You might think that the four verses we’ll be studying today in 1 Corinthians 15 are pretty straightforward, and in a sense you’d be right. I began working through the passage last Tuesday, and found it amazing that Paul packed so much meaning into these seemingly simple remarks. So let’s look at the entire passage for context, and then dive into verses 16-19.
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. ~~1 Corinthians 15:12-19 (ESV)
Did you notice that verse 16 pretty much repeats verse 14? Paul’s not getting forgetful in his old age. Rather, he uses repetition to enforce his argument, and maybe so that the Corinthian Christians would really get the point. Repetition is an effective teaching device, especially when a teacher needs to drive home an important fact. 2 Peter 1:13 tells us, for example, that the apostle Peter valued repetition in his ministry. What could possibly be more important than Christ’s resurrection?
Regarding this verse, the Believer’s Bible Commentary says: “If resurrection is an utter impossibility, then there can be no exception to it. On the other hand, if resurrection had taken place once, for instance in the case of Christ, then it can no longer be thought of as an impossibility.” Thus Paul repeats his statement, challenging the Corinthians to use their reasoning skills to conclude that Christ’s resurrection implies a general resurrection.
The pivotal point of Paul’s argument appears in verse 17, as he stresses that our justification comes through Christ’s death and resurrection. He has consistently preached this as the Gospel throughout his ministry (Romans 4:25). The other apostles also preached this message in Acts 5:30-31.
The shed blood of Jesus indeed atones for sin, but Christ’s resurrection shows that God accepted His sacrifice (Romans 1:4 with Romans 4:25). So without Christ’s resurrection, the Corinthians would have believed the Gospel for nothing, and consequently would still bear the weight of their sins. Since Christ’s resurrection is the evidence that God confers justification on believers, a lack of resurrection would signify that justification never took place. Denial of the resurrection robs Christians of hope.
In verse 18, Paul adds emotional intensity to his case for general resurrection by bringing up believers who have already “fallen asleep.” The euphemism for death, fallen asleep, itself affirms the resurrection. Sleep implies eventually waking up, does it not? So Paul deliberately borrows from Jesus (John 11:11) in describing the death of believers. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 elaborates on this point, again tying the hope of believers’ resurrection to the resurrection of Christ.
Paul strengthens his case by reminding them of other Christians who have passed away. If bodily resurrection doesn’t happen, why assume that there would be any sort of conscious existence after death? In essence, without His resurrection, those people died apart from salvation.
Verse 19 offers the final, if not the most haunting, consequence of no resurrection. If Christ hasn’t been raised, and we won’t be raised, we have forsaken worldly pleasures for nothing. Furthermore, we’ve suffered persecution for the Gospel with no hope of a heavenly reward, which is pretty absurd. Sacrificing lives of pleasure in this life, when we can’t anticipate eternal life, only makes following the Lord ridiculous.
Some commentators suggest that Paul means the apostles are “people most to be pitied” because of the particularly high level of suffering they endured for the sake of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 4:9-13). And no one disagrees that they suffered in greater degree than most other Christians. Grammatically, however, in this passage Paul never mentions the apostles as an antecedent to the word “we,” making it more likely that he means Christians in general should be pitied if there is no resurrection.
Jesus taught that believers should expect persecution for the Gospel, as seen in Scriptures such as Matthew 24:9 and John 16:2. But without faith that we will receive a reward in eternity, we lack any motivation for undergoing that level of persecution and self-denial. Therefore all Christians should be pitied for putting ourselves in hard circumstances if we won’t derive any benefit.
Paul’s words don’t necessarily mean that the Christian life is joyless. Rather, he here wants to emphasize that we make sacrifices that unbelievers find incomprehensible precisely because of our faith that we will follow Christ in resurrection. If, however, there is no resurrection, we’ve placed our hope in an illusion. People should pity us as fools!
As we’ve seen, embracing the doctrine of resurrection is essential to Christianity as a whole. Thankfully, as we will see in verse 20 next week, Christ indeed has risen from the dead, giving us hope of eternal life! Between now and next Monday, then, join me in rejoicing over our glorious hope.
I look forward to your questions, insights and even your disagreements (as long as you can substantiate those disagreements with Scripture) in the Comments Section or on The Outspoken TULIP Facebook page.