30. A Refresher Course on the Resurrection of the Dead (1 Cor. 15)
A rather quick and easy way to judge the orthodoxy of any preacher, I have concluded, is to listen to a funeral message he has delivered. Usually, in less than a half-hour, one can know with considerable certainty where he stands on the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have attended funerals where the most profound thing the preacher said was, “Even God is crying” (it was raining at the time of the funeral). I have heard a preacher assure his audience that the tragic death of a young mother was “not the will of God,” as though her death was the result of some tragic, administrative mix-up in heaven. I have heard deceased atheists and pagans spoken of as though they were charter members of the kingdom of God. The promises of eternal bliss, given to believers in the Scriptures, are doled out as if they are the right of all who are in attendance, whether or not they are Christians. Most certainly, it is thought to be politically incorrect for any preacher to even refer to “hell,” much less the possibility of anyone spending eternity there.
For years I have said I would much rather conduct a funeral than a wedding. Quite honestly, at a wedding, one can say almost anything (and believe me, some do), and people will tell you it was a “beautiful ceremony.” A wedding is such a happy moment; no one is really hurting. One could recite, “Mary had a little lamb” and get compliments. But a funeral is different. The reality and finality of death is all too obvious. There are many things which can be said at a funeral, but there is only one message which gives hope, and that message is the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is because the gospel of Jesus Christ has as its central theme and message the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and the resulting hope of resurrection and eternal life for every Christian. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul deals with the subject of death and the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. In so doing, Paul gives one of the clearest, most concise definitions of the “gospel” found anywhere in the Bible. He shows how a denial of the resurrection of the dead is a denial of the gospel itself, and how believing in the gospel gives one hope for the next world as well as for the present.
The Problem at Corinth
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?
Verse 12 discloses the problem which prompts Paul to write this chapter: some of the Corinthian saints are saying there is no “resurrection of the dead.”216 Denying the resurrection of the dead is seen in several different forms in the New Testament. The Greek pagans denied the resurrection of the dead, as we can see from the Book of Acts. In his sermon to those in the market place of Athens, Paul preached these words:
30 “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, 31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” 32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this” (Acts 17:30-32).
The Greeks may have believed in the immortality of men, as spirits, but they did not seem responsive to the teaching that God raises the dead so that they may stand in judgment before God.
The Jewish Sadducees did not embrace the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead either:
6 But perceiving that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!” 7 And as he said this, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. 8 For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor an angel, nor a spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. 9 And there arose a great uproar; and some of the scribes of the Pharisaic party stood up and began to argue heatedly, saying, “We find nothing wrong with this man; suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” (Acts 23:6-9)
The Pharisees did believe in the resurrection of the dead, and in spirits and angels, but the Sadducees did not. Basically, the Sadducees were anti-supernaturalists—they did not believe in miracles. It would almost seem the Sadducees were farther from the truth (at least about the resurrection of the dead) than the Gentile pagans.
There were those in the church who professed to believe in the resurrection of the dead but who insisted that this “resurrection” had already taken place:
16 But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and thus they upset the faith of some (2 Timothy 2:16-18).
This “resurrection” was a present possession rather than a future hope. It must therefore have been some kind of mystical or spiritual “resurrection” rather than a literal, bodily resurrection. In saying that there has already been a spiritual resurrection, these heretics were denying that there was a future bodily resurrection. And for this they receive Paul’s indictment that they have “gone astray from the truth” (2 Timothy 2:18). The error is so serious that it “upsets the faith” (verse 18) of those who embrace this error.
We are not told exactly what form the denial of the resurrection of the dead took at Corinth. I am inclined to think it was the same kind of error Paul exposed in Ephesus (2 Timothy 2:16-18), where Paul told Timothy that such error would “lead to further ungodliness” (verse 16). We can see some forms of ungodliness this doctrinal deviation took in the earlier chapters of 1 Corinthians. While the theological error regarding the resurrection of the dead is not exposed until chapter 15, the fruits of this error are everywhere apparent in chapters 1-14.
In the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul deals with the divisions and factions which had disrupted the unity of the church at Corinth. These divisions were based upon the pride which some took in certain leaders and their teachings. The Corinthians were puffed up because their leaders “were the greatest” and their teachings were so “wise.” Their esteem for these leaders resulted in a corresponding disdain for Paul and the other apostles:
6 Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other. 7 For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? 8 You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and I would indeed that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you. 9 For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. 11 To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12 and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now (1 Corinthians 4:6-13).
Paul’s gospel (which was one and the same with the gospel proclaimed by the other apostles) was disdained because it was too simplistic, too naive, too foolish. The “new gospel,” proclaimed by the Corinthians’ new leaders, was much more sophisticated, much more acceptable and appealing to the pagan culture of that day.
Just what was the problem the Corinthians had with Paul, his theology, and his practice? The key is found in the word “already” in verse 8.217 The Corinthians seem to be claiming that they have already arrived, spiritually speaking. Christianity has three dimensions or tenses: past, present, and future.218 We were chosen in Christ in eternity past, and 2,000 years ago, Christ died, was buried, and was raised from the dead for the forgiveness of our sins and our eternal salvation. We are now being saved;219 we are currently being sanctified, daily being transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ. Our final salvation comes when our Lord Jesus Christ returns to the earth, and when we, with glorified and transformed bodies, live eternally in His presence.
Difficulties arise whenever we confuse these three tenses. Some Christians live as though Christ’s atoning work at Calvary (in the past) has no great impact on our day-to-day living in the present. Such people live out their lives naturalistically, as though the supernatural power of God has no practical relevance to daily living. They go about their daily living little different from atheists. They employ merely human methods and mechanisms. They raise funds, for example, using the same methods as the Red Cross or the United Fund. They seek to sanctify and utilize secular marketing techniques to evangelize and to produce church growth. They use human management techniques to run the church and Christian organizations.
Other Christians go to the opposite extreme. They confuse the future blessings, which Christ has promised and purchased, with His present blessings. In short, they think the Christian can and should experience heaven on earth. They believe no one needs to be sick (or perhaps even to die), because of the atoning work of Christ at Calvary (see Isaiah 53:5). According to this version of “spirituality,” we should expect to be happy, healthy, and wealthy now. They claim the future blessings of Revelation 21 and 22 as their present rights, and they tell us that if we do not experience these blessings now it is due to our lack of faith.
This health and wealth doctrine does not find its origin in the Scriptures, but in the wishful thinking of those who do not want to face up to a life of suffering, a life that is lived out in a fallen world. The context of 2 Timothy 2 and 3, the teaching of the Book of Hebrews and 1 Peter, and the example set forth by Paul and the apostles points to a different view of spirituality in the present age (see also Romans 8). The Scriptures speak of our identification with Christ in this age through our participation in His sufferings (see Philippians 1:12-26; 3:10; Colossians 1:24-29; 1 Peter 4:12-19), rather than in our escape from them.
No wonder the “spiritual” Corinthians looked down upon Paul. They had already arrived; Paul had not. They were kings; Paul was homeless. Paul and the apostles were a disgrace, and the proud Corinthians were ashamed of them. The apostles did not look nor act like royalty, but like the “scum of the world” (1 Corinthians 4:8-13). To speak of the resurrection of the dead as a future certainty meant they had not already arrived, that the kingdom of God had not yet come. It meant that they must identify with Christ in His earthly humiliation and rejection and not in His triumphant reign. And so they set aside the literal bodily resurrection of the dead, embracing in its place some kind of spiritual resurrection which already brought them into their kingdom, a kingdom of this age and not the next, a kingdom which the apostles and their gospel would not embrace or sanction.
Symptoms of the Rejection of the
Resurrection of the Dead in the Corinthian Church
Everywhere we look in 1 Corinthians we can see the fruit of this doctrinal error of rejecting the resurrection of the dead. In chapters 1-4, we are not surprised to learn that the Corinthians have formed cliques based upon the pride they took in new mentors, in their new message, and in their new methods. These “new messengers” will eventually prove to be “false apostles,” as Paul will indicate in 2 Corinthians 11. Their message will not be the foolish and weak message of Christ crucified (1:23-24), but one which appeals to the pride and arrogance of lost men. Their method was not a simple proclamation of the truth of the gospel; it was the same kind of methodology the heathen used to market everything from fish to philosophy (see 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:2). Paul’s method was to simply proclaim the truth of the gospel and then to depend on the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit to enlighten men’s minds and to convince them of the truth (1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 10-16).
In chapter 5, Paul exposes one professing Christian at Corinth who is living in such a degraded fashion that even the pagan Corinthians blush at his behavior (5:1-2). The Corinthian church, on the other hand, is not ashamed at all, but proud (5:2). How could they be proud? Just as the Corinthians distinguished between a spiritual resurrection and a bodily resurrection, they also distinguished between a “spiritual” spirituality and a bodily “spirituality.” It seems as though many of the Corinthians thought they could be spiritual in spirit but immoral and self-indulgent in the flesh. And so they not only tolerated shocking sexual immorality among their membership (chapter 5), they practiced all kinds of sensual and bodily indulgences themselves (chapter 6).220
In addition, the Corinthians are taking one another to court (6:1-11). The Scriptures teach that the literal, bodily resurrection of all men is prerequisite for divine judgment which follows (Acts 17:30-32; 24:14-16, 21, 24-25; Revelation 20:11-14). The false teachers are the ones who deny or minimize the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead because they wish to comfort themselves with the deception that there will be no future judgment (see 2 Peter 3:3-4). If we truly believe there is a resurrection of the dead and that the wicked will be punished, we can abandon our desire to have revenge and leave retribution to God (Romans 12:17-21; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10; 1 Peter 2:12). But when our vision concerning the resurrection of the dead is dimmed, we will want justice here and now, and if that means taking our case against a Christian brother before a pagan court, so be it. So it was in Corinth.
The Corinthians seem dull to the dangers of indulging their bodily appetites in spite of the lessons they should have learned from their predecessors, the Israelites (1 Corinthians 10:1-13). They feel free to participate in the pagan idol-worship rituals, even though this might cause a brother to stumble (chapter 8), and in spite of the fact that participating in this meal meant involvement with the demonic powers (10:18-22).
They are so enticed by the thought of eating a festive meal that they disregard all the dangers associated with doing so. When it came to satisfying their bodily appetites, the Corinthians just couldn’t say “no” (see 9:24-27).
Even at the Corinthians’ celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the most sacred part of their gathering together, they do not wait for their brethren to arrive, and so indulge themselves that they become drunk, making their celebration an abomination (11:17-34). The same excesses are evident in the exercise of their spiritual gifts at the meeting of the church (chapters 12-14). The Corinthians indulge themselves by exercising their gifts in a disorderly and chaotic fashion so that the edification of the church was set aside. And in the midst of this, they seem oblivious to the fact that divine judgment is causing many to become sick and a good number to die (1 Corinthians 11:30). We have no monopoly on being the “now generation.” The Corinthians minimized the future and majored on the present moment. Their motto: “Seize the day!”
An Overview of Paul’s Response to
the Corinthians’ Denial of the Resurrection of the Dead
In chapters 1-14, Paul uncovers much of the dirty laundry of the Corinthian church and deals with each problem in particular. Now in chapter 15, Paul introduces the subject of the resurrection of the dead, not as an entirely new subject, mind you, but as the root problem underlying the sins he previously discussed. Is it any wonder that in chapter 14 Paul upholds the gift of prophecy as the greatest of the gifts for the church? I think not. Prophets fulfilled many roles and carried out various functions, but who would dispute that one of the tasks of a prophet was to speak of future things—to prophesy? Is the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead not a matter of prophecy? If, as I have assumed and alluded, the Corinthians have exalted the gift of tongues and minimized the gift of prophecy, is it surprising that Paul first extols the virtues of the gift of prophecy and then presses on to a particular element of prophecy—the resurrection of the dead?
In chapter 15, Paul approaches the denial of the resurrection of the dead indirectly at first. In verses 1-11, 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 12-19, Paul exposes the real problem, the denial of the resurrection of the dead. If one believes there is no resurrection of the dead at all, then this means that Christ could not have been raised from the dead at all. If Christ was not raised from the dead, then the apostles are deceivers and the Corinthians are deceived and to be pitied, for their faith is futile. But in verses 20-28, Paul returns to the certainty of our Lord’s resurrection and plays out 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 Him, followed later by those who have not (15:23-25). It is only after death is finally defeated by the resurrection of all men that the kingdom can be handed over to the Father. Any hope of the kingdom of God has as a prerequisite the resurrection of the dead (15:26-28). The practice of some of being baptized for the dead (verse 29) and the dangerous living of Paul (verses 30-32a) make sense only if there is a literal resurrection of the dead. Otherwise, one might just as well “grab all the gusto he can get” if we only “go around once” (verse 32b). The source of the Corinthians’ error regarding a bodily resurrection is revealed in verses 33 and 34. Illicit fellowship has caused them to become soft on sin and thus vulnerable to doctrinal deviation, which tended to validate their sin.
In verses 35-49, Paul takes on the objections which some have raised concerning the resurrection of the dead. Do they wonder how the dead can be raised? Are they perplexed that the bodies we place in the ground decay and that an imperishable body resulting from this decay seems scientifically untenable? Let them simply refresh their memories as to how, with grain, new life sprouts from the “death” and “decay” of the seed that is buried or planted in the ground. The physical body must come first and then be replaced by the spiritual. The objections to the resurrection of the body are simply the result of a lack of faith in the God who is the Creator of all “bodies” and who raised our Lord from the dead. Adam’s sin brought about bodily death and decay; Christ’s righteousness produces life and bodily transformation.
In verses 50-58, Paul builds to a triumphant climax. 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 in the presence of God. 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.
The Gospel and the
Resurrection of Jesus Christ From the Dead
1 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, unless you believed in vain. 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, 5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 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, then to all the apostles; 8 and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, 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. 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. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
I am writing this message on an IBM compatible computer operating under Windows 95. This new operating system requires a new anti-virus program, which I would be foolish not to install. A virus can enter my system through an on-line connection (via my modem and the phone line connected to another computer) or through a corrupted disk. Viruses are hidden; their authors do not want them detected until after they have achieved what they were written to accomplish. Viruses are not all meant to destroy; some are simply a sick joke, which causes strange things to happen in the program one is running or silly messages to appear on our screen. But there are viruses which are meant to destroy work by attaching themselves to certain executable files, to memory, or to certain locations (e.g., the boot track of your hard disk). An anti-virus program is designed to discover and eradicate these destructive hidden programs before they can do damage to programs or data (in some cases, wiping your hard disk clean of all program and data files). Every file or program which requires your computer’s attention is scrutinized to make sure it does not contain a destructive virus.
Paul’s devotion to the Word of God and to the good news of the gospel causes him to be as alert and vigilant as an anti-virus program. There is one “file” (so to speak) which is always searched out by the virus of false teaching, and that is the “gospel” file. Every action, every teaching, is scrutinized by Paul to make sure it does not seek to modify or set aside the “gospel file.” Thus, when certain teachers insist that Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to keep the Law of Moses, they find immediate opposition from Paul, who would not allow men to corrupt the “gospel file” (see Acts 15:1-1). When some insist that Titus be circumcised, Paul will not allow it, for the sake of the gospel (Galatians 2:1-5; see 5:3). And when Peter stops sitting at the Gentile table and begins to sit with the Jews, Paul publicly rebukes him (and those who followed him) for his (their) hypocrisy, because his actions imply that Jewish Christians are better than Gentile Christians—and this Paul recognized as a corruption of the gospel (Galatians 2:11-21).
It should come as no surprise then that before Paul takes on the error of the denial of the resurrection of the dead, Paul 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. Several characteristics of the gospel are emphasized in verses 1-11, which we can summarize.
(1) The gospel is not a message devised by the minds of men, but a revelation from God, received by the apostles and delivered to men by them (see 15:1, 3, 11).
(2) The gospel is the only message by which men are saved and by which they stand (15:1-2).
(3) The gospel is “good news” concerning the grace of God, which informs men concerning the only way they, as undeserving sinners, may experience the forgiveness of their sins (15:3, 9-10).
(4) The gospel is the message which is based solely upon the person and work of Jesus Christ, the One who died for our sins on the cross of Calvary, who was buried, and who was literally and bodily raised from the dead on the third day (15:3-4).
(5) The sacrificial death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ are events which were prophesied in the Old Testament, foretold in the Gospels by our Lord, and then fulfilled by Him as God’s promised Messiah.
(6) The gospel is the message which is of the highest magnitude of importance (15:3).
(7) The gospel saves and keeps only those who receive it and hold fast to it by faith (15:1-2).
(8) The gospel is false and our faith is vain if any element of it is proven to be false (15:2; 12ff.).
(9) The gospel is established on the literal, bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, as witnessed by more than 500 people.
When Jesus spoke of His sacrificial death on the cross of Calvary, He always spoke of His resurrection as well. The enemies of our Lord knew this, and from the day of His resurrection attempted to pass it off as a deception perpetrated by His followers (Matthew 27:62-66; 28:11-15). Paul wants his readers to remember that the resurrection is based upon the most irrefutable evidence possible—the eyewitness testimony of over 500 people on various occasions and over a period of time.
We all observed the acquittal of O. J. Simpson when the jury finally rendered its verdict. Many people have very strong opinions about the trial, about the verdict, and about the guilt or innocence of Mr. Simpson. In spite of strong differences of opinion concerning this trial, all of us should be able to agree on one thing: Mr. Simpson’s guilt or innocence had to be determined on the basis of circumstantial evidence. One credible eyewitness, who saw the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, would have radically changed the entire trial. Paul does not appeal to circumstantial evidence to prove the resurrection of Christ from the dead but rather to the testimony of more than 500 eyewitnesses, most of whom are still alive at the time he writes this Epistle to the Corinthians. Few facts in history have been so well attested. The Corinthians should be reminded of the firm basis which the resurrection of our Lord has in history. Luke, the great historian, sums it up in these words: “To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).
The resurrection is a matter of great import to the apostle Paul. Few men can claim to have been more impacted by the resurrection of our Lord than Paul. First, the resurrection of our Lord was the means by which Paul was converted from an enemy of Christ to a true believer. Three times in the Book of Acts (chapters 9, 22, and 26) Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus is reported. This appearance of the risen and glorified Christ blinded Paul, stopping him in his tracks, and led to his conversion. No wonder Paul saw the resurrection of our Lord as such a significant event. It turned Paul’s life upside-down.
The resurrection was important to Paul in yet another way—the resurrection appearance of our Lord to Paul on the road to Damascus was the means by which Paul was qualified to be an apostle of Jesus Christ. You will recall that Judas, the disciple who betrayed our Lord, killed himself, leaving a vacancy among the apostles (see Matthew 19:28; Acts 1:15-26). The disciples chose not to wait for “what the Father had promised” (Acts 1:4) and went ahead to select two men who seemed qualified as candidates to take the place of Judas (Acts 1:12-26). It is my opinion that it was not Matthias whom God had appointed to this position, but Paul. I believe Paul’s words in our text (15:7-11) indicate that he was appointed as the replacement for Judas.
Who would have ever imagined such a thing? The apostles were those whose task it was to be witnesses of our Lord’s resurrection (Acts 1:22; 2:32). How could Paul (or anyone else who had not been with the eleven disciples) possibly qualify? What seemed humanly impossible was possible with God. He arranged a private resurrection appearance for Paul. It was as a result of our Lord’s post-resurrection appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus that Paul was qualified to be an apostle.
Just how important was the resurrection of our Lord to Paul? It was not only the basis for his salvation and apostleship, it was a constant theme in his preaching (Acts 17:30-31; 24:15, 25). It was the reason for Paul’s imprisonment and trial before Caesar (Acts 23:6; 24:21; 26:6-8; 28:20). No wonder Paul is so emphatic about the resurrection of our Lord and about the error of those who say there is no resurrection of the dead. The gospel is the starting point and standard for all Christian teaching and practice. Paul takes us back to our origins to reinforce the vital role which the resurrection of our Lord plays in our salvation and Christian life.
What if Christ Had Not
Been Raised From the Dead?
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. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.
It was not the resurrection of our Lord which was denied by some at Corinth, but rather the resurrection of the dead, the resurrection of men. The denial of the resurrection of the dead is a denial of Scriptural teaching:
1 “Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. 2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. 3 And those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:1-3).
24 Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures, or the power of God? 25 For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 26 But regarding the fact that the dead rise again, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; you are greatly mistaken” (Mark 12:24-27).
28 “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, 29 and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29).
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Paul does not turn us to these texts or others like them, but rather to the gospel which he has just declared and which the Corinthians have received. Paul reasons from the resurrection of our Lord. If Christ has indeed risen from the dead, then how is it possible for anyone to reason that there is no resurrection from the dead? To say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and yet to affirm that Christ rose from the dead, is a logical impossibility. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then we must also conclude that Christ did not rise from the dead either.
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 12-19. He reasons that a denial of the resurrection of the dead is, of necessity, 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. The Corinthians are logically 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. In denying the resurrection of the dead, some of the Corinthians are wrong, dead wrong!
The conclusion they reach—that the dead are not raised—is not logical, given the resurrection of our Lord from the dead. Furthermore, the implications of such a conclusion are astounding. Paul first rejects their conclusion as illogical; now he challenges the implications of their conclusion that the dead are not raised. What if Christ had not been raised from the dead? What would the implications of this conclusion be? In a word, they would be horrifying.
If Christ was not raised from the dead, then the gospel, outlined in verses 1-11, is false. The resurrection of our Lord was proclaimed by Paul and the apostles as one of the foundational truths of the gospel. Further, since the apostles221 preached Christ crucified, buried, and raised again from the dead, their ministry would be vain if Christ did not actually rise from the grave (verse 14). It would be vain in the sense that these men risked their lives and made monumental sacrifices for a message that was false and which had no saving power. Both the message of the apostles and their ministry would be rendered useless if the proclamation of our Lord’s resurrection were proven false.
Not only would the apostles’ preaching topple if the resurrection of Christ had not occurred, but the faith of those who believed their message would also be undermined. The gospel Paul preached at Corinth is the gospel which proclaimed Christ’s resurrection. It is also the gospel the Corinthians received, by which they are being saved, and in which they stand (14:1-2). If Christ did not rise from the dead, their faith is without foundation; it is empty and useless.
As Paul’s argument unfolds, it gets worse. Up to this point, the apostles’ ministry and message have been shown to be worthless. Now in verse 15, Paul shows that the denial of Christ’s resurrection puts the apostles in an even more serious dilemma. If the gospel they have been preaching is a false gospel, then these men are actually in serious trouble with God. They are “false witnesses.” 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 and 18:14-22), and this they would be, if Christ had not risen from the dead.
Things get worse for the Corinthians, as well as the apostles, if indeed Christ did not rise. Their faith in Christ would be worthless, for they have trusted in a dead man, a man who staked the integrity of His ministry and message on His resurrection (see Matthew 12:38-40; 27:62-64). 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 which saves sinners. To deny the resurrection of our Lord is to condemn men as sinners, without hope of forgiveness and eternal life. And so those saints who have already “fallen asleep” (verse 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.
But Christ Has Been Raised:
Implications of His Resurrection
20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. 21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, 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. 26 The last enemy that will be abolished is death. 27 For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. 28 And when all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, that God may be all in all.
The argument Paul plays out in verses 12-19 is a purely theoretical one. His “If … then …” argument was simply to show the folly of rejecting the resurrection of the dead, a claim which directly contradicts the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Now in verses 20-28, Paul takes up the truth of Christ’s resurrection, a truth he has already set down in verses 1-11. Verses 1-11 point out the historical authentication of the resurrection of Christ. Now, Paul sets down the logical implications of His resurrection. The resurrection of the dead is not only consistent with Christ’s resurrection, it is a certainty which flows out of His resurrection. There are no “ifs” here, but only the much stronger term “since” (verse 21).
“Christ has been raised from the dead” (verse 20) is the premise of Paul’s argument in these verses. 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. In the Old Testament, the “first fruits” are the first offspring or crop to be obtained by the farmer. It was proof that there was more to come. Christ’s resurrection is our proof that more resurrections will follow.
How do we know that Christ’s resurrection guarantees a resurrection for others? The answer to this can be seen when one understands the unique relationship which exists between Adam and our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom Paul later refers as the “first Adam” and the “last Adam” (15:45). By his sin, Adam brought about death for himself and the whole human race. Christ, by His righteous life, substitutionary death, burial, and resurrection, brings about life for mankind.222 Adam brought death upon all men; Christ will make men alive.
As some falsely taught (2 Timothy 2:18), this resurrection of men from the dead has not already occurred but is yet to come. Christ’s resurrection will actually bring about a sequence of resurrections, with the last and final resurrection abolishing death altogether (verse 26). Everything must occur in its proper order, as ordained by God (verse 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 (verse 23). Then, finally, the last resurrection will take place, the resurrection of the unbelieving dead.223
Paul speaks here of two “reigns”, the “reign” of Christ, during which time all of His enemies are defeated, and the “reign of the Father,” when Christ hands the kingdom over to the Father, in submission to Him. The reign of Christ is, I believe, the millennium, described in Revelation 20. The reign of the Father is the eternal kingdom of God, forever and ever, described in Revelation 21 and 22.
Are there those who deny the resurrection of the dead and thus also (by implication) the resurrection of our Lord? They cannot be those who look for the coming kingdom of God, for the last and final victory of Christ is His victory over death, a victory achieved by the resurrection of the unbelieving dead and the banishing of death to the lake of fire. The kingdom cannot come until all of our Lord’s enemies are defeated, and His last and final enemy is death itself. The final stage of resurrection, the last fruit of our Lord’s resurrection, is the resurrection of the unbelieving dead. When this final enemy is defeated, the kingdom of our Lord is secured, and it is at this time that our Lord subjects the final “thing” to God—Himself—by handing the kingdom over to the Father. The resurrection of the dead is not only a vital part of the gospel, it plays a crucial role in the establishment of the kingdom of God. Who would dare to deny it?
The Relationship Between Belief and Behavior
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? 30 Why are we also in danger every hour? 31 I protest, brethren, by the boasting in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. 32 If from human motives I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” 34 Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning; for some have no knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame.
I do not know for certain how many different interpretations have been offered for verse 29, but I know they are numerous. Before trying to interpret this text, we should attempt to set the stage.
First, there is no other passage in the Bible which indicates that Christians should be baptized for the dead. It is never commanded. We never see this practiced in the Book of Acts or elsewhere in the New Testament. This is a unique occurrence in Scripture.
Second, we would surely be foolish to build a doctrine on this one obscure reference, when it is not clear who is being baptized, by whom, or for what purpose. We do know from Peter’s own words that the false teachers were those who seemed to major on twisting the obscure elements of Paul’s teaching (2 Peter 3:14-18).
Third, Paul speaks of “those who are baptized for the dead.” He speaks in the third person. Contrast this with the first person pronouns employed in verses 30-32. We are not told that Paul has ever been baptized for the dead or that anyone in particular in the church has done so. Somebody is being baptized for the dead, but we do not know who. It seems safe to say it is somebody other than the apostles.
Fourth, we are told by Luke that many in Corinth believed as a result of Paul’s teaching and that many were baptized (Acts 18:8). We also know that very few were actually baptized by Paul (1 Corinthians 1:16), a fact which pleased Paul in retrospect. In this same passage at the outset of this epistle, it does seem evident that baptism was one of the things in which some took pride and over which some took sides. Baptism then did seem to be a problem at Corinth. It seems to have played too important a role to some. It may have been more than a symbol and thus became a “work” in which some took pride.
Given all of these observations, I am inclined to understand verse 29 as follows. Baptism had taken on too much meaning for some at Corinth. Some looked upon baptism as the Judaisers looked upon circumcision, as a “work” performed by men which was necessary to salvation. If baptism was wrongly considered necessary for salvation, then surely those now dead, who may not have been baptized when they were saved, would be thought to be in trouble. How could this problem be remedied? By a vicarious baptism, a baptism enacted on behalf of the one who had already died without being baptized. Paul is not advocating this kind of baptism; he is showing the inconsistency of this behavior apart from a belief in the resurrection of the dead. If those who were being baptized for the dead were also those who rejected the resurrection of the dead, Paul is showing how inconsistent their practice is with their doctrine. If those being baptized for the dead believe that the dead are not raised, what value is there in (wrongly) being baptized for one who has already died? Their behavior (baptism for the dead) is not consistent with their belief (there is no resurrection of the dead).
In verses 30-32, Paul turns our attention to his own example, showing that his behavior is consistent with his belief in the resurrection of the dead. Paul’s conduct makes no sense, unless there is a resurrection of the dead. No one can dispute the fact that Paul lived dangerously. Almost from the moment of his conversion, his enemies were trying to kill him (Acts 9:23-25; 14:19; 21:31; 22:22; 23:12). And some of those who may not have wished Paul dead certainly did want to do bodily harm to him (see Acts 16:22-23; 19:23ff.; 22:25). Wherever Paul went, he risked his life for the sake of the gospel. This would be a most foolish thing to do, unless of course there is such a thing as the resurrection of the dead. Suffering for Christ, and taking up our cross in this life, makes perfect sense if there is a crown awaiting us after the resurrection. His belief in the resurrection inspired and enabled Paul to live as he did (see Philippians 1:12-26; 3:7-14).
On the other hand, if there is no resurrection of the dead, then a very different lifestyle would be justified: “If the dead are not raised, LET US EAT AND DRINK, FOR TOMORROW WE DIE” (verse 32b). Hedonism is the logical outcome of denying the resurrection of the dead. We all know the contemporary beer commercial, which goes: “You only go around once, so you’d better grab all the gusto you can get.” Once one denies the resurrection of the dead, this slogan seems entirely logical. But since Christ was raised from the dead, and since His kingdom culminates in the defeat of death, we actually “go around twice.” And knowing this, Paul’s lifestyle is the only way to go.
Verses 33 and 34 link behavior and belief in yet another way. Just how could some of the Corinthians come to the place where they denied the resurrection of the dead? How could such an unbiblical and illogical conclusion be reached by Christians? Paul gives us the answer in verses 33 and 34. Normally helpful to us in his paraphrase of the New Testament text, J. B. Phillips seems to miss Paul’s point entirely:
Don’t let yourselves be deceived. Talking about things that are not true is bound to be reflected in practical conduct. Come back to your senses, and don’t dabble in sinful doubts. Remember that there are men who have plenty to say but have no knowledge of God. You should be ashamed that I have to write like this at all!
I think Phillips reverses Paul’s meaning. His paraphrase indicates that entertaining discussions of doubtful things is the cause of immorality and sin. I think it is just the reverse. I grant that our doctrine should work itself out in our behavior. We see this taught throughout the Bible. Many of the New Testament epistles begin with doctrine and conclude with our conduct. But the sad truth is that for most of us, our morality determines our theology. Proverbs says it this way: “An evil doer listens to wicked lips, A liar pays attention to a destructive tongue” (Proverbs 17:4). We listen to those who tell us what we want to hear, and what we want to hear is that which justifies what we are doing (or want to do). Elsewhere, Paul puts it this way:
1 I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:1-4).
This is the very thing about which Paul had warned the Ephesian elders:
25 “And now, behold, I know that all of you, among whom I went about preaching the kingdom, will see my face no more. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day, that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27 For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. 28 Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 29 I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:25-32).
The Corinthians, so wise as they are (1 Corinthians 4:7-10), have really been deceived. This is the reason they came to reject the resurrection of the dead. The Corinthians had entered into fellowship with those who were rotten apples, spiritually speaking. They had failed to separate themselves from the pagan culture in which they lived. They began to esteem and emulate those who spoke with worldly wisdom (chapters 1-3). They looked down on Paul and other apostles (chapter 4). They not only tolerated those who lived in immorality, they proudly embraced a man whose conduct shocked the pagans (chapter 5). They looked to worldly courts to settle their disputes (chapter 6), and they felt so spiritually invincible that they did not hesitate to participate in heathen idol worship (chapters 8-10). They embraced the feminist thinking of their day (1 Corinthians 11:1-16), and they had no reservations about hastening on with the Lord’s Supper so as to exclude some members of their fellowship, in the process conducting themselves as heathen (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). The exercise of their spiritual gifts is such that it appears dangerously similar to their “spiritual rituals” as unbelievers (12:1ff.). Are we surprised, then, if the Corinthians have come to embrace sinners as saints, that their doctrine suffers in the process?
Paul challenges the Corinthians to “sober up” and face up to their folly. They need to straighten up in their thinking and then stop sinning. They need to get their doctrine straight and then consistently apply their beliefs in godly behavior. They need to realize that some among them have no knowledge of God. These are those whom Paul will later expose as false apostles, as messengers of Satan (2 Corinthians 11:12-15). Those who have been led astray by such false teachers must also admit their lack of knowledge, repent, and return to the doctrine of the apostles.
The Reasoning of Unbelief
35 But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?” 36 You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies; 37 and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body just as He wished, and to each of the seeds a body of its own. 39 All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one flesh of men, and another flesh of beasts, and another flesh of birds, and another of fish. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly is another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. 42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So also it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living soul.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spiritual. 47 The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven. 48 As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.
In verse 35, Paul asks two questions which the opponents of the resurrection of the dead apparently employed to justify their error.224 These two questions appear to be two parts of a whole. They are not two independent questions then, but two intertwined questions. The second question merely repeats the first in different words, words which more clearly expose the doubts of the questioner. The first question, “How are the dead raised?” is followed up by the second, “With what kind of body do they come (back to life)?” The first expresses doubt about the resurrection of the dead; the second indicates why.
Suppose for a moment that our house burns to the ground, and all that is left is rubble and ashes. Suppose also that we have absolutely no insurance, no means, and no materials with which to rebuild our house, other than the remains that are left. If I attempted to assure my wife Jeannette by saying to her, “Honey, using what remains, I am going to build you an even better house than we had before,” she might very well say to me, “Bob, how are you going to rebuild this house? What do you think a new house will look like built out of this rubble?” She’s really asking the same question, isn’t she?
So it is, I believe, with the resurrection of the dead. The doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is the truth that God will take the decaying and disintegrating remains of those who have died and create from them a new body, one fit for the kingdom of God. The objector might well ask, “How can the dead be resurrected when the remains are in a constant process of deterioration? What kind of monstrosity do you think this ‘resurrected body’ would amount to?” I am reminded of Shelley’s Frankenstein, where the parts of various corpses are brought back to “life” in a grotesque and horrifying way. With these two questions, Paul expresses the unbelief of some Corinthians in any resurrection of dead bodies.
No wonder we find Paul’s words in verse 36 harsh—they are! A number of translations attempt to soften Paul’s indictment in verse 36:
“How foolish!” (NIV)
“A senseless question!” (NEB)
“Now that is talking without using your minds!” (Phillips)
You will remember that our Lord had a strong word of warning for those who would call another a fool: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell” (Matthew 5:22).
It should be pointed out that the word used by our Lord in Matthew 5:22 is not the same word that Paul employs in our text. The difference in meaning between these words is not that great. Our Lord Himself uses the same word Paul employs in our text to rebuke the Pharisees for their foolish fetish with ceremonial washings (Luke 11:40). He uses it again in Luke 12:20 to describe the “rich fool,” who presumed his life would continue on as usual and as he built bigger barns to warehouse his wealth. The word Paul uses is also found in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1; 53:1).225
Other texts are very helpful in further defining the characteristics of a “fool,” and unfortunately they rather accurately depict some of the characteristics of the Corinthians.226 Suffice it to say that the term “fool” is often employed to refer to the folly of an unbeliever. This is the case in Psalm 14:1 and 53:1. It is also the implication in Ephesians 5:17 and 1 Peter 2:15. I believe that when Paul uses this strong rebuke, it is because anyone who rejects the resurrection of the dead must also reject the resurrection of Christ. To do this, one must reject the gospel and thus place himself in the company of those who deny God. Do the Corinthians take this heresy casually, embracing those who hold it as they proudly embraced the immoral man in 1 Corinthians 5? I think it is likely, especially in the light of these words from the pen of Paul in his second Epistle to the Corinthians:
1 I wish that you would bear with me in a little foolishness; but indeed you are bearing with me. 2 For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin. 3 But I am afraid, lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. 4 For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully (2 Corinthians 11:1-4).
Paul uses strong words (“you fool”) to shock the Corinthians because they are necessary and appropriate.
A Lesson From Nature
Paul responds to the questions which have been raised, turning first to nature, to God’s creation, to make several very powerful points.
(1) Death and physical decay are not an insurmountable barrier to resurrection life, but rather the means to it. Would we suppose that death and decay are some kind of insurmountable problem for God, rendering Him incapable of resurrecting our bodies from the natural processes of corruption and decay? We need only to look at the realm of nature to see the folly of such logic. If we reason that death and decay renders 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.”
(2) There is a transformation process which occurs in nature so that the seed which dies comes to life in a different and vastly better form. This is a most important point. There is a direct connection between the seed that is “buried” and the plant which results from the “resurrection” of that seed. Wheat seeds produce wheat plants; rye seed produces rye plants, and so on. But in the process of dying and being “resurrected” as a plant, the once “naked” or “bare” (verse 37) seed becomes something much more beautiful. There is nothing particularly beautiful about a grain bin filled with wheat seed, but there is great beauty in a wheat field!
(3) God is the giver of bodies. The grain of wheat which “dies” in the ground and comes to life in a new resurrected “body” comes to life in a body which God Himself has given (verse 38). It is important to notice that in the question raised in verse 38, God is not mentioned: “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?” I do not think the Corinthians dared to ask the question the way they should have: “How can God raise the dead? And what kind of body does God give those He raises?”
It is better for the skeptic to reject the resurrection of the dead as a natural phenomenon. And yet Paul uses “nature” as an example of just such resurrection. But when he does so, he specifies that the body which is given is the body God has given. Paul goes even further, indicating that the body God gives is just 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!
(4) God is the Creator, the giver of all life. God created not only the plant world, but the animal kingdom as well, and beyond this, the heavens above. Does the mention of plants, each containing their own seed, of mankind, of beasts, of birds, of fish, and of heavenly bodies not take us back to the first two chapters of Genesis? Surely Paul has the first creation in mind. 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. And out of this “dust,” God can create anything He purposes and promises to fashion.
(5) God, the Creator, is the One who gives each form of life its own distinct and unique body, and each body is perfectly suited for its function and environment. Think back on the creation account in Genesis. God created the heavens and the earth. He created man. He created birds and fish and beasts. Each of God’s creatures has its own beauty and its own glory. Birds fly, and so a part of their “glory” is that they have a lightweight structure with hollow bones. Whales live deep beneath the sea. Their glory does not come from their light weight, but from their design which allows them to endure the pressures of the depths. Each member of the animal kingdom has a body whose glory is found in relationship to its domain and function. Seeing this glorious design in the bodies God made in the first creation, do we dare to doubt the glory of the bodies God will create in the new creation? We can be assured that our resurrection body will be the perfect body, the glorious body which ideally suits us for heaven.
The Application to
Man’s Resurrection From the Dead
Paul applies the principles he has established from nature in verses 36-41 to the issue at hand, the resurrection of the dead, in verses 42-44. The resurrection of the dead is like the death of the seed and the new, resurrected life of the plant which springs forth from the earth due to the germination of that seed. Thus, Paul speaks of the “sowing” of our earthly bodies, linking verses 42-49 to verses 36-41. 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, which Paul indicates:
(1) The former body is “sown” in a perishable state; the resurrected body is raised as an imperishable body. Our physical bodies are “perishable,” which is why they are subject to aging, disease, and death. Our resurrected bodies are imperishable. They are not subject to corruption or death.
(2) The physical, earthly body is “sown” in dishonor; the resurrected body is raised in glory. There is nothing very noble about the process of dying or about death itself. With few exceptions, we put dead bodies away from us, out of sight. For the Old Testament Israelites, contact with a dead body made one unclean. Death was defiling. The resurrected body is characterized by glory, not dishonor.
(3) The physical body is “sown” in weakness; it is raised in power. The frailty of the human body may be concealed for a time, but as we age it becomes harder and harder to hide. Our body dies because it succumbs to deterioration and disease. It is weak. Our resurrection bodies are characterized by power. The resurrection of our bodies testifies to the greatness of that power. The more impossible resurrection appears to be, the greater the evidence of God’s power in raising us from the dead.
(4) The physical body is “sown” a natural body; the resurrection body is raised a spiritual body. The physical body is a natural body, while the resurrected body is spiritual. The physical body is an “earthy” body. As such, it is an earth-bound body. Our present bodies suit us well for living on this earth. Our earthly bodies do not suit us for heaven, as Paul will soon point out. Our resurrected body is a “spiritual” body. Neither the meaning nor the implications of this fact are immediately clear, but they are very important.
(5) The origin, nature, and destiny of both the natural body and the spiritual body can only be understood in terms of their relationship to the “first Adam” and the “last Adam,” Jesus Christ. Verses 42-44 contrast the nature of our earthly, physical bodies with that of our heavenly, spiritual bodies. Verses 45-49 link our earthly bodies with the “first Adam,” and our heavenly resurrection bodies with Jesus Christ, the “last Adam.” This connection which we have with Adam and with Christ is a crucial one.
Both the “first Adam” (the Adam of Genesis) and the “last Adam” were men (this is the meaning of the word Adam) who were prototypes. The actions of both men impact all men. 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 soul; the “last Adam” became a life-giving spirit. The “first Adam” was a natural man; the “last Adam” became a spiritual man. 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.227
Salvation is all about our identity or our identification. 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 as the “last Adam” 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.
In noting the contrast between the “first Adam” and the “last Adam,” we should not overlook the comparison. Both Adam and Christ are alike in that they are both “Adams.” In order for our Lord to reverse the effects of the fall, brought about by Adam, the Lord Jesus had to identify with Adam. The Son of God took on human flesh, a natural body. In His life and in His death, our Lord revealed His identification with man in his humanity. Did Adam have a natural, fleshly body? So did Jesus Christ. Did Adam have a perishable body? So did our Lord Jesus Christ. This is why He was able to die on the cross of Calvary. Is the natural body of Adam characterized by weakness? So was the earthly body of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our Lord knew hunger (Matthew 4:2; 21:18) and fatigue (John 4:6). He was so weakened by His torture that another had to carry His cross (Luke 23:26). Does the natural body die in dishonor? There is no more dishonorable way to die than crucifixion. Our Lord identified with our dishonor in death.
In reflecting on these characteristics of the natural body, it suddenly dawned on me that these same characteristics of the natural body with which our Lord identified are those which characterized Paul’s ministry as well:
1 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
9 For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. 11 To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12 and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now (1 Corinthians 4:9-13).
4 But in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, 5 in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, 6 in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, 7 in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left, 8 by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; 9 as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, 10 as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things (2 Corinthians 6:4-10).
23 Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as if insane) I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. 24 Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. 26 I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; 27 I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
8 Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
When one stops to ponder this, these “weaknesses” of Paul are the very thing which cause the Corinthians to disdain him. They are so wise; he is foolish. They are so strong; he is so weak. They are already reigning; he is the dregs of humanity. What is wrong with the Corinthians?
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? I think it tells us a great deal. 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 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, in His death, and (partly) in His resurrection. 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. Spirituality cannot be separated from what we do in and with our bodies:
12 All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 Food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food; but God will do away with both of them. Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord; and the Lord is for the body. 14 Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? May it never be! 16 Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a harlot is one body with her? For He says, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him. 18 Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body (1 Corinthians 6:12-20).
We are to identify with our Lord in His sufferings:
1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? 2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; 7 for he who has died is freed from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, 9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. 10 For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:1-11).
9 However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. 10 And if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who indwells you (Romans 8:9-11).
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. 24 For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one also hope for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it (Romans 8:18-25).
8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10 that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:8-11).
24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. 25 Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, 26 that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations; but has now been manifested to His saints, 27 to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. 29 And for this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me (Colossians 1:24-29).
18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. 19 For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. 21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, 22 who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; 23 and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. 25 For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:18-25).
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 (in the minds of some) 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 and 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. But Paul has shown it up for what it is, a denial of the gospel by which we are saved and by which we are to live (see Colossians 2:6).
The Necessity of a New Body
50 Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.
I like the way the New Revised Standard Version begins verse 50: “What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: … .” In other words, Paul is now getting to the bottom line. All of what Paul has been saying boils down to this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. The expression, “flesh and blood,” is found only five times in the New Testament (the expression is not found in the Old).228 It consistently refers to men (mankind), and in the context of our passage, it refers to the natural human body. The last half of verse 50 simply repeats the same truth in different words: “Perishable bodies cannot dwell in an eternally imperishable environment, where perishing is not permitted.”
Many restaurants have a sign in the front window, which reads something like this: “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” This means that one’s appearance and attire has to meet certain standards, or they are not welcome. That is the way heaven is. Heaven is a place where there is no pain, no sorrow, no sickness, or death. These mortal bodies which we possess here on earth are not suited for heaven. The death and burial of our earthly bodies is not an unfortunate circumstance; it is a necessity. Recently, we watched the movie “Apollo 13.” The lunar module (LM), Aquarius, which helped keep the astronauts alive in outer space, had to be abandoned before the astronauts could reenter the earth’s atmosphere. The Aquarius was simply not designed for reentry. It was designed for outer space and specifically for a lunar landing. Our earthly bodies were not designed for the kingdom of God. They have to be left behind, because they are not suited for eternal habitation.
For us to dwell eternally in the presence of God, we must have different bodies. As Paul repeats in verse 53, “this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (NRSV). 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, our natural bodies are exchanged for spiritual bodies; our earthly bodies are transformed into heavenly bodies; our perishable bodies are transformed into imperishable bodies. The resurrection of the dead is the means by which bodies unfit for heaven are miraculously transformed into bodies which are perfectly suited for heaven.
But what of those who are alive at the time of our Lord’s return? In verses 51 and 52, 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 (see Job 19:25-27; Psalm 73:23-24; Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:1-2). What was not so clearly revealed was the transformation of those who are alive at the time of our Lord’s return. This is what the Bible calls a mystery. A mystery is not a secret which no one has ever heard about before, but something about which some information has been given without being understood.229 If our earthly bodies are not suited for the kingdom of God, then it is not just dead bodies that need to be raised. We need a transformation of our earthly bodies, whether living or dead.
This is the mystery which Paul now reveals. We shall not all “sleep” (die). Paul uses the term “sleep” just as our Lord did (see John 11:11, 13) because death is not a permanent state. Just as those who sleep “wake up,” so those who die will rise again. But not all men will die. The kingdom of God begins with the return of our Lord to this earth. Those alive at the time of His return will not “sleep,” Paul says, but we shall all be changed. This word is not the word usually rendered “transformed,” but it is a fascinating word. In Romans 1:23 and Psalm 106:20 (105:20 in the Greek Septuagint), the word is rendered “exchanged.” I believe it could be thus rendered in Psalm 102:26 (101:26 in the Septuagint) and Hebrews 1:12. Our bodies will be “changed,” and in fact they will be “exchanged.” Those who are alive get an instant trade-up.
Paul employs two expressions to describe the speed of this change which those living at the time of our Lord’s coming will experience. The second is one with which we are all familiar, the “twinkling of an eye.” The first expression is even more graphic and dramatic. Those of us who are fascinated with computers compare various pieces of hardware in terms of their speed. My first hard drive had an access time of something like 70 milliseconds. The one I now use is right around 10 milliseconds (thousandths of a second). The speed of memory is measured in nanoseconds, billionths of a second. Now that is a very small piece of time. But the word Paul employs is that word which we would transliterate “atom,” and my lexicon defines it as an indivisible moment of time. That’s so small it cannot get any smaller. And that’s how fast the change will occur for those living at the time of our Lord’s return. There will be no one waiting in line for this change!
The sequence of events is spelled out in verse 52. It will begin with the sounding of a trumpet, the “last trumpet.” There is a great deal of discussion about which “trumpet” this is. Dispensationalists think it is a very different trumpet than do the non-dispensationalists. For the moment, let us agree that there is to be a trumpet blast. This blast is something like the starting gun at a race. When the trumpet sounds, things begin to happen. Our Lord returns to the earth (although this is not specifically mentioned here). 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 instantaneously changed in body so that their perishable bodies are now imperishable, their natural bodies are now spiritual bodies. In but the twinkling of an eye, Paul says, we become just like those whose bodies have been raised from the dead.230
Christ’s Triumph (and Ours) Over Death
54 But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. 55 O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; 57 but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
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 which he spoke of in verses 20-28. The last enemy to be defeated and abolished by our Lord is death (15:26). This is accomplished by the resurrection of the dead and the transformation of the living. And thus Paul sees this as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 25:
6 And the Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, And refined, aged wine. 7 And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples, Even the veil which is stretched over all nations. 8 He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; For the Lord has spoken (Isaiah 25:6-8).231
Isaiah 25 is about the coming of the kingdom of God. What refreshing and welcome news this would be to those who were about to be sent into captivity in a foreign land. The first 5 verses of chapter 25 describe the defeat and judgment of those nations who have rejected God and persecuted His people. Beginning at verse 6, Isaiah begins to describe the restoration of the nation Israel at the commencement of the kingdom of God, brought about by the return of Messiah. The kingdom is described as a lavish banquet set before the people of God. On the mountain (which looks like Jerusalem) where this banquet is served, God will “swallow up the covering which is over all peoples” (verse 7). This covering may well be a shroud like that which is put over a dead body. If so, this is a symbolic way of saying what will be clearly stated in verse 8, that God is going to swallow up death by His victory. No wonder Paul speaks of death being swallowed up in victory; this is just as Isaiah prophesied.
The distinctive of the prophecy to which Paul refers is that in this text, Isaiah not only speaks of the resurrection of the dead (as we see in 26:19), he speaks of the end of death. Death is done away with. Death is exterminated. Thus, Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in the events Paul describes.
But wait, there’s more (as the television commercial goes). Paul now turns our attention to the words of the prophet Hosea: “I will ransom them from the power of Sheol; I will redeem them from death. O Death, where are your thorns? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion will be hidden from My sight” (Hosea 13:14).232 Isaiah’s words indicate that the coming of the Lord and the resurrection of the dead (including as well the transformation of those who are alive at the time of our Lord’s appearing) is the final defeat of death itself. Paul then uses Hosea’s words to convey the believer’s triumph due to this victory our Lord has won.
This victory will not be understood until we first grasp the grip which death has over men. That death grip is depicted in the second chapter of Hebrews:
14 Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; 15 and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. 16 For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. 17 Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted (Hebrews 2:14-18).
Of all the obsessions and fears named these days, one almost never hears of the fear of death. Yet it is this fear which 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.
Paul’s taunt seems to reverse matters. Paul asks death where its victory is and where its sting is. Isn’t it just the opposite? Doesn’t Paul elsewhere write that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23)? Yes, this is true, but this is not Paul’s point here. Death is the final enemy of our Lord, and ultimately for us. Does death have the last word? For the Christian, the answer is a resounding “No!” Death has lost its sting and its victory. Death is as frightening for the Christian as a scorpion whose stinger has been plucked out or a deadly viper whose fangs have been removed. This is because our Lord “de-fanged” death in at least three ways.
First, Christ died for our sins.
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3).
21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26).
8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
17 Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. 18 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).
We need not suffer the penalty of death which our sins deserve because Christ suffered that penalty in our place. He died for us, paying the death penalty for our sins. Death has no claim on us because our debt has been paid, by the Lord Jesus Christ.
Second, Christ died to sin. Christ died for our sins, taking our sins, their guilt and punishment, upon Himself and thus freeing us from the penalty for sin—death. Christ also died to sin, so that all who are in Him by faith have been freed from sin’s power:
3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; 7 for he who has died is freed from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, 9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. 10 For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, 13 and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. 14 For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace (Romans 6:3-14).
Sin has no power over a corpse. Sin overpowers those who are alive (see Romans 7). By dying to sin in Christ, we are delivered from sin’s power over us. Death owned us through sin, our sin. But by faith in Jesus Christ, we have died to sin in Him. Death has no power over us. Death has no claim on us. Death has no victory over us. Death has no sting for us. Think of it. Death no longer owns us; in fact, we own death:
22 Whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you (1 Corinthians 3:22).
Death cannot keep us from the love of God (see Romans 8:31-39). The only thing death can now do is to hasten the day when we are forever in His presence. Death actually does us a favor:
1 For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven; 3 inasmuch as we, having put it on, shall not be found naked. 4 For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge. 6 Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:1-6).
21 For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better (Philippians 1:21-23).
Third, Christ died to the law. If a police officer pulls us over, he cannot write us a ticket for breathing or for humming along with our radio. This is because there is no law against breathing or humming. The only power a police officer has is that power which is given to him by the law. Death’s power likewise comes from the law. The wages of sin is death, and the law defines sin. Thus, to break the law is to be in death’s power. But if there is no law, there is no crime, no sin.
“The power of sin is the law,” Paul has said (verse 56). The law is “holy, and righteous, and good” (Romans 7:12). Nevertheless, sin abuses the law in such a way that it is used to condemn us to death. The good news is that Christ died to the law, and thus those who are in Christ have died to the law in Him—and to its power to condemn us: “Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:4).
I must remind you that this freedom from death, sin, and the condemnation of the law is only true for the Christian. Death does own the one who is outside Christ, who has never acknowledged his sin and trusted in the work of Christ on Calvary. Think of the rich man in Luke 16:19-31. While death ended the earthly suffering of Lazarus and brought him into eternal blessings, death ended the earthly bliss of the rich man and brought him into eternal torment. Death now made this man an eternal captive, whose plight could not be reversed (see also Hebrews 9:27). And even resurrection was of no use to this man or to his lost family members (Luke 16:27-31). Death had a sting for this rich man; death had a victory. It is only those who are in Christ by faith who can taunt death as Paul does, for it is a defeated enemy.
58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.
Paul’s concluding sentence contains some very important applications. Let us briefly consider them.
First, the comfort which Paul communicates on the basis of our Lord’s death and resurrection is intended to comfort only Christians. Paul’s sentence begins, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, …” And then he says that their toil is not in vain “in the Lord.” One of the saddest things to observe at a funeral is a preacher giving comfort to non-Christians by using Bible texts addressed to Christians. These words are addressed to Christians, and the hope which Paul speaks of is for Christians only. Death has no power, no sting, to those who are “in Christ.” I must ask you, my friend, do you know for certain that you are “in Christ,” and that you will spend eternity in the presence of God? If not, then receive God’s gift of salvation in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who suffered, died, and rose again in your place.
Second, true doctrine (the doctrine of the gospel, of the resurrection of Christ, of the resurrection of the dead) gives us stability, even in the midst of troubled times and in the face of false teaching. False teaching destabilizes Christians; true doctrine stabilizes us:
3 A man will not be established by wickedness, But the root of the righteous will not be moved (Proverbs 12:3).
24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock. 25 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of Mine, and does not act upon them, will be like a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand. 27 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and it fell, and great was its fall” (Matthew 7:24-27).
1 Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together to Him, 2 that you may not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2).
14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming (Ephesians 4:14).
Third, true doctrine inspires diligent service, while false doctrine leads to passivity. The teachings of Scripture related to the second coming (not to mention the remainder of biblical truth) are intended to stimulate our service. There are those who abuse doctrines (such as the sovereignty of God and the second coming) by making them an excuse for passivity. Paul concludes this chapter, devoted to prophecy, by encouraging diligent and persistent service. Let us take these verses in the spirit in which they were intended, which is to motivate us to diligence.
Fourth, the certainty of the coming of the kingdom of God in the future assures us that what we do “in the Lord” in this life is not in vain. The reason we can diligently serve God in this life is that we know that in so doing we are “laying up treasure in heaven.” To die is not vain, but gain. To live is not vain, but gain. If we are “in Christ,” we are willing to suffer any earthly loss, because of the heavenly gain which awaits us:
16 Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. 17 For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
7 But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10 that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:7-11).
Several other applications of this chapter come to mind, which I would like to share with you in conclusion.
Faith in Jesus Christ frees us from the fear of death and thus from our slavery to the devil. This truth comes to us from our text in 1 Corinthians 15, as well as from the second chapter of Hebrews. We need no longer be held hostage by the fear of death. Death is a defeated foe.
Death is the way to life, and it is to be the way of life for the Christian. I was initially inclined to think that Paul’s words in this chapter gave us permission to put death out of our minds. We should certainly not worry about death or fear it, but we should not cease thinking about it. Death really is the way of life, both for the apostle Paul and for our Lord.
Let us begin with Paul. Notice how much death and dying is imbedded in his thinking, motivation, and ministry:
9 For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men (1 Corinthians 4:9).
31 I protest, brethren, by the boasting in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily (1 Corinthians 15:31).
9 Indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves in order that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; 10 who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us (2 Corinthians 1:9-10).
10 Always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. 11 For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death works in us, but life in you (2 Corinthians 4:10-12).
9 As unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death (2 Corinthians 6:9).
23 Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as if insane) I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death (2 Corinthians 11:23).
20 According to my earnest expectation and hope, that I shall not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:20-21).
24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).
9 The great multitude therefore of the Jews learned that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He raised from the dead. 10 But the chief priests took counsel that they might put Lazarus to death also; 11 because on account of him many of the Jews were going away, and were believing in Jesus.
12 On the next day the great multitude who had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, 13 took the branches of the palm trees, and went out to meet Him, and began to cry out, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel.” 14 And Jesus, finding a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written, 15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your King is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” 16 These things His disciples did not understand at the first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things to Him. 17 And so the multitude who were with Him when He called Lazarus out of the tomb, and raised him from the dead, were bearing Him witness. 18 For this cause also the multitude went and met Him, because they heard that He had performed this sign. 19 The Pharisees therefore said to one another, “You see that you are not doing any good; look, the world has gone after Him.”
20 Now there were certain Greeks among those who were going up to worship at the feast; 21 these therefore came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and began to ask him, saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip came and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip came, and they told Jesus. 23 And Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it to life eternal. 26 If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there shall My servant also be; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.
27 “Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify Thy name.” There came therefore a voice out of heaven: “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The multitude therefore, who stood by and heard it, were saying that it had thundered; others were saying, “An angel has spoken to Him.” 30 Jesus answered and said, “This voice has not come for My sake, but for your sakes. 31 Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world shall be cast out. 32 And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:9-32).
This passage is worth a great deal more consideration than given in this lesson, but it illustrates very beautifully how our Lord saw death as the means to the completion of His calling, and to the completion of the calling of those who would be His disciples. In chapter 11, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. Many had witnessed this miracle, and many others had heard of it. This caused the enemies of our Lord to seek to solve the problem He posed for them by putting both Lazarus and Jesus to death! But when Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, many of those who hailed Him as Messiah did so because of the raising of Lazarus (see 12:9, 17-18). Jesus was, at that moment, at the peak of His popularity.
It was at this point in time that some Greeks approached Philip wanting an audience with Jesus. No doubt these Greeks were God-fearers, those who believed that “salvation was of the Jews.” They sensed that Jesus might be the Messiah, and they wanted to meet with Him. Philip and Andrew didn’t know what to do when these Greeks asked to see Jesus. They did not yet understand the role that death would play in our Lord’s earthly ministry. And so they went to Jesus with this request. I wonder if they thought to themselves, “Wow, this may be our big chance to go international!”
Our Lord’s answer is fascinating, all the more so because of its similarity to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:36-38. In answer to the Greek’s request for an interview, Jesus replies that it is time for Him to be glorified. And then He goes on to say that a grain of wheat cannot bear fruit until it falls into the earth and dies. Afterward, it will bear much fruit. Jesus then applies this principle to His disciples. “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” (John 12:25-26). After God speaks from heaven, Jesus goes on to say, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32).
Do you see it? It looked as though Jesus would draw the Greeks to Himself by meeting with them in Jerusalem. Jesus refused to do so. Jesus indicated that the way for Him to bear fruit was to die. And then He applied this same truth to His disciples. Those who love their lives will lose their lives; those who hate their lives in this world will keep them eternally. 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 an entirely 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 be the glory!
216 In this case, the denial of the resurrection of the dead was verbalized (“how do some among you say … ?”). At Corinth, the denial of the resurrection of the dead was a doctrine consciously held and openly professed to others. There are times when the gospel is unconsciously denied. For example, when Peter ceased to eat with the Gentile saints and moved to the Jewish table, he was unconsciously denying the gospel, and for this he was strongly rebuked (Galatians 2:11-21). This denial of the resurrection of the dead at Corinth was not unconscious, but deliberate.
217 Essentially the same error is found in 2 Timothy 2. The context in 2 Timothy is the suffering and hardship God calls us to endure in this present age in order to enter into the eternal blessings of the next (see verses 3, 10-12). Those who insisted that the resurrection had already come were those who maintained that Christians should be presently experiencing all of the pleasures and blessings of eternity and should not be suffering.
220 Paul’s belief in the resurrection of the dead is evident in 1 Corinthians 5:5, where he indicates that church discipline may result in the physical death of the sinning saint, and yet this one thus judged will ultimately be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. This can only happen if the dead are raised.
221 “Our preaching” in verse 14, followed up by “we” in verse 15, must refer to the apostolic preaching of the gospel. It is not just Paul’s gospel which falls if the resurrection of our Lord did not happen; it is the gospel proclaimed by all the apostles.
222 Here, the focus may be on the “life” which our Lord gives to believers, but it seems to me that we must see Christ’s resurrection as the ground for the resurrection of all men, whether believers or unbelievers.
223 There is, I know, considerable discussion as to what Paul means by “the end” in verse 24. Regardless of whether Paul here refers to the resurrection of the unbelieving dead, it is clearly taught in Revelation 20 and elsewhere. I think Paul’s point here is that the “the end” is the destruction of death, the last enemy, by the final resurrection of unbelievers. It is at this point in time when death and Hades are cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14).
224 The two questions raised in verse 35 may well be hypocritical, something like the question the Sadducees put to the Lord Jesus in Mark 12:18-23. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead; nevertheless, they asked a question concerning the marital status of a woman in the resurrection. The error of the Sadducees, as exposed by Jesus, is virtually the same as the error which Paul now seeks to correct at Corinth. First, the resurrection of the dead is rejected because men do not understand the power of God. Second, people have problems with the way things will be in the resurrection because they do not understand the nature of the resurrection body.
227 I believe the atoning work of our Lord was both “limited” and “unlimited” in its scope. While our Lord died as an atonement for our sins, only those who receive the gift of eternal life by faith will obtain this forgiveness. In this sense, the benefit of His atoning work is limited to the elect. But our Lord’s resurrection from the dead is also the basis for the resurrection of all men from the dead. Some will be raised for eternal condemnation, while believers will be raised for eternal blessing. Thus, the work of our Lord has both a limited effect (salvation and blessing for only the elect) and an unlimited effect (the resurrection of all men from the dead).
229 See Daniel 2:18, 19; Romans 11:25; 16:25; Ephesians 1:9; 3:3, 9; 5:32; Colossians 1:26; 4:3; 1 Timothy 3:9; Revelation 1:20; 10:7; 17:5, 7. Daniel 2 is a good illustration of a mystery because the “mystery” was Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. He knew what his dream was, but he did not know what it meant. This revelation was a “mystery,” which Daniel revealed to him.
230 Paul uses the term “we,” which certainly allows for the possibility of Paul and those living in his day being those who were alive at our Lord’s return. Allowing for this possibility does not mean that this was a necessity and that Paul wrongly assumed he would be alive at our Lord’s return. Our Lord had made it clear to His disciples that it would be some time before the kingdom of God was established (see Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21; John 21:15-23).
231 Notice also the prophecy concerning resurrection which follows in chapter 26: “Your dead will live; Their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, For your dew is as the dew of the dawn, And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits” (Isaiah 26:19).
232 Translators differ as to how this verse should be translated. A later edition of the NASB translates Hosea 13:14 this way: “Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from death? O Death, where are your thorns? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion will be hidden from My sight” (Hosea 13:14). Paul employs these words as a triumphant taunt. Death is mocked, because it has lost its grip.