, the church is constituted, and lives its life in public, in such a way as to confront the rulers of the world with the news that there is ‘another king, this Jesus’ (Acts 17:7). Paul says it again: this was the grace given to me, this was the mystery revealed of which I became a servant, the mystery lodged since all eternity in the creator’s single plan: ‘that now the many-splendoured wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places, through the church, according to the eternal purpose which he has accomplished in the Messiah, Jesus our Lord’ (3:10).
Tom Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2009), 149.
At the recent 2015 Pepperdine Bible Lectureships, Richard Beck spoke on this topic for about 1:45, in a very engagement presentation called “Angelic Troublemakers.” Here’s the link to play from here.
To download, in Chrome, click to open the play window, and then right-click for “Save As.” In Internet Explorer, Windows will seek to impose Windows Media Player on you, which may be your preference. Just watch the boxes you check.