We at last come to one of Paul’s “greatest hits” quotations, one we need to ponder for a while.
(1Co 15:26 ESV) 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
This passage has to remind us of —
(Gen 2:16-17 ESV) 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Paul prophesies the end of the curse that resulted from the sins of Adam and Eve.
(Gen 3:2-5 ESV) 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The serpent lied to Eve, promising her God-like knowledge of good and evil — a half-truth. But he denied that she’d die as a result. The trouble, of course, is that once we lose our innocence and learn good from evil, we become accountable for that knowledge.
(Rom 5:12-14 ESV) Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned — 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
Paul explains that, due to Adam’s sin, all mankind became mortal because all mankind became sinful.
I believe that Paul is speaking of eternal death — the denial of immortality to those not in Jesus. After all, unless we’re still alive when Jesus returns, we will die insofar as our mortal bodies are concerned.
(Rom 5:17 ESV) 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
“Death reigned through one man” refers to physical death. Not everyone was damned. And for the saved, although we die, it’s not truly death. Rather, we pass from mortality to immortality at the general resurrection. We “reign in life” — that is, as promised in Gen 1:26-28, we are given rule over the earth. “Reign” means to rule as a king rules.
(Gen 1:26-28 ESV) Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
The Psalms declares this to be true of God’s children —
(Psa 8:5-9 ESV) 5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. 6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, 7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. 9 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
As we’ll see shortly, Paul applies this Psalm, plainly written about mankind generally, to Jesus. We’ll get there.
This lesson did not get past the Revelator —
(Rev 5:9-10 ESV) 9 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
(Rev 22:5 ESV) 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
Now, I don’t know just what this means, quite honestly. But the “life” we’re promised is much more than existence. It’s existence reigning over the new heavens and new earth in a place of honor. Paul promises that we will “reign in life,” and it’s for good reason that he says so. Victory over death is not merely remaining alive. Although every instinct in our bones and souls yearns to keep on living, as we get older and our bodies begin to fail, most of us realize that life merely for the sake of life is not enough. Imagine an eternity trapped in a body that is decomposing, diseased, cancered, and painful! Life is nothing without the hope of a better, victorious existence. The goal is not mere survival but defeat for death — God’s final enemy.
A couple of further thoughts to reflect on —
Paul is building his case on Psalms 8 and 110. For example,
(Psa 110:1-2 ESV) The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” 2 The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies!
God promised his Messiah defeat over all his enemies. These enemies include the principalities and powers — both earthly and heavenly enemies. Hence, when the war is over, death will be defeated because death stands in opposition to the will of God.
We’ve already seen that Paul applies Psalm 8 (quoted earlier) to mankind, and extends it to the Son of Man as the ultimate king who will win mankind’s victory for them. Hence, the “dominion” that Psalm 8 promises is far greater than just over the created animals and such. We learn that it include rule over all that stands in opposition to the will of God.
There’s a translation issue in Psalm 8. “Heavenly beings” is elohim, which is often used to mean God but can also refer to the heavenly hosts, including angels. But Paul seems to be using this passage to mean that the Messiah will defeat the principalities and powers, which include heavenly beings. Therefore, I’m inclined to go with the NRSV translation —
(Psa 8:5 NASB) Yet You have made him a little lower than God, And You crown him with glory and majesty!