1 Corinthians 15:20-28 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he "has put everything under his feet." Now when it says that "everything" has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
Thomas Eric Duncan was the first person in the U.S. to die from Ebola – one of the nastiest and most frightening viruses in recent history. After Duncan was hospitalized at the Texas Presbyterian Hospital, the Dallas County Health and Human Services directory issued a statement in order to calm the public: “It is contained. There is no outbreak. And so therefore everyone should ease their fears and allow public health officials … to respond to this issue.”
At the time, everyone hoped that the virus was contained … until they learned that it wasn’t.
10 days after Duncan was admitted into the hospital, a healthcare worker at Texas Presbyterian Hospital who had provided care for Duncan tested positive for Ebola. 5 days aster that, a second healthcare worker who had also provided care for Duncan tested positive for Ebola. Two weeks later, a medical aid worker for Doctors Without Borders had returned from Guinea with another case of Ebola, now in New York City.
In spite of official statements, government warnings, and CDC assurances, many in America are still on edge, fearful of a national outbreak of this deadly disease.
Perhaps you can sleep more comfortably if I give you my personal assurance. Though I’m not a doctor, I do know how to Google. According to the NPR website, the chance of you contracting Ebola in America is 1 in 13.3 million. Your chance of dying in a plane crash is 1 in 11 million. Your chance of dying from a lightning strike is 1 in 9.6 million. Your chance of being eaten by a shark is 1 in 3.7 million.
Your chance of dying in general – 1 in 1. There is a 100% fatality rate for humans infected with the deadly disease of sin.
We don’t have to worry too much about dying from an exotic illness like Ebola. Most of us will probably die in much more “common” ways like cancer, a stroke, dementia, heart attack, car accident or old age. But every one of us is going to die. The percentages are clear.
Death is creepy. Every film that calls itself a horror movie has death in it. A casket is not a happy symbol in our culture, is it?
Death is terrifying. Death does not discriminate. It affects every nationality, gender and race. It doesn’t hesitate. It will take parents, spouse or children. It is endlessly innovative and perfectly ruthless.
Death is devastating. One of the hardest things about death is it takes away the people we love – one by one. The longer we live, the worse it gets. And when it comes to the death of someone extremely close to us, we may never completely get over it. Such a death is going to leave a scar. That’s just the way it is. That’s what it means for sinful people to live in a sinful world. The moment we are conceived in the womb the clock starts ticking toward the moment of our death. We are born to die. Everyone dies.
Death is a reality. And it points us to another reality – that we are sinners. Death is God’s punishment for sin. “For dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). Death is God’s righteous judgment upon all of our sins – the secret sins, the willful sins, the accidental sins, the sins of omission, the sins of commission, the sins of thoughts and words and deeds. Death does not inflict and infect us without cause. God sees our sin and His holiness demands death.
Death is the great human enemy. Death seems to make it certain that the body will never move again, that the heart will never beat nor the lungs breathe again. The mind will never think again nor feel any emotion again. Death seems final. It is Satan’s last laugh.
But then along comes Jesus. Along comes His resurrection from the dead. He defeated death when He walked out of the tomb on Easter morning. However, death still remains. It still claims the people we love. It will still claim us. All of that ends, though, when Jesus returns. Then death itself will die. Death is the last enemy to be destroyed.
The apostle Paul assures us: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).
Christ is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Firstfruits were the first of the harvest from the fields and groves picked by the Israelites and then offered to God. These sacrifices were given in faith that the Lord of the harvest would bless them with more to come. The best part of picking and offering the firstfruits was knowing that this was just the beginning. The firstfruits were God’s guarantee that the remainder of the harvest would soon come in. The resurrection of Jesus guarantees that there will be more resurrections. The harvest of believers will come in on the Last Day.
Paul also assures that believers “fall asleep” in Jesus. This is not just a nice euphemism Paul employs to make death less scary. It is an illustration of what death is like for the believer. Jimmy once asked his mother some questions about dying. He asked, “Mommy, what is it like to die? Does it hurt?” His mom replied, “Remember when you were little, you liked to crawl into your big brother’s bed? And around midnight big loving hands would carry you into your own bed. You would wake up in your own room. That’s what death is like, Jimmy. It is waking up in your own room.”
But this sleep is only for those who belong to Jesus in faith. Death for the unbeliever is not a blessed sleep. It is the beginning of a nightmare from which there is no ending. If those people do not want Christ’s fruits, then they will be judged based on their own rotten fruits. Their fruits are poisoned with their sin. They are still in Adam’s death.
Paul continues: “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man” (1 Corinthians 15:21). The process of dying entered our world through the first man, Adam. The reversal of that dying entered our world through the second Adam, Jesus Christ. Adam was created from the dust of the ground and because of his sin, he and all of his descendents will be placed in the ground. Jesus Christ was buried in a tomb in the ground, but when He burst forth from the tomb, all those who believe in Him have the promise that their graves will be opened on the Last Day, too.
When Paul writes, ‘For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:21-23), he is literally saying that in Adam all “are dying.” He reminds us of our deadly spiritual condition. Sin is not just what we do, it is who we are. With that sinful nature, we are dying every day. Every one of us is terminal.
Death, along with the fear and sadness it causes is heartbreaking. You can feel the fear of family members when a loved one is dying in the hospital. You can see the sadness when a friend has a serious illness. You can sense the heartache at the cemetery.
But Paul tells us the solution to all this fear, sadness and heartache: “In Christ all will be made alive.” Jesus Christ has conquered death, and that fact guarantees He will raise us from death to life when He returns at the end of time. Jesus’ resurrection reverses all that death has caused. Oh, it won’t happen right away. We will still suffer the effects of death for a time, but Christ’s resurrection has changed everything. He has offered forgiveness that covers over every sin. He has promised a home in heaven where death will never touch His believers again. He allows us to fall asleep in Him so that we wake up in our own room in the God’s heavenly mansion. He has brought life – real life, eternal life that will never end.
When Adam sinned, God the Father gave His Son an assignment to redeem Adam’s children from sin and defeat the death that would claim them. Jesus did that when He completed His work by dying on the cross and rising from the tomb. On the Last Day, the Son will hand His completed assignment over to His Father. “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power” (1 Corinthians 15:24). Like a captain retuning from a victorious battle and handing over the keys of a conquered military compound to the general, so Christ will hand over the kingdom to God the Father upon completely rendering powerless every enemy.
“For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:25-26). Jesus is not in heaven with His feet up on the desk just taking it easy. He is reigning and ruling from heaven above and ruling here below in human hearts with His Word and Sacraments. “He has put everything under His feet” is quoting Psalm 8:2. That is a biblical way of describing Jesus completely destroying all of His enemies and opponents. At the end, all of Christ’s enemies will be humbled before the feet of the King of kings and Lord of lords. The Great Dragon (Revelation 12:3), the Great Prostitute (Revelation 17:1), the Beast of the Sea (Revelation 13:1), the Beast of the Earth (Revelation 13:11), the Antichrist (1 John 2:22), the kings of the earth (Revelation 6:15), and all those who pierced him (Revelation 1:7) will be humbled and humiliated. But the last and greatest enemy to be destroyed is death.
Even though death has no sting and death has been defeated by what Christ accomplished at the Easter tomb, it is not defeated by sight. We must remain waiting and trusting in that first offering to be enough. Jesus is the firstfruits. We and all believers are the rest of the harvest. He became death’s greatest Victim so that He might become the Victor over death.
When Paul says that the last enemy to be destroyed is death, the Greek word he uses for “destroyed” means “to put out of existence” or “to abolish.” When Jesus returns, death itself will cease to exist. Jesus will abolish it. When death is defeated once and for all, stripped of its power, the only thing left for believers is life – eternity in the presence of the crucified and risen and reigning King.
No matter how we die – exotic disease or falling asleep in our old age – we have the confidence that death is dead. We will all die. But through faith in Christ, we will all live. Jesus has defeated the last enemy. All things are under His feet. Amen.