The churches of Corinth had their problems. One of these problems was that some people there thought the Gospel as delivered to them was too prosaic, or too offensive. Paul had written that the preaching of the cross was a stumbling block to the unconverted Jew and foolishness to the unconverted Greek, but to the called, both Jew and Greek, Christ is the power and wisdom of God.
In chapter 15, Paul is reminding these churches of a number of things attested to by the scriptures and the apostles.[i]
- Christ died for our sins, according to Scriptures,
- that he was buried, and
- that, on the third day, he rose from the dead according to the Scriptures.
This risen-from-the-dead Christ (known as Jesus of Nazareth) was seen by the twelve, and by up to 500 people at one time. Of these, many were still available in Paul’s day for comment, but some had ‘fallen asleep’, or in more bland language, had died.[ii]
Now, some of the Corinthians had got it into their heads that there was to be no resurrection (perhaps a faction of ex-Sadducees had rocked in, or ex-Epicureans or Stoics). Paul asks how it was that these could say such things, even though the OT foretold the death, burial and resurrection of the Christ, and even though those who had seen him alive (resurrected) and had touched him (after he had suffered and died) had reported these facts. Paul, like Jesus, believed in the legitimacy of testimony,[iii] but the real point for Paul was the implications that such ‘no resurrection’ thinking had for the life of the church and the peace of Christians.
Paul’s argument seems to be this: A really resurrected Jesus Christ (that is, a once dead body is revived, made alive again – never to die again) is intimately connected with the reason why the Christ had to die. The real death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has monumental implications for those for whom he lived, died and rose again. Adam’s disobedience brought sin and death to all human beings,[iv] and for this reason we are in a mess. Christ’s obedience in our place, however, established righteousness for his people, his death in our place deals with our sin and the judgment due to it, and his resurrection (never to die again, as the sin of his people has been finally dealt with), completes his rescue of his people and gives them eternal life. Sinful condemned people (mere flesh and blood) could not do this for themselves. Christ – who is both God and man – came to do it for us. He alone brings people into the inheritance of the kingdom of God.
The promise of a real resurrection for Christians is based upon Christ’s real resurrection. If Christians are not to expect a real resurrection, then Christ must have failed in his work of rescue. If Christians are not to be really raised from the dead, then Christ has not been raised, sin and death still hold sway, and we are all doomed. This seems to be Paul’s argument. But, he says, Christ is risen, so, thanks be to God, there is real and certain hope for anyone who trusts this Jesus.
Paul’s talk about the resurrection body is interesting, in that nothing he says necessarily negates a physical resurrection. He talks about differing physical bodies, heavenly ones – stars, moon, sun – and earthy ones, fish, birds, people. These physical bodies are different to suit their differing situations. The bodies that we have at the moment are suited to our present condition – that of being in a sin blighted world and destined to die – a corruptible body. The resurrection body, one that will never die, is physical too but is incorruptible and suitable for eternity.
Paul’s use of psychicon (fleshly) and pneumaticon (spiritual) again gives no necessary support for setting up a literalistic dichotomy between physical and spirit-like existences. He uses these same words earlier in the same letter to describe those who are regenerate (Christians) and those who are not Christians. The psychicon persons do not have the spiritual discernment to receive the scriptures as they ought to, only the pneumaticon persons – those born again by the Spirit of God. The psychicon and the pneumaticon people referred to earlier were living human beings in physical bodies. There is no necessary reason for taking these words otherwise in Chapter 15.
Paul’s final comment about ‘flesh and blood’ not inheriting the kingdom of God might reasonably be taken to refer back to Paul’s earlier statements such as: “If Christ is not risen, your faith is useless and you are still in your sins; if we have hope in Christ only in this (present) life, we are of all people most miserable”. The implication, I suggest, is that any attempt at forming a ‘Christian community’ based simply on what mere human beings (flesh and blood – refer Matthew 16:17) might be able to do is doomed to failure. Without the work of God in Christ, his real death, real burial and real resurrection – his doing for us what we cannot and would not do for ourselves – we would be left hopeless, helpless and utterly (and rightly) condemned. We would be left outside the kingdom of God with no possible way of gaining a part in it.
My daughter suggested to me that Colossians 2:9 (the context is that of Paul warning the Colossians to beware of people who would cheat them through philosophy and empty deceit) as a verse worthy of reflection:
“For in him (the Lord Jesus Christ) dwells (present tense, and Paul wrote these words post-resurrection) all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (somaticos)”.
She also suggests that 1 Corinthians 6:13-14 has some interesting things to say about the significance to Christ of our physical bodies and that people ought to use them appropriately as Christ will raise those physical bodies to eternal life.
[i] ‘Scriptures’ probably refers just to the OT, but Paul might even be including a NT Gospel within this term (and I don’t think any of the proposers of the late dates for the Gospels would be willing to stake their lives on their guesses; nevertheless, NT writers did refer to NT writings as ‘Scripture’, e.g. Peter said Paul’s letters were twisted by perverse minds as were the rest of Scripture).
[ii] They were down, as it were, and not able to be got up again by mere human effort, but God will raise them up in the last day because Jesus is risen from the dead.
[iii] Incidentally, Jesus’ comment to Thomas, who doubted just as much as the other disciples had done before they had seen Jesus alive from the dead, was rebuked for doubting the testimony of those who had told him the facts. The testimony of eye-witnesses ought to have been enough for Thomas.
[iv] Interesting that Paul’s teaching on original sin (Adam’s disobedience affecting all his children except Jesus) is not only given in Romans 5, but also here in 1 Corinthians.