But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 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 (1 corinthians 15:20–23).
Papa was a fisherman. His dad was a fisherman. Looking back over the generations, most of the men in his family were fishermen. There was never really a question about what he was going to do for a living. Fishing was the “family business.” It made sense. He was born next to the ocean, spent a lot of time on it as a boy, and relied on the ocean for food and transportation. Fishing was in his bones and in his blood.
There is a vital connection between Christ’s resurrection and our hope for resurrection. Jesus’s resurrection is God’s pledge that we will experience a similar miracle. Paul referred to Jesus’s rising from the dead as “the firstfruits.” Jewish believers knew exactly what Paul had in mind when he used that concept. Just before gathering the main harvest, Jewish farmers would go out into their fields and harvest a small portion. They would then take that portion and present it in the temple as an expression of gratitude to God and an indication of their confidence that a full harvest of the same grain would soon be gathered in. The firstfruits were gathered in anticipation of the rest of the harvest.
The harvest Paul had in mind when he referred to Jesus as the firstfruits is the gathering of all of God’s people. It includes all Christians—those who “have fallen asleep” (v.20) and those who will be alive “when he comes” (v.23). In our present bodies we are like Adam who sinned, and therefore we will die. But through faith in Jesus, we are related to Him and we will be resurrected and be like Him in resurrection. We are the harvest of which He is the firstfruits. Notice Paul’s statement, “But each in turn.” The resurrection of our bodies does not occur immediately when we die. It will take place “when he comes”—at His return . Because He was resurrected, so will we be.
When Christ returns, He will not be alone. With Him will be the spirits of all “who sleep in death” (1 thessalonians 4:13). As “the voice of the archangel” and “the trumpet call of God” sound out, these spirits will receive their new bodies (v. 16), and in the next moment believers still living on earth will receive their resurrection bodies. In our resurrected bodies we will meet the Lord in the air and be with Him forever (v. 17). We live in Christ today. We will be with Christ when we die. And we will still be with Him after we are resurrected. Once we belong to Him we are never separated from Him.
A Life-Changing Hope
Paul’s discussion of the resurrection reaches a magnificent climax. We can practically feel the pulse of excitement in his words. In 1 Corinthians 15:50–53, he summarized:
I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.
In our present bodies, we cannot enter the eternal kingdom of God. We must be changed, transformed. We must be given a new body. God revealed to Paul the wonderful truth that a day is coming when the trumpet of heaven will sound signaling the return of Jesus Christ. “In the twinkling of an eye” believers who have died will receive their resurrection bodies and the living will be transformed from the earthly to the heavenly. All those who believe in Christ will receive new bodies! This thought caused Paul to burst out in unbounded joy and exultation: “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 54–57). The twin enemies of humanity—sin and death—will be defeated. Jesus Christ, through His death and resurrection, has so completely defeated death that death will be “swallowed up.”
After this expression of resurrection triumph, Paul even went so far as to taunt death. “‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’” The sting of death is sin because it is through sin that death came into the human race. And the awareness of sin (whether conscious or subconscious) makes death a terrifying experience. But in our place, Jesus Christ fulfilled the law by obeying it perfectly, and through His death He paid the price for our sins and broke death’s power. He won the victory over sin and death. We don’t need to be afraid!
Paul closed his climactic section with a practical appeal. From theology and praise he turned to a challenge: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (v. 58). We anticipate a reward for our faithfulness to God. In light of this great expectation, we can persist in serving our loving Lord no matter what comes our way. And we can do this with the assurance that the reward will far outweigh the cost. No matter how deep the trials or how difficult the way, we will be overcompensated.
The body in which we now live is ours during this lifetime. The choice we make now regarding Jesus determines where death’s door leads. Our decision about Jesus produces results both in the present and the future. Paul declared, “As is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven” (v. 48). Even though we are now subject to the temptations, pains, diseases, and deteriorating processes associated with our physical substance, we are already citizens of heaven and we wait with anticipation for the day when we too find what is waiting for us on the other side of death’s door.
Papa is still with us, and right now he is still afraid of death. But it’s never too late for anyone to come to Jesus. Knowing the risen Lord gives us the confident hope of our own resurrection. We can know that new life waits beyond death’s door.
For most of his life, Papa made little time to consider what may be “out there.” Simply surviving consumed his thoughts and energy. But now, at 96 years of age, he has more time to think, and he wonders, “Is there something more?”
Talk of God makes him smile faintly. “Maybe” is his only response. Faith is a hard concept for him. Life has been filled with the tangible and the immediate, things he can touch with his hands or see with his own eyes. But that self-reliance, as good and as beneficial as it was for the time, has led him to a place of fear. It is now the unknown of what is out there that scares him.
In contrast to my wife’s grandfather, my own grandfather died 10 years ago. The last time I saw him, he spoke words that are forever etched in my memory. “I’m ready to go home,” he said, speaking candidly of his imminent death. As my wife and I were leaving, he gathered us together and prayed for us. Eighty-six years old, heart failing, knowing death would arrive at any moment, he wanted to pray for us.
The difference between the two grandpas is striking! One looks at death with fear and trepidation; the other viewed it with anticipation and a growing excitement. One is unsure of what is coming; the other knows the risen Lord and looks forward to rising again too.
Just after Jesus began His earthly ministry, He chose several fishermen to be His followers. We pray that one more fisherman soon responds to Christ’s invitation to follow Him.