A Refresher Course  on the Resurrection of the Dead — 1 Corinthians 15

17 Apr


The gospel of Jesus Christ has as its central theme and message the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and the resulting hope of resurrection and eternal life for every Christian. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul deals with the subject of death and the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. In so doing, Paul gives one of the clearest, most concise definitions of the “gospel” found anywhere in the Bible. He shows how a denial of the resurrection of the dead is a denial of the gospel itself, and how believing in the gospel gives one hope for the next world as well as for the present.

The Problem at Corinth

12 Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?

Verse 12 discloses the problem which prompts Paul to write this chapter: some of the Corinthian saints are saying there is no “resurrection of the dead.”[1] Denying the resurrection of the dead is seen in several different forms in the New Testament. The Greek pagans denied the resurrection of the dead, as we can see from the Book of Acts. In his sermon to those in the market place of Athens, Paul preached these words:

30 “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, 31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” 32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this” (Acts 17:30-32).

The Greeks may have believed in the immortality of men, as spirits, but they did not seem responsive to the teaching that God raises the dead so that they may stand in judgment before God.

The Jewish Sadducees did not embrace the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead either:

6 But perceiving that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!” 7 And as he said this, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. 8 For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor an angel, nor a spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. 9 And there arose a great uproar; and some of the scribes of the Pharisaic party stood up and began to argue heatedly, saying, “We find nothing wrong with this man; suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” (Acts 23:6-9)

The Pharisees did believe in the resurrection of the dead, and in spirits and angels, but the Sadducees did not. Basically, the Sadducees were anti-supernaturalists—they did not believe in miracles. It would almost seem the Sadducees were farther from the truth (at least about the resurrection of the dead) than the Gentile pagans.

There were those in the church who professed to believe in the resurrection of the dead but who insisted that this “resurrection” had already taken place:

16 But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and thus they upset the faith of some (2 Timothy 2:16-18).

This “resurrection” was a present possession rather than a future hope. It must therefore have been some kind of mystical or spiritual “resurrection” rather than a literal, bodily resurrection. In saying that there has already been a spiritual resurrection, these heretics were denying that there was a future bodily resurrection. And for this they receive Paul’s indictment that they have “gone astray from the truth” (2 Timothy 2:18). The error is so serious that it “upsets the faith” (verse 18) of those who embrace this error.

We are not told exactly what form the denial of the resurrection of the dead took at Corinth. I am inclined to think it was the same kind of error Paul exposed in Ephesus (2 Timothy 2:16-18), where Paul told Timothy that such error would “lead to further ungodliness” (verse 16). We can see some forms of ungodliness this doctrinal deviation took in the earlier chapters of 1 Corinthians. While the theological error regarding the resurrection of the dead is not exposed until chapter 15, the fruits of this error are everywhere apparent in chapters 1-14.

In the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul deals with the divisions and factions which had disrupted the unity of the church at Corinth. These divisions were based upon the pride which some took in certain leaders and their teachings. The Corinthians were puffed up because their leaders “were the greatest” and their teachings were so “wise.” Their esteem for these leaders resulted in a corresponding disdain for Paul and the other apostles:

6 Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other. 7 For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? 8 You are already filled, you have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and I would indeed that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you. 9 For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. 11 To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; 12 and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; 13 when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now (1 Corinthians 4:6-13).

Paul’s gospel (which was one and the same with the gospel proclaimed by the other apostles) was disdained because it was too simplistic, too naive, too foolish. The “new gospel,” proclaimed by the Corinthians’ new leaders, was much more sophisticated, much more acceptable and appealing to the pagan culture of that day.

Just what was the problem the Corinthians had with Paul, his theology, and his practice? The key is found in the word “already” in verse 8.[2] The Corinthians seem to be claiming that they have already arrived, spiritually speaking. Christianity has three dimensions or tenses: past, present, and future.[3] We were chosen in Christ in eternity past, and 2,000 years ago, Christ died, was buried, and was raised from the dead for the forgiveness of our sins and our eternal salvation. We are now being saved;[4] we are currently being sanctified, daily being transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ. Our final salvation comes when our Lord Jesus Christ returns to the earth, and when we, with glorified and transformed bodies, live eternally in His presence.

Difficulties arise whenever we confuse these three tenses. Some Christians live as though Christ’s atoning work at Calvary (in the past) has no great impact on our day-to-day living in the present. Such people live out their lives naturalistically, as though the supernatural power of God has no practical relevance to daily living. They go about their daily living little different from atheists. They employ merely huan methods and mechanisms. They raise funds, for example, using the same methods as the Red Cross or the United Fund. They seek to sanctify and utilize secular marketing techniques to evangelize and to produce church growth. They use human management techniques to run the church and Christian organizations.

Other Christians go to the opposite extreme. They confuse the future blessings, which Christ has promised and purchased, with His present blessings. In short, they think the Christian can and should experience heaven on earth. They believe no one needs to be sick (or perhaps even to die), because of the atoning work of Christ at Calvary (see Isaiah 53:5). According to this version of “spirituality,” we should expect to be happy, healthy, and wealthy now. They claim the future blessings of Revelation 21 and 22 as their present rights, and they tell us that if we do not experience these blessings now it is due to our lack of faith.

This health and wealth doctrine does not find its origin in the Scriptures, but in the wishful thinking of those who do not want to face up to a life of suffering, a life that is lived out in a fallen world. The context of 2 Timothy 2 and 3, the teaching of the Book of Hebrews and 1 Peter, and the example set forth by Paul and the apostles points to a different view of spirituality in the present age (see also Romans 8). The Scriptures speak of our identification with Christ in this age through our participation in His sufferings (see Philippians 1:12-26; 3:10; Colossians 1:24-29; 1 Peter 4:12-19), rather than in our escape from them.

No wonder the “spiritual” Corinthians looked down upon Paul. They had already arrived; Paul had not. They were kings; Paul was homeless. Paul and the apostles were a disgrace, and the proud Corinthians were ashamed of them. The apostles did not look nor act like royalty, but like the “scum of the world” (1 Corinthians 4:8-13). To speak of the resurrection of the dead as a future certainty meant they had not already arrived, that the kingdom of God had not yet come. It meant that they must identify with Christ in His earthly humiliation and rejection and not in His triumphant reign. And so they set aside the literal bodily resurrection of the dead, embracing in its place some kind of spiritual resurrection which already brought them into their kingdom, a kingdom of this age and not the next, a kingdom which the apostles and their gospel would not embrace or sanction.

Symptoms of the Rejection of the Resurrection of the Dead in the Corinthian Church

Everywhere we look in 1 Corinthians we can see the fruit of this doctrinal error of rejecting the resurrection of the dead. In chapters 1-4, we are not surprised to learn that the Corinthians have formed cliques based upon the pride they took in new mentors, in their new message, and in their new methods. These “new messengers” will eventually prove to be “false apostles,” as Paul will indicate in 2 Corinthians 11. Their message will not be the foolish and weak message of Christ crucified (1:23-24), but one which appeals to the pride and arrogance of lost men. Their method was not a simple proclamation of the truth of the gospel; it was the same kind of methodology the heathen used to market everything from fish to philosophy (see 2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:2). Paul’s method was to simply proclaim the truth of the gospel and then to depend on the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit to enlighten men’s minds and to convince them of the truth (1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 10-16).

In chapter 5, Paul exposes one professing Christian at Corinth who is living in such a degraded fashion that even the pagan Corinthians blush at his behavior (5:1-2). The Corinthian church, on the other hand, is not ashamed at all, but proud (5:2). How could they be proud? Just as the Corinthians distinguished between a spiritual resurrection and a bodily resurrection, they also distinguished between a “spiritual” spirituality and a bodily “spirituality.” It seems as though many of the Corinthians thought they could be spiritual in spirit but immoral and self-indulgent in the flesh. And so they not only tolerated shocking sexual immorality among their membership (chapter 5), they practiced all kinds of sensual and bodily indulgences themselves (chapter 6).[5]

In addition, the Corinthians are taking one another to court (6:1-11). The Scriptures teach that the literal, bodily resurrection of all men is prerequisite for divine judgment which follows (Acts 17:30-32; 24:14-16, 21, 24-25; Revelation 20:11-14). The false teachers are the ones who deny or minimize the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead because they wish to comfort themselves with the deception that there will be no future judgment (see 2 Peter 3:3-4). If we truly believe there is a resurrection of the dead and that the wicked will be punished, we can abandon our desire to have revenge and leave retribution to God (Romans 12:17-21; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10; 1 Peter 2:12). But when our vision concerning the resurrection of the dead is dimmed, we will want justice here and now, and if that means taking our case against a Christian brother before a pagan court, so be it. So it was in Corinth.

The Corinthians seem dull to the dangers of indulging their bodily appetites in spite of the lessons they should have learned from their predecessors, the Israelites (1 Corinthians 10:1-13). They feel free to participate in the pagan idol-worship rituals, even though this might cause a brother to stumble (chapter 8), and in spite of the fact that participating in this meal meant involvement with the demonic powers (10:18-22).

They are so enticed by the thought of eating a festive meal that they disregard all the dangers associated with doing so. When it came to satisfying their bodily appetites, the Corinthians just couldn’t say “no” (see 9:24-27).

Even at the Corinthians’ celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the most sacred part of their gathering together, they do not wait for their brethren to arrive, and so indulge themselves that they become drunk, making their celebration an abomination (11:17-34). The same excesses are evident in the exercise of their spiritual gifts at the meeting of the church (chapters 12-14). The Corinthians indulge themselves by exercising their gifts in a disorderly and chaotic fashion so that the edification of the church was set aside. And in the midst of this, they seem oblivious to the fact that divine judgment is causing many to become sick and a good number to die (1 Corinthians 11:30). We have no monopoly on being the “now generation.” The Corinthians minimized the future and majored on the present moment. Their motto: “Seize the day!”

An Overview of Paul’s Response to the Corinthians’ Denial of the Resurrection of the Dead

In chapters 1-14, Paul uncovers much of the dirty laundry of the Corinthian church and deals with each problem in particular. Now in chapter 15, Paul introduces the subject of the resurrection of the dead, not as an entirely new subject, mind you, but as the root problem underlying the sins he previously discussed. Is it any wonder that in chapter 14 Paul upholds the gift of prophecy as the greatest of the gifts for the church? I think not. Prophets fulfilled many roles and carried out various functions, but who would dispute that one of the tasks of a prophet was to speak of future things—to prophesy? Is the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead not a matter of prophecy? If, as I have assumed and alluded, the Corinthians have exalted the gift of tongues and minimized the gift of prophecy, is it surprising that Paul first extols the virtues of the gift of prophecy and then presses on to a particular element of prophecy—the resurrection of the dead?

In chapter 15, Paul approaches the denial of the resurrection of the dead indirectly at first. In verses 1-11, Paul lays a foundation by reiterating the role of the bodily resurrection of our Lord in the gospel message and in his own conversion. The resurrection of our Lord is a doctrine with which every Corinthian Christian heartily agreed. Then in verses 12-19, Paul exposes the real problem, the denial of the resurrection of the dead. If one believes there is no resurrection of the dead at all, then this means that Christ could not have been raised from the dead at all. If Christ was not raised from the dead, then the apostles are deceivers and the Corinthians are deceived and to be pitied, for their faith is futile. But in verses 20-28, Paul returns to the certainty of our Lord’s resurrection and plays out its implications. Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead was the first fruits of resurrection, and other resurrections will follow as a divinely-purposed result. The first to rise will be those who have trusted in Him, followed later by those who have not (15:23-25). It is only after death is finally defeated by the resurrection of all men that the kingdom can be handed over to the Father.

Any hope of the kingdom of God has as a prerequisite the resurrection of the dead (15:26-28). The practice of some of being baptized for the dead (verse 29) and the dangerous living of Paul (verses 30-32a) make sense only if there is a literal resurrection of the dead. Otherwise, one might just as well “grab all the gusto he can get” if we only “go around once” (verse 32b). The source of the Corinthians’ error regarding a bodily resurrection is revealed in verses 33 and 34. Illicit fellowship has caused them to become soft on sin and thus vulnerable to doctrinal deviation, which tended to validate their sin.

In verses 35-49, Paul takes on the objections which some have raised concerning the resurrection of the dead. Do they wonder how the dead can be raised? Are they perplexed that the bodies we place in the ground decay and that an imperishable body resulting from this decay seems scientifically untenable? Let them simply refresh their memories as to how, with grain, new life sprouts from the “death” and “decay” of the seed that is buried or planted in the ground. The physical body must come first and then be replaced by the spiritual. The objections to the resurrection of the body are simply the result of a lack of faith in the God who is the Creator of all “bodies” and who raised our Lord from the dead. Adam’s sin brought about bodily death and decay; Christ’s righteousness produces life and bodily transformation.

In verses 50-58, Paul builds to a triumphant climax. Physical death and the setting aside of our mortal bodies is a necessity, because these earthly bodies have no place in heaven. The bodies of those saints who have died and been buried will be resurrected as transformed bodies, and the mortal bodies of those alive at Christ’s coming will also undergo the same transformation, so that both will be clothed with bodies fit for eternity in the presence of God. All of this removes the sting of sin and of death and assures the saint of victory. In the light of this truth of the resurrection from the grave, we know that our earthly toil and labor is not in vain but is an eternal investment.


Corinth was a Greek city, and the Greeks did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. When Paul had preached at Athens and declared the fact of Christ’s resurrection, some of his listeners actually laughed at him (Acts 17:32). Most Greek philosophers considered the human body a prison, and they welcomed death as deliverance from bondage.

This skeptical attitude had somehow invaded the church and Paul had to face it head-on. The truth of the resurrection had doctrinal and practical implications for life that were too important to ignore. Paul dealt with the subject by answering four basic questions.

Are the Dead Raised? (1 Cor. 15:1–19)

It is important to note that the believers at Corinth did believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ; so Paul started his argument with that fundamental truth. He presented three proofs to assure his readers that Jesus Christ indeed had been raised from the dead.

Proof #1—their salvation (vv. 1–2). Paul had come to Corinth and preached the message of the Gospel, and their faith had transformed their lives. But an integral part of the Gospel message was the fact of Christ’s resurrection. After all, a dead Saviour cannot save anybody. Paul’s readers had received the Word, trusted Christ, been saved, and were now standing on that Word as the assurance of their salvation. The fact that they were standing firm was proof that their faith was genuine and not empty.

Proof #2—the Old Testament Scriptures (vv. 3–4). First of all means “of first importance.” The Gospel is the most important message that the church ever proclaims. While it is good to be involved in social action and the betterment of mankind, there is no reason why these ministries should preempt the Gospel. “Christ died … He was buried … He rose again … He was seen” are the basic historical facts on which the Gospel stands (1 Cor. 15:3–5). “Christ died for our sins” (author’s italics) is the theological explanation of the historical facts. Many people were crucified by the Romans, but only one “victim” ever died for the sins of the world.

When Paul wrote “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3) he was referring to the Old Testament Scriptures. Much of the sacrificial system in the Old Testament pointed to the sacrifice of Christ as our substitute and Saviour. The annual Day of Atonement (Lev. 16) and prophecies like Isaiah 53 would also come to mind.

But where does the Old Testament declare His resurrection on the third day? Jesus pointed to the experience of Jonah (Matt. 12:38–41). Paul also compared Christ’s resurrection to the “firstfruits,” and the firstfruits were presented to God on the day following the Sabbath after Passover (Lev. 23:9–14; 1 Cor. 15:23). Since the Sabbath must always be the seventh day, the day after Sabbath must be the first day of the week, or Sunday, the day of our Lord’s resurrection. This covers three days on the Jewish calendar. Apart from the Feast of Firstfruits, there were other prophecies of Messiah’s resurrection in the Old Testament: Psalm 16:8–11 (see Acts 2:25–28); Psalm 22:22ff (see Heb. 2:12); Isaiah 53:10–12; and Psalm 2:7 (see Acts 13:32–33).

Proof #3—Christ was seen by witnesses (vv. 5–11). On the cross, Jesus was exposed to the eyes of unbelievers; but after the Resurrection, He was seen by believers who could be witnesses of His resurrection (Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32). Peter saw Him and so did the disciples collectively. James was a half brother of the Lord who became a believer after the Lord appeared to him (John 7:5; Acts 1:14). The 500 plus brethren all saw Him at the same time (1 Cor. 15:6), so it could not have been a hallucination or a deception. This event may have been just before His ascension (Matt. 28:16ff).

But one of the greatest witnesses of the Resurrection was Paul himself, for as an unbeliever he was soundly convinced that Jesus was dead. The radical change in his life—a change which brought him persecution and suffering—is certainly evidence that the Lord had indeed been raised from the dead. Paul made it clear that his salvation was purely an act of God’s grace; but that grace worked in and through him as he served the Lord. “Born out of due time” probably refers to the future salvation of Israel when they, like Paul, see the Messiah in glory (Zech. 12:10–13:6; 1 Tim. 1:16).

At this point, Paul’s readers would say, “Yes, we agree that Jesus was raised from the dead.” Then Paul would reply, “If you believe that, then you must believe in the resurrection of all the dead!” Christ came as a man, truly human, and experienced all that we experienced, except that He never sinned. If there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised. If He was not raised, there is no Gospel to preach. If there is no Gospel, then you have believed in vain and you are still in your sins! If there is no resurrection, then believers who have died have no hope. We shall never see them again!

The conclusion is obvious: Why be a Christian if we have only suffering in this life and no future glory to anticipate? (In 1 Cor. 15:29–34, Paul expanded this idea.) The Resurrection is not just important; it is “of first importance,” because all that we believe hinges on it.

When Are the Dead Raised? (1 Cor. 15:20–28). Paul used three images to answer this question.

Firstfruits (vv. 20, 23). We have already noted this reference to the Old Testament feast (Lev. 23:9–14). As the Lamb of God, Jesus died on Passover. As the sheaf of firstfruits, He arose from the dead three days later on the first day of the week. When the priest waved the sheaf of the firstfruits before the Lord, it was a sign that the entire harvest belonged to Him. When Jesus was raised from the dead, it was God’s assurance to us that we shall also be raised one day as part of that future harvest. To believers, death is only “sleep.” The body sleeps, but the soul is at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:1–8; Phil. 1:21–23). At the resurrection, the body will be “awakened” and glorified.

Adam (vv. 21–22). Paul saw in Adam a type of Jesus Christ by the way of contrast (see also Rom. 5:12–21). The first Adam was made from the earth, but the Last Adam (Christ, 1 Cor. 15:45–47) came from heaven. The first Adam disobeyed God and brought sin and death into the world, but the Last Adam obeyed the Father and brought righteousness and life.

The word order in 1 Corinthians 15:23 originally referred to military rank. God has an order, a sequence, in the resurrection. Passages like John 5:25–29 and Revelation 20 indicate that there is no such thing taught in Scripture as a “general resurrection.” When Jesus Christ returns in the air, He will take His church to heaven and at that time raise from the dead all who have trusted Him and have died in the faith (1 Thes. 4:13–18). Jesus called this “the resurrection of life” (John 5:29). When Jesus returns to the earth in judgment, then the lost will be raised in “the resurrection of damnation” (John 5:29; Rev. 20:11–15). Nobody in the first resurrection will be lost, but nobody in the second resurrection will be saved.

The kingdom (vv. 24–28). When Jesus Christ comes to the earth to judge, He will banish sin for a thousand years and establish His kingdom (Rev. 20:1–6). Believers will reign with Him and share His glory and authority. This kingdom, prophesied in the Old Testament, is called “the Millennium” by prophetic teachers. The word comes from the Latin: mille—thousand, annum—year.

But even after the Millennium, there will be one final rebellion against God (Rev. 20:7–10) which Jesus Christ will put down by His power. The lost will then be raised, judged, and cast into the lake of fire. Then death itself shall be cast into hell, and the last enemy shall be destroyed. Jesus Christ will have put all things under His feet! He will then turn the kingdom over to the Father and then the eternal state—the new heavens and new earth—shall be ushered in (Rev. 21–22).

Good and godly students of the Word have not always agreed on the details of God’s prophetic program, but the major truths seem to be clear. Jesus Christ reigns in heaven today, and all authority is “under His feet” (Ps. 110; Eph. 1:15–23). Satan and man are still able to exercise choice, but God is sovereignly in control. Jesus Christ is enthroned in heaven today (Ps. 2). The resurrection of the saved has not yet taken place, nor the resurrection of the lost (2 Tim. 2:17–18).

When will Jesus Christ return for His church? Nobody knows; but when it occurs, it will be “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:52). It behooves us to be ready (1 John 2:28–3:3).

Why Are the Dead Raised? (1 Cor. 15:29–34, 49–58)

The resurrection of the human body is a future event that has compelling implications for our personal lives. If the resurrection is not true, then we can forget about the future and live as we please! But the resurrection is true! Jesus is coming again! Even if we die before He comes, we shall be raised at His coming and stand before Him in a glorified body.

Paul cited four areas of Christian experience that are touched by the fact of the resurrection.

Evangelism (v. 29). What does it mean to be “baptized for the dead”? Some take this to mean “proxy baptism,” where a believer is baptized on behalf of a dead relative; but we find no such teaching in the New Testament. In the second century, there were some heretical groups that practiced “vicarious baptism,” but the church at large has never accepted the practice. To begin with, salvation is a personal matter that each must decide for himself; and, second, nobody needs to be baptized to be saved.

The phrase probably means “baptized to take the place of those who have died.” In other words, if there is no resurrection, why bother to witness and win others to Christ? Why reach sinners who are then baptized and take the place of those who have died? If the Christian life is only a “dead-end street,” get off of it!

Each responsible person on earth will share in either the resurrection of life and go to heaven, or the resurrection of judgment and go to hell (John 5:28–29). We weep for believers who have died, but we ought also to weep for unbelievers who still have opportunity to be saved! The reality of the resurrection is a motivation for evangelism.

Suffering (vv. 30–32). I die daily does not refer to “dying to self,” as in Romans 6, but to the physical dangers Paul faced as a servant of Christ (2 Cor. 4:8–5:10; 11:23–28). He was in constant jeopardy from his enemies and on more than one occasion had been close to death. Why endure suffering and danger if death ends it all? “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die” (Isa. 22:13).

What we do in the body in this life comes up for review at the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10). God deals with the whole person, not just with the “soul.” The body shares in salvation (Rom. 8:18–23). The suffering endured in the body will result in glory at the resurrection (2 Cor. 4:7–18). If there is no future for the body, then why suffer and die for the cause of Christ?

Separation from sin (vv. 33–34). If there is no resurrection, then what we do with our bodies will have no bearing on our future. Immorality was a way of life in Corinth, and some of the believers rejected the resurrection in order to rationalize their sin. “Evil company corrupts good morals” is a quotation from the Greek poet Menander, a saying no doubt familiar to Paul’s readers. The believer’s body is the temple of God and must be kept separated from the sins of the world (2 Cor. 6:14–7:1). To fellowship with the “unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph. 5:6–17) is only to corrupt God’s temple.

It was time for the Corinthians to wake up and clean up (see 1 Thes. 5:4–11). The believer who is compromising with sin has no witness to the lost around him, those who “have not the knowledge of God.” What a shameful thing to be selfishly living in sin while multitudes die without Christ!

Death (vv. 49–57). The heavenly kingdom is not made for the kind of bodies we now have, bodies of flesh and blood. So when Jesus returns, the bodies of living believers will instantly be transformed to be like His body (1 John 3:1–3), and the dead believers shall be raised with new glorified bodies. Our new bodies will not be subject to decay or death.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychiatry, wrote: “And finally there is the painful riddle of death, for which no remedy at all has yet been found, nor probably ever will be.” Christians have victory in death and over death! Why? Because of the victory of Jesus Christ in His own resurrection. Jesus said, “Because I live, ye shall also” (John 14:19).

Sin, death, and the Law go together. The Law reveals sin, and the “wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Jesus bore our sins on the cross (1 Peter 2:24), and also bore the curse of the Law (Gal. 3:13). It is through Him that we have this victory, and we share the victory today. The literal translation of 1 Corinthians 15:57 is, “But thanks be to God who keeps on giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” We experience “the power of His resurrection” in our lives as we yield to Him (Phil. 3:10).

First Corinthians 15:58 is Paul’s hymn of praise to the Lord as well as his closing admonition to the church. Because of the assurance of Christ’s victory over death, we know that nothing we do for Him will ever be wasted or lost. We can be steadfast in our service, unmovable in suffering, abounding in ministry to others, because we know our labor is not in vain. First Corinthians 15:58 is the answer to Ecclesiastes, where thirty-eight times Solomon used the sad word vanity. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” wept Solomon; but Paul sang a song of victory!

How Are the Dead Raised? (1 Cor. 15:35–48)

Being philosophers, the Greeks reasoned that the resurrection of the human body was an impossibility. After all, when the body turned to dust, it became soil from which other bodies derived nourishment. In short, the food that we eat is a part of the elements of the bodies of generations long gone. When the body of the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, was disinterred, it was discovered that the roots of a nearby apple tree had grown through the coffin. To some degree, the people who ate the apples partook of his body. At the resurrection, then, who will claim the various elements?

Paul’s reply to this kind of reasoning was very blunt: “You fool!” Then he made the important point that resurrection is not reconstruction. Nowhere does the Bible teach that, at the resurrection, God will “put together the pieces” and return to us our former bodies. There is continuity (it is our body), but there is not identity (it is not the same body).

Paul knew that such miracles cannot be explained, so he used three analogies to make the doctrine clear.

Seeds (vv. 35–38, 42–48). When you sow seed, you do not expect that same seed to come up at the harvest. The seed dies, but from that death there comes life. (See John 12:23–28 for our Lord’s use of this same analogy.) You may sow a few grains of wheat, but you will have many grains when the plant matures. Are they the same grains that were planted? No, but there is still continuity. You do not sow wheat and harvest barley.

Furthermore, what comes up at the harvest is usually more beautiful than what was planted. This is especially true of tulips. Few things are as ugly as a tulip bulb, yet it produces a beautiful flower. If at the resurrection, all God did was to put us back together again, there would be no improvement. Furthermore, flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom. The only way we can enjoy the glory of heaven is to have a body suited to that environment.

Paul discussed the details of this marvelous change in 1 Corinthians 15:42–48. The body is sown (in burial) in corruption, because it is going to decay; but it is raised with such a nature that it cannot decay. There is no decay or death in heaven. It is buried in humility (in spite of the cosmetic skill of the mortician); but it is raised in glory. In burial, the body is weak; but in resurrection, the body has power. We shall be like Jesus Christ!

Today, we have a “natural body,” that is, a body suited to an earthly environment. We received this body from our first parent, Adam: he was made of dust, and so are we (Gen. 2:7). But the resurrection body is suited to a spiritual environment. In His resurrection body, Jesus was able to move quickly from place to place, and even walk through locked doors; yet He was also able to eat food, and His disciples were able to touch Him and feel Him (Luke 24:33–43; John 20:19–29).

The point Paul was making was simply this: The resurrection body completes the work of redemption and gives to us the image of the Saviour. We are made in the image of God as far as personality is concerned, but in the image of Adam as far as the body is concerned. One day we shall bear the image of the Saviour when we share in His glory.

First Corinthians 15:46 states an important biblical principle: first the “natural” (earthly), and then the “spiritual” (heavenly). The first birth gives us that which is natural, but the second birth gives us that which is spiritual. God rejects the first birth, the natural, and says, “You must be born again!” He rejected Cain and chose Abel. He rejected Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael, and chose Isaac, the second-born. He rejected Esau and chose Jacob. If we depend on our first birth, we shall be condemned forever; but if we experience the new birth, we shall be blessed forever.

Flesh (v. 39). Paul anticipated here the discovery of science that the cell structure of different kinds of animals is different; and therefore, you cannot breed various species indiscriminately. The human body has a nature of one kind, while animals, birds, and fish have their own particular kind of flesh. The conclusion is this: If God is able to make different kinds of bodies for men, animals, birds, and fish, why can He not make a different kind of body for us at the resurrection? (Pet lovers take note: Paul did not teach here that animals will be resurrected. He only used them as an example.)

Heavenly bodies (vv. 40–41). Not only are there earthly bodies, but there are also heavenly bodies; and they differ from one another. In fact, the heavenly bodies differ from each other in glory as far as the human eye is concerned. Paul is suggesting here that believer may differ from believer in glory, even though all Christians will have glorified bodies. Every cup in heaven will be filled, but some cups will be bigger than others, because of the faithfulness and sacrifice of those saints when they were on earth.

These illustrations may not answer every question that we have about the resurrection body, but they do give us the assurances that we need. God will give to us a glorified body suited to the new life in heaven. It will be as unlike our present body in quality as the glory of the sun is unlike a mushroom in the cellar. We will use this new body to serve and glorify God for all eternity.

We must remember that this discussion was not written by Paul merely to satisfy the curiosity of believers. He had some practical points to get across, and he made them very clear in 1 Corinthians 15:29–34. If we really believe in the resurrection of the body, then we will use our bodies today to the glory of God (1 Cor. 6:9–14).

Finally, the lost will be given bodies suited to their environment in hell. They will suffer forever in darkness and pain (Matt. 25:41; 2 Thes. 1:7–10; Rev. 20:11–15). It behooves us who are saved to seek to rescue them from judgment! “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:11).

If you have never trusted the Saviour, do so now—before it is too late![6]

[1] In this case, the denial of the resurrection of the dead was verbalized (“how do some among you say … ?”).  At Corinth, the denial of the resurrection of the dead was a doctrine consciously held and openly professed to others.  There are times when the gospel is unconsciously denied.  For example, when Peter ceased to eat with the Gentile saints and moved to the Jewish table, he was unconsciously denying the gospel, and for this he was strongly rebuked (Galatians 2:11-21).  This denial of the resurrection of the dead at Corinth was not unconscious, but deliberate.

[2] Essentially the same error is found in 2 Timothy 2.  The context in 2 Timothy is the suffering and hardship God calls us to endure in this present age in order to enter into the eternal blessings of the next (see verses 3, 10-12).  Those who insisted that the resurrection had already come were those who maintained that Christians should be presently experiencing all of the pleasures and blessings of eternity and should not be suffering.

[3] All three tenses of our salvation are referred to in 1 Peter 1:3-9.

[4] Actually the verb translated “saved” in verse 2 is in the present tense, and thus the New Revised Standard Version renders it, “you are being saved.”

[5] Paul’s belief in the resurrection of the dead is evident in 1 Corinthians 5:5, where he indicates that church discipline may result in the physical death of the sinning saint, and yet this one thus judged will ultimately be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.  This can only happen if the dead are raised.

[6] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 617–621.

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Posted by on April 17, 2023 in Resurrection


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