A high point of Scripture is the 15th chapter of I Corinthians. I shall devote this one article to this chapter, but it certainly deserves much more study than that. My purpose is to survey the chapter to highlight Paul’s teachings. The chapter is important for two reasons:
· It gives us important information regarding the Resurrection and the Rapture.
· It puts that teaching in the larger context of the gospel.
SUMMARY OF THE GOSPEL (15:1-11)
In verses 1-11, Paul summarizes some main points of the gospel with special emphasis on the Resurrection of Christ. He presents the main points as facts that have been conveyed to his readers and to other recipients of the gospel. The facts are the basic content of the gospel that people believe when they believe the gospel. Those facts are in verses 3-4:
· “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures”
· “He was buried”
· “He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (all quotations from English Standard Version)
This is the gospel “which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you…” (1:1b-2a) Paul is reminding these Christians about what they believe. Paul focuses on a bare bones outline of the content of the faith. This outline has multitudinous implications that we could discuss, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
Paul now turns his focus to the subject of the chapter—resurrection. Once Christ was raised from the dead, He was seen by witnesses. Paul seems to give a full catalogue of the witnesses. Notice that he is establishing a powerful proof of the resurrection. He names names! He names people well known among Christians. Moreover, he states that a crowd of 500 saw him. These are people that could be consulted. A reporter could have spent several months interviewing people who had seen Jesus. Paul is willing to stake his eternal destiny on the truth of the resurrection. A skeptic could ask this question: It is known the Jews were very opposed to this new “sect”; here was an opening for them. Why did they not interview a group of these 500? Is it because they had encountered a number of them who affirmed that Jesus was alive? It seems to me that there would have been ample opportunity for the Jews to debunk the story of the resurrection of Jesus, and it seems to me that they would have had considerable motivation. And yet, the story continued to be told. In fact, the Jews did not seem to oppose Christianity on the basis that it was based on a fraudulent story that was deluding people. Instead, they opposed it because it threatened to undermine their religious system. It struck a blow to their spiritual pride.
Paul completes the eyewitness evidence for the resurrection by his own personal testimony: he, too, saw the risen Jesus. He confesses that this was an act of God’s grace, for he has no right to count himself among the apostolic witnesses. God’s grace has transformed and energized him to be a tireless evangelist.
The sum of the matter is this: it really is not so important who proclaims the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ. What is important is that this gospel has been proclaimed and it has been the means of salvation as it was received and believed. Among those who had believed were the Corinthians.
ARGUMENT AGAINST THE TEACHING OF “NO RESURRECTION” (15:12-34)
Paul now addresses the central issue for this church. Some of them have been teaching that there is no resurrection. Paul implies the question: how can the preaching of the gospel and this teaching be compatible? He uses three arguments.
The Consequences of the False Teaching (15:12-19): Central to his argument is the contradiction that is implied by the teaching. If the teachers reject the universal idea of resurrection, then this implies that Christ could not be raised from the dead. But if Christ has not been raised, then all Christian teaching and belief fall apart. First, the apostolic witness is refuted—Paul and the others are false witnesses. If they have lied about the resurrection, nothing else they have said can be relied upon. So, the Corinthians have put their trust in an empty lie. They believed that Jesus died for their sins. But that atonement has no validity if Christ was utterly defeated at the cross. When it appeared that God had turned his back on Him, He really had and had left Him in the grave. Jesus’ death was not an atonement for sins; rather, it was the death of a deluded pretender. The result of all of that is that the Corinthians are “still in your sins.” (15:17) Moreover, those who have died with the hope that Jesus death had given them eternal life are lost. These believers might have found a religion that they can enjoy and have joined a community that lifts their spirits; however, it has not changed their eternal destiny. Their only hope is what they might gain from the Christian Way in this life. Paul said if that be true, then they are “of all men most to be pitied.” (15:19)
The Result of Christ’s Resurrection (15:20-28): Paul now informs the readers of what comes forth from the resurrection of Christ. He is arguing with those who have dismissed the resurrection of the dead. He wants to make clear how important a doctrine this is. He begins by coming back to reality. He has taken a brief thought experiment: what would happen if Jesus really were not raised from the dead? He concludes that all the rest of the gospel—including the atonement for sins and eternal life—would be lost. Now he returns from the thought experiment and affirms: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.” (15:20)
But Jesus’ resurrection is not an isolated event without consequence. His resurrection is a “firstfruits” of the dead. The expression, “firstfruits,” refers to the Old Testament concept of going into the field and harvesting the plants that had ripened early and bring them as an offering to the Lord. (Exodus 23:16, etc.) Those sheaves of wheat were a sign to the Lord that all of the crop belonged to Him, and they were a sign to the farmer that a full harvest was coming. The sheaves were representative of the whole crop. When Jesus rose from the grave, His resurrection was representative of the Resurrection that will take place in the future.
This Resurrection has come about through the redeeming work of Christ. Adam sinned and brought death upon the human race (Romans 5:21). Now, a Second Adam has come and brought about the Resurrection (15:21). The inheritance we receive from Adam is sin and death, but through Christ we receive eternal life (15:22). Paul uses “all,” but this is not a statement of universal salvation. One could restate verse 15:22b as “so also shall all who are in Christ be made alive.” One may survey all of the writings of Paul to verify that salvation comes to those who have faith in Jesus and not to those who do not.
“But each in his own order…” says Paul (15:23). That Christ was the firstfruits is repeated. It is a reminder that Christ is a part of what we are a part of. Christ joined the human race through the incarnation. He died our death. Then He participated in the Resurrection harvest. He, the Second Adam, has led the way for us. The next group is composed of those who “belong to Christ.” This group will be resurrected at His Parousia. When the Parousia takes place is a subject of great controversy, and I shall not discuss that to any degree in this article, since other articles have already discussed it. Who belongs to Christ is also controversial. Paul does not answer that question in this passage. One certainly would accept that Christians—those who have accepted Christ as Savior—would be in that group.
What follows in 15:24-28 is a rapid-fire description of eschatological events and principles which are difficult to sort out. I shall deal with these briefly as follows:
· “Then comes the end…” (15:24a) One cannot consider this clause until the material that immediately follows has been examined. Notice that the one signpost that has been given to this point is the resurrection of those who belong to Christ.
· “Then comes the end…” is really an expansion of the Greek. Literally, it says “Then the end…” Expanding it into a complete clause is warranted because of what follows, which are two subordinate clauses.
· The time order of the two clauses is actually reversed. The correct time sequence is determined by the verb tenses. The English translations express this accurately. The first clause states what happens at “the end”: “He delivers the kingdom to God…” There is no subject that is expressed, but Christ is obviously meant.
· The second clause states what has already happened before the kingdom is delivered: He has destroyed “every rule and every authority and power.” This kind of language generally applies to the spirit world as well as earthly entities (compare Ephesians 6:12).
· So the following sequence is described:
o Christ destroys all the authorities of opposition. (15:24c)
o The end comes (15:24a) and Christ turns over the Kingdom to the Father. (15:24b)
· This description is explained by the principle: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” (I5:25)
· A final note is added: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (15:26)
I must pause at this point and try to fit together 15:23 into the material in 15:24-26. The Greek text ties verses 15:23-24 very closely together, with a comma between them. Moreover, the first part of verse 24, “the end” and delivery of the Kingdom, follows immediately after verse 23 when those belonging to Christ are resurrected. Thus, the sequence seems to be the following:
· Christ’s destruction of His enemies (15:24c)
· The “Parousia” and the Resurrection of those who belong to Christ (15:23)
· This is followed by “the end” when Christ hands over the Kingdom to the Father (15:24a and b)
Consistent with this scenario is verse 15:26, which states that the last enemy to be destroyed is death. One could assume that the Resurrection is a defeat or destruction of death (see 15:55).
Admittedly, this is not a fully satisfying interpretation. The tough issue is understanding verse 15:25. When does Christ “reign”? If one considers that He reigns during the millennium, then when is death defeated? The Dispensationalists split the Resurrection of the righteous into several separate resurrections. This may be a solution, although I find it unsatisfactory.
Another solution may be to understand the final defeat of death to be at the final judgment, often called the Great White Throne Judgment (Revelation 20:11-15). In that description “death and Hades” were thrown into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:14). This is metaphorical language that states that the people who are in death and Hades will be thrown into the Lake of Fire. But it also may be saying this is the final end to death. It can no longer have any power over the human race. In verse 4 of the next chapter—i.e. Revelation 21:4—in the vision of the new heaven and new earth, it is proclaimed
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:4)
Whatever the exact sequence of events, we can be sure that Jesus has defeated death.
The final verses of this subsection proclaim a hierarchy in which God the Father is subject to nothing, Christ subjects Himself to the Father, and all enemies are beneath Christ’s feet. In this triumph of the Godhead, death is seen groveling at the feet of the triumphant Christ. Remember that Jesus once was overcome by death, but only because He allowed death to have its way temporarily in order that redemption might be accomplished. That defeat in fact became the great victory of God.
Additional arguments and exhortations (15:29-34): Paul returns to the subject at hand, which is to defeat the wisdom of those who are teaching that there is no Resurrection. He seemingly jams together two disparate arguments. One asks the logic of people who are
baptized for the dead, and the other lifts up the example of those who risk their lives for the gospel. There is certainly a connection between the two examples. Both groups of people believe in an afterlife. One group believes that persons whom they love and who have died can be saved by the baptism of living persons on their behalf (15:29). The other group of people, including Paul, are willing to die in persecutions, including being thrown to wild beasts (15:30-32a). The first group believes that those they love still have a hope of salvation. The second group believes that, though they die in persecution, they will live forever.
One difficult question is whether Paul agrees with those who are being baptized for the dead. This is the only mention of the practice, and Paul does not comment on it further. The testimony of the New Testament is that one must receive Christ for oneself. It may be that Paul is simply using this practice to drive home the idea of the hope of the future that is found among Christians.
The other argument—that Christians are willing to die under persecution for the cause of Christ—is a powerful one. It is often used as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. If the disciples hid Jesus’ body or had not witnessed Jesus in His resurrection body, why would they die for the cause of Christ?
Paul completes this section by exhorting his readers. ESV takes some liberties by translating the first admonition: “Wake up from your drunken stupor.” (15:34a) A more mild version might be: “Sober up” or “Come to your senses.” He adds that they should not go on sinning (15:34b). Paul perceives that underlying the false teaching is a perverse spirit. The Corinthians were flirting with a teaching that would undermine the Christian faith. Things had gone past mere mistaken thinking and become a deception. He introduces these exhortations by quoting one of the Greek plays: “Bad company ruins good morals.” The “bad company” that produced the deceptive teaching would further corrupt this band of Christians.
THE NATURE OF THE RESURRECTION BODY (15:35-49):
The question (15:35): Paul poses the question of what kind of body will the dead have when they are raised. Strangely, he calls the one who would ask such a question a fool; though it seems a legitimate question to me.
Continuity Between the Present Order and the Future Order (15:36-38): He then explains two basic principles of the resurrection, drawing on agriculture. The first is that a seed must “die” before it can come to life. This, biologically, is not true. However, in common practice, a seed must be planted—or buried as a dead body is buried—before it germinates. The second is: “to each kind of seed its own body.” This latter is a key understanding of Christian metaphysics: There is continuity between human existence in the present order and in the resurrection. So, I shall always be Bill. The eastern religions posit a transmigration of the soul. So, I may be Bill today and Fred or Sue in my next incarnation. Though those religions have a law of karma that provides some moral continuity, the close relationship between this life and eternity is not found in eastern religions. Jesus admonished us to store treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:20). That admonition understands that there is continuity between this life and the life to come. So, just as a wheat seed will produce a wheat stalk and a pear seed will produce a pear tree, so, my dead body will be the seed for my future body, which will be my own personality living in a new order of existence.
The Glory of Various Kinds of Bodies (15:39-41): Paul then briefly surveys the kinds of bodies. He is laying groundwork for what follows. He includes in his scope various biological beings—humans, “animals,” etc. Then, he adds heavenly bodies, such as the sun and the moon. Paul puts all of these entities into the category: “entities with bodies.” However, he points out that these various kinds of bodies differ radically from one another. Each has its own particular glory, whether it be a fish or the sun, and their glories cannot be compared. The more we know of the creation, the more we can appreciate this truth. Which is more glorious—the myriad of galaxies of stars or the intricacy within a single living cell? The two types of “glory” are so different that we cannot compare them. We can only be in awe of their glory and worship the Creator of both.
The Resurrection Body Compared to the Present Body (15:42-44): “So it is with the resurrection of the dead.” (15:42) Paul has just made the point that there are various orders of existence. Terrestrial animals are glorious in their own way, and they are far different from a distant star or from the sun. Now, there is a new type of body: the Resurrection body. It is, as a wheat stalk and a grain of wheat, continuous with the body of the person who died. But, just as a wheat stalk manifests the life that was in the grain in a magnificent, glorious way, so the Resurrection body manifests the person who died and was buried in a magnificent, glorious way. Paul goes through a series of contrasts: perishable-imperishable, dishonor-glory, weakness-power. The body is “sown” into the ground in one condition and raised in another, far more glorious condition.
The final contrast is “physical” and “spiritual.” The word “physical” is actually psuchikos, which is related to psuche, which is often translated “soul.” It is found in I Corinthians 2:14 (“natural” person), where it refers to the person who is devoid of the Holy Spirit and cannot receive spiritual teaching. In James 3:15 it characterizes “unspiritual” behavior and motivation such as selfish ambition. In Jude 19 it describes “worldly people” who cause division in the church. “Spiritual” is pneumatikos, which is related to pneuma, the word that is translated “spirit.” Pneumatikos refers to “spiritual people” as opposed to people of the flesh (I Corinthians 3:1). In I Corinthians 9:11, Paul mentions sowing “spiritual things” among them and reaping “material things.” So, in general “spiritual” refers to godly activity that is led by the Holy Spirit and avoids things of the world of selfish desire. However, it can refer to the spirit world which includes evil entities (Ephesians 6:12). In one case the cognate adverb is translated by some as “symbolically” (Revelation 11:8).
So, a “physical” body is the body we are born with. It partakes of this world and is subject to its natural laws, but also is somewhat connected to the world of selfish ambition and evil. It is through our body that we experience lust. However, a born-again person can experience the things of God and be empowered by the Holy Spirit in the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, by the grace of God we can glorify God in our bodies (I Corinthians 6:20). So, it is important to recognize that our natural bodies are not evil in themselves. However, because of the evil environment of the world and our own in-born original sin, our bodies can be instruments of sin. Moreover, our natural human capacity—which is the whole complex of body, soul, and spirit—is called the “flesh” and is understood to be hostile to God (Romans 8:3-8). So, when we are raised from the dead, we shall have a “spiritual body.” It is still a body. However, now it is a body totally free of the power of the world of evil and the power of the flesh. It is a body ready for the Kingdom of God (I Corinthians 15:50).
The Body and the Two Adams (15:45-49): Paul contrasts the roles of Adam and of Christ. Adam became a “living being [soul].” The “last Adam” became a “life-giving spirit.” I notice that both NIV and ESV put “spirit” in the lower case. I am guessing that is to distinguish this from the Holy Spirit. Paul has already contrasted Adam and Christ in 15:21-22. Thus he does not identify the “last Adam” in 15:45ff but one may infer he is referring to Christ. The difference in the two Adams is the difference in passive and active. The first Adam was a created being or soul. The last Adam was capable of giving life to others. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:4) In what respect was He a spirit? “God is spirit,” Jesus said (John 4:24). Thus, the nature of being “spirit” is not limited to the Third Person of the Trinity, but it extends to all three. A “spirit” also may be thought of as a “principle.” Thus, Peter mentions a “gentle and quiet spirit” (I Peter 3:4). “The law of the Spirit of life” (Romans 8:2) possibly uses “spirit” as a “principle,” but not as an abstraction but rather as powerful means of achieving God’s ends. In both Romans 8:2 and I Corinthians 15:45, “spirit” is the active, powerful means by which life is transferred to the believer.
The natural comes first (15:46). There was Adam. He lived as a created being, created out of the dust of the earth. He had a destiny to be a vice-regent with God, but he over-reached and fell. But then came the spiritual man, the man from heaven. Though he joined the human race, He was a powerful, life-giving spirit. Though He died our death, He triumphed over death and the sin that brought death.
Paul draws a strong parallel in the relationship between Adam and people and the parallel relation between Christ and people. The people of “the dust” (ESV, 15:48) are just like the “man of dust.” As Adam had sinned and brought death into the human race, so also all continue to be found in sin (Romans 3:23). Christ is the man from heaven, and all who are “of heaven” are like Him. First, how are people “of heaven”? I would contend that when one is born “from above” (alternative translation to “born again,” John 3:3) one participates in the heavenly life. Hebrews 6:4 mentions the “heavenly gift.” So, those who have been born of the Spirit (John 3:4, 1:12-13) are people “of heaven.” How are these people like Christ? That is explained in what follows:
Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (I Corinthians 15:49)
This is an important principle. The “spiritual” body that will be received in the Resurrection (15:44) will be a body just like the one Jesus has. I John 3:2 says that “when he appears we shall be like him…” So, when we die, our “natural” body dies. It is the body we were born with as we came into this world. But when we are raised in the Resurrection, we shall have body like the one Jesus was raised with. So, the human race experiences “Paradise Regained.” Humanity was originally created in the image of God. So, in the Resurrection, we shall bear the image of the Man from Heaven, Jesus the Son of God.
So the following principles of the Resurrection have been taught to this point:
· The principle of Resurrection extends to the resurrection of Jesus. Because there is Resurrection, Jesus has been raised. Because He has been raised, all other aspects of Christ’s work is validated, including atonement for sins.
· Christ’s resurrection was the firstfruits of the Resurrection. Just as Jesus died our death, he also rose into our Resurrection.
· The Resurrection comes about through the atoning work of Jesus. The result is that all who are “in Christ” will live in the Resurrection.
· There are two groups who will experience the Resurrection. First, there is Christ. Then, when He comes at His Parousia, all who belong to Christ will experience the Resurrection.
· At some point in the eschatological future, Christ will utterly conquer death.
· There is continuity between our bodies in the present order of existence and our bodies in the Resurrection.
· The body in the Resurrection will be as much more glorious than the body in the present order of existence as a wheat stalk is more glorious than a grain of wheat.
· The present body is called a “natural” body. The body in the Resurrection will be a “spiritual” body that is fit for the Kingdom of God. The natural body is tied to the present world. Though it can, under the power of the Spirit, glorify God, it also can be used as an instrument of sin.
· The spiritual body in the Resurrection will bear the image of Jesus, the Son of God.
THE RESURRECTION AND THE RAPTURE (15:50-57)
The final section of the chapter (excluding the last verse of “application”) is important in establishing the concept of the Rapture. Paul begins by stating a principle: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” (15:50) I note that this is the only instance when “cannot” is connected with “inherit.” For example, in I Corinthians 6:9, the “unrighteous” “will not” inherit the Kingdom. The difference in these two examples is the following. In 6:9 the unrighteous are disqualified from inheritance on the basis of their immorality. In 15:50, “flesh and blood” are incapable of inheriting the Kingdom because of their frailty. If one observes angelic visitations and times when individuals encountered the glory of God, the person is always affected physically. Some fall down, others pass out, some tremble, and so forth. These encounters with God and heavenly beings are beyond the capacity of human flesh to bear. So, we need a brand new body to experience the Kingdom.
On this basis, Paul addresses the issue of transition. If one were to consider a timeline with an X on it where the Kingdom of God begins, then one would note that there would be some people who have not died who are saved and ready to inherit the Kingdom just before that X. There also would be many others who have died in Christ and will be ready to inherit the Kingdom. The following crude schematic will convey this:
THE PRESENT ORDER OF EXISTENCE………………..………THE KINGDOM OF GOD
THOSE WHO ARE IN CHRIST
THE DEADàA NEW BODY IN THE KINGDOM
THE LIVINGà A NEW BODY IN THE KINGDOM
Paul explains by telling a “mystery”: “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed…” (15:51) Paul uses the term “mystery” to designate a revealed truth that has not been revealed before. Mysteries revealed by Paul include the following
· The fact that Israel has been hardened until the full number of the Gentiles has come in (Romans 11:25)
· God’s purpose in Christ, which is to bring all things together under one head, which is Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10)
· Through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ (Ephesians 3:6)
· Christ loves the church as His Bride and as His Body and feeds and cares for it (Ephesians 5:25-33)
· Christ in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:25-27)
· Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:2-3)
· The mystery of godliness: He appeared in the body, was vindicated in the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory (I Timothy 3:16)
The mystery that Paul reveals in this passage is that we shall not all go through physical death, but “we” (Christians) will all—whether dead or alive—be changed. The next information has sparked the imagination of many a Christian: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye…” (15:52) The idea that I shall be walking along, lying in bed, driving my car, bent over a desk working on my income tax, and, suddenly, my body will be transformed into that glorious body that is manifested in the Resurrection—that idea just blows us away. It is the basis of the Left Behind series of books and movies and has inspired other novels and movies.
The scenario is fleshed out: a trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised, and the living will be changed (15:52). The trumpet is the “last” trumpet. There is considerable argument about this trumpet. There are a series of seven trumpets in Revelation 8-11. Is the last trumpet the seventh of this series? Is it an earlier trumpet or one later than this series? It seems to me that the “last trumpet” is the last trumpet that is going to sound. That speaks to me of a finality. When the “final curtain” drops on a play, the play is over. There were other curtains. Some signaled the end of scenes within acts. Some signaled the end of an act. But now, this final curtain signals the end of the play. So, the last trumpet signals the end of something: it is the end of the present order and the beginning of a new order, the Kingdom of God.
In 15:52 Paul describes the condition of the bodies of those who have died as “imperishable.” This word can also be translated “immortal,” depending on the context. Paul uses two words that can mean “perishable” and two that can mean “imperishable” in verses 15:50-53. The words are very similar in their spelling. It is very possible he is not trying to convey any subtleties of meaning, but just using some variety. This seems to be common in Greek writing. He also uses an additional pair of words for “mortality” and “immortality” in verse 15:53. This latter pair is related to a word for “die.” Thus, the use of various words for “perishable” and “imperishable” (though also at times translated “mortal” and “immortal”) relate to being either subject to or being immune from decay, and the words for mortal and immortality relate to being either subject to or immune from death.
The dead will be raised, and “we shall be changed.” (15:52) Paul includes himself in this group. In 15:50-51, he is addressing the “brothers,” a collective name for the church in that time of male dominance. Some of “us” will die, but not all of “us.” However, if we do not die, we shall, nevertheless be changed. So, he expands that thought somewhat in 15:52. Now, rather than include himself in the group that will either experience death or not, he narrows his focus and includes himself in the subgroup that will not experience death. There are several ways of dealing with Paul’s anticipation of living until the event he is discussing.
· We can believe that Paul was mistaken and exhibiting his fallibility in this revelation. This could be used to undermine the veracity of the revelation.
· We can believe that Paul was correct in his anticipation and use this as evidence that the Parousia took place in AD 70—a viewpoint of some Preterists.
· We can accept the veracity of Paul’s revelation concerning the Resurrection/Rapture event. At the same time, we acknowledge that Paul did not know the date of that event, even as Jesus did not know (Matthew 24:36). Rather, Paul lived and ministered with the anticipation of that event in his heart. So, it was natural for him to assume he would be among the living at the event.
I believe that the third alternative is a valid alternative and that it does not undermine Paul’s prophetic insight. The whole New Testament is written in anticipation of last day events. At the same time, there are some hints that those events would not take place within that generation (for example, Matthew 19:11 and Acts 1:6-8). An analogous mixture of prophetic insight and human failing would be John the Baptist. John made several revelations concerning the identity of Jesus (Matthew 3:11-15, John 1:29-34). However, when John was in prison, he sent messengers asking Jesus if He were really “the one” he and others were looking for. (Matthew 11:2) It as though John had not even heard his own prophetic utterances. We are reminded that we have heavenly treasures in jars of clay (II Corinthians 4:7).
In 15:53, Paul uses “for” to signal that what follows is an explanation of the previous thought. The previous sentence (15:52) contains two transformations. The dead are raised in an imperishable condition. Also, “we” shall be changed. In 15:53, the explanation of 15:52 parallels these two transformations. In both cases it is necessary that the transformations take place. The perishable dead body must put on an imperishable body, and the mortal body of the living must become immortal—put on immortality. The verb “put on” expresses the idea of putting clothes on: the perishable is clothed with imperishability, and the mortal is clothed with immortality. Keep in mind the original principle (15:50): “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God…” The body that operates in the present order of existence must be changed in order to operate in the Kingdom of God. Obviously, the dead body must be made alive, but it must be more than just resuscitated; it must be transformed into a body that is imperishable—that is no longer subject to decay. The body of the living Christian also must be transformed from a fragile organism that is subject to disease and injury to one that can never die—that is immortal.
Paul declares that this event will be a victory over death (15:54). He combines two metaphors to give a word picture. Imagine a new suit of clothing that covers up ragged, worn-out clothes. Suddenly, in your imagination, transform that sharkskin suit into a shark! The shark swallows the old clothes in one gulp. So, Paul uses the same verb in 15:54 as he used in 15:53: the old is clothed over by the new. But then he adds: the new has swallowed the old: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (15:54) He is quoting from Isaiah 25:8: “He will swallow up death forever…” I encourage the reader to read the entirety of Isaiah 25. It is a powerful vision of God’s final victory.
In verse 15:55, he quotes Hosea 13:14. Death no longer has the final victory. In fact, it has even lost its sting. What a wonderful statement to make at a graveside! There is sadness. The pain of loss of a loved one is real and valid—for the Christian as well as the non-Christian. However, the Christian buries a loved one with a knowledge that burial is not the final chapter. There is a victory to come.
Paul makes his commentary on this quotation: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” Death has a sting when the person who dies is not reconciled to God because
of sin. In such a condition, death has won, and the person waits only for the judgment. The Law now stands as a giant accusation against the deceased. Sin and the Law have combined to condemn. However, Jesus has overcome that accusation through His vicarious suffering on the cross. Therefore, Paul can say “…thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (15:57)
FINAL APPLICATION (15:58):
Paul has ended on a high note. Christ has won the victory over sin and the accusation of the Law. Moreover, He has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of the great Resurrection that is our future. In the meantime, exhortation is in order. “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord…” Why? Because what we do for the Lord is not in vain. All that we believe and do in this life has eternal significance. A device of the enemy is to convince us that what we do does not count for anything. Nehemiah spoke courageously to his enemies: “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” (Nehemiah 6:3a)
THE CHAPTER IN THE WIDER CONTEXT:
The description that Paul gives of the Resurrection and of the transformation of living Christians at the Parousia is consistent with the description that is given in I Thessalonians 4:13-17. In the latter passage, Paul focuses more on how the various events fit together in time than in I Corinthians 15. In I Thessalonians, the description is of how Christ will come down from heaven and how the dead who are raised as well as the living Christians will meet Him in His descent. Little is said in that passage about the nature of the bodies of the dead who experience the Resurrection nor is anything said about the transformation of the bodies of the living Christians. In I Corinthians, the focus is on the nature of Resurrection and the transformation that is generally called the Rapture. Nothing is said about Christ’s descent except the brief mention of the Parousia (I Corinthians 15:23). Both passages, incidentally, mention a trumpet. So, the two passages are compatible and complementary. Together, they give us a definite understanding (to the degree that our feeble minds can understand) of the transformation of the Resurrection/Rapture at the Parousia.
In this great chapter, Paul establishes the Resurrection as an integral part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He reviews the eyewitness evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. He demonstrates that Jesus’ resurrection is a part of—the firstfruits of—the full Resurrection which will take place in the future. If people try to deny in principle the Resurrection, then they are denying the resurrection of Jesus, which is an established fact. Moreover, they are undermining the gospel of salvation. So, to deny the Resurrection is a dangerous heresy that Christians must abandon.
The Resurrection of the body will result in a new order of existence that has continuity with the body of the present order. The new body will be more glorious than the old, much as a wheat stalk is more glorious than the grain of wheat from which it came.
Paul gives a new revelation of the transformation—or rapture—of the bodies of living Christians. This takes place in conjunction with the Resurrection of those who have died in Christ. The transformed bodies of the living will be fit to experience the Kingdom of God just as the bodies of the dead who experience the Resurrection.
The future for the Christian is to experience Christ’s victory over sin and death. This means that one can be fully engaged in the life of this present order of existence, for what we do for the Lord now will have eternal significance.
Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible. Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.
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