The Resurrection of the Dead
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 15:12–15:34
“THE RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD”
1 Corinthians 15:12-34
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.
29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? 30 Why are we in danger every hour? 31 I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die everyday! 32 What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” 34 Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.
Yogi Berra was an All-Star catcher who played for the New York Yankees several decades ago. He was known as much for his humorous but nonsensical quotes as he was for the records he set on the baseball diamond. The story is told of the time he agreed to drive a former teammate to the Baseball Hall-of-Fame in upstate New York. After passing through the same small village for the second time, the teammate blurted out, “Yogi, you don’t know where you’re going, do you?” A bit embarrassed, Berra grinned and responded, “No, but we sure are making good time!”
Most of us are more like that than we would like to think. As the days, months, and years of our lives pass, seldom—if ever—do we give serious thought to where we are going. Even as Christians, we become so consumed in our routines and agendas, our jobs and families, and even our church commitments that we tend to lose sight of where we are headed. We shift into “auto-pilot” and allow ourselves to be navigated rather than purposely steering a steady course toward our final destination.
That was yet one more area of concern that the Apostle Paul felt the need to address in his corrective letter to the Corinthian church. What a “gifted” church they were. But as they demonstrated, “spiritual giftedness” does not necessarily equate with “spiritual maturity.” As we have already seen...
- They had an inflated opinion of their “spiritual knowledge” (chapters 1 and 2).
- There were divisions among them over which preacher of “the gospel” was to be preferred over the others (chapter 3).
- They were tolerant of sexual immorality among their members (chapter 5).
- They were suing one another and taking one another to court (chapter 6).
- They misunderstood the responsibilities inherent within the marriage relationship (chapter 7).
- They participated in public gatherings that tended to call their Christian testimony into question (chapters 8 and 9).
- They flirted with idolatry (chapter 10).
- They misapplied the principle of authority and the role of women in the church (chapter 11).
- They showed lack of concern for one another at the Lord’s Table (chapter 11).
- They misused their “spiritual gifts” (chapters 12 through 14)
- And, as we saw last week, they needed to be reminded about the foundational elements of the very “gospel” they had “received” and “believed” (chapter 15).
The 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians is all about the resurrection. Throughout its first eleven verses Paul has explained that “the gospel” which brings salvation is founded upon the fact that the same Jesus Christ who “died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures...was (also) raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Apart from the resurrection there is no “gospel.” The Corinthians had embraced that truth by faith, but as with us its present-day reality in their lives was not apparent. They may have been making “good time” when they came together as a church, but they weren’t really sure where they were going.
What Paul wanted these believers to see was that because Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, so too will everyone who renounces sin and trusts Him for salvation. He desired for them to comprehend the practical import of the resurrection of the dead...a resurrection that awaits everyone who knows Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Furthermore, he wanted them to understand the practical ramifications of that great truth for the here and now. You see, what will happen on that day affects how we live in this one.
As we look more carefully at the section of this chapter that we read a moment ago, we notice that the writer argues for the resurrection of the dead along three lines. In verses 12 through 19, his argument is logical. Then, in verses 20 through 28, his argument turns theological. And finally, in verses 29 through 34, his argument becomes practical. His goal is, therefore, to show the validity, the guarantee, and the implications of the resurrection.
The writer begins with...
The logical argument for the validity of the resurrection (verses 12-19).
Paul has just devoted eleven verses to laying out the foundational content of “the gospel.” At its core is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In verse 12, he appears to be somewhat dumbfounded when he asks, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” “Don’t you understand,” he appears to ask, “apart from the resurrection, there was no “gospel.”
Up to a point, the Corinthian Christians would have agreed with the prevailing Graeco-Roman philosophy that the human soul continued to live beyond the grave. The difference was in the mode of existence. Contemporary thought was that the departed soul existed in a disembodied form—something many in our day also believe—whereas a basic tenet of Christianity insists that the living soul will be reunited with a resurrected and renewed body. That is the only kind of resurrection that the Apostle Paul ever talked about. The idea of a “bodyless” resurrection, as some maintain, is completely foreign to the writers of Scripture.
From at least as far back as Isaiah the prophet (26:19), the Lord has assured that “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.” And two centuries later, Daniel (12:2) wrote, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
Tim Keller has called the resurrection of the dead “the hinge upon which the story of the world pivots.” Writing in that same vein, Stephen Um has added,
The resurrection is the truth on which everything else hinges. Without it Christian ministry is pointless, personal faith is ineffective, God’s character is called into question, Christians are still in need of salvation, any sense of future hope is removed, and our present experience is meaningless. On the other hand, if Christ did indeed rise from the dead, then the opposite is true! The Corinthians had not taken into account the importance of the resurrection. They didn’t realize all the things that would fall apart without the validity of the resurrection.
The ancient Greek poet, Euripedes, wrote that “Death is a debt we all must pay.” And indeed, because we live in a sin-cursed world, that is so. But death is not the end, as some might suppose. Within this paragraph, Paul lays out a number of valid reasons in support of the resurrection of the dead, each beginning with a conditional clause (“ει”).
- In verses 13 and 16, “if there is no resurrection” and “if the dead are not raised,” then “not even Christ has been raised.” In other words, Jesus’ tomb would still be housing His body to this very day. Stories of His rising from the dead would be false. Those of us who are His need to cling to the realization that Jesus is only able to deliver us from sin if—after dying—Jesus truly did rise from the dead.
- In verses 14 and 17, both the preaching of “the gospel” and the faith we have placed in that message would be “in vain,” empty of content and devoid of any power to save if the resurrection of the dead is not true. We would remain in our sins, without any hope of escaping their effect or penalty.
- In verse 15, if the dead are not raised, then every preacher of “the gospel” would be a “liar.” He would be found guilty of “misrepresenting God.”
- In verse 18, if there is no resurrection, then every Christian who dies will “perish” (“απολλυμι”), face destruction and loss. Consider that when you attend your next funeral and hear “the gospel” being proclaimed. And consider that as you face your own inevitable death. Thank God, those who are in Christ don’t have to face that prospect, because Christ has been raised and lives today!
- Then finally, in verse 19, if there is no resurrection of the dead, then our “hope” dies with us and we are the most “pitiful” people on the planet.
To deny the resurrection is tantamount to denying the reality of the Christian faith. It is that important. A person cannot legitimately claim to be a Christian unless he or she believes in the resurrection of Jesus and is investing the entirety of his or her trust in that event. It is the reassuring hope upon which every follower of Christ stands.
Advancing from the logic for the validity of the resurrection, Paul next presents...
The theological argument for the guarantee of the resurrection (verses 20-28).
The Greek word for “resurrection” is “αναστασιs,” which literally means “stand again.” Indeed, that is the prospect for every blood-bought child of God. One cannot almost hear Paul’s shout of victory when he writes, “But in fact (“νυνι δε”) Christ has been raised from the dead.”
We are told in verse 20, that Christ’s resurrection was but “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (“in Christ”). The imagery of “the firstfruits” is taken from the Old Testament in which the “firstfruits” of the harvest were consecrated or set apart to God (cf. Leviticus 23:9-14). It was viewed as something of a “first installment, “down payment,” or “guarantee” of “more to come.” By calling Christ “the firstfruits,” Paul is asserting, by way of metaphor, that the resurrection of the dead is inevitable. It has been “guaranteed” by none other than God Himself.
The theological argument that the apostle presents closely parallels the content found in Romans 5:12-21. The purpose of both passages is to explain how Christ, through His sinless life and sacrificial death retrieved what Adam lost when he sinned. Here in verses 21 and 22, we read this explanation: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
A disembodied postmortem existence of the soul might support a narrow victory over death, but the resurrection assures an absolute triumph over and the abolishment of death. Where Adam failed in his role as the “federal head” or representative of the human race, Jesus succeeded. For the consequences of sin—meaning death—to be completely undone, resurrection is required. As a result, Jesus Christ now stands as the Head of a “new humanity,” namely the redeemed people of God.
Continuing his theological argument, Paul further explains that God has prescribed a sequence related to the resurrection. We read in verse 23,”But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” Please notice that no mention is made here of the resurrection of those who are “without Christ.” We ought not to assume that there is none, for the Bible provides evidence that the bodies of unbelievers will also be raised (cf. Daniel 12:2, John 5:28-29, Revelation 22:11-15). But that is not Paul’s point here.
“Then comes the end,” he adds in verse 24, “when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.” Those terms are reminiscent of other passages (e.g., Daniel 7:13-14), which cast us into the eschaton or the final days. The fact that Christ’s resurrection had already taken place within history meant that “the end” had already been set in motion. How would it transpire, and what would it look like? The apostle explains in verses 25 through 28:
“For he (Christ) must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when it says ‘all things are in subjection,’ it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him that God may be all in all.”
Granted, the language and the structure are difficult, but the interpretation of those verses is not convoluted. The quotes are pulled from Psalm 8(:6) and Psalm 110(:1), and the repeated phrase “all things” (“παντα”) expresses the comprehensiveness of God’s plan in bringing human history to a grand climax. He will overcome every opposition. All resistance to His sovereign plan will be frustrated. God’s authority will be declared as absolute. The will of God will rule supreme in every place and in every way.
Augustine wrote that “It was necessary for Christ’s kingdom to be manifested to such a degree until all his enemies confess that He does reign.” With His work complete, the “one mediator between God and men,” Christ Jesus Himself (cf. 1Timothy 2:5) will lay down His mediatorial office at the feet of the Father.
In commenting on the final phrase of this paragraph and the conclusion of Paul’s theological argument regarding the guarantee of the resurrection to believers, Karl Barth commented, “To bring about the ‘God who is all in all,’ such is the mission and significance of Christ.” Indeed, it is.
The resurrection of the dead is both logical and theological, but there is one more aspect to Paul’s argument that needs to be seen. In verses 29 through 34 we find...
The practical argument for the implications of the resurrection (verses 29-34).
For those who revel in philosophical and theological discussions and debates, Paul’s arguments for the resurrection up to this point may have satisfied. But for those who are searching for practical relevance to what it all means, this section answers those questions. We must admit that this is a difficult passage. Nevertheless it is essential that we do our best to track with the writer as he brings this section to a conclusion.
It has been estimated that there are at least forty differing interpretations regarding what Paul meant when he wrote of “being baptized on behalf of the dead” in verse 29. None of the conclusions that have been drawn are necessarily “conclusive.”
The most common view—based solely upon the terminology found here—is that it refers to Christians undergoing “vicarious baptism” on behalf of those fellow believers who had died before they themselves could be baptized. Since the Bible nowhere else speaks of or lends credence to “baptism by proxy,” if that is what Paul is referring to, then it seems to have been something the Corinthians were doing on their own—perhaps as a vestige of their former pagan beliefs and not unlike what the Mormons practice today. Therefore, Paul, without approving of it, was merely mentioning it. It would be akin to his asking, “Since, in the first place, you struggle to have a correct understanding of the resurrection, what then is the point of being baptized for those who had already died?”
And while that interpretation may indeed be correct, I believe that there is an alternative view that is equally as plausible. It centers on three terms that must be taken considered together:
- First, the preposition “for” (“‘υπερ”), speaks of “substitution” or “taking the place of another.”
- Next, the basic meaning of baptism is “identification.” When a person is “baptized” (as we shall witness in just a few minutes), he or she is taking a public stand for Jesus in His death, burial, and resurrection. In other words, he or she is identifying with what Jesus accomplished and is basing his or her belief in the finished work of Jesus. Keep that in mind.
- And then, third, “dead” in this passage has reference to believers who have died and are no longer with us.
Taking these three terms together, Paul quite possibly could be asking the Corinthians, “Who among you are willing to ‘identify’ with those departed saints by ‘taking their place’ in following the resurrected Christ? But before you answer, be mindful that it is a difficult stand to take.”
In answering his rhetorical question, he cites his own experience in verses 31 and 32. The “I protest,” with which the English Standard Version begins verse 31, is not a universally accepted reading. Paul actually seems to be saying that because the Corinthians were the “fruit-positive” of his ministry, he “died daily” on their behalf. What would be the sense of him sacrificing himself in that way if there was no resurrection to which he looked forward? The reference to fighting with “beasts with Ephesus” refers to the violent opposition to his ministry of “the gospel” in that city (cf. Acts 19:21-41).
Why would anyone in their right mind endure such things if there is no resurrection? One may as well “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” That was a common expression of that day, as well as ours, that speaks of this life being all there is. We are reminded of the rich fool Jesus spoke of in Luke 12(:13-21). He planned to live forever and do so with luxury and ease. But his life was required of him when he least expected it. That parable serves to caution us still.
So, Paul concludes this section with a rather stern exhortation in verses 33 and 34, something we all do well to hear and to heed:
“Do not be deceived,” he writes, and then he cites a quote from one of renowned Greek playwrights of their day: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” Keeping company with evil companions can have a corrosive effect on one’s own attitudes and behavior. It is a warning to not adopt the mindset of the world, particularly the world’s erroneous beliefs with regard to the resurrection.
Therefore, he adds, “Wake up from your drunken stupor (or ‘come to your senses’), as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge (or ‘conviction’) of God. I say this to your shame.” In other words, “In your practical application of the resurrection, you are acting like unbelievers. Where is your conviction? Begin living as the people of God who are moving toward a glorious destination...the resurrection of the dead.” That exhortation serves as yet another appeal for them to “grow up” in the faith. It has been the constant refrain throughout this epistle.
Perhaps you recall the scene from Alice in Wonderland where Alice comes to a fork in the road and she is unsure which way to turn. She spots the grinning Cheshire cat in the tree, and asked him, “Which way should I turn?” The cat replied, “Where are you going?” Alice answered, “I don’t know.” “Then,” replied the cat, “it doesn’t matter.”
But it does matter, doesn’t it? Do you know where you are going? Do you really believe in the resurrection of the dead? Do you honestly believe that one day your soul will be reunited with a body that has been raised and renewed? If it were not so, God would be proven a liar and Jesus exposed as a fraud. But His resurrection assures the resurrection of all whose trust is in Him. There is nothing but a hopeless end if there is no resurrection, but because God has promised a resurrection from the dead, there is endless hope.
Many possess an intellectual knowledge of the resurrection, but lack a transformational knowledge. And that is where all of this has been heading. This passage stands as one of the more significant texts pointing to what one believes about the future and how one behaves in the present. As followers of Jesus Christ, we should be living in this world as those who are fully confident of our Savior’s vindication by way of the empty tomb and our own great prospect that “because He lives, we too shall live!” (cf. John 14:19).
Permit me just one additional word that will hopefully drive this point home. Whenever we “relax” our Christian ethic with regard to the resurrection and begin to look more and more like the world in the manner in which we live, it’s a sure indication that we have lost our way. Like Yogi Berra and like Alice, we lose sight of where we are going. When that happens, is it any wonder that the world fails to hear our “gospel,” which must look at times like anything but the “good news” it really is?
Jesus Himself said, “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice, and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29). May our risen Lord grant us eyes to see and minds to comprehend with clarity what awaits us on the day when we will most certainly be called forth from the grave.