Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
In many ways 1 Corinthians 15 is Paul’s closing argument for this letter.
After a series of reminders of his previous teachings and addressing various issues that had arisen in the community, here, Paul reminds them of the what is “first importance.” He writes:
“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
This is the distillation of the gospel. In its simplest form the good news is that Christ died, was buried, and was raised. The repetition of the phrase “in accordance with the scriptures” emphasizes that Jesus’ death and resurrection were both foretold and fulfilled.
Seeing is believing
While it seems that Paul is rehearsing what should have been evident to the Corinthian community, there seems to be a question about the nature and even the possibility of resurrection. To disabuse any misunderstandings, Paul details the various appearances of Jesus after his resurrection. The word ὤφθη (ōphthē) is translated as “appeared” throughout this passage.
This translation has the connotation of a viewing that is a miraculous occurrence and indeed seeing the risen Christ is remarkable. However, this word can also be translated simply as was seen. In other words, Jesus was seen by Peter and then the twelve. Jesus was seen by five hundred brothers and sisters at one time. James and all of the apostles see Jesus, after being raised from the dead and even Paul himself sees Jesus.
The appearances confirm what has already been established in the scriptures, that Jesus was raised on the third day. There is no doubting the resurrection as there were so many witnesses. Seeing, indeed, is believing.
Believing is seeing
If Paul is indeed saving the most important topic for the end his letter, then he is ensuring that the community has a complete understanding of his most basic teaching, the gospel or the good news. To hear this message on Easter Sunday is to bear witness to God’s resurrection power; Christ was dead but now he is arisen. He lives!
However, to ponder these words on the days leading up to Easter means that we must believe before we see. Faith is believing what and when we cannot see. It is during life’s trials and tribulations that we must be reminded to hold firmly to our faith, to remember the good news—that on the other side of darkness, there is light and on the other side of death, there is life. Paul warns that to lose sight of the entirety of this message is to risk having our believing be in vain.
While we wait for what shall be (the resurrection), we must live in what is (death). However, we do so with the knowledge and fully convinced of what the future holds. It is our faith that gives us sight beyond what we can physically see.
Who are we?
Recently, there is a tendency, particularly in the United States, to declare “this is not who we are” in the wake of tragedy (from racism and senseless police killings to displays of hatred and mass shootings). This denial of the reality of who we are does not allow us to properly address these issues.
The reality is we are all of those things. However, we can more accurately say that this is not who we want to be. Reflecting on the gospel and specifically Paul’s encounter with Jesus results in a brief autobiographical sketch in he recollection.
Paul is one who previously persecuted the church of God. This is who he was before he came to believe the gospel. Now, Paul describes himself as the least among the apostles. He declares: “But by the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain” (15:10). The extension of divine love transformed Paul from a persecutor to an apostle.
God’s grace for Paul is not vain because the transformation has compelled Paul work harder to proclaim the gospel. We, too, are who we are because of God’s grace. We do not have to remain in our current state as a person or as a nation. We, too, can believe, repent, and be transformed. This is the power of the gospel.
The gospel is not simply to be heard or received, it must also be held onto and passed along. As it was for Paul, the grace of God should necessitate our action. We should also work harder to proclaim the gospel, so that others may come to believe. Paul reminds the church in Corinth that the gospel not only saves them, but they can also stand on it. They can be sure of it. It is the firm foundation upon which we also stand and can continue to build the kin-dom of God.
Easter Sunday is among the most joyous days on the Christian calendar. Yet this Easter Sunday, as we continue to live through a pandemic, let us still acknowledge the grief and sadness for what and whom we have lost, even as we begin to see the light as we roll the stone away.
And in those moments when we feel we are still inside the tomb, let us hold firmly to our faith. Let us remember that death does not have the final say; it has no sting when we know that it does not recognize the end, but an end. That which is dead shall live again. As the stone is rolled away, our eyes must adjust to the brightness. Let us emerge from the shadows of death renewed in our faith.
Resurrection power enlivens us and propels us to strive for the better, to work harder. Standing firmly on the rock that is Christ Jesus, we can proclaim the good news so that others may come to believe and that together may all see the goodness of God in the land of living.