What would change for you if you knew you were going to receive a billion dollars in 15 years from now?
The topic of spiritual gifts has been discussed by Paul since Chapter 12 and concluded in Chapter 14 with the reminder that the word of God did not originate from them nor is it singularly aimed at them. Prophecy is desired above all gifts for the church to understand the mind of God in the present age in anticipating the age to come. This is where Paul picks up in Chapter 15 – looking toward the future.
Read 1 Corinthians 15:1-34
What did you see? (Observation)
- The well established message of the gospel (1-11)
- The priority of the gospel (1-2)
- The content of the gospel (3-5)
- The witnesses to the gospel (6-8)
- The unworthy witness (9-11)
- The historic resurrection of Christ is key (12-19)
- The order of God and of the end (20-34)
- The firstfruit of the resurrection (20-23)
- Then comes the end (24-26)
- The order of God (27-28)
- What’s the point if death’s the end? (29-34)
We have so much text to deal with here and some deep theological issues to grapple with. I will endeavour to speak to only the things that are hardest!
The well established message of the gospel (1-11)
The priority of the gospel (1-2)
“…remind you…I preached…you received…you stand…you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached…” These verses are simple enough to understand and the lesson is important. Paul preached for a good reason – so that the hearer might be saved. He urges the Corinthians to stand in that same message and not move. The urgency of the gospel is that it is the only way of salvation. This whole chapter stems from these simple words that belief in the gospel is essential – otherwise our faith is in vain. Paul will expand on everything that he has said in these short verses.
“…are being saved…” This is a curious expression. It taps into the idea of the now but not yet – meaning that salvation has come now through Christ and all who believe are saved, but the full reality of salvation is still yet to come. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and these opening verses in Chapter 15 urge the reader to stay with the gospel or else they will not be saved. This speaks into the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. It may imply sanctification but the context of the chapter leads the meaning toward hope for the future as Paul focuses on the topic of the resurrection.
The content of the gospel (3-5)
“For I delivered to you of first importance…” Recall Paul’s words in Chapter 2:2 ‘I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” What he lists next as the content of his message has been considered by scholars to be a record of the earliest creed – a concise statement of faith that is being transmitted as the core of what the early church believed.
“…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures…” The first point to be made is that Christ/Messiah died for our sins. He did not die as an example of love and/or suffering only. His death was for our sins. It is the promised One of God who died.
“…he was buried…” So as to be sure that he truly died.
“…he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” The two emphasised points in the creed is that Jesus died (and then buried) and that he rose (and seen by many). Both are marked with the words, ‘in accordance with the scriptures’. This is not to say that these things happened according to a particular piece of Scripture but that the whole of the Scriptures were pointing to this conclusion. His death accords with the sacrifice of the OT and his resurrection accords with the hope of restoration as described in the OT. See Luke 18:31-33 and Luke 24:44-47 on Jesus aligning the events of his ministry with that of the Scriptures. Of course, there are also moments in the OT that draw very real pointers to the death and resurrection of Jesus such as Isaiah 53:5-6, 11-12 but I commend the reading of the Bible to you as one unfolding story which makes sense when it is concluded in Christ.
Note that the message of the gospel is not primarily the story of those who are saved but the story of Christ. That he died, was buried and rose and that our hope rests on the genuineness of His story over ours. The NT teaches us to find ourselves ‘in Christ’ and that we die because He died. What is paramount and of first importance to us is not our own experience of salvation but the knowledge of salvation through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Cephas” is Peter in Aramaic and means rock.
The witnesses to the gospel (6-8)
“…appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive…” This is a key verse for the historicity of the resurrection. The resurrection of Christ made such a powerful impact on the people in the first century that on one day, 3000 Jews came to believe that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 2). It was after the resurrection that the Christian church arose. Christ’s resurrection was the proof of His ministry and declaration that He was not only sent by God but the One that God had been promising would come. His death suggested his weakness but the resurrection proved his authority and genuineness. The encounter of Jesus with this large crowd of 500 people is not recorded other than here. The risen Christ remained among us for 40 days before his ascension (Acts 1:1-3). These witnesses were able to testify to the resurrection to the readers at Corinth.
“…Cephas….James…to me also…” Three key elders in the church alongside all of the Apostles also mentioned in Verse 7. Peter and Paul were central to the story in Acts as the gospel began in Jerusalem and spread out from there (Acts 1:8) and James, the brother of Jesus, lead the expanded leadership of followers beyond the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15). That is, Peter was head of the 12, Paul the leader in world mission and James the head of the first century church. This is a very short and simplification of things and I do not wish to say anything further than reason why these three names in particular are listed in our current passage. The faith stemming from the resurrection is the faith central to the Christian church from day one.
The unworthy witness (9-11)
“Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.” The message preached and believed is the important thing. Who preached it and who believed is secondary. The letter opened with a similar argument: forget who belongs to Cephas or Apollos or Paul or even Christ – the gospel preached is of Christ died and raised again. Despite Paul’s shaky beginnings, it is the message that he now preaches that matters. And it ought to matter to us too. The quality of the church comes down to the centrality of the gospel – preached and believed.
The historic resurrection of Christ is key (12-19)
The argument in Verses 12-19 are a response to those who claim that there is no resurrection from the dead. Paul’s response to that is to conclude that a) then Christ did not raise b) our preaching is useless because the central message is about Christ died and raised, c) your faith is empty and worthless, d) we are misrepresenting God as One who did the raising, e) you are still in your sins because Christ did not conquer sin and death, f) there is no hope for those who have died before us, g) and if faith in Christ is only beneficial before the grave then this is a really pathetic faith. The resurrection of Christ is crucial to all that we believe. If our belief is in a mystical resurrection or an ideological resurrection or anything other than a bodily resurrection then our hope is gone.
“…we are of all people most to be pitied.” We have the words of eternal life. Without that, we have nothing. And to many outside the church who do not believe in the resurrection through Christ will likely pity us. If the resurrection is fake news then we ought to be at the beach sipping latte’s on a Sunday morning.
The order of God and of the end (20-28)
The firstfruit of the resurrection (20-23)
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…” Paul believes this to be fact. Stated as much already in the opening Verses of this passage. Here put succinctly that the resurrection is a fact. Christ was raised. He was passive in this action. These are the little details that create a bigger picture of the work of the Trinity in salvation. See Romans 8:11.
“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” The logic here is not a universal salvation logic but that through one man came sin and through one man is the source and fountain of salvation. Paul describes Jesus as the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. His is the initial resurrection and a model of the rest to come. Christ was raised first and is the risen LORD seated on the throne right now. Next will be raised all who have died in Christ (and those who believed God in the past (not just believed in God but had the faith of the righteous). Then all who belong to him. Compare 1 Thess 4:13-18.
Then comes the end (24-26)
“For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” The sequence of events in Verses 24-26 are not actually a sequence but a comparison between now and later. Paul begins with “then the end will come…” and mentions the reign of Christ until his enemies are defeated but a careful read ought to reveal that when the end comes, he will hand the kingdom over to God the Father who gave Him the name that is above all names to begin with. Jesus must reign until his enemy is defeated and then the end will come. His reign is right now. Death has been defeated and a day will come when death itself will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:14). So Paul is not describing any millennial position here (for those who understand) but that the next thing to happen in God’s plans for this creation is for death to be destroyed and the kingdom handed back to the Father.
The order of God (27-28)
I have nothing to add to what seems to be a clear statement of fact in Verses 27-28. It is an adventure to pick up clues throughout all of Scripture with regard to the relationship inside the Trinity. If anybody is to use this Verse as an argument against Jesus being God, then further reading on the Trinity is recommended.
What’s the point if death is the end? (29-34)
“…what will those do who are baptized for the dead?” Now this is an interesting verse if ever I’ve seen one! Let me tell you what I believe this means by stepping you through my investigation into this…
- That verse looks odd because it immediately doesn’t fit my theology.
- Either my theology is wrong and we ought to be baptising people on behalf of the dead OR there is something else happening – something I’m missing.
- I wonder if Paul is referring to something that the Corinthians are doing and rather than correct them, he is using their practice (right or wrong) to continue to defend the resurrection.
- BUT I almost never need to lean on background information (cultural practices and such) in order to understand a tricky passage. What is it that we need to use? Context!
- Context will definitely come in handy but I still can’t get around the simple reading of this verse that seems to tell me that people are being baptised on behalf of the dead. I will go to a commentary for some help with the original language…
- Brian Rosner and Roy Ciampa, in their 2012 commentary show convincingly that the word ‘for’ can definitely be translated ‘on account of’. This changes the purpose of the baptism – not for the dead but because of the dead. That is, why do you get baptised on the basis of the faith of those who are now dead?! This is worth exploring and seeing how it fits in the CONTEXT of the rest of the section.
- “If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on account of them? And…why do we endagner ourselves…if the dead are not raised” (emphasis added using Verses 29-32 to see this in it’s context).
So, that is the process I went through to untangle this passage. I did need a commentary to help me at this point and it gave me the confidence with the author’s thorough investigation in the use of the Greek to suggest an alternate reading and then I checked that new reading against the context of the section and it fits very, very well.
Paul has been arguing that if the resurrection is not true then our faith is empty and useless. Verses 29 to 32 are the nail in the coffin of this argument. If death is the end, then why are we bothering to be baptised ourselves and why would we endure the hardships of evangelism? Let’s just eat and drink and sleep in on Sundays cause death is the end!
“…wild beasts in Ephesus…” Paul is using this language to speak of the push back he received there against the gospel but it was worth it for the sake of those who were baptised in the end. It is worth it because the resurrection is real.
“Do not be misled…come back to your senses…there are some who are ignorant of God…” The final two Verses make a good segway to the second half of the Chapter where we’ll pick up next week. There are clearly some people speaking into the hearers in Corinth saying that there is no resurrection and Paul reports that this is corrupting their faith resulting in sin. Perhaps it is these people who are saying: “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Paul says, let’s preach Christ crucified and make disciples, baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit since the resurrection means that we will all be raised up in glory at the last.
What did we learn? (Meaning)
The hope that we have which drives all that we do is for the resurrection. If there is nothing after death, then our faith is stupid. If there is a resurrection then we must pay close attention to the gospel of Jesus Christ, that he died for our sins, and raised up in glory. If we trust in him then we shall be raised up with him. The resurrection of Christ from the dead is the pinnacle of our faith. It points us back to the historic and researchable evidence of Christ and it points us forward to eternal life. And it shapes our present to persevere and fight the good fight of faith.
Now what? (Application)
Topic A: The historic resurrection. Paul says that if Jesus did not rise from the dead then our faith is pointless. So, when we live in an age that even doubts the moon landing (don’t get me started), how can we be so confident that Jesus rose from the dead. Surely we should wonder if this is just an incredible myth that found traction and we’re all fools for continuing to believe it! Well, here are a few thoughts in this very short space. 1) Jesus did die. This is true beyond the gospel narratives. If there is to be a resurrection ‘legend’ then his death must also be concrete. Otherwise any news of seeing Jesus could be discredited by the claim that he didn’t die to begin with. 2) The report that he rose from the dead would be a very extreme lie, easily refuted. This is known as the ‘criterion of embarrassment’. Why would our church thrive on such a ridiculous claim? Furthermore, the gospel accounts speak with such credibility because they use women as their first witnesses. If it was a made up story, it would not have been women as the primary source unless that’s exactly what happened. 3) Paul and Peter and James all claim to have seen the risen Jesus. Now, that’s not the proof. The weight of their report is not in what they said but in the life and ministry that they were willing to die for. Like Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:30-32 – why go through all that if the resurrection was not real? Paul was not relying on secondary evidence but on his own eyes seeing the risen Lord. 4) The shape of the Jewish church did not change on the basis of Jesus’ death but on the basis of His resurrection. There were others who claimed to be the Messiah or someone of importance that came and went, so what made Jesus different? If it were just his teachings then his crucifixion showed that all who followed him fled at such persecution. But the speeches in Acts show that it is the resurrection that gave the apostles the confidence that this was all for real and worth giving your life to.
Topic B: Dealing with difficult Verses. Look back to the explanation of Verse 29 and discuss the good approach to understanding the bible when things are hard. Things NOT to do: 1) write difficult things off as cultural or impossible to know because we don’t know the culture. 2) Ask Google. 3) write off difficult things just because it seems odd or silly. We must humble ourselves under the word of God and not treat the word of God as something that we have the right to sit in judgment over. 4) Import whatever we feel to be right and force the text to agree with us.
Topic C: Looking forward to the resurrection. Paul says that His faith means something only because of the resurrection. He says that he goes on endangering his life because of the resurrection. So, it follows that we ought to have a faith that is strong if we hold fast to the hope of the resurrection and that we are willing to live sacrificially because of the resurrection hope. We can lose everything that we have and know that we will be eternally rich. We can risk friendships if it might mean that people hear the gospel and turn to Christ and live. We can learn the lesson of perseverance and thankfulness even through pain and suffering because we believe in the resurrection. What would you do differently if you knew that in a year from now, you would be living your eternal life with Christ in heaven?