In our last essay we studied 1 Cor. 14:26-40 in which Paul turned to the third and last major characteristic of the more excellent way. The first was love; the second was intelligibility; and now we saw the third, orderliness. The passage for this essay is 1 Corinthians 15:1-34, which deals with the resurrection of Christ (vv. 1-11) and of the dead (vv. 12-34). In order to study the doctrine of the Resurrection properly, we must begin with an understanding of the Jewish and Greek backgrounds of this idea.
There were two major views among the Jews. First was the view of the Sadducees who were the Jewish liberals. They did not believe that there was any life after death, let alone resurrection of the body. The second view was that of the Pharisees, who believed in both immortality and resurrection of the body. That was in spite of the fact that there is not a lot of teaching about the afterlife and resurrection in the Old Testament. The few passages that one can point to are: Job 19:25-27; Ps. 16:8-11; and Ps. 73:23-26.
The Greeks had still a different view. They believed in immortality of the soul. But they would have ridiculed the idea of resurrection of the body. The Greeks believed, going all the way back to Plato, that the body is a source of evil, that it is a prison-house for the soul, and that immortality depended on escape from the body.
Since the Hellenistic thought world was Greek, most of the population in the first-century A.D. would have held a typical Greek view. Thus the people who were sympathetic to hearing the apostles preach or teach about the resurrection were few. And the Christian message, which is based on the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and promises bodily resurrection to its adherents, was preached in a hostile thought environment.
In the first eleven verses of chapter 15, Paul focuses on two things; namely, the gospel that he preached to the Corinthians, which they had received, and the Resurrection of Jesus.
The main problem with which Paul is dealing here is seen in verse 12, where he says, “If Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” Obviously some of the Corinthian Christians had been strongly influenced by thinking that denies resurrection of the dead. Therefore Paul intended verses 1-11, which deal with the resurrection of Jesus, to lay a foundation for verses 12-34, which deal with resurrection of the dead.
Notice that Paul says three things in verses 1-2 about the gospel (the good news) he had preached to them. First, he reminds them that they had received that gospel. Second, he reminds them that they were even now taking a stand on that gospel. And third, he reminds them that they were being saved by that gospel. However, he concludes by saying that for all of this to be true they must hold firmly to the message.
In verses 3-5 Paul reviews the gospel that he had preached, and they had received. But first notice in verse three that Paul declares that he himself had received the gospel from others. It was not something that God had revealed first to Paul.
Paul’s review is a lovely and totally simple summary. First, Jesus died for our sins. Second, he was buried, which affirmed that Jesus really was dead. Third, on the third day he rose from the dead; and fourth, he was seen alive by Cephas and the Twelve. And notice that all of this is said to be “according to the scriptures.” Indeed many scholars believe that Paul’s summary represents an early Christian creed. Whether or not that is true, Paul does not stress in this passage the idea that Jesus’ resurrection was a bodily resurrection. But it is clear from the resurrection appearances in the Gospels that Jesus was raised bodily, even though it was quite different from his pre-death body.
After reviewing the gospel, in verse 6-8 Paul lists a series of additional resurrection appearances by Jesus. As you can see Jesus appeared to more than 500 disciples at one time. If it were not for this letter, we would not know about that mass appearance. Then he appeared to James, presumably the brother of Jesus, and to all the apostles. We cannot be sure who Paul meant by “all the apostles,” since the Twelve already have been mentioned. Finally in verse eight Paul offers his own experience. The Lord appeared to him “as one untimely born” (NRSV). Undoubtedly Paul was referring to his experience on the Damascus Road, which he interpreted as a genuine resurrection appearance rather than a vision. He considered himself “one untimely born,” because all other resurrection appearances occurred before Jesus’ ascension.
In verses 9-11 Paul explains why he is “the least of the apostles.” He is undeserving, because earlier he had persecuted the church. And everything he is was the result of God’s grace. He was saved by grace, and he was made an apostle by grace.
Verse 11 is important. In it Paul tells the Corinthians, “Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.” In other words, all the apostles (especially referring to Apollos and Peter in this case) preached the same message, which included resurrection of the dead. And so in verse 12-19 Paul takes up that subject, dealing first with how it relates to Jesus’ resurrection.
As we noted earlier, verse 12 clearly informs us of the main issue. Some of the Corinthians do not believe in resurrection of the dead. In verses 13-14 Paul gives them the logical outcome of their position. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ was not raised. And if Christ was not raised, then both the preaching of the apostles and the faith of the Corinthians are in vain (literally “empty”). That is, there is no basis for either one, because the entire gospel is based on the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Paul presses on in verses 15-19 to declare that rejection of resurrection of the dead means that the apostles and other believers are misrepresenting God, because they have preached and or believed that Christ was raised. The ultimate result is that they are still in their sins, and those Christians who have died have truly perished.
I believe Fee is correct when he suggests that the Corinthians probably had not lost faith in life after death. They likely believed in a bodiless heavenly existence like many people today. But Paul insists that if there is no resurrection, there is no life after death at all and “we are of all people most to be pitied.
Thus far Paul has shown the consequences of rejecting the doctrine of resurrection of the dead. Now as Fee reminds us, Paul continues in 15:20-28 his argument by showing the necessity and inevitability of resurrection.
First Paul declares that in contrast to the denial of some in Corinth, Christ has been raised from the dead as the first fruits of resurrection. Therefore it is inevitable that the dead in Christ will be raised. Second, in verses 21-22, Paul turns to the Adam-Christ analogy. This is the first occurrence of that idea in Paul’s letters. Death came through Adam, meaning through Adam’s sin. And life, via resurrection, comes through Jesus Christ. (See Rom. 5:12-14, 18-19). Third, in verses 23-24 Paul reveals three end-time stages: One, the resurrection of Christ, two, the resurrection of those who belong to Christ when he comes again, and three, at the end after destroying all evil, his act of handing over the kingdom to the Father. For all this to be true, resurrection of the dead is both necessary and inevitable.
Verses 25-28 continue the explanation. And the sum of it is that the last enemy to be destroyed is death, and everything, including the Lord Jesus, eventually will be in subjection to -the Father.
In verses 29-34 Paul turns to how resurrection of the dead relates to several additional matters. In verse 29 Paul mentions something that the Corinthians are doing that others are not, namely, holding baptismal services on behalf of certain people who have died. There is absolutely no way of knowing what they hoped to accomplish by it. The best we can do is to assume that the baptisms were vicariously done on behalf of relatives or friends who had died. At any rate, Paul uses the practice, whatever it was, to add another argument about resurrection of the dead. To baptize dead people makes no sense whatsoever if there is no resurrection of the dead.
In verses 30-32 Paul turns to still another argument. He and others risk their lives for Christ every day. The “wild beasts” that Paul says he wrestled with at Ephesus were not intended to be taken literally. But the risk was that dangerous. His point is that such risk makes no sense if there is no resurrection of the dead. Indeed if death is all there is, one may as well pursue the passing pleasures of the moment (quotation is from Isa. 22:13).
Paul ends the section by exhorting the Corinthians about their moral behavior (vv. 32-33) He demands that they be sober and sin no more. Yes, there is a future beyond this life, because of resurrection of the dead.
This is the last essay until after New Years. We not only have the holiday celebrations, our youngest granddaughter is getting married on December 28.