A Study of 1 Corinthians 15:12-28
Introduction: Several years ago my wife and I bought burial plots near those of my parents at Happy Valley Memorial Park in my hometown of Elizabethton. I drive past that cemetery every time I drive home, and I often glance over it and remind myself that I’m very much mortal. Sometimes I drive past it a little faster so I’ll not think about how soon I may be interred there. But I read something recently that changed my mind about it. There’s a different way to look at it. I have the well-known quadriplegic Bible teacher, Joni Earackson Tada, to thank for this new insight.
Joni said that her mother-in-law purchased a family grave plot at Forest Lawn Cemetery, but the woman wouldn’t sign the papers until Joni and her husband Ken inspected the lot and gave their approval. So one Sunday afternoon Ken and Joni drove out there and found the location of their gravesites in a section called Murmuring Pines. They listened to the realtor – or whatever you call the salesperson – as she talked about what a good view it was, and where the feet would be and where the head would be, and so forth. Joni was a little disinterested in the presentation. A few minutes later while the family conferred over the paperwork, Joni said, “I powered my wheelchair onto the top of my grave site and turned to gaze at the range of mountains. A gust of wind rippled the grass, and the pines above me did, indeed, murmur. A breeze tossed my hair. A profound peace settled over the scene. Suddenly, it stuck me that I was sitting on the exact spot where my actual body will rise, should I die before Christ returns.”
Joni thought about the wonder of that moment, when her spirit would re-inhabit her body and she would be suddenly raised in perfection and glory. It was a moment of profound worship. It was holy ground, knowing she was sitting on the exact spot – not simply of her burial but of her resurrection.
That has changed my view of my own cemetery plot. The thing that makes it special isn’t that it’s where my body will be buried. When I’m there, I’m on holy ground, because that is the very spot of my upcoming resurrection, where God will perform His greatest miracle on me, where I will rise from the dead at the moment of the trumpet call of God. From now on, I’m not going to say, “There is the place of my burial.” I’m going to say, “There is the exact spot on my greatest upcoming miracle, when I’ll be raised from the dead when Jesus returns.”
The physical resurrection of the Bible is taught throughout the Scripture. Daniel taught the resurrection in Daniel 12:1-4, and Jesus 5:24-29. The references to the resurrection are legion in the Bible, but there is only one chapter that we call the “Resurrection Chapter” of the Bible, and that is 1 Corinthians 15. As we’ve seen, the church at Corinth was troubled by many different issues. One of those was a major theological issue – the resurrection. According to 1 Corinthians 15:12, some in the church were denying the reality of the resurrection. We’ve been working our way through this this chapter, which unfolds in a very logical way.
1. The Resurrection is a Historical Reality (Verses 1-11)
The first eleven verses tell us the resurrection is a historical reality. Verse 3 says: For what I received I passed onto you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised up on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared….
And Paul lists several of the post-resurrection appearance of Christ, including one occasion when over 500 people were present. We studied this passage last week.
2. The Resurrection is a Logical Necessity (Verses 12-19)
Now tonight we’re coming to the next paragraph – the resurrection is a logical necessity. In other words, if you remove the resurrection of Jesus Christ, all of Christianity falls apart. Nothing makes sense without the resurrection. Christianity is so incomplete as to be nonsensical if you leave out the resurrection of Christ. In verses 12-19, the apostle Paul gives five implications of removing the resurrection of Jesus from Christian theology.
First, without the resurrection we have no message. Our preaching is pointless, useless, and wasted. Verses 12-14 say: But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless…
Second, our faith is pointless. We don’t have anything worth believing. We don’t have a message worth sharing or a message worth believing. Look at verse 14 again: And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
Third, we are all liars. What we’re telling the world is nonsense. Look at verse 15: More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that He raised Christ from the dead. But He did not raise Him if in fact the dead are not raised.
Fourth, we are all lost. There is no forgiveness of sins, for our justification would not have been ratified by the resurrection. Sometimes in my preaching, I’ve used a little formula. I’ve said that Jesus died so we could live a life that’s forgiven, and He was raised that we might live a life that’s forever. In a sense, that is correct. His death and shed blood on the cross provided for our forgiveness, and the power of His resurrection gives us eternal life. But in another sense there would not even be forgiveness without the resurrection. The resurrection was necessary even for the atonement to take place. Look at verses 16-17: For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not be raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.
Fifth, we are left with nothing but ultimate existential despair. Verses 18-19: Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
This is how crucial the resurrection of Jesus Christ is to our entire system of faith. It is at the core and crux of our theology. If the body of Jesus Christ were still smoldering in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, then we would have no message to preach, no faith to exercise, we would be liars, we would still be lost in our sins, and we would be left with nothing but cosmic existential despair.
3. The Resurrection is a Sequential Event (Verses 20-28)
But all that is hypothetical, said Paul, because Jesus Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. Having made that declaration, Paul goes on to tell us something very interesting about the resurrection. When we refer to the resurrection, we aren’t referring to one singular event but to a series of episode. The resurrection is episodic. It is a sequential event. In other words, there will be several resurrections – at least three and maybe four.
Verse 20 explains: But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
What does the word “firstfruits” mean? This is an Old Testament term, but it’s also a term all of us understand who have done some gardening. It obviously refers to the first crops harvested each year in the early harvest. My father had an apple orchard, and there was one tree that was an early harvest tree. While the rest of the apples would mature in October, the apples on this tree would be ready in August or September. We called it the “Early Harvest” tree. All of us who garden know that some varieties begin bearing a little before the others. In the Old Testament, the people would take the first reapings of their harvest and present it to the Lord as an act of worship, trusting Him to bless the remainder of the season.
The reason the offering of the firstfruits was so important in the Old Testament was this – it was pointing toward the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the harvest at the end of the age, the resurrection of Jesus Christ stands at the forefront.
Verses 21-24 says: For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when He comes, those who belong to Him. Then the end will come, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father after He has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.
Notice the words: But each in turn: first fruits…then…then….
As I’ve studied the Bible, it seems to me there are five different resurrection events.
First, there are the resuscitation events that occurred prior to the resurrection of Christ. These were not true resurrections but were simply resuscitations. In the Old Testament, for example, there were several people who were raised from the dead, most of them connected with the ministry of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. In the New Testament, Jesus raised three people up from the dead. The entire eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel deals with the resurrection of Lazarus. Matthew has an interesting verse that tells us when Jesus died on the cross, a number of people from the Old Testament period rose up out of their graves. Peter and Paul both raised people from the dead. But all these people died again. They were not truly resurrected in a permanent, transformational, glorious sense. They were resuscitated from the dead back to life, but they all died again to await the final resurrection. These were real people who really died and who really came back to life, but they were tokens or symbols or examples of the power of God, pointing to the ultimate resurrection.
Second, there was the actual resurrection of Christ. This was the first true and genuine resurrection in history. In other words, Jesus Christ was raised incorruptible from the grave and can never die again. His risen and glorified body is incapable of dying. Romans 6:9 says, “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, He cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over Him.” The nature of the true and ultimate resurrection is transformational, as we’ll see later here in 1 Corinthians 15.
Third, there will be the resurrection of the godly dead when Christ comes at the rapture of the church, as described in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
Fourth, there will be the resurrection of the Tribulation saints. When Jesus comes at the moment of the rapture of the church, Christians will be taken off the face of the earth and the stage will be set for the antichrist and for the events we’ve been talking about on Sunday mornings. According to the book of Revelation, multitudes of people are going to come to faith in Christ during the Great Tribulation. The will be 144,000 Jewish evangelists going out into all the world. There will be two great witnesses in the city of Jerusalem. There will be all the Bibles and literature left behind. The harvest of souls into the kingdom during the Great Tribulation will be the greatest revival in world history. But the forces of Satan will see to destroy and slaughter these people as fast as they’re saved. When the armies of earth encircle Jerusalem and just as it seems the city of Jerusalem and all the Jewish people are goners, at that moment Christ will return. And when He comes again He will raise to life those who died as believers during the Great Tribulation.
In the book of Revelation, Jesus comes again in chapter 19, and He instantly defeats the antichrist and the armies of evil. Revelation 20:4 says, “I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the Word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him a thousand years.” When it says the first resurrection, it means as opposed to the second resurrection at the end of the millennial reign, which will be the resurrection of all the unsaved.
Fifth will be the resurrection of all the unsaved of the ages at the end of the millennial reign. Look at verse 11: “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from His presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead where judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”
This, then, is the final sequence in the series of five resurrection-like events. The prequel involved the Old and New Testament saints who were raised to life, but not truly resurrected in an ultimate glorious sense. They were simply pointing toward the future. Then we had the first person truly resurrected in history—the Lord Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. Then there will be those resurrected when Jesus comes again, at the beginning and end of the Tribulation period. Then, last of all, will be the resurrection of the unsaved dead for judgment.
Now, going back to 1 Corinthians 15, look at how Paul wraps up this discussion with verses 25-28: For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For He “has put everything under His feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under Him, it is clear that this does not include God Himself, who put everything under Christ. When He has done this, then the Son Himself will be made subject to Him who put everything under Him, so that God may be all in all.
That leads to the eternal state as we have it described in Revelation 21-22.
Conclusion: Perhaps you’re saying, “This is a little complicated. Why isn’t there just one resurrection? Why does it have to happen in so many stages?” Well, it’s not complicated or illogical at all. Think of the way everything started in Genesis 1. God didn’t create everything at the same moment. He spread it out over six days, and the creation occurred as a sequential event. That’s the way it will be in the New Creation at the end of time. So if you’re thinking of buying a cemetery plot, don’t think of it in gloomy terms simply as the place where you’ll be buried. Think of it in glorious terms as holy ground. There on that little patch of ground you will experience your greatest miracle. It’s the very spot where you will be resurrected, glorified, and snatched up to the heavens.
Wherefore, comfort one another with these words.
 Joni Eareckson Tada, in the forward to Hank Hanegraaff’s Resurrection: The Capstone in the Arch of Christianity (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), Xii.