1 Corinthians 15:23-24 But each in 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.
Paul lays out a basic order of events (“each in turn”) in these verses. Christ rose first from the dead. His resurrection was a promise that those who believe in him will also be raised one day. As the “first fruits,” he is the guarantee of the quality of the rest of the crop. What we see in Christ’s resurrection is what we will experience also.
The next stage is when Jesus comes again. The dead in Christ will rise upon his return. Paul writes about this in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”
After this comes the end. That will be the point when people are judged and Jesus is proclaimed as Lord of all. As the exalted King of kings and Lord of lords, he will then hand over this kingdom to God the Father. Jesus’ second coming will show his supremacy over all dominion, authority, and power. Every knee will bow (Philippians 2:10-11) when the name of Jesus is spoken.
This passage raises questions about how to interpret the 1,000 year reign of Christ described in Revelation 20. In that passage, after Christ comes again, he will set up a kingdom that will last 1,000 years. Certain believers will be raised from the dead, “those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands” (20:4). After the 1,000 year reign, the rest of the dead will be raised and judged.
There are many theories about the millennial kingdom. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul writes that when Jesus comes, the dead are raised and believers who are still alive will join them to be with Jesus forever. There is no millennium mentioned or assumed in Paul’s letter. The wicked will suffer judgment (5:3). It is important to consider the rhetorical purpose that Paul is using his eschatology to correct errant ideas of the Thessalonians and urging proper behavior. He does not seem to be giving a detailed schematic of the end.
In the Corinthian passage, with Jesus’ second coming, 1) the dead are raised and 2) Jesus hands over the kingdom to God. The possibility is that the last phrase here “after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power” could include some time span, but the text does not necessarily say this. It is only an implication. Again, Paul is not giving a schematic of the end but correcting wrong ideas about resurrection and and how the Corinthians should live.
Matthew 24:30 states that Jesus’ coming will be obvious to the world and his followers (the elect) will be gathered. “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”
Matthew 24:39-41 implies a possible time span between the taking of some and leaving of others, although it makes no distinction of who is taken or left.: “That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.”
It is not clear how Revelation 20:5 fits with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians: “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection.” This is the key issue of debate among interpreters. There are several possibilities for this:
1) The whole concept of “millennium” is figurative. A support for this is that Scripture sometimes rounds numbers and “thousand” is a symbolic number. If we interpret some of the images in Revelation as symbolic and some as literal, what determines the difference? To interpret the millennium literally seems highly subjective.
2) Revelation may have a cyclic rather than linear story line. Chapter 20 may reflect back and give a more detailed look at chs. 18-19. This is often argued for other parts of Revelation.
3) Paul and John disagreed about the specifics of the end. This possibility would make some people uncomfortable because it raises doubts about the inspiration of the writers. Another way to look at this is that their understandings were limited and the revelation given to them only partial.
4) Paul gives the condensed version and John the expanded. This option may resolve the issue for some people.
After Christ’s kingdom is established, the end comes and the dead will be raised. The raising of the dead and the judgment fit well with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. However, Paul does not mention the resurrection of the wicked but only “those who belong to him” (v. 23). John includes the righteous, those with their names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, in the judgment in Revelation 20:15. This only makes the concept of a millennium even more challenging to interpret. Is Paul giving a bird’s eye, compressed view, and John a more detailed view? That seems to be the most logical solution to this issue.
The rapture (gathering of the saints) will take place before Christ’s kingdom. Paul seems to be consistent with John on this. Thus, a simplified “premillennial” perspective may be the most logical position based on the above passages. However, we must be careful not to claim something that is not plainly and indisputably in the text of Scripture. Anything beyond this is on shaky ground and should not be a basis for doctrine. Doctrines should be indisputable, though various people and groups may have minor differences on these. What is clear from Paul is that there is hope for those who have died believing in Christ. We who believe will one day also rise in the likeness of Jesus Christ.
For older posts, click here.