Resurrection and Union with Christ
In the fifteenth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul identifies Christ’s resurrection as the first fruits of those who are asleep. Now, we might wonder at his choice of words. What does he mean by “first fruits?” Well, some might say, “Paul is wanting us to think about Christ’s resurrection as temporally prior to the resurrection of the believer. That is to say, ‘Christ is raised first.’” Now, that idea is there. But it doesn’t quite capture all that Paul has in mind.
So, what does Paul mean by calling Christ’s resurrection the first fruits? Well, whether you’re looking at Vos, Ridderbos, or Gaffin you find essentially the same thing. They all point us back to the Old Testament. And when we go back to the Old Testament we understand that Paul’s use of the term “first fruits” is likely a reference to ancient Israelite worship given under the Mosaic administration of the Covenant. It is a term connected with offerings of grain, wine, cattle, and crops. Now, the critical point to notice is that these first fruit offerings are not offered up for their own sake. They are representative of the whole harvest or the entire flock. Thus, as a representative portion the first fruits have an organic connection with the whole. They are, temporally speaking, the first and best of a larger portion.
Now, this is particularly helpful to us as we begin to think about the believer’s union with Christ in this section of Scripture. For Paul, Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection harvest. He is the initial portion of the whole. He is the first fruits of those who are asleep (v. 20). Thus, there is an organic connection between Christ and His people though they are separated in time. Notice v. 23, “But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming.” We might say it like this; His resurrection was merely the beginning of the resurrection harvest. And yet, the point is that Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of the saints are inextricably and organically united together. They are of one harvest of which Christ is the first fruits.
Now, I want you to see how this organic unity between Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of the believer bears itself out in the text. There is reciprocity between Christ’s resurrection and that of the believer. For example, some verses reason from Christ to believers. Verse 14 says, “…if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain…” And Paul says the same in verse 17. But then Paul reasons in the reverse. He reasons from the believer’s resurrection to Christ’s resurrection. Look at verse 13, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised…” And the same is found in verse 16, “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless, you are still in your sins.”
What is Paul doing? Paul is showing us the real unity between Christ’s resurrection and our own. Now, I don’t know about you but that is cause for rejoicing. It’s a help in building assurance of faith. But here’s a question, if it is true that Christ’s resurrection is not simply temporally prior to ours but that His resurrection is the first fruits of our own resurrection or to put it another way, there is a unity between the two, then we ought to see some evidence of that unity in Scripture. Do we? We do.
The New Testament writers don’t simply speak about our resurrection as if it were a future reality. They speak of it as a present reality that is not yet consummated. Notice Colossians 3:1, “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” According to Paul, those who are in Christ have been raised up NOW! They are a part of the resurrection harvest. According to verse three by entering into union with Christ they died and now their life is hidden with Christ in God. But the question is until when? Until the consummation at which time Paul says, “When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” Now, this is the very thing that verse 23 of I Corinthians said. Each will be raise in his own order Christ first and then after that those who are Christ’s at His coming. But until that time our life is hidden in God. Why? Because we a part of the harvest of which Christ is the first fruits. Friend, if you are united to Christ by faith alone then your resurrection is a present and future reality.
Jeffrey A. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the gospel since 1995. He was church planter and now pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.