1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Corinth was an important and wealthy city on the isthmus (narrow strip of land) separating Northern and Southern Greece. The Apostle Paul spent eighteen months there on his Second Missionary Journey and established a church there. Acts 18 gives us considerable detail about Paul’s work in Corinth during that time.
At the conclusion of his visit to Corinth, Paul left to visit Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (5:9), but that letter has been lost to us.
Paul is writing this letter in response to a report from Chloe’s people about problems in the Corinthian church (1:11). In this letter, he provides apostolic guidance for dealing with those problems. These included:
- Questions about Paul’s apostolic authority (chapters 1, 4)
- Divisions in the church (chapters 3-4)
- Sexual immorality (chapter 5)
- Lawsuits among believers (chapter 6)
- Questions about marriage and sexuality (chapter 7)
- Questions about eating food sacrificed to idols (chapters 8-10)
- Abuses at the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11)
- Issues regarding spiritual gifts (chapters 12-14)
These were (with the exception of questions regarding Paul’s authority) moral and ethical issues –– issues related to how the Corinthian Christians behave. However, now in chapter 15, Paul begins to deal with a doctrinal issue –– and issue related to what these Corinthian Christians believe. The doctrinal issue is the resurrection of Christ –– and how that belief undergirds the belief in the resurrection of deceased believers.
In chapter 2, Paul dealt with Christ’s crucifixion. Now, in chapter 15, he deals with the resurrection, both Christ’s resurrection (15:1-11) and our own (15:12-58). Chapters 2 and 15, then, serve as bookends around the parts of this letter that deal with ethical issues.
Some Corinthian Christians have questioned the resurrection of believers. Their doubts arose from two sources:
First, some of them are Jewish, and Judaism was divided regarding the issue of resurrection. The Old Testament speaks of Sheol as the abode of the dead –– a place where those who have died are separated from the living and from God. In their early history, Jewish people tended to think of Sheol only as the grave. As time progressed, their belief system progressed in the direction of resurrection. While the Old Testament doesn’t use the word resurrection, it does include several allusions to resurrection:
- “I kill, and I make alive” (Deuteronomy 32:39).
- “Yahweh kills, and makes alive. He brings down to Sheol, and brings up” (1 Samuel 2:6).
- “But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives. In the end, he will stand upon the earth. After my skin is destroyed, then in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26).
- “He has swallowed up death forever [and] will wipe away tears from off all faces” (Isaiah 25:7-8).
- “Your dead shall live. My dead bodies shall arise” (Isaiah 26:19).
- “Behold, I will open your graves, my people… You shall know that I am Yahweh, when I have opened your graves, and caused you to come up out of your graves, my people. I will put my Spirit in you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:12-14). However, these words from Ezekiel were intended to portray the rebirth of Israel as a community of faith rather than the resurrection of faithful people as individuals.
- “After two days he will revive us. On the third day he will raise us up, and we will live before him” (Hosea 6:2).
By New Testament times, some Jews (such as the Sadducees) denied any possibility of resurrection or life after death, while other Jews (such as the Pharisees) did believe in the resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18).
Second, Corinth is a Greek city, and Greeks have been heavily influenced by Platonic dualism. Dualism divides things into two parts, such as good and evil or matter and non-matter. Many dualists considered matter (such as our bodies) as unimportant and/or evil and non-matter (such as our souls) as good. Plato taught that our physical bodies are imperfect copies of ideal Forms that exist in a spiritual realm. He taught that our bodies are mortal but our souls existed prior to our life on earth –– and will continue to exist beyond this life. Greeks (including these Corinthian Christians), raised in a dualistic environment, found it difficult to believe in the resurrection of the body. For them, the body was something to leave behind gladly –– good riddance. Their focus was the preservation of the soul.
Judaism, however, emphasized the wholeness of the person –– body and soul. That emphasis continued in the Christian church. Paul wants the Corinthian Christians to know that belief in the resurrection –– both Christ’s resurrection and the general resurrection of believers in the last days –– is foundational to the Christian faith.
Later in this chapter, Paul will explain that the resurrected body is different from the body as we know it now. He says, “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is 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 physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” (15:42-44).
As noted above, in this chapter Paul deals both with Christ’s resurrection (15:1-11) and with our own (15:12-58).
1 CORINTHIANS 15:35-38. HOW ARE THE DEAD RAISED?
35But someone will say, “How are the dead raised?” and, “With what kind of body do they come?” 36 You foolish one, that which you yourself sow is not made alive unless it dies. 37 That which you sow, you don’t sow the body that will be, but a bare grain, maybe of wheat, or of some other kind. 38 But God gives it a body even as it pleased him, and to each seed a body of its own.
“But (Greek: alla) someone will say, ‘How are the dead raised?’ and, ‘With what kind of body do they come?'” (v. 35). The Greek word alla is a strong adversative, meaning that what follows can be expected to be an opposing viewpoint. That’s true in this case. Paul has been talking about resurrection, both of Christ (vv. 1-11) and of the dead (vv. 12-34). He has been presenting the “for resurrection” case. Now he begins to address those who would deny resurrection.
Those who would oppose the idea of resurrection would ask two questions:
- The first is, “How are the dead raised?” which has to do with the process by which the resurrection is effected. In effect, they are saying, “Paul, given that you are very pro-resurrection, why don’t you explain how it happens!”––a question that they are sure Paul can’t answer.
- The second is, “With what kind of body do they come?” which has to do with the product (the resurrected body) that is produced by resurrection. Again, they feel certain that Paul can’t answer this apparently simple question, which casts a shadow on the resurrection-belief that Paul is advocating.
In other words, Paul’s opponents would expect to discredit Paul by posing two simple questions that he can’t answer.
“You foolish one” (Greek: aphron) (v. 36a). The Greek word aphron is composed of a (not or without) and phren (wisdom). Paul is accusing his opponents of being fools––people utterly without understanding.
“that which you yourself sow is not made alive unless it dies” (v. 36b). Paul introduces a metaphor from gardening that everyone had experienced and would understand. When they have sown a seed, they know that they can’t expect to recover the original seed once a plant has grown from the seed.
The seed is a living embryo that stores nutrients for the plant that will sprout. These nutrients are consumed in the process of sprouting. The seed becomes less and less, until it becomes for all practical purposes nothing at all. The plant that sprouts becomes more and more, until it is a full-fledged plant capable of fulfilling its purpose (growing flowers, vegetables, or grains).
Of course, God has provided for the continuation of the process. There is no necessity for recovering the original seed. The mature plant will include many seeds that can be used for the next planting.
“made alive” (Greek: zoopoieitai––from zoopoieo (v. 36b). The Greek word zoopoieo comes from two words, zoos (alive) and poieo (to make)––so it means “to make alive.” In its use here, it is in the passive voice, which means that the seed isn’t the one that brings about life. That is the function of God, who created all things (Genesis 1-2)––and continues to do the same today.
“That which you sow, you don’t sow the body that will be, but a bare grain, maybe of wheat, or of some other kind” (v. 37). What is sown is quite different from that which will result from the sowing. A corn stalk looks quite different from the grain of corn that produced it.
“But God gives it a body even as it pleased him, and to each seed a body of its own” (v. 38). This brings the discussion to its source, God, who created all things. It isn’t the one who plants nor the one who waters, but God who gives life to the plant (3:7).
God gives the plant that sprouted from the seed a body, as God sees fit. God has designed a distinctive body for each kind of seed.
1 CORINTHIANS 15:42-44. RAISED IN GLORY
42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption. 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. There is a natural body and there is also a spiritual body.
“So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption” (v. 42). Paul now relates the seed and plant to the human body. When we die, our bodies are sown (buried) to corruption. In other words, our bodies begin to decay, even as a seed planted in the ground begins to decay as it prepares to give birth to a new plant.
But that decay isn’t the end of the story, but the beginning. The body which was sown in corruption is raised in incorruption––no longer subject to decay.
“It is sown in dishonor (Greek: atimia); it is raised in glory (doxa). It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power” (v. 43). The Greek word atimia combines a (not or without) time (honor), so it means dishonor. For the Jewish people, the dead body conveyed uncleanness. Anyone who touched a corpse became ritually unclean for seven days, and was required to go through ritual cleansing before coming to the tabernacle or temple (Numbers 19:11-13).
But the body sown in dishonor is raised in glory (Greek: doxa). The word “glory” is used in the Bible to speak of various wonderful things––but it is used especially to speak of God’s glory––an aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty to humans. God chooses to grace the resurrected body with a touch of his glory.
In like manner, the body is sown in weakness, but raised in power.
“It is sown a natural (Greek: psychikos––from psyche) body; it is raised a spiritual (pneumantikos) body. There is a natural body and there is also a spiritual body” (v. 44). The words psyche and psychikos are related to the word breath. The psychikos (natural) body is a body that requires breathing oxygen to live, and is thus the part of human life shared with animals. A pneumantikos (spiritual) body, however, is one that is focused on the Spirit rather than the physical sustenance of life.
1 CORINTHIANS 15:45-49. THE SECOND MAN IS THE LORD
45 So also it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living soul.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 However that which is spiritual isn’t first, but that which is natural, then that which is spiritual. 47 The first man is of the earth, made of dust. The second man is the Lord from heaven. 48 As is the one made of dust, such are those who are also made of dust; and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. 49 As we have borne the image of those made of dust, let’s also bear the image of the heavenly.
“So also it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living soul.'” (v. 45a). In this verse, Paul contrasts the first man (Adam) with the last man (Jesus Christ). The first man (Adam) came to life when God breathed into him the breath of life (Genesis 2:7). Adam passed to all his descendants the essence of his nature, one characteristic being that we require breath to live.
“The last Adam became a life-giving spirit” (v. 45). The last man (Jesus Christ), however, was different in that he became the giver rather than the receiver of life.
“However that which is spiritual isn’t first, but that which is natural, then that which is spiritual” (v. 46). We are born to natural life. As we grow and mature in the presence of God, we take on the qualities of a spiritual life.
“The first man is of the earth, made of dust. The second man is the Lord from heaven” (v. 47a). The reference to dust alludes to Genesis 2:7.
Paul adds another contrast––that between the first man (Adam) and the second man (Jesus Christ). Adam had his origin in the dust, but Jesus Christ had his origin in heaven.
“As is the one made of dust, such are those who are also made of dust; and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly” (v. 48). We bear the characteristics of our descendants. In physical terms, we are descended from Adam, and reflect his dust origins. In spiritual terms, we are descended from Jesus Christ, and reflect his heavenly origins.
“As we have borne the image of those made of dust, let’s also bear the image of the heavenly” (v. 49). This acknowledges that we are like Adam, who was created from the dust of the earth. It calls us to bear the image of Christ, who was descended from heaven.
1 CORINTHIANS 15:50. FLESH AND BLOOD
50 Now I say this, brothers, that flesh and blood can’t inherit the Kingdom of God; neither does corruption inherit incorruption.
“Now I say this, brothers” (v. 50a). This emphasizes the importance of that which follows.
“that flesh and blood can’t inherit the Kingdom of God” (v. 50b). We use the phrase “flesh and blood” to refer to our physical bodies. Our flesh and blood are both subject to decay, so they aren’t fit for the Kingdom of God.
“neither does corruption inherit incorruption” (v. 50b). And our corruptible bodies are also not fit for the Kingdom of God. We must first allow Christ to transform our lives.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2017, Richard Niell Donovan