Today we are reminded of the centrality and magnitude of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave. A claim that separates the Christian worldview from every other and upon which the Christian faith stands. Tom Wright puts it like this “The resurrection is the foundation of the Christian counterculture. And the immediate results go beyond culture into the world of royal claims: Jesus is Lord, so Caesar isn’t” (Paul for everyone; 1 Corinthians, p.209). In this day and age we can substitute the name Caesar for that of any idol (e.g. money, sex, entertainment, a loved one) that one may live for and base their lifestyle on.
In Paul’s day, as today, many people in society believed that death was one’s end. This belief, it appears, crept into the Corinthian church and Paul sounds a warning alarm and sets out to correct this fallacy. He does so by shining a spotlight on the gospel to remind them of this most beautiful of truths. He begins by pointing to the nature of this great salvation – the gospel preached to them – and its provision of persevering faith. He highlights that if you believed in faith then you are being saved but in contrast, if you believed in vain you are not being saved. What comes under believing in vain? Faith in anything that isn’t the actual gospel of Jesus. For if one believes in any other good news (gospel) that varies from that of the Scriptures it really is not good news by which anyone is “being saved”. Persevering faith in the gospel of Jesus amidst the assaults of a pagan and unbelieving culture is a powerful sign of the salvation of God in a person’s life.
Paul points out in v.3 that the central importance in his life was the gospel; which he also treated as of central importance in his preaching to the Corinthians. This simplistic supernatural gospel – “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” – gives eternal life to anyone who believes it.
Are we casting this vision of Christ’s work of salvation in such simple terms to people who don’t yet believe in the gospel? As Paul appeals to the Scriptures, which in his time was the Old Testament, it’s also important to note that the whole of Scripture (including the Old Testament) points to Jesus, and Jesus only, as the central figure through whom we can have salvation. I was reminded recently at a talk by Andy McCollough at Newday 2018, regarding faith and Islam, of how helpful it can be to use the Old Testament as part of our story; telling of the road God took to bring us to the grand vista of salvation in Christ Jesus. This can include referencing points of the unbeliever’s belief system that resound with truth, if any, and making an appeal to common sense, logic, and the Scriptures. Paul uses this to an extent in his correcting the errant view that there couldn’t possibly be a physical resurrection of believers of Jesus following death.
He verifies the resurrection with the sightings of Jesus by disciples, then more than five hundred believers and then even himself. This is an appeal to common sense and logic: if so many people at different points have seen Jesus in his body then it holds that he truly was raised to life following his death. Notice that he also adds to this the persecution that came upon the believers and their continued preaching of the resurrected Jesus; persecution which he himself also delivered to Christians before Jesus appeared to him and he was, by His grace, convinced to believe. These two points are persuasive:
1) these believers still preached the resurrected Jesus despite heavy persecution; and
2) Paul being the one who “persecuted the church”, now by God’s grace “worked harder than any of them” to advance Jesus’s kingdom.
Across v.12-18, Paul puts forward that the belief in the bodily resurrection of believers is not an add-on to the gospel that can be left out, but is in fact central to the Christian faith as much as Christ’s own resurrection! Paul points out that “if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised” (v.13) and “your faith is futile”(v.17). In verse 20 Paul spotlights the reality that Christ was indeed raised from the dead and is the first (first fruits) of the those (believers) who have died and will be raised up with new bodies.
Across v.21-28, Paul paints the grand narrative of human history, from its fall from grace “in Adam”, to redemption “in Christ” and the coming reign of God the Father with all enemies, including death, defeated and “all things” subject to his authority.
Some in the first century practised the baptism of the dead (v.29). Note that baptism was symbolic of dying in Christ and being raised into new life in Christ. This was either done for the sake of believers who had died without having had water baptism; or saving unbelievers who had died. Either way this practice was unbiblical and unfruitful but Paul points out that irrespective, the fact that it happened points to God raising the dead (v.29).
Not unlike the Corinthians, we live in a world wherein many opposing worldviews exist. Scripture calls us to stand firm, against these crashing tides of unbelief, in the truth of Scripture and the person and work of Jesus Christ. Across v.32-34 Paul points to the sad reality of believers compromising the truth of a bodily resurrection of the dead as a result of the influence of the surrounding pagan culture. Ironically he uses the words of Menander, a pagan Greek poet (v.33), to exhort the Corinthians to be influenced by believers; to hold onto truth and quit the sinful beliefs borrowed from an ungodly culture.
Today we are just as much in danger of compromising Scriptural truths by the influences of our surrounding culture. As Paul highlights, enjoying fellowship with believers, appraising the gospel afresh, knowing Scripture and subjecting new ideas (and all things) to the authority of Scripture will keep us living in the brilliance of truth and shelter us from the darkness of being deceived.