I Corinthians 15
An Analysis of St. Paul’s “Argument”
A. The gospel is anchored in the resurrection of Jesus (v. 1-11)
B1. But if this did not happen, then the gospel, with all its benefits, is null and void (v. 12-19)
B2. Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of ‘the resurrection of the dead,’ the final eschatological event (of God’s future kingdom “breaking in” to the now), which has now split into two; the risen Jesus is the ‘first-fruits,’ both the initial, prototypical example, and second, is also the means of the subsequent resurrection of his people, because it is through his status and office as the truly human being, the Messiah, that death and all other enemies of the Creator’s plan are to be defeated (v.20-28).
C. Paul then quickly mentions (v.29-34) what would follow if the resurrection were not true after all: the central nerve of Christian living would be cut. Basically stated, if there is nothing more to life than this mortal coil, well … let’s just “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (v.33).
b. Paul then moves (v.35-49) to the what of resurrection, which is based at several points on B2; the risen Jesus is the model/example for what resurrected humanity will consist of, and also, through the Spirit, the agent/means of its accomplishment.
a. Paul concludes triumphantly (v. 50-58) with a description of the future moment of resurrection, emphasizing the incorruptibility of the new body, and hence the character of the event as victory over death. He closes with both praise (v.57) and exhortation (v.58)
Some Assembled “Notes” for Reflection
The aim of I Corinthians 15 is to answer the challenge of verse 12: some of the Corinthian Christians had been saying that there was no resurrection of the dead. This must mean that they were denying a future bodily resurrection, and the strong probability is that they were doing so on standard pagan grounds, as set out in I Corinthians 2, that everybody knew dead folks didn’t and couldn’t come back to bodily life.
If the denial were to be sustained, clearly, much of St. Paul’s previous argument would be undercut, depending as it does on the promise of the resurrection. This is why Paul opens Chapter 15 with a restatement of the fundamental Christian gospel, highlighting particularly the fact of Jesus’ own resurrection which will be the basis for both the initial argument in B1 (v.12-19) and the developed argument of B2 (v.20-28). An event has occurred that has changed the shape of God’s history/plan with and for his world: the bodily resurrection of Jesus
Paul refers to the resurrection of Jesus as an event for which there were witnesses – a large, though finite number, comprising at least 500 who had seen Jesus. Some of these witnesses had already died, and no more would be added to their number, because the sightings of the risen Jesus had a temporal end; when he, Paul, saw Jesus, that was the last in the sequence. From here, Christ continues to become visible for us through his Word and Sacraments.
The introduction to the introduction (15:1-3a) sets out in solemn fashion the fact that Paul’s gospel, which hinges on Jesus’ resurrection, was the one he himself ‘received’ in the tradition of the very early church, and that it is this gospel alone which gives shape to Christian living and value to Christian hope. Paul is at pains to stress that this gospel, though announced by him, was not peculiar to him. The Corinthians, after all, had had visits from numerous other apostles and teachers, Cephas and Apollos being probably two of many. Had Paul said something significantly different from the others, on this point above all, they would have noticed! It is important for Paul to emphasize that what he was about to say is exactly consistent with what the other apostles have witnessed.
This is the kind of foundation-story with which a community is not at liberty to tamper. It was probably formulated within the first two or three years after Easter itself, since it was already in a basic form when Paul ‘received’ it. We are here in touch with the earliest Christian tradition.
It is because Jesus is the Messiah that his death represents the turning-point in which the present evil age is left behind and those who belong to Jesus are rescued from it; what Paul says in Galatians 1:4, that the Messiah ‘gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present age,’ is of the greatest relevance here, indicating that the dealing with sins which Paul has in mind is part of, is indeed the KEY focal point of, the great eschatological turning-point in God’s divine purpose. The turning-point in question is focused on those who now benefit from it: us! The Messiah died for our sins. So … without the resurrection, there is no reason to suppose that Jesus’ crucifixion dealt with sins, or with sin. But, with the resurrection, the divine victory over sin(s), and thus over death, is assumed (cf. Ezekiel 37; Isaiah 40:1-11; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-32; Daniel 9). This indicates the primary meaning of ‘in accordance with the Scriptures.’ Paul is not proof-texting; he does not envision one or two, or even half a dozen, isolated passages about a death for sinners. He is referring to the entire biblical narrative as the story which has reached its climax in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, and has now given rise to the new phase of the same story, the phase in which the age to come has broken in, with its central characteristic being (seen from one point of view) rescue from sins, and (from another point of view) rescue from death, i.e. resurrection.
Without the resurrection, there is no reason to suppose that Jesus’ crucifixion dealt with sins, or with sin. But, with the resurrection, the divine victory over sin(s), and hence over death, is assured. It is with this “divine-human” logic in mind that the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) came to emphasize both Jesus’ divinity (resurrection) and humanity (crucifixion).
You cannot deny the future bodily resurrection and claim that denial as an allowable Christian option. In v.12-19, Paul argues quickly, to establish a kind of bridgehead in our thinking, that such a denial produces radical inconsistencies at the heart of Christian identity. “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord … born of the virgin Mary … he was crucified, died, and was buried … On the third day he rose again … I believe in the Holy Spirit [of Christ] … the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting” (Apostles’ Creed).
For Paul, the point of the resurrection is not simply that God the Creator has done something remarkable for one solitary individual (as people today sometimes imagine is the supposed thrust of the Easter proclamation0 but that, in and through the resurrection, ‘the present evil age’ has been invaded by the ‘age to come,’ the time of restoration, return, covenant renewal, and forgiveness. The logic of it is simple, granted the close link throughout Scripture between sins and death: if God has overcome death in the resurrection of Jesus, then the power of sin is broken; but if he hasn’t, it isn’t. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead …”! (v.20)
First Lutheran Church; Sioux Falls, S.D.
8 May 2016 (Easter VII)