Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Note: Part I explores the biblical text and Part II discusses homiletical strategies for the text.
The entirety of this chapter is the eloquent center of Paul’s primary argument for the Resurrection.
As a result, these first eleven verses should be considered as a prologue to what is laid out in the remainder of the chapter. Paul introduces himself in relationship to the Resurrection as an apostle, though one with a mixed and questionable lineage. The God-given authority of his apostleship is the rationale for proclaiming the Resurrection and for his witness to be accepted among the Corinthians.
Rhetorically, the question of ethos (personal image and credibility) is a major feature of these eleven verses. Paul was not among the original group of apostles who experienced the historical Jesus directly. He came to belief through the bitter avenue of his personal persecutions of believers and so he admits in verse 9 that “For I am the least of the apostles….”
By claiming apostleship, he deftly alters the historical meaning of an apostle — one who experienced Jesus in his earthly life — to include one who also experienced him at other levels of reality. Paul alludes to this encounter in verse 8 where “he appeared also to me.”
This text can be divided into these four sections: Paul’s rationale for why his message should be accepted (verses 1-3); the content of Paul’s message concerning Jesus (verses 3, 4); the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (verses 5-8) and a reiteration of the type of apostle which Paul considers himself to be in relationship to proclaiming the gospel.
Paul starts his discussion of the Resurrection by reminding the Corinthians that they heard it from him. He affirms that this message means “you are being saved” (verse 2) and that they have a responsibility for this salvation “if you hold firmly to the message that I have proclaimed” (verse 2). Paul combines remembrance of his Corinthian relationships with admonition and a reminder of the salvific benefits of the Gospel.
Paul then describes the content of his message, creedal in form. Jesus died for our sins “in accordance with the scriptures” (verse 3). He was then raised and again Paul reiterates the phrase here “in accordance with scriptures” (verse 4). This two-fold repetition is significant! Proclaimers should remember that this reference might be lost on contemporary listeners, who can miss the fact that “scriptures” meant Hebrew Scriptures only.
In the third part of this text, Paul lists the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. He notes that “he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (verse 5). At this point, Paul’s list omits the most obvious part of all the gospel resurrection narratives, when his account is set next to them — where are the women? Paul’s writings precede the writing of the Gospels. It is historically impossible to know what kind of information Paul received from others about the resurrection. As with all accounts, his list is partial. No witness has the entire story!
Paul continues his list with Jesus’ appearance to hundreds of men and women, to Jesus’ brother James, and “all the apostles,” (verse 7). This reference seems to indicate far more people than the original twelve. The final section, verses 9 -11, is a splendid combination of personal confession and assertion of Paul as an apostle, with his short comings and the gift of his apostleship.
He confesses he was late to his work — “one untimely born” (verse 8) — and actually “unfit to be called an apostle” (verse 9). He states clearly that he is undeserving of what he is doing for one simple reason: “because I persecuted the church of God.” (verse 9). The phrasing is interesting here because he ascribes the church to God, a will that laid its foundations prior to Jesus’ appearance.
Paul continues to show what undergirds his work (including his boast that “I worked harder than any of them” verse 10b). In verse 10 he mentions “the grace of God” — twice. God’s grace is what supports Paul in terms of his self-understanding “I am what I am” (verse 10) as well as his work. In both personality and deeds, Paul senses God’s presence and grace.
Paul concludes this introduction by admitting that it doesn’t make any difference –really — from whom the Corinthians heard the gospel. The most important thing is “you have come to believe.” (verse 11). This is a generous statement in view of the jealousy Church leader’s exhibit over taking credit for their deeds!
This epistle text is well worth an Easter morning sermon! Through Paul’s discussion of all the ramifications of the gospel in his own life, he lends credibility and support to the gospel’s core message: Jesus died for sinners. While this text is removed from the obvious immediacy of the empty tomb scene of the gospels, it definitely lends itself to the contemporary question: what does this empty tomb mean — today?
A sermon on this text can focus on biographical witness to the resurrection. This is demonstrated by how Paul recounts the way the gospel personally intersected his life and radically changed it. His changed life is proof of the gospel’s power. At Vinje Lutheran Church in Willmar, Minnesota, wooden panels containing names of historical witnesses to the gospel encircle the church. The last two panels are blank. Former pastor Paul A. Hanson used to tell confirmands: “Those panels will have your names on them….” The apostle’s words depict the fact that the gospel invites each of our names to be inscribed within the generous space of the gospel’s invitation to us.
This text might also dwell on what it means to share the gospel; its contents, its power and its personal encounters with God. Serving the Gospel can be strenuous. People may feel they do not have the right or the qualifications to do so. Paul’s words speak to the contrary. The gospel and its proclamation is for all!