Sunday school lesson for the week of April 5, 2015
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, 20-22
Sociologist Peter Berger once wrote: “The power of religion depends, in that last resort, upon the credibility of the banners it puts in the hands of men and women as they stand before death, or more accurately, as the walk inevitably toward it.” For Christians, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the answer to our faith and hope. Christ is risen (Matthew 28:6)! Happy Easter!
The apostle Paul addresses a number of issues in the Corinthian church. One of those issues is what happens to believers when they die. The serious position of some in that church can be specified in verse 12, “So if the message that is preached said that Christ has been raised from the dead, then how can some of you say, ‘There is no resurrection of the dead’”?
Now, these people do not deny that Christ was raised but do deny that believers are raised. It is to this challenge that Paul responds. Paul brings up Christ’s resurrection as proof that there is such a thing as the resurrection.
Be clear, that by denying the resurrection, these Corinthians were not denying life after death. Most everyone in the ancient world believed in that. Rather, they would have been disputing the Jewish and Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection. They seemed to believe in the immortality of the soul rather than the resurrection of the body. As scholars inform us, they seemed to believe that this essential part of humans is only the soul, and that the body simply weighs down the goodness of the soul as it seeks to be in the presence of God.
Of course, Paul rejects this because he believes that bodily existence is what God intends for humans and therefore is good. Paul’s proof of this view is that Christ was raised bodily. And we are told that since all of chapter 15 argues for Christ’s bodily resurrection that is the kind of existence believers should expect as they enjoy their final salvation in the presence of God. Essentially, this understanding of the afterlife affirms the importance of our lives both in the here and hereafter.
The heart of the Gospel
For Paul, the resurrection of Christ is an absolute necessity for the Christian faith. So Paul begins by reminding these Corinthians of the gospel in which they are saved. Then in verse 3, Paul says that what he is about to say is the “most important” element of the gospel. It was what they believed when they first became Christian, and only by continuing to believe in a bodily resurrected Jesus can they demonstrate the reality of their faith and persevere until the end (2v).
At the conclusion of verse 2, the words “in vain” could also be translated in “heedlessly” or “rashly.”
Note in verse 3, Paul says, “I pass on to you as most important (first priority) what I received…” In both the Jewish and Greek world, the scholars tell us that the term for “received” has the technical meaning of “traditions” of teachers, rabbis, or philosophers. So the teachings of which Paul refers in this passage relates to the facts of the gospel that he received and preached. The tradition then does not originate with Paul; it predates his ministry.
Specifically, Paul says that what was passed on to him was the heart of the gospel. Thus, in verses 3-4, he quotes a confession that has three central affirmations: first, Christ died for our sins (according to the Scriptures), second, he was buried, and third, he was raised on the third day. This is a tradition that served as the kernel of the gospel before Paul was in the church and was passed on to him.
As scholars attest, within the first few years of the church’s life, this confessional summary was recognized as the very core of the church’s faith. Thus, Paul can use these assertions as evidence in his argument about the nature of the afterlife for believers.
Next, verses 5-7 supply a list of key witnesses to certify the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. These witnesses include Cephas (Peter), the apostles, the leader of the Jerusalem church (James), and a larger group of ordinary believers. Therefore, in addition to the foundational confession, these various witnesses, including those who were recognized as authority, confirm that Christ had a bodily resurrection, not just a rising of his spirit or soul.
Then, in verses 8-11, Paul adds his own personal testimony. He has also experienced the risen Christ, and consequently, can testify to the nature of his existence. Paul states that the experience radically changed his life. He went from being a persecutor of the church to being Christ’s hardest working advocate and that kind of changed life is further evidence for the resurrection that Paul advocates; it demonstrates its power to change lives.
Note in our scripture lesson, there is no explanation about how the death of Christ deals with sin or the exact form of the Resurrection. The essential core of the faith is set forth in very few words. And, according to scholars, all other Christian theology is a clarification of the assertions found in the few words found in the confessions of verses 3-4.
This understanding of the death of resurrection is the bedrock of the church’s faith.
The nature of Christ’s Resurrection
Paul tells us in Christ’s resurrection, a new kind of existence is born. It is bodily existence and recognizable, but this is not a body like any other body people have ever seen.
As Paul describes it, in the latter parts of 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection body of Christ is composed of material that is different from “flesh and blood” (15:50). Scholars inform us that in the ancient world people saw the cosmos as layered. The higher one went, the better the material the inhabitants were made of. Paul’s explanation of the resurrection body seems to be that it is composed of matter from one of the higher realms. He speaks of this 1 Corinthians 15:42ff. Paul says, “It’s the same with the resurrection of the dead; a rotting body is put into the ground, but what is raised won’t ever decay.” Paul is saying that this new body is made of better material, material that is “imperishable.” But it is still a body in (and identity).
Essentially, Paul is trying to describe a kind of body, a kind of existence that no one had ever seen before. This is a resurrection to a life that never ends. We are taught that its existence proclaims the coming end of death because death cannot overcome this life. Christ resurrection is the assurance that the will of God cannot be overcome by evil and that life will prevail over death. This resurrection is the key to our Christian hope.
The connection between Christ, the Resurrection, and that of Believers
Paul states to his opponents at Corinth, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who died” (1 Cor. 15:20). Notice that Paul does not say that Christ is the “only fruit of those who have died, but the first fruit.” Stating another way, the first fruits are always a sign of the harvest to come. Consequently, the resurrection of Jesus is a sign of the resurrection of all believers which is to come.
Now, scholars make clear that Paul gives us two ways to think of this relationship between Christ’s resurrection and that of believers. When Paul compares Christ to Adam, he compares their effects. Just as the sin of Adam changed everything and touched everyone; so does the resurrection of Christ. But Christ’s resurrection brings cosmos-changing life that more than counteracts the death that came through Adam. As Paul calls Christ’s resurrection body, the “first fruits” of the resurrection of the dead (15:20), he means that the resurrection of the believers will be like that of Christ’s. Christ’s resurrection is the sample of what resurrection life will be for believers. Believers will have the same kind of body as the resurrected Christ-immortal and corruptible matter.
We sometimes wonder if we will look the same as we do now or if we will possibly have the same infirmities. Paul assures us of the fullness of life in the presence of God. And he goes on to explain how our bodily selves of the here and now are related to those of the future.
Using an analogy, Paul says that our future existence and our present are related as a seed and a plant are related (1 Cor. 15:37-38). We plant a seed and what comes up looks nothing like what was planted, but there is an essential relatedness and continuing identity between them. At that’s something of the way it will be with us.
In the Apostles’ Creed, we very boldly declare: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” We are saying that we believe that our identities will be preserved, including our memories and history and intricate web of relationships.
So, as we are reminded, the resurrection of Christ is not simply an event of the past. It remains a promise about our future with God and about God’s final defeat of death.
In conclusion, Paul says to all believers, since you know you will be raised bodily, you should abound in the work of the Lord, knowing that your work is not for nothing.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.