Resurrection of the Dead – 1 Corinthians 15
1 Corinthians 15:1-58 In chapter fifteen, Paul addresses the denial of the resurrection of the dead indirectly at first. In verses one through eleven, Paul lays a foundation by reiterating the role of the bodily resurrection of our Lord in the gospel message and in his own conversion. The resurrection of our Lord is a doctrine with which every Corinthian Christian heartily agreed. Then in verses twelve through nineteen, Paul exposes the real problem, the denial of the resurrection of the dead.
Resurrection of the dead
In verses twenty through twenty-eight, Paul returns to the certainty of our Lord’s resurrection and its implications. Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead was the first fruits of resurrection, and other resurrections will follow as a divinely purposed result. The first to rise will be those who have trusted in Christ, followed later by those who have not (1 Corinthians 15:23-25). Any hope of the kingdom of God has as a prerequisite the resurrection of the dead (15:26-28). The practice of some being baptized for the dead (v 29) and the dangers faced in life (vv 30-32a) make sense only if there is a literal resurrection of the dead. Otherwise, one might just as well partake of all the worldly desires of the heart if we only go around once (v 32b). In verses thirty-three and thirty-four, Paul reveals the source of the Corinthians’ error regarding a bodily resurrection.
In verses thirty-five through forty-nine, Paul addresses the objections concerning the resurrection of the dead. Paul builds to a triumphant climax in verses fifty through fifty-eight. Physical death and the setting aside of our mortal bodies is a necessity, because these earthly bodies have no place in heaven. The bodies of those saints who have died and been buried will be resurrected as transformed bodies, and the mortal bodies of those alive at Christ’s coming will also undergo the same transformation, so that both will be clothed with bodies fit for eternity. All of this removes the sting of sin and of death and assures the saint of victory. In the light of this truth of the resurrection from the grave, we know that our earthly toil and labor is not in vain but is an eternal investment.
Influence of the gospels
Before Paul addresses the error of the denial of the resurrection of the dead, he first lays a foundation for his argument by reiterating the gospel. Whatever practice or teaching Paul might encounter, he always judges it by the gospel he and the apostles preach. That gospel must never be corrupted or altered in any way.
The Corinthians who denied the resurrection of the dead are wrong on many counts. Paul chooses to begin with the most significant error in verses twelve through nineteen. The denial of the resurrection of the dead is a denial of the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Since God has provided undeniable proof for Christ’s resurrection, and since Paul and more than 500 others are witnesses of His resurrection; no one can logically say that there is no such thing as the resurrection of the dead.
Denial of the resurrection of the dead
The denial of the resurrection by the Corinthians is wrong because they hold two contradictory statements to be true at the same time. First, they hold the resurrection of Christ from the dead to be true. Second, they hold the resurrection of anyone from the dead to be false. They must choose one or the other. Logically one cannot affirm and deny the resurrection of the dead at the same time.
If Christ was not raised from the dead, then the gospel, outlined in verses one through eleven is false. The resurrection of Christ was one of the foundational truths of the gospel message proclaimed by Paul and the apostles. Since the apostles preached Christ crucified, buried, and resurrected from the dead, their ministry would be vain if Christ did not actually rise from the grave (v 14). It would be vain in the sense that these men risked their lives and made monumental sacrifices for a false message that had no saving power. Not only would the apostles’ ministry be in vain if the resurrection of Christ had not occurred, the faith of those who believed their message would also be undermined. If Christ did not rise from the dead, their faith is without foundation; it is empty and useless.
Up to this point, Paul has shown the Corinthians, the apostles’ ministry and message are worthless if Christ did not rise from the dead. Now in verse fifteen, Paul shows that the denial of Christ’s resurrection puts the apostles in an even more serious situation. If the gospel they have been preaching is a false gospel, they have misrepresented God, making false claims about Him by proclaiming that He raised the Lord Jesus from the dead. They have defamed God. From an Old Testament point of view, the apostles would be exposed as false prophets (Deuteronomy 13; 18:14-22).
Was Christ’s death meaningless
If Christ was not raised from the dead, then His death on Calvary was meaningless, and the Corinthians are still condemned sinners. Take away the resurrection and you pull the rug out from under the atoning work of our Lord. It is not merely the death, but the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord that saves sinners. To deny the resurrection of our Lord is to condemn men as sinners, without hope of forgiveness and eternal life. Therefore, those saints who have already fallen asleep (v 18) have no hope beyond the grave. They are dead and gone. In this sad state of affairs, brought about if Christ did not rise, Christians should be pitied for their stupidity, not persecuted.
Paul’s “If then ” argument was simply to show the folly of rejecting the resurrection of the dead, a claim that directly contradicts the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Now in verses twenty through twenty-eight, Paul takes up the truth of the resurrection of Christ, a truth he has already established in verses one through eleven. The resurrection of the dead is not only consistent with Christ’s resurrection; it is a certainty, there are no “ifs” but only the much stronger term “since” (v 21). As the risen Christ, He is the first fruits of those who are asleep. In other words, whatever happened to our Lord is sure to happen to those who have fallen asleep, those who have died trusting in Him.
Does Christ’s resurrection bring more resurrections?
How do we know that Christ’s resurrection guarantees a resurrection for others? The answer is the unique relationship that exists between Adam and our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom Paul later refers as the first Adam and the last Adam (v 45). By his sin, Adam brought about death for himself and the human race. Christ, by His righteous life, substitutionary death, burial, and resurrection, brings about life for humanity. Adam brought death upon all men; Christ will make men alive.
Christ’s resurrection will actually bring about a series of resurrections, with the last and final resurrection abolishing death altogether (v 26). Since, everything must occur in its proper order, as ordained by God (v 23). Christ has already risen from the dead, and His resurrection is but the first fruits of the other resurrections yet to occur. The next resurrection mentioned is that of those who have trusted in our Lord for salvation, which occurs when He returns to this earth to defeat all His enemies and to establish His rule over all the earth (v 23). Then, the resurrection of the unbelieving dead will take place.
How are the dead raised?
In verse thirty-five, Paul asks two questions, how are the dead raised and with what kind of body do they come?” Paul responds to the questions by turning first to nature, to God’s creation, to make several very powerful points. First, death and decay is the means of the resurrection and not a barrier. If we claim that death and decay renders the resurrection impossible, all we need do is trace the steps of the farmer, who every year sows seeds in the soil to undergo the process of dying so that a new plant can be produced through its death. There is a direct connection between the seed and the plant. The seed becomes something beautiful. There is nothing particularly beautiful about a grain bin filled with wheat, but there is beauty in a wheat field.
Second, God is the giver of bodies. The grain of wheat that dies in the ground and comes to life in a new resurrected body comes to life in a body that God Himself has given (v 38). It is important to notice that in the question raised in verse thirty-five, God is not mentioned. Paul uses nature as an example of the resurrection. However, he specifies that the body that is given is the body God has given.
Paul goes even further, indicating that the body God gives is exactly the body He wishes to give. Would anyone dare to deny the resurrection? Then let them dare to deny that God raises the dead. Would anyone dare to question the quality of the body God gives those whose corpses He raises? Then let them hear that God gives them just the body He wants. The God who called creation into existence is surely the God who can cause a decaying corpse to come to life. To put it a little differently, God created man from the dust of the earth. Death turns man back to dust, out of this dust; God can create anything He purposes and promises to fashion.
Like new life
Paul applies the principles he has established from nature in verses thirty-six through forty-one to the issue at hand, the resurrection of the dead, in verses forty-two through forty-four. The resurrection of the dead is like the death of the seed and the new, resurrected life of the plant that springs forth from the earth due to the germination of that seed. Thus, Paul speaks of the sowing of our earthly bodies, linking verses forty-two through forty-nine to verses thirty-six through forty-one.
There is a direct link between the earthly body that dies and decays in the earth and the new, resurrected body. The resurrected body comes forth from the body that died. The resurrection body is superior to the old body in several important ways. Our physical bodies are perishable, which is why they are subject to aging, disease, and death. Our resurrected bodies will not be subject to aging, disease, and death; they will be imperishable.
In verses forty-five through forty-nine, Paul links our earthly bodies with the first Adam and our resurrected bodies with Jesus Christ, the last Adam.
First Adam; Last Adam
The first Adam, the Adam of Genesis, and the last Adam, Jesus Christ were men. The actions of both men affected the lives of humanity. How can the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ affect all men? The answer: The same way Adam’s sin and death affected all men. The “first Adam” became a living being; the “last Adam” became a giver of life. The “first Adam” through his sin and death, brought sin into the world and caused all men to be under the sentence of death. Jesus Christ, the “last Adam” through His righteousness, death, burial and resurrection, has brought about resurrection for all men.
By virtue of being human, we are identified with Adam in his fallen humanity, in his condemnation, and thus in his death. Jesus Christ came to the earth so that men might be saved by identifying with Him in His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. By acknowledging our sin and the condemnation, we rightly deserve, and by trusting in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in our place, we enter into a new identity. The gospel is the good news that we can change our identity by faith in Jesus Christ. It is by identifying with Him by faith that we are saved from our sins and enter into eternal life.
If Christ identified with man in his natural, weak and dishonorable condition, and Paul is similarly characterized, what does this tell us about the Corinthians and their denial of the resurrection of the dead? The Corinthians are trying to be spiritual in the present with what Paul and the apostles tell us is a future spirituality. True future spirituality means a new, spiritual body that is incorruptible and imperishable. That comes at the resurrection of the dead, which takes place when our Lord calls those who have died in Christ to meet Him in the sky, and when He returns to the earth to establish His kingdom. At that time, we will be able to identify with the risen Christ by the possession of our new, resurrected bodies that are free from sin, corruption, sickness, and death.
True spirituality in the present is our identification with our Lord’s earthly body. We must identify with Him in His weakness, in His dishonor, and in His death. This is why Paul speaks of his ministry in terms of dishonor and weakness. This is the calling of the Christian: to identify in body, soul, and spirit with the Lord in His earthly coming, in His rejection, weakness, shame and death.
Reject the doctrine
Some of the Corinthians wanted to reject the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead because they wanted to deceive themselves into thinking they could be spiritual by entering into our Lord’s future blessings by identifying with the glories of our Lord now, rather than His sufferings now. They did not want to identify with His weakness and dishonor but with His power and glory. To reject a future resurrection, with a spiritual and glorified body was to open the door to a spiritual existence now which permitted bodily indulgences and which assured them of peace and prosperity, health and wealth now, without having to endure the sufferings and shame of our Lord in this life. For those who wish to avoid pain, suffering, and shame for Christ’s sake and to label self-indulgence as spirituality, the rejection of the resurrection of the dead was a great pretext.
For us to dwell eternally in the presence of God, we must have different bodies. We cannot dwell in heaven in these bodies. It is just that simple. If we are to dwell in God’s presence for all eternity, we must have imperishable, incorruptible bodies, and that means we must trade in these earthly, perishable bodies. For those who have died, this will happen at the resurrection of the dead. That is what Paul has been saying in verses 35-49. At the resurrection of the dead, we exchange our natural bodies for spiritual bodies; our earthly bodies transformed into heavenly bodies; our perishable bodies transformed into imperishable bodies. The resurrection of the dead is the means by which bodies unfit for heaven are miraculously transformed into bodies that are perfectly suited for heaven.
Alive when Christ Returns?
In verses fifty-one and fifty-two, Paul adds yet another category, those who are alive at the time of Christ’s coming. The resurrection of the dead is a truth which was revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures (Job 19:25-27; Psalm 73:23-24; Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:1-2). This is what the Bible calls a mystery. If our earthly bodies are not suited for the kingdom of God, then it is not just dead bodies that need to be raised. In verses fifty-one and fifty-two, Paul introduces the doctrine of transformation of our earthly bodies.
Note what Paul said, “Behold, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this corruptible will have put on incorruption, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then what is written will happen: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your sting? Hades, where is your victory?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ'” (vv 51-57)
We shall not all “sleep”, die. Paul uses the term “sleep” because death is not a permanent state. Just as those who sleep wake up, so those who die will rise again. However, not all men will die. .
Sequence of events
The sequence of events is spelled out in verse fifty-two; begin with the sounding of a trumpet. When the trumpet sounds, things begin to happen, the dead in Christ are first raised from the grave, the old body being transformed as it is raised so that what was sown as a natural body rises as a spiritual body. After the dead in Christ are raised, those alive at this time are changed in a moment, in the twinkling of the eye, so that their perishable bodies are now imperishable, their natural bodies are now spiritual bodies.
When these transformations take place, Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled. Paul turns to the prophecy of Isaiah to show that the resurrection of the dead and transformation of the living is, indeed, the same victory over death that he spoke of in verses twenty through twenty-eight. The last enemy defeated and abolished by our Lord is death (v 26). This is accomplished by the resurrection of the dead and the transformation of the living. Thus, Paul sees this as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter twenty-five.
Of all the obsessions and fears named these days, one almost never hears of the fear of death. Yet it is this fear that makes virtual slaves of all men. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that the devil has a grip on men through their fear of death. Death is the destiny of all men. The Son of God took on humanity, flesh and blood, at His incarnation, and then by His death and resurrection rendered death and the devil powerless. Those who have trusted in Christ need no longer live in fear of death. Death and the fear of death have been swallowed up by the triumph of our Lord over them.
“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the Lord’s work, because you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (v58).
Love your life?
Jesus said, “He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it to life eternal. If any one serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there shall My servant also be; if any one serves Me, the Father will honor him And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:25-26, 32 NASB).
Do you see it? The way Jesus would “draw all men to Himself” was by being lifted up on the cross of Calvary. Jesus taught that the way to life was the way of the cross. By means of His death, burial, and resurrection, we have been given life by faith in Him. Now, as Christians, we are to apply the same principle to our earthly life. We are to take up our cross, to hate our life, to die to self, and in this way, we will obtain life eternal. Here is a unique approach to life. It is one you will never find originating from unbelievers, but you will find it repeatedly taught in the Word of God. Death is a defeated enemy; indeed death is our friend, and our way of life. To God is the glory.
Quotes from World English Bible unless noted otherwise