Resurrection of the Dead (preaching resource for Easter Sunday: March 31, 2024)
This post exegetes 1 Corinthians 15:1-20, providing context for the RCL Epistle reading on 3/31/2024 (Easter Sunday). This exegesis draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe ("Bible Expository Commentary") and Bruce Winter ("New Bible Commentary").
|"Resurrection of the Dead" by Cluny (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
The doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is an encouraging core teaching of the Christian faith. Sadly, it was rejected by Greeks who embraced a dualistic philosophy that viewed the body as evil and the spirit (viewed as an immortal soul) as good. Death was thus seen as the release of the spirit/soul from its bodily prison. The idea that God will resurrect people bodily was to Greeks both absurd (Acts 17:32) and unwelcome.
Despite this dualistic Greek viewpoint, Corinthian Christians (most who were Greeks) embraced (at least at first) the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. However, by the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, their belief had waned. So in chapter 15, Paul moves to shore it up. He does so by answering four related questions—we'll cover the first in this sermon: Will the dead be resurrected? Paul’s answer to this question is a resounding, “Yes!” As proof, he offers three lines of testimony.
The testimony of the Gospel (vv. 1–2)
1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
Paul begins with general evidence—the testimony of the Gospel. And fundamental to the Gospel message is the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead, which we celebrate on Easter. Indeed, his resurrection is the evidence and guarantee of our own.
The Corinthians had accepted the Gospel as Paul had preached it—including his teaching concerning the bodily resurrection. Jesus had died in a human body and had been raised in the same body—a body now glorified through resurrection. Indeed, it is Jesus’ human death and resurrection that secures our. A dead Savior saves no one.
The testimony of the Old Testament (vv. 3–5)
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve…
This second proof supports the first. Jesus’ bodily resurrection was prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures—our Old Testament. Where are those prophecies? Well, first there is the entire OT sacrificial system, which points to Jesus as humanity’s Substitute and Savior. Even more specifically, the OT speaks of Jesus’ resurrection occurring ”on the third day.” Where? Well, there is the story of Jonah (which Jesus himself referenced in Mat. 12:38–41). And there is the wave sheaf ceremony to which Paul refers (compare 1Cor 15:23 with Lev. 23:9-14). In this ceremony the priest waved before the Lord a sheaf of the first cuttings of Spring harvest. This ceremony occurred on the Sunday following the Passover—the same Sunday when Jesus, resurrected from the dead, walked out of his tomb. There are also other possible OT prophecies of Jesus’ bodily resurrection: Psalm 16:8–11 (see Acts 2:25–28); Psalm 22:22ff (see Heb. 2:12); Isaiah 53:10–12; and Psalm 2:7 (see Acts 13:32–33).
The testimony of eyewitnesses (vv. 5–11)
5 …he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them-- yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
The third proof of Jesus’ bodily resurrection (which attests to and guarantees our own) involves these eyewitness accounts. Hundreds saw Jesus alive following his death and burial (see Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32). There were far too many eyewitness accounts to write them off as mass hysteria or hallucination. Paul was among the eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus. As an unbeliever, he had been convinced that Jesus was truly dead (and thus, in his eyes, a false Messiah). But then Paul met Jesus who appeared to him bodily, and his entire life and view of Jesus was radically changed. Indeed, Paul’s personal witness to the risen Jesus was very compelling.
These three lines of testimony to Jesus’ bodily resurrection lead Paul to an important conclusion: because Jesus was resurrected bodily from the dead, so shall we be. Here Paul associates Jesus’ resurrection with our own. Note this reasoning in 15:12-20:
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. 20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Through his incarnation (which continues in his now glorified human body), Jesus remains, forever, fully divine and fully human. In his humanity, Jesus is the first person to be resurrected from the dead (before Jesus’ resurrection, others, like Lazarus, were resuscitated but not resurrected—those who are resurrected never die again). So Jesus is the first to be resurrected, and Paul’s conclusion is that many will follow.
Indeed, Paul calls Jesus the “firstfruits” of a great “harvest” yet to come. As noted earlier, “firstfruits” refers to the OT wave-sheaf ceremony on the Sunday following the Passover. As the Lamb of God, Jesus was sacrificed for us on the Passover. As the “sheaf” of firstfruits, he arose the third day—the Sunday following Passover. When the priest waved the firstfruits of grain before the Lord that Sunday morning, he was signifying that a larger harvest was yet to come. When Jesus was raised from the dead, it was God’s assurance that all humanity (the larger harvest), in union with Jesus, would be raised bodily as well. Thus death is rightly referred to as “sleep” because it’s temporary. The dead await a future “awakening” in resurrected bodies.
Paul is making this point out of his understanding that when Jesus (who is one with God and with all humanity) died, all humanity died with him (see 2Cor. 5:14-15). And because Jesus rose, still joined to us in his incarnation, all humanity rose with him—and each person will experience this reality in their own bodily resurrection.
For believers, this truth of bodily resurrection is a source of great hope, because we know that when we rise, we will be forever with our Lord in the joy of his new heaven and new earth. Without this hope, the life of a Jesus-follower in this world (Corinth, in particular) can be most pitiable, for indeed, many Christians suffer terribly to follow Jesus.