1 Corinthians 15:1-58 is both one of the greatest and one of the most difficult chapters in the New Testament. Not only is it in itself difficult, but it has also given to the creed a phrase which many people have grave difficulty in affirming, for it is from this chapter that we mainly derive the idea of the resurrection of the body. The chapter will be far less difficult if we study it against its background, and even that troublesome phrase will become quite clear and acceptable when we realize what Paul really meant by it. So then, before we study the chapter, there are certain things we would do well to have in mind.
(i) It is of great importance to remember that the Corinthians were denying not the Resurrection of Jesus Christ but the resurrection of the body; and what Paul was insistent upon was that if a man denied the resurrection of the body he thereby denied the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and therefore emptied the Christian message of its truth and the Christian life of its reality.
(ii) In any early Christian church there must have been two backgrounds, for in all churches there were Jews and Greeks.
First, there was the Jewish background. To the end of the day the Sadducees denied that there was any life after death at all. There was therefore one line of Jewish thought which completely denied both the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body ( Acts 23:8 ). In the Old Testament there is very little hope of anything that can be called life after death. According to the general Old Testament belief all men, without distinction, went to Sheol after death. Sheol, often wrongly translated Hell, was a gray land beneath the world, where the dead lived a shadowy existence, without strength, without light, cut off alike from men and from God. The Old Testament is full of this bleak, grim pessimism regarding what is to happen after death.
For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in Sheol
who can give thee praise? ( Psalms 6:5 ).
What profit is there in my death if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise thee? Will it tell of thy faithfulness?
( Psalms 30:9 ).
Dost thou work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise
up to praise thee? Is thy steadfast love declared in the
grave? Or thy faithfulness in Abaddon? Are thy wonders
known in the darkness, or thy saving help in the land of
forgetfulness? ( Psalms 88:10-12 ).
The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down
into silence. ( Psalms 115:17 ).
For Sheol cannot thank thee, death cannot praise thee;
those who go down to the pit cannot hope for thy
faithfulness. ( Isaiah 38:18 ).
Look away from me, that I may know gladness, before
I depart and be no more. ( Psalms 39:13 ).
But he who is joined with all the living has hope; for a living
dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that
they will die; but the dead know nothing.... Whatever
your hand finds to do do it with your might; for there
is no work, or thought, or knowledge, or wisdom, in
Sheol to which you are going. ( Ecclesiastes 9:4-5 ; Ecclesiastes 9:10 ).
Who shall give praise to the Most High in the grave?
The dead that are in the grave, whose breath is taken from
their bodies, will give unto the Lord neither glory nor
righteousness. ( Baruch 2:17 ).
J. E. McFadyen, a great Old Testament scholar, says that this lack of a belief in immortality in the Old Testament is due "to the power with which those men apprehended God in this world." He goes on to say, "There are few more wonderful things than this in the long story of religion, that for centuries men lived the noblest lives, doing their duties and bearing their sorrows, without hope of future reward; and they did this because in all their going out and coming in they were very sure of God."
It is true that in the Old Testament there are some few, some very few, glimpses of a real life to come. There were times when a man felt that, if God be God at all, there must be something which would reverse the incomprehensible verdicts of this world. So Job cries out,
Still, I know One to champion me at last,
to stand up for me upon earth.
This body may break up, but even then
my life shall have a sight of God.
( Job 19:25-27 . Moffatt).
The real feeling of the saint was that even in this life a man might enter into a relationship with God so close and so precious that not even death could break it.
My body also dwells secure. For thou dost not give me up
to Sheol, or let thy godly one see the Pit. Thou dost
show me the path of life; in thy presence there is fulness
of joy; in thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.
( Psalms 16:9-11 ).
Thou dost hold my right hand. Thou dost guide me with thy
counsel, and afterward thou wilt receive me to glory.
( Psalms 73:24 ).
It is also true that in Israel the immortal hope developed. Two things helped that development. (a) Israel was the chosen people, and yet her history was one continued tale of disaster. Men began to feel that it required another world to redress the balance. (b) For many centuries it is true to say that the individual hardly existed. God was the God of the nation and the individual was an unimportant unit. But as the centuries went on religion became more and more personal. God became not the God of the nation but the friend of every individual; and so men began dimly and instinctively to feel that once a man knows God and is known by him, a relationship has been created which not even death can break.
(iii) When we turn to the Greek world, we must firmly grasp one thing, which is at the back of the whole chapter. The Greeks had an instinctive fear of death. Euripides wrote, "Yet mortals, burdened with countless ills, still love life. They long for each coming day, glad to bear the thing they know, rather than face death the unknown." (Fragment 813). But on the whole the Greeks, and that part of the world influenced by Greek thought, did believe in the immortality of the soul. But for them the immortality of the soul involved the complete dissolution of the body.
They had a proverb, "The body is a tomb." "I am a poor soul," said one of them, "shackled to a corpse." "It pleased me," said Seneca, "to enquire into the eternity of the soul--nay! to believe in it. I surrendered myself to that great hope." But he also says, "When the day shall come which shall part this mixture of divine and human, here, where I found it, I will leave my body, myself I will give back to the gods." Epictetus writes, "When God does not supply what is necessary, he is sounding the signal for retreat--he has opened the door and says to you 'Come!' But whither? To nothing terrible, but to whence you came, to the things which are dear and kin to you, to the elements. What in you was fire shall go to fire, earth to earth, water to water." Seneca talks about things at death "being resolved into their ancient elements." For Plato "the body is the antithesis of the soul, as the source of all weaknesses as opposed to what alone is capable of independence and goodness." We can see this best in the Stoic belief. To the Stoic God was fiery spirit, purer than anything on earth. What gave men life was that a spark of this divine fire came and dwelt in a man's body. When a man died, his body simply dissolved into the elements of which it was made, but the divine spark returned to God and was absorbed in the divinity of which it was a part.
For the Greek immortality lay precisely in getting rid of the body. For him the resurrection of the body was unthinkable. Personal immortality did not really exist because that which gave men life was absorbed again in God the source of all life.
(iv) Paul's view was quite different. If we begin with one immense fact, the rest will become clear. The Christian belief is that after death individuality will survive, that you will still be you and I will still be I. Beside that we have to set another immense fact. To the Greek the body could not be consecrated. It was matter, the source of all evil, the prison-house of the soul. But to the Christian the body is not evil. Jesus, the Son of God, has taken this human body upon him and therefore it is not contemptible because it has been inhabited by God. To the Christian, therefore the life to come involves the total man, body and soul.
Now it is easy to misinterpret and to caricature the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Celsus, who lived about A.D. 220, a bitter opponent of Christianity, did this very thing long ago. How can those who have died rise with their identical bodies? he demands. "Really it is the hope of worms! For what soul of a man would any longer wish for a body that had rotted?" It is easy to cite the case of a person smashed up in an accident or dying of cancer.
But Paul never said that we would rise with the body with which we died. He insisted that we would have a spiritual body. What he really meant was that a man's personality would survive. It is almost impossible to conceive of personality without a body, because it is through the body that the personality expresses itself. What Paul is contending for is that after death the individual remains. He did not inherit the Greek contempt of the body but believed in the resurrection of the whole man. He will still be himself; he will survive as a person. That is what Paul means by the resurrection of the body. Everything of the body and of the soul that is necessary to make a man a person will survive, but, at the same time, all things will be new, and body and spirit will alike be very different from earthly things, for they will alike be divine.
The Risen Lord ( 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 )
15:1-11 Brothers, I want to make clear to you the nature of the good news that I preached to you, that gospel which you also received, and in which you stand, and through which you are saved. I want to make clear to you what account I gave you of the good news, an account which can save you if you hold fast to it, unless your belief is a random and haphazard thing. In the very forefront of it I handed on to you what I myself received, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was laid in the tomb, and that he was raised up on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he was seen by Cephas and then by The Twelve, and that then he was seen by more than five hundred brothers all at the one time, of whom the majority are still alive, although some have fallen asleep. After that he was seen by James, and then by all the apostles, and last of all, as if by the abortion of the apostolic family, he was seen by me too. For I am the least of the apostles; in fact I am not fit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the Church of God. It is by the grace of God that I am what I am, and his grace to me has not proved ineffective, but I have toiled more exceedingly than all of them; but it was not I who achieved anything but God's grace working with me. So then, whether I be the preacher or they, this is what we preach and this is what we have believed.
Paul is recapitulating the good news which he first brought to the Corinthians. It was not news which he had invented but news which had first been delivered to him, and it was news of a Risen Lord.
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-2 Paul says an extremely interesting series of things about the good news.
(i) It was something which the Corinthians had received. No man ever invented the gospel for himself; in a sense no man ever discovers it for himself. It is something which he receives. Therein indeed is the very function of the Church. The Church is the repository and the transmitter of the good news. As one of the old fathers had it, "No man can have God for his Father, unless he has the Church for his mother." The good news is something that is received within a fellowship.
(ii) It was something in which the Corinthians stood. The very first function of the good news was to give a man stability. In a slippery world it kept him on his feet. In a tempting world it gave him resistance power. In a hurting world it enabled him to endure a broken heart or an agonized body and not to give in. Moffatt finely translates Job 4:4 , "Your words have kept men on their feet." That is precisely what the gospel does.
(iii) It was something in which they were being saved. It is interesting to note that in the Greek this is a present tense, and not past. It would be strictly correct to translate it not, "in which you have been saved," but, "in which you are being saved." Salvation goes from glory to glory. It is not something which is ever completed in this world. There are many things in this life which we can exhaust, but the meaning of salvation is something which a man can never exhaust.
(iv) It was something to which a man had to hold tenaciously. Life makes many an attempt to take away our faith. Things happen to us and to others which baffle our understanding; life has its problems to which there seems no solution and its questions to which there seems no answer; life has its dark places where there seems to be nothing to do but hold on. Faith is always a victory, the victory of the soul which tenaciously maintains its clutch on God.
(v) It was something which must not be held haphazardly and at random. The faith which collapses is the faith which has not thought things out and thought them through. For so many of us faith is a superficial thing. We tend to accept things because we are told them and to possess them merely at secondhand. If we undergo the agony of thought there may be much that we must discard, but what is left is really ours in such a way that nothing can ever take it from us.
In Paul's list of appearances of the Risen Lord two are specially interesting.
(i) There is the appearance to Peter. In the earliest account of the Resurrection story, the word of the messenger in the empty tomb is, "Go, tell his disciples and Peter." ( Mark 16:7 ). In Luke 24:34 the disciples say, "The Lord has risen indeed and has appeared to Simon." It is an amazing thing that one of the first appearances of the Risen Lord was to the disciple who had denied him. There is all the wonder of the love and grace of Jesus Christ here. Others might have hated Peter forever, but the one desire of Jesus was to set this erratic disciple of his upon his feet. Peter had wronged Jesus and then had wept his heart out; and the one desire of this amazing Jesus was to comfort him in the pain of his disloyalty. Love can go no further than to think more of the heartbreak of the man who wronged it than of the hurt that it itself has received.
(ii) There is the appearance to James. Without doubt this James is the brother of our Lord. It is quite clear from the gospel narrative that Jesus' own family did not understand him and were even actively hostile to him. Mark 3:21 tells us that they actually sought to restrain him because they believed him to be mad. John 7:5 tells us that his brothers did not believe in him. One of the earliest of those gospels which did not succeed in getting into the New Testament is the Gospel according to the Hebrews. Only fragments of it remain. One fragment, preserved by Jerome, reads, "Now the Lord, when he had given the linen cloth unto the servant of the priest, went unto James and appeared unto him (for James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour wherein he had drunk the Lord's cup until he should see him risen again from among them that sleep)." So, the story runs, "Jesus went to James and said, 'Bring ye a table and bread.' And he took bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it unto James the Just and said unto him, 'My brother, eat thy bread, for the Son of Man is risen from among them that sleep.'" We can only conjecture what lies behind this. It may well be that the last days turned James' contempt into wondering admiration so that when the end came, he was so torn with remorse for the way in which he had treated his brother that he swore that he would starve unless he came back to forgive him. Here once again we have the amazing grace and love of Christ. He came to bring peace to the troubled soul of the man who had called him mad and who had been his opponent.
It is one of the most heart-moving things in all the story of Jesus that two of his first appearances, after he rose from the tomb, were to men who had hurt him and were sorry for it. Jesus meets the penitent heart far more than halfway.
Finally, in this passage we have a vivid light thrown on the character of Paul himself. To him it was the most precious thing in the world that Jesus had appeared also to him. That was at one and the same time the turning point and the dynamic moment of his life. But 1 Corinthians 15:9-11 tell us much about him.
(i) They tell us of his utter humility. He is the least of the apostles; he has been glorified with an office for which he is not worthy. Paul would never have claimed to be a self-made man. It was by the grace of God that he was what he was. He is perhaps even accepting a taunt made against him. It would seem that he was a little and an unhandsome man ( 2 Corinthians 10:10 ). It may be that the Jewish Christians who wished to impose the law upon Christian converts and who hated his doctrine of free grace, declared that, so far from being born again, Paul was an abortion. He, for his part, was so conscious of his own unworthiness that he felt no one could say anything too bad about him. Charles Gore once said, "On a general review of life we can seldom feel that we are suffering unmerited wrong." Paul felt like that. His was not the pride which resented the criticisms and the taunts of men, but the humility which felt that it deserved them.
(ii) They tell us at the same time of the consciousness of his own worth. He was well aware that he had laboured beyond them all. His was not a false modesty. But even at that, he spoke always, not of what he had done, but of what God had enabled him to do.
(iii) They tell of his sense of fellowship. He did not regard himself as an isolated phenomenon with a message that was unique. He and the other apostles preached the same gospel. His was the greatness which bound him closer to the Christian fellowship; there is always something lacking in the greatness which divides a man from his fellows.
If Christ Be Not Raised ( 1 Corinthians 15:12-19 )
15:12-19 If it is continually proclaimed that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some among you say that the resurrection of the dead does not exist? If the resurrection from among the dead does not exist, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then the proclamation of the faith is emptied of its meaning, and your faith has been emptied of its meaning too. If that is so we are shown to have home false witness about God, because we witnessed about God, that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise, if indeed the dead are not raised up. If the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised your faith is worthless, you are still in your sins; and, if that is so, those who died trusting in Christ have perished. If it is only in this life that we have hope in Christ, then we are more to be pitied than all men.
Paul attacks the central position of his opponents at Corinth. They said flatly, "Dead men do not rise again." Paul's answer is, "If you take up that position it means that Jesus Christ has not risen again; and if that be so, the whole Christian faith is wrecked."
Why did Paul regard a belief in the Resurrection of Jesus as so essential? What great values and great truths does j, conserve? It proves four great facts, which can make all the difference to a man's view of life here and hereafter.
(i) The Resurrection proves that truth is stronger than falsehood. According to the Fourth Gospel, Jesus said to his enemies, "Now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth." ( John 8:40 ). Jesus came with the true idea of God and of goodness; his enemies procured his death because they did not want their own false view destroyed. If they had succeeded in finally obliterating him, falsehood would have been stronger than truth. On one occasion the Earl of Morton, regent of Scotland, sent for Andrew Melville, the great Reformation leader. "There will never be quyetnes in this countrey," said Morton, "till halff a dissone of you be hangit or banished the countrey." "Tushe! sir," said Melville, "threaten your courtiers in that fashion. It is the same to me whether I rot in the air or in the ground.... Yet God be glorified, it will nocht ly in your power to hang nor exyll his treuthe!" The Resurrection is the final guarantee of the indestructibility of the truth.
(ii) The Resurrection proves that good is stronger than evil. Again to quote the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is represented as saying to his enemies, "You are of your father, the devil." ( John 8:44 ). The forces of evil crucified Jesus and if there had been no Resurrection these forces would have been triumphant. J. A. Froude, the great historian, wrote, "One lesson, and only one, history may be said to repeat with distinctness, that the world is built somehow on moral foundations, that in the long run it is well with the good, and in the long run it is ill with the wicked." But if the Resurrection had not taken place, that very principle would have been imperilled, and we could never again be certain that goodness is stronger than evil.
(iii) The Resurrection proves that love is stronger than hatred. Jesus was the love of God incarnate.
"Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine."
On the other hand, the attitude of those who procured his crucifixion was an almost virulent hatred, so bitter that in the end it was capable of ascribing the loveliness and graciousness of his life to the power of the devil. If there had been no Resurrection, it would have meant that the hatred of man in the end conquered the love of God. The Resurrection is the triumph of love over all that hatred could do. This very beautiful poem sums up the whole matter.
"I heard two soldiers talking
As they came down the hill,
The sombre hill of Calvary,
Bleak and black and still.
And one said, 'The night is late,
These thieves take long to die.'
And one said, 'I am sore afraid,
And yet I know not why.'
I heard two women weeping
As down the hill they came,
And one was like a broken rose,
And one was like a flame.
One said, 'Men shall rue
This deed their hands have done.'
And one said only through her tears,
'My son! my son! my son!'
I heard two angels singing
Ere yet the dawn was bright,
And they were clad in shining robes,
Robes and crowns of light.
And one sang, 'Death is vanquished,'
And one in golden voice
Sang, 'Love hath conquered, conquered all,
O heaven and earth rejoice!'"
The Resurrection is the final proof that love is stronger than hate.
(iv) The Resurrection proves that life is stronger than death. If Jesus had died never to rise again, it would have proved that death could take the loveliest and best life that ever lived and finally break it. During the second world war a certain city church in London was all set out for harvest thanksgiving. In the centre of the gifts was a sheaf of corn. The service was never held, for, on the Saturday night, a savage air raid laid the church in ruins. The months passed and the spring came, and someone noticed that, on the bomb site where the church had stood, there were shoots of green. The summer came and the shoots flourished and in the autumn there was a flourishing patch of corn growing amidst the rubble. Not even the bombs and the destruction could kill the life of the corn and its seeds. The Resurrection is the final proof that life is stronger than death.
Paul insisted that if the Resurrection of Jesus was not a fact the whole Christian message was based on a lie, that many thousands had died trusting in a delusion, that without it the greatest values in life have no guarantee. "Take away the Resurrection," he said, "and you destroy both the foundation and the fabric of the Christian faith."
The First-fruits Of Those That Sleep ( 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 )
15:20-28 Now then Christ has been raised from among the dead, the first-fruits of those who sleep. For, since it was through one man that death came, it was also through one man that the resurrection of the dead came. For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. Each comes in his own rank. Christ is the first-fruits, and then those who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes. After that comes the final end, when he will hand over the Kingdom to God, his father, when he has reduced to helplessness every other rule, and every other authority and power. For he must reign until he puts all his enemies under his feet. Death will be the last enemy to be reduced to helplessness. For God has subjected all things to him. (When we say that all things have been subjected to him, that of course does not include him who subjected them to him). But when all things have been subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to him who subjected all things to him, so that God may be all in all.
This again is a very difficult passage because it deals with ideas which are strange to us.
It speaks of Christ as "the first-fruits of them that sleep." Paul is thinking in terms of a picture which every Jew would recognize. The Feast of the Passover had more than one significance. It commemorated the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt. But it was also a great harvest festival. It fell just at the time when the barley harvest was due to be ingathered. The law laid it down, "You shall bring the sheaf of the first-fruits of your harvest to the priest; and he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, that you may find acceptance; on the morrow after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it." ( Leviticus 23:10-11 ). Some sheaves of barley must be reaped from a common field. They must not be taken from a garden or an orchard or from specially prepared soil. They must come from a typical field. When the barley was cut, it was brought to the Temple. There it was threshed with soft canes so as not to bruise it. It was then parched over the fire in a perforated pan so that every grain was touched by the fire. It was then exposed to the wind so that the chaff was blown away. It was then ground in a barley mill and its flour was offered to God. That was the first-fruits.
It is significant to note that not until after that was done could the new barley be bought and sold in the shops and bread be made from the new flour. The first-fruits were a sign of the harvest to come; and the Resurrection of Jesus was a sign of the resurrection of all believers which was to come. Just as the new barley could not be used until the first-fruits had been duly offered, so the new harvest of life could not come until Jesus had been raised from the dead.
Paul goes on to use another Jewish idea. According to the old story in Genesis 3:1-19 it was through Adam's sin that death came into the world as its direct consequence and penalty. The Jews believed that all men literally sinned in Adam; we see that his sin might transmit to his descendants the tendency to sin. As Aeschylus said, "The impious deed leaves after it a larger progeny, all in the likeness of the parent stock." As George Eliot wrote, "Our deeds are like children that are born to us, they live and act apart from our will; nay, children may be strangled, but deeds never. They have an indestructible life both in and out of our consciousness."
Nobody would be likely to deny that a child can inherit a tendency to sin and that the father's sins are literally visited upon the children. No one would deny that a child can inherit the consequences of a father's sin, for we know all too well how physical conditions which are the consequence of an immoral life can be transmitted to the child. But the Jew meant more than that. He had a tremendous sense of solidarity. He was sure that no man could ever do anything that could affect only himself. And he held that all men sinned in Adam. The whole world of men was, as it were, in him; and when he sinned all sinned.
That may seem a strange idea to us and unfair. But that was the Jewish belief. All had sinned in Adam, therefore all were under the penalty of death. With the coming of Christ that chain was broken. Christ was sinless and conquered death. Just as all men sinned in Adam, so all men escape from sin in Christ; and just as all men died in Adam, so all men conquered death in Christ. Our unity with Christ is just as real as our unity with Adam and this destroys the evil effect of the old.
So we get two contrasting sets of facts. First, there is Adam--sin--death. Second, there is Christ--goodness--life. And just as we were all involved in the sin of him who was first created, we are all involved in the victory of him who re-created mankind. However we may estimate that way of thinking today, it was convincing to those who heard it for the first time; and, whatever else is doubtful, it remains true that with Jesus Christ a new power came into the world to liberate men from sin and death.
1 Corinthians 15:24-28 read very strangely to us. We are used to thinking of the Father and the Son on terms of equality. But here Paul clearly and deliberately subordinates the Son to the Father. What he is thinking of is this. We can use only human terms and analogies. God gave to Jesus a task to do, to defeat sin and death and to liberate man. The day will come when that task will be fully and finally accomplished, and then, to put it in pictorial terms, the Son will return to the Father like a victor coming home and the triumph of God will be complete. It is not a case of the Son being subject to the Father as a slave or even a servant is to a master. It is a case of one who, having accomplished the work that was given him to do, returns with the glory of complete obedience as his crown. As God sent forth his Son to redeem the world, so in the end he will receive back a world redeemed; and then there will be nothing in heaven or in earth outside his love and power.
If There Is No Resurrection ( 1 Corinthians 15:29-34 )
15:29-34 If there is no resurrection, what will those who are baptized for the dead do? If the dead are not raised at all, why do people get themselves baptized for them? Every day I take my life in my hands, I swear it by the pride which I have in you in Christ Jesus our Lord. What good is it to me--looking at it from the human point of view--if at Ephesus I had to fight with beasts in the arena? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die. Don't deceive yourselves--evil friendships destroy good characters. Turn to sober living, as it is only right that you should, and don't go on sinning. Some of you boast about your knowledge, but you have not a vestige of knowledge about God. It is to shame you that I speak.
Once again this passage begins with a very difficult section. People have always been puzzled about what being baptized for the dead means, and even yet the problem is not definitely settled. The preposition for in the phrase for the dead is the Greek huper ( Greek #5228 ). In general this word can have two main meanings. When used of place, it can mean above or over. Far more commonly it is used of persons or things and means instead of or on behalf of. Remembering these two meanings, let us look at some of the ways this phrase has been understood.
(i) Beginning from the meaning of over or above, some scholars have suggested that it refers to those who get themselves baptized over the graves of the martyrs. The idea is that there would be something specially moving in being baptized on sacred ground with the thought of the unseen cloud of witnesses all around. It is an attractive and rather lovely idea, but at the time Paul was writing to the Corinthians persecution had not yet broken out in anything like a big way. Christians might suffer ostracism and social persecution, but the time of the martyrs had not yet come.
(ii) It is in any event much more natural to take huper in the sense of instead of or on behalf of. If we take it that way there are three possibilities. It is suggested that the phrase refers to those who get themselves baptized in order to fill up the vacant places in the Church which the dead have left. The idea is that the new believer, the young Christian, comes into the Church like a new recruit to take the place of the veterans who have served their campaign and earned their release. There is a great thought there. The Church ever needs its replacements and the new member is like the volunteer who fills up the depleted ranks.
(iii) It is suggested that the phrase means those who get themselves baptized out of respect for and affection for the dead. Again there is a precious truth here. Many of us came into the Church because we knew and remembered that some loved one had died praying and hoping for us. Many have in the end given their lives to Christ because of the unseen influence of one who has passed over to the other side.
(iv) All these are lovely thoughts, but in the end we think that this phrase can refer to only one custom, which has quite correctly passed out of Church practice altogether. In the early Church there was vicarious baptism. If a person died who had intended to become a member of the Church and was actually under instruction, sometimes someone else underwent baptism for him. The custom sprang from a superstitious view of baptism, that, without it, a person was necessarily excluded from the bliss of heaven. It was to safeguard against this exclusion that sometimes people volunteered to be baptized literally on behalf of those who had died. Here Paul neither approves nor disapproves that practice. He merely asks if there can be any point in it if there is no resurrection and the dead never rise again.
From that he passes on to one of the great motives of the Christian life. In effect he asks, "Why should a Christian accept the perils of the Christian life if it is all to go for nothing?" He quotes his own experience. Every day he is in jeopardy of his life. Something terrible of which the New Testament has no record happened to Paul at Ephesus. He refers to it again in 2 Corinthians 1:8-10 : he says that in Asia, that is in Ephesus, he was in such dire peril that he despaired of life and had the sentence of death passed upon him. To this day in Ephesus there is a building known as Paul's prison. Here he calls his peril fighting with beasts. The word he uses is that used of a gladiator in the arena. The later legends tell us that he actually did so fight and that he was wondrously preserved because the beasts would not attack him. But Paul was a Roman citizen and no Roman citizen could be compelled to fight in the arena. Much more likely he used the phrase as a vivid picture of being threatened by men who were as savage for his life as a wild beast might have been. In any event he demands, "To what end is all the peril and the suffering if there is no life beyond?"
The man who thinks that this life is all, and that there is nothing to follow it, may well say, "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die." The Bible itself quotes those who speak like that. "Come," they say, "let us get wine, let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure." ( Isaiah 56:12 ). The preacher, who held that death was extinction, wrote, "There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and find enjoyment from his toil." ( Ecclesiastes 2:24 , compare Ecclesiastes 3:12 ; Ecclesiastes 5:18 ; Ecclesiastes 8:15 ; Ecclesiastes 9:7 ). Jesus himself told about the rich fool who forgot eternity and took as his motto, "Eat, drink and be merry." ( Luke 12:19 ).
Classical literature is full of this spirit. Herodotus, the Greek historian, tells of a custom of the Egyptians. "In social meetings among the rich, when the banquet is ended, a servant carries round to the several guests a coffin, in which there is a wooden image of a corpse, carved and painted to resemble nature as nearly as possible, about a cubit or two cubits in length. As he shows it to each guest in turn, the servant says, 'Gaze here, and drink and be merry, for when you die, such will you be."' Euripides writes in the Alcestis (781-789, A. S. Way's translation):
"From all mankind the debt of death is due,
For of all mortals is there one that knows
If through the coming morrow he shall live?
For trackless is the way of fortune's feet,
Not to be taught nor won by art of man.
This hearing then, and learning it of me,
Make merry, drink; the life from day to day
Account thine own, all else in fortune's power."
Thucydides (2: 53) tells how, when the mortal plague came to Athens, people committed every shameful crime and eagerly snatched at every lustful pleasure because they believed that life was short and they would never have to pay the penalty. Horace (Odes 2: 13; 13) gives as his philosophy, "Tell them to bring wines and perfumes and the too-short-lived blossoms of the lovely rose while circumstances and age and the black threads of the three sisters (the Fates) still allow us to do so." In one of the most famous poems in the world the Latin poet Catullus wrote, "Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love, and let us value the tales of austere old men at a single halfpenny. Suns can set and then return again, but for us, when once our brief light sets, there is but one perpetual night through which we must sleep."
Take away the thought of a life to come and this life loses its values. Take away the idea that this life is a preparation for a greater life to follow and the bonds of honour and morality are loosened. It is useless to argue that this should not be so and that men should not be good and honourable simply for the sake of some reward. The fact remains that the man who believes that this is the only world tends to live as if the things of this world are all that matter.
So Paul insists that the Corinthians must not associate with those who say that there is no resurrection; for this would be to risk an infection which can pollute life. To say that there is no resurrection is not a sign of superior knowledge; it is a sign of utter ignorance of God. Paul is unleashing the lash that very shame may bring these wanderers back into the right way.
The Physical And The Spiritual ( 1 Corinthians 15:35-49 )
15:35-49 But perhaps someone says, "In what form are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" That is a foolish question. When you sow a seed, it cannot be made alive, unless it first dies. It is not the body which is going to come into existence that is sown, but a seed which is not clothed in a body at all, it may be of corn, or of some other of the crops. But God gives it a body as he wills, and to each of the seeds he gives its own body. All flesh is not the same flesh. But there is one kind of flesh of men, and another of beasts, and another of birds, and another of fishes. There are heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies. The splendour of the heavenly bodies is one thing, and the splendour of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one splendour and the moon another splendour and the stars another splendour. I say stars, not star, for star differs from star in splendour. There is the same difference between this body and the body we shall have in the resurrection of the dead. Our body is like the seed. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: it is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: it is sown a physical body; it is raised a spiritual body. For if a physical body exists, so does a spiritual one. For it stands written, "The first man, Adam, became a living soul. The last Adam became a life-giving spirit." It is not the spiritual that comes first, but the physical, and after that the spiritual. The first man is of the earth and was made of earth--the second man is from heaven. Such as are made of earth are like earth; such as are heavenly, are like the heavenly one; and, as we have borne the image of that which is of earth, so we shall also bear the image of him who is of heaven.
Before we begin to try to interpret this section we would do well to remember one thing--all through it Paul is talking about things that no one really knows anything about. He is talking not about verifiable matters of fact, but about matters of faith. Trying to express the inexpressible and to describe the indescribable, he is doing the best he can with the human ideas and human words that are all that he has to work with. If we remember that, it will save us from a crudely literalistic interpretation and make us fasten our thoughts on the underlying principles in Paul's mind. In this section he is dealing with people who say, "Granted that there is a resurrection of the body, with what kind of body do people rise again?" His answer has three basic principles in it.
(i) He takes the analogy of a seed. The seed is put in the ground and dies, but in due time it rises again; and does so with a very different kind of body from that with which it was sown. Paul is showing that, at one and the same time, there can be dissolution, difference and yet continuity. The seed is dissolved; when it rises again, there is a vast difference in its body; and yet, in spite of the dissolution and the difference, it is the same seed. So our earthly bodies will dissolve; they will rise again in very different form; but it is the same person who rises. Dissolved by death, changed by resurrection, it is still we who exist.
(ii) In the world, even as we know it, there is not one kind of body; each separate part of creation has its own. God gives to each created thing a body suitable for its part in creation. If that be so, it is only reasonable to expect that he will give us a body fitted for the resurrection life.
(iii) In life there is a development. Adam, the first man, was made from the dust of the earth ( Genesis 2:7 ). But Jesus is far more than a man made from the dust of the earth. He is the incarnation of the very Spirit of God. Now, under the old way of life, we were one with Adam, sharing his sin, inheriting his death and having his body; but, under the new way of life, we are one with Christ and we shall therefore share his life and his being. It is true that we have a physical body to begin with, but it is also true that one day we shall have a spiritual body.
All through this section Paul has maintained a reverent and wise reticence as to what that body will be like; it will be spiritual, it will be such as God knows that we need and we will be like Christ. But in 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 he draws four contrasts which shed light on our future state.
(i) The present body is corruptible; the future body will be incorruptible. In this world everything is subject to change and decay. "Youth's beauty fades, and manhood's glory fades," as Sophocles had it. But in the life to come there will be a permanence in which beauty will never lose its sheen.
(ii) The present body is in dishonour; the future body will be in glory. It may be that Paul means that in this life it is through our bodily feelings and passions that dishonour can so easily come; but in the life to come our bodies will no longer be the servants of passion and of impulse but the instruments of the pure service of God, than which there can be no greater honour.
(iii) The present body is in weakness; the future body will be in power. It is nowadays fashionable to talk of man's power, but the really remarkable thing is his weakness. A draught of air or a drop of water can kill him. We are limited in this life so often simply because of the necessary limitations of the body. Time and time again our physical constitution says to our visions and our plans, "Thus far and no farther." We are so often frustrated because we are what we are. But in the life to. come the limitations will be gone. Here we are compassed about with weakness; there we will be clad with power.
"All we have hoped or willed or dreamed of good
The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth
On earth we have the "broken arcs"; in the life to come "the perfect round."
(iv) The present body is a natural body; the future body will be a spiritual body. By that, it may be, Paul meant that here we are but imperfect vessels and imperfect instruments for the Spirit; but in the life to come we will be such that the Spirit can truly fill us, as can never happen here, and the Spirit can truly use us, as is never possible now. Then we will be able to render the perfect worship, the perfect service, the perfect love that now can only be a vision and a dream.
The Conquest Of Death ( 1 Corinthians 15:50-58 )
15:50-58 Brothers, I say this, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, nor can corruption inherit incorruption. Look now--I tell you something which only the initiated can understand. We shall not all die, but we shall all be changed, in a moment of time, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised up incorruptible and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality, then the word which stands written will happen, "Death has been swallowed up in victory." O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, beloved brothers, show yourselves steady, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your toil does not go for nothing.
Once again we must remember that Paul is dealing with things which defy language and baffle expression. We must read this as we would read great poetry, rather than as we would dissect a scientific treatise. The argument follows a series of steps until it reaches its climax.
(i) Paul insists that, as we are, we are not fit to inherit the Kingdom of God. We may be well enough equipped to get on with the life of this world, but for the life of the world to come we will not do. A man may be able to run enough to catch his morning train and yet need to be very different to be able to run enough for the Olympic games. A man may write well enough to amuse his friends and yet need to be very different to write something which men will not willingly let die. A man may talk well enough in the circle of his club and yet need to be very different to hold his own in a circle of real experts. A man always needs to be changed to enter into a higher grade of life; and Paul insists that before we can enter the Kingdom of God we must be changed.
(ii) Further he insists that this shattering change is going to come in his own lifetime. In this he was in error; but he looked to that change coming when Jesus Christ came again.
(iii) Then Paul goes on triumphantly to declare that no man need fear that change. The fear of death has always haunted men. It haunted Dr. Johnson, one of the greatest and best men who ever lived. Once Boswell said to him that there had been times when he had not feared death. Johnson answered that "he never had a moment in which death was not terrible to him." Once Mrs. Knowles told him that he should not have a horror for that which is the gate of life. Johnson answered, "No rational man can die without uneasy apprehension." He declared that the fear of death was so natural to man that all life was one long effort not to think about it.
Wherein lies the fear of death? Partly it comes from fear of the unknown. But still more it comes from the sense of sin. If a man felt that he could meet God easily then to die would be only, as Peter Pan said, a great adventure. But where does that sense of sin come from? It comes from a sense of being under the law. So long as a man sees in God only the law of righteousness, he must ever be in the position of a criminal before the bar with no hope of acquittal. But this is precisely what Jesus came to abolish. He came to tell us that God is not law, but love, that the centre of God's being is not legalism but grace, that we go out, not to a judge, but to a Father who awaits his children coming home. Because of that Jesus gave us the victory over death, its fear banished in the wonder of God's love.
(iv) Finally, at the end of the chapter, Paul does what he always does. Suddenly the theology becomes a challenge; suddenly the speculations become intensely practical; suddenly the sweep of the mind becomes the demand for action. He ends by saying, "If you have all that glory to look forward to, then keep yourself steadfast in God's faith and service, for if you do, all your effort will not be in vain." The Christian life may be difficult, but the goal is infinitely worth the struggle.
"A hope so great and so divine,
May trials well endure;
And purge the soul from sense and sin,
As Christ himself is pure."
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)