1 Corinthians, Part 4

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The resurrection of Jesus is the whole reason for the existence of Christianity. Many people were martyred for their beliefs, but only one rose from the grave. That’s what sets Christianity apart from all the other religions and belief systems across the world, and that’s why the apostle Paul spends so much time discussing it in 1 Corinthians.

There were plenty of Greeks in the Corinthian church, and they were no doubt being influenced by the wacky philosophies that were popular at that time. One such philosophy involved the immortality of the soul. While the Greeks believed in it, they had no use for the human body – they viewed as a temporary “prison” that held the soul until death set it free. This philosophy was overflowing into their opinion of the resurrection of Christ and denied the resurrection of the future, which is part and parcel of the whole doctrine of Christ’s resurrection.

But there was another view in this church. Others believed in the resurrection of body and soul, so much so that thought the resurrection had already taken place and that the Kingdom had already arrived in its fullness!

You seem to think you already have all the spiritual food you need. You are full and spiritually contented, rich kings on your thrones, leaving us far behind! I wish you really were already on your thrones, for when that time comes you can be sure that we will be there, too, reigning with you. (1 Corinthians 4:8 TLB)

They also denied any future resurrection, just like the first group, but for different reasons.

The key doctrine of the Christian faith – resurrection of believers – was either doubted or rejected by some in the church. Paul needed to set them straight, and he did that by showing that the certainty of the resurrection of the believer rests on the fact of the resurrection of Christ. His argument is a simple one: The Church is a living organism with Christ as its Head. If Christ as the Head of the organism arose, then the Body, the Church, will rise too. The Corinthians needed to see that Resurrection was, in fact, a seamless whole; to do away with the believer’s resurrection would do away with Christ’s.

Christ’s victory over death, 1 Corinthians 15:12 – 26

In terms of Christ’s resurrection, Paul has shown that both Scripture and the personal witness of reliable believers supported the fact of the resurrection of Christ.

He was seen by Peter and later by the rest of “the Twelve.” After that he was seen by more than five hundred Christian brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died by now. Then James saw him, and later all the apostles. Last of all I saw him too, long after the others, as though I had been born almost too late for this. (1 Corinthians 15:5 – 8 TLB)

Now he turns to a technique of reasoning we call reduction ad absurdum. That’s a fancy way of saying that without the doctrine of the Resurrection in its entirety, that is, the resurrection of Christ and the eventual resurrection of believers, the Christian faith would simply fold up. Here’s how that argument went –

We have preached that Christ has been raised from the dead. So how can some of you say that no one rises from the dead? If no one rises from the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. (1 Corinthians 15:12, 13 NIrV)

You can almost sense Paul’s sense of surprise as he asks the question, “So how can some of you say that no one rises from the dead?” It’s hard to know how many members of the church had become doubters. They were believers, certainly, and probably educated Greeks who had revived the wacky resurrection views of their former belief systems.

But when his audience heard Paul talk about the resurrection from the dead some of them laughed outright, but others said, “We should like to hear you speak again on this subject.” (Acts 17:32 JBP)

Those were Greek philosophers laughing at Paul. He had encountered their philosophy before outside of the church, and here it was inside the church. It’s probably also hard for you to believe that honest-to-goodness Christians should actually doubt any part of the doctrine of Resurrection. But human reason always finds a way to object to this wonderful and essential doctrine. Christianity is an all-or-nothing proposition; you have to believe what the Bible says. If you doubt some of it, eventually you’ll doubt all of it. Paul’s big concern was that if these well-meaning believers wondered about their eventual resurrection, it wouldn’t take long before they started to question Christ’s resurrection.

To push the point even further, Paul suggests that if Christ’s resurrection didn’t happen, then he had wasted his time preaching anything –

And if Christ has not been raised, what we preach doesn’t mean anything. Your faith doesn’t mean anything either. More than that, we would be lying about God. We are witnesses that God raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if the dead are not raised. (1 Corinthians 15:14, 15 NIrV)

Without the reality of Christ’s resurrection, as the Greek puts it: empty then our proclamation, empty also your faith. Without the Resurrection, preachers become like two bit hustlers.

Furthermore, “more than that,” without the Resurrection, all the apostles would be liars! To take that argument to its logical conclusion is to say that all these eye witnesses that talked about the risen Lord had lied and all those believers who had been killed for that very testimony died for a lie. That doesn’t seem reasonable at all. What kind of nincompoop would die for something that isn’t true?

Do we have hope in Christ only for this life? Then people should pity us more than anyone else. (1 Corinthians 15:19 NIrV)

That’s really a stunning verse. If the Christian has hope only in this present life, then he is the most miserable person alive. Godet observed:

To the sufferings accumulated during this life there would come to be added the most cruel deception after this life.

But, praise God, this isn’t the case!

But Christ really has been raised from the dead. He is the first of all those who will rise from the dead. (1 Corinthians 15:20 NIrV)

The future resurrection of believers is as certain as the past resurrection of Jesus Christ, and Paul makes sure the Corinthians understand this. Christ was the first, but by no means will He be the last, to rise from the dead. Before Him, none had returned from the grave as He had. Certainly Lazarus “came forth” when he was told to, but in his case and in all other cases similar to his, the spirit returned to the same body that was in the grave and eventually they would all die.

Christ is the “first” or “firstfruits.” That concept isn’t really big to us, but the ancients well understood what Paul was getting at. What happened to Christ is what will happen to those who are connected to Him. The reasoning is sound and simple –

Death came because of what a man did. Rising from the dead also comes because of what a man did. Because of Adam, all people die. So because of Christ, all will be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:21, 22 NIrV)

That’s so simple, it’s genius reasoning. Both Adam and Christ are pictured as heads of the human race (Adam) and the redeemed (Christ). What happened to Adam – he sinned and died – happen to all people. The evidence is all around. So what happened to Christ – He rose from the dead – will happen to all connected to Him by faith.

But, as with all Christian doctrines, there’s more to it than meets the eye. There will be an order to the resurrection, but not an order like that of a military troop.

Christ is the first of those who rise from the dead. When he comes back, those who belong to him will be raised. (1 Corinthians 15:23 NIrV)

The first to rise was Christ, verse 23. He was the One who blazed the trail, making it possible for what happened to Him to happen to us. Because He was the first, all believers will experience what He experienced when He returns. At this point, Paul isn’t engaging in a big discourse on eschatology, he is simply stating that Christ was the first, and believers will be second when He returns. By explaining it this way, Paul made sure the Corinthians understood that nobody, save Christ, has been resurrected; that nobody missed out.

That brings us to this group of verses that at first glance seems almost out of place –

Then the end will come after Christ destroys all rule, authority and power. Then he will hand over the kingdom to God the Father. Christ must rule until he has put all his enemies under his control. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. Scripture says that God “has put everything under his control.” (Psalm 8:6) It says that “everything” has been put under him. But it is clear that this does not include God himself. That’s because God put everything under Christ. When he has done that, the Son also will be under God’s rule. God put everything under the Son. In that way, God will be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:24 – 28 NIrV)

This seeming digression isn’t a digression at all; it relates back to the absolute necessity of the Resurrection. Paul needed to show that Christ was raised for a purpose: the destruction of man’s last enemy, death. But that destruction is actually an ongoing process that began with His resurrection and will end with ours when He returns. Some Corinthians might have wondered what His resurrection accomplished, after all it did Jesus a lot of good but what about us? We’re still dying, aren’t we! In fact, His resurrection began the downfall of death, and when Christ returns in glory He will finally deal a death-blow that will forever end death’s reign on this planet.

That phrase at the beginning of verse 24, “then the end will come,” does not necessarily mean, “the end of the world,” but rather the ultimate aim or final goal of Christ who had all authority over all the events, things, and activities of this world. That ultimate goal is the end of death forever. Paul’s reasoning is powerful: when Christ rose from the dead, death began its slow exit from this world. He was the first, all believers will follow His lead when He returns. When that happens, death will never rear its ugly head again. That’s why both resurrections form the foundation of the Christian faith. The Bible witnesses to the Resurrection (vs. 3 – 7). Paul’s personal experience gives evidence to the Resurrection (vs. 8 – 11). All preaching is based on and motivated by Jesus’ resurrection (vs. 12 – 16). Our personal redemption depends on the Resurrection (vs. 17). And finally, our hope for the future rests squarely on the Resurrection (vs. 19 – 28).

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