Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
First Corinthians 15:1–11 serves as a prelude to an important argument Paul will make in this chapter concerning the resurrection. It seems that for the Corinthians, the resurrection of Christ was not in doubt. Rather, it was the general resurrection on the last day, the resurrection of the body, that they struggled to comprehend. Such a struggle is not surprising to find in first-century Corinth, given the Hellenistic religious context in which salvation was often viewed as escape from bodily existence. The idea of bodily resurrection was, quite simply, “foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23).
At the beginning of this discourse on the resurrection, Paul reminds the Corinthian community of the gospel he proclaimed, the tradition he received and in turn handed on to them: “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” (15:3–4). Paul then lists those to whom the risen Christ appeared, apparently in the order in which he appeared to them: to Cephas and then to the twelve, then to more than 500 brothers and sisters, then to James, and then to all the apostles (15:5–7).
“Last of all,” Paul says, “as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (15:8). The translation “untimely born” is a euphemism for the Greek word ektrôma, which means abnormal birth or miscarriage. In a world in which many full-term babies did not survive long, a premature or abnormal baby had almost no chance of surviving. The image highlights the sheer improbability of Paul’s apostleship.
Throughout the Corinthian correspondence, there is evidence that Paul had detractors in the Corinthian community, some of whom apparently questioned his status as an apostle. After all, Paul did not know Jesus during his earthly life and ministry, and he was an early, fierce persecutor of Jesus’ followers. Paul acknowledges as much, saying, “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (15:9).
“But by the grace of God, I am what I am,” Paul says, “and his grace toward me has not been in vain” (15:10a). Paul’s apostleship has come about entirely by God’s grace, and Paul maintains that by God’s grace, he has worked harder than all the other apostles (15:10b). Yet what is most important is that all the apostles proclaim the same gospel, which the Corinthians have come to believe (15:11).
Though our pericope ends at verse 11, it is helpful to understand its connection to what follows. Paul seeks to root the Corinthians in the central confession of faith that he received and faithfully handed down to them “as of first importance” (15:3). This is the gospel he proclaimed to them, which they received, in which they stand, and through which they are being saved (15:1–2). Paul is concerned that they not turn away from this gospel to a faith that is futile (15:12–19).
Starting at 15:12, Paul addresses the particular issue in Corinth, showing that denial of a future, general resurrection of the dead contradicts the affirmation of Christ’s resurrection and nullifies their faith (15:12–19). He argues that the resurrection of Christ is inextricably tied to the general resurrection of the dead at the end of days. Christ is the “first fruits of those who have died,” through whose resurrection all will be made alive (15:20–22).
The tradition Paul recites in 15:3 and following appears to be an ancient credo of the church that likely took shape very early. (Paul writes to the Corinthians in the early 50s of the first century.) Elsewhere Paul insists that he received the gospel not through any human source but directly through a revelation of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:11–12). Yet the gospel he proclaims is the same gospel proclaimed by the other apostles to whom the risen Christ appeared. A common profession of faith is taking shape, with elements that will later be included in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.
Neither the resurrection of Christ nor the future resurrection of the dead can be proven or explained logically. That remains as true today as it was in the first century. Even Paul will struggle to explain coherently what bodily resurrection means (15:35–50), acknowledging that this proclamation is a mystery (15:51).
On Easter Sunday, our churches will likely be filled with those who have doubts and questions about the resurrection. We can assure hearers that doubts and questions are perfectly normal and are part of the journey of faith. Our job as preachers is not to try to prove or explain the resurrection, but only to proclaim what we have received—the testimony of ancient witnesses who staked their lives on what they had seen and heard, Paul being the most unlikely among them.