1 Corinthians 15:1-28
As far as we can tell with our five senses, death is final. All people, in
every place and in every time, have come to accept that once a body has expired
nothing can be done to bring it back to life, especially if it has been dead for
days. How do we reconcile this universal observation with the claims of the
New Testament that Jesus was raised from the dead after three days
in the tomb?
We have three choices. We can say that Jesus did not rise again and the New
Testament is patently untrue. Or, we can say that our own experience is incomplete
and Jesus came back to life to walk out of the tomb. A third possibility attempts
to keep both our scientific world view and the integrity of the New Testament intact:
Jesus was resurrected, but not in a physical sense.
This third alternative is popular among modern theologians. For example,
Rudolph Bultmann, one of this century’s most influential theologians, says Christ
has been resurrected in the preaching of the Gospel. For him, “the resurrection, of
course, simply cannot be a visible fact in the realm of human history.” Another
scholar, Willi Marxsen, tells us that resurrection language is just a way of saying
that the idea of the kingdom of God continues to have meaning for some today.
Paul Tillich, who dominated North American theology during the 1960s and 1970s,
identifies the resurrection event as the experience of the spiritual presence of the
crucified Christ in the hearts of all disciples in every age. He considers it “absurd”
to ask what happened to the body in the tomb.
People who have adopted this approach consider themselves to be Christians.
They are not malicious, nor bent on destroying our faith. Whether scholars, pastors
or lay people, they are trying to preserve their faith in God and his word while at
the same time being intellectually honest a noble endeavor for all of us.
They know that dead bodies don’t normally come back to life, so when the Bible
talks about the raising of Jesus, they wonder if we should not look at the
resurrection in a different way: the abandoned disciples were grief-stricken, with
a huge sense of loss in their life. If only Christ hadn’t died. If only he hadn’t left
them. Oh, how they wished that he would just show up at their doorstep again…
Then it dawned on them. Everything fell into place as they realized, with an
overwhelming sense of peace, “He is still alive, He’s inside me now!”
According to this interpretation, the resurrection stories in the Bible are
symbolic ways of talking about the experience of the disciples after the
crucifixion. The legend of the resurrection is like a parable; it is an earthly
story used to convey a spiritual truth. Jesus has brought new life; his life.
He’s living again in all believers. He’s resurrected in their hearts,
living and ministering in the world through his disciples.
Several problems are solved when Christ’s “resurrection” is understood in this
way. People can still say they believe in the Bible, and the resurrection, and are
not forced to defend the premise that bodies can come back to life.
Proponents claim that this is a better way of understanding the resurrection of
Jesus because it makes it immediately relevant for every generation, and for every
individual. Every time someone comes to know God, Christ is resurrected again. He
lives again in someone else’s heart, reaching out to others with someone else’s arms,
speaking to the world through someone else’s voice.
There is nothing new in this inclination to redefine resurrection ambiguously.
A few short years after Christ’s ascension, similar teachings were circulating in
the Christian church. The apostle Paul’s response then is still crucial now: there
is no room for ambiguity when we speak of the resurrection of Christ. The impulse
to deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus denies well-documented evidence upon
which the entire doctrine of the Christian faith is built.
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-28, Paul presents the case for the bodily resurrection of
Christ. He does so because some Corinthian Christians were questioning the
possibility of their own resurrection (1 Cor 15:12,35). If Christ was raised from
the dead, reasons Paul, then why can’t his followers be resurrected?
The first two verses set the structure for the rest of the chapter. Paul
reminds the Corinthians about something that they’ve already been told. It
constitutes the “good news” that must be proclaimed and accepted for salvation. If
it is not firmly believed, then our faith is futile.
What is this good news? It falls into three parts: Jesus died for our sins (vs
3); he was buried (vs 4); he was raised from the dead on the third day (vs 4).
Christ died for our sins, not his own.. He was buried, proof that he was indeed
dead. The power of these first two facts depends on the reality of the third.
All else hangs or falls on Christ’s actual resurrection.
The idea of Christ being resurrected did not originate with Paul, nor did he
receive it directly from the Lord. The apostle insists that he is participating in
a solid, widespread tradition that continues to be passed down from place to place,
generation to generation. The tradition of Christ’s bodily resurrection is based
on two types of testimony: written prophecy and eyewitness accounts.
Paul appeals first to the testimony of the Old Testament. There are a number of
places where prophecies were made concerning the Messiah. For example, Psalm
16:8-11 offers the hope of resurrection to the Lord’s “Holy One.” Hosea 6:2
describes the Messiah reviving his people, stating “on the third day he will
raise us up that we may live before him.” Probably the most significant Old
Testament Scripture passage that has been applied to Christ is Isaiah 52:13-53:12.
This prophecy speaks of the death of God’s Servant, the Messiah, on behalf of
sinners. After his death, “he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his
days…Out of his anguish he shall see light”
To Paul, the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ was no accident. It
was mapped out to happen and the world was given hints about it hundreds of years
ahead of time.
God’s revelation in the Old Testament is not the only evidence for the
resurrection; there is more.
Paul appeals to the testimony of hundreds of eyewitnesses in different places
and different times, lining up a case that would stand up in any court. Six
resurrection appearances are listed. First Paul says that Jesus appeared to Peter,
then to the rest of the Twelve. After that, at one time and place, he appeared to
more than 500 people. Paul adds that if the Corinthians wanted to corroborate that,
they could ask some of these 500, because most of them were still alive at the time
Paul was writing.
Jesus also appeared to his brother James and again to the apostles. Finally
Paul himself met the glorified, ascended Lord many years later. He probably
mentions this appearance, in part, so that no one would think the emotion of the
moment was to be blamed for the earliest appearances of Christ.
The resurrection of Christ is the foundation of the good news. Because it
happened, the rest of God’s saving plan could unfold.
If we proclaim that Jesus has been raised from the dead, then we proclaim much
more, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28. The resurrection of Christ gives
meaning and substance to our faith. It enables forgiveness for sin and victory over
death. If Christ has been raised form the dead, reasons Paul, then all in Christ will
also be raised.
We will all be raised into the presence of God. Some will be raised in order to
be judged and others will be raised in order to live forever in the presence of
God. Those who have died will come to life, those who are still alive will be
transformed (1 Cor 15:51-53). We who have lost loved ones can take comfort in
the knowledge that our separation from them will only be temporary. We will be
living in an entirely new order.
The deadly strangle-hold of sin will be snapped. If Christ has been raised, it
means that all enemies of God, all evil, all suffering, all pain, all deceit, all
ignorance, all that oppresses life today, will be abolished. The last enemy of God,
death, will evaporate.
If Christ has been raised, it also means that God will eventually be glorified
by all creation. He will be all in all, and we will all worship before him. There
will be no more questions, no more doubts, and no more distractions from our true
purpose for existence: to serve and honour him.
Paul couldn’t be more direct than in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19: to deny the
resurrection of Jesus is to strip the Christian message of it essentials. When
people say it really doesn’t matter if the dead body of Christ actually and
physically was raised from the grave, as long as his Spirit lives on in your heart,
they’re not making the Gospel any easier to accept. They’re not making Christianity
more meaningful and relevant. What they are doing is holding
Christians up as a spectacle for everybody to ridicule. They are making the
Christian faith empty and useless. They are saying that we aren’t really forgiven
for our sins, we are still going to be condemned because no one paid the debt
and claimed the complete victory over the power of evil. What they are saying is
that the only life we have to live is the one we live right now, and Christians are
wasting it away in a grand delusion. Ultimately, and worst of all, they are making
God a liar.
When I first assessed the views of Christians who waffle on the resurrection of
Christ in light of Paul’s statements, I must confess I came to a quick verdict:
they were out of bounds, flirting with a spiritually life- threatening hazard. I
certainly won’t be joining them.
Yet I too must be careful.
The temptation is to shake our heads at how some people, who call themselves
Christians, are so lacking in “faith” as to hold to such a mistaken position. But
if we feel morally and spiritually superior, we should be warned: remember Jesus’
verdict on the self-righteous Pharisee who prayed and thanked God that he wasn’t
a sinner like the tax-collector beside him.
Even if we say we believe that Jesus was risen, bodily, from the grave, we may
nullify that fact by our own attitudes and actions. Maybe we don’t come right out
and deny the resurrection, but if we live as though it never happened, we have the
same witness as those who outright deny Christ’s resurrection.
What does it mean for me, a believer in the bodily resurrection, to live as
though it never happened?
I have to ask myself, do I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I think
I’m all alone? Do I deny the resurrection when I act as if no one sees what I’m
doing or knows what I’m thinking?
Do I deny the resurrection of Jesus when I don’t think God is able to help me
out of a problem? Do I deny the resurrection when I think that God can’t forgive a
terrible sin? Do I deny that Jesus conquered the grave when I think about dying and
Do I deny the resurrection of Jesus when I live for the moment, wallowing in
“the good life” as if there were no tomorrow? Do I deny the resurrection of Jesus
when I get too embarrassed to witness about my faith in what God has done through
Then together, we must also check our church life for evidence that Jesus
lives. Is the bride of Christ living like a widow?
When we come together for worship, are we more concerned with what we see in
each other than with what Christ sees? Do we observe the Lord’s Supper as a funeral
in his memory, or do we celebrate together with him? Are spasms of unresolved
conflict and self-destructive behaviour in the body of Christ evidence that it is
responding to its living head? Whom do we hear speaking from the pulpit: the risen
Christ or someone who only means well?
Do we deny the resurrection of Christ when we doubt if the church can make any
difference in a world struggling with sin and death? Are we sharing Christ’s
resurrection power with the dying, or are we preoccupied with preserving our own
standard of living?
Our answer to any one of these questions may suggest that really, deep down,
maybe, just maybe, we are not absolutely convinced of his resurrection and all that
it means. Even if we do genuinely believe it, our attitudes and actions may argue
otherwise to observers who are watching to see what makes Christians different
from those who don’t believe that Jesus died and rose again. They are watching
to see if Jesus Christ is alive and if he does give life in its fullest.
We cannot afford to equivocate in our proclamation of Christ’s bodily
resurrection. If we know Jesus was raised from the dead, then our faith in that one
event gives the rest of life meaning, purpose, hope, and strength.
We must begin by believing in the resurrection, but that faith is useless
unless we also live it.
Ontario Theological Seminary
North York, ON
FAX (416) 226-9464