The Sunday of the Fulfillment is the last Sunday of the Church Year. On this Sunday, the Church looks forward to the time when everyone and everything in Heaven and on Earth will be together under one head, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 1:9-10.
This festival is a day of fulfillment in two senses. It fulfills the liturgical year by bringing it to an end and returns us once again to the season of Advent. More importantly, it calls on the Church to look with vigilance and faithfulness for the second coming of the Lord Jesus when He will take His redeemed people to Paradise and, ultimately, into Heaven on Earth. This is the fulfillment for which all Christians yearn when they pray, “Thy Kingdom come.” Lastly, the festival is the realization of the basic Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord.” Together, as the people of God’s Kingdom we, as Jews and Gentiles, men and women, old and young, confess that the prophet from Nazareth is, in fact, the King of the world, the One to whom all authority over Heaven and Earth has been given (Matthew 28:18).
The pericope from 1 Corinthians plays out the dual themes of fulfillment and kingship that preach very boldly. Paul contemplates counterfactual conditions in verses 12-19 with all his, “What if the resurrection did not happen?” considerations. But in verse 20, he is done responding to counterfactuals and hypotheticals. From here out it is all assertions, beginning with the resounding, “Deal with this actuality.” He says, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.” This triumphant declaration sweeps away all the gloomy and unrealistic hypotheticals. The Holy Spirit is no skeptic. He asserts Christ has been raised from the dead.
The resurrection of Jesus was the moment when the one true God appointed the Man through whom the whole cosmos would be brought back into its proper order. A man got us into this mess, the Man would get it out again. The story of Genesis chapters 1-3 (the cryptic and haunting account of a very good world despoiled by the treasonous rebellion of the King’s image-bearing son) is the narrative in Paul’s mind throughout this chapter. In Eden, an enemy usurped God’s earthly Kingdom and took His Kingdom’s citizens as hapless captives. Now, the King has come to reclaim His earthly Kingdom and its citizens by dealing a crushing blow to His most potent enemies. First, sin is neutralized on the cross. Then the Devil’s teeth are broken by losing the condemning power of sin and divine judgment by Christ’s substitutionary atoning death at Golgotha. Lastly, death itself is swallowed up in victory when the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, breaks through the other side of the grave and is revealed as the Lord of life. God’s Kingdom has come on Earth, and this is the first instance of the Lord God reclaiming what is rightfully His. Jesus Christ gets out of the grave as a transformed, brand spanking renewed human being.
God’s Kingdom was what many Jews of Paul’s day longed for. They imagined God would become king over the entire world, restoring Israel to glory, defeating the nations who had oppressed God’s people for so long, and raising all the righteous dead to share in a new world where God would rule on Earth, just like in Heaven. Quite how this would happen was never clear. That it would have to happen, if God really is God, that is, if this covenant-cutting, promise-making God were to manifest Himself as the faithful and true covenant-fulfilling, promise-keeping God, there could be absolutely no doubt. It was going to happen. The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth had revealed to Paul and hundreds of other Jewish witnesses to the resurrected Jesus it had happened at last, though not at all in the way they had imagined.
Instead of all God’s people being raised at the end of history, one person had been raised right in the middle of history. This was the shocking, totally unexpected thing. It was expected that a great general resurrection would accompany God’s judgment of the world. Mary and Martha were getting at this very idea when they told Jesus they believed their brother Lazarus would rise again on the last day, meaning the day of the general resurrection of the dead. Jesus, however, turns their thinking upside down and makes Lazarus a prophetic example of what would happen to Himself by raising Lazarus and not the full collection of family corpses stashed in his crypt, but Lazarus alone to illustrate the resurrection begins with one person only. Here we should note how Lazarus, however, was not fully resurrected in the same sense as Christ but more like resuscitated. He recovered from the dead, not with a transformed and glorified body like Jesus would, but with the same old one, jump-started by the word of Christ. They thought the resurrection of the dead cannot be something which happens to only one person. The sign of Lazarus no doubt had everyone running back to the Scriptures to figure out what on earth was going on. Oddly, all their relatives getting out the grave would have made more sense to them!
Instead of all God’s people being raised at the end of history, one person had been raised right in the middle of history. This was the shocking, totally unexpected thing.
This was the new element that overwhelmed the world’s course of direction. The resurrected Christ became, “The first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” His resurrection was the beginning of a much greater harvest to come. If Christ has been raised, then the resurrection of others must follow because it is what God promised.
This could only mean one thing. The coming of God’s Kingdom was happening in two distinct phases. First is Christ, then those united to Christ through Baptism. Paul explains this in verse 23 when he starts talking about things happening in “their proper order.”
The order of events is explained first. Paul asserts that Jesus, following His resurrection, is now the Lord of the world, already ruling as King. In fact, this is what Jesus Himself said in Matthew 28:18. It is shorthand for saying, “I am the King. As the Christ, I rule as Lord.” Paul understands how when God the Father raised God the Son from the grave, He was publicly vindicating the claim of Jesus that He was the King of the Jews. The resurrection is God overturning our verdict of: “He is guilty of treason for claiming to be the King. Crucify Him!” The resurrection is God’s boldest assertion as He declares Jesus is, in fact, the King and here is the in-your-face demonstration. Your verdict and execution are reversed. Get out of the grave my Son. You are the Messiah, and all regal authority is given to You. You rule as God in Heaven and Earth. What is more, says the Father, try on this assertion for size: The risen Christ is not only King of the Jews, but also the Gentiles. So, this means Caesar is not, and neither is Satan. Jesus is Lord! But with Christ reigning, the purpose of His reign, namely, to defeat all the enemies who have defaced, oppressed, and spoiled God’s earthly Kingdom, has not yet been fully accomplished. One day this task will be complete. The final enemy, death itself, will be defeated (verse 26) and God will be “all in all” (verse 28). To be sure, the power and reign of death are broken, but death itself has not been annihilated... but it is coming.
This is the crucial point some of the Corinthians had failed to understand. They did not see there was a direct connection between Christ’s resurrection and their own future fate. In verses 21-22, the Apostle states Christ’s rising is not an isolated event. Its consequences correspond (antithetically) to the consequences of Adam’s sin, which brought death upon all humanity. Likewise, the impact of Jesus’ death and resurrection is, therefore, equally sweeping. “For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” Paul’s point is the resurrection of Christ has broken the power of death, which had prevailed over all human beings since the days of Adam (Romans 5:12). What is more, they were also conveying to Paul a fundamentally mistaken view of baptism. The resurrection is inbuilt into baptism. Baptized persons are united to the Resurrected One, and so, they shall be resurrected. What is true of Messiah is true of those united to Him. The first thing resurrected for us is our spirit and the next is our bodies.
Having asserted so strongly how “the resurrection of the dead has come” through Christ (verse 21) and that we also have a share in the benefits of His resurrection, Paul now qualifies what he said so there can be no misunderstanding. The resurrection of our bodies remains an eschatological, future, “end times” hope. “But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at His coming at the Last Day those who belong to Christ,” shall be resurrected (verse 23).
Paul carefully situates the Church’s present life in the interval between Christ’s resurrection and the Parousia. He insists our resurrection must await His coming on the Last Day. God has planned the assault on death in this way. Christ comes first. He is the basis and guarantee of victory. He is the living proof that the power of death is already a defeated enemy. Then comes the second line of attack. Those who belong to Christ are raised. It is warfare. Notice the inconspicuous use of military language and metaphor which dominate verses 23-28. Death is an “enemy” to be conquered by Christ as He destroys all the enemies of God and takes control of everything in Creation. The final defeat of death at the general resurrection will constitute the collapse of all resistance to Christ’s power and bring us to, “...the end when He hands over the Kingdom to God the Father, after He has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power” (verse 23).
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you preaching 1 Corinthians 15:20-28.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 1 Corinthians 15:20-28.
Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!