But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. (15:20–22)
First Paul reaffirms Christ’s resurrection: But now Christ has been raised from the dead, a truth his readers already acknowledged and believed (vv. 1–2). The words “and become,” found in some translations (e.g., the KJV), do not come first in the original text and are misleading. Christ did not become the first fruits at some time after His resurrection, but at the moment of His resurrection, by the very fact of His resurrection. His being raised made Him the first fruits of all who would be raised.
Before Israelites harvested their crops they were to bring a representative sample, called the first fruits, to the priests as an offering to the Lord (Lev. 23:10). The full harvest could not be made until the first fruits were offered. That is the point of Paul’s figure here. Christ’s own resurrection was the first fruits of the resurrection “harvest” of the believing dead. In His death and resurrection Christ made an offering of Himself to the Father on our behalf.
The significance of the first fruits, however, not only was that they preceded the harvest but that they were a first installment of the harvest. The fact that Christ was the first fruits therefore indicates that something else, namely the harvest of the rest of the crop, is to follow. In other words, Christ’s resurrection could not have been in isolation from ours. His resurrection requires our resurrection, because His resurrection was part of the larger resurrection of God’s redeemed.
The resurrection of which Paul speaks here is permanent resurrection. Both the Old and New Testaments tell of persons who died and were miraculously brought back to life (1 Kings 17:22; 2 Kings 4:34–36; 13:21; Luke 7:15; John 11:44). But all of those persons died again. Even those whom Jesus raised—the son of the widow of Nain, Jairus’s daughter, and Lazarus—eventually died again. Christ Himself, however, was the first to be raised never to die again.
As in 15:6, 18 (cf. Matt. 27:52; Acts 7:60; 2 Pet. 3:4), those who are asleep refers to the dead, in this instance to the righteous dead, whose spirits have gone to be with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8; cf. Phil. 1:23) but whose remains are in the grave, awaiting recomposition and resurrection.
Through Christ, as a man, came the resurrection of the dead, just as through Adam, the first man, came death. Paul’s point here is that Jesus’ humanness was inextricably involved both in His resurrection and in ours. It was because Jesus died, was buried, and was raised as a man that He could become the first fruits of all other men who would be raised to glory. As already noted, the first fruits and the harvest were from the same crop.
In verse 22 Paul continues to explain how the great truth of the one resurrection of Christ affects believers. The convincing analogy comes from the first man: For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. Just as Adam was the progenitor of everyone who dies, so Christ is the progenitor of everyone who will be raised to life. In each case, one man doing one act caused the consequences of that act to be applied to every other person identified with him. Those who are identified with Adam—every person who has been born—is subject to death because of Adam’s sinful act. Likewise, those who are identified with Christ—every person who has been born again in Him—is subject to resurrection to eternal life because of Christ’s righteous act. In Adam all have inherited a sin nature and therefore will die. In Christ all who believe in Him have inherited eternal life, and shall be made alive, in body as well as in spirit. “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19).
From countless other passages of Scripture we know that the two alls in verse 22, though alike in some respects, cannot be equal. Those who attempt to read universalism into this passage must contradict those other passages that teach reprobation (Matt. 5:29; 10:28; 25:41, 46; Luke 16:23; 2 Thess. 1:9; Rev. 20:15; etc.). The alls are alike in that they both apply to descendants. Every human being is a descendant of Adam, and therefore the first all is universal. With only the exceptions of Enoch and Elijah, whom the Lord took directly to be with Himself, and of those saints who will be raptured, every person born will die.
Only those who trust in Jesus Christ, however, are His descendants (as illustrated in John 8:44), and the second all therefore applies only to the saved. It is only all the fellow sons of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:26, 29; 4:7; Eph. 3:6; cf. Acts 20:32; Titus 3:7) who shall be made alive. In Adam is simply to be human, to have been born once. In Christ is to have eternal life, to be born again. By natural descent from Adam, having inherited his sin, all die. By supernatural descent from Christ, having inherited His righteousness, all shall be made alive.
Though the inheritance in both cases is bodily as well as spiritual, Paul’s major emphasis here is on the bodily. Through Adam’s sin, man died spiritually and became subject to death bodily. Likewise, through Christ believers are given life spiritually and will be raised bodily. But our spirits, because they go to be with the Lord at death, will not wait to be resurrected. Only our bodies will be resurrected, and that is the truth stressed here.
20 “But now” (nyni de; NASB) are two of the sweetest words in the Bible, for they are often followed by words of comfort and hope (see, e.g., Ro 3:21; 6:22; 7:6; Gal 4:9; Eph 2:13; 5:8; Col 1:22; Heb 9:26; 1 Pe 2:10). Here Paul has just been speculating on the possibility that Christ had not been raised from the dead (vv. 13–19). But now he triumphantly states, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead.” Easter did happen, not (as some today claim) in the minds of the disciples in order to keep the ideals of Jesus alive, but in actual historical fact. The tomb was empty on the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion not because someone stole the body, but because the body that lay in the grave emerged alive. Thus all the hypothetical consequences of vv. 13–19 are false; i.e., preaching is valid, the apostles are not false witnesses, faith does save, we are not in our sins, and there is the hope of resurrection for all who have fallen asleep in Christ.
This last statement is the implication of the second part of v. 20: Christ is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” The imagery of “firstfruits” (aparchē, GK 569) links with the Feast of Firstfruits in the OT (cf. Ex 23:16; Lev 23:9–14). On this day, at the beginning of the grain harvest, the Israelites brought the first sheaf harvested and dedicated it to the Lord. This offering assured the Israelites that the rest of the harvest would follow. Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection—the first person to be raised from the dead permanently. His resurrection assures us that someday there will be a complete harvest. A day is coming when all God’s people who have died will be raised to life and will enter the new kingdom of God—at the time when Jesus returns on the clouds of heaven (cf. 1 Th 4:13–17). Those in Corinth who were denying the possibility of human resurrection are simply wrong.
15:20 / Paul sets this line in firm juxtaposition to his previous comments with the initial words “But now” (Gk. nyni de). In declaring a fresh starting point, Paul abandons imaginary rhetorical conditions and proclaims his essential conviction, which is to be taken as the foundation of the faith and understanding of the Corinthians: Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. Paul explains this basic conviction and its implicit meaning for Christian life in a biblical metaphor: the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
The declaration of Christ’s resurrection required explanation in part because its occurrence defied expectations. In Judaism the resurrection was thought to be future and corporate. All those who would be raised were expected to be raised together at some future time that God would determine. This pattern of expectation was developed in Judaism in a dialogue with the Scriptures. Thus, to claim that Christ was raised from the dead—before all others and before the end—seemed to go against the biblical perspective. Paul’s metaphor of “firstfruits,” however, demonstrates that the reality of Christ’s resurrection is not contrary to the teachings of Scripture, but in keeping with the biblical patterns of thought. In Judaism, the firstfruits were the first portion of the new crop that were taken as a sign and a promise of the remainder of the crop that was to come. By faith the Jewish farmer took the firstfruits and offered them to God in honor of God’s promise, and so the entire crop was consecrated to God.
In referring to Christ as the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, Paul indicates that he understood the resurrection of Christ as an anticipatory promise of the general resurrection of the dead and as a consecrating reality that signaled the devotion of the remainder of those who were to be raised to God. This rich biblical metaphor ultimately sets and states Paul’s understanding of the meaning of Christ’s resurrection from the dead in more specific terms than did the complex arguments of verses 12–19.
15:20. Paul insisted that it was a fact that Christ … indeed had been raised from the dead, but Christ’s resurrection was more than one person’s triumph over death. At the very heart of Christ’s resurrection was the idea that he was the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. Paul drew an analogy between Christ’s resurrection and the Old Testament ritual of firstfruits. The firstfruits were the first portions of the harvest, and they were given as offerings to God (Lev. 23:15–17). The firstfruits indicated that the entire harvest was soon to follow.
In Paul’s outlook, Christ’s resurrection was not an isolated event. It represented the beginning of something much larger. His resurrection promised the rest of the harvest. The full harvest, of which Christ is the first sign, is the harvest of those who have fallen asleep.
The New Testament frequently uses the euphemism “sleep” for the death of believers to emphasize that their deaths are only temporary conditions. Christ himself had fallen asleep in death, but in his resurrection he left that state and entered eternal life. His entry into the “newness of life” (Rom. 6:4, NASB) was the firstfruits representing much more to come—the resurrection of all believers who have died.
20. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
- “But now.” The first two words in this text are important. The first one is the adversative but that changes the discourse from a series of negative statements on the resurrection (vv. 12–19) to a positive testimony on Christ raised from the dead. After writing seven conditional statements to demonstrate the effect of denying the resurrection, Paul turns from the contrary teaching of some Corinthians to the consistent doctrine of the Christian church: the tenet of Christ’s resurrection.
The second word now can indicate a temporal reference, a logical conclusion or, in this verse, both. For Paul, the raising of Christ from the dead was a historical fact with far-reaching and lasting implications; Christ Jesus has been raised by God the Father to effect the restoration of all his people. Conversely, the adverb now signals the logical conclusion of Paul’s lengthy discussion on the denial of the resurrection that some Corinthians championed.
- “Christ has been raised from the dead.” This brief testimony sketches an incontrovertible fact that is rooted in history and is basic to the Christian faith: Christ arose. The evidence Paul has marshaled in the earlier part of this chapter is sufficient for believers, namely, the empty tomb and the appearances (see vv. 3–8). Granted that unbelievers continue to scoff, Christians do not need further proof for this historic truth that in their minds is irrefutable (see Acts 3:15; 26:23).
Paul repeats the words he wrote in verse 12. There he put the statement “If Christ has been raised from the dead” in conditional form, but here he phrases it as a declaration that relates a historical fact. There he raised the theological question that some Corinthians denied this fact, while he himself attested its truth. Here he reiterates positively the truth of the resurrection; he knows that only some of the Corinthians deny Christ’s resurrection. Perhaps the readers have not understood the implications of this redemptive doctrine, but after Paul’s expansive discourse on the subject they should now be able to realize the profound importance of this teaching.
The question remains whether Paul now excludes those who deny Christ’s resurrection or addresses all the Corinthians. Is he continuing his discourse directed against those who reject this teaching or is Paul now speaking only to those who accept it? There is no indication in the current section (vv. 20–28) that Paul excludes anyone. In effect, after thoroughly discussing the negative consequences of denying the resurrection, Paul invites all his readers to examine the positive aspects of confessing this doctrine.
- “The firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” This clause is a pithy statement of only three words in the Greek text, yet it is filled with meaning. Paul assumes that his readers are acquainted with the Old Testament teachings on the firstfruits. These were the earliest gathered fruits that the people offered to God in recognition of his faithfulness for providing crops in due season. Moses instructed the Israelites to offer, before the Lord on the day after the Sabbath following the Passover feast, a sheaf of the first grain that was harvested (Lev. 23:9–11). Exactly seven weeks later, they were to present an offering of new grain to the Lord (Lev. 23:15–17; see also Deut. 26:1–11). In a later century, Israel was called the firstfruits (Jer. 2:3). Paul applied this word to the first converts in western Asia Minor and in southern Greece respectively (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:15, NASB). And the 144,000 redeemed from the earth are offered as firstfruits to God (Rev. 14:3; compare James 1:18).
The term firstfruits signals that the first sheaf of the forthcoming grain harvest will be followed by the rest of the sheaves. Christ, the firstfruits raised from the dead, is the guarantee for all those who belong to him that they also will share in his resurrection. Paul describes the people who belong to Christ as those who have fallen asleep. He is not mentioning Jesus’ resurrection with reference to either the temporal or the religious aspect of the Jewish Passover. He means that Christ’s resurrection is a down payment for his people (v. 23) or their guarantee (2 Cor. 1:22). Christ is not the firstfruits of those who have been raised but of those who have died. In fact, no human being has been raised physically from the dead. The sons of both the widow of Zarephath and the Shunammite died in later years; so did the daughter of Jairus, the young man of Nain, and Lazarus. Only Christ has conquered death and is risen from the dead. All others must wait for their bodily resurrection until the appointed time.60
 Verbrugge, V. D. (2008). 1 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 395–396). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Vol. 18, pp. 547–548). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.