1 Corinthians 15-16 (1)
Malcolm Horlock, Cardiff, Wales
CHAPTER 15 - PART ONE
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul was concerned with the resurrection of the dead, and with the resurrection of believers in particular.
Verses 12, 34 and 35 help us to understand a little of the background to Paul’s arguments. Note the references to ‘some’ in verses 12 and 34, and to ‘someone’ in verse 35. The questions posed in verse 35 were clearly not genuine questions or enquiries. As we shall see later, these questions express the principal objection of certain false teachers at Corinth to the doctrine of resurrection; namely that the whole idea of resurrection was patently absurd. ‘Go on then’, they were saying, ‘if you insist on there being a “resurrection”, explain to us the mechanics of dead folk being raised – and with what sort of body do you dream they will come?’ The questions were a crude attempt to decry and belittle the Christian’s faith in resurrection. Hence Paul’s sharp retort, ‘Foolish one’, v. 36. Paul was in no mood to mince words because he was confronting, not a sincere enquirer after truth, but a determined scoffer at truth.
We learn then that there were ‘some’ within the church itself who denied the resurrection of the dead – and by definition the resurrection of believers. Paul doesn’t fill in any details about who the ‘some’ were. He didn’t need to; the Corinthians knew well enough. But we need to give some thought to who the ‘some’ were.
We note first that the statement ‘If the dead do not rise, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!”’, v. 32, makes sense only if the false teachers denied any kind of life after death. It is clear therefore that they denied the truth of resurrection for much the same reason as did the Jewish sect of the Sadducees; namely, that men and women cease to exist altogether when they die – that there is nothing at all beyond what Paul calls ‘this life’, v. 19. The false teachers at Corinth had no more time for faith in the immortality of the soul than they did for faith in the resurrection of the body. In all likelihood they belonged to (or at the very least were strongly influenced by) the Epicurean school of philosophy – representatives of which Paul had encountered at Athens shortly before his first missionary visit to Corinth, Acts 17. 18; 18. 1.
The words ‘let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die!’, v. 32, were not only reminiscent of the burden of Isaiah the prophet, Isa. 22. 13; they also represented a well-known Epicurean maxim which summed up much of its philosophy. And Saul of Tarsus would have been familiar with this philosophy better than most. The traditional founder of Tarsus was a character named Sardanapalus. It so happened that the neighbouring town of Anchiale boasted a large statue of Sardanapalus, sitting and snapping his fingers contemptuously. The inscription on the pedestal of the statue read, ‘Sardanapalus . . . built Anchiale and Tarsus in one day . . . eat, drink and enjoy yourself; for all the rest is nothing’. Paul would certainly have known of Sardanapalus, if not seen this actual statue. (Sources : M. R. Vincent’s Word Studies, vol. III, page 278, and T. Teignmouth Shore’s remarks on 1 Corinthians 15. 32 in Ellicott’s Bible Commentary.)
Separately, Paul quoted a saying of the Greek writer Menander, ‘Evil company corrupts good habits (possibly, good character or good morals)’, v. 33. Menander wrote a series of comedies and plays about 300 BC, and his works were still very popular in Paul’s day. We know that Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was written from Ephesus, 1 Cor. 16. 8. Interestingly, archaeologists, when excavating in the vicinity of the theatre of Ephesus in 1967, unearthed a house decorated throughout with theatrical scenes from Menander’s comedies. We gather therefore that Menander was well known, and well liked, in the city from which Paul sent his epistle - and Menander was a well-known Epicurean. (Source : Archaeology and the Bible, by D. J. Wiseman and E. Yamauchi, page 94.) Epicurean philosophy was therefore still very much in vogue when Paul wrote.
It seems likely that the ‘some’ about whom Paul wrote were, to say the least, tinged with Epicurean teaching. They had no real knowledge of God, and yet, to the Corinthians’ shame, these men were tolerated in the church, v. 34. They weren’t true Christians at all and yet, Paul said, the ‘some’ were ‘among you’, v. 12. They may have been few in number (being only ‘some’), but their doctrine was highly dangerous, attacking as it did the very foundations of the Christian gospel. It is for this reason, no doubt, that the apostle devoted such a large amount of space to combating their error.
An overview of the chapter
Verses 1-34 deal with the denial of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. The section ends with the practical implication of believing that
Verses 35-58 deal with the main intellectual objection to the doctrine. The section ends with the practical implication of believing that this life is not all that there is, v. 58. If for us as believers there is a real heaven the other side of death and a time of review for all our service, then we should live for God and be energetic and resolute in our labour for the Lord.
An outline of verses 1-34
The first half of the chapter comprises two main sections: namely, verses 1-19 and verses 20-34. Both of these sections consist (i) of a block of Christian teaching, vv. 1- 11, 20-28, followed by (ii) the implications of denying that particular teaching, vv. 12-19, 29-34.
In verses 1-11, Paul asserts that the resurrection of Christ forms an essential and integral part of the apostolic gospel. This section looks backward – transporting us into the realm of history.
In verses 20-28, Paul asserts that the resurrection of the believer forms an essential and integral part of God’s programme for the future. This section looks forward – projecting us into the realm of prophecy.
In verses 12-19, Paul draws out the implications of denying that Christ has been raised; note the words, ‘if Christ has not been raised’, vv. 14, 17 lit.
In verses 29-34, Paul draws out the implications of denying that the believer will be raised; note the words, ‘if the dead are not raised’, vv. 29, 32 lit.
EXPOSITION OF VERSES 1-34
The resurrection of Christ forms an essential and integral part of the apostolic gospel, vv. 1-11.
Paul begins by asserting that the resurrection of Christ lies at the very heart of the gospel – that it is of fundamental importance – and offers eyewitness evidence for its historical reality, vv. 1-11. The relevance of this section to Paul’s overall argument lies in that any denial of the resurrection of the dead necessarily involves the denial of the resurrection of Christ, vv. 13, 16. For it follows logically that, if there is no such thing as resurrection, then nobody has ever been raised – and that includes Jesus.
The block of teaching about the resurrection of Christ is sandwiched between two references to what was ‘preached’ by the early church. Paul opens with a reference to ‘the gospel which I preached’, v. 1 (namely that message which he had preached in the past to the Corinthians), and he closes with the expression ‘whether it was I or they, so we preach’, v. 11 (namely that message which he and others were still preaching). Paul is at pains to emphasize the point that the resurrection of Christ is inescapably part and parcel of the apostolic gospel.
This is also, he says, the gospel they had received, in which they stood and by which they were being saved, vv. 1-2. They had ‘received’ it from Paul, v. 1, just as he in turn had ‘received’ it, v. 3 – presumably from the Lord Himself. (Compare Paul’s claims elsewhere; ‘I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you’ and ‘the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ’, 1 Cor. 11. 23; Gal. 1. 11-12.)
He had ‘delivered‘ to them four key statements as of ‘first’ (i.e., of primary) importance – four simple propositions which stood at the very forefront of his message, vv. 3-5. These four statements are each introduced with the word ‘that’.
The first and third statements (that ‘Christ died’ and ‘He rose again’) are distinguished from the second and fourth (that ‘He was buried’ and ‘was seen’) by (i) the addition of explanatory details (‘for our sins’ and ‘the third day’) and (ii) the claim to the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy (‘according to the Scriptures’). It was said of the house of Dagon at Gaza that there were ‘two middle pillars which supported the temple’, Judg. 16. 29. So too, metaphorically speaking, the gospel stands on two great central pillars – the death and resurrection of Jesus. Compare Paul’s summaries elsewhere; ‘to this end Christ died and lived again’ and ‘if we believe that Jesus died and rose again’, Rom. 14. 9 lit. and 1 Thess. 4. 14.
The second and fourth statements (that He ‘was buried’ and ‘was seen’) function as supporting evidence for the first and third statements. They both tell us what men did. Christ died – and one of the ways we know that He died is that men buried Him. He rose again – and one of the ways we know that He rose again is that men saw Him. He ‘died for our sins’, v. 3, that we might not remain in them! If He hadn’t died and risen, we would be ‘still in’ our ‘sins’, v. 17, and, even worse, as was the case with the Jews to whom Jesus once spoke, we would die in them, John 8. 24.
‘He rose again’, v. 4, is literally ‘He has been raised’. The tense Paul used in describing Jesus’ resurrection differs radically from that which he used in the other three propositions. In each of the other three cases, the tense refers to a single act - to a historical event. There was a moment when He died . . . was a moment when He was buried . . . was a moment when He was seen by Cephas (being the Aramaic for Peter). But, by way of contrast, the tense Paul used to describe Jesus’ resurrection indicates that in this case the effect continues - the result remains until the present. In a word, He is the living Lord! And Paul underlines this particular point by using the same tense seven times in the immediate context, vv. 4, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 20.
The main point which Paul wants to press home on the Corinthians is that, as far as the gospel is concerned, the resurrection of Jesus is far from some minor detail or unimportant ingredient. It ranks of first importance, being one of the two events which form the very foundation of the gospel. In support of his claim that the Lord Jesus ‘has been raised’, Paul is able to appeal not only to the witness of the Old Testament prophets, v. 4, but to that of the New Testament apostles and others, vv. 5-8. Paul chooses his witnesses carefully. He cites just six occasions on which the risen Lord appeared, on three occasions to individuals and on three occasions to groups. He focuses on accessible, credible, publicly acceptable witnesses, for the most part men who were prominent and conspicuous in the church. His catalogue of witnesses stretches from Peter (the first man to see the risen Lord, Luke 24. 34), through ‘all the apostles’, to himself.
Note Paul’s mention of ‘over five hundred brethren at once’, v. 6, and remember that he was writing no more than twenty-five years after the reported event. And most of these ‘brethren’, he points out, were still alive, and were therefore still available as witnesses. Paul wasn’t afraid that someone might call his bluff. If called on, he could produce the witnesses. Paul’s expression ‘at once’ (at one time, lit.) rules out any question of hallucination. And twenty-five years certainly didn’t allow sufficient time for some myth or legend to have evolved. ‘Some have fallen asleep’, v. 6, is a lovely euphemism to describe the bodily condition of dead Christians, conveying not only the ideas of rest and peace but the promise that in due course the body will wake again.
‘Last of all He was seen by me’, v. 8, tells us that the appearances of the risen Lord ceased as abruptly as they had commenced – a further argument against any theory of hallucinations. Paul’s encounter with Jesus was distinguished from the experience of the others cited because Paul saw Jesus after He had gone back to heaven; cf. Acts 22. 14; 1 Cor. 9. 1. Paul knew full well that his life hadn’t been so radically changed by an encounter with a dead religious leader!
Paul’s mention of his own conversion, v. 8, leads him to digress for a moment. He is quick to acknowledge his own unworthiness, describing himself as ‘one born out of due time’ – as ‘a still-born babe’ lit. In all probability, this was a term of abuse hurled at Paul by his foes at Corinth. The Roman historian Suetonius told how, in the days of Emperor Augustus, the people labelled as ‘still-born ones’ some Roman senators who were unworthy of office and who had been elected only as a result of bribery and string-pulling. It was, that is, a term of contempt for someone known to be unworthy of high office. The apostle is acknowledging himself to be no more ‘worthy’ (‘sufficient’ lit.) to be called an apostle than a still-born baby is fit to be called a man. But although Paul confessed that he wasn’t worthy to be called an apostle, he knew that he was called to be one, 1. 1.
Paul doesn’t disclaim his fitness to be classed with the other apostles because he was in any way inferior to them in office or message - nor because he fell behind them in terms of service or sufferings for Christ, v. 9. Far from it. For he, the last apostolic recruit, excelled the others in active service and suffering, v. 10. His unworthiness stemmed only from what he had been before he became a Christian, v. 9. For, in one sense, Paul was unable to erase his past. He could never forget the role he had played as arch-persecutor of the early church. The memory stayed with him throughout his whole Christian life, Acts 22. 4; 26. 11; Gal. 1. 13; Phil.3. 6; 1 Tim. 1. 13.
‘But by grace of God’, he continues, v. 10. ‘Yes’, Paul is saying, ‘it is the God whose church I persecuted who bestowed His grace on me’. And the apostle stood in no doubt what that church had cost God – nothing less than the blood of His own Son, Acts 20. 28! What amazing grace. Paul is careful to attribute everything to God’s undeserved favour shown to him, drawing attention to that grace no less than three times in one verse, v. 10. ‘Thankfully’, Paul could have said, ‘‘I am not what I have been’, v. 9. ‘Regrettably’, he might have said, ‘I am not what I am going to be’, v. 51. But it was sufficient for his present purpose for him to be able to say, ‘by the grace of God ‘I am what I am’, v. 10.
The implications of denying that Christ has been raised, vv. 12-19
At its first public reading, verse 12 probably exploded like a bomb in the unsuspecting church at Corinth. The saints may well have been wondering when hearing the first eleven verses why the apostle had found it necessary to place such emphasis on the resurrection of Christ. Now they knew!
It is clear that the majority of the saints at Corinth had failed to think through any of the devastating consequences of denying the truth of resurrection. The first, and most obvious, consequence was that ‘if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen’, ‘for if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen’, vv. 13,16. And so in verses 14- 19 Paul proceeds to draw attention briefly to seven implications of denying the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
- ‘Our preaching (proclamation) is empty’, v. 14. If Christ had not been raised out of the dead, the apostles’ proclamation was void of substance. The gospel would have been robbed of its contents. It would have been worthless.
- So too is our ‘faith’, v. 14. Because our faith rests foursquare on the gospel proclamation, it shares the same fate as that proclamation. If Christ has not been raised out of the dead, our faith is therefore empty and worthless also.
- ‘We are found false witnesses of God’, v. 15. If Christ had not been raised out of the dead, Paul and the other apostles stood convicted of misrepresenting God. We know that the apostle was familiar with the book of Job; note his quotation ‘He catches the wise in their own craftiness’, 3. 19, from Job 5. 13. He would therefore have known of the Lord’s words to Eliphaz the Temanite towards the close of the book, ‘My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right’, Job 42. 7. It is no light thing to misrepresent God. To Paul it would have been an exceedingly serious matter.
- Our faith ‘is futile’, v. 17. If Christ has not been raised out of the dead, our faith is not only ‘empty’, v. 14, but ineffective. It is not only void of content, v. 14; it is void of result. It is not only worthless, v. 14; it is useless. It is not only worth nothing, v. 14; it can accomplish nothing.
- ‘You are still in your sins’, v. 17. Paul instances one critical area where, if Christ has not been raised out of the dead, our faith is ineffective – we are yet in our sins! If the Lord Jesus is not risen, then He was, as the Jewish rulers maintained, a ‘deceiver’ (‘an impostor’), Matt. 27. 63, for He staked His claims to be who He was on His forthcoming resurrection, Matt. 12. 38- 40; John 2. 18-19; cf. Rom. 1. 4. If He has not been raised, His death was no different to that of other men. And, as such, it had no value whatsoever as an offering for sin. We thank God that He ‘who was delivered up because of our offences . . . was raised because of our justification’, Rom. 4. 25.
- ‘Those who have fallen asleep in Christ haveperished’, v. 18. If Christ has not been raised out of the dead, there are serious consequences, Paul is saying, not only for living Christians, v. 17, but for those who have already died. For, if Christ has not been raised out of the dead, those we describe as having ‘fallen asleep’ are not in reality sleeping at all – they have forever perished! Such words may have been particularly painful for Paul. Had they been true, they would have meant Luke was wrong when he wrote of Stephen, the man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, to whose murder Paul had once consented, that he ‘fell asleep’, Acts 7. 60. For, if Christ had not been raised out of the dead, Stephen would ‘have perished’ under the hail of stones!
- ‘We are of all men the most pitiable’, v. 19. If Christ had not been raised out of the dead, Paul and his associates could themselves entertain no hope beyond the present life. Given that their present lives consisted largely of ceaseless toil and bitter persecution, they were surely of all men most to be pitied. ‘To the present hour’, Paul had said earlier, ‘we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless . . . we labour . . . being reviled . . . being persecuted … being defamed … . We have been made as the filth (the refuse) of the world, the offscouring of all things until now’, 4. 11- 13. ‘And there are some among you’, he is now saying, ‘who would have us believe that our expectation of a better world is doomed to bitter disappointment – that our confidence has been entirely misplaced. If what these men teach is true, we are to be pitied more than any’.
Such would be some of the implications of denying the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. With what joy of heart therefore must Paul have opened his next block of teaching, ‘But now Christ has risen from the dead’, v. 20.
The resurrection of the believer forms an essential and integral part of God’s programme for the future, vv. 20-28
Turning from the resurrection of Christ to that of the believer, Paul explains in verses 20-28 that the resurrection of the Christian - and indeed of all men - forms an essential part of God’s plan and purpose for the future.
This block of teaching begins with Paul’s outburst of overpowering conviction – ‘But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’, v. 20. It is at least possible that the apostle’s reference to Christ as ’the first fruits’ was suggested to him because his letter was written shortly before the Feast of Pentecost, 16. 8. This might account also for his earlier references to the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread, 5. 7-8. For the Old Testament background, with the four feasts detailed in the same order as the allusions in 1 Corinthians, see Lev. 23. 4-21.
As raised from the dead, Paul is saying, Christ is the first of an abundant harvest; He is the pledge and guarantee of the gathering in of the rest. But some may wonder in what sense can the Lord Jesus be said to be ‘the first fruits’? What, they might ask, about the cases of resurrection in the days of Elijah and Elisha?, see 1 Kgs 17. 17-23; 2 Kgs 4. 18-37. And what about those raised by the Lord Himself ‘in the days of His flesh’?, see Luke 7. 11-17; 8. 41-56; John 11. 1-45. The very same questions arise out of the claim which Paul made before King Agrippa that, following our Lord’s suffering, He ‘would be the first to rise from the dead’, Acts 26. 23.
Paul gives us at least part of the answer to these questions in his letter to the Romans; ‘Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him’, Rom.6. 9. Our Lord’s resurrection stands in marked contrast, for example, to that of Lazarus. Lazarus was indeed raised, but then Lazarus would die again. Again, Lazarus ‘came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth’, John 11. 44. Lazarus hadn’t passed through the graveclothes – nor could he pass through the graveclothes, any more than he could pass through the walls of the rock tomb. For Lazarus still had the same kind of body as he had before. He necessarily came out through the same tomb doorway through which he had been carried in. But it was altogether different with the Lord Jesus. Our Lord rose to a new kind of life, bursting through both graveclothes and tomb to an altogether different dimension; cf. Heb.7. 15-16, 23-25.
It is, Paul argues, in every way fitting that resurrection should come through the agency of man - because death had come through that agency, vv. 21-22. Just then as death was introduced through a man, so life (resurrection in particular) will be introduced through a man. Just as Adam brought ‘death’ (including physical death) not only on himself but on his whole family and line, so Christ not only rose Himself but will be the means of bringing ‘life’ (including physical life; namely, resurrection) to all His line - that is, to all those who by faith are linked with Him.
‘Each one in his own order’, v. 23, is a military metaphor. The word ‘order’ has to do with the arrangement of a regiment of troops into its various ranks. That is, each is raised in his own rank; Christ the firstfruits, then those who are ‘of Christ’ - those who belong to Him. This latter event will take place ‘at His coming’; i.e., at His arrival and presence. Compare the use of the same word in the following chapter, ‘I am glad about the coming of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus’, 16. 17. Paul also links together the Lord’s ‘coming’ and the resurrection of dead believers (‘the dead in Christ will rise first’) in his first letter to the Thessalonians, 1 Thess. 4. 15-16.
‘Then’, v. 24, signifies ‘subsequently’, not necessarily following straight after; see its use e.g., in Mark 4. 17, ‘comes the end’; that is, the climax, the consummation. Here we reach the very borderland of eternity. The Lord Jesus is to deliver the kingdom to God the Father - but only, it is important to note, after He ‘puts an end to (abolishes, renders powerless, puts out of commission, immobilises) all rule, and all authority and power’. Note the concentrated emphasis on the word ‘all’ throughout verses 24-28, occurring as it does no less than ten times in five verses. Indeed, Paul’s whole argument rests on the word.
The stages in his argument are quite simple:
- As set out in Psalm 8 verse 6, God’s purpose and programme is that ‘all’ things are to be subjected beneath our Lord’s feet – beneath the feet of the Son of Man, v. 27.
- The only One not to be subjected is God Himself, v. 27.
- If all things are to subjected to the Lord Jesus, it follows necessarily that all His enemies (all who oppose and resist Him) must be put beneath His feet and abolished, v. 25.
- But one of His principal enemies is death. Death will not be allowed to have the last word for, at the very end of time, ‘Death’ and ‘Hades’ will be required to surrender up the dead that are in them and will then both be hurled into the lake of fire, Rev. 20. 13-14. In that passage, John personifies ‘Death’ and ‘Hades’ as two cruel tyrants. ‘Death’ has claimed and held men’s bodies, and ‘Hades’ has claimed and held their souls. John sees these two powerful despots defeated and destroyed, long after the Beast and false prophet - and even after the devil himself, v. 10. Our Lord already holds the keys of both Hades and of Death, 1. 18, but only at the very end will both be finally and eternally destroyed. Then, and only then, can it be said, ‘there is no more death’, 21. 4. So it is that ‘Death’ will hold out to the last scene of all – it will therefore be the very last enemy to be destroyed, v. 26. But destroyed it will be!
- Yet ‘Death’, the last enemy, can only be said to be vanquished if his terrible grip is broken and he is compelled to yield up all the victims and spoil he has ever claimed. That is, for ‘Death’ to be properly defeated, all men must be raised at some point or other.
Paul’s argument is, then, that death (‘the last enemy’) must be subdued and defeated before it can be said that all Christ’s enemies are beneath His feet. And, until that moment of final victory, the Lord Jesus is unable to deliver up the subdued kingdom to God - that God might be all in all. In other words, Paul is saying, God’s ultimate and eternal purpose must remain forever unfulfilled – God cannot be all in all - unless first the dead (all the dead) have been raised. Paul rests his case. There must be resurrection!
In verses 29-34, the apostle pinpoints some of the implications of denying that there will be a resurrection, in particular for believers.
To be continued.