Posted by: Johnold Strey | November 24, 2008

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:20-28

1. He has conquered death
2. He will complete his work

Text: 1 Corinthians 15:20-28


When 2008 wraps up on December 31, and 2009 kicks off on January 1, you’ll know it, and not just because you get a day or two off work.  New Year’s parties abound.  When the clock strikes midnight, you can hear the cheers throughout the neighborhood (you can hear the cheers across the canyon if you’re on this property!).  We welcome the new calendar year with a celebration.

When the Chinese New Year arrives shortly after the calendar New Year, you’ll know it.  With the large Chinese population in San Francisco, it’s no surprise that the news media in our area covers this event thoroughly.  Television stations will broadcast the San Francisco Chinese New Year parade so you can take in the festivities from your living room sofa.  The Chinese New Year is welcomed with a celebration.

When the current church year wraps up and a new church year is about to begin, you know that, too.  You know that because every year, on this Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year, we celebrate “Christ the King Sunday.”  We end the church year emphasizing the same truth that we have emphasized every Sunday, but with a little more festivity.  Christ reigns as the King of kings because he has conquered death and he one day will complete his work and bring us home to his heavenly kingdom.  Those festive thoughts capture our attention as we conclude the church year a celebration of Christ the King.  The Apostle Paul’s words from today’s Second Lesson, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, will guide our celebration and meditation this morning.


The church Paul founded in the ancient city of Corinth was also an ongoing source of problems for him.  There were issues related to sinful pride, immorality, and false teaching that Paul was trying to correct in this letter to the Corinthians.  In this section of his letter, Paul is dealing with problems that arose because some promoted the terrible false teaching that Jesus did not rise from the dead.  Paul spends all of chapter 15 of his letter refuting that false doctrine, and showing that Christ has risen and that Christ now reigns.

Listen as Paul describes the certainty of Jesus’ resurrection.  “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” What does Paul means when he says that Jesus is the “firstfruits” of those who have died?  In the Old Testament, God commanded his people that they give to him the first ten percent of their income.  That meant that the first ten percent of the harvest was set aside and given to the Lord, even before the other ninety percent of the harvest had ripened.  God promised his Old Testament people that if they faithfully gave him the firstfruits, he would bless their harvest each year.  In other words, the firstfruits were the guarantee that the rest would come.  When Paul calls Jesus the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” in death, he is saying that Jesus is the guarantee that everyone who trusts in him will also rise from the dead.  Christ reigns because he has conquered death.  Christians who trust that Jesus conquered death will experience the blessings Jesus accomplished at Christ’s return.

In verse 20, Paul laid out the first major premise that he wants us to consider in this reading.  Now, in the next two verses, Paul explains why this premise is true.  Verse 21 says, “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.” Paul used two different Greek words that both mean “death,” so let me paraphrase this verse to make it clear.  Paul says that just as, through a man, the process of dying came into the world, so also, through another man, Jesus, the resurrection from the lifeless and useless state of death comes to us.

Verse 22 advances the point further.  “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” There are some more nuances in the original language that need explanation.  Paul literally said, “For as in Adam, all are dying.” Paul reminds us that we are all born into a deadly spiritual condition.  Sin is not just what we do, it is who we are, and that sinful status with which we are born means that we are dying every day.  There’s not one of us in this room who isn’t terminal.  But Paul also tells us the solution: “In Christ all will be made alive.” Jesus has conquered death, and that fact guarantees that he will also raise us from death to life when he returns at the end of time.

Let’s review the train of thought for a moment so that we understand where we are in Paul’s argument.  He stated his premise in verse 20.  He supported or explained his premise twice in verses 21 and 22.  Now, in verse 23, he goes back to the original premise and restates it in a different way.  He says, “Each [person will be raised] in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.” Jesus was the firstfruits, the guarantee, that the rest of God’s people will rise again one day.  We haven’t experienced it yet, but when the time comes, when Jesus returns at the end of time, that amazing victory over death will be given all who trusted in Jesus’ victory over death.

“There are two things in life that are certain: death and taxes.”  You have heard that statement before, probably many times.  Death is not a subject we like to talk about.  But it is reality.  Death has an impressive record.  There are only two people in history who have totally escaped death.  One is Enoch, mentioned in Genesis 5.  The other is the prophet Elijah, who was miraculously taken up into heaven in 2 Kings 2.  The simple fact is that death is reality, and it points us to another reality.  It points us to the fact that we are sinners.  Death doesn’t inflict and infect us without cause.  Death is God’s punishment for sin, and that means death is God’s righteous punishment for you and me.  Our record is hardly spotless.  Sin inflicts our souls and infects our actions, words, and even our thoughts.  God sees our sin, and his holiness demands that we ought to endure earthly and eternal death.

No one has died, come back to life, and stayed alive forever — except Jesus.  Jesus has conquered death!  Jesus conquered death when he endured our death and our hell on the cross in our place.  Death thought it had claimed another victim.  But Jesus was no ordinary victim.  He was a willing victim.  He willingly went to the cross to endure our guilt for our sin.  And he was a sinless victim.  He didn’t deserve to die and he didn’t have to die.  But by doing battle with death as our substitute, Jesus conquered death.  He won an impressive victory as the King of heaven and earth who now reigns in our hearts by faith.  When Jesus defeated death, he defeated Satan.  He defeated hell.  He defeated our guilt and shame and sin.  He defeated all our worst spiritual enemies in an impressive victory over a previously undefeated enemy.  That’s why Christ reigns-because he has conquered death!


Paul followed a certain pattern in the first four verses of our reading: He laid out his premise, he supported it, and then he restated it.  Paul is going to use the same pattern in the second half of this reading.  Now he shows us that Christ reigns because he will complete his work.  Conquering death was a major step, but the next important element is stated in verse 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’s second premise is that King Jesus will return at the end of time to complete the work that his heavenly Father commissioned him to do.

You might think, “Wait a minute!  I thought Jesus’ work was done.  He said, ‘It is finished’ on the cross.”  But Jesus is still at work-ruling and guiding all things for us from heaven above.  Paul explains: “He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” As we wait for Jesus to return in glory, we know that he isn’t just putting his feet up on his desk in heaven at taking it easy.  He is reigning from above and ruling in our hearts with his Word and Sacraments.  But one day-a day that none of us knows for certain-Jesus will return, and he will destroy every last opponent who opposes him and his people.  Satan and his evil angels will be cast into hell forever.  Sin will no longer be able to affect his believers.  And the battle Jesus won over death on Easter Sunday will become the completed victory that brings all of God’s children into eternal life in heaven.  Jesus will reign over all things.  Paul even quotes a verse taken from Psalm 8 to show that this was predicted in the Old Testament.  Verse 27 quotes Psalm 8:2.  “He ‘has put everything under his feet.'” That phrase is a biblical way of describing Jesus completely destroying all of his enemies and opponents.

In the last verse of our reading, Paul makes a statement that sounds a bit strange.  “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.” That almost sounds as if Jesus, God the Son, is inferior to God the Father.  We’ll be able to understand Paul’s point more clearly if we remember the pattern he is using to present these points.  Paul is restating what he said in verse 24.  That verse said, “The end will come, when [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.” In a sense, Jesus is “handing in” the completed assignment that his Father gave him to accomplish.  God the Father commissioned God the Son to redeem us from sin and hell.  God the Son has completed his work at the cross and empty tomb.  At the end of time, he will bring his people the blessings he won for them.  Sin and Satan will be out of the picture for good.  Death itself will be gone forever.  He will destroy all of his opponents.  When Paul says, “The Son will be made subject to [the Father],” what he means is that Jesus will subject himself to his Father.  He will turn in his completed work, and that grand finish to Jesus’ work means that “God [will] be all in all.” The final statement in verse 28 simply means that God will be shown to be superior and supreme in all things.  Christ will complete this work; he will show himself to be an impressive King who reigns eternally.

What makes an impressive baseball player?  If he bats .350?  If he hits a homerun every two or three games?  What makes an impressive NFL quarterback?  If he completes 60% of his passes?  If he leads his team to the Super Bowl twice in his career?  Most sports fans would probably call those accomplishments impressive, but realize that a .350 batting average means that the player doesn’t get a hit nearly two-thirds of the time!  A 60% pass completion for a quarterback means that he failed 40% of the time.  Those statistics may sound like major athletic accomplishments, but they also reveal that quite often, the job does not get done!

Jesus didn’t win half of his battles, or two-thirds of them, or even 99 percent of them.  He won them all.  His empty tomb proves that that every last one of his opponents has gone down in defeat and into the flames of hell.  His empty tomb proves that every last one of his children has been rescued from the flames of hell and will be welcomed into the paradise of heaven.  Christ conquered death and will complete his work, and one day the blessings of his completed work will become yours.  Look at the impact that makes in your life!  You don’t have to walk around plagued with a guilty conscience that bogs you down.  King Jesus has removed your guilt!  You don’t have a faith that is abstract or meaningless.  Faith in Jesus puts real meaning in your life with real promises for your eternal future.  Living for God doesn’t have to be a drag.  Jesus has sent his Holy Spirit into your heart to make living for him the most joyful way of life you can imagine.


Today is Christ the King Sunday, but as you noticed on the cover of today’s service, today is also the beginning of our congregation’s “Jubilee” observance.   The “Year of Jubilee” is a concerted effort in our Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod to pay down an internal borrowing debt of over $20 million that has affected WELS budgets and planning for several years.  Because of this internal debt, our synod has had to devote about $3 million each year toward the deficit and debt repayment.  That’s $3 million each year that we are obligated to pay, but that cannot go toward important ministry such as world mission work, new congregations in our country, Parish Services, and the prep schools, college, and seminary that train our future pastors and teachers.

I don’t want our celebration of Christ the King Sunday to be overtaken by the Jubilee emphasis.  But I do want our Christ the King celebration to inspire our Jubilee offering.  You and I have come to know and believe that Christ reigns, that he has conquered death and will complete his work and bring us to eternal glory.  Knowing that Christ has accomplished his work for us, let’s see if we can accomplish an important task for him within our Synod.  Let’s see if we can put our 1,260+ congregation to work and pay down this synodical debt.  It’s a task that will help us to devote more funding and energy to the important work of spreading the gospel message, equipping congregations for ministry, and training the next generation of church leaders.

Christ reigns!  He has conquered death for us and will complete his work for us.  With that assurance, let’s set out to accomplish our work for him!  Amen.



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