Barrett reminds us that much of this epistle has been written in response to news that Paul had heard or questions that he had been asked.  In this section, it becomes clear in v12 that some in Corinth were denying the resurrection of the dead.  In dealing with this, Paul starts from fundamental principles.  The primitive gospel, he says, has the resurrection of Christ himself at its heart.  But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ cannot have been raised, and there can be no gospel and no salvation.

Although he will not confront the problem head-on until later, Paul is appalled by this uncertainty of the Corinthians regarding the resurrection.  After all, (as Prior says) some of his hearers in Athens had gained the impression that he was proclaiming two gods – Jesus and Anastasis (the latter being the Greek for ‘resurrection’), Acts 17:18.

This passage hints at the very short time-scale between the events surrounding our Lord’s death and resurrection and the earliest apostolic proclamation of these. Working backwards,

  1. 1 Corinthians was written around 55AD
  2. Paul had preached the gospel to the Corinthians in around 50AD
  3. He had passed on to them what he himself had received from the leading apostles in around 35AD
  4. He had himself encountered the risen Christ in around 32AD
  5. Christ’s death and resurrection had taken place in about 30AD

This great chapter is Paul’s answer to the denial of some in Corinthian that the dead will rise, v12. In dealing with this problem, he returns to first principles: the resurrection of Christ is a fundamental tenet of the gospel, and is the guarantee that the Christian will rise at the last day.

‘Paul seeks to demonstrate the validity of the idea of bodily resurrection, (1 Cor 15:1-11) its necessity, (1 Cor 15:12-19,29-34) its futurity, (1 Cor 15:20-28,51-58) and its nature.’ (1 Cor 15:35-50) (ECB)

Christ’s Resurrection, 1-11

15:1 Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, 15:2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

I want to remind you – of something they should never have forgotten in the first place.

The gospel I preached to you – ‘If any one fact is clear…it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It was based, not upon mere feeling, not upon a mere programme of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words it was based upon doctrine.’ (Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 21)

By this gospel you are saved – or, ‘Through this gospel you are being saved’.  Salvation is not just a past event but is in the process of being sustained and completed.

If you hold firmly – ‘We constantly need to reiterate the heart of the gospel, and that involves taking a firm grip on the historical facts.’ (Prior)

Six aspects of the gospel

Six aspects of the gospel stand out in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:-

1. It is Christological. It centres on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: these emphases are ‘of first importance’, v3.  Christianity is Christ: and it is Christ crucified and risen.

2. It is biblical. The work of Christ was achieved ‘according to the Scriptures, v3,4. Cf. Lk 24:25-27,44-46; Acts 2:25-31. ‘The first Christian evangelists made much of the fact that the death and resurrection of Jesus were corroborated by two witnesses – the prophets and the apostles, or, as we would say, the Old Testament and the New Testament.’

3. It is historical. It entails the burial of a dead body, the raising of that body ‘on the third day’, and subsequent appearances of the living Saviour to Peter, to the Twelve, and to ‘more than five hundred’.

4. It is theological. Christ’s death and resurrection were not only historical events; they had meaning and significance. It is an historical statement to say, ‘Christ died’. It is a theological statement to say, ‘Christ died for our sins.’ ‘By this gospel you are saved’, v2.

5. It is apostolic. It is the central core of the authoritative message that was received and handed down by the apostles. It belongs to the apostolic tradition, v11.  We today must remain faithful to that same apostolic message.

6. It is personal. The death and resurrection of Christ are not just history and theology; they constitute a way of salvation, vv1-2.  Christ died ‘for our sins’.

(Adapted from Stott, Evangelical Truth, 31-33.  See also this, by Denny Burk)

15:3 For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received—that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, 15:4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, 15:5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

What I received I passed on to you – Paul’s message was no novelty; he faithfully transmitted what had been passed down to him. He did not originate the gospel; he simply handed on what he had himself received.  Paul uses the same vocabulary here as he does when referring to the institution of the Lord’s Supper, 1 Cor 11:23ff.

‘Paul’s testimony concerning early Christian oral tradition is significant for several reasons. Among them is that fact that he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians in the early 50’s A.D., prior to the composition of the gospels. Thus, within about 20 years of Jesus’s death we have clear evidence that the early Christians passed on information about Jesus. Moreover, the form of the tradition Paul mentions is obviously stylized, which assists in the accurate transmission of that tradition. Paul was not just passing on the content of the tradition in whatever words he happened to choose. Rather, he was delivering to the Corinthians the exact message that had been given to him earlier. This doesn’t mean that all of the early traditions about Jesus were memorized and passed on verbatim, of course, but it does suggest that this sort of thing both could and did happen, and that it was important to the early followers of Jesus to pass on traditions about him accurately.’ (Mark Roberts, Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable?)

This testimony to the resurrection of Jesus is one of the earliest in existence – probably earlier than any of the Gospels. It was written within about 20 years of the event. Paul devotes a whole chapter to the event, its importance and implications.

Christ died for our sins – The first item in this primitive statement of the ‘kerygma’ concerns the atoning death of Christ.

Ciampa and Rosner remark that Christ is the subject of almost all the verbs from v3b to v8: ‘Paul’s recounting of the gospel message reflects the fact that it is first and foremost a message about Jesus Christ and what he has done for us, rather than being a message primarily about us and how we can be saved.’

For = huper, ‘with reference to’; ‘in order to deal with’.  Paul will expound this in detail elsewhere (e.g. Romans 3).  But here it is Christ’s resurrection, rather than his death, which is the focus of his attention.

Note the relationship between history and doctrine: ‘”Christ died” – that is history; “Christ died for our sins” – that is doctrine.’ (Machen, Christianity and Liberalism)

James Denney called this phrase ‘the simplest word of faith’ and ‘the deepest word of theology’.

Although only mentioned in passing here, the centrality of the cross for Paul has already been asserted in 1 Cor 2:2.

As Beasley-Murray says, the uniqueness of Christ’s death does not lie in the manner of his death – the Romans crucified thousands of people – but in its purpose.  He died ‘for sins’.  ‘In other words, the death of Jesus was no mere act of heroic or exemplary love.  Something happened when Jesus died.  Jesus died to make an “atonement” for our sins – he died to make us “at one” with God.  As such the death of Jesus is the only hope for sinful men and women.’

Proponents of ‘limited atonement’ often claim that the evangel, in the NT, never takes the form of the message, ‘Christ died for you’.  Supporters of ‘unlimited atonement’, on the other hand, point to this verse as demonstrating otherwise.  I don’t think that either case can be proven from this verse.

According to the Scriptures – = ‘in accordance with’.  Cf. Lk 24:26f.  We think of Isa 53, especially since Christ’s death ‘for our sins’ has just been mentioned.  However, the fact that Paul speaks here of ‘the Scriptures’ (plural) rather than his more usual ‘the scripture’ (singular) suggests that he has the general witness of the OT in mind.  Christ’s death does not simply fulfil this or that prediction, but continues and brings towards its completion the story of redemption.

‘A crucial part of the Old Testament background for understanding Christ’s death and resurrection appears to be found in the ubiquitous prophetic tradition of Israel’s own prophesied and then historical exile and (promised) restoration and the early Christian understanding (originating with Christ himself) that the Messiah’s destiny was bound up with that which God had appointed for Israel, the nation he led and represented’ (Ciampa and Rosner).  This point is stressed by Wright in various writings, including The Day the Revolution Began.

‘This means that it was not fortuitous, but willed and determined by God…it is perhaps reasonable to add that a death that happened according to the Scriptures further invites interpretation in Old Testament categories – for example, of sacrifice, of punishment and atonement, of the remnant, and of the sufferings endured by the people of God on their way into the good time to come.’ (Barrett)

‘”Let us, in the first place, then, make that Gospel, which the apostle states that he had preached to the Corinthians, the subject of consideration. “I declare unto you the Gospel,” says he, “which I have preached unto you.” The Saxon word “Gospel,” like the Greek word of which it is a literal translation, signifies agreeable intelligence, a joyful announcement, good news, glad tidings; and is, in the New Testament, ordinarily employed as a descriptive designation of the revelation of Divine mercy to our lost world, – the divinely-inspired account of the only way in which guilty, depraved, and miserable men may be delivered from sin and its consequences, obtain the Divine approbation and favour, be raised to the true dignity and excellence of their intellectual and moral nature, in the knowledge of God, and conformity to his mind and will, and be made happy in all the variety, and to the full extent, of their capacities of enjoyment, and during the whole eternity of their being, by the free grace of God, and “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (John Brown)

An early testimony to the historicity of Jesus and to the essential truthfulness of the biblical account of his life and achievement is found in the writings of Josephus (before AD 100): ‘Now there was about this time Jesus a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him many Jews, and also many of the Greeks. This man was the Christ. And when Pilate had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him from the first did not forsake him for he appeared to them alive on the third day, the divine prophets having spoken these and thousands of other wonderful things about him. And even now, the race of Christians, so named from him, has not died out.’

Wright (The Day the Revolution Began) points out that documents such as the Gospel of Thomas are sometimes privileged over the four canonical Gospels because they are thought to represent more accurate expressions of what the first Christians believed.  Since most of them did not mentioned Jesus’ crucifixion (and those that did so gave it a wildly different interpretation), is is argued that the whole idea of atonement is alien to primitive Christianity.  But this fails to take into account (amongst other things) what Paul writes in this chapter: although the Corinthians clearly had teachers other than Paul, he could assume that they had received the doctrine that ‘Christ died for sins according to the Scriptures’ as indisputable.

He was buried…he was raised – The mention of burial underscores the objective reality of the death which preceded and the resurrection which followed.  ‘If he was buried he must have been really dead; if he was buried, the resurrection must have been the reanimation of a corpse’ (Barrett).

‘By death and burial he came down to our level, by resurrection he raised us to his.’ (Robertson and Plummer)

‘The natural implication would be that the Resurrection was (so to speak) the reversal of the entombment. When (the early Christians) said, “He rose from the dead,” they took it for granted that his body was no longer in the tomb; if the tomb had been visited it would have been found empty. The gospels supplement this by saying, it was visited and it was found empty.’ (C.H. Dodd)

He was raised – it is not so much that Christ rose as that God raised him, thus vindicating his death.

On the third day – This detail confirms the view that Paul thought of Jesus’ resurrection in physical terms.  Wenham: ‘If Paul was thinking of spiritual survival in spite of bodily death…Jesus could be said to have survived death from the moment of expeiry.’ (Easter Enigma, p53).  ‘The resurrection was an objective, historical event.  Indeed, it was datable; it happened “on the third day”.  Bishop David Jenkins has called it “not an event, but a series of experiences”.  But no, it became a series of experiences only because it was first an event.  And in God’s providence the words “on the third day” witness to the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, much as the words “under Pontius Pilate” in the Apostles’ Creed witness to the historicity of his sufferings and death.’ (Stott, The Contemporary Christian, 77)

According to the Scriptures – This phrase is probably to be connected with ‘he was raised’, rather than with ‘on the third day’. The Scriptures in mind may well be Isa 53:10-12; but cf also Ps 16:10; 110:1.

‘Christ really did rise again. The Scripture gives abundant testimony to this. Because it is a matter of historical fact, the historical witness alone should be a sufficient reason for faith to accept it; although there are also persuasive arguments to accept it, such as:

1. There is the testimony of the two glorious angels for the resurrection, Mt 28:5,6 and Lk 24:45,46.

2. The testimony of the women that went to the sepulchre, where they saw him and spoke with him, Mt 28:9.

3. The various appearances which he made to his disciples. Before his ascension he was seen by at least five hundred persons who had his resurrection confirmed by many tangible and convincing proofs, 1 Cor 15:5-8.

4. In particular there is the testimony of the Apostles, who because they were to be bearers of this truth, and witnesses to the world, had frequent communion with him at times, for forty days after he had risen, Acts 1:3, during which time they looked upon and handled the Word of life, 1 Jn 1:1,2. Therefore, Lk 24:39,40, Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have. When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. Then he said to Thomas, Reach your finger here, and look at my hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into my side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing, Jn 20:27.

5. Indeed the very nature of the thing declares that he must be risen. If he was the Son of God and by his death satisfied for sin, and answered all the demands of justice in the place of his redeemed, it was impossible that the grave could hold him. Therefore when he had lain in it long enough to confirm the reality of his being dead, there was no reason for his lying there any longer. Thus the Scripture argues, God raised him up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that he should be held by it, Acts 2:24.’ (Samuel Willard)

‘The outline of Christian preaching which Paul evidently regards as normative and essential consists of factual statements about the end of Jesus’ life (not at all about the course of his ministry): he died, he was buried, he was raised.  These historical statements…receive two kinds of interpretation: (a) the whole process constituted a fulfilment of part of the eternal purpose of God, already disclosed in Scripture, and (b) the death of Jesus was intended to deal with sin, which (it is clearly implied) is the predicament from which man needs to be delivered.’ (Barrett)

He appeared to Peter – It is poor scholarship to say, with Paul Dilley, ‘for Paul, Peter was first to see the risen Christ.’  Paul makes no such claim.  Although this list of resurrection appearances seems to be in chronological order (‘then…then…then…’), it is not exhaustive, and does not, for example, include any of the appearances to the women, cf. Mt 28:1n. Paul focus on the appearances to the apostles.  It is noteworthy that two individuals are named – Peter and James – who were the only two members of the apostolic community whom Paul had actually met when he visited Jerusalem a few years after his conversion, Gal 1:18. This fact speaks volumes for Paul’s interest in the historicity of the resurrection as verified by eyewitnesses.

Witherington remarks that Paul speaks objectively (‘he appeared’), rather than subjectively (‘they saw’).

The twelve – A generic term for the disciples, for Judas was obviously not there, and Thomas had not been present on the evening of Easter Day, Lk 24:36ff; Jn 20:19ff.

Soards points out that in addition to the well-known absence of any reference here to the appearances of the risen Christ to women, there is no mention by Paul of any of the resurrection appearances recorded in the Gospels and Acts.

15:6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 15:7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

More than five hundred of the brothers – This may be the appearance referred to in Mt 28:16ff. On no other known occasion could such a large number testify to the reality of the resurrection.

Most of whom are still living – and could therefore be interrogated.

James – Presumably the Lord’s brother. He had not believed during Jesus’ life-time, Jn 7:5, but appears early among the believers, Acts 1:14. This resurrection appearance would account for the change.

All the apostles – Perhaps the appearance at the time of his ascension, Acts 1:1ff.

In this account of an impressive array of witness, Paul underscores the indisputable factuality of the resurrection, before going on to discuss its signficance and consequences.

15:8 Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. 15:9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been in vain. In fact, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God with me. 15:11 Whether then it was I or they, this is the way we preach and this is the way you believed.

Last of all – Indicating that the resurrection appearances concluded with Paul.  It would be mistaken, therefore, to attempt to argue from Acts 9 that all believers should seek an encounter with the resurrected Christ like Paul’s.

He appeared to me – Paul is clearly thinking of his vision on the Damascus Road. But does this mean, as John Selby Spong suggests, that the other appearances were visions too, and that Paul has no interest or belief in a physical resurrection?

One born at the wrong time – The expression usually refers to a miscarriage or abortion.  But it can also indicate a post-term birth.  Paul was a ‘late arrival’ compared with the other apostles; he had been born without their period of gestation.  There also might be a hint of the ‘abnormality’ of Paul’s spiritual birth.

NIV: ‘One abnormally born’ – Soards complains that the NIV ‘obscures the violent and distasteful character of Paul’s actual statement…Paul writes (lit.), “and last of all, as if it were to one aborted (or, to a miscarriage) he was seen also by me.” Paul’s call was not a smooth operation; it was disruptive, untimely, irregular, invasive, and personally transforming!’

‘”One untimely born” (NASB, NRSV) or “one abnormally born” (NIV, TEV) usually meant a dead fetus, by either abortion or miscarriage. Paul may be calling himself a freak compared to the other apostles (15:9); he is probably deprecating himself in some manner. This expression could refer to his being born at the wrong time (here, postmaturely rather than prematurely), after Jesus’ initial resurrection appearances were complete; other commentators have suggested that Paul was chosen from the womb, but his persecution of the church had been annulling that purpose, making him like an aborted person till his conversion.’ (NT Background Commentary)

The appearance of the risen Lord to Paul is to be distinguished from more recent claims to have had a vision of Christ.  We do not have to reject these claims, but we should regard Paul’s experience as unique, as his language indicates here.

I am the least of the apostles – Paul is not taking about inferiority, (cf. 2 Cor 11:5) but about desert. ‘He regards himself as “the least” of this highly favoured band, not in respect of his authority, but because he had been a persecutor of the people of God. [1 Tim 1:13-15).’ (Wilson)

I am not what I was, Ephesians 2:2-12

I am not what I shall be, 1 John 3:2

I am not what I should be, Ephesians 4:1

I am not what I desire to be, Philippians 3:12f

But, by the grace of God, I am what I am, 1 Corinthians 15:10

(Pickering, 1,000 Subjects, slightly adapted)

I worked harder than all of them – ‘a speech, one would think, savoured of pride; but the apostle pulls the crown from his own head, and sets it upon the head of free grace: ‘yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.’ (Thomas Watson)

‘How diligent and zealous should we be in glorifying God, that we may come at last to enjoy him! If Tully, Demosthenes, and Plato, who had but the dim watch-light of reason to see by, fancied an elysium and happiness after this life, and took such Herculean pains to enjoy it, oh how should Christians, who have the light of Scripture to see by, bestir themselves that they may attain to the eternal fruition of God and glory! If anything can make us rise off our bed of sloth, and serve God with all our might, it should be this, the hope of our near enjoyment of God for ever. What made Paul so active in the sphere of religion? 1 Cor 15:10 “I laboured more abundantly than they all.” His obedience did not move slow, as the sun on the dial; but swift, as light from the sun. Why was he so zealous in glorifying God, but that he might at last centre and terminate in him? 1 Thess 4:17 “Then shall we ever be with the Lord.”’ (Thomas Watson)

Cf. 2 Co 3:5; 11:23-27.

No Resurrection? 12-34

15:12 Now if Christ is being preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?

The apostolic message that Paul has just outlined was common to all who had preached the Christian faith to the Corinthians. This is the authentic gospel.  Now, Paul will argue, they must accept the consequences of this.  They believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ; it makes no sense therefore to deny the bodily resurrection of those who are in Christ.

Paul now turns to the implications of unbelief, vv12-19. A homiletical approach to this material might begin by asking people to imagine what it would be like if certain other historical events had never happened.

Those who denied the resurrection probably accepted the commonly-held idea of the immortality of the soul, but could not accept that the body would rise again. ‘From the content of the statement attributed to some of the Christians at Corinth, (1 Cor 15:12) it seems that their attitude was being shaped by a skeptical aversion similar to that of the Athenians whose attentiveness to Paul’s preaching came to an end at his mention of the “resurrection of the dead”.’ (Ac 17:32) (ECB)

‘Our resurrection includes body and soul. Most Greeks did not believe that people’s bodies would be resurrected after death. They saw the afterlife as something only for the soul. According to Greek philosophers, the soul was the real person, imprisoned in a physical body, and at death the soul was released. There was no immortality for the body, but the soul entered an eternal state. Christianity, in contrast, affirms that the body and soul will be united after resurrection. The church at Corinth was in the heart of Greek culture. Thus many believers had a difficult time believing in a bodily resurrection. Paul wrote this part of his letter to clear up this confusion about the resurrection.’ (HBA)

15:13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.

Paul shows them the logical outcome of their position: if dead men do not rise, then Christ cannot have risen. And if he has not risen, the Christian faith (as just summarised) is completely undermined.

15:14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty.

Our preaching – ‘kerygma’ – denoting the content, rather than the act, of preaching.

Your faith – An empty gospel produces an empty faith. Without the resurrection, says Peter Lewis, ‘Christianity would have been still-born, for a living faith cannot survive a dead saviour.’ (The Glory of Christ, 339).

The factuality of the resurrection is bound up with ‘the identity of Jesus, the success of his saving work, his present life and power, the integrity of his apostles and the certainty of the good news of Christianity that mankind can receive the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting.’ (Lewis)

‘The cross is incomprehensible without the resurrection, for the resurrection explains and validates the cross. Indeed, what the cross won for us the resurrection made available to us, and thus the resurrection is as necessary for our salvation as the cross.’ (Lewis)

If you are irrevocably committed to the proposition that it would have been impossible for Christ to triumph over death, you may as well quit fiddling around the fringes of Christianity, because, as Paul bluntly said, the whole thing stands or falls on the fact of the Resurrection. Either it happened, or it didn’t, and if it didn’t, Christianity is a gigantic fraud, and the sooner we are quit of it, the better. (Louis Cassels)

Pathetic indeed are the efforts people make to preach without faith in the resurrection of Christ. Here is an example of such doubt: – ”The trouble with a literal understanding of the resurrection is that it only makes sense, and can only make sense, if all the rest of the mythological/supernatural explanation of the world is accepted exactly as it stands. Perhaps it is true just as it stands. Perhaps the first-century middle eastern account of the origins of and purpose of the universe and man cannot be improved upon. Perhaps there are angels and demons and whole-sale miracles and a bellicose God who requires the death of his son as a sacrifice for sin…But if that first-century explanation is correct in all its prescientific and savage detail – with the resurrection thrown in as a happy ending – it is still powerless to touch the soul of man in the way that a spiritual understanding of Jesus’ significance can do.’ (Peter Mullen, Being Saved, 17)

Rudolf Bultmann, “the father of demythologizing,” said that “if the bones of the dead Jesus were discovered tomorrow in a Palestinian tomb, all the essentials of Christianity would remain unchanged.” Paul evidently would have disagreed.

As Kreeft and note, ‘Every sermon preached by every Christian in the New Teatament centers on the resurrection. The gospel or “good news” means essentially the news of Christ’s resurrection. The message that flashed across the ancient world, set hearts on fire, changed lives and turned the world upside down was not “love your neighbor.” Every morally sane person already knew that; it was not news. The news was that a man who claimed to be the Son of God and the Savior of the world had risen from the dead.’ Handbook of Christian Apologetics)

‘Dateline Jerusalem-On the eve of the annual celebration of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the 1 million inhabitants of this city were shocked by the announcement that a body, identified as that of Jesus, was found in a long-neglected tomb just outside the boundary of the city. Rumors had been circulating the last week that a very important discovery was about to be announced. The news, however, far outstrips all of our wildest guesses. The initial reaction of Christians here and around the world has been one of astonishment, bewilderment, and defensive disbelief. We will have to wait and see just what effect this discovery will have on the 2,000-year-old religion. To the mind of this unbelieving writer, it appears that Christianity will have to take its place on the same level with the other religions of the world. No longer can its followers claim that, unlike other religions, the tomb of its founder is empty. Evidently a 2,000-year-old lie has come to an end.

Paul states that IF the above were true, your faith in Christ is worthless and you are still under the curse of your sins. Has your mind and heart grasped the eternal significance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ?’ (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching)

‘Faith in the resurrection is the very keystone of the arch of Christian faith, and, when it is removed, all must inevitably crumble into ruin.’ (H.P. Liddon)

It is at this point that the debate between John Stott (a self-confessed evangelical) and David Edwards (a self-confessed liberal) got into trouble. Stott would seem to have gone beyond the limit of what courtesy would require by insisting on calling Edwards a ‘Christian’. Carson comments, ‘what shall we say of an instructed and thoughtful theologian who explicitly rejects the Fall, denies that human beings have any need for an atonement provided by a divine/human redeemer, discounts belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus, and concludes that “everything” in the gospel of John “must be questionable”?…We are in the realms of those truths without which Christianity is no longer Christianity. If, as Stott says, those who deny the bodily resurrection of Christ “do not forfeit the right to be called Christians,” is there any specific disavowal that forfeits that right? What does Paul mean when he says, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins?” It is no answer to observe that Paul seems to treat the Corinthians as Christians, even though some of them at least have trouble with the resurrection, for his point is that if they persist in this unbelief they will show themselves not to be Christians. In any case, Paul is dealing with relatively immature believers, not with theologians and doctors of the church.’ (The Gagging of God, 359f)

15:15 Also, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified against God that he raised Christ from the dead, when in reality he did not raise him, if indeed the dead are not raised.

False witnesses – Christianity is not merely a philosophical system, or a scheme of morality. It is ‘good new’ of what God has done. The apostles have testified to Christ’s resurrection; if dead men do not rise, then they have testified falsely and cannot be believed or trusted.

The apostles had, of course, claimed to be eyewitnesses of the resurrection, Jn 21:24; Acts 2:32; 1 Cor 15:15.

15:16 For if the dead are not raised, then not even Christ has been raised. 15:17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless; you are still in your sins. 15:18 Furthermore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished.

Verses 16 and 17 virtually repeat verses 13 and 14.

Lost – = ‘perished’.  The aorist gives the sense that they perished when they died.

One of the great effects of the Christian faith is its effect on people’s attitude to death. Pagans, then as now, feared and hated death. It was the final adversary that would in the end defeat the strongest of men. But for the Christian, death is sleep, and sleep is a prelude to awakening – but not if there is no resurrection.

Paul’s teaching here stands in contrast to the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul.  ‘What the Christian looks forward to is not a bodiless entrance “into the highest heavens” at death, but a glorious transformation at the parousia when he is raised from death.  Life is contrasted with death, which is a cessation of life, rather than with a continuance of life in misery.’ (Wenham, ‘The Case for Conditional Immortality’ in N.M. de S. Cameron (ed.) Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, p173)

15:19 For if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we should be pitied more than anyone.

We are to be pitied more than all men – because completely deluded. ‘They have set their hopes on a Lord who is to bring them a richer, fuller life, and all that distinguishes them from others is a special form of hardship. 2Co 6:4ff; 2 Cor 11:23ff While Paul never minimises the compensations the Christian has in this life in the way of peace within and the like, yet it is only common sense to see that, if this world is all there is, anybody is better off than the Christian’ (Morris).

Why ‘pitied more than all men’?

Why, without hope in the future resurrection, are Christians to be so pitied? Because,

‘(1.) because no other men had so elevated hopes, and, of course, no others could experience so great disappointment.

(2.) They were subjected to more trials than any other class of men. They were persecuted and reviled, and subjected to toil, and privation, and want, on account of their religion; and if, after all, they were to be disappointed, their condition was truly deplorable.

(3.) They do not indulge in the pleasures of this life; they do not give themselves, as others do, to the enjoyments of this world. They voluntarily subject themselves to trial and self-denial; and if they are not admitted to eternal life, they are not only disappointed in this, but they are cut off from the sources of happiness which their fellow-men enjoy in this world.-Calvin.

(4.) On the whole, therefore, there would be disappointed hopes, and trials, and poverty, and want, and all for nought; and no condition could be conceived to be more deplorable than where a man was looking for eternal life, and for it subjecting himself to a life of want, and poverty, and persecution, and tears, and should be finally disappointed. This passage, therefore, does not mean that virtue and piety are not attended with happiness; it does not mean that, even if there were no future state, a man would not be more happy if he walked in the paths of virtue, than if he lived a life of sin; it does not mean that the Christian has no happiness in religion itself-in the love of God, and in prayer and praise, and in purity of life. In all this he has enjoyment; and even if there were no heaven, a life of virtue and piety would be more happy than a life of sin. But it means that the condition of the Christian would be more deplorable than that of other men; he would be more to be pitied. All his high hopes would be disappointed. Other men have no such hopes to be dashed to the ground; and, of course, no other men would be such objects of pity and compassion. The argument in this verse is derived from the high hopes of the Christian. “Could they believe that all their hopes were to be frustrated? Could they subject themselves to all these trials and privations, without believing that they would rise from the dead?

Were they prepared, by the denial of the doctrine of the resurrection, to put themselves in the condition of the most miserable and wretched of the human family-to admit that they were in a condition most to be deplored?’ (Barnes)

If Christ has not been raised…

  1. We have no hope of resurrection ourselves, v12f.  But Christ has been raised, blazing the trail for our own resurrection.
  2. Our preaching is pointless, v14.  But Christ has been raised, giving us a powerful message to proclaim.
  3. Our faith is worthless, v17.  But Christ has been raised, so that our faith is substantial and triumphant, and not mere wishful thinking.
  4. We are still in our sins, v17.  But Christ has been raised, and our sins have been decisively and eternally dealt with.
  5. Believers who have died have perished forever, v18.  But Christ has been raised, and those who have died in him are safe in his arms for ever.
  6. We are the most pitiable of people, v19.  But Christ has been raised, and we have reason for everlasting celebration!

(See this, by Trevin Wax)

‘If for a saviour we only have a ghost, then for a heaven we shall only have a dream!’ (Lewis)

‘Doddridge, Macknight, Grotius, and some others, suppose that this refers to the apostles only; and that the sense is, that if there was no resurrection, they, of all men, would be most to be pitied, since they had exposed themselves to such a variety of dangers and trials, in which nothing could sustain them but the hope of immortality. If they failed in that, they failed in everything. They were regarded as the most vile of the human family; they suffered more from persecution, poverty, and perils, than other men; and if, after all, they were to be deprived of all their hopes, and disappointed in their expectation of the resurrection, their condition would be more deplorable than that of any other men. But there is no good reason for supposing that the word “we,” here, is to be limited to the apostles. For,

(1.) Paul had not mentioned the apostles particularly in the previous verses; and,

(2.) the argument demands that it should be understood of all Christians, and the declaration is as true, substantially, of all Christians as it was of the apostles.’ (Barnes)

“The grave is the end. This brief life is all that we have.” There are a lot of people who believe that today. Let me put it in the eloquent words of Bertrand Russell, one of the spokesmen for those who do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. In one of his works, he wrote:

“The life of a man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, toward a goal which few can hope to reach and where none may tarry long. One by one as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death. Brief and powerless is man’s life. On him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls, pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way. For man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day.” See: Ec 3:19.

15:20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Was Jesus’ resurrection a metaphor?  Mike Licona’s answer:-

Paul ‘means us to understand that first fruits are actually part of the ensuing harvest, and Paul’s point is that there is an organic connection and unity between the first fruits and the rest of the harvest, the one is inseparable from the other. So with our Lord’s resurrection and our own, his is not only prior to ours but ours is part of his!’ (Lewis, The Glory of Christ, 359)

This continuity between Christ’s resurrection and our own is also expressed in Rev 1:5 (’the firstborn frmo the dead’) and in the description of Christ as ‘the last Adam’, 1 Cor 15:45.

‘Because Jesus was the Christ, his resurrection is not, as previous raisings of the dead, an isolated occurrence, but in it the time of salvation promised in him, the new creation, dawns in an overwhelming manner as a decisive transition from the old to the new world, 2 Cor 5:17; cf. v15.’ As first-born from the dead ‘he ushers in the world of the resurrection’. As ‘the last Adam’ he is ‘the Inaugurator of the new humanity.’ (Ridderbos)

15:21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also came through a man. 15:22 For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.
‘If one football player steps offside, the whole team is penalised. So it is with sin. Because one man, Adam, sinned, the whole human race was penalised.’ (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 344)

‘Some debate arises as to the universal salvation implied in verse 22. How much weight should be given to the two uses of “all” in 22b? Is Paul teaching the ultimate salvation of all humankind in Christ in the same way that he asserts the universal death of all humankind in Adam? Most commentators agree that such an idea is incompatible with the rest of Paul’s teaching; throughout this letter Paul has spoken of those who perish. (1 Cor 1:18; 3:17; 5:13; 6:9; 9:27) In light of this it seems that we are left to limit both (or at least the second) “all” clauses of verse 22 and have them act as modifiers of “in Adam” and “in Christ.” Thus we can take the meaning of the verse to be “all who are in Adam die, while all who are in Christ shall be made alive.”’ (DPL)

Moo states: ‘it is unlikely that verse 22 refers to a universal resurrection. “In Christ all will be made alive” is interpreted in verse 23: “But in this order: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.” Paul is thinking in this verse of the resurrection of Christians. Just as all those who belong to Adam die, so all those who belong to Christ will be raised from the dead.’ (Morgan, Christopher W.. Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Kindle Locations 2296-2299). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)

15:23 But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; then when Christ comes, those who belong to him.
15:24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he has brought to an end all rule and all authority and power.

Matthew Henry summarises Paul’s argument in vv24-26: ‘(1.) That our Saviour rose from the dead to have all power put into his hands, and have and administer a kingdom, as Mediator: For this end he died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living, Rom. 14:9. (2.) That this mediatorial kingdom is to have an end, at least as far as it is concerned in bringing his people safely to glory, and subduing all his and their enemies: Then cometh the end, v. 24. (3.) That it is not to have an end till all opposing power be put down, and all enemies brought to his feet, v. 24, 25. (4.) That, among other enemies, death must be destroyed (v. 26) or abolished; its powers over its members must be disannulled.’

Then – afterwards, but not necessarily immediately afterwards.  A different word from that used in the previous verse, but with the same meaning.

‘The general resurrection of believers at the time of Christ’s return is just the beginning (v. 23). Verses 24–28 go on to explain what will subsequently occur. After some unspecified interval of time, “the end” or goal of human history will arrive. By this time, Christ will have destroyed all opposition to his reign in the universe—both human and angelic (i.e., demonic—vv. 24–25). Finally, death itself will be destroyed, so that God’s people will never again have anything to fear for all eternity (v. 26). But the last word is not Christ’s but God’s (vv. 27–28).’ (Blomberg)

When he hands over the kingdom to God – Does this imply a cessation of Christ’s kingly rule?  The consistent teaching of the Bible is that Messiah’s reign will never end (cf. 2 Sam. 7:16; 1 Chr. 17:14; Isa. 9:7; Ps. 89:36–37; Dan. 7:14, 18; Heb. 1:8; Rev. 11:15; 22:3).  Citing Gen 1:26-28 Ciampa and Rosner assert that God has always purposed to have ‘a human vice-regent reigning over all of creation in a perfect reflection of his own righteous authority’.

As suggested by a number of commentators (especially older ones), the meaning seems to be that Christ’s rule as mediator will finally come to an end, as his work of redemptive is completed.

Barnes: ‘Of course, it will not follow that the Second Person of the Trinity will surrender all power, or cease to exercise government. It will be that power only which he had as Mediator; and whatever part in the administration of the government of the universe he shared as Divine before the incarnation, he will still share, with the additional glory and honour of having redeemed a world by his death.’

Barrett: ‘This does not necessarily imply difference of status, but it does imply difference of role and operation.’

Theodoret (cited by Ciampa and Rosner)): ‘In handing over the kingdom to the God and Father he is not himself stripped of the kingdom; rather, he brings into subjection the tyrannical devil and his assistants, and forces all to do obeisance and acknowledge the God of all.’

Hodge: ‘The Scriptures constantly teach that Christ’s kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and of his dominion there is no end. In what sense, then, can he be said to deliver up his kingdom? It must be remembered, that the Scriptures speak of a threefold kingdom as belonging to Christ. 1. That which necessarily belongs to him as a divine person, extending over all creatures, and of which he can never divest himself. 2. That which belongs to him as the incarnate Son of God, extending over his own people. This also is everlasting. He will for ever remain the head and sovereign of the redeemed. 3. That dominion to which he was exalted after his resurrection, when all power in heaven and earth was committed to his hands. This kingdom, which he exercises as the Theanthropos, and which extends over all principalities and powers, he is to deliver up when the work of redemption is accomplished. He was invested with this dominion in his mediatorial character for the purpose of carrying on his work to its consummation. When that is done, i. e. when he has subdued all his enemies, then he will no longer reign over the universe as Mediator, but only as God; while his headship over his people is to continue for ever.’

Various Christians groups exploit the uncertain timescale implied here in different ways.  Noting that the ‘then’ of v23 covers a period of at least two millennia, Premillenialists believe that v23 allows for millennial reign of Christ.  Amillenialist interpreters hold that Christ turns his kingdom over to God the Father immediately after the general resurrection.  As Ciampa and Rosner remark, the text itself does not settle the matter, and there is no indication that Paul himself held any view on the timescale involved.

‘We cannot enter into the many deep questions that press for discussion when this ineffable prediction is even approached. Suffice it to say that when we are told that Jesus holds the kingship for a purpose (verse 25), namely the completion of His mediatorial work, and that when it is accomplished He will restore it to Him who gave it to Him (verse 28), and thus the Father will again become “all relations among all creations”, – nothing is in the remotest way suggested inconsistent with the co-equal Deity of the Son with the Father and His eternal co-regnancy with Him over the Universe. Manifestly we must distinguish between the mediatorial kingship which Jesus exercises by appointment of His Father, and the eternal kingship which is His by virtue of His nature, and which is one with God’s own.’ (Warfield, ‘The Prophecies of St. Paul’ in Biblical and Theological Studies, p487)

Destroyed – ‘Destroyed (katargeō) basically means “render null and void”, ‘make inoperative’, and this is much in point here. Paul does not speak of battles, or of rulers being dethroned. But he does speak of all rule, other than that of Christ, as being rendered completely inoperative.’

15:25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
15:26 The last enemy to be eliminated is death.

From the preceding verses, is clear that Paul is speaking of the general resurrection here. He is thinking not so much of death as our enemy, but his enemy. And he must emerge victorious.

Answering the objection that Paul speaks of Christ’s victory over death as future, rather than past, Flavel (The Fountain of Life) explains that Christ ‘actually overcame it at his resurrection, in his own person, perfectly and virtually for us, as our head; but at the general resurrection of the saints (which his resurrection, as the first-fruits, assures them of) then it will be utterly vanquished and destroyed.’

‘Some Christians are perplexed because the effects of Christ’s death and resurrection are not implemented all at once. But these saving events set in motion a process. Sin and death still bring damage and sorrow; but they are no longer decisive forces. They do not have the last word. Since Christ has removed “the sting” of death (v. 55), death need no longer be fearful, but is a gateway into the immediate presence of God.’ (Thiselton)

Death is the enemy

‘This is blindingly obvious to anyone who has recently been bereaved—though some, thinking to be kind, have often tried to soften the blow by pretending death doesn’t really matter that much, which is a piece of blasphemous nonsense. To say that death is anything other than an enemy is to deny the goodness, beauty and power of God’s good creation. And the p 215 point of resurrection is that it is the defeat of death. It isn’t a way of saying that death isn’t so bad after all. It certainly isn’t a way of saying that after death we go into some other realm, perhaps called ‘heaven’ (notice how Paul never mentions heaven throughout this passage). The only thing Paul says here about where people are after they die is that they ‘belong to the Messiah’ (verse 23), as in verse 18 he had spoken of people who had “fallen asleep in the Messiah”.’ (Wright)

15:27 For he has put everything in subjection under his feet. But when it says “everything” has been put in subjection, it is clear that this does not include the one who put everything in subjection to him. 15:28 And when all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.

He “has put everything under his feet” – A quotation from Psa 8:6.

Then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him… – See 1 Cor 11:3, where Paul asserts that ‘the head of Christ is God’.  The present text tends to confirm the idea that the earlier text contains some notion of authority of the one over the other (contrary to those scholars who claim that kephale means ‘source’ and not ‘authority over’.

‘ When Paul says that Christ then “hands over the kingdom” and becomes subject to the Father (1 Cor. 15:24–28), he is not implying any diminution in Christ’s subsequent honor, but is signifying the completion of the plan for bringing the elect to heaven that the risen Son was enthroned to carry through.’ (Packer, Concise Theology)

So that God may be all in all – ‘Some imagine that God shall be all in all, in that all things shall vanish and become nothing. But Paul’s words mean only that all things shall be brought back to God as their only beginning and end, and shall thus be bound firmly to him.’ (Calvin)

Thiselton asks: ‘Do we ever confuse the “penultimates” of faith (Bible, church, sacraments) with the only Ultimate, God himself? Can a Christian be unwittingly seduced into idolatry by according an ultimate place to any person, object, or desire alongside, or in place of, God?’

A subordination of ordering within the divine life

‘Regarding this text, the late Colin Gunton has commented that this description of the Son’s future subjection to the Father has “implications for what we may say about the being of God eternally, and would seem to suggest a subordination of taxis—of ordering within the divine life—but not one of deity or regard. It is as truly divine to be the obedient self-giving Son as it is to be the Father who sends and the Spirit who renews and perfects.” We are enabled to see here something of what constitutes the beauty, the wisdom, and the goodness of the relations among the trinitarian persons when we see the Son at work accomplishing the will of the Father. It is the nature of God both to exert authority and to obey in submission. And since this is the eternal nature of God, we may know that it is beautiful and it is good, and because of this, we are prompted to marvel a bit more at the glory that is our triune God. Indeed, then, the Son’s identity is wrapped up essentially with his being the Son in submission to this Father.’

(Bruce Ware, in Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective (eds Sanders & Issler), p170f)

15:29 Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, then why are they baptized for them?

The NET version is almost identical to those of the NASB, which is favoured by Soards.

What will those do…? – ‘What good will it do them’ (So Garland, Ciampa & Rosner and others).

Baptized for the dead – This appears to be a reference to vicarious baptism.

Mormons have, of course, made a great deal of this verse. They use it to justify their practice of retrospective baptism as a passport to heaven for members of previous generations.

Baptized for the dead?

What will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, then why are they baptized for them?

As Thiselton (Shorter Commentary) says, Paul’s main point is clear enough:

“baptism for the dead” (whatever this means in detail) would be pointless and senseless if there were no resurrection. But since, evidently, they have themselves baptized for the sake of the dead, either some people tacitly assume the truth of the resurrection or else their action is self-contradictory.

As to the precise and detailed meaning, commentators from Poole to Hodge to Verbrugge have been willing express a degree of agnosticism.

Here are some of the alternatives.

1. Paul is using an ad hominem argument

Barrett suggests that this difficult verse refers to a practice (noted, but not approved by Paul) amongst the Corinthians of vicarious baptism. It may that in a time of epidemic, for example, a number of people had believed in Christ but had not had an opportunity to be baptised. There were some among the Corinthians who would undergo baptism on their behalf. Paul is then using an ‘ad hominem’ argument (note the ‘as for us’ in v30):- ‘What would be the point of some of you being baptised on behalf of the deceased, if there is no afterlife?’ It is important to recognise that Paul is not focussing on baptism at all here; he is focussing on resurrection. And this is one of a series of ‘if-then’ arguments that he uses to show the Corinthians how ridiculous it was on their own grounds for some of them to deny the resurrection.

Soards also favours the ad hominem approach, while expressing uncertainty about the type of baptism being referred to:

Paul refers to the practice of some in Corinth of being baptized in behalf of the dead. Whether this means they were baptized for their own dead bodies, or for the saints of the OT who died before Christ, or for family and friends who were on their way to being baptized because they believed in Christ but died before baptism, is impossible to determine and irrelevant for grasping Paul’s point.

R.E.O. White, similarly, thinks that Paul is using an ad hominem argument:

First Corinthians 15:29 remains an enigma, although over thirty “explanations” have been suggested. Substituting alternative phrases-baptism for “the spiritually dead,” “the dying,” “in memory of the departed,” or others-merely multiplies problems. Vicarious baptisms for the benefit of the dead, practiced on the fringe of Christianity from the second century, illustrate the influence of this verse, but not Paul’s meaning. Paul is arguing that if Jesus has not risen, then Christian faith, preaching, remission, hope, are all vain; so is “baptism for the dead.” He cannot mean Christian baptism, for none of its conditions or benefits, as Paul expounds them, can be affirmed of the dead. Besides, the following phrase (“And as for us.” NIV; “And we ourselves.” neb) dissociates Paul and his colleagues from the practice.

If docetic type Christians infected the church at Corinth, they may have accepted baptism for departed souls: but how would that prove bodily resurrection? Similarly, some Dionysian rites and some practices of the mystery religions were held to ensure access, and safe journeying, in the spiritual world, even for those already dead. And Paul could argue from pagan parallels without immediately condemning them (see, e.g., 1 Cor 10:20-22). But this analogy again does not necessarily imply bodily resurrection.

Yet even as a Pharisee Paul could not conceive a disembodied immortality, leaving the surviving personality incomplete. (see 2 Cor 5:1-4) Is he then arguing that even pagans, if their baptism for the dead be properly understood, testify unconsciously to a bodily resurrection?’ (EDBT)

If Paul is referring to vicarious baptism, why does he not condemn it?  Morris answers:

It is perhaps significant that, while Paul does not stop to condemn the practice of which he speaks here, he dissociates himself from it (‘what will those do …?’; contrast ‘why do we endanger ourselves …?’, v. 30). He simply mentions the practice as taking place, and asks what meaning it can possibly have if the dead do not rise.

According to Blomberg, there is some evidence that such proxy baptisms did take place in the early (as well as the later) days of the church.  ‘Paul neither condemns nor condones such a practice but argues for its irrelevance if Christ is not raised. In other words, those who are baptizing people on behalf of the dead contradict their own theology that denies the resurrection.’

2. Baptism was being practice on behalf of believers who had died before they could be baptized

Of the dozens of interpretations that have been proposed, Brauch (HSB) thinks that only two have any viability:

(1) some Christians in Corinth (presumably persons who had already undergone their own baptism) were undergoing the rite on behalf of dead relatives or friends;

(2) the rite was being practiced on behalf of persons who were Christians, but who had died before baptism was administered.

If the first of these is accepted, then Paul’s argument is ad hominem, as noted above, because the beliefs entailed would be alien to those taught by him.  But, according to Ciampa and Rosner, there is no evidence, either from Christian or pagan sources, that vicarious baptism was ever carried out in the days of the early church.

Schreiner is sympathetic to the second of these.  But the objection is that in the apostolic period baptism usually took place very soon after an individual’s profession of faith (Acts 2:37–41; 8:34–38; 10:44–48; 16:29–33).  There would not have been must time for converts to die!

3. Baptism looked forward to resurrection life shared with believers who had already died

Ciampa and Rosner, in their rather thorough discussion of this passage, think that the word translated ‘for’ may mean, in context, ‘on account of’.  According to their preferred interpretation, Paul’s meaning is something like: ‘Why are people being baptised, if they have no hope of joining in fellowship with believers who have pre-deceased them?’  This approach, they claim, is consistent with Paul’s emphasis on resurrection in this chapter, and is also consistent with his teaching in 2 Cor 5:2; Phil 1:21 and elsewhere.

The same commentators quote Hull:

We “can almost hear Paul bellowing: ‘Look at those eager baptismal candidates. Look at their faith. It was once yours. They believe all that I preached about Jesus. They do not doubt that many persons including myself have seen him alive after death. They do not doubt that those among us who have fallen asleep will rise on the last day. As a matter of fact, it is their firm faith in the resurrection of Christ and of his death that moves them to baptism. That is what they believe. That is what you once believed. Come back to your senses!’ ”

4. Part of the meaning of baptism is that it shares in the testimony of believers who have already departed this life

Thiselton (Shorter Commentary) also thinks that ‘for’ should be understood here as meaning, ‘for the sake of’.  He is sympathetic to the view just mentioned, viz. that part of the motivation of those being baptised was that they ‘wanted to be united with their Christian loved ones who had died. Hence they sought baptism for the sake of the dead in the sense of their wanting to join them in the future life, which formed part of their motivation for baptism.’

On balance, however, Thiselton thinks that

the practice is most likely to reflect the dying testimony of those who witnessed to Christ with radiant confidence on their deathbeds. These may have been loved ones or simply radiant Christians. Death strips away pretense. If such Christians could face death with joyful anticipation of resurrection with Christ, this may well have led some to full commitment to Christ and to baptism. Paul asks: Do you no longer share their confidence in being raised with Christ? If you doubt the resurrection, why were you baptized?

5. Paul is referring to those who are baptized in the very teeth of death

‘The meaning I like best is, “What shall they do who are baptized with the certainty that immediately after baptism they will be dragged away to die – baptized in the very teeth of death?” For as soon as anyone was baptized, the Romans would be looking after him, to drag him away to death. Thus they were baptized as if they were being washed for their burial and dedicating themselves to the grave.’ (The Best of Spurgeon, 331)

6. Paul is referring to ‘spiritual’, rather than to physical, death

Verbrugge inclines to the view that spiritual, rather than physical death is in mind here.  Paul would then questioning the logic of people who were dead in sin believing that they had been raised to life in Christ (as symbolised by baptism), if that life was snuffed out when the body died.

15:30 Why too are we in danger every hour? 15:31 Every day I am in danger of death! This is as sure as my boasting in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord. 15:32 If from a human point of view I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what did it benefit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. 15:33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” 15:34 Sober up as you should, and stop sinning! For some have no knowledge of God—I say this to your shame!

The Resurrection Body, 35-58

15:35 But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?”

“With what kind of body will they come?” – In answering this question, Paul states four truths which are illustrated in the growth of a seed:-

What grows from the seed is not the same as the seed itself, v37.

Each kind has a distinctive, God-given body, v38.

What grows from the seed has an organic connection with the seed from which it sprang.

There is great diversity the heavenly kingdom, just as there is in the animal kingdom, vv39-41.

15:36 Fool! What you sow will not come to life unless it dies. 15:37 And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare seed—perhaps of wheat or something else. 15:38 But God gives it a body just as he planned, and to each of the seeds a body of its own.

How foolish! – Lit. ‘You fool!’

15:39 All flesh is not the same: People have one flesh, animals have another, birds and fish another. 15:40 And there are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies. The glory of the heavenly body is one sort and the earthly another. 15:41 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.

Star differs from star in splendour – Some who wish to find anticipations of modern science in the Bible claim that the ancients thought that all stars were the same, whereas this verse teaches, and modern knowledge confirms, that each star is different.  The notion is absurd: Paul is making no other point here than the observable fact that stars vary in brightness.

15:42 It is the same with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 15:43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 15:44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.

Perishable…imperishable – The first of a series of pairs in which Paul contrasts the present life with the resurrection life: perishable/imperishable (1 Cor 15:42); dishonour/glory (1 Cor 15:43); weakness/power (1 Cor 15:43); physical body/spiritual body (1 Cor 15:44); man of dust/man of heaven (1 Cor 15:47–49).

‘Oh! how precious is the dust of a believer! though the world mind it not, yet it is precious unto God. The husbandman has some corn in his barn, and he has other corn in the ground; and the corn that is in the ground, is as precious to him as that which is in the barn.’ (Thomas Watson)

‘Christ’s body was marvellously improved by the resurrection, and so will ours. It fell in weakness, but was raised in power; no more capable of sorrows, pains and dishonours. In like manner our bodies are “sown in weakness, but raised in strength, sown in dishonour, raised in glory. Sown natural bodies, raised spiritual bodies,” as the apostle speaks, 1 Cor 15:43,44. Spiritual bodies, not properly, but analogically. No distemper hang about glorified bodies, nor are they henceforth subject to any of those natural necessities, to which they are now tied. There are no flaw, defects, or deformities, in the children of the resurrection. What members are now defective or deformed, will then be restored to their perfect being and beauty.’ (Flavel)

It is raised a spiritual body

'Raised a spiritual body'?

1 Corinthians 15:42 It is the same with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 15:43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 15:44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.

Paul’s teaching here has led some to interpret the resurrection appearances of vv5-8 as non-physical, amounting to something like subjective visions.  Robert M. Price, for example, contrasts this early view of the resurrection as ‘spiritual’ (i.e. non-material) with that of the (later) Gospels, where it has become physical.  A similar misunderstanding allowed David Jenkins to claim that he believed in the resurrection ‘in exactly the same sense as St Paul believed in [it]’, and then to call it ‘not an event, but a series of experiences’ (quoted by Stott in The Contemporary Christian, p76f)

But even if we leave aside for the time being the witness of the Gospels and of Acts, that of 1 Cor 15 itself will not allow this.  For Paul, the resurrection was an objective, historical event: it occurred ‘on the third day’.  It was a physical event: the four verbs (died, was buried, was raised, appeared) all refer to Christ as a historical, physical person.  Since it was his body that was buried, it must have been his body (albeit transfigured) that was raised.

The contrast in this verse is not between ‘physical’ and ‘non-physical’, but between ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’.  And ‘spiritual body’ does not mean ‘ethereal body’, but rather

‘the new body, animated by the Spirit of God, with which the same man will be clothed and equipped in the age to come, which he reaches (supposing him to die before the parousia) by way of resurrection.’ (Barrett)

Murray Harris: ‘sōma pneumatikon means not “a body composed of spirit,” but “a body animated by the spirit” or “a body controlled by the spirit.”’ (Navigating Tough Texts)

Harris identifies the following characteristics of the resurrection body.  It is:

  • imperishable (1 Cor 15:42, 53–54), free from any form of decay or sickness;
  • glorious (1 Cor 15:43a), free of physical indignity (“dishonor”) and beautiful in form and appearance;
  • powerful (1 Cor 15:43b), with limitless energy and perfect health; and
  • angel-like (Luke 20:35–36), not because the resurrection body is sexless (sexual identity, an essential element in personality, is retained in the resurrection) but because it is deathless (Luke 20:35–36) and without sexual passions and procreative powers (Matt 22:30; Mark 12:25).  (Emphasis added)

So why does the apostle refer to it as a ‘spiritual’ body?  Vang writes:

‘The present body shall be changed into a body fit for its new reality in God’s restored order. Paul’s aim is not to contrast body and spirit, or to say that “body” is transformed into spirit. Rather, he explains that the resurrected body will have none of the weaknesses of the natural body and therefore be fit for God’s eternal kingdom (Rom. 8:21–23).’

A note in the Apologetics Study Bible asks:

‘Are the spiritual bodies believers will have at the coming resurrection nonmaterial bodies? If so, it would imply that Christ’s risen body was nonmaterial. This, however, was not what Paul meant. Rather, descendants of fallen Adam cannot enter God’s kingdom unchanged. The “spiritual body” is a true body—a material body—but a transformed body. The two bodies being contrasted are not “physical” vs. “spiritual” but rather “soul-oriented [psychikon]” vs. “Spirit-oriented [pneumatikon].” (see 1 Cor 2:14–15, where Paul speaks of the ‘spiritual man’, contrasting the psychikos person, or the natural/this-worldly-oriented person, with the pneumatikos, or the believer, who has God’s Spirit.)’ (Apologetics Study Bible)

Wayne Grudem:

‘By “spiritual body” Paul does not mean “immaterial,” but rather “suited to and responsive to the guidance of the Spirit.” In the Pauline epistles, the word “spiritual” (Gk. πνευματικός) seldom means “nonphysical” but rather “consistent with the character and activity of the Holy Spirit” (see, e.g., Rom. 1:11; 7:14; 1 Cor. 2:13, 15; 3:1; 14:37; Gal. 6:1 [“you who are spiritual; Eph. 5:19). The RSV translation, “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body,” is very misleading, because Paul does not use the word that was available to him if he had meant to speak of a physical body (Gk. σωματικός), but rather uses the word ψυχικός, which means, in this context, “natural” (so NIV, NASB), that is, a body that is living in its own life and strength and in the characteristics of this present age but is not fully subject to and conforming to the character and will of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, a clearer paraphrase would be, “It is sown a natural body subject to the characteristics and desires of this age, and governed by its own sinful will, but it is raised a spiritual body, completely subject to the will of the Holy Spirit and responsive to the Holy Spirit’s guidance.” Such a body is not at all “nonphysical,” but it is a physical body raised to the degree of perfection for which God originally intended it.’ (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 609)

C.S.Lewis writes about the resurrection body:

‘The picture is not what we expected. … It is not the picture of an escape from any and every kind of Nature into some unconditioned and utterly transcendent life. It is the picture of a new human nature, and a new Nature in general, being brought into existence. … That is the picture—not of unmaking but of remaking. The old field of space, time, matter and the senses is to be weeded, dug, and sown for a new crop. We may be tired of that old field; God is not. … A new Nature is being not merely made but made out of an old one. We live amid all the anomalies, inconveniences, hopes, and excitements of a house that is being rebuilt. Something is being pulled down and something is going up in its place.’ (Miracles)

Richard Baxter writes:

‘If a skilful workman can turn a little earth and ashes into such curious transparent glasses as we daily see, and if a little seed that beats no show of such a thing can produce the more beautiful flowers of the earth, and if a little acorn can bring forth the greatest oak; why should we once doubt whether the seed of everlasting life and glory, which is now in the blessed souls with Christ, can by Him communicate a perfection to the flesh that is dissolved into its elements?’

Tom Wright agrees that Paul does not mean to imply immateriality by his description of the resurrection body as ‘spiritual’.  The point is that our resurrection bodies, while being physical (just as Jesus’ resurrection body is physical) will be animated by God’s Spirit and therefore imperishable and immortal.

Martin Davie concludes that (again, just as in Jesus’ case) the physicality of the resurrection body implies maleness or femaleness.  We shall be men and women for eternity.  Marriage, however, will have no place in heaven:

‘Marriage, and sexual intercourse within marriage leading to procreation, are necessary features of life in this world in order to fulfil the divine mandate to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ given in Genesis 1:28. However, when God lowers the curtain on this world and raises it on the world to come that mandate will have been fulfilled. The number of people God wills to inhabit his eternal kingdom will have been brought into existence and because there will be no death their number will not diminish. Hence there will be no need for procreative sex, hence there will be no more need for one flesh unions, and hence there will be no more marriage.’

Lest we suppose that the absence of marriage and sexual intercourse will somehow diminish the blessedness of heaven, let us ask what will one day exclude such desires:

‘The answer is ‘marriage.’ In the next world another form of marriage will replace and fulfil marriage and sexual activity as we experience them in this world.  We are told this in the Bible. In the Old Testament human marriages are repeatedly used as pictures of God’s relationship with his people (e.g., Isaiah 54:6, Ezekiel 16:8, Hosea 2:19-20). Then, in the New Testament, Jesus’ relationship with his Church is compared to that of a bridegroom and his bride (e.g., John 3:27-30, 2 Corinthians 11:2, Ephesians 5:21-33). Finally, we are told to expect the ‘marriage of the Lamb’ at the end of time, that is, the marriage between God and humanity that will endure for eternity (Revelation 19:6-9, 21:2 & 9). This eternal marriage is the ‘fullness’ to which marriage and sexual activity in this world point.’

The resurrection body

Paul says of the resurrection of the dead,

‘The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.’ (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

The resurrection body will be:-

1.  A spiritual body.  This does not mean that it is ethereal and ghostly, but that it is free from the limitations of the flesh.

2.  A real body, not a phantom.  Jesus, after his resurrection, challenged his disciples to “Touch me and see”.

We need not suppose that the resurrection body will be constituted from the very atoms from which our present bodies are made.  For one thing, these atoms are constantly being replaced during our lives.  For another thing, they are constantly being recycled by other organisms after our death.  No:

‘It doesn’t matter whether the atoms used by our original body have been eaten by a worm, then fed to a fish, which was then eaten by a person. God can still raise everyone to life using atoms from elsewhere by basing it on the pattern that our body had.’
(Instone-Brewer, Science and the Bible: Modern Insights For An Ancient Text)

Instone-Brewer suggests that God could use each person’s genome to re-create a virtually identical copy of the original body.  And (although Instone-Brewer doesn’t put it like this) our resurrection body might have signs not only of our nature, but also of our nurture:

‘The Bible implies that God will do more than just create a clone, because Jesus’ resurrection body bore records of his life history—in particular, the scars of his death, which are a permanent part of his glory.’

3.  A recognisable body.  It will be organically related to the physical body which had been laid to rest in the grave.  The disciples recognised Jesus.

Note further that this resurrection body is:-

1.  sown perishable, but raised imperishable.  Sooner or, later, our physical bodies will waste away.  But our resurrection bodies will never decay.

2.  sown in dishonour, but raised in glory, v43.  There is nothing lovely about a decaying corpse.  But the resurrection body will be glorious, wonderful, and beautiful.  Cf Phil 3:21.

3.  sown in weakness, but raised in power, v43.  Here in this life, the strength and energy of youth gives way to the weakness and tiredness of old age.  Our new bodies, however, will be strong and healthy.

4.  sown a natural body, but raised a spiritual body, v44.  The natural body is adapted for life in this world.  If confines and cramps us, and in the end returns to its constituent elements.  But when our Lord returns, ‘we shall be changed’.  Our lowly bodies will become like his glorious body.

As for the form of the resurrection body, this

‘can only be glimpsed from what we know of Christ’s risen body, which left no corpse in the tomb, and, it seems, passed through the graveclothes (Lk. 24:12, 31). His bodily ascension does not necessarily suppose movement to a certain locality known as heaven, but suggests the emergence of his body into a larger life transcending the space-time limitations which bind us.’ (NBD)

J.I. Packer writes:

‘Our new body, we may be sure, will match and perfectly express our perfected new heart, that is, our renewed moral and spiritual nature and character.  That body will reflect us as we were at our best rather than as we are physically at the time of leaving this world.  Indeed, we should expect it to be better than our physical best ever was.  The new body will never deteriorate, but will keep its newness for all eternity.  It will know no inner tensions between one desire and another, each pulling against the other, nor will desire to do something ever outrun energy and ability to do it.  Nor, when we are in glory, shall we ever lack, or fail to show, love to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and to all the brothers and sisters in Christ who are with us there.’  Weakness is the Way: Life with Christ Our Strength

15:45 So also it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living person”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 15:46 However, the spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and then the spiritual. 15:47 The first man is from the earth, made of dust; the second man is from heaven. 15:48 Like the one made of dust, so too are those made of dust, and like the one from heaven, so too those who are heavenly. 15:49 And just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, let us also bear the image of the man of heaven.

Here, ‘Paul draws into the discussion the most fundamental aspect of creation, heaven and earth, as in Genesis 1:1, showing how the new creation represents, at last, the Jewish dream of the kingdom, embodied in the new humanity that, as in Philippians 3:20–21, comes  “from heaven.”‘ (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God)

Of the dust of the earth – This expression ‘underscores Adam’s (and humanity’s) perishability and earthy origin in contrast with the resurrected Christ’s eternal nature and heavenly origin.’ (Ciampa & Rosner)

The second man from heaven – ‘Though he appeared on earth, and lived and died and rose again on earth, he is not to be thought of as originating from the earth, as did Adam. He is from heaven. Some see here a backward glance to the incarnation and some a forward look to the second advent. But Paul is surely not looking specifically at either. He is contrasting Christ’s heavenly origin with Adam’s earthly one.’ (Morris)

We should not miss the astonishingly bold assertion that Paul is making here.  Many people cavil at the Christian doctrines of atonement, or resurrection, or virgin birth, or miracles.  But here is, perhaps, the greatest mystery.  Here is ‘the real difficulty, the supreme mystery with which the gospel confronts us, does not lie here at all. It lies not in the Good Friday message of atonement, nor in the Easter message of resurrection, but in the Christmas message of Incarnation. The really staggering Christian claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was God made man—that the second person of the Godhead became the “second man” (1 Cor 15:47), determining human destiny, the second representative head of the race, and that he took humanity without loss of deity, so that Jesus of Nazareth was as truly and fully divine as he was human.’ (J.I. Packer, Knowing God)

We shall bear the likeness of the man from heaven – Alternatively, following the majority of the manuscripts, read, ‘so let us bear’. The meaning then becomes: ‘And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man conforming to the life of Adam in his corruption, so let us bear the likeness of the heavenly man conforming to the life of Christ in the power of his risen, glorified state’ (so Lewis, The Glory of Christ, 371f).

‘Because all humanity is bound up with Adam, so every human being has an earthly body just like Adam’s. Earthly bodies are fitted for life on this earth, yet they have the characteristics of being limited by death, disease, and weakness (1 Cor 15:42–44). Believers can know with certainty, however, that their heavenly bodies will be just like Christ’s—imperishable, eternal, glorious, and filled with power (1 Cor 15:42–44).’ (Life Application Bible Commentary)

15:50 Now this is what I am saying, brothers and sisters: Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

Flesh and blood – Again this expression has been taken by some critical scholars to indicate that the resurrection is nonmaterial.  In order to suggest that thought, Paul would probably have used the expression ‘flesh and bones’ (Fee).  Paul means here the physical nature in its present form, subject to decay and death.  This is confirmed by the parallelism offered by the second part of the verse.  See also this article by Johnson.

Cannot inherit the kingdom of God – ‘Hence the present constitution of the body must be changed before it is fit to enter that kingdom in which matter is no longer governed by the soul, but is rules by the Spirit. The sequel shows that Paul is far from denying the materiality of the resurrection-body.’ (Wilson)

This verse (and see also v45) is taken by some to be in rank contradiction with Lk 24:40 (“Touch me and see: no spirit has flesh as you can see I have.”).  Robert Price, in his sneering review of N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, states: ‘The contexts of both passages make it quite clear that the terms are being used in the same senses, only that one makes the risen Jesus fleshly, while the other says the opposite.’

But it is clear from the context that Paul is not contrasting body and spirit, but rather two different kinds of body.  C.K. Barrett cites the work of Jeremias in explaining that ‘flesh and blood’ only ever applied to living persons, whereas ‘perishable’ refers to ‘corpses in decomposition’.  ‘The first line refers to those who are alive at the parousia, the second line to those who died before the parousia…The meaning of verse 50 is: neither the living nor the dead can take part in the Kingdom of God – as they are.’  Accordingly, and as Paul has already affirmed, a different kind of body is required for resurrection life.  At the parousia, both the living and the dead must be transformed and receive a resurrection body.

‘Some NT commentators, notably J. Jeremias (following the lead of A. Schlatter), have taken the contrasting phrases in 1 Corinthians 15:50b-c to imply a…distinction between those believers alive at the parousia and those who have already died.’ (DPL, art. ‘Resurrection’)

15:51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—15:52 in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet.Sleep changed

We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – ‘In giving us new bodies, there will be continuity without the suggestion of absolute physical identity. God does not need to search for the same atoms and molecules that once constituted us; if he did, there wouldn’t be nearly enough to go around, since we all wear second hand clothes in that respect…Any resurrection to physical life will involve a massive act of new creation.’ (N.T. Wright)

“We are more sure to rise out of our graves than out of our beds.” (Thomas Watson)

In a moment – Gk ‘atomos‘.  Preachers have been known to claim that this ‘really means’ ‘in the atomic age’, or, alternatively, that the resurrection body will come about through a change in the atomic structure of our present bodies.  Both are equally without foundation.  ‘The Greek word atomos means “incapable of being cut”, and Paul uses it here to indicate a division of time to brief that it cannot be subdivided farther, a “split second”, if you like, or (to retain the perfectly correct rendering of our common versions) a moment”.  This phrase says nothing whatsoever about the constitution of the resurrection body.’ (F. F. Bruce, Answers to Questions, p100)

For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed

‘There are no defects or deformities in the children of the resurrection. What members are now defective or deformed, will then be restored to their perfect being and beauty.’ (John Flavel)

15:53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality
15:54 Now when this perishable puts on the imperishable, and this mortal puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will happen,
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
15:55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

“Death has been swallowed up in victory” – ‘Cullmann provides a vivid comment on this. In Gethsemane Jesus approached death as a terror and a horror with trembling and distress, for death separates us from God (Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? p. 24). By contrast Socrates faced death with equanimity as a release from “the prison” of the body. He does not fear death (p. 20). Was Christ less courageous? Jesus faced death as God-forsakenness, as a sacrament of God’s wrath upon sin, absorbing the sting of death “for us.” Thereby Christians may face death not, like Socrates, under the illusion that death has not to be feared, but under the truth that for those who “follow after Jesus” death has lost its horror. Death has been transformed into a gateway to the nearer presence of God, for “with Christ” believers face resurrection and victory over death’s sting.’ (Thiselton)

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

Paul is alluding to Isa 25:8 and Hos 13:14.  In the latter, he ‘changes the Hosea text from “death, where is your dikē [‘judgment’]” to “death, where is your nikos [‘victory’].”’ (Vang)

Scripture turned on its head?

Derek Flood (Disarming Scripture) suggests that Paul’s sense here is the opposite of Hos 13:14.  In Hosea, the words are about ‘inviting death to come and destroy Israel in punishment’.  But Paul uses these words to address a death that has been defeated by Christ.  But to go further than this, and to assert with Flood that Paul felt at liberty to contradict any scripture that did not fit his hermeneutic of love, is unwarranted.  What was true in Hosea’s day no longer applies in the day of the gospel.  The triumph of grace was anticipated in Isa 25:7, also alluded in Paul’s quotation.

Noting the various modifications that Paul makes to the Hosea passage, Fee says: ‘Whether Paul intended to “cite” this passage as such, as part of the fulfilled word of v. 54, is moot.’

Ciampa and Rosner comment: ‘Paul employs an eschatological hermeneutic in his use of Hosea 13:14, turning a text about judgment into one declaring salvation, for we are not under the law and the resurrection of Christ signals the beginning of the new age of redemption…Interpreting the passage from the perspective of the resurrection of Christ, Paul turns the summons to death into a taunt. The rhetorical questions now sneer defiantly at death’s impotence in the face of God’s powerful act of mercy and forgiveness in Christ. In Hosea death is called on to punish sin, but thanks to Christ such a role is no longer needed (1 Cor. 15:3, 17). Death’s dominion over the whole earth has been ended, its “sting” drained of potency.’

15:56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 15:57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
15:58 So then, dear brothers and sisters, be firm. Do not be moved! Always be outstanding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.

Stand firm. Let nothing move you – The second expression underlines the first. The Corinthians were fickle and inconsistent. Faith in Christ’s resurrection and ours’ gives enormous strength and stability. To appreciate God’s ultimate plan for us and for all things is to face our present duties and activities with a new resolve.

Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord – The ‘work of the Lord’ is the work that the Lord has given us to do, as husbands and wives, as parents and children, as employers and employees. We should always give ourselves fully to this work. ‘The way not to go back s to go forward, the was to be ‘unmovable’ is to be ‘always abounding’. The secret of stability is progress’ (Brown). ‘There is nothing cramped or narrow about the genuine Christian experience’ (Morris). Faith in the resurrection produces an unsurpassed motivation and a boundless energy.

Ethical significance of the resurrection

‘It is because Christ was raised from the dead, and we too shall be raised from the dead, that we should continue steadfastly in the Lord’s work. This is because everything that we do to bring people into the kingdom and build them up will indeed have eternal significance, because we shall all be raised on the day when Christ returns, and we shall live with him forever.’ (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 616)

Wright (Surprised by Hope) says something similar:

‘Paul speaks of the future resurrection as a major motive for treating our bodies properly in the present time, and as the reason not for sitting back and waiting for it all to happen but for working hard in the present knowing that nothing done in the Lord, in the power of the Spirit, in the present time will be wasted in God’s future.’

Because you know… – or, more simply, ‘knowing…’. When Paul speaks of your labour in the Lord not being in vain, he is not so much giving a reason for engaging in the aforementioned work of the Lord, but its accompaniment. The reason for thus working is the resurrection truth Paul has been expounding, but alongside this work is the knowledge that it is not in vain, because it is preparing us for an eternity with the Lord. How much earthly toil is futile! It takes place in a vacuum, with no clear purpose or lasting outcome. But Christian labour is wrought in the sphere of eternal reality, and brings, and will bring, its own reward.

Your labour in the Lord is not in vain’

In 1 Corinthians  15:58 Paul writes,

Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

Tom Wright (Surprised by Hope, SPCK) places considerable emphasis on this verse, coming as it does after Paul’s great affirmation of physical resurrection.  Although I do not think that Wright offers a novel interpretation of this verse, I do think that he draws out its implications more clearly and helpfully than most:-

For Paul, the bodily resurrection does not leave us saying “so that’s all right; we shall go, at the last, to join Jesus in a non-bodily, Platonic heaven”…Belief in the bodily resurrection includes the belief that what is done in the present in the body, by the power of the Spirit, will be reaffirmed in the eventual future, in ways at which we can presently only guess. (p168f)
Resurrection means that what you do in the present, in working hard for the gospel, is not wasted.  It is not in vain.  It will be completed, will have its fulfilment, in God’s future. (p174)
How does believing in the future resurrection lead to getting on with the work in the present?  Quite straightforwardly.  The point of the resurrection, as Paul has been arguing throughout the letter, is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die.  God will raise it to new life.  What you do with your body in the present matters, because God has a great future in store for it.  And if this applies to ethics, as in 1 Cor 6, it certainly also applies to the various vocations to which God’s people are called.  What you do in the present – by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbour as yourself – all these things will last into God’s future.  They are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether…They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom. (p205)
You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to fall over a cliff.  You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire.  You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site.  You are – strange through it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself  – accomplishing something which will become, in due course, part of God’s new world.  Every act of love, gratitude and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings, and for that matter one’s fellow non-human creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed which spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honoured in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation which God will one day make.  That is the logic of the mission of God. God’s recreation of his wonderful world, which began with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world.’ (p219)