PMW 2023-006 by Gregg Strawbridge
Gentry note: This paper was originally delivered to 1999 Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Boston. Its original, full title was “An Exegetical Defense of Postmillennialism from 1 Corinthians 15: The Eschatology of the Dixit Dominus.”
This paper is exegetes Paul’s allusion to the first verse of the Dixit Dominus (Psa 110:1: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand, Until I make Thine enemies a footstool for Thy feet.’” / 1Co 15:25: “For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet.”). It shows that Christ is reigning in the exact sense of this verse during the interadvental period. This study gives special attention to the chronology of the events of 1 Corinthians 15:22–26, supported by the emphatic frequency of the NT teaching that Christ ascended to the “right hand” fullfilling the Dixit Dominus. Significant reflection is given to the chronological argument that death, the last enemy, is overcome at the parousia when those alive will be “changed” (1Co 15:23, cf 15:52-54). The study concludes by noting the difficulties such an exegesis raises for preterist (full preterist), dispensational, premillennial, and pessimistic amillennial eschatologies.
The Dixit Dominus in the NT
The importance of the Dixit Dominus (Psa 110) and particularly the first two verses are paramount. The first verse of Psalm 110 is directly quoted or referred to at least 21 times in the New Testament—more than any other Hebrew Scripture verse. Including references to the later verses of the Psalm in Hebrews (Heb 5:6, 7:17, 7:21, 5:10, 6:20, 7:11, 7:15), the Psalm is referred to some 28 times in the New Testament. It is quite an understatement, then, to say that this passage is highly significant for a theology of Messiah and His kingdom.
The Dixit Dominus in Paul’s Resurrection Defense
One of the most significant theological expositions of Psalm 110:1 is found in 1 Corinthians 15:25 and the context.
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He delivers up the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. (1Co 15:22–26).
Context and Purpose of 1 Corinthians 15:25–26
The entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 15 is directed to the question of the validity of bodily resurrection, as indicated in 15:12, “some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead.” In fact, the words for “resurrection” are used 22 times in the passage (15:4–52). In developing his answer Paul provides sequential language, moving from Christ’s resurrection to the “end” (telos). Why does Paul’s defense of resurrection include an explanation involving the kingdom and reign of Christ? Because resurrection regards death, and death is a kingdom enemy. So, Paul must discuss the reign of Christ and invoke kingdom concepts.
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The specific context of 15:25–26 is the origin of death (“for as in Adam all die”), the Messianic deliverance from death (“so also in Christ all shall be made alive”), and the sequence of this deliverance: “But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming.” The term “order” is from the root tagma. The tagma (“proper order”) proceeds in the following manner: Christ was resurrected, “after that” (epeita) the resurrection of “those who are Christ’s at His coming” (parousia) (v. 23), “then comes the end.” Paul is giving a chronological sequence of events in using adverbs epeita and eita which are for “marking the sequence of one thing after another.”
The phrase epeita to telos (“then comes the end”) is elucidated by Paul. Contextually, the “end” (telos) is “when He delivers up the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (15:24). Thus, the telos is “when” the kingdom is consummated. The “end” is not when the kingdom is initiated, but rather when it is finalized. The idea that the telos is an end period is not warranted by Paul’s grammar, contextual discussion, nor his use of the term. Neither does the syntax support the “end period” concept.
English translations (KJV, NKJV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, and NIV) of eita to telos (“then comes the end”) supply the verb, “comes.” In Greek — no verb. Literally, it is “then the end.” Of the endless variety of verbs, phrases, or terms Paul could have employed to clarify that the telos is a 1000 year period of time, no indication is presented. The “end” is at the time “when” (1) “He delivers up the kingdom to the God and Father,” and at the time when (2) “He has [already or after He has] abolished (katargeo—subjunctive aorist) all rule and all authority and power” (15:24). Note that hotan (“when”) with the subjunctive aorist is correctly rendered “after,” as in the ESV, NRSV, NIV11, NET — “after destroying.” Thus, the second clause is correctly rendered by the NIV as, “after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.”
This analysis shows that what is meant by telos is explained by the two hotan clauses. In the first clause, it is strictly contemporaneous: the end is precisely when (“at the time of”) Christ delivers up the kingdom. The kingdom is therefore a reality prior to the “end.” In the second clause, the abolition of all authority has already become a reality – “He will have already [after He] abolished all rule and all authority and power” when the telos comes. The telos or “end” thus temporally follows Christ’s reign since the subjection of his enemies has previously taken place. The “end” (telos) is the consummation of Christ’s kingdom reign. No other rule, power, or authority can persist following the telos because all other authorities have already been subjugated.
The Last Enemy
One could press 15:24 into the service of a variety of eschatological positions as is done in many quarters. However, further consideration of 15:25 and later sections of the chapter make the chronology of the Pauline eschatology more definitive. Paul explains, “For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet” (15:25). There is a prima facia relationship between 1 Corinthians 15:25 and Psalm 110:1b, “Sit at My right hand, until I make Thine enemies a footstool for Thy feet.” Paul uses the word “reign” in place of “sit at My right hand” and portrays Christ as active in the role of subduing His enemies. Conceptually, 15:25, is identical to Dixit Dominus 1: the Lord is ruling until all enemies are subdued. It is important to note the gar (“for”) is “introducing an explanation.” Paul explains the kingdom actions of 15:24 by Christ’s reign. The “reign,” given contextual considerations, is a present reality to Paul.
So, when does the reign of Christ (in the 15:25 sense) take place? Paul gives the chronological “key.” We are told what the “last enemy” is—“death” (15:26) and we are told when (hotan) death is “swallowed up in victory” (15:54) —at the Resurrection at His parousia. Death is “abolished” (katergeo, 15:26) or “destroyed” (KJV, NKJ, NIV, RSV, ASV) “when this perishable will have put on the imperishable and this mortal will have put on immortality” (15:54). The conclusion is forceful and definitive for the millennial chronology debate. Death is the poison of which resurrection is the antidote. Christ officially abolished death at His resurrection (2Ti 1:10, Heb 2:14) and will completely vanquish death at “The Resurrection” (1Co 15:54–55; Joh 5:29). His (millennial) reign, in the terms of the Dixit Dominus, occurs between His resurrection and “The Resurrection” at which time the abolition of death, the last enemy, occurs.
Paul’s rhetoric powerfully establishes that death is overcome at the parousia. In the first image (15:26), death is “abolished” or “nullified” (katergeo cf. 2Co 3:14; Rom 4:14) and in the second context death is not merely “nullified,” it is “swallowed, overcome, destroyed]” (katapino, 15:54) in victory. This rhetorical progression is completely within the structure of the chapter and its theme of resurrection. “All rule and all authority and power” (15:24) will be “nullified” prior to His parousia. Death is the final power to be abolished. So if the last enemy is overcome at the parousia, when believers will be “transformed” and the “dead will be raised” (1Co 15:23 cf 15:52–54), Christ’s reign is interadvental.
Paul’s eschatology is thanatological. Christ’s reign is the ongoing treatment for death in the cosmos and finally it will be cured (in “The Resurrection”). He will certainly overcome all His enemies, the last of which is the most pertinent to the “resurrection” question of chapter 15. Irrespective of our millennial moorings, we should all rejoice that by God’s free grace, because of Christ, through the gospel (15:3–4) one receives this power of God for salvation from death (Eph 2:1–9; 2Ti 1:10)—the effects of which will be gloriously visible at the last day. As the Creed says, “I believe in … the resurrection of the body.”
Some Polemics of Millennial Eschatology
Several polemical points issue forth from this analysis:
1) Preterism is the view that NT prophecies were fulfilled in the past. This view rightly values the importance of the time referents (“this generation,” “quickly,” etc.). Moreover, preterists see the significance of the destruction of Jerusalem (70 Anno Domini) for the Olivet Discourse (Mat 24). Certainly, the exegesis of 15:24–26 excludes full18 preterism (or as it is labeled, “Hymenaeism” [2Ti 2:17–18] or “pantelism”). Unorthodox (full) preterism teaches that even the Second Advent of Christ, the resurrection, etc., took place during the destruction of Jerusalem. Not only is this view unorthodox according to the creeds of the universal Church, East, West, Protestant, and Roman—many full preterist views may be refuted in the text we have considered.
a) While there is no consistent view regarding the resurrection of believers among full preterists, what is common to all is that the Second Advent happened in 70 A.D. On the contrary, the above exegesis requires that, regarding believers, death is abolished for believers following the parousia (of 1Co 15:23). It is untenable, at the very least, to believe that since 70 A.D. death is nullified for believers in any way different than it was for those before, especially for saints during the NT period. It is true that the text does not teach that death is abolished in the sense of no longer existing in any sense (annihilation). This is no doubt because the reality of “death” for the wicked, “the second death” is never annihilated (Rev 21:8). Paul’s resurrection argument (in 1Co 15) never addresses the resurrection of the wicked, though he taught it elsewhere (Acts 24:15). Rather Paul’s discourse requires that no enemies need to be subdued after the parousia, especially death.
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b) Christ’s resurrection is paralleled with those “at His coming” (15:23). Paul insisted that Christ’s resurrection is the “first fruits” of the resurrection harvest two times (15:20 & 23). This surely requires our resurrection to be of the same kind of harvest, a point that might be exegetically confirmed in elsewhere (Phi 3:21). But full preterism cannot maintain that post-70 A.D. believers’ resurrections will be substantially the same as that of Christ. Paul’s polemic rests, however, on the similarity of Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of those at His coming. A central point of Paul’s defense is that Christ’s resurrection was verifiable, “He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time” (15:6). (To add, if the parousia-transformation-resurrection happened in 70 A.D., what shall we say of believers after that? Is there any biblical teaching which addresses their resurrection-transformation? Full preterism must postulate an unorthodox, radical non-physical understanding of resurrection in order to explain how the resurrection is a past event.)
c) It is evident that the overcoming of enemies and abolition of powers results in an observable change in the world 15:25–26 (cf Heb 2:8). This is confirmed, moreover, by the fact that Paul speaks of a future “when he shall deliver up the kingdom to God” (15:24); a future “when [after] all things are subjected to Him” (15:28); a future “when this perishable will have put on the imperishable” (15:54). Unorthodox preterism requires the orthodox to believe that the actual subjugation of all in the (observable) sense of 15:24–28 became a reality in 70 A.D. But would the Roman Christians of 71 A.D. “see” “all things subjected to him” (Heb 2:8)?
d) Unorthodox preterism requires us to believe that the kingdom of Christ (His reign) lasted only about 37 years. But the concept of a “millennium” is also a time reference to be taken literarily. Milton Terry, rightly relates the kingdom to Jerusalem’s fall: “The entire New Testament teaching concerning the kingdom of Christ contemplates a long period, and the abolishing of all opposing authority and power; ‘for he must reign till he hath put all his enemies under his feet’ (I Cor. xv, 25). The overthrow of Jerusalem was one of the first triumphs of the Messiah’s reign, and a sign that he was truly ‘seated at the right hand of power.’” If full preterism is true, all post-70 A.D. church history (including the 51st Annual ETS meeting), turns out to be after “the end.” This makes church history the encore (?) to the kingdom, rather than the expansion of the kingdom. Thus, we no longer enter the kingdom, proclaim the gospel of the kingdom, are transferred into the kingdom, work for the advance of the kingdom, or pray for Thy kingdom to come. The kingdom is gone (?). So even apart from specific resurrection problems, considering the nature of the kingdom leads us to a full rejection of full preterism.
e) Unorthodox preterism is unsatisfying on the basic worldview level, the level at which Paul frames the discussion of resurrection. When Christians of all sub-creeds affirm, “I believe. . . in the resurrection of the body,” what is being affirmed satisfies a profound worldview demand, the redemption of the body (Rom 8:23) in world which is permeated by death. Will the evil of the world be a perpetual enemy without actual subjugation, world without end, Amen? Unorthodox preterism is unsatisfying too on a theological level; it makes no sense of the perennial kingdom of God motifs, reducing the fullness of that kingdom to less than a generation. Unorthodox preterism is unsatisfying at a biblical theology level, considering the development of sin, death, kingdom, and the advance of the gospel. Unorthodox preterism is unsatisfying on an exegetical level in view of the key didactic passages addressing the Second Advent and resurrection of believers (especially 1Co 15:22–26 & 1Th 4:16–17). . . .
Gentry note: To read the full article including footnotes, go to: Academia.org