The Resurrection in 1 Cor 15

In follow up to my previous post I want to spend some time on some of what seem to me to be the main ideas in 1 Cor 15. In this chapter Paul deals quite thoroughly with the concept of resurrection and yet many believers are quite unfamiliar with its content. I begin with Paul’s initial affirmation of faith, his summary of the essential components of the gospel.

1 Corinthians 15:3-4
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,(ESV)

This statement appears to be a very early creed of the faith. This isn’t something Paul wrote. Rather, it is something he “received”. He is here teaching what he has himself been taught. He is passing on an important summary statement of the propositional content of faith. By introducing the subject of resurrection with what would have been a familiar Christian creed, Paul is first positioning belief in the resurrection as essential to what it means to be a Christ follower.

In the verses that follow (5-11) Paul appeals to the multitude of those who witnessed the resurrected Christ, many of whom were still alive at the time of the writing of this letter, as evidence to the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.

1 Corinthians 15:12-1912 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.(ESV)

It should be noted that 1 Corinthians is a letter that exists within an apparent series of communications between Paul and the church in Corinth. In this letter Paul is responding to various issues, concerns, and/or questions raised by the church in this ongoing correspondence. When Paul here indicates that some in Corinth are saying “there is no resurrection of the dead” it seems clear that some have perhaps appealed to Paul to speak to this important doctrinal issue because of controversy that had arrisen within the congregation. The Pulpit Commentary provides a helpful discussion regarding the identity of those who were denying the resurrection within the church in Corinth:

“These deniers of the resurrection are usually called “the Corinthian Sadducees.” After the state of social and moral laxity of which we have been reading, we can scarcely be surprised at the existence of anydisorder or anomaly in the Church of Corinth. Yet it comes with something of a shock on our paralyzed sense of astonishment to read that some of these Christians actually denied a resurrection! The fact at once proves two remarkable truths, namely, (1) that the early Christian Church had none of the ideal purity of doctrine which is sometimes ecclesiastically attributed to it; and (2) that there was in the bosom of that Church a wide and most forbearing tolerance. We have no data to enable us to determine what were the influences which led to the denial of the resurrection. 1. They can hardly have been Jewish. The mass of Jews at this time shared the views of the Pnarisees, who strongly maintained the resurrection (Acts 23:6). If they were Jews at all, they could only have been Sadducees or Essenes. But (1) the Sadducees were a small, wealthy, and mainly political sect, who had no religious influence, and can certainly have had no representatives at Corinth; and (2) the Essenes, though they had considerable influence in Asia, do not seem to have established themselves in Greece, nor are we aware that they were hostile to the doctrine of the resurrection. 2. Probably, then, they were Gentiles. If so, they may have been (1) either Epicureans, who disbelieved in a future life altogether; or (2) Stoics, who held that the future life was only an impersonal absorption into the Divine. Both these schools of philosophers “jeered” at the very notion of a bodily resurrection (Acts 17:32). In 2 Tim. 2:18 we read of some, like Hymenæus and Philetus, who erred, saying “that the resurrection was past already.” These teachers were incipient Gnostics, who spiritualized the resurrection, or rather said that the term was only applicable to the rising from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. The Corinthian doubters seem from the arguments which St. Paul addresses to them, to have been rather troubled with material doubts which they may have inherited from their Gentile training.The Pulpit Commentary: 1 Corinthians. 2004 (H. D. M. Spence-Jones, Ed.) (485). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

That church members were denying the resurrection seems plain. Paul’s point in response to their denial centers around pointing out that without resurrection…

  1. If dead people do not rise, then Christ has not been raised.
  2. If Christ has not been raised, then faith in the resurrected Christ is in error and therefore futile.
  3. We are all still dead in our sins.

The implied argument here would be…

  1. If Christ has been raised, then the resurrection of the dead is real.
  2. If the dead do rise, then it the proclamation that the dead do not rise is in error.
  3. Because our faith is in a resurrected Christ who did rise, our confidence in a future resurrection of the dead is legitimate.

This implied argument is made explicit in the following verses.

1 Corinthians 15:20-26 20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.(ESV)

Paul here uses the agricultural concept of first fruits to make his point. When a crop was planted, prior to the complete harvest being ripe, a certain portion of the crop would become ready for harvest in advance of the rest. This advance harvest is called the “first fruits” and is seen as a guarantee of the future harvest. It is viewed as a sort of down-payment on what is to come. Paul here is saying that the historical fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection is the evidence, the down-payment, guaranteeing our own future bodily resurrection. Additionally, Paul is identifying a parallel between Adam and Jesus. Just as Adam’s sin served as a guarantee that future generations would experience death, Jesus’ resurrection serves as a guarantee that many will be made alive. When will this happen? When Jesus returns; when Jesus takes over everything; when the victory Jesus has already won through his death and resurrection is completely enforced. The final enemy upon which this victory will be enforced is death. The enforcement of this victory will result in the resurrection of the dead.

After this section of the passage Paul talks about baptism for the dead. I have no idea what that’s about so I’m skipping it. After that opaque verse he continues…

1 Corinthians 15:30-34
30 Why are we in danger every hour? 31 I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! 32 What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” 34 Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.(ESV)

Paul’s argument continues with a discussion of what exactly is at stake here, namely risk and restraint. If there will be no resurrection of the dead then this is all there is! What then would be the point of daily risking his life for the gospel? Better to simply enjoy life now with no thought toward eterinity. Similary, if we have no confidence in eternity, then there is really no good reason for moral restraint. Our risk-free life can also be lived without restraint. Paul is basically saying that without a future hope anchored in the resurrection of the dead we might as well all become hedonists. One of the main problems Paul is responding to in this letter concerns immorality within the church in Corinth. Paul is here linking those moral problems to a failure to believe in the coming bodily resurrection of the dead for which Christ’s own resurrection is the first.

I want to point out that many believers I know have their hope anchored in eternity. This expectation of an eternity with God serves as an important aspect of the significance of their present experience, the risks they are willing to take for the gospel, and the moral restraint with which they conduct their lives. But most of these believers view this eternal reality as some sort of disembodied non-material heavenly existence. That is absolutely NOT in any way congruent with the future hope of bodily resurrection defined by Paul.

At this point Paul begins to describe in detail the resurrection of the dead we are to expect. I will look at that in my next post.


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