Thoughts on the resurrection — 1 Corinthians 15

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.

Why is death certain, and what can be done?

People from all sorts of cultures fear death. Some say death is normal, and we should just get over it. But if death is simply a natural thing, why is it a terror to us? An ancient book, the Bible, tells us why.

The God who made everything, also made human beings to live forever. But this life was conditional. The first man, Adam, was told that the world was his to enjoy, all of it, except the fruit of one tree. That tree was not for him. Leave it alone, God said, and you will have life to the full. Adam and his wife decided not to be content with all that God had given; they took bad advice from a rebel creature and they stole the fruit. God pronounced the sentence of death upon them. But Adam’s situation was unique. He didn’t act for himself alone, but he represented all his future children as well. His act condemned not only himself, but all human beings who would descend from him in the normal way. Each child of Adam willingly follows Adam in his rebellion. Death is a terror because it is the judgment of our creator against our rebellion.

Even though Adam’s act was inexcusable and brought disaster into God’s good world, the news wasn’t all bad. The God whom they had offended, the one against whom they had rebelled, promised Adam and Eve one way of escape. God himself would eventually come as a human being to put right what Adam had done wrong. This one is known to the world as Jesus Christ.  Why is Jesus Christ our only hope? The Bible calls Jesus the second Adam, because he was the second person in all history who made a real difference to the human condition. By Adam’s disobedience, death came to all people. By Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, life comes to those who trust him.

Jesus’ life was one of love; love toward his God, and love toward his enemies (people like us). Jesus lived an obedient life; a substitute life to replace our bad lives. He did this as a human being. He was born a human being, yet the Bible says that God himself is his father. Jesus is the Son of God. As God, his good life can be donated to us. His good life is accepted as a replacement for our bad lives when we trust him.

Jesus’ death was also a substitute. Rebels against God deserve to die and undergo everlasting judgment, because — left to ourselves — we would and could never stop rebelling. We love our bad ways, even though they will bring us to a bad end. But Jesus died once for rebels, to take death in their place. Jesus was not personally bad, so the only way he could die was if God regarded him as a substitute. Jesus died as a sin-bearer, but the sins he bore were the sins of other people, people like us. Because he is human, he could die; because he is God, that death can be accepted as the death of sinners who trust him.

Jesus really died but he didn’t stay dead. When Jesus came back to life, it showed that Jesus is truly good. Death could not hold him, because he wasn’t personally bad. The resurrection of Jesus means at least two things. First, he will never die again, and second, those who trust him will be raised to endless life too — because his death finished the punishment that their sins deserve. The Bible tells us that those who trust Jesus are regarded by God to be as sinless as Jesus. The reason people die is because of sin. So those who do trust Jesus, are deemed to be ‘sinless’ and are given an endless life just like Jesus.

The Bible says that a judgment is coming. At that judgment every human life will be compared to the righteous life of Jesus Christ. Those who fall short of that high standard will be condemned. We all personally fall short of that standard; we don’t even maintain the low standards we set ourselves. Our only hope is to have our Judge as our Saviour – to receive his goodness as a gift, by faith. We can know that we have everlasting life simply because of who Jesus is and what he has done.  The Bible says that, if we trust Jesus, we will be saved.