But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead,
the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. . . .
But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits,
then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
— 1 Corinthians 15:20, 23 —
First Corinthians 15:20 is a glorious passage, full of insight into Christ’s resurrection and ours. As the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep,” Jesus is the firstborn from the dead. He is the proof that resurrection is possible, permanent, and secure. Unlike Lazarus and the saints raised to life by Elijah and Elisha, Jesus resurrection was of a different order—it literally began a new creation.
Accordingly, Paul speaks of Christ’s resurrection in harvest terms because it both inaugurates God’s long, foretold eschatological resurrection (Ezekiel 37; Daniel 12:1–2), and it promises that the rest of the harvest—an eruption of redeemed saints from the earth—is forthcoming (1 Corinthians 15:35–38). Just as the festival of firstfruits celebrated the beginning of the harvest, portending to a bounty to come, so Christ’s resurrection promises bodily resurrection for all those who fall asleep in Christ.
This reality stands at the center of the Christians future hope, but it also promises resurrection life today. Indeed, multiple places in Scripture besides speak of the resurrection as a present reality (see John 5:26–29; Ephesians 2:5; Colossians 3:1–4). This does not deny the need for or anticipation of a future bodily resurrection; it only reiterates the ruling power of Christ in heaven and the work of his Spirit on the earth.
To this point Martin Luther once commented on the present effects of Christ’s resurrection. His words are worth quoting in full. Let his always-colorful language stir your heart to worship as you remember the glorious working of Christ’s resurrection—both a future hope and present power.
And what is more than that, by calling Christ “the Firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” Paul wishes to signify that the resurrection is to be viewed and understood as having already begun in Christ, indeed, as being more than half finished, and that this remnant of death is to be regarded as no more than a deep sleep, and that the future resurrection of our body will not differ from suddenly awaking from such a sleep. For the main and best part of this has already come to pass, namely, that Christ, our Head, has arisen. But now that the Head is seated on high and lives, there is no longer any reason for concern. We who cling to Him must also follow after Him as His body and His members. For where the head goes and abides, there the body with all the members must necessarily follow and abide. As in the birth of man and of all animals, the head naturally appears first, and after this is born, the whole body follows easily. Now since Christ has passed over and reigns above in heaven over sin, death, devil, and everything, and since He did this for our sake to draw us after Him, we need no longer worry about our resurrection and life, though we depart and rot in the ground. For now this is no more than a sleep. And for Christ it is but a night before He rouses us from the sleep.
Now if I know this and believe it, my heart or conscience and soul have already passed through death and grave and are in heaven with Christ, dwell there and rejoice over it. And in that way we have the two best parts, much more than half, of the resurrection behind us. And because Christ animates and renews the heart by faith, He will also surely drag the decomposed rascal after Him and clothe him again, so that we can behold Him and live with Him. For that is His Word and work on which we are baptized and live and die. Therefore this will surely not fail us, as little as it failed Him. No matter when or how God ordains that we die, whether in bed or in the fire, in the water, by rope or by sword, the devil, death’s master and butcher, will surely see to killing us and carrying out his trade, so that we will not be able to choose or select a mode of death. But no matter how he executes us, it shall not harm us. He may give us a bitter potion, such as is administered to put people to sleep and make them insensitive, but we will wake up again and come forth on that Day, when the trumpet will sound. That the devil shall not prevent, because even now we are more than halfway out of death in Christ, and he will not be able to hold back this poor belly and bag of maggots either. (“Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15,” in Luther’s Works, 28:110–11)
Come what may of our earthly tents, whatever the devil aims to do to destroy us, the resurrection of Christ is already at work in the world and at work in his saints (2 Corinthians 4:1–11). Let us take heart in that, and with the power of Christ’s resurrection, put to death the deeds in the body by means of the Spirit which seals our own future resurrection (cf. Romans 8:11–13).
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
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