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21 January 2019

Last Enemy, Death

Synopsis:  According to Paul, the resurrection, the cessation of death, and the New Creation all occur at the "coming" of Jesus at the end of the age. 

Courtesy Unsplash.com
Courtesy Unsplash.com
The Apostle Paul stressed the necessity for the bodily resurrection in response to church members at Corinth who denied the future bodily resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12-58). In doing so, he appealed to the past resurrection of Jesus as the precedent for the future collective resurrection of believers, a key event that will coincide with his return or parousia.

In presenting his arguments, Paul revealed that believers who are still alive when Jesus arrives will be transformed; they will receive immortal bodies. The bodily resurrection of the righteous will mean nothing less than the end of Death and the dawn of the promised New Creation.

In advancing his arguments, Paul lays out a sequence of events that will precede and culminate in the arrival of Jesus at the end of the age, including the final subjugation of all his enemies and the consummation of God’s kingdom. The main argument begins in Verse 12 with the rhetorical question:

If Christ is proclaimed that he has been raised from among the dead, how say some of you there is no resurrection of the dead?”

The subject is the reality of the bodily resurrection and all his arguments are designed and employed to support this proposition. He begins by building a case on Christ’s past resurrection. If there is no future resurrection then, “not even Christ has been raised!” And if that is the case, the gospel message is null and void. Thus, the future resurrection of believers is based on the past resurrection of Jesus.

His Resurrection
Paul argues next that “all will be made alive, but each in his own rank” or “order.” Jesus was the “first-fruit” of the final bodily resurrection; he rose first, the rest will follow “at his coming” or Parousia. That event will mark “the end, when he delivers up the kingdom to God and brings to nothing all rule, authority, and power.” In this way, he lays out a general order of events that will lead up to the resurrection of believers. The raising of the dead began with Jesus. At his “coming,” the process that began in him will be completed (1 Corinthians 15:23).

Elsewhere, Paul uses the Greek noun parousia for the “coming” or “arrival” of Jesus at the end of the age. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, he also linked the resurrection to the parousia of Jesus:

(1 Thessalonians 4:12-15) – “If we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.” - (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, 2:19, 3:13, 4:12-15 ,5:23, 2 Thessalonians 2:1; 2:8).

Significant is the chronological key Paul provides for when the resurrection of believers will occur - at the “coming” or parousia of Jesus. The arrival of Christ means nothing less than “the end” of the present age and the cessation of death. Death is, in fact, the “last enemy” to be destroyed. At that time, Jesus will deliver up the kingdom to God as he “brings to nothing all rule and all authority and power.” After that, “God will be in all” (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).

The complete subjugation of God’s enemies before the parousia indicates that his reign over the kingdom of God is underway even now. This is confirmed by messianic promises cited in the New Testament and applied to Jesus (e.g., Psalm 2:8-9, 110:1, Acts 2:34, Philippians 2:6-11, Ephesians 1:20-22, Colossians 1:16; 2:15, Hebrews 1:3-4, 12:2, 1 Peter 3:22, Revelation 12:5).
The purpose of the passage is not to present all the details, events, and chronologies that surround the future return of Jesus. Paul introduces specific subjects to support his argument for the bodily resurrection. Christ was raised a “first-fruit” of them who “sleep.” Logically, they who “sleep” now will participate at that time in the same kind of resurrection that Christ did, only, at the proper time (when he “comes”). 

Paul returns to the cessation of death in 1 Corinthians 15:51-58We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed…during the last trumpet; for it shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

His Resurrection Appearance
What is clear is that the end of death coincides with Christ’s coming and the resurrection of the dead, at least, according to Pauls’ understanding. The “end” marks the final overthrow of God’s enemies and the consummation of His kingdom. This includes the “last enemy, death.” This means there will be no more enemies left to fight or subjugate; death will be no more.

In 1 Corinthians 15:35-50, Paul argues that bodily resurrection is not the resuscitation of corpses but their transformation from one kind of body to another. Bodily resurrection results in bodies geared for life in the Spirit, bodies no longer subject to decay and death.

The proof of this bodily transformation is Christ’s own glorified body. All this assumes that life in the coming age will be an embodied existence, not a disembodied one. This means that resurrection is nothing less than an act of new creation.

Paul concludes by demonstrating the necessity for the transformation of the body (Verse 53); both living and dead saints must be transformed when Christ returns (Verses 51-52). The living will be changed, the dead will be resurrected. All of this means that death must also cease (Verses 54-55).

The “mystery” Paul revealed in 1 Corinthians is that Christians who remain alive when Jesus arrives in glory will be physically transformed. An implication from this is that some Christians will still be alive on the earth on that day.

The Christian hope rests on the belief in the future bodily resurrection and life in a transformed Creation, not in escape from the creation into a timeless, invisible and nonphysical reality. Paul is not engaged in metaphysical speculations. Everlasting life means transformation, not removal; new creation, not escape.

The final subjugation of all hostile powers at the parousia of Jesus, along with the cessation of death, means that the New Creation and everlasting life will be the state of affairs after his arrival. If resurrection occurs at his return and death ceases, then his parousia means nothing less than a new created order. This leaves no room for any interim period between his “coming” and the New Creation. The one necessitates the other.

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