"Christ" can refer to the person of the Messiah but also His people the Church

Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith also is in vain. 15 Moreover, we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then not even Christ has been raised; 17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If we have hoped in Christ only in this life, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20 However, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. 21 For since by a man death came, by a Man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, 24 then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to our God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. (1Cor15:20-24)

Unusually, I did not provide a post for 1Cor14 which concerned speaking in tongues and the role of women in the Church, for unlike virtually every chapter of the New Testament covered so far it has little direct relevance to the subject matter in hand, being the scope of God’s benign providence. But there is more to focus on in 1Cor15 although I shall only do so here briefly for it is likely to become a recurring theme. Paul is dealing with those in the Church who questioned whether there or not there was to be a resurrection of the dead. No doubt they believed that if you were a Christian your soul will go to heaven when you died, so, thought they (as do some today), isn’t that salvation done and dusted? On the contrary, it is just the beginning: disembodied spirits reposing in heaven is an interim, albeit blissful state that Paul here describes as being asleep (v20). An influence in the early stages of my spiritual journey, Prof. Tom Wright* would sometimes quip, there is life after life after death. Paul points such doubters of the resurrection to Jesus, who died for our sin, was buried, raised on the third day, ascended into heaven, being “the One whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things” (Acts3:21). But to Paul the vital aspect was the Lord’s resurrection by which God had vindicated everything Jesus had done, most vitally the accomplishment of human salvation: “for if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (v17).

But Christ is risen, Hallelujah! And “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive”. However, as Paul goes on to say there is to be an order in terms of who are to be made alive and when: “everyone in his own class (Greek: hekastos de en to idio tagmata): Christ the first fruits, afterwards, those who are Christ’s at His coming (v22-23). Later he writes to the Thessalonians along similar lines concerning the Lord’s return: “Christ shall be glorified in His saints and be marvelled at by those that believe on that day, just as our testimony among you was believed (2Thes1:10). The key to understanding the providential implications to this is exactly what Paul meant by “Christ the first fruits”. Is it Jesus or His people? I have become clear it is the latter, particularly in view of what else has been brought to light. In terms of the Corinthian passage, I made the following observation in my later book from which I will quote to close:

“Christ the first fruits” refers to the Church, which a couple of chapters ago Paul had simply referred to as Christ (12:12) for it is, after all, His mystical body on earth. Christians are the first fruits of creation (Jam1:18). Jesus is also described as first fruits (of them that sleep) but He was never “dead in Adam” in the Pauline sense being Himself the Second Adam; and He cannot be a “class of those in Christ” for He is the Christ. Moreover, Paul is referring to those who would be made alive in the future which cannot include Christ Himself but refers to Christ’s elect and those who believe at His coming. This aligns with Old Testament prophecy that all who shall call on the name of the Lord will be delivered from perdition. Logically the same principle applies to those who have died having never had the opportunity to know the Saviour, and that is substantiated on two occasions in the first epistle of Peter (3:18-20 and 4:6). On the other hand, those alive at His coming who are not of God and refuse to obey the gospel of Christ will in Paul’s language be set ablaze (2Thes1:8), removed from God’s presence and everyone else’s. By “not obeying the gospel” is meant refusing to acknowledge the Lordship of Christ even after His identity has been manifested. For one can only obey or refuse to obey what has been clearly presented and understood. So, when Christ re-appears on earth and indeed wherever He has presented Himself in person there can be no excuse for those who reject Him. Likewise, if a universally agreed announcement of the coming Kingdom of Christ were provided to the world from a re-unified Church it would be a clarion call that would seriously need to be heeded (Mt24:14).  And such would be the roll call: Who is on the Lord’s side; who will serve the King? [Extract from “The Little Book of Providence” chapter seven]

If I were dependent on a passage like this to prove that God’s kindly intentions extend far beyond Israel and the Church, it would be flimsy evidence indeed. But no, the Little Book of Providence** utilizes the bible from cover to cover to explicate such munificent providence, adducing in the process that the fruits of Christ’s Passion avail, albeit at a two-fold degree, for all true humanity.

* N.T. Wright – former Anglican Bishop of Durham (England); Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity St Andrews University (Scotland); Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University

** Paperback, e-book or free PDF available HERE