1 Corinthians 15

1 Corinthians can be thought of the manual for church operations because from beginning to end, it covers the gamut of problems any church can face. Paul deals with personal and ethical issues, liturgical issues, problems surrounding the exercise of spiritual gifts, and with chapter 15, Paul will deal with doctrinal problems.

There was an element in the Corinthian church that believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ but not in the resurrection of God’s people. They were “Christians” because they believed whole-heatedly in the bodily resurrection of Christ, but they had been so influenced by false teachings outside the church that they disbelieved in their own bodily resurrection. The teachings of popular Greek philosophies were finding their home in the Corinthian church, and these Greek ideas “envisaged the disembodied spirit of man passing through the planetary spheres finally sloughing off every part of man’s flesh-and-blood existence, even self-consciousness and reason.” (James L. Price)

The popular notion of the day was that all material things were either evil or the source of all evil, therefore man’s physical body could never be part of heaven. They believed in the immortality of the soul, but not of the body. This, of course, was in total contradiction to apostolic teaching which said that the bodily resurrection of Christ was just the “firstfruits” or the initial evidence of the resurrection of the Christian. Christ’s work of redemption is total; He has redeemed the whole person, including the body.

I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. (1 Corinthians 15:50)

While this is undoubtedly true, Paul will go on to reveal to his readers a great “mystery.” The resurrection of the believer is not merely a change of states, from death to life, but it is a complete change from a “physical body” to a “spiritual body.” The mystery is that there will be a continuity: our resurrected bodies will be new, but they will be ours.

The under-discussed topic of the resurrection of the believer was of prime importance to Paul. He based his entire life of faith in Christ on the hope of his personal resurrection.

1. The resurrection of Christ, 15:1—11

Paul’s defense of the resurrection of the believer rests on the fact of Christ’s resurrection. Up to this point in his letter, Paul has already taught that the Church is in reality a living organism with Christ as its Head. His logic is flawless: If Christ as the Head of the body arose, the body will also rise.

Results of Paul’s teaching, vs. 1, 2

The denial of the resurrection of believers carried with it serious consequences. The Corinthians had originally accepted, believed, and been committed to the true Gospel as preached by Paul and others. The result of their acceptance of that Word was their salvation. By entertaining a “new teaching” that denied the bodily resurrection of believers was to alter that true Gospel!

This is the insidious nature of all false teaching; rarely do those Christians who believe it realize the full ramifications of believing a teaching that is contrary to the Gospel. To accept the truth of the Gospel, live by the Gospel and stand up for the Gospel would mean nothing if all of a sudden you start believing false doctrines. To believe in false teaching is to alter your original commitment.

Foundation of the Gospel and the witness of history, vs. 3—11

How certain was Paul that Christ rose from the dead? He lists no less than six historical proofs of the event:

  • Cephas, or Peter was an eye witness. A large number of the members of the Corinthian church were loyal to Peter, so they would appreciate and respect his testimony.

  • The Twelve, or the original group of apostles. Actually, there were only 10 who witnessed the risen Lord the first time, since Judas had killed himself and Thomas was absent. Eventually, though, 11 saw the risen Christ personally. The word of the apostolic body carried tremendous weight in the early Church years.

  • 500 witnesses. Just in case some of the Corinthians had doubts about memories of The Twelve, they could ask some 500 other folks who had seen the risen Jesus!

  • James. This, of course, was James the brother of Jesus, who was a disbeliever during Jesus’ lifetime. However, the Resurrection seemed to be the determining factor that convinced James the skeptic that Jesus Christ was who He claimed to be.

  • All the apostles.

  • Paul himself. Paul did not see Christ only in a vision. He believed that what he saw on the road to Damascus was, in fact, the risen Lord Himself.

So all the original apostles and several hundred other believers in the Early Church were eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ and Paul, along with the other evangelists, preached the same Gospel with the same emphasis of the resurrection and this Gospel, verified by history and eyewitness testimony, was exactly what the Corinthians believed. Why change now?

2. What happens when you believe bad theology, 15:12—19

Paul had just shown that the resurrection of Christ was an established historical fact, attested to by the Gospel and by eyewitness accounts. That was the good news. Now for the bad news. What happens if a Christian rejects the resurrection? By appealing to our reason, Paul uses an argument known as reductio ad absurdum, “reduction to the absurd.” In other words, Paul will show what happens if you don’t accept the doctrine of the resurrection as taught in the Gospel: it results in an untenable, absurd position. Without the resurrection, Christianity folds up.

The argument: The resurrection of Christ is undeniable. Therefore, if just one person rose from the dead, how can anybody deny it? So key is the resurrection to the Christian faith, Paul reaches the end of his argument with:

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. (vs. 17)

And what is the final result of refusing to believe in the resurrection of the dead?

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (vs. 19)

In other words, we’ve been duped if there is no resurrection. We’ve believed a lie and we’re all lost.

The point of Paul’s case for the resurrection of Christ and of believers is that no Christian is free to pick and choose what parts of the Gospel to accept and which parts to reject! As they say, “In for a penny, in for a pound.” Salvation is an all or no thing proposition. You either believe it all, or you don’t believe it at all: reductio ad absurdum, it’s ridiculous to think otherwise.

3. The doctrine of the resurrection, 15:20—34

Just as there is certainty about Christ’s resurrection, we can be 100% sure of our future resurrection. He was the “firstfruit,” the first of many who will eventually be resurrected at the great ingathering of believers at the fulfilment of the redemption of the Kingdom of God.

The logic and theology of these verses is breathtaking. In this section, Paul explains how the believer’s future resurrection is vitally connected to Christ’s historic resurrection. As death entered the world through one man, Adam, resurrection entered the world through another man, Christ. Adam gave the gift of death to man, Jesus gives the gift of resurrection.

The thing is, though, just as it took a while for death to work its way through the human race (life spans got gradually shorter and shorter, most people don’t die after they commit their first sin), so the resurrection must be worked out in the believer. This is how we can be saved now, but not yet glorified; salvation from sin is not all there is, as Paul wrote in verse 19. It really is just the beginning.

But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. (vs. 23)

Like everything else God does, there is an order to the resurrection: Christ first, then later we who belong to Him. But notice this verse:

Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. (vs. 24)

Christ is completely victorious over every single enemy of man, even death, but the subjection of death—the last enemy—is a process. That’s why we die. But at some time in the future, Christ’s victory of death will be fully realized by His followers when we personally experience our own resurrection, just like our Lord’s.

But why the delay? Verse 25 gives us the answer:

For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.

During this period, between our salvation and our resurrection, between Christ’s resurrection and His second coming, all of Christ’s enemies need to be destroyed. The emphasis of verse 25 is “until.” This world will be delivered to God but only after Christ, the King, has subjected all powers. This is certainty, but it will take time.

Now, for the sake of continuing his argument in support of our eventual resurrection, Paul makes two negatives comments. First, if there is no resurrection, then why are some being baptized on behalf of a dead person? This is a puzzling verse, but probably refers to the strange practice of vicarious baptism—that is, baptizing a living person in the place of another who died unbaptized. And second, if there is no resurrection, why are the apostles risking their lives preaching a Gospel that teaches it? Why would anybody endure the risks associated with Christianity if the end of all things is death?

The summation of Paul’s argument is wonderfully succinct:

Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame. (vs. 33, 34)

There was a real danger that some in the Corinthian church were being corrupted by unsaved friends. This could have been why so many were now disbelieving of the believer’s resurrection. The phrase “do not be mislead” does not mean misled by others, rather, it means don’t deceive yourselves! The point of Paul’s admonition is that if a believer keeps the wrong company (in this case, those who deny the resurrection), he may corrupt his otherwise good Christian witness and turn other believers away from the truth.

4. The nature of the resurrection body, 15:35—50

Now to the verses so many believers are interested in: what will our “resurrection bodies” be like? Paul begins his answer with two questions: “How are the dead raised” and “With what kind of body will they come?”

In response to those questions, Paul exclaimed:

How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. (vs. 36)

What does this mean? Most of us aren’t farmers, so thankfully, Paul goes on to explain, writing that all believers would receive a resurrection body perfectly suited for life in the spiritual world. By using a nature from analogy, Paul makes it clear that death is merely a transition to a higher form of life.

Seeds, vs. 36—38

A seed goes through stages: it is planted in the ground, it dies (germinates), finally it re-appears, transformed and alive.

Men and animals, vs. 39

People, animals, fish, and foul all have different kinds of flesh. Why does Paul bring this up? He is preparing his readers for the notion that there are different kinds of bodies—different forms of life, if you will—yet all are alive.

Heavenly bodies, vs. 40, 41

Again, Paul illustrates the differences between heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but God created all.

Application of the analogy, vs 42—44

With a series of powerful contrasts, Paul describes the resurrection body in terms of how different it will be from our earthly bodies.

First Adam/Second Adam, vs. 45—50

More contrasts show the differences between our present earthly bodies and our future resurrection bodies. The first Adam was a man created from the dirt, and because we are related to him, we all have a physical body like his. The the last Adam, Christ, is not from the dirt, but from heaven, and because of our relationship to Him, we will have a spiritual body. The spiritual body of the believer will be like that of the risen Christ. This must happen because flesh and blood cannot enter heaven.

5. Triumph over death, 15:51—58

We now know that our bodily resurrection is part of God’s plan of redemption. With this stunning group of verses, Paul reaches a magnificent climax. This is surely one of the most exalted passages in the New Testament. Since the eternal state is not made up of flesh and blood, all believers will necessarily undergo a transformation when the Lord returns. Those who died before His return will be resurrected and transformed, while those who survive until He returns will be transformed from that which is temporary to that which will be eternal.

But how will God accomplish all this? Paul calls it a “mystery,” which means something which cannot be discerned by the natural mind but is the result of revelation. What is the mystery? Unfortunately for the overly curious, the mystery is a revelation, not of how God will do it, but rather what He will do to make His people compatible with their eternal home. Simply put, He will change us; in the twinkling of an eye, man’s essential nature will undergo a drastic, permanent change. The signal for this event will be a trumpet blast.

This change that will affect all believers, those who have passed away and those who are living, will not be a renovation or an upgrade of our present bodies, but a complete change. And yet, our personalities, our identities, will not be lost. Somehow, unknown to us at the present time, we saints will be completely different when Christ returns and yet we will easily recognize each other.

The resurrection of Christ and the eventual resurrection of believers spells the end of sin and death. These awful twins of evil have been hounding mankind since it was evicted from the Garden of Eden so long ago. Christ is victorious over sin and death, we are victorious over sin and soon we will be victorious over death. When we are clothed with our new bodies, death will finally be dealt it’s final blow.

This doctrine is all but ignored by the Church, and yet it is so interwoven with victory over sin that these two ideas cannot be separated. If there is no resurrection, as some in the Corinthian church thought, there can be no victory over sin. Why? Death is the result of sin, and none can escape it except for believers. Victory over sin and the reality of the resurrection are two towering aspects of God’s plan of redemption.

The real mystery is not how God will do this, but why? What makes us worth it?

Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God… (1 John 3:1, KJV)

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