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1 Corinthians 15

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Verses 1-58


I Corinthians 15:1-58

The Corinthian church, we know, was made up of people who for most of their lives had belonged to other religions. All sorts of beliefs about the future life, including the belief that there is none, were represented in the background cultures of these mixed people. They would want to know: What does Christianity have to say? The Gospels had not been written, no official state­ment or creed had yet been adopted and published. Probably the death of loved ones had sharpened their questions.

Paul does not use the expression "immortality" till toward the end, and does not discuss the question in the form so familiar to us—the immortality of the soul. The framework of what he says is almost exclusively the resurrection of the body. This of­fends many modern readers, and no doubt offended Greek Christians in Corinth.

To put it very briefly, most Greeks who had any notion at all of a future existence thought of it this way: The soul is the true self of man. In this present life the soul is imprisoned in the body, like a living person in a tomb. At death the soul is released for­ever from the body and goes its way, being indestructible and immortal by nature. On the other hand, Jews who had any con­ception of a future life, as well as those who did not, were un­able to think of the self apart from the body. For Greeks, body and soul were opposites. For Jews, body and soul were welded into the single self. A Jew would be unable to think of any future life that was not a bodily life, as this one is. Hence Jews did not think of a future life in terms of the soul, but rather of the body; and their word was always "resurrection" and not "immortality."

Paul, being a true Jew, thought as a Jew; hence his strong em­phasis on resurrection. Hence also the Christian Church in the Apostles’ Creed says, "I believe in the resurrection of the body," not, "I believe in the immortality of the soul." Nevertheless the Christian Church has always made room as well for the Greek belief that personality can continue in a disembodied state, or in other words, that you don’t have to have a body in order to be. We can perhaps reconcile the two views by saying: Whether we think in terms of immortality or of resurrection, the Christian Church believes that death is not the final end of human life. "I believe in the life everlasting" can be said heartily by all of us.

But we must let Paul speak for himself and not try to make a Greek or a modern Christian out of him. Note that Paul says not a word about "heaven." People who ask about heaven, what it will be like, are thinking of our future surroundings. Paul wants us to concentrate on our future selves.

The Resurrection of Christ Is a Part of the Gospel (15: I)

Paul begins where he nearly always does: with the gospel which he preached. As he sums it up here, the gospel begins with the death of Christ. (The four Gospels give us a much wider view, but that is another story.) But Paul in this short summary says much more about the Resurrection than about the Cross. He emphasizes the resurrection of Christ as a fact, not a symbol, myth, legend, or some idea or vision created by faith. Christ was really raised from the dead; that is his basic fact. The story of the Cross without the story of Easter would not be the gospel.

Verses 12-19

Christ’s Resurrection and the General
Resurrection (15:12-19)

There were people in Corinth who could not believe in the possibility of resurrection. Paul’s argument is this: Very well, suppose you are right and resurrection can never be a fact.

Then it was not a fact in the case of Jesus. And in that case who is Jesus? A dead dreamer, no conqueror of death, no divine hero, no Savior. If his resurrection is not a fact, then whatever hope we have is for this life only. Over every grave should be the motto, "All hope abandon, ye who enter here." Instead of being God’s children we are pitiable fools.

Verses 20-23

Adam and Death; Christ and Life (15:20-23)

But then Paul comes back to the fact: Christ has been raised from the dead! One single fact will show that the alleged "im­possible" is possible after all. We do not have to explain the fact, and Paul never makes any attempt to explain Christ’s resurrec­tion or ours.

Next, in one of those contrasts of which Paul was fond, he sets Adam over against Christ. As descendants of the first Adam, we are creatures marked for death. "Son of Adam" means mortal man. As descendants of the "last Adam" we are creatures marked for life. Adam stands for humanity running away from God. Christ stands for humanity restored to God. (There has been some argument here. Certainly all human beings are mortal. Does Paul mean to suggest that all human beings are destined to life, that all will be saved? In other words, does "all" in "all die" mean the same as "all" in "all be made alive"? Do both "all’s" refer to the whole human race? Most commentators doubt that Paul meant this.)

Verses 24-28

The End: God Will Be All in All (15:24-28)

Paul’s mind runs ahead of his train of thought here, we might say. Without setting any timetable or naming any dates, he looks into the future far beyond the general resurrection, beyond any­one’s resurrection, to the final goal of destiny. Even a child can ask the question, And what happens after that? And after that and after that? Paul may have been thinking of such questions. The "end," the end, beyond which no one can think, is still not the windup of existence. First is victory, when Christ shall have destroyed everything that opposes him or is out of harmony with him. "The last enemy to be destroyed is death." What a world without death would be like, of course, we cannot even imagine. But Paul is sure that death (he almost thinks of it as personal) is a stubborn enemy of God and man, and cannot exist in the Kingdom of Christ. But Christ does not keep the Kingdom, that is, the supreme reign over all things, for himself. He delivers it to God the Father. What this means we do not fully know. What we can say is that Christ’s work is never to be completed until his victory is complete, till all have been "made alive," till Christ with an eternal humility turns all his victories over to the Father of whom he had said long ago, "The Father is greater than I" (John 14:28). To ask, "Then what?" is peer­ing into the mists of eternity. Is it not enough to know that in the end, God will be all in all?

Verses 29-34

An Argument from Baptizing for the Dead (15:29-34)

This is a somewhat confusing section. No one knows just what is meant. It does seem clear that some Christians in Corinth were practicing "proxy baptism," hoping that the benefits of baptism would somehow be transferred to particular persons, now dead, whom they wished to be saved. Paul does not necessarily approve of this custom, though he does not condemn it either. His argu­ment runs: Some of you practice baptism by proxy for the dead. That shows that you already have come to some belief in a life beyond, otherwise there would be no point in your doing this.

The remainder of this paragraph contains other thoughts not connected with baptism for the dead. The first, in verses 30-32, is Paul’s question: If there is no resurrection, what would be the purpose of my endangering my life by preaching? He remarks in verse 32 that if this life is all there is, then eating and drinking—that is, having a vulgar good time—is about the most we can do with it. If we must die like dogs, let us live like dogs. No doubt this was Paul’s own sincere feeling; but there have been men who felt otherwise. One French philosopher said: If there is no im­mortality, at least let us live so that to have been deprived of it will be an injustice. Is belief in a future life a stimulus to right living? Paul finds it exceedingly important; goodness for him has little meaning unless it has the prospect of eternity before it. Moreover, the Christian should be warned that the contagion of unbelief is dangerous (vss. 33-34).

Verses 35-57

Faith’s Answer to a Foolish Question (15:35-57)

The question that is asked appears in 15:35, its answer in 15:36-50. In verses 51-57 Paul’s central thought is, "We shall be changed." It seems as impertinent to comment on the inspired poetic eloquence here as it was to make any remarks about chap­ter 13. A few prose footnotes may perhaps be usable.

Paul makes no attempt to explain "resurrection." There is nothing natural or inevitable about it; it is a direct act of God, a miracle.

He forestalls ancient and modern objections to the idea by making it perfectly plain that resurrection is not resuscitation. When a person has been pronounced legally and medically dead —the heart stopped and so on—and then the heart begins to beat and consciousness returns, that is resuscitation. The person gets up off the stretcher with the same body (damaged, to be sure) which he had when he was laid on it. Now resurrection, we remember, was the only category in which Paul’s Jewish training would allow him to think of a future existence. But, although many persons then and now think of resurrection as resuscita­tion, Paul definitely did not. Suppose resurrection did mean resus­citation? It would be something to be dreaded, not hoped for. Every particle of the body is replaced every seven years or so; by the time a man is 65 he has had eight or nine bodies; who would want to get back the last one, the weak, pain-filled one, the one that gave out? But this is not the "resurrection body." The resurrection body is continuous with the present body in some way; but it is radically different, as Paul’s contrasts show:

This present body The resurrection body

(the "sown") (the "raised")

perishable imperishable

dishonored glorious

weak powerful

physical spiritual

"the image of the man "the image of the man

of dust" of heaven"

What a "spiritual body"—a seeming contradiction—can be, no one knows. Perhaps Paul means a body fully suited to an im­mortal spirit, a body fully under control of the spirit; possibly he means a body but only in a spiritual sense.

At all events, three possibilities are ruled out by Paul. The Christian’s destiny is not (a) resuscitation, nor (b) annihilation, nor (c) absorption into the Infinite. The concept of a "resurrection of the body" must mean, at least, the continuance of per­sonality and individuality.

Two questions often asked are left on one side by Paul here as elsewhere: (1) What is the condition of those who have died but not yet been raised? Do they now exist at all? (2) What is the destiny of those who are not "in Christ"? Are all men finally to be saved? The Church has worked out rather elaborate answers to these questions, but they are not taken from Paul.

One final note: Paul’s confidence about the future hope is not based on any theory of human nature; it is rooted and grounded on his faith in God. God who raised the Lord Jesus Christ will raise us in victory with him. Belief in immortality is not necessarily religious, not a step toward belief in God; but on the contrary, belief in God is solid enough ground for believing that he will not destroy the creatures of his love.

Imperishable Lives in a Perishing World (15:58)

Paul never stops his thought in mid-flight. He never leaves his readers high in the blue, he always comes down to a concrete runway. After all this rhapsody on the life to come, Paul sud­denly comes down to an unspoken question: But what about this life? Is it worthless? Some Christians have thought so. Should our whole life be a "meditation on death"? Not at all: "In the Lord your labor is not in vain." Living by the light of the life to come should not paralyze us but should fill our earth-life with purpose and power.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15". "Layman's Bible Commentary".