“That God May Be All in All”: 1 Corinthians 15:20–28 – Part 6

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series 1 Corinthians 15:20-28

Paul has emphatically defended the reality of the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor 15:20) and that His people will be made alive in Him (1 Cor 15:21–22). We now explore how Paul then elaborated on how the resurrection would take place in 1 Cor 15:23–24a. The resurrection involves three groups who are resurrected at three different times—the resurrection of Christ, the resurrection of believers when Christ comes again, and the resurrection of unbelievers at the end of the age just before Christ hands the kingdom over to the Father. 

As we saw previously, the unstated verb in 1 Cor 15:23a is “made alive” (cf. 1 Cor 15:22). “But each in his own order” (1 Cor 15:23) could be understood as “But each shall be made alive in his own order.”

An “order” was first understood as “a clearly defined group… of an orderly arrangement of personnel” and was a technical term for groups of men within a military. It came to be used “without any special military application” as well, and Paul uses “order” with this understanding in 1 Cor 15:23 (BDAG). Though both “his own” (idios) and “order” (tagma) are neuter in gender, the gender of these terms does not leave room to define the last of the three orders as an event and not a person (or persons). “Each” is masculine in gender as a pronoun, and along with the prepositional phrase “in his own order,” it introduces how the resurrection of the whole of mankind may be divided into three orders. Though the third order, “the end” (1 Cor 15:24a), is debated as to whether it refers to people or an event, that the first two orders involve people suggests that the otherwise ambiguous designation “the end” involves people as well. They are the ones to be resurrected at “the end,” and if “Christ” and “those who belong to Christ” are already mentioned, those who are resurrected at the end do not belong to Christ and are therefore unbelievers.

The terminology of an “event,” however, is not altogether wrong. In designating each “order,” Paul also specifies the timing for when each of these orders are resurrected. Christ is “the firstfruits,” of the resurrection, believers are resurrected “at his coming,” and unbelievers are resurrected at “the end.”

We have already considered the meaning of “Christ the firstfruits.” He is the first to be resurrected, and believers will be “harvested” in the resurrection in time to come (1 Cor 15:21–22). Paul then uses compact and succinct language to describe the resurrection of the next two orders, and how to understand Paul’s descriptions has been variously debated. It is therefore necessary to examine the descriptions of these two orders in detail in the weeks ahead.

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