1 Corinthians 15:1-58
The chapter in the Word of God that deals exclusively with the question of the resurrection of the dead is 1 Corinthians Chapter 15. From this chapter we understand that the Corinthians held a position similar to that of Hymenaeus and Philetus in 2 Timothy 2:18. Concerning them, the apostle Paul tells his spiritual son Timothy (2 Timothy 2:16-18):
16 Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. 17 Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some.
Notice that, although they have wandered away from the truth, Hymenaeus and Philetus do not deny that there is a resurrection but maintain that it has already taken place. Perhaps they considered that it was past and spiritual. Perhaps this understanding of theirs was based on an excessive emphasis on the spiritual resurrection. For example in Ephesians 2:1-5 the apostle Paul says:
1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature n and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,
Maybe Hymenaeus and Philetus considered that, since God has “jointly resurrected” us and seated us with Him in heavenly places in Christ, the resurrection has already taken place. Consequently there is no such thing as a future bodily resurrection of the dead.
It seems that some of the Corinthians would have agreed with them. And clearly amongst those there were some who were saying “There is no resurrection of the dead” (verse 12). But what did they mean by that? Surely not that there is no resurrection at all. Rather, as we can infer from this chapter, they too, like Hymenaeus and Philetus, considered that the resurrection is only spiritual and that it is past.
One way or another we can only be grateful for their mistake, because it provoked the apostle Paul to write this significant chapter in which he proves that the resurrection we await is not only past and spiritual but also future and bodily. Thus he strengthens our faith and motivates us to serve God with courage and certainty, knowing that “in the Lord our labour is not in vain” (v.58).
The Resurrection Of Christ – Common Belief Of The Apostles And The Church (vv.1-11)
What did the Corinthians have in mind when they maintained that “there is no resurrection of the dead”? Does it mean that they did not believe in the resurrection of Christ? Evidently that was not the case. They did believe in the resurrection of Christ. That is precisely why the apostle Paul starts from that very point – from what the Corinthians have received. When the apostle Paul came among them, he preached to them the crucified and risen Christ. The Corinthians received this gospel and took their stand on it. So the belief in the resurrection of Christ is not a problem for the Corinthians (v.1-2).
1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
Notice that this is the gospel which the Corinthians have received and on which they continue to “take their stand”. What did the apostle Paul preach to them? The apostolic gospel – the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ (v3-4).
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
The resurrection of Christ is a fulfilment of a number of Old Testament prophecies. Moreover, it was confirmed by the apostles. They were witnesses “chosen beforehand by God” to the risen Christ (Acts 10:41). That is why, after His resurrection, He appeared to them on more than one occasion (v.5-8).
5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Paul himself is also an apostle. Despite the fact that he believed on the Lord after his meeting with Him on the road to Damascus and was not one of the disciples whom Jesus trained in the time of His earthly ministry, he is one of Christ’s apostles, because Jesus appeared to him specially and sent him to proclaim the good news to the Gentiles (v 9-11; 1 Corinthians 9:12, Acts 22:14-15).
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them–yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
Up to this point Paul is establishing the basis of his argument in defense of the future bodily resurrection of believers. And that is what the Corinthians have received and believed and which continues to be their conviction, namely that Christ not only died for our sins and was buried, but that He rose on the third day for our justification. In support of the fact of His resurrection there are not only the Old Testament scriptures, but also the testimonies of the apostles who personally had had fellowship with the risen Christ. The resurrection of Christ is the common ground, the point of contact between Paul and the Corinthians. It is the common doctrine both of the apostles and the Church.
The Resurrection Of The Dead – Not Past But Future (vv.12-33)
From this point onwards Paul changes the direction of his proofs. Up to here he has established the fact that Christ’s resurrection stands as the basis both of the apostolic gospel and of their faith. Rejection of a future resurrection of the dead is in contradiction to Christ’s resurrection. And denial of Christ’s resurrection removes the power of the gospel message and the meaning of the Christian faith. If Christ is not risen, it means that for us there is no salvation from our sins. All believers who have died have perished and since we have been deceived in the extreme, then of all the people in this world we are most to be pitied. Then we would have to reject the authority of the prophets and likewise the authority of the apostles. Because they testify to the resurrection of Christ. And if it did not happen, that means they are false witnesses and deceivers.
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
For a Christian living in the 21st century, it is very difficult to imagine how it is possible for a Christian not to believe in a future resurrection of believers. But we must not forget that we have reached our conviction through reading the New Testament, whereas these early Christians from Corinth did not yet have New Testaments. At that time the books of the New Testament had not yet been written. In fact this very epistle to the Corinthians is one of the earliest New Testament documents. Moreover we know that the apostles taught new believers about the resurrection of Christ but we do not know to what extent they taught them about the future resurrection of believers. Evidently this question was not thoroughly explained, because we understand from the earlier First Epistle to the Thessalonians that the Thessalonians too, like the Corinthians, did not have a very good understanding of the future resurrection of believers (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Apart from that, despite the fact that, at that time, in certain areas of Judaism there was already a fully developed teaching on the resurrection of the dead, there was no such teaching in the Greek world. Some Greeks believed in the resurrection of the soul, but not in the resurrection of the body. To them the very idea of resurrecting a dead body was unacceptable. They looked on the body as something bad and evil and on death as a means by which we rid ourselves of our bodies and begin to live in a higher, non-material, spiritual world. The credit for such ideas goes to the Greek philosophers and especially Plato. He searched for the meaning of human existence and tried to discover and define the way in which the world functions. According to him, the world exists on two levels – the transcendent world of eternal and immutable being and the changeable world of manifestations which is nothing more than a pale reflection of the reality.
The first world is the world of perfection and ideas, whilst the second one is a world in which all objects are a copy of the ideas of the first world. This second world is constantly changing. For example if we look at a cup. In the material world, this cup can get broken, but in our consciousness it remains whole. According to Plato, since the soul is eternal, it belongs to the world of ideas and being. When it is implanted into a person, it helps him to remember and compare the visible things of the world of manifestations in which we live with the ideas of which they are a copy – a process Plato called “anamnesisis”. According to the Greek philosophers the real person is the soul. The body resembles a house or clothing in which the person lives. In fact the body is often likened to a cemetery or prison for the soul. The true destiny of the soul according to the Greek philosophers is for it to be freed from the body.
But according to the Bible, a person is not just a soul. He is created “an intricate unity” (Job 10:8 NKJV). It is very possible that, for the Corinthians, a future bodily resurrection of the dead was too materialistic to be true. Perhaps they considered the resurrection to be something spiritual that happens to a person at the moment when he believes. Perhaps they thought that, since they had already died and risen with Christ by faith, then the death itself was the thing that led them to the full realization of their resurrection. It meant an end to the body, such that the spirit of the person could return to God forever. Thus for them the resurrection was past and spiritual, not future and bodily. Maybe this was the reason why some of them maintained that “there is no resurrection of the dead”. But the apostle Paul brings them back to reality. The resurrection of Christ was not spiritual but bodily. Consequently our resurrection too will be a bodily one.
After His crucifixion and death, the risen Lord was seen by the apostles alive, in a body, with physical and not just spiritual eyes. And that happened after He had been “buried” (v.4). Burial is something that happens with a person’s body after his death. So it underlines not only the materiality and reality of Jesus’ death, but also the materiality and reality of His resurrection. After he was resurrected, Jesus appeared to his disciples (Luke 24:36-43).
36 While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” 40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.
Note that this text specifically underlines the fact that Jesus is not only a spirit, but that he has a body, which has “flesh and bones” and a body which can take food.
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.
Christ is the “first fruit”. The first fruit is a guarantee of the harvest. As the first fruit is, so will be the rest of the fruit. For Paul the resurrection of the dead is part of the events of the Last Days. The fact that Christ’s resurrection has taken place signifies that the future has already begun to come about. What God has begun with Christ, He will complete through the believers. Just as He has been resurrected, so all those who have died with faith in Him will also be resurrected. The metaphor of the first fruit is a particularly apt choice to represent the time in which we find ourselves by God’s clock. The first fruits have already been harvested, but the harvest has still not been finally gathered in. The resurrection of Christ is already a fact, but our resurrection is still in the future.
22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
Just as through the sin of Adam something was unlocked and set in motion, namely sin and death, so in Christ something else was unlocked and set in motion, namely righteousness and life. Because of Adam we continue to this day to harvest sin and death, but it is just as certain that those who are in Christ at His coming will reap resurrection and eternal life.
Not only that – through the resurrection of Christ, God put into action a large-scale operation, at the finale of which everyone in this world will submit to Him, so that He will be “all in all”.
24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
If we do not hope for a future resurrection, then everything we do would be in vain. Better then to enjoy worldly pleasures as much as we can and not to think at all about God and life after death.
29 Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? 30 And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? 31 I die every day–I mean that, brothers–just as surely as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised,
“Let us eat and drink,
for tomorrow we die.”
The apostle Paul finishes the first part of his teaching with this appeal:
33 Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” 34 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.
With these words, he classifies the idea of a past resurrection as false teaching. False teaching that could produce only falling morals and separation from God.
The Resurrection Of The Dead – Not Spiritual But Bodily (vv.34-49)
By this point Paul has already proved his assertion that our resurrection has not yet taken place. It is still a forthcoming, future event. The question remains however of the nature of the resurrection body. Paul has already hinted what it will be like. As the first fruit is, so will the rest be (v.20). Here he completes his argument by entering into an imaginary dispute with his opponents. In this dispute he moves from the known to the unknown. The known is this – that sowing is not an end but a beginning, and that every seed produces fruit according to its kind. The unknown is that death is not an end, but the beginning of a new life and that the stem and fruit of the plant are different in kind from the seed, but all of them together – seed, stem and fruit – represent the same plant.
35 But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.
For Paul death is not an end but a sowing. The sowing is not the end of the seed, but the beginning of its new life. The sheaves grow as a result of the death of the seeds. You do not sow what will be, but what will become as a result of the death of what is. Jesus said a similar thing in John 12:23-26.
23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.
Not only is the sowing not an end but the beginning of life, but the seed is different in form from the shoot and fruit of the plant (v.37-38).
37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.
Notwithstanding that the “body” of the plant is different in form from the seed from which it has grown, even so it belongs to its seed. It is the same plant. It is just the same with resurrection bodies. Our present, physical bodies are like seeds. Our future resurrection bodies are like sprouting plants, but the perishable and the imperishable body belong to one and the same person.
39 All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another.
Each body is made by God to correspond to the purposes for which it was created. Birds have bodies suited to flying. Fish have bodies suited to swimming. So too our perishable bodies are made for life in this world, whilst our resurrection bodies are made for life in eternity.
40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. 42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
Just as the seed is different from the plant, so too the mortal body is different from the immortal.
45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being” ; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven.
Christ is the last Adam and the Second Man. Those who have believed in Him and received Him will become like He is. Just as He was transformed and through His resurrection received a heavenly body, so we too will receive heavenly bodies at His coming.
49 And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.
How have we “borne the likeness of the earthly man”? Can anyone remember how he was born into this world? Each one of us, before he began living in this world, lived for about nine months in his mother’s womb. There he fed, there he went to the toilet, there he swam in the amniotic fluid. In a moment, however, by some or other secret laws of life, we came out from the wombs of our mothers, we breathed oxygen, we gave our first cry and we began living in a different environment. Now we live in that environment. The day will come, however, when we will leave this world. But that will not be the end, because first of all, as bodiless spirits, we will wait in Christ’s presence for God’s time. Then, on the Day of His Coming “we will awake” and, as we look, we will see that we have new bodies – bodies that do not get ill, bodies that do not grow old, bodies that do not die, bodies like that of Jesus. The apostle John also says this (1 John 3.2).
2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
And so, our resurrection is not in the past. It awaits us in the future. Moreover it is not only spiritual. It is bodily. However, the fact that it is bodily does not mean that the resurrection body will have the same nature as the mortal one. It is different in form, but still continues to belong to the same person.
Where, O Death, Is Your Victory? (vv.50-58)
Paul finishes his teaching on the resurrection of the dead with a majestic and victorious passage that sounds like a hymn (vv.50-53).
50 I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed– 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.
Here Paul is talking about the rapture of the church, what will happen “at the last trumpet” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
13 Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage each other with these words.
At the time when he wrote these epistles to the Thessalonians and the Corinthians, Apostle Paul believed that Christ would return before his death. This is the dream of every believer – for Jesus to come and take him before his death, so that he will not have to pass “through the valley of the shadow of death”.
It should also be noted, that when Paul talks about a “mystery”, he does not mean information that is accessible only to a particular number of initiated individuals. A “mystery” is a doctrine that has not been revealed to us up to that moment but which has been given as a revelation to the apostles to be shared with the whole church. In 1 Corinthians 4:1 Paul says:
1 So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.
The doctrine of the rapture of the church is not something said “in secret”. It is a doctrine of the church. In one way or another at the coming of Christ we will be resurrected. Then our triumph will be indescribable.
54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul completes the chapter by returning us from the future to the present.
58 Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
Yes, our future is glorious, but until it comes, we will have to be tested, we will have to be perfected, we will have to serve God and endure difficulties and hardships. However, all this is not in vain, because it is on behalf of more resurrected people.