We know this portion of Corinthians, 1 Corinthians 15: Paul answers the question about the resurrection of the dead. We hear it at funerals. We hear it at wakes. But what about the question of the resurrection of the dead? Well, the answer usually goes: they didn’t believe it.
Yet in what sense they didn’t believe it, I think, is pertinent to today. For today there are many people, even Bible believing people, that hold to a resurrection and a life that is so totally disconnected to this life and reality that it separates the two. A resurrection, they might say, is fine—just not the one that people keep talking about.
These people in Corinth didn’t have a fear that the resurrection had already happened (even though there are people today who do profess such a thing). Nor are these people who doubted that a resurrection would happen. These were people who had a problem with a resurrection of The Dead. They didn ‘t see a point to it. If one is absent from the body they are, inevitably, present with the Lord. They have reached into The New Reality and thus can leave this crude matter all behind.
So Paul goes through three major sections of dealing with their denial that addresses the matter on several levels. At one level Paul intelligently argues for the problem of not assenting to a potential for a resurrection. At another level he argues for the theological necessity for a resurrection. And at yet another level Paul uses science to support the possibility of a resurrection to realign the thinking of the Church at Corinth.
Paul sagely begins to deal with the problem not by berating them but by going back to the very beginning of what they believed. He reiterates the gospel which he had already preached to them and which they had already come to believe unto salvation.
Now if we recall this Gospel preached was already emptying the wisdom of the world by putting an apparently foolish climax to be the goal of history and salvation. The wonder of it all is that this group in Corinth had come to believe that message. It was the power of God unto salvation and they embraced it!
Yet Paul, noting their confusion (and their subsequent actions in the church), says that perhaps they believed in vain. Now this isn’t that they had believed for no reason, but rather what they believed was void of actual content. They signed up for something that they didn’t really believe all the bits in and in that case, perhaps weren’t even really believers if they hadn’t signed up for it.
Now this is interesting because Paul ‘s concern with the Gospel is not belief in Jesus as savior. It ‘s not a belief in Jesus as the Incarnate God and Lord. The Gospel hinges on several elements in conjunction with each other.
What we might accidentally believe that what is of first importance is only that Christ died for our sins but Paul, culminating this section, says in verse 11 that this is what was preached and what they believed. This matter of first importance is not only that Christ died but it ‘s the whole content of the Gospel message.
The message begins with Christ, the Messiah. Who Paul says in Romans 1 is the Son of David according to the flesh. Who Peter preaches as being God ‘s Anointed in Acts 2 and who Matthew, in painstaking detail, goes along proving throughout his entire book starting with a genealogy that traces the descent from King David to Jesus ‘ foster father.
This was the King that the Jews were anticipating, the Messiah that was to restore Israel to her rightful place and rescue the people and reign on a throne—but He died.
Paul, speaking to the Corinth, reminding them of their first meeting says that he professed to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified yet this message (it says in 1 Cor 2:1) was the very testimony of God.
For this thing didn’t occur by accident, as if Paul was going about preaching the tragedy of the Messiah and Him crucified but it happened, says Paul, according to the Scriptures. This is divine intent at work, formulating a plan throughout history that would result in Christ being revealed, Christ being handled, Christ being betrayed and Christ being crucified. Peter calls it (in Acts 2) the predetermined plan by the foreknowledge of God.
This wasn’t by accident. Christ died, according to the Scriptures. God planned it that way. God looked down the tunnels of time and decided that this was the course of action He wished to take.
And this death of Christ wasn’t a swoon into a coma or any such thing. This death was one that resulted in burial in a tomb for three days—the time period that the Jews saw the soul departing from the body and rot setting in on the fourth day. At this point He was raised, according to the Scripture.
Also according to the foreknowledge and plan of God but not any specific texts. This is based on the thinking behind the text. If David ‘s Son is to be Messiah, why does David, thinking about this one calls him Greater? How is this Messiah supposed to be a priest forever? How is this Messiah supposed to finally bring all His people into rest? What is it about this Messiah that ‘s different from just any King?
He died, was buried and was raised alive again.
And He appeared. The difference between appeared and seen is a slight one but an important one. When you wake up at night and see your dead grandmother it could’ve been anything. Some bad cheese. A dream. A ghost. A vision. Your wife walking about. Anything. You don ‘t have a clue.
But in the Bible, when someone Appears to a person it ‘s usually in such a way that the person knows they ‘re there. The individual tells them to get up, to not fear, to be careful.
They are evidenced to the person in a way that the person knows that they are there: not some random mirage or figment.
He appeared to Cephas. Cephas saw Him, yes, but He appeared to Peter. I am reminded of a conversation by a lake where Peter is being asked three times “Peter, do you love me?” and Peter, reminded of his rejection of his Master, weeps and tells Him “You know that I love you.”
“Peter, feed my sheep.”
He appeared to the Twelve, a generic category for those original disciples even if at that point it was 11 instead of 12. The Original Group saw Him.
I ‘m reminded of Thomas being shown Christ ‘s hands and his side “come, put your hand here.” And Thomas, knowing the Lord, falling down on his knees saying “My Lord and My God.”
He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at once and this could ‘ve happened at any point but I ‘m reminded of those days after the resurrection when Christ, with many infallible proofs, evidenced Himself and finally said goodbye to His disciples. The wonder of it is that some of these disciples were still alive (so anyone could ask them about the events) but what ‘s more important is that some of them had fallen asleep. That is important to what they, like the Corinthians, had come to believe.
And He appeared to James—an even that we don ‘t have recorded in Scripture but this, no doubt, is James the brother of the Lord who at one point was an unbelievers with the rest of Jesus ‘ brothers and somehow came to believe that his adopted brother was actually the Son of God. He would bow the knee and call himself nothing more than a bond-servant.
Something happened to all of these people: the risen Lord was evidenced to them and they became active by God ‘s grace, testifying of God ‘s reality in the risen Christ.
Lastly He appeared to Paul like an aborted child. It ‘s a crude image of a baby expelled from the womb. It doesn ‘t have a chance to live, gasping for air and unable to be brought to maturity in the proper way. But it is by a miraculous appearance of the risen Lord that Paul is saved, brought into life, saved and given a mission capping off the apostolic era: he, Paul, was the Last of that group and as a persecutor turned prophesier of God ‘s Gospel, He now works hard—not of his own power, but of God ‘s grace that was manifested to him.
Either way, says Paul: this was the Gospel preached and this is what they believed. He reminds them that what they came to believe was that Jesus is both Christ and Lord and that God had raised Him from the dead (Romans 10). The message of salvation is not merely that Christ died for your sins, but that Christ also rose from the grave, victorious and was lifted up on High to be seated on the position of power and high regard awaiting until His enemies are made His footstool.
This is the Gospel Christ died, according to the Scriptures, rose again, according to the Scriptures and appeared to people. How is it possible at all that Christians (who have believed that message) can say there is no physical resurrection of the dead?
Other folk have also dealt with this in a much fuller way. NT Wright has an excellent article over here. Here’s William Lane Craig (create an account; it’s free) and Ravi Zacharias has a nice 8 part series of posts back in 2000. Also DA Carson’s awesome What Is The Gospel?