Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
At the heart of the gospel lies a scandalous claim: The ancient God of Israel raised Jesus — a first century Jew — from the dead.
This message must have been a tough sell among the nations who had their own ancient gods with spectacular temples and golden statues. Corinth was no exception. Temples to other gods surrounded the center of the town and towered over the marketplace. Religion was at the heart of everyday life. And yet a church formed around the scandalous claim of the bodily resurrection of a Jewish peasant from a backwater region of the Empire.
Perhaps the Corinthians had an easier time believing the claim when Paul was with them. After all, Paul was convinced that he had seen the risen Christ. Indeed, it is hard to account for his radical life change otherwise.
In our text this week, we find some in First Church Corinth in doubt. Why would this God raise the dead? Couldn’t we just follow Jesus’s teaching without talking about resurrection? For Paul, there is no good news unless God has raised Jesus from the dead. If God has not raised Jesus, if God has not claimed victory over death, then the gospel is a sham.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul addresses the Corinthians’ concerns over resurrection. He spends more time on this topic than any other topic in the letter. Given the importance of this belief to the heart of the gospel it is not hard to see why it is critical for the apostle to remind the church of the gospel that they had believed.
The text begins with a reminder of the message that Paul has passed on to them — a message that he did not invent but received from God. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Paul rehashes the gospel in a nutshell. Christ has died for our sins. He was buried and raised on third day. There are some noteworthy emphases in Paul’s retelling. He notes that the life and death of Christ were related to scripture; in fact, he makes this claim twice. Second, he emphasizes post resurrection appearances — a point that is less surprising since he is going to reiterate that the resurrection did occur.
Why might he emphasize scripture? First Church Corinth, though it does appear to have a few Jewish believers, like Crispus, for instance, is a church mainly composed of Gentiles. There is no guarantee that the non-Jews know scripture well or even consider it authoritative. Paul would have instructed them in scripture while he was with them. The references here though remind the Corinthians that this God is not an upstart God. The God who raised Jesus has been active a long time. This is the work of an ancient God. And this God is faithful and trustworthy (1 Corinthians 1:9; 10:13).
The resurrection appearances also lend credibility to the story. Cephas and the twelve would be considered authoritative. It seems that the church has at least heard of Cephas, given Paul’s recounting of possible divisions in the beginning of the letter (1:12). If twelve apostles are not enough, Paul cites a resurrection appearance to more than five hundred people — some of whom were still alive at the time of his writing. Then he cites James and all the apostles. Clearly, he is using the designation of “apostle” as inclusive of more than the twelve, since he himself is among them.
Paul does not deserve to be among them — at least he does not think so. The language that he uses to describe himself gets lost in translation. Our English translations often say something to the effect of an untimely birth: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (verse 8). This makes it sound like he was just born at the wrong time — as though he was born too late to be among the twelve. But this is a misinterpretation.
The word that Paul uses to describe himself is a premature birth — a birth that usually results in death. It is the epitome of weakness. In a world where only fifty percent of full-term births reached the age of ten, the premature baby had little to no chance of survival. This is the same term used to describe a stillbirth. Christ’s narrative is not the only resurrection story in this passage.
Paul so firmly believes the resurrection because he was as good as dead when Christ appeared to him. He was killing the church of God. He was doing everything in his power to end the Jesus movement. He was a murderer and a persecutor and completely unworthy of God’s grace. And God chose him anyway.
Whenever Paul recounts his pre-conversion life, he notes his time as a persecutor of the church (see Philippians 3:4-6; Galatians 1:13, 23; see also 1 Timothy 1:13). He remains overwhelmed by God’s grace that God could forgive him for such atrocities. And he returns that gratitude in service to God. He notes how hard he labors for this gospel. He was the least likely candidate for God to choose. If God can do something good through Paul the murderer, surely that God has the power to work wonders in the lives of others. The fact that the Corinthians have believed the scandal of the resurrection demonstrates that they too have been touched by God’s grace.
In this season of Epiphany, we are reminded that seeing the resurrected Christ changed the trajectory of Paul’s life. Without the revelation of Christ, there is no good news. When God reveals God’s self, our little worlds are transformed. We cannot go on with life as normal, because we cannot un-see God in our midst. Like Paul, we are unworthy of this life-changing revelation. May we work tirelessly — as Paul did (1 Corinthians 15:10) — to extend God’s grace to others.