We are studying 1 Corinthians 15 (specifically, verses 1-8, 12-14, 20-23, and 42-45) for Sunday, April 12, Easter! Hallelujah! Despite not being able to assemble physically, we will be assembling spiritually, which may make this week’s text particularly appropriate, since it will ultimately turn our attention to the paradoxical concept of a “spiritual body.” Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The letter we know as 1 Corinthians was written by Paul in the early 50s CE to the church in the city of Corinth. As far as I know, no one disputes any of this.
In brief, Corinth was a major 1st century commercial center, with a typically 1st century CE Greco-Roman socio-cultural and economic profile. We think there were highly unequal social groups, including slaves; people were status conscious, self-absorbed, and competitive. So different from now. We think the church included both Jews and Gentiles, although tension between Jews and Gentiles isn’t the same dominant theme in this letter that it is in the letter to the Romans.
Instead, the two long letters from Paul to the church in Corinth tell us a lot about other specific community issues in the church at that time. While it’s far from everything that people would like to know, it’s enough to have made the Corinthians the most famous “troubled congregation” in the history of Christianity.
Some of those issues are practical and behavioral, others more abstractly theological – although even abstract theological issues often have practical consequences. By the time we get to our focus text in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul has already laid out a general theological view of the essential unity of the church, addressed a number of specific, concrete issues of congregational practice, including the problem of sexual morality and church discipline, the problem of the relation of the church community to the larger community (as expressed in the matter of using courts of law against fellow Christians), the problem of good order in worship, including what to say to people who want to talk all the time during worship, the proper attitude to take towards the celebration of communion, how to think about the division of labor in the church, and how to understand what is most central and important in the Christian value system, and how to keep spiritual gifts in proper perspective with that in mind.
Now he has to deal with some questions about the resurrection, which is the subject of chapter 15. After that all that remains are some concluding instructions about “the collection for the saints,” some information about travel itineraries, and closing greetings.
Most of 1 Corinthians 15 comes up in the lectionary as a series of epistle readings for the 5th through 8th Sundays after Epiphany in Year C. Some verses from 1 Corinthians 15 also show up on Easter in Year b (1-11) and again in Year C (19-26). In other words, people may have heard portions of 1 Corinthians 15 in worship over the years.
CLOSER READING: In verse 1, Paul more precisely says he “makes known” the “good news” that he literally “good news-ed”, using a verb that specifically means “proclaimed good news” or “proclaimed a good message” or “evangelized.” So the “evangel” figures prominently in the first sentence or so.
That emphasis makes a strong statement that Paul’s message has been good news.
Starting with verse 3, Paul positions himself as a go-between, a middle man between the source of this message and the Corinthians: he received it, then handed it over, and they received it. He has shared what he had to share.
He lays the message out again in verses 3-8: Christ died, was buried, was raised – here, the verb is what we would use for someone woken from sleep, or helped up from sitting or lying down – and appeared, over and over, to a long list of people, including, at last, Paul himself.
Until now, I have been accustomed to reading “as to one untimely born” as meaning something like “as to one born too late.” Sort of the way someone might feel about having been too young to be a Freedom Rider or go to Woodstock. That was before I looked it up in Greek.
That word in Greek seems normally to refer to miscarriage. The expression gives the statement an entirely different tone, more like Paul is referring to himself as premature, incompletely formed, snatched from death.
Verses 9-11 might strike us as almost defensive on Paul’s part. There’s no reason to think he’s insincere here; his being sent as an apostle is all grace, extended to someone who didn’t deserve it at all, from his perspective.
Evidently there are folks in Corinth who deny the “resurrection of the dead,” literally, a “standing again.” In Greek, anastasis, from which we get the name Anastasia. What specifically they deny is not entirely clear, although verses 12-14 imply, to me, that some of the arguments going on involved hair-splitting semantics. That would explain Paul’s making the point that being “raised/awoken” just means “a resurrection from the dead.” One implies the other; they are interchangeable, not two different ideas.
To me, that suggests that maybe someone was saying they were.
In verse 14, “in vain” is literally “empty.” Like an empty box. Like those caper films where the robbers open up the bank vault to find … nothing. “Proclamation” here is not that specific “proclamation of the good news” Paul uses earlier, linked to his story in verses 3-8, but the more generic “kerygma.” Maybe because, if a message were empty, it wouldn’t be good news.
As Paul’s argument continues, it doesn’t seem to be an argument designed to appeal to atheists. It’s rather pitched to folks who seem to want to have some part of the gospel message, but without Christ’s resurrection. Because his point seems to be: you can’t have the things you want or value in the gospel without the foundation of the resurrection. That’s an argument addressed to people who do find something to value in the gospel.
Calling Christ “the firstfruits of those who have died,” which conjures up the image of reaping, will have an echo later when Paul talks about sowing seeds in verses 36-44.
In Adam, all are dying. It’s not just something that will happen at a discrete point in the future, it’s present, it’s happening now.
I don’t know why we have to skip verse 24, in which Christ, in a particularly satisfying image, literally puts a stop to every ruler and every authority and power. Good riddance.
Paul makes an analogy between the resurrection, which his readers don’t understand, and plants, which his readers also don’t really understand, but at least have some experience of. Seeds don’t look anything like the plants they become. Analogously, our resurrected bodies will be different in significant ways from our mortal bodies.
The final rhetorical climax comes in verses 42-44. “It is sown a physical / natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” The language should probably lead us to set aside our usual contrast between physical-bodily and spiritual-immaterial. Maybe a spiritual body is filled or completely animated by the Spirit, maybe Paul has something different in mind, but whatever the spiritual body is, it is related to our mortal body, and yet thoroughly transformed.
It is, after all, new life.
We can’t accurately imagine this reality.
That makes it endlessly fascinating.