Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:19-26
It’s tempting to leave the preaching to the magnificent music of Handel’s Messiah and other composers and hymnists. Easter is the stuff of music and poetry, not essays. It should fill us with wonder, renew our hope, move us to joyful thanksgiving.
These particular verses from 1 Corinthians 15 feel more like the stuff of the lecture hall. And, to a certain degree, they are. Verse 19 tips us off: Paul is responding to an idea circulating that resurrection power is something we experience in this life, leaving in question whether there is a future resurrection. Unfortunately, we don’t have all the details on this debate, but it shows us that from the beginning there have been a variety of views about what resurrection means for the lives of believers.
Isn’t it all about heaven?
Today, the television show The Good Place is just one of a multitude of programs and films that tap into popular views about heaven and life beyond death. Whether or not these can be considered to represent “resurrection” is debatable. Yet for many of us, they portray the first image that is likely to pop into our minds when we think of resurrection: in other words, the belief that although we die a physical death, we will live forever. Some might add to this that some will live forever in heaven, while others will live forever in hell.
It is important to observe that the New Testament does not offer a single view of resurrection. There are shared themes and threads, but nothing that amounts to a single, definitive understanding. This gives us all the more reason to delve into what Paul has to say in 1 Corinthians 15:19-26. Not because it offers a “last word” on resurrection, but because it can open up additional ways of thinking about resurrection and its significance for the life of the believer.
Christ, the first fruits
The point of debate in 1 Corinthians 15:19 is not whether Christ was raised from the dead. The question is whether or not our hope in Christ is for this life only. Elsewhere, in Romans 8:11 Paul writes, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” It isn’t difficult to see how such language could lead to the idea that when we are clothed in Christ’s spirit at baptism, it means we participate in his resurrection now. But is it only now?
This idea actually has some appeal because it means we don’t have to get locked into debates about whether or not we exist in some form when our physical bodies have been reduced to atoms. On the other hand, it isn’t very satisfying when it comes to grief and hopes of being reunited with loved ones. Paul’s response is that Christ is the “first fruits” of those who have died; that is, the first of many who will be raised. This invites us to see in resurrection something that is wildly expansive, that transcends temporal boundaries as we mark them, and which expands far beyond our small circle of family and friends. Resurrection is about something greater than our personal fate.
A tale of two human beings
Verses 21-22 (“For,” gar) carry forward Paul’s discussion of how it is that Christ is the first fruits of those who have died. They could be called a Reader’s Digest version of what Paul discusses more extensively in Romans 5. It is also Paul at his most abstract. “Adam” here is not Eve’s companion, but rather stands for humankind as a type. This type of human being, says Paul, introduced death, but he leaves it open to our interpretation of Genesis for how this happened. I would propose: by grasping for knowledge of good and evil while lacking the wisdom to adequately distinguish between the two, leading to mayhem.
In contrast to “Adam,” Jesus Christ represents another type of human being. It is important to notice that Paul uses the same word, anthrōpos, when speaking of Adam and also of Christ. It is essential for his argument that Christ became fully human. In contrast to Adam, however, Christ alone of all “Adam” pursued a path defined by faithfulness to God, summarized in the phrase “the faithfulness of Christ” (pistos Xristou). Christ’s faithfulness resulted not in death (separation from God), but in resurrection (union with God). We are all, says Paul, “Adam” and are destined to die. Yet because of Christ’s faithfulness (which we participate in when we are baptized into Christ’s spirit), “all will be made alive in Christ.”
All things in order
Paul, steeped in apocalyptic thought, sees the fate of creation unfolding in a linear fashion. Christ has been raised by God, the first fruits of the dead; then Christ will return to gather those who belong to or are “in” Christ. When the end of time arrives, Christ hands over the kingdom of Christ to God, but only after “destroying” every ruler, authority, and power other than God. The last of these is death itself. I deliberately say power “other than God” rather than “opposed to God” because, with our propensity to confuse good and evil, it is too easy for us to believe that our organization, church, family is a power aligned with God and therefore somehow exempt.
This is a scenario that is played out in a thousand films, the more violent the better. The word translated “destroy” (katargeō), however, has the broader sense of “to cause something to lose its power or effectiveness” (Danker, page 525). Are there ways other than violence to do this? And does this ask us to relinquish in humility our desire to rule, or control, or have power over?
There are unanswered questions as the moral arc bends towards justice. One thing is certain: resurrection, in Paul’s thought world, is more than an empty tomb. It is an epic.