1 Corinthians 15:23

Pericope: 1 Corinthians 15:20–28

Synopsis:

This text is set in the center of Paul’s defense of the bodily resurrection of believers. Apparently, some of the Corinthians had begun saying that there was no resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15:12; see also Acts 17:32; 23:8; 2 Tim 2:18). Paul had already set forth arguments and evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. He also noted that their faith is worthless if Christ has not been raised, and they are still in their sins (1 Cor 15:17). Then, in the text below, Paul explains why there will be a resurrection and the order in which the resurrection of believers would occur within history.

Text: 1 Corinthians 15:20-28

20        But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.

21        For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead.

22        For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.

23        But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming

(παρουσία),

24        then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power.

25        For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet.

26        The last enemy that will be abolished is death.

27        For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him.

28        When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.

1 Corinthians 15:20-28

The verse under examination is v. 23. Paul states that all believers who sleep in Christ will be resurrected “at His coming (parousía, παρουσία).” Every major English translation renders both Greek words parousía, παρουσία and érchomai, ἔρχομαι (among others) as “coming.” It has been demonstrated, however, that the word parousía is used as a technical theological word when used of Jesus Christ.[i]

First, it is clear that Christ’s parousía (coming) has not occurred or begun but is future. Paul elsewhere teaches that the resurrection is still future (cf. 2 Tim 2:18).

Second, this text along with 1 Thess 4:13–18 is clear that when the parousía begins or occurs, so also will the resurrection and rapture of all believers (all those who are alive and those who have died, “fallen asleep”).  

Third, Paul is grouping significant periods of time in simple statements. If we were not aware of the book of Revelation, which was written decades later, as well as the last 2,000 years of history, we might be tempted to believe that Paul is teaching that the resurrection will all be fulfilled within a very short period of time. But Revelation 20:4–6 teaches there will be a period of at least 1,000 years between the resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous. Likewise, history teaches that at least 2,000 years occur in verse 23 itself, between “Christ the first fruits” and “those who are Christ’s at His coming (parousía).” Thus, Paul must be condensing long periods of time in this text. His focus is not on when the various resurrections occur, nor on even listing all of them; instead, his focus is on assuring the Corinthians that the future resurrections will occur and will be of the same type as Jesus Christ’s, i.e., bodily.

We know that verse 23 covers a period of at least two thousand years because neither the resurrection nor the parousía has yet occurred. This lends more support for the stages of the resurrection discussed below. Fourth, given that resurrection will occur in stages (see below), this text further supports the idea that the parousía (def. “presence, coming”) is and must in fact be an extended event rather than a singular event. There is a period of at least a thousand years between the resurrection/rapture (a.k.a. translation) of believers at the beginning of His parousía and the final translation of all the believers who are born during the millennial kingdom.

Stages of the Resurrection:

While some texts group the resurrection of everyone, righteous and wicked, together, which seemingly indicates they occur at the same time (e.g., Dan 12:1–2; John 5:28–29; and now 1 Cor 15:23), other texts indicate that there are stages within the resurrection. Even here, in this text that seems to indicate a short period of time, Paul states, “But each in his own order” (1 Cor 15:23). The “resurrection” of the last days began with Jesus Christ as the first fruits, then “after that” He will resurrect “those who are Christ’s at His parousía.”

But Paul omits in his teaching here several groups. First, we see from Matthew 27:52–53 that after Christ’s resurrection many saints were raised at that time as well. These may have included all the OT saints. Second, John states in Revelation 20:4–6 that there will be at least a thousand years between the resurrection of the righteous and the resurrection of the wicked. It should be noted that John had grouped the two resurrections together in His Gospel. There is even ample evidence that he wrote both books about the same time.

The best explanation is that when the two resurrections are seen as a singular event in time, the writer is simply providing an overview of the process and not intending to provide a detailed outline of the entire doctrine. We do this all the time in conversations with one another as well as teachers for their students just for the sake of time. Perhaps a complex idea is being related to another idea, which is the focus of the discussion. Regardless, it is clear in this very text that Paul collapsing at least two thousand years just in verse 23 for the purpose of defending the doctrine of resurrection from the dead itself rather than providing detailed teaching on it.

Key Points To Takeaway:

  1. No biblical text provides a complete and detailed account of any given doctrine; likewise, this text does not provide a detailed and complete teaching on the resurrection.  
  2. Paul is simply giving a high-level overview of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead in order to emphasize the future resurrection of believers. This section is only a part of his larger argument defending the truth of the bodily resurrection. Many individual details are simply glossed over. For example, the resurrection of the unjust, or wicked, is not even addressed by Paul in this text. Further, Paul does not include those who were raised on the first Easter Sunday after Jesus was raised (Matt 27:52–53).
  3. The resurrection occurs in multiple stages over an extended period of time: “each in his own order.”
  4. Jesus Christ, being the first fruits of the resurrection, was the first to have been raised imperishable.
  5. Those who are Christ’s at His parousía will then be resurrected, which is at least 2,000 years later.
  6. We know from other texts (Rev 20:4–6), that the resurrection of the unrighteous, which Paul does not even include here, occurs at least another 1,000 years after believers are raised.
  7. Paul includes the final victory of Christ over death, which occurs after the resurrection of the wicked (Rev 20:11–15). “Then comes the end,” Paul says, “when He [Christ] hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, which He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (1 Cor 15:24).
  8. Therefore, Paul’s overview is condensing a vast period of time, at least 3,000 years, in his statements here on the resurrection.
  9. Paul teaches not only that the resurrection of believers is future but also that it is a heresy to teach that it has already passed (2 Tim 2:16–8).
  10. Paul states that the resurrection of believers will occur at the parousía of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:23).
  11. Paul, in 1 Thess 4:13–18, teaches that both the resurrection and the rapture, or translation of all believers, occurs at the parousía. Paul ends his teaching in 1 Corinthians 15 with his teaching on the translation of believers from mortal to immortal, from perishable to imperishable (1 Cor 15:50–57). Not only that, but believers are caught up into the clouds to be with the Lord in the air at His parousía (1 Thess 4:17).
  12. If believers are resurrected and translated (rapture) into heaven at the parousía of the Lord, and Paul elsewhere teaches that the resurrection has not yet occurred, then all three are still future. Further, if the resurrection is still future, then Revelation 20:1–6, i.e., the first resurrection, is also still future. Therefore, this text of 1 Corinthians 15:20–28 cannot be used to provide significant support to either a Postmillennial or an Amillennial view of the kingdom.

[i] For a full discussion see Jason Michael Whitlock, The Coming of the Lord as an Extended Unified Complex of Events: A Proposed Response to the Two ‘Second Comings’ Objection to Pretribulationism (Ph.D. diss., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2015), Chapter 3.