In Part 1, all of the relevant passages in 1 Corinthians were discussed, except for the section on the resurrection in chapter 15 (the subject here in Part 2); the references in 2 Corinthians well be addressed in Part 3.
The Resurrection: 1 Corinthians 15
Paul’s lengthy chapter on the resurrection is one of the most famous passages in the New Testament, largely due to several key verses that have been enshrined in their King James Version translation. When viewed as a whole, the discussion is considerably more complex, and demonstrates Paul’s inspired gift for giving theological weight and spiritual depth to traditional early Christian material. It will not be possible to treat the entire chapter in detail; here I will survey each section briefly, bringing out some of the more relevant points and features as they relate to Paul’s eschatological understanding.
“And I make known to you, brothers, the good message which I gave as a good message to you, and which you took alongside and in which you have stood, and through which you are saved—what account I gave as a good message to you, if you hold (it) down (in your mind), if you did not trust without (any) purpose.”
This statement serves to introduce the historical tradition of Jesus’ resurrection, which is central (and foundational) to the earliest Gospel preaching (the “good message”, eu)agge/lion, vb eu)aggeli/zw). Paul frames this fact in terms of the Corinthian believers’ own experience of coming to faith, as a way of urging them to accept his instruction. Four verbs in sequence serve as a rudimentary “order of salvation”:
- “I gave the good message” (eu)hggelisa/men)
- “you took (it) alongside” (parela/bete)
- “you have stood (in/on it)” (e(sth/kate)
- “you are saved (through it)” (sw|/zesqe)
The first two verbs are aorists, indicating past action; the third is a perfect form, referring to a past action or condition that continues into the present; the fourth verb is a present form. The perfect form e(sth/kate (“you have stood”) connotes the continued faithfulness of the Corinthians; from a rhetorical standpoint, this both praises their past faithfulness and encourages it to continue. The present sw|/zesqe (“you are saved”), according to Pauline theology, and reflecting early Christian thought in general, has a two-fold significance: (1) believers are now saved from the power of sin (cf. below on vv. 50-57), and (2) are about to be saved in the coming end-time Judgment. For early Christians, salvation is fundamentally eschatological. The main rhetorical point of emphasis comes at the close of verse 2, where Paul effectively presents his readers with two options: (a) that they “hold down” (i.e. preserve and keep firmly in mind) the Gospel message passed along to them, or (b) that they ignore it (and its implications), meaning that they will end up trusting “without (any) purpose”, the adverb ei)kh=| signifying someone going about randomly or idly.
“For I gave along to you, among the first (thing)s, th(at) which you also took alongside: that (the) Anointed (One) died away over our sins, according to the Writings, and that he was buried, and that he has been raised on the third day according to the Writings, and that he was seen by Kefa, then by the Twelve, then upon [i.e. after] (that) he was seen by over five hundred brothers all at (once)—out of whom the most (still) remain until now, but some (have) lain down (to sleep)—then upon [i.e. after] (that) he was seen by Ya’aqob, then by all the (one)s sent forth [i.e. apostles], and (then), last of all, he was also seen by me, as if (appearing) to (one who had been) cut out (of the womb).”
Paul’s opening words in verse 3 again emphasize how central the resurrection of Jesus is to the Gospel message. This would seem obvious, and is confirmed by a survey of the content of the earliest Christian preaching as recorded in the book of Acts (cf. the series “The Speeches of Acts”), and elsewhere in the New Testament. Here we have a similar kerygma (proclamation), expanded by a listing of post-resurrection appearances by Jesus. In large part these appearances correspond with the Gospel tradition (as presented in the canonical Gospels), and there is little reason to doubt the authenticity of the traditional information Paul records here. The idea of a reliable chain of tradition was fundamental for early Christians, with the apostles and other first-generation believers—who either saw/heard things firsthand or knew those who did—being the transmitters of tradition. Already at this relatively early point (mid/late-50s A.D.), ministers such as Paul were stressing the importance of preserving and guarding this tradition.
“For I am the least of the (one)s sent forth, which (means) that I (should) not (even be) able to be called (one) sent forth [i.e. an apostle], for (it is) that I pursued [i.e. persecuted] the called out (people) of God; but by the favor of God I am what I am, and His favor th(at was shown) unto me did not come to be empty, but even above all of them I beat [i.e. worked] (hard)—not I but, rather, the favor of God [that] (is) with me. (So) then, if (it is) I or if (it is) those (others), so we proclaimed (the message) and so you trusted.”
Paul’s self-effacing description of his apostleship, while doubtless reflecting his genuine attitude, also serves the rhetorical purpose of gaining the sympathy of his readers, so that they are more likely to hear his instruction. It also reaffirms his own position as a reliable transmitter of Gospel tradition; for another example of this, in an eschatological context, cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (and the previous article on that passage).
“But if it is proclaimed (of the) Anointed (One) that he has been raised out of the dead, how is it counted [i.e. thought/said] among some of you that ‘there is not (any) standing up out of the dead’? And if there is no standing up out of the dead, (then the) Anointed (One) also has not been raised; and if (the) Anointed (One) has not been raised, then [even] our proclamation is empty, and your trust also empty, and we are found even (to be) false witnesses of God, (in) that we witnessed according to God that He raised the Anointed (One), whom He did not (in fact) raise, if (it is) then (that) dead (person)s are not raised.
For, if dead (person)s are not raised, (then the) Anointed (One) also has not been raised; and if (the) Anointed (One) has not been raised, (then) your trust (is) futile, (and) you are yet in your sins, and then (also) the (one)s (hav)ing lain down (to sleep) in (the) Anointed (One) (have) gone away to ruin. If we are (one)s having hoped in (the) Anointed (One) only in this life, (then) we are the most pitiable of all men!”
The main point of the passage is now introduced. There were, apparently, some Christians in Corinth who expressed the belief (or at least the possibility) that the bodies of human beings could, or would, not be raised from the dead. They presumably accepted the resurrection of Jesus, as a special and unique event, but not that the bodies of other believers would be raised in a similar way. There would still be a blessed afterlife, but not one involving a raised physical body (on similar doubts and skepticism, cf. Acts 17:32, and views of the Sadducees in Mark 12:18 par; Acts 23:6-8). While such an outlook might be understandable, especially for Greek believers, it runs contrary to a central tenet of Paul’s theology (and Christology)—that the fundamental identity of believers involves our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. So important is this idea for Paul, that he states the relationship here, twice, using forceful language and a clear chain of logic. Taken by itself, and viewed objectively, the actual logic is not all that convincing: why exactly is it that “if there is no resurrection out of the dead, (then) Christ also has not been raised”? Could not Jesus’ resurrection be an example of a special miracle? Similarly, if trust in Jesus leads to a blessed afterlife for the soul (but not the physical body), how would this make Christians “the most pitiable of all men”? Such questions, however, miss the point of the unity believers share with Christ, so that the two cannot be separated—what happens to Jesus must also happen to those united with him. Indeed, Paul goes so far as to say that any such separation effectively nullifies the entire Gospel message! It may not be immediately apparent just why this is, but Paul expounds the matter in some detail in the verses that follow. Here his forceful rhetoric, if nothing else, would likely get the attention of his readers.
“But now (the) Anointed (One) has been raised out of the dead, (the) beginning (fruit) from (the harvest) of the (one)s having lain down (to sleep). For seeing that death (came) through (a) man, standing up (out of the) dead also (came) through a man. Just as in the Man [lit. ‘Adam] all died away, so also in the Anointed (One) all will be made alive. But each (will be) in his own arranged place: (the) Anointed (One as the) beginning (fruit) from (the harvest), then upon [i.e. after] (that), the (one)s of [ i.e. belonging to] the Anointed in his (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a], (and) then the completion [te/lo$], when he shall give along the kingdom to God the Father, when he shall make every a)rxh/ and every e)cousi/a and power to cease working.”
There are three key strands to this powerful statement, each with a strong eschatological emphasis:
- Harvest imagery, expressed by the word a)parxh/ (“[the] beginning from”, i.e. from the harvest); according to Old Testament religious tradition, and, especially, the agricultural regulations in the Law of Moses [Torah], the first part of the harvest was marked as belonging to God. Just as the harvest marked the end of the growing season, so it served as a fitting symbol for the end of the current Age. The threshing process, the separation of grain from chaff, represented the time of Judgment—i.e., separating the righteous from the wicked. The eschatological use of harvest imagery is seen, for example, in the preaching of John the Baptist (Matt 3:12 par), the sayings and parables of Jesus (Mark 4:29; Matt 9:37-38 par; 13:30, 39; John 4:35), and the visions of the book of Revelation (14:14-20, cf. Joel 3:13ff).
- The Adam/Christ parallel, best known from Romans 5:12-21 (cf. my earlier discussion on this passage). The eschatological aspect of this may not be immediately obvious to modern readers. However, Adam represents the beginning of the current Age and Jesus Christ its end; the old order of things was introduced with Adam, and the new order (the New Age) with Jesus. Paul will develop this parallel further in the passage (cf. below).
- The end-time coming (parousi/a, parousia) of the exalted Jesus. Paul refers to this more clearly in 1 Thess 4:13-18, specifically including a reference to the resurrection—i.e. the raising of believers who have died to join those still alive at the moment of Jesus’ return. His coming marks the completion (te/lo$) of the current Age, accompanied by the final Judgment.
This three-fold description is brought to a climax in verse 24, with a uniquely Pauline presentation of traditional Messianic imagery—i.e. involving Jesus’ role as the Anointed One, drawing especially on two strands of tradition: (1) the Davidic Ruler figure type, that is, of the king serving as God’s representative on earth, and (2) the Heavenly Redeemer (“Son of Man”) figure-type (from Daniel 7:13-14ff, etc); for more on these, cf. Parts 6–8 and 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. Here the language reflects the completion of the Judgment, the defeat/subjugation of enemies and opponents of God, carried out by the Anointed One. In so doing, God’s Kingdom is finally realized, with His Rule established over all of Creation. This is depicted in a heavenly ceremonial scene, similar in many respects to the more developed scenes in the visions of Revelation (chaps. 4-5; 7:9-12; 11:15-18; 12:10ff; 19:1-5, 11ff, etc).
“For it is necessary (for) him to rule as king until he should set all the hostile (one)s under his feet—(and the) last hostile (one) made to cease working is Death—for (indeed) he (has) put in order all (thing)s under his feet. But when (one) would say, ‘all (thing)s have been put in order under (his feet)’, (it is) clear that (this is) without [i.e. does not include] the (One) putting all (thing)s in order under him. But when all (thing)s should be put in order under him, then [even] he, the Son, will be put in order under the (One) putting all (thing)s in order under him, (so) that God should be all (thing)s in all.”
Here the Messianic subduing of enemies (v. 24) is cast within a precise theological hierarchy. Paul is apparently sensitive to the exalted status accorded to Jesus, by way of the traditional Messianic imagery of Psalm 110:1 applied to Jesus (Acts 2:34-35; Heb 1:13; 10:13). He takes great care to emphasize that, though Jesus is the Anointed One and Son of God, he is still subordinate to God the Father. Theologians have found great difficulty with this, but the later Christological controversies regarding ‘subordinationism’ are quite foreign to Paul. What Jesus the Anointed One subdues and “puts in order” underneath him (i.e. under his authority) is referred to comprehensively in verse 24 as “every a)rxh/” (that is, every chief ruling power), “every e)cousi/a” (i.e. every one who exercises authority, including the basis by which they act), and “every power” (i.e. the strength and ability by which a person acts). The “last” such ruling power is Death personified. Paul occasionally refers to Sin and Death as personified figures, as rulers who hold humankind in bondage under their power. Christ’s redeeming work freed believers from the power of Sin, but, as human beings, we are still under the power of death (that is, we all die). The resurrection represents the exalted Jesus’ power over death.
“Upon what (then) will they do, the (one)s being dunked [i.e. baptized] over the dead? If the dead are not raised whole, (for) what [i.e. why] even be dunked over the dead? And (for) what [i.e. why] are we in danger every hour? And I die away according to (each) day—(so I swear) by your boast, [brothers,] which I hold in (the) Anointed Yeshua our Lord! If, according to men, I fought wild animals in Efesos, what (is) the gain for me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die off! You must not be led astray: ‘Bad conversations [or, companions] corrupt useful habits’. You must wake out of (this intoxication), as is right, and must not sin; for some hold a lack of knowledge of God—I speak to you toward turning (you) in [i.e. back] (away from this).”
This rather uneven digression includes a number of references that have tripped up commentators, which is unfortunate, since they tend to obscure the primary point being made in the passage. For example, Paul’s mention of the apparent practice of being baptized “over the dead” (v. 29) has proven notoriously difficult to interpret. The preposition u(pe/r (“over”) often has the figurative meaning “for the sake of, on behalf of”; even so, the precise situation referenced by Paul remains elusive. Were baptisms performed on behalf of persons who had died prior to having heard the Gospel proclaimed, so as to bestow salvation or blessing vicariously on them? Or, perhaps, baptisms were being dedicated to believing friends and relatives who had passed away. We cannot be certain. Paul expresses neither approval or disapproval of the practice, and there is no other mention of anything of the sort, either in the New Testament, or other Christian Writings of the first/second century. It is possible that the situation reflects a general concern, regarding the relationship between living and dead believers, such as we find in 1 Thess 4:13-18. There the context is certainly eschatological, and relates also to the resurrection. If dead believers will rise (in their bodies) along with those living, to meet Jesus at his coming, then a denial of the resurrection means that the entire scenario—and the Christian unity it represents—would be negated.
Overall, however, Paul’s point is not so grand here in vv. 29ff. He uses several examples to illustrate the practical implications for human beings if there is no resurrection. The first two relate to believers:
- Baptisms performed “for the sake of” the dead, whatever this entails precisely; it certainly reflects a care and concern for those who have died (v. 29)
- The hardship and danger faced by Christians (vv. 30ff)—Paul uses his own example of “fighting wild animals” (in a figurative sense) at Ephesus
In Paul’s view, all such efforts (in the face of death) are rendered meaningless if there is no resurrection for the dead. The last illustration is proverbial (v. 32b), and represents the implication for non-believers: there need not be any concern for the future (“let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die off”), which can lead to self-centered amoral (and immoral) behavior. Paul strongly urges his readers not to be led astray to follow such an example as a result of their disbelief or doubts regarding the resurrection (vv. 33-34).
“But some(one) will say, ‘How are the dead raised? and with what body do they come?’ Senseless (one)! that which you scatter (as seed) is not made alive if it should not (first) die off; and that which you scatter (as seed), (it) is not the body th(at) is coming to be (that) you scatter, but a naked kernel, if it happens (to be) of wheat or of some of the remaining (kind)s, and God gives to it a body even as He wishes, and to each of the scattered (seed)s its own body. Not all flesh is the same flesh, but (rather) a different (one) for men, and a different flesh for creatures (of the field), and a different flesh for winged (creature)s, and a different (one) for fishes. Indeed (there are) bodies upon the heavens and bodies upon the earth, but (also) a distinct honor for th(ose) upon the heavens and (one) distinct for th(ose) upon the earth; (and) a different honor for the sun, and a different honor for the moon, and a different honor for the stars—for star (after) star bears through in (its distinct) honor.”
The agricultural/harvest imagery continues in this section, with the concrete motif of the seed that ‘dies’ only to be made alive as it grows, taking on a distinctive “body”. Jesus was fond of the seed motif in his parables and illustrations (e.g., Mark 4:3-8ff, 26-32 par), using it specifically in reference to his own death and resurrection in John 12:24. Everything in creation has its own “body” (sw=ma), and also its own kind of honor or splendor (do/ca). The distinction of heavenly (i.e. celestial) bodies prepares the way for Paul’s distinction between the physical (earthly) bodies of human beings and the spiritual (heavenly) bodies of believers in the resurrection.
“So also is the standing up [i.e. resurrection] of the dead: it is scattered (as seed) in decay, it is raised (in a form) without decay; it is scattered in (a form) without value, it is raised in (a form with) honor—scattered in a lack of strength, raised in power, scattered (as) a body with a soul, raised as a body with the Spirit. If there is a body with (only) a soul, there is also (a body) with the Spirit. Even so it has been written, ‘The first man Adam into a living soul’, (and) the last ‘Adam’ into a Spirit making alive. But the (body) with the Spirit (is) not first, but the (one) with the soul (is first), (and) then upon [i.e. after] this the (one) with the Spirit. The first man (is) out of the dust (of the earth), the second man (is) out of heaven. Such as the dust (of the earth is), so also (are) those of the (earth-)dust; and such as the (place) upon [i.e. above] the heavens (is), so also (are) those (who are) upon [i.e. above] the heavens. And even as we bore the image of the dust (of the earth), (so) also we will bear the image of th(at which is) upon [i.e. above] the heavens.”
Paul again blends harvest imagery with the Adam/Christ parallel, as in vv. 20-24 (cf. above). The latter motif is expanded into a full-fledged dualism, contrasting the ordinary human being with the believer in Christ. Two main pairs are used for this contrast:
- Earth vs. Heaven—In verse 40 the word-pair was e)pi/geio$ (“upon the earth”) and e)poura/nio$ (“upon [i.e. above] the heavens”). Here in vv. 47-49, e)pi/geio$ is replaced by xoi+ko/$, which refers more properly to the “dust” (or “dirt, soil”) of the earth’s surface (and beneath it). This establishes a more extreme contrast: the crude dirt beneath the earth’s surface and the pure place above the skies.
- Soul (yuxh/) vs. Spirit (pneu=ma)—Here the contrast is primarily between the adjective yuxiko/$ and pneuma/tiko$, both of which are Pauline terms. The latter is usually rendered “spiritual”, while the former proves almost impossible to render accurately into English— “soulish” would be comparable, but that scarcely exists as a legitimate word. Most translations opt for “natural”, which is rather inaccurate and misleading, though it can get across the basic idea. Paul’s only other use of yuxiko/$ is in 1 Cor 2:14; it is also used in the letter of James (3:15), as generally synonymous with e)pi/geio$. Jude 19 captures the correct meaning, glossing it as referring to persons “not holding the Spirit”, i.e. ordinary human beings without the Spirit. That is very much what Paul has in mind in 1 Cor 2:14, and also here. A yuxiko/$ person has a soul (yuxh/), but not the Spirit, and thus applies to every non-believer.
Perhaps the most striking point of contrast is in verse 45, where Paul, developing the Adam/Christ parallel, states that “the first man Adam (was turned) into a living soul, the second Adam into a Spirit making alive”. The first phrase, of course, comes from the Genesis narrative, but how are we to understand the second phrase? There would seem to be two aspects to Paul’s thought: (1) it refers to the exalted Jesus after the resurrection, and (2) it reflects an understanding of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ, i.e. the living and abiding presence of Jesus in and among believers. In my view, it is the latter, the Holy Spirit, that is primarily in view. To say that Jesus was changed/turned into the Spirit may seem odd, but it captures the dynamic character of the resurrection and the ascension/exaltation of Jesus into heaven. In both the Luke-Acts narrative, and in the Johannine tradition, the coming of the Spirit is closely connected with Jesus’ resurrection and ascent to the Father (Lk 24:49-51; Acts 1:8-11; 2:1-4ff; John 14:1-4, 15-18ff, 25-26; 15:26; 16:12-13ff; 20:17, 22). There are two related aspects to the resurrection in this regard: (a) believers’ participation in Jesus’ dying and rising, including the power that raised him, and (b) the presence and power of the Spirit in believers, which enables one to be raised from the dead.
“This I tell (you), brothers, that flesh and blood is not able to receive the kingdom of God as (its) lot, and decay is not able to receive (a form) without decay as (its) lot. See, I relate to you a secret! We shall not all lie down (to sleep), but we shall all be made different, in an uncut (particle) [i.e. moment], in a flicker of (the) eye, in the last trumpet (sound)—for it will trumpet and the dead will be raised without decay, and we will be made different. For, it is necessary (for) this decay(ing body) to sink in(to) [i.e. put on] (a form) without decay, and (for) the dying (body) to sink in(to) [i.e. put on] (a form) without death. And when this decay should sink in(to a form) without decay, and this dying should sink in(to a form) without death, then will come to be the account having been written: ‘Death was drunk down into victory. Where, Death, (is) your victory? Where, Death, (is) your (sharp) point?’ And the (sharp) point of the Death (is) Sin, and the power of Sin (is) the Law; but thanks to God (for His) favor, the (One) giving us the victory through our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed!”
These climactic verses represent one of the most famous and oft-cited passages in the entire New Testament. As English poetry, the King James Version remains unsurpassed; still, it is even better (and, in its own way, more powerful) when read in the original Greek, the sense of which I attempt to convey in the literal rendering above. The passage here is filled with eschatological motifs and images, which may be listed out as follows:
- The idea of inheriting the Kingdom of God, drawn from traditional language related to the afterlife/end-time Judgment scene
- The specific use of the word “secret” (musth/rion), with its strong eschatological implications—cf. Rom 16:25; 1 Cor 2:1; Col 1:26-27; 2 Thess 2:7; Rev 1:20; 10:7; 17:5ff
- The sounding of a trumpet to announce the end of the current Age and the end-time Judgment (Matt 24:31; 1 Thess 4:16; Rev 1:10; 4:1; 8:6-13ff; 11:15)
- The trumpet-blast representing the suddenness with which believers are gathered together at the return of Jesus (1 Thess 4:16; Matt 24:31)
- The idea of being clothed in new garments, i.e. eschatological use of wedding/festal motifs (Rev 19:7-9; Matt 22:11ff; 25:1ff, etc)
- The Messianic imagery of being victorious over the enemies of God (and His people); here, the great enemy is Death itself (see vv. 24-26, above)
Throughout, these motifs are expressed in distinctive Pauline theological terms, including his unique view of the relationship between sin and the Law (v. 56). We can see how important that belief is for him by the way that he introduces it here, as an interpretation/application of the Scriptures quoted (Isa 25:8; Hos 13:14), even though it has little immediate relevance to the subject of the resurrection. It also demonstrates that Pauline soteriology focused as least as much on salvation from the power of sin as on the more traditional idea of being saved from the coming Judgment. Deliverance from bondage to the ruling power of sin was the more immediate experience for believers in the present.
It is in verses 50-57 that Paul is closest to the eschatological passage of 1 Thess 4:13-18, in which the resurrection also plays a prominent role. Paul is the only New Testament author who specifically includes those who have died among the believers who are gathered together to meet Jesus at his coming. He likely is simply making explicit what other Christians would have taken for granted. However, in the early years, at least, in view of the strong belief in the imminence of Jesus’ return, the general expectation doubtless was for the vast majority of believers to still be alive when this occurred. By the time Paul wrote (50s A.D.), there would have been a number of Christians who already died before the expected end, so it would have been increasingly necessary to mention the resurrection in the context of Jesus’ return.