1CORINTHIANS 15:12-34: THE RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD
© Rosemary Bardsley 2015
Paul turns to the question of whether or not there is such a thing as the resurrection of the dead.
The question of life after death divided the Jews – the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees did not. This denial of resurrection of the dead was the point of the Sadducees’ question to Jesus recorded in Matthew 22:23-33.
The Roman governor, Festus, thought Paul had gone mad when he spoke of the resurrection of the dead [Acts 26:23,24].
Now some of the Corinthian believers were saying ‘that there is no resurrection of the dead’ [15:12]. They were not specifically denying the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but the whole concept of the resurrection of the dead generally.
A. THE LOGICAL IMPLICATIONS OF DENYING THE RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD
Paul points out, firstly, that to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and at the same time to deny the resurrection of the dead generally, is illogical [verse12]. It is not possible to hold these two beliefs intact at the same time. To hold them both together means that one of them has to be compromised in some way.
Secondly Paul points out the logical implications of denying the resurrection of the dead generally.
Read 1Corinthians 15:13-19. List the implications of denying the resurrection of the dead. [You should be able to find seven implications.]
A.1 If there is no such thing as resurrection of the dead then Christ has not been raised [15:13,16]
Although they were denying the resurrection of the dead generally, Paul makes it unmistakably clear that to talk in that way actually meant that Jesus also did not rise from the dead. If real human beings don’t rise from the dead, then Jesus also did not rise from the dead because he was a real human being. He shared our ‘flesh and blood’ – he died a real physical death, physically the same as any human death. If there is no such thing as resurrection of the dead, then ‘Christ has not been raised.’ Paul mentions this implication twice.
A.2 If Christ has not been raised our preaching is useless … [15:14]
The Gospel proclaimed by the apostles was grounded in the real resurrection of Christ from the dead. As we saw in section A3 of the previous study the apostles linked a number of truths to the resurrection of Christ:
Christ’s identity as ‘the Holy One’ [Psalm16:8-11; Acts 2:24-28; 13:35].
Christ’s exaltation and restoration to glory [Acts 2:29-35; Ephesians 1:19b-22; Colossians 1:18].
Christ’s identity as God [Acts 2:35,36; Romans 1:4; 10:9].
The fulfilment of God’s Old Testament promises [Acts 13:32-37].
Forgiveness of sins, justification, salvation [Acts 13:32-28; Romans 4:25; 1Peter 3:21].
The final judgment [Acts 17:31].
The proclamation of the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles [Acts 26:23].
The new life of those who believe in Christ [Romans 6:4-9; Ephesians 2:6; Colossians 2:12; 1Peter 1:3].
The promise of the resurrection of our physical bodies [Romans 8:11; 1Corinthians 6:14; 2Corinthians 4:14].
The resurrection of Christ from the dead undergirds all of the above. None of them has any substance if Jesus was not raised. Take away Christ’s resurrection and the message preached by the apostles is ‘useless’ – without the incarnation, without salvation, without hope.
A.3 ‘… and so is your faith’ 15:14 ‘… your faith is futile’ [15:17]
Similarly, take away the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ and belief in Jesus Christ is ‘useless’ and ‘futile’. It has no factual basis. It achieves nothing real. It has no purpose, no point.
A.4 ‘… we are then found to be false witnesses about God …’ [15:15]
If Jesus was not raised, then the apostles’ preaching was based on a lie, testifying that God had raised Jesus from the dead, when he had done no such thing; in addition, their teaching that God granted forgiveness, justification and salvation on the basis of the resurrection of Christ was also a lie.
A.5 ‘… if Christ has not been raised … you are still in your sins’ [15:17]
If Christ has not been raised all that Jesus and the apostles taught about forgiveness of sins through his death, and the associated removal of the guilt, judgment and condemnation of sins, is invalid. If Jesus stayed dead, his death can have no such impact. It is neither substitutionary nor atoning. Sin is still unforgiven. Sin still separates us from God. Sin still attracts to us God’s wrath and judgment – we are still ‘in our sins’: still having to pay for our own sins, still dead in our sins, still under condemnation, still burdened with guilt before the holy God.
A.6 ‘… those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost’ [15:18]
If Christ is not raised, those who believed in Christ, and have already died, are ‘lost’ – not ‘saved, as they had thought, but lost for eternity. If the Gospel is not ‘good news’, if Jesus is still dead, there is no way these deceased believers can be saved. They are forever cut off from God and from life by their sins.
A.7 ‘… we are to be pitied more than all men’ [15:19]
Paul here makes the point that, if Jesus was not raised, the apostles and all who had believed in him on the basis of his resurrection, have been the victims of an immense religious scam: they had put all their hope and trust in a lie; they have exposed themselves to opposition and ridicule for a lie; they have spent their whole lives serving a lie; they have denied themselves and their families financial security, and social and cultural acceptance for a lie; they have staked their eternal destiny on a lie. In addition, they have exposed themselves to the judgment and wrath of God for having misrepresented him by misrepresenting Christ.
B. AFFIRMATION OF CHRIST’S RESURRECTION AND ITS IMPACT
Paul quickly affirms that Christ has indeed been raised from the dead [15:20]. This resurrection of Christ has implications for those who believe in him.
B.1 Christ is ‘the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep’ [15:20].
The ‘firstfruits’ of the harvest anticipates the whole harvest. This concept pulsates with certain hope and expectation. It is the promise of things to come. Paul calls Jesus Christ ‘the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep’. By ‘fallen asleep’ he means ‘died’. He is referring to believers who have died [see verse 18]. Paul’s meaning here is that the fact that Christ was raised from the dead is the promise and assurance that those who are united to him through faith will also be physically raised from the dead. He, the first to rise, and those who have believed in him, follow him in physical resurrection.
B.2 ‘… the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man’ [15:21,22]
In 15:21,22 Paul goes right back to Genesis 3. There death entered through a man, Adam. Because of Adam and ‘in Adam’ all die.
Read Romans 5:12-21. List the various statements Paul makes about the impact of Adam’s sin.
From Romans 5:12-21 we gain the following understanding of how ‘death came through a man’:
5:12: sin entered through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men.
5:14: death reigned
5:15: many died by the trespass of the one man
5:16: judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation [see also verse 18]
5:17: death reigned through that one man
5:21: sin reigned in death.
In 1Corinthians 15:21,22 Paul points out the positive counterpart of this horrific flow-on: that just as death entered through one man, so the resurrection of the dead also comes through one man.
Read Romans 5:12-21 again and list the references to the life that comes through Jesus Christ to those who believe in him.
Here Paul states that through Christ:
Those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace ‘reign in life’ [verse 17].
Grace reigns through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord [verse 21].
Although in Romans Paul’s teaching includes reference to spiritual life [life with God that has already begun], the basis of his argument is the same as in 1Corinthians where his emphasis is on physical resurrection: that the one man, Jesus Christ, reverses what was begun by the one man, Adam. Adam brought death; Christ brings the reversal of death. Christ brings resurrection from the dead.
B.3 ‘ … so in Christ will all be made alive …’ [15:22]
All who are ‘in Christ’ will be made alive. Paul is speaking of the physical resurrection of the body on the last day. It is not automatic. It is a deliberate divine action.
B.4 ‘… but each in his own turn …’ [15:23]
There are a number of time-related events that we need to keep in the right perspective. These relate to our spirit, our soul and our body.
 We receive new spiritual life the moment we believe in Christ [the moment we are regenerated by the Spirit of God]. This is very clear in the Bible.
Study these texts. What do they teach happens at the very moment a person repents and believes in Jesus Christ?
This regeneration, this replacing of spiritual death with spiritual life, is an essential part of our initial salvation. By reconnection with God, through Christ, we are reconnected with spiritual life. United to Christ by faith we now live, whereas before we were spiritually dead.
 When believers die physically, and we all will die physically unless Jesus returns before that, we go straight, immediately, to be with the Lord Jesus where he is.
Study these texts. What do they teach happens when a believer dies physically?
 When Jesus returns, and only then, believers will be raised physically. It is this resurrection of the physical body that Paul is writing about in 1Corinthians 15. Here in verse 23 he defines the divinely appointed order – ‘each in his turn’: first the physical resurrection of Christ – as the ‘firstfruits’, the guarantee of our physical resurrection; ‘then, when he comes’, the physical resurrection of ‘those who belong to him’. [Paul will talk about this further in verses 35 to 54.]
For additional information:
C. THE AUTHORITY OF JESUS CHRIST – 15:24-28
Paul interrupts his teaching on the resurrection of the dead with a few comments about the power and authority of Jesus Christ. This is relevant to the question because physical ‘death’ is one of the enemies, (Paul calls it the ‘last enemy’), that Christ destroys. The issue is ‘Does Christ have the authority and the power to conquer even death?’, and the answer is ‘Yes.’ When we extend that question to ‘Does Christ have the authority and the power to conquer even physical death?’ the answer is still ‘Yes!’
From his personal perspective, Christ has already personally conquered physical death. From a global perspective, physical death remains on the earth. It will not be removed from the earth until the final consummation of all things at the end of the age when every enemy will be removed, including physical death, and ‘the new heaven and new earth’ are established. This ‘end’ [the Greek word is telos] does not refer to termination but to consummation – the time when everything is brought to its divinely intended goal, the time when God’s purpose is fulfilled.
Paul alludes very briefly here in this word ‘telos’ to the fact that what we know and experience in this present era, this present age, is not God’s ultimate goal. This is not what he created us for. This life of physical suffering and physical death, the presence of sin and of evil, the tensions, the struggles both external and internal – none of this is his goal or his purpose for us. Our human rebellion in Genesis 3 necessitated the implementation of law, of judgment and of penalty. Sin cannot be let loose, unrestricted, unpunished, and forever. Law, judgment, death: all are made necessary by human sin. This is quite evident in Genesis 3:22-24 where access to ‘the tree of life’ is prohibited. Where sin had entered, death must also enter. Where God is rejected, life is forfeited.
But death is not out of control. Even before the creation of the world, the death of Jesus to undo the impact of Genesis 3 was planned by God.
Check these scriptures again:
Jesus came, not to fight a battle of which the result was unknown, but to fight a battle in which his victory was already assured. It was embedded in the eternal plan of God, set in place before the creation of the world, set in place before time began.
The power and authority of Jesus Christ out of which this certain victory comes and death is replaced with life is not imposed in a one-stage event. It is exerted at different levels and at different times. This progressive implementation of the power and the victory of Christ is also embedded in God’s purpose.
The break-down of the victory of Christ, in terms of its outworking in human time, is:
[Stage 1] Christ, by his substitutionary, sin-bearing death, has already removed the spiritual impacts of sin. By that death those who believe in him are reconciled to God, justified, forgiven. They are again, at the spiritual level, alive in the presence of God, with no fear of ever again being cut off from God by sin. We have seen this in section A.1 of the previous study.
[Stage 2a] During the time between his death/resurrection/ascension and his second coming, Christ is even now at the right hand of the Father in the position of power and authority, with all powers and authorities of all descriptions, subject to him. Paul teaches this, for example, in Ephesians 1:20,21. These powers and authorities are still active and still actively opposed to him, but they are not stronger than him, and they are limited by the boundary of his permission. He could, if he so willed, terminate any or all of them at any moment.
[Stage 2b] Concurrent with 2a, Jesus, the Victor, the Conqueror, is extending his victory as, by the preaching and teaching of the Gospel, he rescues individual human beings, and human communities, from the power of darkness, opening their eyes to the truth and setting them free. By the Gospel his kingdom and his authority are extended person by person as he begins to reign in the hearts and minds of those who receive him.
If God’s purpose was simply the removal of the enemy – the complete removal of sin, death and Satan – the final victory, the consummation of God’s purposes, could have occurred at the same time as the death/resurrection/ascension of Jesus Christ. But God’s purpose is not about the removal of the enemy. God’s purpose is about our salvation, and will not be completed until the number of the redeemed is complete. In 2Peter 3 we learn that it is our repentance, our salvation, that ‘delays’ the return of Christ and the final removal of all that is evil. God, who is rich in mercy, has given us time – time to hear the Gospel of his Son, time to repent and be saved.
[Stage 3] On the ‘last day’ Jesus will come and destroy all the enemies. None will be left. You can read about this in various chapters in Revelation, sometimes in apocalyptic symbol, sometimes in straight prose. The final statements about this are in Revelation 20:10, which tells us that the devil, ‘the beast’ and ‘the false prophet’ are thrown into the ‘lake of fire’ ‘for ever and ever’; and in Revelation 20:14, where ‘death and Hades’ are also thrown into the ‘lake of fire’. In Revelation 21:4 we read that there ‘is no more death or mourning or crying or pain’. They are all removed by Jesus Christ. This day, when it happens, happens very abruptly and very swiftly.
[Stage 4] The permanent, eternal state: the new heaven and the new earth. God reigns, and Jesus with him. There are no enemies left, and there will never again be any enemies. Life under his reign, life dependent on him, without sin, without death, continues for ever. Life as it was meant to be.
Paul’s understanding of these different stages of the victory of Christ is at the back of what he writes in 1Corinthians 15:24-28.
 During the interim between his initial and decisive victory [his death/resurrection/ascension] and his final victory [at his return] Jesus Christ reigns [verse 25]. The final victory is simply the inevitable extension and final expression of the first victory; it is the only possible outcome. It cannot be otherwise – Jesus reigns. .
About the victory and the reign of Christ we must be careful not to diminish either:
The real, definitive victory is the original victory already accomplished at Calvary. As mentioned above, the outcome of this battle was never in question. Not only was it sealed by the will of God it is also guaranteed by the nature of Christ. Because he is who he is he could not lose the battle.
The reign of Christ did not commence with his victory at Calvary. Christ has always been the Son of God, the King of kings, the Lord of lords. He reigns, because that is who he is, because that is what he does. The fact that he reigns does not mean that his reign is recognized, but it does mean that he is the King, not any of those who seek to usurp his throne. And it does mean that he is in control. Evil is not in control. Satan is not in control. Jesus is.
The fact that there are still enemies of God around does not indicate a degree of failure or a degree to which Christ did not win the battle or does not reign. Rather it indicates the grace of God, and the extreme patience of God, as noted above in 2Peter 3.
 Christ’s ‘reign’ continues until the time when he puts all his enemies ‘under his feet’ [verse 25]. The last of these will be ‘death’ [verse 26]. Indeed, Paul states that ‘he must reign until’ he has put them all under his feet. It is a divine necessity.
And here we must pause to consider this word ‘reign’. It is not a passive sitting on a throne surrounded by obedient and applauding subjects. It is an active ruling. Christ must actively rule, must actively exert his authority, must actively limit and control the enemies, ‘until’ he has put them all under his feet.
We could limit this to the final events, where he defeats all enemies by the splendour of his coming and by power of his word [see 2Thessalonians 2:8; Revelation 19:15,21]. But this would leave him inactive during the whole church age … something he very definitely is not. Christ is actively ruling as he rescues sinners from the dominion of darkness [Colossians 1:13; 2Corinthians 4:4-6] preventing Satan from deceiving them [Revelation 20:3]. Christ is actively ruling as by his death and mediation he disempowers the accusations of the evil one [Romans 8:31-34; Revelation 12:10]. Christ is actively ruling as he keeps the redeemed safe from apostasy [Philippians 1:6; 2Timothy 1:12; Jude 24], as he holds us safe in his hand [John 10:28]. Christ is also actively ruling as he limits and controls the destructive activities of the evil one, and as he actively pours out preliminary judgments upon the inhabitants of the earth [Revelation 2:10; 8:9-12].
This grand assurance that Jesus Christ reigns [rules] even now is a great comfort and encouragement to those who believe. The world is not left to its own devices to do as it pleases until he returns. Christ is ruling; Christ is doing his sovereign work.
 The day will come [the last day] when Christ does terminate evil, when he, in a decisive and abrupt action, puts his enemies under his feet [verse 25]. All opposing ‘dominion, authority and power’ will be ‘destroyed’ [verse 24], that is, brought to nothing, rendered impotent, unable to do anything.
 The last of these enemies to be destroyed is ‘death’ [verse 26]. So long as sin exists death also exists. Death is the necessary companion of sin, necessary by God’s decree [Genesis 2:17]. When Christ rids the world of sin and evil, and of those who promote, perpetrate and perpetuate sin and evil; when the final and ultimate punishment upon sin is meted out, then death itself is also removed. There is nothing left to necessitate this penalty [Romans 6:23] that is in the world only because of sin [Romans 5:12; Genesis 2:17]. There is nothing left that can or will cut humans off from God and from life. Death has no more place, no more purpose. Death is destroyed [verse 25]. Death is ‘swallowed up in victory’ [verse 54].
And here we are tempted to question ‘why does not Christ do this sooner?’ And quickly we must answer – ‘only because of his grace, only so that you and I had time to repent and be saved.’
 On that same day, that ‘last day’, when he comes, then the resurrection of the physical bodies of those who believe in him occurs [1Corinthians 15:22,23].
 On that same day, when all that is opposed to God has been removed, including our own personal imperfections [1John 3:1,2], Jesus ‘hands over the kingdom to God the father’ [15:24]. This ‘kingdom’ is the purpose, the goal, the telos, towards which God has been moving the whole of human history since Genesis 3. This is the purpose for which Christ died and for which Christ reigns.
Christ died for sins to bring us to God [1Peter 3:18].
By his death he ‘has made us to be a kingdom’ [Revelation 1:6; 5:10].
By Christ’s death he presents us to God ‘holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation’ [Colossians 1:22].
By his power he keeps us and presents us before God’s throne ‘without fault’ [Jude 24].
On this day God will be all in all [15:28]. Nothing and no one anti-God remains. Nothing. Nothing remains of sin. Nothing remains of the impact of sin – neither in the physical world nor in the hearts and minds of the redeemed. God is seen and known as he really is. We, the redeemed, perfectly image his glory. God is ‘all in all’.
This ultimate and eternal state is brought about by Jesus Christ, the one who died and rose again. All of this, this eternal purpose of God, is nothing if there is no such thing as the resurrection of the dead, if there is no such thing as the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.
D. TWO FURTHER QUESTIONS – 15:29-32
Paul addresses two additional questions that arise from denying the physical resurrection of the dead.
D.1 A puzzling question – 15:29
It appears from what Paul writes in this verse that some Christians had been baptized on behalf of believers who had died without being baptised. Paul does not discuss the rightness or wrongness of this practice. He mentions it to point out that such a practice is pointless if the dead are not raised. The practice, whether it is right or wrong, assumes that the dead are raised.
D.2 Why do we subject ourselves to danger – 15:30-32
Paul refers to some of the dangers experienced by himself and other apostles and preachers, and points out the stupidity of their exposing themselves to such hardships if the resurrection of the dead is not fact. Why bother, why risk one’s life if the teaching of the resurrection of the dead is just a human myth? If there is no resurrection of the dead the preaching of the Gospel is worthless and pointless – they would be better off just enjoying this present life to the max [verse 32].
It is only because the resurrection of the dead and the resurrection of Jesus Christ are indeed fact that the apostles committed their lives to proclaiming the Gospel. Without the resurrection, if the dead are not raised, then the adage is indeed the best advice: eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
CONCLUSION – 15:33,34
Paul’s conclusion to this section contains two commands:
 ‘Do not be misled’ [verse 33]. That is, do not be misled by those who are saying there is no such thing as the resurrection of the dead. Continued association with those teaching error ends up corrupting the understanding of those listening to them – ‘bad company corrupts good character’. Or as Paul states elsewhere ‘a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough’ [1Corinthians 5:6,7; Galatians 5:9].
 ‘Come back to your senses … stop sinning’ [verse 34]. Paul uses very strong language in this verse. It is clear that he understands denying the resurrection of the dead to be sin. Further, he describes some of those who are denying the resurrection of the dead as ‘ignorant of God’. Their denial of the resurrection of the dead is simply an expression of their ignorance. They simply don’t know God, and because they don’t know God, it is impossible for them to believe in the resurrection of the dead – a thing that takes the almighty power of God to achieve. Paul is appalled that some of the believers in Corinth are getting their understanding from people in their midst who are unbelievers, ignorant of God and ignorant of God’s power.
To what extent are your personal beliefs, or the perceptions of your church, influenced by statements or beliefs of those who are ignorant of God? How much of what you believe is conditioned by popular, secular opinion?