1 Corinthians 15:1-34
The problems that Paul has dealt with so far in 1 Corinthians were communicated to him by Chloe's people (1:11) or by a letter from the Corinthians (7:1). Chapter 15 clearly begins a new subject, the subject of the resurrection. The reason for treating this subject is also clear. Verse 12 states that some Corinthians were denying the resurrection. Unlike the other subjects covered in 1 Corinthians 7-14 there is no indication that Paul learned of this problem from the Corinthians' letter. He may have learned of the problem from Chloe's people, but the letter seems to imply that those problems were discussed in chapters 1-6. Did Paul forget to cover this subject earlier or did he receive "new" news from the carriers of the letter or from the group mentioned in 1 Corinthians 16:17? The New Testament does not provide us sufficient information. What is clear is that Paul's treatment of the resurrection provides a very appropriate climax and conclusion to 1 Corinthians as a whole.
Verse 12 indicates that some Corinthians were denying the resurrection. Paul starts with the premise of Christ's resurrection and goes on to discuss the specific problems raised by the Corinthian objectors. His discussion takes him again to the meaning of "spiritual" in 15:44-46. His contrast between a natural or physical (psychikos in Greek) body with a spiritual (pneumatikos) body brings several strands of this letter together in preparation for a triumphant conclusion in the final paragraph of the chapter.
Christ's Resurrection As Foundational - 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
The opening phrase of chapter 15 clearly indicates a new subject, but it does not reveal what that new subject will be. Though the problem to be treated is the denial of the resurrection, Paul begins by describing the gospel. This pattern occurs again in the book of Romans.
Verses 1-2 use six verbs to describe what happened in Corinth with regard to the gospel. First Paul states that he preached the gospel to the Corinthians. This is no doubt a reference to his initial visit to the city when he founded the church. Second, he states that the Corinthians received the gospel. The verb that he uses means that they received an oral tradition that was being entrusted to them. By doing so they had accepted responsibility for correcting understanding and passing on the gospel to others.
Third, Paul states that the Corinthians "stand" in the gospel. The Greek word suggests that they have been established in the faith and should be able to live out the meaning of the faith without being led astray by other influences. Fourth, the Corinthians were saved by the gospel. The word "saved" has a double meaning. The spiritual meaning of salvation from the power of sin is familiar to most modern readers. However, that spiritual meaning in the first century was built on the secular meaning of the word, which was "rescued" or "delivered." Paul (and the Corinthians) believed that their lives were in jeopardy without the gospel. However, the gospel - or more precisely - God acting through Christ had delivered them from that danger.
Fifth, Paul raised the question of whether or not the Corinthians would "hold fast" the gospel. Holding fast to the gospel is the condition of being saved by it, standing in it, and receiving it. Failure to hold fast to the gospel leads to the conclusion of the final verb. With no resurrection the Corinthians would have believed in vain.
These six verbs - preaching, receiving, standing in, being saved, holding fast, and believing - summarize the human actions that enable the gospel to have its effect. However, human action does not put the gospel into effect. The gospel is the good news that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19). The gospel is the good news that God so loved the world that he sent his only son (John 3:16). The gospel is the good news that God has provided a way by which sinful people may be put right with him. The gospel always begins with the action of God in Christ. Its effect requires our preaching, receiving, believing, and holding fast but those are our responses to the gospel, not the gospel's source of power. The word "gospel" was already functioning as a short hand term for the Christian message. Thus Paul turns from drawing attention to the importance of our response to the gospel to give attention to a summary of the gospel in verses 3-5.
Verse 3 describes Paul's first sharing of the gospel with the Corinthian church. The apostle uses the technical terminology of passing on oral tradition as was commonly done in those biblical cultures when writing was rare. "I delivered" and "I received" are the technical terms for the transmission of an oral tradition. Similar expressions can be found in the written Mishnah that contains much of the oral tradition of Judaism from Jesus' time. The significance of this language is that it reflects a pattern of careful teaching and repetition to make sure that the teaching was correctly transferred from Paul to the Corinthian church.
The apostle further highlights the process by describing it as being "of first importance." The second half of verse 3 and verses 4-5 (at least) contain a written review of that oral material. The Greek text contains a word that indicates a quotation is following. That word appears four times in verses 3b-5. "Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures," is the first quotation Paul makes. "He was buried," is the second, and the third is, "He was raised on the third day according to the scriptures." The fourth traditional quotation that Paul reviewed begins with "He appeared to Cephas . . .," but it is not clear where the quotation ends. Different scholars suggest that the quotation extends to the end of verse 5, verse 6, and verse 7. By verse 8 it seems clear that Paul was adding his own personalizing comment on the four-fold tradition.
The words "I received" imply that the four-fold quotation was part of the first Christian teaching Paul learned following his conversion. That Damascus road conversion is usually dated between AD 33 and 35 just a few years after the death and resurrection of Jesus in AD 30. Our earliest gospel was written in the mid 60's. Thus not only is 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 one of the earliest written records of the death and resurrection of Christ; it preserves the oral form of the earliest way Christians described that death and resurrection just a few years after the event itself.
The statement that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures reveals that two aspects of Christian interpretation of Christ's death go back to the very beginning of the Christian faith. The first is the conviction that Christ's death in some way provided atonement for sin. No detail is given in the quotation of verse 3 so we cannot determine whether or not later understandings of the atonement were being taught from the beginning. But it is clear that from the beginning the church believed that Jesus' death responded to our sin problem.
Second, the church believed that Jesus' death was part of God's plan revealed in the Old Testament. Verse 3 gives no hint of what Old Testament scriptures the earliest Christians saw in connection with Christ's death. Luke 24:44-46 states that following the resurrection Jesus instructed the disciples in the meaning of Old Testament scriptures that applied to his death and resurrection. Though Isaiah 53 is most commonly thought to be the foundational Old Testament passage in which the early Christians found instruction about Jesus' death the plural (scriptures) in verse 3 suggests a reference to scripture as a whole.
The second line in the four-fold tradition is "He was buried." This is the shortest line in the tradition and is the only one that is not given any elaboration beyond the bare subject and verb. This simple statement affirms a central truth of the Christian faith. Jesus really died. He did not lapse into a coma and then revive. He died and was buried. The Christian faith is that God raised Jesus from the dead, not that Jesus never really died.
The third quotation is that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures. Once again we do not know what specific scriptures this statement has in mind. In Acts 2:25-28 Peter quotes from Psalm 16:8-11 to support the resurrection. In Matthew 12:39-41 Jesus compared his own time of burial in the tomb with Jonah's three-day period of being in the belly of the sea monster. It is possible that these verses lay behind the quotation. It is also possible that the quotation affirmed that the scriptures as a whole made it clear that Christ would triumph over death.
The Greek grammar of verse 4 contains a fascinating expression of Christian faith. The Greek tense of the verbs "died" in verse 3 and "buried" in verse 4 is the simple past tense (aorist). The tense of the verb "raised" in verse 4 refers to a past event with results that continue on into the present. The resurrection is not simply a statement about a historical event of AD 30. It is the continuing confidence that we "serve a risen Savior; he's in the world today." Paul will develop the way in which the results of Christ's resurrection continue to affect believers later in chapter 15.
Even if Paul were composing verses 5-7 rather than quoting them from early tradition, these verses would contain the earliest list of witnesses of the resurrection in Christian writings. Fascinatingly there is more information here about resurrection appearances than any of the gospels considered one by one. The reference to an appearance to Cephas in verse 5 matches the comment made in Luke 24:34. Presumably, the appearance to the twelve also mentioned in verse 5 was to the eleven disciples as John 20:19-26 mentions. The gospels give no account that matches the statement of verse 6 that Jesus appeared to more than five hundred believers at one time. The real significance of this reference is the fact that Paul adds the comment that the majority of the 500 remain alive at the time of the writing of 1 Corinthians. If the Corinthians had any doubts about Jesus' resurrection they could have confirmed it by the testimony of these 500 believers.
Verse 7 mentions the appearance to James, which is also only mentioned here. The common and appropriate assumption is that this refers to James the brother of Jesus. Acts 1:14 indicates that the brothers of Jesus were part of the group of believers waiting in the upper room for the promise of the Spirit. James the brother of Jesus became the leader of the Jerusalem church after the persecution described in Acts 12. Acts 15 shows him exercising that leadership.
Beginning in verse 8 it is clear that Paul turns from the four-fold traditional statement to describe the appearance of the risen Christ to himself. The language he uses is quite strange. The Greek word usually translated untimely born literally means an aborted or miscarried fetus. Why Paul would describe himself that way has been explained in various ways. One explanation is that the apostle was short of stature and so was called a "miscarriage" by those who made fun of him. It is hard to see why Paul would repeat such crude humor. Another explanation suggests that the term was simply applied to the apostle by his enemies to express their hatred. It is still difficult to see why Paul would quote such language. The most likely explanation is that Paul describes himself as one who was aborted to acknowledge that he did not go through the full developmental stage of three years with Jesus before becoming an apostle.
The reference to Christ's appearance to him and his short gestation period as an apostle almost side tracks Paul from the main subject. Verse 10 turns back toward the subject of the gospel by describing the effectiveness of the grace of God in the apostle's life. It is easy to forget that all that we have and all that we are come to us by grace. That the gifted and highly trained Paul would confess that his ministry and Christian standing were only by the grace of God should be instructive to us. He was concerned that God's grace would have been extended to him in vain. We would also be well advised to take so seriously our stewardship of the grace that God has extended our way.
Verse 11 brings the subject clearly back to the gospel, the subject with which this section began. Regardless of which people had seen the risen Christ, regardless of whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas preached, the Corinthians had received the gospel and had believed.
What If Christ Was Not Raised? - 1 Corinthians 15:12-19
Paul's basic argument is that if Christ has been raised from the dead then the statement of some Corinthians (verse 12) that there is no resurrection cannot stand. Verses 1-11 established the resurrection as the climax of the gospel message proclaimed by the earliest Christian preachers. Paul will now consider what would happen to the gospel and its effectiveness if one were to no longer believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
Verse 14 states the matter in the starkest of terms. If Christ has not been raised then the Christian gospel is vain and the Corinthians' faith is vain. The word translated "vain" here literally means "empty." The gospel has no content, no substance, no meaning if there is no resurrection. Paul will deal with the implications of the faith of the Corinthians being vain in verses 17-19. First he addresses the problem of the emptiness of Christian preaching if Christ has not been raised.
It is not the action of preaching that would be vain, but the message of the Christian proclamation. Some commentators discuss whether Paul was speaking of the proclamation of the gospel made by the apostles or the proclamation of the gospel done by the Corinthians in conjunction with Paul. The debate does not matter as long as it is the same gospel being proclaimed by apostles and by the church. Not only is the gospel empty - devoid of meaning - if Christ was not raised, but something worse has happened. If Christ has not been raised Christian preaching has falsely represented God.
Verse 15 envisions a courtroom scene in which God is on trial for resurrecting Christ. Paul points out that Christian preachers have testified that God did raise Christ. If it turns out that Christ was not raised then the Christian message is a false witness and guilty of perjury. The Greek text boldly states that Christian preachers are guilty of testifying "against" God if there is no resurrection. From the perspective of those who do not believe in the resurrection the apostles have tried to frame God with a "crime" he did not commit. Of course, though Paul does not state the matter here, the opposite is also true. If Christ has been raised from the dead then those who say there is no resurrection are guilty of false witness against God.
Verse 17 returns to the question of Corinthians' faith. Paul again states that if Christ has not been raised the readers' faith is vain. Here the apostle shifts terminology. In verse 14 the word for "vain" (kenos) meant empty, without substance or meaning. The word "vain" in verse 17 (mataios) means idle, powerless, useless, fruitless, or lacking truth (NRSV: "futile").
This shift in terms is reflected in Paul's next comment, "You are still in your sins." The early church believed that the resurrection of Christ had unleashed the power of God on earth in a way never before experienced. Judaism and the Old Testament understood there to be a profound relationship between sin and death as Genesis 3 makes clear. Early Christianity believed that if the power of death had been broken by Jesus' resurrection, then the power of sin had also been broken. The resurrection of Christ opened up to human beings the possibility of victory over sin. But, says Paul, if there is no resurrection then sin's power has not been broken and you are still enslaved to sin.
Verse 18 pushes the matter another step. If Christ has not been raised and sin's power has not been broken then there is no hope for those believers who have already died. The NRSV describes these believers as having "perished." The NIV describes them as "lost." The Greek verb refers to more than simple physical death or to a condition of spiritual lostness. The word speaks of the total ruin or destruction that comes from entering eternity unprepared. There is no hope, no future for believers who have died if there is no resurrection.
Verse 19 then points out that if we have placed all our hope for eternity on Christ and the gospel then we are the most pitifully deceived people in the world if there is no resurrection. Paul's point is not that it is pitiful to have hope in this life only. Rather, his point is that if Christ has not been raised, then the hope we have in this world is lost which leaves us in a pitiful state. The converse is also true. If Christ has been raised from the dead our hope is sure and our present lives are full of meaning and spiritual potential.
The Reality of the Future - 1 Corinthians 15:20-28
Verse 20 marks a major shift in Paul's response to those who denied resurrection. After dealing hypothetically with what would be if Christ was not raised, the apostle states simply and powerfully, "But now Christ has been raised from the dead." As has been the case all along he uses the tense of the verb that points both to the reality of the past event of the resurrection and to the reality of the continuing results in believers' lives. The hypothetical treatment is over. Paul is ready to explicate the reality and the meaning of Christ's resurrection.
It is important to remember that Paul approached the subject of Christ's resurrection from the standpoint of Jewish eschatology. In Jewish eschatology resurrection was part of the events of the end of time. The fact that Paul (and other early Christians) believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead then meant that the End had already begun. As Paul wrote 1 Corinthians (and even today) the End had not yet fully arrived. The problem Paul faced was how to explain the fact that the End had begun, but that it was not finished yet. Both the present reality of the End begun must be preserved and future anticipation of what is yet to unfold must not be compromised. Verses 20-28 address this two-sided tension.
Verse 20 describes Christ as the "first fruits of those who have died." The Old Testament provides a rich background for this term in Leviticus 23:9-14 and related passages. The first sheaf of the barley harvest was to be offered to God. For Israel this symbolized an important truth that all of the harvest belonged to God. But God did not demand that all the harvest be given to him. When the first fruits were offered symbolizing his rights to all the harvest, the Lord then promised that his people could enjoy the benefits of all the rest of the harvest.
By New Testament times the term "first fruits" had come to mean God's guarantee of the fullness of the harvest. By use of the term "first fruits" Paul was able to locate Christ's resurrection in the larger scheme of God's plan. The End (the harvest) had already begun because the first resurrection (Christ's) has happened. Understanding Christ's resurrection as first fruits means that God is guaranteeing the rest of the harvest, that is the resurrection of others. There can be no doubt about the future resurrection of believers since Christ has been raised as a first fruits symbol.
Verse 23 picks up this concept and develops the "order" of events that has been already put into motion by Christ's resurrection. Christ as first fruits is first, then will come the full harvest (those who belong to Christ). This full harvest will occur when Christ comes again. We might have thought that the full harvest was the final step, but not Paul. After the general resurrection will come the end of the End when Christ's work begun in the Incarnation is finally completed. At that point Christ will turn over the kingdom to God his Father and bring to an end all other powers. Verses 25-28 explain the importance of this final subjection of all things to God.
Verse 21 introduces another concept that Paul uses to strengthen his argument. The concept is a comparison of Christ and Adam, sometimes called Second Adam or Last Adam Christology. Paul will develop this comparison further in verses 45-49 of chapter 15 and in Romans 5:12-21. The most important point of the comparison is never stated because Jewish writers thoroughly understood it and assumed it. That point is that in Hebrew thought Adam was both an individual person and a representative of the whole human race. These two facets of "Adam" were virtually interchangeable in Jewish thought. Thus the sin and death of Adam the individual correspond to the sin and death of all human beings.
Paul's point is that Christ is also both an individual and a representative being. Thus Christ's resurrection is not just the resurrection of one person, but represents (and thus guarantees) the resurrection of all Christ's race. Though Paul does not develop the thought, this Second Adam view of Christ has amazing implications for both our theology of salvation and our theology of the church.
Verses 20-28 thus demolish the view of those who say there is no resurrection. Two Jewish and Old Testament ideas are brought to bear on the subject. Both conclude that Christ's resurrection functions as a guarantee of the future resurrection of believers, the final defeat of death, and the ultimate establishment of God's complete sovereign rule over all creation. Thus Paul perceived Christ's resurrection as the key point in returning creation to the state of perfection it enjoyed before the Fall.
Two Rhetorical Questions - 1 Corinthians 15:29-34
Verses 20-28 should have ended all discussion but Paul returns to the argument of whether or not any such thing as resurrection existed. His treatment here is often called ad hominem which means that he appeals to the emotions of the Corinthians rather than to logic. This is important to remember because Paul uses two examples that have created considerable controversy.
The first example asks the question, why are people baptized for the dead if there is no resurrection. Paul does not recommend baptism for the dead nor does he condemn it. He does imply that it was being practiced in some form and that the Corinthians were aware of it. Perhaps some of them were involved in it. To condemn the practice would have undermined his argument. To approve the practice would have compromised his theology. What Paul does is simply say, the practice of baptizing for the dead makes no sense apart from the reality of resurrection.
The second example asks why Paul would face constant danger and even fight the wild beasts in Ephesus if there was no resurrection. Again the apostle does not affirm or deny that he fought beasts in Ephesus. He simply points out that willingness to face such dangers makes no sense apart from the reality of the resurrection. Without some fantastic archaeological discovery we will never know whether Paul did or did not fight beasts in Ephesus. What we do know is that faith in Christ's resurrection could enable Paul (and us) to face any danger. When death's defeat is sure and our resurrection is guaranteed, nothing can destroy a Christian's hope. The Corinthians (and we) should feel the power of that hope for living the Christian life on a daily basis.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to make his word come alive in your heart. Ask him to help you understand how his word should apply to your life.
First Day: Read the notes on 1 Corinthians 15:1-34. Look up the Scripture references that are given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Describe why they were significant.
2. Select a spiritual truth that has a personal application in your own life. Describe how it applies to you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to make the reality of the resurrection of Christ a powerful truth in your life.
Second Day: Read 1 Corinthians 15:35-58. Now turn your focus to 1 Corinthians 15:35-49.
1. How do the examples of seeds, animals, birds, fish, and heavenly bodies support Paul's argument in this section? How would you express the point you think he is wanting to make?
2. Compare verse 36 with John 12:24. What does the context of John 12:24 teach you about death and resurrection?
3. Do these focus verses teach varying degrees of glory in heaven for different saints? If so, how is this taught? If not, what is the point of the verses dealing with glory?
Third Day: Read 1 Corinthians 15:35-58. Focus in on 1 Corinthians 15:42-49.
1. What contrasts does Paul draw in these focus verses between a natural body and a resurrection body? Summarize his point in your own words.
2. How did Jesus' resurrection body compare with Paul's description of a resurrection body in these focus verses? Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20-21, and Acts 1:1-11 describe the resurrected Jesus.
3. Explain verse 49. How have we borne the image of the man of dust? How will we bear the image of the man of heaven?
Fourth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 15:42-58. Now focus on 1 Corinthians 15:50-58.
1. What promises of these focus verses are especially meaningful to you? Why?
2. What conclusions can you draw about Paul's view of sin and its place in the life of a believer from these focus verses?
3. What conclusion or practical life application should faith in the resurrection lead us to? How does the message of verse 58 compare with Paul's thought in 1 Thessalonians 4:18?
Fifth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 16:1-24. Focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 16:1-11.
1. What instructions does Paul give regarding the collection? What do you find especially practical about his instructions?
2. What do verses 5-7 reveal about Paul's relationship with the Corinthians? What does it say about the importance of "quality time" in a relationship, especially in a pastoral relationship?
3. On the basis of verses' 8-11, what was the basis for Paul's decisions about how time and persons should be used in the ministry? How would such principles affect our use of time and people in ministry?
Sixth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 16:1-24. Now focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 16:12-24.
1. Summarize the message of verses 13-14 in your own words. What is the most important part of this instruction?
2. What is the point of verse 16? How would it be applied today? Specifically, how could it be applied in your own life?
3. Write a brief prayer asking God to create in you feelings for your church like the feelings you see Paul expressing for the Corinthians in these focus verses.