Welcome to part two of my four-part series sweeping through 1 Corinthians 15 on the subject of resurrection. You can read part one here.
In verses 1-11 Paul established that Jesus rose from the dead — an event in the historical past. In the next few verses he shifts his focus to consider the future.
Someone in Corinth had been saying that there is no ‘resurrection of the dead.’
We have to appreciate that resurrection is not a Christian idea, but was already established in Jewish thought before the time of Jesus and roundly dismissed and mocked by ancient Greek culture. ‘The resurrection of the dead’ was understood to be a collective future event when everyone will be raised up. First century Jews weren’t expecting any one person to be raised in advance of the rest so, perhaps unsurprisingly, the idea that Jesus rose from the dead threw a bit of a spanner in the works: it was a past event concerning one person. Maybe that was why some people at the church in Corinth were beginning to pour cold water on the idea of future resurrection.
In any case, Paul wanted to explain how everything fitted together.
1 Corinthians 15:12-23 – Jesus as the first-fruit the resurrection
Paul wrote the following in verses 12 to 23:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you be saying that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ cannot have been raised either, and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is without substance, and so is your faith. What is more, we have proved to be false witnesses to God, for testifying against God that he raised Christ to life when he did not raise him – if it is true that the dead are not raised. For, if the dead are not raised, neither is Christ; and if Christ has not been raised, you faith is pointless and you have not, after all, been released from your sins. In addition, those who have fallen asleep in Christ are utterly lost. If our hope in Christ is for this life only, we are of all people the most pitiable.
In fact, however, Christ has been raised from the dead, as the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep. As it was by one man that death came, so through one man has come the resurrection of the dead. Just as all die in Adam, so in Christ all will be brought to life; but all of them in their proper order: Christ the first-fruits, and next, at his coming, those who belong to him. (NJB)
What Paul is saying here is that the future resurrection of the dead is for everyone, including those who had already died, however Jesus was special.
To give an illustration: in 2015 I had my first mini-crop of strawberries. Several bowlfuls. But ahead of the harvest I had two beautiful, large strawberries, that fully ripened weeks before the rest. They were the first fruits – a sign of the harvest that was to come. Similarly, first-fruits is the image Paul draws on here. To him, it makes absolutely no sense for Jesus to rise from the dead and for there to be no future resurrection event for everybody else, because Jesus is the first fruit of the harvest.
Being a physicist, I love thinking about this in four-dimensions: Jesus’s resurrection and our resurrection are the same underlying event — they just interact with space-time at different points in history. (If that analogy helps you, great; if not, don’t worry.)
Paul also contrasts Jesus with Adam: whereas Adam sinned in the garden of Eden and brought death to humankind, Jesus is the one through whom life comes to all people.
(Also, fun fact for any of you digging into 1 Timothy 2: here, Paul refers to Adam, not Eve. It’s evident that he didn’t consider Eve, or women, as solely responsible for sin entering the world.)
I’m going to skip over verses 24 to 29
Yes, I know this is cheating. Thing is though, 1 Corinthians 15:24-29 are complex verses and they raise all kinds of questions about the Trinity. They also talk about ‘baptism for the dead’ – and even New Testament scholars don’t really know what this means. Also in many ways, we don’t really need to know what this means, because the conclusion is the same as what we see in other verses. So let’s pick up at verse 30.
(Before that though: fun fact for any of you studying 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 and the whole idea of submission: in the middle of this ultra-weird bit, in 1 Corinthians 15:28, we have the only place in the New Testament where Jesus is described as ‘submitting’ to the Father, using the Greek word hypotassio. So… well… if anyone tells you that women should submit to men and/or wives should submit to husbands in order to follow the pattern of Jesus submitting to the Father… they need to explain why, if Jesus’s ‘submission’ to the Father was so very important, the word only occurs in this weird end-of-time wrapping-up-the-whole universe verse. Just saying.)
1 Corinthians 15:30-34 – we anticipate future resurrection in the present
These verses follow from Paul’s complaint that some of the Christians in Corinth were suggesting that the dead are not raised:
And what about us? Why should we endanger ourselves every hour of our lives? I swear by the pride that I take in you, in Christ Jesus our Lord, that I face death every day. If I fought wild animals at Ephesus in a purely human perspective, what had I to gain by it? If the dead are not going to be raised, then Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall be dead. So do not let anyone lead you astray, ‘Bad company corrupts good ways.’ Wake up from your stupor as you should and leave sin alone; some of you have no understanding of God; I tell you this to instil some shame in you. (NJB)
Paul has two criticisms of the Corinthians: firstly, that they are not acting in righteousness and secondly, that they are living for the here and now. These criticisms however are, in essence, one and the same. The Corinthians were not anticipating the final resurrection and the fullness of God’s kingdom. As such, they were not living in hope.
You see, fundamentally, Paul saw Jesus’ resurrection as an event that marked the start of the new creation. Therefore, even though the new creation was not complete, Paul believed that God had called him and other Christians to work with Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, to make his future kingdom of justice and peace come on earth here and now. [Adapted from Surprised by Hope, p57]
The act of hoping requires action in the present to create a new future. Hope is anticipation.
This is how the idea of a future resurrection is meant to interact with matters like social justice. Unfortunately, Christians can have a tendency to divide into two camps. The first says that resurrection will sort everything out so the thing that really matters now is getting on the ‘saved’ list. The second says that, well we don’t really know what’s going to happen but gosh darn it, we had better be practising justice and peace in the present, otherwise what kind of people are we?
I probably lean more towards the second view, but truth be told, I’m a mixture. Yes, I think that future hope in resurrection is a pretty solid end-point and I’m not about to blur that hope with “well maybe”. However, because of where I believe the trajectory of my life will end up, I want to pull that future into the here and now. That means means making Jesus’s justice and peace happen in the present.
I therefore understand social justice actions like reaching out to poor, comforting the bereaved, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoners, as bringing a foretaste of resurrection. I see these as about breathing life where there was death.
And I believe Christians should do this with confidence, not just because we’ve seen the bright, shiny Jesus of the future to spark our imaginations and focus our forward-looking attention. I believe we should do it, also because we know it was the crucified Christ who was raised. [Russell Herbert, quoting Moltmann, Living Hope, p60]
I reckon this is what Paul was getting at in these verses. He lived a life where he faced death every day. This was not because death is good or because suffering is good; rather, he did this in solidarity with those who, in a sense, live in death every day. What’s more, he did it so that, in the power of the Spirit, in the name of Jesus the Risen One, he might bring them out of death.
Even so, but Paul was no fool. He knew that when you looked at his ministry from a perspective solely concerned with this age, he knew that he looked like a failure. Just as Jesus looked like a failure on the cross. But he knew his ministry was not for nothing. He says, now is where I am working, but now is not what I’m working for. Now is where I am hoping, but now is not what I’m hoping for. I am hoping in Jesus, who died and rose again; I am hoping in him for a resurrected life.
And he wanted the Christians in Corinth to grasp this too.
Read part three here.
Browse all parts of the 1 Corinthians 15 for beginners series:
- Part 1: the legal case for Jesus’s resurrection from the dead (1 Cor 15:1-11)
- Part 2: resurrection as both a present and future event (1 Cor 15:12-34)
- Part 3: resurrection is about the body – but what does that actually mean? (1 Cor 15:35-43)
- Part 4: transforming the perishable so as to inherit the imperishable (1 Cor 15:44-58)
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