The Resurrection of Christ and the Age to Come
The resurrection of Christ as it relates to the “age to come” and the eschatological resurrection in Scripture.
This essay will examine the “two age” outlook of the biblical writers and the arrival of the age to come in the resurrection of Christ. In the resurrection of Christ the age to come (future) has come (present) and is shared in the experience of those united to Christ by the Spirit.
The Age to Come in the New Testament
In the New Testament the expression “the age to come” (“that age”) is paired in contrast with “this age” (“this time”) or simply “the age” (“the ages”) — either explicitly (Matt. 12:32; Mark 10:30; Luke 20:34‒35; Eph. 1:21) or more often by implication (e.g., Matt. 13:39‒40; 28:20; 1Cor. 1:20; Gal. 1:4; Heb. 6:5; 9:26).
This two age distinction first emerges in Second Temple Judaism during the intertestamental period and is taken over from there by Jesus and several New Testament writers. This is not a problem for the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. At issue is whether or not this development in later Jewish theology, though uninspired, accurately reflects the teaching of the Old Testament as God’s Word. In fact it does, so that this observation about Paul’s usage also applies to its presence elsewhere in the New Testament: “There is no escape from the conclusion that a piece of Jewish theology has been here by revelation incorporated into the Apostle’s teaching” (Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, p. 28, n. 36; emphasis added; for a thorough discussion of the two age construction see chap. 1, esp. pp. 36-41, including the diagram in n. 45).
The words for “age” when they are used to make this distinction — in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and subsequently after the New Testament was written, in Latin — also have the sense of “world” or “universe” (e.g., in the New Testament, Heb. 1:2; 11:3). In other words, a comprehensive time word also took on an all-inclusive spatial connotation. The distinction, then, is between this world-age and the world-age to come.
The two age construction as originally formulated functions to express the overall historical-eschatological outlook basic to the teaching of the Old Testament, especially the prophets. It covers the entire flow of time, the whole of history, from its beginning at creation up to and including its consummation. On the one hand, this age is provisional, pre-eschatological. It is the present world, originally good (Gen. 1:31) but now subsequent to the fall marked fundamentally by sin, corruption, imperfection, and death. The age to come, in contrast, is the final world order, the eschatological age of righteousness, incorruption, perfection, and life. It is coterminous with the coming kingdom of God and the new heavens and new earth. In sum, the two world-ages in their relationship are comprehensive, consecutive, and antithetical.
The division point between them — “the end of the age,” when this age ends and gives way to the age to come — is tied to the coming of the Messiah (in the New Testament, see especially Matt. 24:3). Clearly, then, Jesus and the New Testament writers could not simply take over unchanged the two age construction at hand in the Judaism contemporary to them. Why? Because for that Judaism (as continues to be true for Orthodox Judaism today) the coming of the Messiah — the turning point of the two ages, the great inaugurating eschatological event — has not yet occurred; it is still future. For the New Testament, however, this decisive, turn-of-the-ages event has already taken place; the Messiah has already come in the person and work of Jesus.
According to the New Testament the coming of the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament has a dual fulfillment. The promised Messiah has already come in “the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4; cf. Eph. 1:10). This expression, often misunderstood for an especially auspicious time mid-stream in the ongoing course of history, refers rather to the culmination of history, to the filling up of the time of the present world. Its affinity is with the two age distinction; it indicates the end of this age and the dawning of the age to come. With the coming of Christ, “… the end of the ages has come” (1Cor. 10:11).
The coming of the Messiah, however, will also be in the future. Having departed he will appear again a second time (Acts 1:11; Heb. 9:28). So, then, when is “the end of the age”? Tied as it is to the two-fold coming of Christ, it is both past (Heb. 9:26) as well as still future (Matt. 28:20). The age to come has already begun and will also arrive in the future.
It is apparent, then, that for the New Testament writers to continue using the two age construct a significant modification was necessary. In terms of the three defining factors noted above, both the comprehensive scope of the two ages taken together and the antithesis between them remain untouched, but the two ages can no longer be viewed as simply consecutive, the one age following the other. Rather, with the coming of Christ that has already occurred the two ages are now also concurrent.
The first and second comings of Christ, though widely separated in time as they now are, are not unrelated events; they are best seen as two stages of one coming. During the interim between them, “this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4) continues its course but the age to come has dawned and is present as well; the two ages while still consecutive also overlap.
The Age to Come and the Resurrection of Christ
Where in this necessarily modified New Testament use of the two age scheme does the age to come begin? A general answer is with the arrival of Christ in history, with his incarnation and earthly ministry. The New Testament, however, disposes us to be more precise. Because of the unique nature and demands of the messianic ministry of Jesus to be the Savior of sinners as he came to finally inaugurate the kingdom of God, it was necessary that “he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26). Consequently, the earthly ministry of Christ divides into two basic, sharply contrasting stages. The first is marked fundamentally by his atoning, sin-bearing humiliation and suffering, followed by the second stage of his permanent exaltation and glorified existence.
The transition point between these two stages occurs at the conclusion of his earthly ministry in his death and resurrection, when he passed from his state of humiliation into his state of exaltation, when God “highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” after and because he had been “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8‒9). This climactic transition for Christ is in fact the specific turning point of the two ages.
The age to come, then, begins at Christ’s resurrection or, more broadly along with his ascension, with his exaltation.1 This is made especially clear in Paul’s teaching on the resurrection.
The Age to Come, the Resurrection of Christ, and the Future
“But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep” (1Cor. 15:20 NASB). Implicit in this use of “firstfruits” is the thought that underlies and controls the entire argument in this chapter for the resurrection of the body, and for that matter much of the whole of Paul’s teaching on the resurrection.
The background for the use of this agricultural metaphor is the firstfruits sacrifices in the Old Testament (e.g., Exod. 23:16, 19; Lev. 23:10, 17, 20), particularly the organic connection or unity between the firstfruits and the rest of the harvest. The offering up of the first part of the harvest to God was a thanksgiving gift acknowledging the entire harvest as his gift to Israel.
Applied to the resurrection, then, the bodily resurrection of Christ and the future bodily resurrection of believers cannot be separated. Christ’s resurrection is the “firstfruits” of the resurrection-“harvest,” as Paul surely intends the metaphor to be extended; “He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died” (NLT; cf. v. 23: “But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ “).2
It is often said, rightly, that Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee of the believers’ resurrection. But this is so, it should be understood, because his resurrection is nothing less than the beginning of “the general epochal event” (Vos). The general resurrection at the end of history has begun with Christ’s resurrection. In his resurrection the eschatological resurrection-harvest of the future has become a present reality.
Two key related points, then, come out in 1 Corinthians 15:20. First is the unity or organic bond between Christ’s resurrection and the (future bodily) resurrection of believers. That unity is already present in the immediately preceding section (vv. 12‒19). There it is the unexpressed but clear presupposition that governs the if‒then argumentation: If the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection is true, then the resurrection of believers is beyond question (v. 12). Conversely, if there is no future resurrection of believers, then neither has Christ been raised (vv. 13, 15, 16).
This argumentation confirms what is then made explicit in the use of “firstfruits” in verse 20. The two resurrections, Christ’s and the believers’, are not two unconnected events. Instead — akin to what was noted above about the first and second comings of Christ — they are two organically connected episodes, separated in time, of the same event; the two events are the beginning and end of one and the same resurrection-“harvest.”
Second, along with this organic, same-harvest unity verse 20 also makes clear the eschatological significance of Christ’s resurrection. His resurrection is not an isolated event in the past. Rather, already occurring in the past, it belongs to the future consummation and from that future has entered history. It is the initial part of the resurrection-harvest at the end of history.
With Christ’s resurrection the age to come has in fact begun, really and truly; the new creation (2Cor. 5:17) has dawned.
The Age to Come, the Resurrection of Christ, and the Present
The organic unity in view in 1 Corinthians 15:20 is between Christ’s resurrection and the future, bodily resurrection of Christians. That unity, however, is rooted in and reflects the union that presently exists between them and Christ. In fact, united to Christ by faith, they have been crucified and resurrected with him and have ascended with him (e.g., Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:5‒6; Col. 2:12). Accordingly, they already share in the benefits that flow from him as he is now exalted.
Among the basic benefits of this union, nothing less than their “life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3); Christ is their very “life” (v. 4). The immediate context in Colossians 3 makes the specific quality of this life unmistakable. It is sharing in the resurrected life of the ascended Christ. Those who “have been raised with Christ” are to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (vv. 1‒2); they are to be concerned with those matters that pertain to the resurrection life they already have. In other words, their life in Christ, the life that Christ is for them and in them is nothing other, nothing less than the life of the age to come. This age-to-come life, presently possessed, will be manifested openly in the future when Christ returns (v. 4).
Colossians 3 makes clear that to “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (v. 2) has nothing to do with other-world asceticism or wholesale renunciation of present earthly existence. To the contrary, it is a thoroughly down-to-earth reality. The “minding” in view consists in using the body (“your members,” v. 5) not for sinning but for loving, worshipping, and serving God and loving and serving others as that is realized in the basic relationships of this present existence (cf. Rom. 12:1: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, …”). The immediately following sections (3:5‒4:1) spell out this service in specific, concrete ways.
The anthropological distinction between the “outer self” and “inner self” as it is used in 2 Corinthians 4:16 provides a helpful overall perspective on the concurrent overlapping of the two ages in the lives of believers between Christ’s resurrection and return. In their inevitably decaying, not yet resurrected bodies (the “outer self”) they continue to exist in this age. At the same time, however, now resurrected and ascended with Christ at the core of their being (the “inner self”), they already live in the age to come; they are already “in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3; 2:6) — the vertical dimension of the modified two age-world schema resulting from Christ’s ascension. This age-to-come heavenly life, then, is the source of ongoing (“day by day”) renewal of the inner self — renewal bound to find expression, however imperfectly, in the only way it can presently, through the outer self.
The Age to Come, the Resurrection of Christ, and the Holy Spirit
As the resurrection-“firstfruits” Christ has “become” the “life-giving Spirit” (1Cor. 15:45; cf. 2Cor. 3:17). As resurrected he, “the last Adam,” has been thoroughly transformed and glorified by the Spirit (cf. Rom. 6:4; 8:11); as ascended — “the man of heaven” (v. 48; cf. v. 47) — he is now in climactic and final possession of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2:33). Consequently, in his present heavenly existence he and the Spirit are one in their joint activity of giving life.3
This linked unity of the Spirit and Christ (cf. Rom. 8:9‒10; Eph. 3:16‒17), dating from his resurrection, also reveals the eschatological aspect of Paul’s conception of the Spirit’s activity. The Spirit at work within Christians and active in the life of the church is in fact the power of the age to come (cf. Heb. 6:5). The Spirit is the “firstfruits” and “down payment” (Rom. 8:23; 2Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:14) toward the full possession of their inheritance at Christ’s return. Then the present overlap of the two ages will end and the age to come will exist forever in its consummate fullness.
At its core, then, the present life of the Christian, life in the Spirit, is sharing in Christ’s resurrection life, the life of the age to come.
- G. Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1930/1979).
- G. E. Ladd, The Presence of the Future (rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).
- R. B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987).
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