Christ is risen!
Jesus’ resurrection is the central fact of Christianity. Believers’ resurrection is a corollary. Some in Corinth, however, seem to have taught that only Jesus rose and claimed that there is no resurrection otherwise. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul insists that if there is no believers’ resurrection, our faith is in vain.
Paul preached Christ’s death and resurrection as of first importance when he arrived in Corinth. 1 Corinthians 15:5-9 enumerates the appearances of the risen Lord and, in verse 11, Paul insists, “this is what we preach, and this is what you believed” (NIV).
But verse 12 goes on to ask, “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection from the dead?”
Greek thought assumed that spirit is good and body is evil. In that case, Greek Christians would perhaps not want to be resurrected and inhabit a body. So, some said, there is must not be a resurrection. We become pure spirit when we die. But Paul says that these same people believed in Jesus’ resurrection. He goes to great length to show that they had not thought through what it meant.
The fact and importance of Jesus’ resurrection
If there is no resurrection, we can’t make an exception for Jesus. If there is no resurrection, then Jesus didn’t rise. And if Jesus didn’t rise, then he is still dead; death defeated him.
Paul taught that God raised Jesus by his power. If Jesus in fact did not rise from the dead, then death is more powerful than God. If Jesus is dead, then he has no power over death and no power to serve as a sacrifice for sin. In other words, a dead Jesus cannot save anyone from sin. Everyone else dies a sinner and remains a dead sinner for eternity.
And so, without Jesus’ resurrection, all of Christian teaching is a sham. We’re left with some nice stories about a great teacher who performed impressive works but ultimately has no power to be of any lasting benefit.
Worse, if there is no resurrection, Paul and the other apostles were traveling throughout the Roman empire and beyond persuading people of an untruth. All those who believed the gospel believed in vain and suffered persecution in vain for it.
Suppose, as some Gnostics eventually did, that Jesus only appeared to have a body. This semblance of a body appeared to his disciples after his semblance of death. In that case, he deceived his friends when he invited them to touch him and watch him eat a piece of fish. This apparent body rose from the earth, vanished into a cloud, and somehow disintegrated so Jesus could revert to pure spirit.
In that case, Jesus lived and died a lie. The teaching that he was the Son of God and sovereign over all the earth rests on his resurrection. Justification and sanctification of sinners rests on his resurrection. All hope ultimately rests on his resurrection.
The promise of believers’ resurrection
Paul goes on to say that, in rising from the dead, Jesus became the first fruit of those who have died. From the time of Joshua, Israelites offered the first fruits of their fields to God. The offering sanctified their entire harvest. If Jesus is the first fruit of those who have died, then there must be more to come. His death and resurrection sanctify them all.
Death came to the world when Adam chose to obey the serpent as god. In the creation story, Adam represents all of humanity. God promised to undo his choice and redeem him. That redemption came through a human Jesus. Jesus laid down his life to suffer judicial murder and then took it back up again.
Now, Jesus was not the first person to be raised from the dead. That distinction belongs to the son of the widow of Zarephath, whom Elijah raised. Elisha raised two people. Jesus raised more, including his friend Lazarus. Still more have been raised since. And every one of them eventually died again.
All die in Adam. In Christ, all shall be made alive in due time. The resurrected Jesus will return. “The trumpet shall sound and the dead be raised” (1 Corinthians 15:52). Paul, in addressing the church, intended to describe only believers’ resurrection. Jesus himself said everyone would rise, some to life and some to condemnation (John 5:29).
At least some people in Corinth must have believed in believers’ resurrection. They received baptism for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29). Paul does not endorse the practice. He writes, “Why then are they baptized for the dead? And why do we stand in jeopardy every hour?” But if he disavows the practice of some in Corinth, he uses it to bolster the case for believers’ resurrection. If those dead will not rise, what is the point?
Paul’s description of believers’ resurrection
Resurrection means not only coming back to life but coming back to life in a body. What kind of body? Paul calls that a foolish question.
God raises up the dead. We don’t need to know how, but we can use the natural world as an analogy. A seed gets planted in the ground and dies. After some time, a plant—not just another seed––grows from it.
Experience tells us what will grow from the various seeds. If we haven’t personally planted and grown something, we have at least seen packets of seeds for sale with pictures of what plant will grow from them.
So when we bury a corpse, it’s kind of like planting a seed. Now, we don’t mourn when we plant a seed. We have had no personal relationship with it or any interest in it except what it will yield. We “plant” loved ones, whom we will miss. Therefore, we mourn. Also, we have no experience with what kind of body will grow from them.
In all of history, one man has died and been raised never to die again, and he appeared in the same body his friends knew and loved. Everyone else must wait God only knows how long before experiencing resurrection.
But we know that the believers’ resurrection means a new body. The old one is corruptible, dishonorable, weak, and part of this present nature. The new one will be incorruptible, glorious, powerful, and part of a new nature.
Our present nature cannot inherit the kingdom of God. That is why, when we do inherit, God will make us new bodies that cannot die. Adam’s sin will be reversed and we will be finally and fully redeemed.