The Importance of the the Resurrection of Jesus – 1 Corinthians 15:12-19

After he gives a list of eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, Paul states clearly: the resurrection is the basis for the faith of the Christian (15:12-14). Paul says if Jesus Christ is not raised from the dead, our faith is useless. Paul’s point is that is Jesus was not raised, then it is rather stupid to believe Christianity. The world for “useless” here is “without content, without any basis, without truth, without power, empty words….”

resurrection of Jesus

Without a resurrected Jesus Christ, Christianity is the same as any other world religion with a dead founder. If there is no risen Lord, then we have a religion, not a relationship. This is the earliest written reference to the resurrection. The gospels and Acts are written as many as ten to fifteen years later even in the more conservative dating of those books. This is important because the belief Jesus was raised from the dead was present from the earliest days of Christianity. This is not a doctrine that developed over fifty or a hundred years.

If the resurrection is not a fact, then the preaching of the Gospel itself is false and those who believe the resurrection are pitiable (15:15-16). It is remarkable that the first witnesses to the resurrection described Jesus as “raised from the dead.” This is not the way a first century Jew would have expected to happen to Jesus even if they thought he was a great teacher or true prophet.

Based on the belief that Enoch and Elijah were translated from life into heaven, it would have been far more natural for the first disciples to describe what happened to Jesus as an ascension into heaven rather than a real death and a real resurrection. The fact that the first witnesses immediately understood that Jesus was really raised is likely based on the fact of his death. He was really quite dead, unlike Enoch (who was translated) and Elijah (who ascended in a fiery chariot seen by eyewitnesses).

Paul takes the argument further in the next few verses: If Jesus is still dead, then you are still in your sins (15:17-19). If there is no resurrection of Jesus, then the Christian faith is futile. If there is no resurrection, then Jesus is still dead. In the preaching of the earliest apostles, the resurrection serves as a proof Jesus was innocent. God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. In Philippians 2:5-11, because Jesus was obedient and humble to death on the cross God raised him from the dead and set him at the very highest place in the universe, God’s right hand, and even knee will bow, and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. If Jesus was not raised, then he has the status of a very good human teacher and is not at all the Lord of all creation.

If there is no resurrection of Jesus, dead believers have perished. It is likely some members of the Corinthian church had died. If there is no resurrection, then the dead are simply that, dead. If there is simply no resurrection, then even Jesus is still dead, something that is not possible according to the many witnesses Paul listed in the previous paragraph. This might be a kind of logical argument, although the reverse of what might be accepted today.

If there is no resurrection of Jesus, there is no hope in this life and Christians are most pitiable. Paul ties hope to his belief in the resurrection in several passages (1 Thess 4:13, he does not want the readers to grieve like the pagans who “have no hope”). To be pitied (ἐλεεινός) is to be in the most pathetic condition imaginable.

Witnesses to the Resurrection – 1 Corinthians 15:5-11

To show that the resurrection of Jesus is credible, Paul lists several witnesses to the fact that Jesus was alive (15:5-7).

Witnesses to the Resurrection

Cephas and then to the Twelve. While the Gospels report the first witnesses of the resurrection were the women who came to the tomb to anoint Jesus, this creedal statement pre-dates the Gospels and begins with an appearance first to Peter. This may be Luke 24:36-49, although Peter is not mentioned specifically. In John 21:15–19 Jesus re-instates Peter as a leader of the disciples after the resurrection.

Five hundred brothers at one time. This is not recorded in the Gospels, although it is possible this is a reference to the commissioning of disciples in Matthew 28:18-20, although only the eleven are mentioned in v. 16. What is the point of saying some of them have died? It is possible this is a sad fact, some of the original witnesses of the resurrection have naturally died in the 20+ years since the resurrection. On the other hand, it is possible some in the Corinthian church thought the “true believer” would live until the Parousia, so the reference to the death of witnesses shows this belief cannot be true.

James, Jesus’ brother. As with the five hundred, a story of Jesus appearing to his brother is not found in the New Testament. It is a fact he is a significant leader in the Jerusalem church by Acts 15 and Paul refers to him in Galatians. Since the brothers of Jesus were not believers prior to the resurrection, it is likely Jesus appeared to James, confirming Jesus was the Messiah to his family.

Jerome, The Lives of Illustrious Men, 2. The Gospel also which is called the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and which I have recently translated into Greek and Latin and which also Origen often makes use of, after the account of the resurrection of the Saviour says, “but the Lord, after he had given his grave clothes to the servant of the priest, appeared to James (for James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he drank the cup of the Lord until he should see him rising again from among those that sleep) and again, a little later, it says “ ‘Bring a table and bread,’ said the Lord.” And immediately it is added, “He brought bread and blessed and brake and gave to James the Just and said to him, ‘my brother eat thy bread, for the son of man is risen from among those that sleep.’” (NPNF, 3: 362).

Is it possible these appearances to Peter and James represent a commission to ministry? James seems to focus on Jerusalem, reaching priests and Pharisees with the Gospel of Jesus, while Peter goes to Diaspora Jews in Galilee and Antioch. Paul, the third named person in this section, is directly commissioned to go to the Gentiles, so it is at least possible the people named were specifically commissioned to a particular ministry after the resurrection. Is it also possible these named appearances reflect the divisions in the church at Corinth? Both Peter and Paul represent factions within the church, perhaps too there is a conservative Jewish faction holding to James as their leader.

Why doesn’t Paul mention the women who were the first witnesses of the resurrection? Each of the four Gospels mentions several women who visit the tomb early in the morning and discover Jesus is no longer in the grave. Although they are the first witnesses of the Jesus’s resurrection, Paul only mentions the men who saw Jesus. There are probably more reasons for this, but Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians are a tradition handed down to him, so this pre-dates the writing of any of the four Gospels. It is possible Paul did not know about Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene (John 20), which was likely written 25 years later. On the other hand, Paul  is giving a list of credible witnesses, or maybe better, authoritative witnesses that would mean something to the Corinthian church. They knew Peter and the Apostles, and likely heard of James the Lord’s brother. that several women were the first witnesses would be less important to a Greek audience. (Feel free to add other ideas in the comments!)

Last of all, Paul lists himself as a witness to the resurrection. Paul is very humble since he was not a follower of Jesus prior to the resurrection (15:8-11). Historically, Paul is not a follower of Jesus until he encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus. (However, see this: Did Paul Know Jesus?) As is well known, he is a persecutor of Jesus’ followers prior to the resurrection appearance of Jesus. Paul is claiming to be an eyewitness to the resurrection, albeit one with different credentials than Peter or James since he did not know Jesus before the resurrection.

His experience was like one with an “untimely birth” (ESV). This word (ἔκτρωμα) is used for a stillborn child or a miscarriage. Many commentators think this is an insult Paul faced in his ministry, he is not just a “Johnny-come-lately” or someone who is trying to “jump on the band-wagon,” he has some spiritual deficiency that ought to disqualify him from being considered an apostle. Rather than responding to an attack, Paul is simply listing himself as the final witness because he was the final witness, and his experience is unique among the Apostles.

Paul is “unworthy to be called an apostle” because he persecuted the church, despite the fact he was called to be the apostle to the Gentiles by Jesus himself. Nevertheless, Paul by the grace of God, “I am what I am.” Likely he carried a great deal of guilt for persecuting the early believers as well as for missing out on hearing Jesus preach during his lifetime.

For Paul, the resurrection is a reliable event in history witnessed by a wide variety of people, including people who were not among the followers of Jesus during his ministry.

The Resurrection of Jesus is the Basis for Christian Faith – 1 Corinthians 15:1-4

The Gospel Paul preached when he founded the church at Corinth is the same Gospel Paul is still preaching. As Gordon Fee says, this opening paragraph on the resurrection of Jesus establishes a “common ground” of belief (Fee, 1 Corinthians, 793). This is necessary because some in the Corinthian church denied that Jesus literally rose from the dead. In a series of relative clauses, Paul explains the saving power of the Gospel has not changed since they experienced the power of the Gospel.

Resurrection of Jesus

First, this is the Gospel the believers in Corinth have already received. The verb (παραλαμβάνω) is used for receiving something passed along as a tradition. Second, it is the gospel “in which you have taken a stand.” The tense of the verb is important since it refers to an event in the past with ongoing effects. They “took a stand” when they received the Gospel, and that stand is still in effect when Paul writes. Third, it is the gospel “in which you are being saved.” Again, the tense of the verb is important; Paul chooses a present tense verb to describe the ongoing salvation of the believers in Corinth. They have not fully received salvation since they are not in Heaven yet. Paul therefore sees salvation as a past event, an ongoing reality, and a future hope. All three of these aspects of salvation are important, it is not good to focus on only the past or only the future and ignore the fact the Holy Spirit is working within us now, in the present time to bring us closer to the image of Christ Jesus.

But Paul adds a troubling condition: “If you hold fast…” The verb Paul uses (κατέχω) is used to describe someone who is remaining faithful to a tradition. In 1 Corinthians 11:2, holding to the traditions Paul passed along to them (cf., 1 Thessalonians 5:21, “holding fast to good doctrine”). What are the believers to “hold fast to”? The statement of faith in the following verses. Paul is reminding the readers the resurrection is at the very heart of the Gospel and if they rejected the resurrection, they are in danger of no longer believing the Gospel.

Is it possible to believe in the Gospel “in vain”? Could a person really accept Christ as savior only to find out they were never saved? The ESV sets the phrase off with a dash since it is a conditional phrase rather than a statement of reality. Paul does not say they have believed in vain, in fact, it almost sounds like an unreal condition (you didn’t believe in vain, did you? Of course not!) The adverb translated “in vain” can refer to “without careful thought, without due consideration, in a haphazard manner” (BDAG).

This means the Corinthian church may have accepted the Gospel of Jesus crucified without fully understanding the importance of the resurrection. Perhaps they thought a belief in a real, physical resurrection of Jesus was not necessary.

The core of this gospel is Christ crucified, buried, and raised from the dead (15:3-4). A tradition Paul passed along “of first importance.” While the adjective Paul uses in this verse can refer to something done first in a sequence, it often refers to something of the most significance, such as the “greatest commandment” (Matt 22:38). The word is used to describe the robe given to the Prodigal, the “most important robe” (Luke 15:22). “ἐν πρώτοις, which may indicate priority either in time or in importance—naturally the two may well coincide” (Barrett, 1 Corinthians, 336). Paul says: the “very first thing I chose to tell you about Jesus is that he was crucified, buried and raised from the dead.”

The core of the Gospel story is the crucifixion. Despite the fact most people in the Roman world did not speak of crucifixion in polite company (in the same way most Americans do not discuss lethal injection or electric chairs). The earliest preaching of the Gospel did not try to hide the fact that Christians worship a man executed by the Romans by means of crucifixion.

Jesus’ death is “for our sins.” This is a major difference between Jesus and his followers and Judaism, since from the very earliest preaching of the Apostles, Jesus is the Suffering Servant, whose death provides atonement for the sins of Israel. But this atonement is extended in the Pauline letters to all people who are “in Christ,” they are freed from bondage to sin, not simply the sins they have committed in the past.

Jesus was buried. It may seem strange to include the burial of Jesus as a core element of the Gospel, but since the problem Paul is addressing is the resurrection, his proper burial is an issue. It is possible someone could say Jesus was not buried so that his body could be stolen from a common grave.

Jesus rose to life on the third day. The phrase “on the third day” has some theological importance. In Hosea 6:2, the national revival of Israel is on the “third day.” This passage in Hosea refers to the resurrection of the nation of Israel, but the third day is often a “day of salvation.” On the other hand, there are many examples of important things happening “in the third day” in the Old Testament.

Paul twice adds the phrase, “according to the Scripture” to emphasize the plan of God in passion events.  There is probably no single verse Paul has in mind, but the whole theology of the Hebrew Bible is assumed here. The imagery of the Exodus, the Passover Lamb, the Suffering Servant, Psalm 22, and other texts point forward to the suffering of Jesus. It is also important Paul places scripture ahead of the witnesses of the resurrection. Scripture is the first line of evidence; the eyewitnesses of the resurrection are secondary.

Paul presents he death of Jesus was a divinely ordained event which dealt with sin in a final and decisive way. Without the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, Paul will say, the Corinthians are still in their sin.

Why Do Some in Corinth Deny the Resurrection of Jesus?

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul comes to the final issue Paul raised by the Corinthian church, the Resurrection of Jesus. It appears someone in the Corinthian church denied that Jesus rose from the dead. In 15:12 he says, “if it is preached that Christ has not been raised,” implying a teacher in Corinth has made that claim. Why would a Christian deny that Christ was raised from the dead?

Resurrection of Jesus

It is possible the objection to the Resurrection of Jesus came from a Jewish Christian teacher. In that case, the objection may be based on Jewish messianic expectations. Although many Second Temple Jews were looking forward to a messiah, no one expected that messiah to die and rise again. The claim of the earliest Christians is that Jesus was the Messiah, but also that he was crucified by the Temple aristocracy. But God raised him to life, proving he was in fact the Messiah. Although some might object to using the book of Acts as illustrating early church preaching, Peter makes this very point when he is questioned in Acts 5:29-32.

On the other hand, the claim that the Christ has not been raised from the dead may come from a Gentile Christian, reflecting a Greek view of resurrection. N. T. Wright many examples of Greek writers denying the resurrection of the dead. For example, in Aeschylus’s play Eumenides: “Once a man has died, and the dust has soaked up his blood, there is no resurrection.” Wright concludes: Christianity was born into a world where its central claim was k own to be false. Outside of Judaism, nobody believed in resurrection” (Resurrection of the Son of God, 35). Dead people go off into some other, dark world from which they can never return. So there was a life after death, but not a return to this life after death.

Gordon Fee points out the vocabulary of the resurrection of the dead (νεκρός) may have been part of the problem. A native Greek speaker would hear “corpses” and find the whole discussion repugnant (Fee, 1 Corinthians 794, note 5). Imagine if a Christian pastor referred to Jesus as a zombie, a reanimated corpse rather than a body transformed into a new kind of life. Fee’s observation explains some of Paul’s language later in the chapter about how a seed dies and rises to a new kind of life (15:35-40).

Paul will argue that Jesus’s resurrection is not only an assured fact of history, but the basis of the future resurrection of the believer. For a Greek, there was no real idea of a future resurrection. As Ben Witherington notes, Greek religion was practiced for present benefits not future, heavenly blessings (Conflict and Community in Corinth, 293). Remember Paul’s sermon in Athens. When he mentioned the resurrection of the dead, some of the philosophically informed audience sneered at him (Acts 17:32). A Jewish audience would understand something about a future resurrection Paul describes in this chapter, but most Gentiles would find this difficult.

Although there may be some combination of these two possibilities, every other issue Paul addresses in the letter is the result of Gentile Christians following their Greek worldview rather than transforming their way of thinking through the lens of Christ. I see that as the main problem here. It may be the case some faction in the Corinthian church tried to blend Christian practice or ethics and Greek philosophy. Just as the message of the cross is foolishness to the Greeks, so too the resurrection of the dead is a strange teaching that might even have offended the philosophically educated in Corinth.

That Paul answers this objection at length at the end of the letter may imply Paul thought this was the most important issue in the Corinthian church. Although most modern Christians are shocked by some of the moral and ethical problems in Corinth, Paul sees the denial of the resurrection as an attack on the foundation of the Gospel itself. He therefore begins by reminding his readers that the Gospel he preached was based on the authentic resurrection of Jesus from the dead (15:1-11) and then making the remarkable claim that if Christ is not raised, people are fools to become Christians (15:12-28).

This is an important point for contemporary Christianity. Almost all Christians profess both the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. Easter is a central celebration in virtually all forms of Christianity. Yet Jesus’s resurrection from the dead has always caused people to discard Christianity as a remnant of the medieval past. Modern thinkers know that people cannot return from the dead! Memester theologians mock “zombie Jesus” and others deny the resurrection on historical grounds.

Yet in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul puts the whole of Christianity on the Resurrection of Jesus.

All Things to All People – 1 Corinthians 9:19-27

Paul’s desire is to preach the gospel with strings attached (9:18). To do this, he must set aside his rights as an apostle, someone who is an eyewitness of the resurrection, and as someone who was give a specific commission by the resurrected Jesus. But in the second half of this chapter, Paul goes further. He not only does not insist on his rights, but he makes himself a slave to all!  he claims he makes himself “All Things to All People.”

All things to all people

This should be shocking: the Apostle to the Gentiles, personally commissioned by the resurrected Lord Jesus and a Roman Citizen sets all that aside to be a servant. Imagine the highest-ranking Christian Corinthian Christians are likely to meet, and he works in the agora repairing tents as if he is a slave.

This is not just a servant to people who are higher than he is in Roman society. Paul says he is a servant to “all people.”  If Paul had a patron, then naturally he would render appropriate service to that patron when necessary. But the patron-client relationship was not like a master-slave relationship. It was not undignified owe a larger debt to a patron, and it was honorable to serve that patron. However, to be a slave to all people was unthinkable in Greco-Roman Corinth! Would Gallio, the highest ranking Roman in the region, set aside the toga and help the slaves dig out a new cesspit?

Paul makes himself “all things to all people” (9:20-23). To what an extent is this Paul’s model for Christian ministry? “‘All things to all men is better remembered than understood” (Paul Gooch, Partial Knowledge, 124).

In order to reach Jews to the Gospel, Paul makes himself a Jew. In Acts, Paul continued to go to synagogues to preach the Gospel to the Jewish people. Even in Acts 28 he is still reaching out to Jewish people and arguing from Scripture (the Old Testament) that Jesus is the Messiah and that his death, resurrection, and ascension fulfilled Jewish messianic expectations. Romans 9-11 expresses Paul’s concern for the Jewish people. But Paul adds a parenthesis: I am not under the Law, but I will live that way to reach people who are under the Law. Maybe, I do not insist on my right to eat whatever I want, food sacrificed to idols for example, if insisting on that right offends the Jews and I am unable to reach them.

In order to reach the Gentiles with the Gospel, Paul says he becomes like “those not under the Law.” Does this mean Paul was willing to violate the Jewish food laws and eat meat sacrificed to idols? Violate the Sabbath to reach Gentiles? He adds a parenthetical clarification to living like a gentile. Even though he is free from the Law, “I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law.” Christ’s Law may be the two greatest commandments, love of God and love of neighbor. It is remarkable Paul should say this, since James also refers to the “royal law.”

Did Paul intend “all thing to all people” as a model for doing ministry? How does this work out in a contemporary ministry context?

This means Paul accommodated the message of the gospel two different cultural contexts. For example, when speaking to gentiles he uses forms of rhetoric which would be familiar in a Greco Roman context. When speaking to Jews in a synagogue, he quotes the Hebrew Bible and makes arguments which would be familiar two a Jewish audience. The sermons in Acts demonstrate this. In Lystra (Acts 14) and Mars Hill (Acts 17) Paul does not quote scripture, nor does he make a scriptural argument to prove that Jesus is the Messiah. Quoting the Jewish scripture would not be effective in that Greek environment.

The very fact that Paul speaks in a local language using rhetoric with which they would be familiar is a kind of accommodation. In a modern context, missionaries don’t go to a new region and teach the locals how to speak English, and then preach the gospel to them in English. At the very least, they learn the language and the culture of the people they’re trying to reach. It would be foolish to do otherwise!

Did Paul make theological accommodations? For example, he could present Jesus as the fulfillment of messianic prophecy in a synagogue, but Jesus as a kind of philosopher when speaking to Gentiles in the agora. He quotes the Hebrew Bible for Jews, and Greek philosophy to the Gentiles.

Whether preaching to Jews or Gentiles, the core of the gospel message the same, Christ crucified and raised to life. In fact, at Mars Hill his commitment to resurrection may have limited his effectiveness. But the message about Jesus has been contextualized for a different cultural situation.

Would Paul ignore some aspect of Christian teaching and practice when preaching to the Gentiles?  Some scholars suggest Paul downplayed the practice of circumcision gentiles, eventually canceling the practice since it was so offensive to Gentiles. If he was going to have success among the Gentiles, Paul needed to strip out the more Jewish elements.  If Paul is willing to set aside his rights as an apostle in order to reach people with the gospel, is there some small element of doctrine or practice that he could set aside in order to make the gospel more palatable to his gentile audience?

But passages like Galatians 1:6-8 indicate Paul is quick to defend core doctrine and practice. Even in 1 Corinthians Paul staunchly defends doctrine of the resurrection or speaks clearly against some practices such as lawsuits and visiting prostitutes.

So how does a modern church be “all things to all people”? Does this look different in America, as opposed to an African church, or an Asian church?