In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul takes up one last problem of the church there. Apparently some were denying the resurrection of the body in general and Christ’s resurrection in particular. In dealing with the problem, Paul shows how central the resurrection is to your entire life as a Christian.
Believe that Christ has been raised—because it’s true. What if there is no resurrection? The denial of the resurrection in Paul’s day may have stemmed from a Greek philosophical depreciation of the physical. Today it may arise from an attitude that resurrection is scientifically impossible. Religious leaders a century ago might openly deny the truth of the resurrection accounts. Now the skepticism remains unchanged, but the focus is on the faith of the disciples. However, this faith is disassociated from our real world. The spirituality of our post-modern culture may focus on renewal or even reincarnation, but is as uncomfortable with a bodily resurrection as were the Greek philosophers of Paul’s day. But Paul is speaking of real events in a real world. In 1 Corinthians 15:12–19 Paul explores the consequences—what if there is no resurrection, whether in general, or of Christ. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain and you are pitiable. What you believe has real-life consequences.
Know that Christ has been raised. Paul counters the “what if” with the fact of the resurrection. Efforts were made to deny the resurrection—see Matthew 28. Paul lists eyewitnesses, many of them by name. More than 500 saw him at one point. Paul himself, though the last of the apostles, is the final one he lists. The Scriptures foretold the death and resurrection of Christ, according to Paul’s summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4: Psalm 22:1ff.; Isaiah 53:6-8; the whole sacrificial system with the death of the substitute. The resurrection—while there is no specific prophecy such as “the Messiah will rise”—is there in Abraham offering Isaac, in Psalm 16, and at the end of Isaiah 53. The resurrection is true—because God says it is.
Hold on to the truth that is at the heart of your salvation. Christ’s death and resurrection mean your salvation. “Saved” here is removal from God’s just anger to a position of his favor. All depends on what Christ has done in your place. And it depends on the event having really happened. Paul sees Christ’s work as dealing with our sin. Fail to understand sin, and you fail to understand the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul as a Christian understands the sweeping, enslaving power of sin far more clearly than he did as a Pharisee, more clearly than the leaders of Israel in the temple did. “Jesus says, ‘I lay down my life, in order that I may take it again’. Here we are apprised of a relationship that exists between His death and resurrection that too often escapes our attention. It is that the laying down of His life was to the end that He might take it again, that His death was to the end of His resurrection. . . . The death of Christ is not an end in itself. It is subordinate to a great purpose that can be achieved only through resurrection.” (John Murray, “Who Raised Up Jesus?” The Westminster Theological Journal, May 1941, pp. 119-120).
Share in Christ’s triumph. Christ’s resurrection is the firstfruits of yours. Jesus was raised as the firstfruits. You need the resurrection of Christ because of the sin of the first Adam. Mankind sinned and fell in Adam. The idea of firstfruits includes the concept of representation. Here, and in verses 45-49 as well as Romans 5, Paul emphasizes the role of Adam. He was your representative when he sinned and fell. Death entered the world through his fall. The historicity of the first Adam is an important part of Paul’s thinking. Denying that leads to other serious errors. If Adam, instead of being a historical person, is just a teaching model to explain evil in the world, there was no transition from the perfection of the Garden of Eden to sinful man. Inevitably, that has consequences for what happens at the other end of history. Paul sees Adam as a real person, as your real representative, whose sin had drastic consequences. You will be raised at the last day because, in a real sense, your resurrection has happened. It took place as you were united to Christ in his resurrection. “In Christ’s resurrection the end-time resurrection-harvest becomes visible, a visible reality.” “In Paul there is no more important conclusion about the Christian life, nothing about its structure that is more basic than this: the Christian life in its entirety is to be subsumed under the category of resurrection. Pointedly, the Christian life is resurrection-life.” (Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, pp. 60 and 68).
Christ is victorious over authorities and powers. Why was the Man, Christ Jesus raised? To rule. Christ rules over all things. He puts down all rule and authority. Anything that opposes God will ultimately be destroyed. The kingship of Christ encouraged the early church as it faced persecution. It gives you courage in obedience today. This includes human authority and power. The humanism and secularism of our culture are not omnipotent. It also includes spiritual forces that oppose God. No area of existence is free from the authority of Christ. Christ rules because he was raised. Christ’s rule includes the subjection of his enemies under his feet. V.25 is a paraphrase of Psalm 110:1. When does that subjection take place? As you see the problems of the world you may be tempted to look for strictly (or primarily) future fulfillment, but Acts 2:34 connect the Psalm with Christ’s resurrection and ascension. You need the eye of faith to see Christ’s present kingly rule. Christ is already ruling. His rule grows out of his resurrection, not our resurrection. There is an “already/not yet” tension in his rule. D Day has arrived, VE Day is yet to come. To ignore the “already” aspect is to surrender the world to the devil and his hosts. To ignore the “not yet” aspect is to engage in triumphalism which depreciates the suffering which grows out of your union with Christ. Share Paul’s optimism! God will be all in all. Christ’s messianic rule is in view. This rule is marked by a beginning and an end. It contrasts with God’s eternal rule, although, as God, Christ does participate in the divine, eternal rule). The beginning is marked by Christ’s resurrection and ascension. The end is determined by the complex of events identified variously as his coming, v.23; the end, v.24; and the last trumpet, v.52.
Live—because Christ is destroying death. Death is the last enemy you face. Destroying death is the final step in the rule of the resurrected King. Christ destroys death itself, v.26. Death, the curse upon sin, is overcome by Christ’s work. The heavenly rule of Christ can be seen as the Father’s reward to him for his obedient suffering and death. It is the means by which his work of redemption is carried to its completion. The glory belongs to God alone. The kingdom of Christ becomes the kingdom of God, v.24. He gives the kingdom to his Father. The work of redemption is complete at “the end.” All foes then submit to him. Your choice is not between submission and non-submission, but between willing and unwilling submission. Here is not only a hint of the glory that would have been mankind’s had the first Adam not sinned, here is all the glory of the perfect God-man.
Why is it important that you believe that Jesus was raised? Because you, who bear the image of the first Adam, now are alive in him, sharing in the new life that is his as the risen Savior.