Read the passage here.
Chapter 15 constitutes the last major section of 1 Corinthians. Because of the length of the passage, we’re going to look at it in two parts. However, even then, there’s an awful lot of material that we are going to gloss over or skip altogether. Nevertheless, we will try to cover it in two sessions and hopefully we won’t miss too much. So with that said, today, we are looking at 1 Corinthians 15:1-34.
Now to start, we should acknowledge that Paul’s driving concern is pretty clearly stated in v. 12, where he says, “12b … how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” Once again, unfortunately, fleshing this out requires a certain amount of speculation, and a certain amount of assumptions – though, of course, much of this can also be fairly firmly grounded in the actual text. But in short, as Paul says, it seems that some of the members of the Corinthian church deny the resurrection of the dead – by which, we will see, means that they deny a bodily resurrection. And Paul wants them to know that they are wrong. So with that in mind, I thought we’d look at this in three parts:
- What do the Corinthians believe?
- How does Paul respond to them?
- Why does this matter?
So to begin with, what is it that the Corinthians believed? Or what belief did the Corinthians hold that caused Paul concern? And again, this is answered by Paul’s statement in v. 12: “…how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” In short, the Corinthians believed that there is no bodily resurrection of the dead. And this speaks to a couple of things: The Corinthians’ understanding of eschatology, and the Corinthians understanding of spirituality – and we’ll come back to this.
Now all of this is related to what we’ve talked about previously, that is the Corinthians’ proto-gnostic leanings. And you may recall, one of the hallmarks of Gnosticism is the belief that the physical or material world was evil or corrupted. And for them, salvation entailed escaping the physical world to a realm of pure spirit. Therefore, the Corinthians reasoned, any kind of “after-life” that involved the physical body must be likewise bad.
At this point, I should note, as we have before, that systematized Gnosticism likely didn’t appear until much later, but the basic beliefs (which go beyond what we’ve touched on here) were undoubtedly part of the culture of the Corinthians (as well as much of the early church). And it was very probable that the integration of such beliefs into Christianity (what we call syncretism) was what Paul was concerned about.
Now Paul responds to this by saying, put simply, that their theology is wrong. Specifically, Paul demonstrates that bodily resurrection is a core element of Christian theology. To put it more specifically, Paul argues that a core element of Christian theology is that Christ has risen from the dead (and that, bodily). And this has necessary implications for us as well. So let’s trace Paul’s argument very briefly.
To begin, in vv. 1-11 (mostly in vv. 3-8), Paul states that Jesus Christ died and then rose again. This is a basic truth of the Christian faith (the basic truth?). And then he states that this risen Christ appeared to Peter, the twelve, and then others. Lastly, Jesus appeared to Paul.
Now this, elaborated on in vv. 9-11, has the effect of establishing once again Paul’s authority as an apostle – something that he has been concerned about in numerous places throughout this letter. But what these verses also do is pull the resurrection of Christ out of the realm of philosophy or theory. That is, it’s not just an idea – the resurrection is not just a theological principle. It’s something that is actually observed and encountered. The resurrection of Christ actually intersects with the lives of Jesus’ followers in time and space.
From here, Paul goes on to say in vv. 12-19 that Christ’s example reveals the new reality into which we can all enter. Specifically, Paul says that since Christ rose again, those who put their faith in Him can also have assurance that they will rise again after death.
And vv. 20-28, then, constitute probably the most directly theological part of Paul’s argument. Paul argues that Christ’s resurrection signals a new reality that is made possible following the consequences of Adam’s sin. That is, Adam’s sin essentially initiated a reality in which sin and death are the normal state of human being. However, Christ’s death and resurrection changed all that. Christ’s resurrection signals his victory over sin and death. And it is into this new reality that we can enter.
Now vv. 29-32 are likely the verses that are the most challenging or us today – it’s not clear what Paul is talking about here. What does Paul mean when he talks about those who are “baptized for the dead”? And once again, I don’t want to get bogged down with verses that are highly disputed. And I certainly don’t have a firm solution to give you. However, I’m intrigued by Anthony Thistelton’s argument that, in short, the phrase might be better translated, “those who are baptized because of the dead.” And by this, Thistelton essentially means those who are convinced by the witness or testimony of those who are now dead. These folks are then baptized because of (“for”) those who have died, but have an expectation of meeting those same folks in the resurrection.
Nevertheless, Paul’s point shouldn’t be lost here (in vvv. 29-32). And it seems pretty clear that Paul’s main point is that, for those who believe, death is not the end of the story.
Now we’ve obviously gone over this (once again) very quickly. And once again, we’ve probably glossed over some very important parts. However, what we want to consider now is why this is so important to Paul. Obviously, his concern is based upon poor or mistaken theology by the Corinthians. And his desire is to teach them the deep things about God. However, there’s also a sense in which none of us have gotten anything completely right. But I don’t think it’s only about theology. It’s not just about getting the belief right (so to speak).
Rather, if we think back about the sorts of things that Paul has been concerned about throughout the letter, we can assume that Paul is concerned about how this mistaken belief is being worked out in the Corinthians’ actual living. And if we can further make some assumptions, based on what his concerns have been throughout the letter, we might suppose that Paul is concerned about how this is worked out in the Corinthians’ living together, as the people of God.
Here, v. 33 might be instructive. Paul says, 33 Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” Which may almost seem like a non-sequitur. But this verse suggests to us a couple of things. Firstly, it suggests that the Corinthians’ are being influenced or led by “bad company.” This reminds us of the frequent theme throughout the letter that suggests the Corinthians are getting their ideas about God, about spirituality, and about the Christian life from somewhere other than. That is, they are getting their ideas from somewhere other than Paul, which is to say somewhere other than scripture, and somewhere other than the Holy Spirit. Paul’s concerns are that they are allowing their new life in Christ to be informed by voices that are not of Christ.
But not only that, this is clearly being worked out or realized in their actual living. When Paul says “bad company corrupts good character,” he is talking about how the Corinthians are living – how what they [say they] believe is worked out in their lives. Ultimately, it’s their character that Paul is concerned about.
And one of the things that we’ve seen through the letter is that Paul is addressing a mistaken idea about spirituality that the Corinthians have taken hold of (though it may be a mistake to think about it as one thing). And one element of that mistaken idea about spirituality may have to do with this dichotomy between the “spiritual” and physical realms.
And so, what we might say is that Paul is refuting the idea that spirituality – the life in the Spirit – is solely limited to the realm of ideas. If what we say we believe is not worked out in how we live, then what good is it?
Earlier, I said that the Corinthians’ mistaken belief that there is no resurrection of the dead spoke to a couple of things: Their understanding of eschatology and their understanding of spirituality. We’ve explored this a little bit already. But basically what I want to say is that the two are intimately connected. That is to say, the Corinthians’ misunderstanding of eschatology leads to a misunderstanding and to a misformed spirituality. And Paul wants to correct their eschatology so that they might better embrace and practice their life in the Spirit.
Or to frame it slightly differently, understanding our future should have a profound impact on our present. And what we might understand from Paul is the assuredness of resurrection. Paul’s particular concern, in light of the Corinthians’ error, is that this is a bodily resurrection. And we might consider this from a variety of different perspectives, but the main thing that stands out to me is the fullness of future life.
Paul makes the point that whereas Adam’s sin led all of humanity into death, Christ’s resurrection makes a way for life. Christ’s resurrection means that all that is wrong with the world, all that is wrong and broken with life will be restored. Christ’s resurrection means that we can enter into a new story. And if we are part of a new story, why would we continue to hold onto or be committed to the old one?
So as we wrap up for today, this is the question that I’d like us to reflect on: “What does it mean to live in hope?” Or perhaps we might say, “what does it mean to live out the hope that we have?” That is, what does it mean that the future hope that we hold onto speaks into our present lives?
Paul begins this passage by stating, “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.” The substance of this gospel, this good news, in this context, is Jesus’ resurrection. Because the resurrection is the sign and promise of new life. A new life that, though we live in the in-between time, will one day be ours.
Now, if we know that this life is not all, if we know that there is more and better in store, if we know that some day, all will be as it was supposed to be, as it was meant to be, then how might we choose to live today? How might we choose to anticipate, to live into our future promise today?
The temptation might be to think that because the fulfillment is somewhere in the future, the present does not matter. Is this perhaps what the Corinthians are doing? But what Paul is telling us – I think – is that it is precisely the future promise that informs how we live now. It is precisely what we are becoming that informs who we are called to be. And it is precisely the promise that we have in Christ that calls us to live in the fullness of life today.
So as we go today, perhaps we can ask ourselves this coming week: How can I live out the fullness of God’s salvation today? How can I live out the significance of community today? How can I rest in and share the love of God today? I have not yet obtained all of this yet, but how can I anticipate the promise that I have in Christ?