Christ, in fact, has been raised from the dead, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:20, and He is the firstfruits of the greater harvest to come. That is, our Lord’s resurrection is the confirmation that we who believe in Him will likewise be raised bodily. He is the first of the crop to be harvested, so to speak, and we are the remainder who will one day receive resurrected bodies. This implies a proper chronological order with respect to those who will be raised, an order that Paul gives in today’s passage while looking beyond the full resurrection harvest.
First, Jesus was resurrected, and second, His people will be raised, with the latter event occurring at the return of Christ (v. 22). Our Lord’s resurrection is the firstfruits, so it happens first. Our resurrection at the end of history is the fullness of the harvest, so it happens later. Paul locates our resurrection at the return of Jesus to consummate the kingdom, which means that any claim that the resurrection has already occurred or will occur before Jesus’ coming in glory must be rejected. This was an important point for the Corinthians, some of whom were likely teaching that the final resurrection of believers is purely spiritual and had already happened. It remains a vital piece of instruction for others throughout history who have claimed that the resurrection is entirely spiritual and has already taken place.
After the resurrection of believers (texts such as Dan. 12:1–2 reveal that unbelievers will be raised as well, but that is not Paul’s concern here), something else will occur. “Then comes the end,” the Apostle tells us, when Jesus hands over the kingdom to the “Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power” (1 Cor. 15:24). Paul does not mean that Christ will at that point no longer reign in glory. He is, after all, God incarnate (John 1:1–18) and therefore must reign forever. Instead, the Apostle is speaking of the cessation of what Reformed thinkers have called Jesus’ mediatorial kingdom. At present, Jesus’ work as Mediator includes saving people from God’s wrath by conquering their enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil. One day, however, the full number of the elect will be in a state of salvation, and that aspect of Christ’s mediatorial work will end. Matthew Henry comments, “This mediatorial kingdom is to have an end, at least as far as it is concerned in bringing his people safely to glory, and subduing all his and their enemies.” At that moment, death itself will be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:25–26).