The Truth of the Resurrection

1 Corinthians

Week of April 12, 2020

The Point:  The resurrection of Christ is a historical fact.

The Historic Resurrection of Christ:  1 Corinthians 15:1-11.

[1] Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, [2] and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you–unless you believed in vain. [3] For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, [4] that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, [5] and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. [6] Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. [7] Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. [8] Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. [9] For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. [10] But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. [11] Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.  [ESV]

“The historic resurrection [15:1-11]. As in the discussion concerning spiritual gifts [14:37-38], it appears that there was a division between Paul and some at Corinth about the resurrection of the body, which may explain why he mentions his own vision of the glorified Christ [15:8]; it is his opponents, rather than he, who have a problem. Whereas they hold that a future resurrection is out of the question, and may infer that Jesus was not raised, perhaps reneging on their initial professions of faith [15:1,2,11] and reasoning from disbelief in the universal to a rejection of the particular, Paul insists that Christ was raised from the dead. His opening stratagem is to attest the historicity of the empty tomb rather than argue that because resurrection is theoretically possible his antagonists are mistaken. [1] Paul introduces a new discussion, now marking the shift: not only has he been challenged about the employment of spiritual gifts, but some have rejected his proclamation of the risen Christ. I would remind you might be a gentle rebuke, implying that the Corinthians do not properly understand the gospel even though they have received it from him. On the other hand, the formula may be used to introduce a subject of exceptional importance. The apostle knew that his message had brought nothing but good, as he makes plain by the repetition of ‘gospel’ both as noun and verb. Gospel means ‘good message’, this part of the verse reading almost literally: ‘the good message with which I good-messaged you’. The resurrection is good news, and without it all is gloom. Not only have the Corinthians received this truth, they now stand in it. The announcement that Jesus rose from the dead has become the foundation of their lives: Christ lives for them and they, ostensibly, for him. Paul can write in this fashion because he is aware that only some within the church have denied the final resurrection. It is possible that there is a link between this verse and 14:38, in which the apostle declares that if anyone presumes to ignore his counsel, that man must be ignored by God. Now he takes pains to ensure that the Corinthians are reminded of the import of his gospel: deliberate ignorance is perilous. [2] It is through this gospel that the Corinthians are being saved, which means that they are being borne along by a rescue process, the tense being present continuous. Elsewhere, Paul insists that believers are in principle already saved and also that their final salvation lies in the future [Eph. 2:5,8; Rom. 5:9,10; 8:24]. Rescue is a matter of yesterday, today, tomorrow and eternity. At this stage in the apostle’s exposition, salvation is described as incomplete because all depends on whether or not professing believers hold fast to Paul’s message: a lifeline cannot save those who let it go deliberately. In spite of the spiritual peril in which some Corinthians have placed themselves – a peril which they may not fully appreciate – some slacken their grip, being deluded by the challenge that the apostolic line is rotten. Suppose, then, that the anti-resurrectionists are right and that the message of a resurrected Jesus is a bluff, a key element in a perverse confidence trick. If so, the Corinthians will have believed in vain. Paul is subtly ironic: they should not have listened to him in the first place, but, having done so, they are propelling themselves towards eternal ruin rather than progressing to salvation. Because this negative evaluation is important, it is repeated in 15:14. But the apostle does no more than hypothesize. The Corinthians have not been deceived – at least, not by him. So, if they discard his gospel, they really will be lost. Good news is mentioned again for emphasis, an ultimatum being laid down: the church puts itself at risk if it rejects Paul’s message. What can be more foolish? He is scorning the scorners. [3-4] The Corinthians are reminded that Paul delivered to them matters of singular gravity, truths that he had received personally. Of first importance signifies ‘principal things’ rather than implying a ministry that would have been in some sense a chronological first. As is clear from Acts, the gospel had been delivered to many others before it came to Corinth. Further, as in 11:23 and Galatians 1:11-12, Paul insists that he did not contrive his message and that he had never done more than relay what he received directly from the Lord. This is astounding. All that he taught concerning the cross had been transmitted to him by Christ, even though he must have known much about Jesus prior to his conversion [cf. 2 Cor. 5:16]. Obviously, a dead Savior could not communicate, from which it follows that Jesus was raised. This being so, Paul can detail his good news and lead into a record of some of the appearances of the risen Lord. To die for sins means that Christ surrendered his life for the benefit of others. Although the concept of substitution may not at this point be explicit, it is undeniable. The claim is then made that both Christ’s sufferings and those truths which the Lord afterwards explained to Paul were in accordance with the Scriptures: apostolic preaching about Jesus is true because it finds its roots in the Old Testament. Further, the Lord confirmed to Paul that he had been buried and that his resurrection occurred three days after death, all according to the Scriptures. But why the three-day interval? The historic three-day interval between death and resurrection demonstrates that Jesus was not taken down unconscious from the cross: he actually expired and was then buried. An interval of less than three days would have led to the suspicion that Jesus swooned, soon to be revived. Paul’s words are emphatic: Christ died. It is as if he anticipated that men would teach otherwise, as has often been the case. Furthermore, had Jesus remained in the tomb for a longer period, his body must have suffered visible corruption. God did not permit this to happen. As elsewhere, the interment of Jesus is associated more with his resurrection than with his death: he was buried … he was raised. The tomb was not so much a grace as a cradle, a womb, a theater of life. The statement that Christ was raised occurs in this chapter seven times and always with reference to Jesus. The truth is driven home that the one whom God raised is by definition the risen Savior, as a reminder to the Corinthians that if they do not believe in the historic resurrection, they have neither Jesus nor salvation. [5] Continuing his sentence, Paul shows that Christ must have been raised because after his burial he was seen alive by a large number of men. The list of witnesses is chronological although not comprehensive. Why the appearances to the women are unmentioned remains a matter of speculation. Appeared emphasizes that some men who were in Jerusalem when Jesus died were granted a sight of him soon after his decease, he deliberately revealing himself to them rather than being where they were by coincidence. Jesus was seen by those selected men who were destined to establish his church. [6] Afterwards, the Lord was seen by over five hundred brothers at one time and place. Although no record of this is given elsewhere, Paul’s narrative suggests that the event occurred after Jesus was seen by Peter on the evening of the first day of the week, but before James beheld him. Paul insists that the majority of the five hundred are still alive when Paul was writing 1 Corinthians. This would have been about twenty-five years after Christ rose, and in that time the five hundred must often have testified about the Lord’s resurrection. The apostle claims that this accumulation of testimony cannot be shrugged off. The risen Lord appeared to disciples only, refusing to expose himself to a world that would have ridiculed him. [7] This James was a brother of Jesus, the meeting being the occasion when he passed from unbelief to faith. Later, he soon became one of the principal leaders in the Jerusalem church. The occasion when the Lord was seen by all the apostles was probably when he ascended to heaven [Acts 1:2-10], in which case Paul points to the eleven. That all are specified might suggest that Christ revealed himself to the complete group at a particular time and place rather than to each one individually. [8-9] Finally, the Lord manifested himself to Paul, then known as Saul, who saw him with his own eyes after the resurrection. He remains deeply conscious that Christ is the risen Savior. Last of all means either that Paul was the least, the most unworthy, of the apostles, or that he was the last man to see the Lord. The second view is difficult because in later years the apostle John saw Christ [Rev. 1:17]. But perhaps Paul indicates that he was the last person to whom the Lord revealed himself specifically to prove that, as the Messiah, he had risen from the dead [cf. Acts 26:16]. Either way, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus is without parallel in that there is no record of the glorified Christ appearing to anyone else following the Damascus Road incident in order to generate faith. Perhaps there was no other occasion. Perhaps Paul claims that because his conversion experience was so remarkable, the Corinthians ought to hear him. Paul had come to office without the experience granted to the earlier apostles. A matter of hours before Christ appeared to him, the Pharisee was consumed by hatred for the disciples, yet a few days later he was proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God [Acts 9:1-20]. In this respect, the transformation was like a premature birth for which God is to be praised: if he had saved Saul, there must be hope for all. Paul was conscious of his authoritative position, and in 1 Corinthians he makes plain that he was always ready to exercise his office. Even so, he trembled when referred to by others as an ‘apostle’ – although he never doubted his calling. The reason for his discomfiture was that he had persecuted the church of God, which means that, as he saw it, the sin of having been an arch-enemy of the churches remained a permanent stigma. The apostle mentions this because, having some grim words to deliver to his readers, he needs to divest himself of any appearance of personal importance. He must be garbed in humility in order to communicate. [10] But Paul has come to be what he is by divine grace. The favor of God was not in vain but had transformed Saul of Tarsus into the apostle to the Gentiles. One consequence had been that over the years he worked harder than any of them. Each apostle, no doubt, worked hard – and Paul does not imply otherwise. Nor does he display megalomania when he claims that his exertions have far outstripped the combined efforts of all others. Yet in contrast to Paul’s endeavors, their mountain of toil has displayed the magnitude of a molehill. But not even his sacrificial labors are a ground for congratulation; he applies the brake immediately: though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Grace is mentioned three times, Paul showing that his office has led to consistent hard work, even though nothing has been achieved through his own strength. This being so, his status deserves the utmost respect. [11] The paragraph 15:1-11 ends with an appeal to contemplate the wider scene: Paul’s office may be unique, but his message is not. Although who the apostles may be in themselves is unimportant, they speak as one, the gospel rather than its heralds being pivotal. Paul observes that it was through more than one servant of the good news that you, the Corinthians, believed. The present tense inherent in we preach indicates that whatever the church may or may not believe, Paul and other apostles are unswerving in their ministry. It follows that whereas the sceptics may imagine that they are more advanced in their faith than others, they have actually taken a retrograde step. Worse, in that the church tolerates the scoffers, it opposes not only apostolic teaching but also other churches for which the resurrection of Christ remains a fundamental tenet. Therefore, the Corinthians, guilty by association, must heed Paul’s words or have only themselves to blame. To recapitulate, Corinthian waverers need to give attention to Paul’s message [15:8-11] because there has been a marvelous medium of revelation: Jesus revealed himself to Saul of Tarsus and explained his death and resurrection. Further, there has been a marvelous transformation: the risen Christ made a new man of Saul, and did it in a moment. In addition, the Lord empowered him to undertake a marvelous ministry: his labors have been far more extensive and intensive than those of the other apostles. And the apostle might have added – were he not hindered by humility – that his ministry has been much more effective. Finally, there remains a marvelous unity among the apostles. Not straining to prove that Christ rose, Paul has asserted the reality and the happy consequences of the empty tomb. Now he will employ logic with devastating effect, in 15:12-19 postulating the aftermath of faith in the Savior if those who deny the resurrection of the dead happen to be right.

Application. Believers are not required by Scripture to prove to an unbelieving world that Christ rose, the historicity of the event being beyond rational demonstration. Acceptance of the truth is a matter of intelligent faith: whereas believers know whom they believe [2 Tim. 1:12], those who do not wish to understand will never know him. This is because belief in the resurrection of the Lord reduces to a moral issue in that his resurrection demands repentance: if Jesus conquered death, he is unconquerable and hence must be obeyed. It is for this reason that many are unwilling to accept ‘proof’. Instead, what the Bible does clearly teach is that our Lord’s resurrection is to be proclaimed as both promise and ultimatum, depending upon the attitude of those who hear [15:1,11]. Nevertheless, believers know that Christ rose. Firstly, there is ‘Christ in” them, ‘the hope of glory’ [Col. 1:27], and this would be beyond the capacity of someone long dead. Then, too, the Old Testament, honored as part of God’s infallible Word, anticipated the event [e.g. Ps. 2:7; 16:9-11; Isa. 53:10-11], and the risen Christ displayed himself to the disciples [Luke 24:26-27,46]. Further, the New Testament, insisting that the tomb was vacated, offers a magnificent system of faith constructed upon the premise. Last but not least, the testimony of multitudes of men and women across two millennia cannot safely be ignored [cf. Rev. 7:9-10].” [Naylor, pp. 415-425].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. List and explain the content and meaning of the gospel Paul preached to the Corinthians. How do you hold fast to this gospel message? What does Paul mean by believed in vain? How do you avoid that being true of you?
  2. Why does Paul place such great importance upon the historic truth of Christ’s resurrection? What evidence does Paul give for the resurrection?
  3. What would you say to a person who believes that the resurrection of Jesus was spiritual and not physical?


1 Corinthians, David Garland, ECNT, Baker.

1 Corinthians, Peter Naylor, Evangelical Press.

The Message of 1 Corinthians, David Prior, InterVarsity.

1 Corinthians, Mark Taylor, NAC, Broadman Press (ebook).

The purpose of this article is to provide additional reference material for those Sunday School teachers who use Lifeway’s Bible Studies for Life material.


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