1 Corinthians Chapter 15, Part 1
by Karl Kemp
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This two-part article was taken from the verse-by-verse study of 1 Corinthians chapter 15 on my internet site that was originally part of my paper titled, "A Verse-by-Verse Study of Six Important Eschatological Chapters of the New Testament: 1 Corinthians 15; Matthew 24, 25; and Revelation 20-22" that was published November, 1998. As I prepare this two-part article to put on this Christian article site, I am incorporating a few corrections and some improvements. All Bible quotations were taken from the 1977 edition of the NASB unless otherwise noted. Sometimes I use double brackets [[ ]] and (( )) to make them more obvious.
"Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, (2) by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you [[It's true, of course, that we must continue to "hold fast the word" of the gospel (in faith), which includes living in line with the truth of the gospel as well as holding correct doctrine. However, that isn't the primary issue the apostle Paul is dealing with here; he assumes (at least for the sake of discussion) that they are holding fast the gospel; the if clause is a class-one condition in the Greek (assumed to be true). What. Paul is getting at here, as the following words show, is the issue whether the gospel they had received from Paul is true (not that Paul ever doubted it).]], unless you believed in vain. [[Compare "if Christ has not been raised...your faith...is vain" (15:14) and "your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins" (15:17). As Paul will go on to show, they would have believed in vain if there is no resurrection of the dead. The resurrection of the dead is an important part of the gospel. Throughout this chapter Paul deals with the resurrection, because some in the church at Corinth were denying the resurrection of the body (15:12). If they are right, Paul says, then the gospel isn't true, and we have believed in vain. Paul, of course, wasn't doubting the resurrection; he was trying to wake up some Corinthians to the seriousness of their unappreciated modification of the gospel. God doesn't need any help!
Some Corinthians were denying the resurrection of the body, but they probably would have accused Paul of setting up a straw man in this chapter, easy to knock over. They probably would have said they believed in eternal glory all right, but they just didn't believe in a literal resurrection of the body. From their point of view, the idea of a resurrected body was a negative; it sounded like a Jewish myth that was beneath their dignity, being cultured Greeks (cf. Acts 17:32); they undoubtedly looked forward to being totally free from a body in the eternal age to come. It's probably true that Paul didn't give their viewpoint a fair hearing - he knew that it was wrong. The Corinthians had no right to modify the gospel, which was given by Christ to Paul (cf., e.g., Gal. 1:11, 12), to make it better fit their view of things. We had better just stick with God's view of things, the truth.
Their idea fit a popular world view of that day, that physical matter, including the body, is evil. However, physical matter and the body are not evil in themselves, having been created by God. Some Corinthians Christians wanted to once-for-all be free from this evil. Their contempt for a resurrected body probably pictured this body being essentially the equivalent of the body as it exists in this age. ((Some ancient Jewish writings, including the Talmud, show that this was a common viewpoint among the Jews. See, for example, F. L. Godet ("The First Epistle to the Corinthians" [1971 reprint by Zondervan from the 1886 edition], page 401 under verses 25-58); Simon J. Kistemaker ("1 Corinthians" [Baker, 1993], page 566 under verse 35); and Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer ("First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians" [T. & T. Clark, printed 1982], page 368 under verse 35).)) In 1 Cor. 15:35-54 Paul deals with the glorious transformation of the present body that will make it a body designed for eternal, heavenly glory.
They probably said they believed in the resurrection, but that is was strictly a spiritual resurrection. It's true, of course, that we have already experienced a spiritual resurrection as born-again Christians (cf., e.g., Rom. 6:4-11; Eph. 2:5, 6; and Col. 2:12, 13). In 2 Tim. 2:17, 18 Paul mentions two Christian leaders by name "who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place" thereby apparently denying the future resurrection of the body.
Based on what Paul says in this chapter, it seems his opponents did not deny the resurrection of Jesus' body, but they probably thought of His body being different than ours; His was a unique case. (Compare, for example, 1 John 4:2, where John had to combat the Gnostic denial that Jesus really "came in the flesh.") It would have been very difficult for Christians to deny the bodily resurrection of Christ with that empty tomb, with all those witnesses of His resurrection (see 1 Cor. 15:5-8), and with His resurrection being so emphasized in the gospel. I might add that the disciples could touch Him after His resurrection (Matt. 28:9; Luke 24:36-40) and He ate with His resurrected body (Luke 24:41-43).]] (3) For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, (4) and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures [[As I mentioned, Paul received the gospel from Christ. Significantly, Paul had the Old Testament Scriptures to substantiate his gospel. On Christ's (atoning) death and resurrection, see Isa. 52:12-53:12; Luke 24:25, 26, 46; Acts 17:2, 3; and 26:22, 23. On His atoning death, see I Pet. 2:24, 25 (these verses quote from, and build on, Isa. 53:4-12); Acts 8:32-35 (Acts 8:32, 33 quote Isa. 53:7, 8). On His burial, see Isa. 53:9. On His resurrection, see Psalm 16:8-11 with Acts 2:22-32. Regarding His being raised on the third day, cf. Hos. 6:2; Matt. 12:39, 40 with Jonah 1:17; John 2:18-22; Matt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7; 24:46; and Acts 10:40. I agree with the standard viewpoint that Jesus was crucified and buried on Friday and raised early Sunday morning, on the third day.
Matthew 12:39, 40 with Jonah 1:17 are explained by D. A. Carson ("Expositor's Bible Commentary," Vol. 8 [Zondervan, 1984], page 296): "...if the normal sequence of Passion Week [speaking of the standard viewpoint I just mentioned] is correct...Jesus was in the tomb only about thirty-six hours. Since they included parts of three days, by Jewish reckoning Jesus was buried 'three days' or, to put it another way, he rose 'on the third day' (Matt. 16:21). ... In rabbinical thought a day and a night make an "onah" [a full day], and a part of an onah is as the whole (cf. ... Esth. 4:16; 5:1). Thus according to Jewish tradition, 'three days and three nights' need mean no more than 'three days' or any combination of any part of three separate days."]], (5) and that He appeared to Cephas [[Paul normally refers to Peter by his Aramaic name, Cephas. (See John 1:42; Gal. 2:7-9.) Compare Luke 24:13-35, especially 24:34; these verses also mention Jesus' appearance to the two men on the road to Emmaus, not mentioned by Paul here. Paul also doesn't mention Jesus' appearance to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18; Mark 16:9) and to the women (Matt. 28:1-10). The apostles were key witnesses of Christ's resurrection (cf. Acts 1:22).]], then to the twelve [Compare Mark 16:14; Luke 24:36; and John 20:19.]. (6) After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; (7) then He appeared to James [This is James a brother of the Lord Jesus (cf., e.g., Mark 6:3; Acts 12:17; Gal. 1:19; and 2:9, 12). In Gal. 1:19 Paul calls James an apostle; he wasn't one of the twelve.], then to all the apostles [Compare Acts 1:3-12.]; (8) and last of all, as it were to one untimely born [The NIV has, "as to one abnormally born." Paul is alluding to the circumstances of his conversion; he met the Lord Jesus while on his way to Damascus to persecute some more of His people. Compare Acts 9:1-22; 22:3-21; 26:9-20; and 1 Cor. 9:1.], He appeared to me also. (9) For I am the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. [Cf. 1 Tim. 1:12-16.] (10) But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me. [Compare, for example, 2 Cor. 3:5, 6; Eph. 3:1-13. The fact that Paul's ministry (and life) was effective by God's grace/Spirit, and the fact that God must receive all the glory, doesn't mean that Paul (and all Christians) didn't have a necessary role to play, as he cooperated with God's grace/Spirit through faith. Compare Phil. 2:12, 13.] (11) Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (12) Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (13) But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; (14) and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. (15) Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact 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 worthless; you are still in your sins. [As discussed above, Paul's opponents would probably have said they believed Jesus, being a unique case (for one thing He was God the Son), was resurrected, but that they could not accept the idea of a bodily resurrection of Christians. However, as these verses show, Paul will have none of this compromise. Either the gospel is true in its entirety, or it is false, and we are still in our sins.] (18) Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. [In other words, if the gospel isn't true, those Christians who have died will not be resurrected to eternal glory when Christ returns; they have perished.] (19) If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. [[The hope of Christians is to he resurrected to eternal glory when Christ returns (cf., e.g., Col. 1:5, 27; 3:4; Phil. 3:20, 21). (At death true Christians go to heaven [cf. 2 Cor. 5:1, 8; Phil. 1:21, 23; 1 Thess. 4:14-16], but it is heaven in a preliminary sense; it is a preliminary state that precedes the resurrection and the full glory reserved for the age to come.) If we were to have this hope in Christ throughout this present life and then die and find out that our hope was based on a lie (which isn't going to happen, as Paul can assure his readers), then "we are of all men most to be pitied." Paul's point is that if the Corinthians who were denying the bodily resurrection were right, then this would be the result.]] (20) But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. [[The Lord Jesus Christ was the first man (He became a man, but He is much more than just a man) to leave death behind and be harvested into God's eternal kingdom with a glorified body. He is "the first fruits" of the coming harvest. (There is widespread agreement that Jesus was raised on the very day "the sheaf of the first fruits of [the agricultural] harvest" was presented before the Lord. See Lev. 23:10, 11. The "first fruits" look forward to, and consecrate, the harvest yet to come.) Then, as 1 Cor. 15:23 shows, at the time of Christ's second coming, His people (all true believers, which includes all the believers from old-covenant days and all true Christians) will be harvested into the glory of God's kingdom. All believers who have died will he resurrected, and those Christians still living on the earth when He comes will be transformed (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50-52; 1 Thess. 4:13-17). (Matthew 27:52, 53 show that a select number of old-covenant saints received resurrection bodies shortly after the Lord Jesus was resurrected.)
The verse we are studying calls Jesus "the first fruits of those who are asleep"; Col. 1:18 and Rev. 1:5 call Him "the first-born of/from the dead." He is the first man to be born into the fulness of eternal life with a glorified body, a body that will never taste death. We will follow Him in this birth at the time of His return. Revelation 12:5 is a key verse that speaks of this end-time birth of God's people. (This verse is discussed in my book, "The Mid-Week Rapture," on pages 314-316. Three other verses that speak of this same birth are Psalm 2:7: Isa. 66:7; and Mic. 5:3. These verses are discussed in some detail in that book; separate chapters are devoted to Psalm 2; Isa. 66:1-8; and Micah 4:9-5:6. Also see my twenty-four articles titled, "The Mid-Week Rapture.") On this all-important birth (and life) by the Spirit, also see below under 1 Cor. 15:44, 45, including the discussion of John 3:5, 6.]] (21) For since by a man [Adam] came death, by a man [the last Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ] also came the resurrection of the dead. [Compare Rom. 5:12-21; 6:5; Eph. 1:19-2:10; Phil. 3:10-14; Col. 3:1-4; and I Peter 1:3-13. Christians are united with Christ in His death, burial, resurrection, ascension, etc. In Christ we are taken to a place much higher than what Adam had before the fall (cf., e.g., 1 Cor. 15:44-50). In 1 Cor. 15:45 Christ is called "the last Adam."] (22) For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. [[All true believers will be caught up into the fulness of eternal life when Christ returns. It's also true that Christians are "made alive" when they become Christians (as the references cited under 15:21 confirm), but the fulness of eternal life (including most of the glory) is reserved for the age to come.
In the interpretation of these verses given so far, it has been assumed that "all" in "all shall be made alive" is limited to believers. This is reasonable, and this is a very common interpretation of these words. Paul's Rom. 5:18 fits this viewpoint, "So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness [referring to Christ's atoning death] there resulted justification of life to all men." It's clear (in context with Rom. 5:17, 19) that "all men" in 5:18 is limited to those who receive God's grace in Christ (by faith).
There is, however, another way to understand the last words of 1 Cor. 15:21 ("the resurrection of the dead") and the last words of 15:22 ("so also in Christ all shall be made alive"), and I somewhat prefer this other interpretation. (Even if we go a little beyond what Paul intended with this other interpretation, it's still Biblical [and therefore true], and it will be worth our time to consider it. Whether we accept the one interpretation, or the other, doesn't affect the overall interpretation of this chapter or the Bible's teaching on the end times.)
It seems preferable to understand "all shall be made alive" to refer to all mankind, and this can be done if we understand "made alive" here to speak of the resurrection of all mankind, not just the resurrection of believers. Though I have found that many Christians don't know this, it's clear that all people, not just believers, will eventually be resurrected (cf., e.g., John 5:28, 29; Acts 24:15 [This verse is significant in that the apostle Paul says, "there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked."]; Luke 14:14; and Rev. 20:5). John 5:28, 29 are especially relevant as a reference in that all the dead (not just the believers) will hear the voice of the Son of God and be resurrected. Revelation 20:5 is especially relevant because it speaks of "the rest of the dead" (which refers to those not made alive/resurrected in the first resurrection, which will be completed by the time the millennium begins) coming to life at the end of the millennium; their coming to life speaks of their resurrection. The next four verses (1 Cor. 15:23-26) fit better with the idea that "all shall be made alive" here in 1 Cor. 15:22 speaks of all mankind.]] (23) But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ's at His coming [[The words "each in his own order," fit better with the idea that Paul was referring to all mankind being made alive/resurrected in 15:21, 22. With this fuller viewpoint, the "order(s)" include a third major order after the resurrections of Christ and of "those who are Christ's at His coming," that is, the resurrection of the rest of the dead at the end of the millennium. Paul doesn't specifically mention this third order here in chapter 15 (his primary topic throughout this entire chapter is the resurrection of believers), but there is further rather strong evidence for this viewpoint in 15:26, which speaks of the last enemy death being abolished. The last enemy death can't be abolished until all mankind has been raised from the dead (made alive). This is confirmed by Rev. 20:13, 14: We see the resurrection of the rest of the dead in Rev. 20:13 (cf. 20:5), then in 20:14 we are told that death and Hades (the abode of the dead) are cast into the lake of fire.
We have already discussed the meaning of the resurrection/transformation of "those who are Christ's at His coming," but let's consider two more details. First, what about the resurrection (and rapture) of the two witnesses of Rev. 11:11, 12? I consider the resurrection (and rapture) of the two witnesses to be part of the resurrection/transformation and rapture of all believers that will take place at the mid-week (right in the middle of Daniel's 70th week) return of Christ with the clouds of heaven at the sounding of the seventh and last trumpet at Rev. 11:15. Their resurrection and rapture could precede the resurrection and rapture of the rest of God's people by a very short period of time, or it could be simultaneous with it.
Second, many will be born again after the rapture of the church. This multitude, which can be called the end-time remnant of Israel (though it undoubtedly includes many Gentiles) will go through three and one-half very difficult years (cf. Dan. 7:21, 25; 12:6, 7; Rev. 12:6, 13-17; 13:5, 7), and there will be many martyrs for Christ. At the end of this period (at the end of Daniel's 70th week), all the believers who have been martyred during the second three and one-half years will be resurrected (Rev. 20:4), and I assume that those believers still alive will be transformed; together they will begin their never-ending reign in glory with those already resurrected/transformed in the middle of the seven-year period. (On the verses I mentioned (and for further information), see my book, "The Mid-Week Rapture.")]], (24) then comes the end, when He delivers up the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. (25) For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. [["The end" cannot come until Christ has returned and subdued all His enemies in His end-time reign (reigning includes judging). Revelation 11:17 and 12:10 are two key verses that speak of this end-time reign of Christ that will begin in the middle of Daniel's 70th week. The Lord Jesus has all authority now (e.g., Matt. 28:18; Eph. 1:20-23), but He is waiting for the Father's time to return to subdue His enemies. (Throughout this age He is subduing the hearts of those who submit to the gospel in faith [cf. Rev. 6:2].) As I mentioned, the last enemy to be subjugated will be death, and we know, based on Rev. 20:14, that death will not be abolished until after the millennium, after the great-white-throne judgment of Rev. 20:11-15. (Paul didn't have the benefit of having the super-important book of Revelation, which was written some thirty years after his death. I doubt that he knew some of the end-time details that we learn from the book of Revelation.)
Psalm 110 is an important reference on Christ's coming rule/reign that will subdue His enemies. Psalm 110:1 speaks of His "enemies being made a footstool for [His] feet." (Compare Heb. 10:13.) This significant psalm is discussed in chapter 19 of my book, "The Mid-Week Rapture." Psalm 8, especially verse 6 (this verse is quoted in 1 Cor. 15:27), is another important reference dealing with Christ's enemies being put under His feet. On Psalm 8, see pages 76-80 in "The Mid-Week Rapture." Also see Eph. 1:22, which also quotes from Psalm 8:6.]] (26) The last enemy that will be abolished is death. [See under 1 Cor. 15:23.] (27) For HE [God the Father] HAS PUT ALL THINGS IN SUBJECTION UNDER HIS [Christ's] FEET. But when He [I would translate "when it says," with the NIV; "it" refers to the verse of the Old Testament that is quoted (Psalm 8:6).] says, 'All things are put in subjection,' it is evident that He [God the Father] is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him [Christ]. [Hebrews 2:5-11, which quote Psalm 8:4-6, show that Christ's people will ultimately be included with Christ in this reign. On Heb. 2:5-11, see pages 78-80 of "The Mid-Week Rapture."] (28) And when all things are subjected to Him [Christ's work of saving and judging will be finished.], then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, that God may be all in all. [[These two verses emphasize the subordinate role of God the Son to God the Father, but lest we go too far and miss the balance here, see, e.g., Rev. 21:22, 23 and 22:3, verses that help demonstrate the exalted role that God the Son will have with God the Father in the glorious, eternal New Jerusalem. Revelation 22:3-5 are key verses that show the glorious, never-ending reign of all the people of God's true Israel with God the Father and God the Son.]] (29) Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them? [[The apostle refers to a practice that was evidently done on occasion in the church at Corinth (baptism for the dead) to further argue for the need to believe in the resurrection. The Bible doesn't mention this practice anywhere else. Paul wasn't necessarily in favor of this practice, but it doesn't seem that he forbade it. It certainly isn't a practice that Christians are required to do, and I'm not aware of any Christians doing it.
What is the baptism for the dead? There have been many answers given to this question, but there's only one that seems satisfactory to me, and it's the most common answer. I'll give an illustration to show how this probably worked. Let's say there was a man who had been actively attending the church at Corinth for several months. He had been zealously studying the scriptures, and everyone in the church was impressed with his sincerity in submitting to God and the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. However, before being baptized in water, this man lost his life when his ship was destroyed in a storm in the Mediterranean Sea. In a case like this (at least in some such cases at Corinth), someone (perhaps a relative or a close friend in the church) was baptized in his place, by proxy. (Many have heard of a person being prayed for in the place of another person not present, by proxy.) There would surely have been very definite limits on who qualified for this baptism by proxy, for example, those who were definitely known to be believers.
You couldn't begin to understand how a practice like this could have arisen if, like many Christians today, you have a low view of water baptism. It's clear to me that the Bible teaches a higher view of baptism than that held by many Christians today. I'm not bringing this up because I think this is one of the biggest problems we have in the Body of Christ. (I believe we have much greater problems to deal with in the Body of Christ, especially dealing with the basic truths of the gospel and the need to live in God's will - in His righteousness and holiness - by grace/the Spirit through faith.) Furthermore, I'm not bringing up water baptism because of some special interest in this topic, or because of some special experience I've had; I'm not emotionally involved regarding this topic, and I'm not obligated to any particular viewpoint - we are obligated to God and His truth!
I'm bringing it up strictly based on what the Bible seems to rather clearly say on this topic. I'm certainly not suggesting, nor do I believe, that people can't be saved or sanctified apart from water baptism. God has been very generous with His people (in blessing us in spite of our errors), but that's no excuse to maintain our viewpoints when they're wrong/when they don't line up with the balanced truth of what the Bible teaches. The more we do things God's way, the more He will be glorified, His will will be accomplished in the church, the more He can bless us and use us, and the more we can unite around the balanced truth.
It seems that many have formed their view of water baptism mostly in reaction to someone else who was out of balance in a different direction, and we typically have several verses that we emphasize. We need the balanced truth of what the Bible teaches in this area, as in every area. It is quite significant that the Bible mentions forgiveness/washing away of sins at water baptism (Acts 2:38, 22:16). It mentions becoming united with Christ in baptism, including being united with Him in His death on the cross (cf. Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:3). He died an atoning death in our place; we are to die to sin and to the old man in water baptism, and the old man is to be buried (Rom. 6:3, 4; Col. 2:11, 12). John 3:5 seems to speak of water baptism as a preliminary to being born of the Spirit. I agree with the widespread viewpoint that the words "born of water" in John 3:5 refer to water baptism, which was quite prominent in that setting. Not only was John the Baptist baptizing (even Jesus Christ was baptized by him), but Jesus (through His disciples) was also baptizing (John 1:25-34; 3:22-26; 4:1, 2). The baptism of John 3:5 is a baptism of repentance and faith. Regarding the Biblical pattern that the life-giving, sanctifying, gift-dispensing Spirit typically comes to believers immediately after, and in close association with, water baptism, see pages 126, 127 in my book "Holiness and Victory Over Sin," including the Notes. This reference also discusses Titus 3:5, another verse that apparently views water baptism as a preliminary to receiving the Spirit, not that there isn't room for exceptions to this pattern. (See Acts 10:44-48. We can understand this exception: If God had not clearly demonstrated that He fully accepted those uncircumcised Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, as on the day of Pentecost, Peter probably wouldn't have baptized them. See Acts 11:1-18). And 1 Pet. 3:21 even speaks of baptism saving us. As I mentioned, I'm not suggesting that these things (like forgiveness, dying to the old man, etc.) can't he received apart from water baptism, but baptism seems to be the most appropriate (Biblical) occasion to complete these transactions.
We will complete this discussion regarding water baptism and go on to 1 Corinthians 15:30-58 in Part 2.
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