Easter Sunday • 1 Corinthians 15:19–26 • March 31, 2013
By Tom Manteufel
From time to time novels have appeared which depict the ramifications of the discovery of alleged archeological evidence that the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ never took place, such as When It Was Dark (in the early twentieth century) or more recently Dr. Paul Maier’s theological thriller A Skeleton in God’s Closet. They raise the question of where we might turn for light in the darkness which would come upon the world if this central tenet of Christianity were given up by those who hold it. St. Paul in his day had to deal with a radical group within the congregation at Corinth which said that there is no resurrection of the dead (v. 12).
By this bold denial these Corinthians were rejecting the raising of the bodies of the dead, as is clear from Paul’s line of argument against them in vv. 35–49. They seemed to know about Paul’s teaching of a spiritual resurrection (Eph 2:1, 4–6; Col 2:13), the raising of the spirit from the death of sin and unbelief by conversion already in this life, although they misunderstood and distorted it in a puffed up, self-serving way, not guided by apostolic teaching (1 Cor 4:8). But they had commingled the general Greek cultural denial of physical resurrection (see for example Acts 16:18) with Christian beliefs. We do not know exactly what the corrupting line of influence was—possibly Epicurean, or Stoic, or simply a belief in disembodied survival of death. Most likely the final result resembled the teaching combated by Justin Martyr in the next century, held by “some who are called Christians . . . who say that there is no resurrection of the dead and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven.” In any case, in this sermon we will see what light St. Paul used for the darkness which inevitably stemmed from this denial which has plagued the church from his day to ours.
Jesus Christ, the Second Adam
I. He redeems from death, which is the curse of sin (vv. 19–22)
- Sinners are condemned to death. God intended that the human beings he created live in his service and be forever blessed. But Adam, the first man, became separated from God by sin (Gn 2:17; Gn 3:1–19), and all his descendents have been born into his sinful condition and its curse of death (vv. 21–22; Rom 5:15–16). The alienation from God leading up to and continuing after physical death is also called death in Scripture (e.g., Eph 2:1, 5; 1 Jn 3:14; Jn 3:36)—these are parts of the terrible curse of death. But the grace of God longed for the sinner’s reconciliation, deliverance from the curse, and restoration to life in everlasting fullness, and Jesus came to bring all this about (Mt 1:21; Jn 3:16; 10:10). But if the dead really do not rise, Christ also is still dead (v. 13) and the Christian proclamation is empty and all our faith in him is useless (vv. 14–17). For a dead savior is no savior and cannot give life, and we then are to be pitied, as our hope crumbles (vv. 18–19).
- But Christ is risen, the apostle assures us (v. 20), bringing light for this gross darkness. He has risen as the representative of sinful human beings and the new head of the human race, the Second Adam through whom benefits come to the new and restored humanity (vv. 21–22, 45). Paul declares his resurrection as a fact (v. 20) on the basis of what he has said earlier in 1 Corinthians 15. He has said (vv. 3–4) that Christ’s death and resurrection as the true and sure Redeemer is fulfillment of scriptural prophecy (cf. Is 53:5–12; Ps 16:8–11); and he has said that the fact of this fulfillment has been confirmed by eyewitnesses of the risen one (vv. 5–8). As the Second Adam he sacrificed himself as the representative of sinful mankind and procured forgiveness and bountiful benefits for the whole race of which he is the new head. This is not a vain and unreliable hope for lost sinners (v. 19) but the basis for steadfast confidence and rejoicing in victory (vv. 57–58). He rose as the head of the restored race, having gained benefits in which we may share (Jn 14:19).
II. The Second Adam is the firstfruits of the harvest of God’s redemption (vv. 23–26).
- Those who belong to Christ will share in the harvest of which he is the firstfruits. But Paul does not say in 1 Corinthians that all belong to Christ, acknowledging their need for a Savior and trusting in him. The non-Christian world is condemned, and even some professing Christians and communicants are impenitent and will be condemned with the world (3:16–17; 5:4–13; 11:27–32; 15:34). Paul’s teaching is that all the dead are to rise (Acts 24:10–15), but not all will share the benefits of the risen one (2 Thes 1:7–10). That is, he follows his master’s teaching (Jn 5:28–29). Thus his “all” in v. 22 refers to all who trust in Christ.
- The risen Christ is the Second Adam, who came to restore what the first Adam lost for himself and his posterity by the corruption of body and soul. Therefore the glorious resurrection of the body at the second coming will be the climax of that restoration and redemption. The Spirit-led children of God eagerly wait the redemption of their bodies (Rom 8:23). And if the Corinthians who denied the bodily resurrection held the position—as some commentators think—that Jesus’s body rose but no one else’s will, this absurd inconsistency would also be incompatible with St. Paul’s understanding of the redemptive significance of his resurrection—i.e., “Could the head rise and leave his members dead?” (LSB 741). Christ’s kingdom (basileia) in the sense of his royal power—used to put an end to all the enemies of the people—being restored, will also subject death, and its disruption of the human being, as the longest enduring of these enemies, to this destruction. Then the Redeemer will hand over the kingdom in that sense by presenting it to his Father as a spectacular sign of “mission accomplished” (vv. 24–26). But the kingdom in the sense of his royal power—used for the purpose of continually showering benefits and gifts upon those in fellowship with him—will never cease (Lk 1:33; Is 9:7; Dn 7:14).
 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, trans. Thomas B. Falls (Washington DC: Catholic University of
America Press, 2003), 80.