The Resurrection in Corinthian and Current Christianity
Q: How did the Corinthians misinterpret Paul’s teachings on the resurrection and how did that misunderstanding lead to the various problems in that community?
A: Bible scholars continue to debate some of the finer points of the Corinthians’ erroneous thinking. We discover the basic problem, however, from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15. He asked them, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (v. 12)”
Since they hadn’t completely turned away from Paul’s message, it’s likely that these errorists among the Corinthians still believed in some sort of “spiritual resurrection” or a continuation of the soul’s life after physical death. Paul says that this is foolish thinking and carefully and logically builds a Christ-centered case against the naysayers.
First of all, “if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. (v. 13)” Why care about being a Christian if the Christ remains dead? It would mean that both the apostolic message and the Corinthians’ faith are “in vain. (v. 14)” Jesus’ resurrection also testifies to the Father’s acceptance of the Son’s sacrifice. Therefore, if He remains dead, “we are still in [our] sins. (v. 17)” This would mean that those who died believing “have perished [eternally] (v. 18)” and that the rest of the world should pity us poor fools (v. 19).
In the following verses, Paul shows how the Salvation Story is intimately interwoven with the accounts of the Creation and the Fall. A flesh and blood man was formed and quickened to be the first father of all of ever-living mankind. Instead, this one man sinned in the body and brought physical, spiritual, and eternal death upon himself and his posterity.
Therefore, God sent a new Man to earth. He lived a perfect life before suffering horribly and dying an innocent death. Then by this Man came “the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (vv. 21-22)” The physical evidence of our own resurrection will not be fully revealed until the end of time, when Christ totally destroys “every rule and every authority and power (v. 24)” including, finally, “death. (v. 26)”
Only then, as Jesus ends time and bids us enter eternity, will our own resurrection bodies be revealed to us. Until then, He offers the testimony of His own risen body, for He is “the firstfruits” of the resurrection and only on the Last Day will His glorified flesh be joined by “those who belong to Christ. (v. 23)”
Even though His living and active Word and the power of the Holy Spirit should convince us of the truth of resurrection on Christ’s testimony alone, Jesus didn’t stop there. He “testified” in the flesh to a host of eyewitnesses that He was, indeed, alive in body and in spirit. Along with His individual meetings with Peter, James, and Paul, He also visited “the twelve” and a larger gathering of “the apostles” and even showed Himself “to more than five hundred brothers at one time. (vv. 3-8)”
Paul begins this section by reminding the Corinthians that the Gospel he preached was the same Gospel he had heard from Jesus Himself (cf. Acts 9:1-6; Galatians 1:11-17). He later learned more as he met other believers (Galatians 1:18-19; Acts 9:27; 11:30; 15:1-35, etc.). He likely knew details of the resurrection that would be recorded in the Gospels. Among these, we see that Jesus offered His punctured flesh to Thomas as proof that He stood there in His own body (John 20:27); some of His disciples physically “took hold of his feet (Matthew 28:9)”; He took bread in His hands and broke it with the Emmaus Road disciples (Luke 24:30-31); at the Sea of Tiberias, He cooked and served a breakfast of fish and bread to seven of the disciples (John 21:1-14).
First Corinthians 15 exhorts us to believe in the bodily resurrection — first of Jesus and then of all who believe in Him. If your intellect wants to argue with Christ’s Word and Spirit, Paul bids you listen to the other eyewitnesses. If you’re wondering exactly what you’ll have in the resurrection, Paul invites you to wise up and realize that until you receive it, you’ll be unable to comprehend having a glorified body (vv. 35-48). In mortal life, we only understand what it’s like to bear the fallen, sin-damaged “image of the man of dust”; in the resurrection, we’ll know what it is to bear the perfect and holy “image of the man of heaven. (v. 49)”
This covers the first part of your question. As for the second, we have little evidence of any specifics. Human nature being what it is, I imagine that the Corinthians acted much like people today. How does the Church react when current day false teachers claim that the dead will not be raised? What damage happens to those with weak faith when some churches tolerate the message that Christ Himself died and remains dead? What purpose do we have in the present? What hope do we have for eternity? Why care for our living bodies or respect the remains of the dead if no one returns to bodily life? Won’t I be bored just “floating around heaven” for all eternity?
In contrast, Paul offers concrete encouragement: Death — and the sin that brings it — “is swallowed up in victory. (v. 54)” He proclaims the “mystery” that both the living and the dead “will all be changed (v. 51)” through faith in “God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (v. 57)” This, then, is no excuse to laze around while waiting for glorification. Instead, Paul’s “beloved brothers” and all Christians awaiting the resurrection continue in their God-given vocations as “steadfast, immovable” believers “always abounding in the work of the Lord” and “knowing that in the Lord [our] labor is not in vain. (v. 58)” Solid evidence, solid Scriptures, and solid faith point to the solid, physical bodies that will be ours for eternity.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Newspaper column #548