Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Showing up elsewhere in the lectionary (Year B) on Easter Sunday, this text from 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 may at first seem oddly placed in the season after Epiphany. However, if imagined more broadly, the revelations celebrated in Epiphany include not only Jesus’s birth and identity, but also the revelation of his death and resurrection. Thus, this passage in 1 Corinthians 15, focused so heavily on Christ’s resurrection, provides a fitting perspective on the wonders of the Epiphany season.
Power of the Gospel
In many ways, the whole of this passage is a reflection on the power of the gospel. Paul begins his discussion in verses 1-2 with a reflection on this very power. As he describes it, it is this powerful gospel in which the Corinthians believe (verse 1), in which they stand (verse 1), and by which they are being saved (verse 2).
This acknowledgement of the gospel’s salvific power is especially interesting. Paul’s use of a present passive verb (sozesthe) highlights some interesting aspects of Paul’s soteriology. First, his use of the present tense points to the continuous and contemporaneous nature of salvation as he understands it. That is, salvation was not a one-time past event but rather is an on-going iterative process that continues into the current time. Second, his use of the passive voice highlights the divine (not human!) origins of this salvation. That is, the Corinthians themselves are merely the human beneficiaries of salvation, not actors in the salvific process.
The Gospel in summary
Verses 3-4 are, perhaps, the crux of this entire chapter. These verses articulate the central claims of the gospel message that is saving the Corinthians. Paul introduces this message with a preface that recalls his preface in 11:23 to the words of institution for the Lord’s Supper. The phrase “I handed on to you” highlights Paul’s role as something of an intermediary between the great tradition and the members of the church in Corinth. In both chapters 11 and 15, the content of what Paul “hands on” has remained foundational in many contemporary liturgical practices of the Lord’s Supper. Both the words of institution and the memorial acclamation of some contemporary church traditions (“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”) arise from these teachings that Paul bestows upon the Corinthians.
The actual content of verses 3-4 offers one of Paul’s clearest summations of the foundational Christian message: Christ died, was buried, and was raised. For all of Paul’s grand theologizing, these statements of belief provide a clear and succinct summary of the essence of the gospel.
Embedded into this synopsis of the gospel, Paul includes a note that Christ “was buried” and “was raised.” The passive constructions of these claims may hint at Paul’s attribution of divine agency in this process. That is, given that the use of passive verb forms throughout the New Testament is often a roundabout way of indirectly attributing actions to God, it may be that the passive verbs here are serving a similar purpose.
Evidence of resurrection
Paul seems to recognize the potential for claims about resurrection to seem absurd, and so he calls in a bevy of witnesses to support his argument. First, he appeals to the Hebrew Scriptures. Twice in as many verses, Paul asserts that this gospel message is “in accordance with the Scriptures.” This assertion provides a powerful check against any supersessionist or antisemitic tendencies that might be inclined to assert the superiority of Christ’s work above the ancient traditions. Rather, for Paul, Christ’s work is the natural continuation of God’s work as it is described in the Hebrew Bible. Furthermore, the Hebrew Bible serves as a witness to the truth of Christ’s resurrection.
Paul then turns in verses 5-8 to providing other witnesses to support these claims to Jesus’s victory over death. This list of witnesses that Paul amasses in verses 5-7 is both extensive and impressive. That is, not only are an unnamed group of five hundred individuals witness to Jesus’ resurrection appearance, but the early church stars Cephas and James can also corroborate this account.
At the end of the list of witnesses, Paul finally includes himself. However, Paul is quick to qualify his own limitations: he is untimely born, least among the apostles, and even unfit for the title apostle (verses 8-9). This is no mere false modesty on Paul’s part. Indeed, as he recognizes (verse 9b), his previous persecution of the church could call into question his fitness to lead the institution. As will become evident later in 2 Corinthians, some within the Corinthian congregation have similar concerns (see also 2 Corinthians 10:10). Nonetheless, what others might take as a mark of dishonor, Paul wears as a badge of pride. As he notes, these deficiencies simply mean that he had to work harder than all the rest to get where he is as a leader of the church (1 Corinthians 15:10).
Intriguingly, Paul’s self-deprecating remarks in verses 9-10 make for an interesting pairing with the Old Testament reading assigned for today from Isaiah 6. In Isaiah’s call narrative, Isaiah laments being a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips (6:5). However, just as Isaiah is divinely prepared for the momentous task at hand, so too has Paul been endowed with the ability to proclaim the gospel such that he can confidently assert that his audience in Corinth has come to believe.
Paul’s own dramatic story of moving from being a persecutor of the church to its champion provides a fitting backdrop for his teaching about Christ’s resurrection. That is, if God could enact this sort of “resurrection” in Paul’s own life, how much more powerful is the true resurrection of Christ? It is this resurrection to which Paul points his audience and to which this text orients contemporary readers during the season of Epiphany. Thus, rather than celebrating only the birth and initial revelation of Jesus, this text calls for contemporary readers to recognize the fullness of Christ’s identity, including his life, death, and even resurrection.