Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 1 Corinthians 15:1
The subject of this chapter is the gospel of the glorious resurrection of the Lord Jesus and the subsequent resurrection of all those who believe in him. We must note that “resurrection” is something truly new with Christianity, and something almost unheard of in other faiths. Barclay says of this chapter, that it “is both one of the greatest and one of the most difficult chapters in the New Testament.” He adds, “…it is from this chapter that we mainly derive the idea of the resurrection of the body…It is of great importance to remember that the Corinthians were denying not the resurrection of Jesus Christ but the resurrection of the body…” 1 McGee says that the denial of the bodily resurrection of Christ was the very first heresy of the church.2
Perhaps it would be good for us to understand some of the thinking about the body that was going on in the time shortly after Jesus. First of all, there was the Jewish understanding of the afterlife. There was very little comprehension of the resurrection in Jewish thought. After all, it is only Jesus, “…who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). Throughout the Old Testament we see that when people died they believed that they went to Sheol, the abode of the dead. This was a shadowy existence with no remembrance of God (Psa. 6:5). The dead could not praise the Lord (Psa. 115:17), nor could they hope for his faithfulness (Isa. 38:18). There was no work, thought, knowledge, or wisdom in Sheol (Eccl. 9:4-5. 10).3
However, we must note that a few scattered people had visions of a pleasant afterlife for the faithful. Job, through all his troubles, finally exclaimed: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God…” (Job 19:25-26). David also said, “…you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay” (Ps. 16:10). In his beloved Psalm 23, David said, “…I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Psa. 23:6).
Next, we need to understand the prevailing Greek ideas of the afterlife. The Greek language and culture were universally spread throughout the Roman world. Greek thought from Plato onward felt the soul was immortal. The Greeks saw the body as a tomb. It was the antithesis of the soul and the source of all weakness. For the Greeks, the secret of real life was to get rid of the body. Thus, for the Greeks the resurrection of the body was totally unthinkable.4 Greek thought was so adverse to the resurrection that the philosophers at Athens actually laughed at Paul when he preached it there.5
It seems pretty obvious that some of the Christians at Corinth were simply reflecting the prevailing Greek ideas in their denying the resurrection of the body. Thus, Paul had to remind them of the gospel he had preached to them. He was insistent that denying the resurrection of Christ’s body was emptying the Christian message of its truth and reality.6 That was what the gospel (euaggelion), the good news or glad tidings, was all about. Comfort goes so far as to say, “…Every claim about Christianity has roots in his resurrection…The resurrection is the central theme of the gospel message…The resurrection is a fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures…” 7
“By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain” (15:2). Morris says, “You are saved is present continuous, ‘you are being saved.’ There is a sense in which salvation is once for all (as in ‘received,’ v. 1) and another sense in which it is progressive (cf. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15).” 8 There is always the matter of persevering or holding on in our faith and that is our responsibility (with God’s help of course).
THE GOSPEL ACCOUNT
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 1 Corinthians 15:3
Morris sees this as an example of the earliest kerygmatic preaching or the simple proclamation of the gospel.9 It is interesting that Paul uses two Greek terms in this verse, paradidomi and paralambano (received & passed on), technical rabbinic terms that were used in transmitting tradition.10 We see that the information passed on is of first importance. The apostle is actually giving a very simple summary of the gospel, beginning with the death of Jesus.
It is important for us to realize that Jesus didn’t just die a martyr’s death. Rather, he died a death in atonement for the sins of the whole world (1 Jn. 2:2). As was written in the prophet Isaiah: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:5-6). Isaiah says further: “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand” (Isa. 53:10). Jesus fulfilled many more Scriptures like Psalm 16:8-11 and the whole of Psalm 22. Some feel that Jesus repeated this latter Psalm as he hung on the cross.
Jesus didn’t just die, but he died the most horrible death that was possible, on a Roman cross. The cross was designed to inflict the maximum amount of pain and suffering on the crucified. Prior to the actual crucifixion the victim was scourged almost to unconsciousness, then made to carry his cross. At the crucifixion site nails were driven through the hands (or wrists) and feet. Once on the cross, it became extremely difficult to breathe, which caused severe muscle cramps. It was a slow and agonizing death that could finally come through suffocation, acute shock, dehydration, blood loss, or congestive heart failure.11 In addition, since Jesus became a sin offering, even his Father turned away from him as he hung on the cross (Matt. 27:46). Wiersbe says, “Many people were crucified by the Romans, but only one ‘victim’ ever died for the sins of the world.” 12
Paul continues saying: “…that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,” (15:4). The gospel message not only states that Christ died, but that he was buried. We have considerable information about his burial. We know who buried him and where he was buried. Centuries before, the prophet Isaiah had predicted: “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth” (Isa. 53:9). The gospel accounts verify that Jesus was buried by the rich man Joseph of Arimathea, in the man’s own private tomb (Mk. 27:57-60). He was assisted by another rich man, Nicodemus, who brought expensive spices that were used in the burial procedures (Jn. 19:39). Both men were previously secret followers of Jesus. It is important that Jesus was verified as dead and that he was buried. Guzik comments, “The gospel isn’t a matter of religious opinions, platitudes, or fairy tales; it is about real historical events…” 13
Jesus was not only buried but he was raised form the dead. This is the very heart of the gospel message. We note that just as he was buried according to Scriptures he also arose from the dead according to Scriptures. Jesus had said, “…This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day” (Lk. 24:46; cf. Hos. 6:2). According to Scripture, Jesus had to be in the tomb three days and three nights (Jon. 1:17). Jesus was in the tomb from Friday evening until Sunday morning and by our modern calculation this was somewhat short of three days and three nights. However, by Jewish calculations any part of a day or night was counted as a whole one.14 There is also some discussion among scholars that Jesus was crucified on Thursday, since this would have allowed him to be crucified on the holiday itself, as the Passover Lamb.15 If such was the case he would have been in the tomb three full days and three full nights.
Jesus’ time in the tomb was the “sign of Jonah” that he gave to the Jewish people (Matt. 12:39-40). As Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man would be in the heart of the earth for the same period.
Over the centuries, skeptics have denied that Jesus really died or was buried. A popular idea is the “swoon theory,” claiming that Jesus, swooned and later recovered from the cross. This idea is based on a total misunderstanding of what death on the cross was like. People didn’t survive the cross. Also, there were several witnesses, including the centurion in charge, who all knew that Jesus was in fact dead. We are not just dealing with the gospel account but with the historical facts of Jesus’ death.
The apostle verifies that Jesus not only died but was raised the third day. As we have said, this resurrection was according to Scripture. Again, skeptics have charged that Jesus’ disciples stole away the body and rigged the resurrection account. This story is preposterous. When we read the resurrection accounts we realize that none of the disciples believed in the resurrection, even after proof was given to them— until Jesus appeared to them. Meyer thus says, “…the resurrection was primarily not a doctrine but a fact.” 16
So what Paul is giving us here, the things of first importance, are these: “1 Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…2 He was buried…3 He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” 17 This is the simple gospel, and hardly will we find a better summary of it.
Paul continues on with his gospel account saying, “and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve” (15:5). The resurrection of Jesus was not something that happened privately or in some back alley. It was very public and there were many witnesses, most of whom were still alive at Paul’s writing. Jesus first appeared to Cephas (Peter) and then to the Twelve. It is reflective of the Lord’s great love and patience that he appeared to Peter first, or even at all. We remember that Peter had denied Jesus three times and ended his denial with a curse. Barclay comments: “It is one of the most heart-moving things in all the story of Jesus that two of his first appearances, after he rose from the tomb, were to men who had hurt him and were sorry for it. Jesus meets the penitent heart far more than halfway.” 18
Obviously, “the Twelve” mentioned here is referring only of the eleven remaining disciples after the betrayal and death of Judas Iscariot. The expression “the Twelve” was simply a designation. Later, Matthias was added (Act.1;21-26) to fill up this gap. Some have wondered why Jesus’ appearances to women are not mentioned by Paul here. The likely reason was that the testimony of a woman in that society was not formally admissible as evidence. Such a mention may have discredited the account to certain people.19
“After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep” (15:6). This appearance to so many may have happened in the Galilee, where there were numerous disciples. This is the only place in the New Testament where this event is mentioned.20 McGee remarks, “Any lawyer today would love to have as many witnesses for his position as Paul lists here as proofs of the resurrection.” 21 If this general appearance is reflected in Matthew 28:16-20, then the Great Commission was not just given to the disciples but to the church in general.22 We note again that most of the five hundred were still living when Paul wrote, although some had fallen asleep or died.
Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born” (15:7-8). This appearance to James the half-brother of Jesus is not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. The early church father, Jerome, tells us of a legend that James had made a vow not to eat or drink until he had seen the resurrected Christ. In the legend the Lord appeared to him and said, “My brother, eat thy bread, for the Son of Man is risen from the dead.” 23 Although Jesus’ brothers had not believed in him during his ministry, it appears that all joined him in time (Acts 1:14). James eventually became the leader of the church at Jerusalem and Jude wrote the epistle named for him.
Jesus appeared to his disciples on several occasions and at last he revealed himself to Paul on the Road to Damascus. Because he had persecuted the church (cf. Acts 9:1,13, 21), Paul felt himself unworthy to be compared with the other disciples. Here Paul uses the Greek word ektromati, which means “the miscarriage” or “the abortion.” 24 The apostle for certain was unusually born, being almost compelled into the kingdom by the Risen Christ in an astounding and miraculous appearance.
THE PERSECUTOR AS AN APOSTLE
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. 1 Corinthians 15:9
Paul could never forget that he had persecuted the church (cf. Acts 8:3, 9:1-35, Gal. 1:13, Phil. 3:6, and 1 Tim.1:15). No doubt, he had dragged whole families off to prison and some perhaps even to their deaths. That memory always haunted the apostle. He also had the memory of Stephen’s stoning (Act. 7:58). No doubt because of this background, Paul referred to himself as the “least” of the apostles. Tradition has it that Paul was small in stature, and his name Paulos in Latin meant “little.” 25
However, we must not forget that in his spiritual work for the Lord, Paul became a giant. He literally outdid all the other apostles as he carried the gospel to the uttermost parts of the Roman Empire.
“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” (15:10). The words “worked harder” are the Greek word kopiao, and it means to work to the point of weariness.26 Although Paul’s body was often wracked with pain, although he was severely persecuted, beaten, stoned and even imprisoned, he kept on keeping on. He took the gospel to Europe and to the farthest reaches of the known world. He did more than all the others, yet, in all his great work he never forgot that it was God’s grace that was making his ministry possible.
“Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed” (15:11). In the last analysis, it was not a matter of personalities. Paul and the others had simply preached the saving gospel. The people had simply believed it and were thus saved. The same pattern has gone on now for almost two thousand years.
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? 1 Corinthians 15:12
Comfort expands on the Greek view that matter was evil and that the physical body would not be resurrected. He says, “…According to Greek philosophers, the soul was the real person, imprisoned in a physical body, and at death the soul was released.” 27 The Greeks believed that the soul was immortal as we have said. Some of that belief has crept into Christian thinking. However, we see in Scripture that only God is immortal. 1 Timothy 6:16 speaks of God, “who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see…” All the immortality we will possess will be graciously given by the Almighty.
Some of the Corinthians, who apparently were influenced by their own Greek philosophy, did not believe the resurrected body was possible. Barclay sums up what such a view would do to Christianity: “If you take up that position it means that Jesus Christ has not risen again; and if that be so, the whole Christian faith is wrecked…” 28 Comfort sums it up another way saying, “The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the central fact of Christian history. On it, the church is built; without it, there would be no Christian church today.” 29 The resurrection was proof positive that the Father accepted the work of the Son on earth. It was proof positive that life is stronger than death; that truth is stronger than falsehood; that love is stronger than hate.
“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (15:13-14). Barnes says, “If Christ was not raised, he was an impostor, since he repeatedly declared that he would rise (Matthew 16:21; Matthew 18:22-23; Luke 9:22), and since the whole of his religion depended on that.” 30 Not only was Christ an imposter but those who preached the gospel, including Paul, were all imposters. They were declaring something that was not true. They were false witnesses. Obviously, if the gospel was false all Christian faith was therefore useless.
However, the whole New Testament declares that there was a resurrection (anastasis) and there will be a resurrection on the last day for all those who believe in Jesus. The famous preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “The fact is, that the silver thread of resurrection runs through all the blessings, from regeneration onward to our eternal glory, and binds them together.” 31
“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. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either” (15:15-16). If there is no resurrection then Paul was justly stoned, imprisoned and run out of town. He was justly beheaded by Nero. He was nothing but a false witness. However, McGee asks, “Have you ever noticed that men do not die for that which they know to be a lie?” 32 People will not die for a lie but countless thousands have died for the truth and continue to do so. Paul rejoiced in prison; he gladly suffered persecution; he endured all kinds of hardships even to the point of death, because he knew the resurrection to be true.
“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost” (15:17-18). What a dreary scenario! Can we even imagine a world without faith; a world without salvation; a world without forgiveness of sins; or a world without hope? All those who gladly offered their lives in martyrdom over the centuries were only hopeful fools. All those who have died in faith have perished forever. Can we even bear to think about such a scenario?
“If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (15:19). If there is no resurrection, Christian people are the most miserable of all. Barnes says “The word used here (elēinoteroi) means, properly, more deserving of pity, more pitiable.” 33 The First Century Christian life left much to be desired in the natural realm. Christians were often persecuted. They no doubt often lost their jobs or even their places of residence. They no doubt lost their positions in that depraved society. In addition, they were often looked upon with scorn and ridicule. If their belief was a false one, then they had lost both heaven and earth. They were indeed pitiable wretches.
But they knew the resurrection to be true and that truth was worth the loss of everything else. The resurrection was the grand finale of all of Christ’s work and it would be the grand finale to their own lives as they would be resurrected with Christ in the end. Regarding the resurrection, someone has said, “the Resurrection is God’s ‘Amen’ to Christ’s ‘it is finished.’” 34
CHRIST IS RAISED FROM THE DEAD
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 1 Corinthians 15:20
Christ has been raised from the dead. Morris comments, “He uses the perfect tense has been raised …with full meaning. Not only did Christ rise on a certain day in history, but he continues permanently in his character as the risen Lord.” 35
Then Paul takes a look at Israel’s history regarding the offering up of the firstfruits (Lev. 23:10-14). The firstfruits (aparchē) were made up of the very first ripe barley in the springtime. This sheaf of course was a sign of the coming harvest of both barley and wheat. The sheaf was brought to the temple and offered to God. In a very real sense the firstfruits offering sanctified the whole harvest. Barclay remarks how until this offering was made barley could not be bought or sold in the markets, nor could bread be made from the flour.36 We know from Scripture that Jesus was and is the firstfruits offering as we will see later in verse 20. He was the beginning of a great harvest with many to follow his example.
It is interesting that the firstfruits offering was made on the first day after the Sabbath following Passover. Of course this day became known as Sunday, the day of the Lord’s resurrection. On that first Easter Sunday Jesus came from the grave to become the firstfruits of all those who were dead. Up until this time some people had been raised from the dead, only to eventually die again. However, Christ rose from the grave never to die again. He was and is the first person to arise from the dead with a truly resurrected body. So Jesus is like a pioneer who has explored a totally new country and who has come forth to tell us all about it. Smith says, “In short, Christ is the firstfruits, the first and the forerunner, of all those who die in him…Christ then, is the pioneer blazing a new trail, changing the course of human destiny, and drawing us along in his wake!” 37
The resurrection of Christ is therefore the assurance that we and millions more Christians will be resurrected with a glorious new body on that last day. Jesus says, “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (Jn. 6:40). This message of Christ’s resurrection was the heart of the early gospel. N.T. Wright says, “For almost all of the first two centuries, resurrection in the traditional sense holds not just center stage but the whole stage.” 38
For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (15:21-22). Here the apostle deals with the original cause of death in the human race. It resulted from Adam, the head of the human race, who fell into sin. It could almost be said that Adam by his fall placed the tendency to sin in our human DNA. Adam was the Federal Head of the human race and his actions have affected us all. Although we westerners live in an individualistic society, many in the world do not, and still look to the patriarch or head of a large family. Of course in the US our President can make decisions that affect us all. We also see how a football player’s actions may affect the whole team.39 We can learn more about this typology in Romans 5:12-21.
Just as Adam delivered humanity to death, Jesus delivers those who believe in him to life eternal. Just as Adam was made from the dust of the earth Jesus will raise the new humanity up from the dust. Wright says, “Dust we are and to dust we shall return. But God can do new things with dust.” 40
Perhaps we should note here that even the wicked will be raised from the dead at the second or last resurrection. When Jesus returns, there will be a resurrection of damnation and judgment (Dan. 12:2; Jn. 5:29; Rev. 20:11-15). This is just previous to the Great White Throne Judgment. Wiersbe says, “Nobody in the first resurrection will be lost, but nobody in the second resurrection will be saved.” 41
Many in our society no longer have the hope of a bodily resurrection. Some may have a vague optimism and others, under Oriental religious influences, think they might someday merge with the divinity. The thought of our physical bodies being restored is too much for some today just as it was for certain of the Corinthians. Wright again gives a word of explanation: “As we know, we change our entire physical kit, every atom and molecule, over a period of seven years or so…and yet, I am still me.” 42 Thus, he obviously feels that it is no problem for God to change the whole body.
“But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him” (15:23). The word for turn or order is the Greek tagma. Morris says of this word that it was “originally a military term, referring to a detachment of soldiers, though it came to be used more generally.” 43 Thus, we see that there is an order in the resurrection. Christ is raised first and afterward all those who believe in him.
Stedman tells of some lines that were written on a tombstone. They said:
Remember, friend, as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, soon you will be,
Prepare for death, and follow me.
He says that someone had written underneath these lines saying:
To follow you I’m not content,
Until I know which way you went.44
THE END OF THE AGE
Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power” 1 Corinthians 15:24
There are several things involved as this evil age comes to an end. We see in this verse that Jesus will destroy all other dominion, authority and power. This seems to be a process as we see from the Book of Revelation. Jesus will return to earth, defeat the Antichrist and his armies, and will inaugurate the thousand-year millennial reign on earth (Psa.2:6-9; 8:6; 110:1). It seems that during this time there will continue to be natural people who grow old and even die (Rev. 20:9; Isa. 65:20), and there also will be resurrected saints who are ruling the earth on behalf of Christ.
In reflecting on the Millennial Age, we can view it as a prototype Kingdom of God finally established on the earth. It is a natural fulfillment of everything promised to Israel by her prophets (Ez. Chs.36-37; Isa. 2:1-5). It is designed to fulfill all the things for which Israel has long hoped and prayed.
When we look at the Millennium we are looking at a totally new era that is still largely hidden from our eyes. Although we do not fully understand the peculiarities of this age and it leaves us with many questions, we had best believe in its existence until we understand it better. We certainly should not deny it as many Christian thinkers came to do in the church’s early history.
We can perceive some things about this age. Because of the absence of the Beast and False Prophet, people will likely not be deceived by false prophecy during this period. Satan himself will be temporarily out of the picture as he is bound for the thousand years, and apparently will not be able to tempt people and nations.
It attests to the rebellion deep in human nature that even after this wonderful period of heaven on earth, sinful man driven by the released devil, will once again go to war against Israel and God (Rev. 20:7-10). This will likely be the shortest war in earth’s history as the full and final wrath of God is poured out on the devil and his forces. This will end all wars forever and Satan himself will at last be thrown into the lake of fire.
At some point, perhaps at the Lord’s initial appearing, the wicked shall be removed from the earth for their eternal punishment. The earth will begin to undergo a complete rejuvenation or renovation. The present heaven and earth will be replaced by a new creation. Perhaps we can say that the heavens and earth will be recycled and purged by fire (Matt. 28:20; 2 Pet. 3:10). The word for destroyed is the Greek katareo, which has the meaning of rendering null and void or making inoperative.45 In the new earth there will no longer be a sea diving peoples and nations.46
When we think of the remaking of earth and the Lord’s conquest of all powers and authorities we remember that old hymn:
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does his successive journeys run,
His kingdom spread from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.47
“For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (15:25-26). Barker and Kohlenberger state: “The picture is total, including the physical kingdoms of this world…Christ must continue his reign, (i.e., his millennial reign; Rev. 20:4-6) until all his enemies are conquered. The expression ‘under his feet’ (an allusion to Psa. 110:1; cf. Mt. 22:44) is an Old Testament figure for total conquest.” 48 Regarding the demise of death, Chrysostom commented, “In the beginning death entered last, after the counsel of the devil and our disobedience. Similarly, death will be the last thing to be destroyed.” 49
We cannot miss the fact that the Lord’s triumphant and overcoming saints will reign with him on this earth.50 We have often spoken of reigning with him in heaven but that is not a correct understanding according to the Bible (cf. 6:2).
“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” (15:27). As Keener says, “the Son will reign over all else as God’s viceroy but remain subordinate in role to the Father…” 51 In this verse Paul is quoting from Psalm 8:6 in the Greek Septuagint version. This quote seems to be in close association with Psalm 110:1, which is the most quoted Old Testament Scripture in the New Testament.52
It is clear that the Lord’s Messianic role is but a phase of his eternal Sonship. That role will draw to a close in time.53 Yet, the Son will continue eternal with the Father. Morris sums up this difficult passage saying: “Paul’s point, then, is that God the Father has given to the Son unlimited sovereignty over all creation. This, of course, does not involve any infringement on the Father’s own sovereignty.” 54
“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” (15:28). The triumphant Son has now subdued all things, although it was the Father who placed all things under his feet (Psa.110:1). The Son then hands all things back to the Father so that God can be all in all. Long ago, Gregory Nazianzen compared this to “a torch temporarily withdrawn from a great flame and then joined up again with it.” 55 Hodge explains it saying, “The son of a king may be the equal of his father in every attribute of his nature, though officially inferior. So the eternal Son of God may be coequal with the Father, though officially subordinate.” 56 Guzik says, “each person of the Trinity desires to glorify another person of the Trinity. The Son glorifies the Father (Jn. 17:4), the Father glorifies the Son (Jn. 17:5), and the Holy Spirit glorifies the Son (Jn. 16:14).” 57
This is a very difficult passage, as is any passage dealing with the mysterious doctrine of the Trinity. When the Son of God came to earth he emptied himself of his divine prerogatives (Phil. 2:6-7) and became truly a human being. He even became lower than the angels that he himself had created. In utter humiliation he then died on a cruel Roman cross to procure our salvation.58 Morris adds, “…Paul is not speaking of the essential nature of either the Son or the Father. He is speaking of the work that Christ has accomplished and will accomplish.” 59
WITHOUT THE RESURRECTION, ALL IS IN VAIN
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? 1 Corinthians 15:29
Clarke says flatly, “This is certainly the most difficult verse in the New Testament…”60 Obviously, this verse is based upon some mysterious and superstitious practice related to baptism. The present tense of the verse indicates that the practice was still going on among the Corinthians as Paul was writing.61 The apostle chooses to make a point concerning this practice without correcting it. More than likely he felt that there were more weighty matters to discuss and that he could deal with this practice when he was present with the Corinthians.
Morris notes, “…The most natural way to understand the words is to see a reference to vicarious baptism.” 62 Let us say that a person accepted the Lord Jesus, but while that person was under instruction, he or she died without receiving baptism. In such a case, a member of the church could then be baptized for that person. In those early days baptism was considered as extremely important to salvation.63 Paul’s point of course is that such a practice would be in vain if there was no resurrection.
“And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord” (15:30-31). Paul was one who lived his life on the “cutting edge.” His life was always in danger because of the gospel he preached (cf. 2 Cor. 1:8-9; 4:11; 11:23-25). Barker and Kohlenberger think that the apostle is here alluding to a grave peril that was looming up before him at Ephesus.64 We do not know what this peril was but we know it apparently caused Priscilla and Aquila to risk their lives for him (Rom. 16:4).
“If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (15:32). We sense that something terrible happened to Paul at Ephesus. Keener comments, “Roman gladiatorial shows were also held in the theater at Ephesus during many festivals…It is unlikely, however, that Paul was literally cast to beasts in that arena.” 65 Guthrie says, “fighting with beasts at Ephesus is evidently metaphorical (sentence to the arena involved loss of citizenship – which Paul still retained in Acts 22:25).” 66
All we know is that some awful encounter happened at Ephesus. More than likely it was a dangerous encounter with some of his enemies in the city. Comfort adds, “Paul probably meant this metaphorically…The human enemies that Paul had faced in Ephesus had been as vicious as wild beasts…(see Acts 19).” 67
If there is no resurrection, all of life is lived in vain. We might as well eat, drink and be merry (cf. Eccl. 5:18; 8:15). This actually seems to be a quote from Isaiah 22:13, perhaps with some reference to Jesus’ parable in Luke 12:19. The modern summary is “You only go around once in life, so get all the gusto you can!” 68 South has said about this, “If men but persuade themselves that they shall die like the beasts, they soon will live like
beasts too.” 69
“Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character’” (15:33). I remember well as the rebellious 60s began, some of the “scholars” scorned Christians for believing and saying this very thing. They had convinced themselves that bad and evil people did not affect good people in the slightest. They were wrong of course, but they still influenced the age for evil. This statement was taken by Paul from one of Menander’s comedies and it had likely become proverbial by his time.70
“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” (15:34). The Corinthians were so proud of their knowledge but Paul charges them with gross ignorance concerning the resurrection. It was Fee who called this “the ultimate put-down.” 71
WHAT THE RESURRECTED BODY IS LIKE
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 1 Corinthians 15:35
Obviously, Paul is probing into the unknown here, but he did have some spiritual experiences that may have helped him understand this difficult subject. The Scripture does declare that God, “… by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21). Meyer comments, “… It is not difficult to believe in this, when we have seen the caterpillar become the butterfly.” 72
To answer the question Paul uses a very earthly example, that of farming. He says “How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies” (15:36). Spurgeon says, “No farmer ever weeps when he sows his seed.” 73 Seed are sown in hope that they will produce a crop. What we plant in the ground, of course, will be much different than that which comes up. It really comes forth with a new body.
“When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body” (15:37-38). Pett says, “Nobody looking at the acorn would imagine that within it was a mighty oak.” 74 Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, 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” (Jn. 12:24). The sowing makes it possible that the seed, although dying and decomposing, can bring forth a marvelous new crop. The new crop will initially be quite different than the seed sown. So it is with the resurrection.
“Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another” (15:39). Here we briefly glimpse the great diversity of God’s creative ability. There is such a vast difference, for instance, between a bird and a fish. In fact, when we probe below the oceans we find unusual and incredible life forms. The same is true when we peer through a microscope.
“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” (15:40). There is a glory in the terrestrial but surely a much greater glory in the celestial. Wiersbe thinks that Paul may be speaking of differences in glory between one believer and another when we receive our new bodies.75 Surely we will be given bodies that are well adapted to living in the spiritual realm.
“The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor” (15:41). Now that we have the advantage of the Hubble space telescope, we are able to see the astounding colors and configurations of deep space. God is a God of infinite and astounding variety.
RAISED IN GLORY
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 1 Corinthians 15:42-44
Smith says, “Resurrection…is not the mere restoration of life, the reanimation of dead bodies, or the resuscitation of corpses…Rather, resurrection is the transformation of the present earthly body into an imperishable, glorious, powerful, and supernatural body that is adapted to eschatological (end-time existence).” 76 Comfort adds, “The ‘natural’ body (soma psuchikon) is suited to life in the present world; however, such a body is not fit for the world to come. That future world, where Christ will reign in his kingdom, will require a ‘spiritual’ body (soma pneumatikon).” 77 Augustine in thinking of all this says, “This spiritual body: will not only be better than any body on earth in perfect health but will surpass even that of Adam or Eve before their sin.” 78
Can we even imagine the glory of this new body? There will be no more death, decay, weariness, weakness, sickness, heartache, fear, dread, and a multitude of earthly ills. The curse over the earth will be gone with all its trouble, labor, disappointment, war, and such things. We will no longer have to be concerned with food and shelter.
The only picture we have of this new body is the resurrected body of Jesus. He suffered no time-space limitations. He could quickly go from place to place and even move through locked doors. Yet, he was able to eat with the disciples. They could also touch him and feel him (Lk. 24:22-43; Jn. 20:19-29).79 To try and understand this new spiritual body is far beyond our mental powers. We only know that it will be glorious.
“So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being;’ the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual” (15:45-46). Morris says, “Paul refers to Genesis 2:7 (inserting first before man and Adam after it)….Adam was the progenitor of the race, and his characteristics are stamped on the race. In the same way, Christ is the last Adam, the progenitor of the race of spiritual people. In modern times we often read of ‘the second Adam’, but Paul never uses this term…There is a finality about ‘the last Adam.’” 80
There is a biblical law in these verses that it is important for us to know and understand. The natural always comes before the spiritual. Sometimes in our haste we wish to skip over the natural and go on to the spiritual. This cannot be done. Often, the natural is a picture or type of the spiritual just as the old tabernacle and temple were types of the coming spiritual temple. It is only in being faithful with the former that we can understand and enter into the later.
“The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven” (15:47). Jesus was and is the heavenly man. He said to the Jews, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world” (Jn. 8:23). In his glorious resurrection the Lord fully demonstrated the difference between himself and fleshly beings. We know only a few things about his resurrected body and what we do know astounds us. As we have said, he had no time-space limitations, he could appear and disappear, walk through locked doors, and at last ascend to his Father in heaven.
“As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man” (15:48-49). We have all certainly borne the image of the earthly man Adam, with all his failure and sin. But the good news of the gospel is that we will bear the image of the heavenly man, Jesus. In 1 John 3:2, it is written: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Long ago Augustine said, “The Lord who was heavenly became earthly that he might make heavenly those who were earthly.” 81
The founder of modern psychiatry once wrote, “And finally there is the painful riddle of death, for which no remedy at all has yet been found, nor probably ever will be.” 82 We now have wonderful good news for Mr. Freud. There is a wonderful resurrection for those dead who believe in Jesus! Paul sums it up in speaking of Jesus, “who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21).
THE GREAT RESURRECTION MYSTERY
I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 1 Corinthians15:50
When we come to the resurrection we are clearly dealing with things which totally baffle our minds. We are dealing with the unseen, the unknown, even the unimaginable. With these verses we find little commentary available because, quite simply, none of us knows enough to elaborate on this mysterious subject.
Obviously, this is a realm where flesh and blood cannot go. The perishable flesh cannot inherit this realm. Morris says, “The blunt statement that flesh and blood cannot participate in the kingdom plainly excludes all crude ideas of resurrection…the combination of flesh and blood and the perishable means that neither the living nor the dead at the coming of Christ will go into the kingdom as they are. Both must be
To in any way comprehend this section we must get ourselves into a spiritual mode of thinking. In this mode all things are possible and nothing is impossible. Yet, we cannot exclude our bodies. Gundry says, “This statement sounds not at all like an exchange of physicality for nonphysicality, but like an exchange of inferior physicality for superior physicality…” 84 It will not just be humankind that is changed but the whole creation itself that will be delivered and changed. Paul assures us “that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).
In the imperishable realm the curse in the earth will be removed. There will be no more death, decay, pain, tears. God will remove all these things forever (Isa. 25:8). Quite simply, we cannot even imagine the joy, bliss, glory and liberty we shall experience in this realm. Augustine says, “There will be no further conflict within ourselves. And just as there will be no more external enemies to bear with, so neither shall we have to bear with ourselves as enemies within.” 85
“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 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” (15:51-52). Here is another great mystery that the apostle reveals to us. We will not all die but we will all be changed. Bruce comments that we will “be changed to conform to the condition of the resurrection age.” 86
This simply means that there will be Christians still living on earth when Christ returns. 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 gives us another picture of this event: “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. 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.”
Perhaps we should think a little about the sounding of the trumpet. In Israel each year on Rosh HaShana the trumpets are sounded. It is always an awesome and spine-tingling thing to hear the trumpet pierce the crisp Fall air in Israel. This sounding is a sign of the approaching end of the present age. If we look at Revelation carefully we will see that there are several trumpets that will sound, bringing on various aspects of the end. Actually, for there to be a last trumpet there must be a first trumpet. Revelation says that there are seven trumpets in all (Rev. 8:6 – 9:21). It is interesting that the re-gathering of Israel is said to have happened in response to the sounding of a great trumpet (Isa. 27:13). We did not hear that trumpet but the Jews heard it, and beginning in the 1880s they started to come home to Israel, and they are still coming. This makes us wonder if we are hearing the other trumpets.
When the last trumpet sounds, we believers who are still living shall be changed in a moment and in the twinkling of an eye. Morris says of this: “…the change in the living will take place with startling suddenness. ‘Flash’ translates atomos, ‘that which cannot be divided’ i.e. the smallest possible…‘Twinkling’ (rhipe) is connected with the idea of throwing. The twinkling of an eye is the time it takes to cast a glance, or perhaps to flutter an eyelid.” 87
All this fills us with wonder. We certainly want to be prepared for the sounding of the last trumpet. Long ago the sixth-century monk Cassiodorus said: “Anyone who is not changed in this world cannot experience change in the next.” 88
“For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 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’” (15:53-54). The Greek word for clothe is endunō. It means “to go in, to envelope, to put on as a garment…” 89 This is not something we can do but something God does for us in a miraculous way. When this happens the words of Isaiah 25:8 will find their fulfillment and death will be swallowed up in victory (Rev. 7:17; 21:4). Spurgeon once remarked, “Expiring saints have often said that their last beds have been the best they have ever slept upon.” 90
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (15:55). In Hosea 13:14 we read: “I will deliver this people from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?…” Barnes describes the abode of the dead in these words: “…According to the Hebrews, Hades, or Sheol, was a vast subterranean receptacle, or abode, where the souls of the dead existed. It was dark, deep, still, awful. The descent to it was through the grave; and the spirits of all the dead were supposed to be assembled there; the righteous occupying the upper regions, and the wicked the lower…” 91 But when Christ ascended, death was led captive in his train (Eph. 4:8). Death has lost its power and its captives forever.
Physical death for the saint of God is now described as a sleep. The horror of death is gone. The awful sting of death has been removed in Christ. This sting (kentron) is described by Barnes in this way: “…The idea is derived from the venomous sting of serpents, or other reptiles, as being destructive and painful.” 92 Now in Christ this awful sting has been taken away.
“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (15:56). The sting of death results from sin, and this comes about by the breaking of God’s law. It is now done away with by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul says in Romans 8:2, “…through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
Paul sums up saying, “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:57). In Romans 8:37, the apostle says, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Morris adds, “There is also the implication that we participate in that victory now, and that we participate in it daily.” 93 All this makes us want to exult in the words of Psalm. 98:1 (NKJ) “…Oh, sing to the LORD a new song! For He has done marvelous things; His right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory.”
In light of all these wonderful truths Paul closes the section with this great challenge, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, 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” (15:58).