First Corinthians: The Gospel and the Resurrection

January 29, 2008

The Corinthian church had drifted far from the gospel Paul had delivered a few short years earlier.

  • Some of them had formed factions behind various favorite leaders.
  • Some of them were condoning blatant sexual sin.
  • Some of them were suing one another in pagan courts.
  • Some of them were disregarding the consciences of others regarding meat sacrificed to idols.
  • Some of them were toying with idolatry.
  • Some of them were abandoning teachings on gender roles in the church.
  • Some of them were despising the poor at the Lord’s Supper, turning it into a self-indulgent sham.
  • Some of them were using spiritual gifts for their own selfish ambitions.
  • Some of them were denying the resurrection from the dead.

In each case, those Corinthians were missing the point of the gospel. Paul had repeatedly pointed them back to the gospel for correction.

Of all their errors, among the most severe issue was the denial of the resurrection. In chapter 15, Paul called them back to the foundational message of Christianity.

1Co 15:3-8 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Jesus had died “for our sins, according to the Scriptures” and was raised from the dead on the third day. Many witnesses of his resurrection were still alive at the time Paul wrote this letter. Those Corinthians who questioned whether the resurrection really happened could verify it with a large number of eyewitnesses. God did not leave them without evidence!

Paul reminded them that this was what he had preached to them a few years earlier, and this is the message they had believed. On this gospel the Corinthian Christians had taken their stand.

1Co 15:12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?

Some in the church were teaching that there is no resurrection of the dead. Paul pointed out what should have been obvious: Those who deny the resurrection of the dead are denying the heart of the gospel message. One cannot be a Christian without believing in the resurrection of the dead.

Paul offered a list of strong arguments for resurrection, concluding with:

1Co 15:16-18 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

But of course Christ was raised from the dead (as all those still-living witnesses could testify.) And therefore we will all be raised from the dead.

1Co 15:21-23 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.

The symmetry between Adam and Jesus is also discussed in Romans.

The resurrection of Christ foreshadows the resurrection of those who belong to him, which will occur at Jesus’ return. When Jesus returns, death will be destroyed, and he will deliver the kingdom to his Father.

Paul continued to present the case for the resurrection:

1Co 15:29-32 Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? I die every day–I mean that, brothers–just as surely as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

This may be the most puzzling passage in the entire New Testament. What is “baptism for the dead?” Some sources suggest that as many as 200 different interpretations have been proposed for verse 29. None of those potential explanations is without problems. The only consensus among scholars is that this is a perplexing verse. Perhaps the best we can do is to infer what it might mean from the surrounding verses and the general argument being made. The following explanation seems as likely as any other to me, though admittedly it has its own difficulties.

As 1 Cor 15:30-32 explains, Paul had given up his life to preach the gospel, at great personal cost and great risk. Why would he do that if there were no resurrection from the dead? Similarly, as we learn in Romans 6, all Christians were baptized into Christ’s death. In baptism we were all united with Christ in his death. By our baptisms we enter into the suffering of Christ. We submitted to that in the hope that one day we may be united with him in his resurrection. But if there is no resurrection, why were we baptized into Christ’s death? What hope motivates it? Why are people baptized into Christ’s death, if there is no hope of a resurrection? Perhaps that is the meaning of verse 29.

1Co 15:33-34 Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God–I say this to your shame.

Paul thus rebuked the Corinthian church for being misled by those who denied the resurrection. The Corinthian Christians should have known better. They should not abandon the teaching of an inspired apostle to follow the creative and innovative ideas of men!

Having duly chastized the church, Paul turned his attention to a more uplifting subject — our future resurrection!


  1. The explanation I like is that perhaps Paul here is talking about a practice that was out of the mainstream of the church, one with no basis in truth. In other words, there no reason to be baptized for the dead but folks were doing it.Maybe Paul’s saying here, that even the folks who don’t seem to have a clue about baptism obviously believe that there will be a resurrection. Their (foolish) actions make no sense if there’s no resurrection.Of course, if it was a misguided practice, why didn’t he correct it? Perhaps he did elsewhere already and saw no need to here.

  2. That might very well be the explanation. About the only things I feel confident to say about baptism for the dead are(1) This isn’t introducing a new doctrine that we should be baptizing living people on behalf of those who have died. (2) The bottom line of the argument is that there really will be a resurrection, and the Corinthians should have already known that.

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