1. Corinthians 15. – The Resurrection, the Foundation of our Faith
In chapters 11-14, Paul dealt with worship in the Church and its associated problems. In chapter 15 he turns to the Resurrection, a subject which had also been problematic for the Corinthians.
The Oldest Confession of Faith in the Resurrection 15:1-11
Paul makes it clear in verses 1-3a, that the Resurrection is at the heart of the Gospel. He had received the Good News, and all that it meant, from others (see Acts 9) and after his conversion went on to share this revelation with those in Corinth and elsewhere. He urges the Corinthians to hold onto the message, without changing it.
In verses 3-7 Paul quotes an ancient Creed. Its core is the fact that Christ died for our sins, “like it was written”, as foretold in the Old Testament. Christ was buried, but rose from the dead on the third day, again, “as it was written”.
Paul tells everyone that Jesus had showed himself to several people after his death, including Paul himself. This list is the oldest list of witnesses to the Resurrection we know. It is decades older than the Gospel accounts written down by the Evangelists. Paul doesn’t speak about revelations within charismatic experiences. Instead he offers only a limited list of witnesses. Paul lists himself at the end of the list; he too was among the witnesses who had seen the Resurrected Lord appear amongst them.
The witness list is, however, incomplete. The women who witnessed the Resurrected Christ as recounted in the Gospel stories are not listed. This omission was understandable at the time Paul wrote: The brief list is based on the witness of the Apostles, and it was learned by heart. To us, however, the women’s Gospel testimony is significant.
Paul states that Jesus appeared to more than 500 men, as well as to James. It would be wonderful to find out more details of these appearances, particularly those to the 500 men, but unfortunately, we do not know more than what Paul writes here.
The old and precise sentences in the Creed tell of the work Christ fulfilled here on earth: He suffered, died and was buried, but on the third day He rose from the dead. The talk about Christ’s Resurrection is not just ‘pie in the sky’ wishful thinking. The Apostles had actually seen the risen Lord. The Church’s faith is not based on delusion, but rather rests on a strong footing. We have strong evidence from the Apostles, that Christ is alive.
The Innovations in Corinth 15:12
Paul writes about the Resurrection of Christ because the Church of Corinth had had difficulties also in this matter. There were some who denied the bodily resurrection. This is easy to understand, because the resurrection of the body has always been an aspect of Christianity that offends some people. How many of us actually believe in the resurrection of the body, just like the Apostle Paul?
There was a common thinking in the Greek-Roman world that the material human body was bad, but the soul of the human was a spark of glory and good. The body was seen as the limiting factor, the restraint on the soul preventing it from thinking and doing good things, such as, for example, approaching higher level and divinity. This Greek way of thinking did not accept the message of the Old Testament, which was that a man is a single entity, and completely created by God, and there is no clean, unspoiled part in him. Man is fully what he is, fallen in sin and evil, but redeemed by Christ, and therefore pure and loved by God.
The freethinkers in the church of Corinth did not want to accept the resurrection of the body. For them bodily resurrection was a false and abhorrent idea and also extremely uncivilized. They wanted to make it as abstract and distant as possible, and wanted to “interpret” it in a bad way. We do not know exactly what they believed. Maybe they believed in the immortality of the soul in some way, but by no means resurrection of the body.
The Resurrection is true! 15:13-28
Paul puts the modest looking detail to these big frames. Behind the resurrection of one person, Jesus, there is the resurrection of all. The resurrection of all is based on the Resurrection of the Christ, which in turn is based on the fact that God accepted Christ’s atonement. Every link in this chain is important and true in every point. That is why our resurrection is a sure thing.
All will die, states Paul, for Adam pulled the human race towards death. But all shall rise from the dead, because Jesus had brought life to the world. This will be seen on the Last Day, when Jesus returns all the power to God and the Son will submit to the power of the Father.
This teaching is extremely important to Paul, and needs our careful attention. Since God accepted Christ’s atonement, he raised Him from the dead. Because Christ rose from the dead, everyone will be raised from the dead. Given that all shall rise from the dead, every Christian can be sure to rise from the dead. Whoever denies even one link in this chain, says Paul, breaks the whole chain. If one does not believe in the resurrection of all people, he denies Christ’s atonement and that God had sent Jesus.
Thus, according to Paul, it is not possible to be Christian without believing in resurrection. If the Resurrection is ignored or denied, everything else falls apart.
Without the Resurrection all the suffering would be in vain 15:29-34
There have been dozens of attempts to explain verse 29, yet most of the explanations are implausible. In any case, it is clear that the Corinthians knew what was going on. It is possible that some had converted to Christianity in order be together – after death - with their loved ones who had been Christian converts. More likely, however, is that in Corinth, some had been baptized on behalf of their already dead relatives, in order to bring them salvation. Paul does not get into this debate. Instead, he simply mentions it as a way of highlighting the importance of the resurrection. If there is no resurrection for us, baptism itself is rendered useless. All the work of the Apostles and the risk of persecution would also have been in vain. So, the Church stands or falls on the Resurrection.
How will we be after death? 15:35-49
Paul also talks about how the dead will wake up and what kind of body they will inhabit. The passage actually says little about what a person is like when he comes face to face with God, after death. Paul, however, uses metaphors, which tell us something but nonetheless leaves many things vague.
We can, however, say something. During our earthly life we are like the first man, Adam. In our future heavenly lives we will be like the second man, Jesus. This is how we change: the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality. When we are resurrected, the whole person becomes alive, although glorified. It is like a seed concealed in the field which then rises as a plant. Once resurrected from death a person somehow resembles what s/he was on the earth, but in another way has deeply changed.
Paul uses many metaphors here. One star is brighter than the other, but both are stars. Animals have different kinds of flesh, but it is still meat. Perhaps the most striking image, however, is the fact that on earth we are like the first man, but in heaven we have Christ’s glory.
We clearly do not know what we will become, and our curiosity remains unsatisfied. We are assured however, that one day we will know, and we will see it for ourselves, because Christ is risen from the dead and has crushed the power of death over us.
Will everyone die? 15:50-58
The end of the chapter makes it clear that in Paul’s thought the Resurrection and Day of Judgment are closely related to one another. Some Christians will be alive when Christ comes. It does not mean, however, that these Christians would simply walk into the Kingdom of God. The perishable will not inherit the imperishable. Although not all will fall asleep to their death, those who are alive on the Last Day will be visibly changed. Those that are alive will experience the trumpet call suddenly. This way the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality.
The same applies to death and resurrection: “Death has been swallowed up in victory!” These truths should give the Corinthian Christians the strength to strive as Christians.