1 Corinthians 15:12-20
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, “It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption. 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. There is a natural body and 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 15:12-19. IF THERE IS NO RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD
12Now if Christ is preached, that he has been raised (Greek: egegertai—from egeiro) from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13But if there is no resurrection of the dead, neither has Christ been raised. 14If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith also is in vain. 15Yes, we are found false witnesses (pseudomartyres) of God, because we testified about God that he raised up Christ, whom he didn’t raise up, if it is so that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead aren’t raised, neither has Christ been raised. 17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain (Greek: mataia); you are still in your sins. 18Then they also who are fallen asleep (koimenthentes—fallen asleep) in Christ have perished. 19If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable.
“Now if Christ is preached, that he has been raised (egegertai—from egeiro) from the dead” (v. 12a). In verses 1-11, Paul dealt with Christ’s resurrection, which is the foundation on which the Good News of the Gospel stands. This is this Good News that Paul proclaimed to these Corinthian Christians, and it is this Good News in which they stand and through which they are being saved (vv. 1-2). Paul established that Christ’s resurrection is “first of all that which I also received” (v. 3), and that numerous people witnessed the risen Christ—most of whom were still alive at the time of this writing (vv. 5-8). Paul personally encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9).
Note that the word egegertai (raised) is passive. Jesus didn’t rise from the dead (his action), but was raised from the dead (God’s action).
These Corinthian Christians have not denied Christ’s resurrection. Paul therefore starts with Christ’s resurrection. He will use that belief to show them the possibility of personal resurrection.
“how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?“ (v. 12b). These Corinthian Christians have found it difficult to believe in the possibility (or even the desirability) of their own resurrection from the dead. As noted above, the dualistic environment in which they live emphasizes the soul as good and the body as bad, and that has a great deal to do with their doubts.
Paul’s question is quite logical. If these Corinthian Christians believe in Christ’s bodily resurrection, then they cannot say that there is no resurrection of the dead.
The Gospels go to great lengths to show that Jesus had a normal body. He was born (Luke 2). He ate and drank. He wept (Luke 19:41). At his crucifixion, when his side was pierced with a spear, blood and water came out (John 19:34). Following his crucifixion, his body was buried in a tomb.
After his resurrection, hundreds of people witnessed his resurrected body (vv. 5-8). He invited his disciples to touch his body, and ate food in their presence (Luke 24:39-42).
“But if there is no resurrection of the dead, neither has Christ been raised“ (v. 13). In verse 12, Paul established that, if Christ was resurrected, there is such a thing as resurrection from the dead. Now, in verse 13, he approaches that from the other end. If there is no resurrection, then Christ was not resurrected. He will begin to explain the implications of that in the next verse.
“If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith also is in vain“ (v. 14). This is a point that today’s church needs desperately to hear. If Christ was not raised from the dead, the Christian faith is based on a lie. If Christ was not raised from the dead, all the preaching and evangelistic work of the church through the centuries has been for nothing. If Christ was not raised from the dead, we have no hope of life beyond the grave. If Christ was not raised from the dead, most of what we do in the church today is little better than the activities of a social club. If Christ was not raised from the dead, it would make more sense to spend our Sundays and our efforts and our money in other ways.
But there are many in the church today who doubt or deny the resurrection of Christ. Why do they remain in the church? Perhaps it is the music—or the fellowship—or the smells and bells. Perhaps they believe that the church does good work. Perhaps it is just habit. I can’t really say. I can say only that if I didn’t believe in the resurrection of Christ, I would pack my bags and go elsewhere—because the resurrection of Christ is the foundation on which the church is built. If Christ was not resurrected from the dead, there is no reason to believe any of the rest of what the church teaches.
“Yes, we are found false witnesses (pseudomartyres) of God, because we testified about God that he raised up Christ, whom he didn’t raise up, if it is so that the dead are not raised“ (v. 15). The Greek word pseudomartyres is made up of two words: pseudo (false) and martyres (witness) and means a false witness. If Christ was not raised from the dead, then Paul and the other Christians who claim to have seen the risen Christ have been lying. They were not only lying about having seen the risen Christ, but have testified falsely to the nature of God’s action in the world. That would be a serious sin, because they would have caused people to believe in a lie rather than in the truth. People who believe in a lie almost invariably end up the worse for it.
“For if the dead aren’t raised, neither has Christ been raised“ (v. 16). If there is no resurrection, then Christ could not have been resurrected. That could not be clearer.
This is the first of four points that Paul will outline in verses 16-19. The four points constitute a logical sequence. IF the dead are not raised:
1. “Neither has Christ been raised” (v. 16).
2. Then “your faith is vain; you are still in your sins” (v. 17).
3. “Then they also who who are fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (v. 18).
4. Then “we are of all men most pitiable” (v. 19).
“If Christ has not been raised” (v. 17a). If the dead are not raised (v. 16a), then Christ has not been raised. That is the first problem with a belief that there is no resurrection of the dead.
“your faith is vain (mataia—worthless, in vain); you are still in your sins“ (v. 17b). “If Christ has not been raised” (v. 17a), the next problem is that faith is futile and there is no forgiveness of sin. Without forgiveness of sin, we have no hope of a proper relationship with God.
“Then they also who are fallen asleep (koimenthentes—fallen asleep) in Christ have perished“ (v. 18). The Greek word koimenthentes means “fallen asleep,” and is a euphemism for death. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, the third problem is that all dead saints have perished. This would fly in the face of the Corinthian Christians’ belief that, in Christ, there is the assurance of salvation for those who die. Later in this chapter, Paul will talk about “they (those people) who are baptized for the dead.” He will ask, ” If the dead aren’t raised at all, why then are they baptized for the dead?” (v. 29).
Paul is not saying that those who have died have no hope of salvation—quite the contrary. Neither is he saying that the Corinthian Christians do not believe in Christ’s resurrection. He is stringing together a logical series that starts with the assumption that Christ has been raised from the dead. If that is true, then it is illogical to say that there is no resurrection of the dead (v. 12).
Then Paul is saying that, if Christ has not been raised from the dead (inferred from their failure to believe in the resurrection of the saints), then the consequence are the four problems that he points out in verses 16-19 (see the list above in the comments on v. 16).
“If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable“ (v. 19). This is the fourth and final consequence if there is no resurrection. If there is no resurrection, then the only benefits we can derive from our faith are those that we can gain in this life. There would be no future life, and therefore no future benefit.
We need to stop here and acknowledge that there are benefits to be gained in this life by faith in Christ. Just look at the people in your congregation. They might or might not be kings and princes—movers and shakers—but they are very likely better off than they would have been without faith. Many of them are devoted to their spouse and children, in part, because of their love for Christ. That has benefits for the whole family. Many of them try to love their neighbor because Christ has commanded them to do that. That has benefits for the person who ends up with love rather than poison in his/her heart, but it also has benefits for the community. Many Christians feel a great sense of purpose because of their religious beliefs. They can face illness and death with the assurance that God is with them even through the valley of death. Paul says that, if there is no resurrection, the only benefits we can experience from our faith are those that we experience in this life. However, we need to acknowledge that these are substantial.
However, there is another side to it. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christians are “most pitiable,” because they have staked their lives on a lie. Being a Christian is a costly enterprise. Christians can expect to be persecuted for their faith (Matthew 10:16-25). Christ expects Christians to take up their cross and follow him (Matthew 10:38; 16:24). He expects them to leave behind things that they treasure to follow him (Matthew 8:22; 19:21). If we have made all these sacrifices in behalf of a lie, then we are “most pitiable” because we have staked our lives on something that has little value—or, at the least, much less value than we had anticipated.
1 CORINTHIANS 15:20. BUT NOW CHRIST HAS BEEN RAISED FROM THE DEAD
20But now Christ has been raised from the dead. He became the first fruits of those who are asleep.
“But now Christ has been raised from the dead“ (v. 20a). In verses 13-19, Paul has outlined the consequences, all negative, if there is no resurrection of the dead. However, he has not been arguing that there is no resurrection—quite the opposite. He was only outlining the consequences if there is no resurrection.
Now he says once again that “Christ has been raised from the dead.” He outlined this in more detail in verses 3-8—and the Corinthian Christians have not denied Christ’s resurrection—they have denied only the resurrection of believers. However, Paul has shown that Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of those who have faith in Christ are inextricably tied together.
“He became the first fruits of those who are asleep“ (v. 20b). The requirement for Israel to offer their “first fruits” to the Lord is found in the Torah. God required the Israelites to bring their first fruits as an offering to God (Exodus 23:19; Leviticus 23:9-10; Numbers 15:17-21; Deuteronomy 18:4; 2 Chronicles 31:5; Nehemiah 10:35). When they planted trees, they were to not to touch the fruit for three years. On the fourth year, they were to set apart the fruit “for giving praise to Yahweh” Only in the fifth and subsequent years were they allowed to keep the fruit of their trees (Leviticus 19:23-25).
The term, “first fruits” could also be used metaphorically. The prophet Jeremiah said, “Israel was holiness to Yahweh, the first fruits of his increase” (Jeremiah 2:3).
The idea behind the first fruits, of course, was that the first fruits of any harvest are especially valuable. Those of us who have waited all winter for a decent tomato know the joy of the first ripe tomato of summer. Yahweh required Israel to sacrifice their first fruits as a way of acknowledging Yahweh’s priority in their lives.
But the joy of the “first fruits” is not just in the eating of fresh fruit for the first time in months. The real joy of the “first fruits” is that the privation of winter has come to an end. The “first fruits” signal the abundance of fruit that people can expect to eat in months to come. They signal that there are good days ahead.
When Paul says that the resurrected Christ is “the first fruits of those who are asleep,” he is telling these Corinthian Christians that Christ’s resurrection is just the beginning. His resurrection signals the abundance of resurrections yet to come—the resurrection of all those who have placed their faith in Christ.
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 2012, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan