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Lowell Brueckner

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1 Corinthians 15:1-20


Chapter 15

1.      Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand,
2.      by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.
3.      For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
4.      and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures,
5.      and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve.
6.      After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.
7.      After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles.
8.      Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.
9.      For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
10.  But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.
11.  Therefore, whether it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

Paul begins this chapter with a wonderful synopsis of the gospel, which he preached. Blessed is the person, who is led to a place where it is declared, the Holy Spirit opening his ears, so that he understands and believes. There is enough in two verses so that anyone, anywhere, who receives these words and stands in faith upon them, can expect to be saved. I heard an old preacher quote verses 3 and 4 and then declare, “I intend to swing out into eternity upon these truths.”

In verse 2, Paul gives a qualification, so that the reader can distinguish personally, whether he has truly believed or else believed in vain. He gives the condition, “If you hold fast…”  In the parable of the sower, only the fourth kind of soil was productive, showing that the other three received the seed in vain. They were either too hard, too shallow, or too cluttered with cares and pleasure and came short of true faith. Jesus said that, “He who endures to the end shall be saved” (Mt.24:13), not because endurance saves, but because saving faith endures.  

It is a great privilege to know the gospel that the apostle preached in the early church, but it is even more wonderful to know, from Whom he received it. It was from the same One, Who taught him concerning the Lord’s Supper in chapter 11:23: “I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you." This is God’s plan of salvation and you will notice that it was totally based on Old Testament Scriptures. It was not a novel teaching that suddenly came out of nowhere. Jesus clarified that already in John 7:16, assuring, “My doctrine is not Mine, but His who sent Me.” The Holy Spirit, who taught Paul, never departed from the word of Christ: “He will take of Mine and declare it to you” (Jn.16:14).

First of all, the gospel declares, based on the Old Scriptures: “Christ died for our sins.” God’s righteous judgment against mankind from the second chapter of Genesis was “You shall surely die” (Ge.2:17). To offend an infinitely holy God is an infinite sin and deserves nothing less than an infinite punishment. Therefore a cross was raised on Calvary’s hill to obtain our salvation. The eternal God, the Son, became flesh for the express purpose of going to that cross to die a horrible death. It showed the awfulness of our sin and the infinite righteousness of God. That must be experienced in the first place and then we will be enabled to see the love of God: “The love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us… God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Ro.5:5, 8). Isaiah already prophesied plainly, “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed” (Is.53:5).

He was buried and laid in a tomb from Friday evening until Sunday morning. A woman named Mary had the privilege of anointing His body for burial (Mt.26:12). God had a man prepared from the Jerusalem Sanhedrin, a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, and he prepared a new tomb (Lk.23:53) for that specific purpose. “They made His grave with the wicked – But with the rich at His death” (Is.53:9). He was a secret disciple of Jesus, who waited for the kingdom of God. I believe that he knew from the Scriptures that the Messiah would die that year, according to Daniel 9:26. Nicodemus, another prepared vessel, drawn by the Father, had prepared 100 pounds of spices and the two wrapped the body of Jesus and the spices in a linen. These played their necessary part in the eternal plan of God for His burial. Bible believers will not pay attention to the doubts of unbelievers concerning the death of Jesus, but will hold to the biblical account.

 “He rose again according to the Scriptures.” The resurrection added God’s infinite authority and power to the work on the cross. Paul will state later, “If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” (17). Peter preached the prophecy of David, concerning the resurrection, on the day of Pentecost (Ac.2:25-28; Ps.16:8-11). He made it clear that David was not speaking of himself, but spoke prophetically concerning “the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He (God) would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne”  (Ac.2:30).

The incomparable power of the resurrection was a work of the triune God. Jesus told the Jews in John 2:19, and various times in the Gospel of John, that He would raise His own body: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” On the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached that the entire work of crucifixion and resurrection was the plan of the Father (Ac.2:23, 24): “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God… whom God raised up.” Peter wrote that Christ was resurrected by the Spirit in 1 Peter 3:18: “Put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit.” Paul’s theme throughout this chapter will be to enlarge upon the resurrection.

Next Paul purposely lists a tremendous number of eye-witnesses, giving incontrovertible proof of the Lord’s resurrection. He names, first of all, Cephas or Peter (5), then all the twelve disciples. All but John died as martyrs because of their firm conviction that Jesus was alive. Then over 500 believers saw Him at once and many, he says, were still alive at the writing of the epistle (6).  After that, he was seen by His blood brother (half-brother, son of Joseph and Mary). This was apparently common knowledge at the time of Paul, although not recorded in the Gospels (7). Paul next emphasizes all the apostles, which John Wesley, Adam Clarke and Jamieson-Fausset-Brown believe were the 72 (literally 72, not 70, in the Greek) disciples from Luke 10:1. The 12 apostles of the Lamb were a unique group, given an inerrant doctrine to present to the church, and some gave it in written form. However, there were these 72, who were also recognized as having an apostolic ministry, and Paul called others, who worked with him, apostles.

Paul gives personal testimony of having seen the resurrected Lord on the road to Damascus (8). He humbly compares himself to an aborted child, born out of due time, not only the last, but the least, the weakest, and of improper size. He considered himself the most unworthy, unique in the sense that he was a persecutor of the church (9). Yet he is forgiven and washed, and given the office of an apostle; not only is he an apostle, but the writer of at least 13 epistles of inerrant Scripture. The Lord equips him with more light than any of the other apostles, though he was not with them during the earthly ministry of Christ, and he liberally pours out his revelations to the church.  His life is a proof given, concerning the resurrection. He had been transformed by the living Christ and was living a resurrected life under a new creation.

God also enriches him with a heart understanding of grace, as no other person had concerning it. He was fully conscious of his need of grace, because nothing else could forgive his blasphemous sins and make him useful. More than any other virtue, grace humbles a person, shows him his unworthiness and helplessness in coming into right-standing with God. It makes it easy for him to accept others, regardless of their past (10). Grace is not only active to forgive, but also gives ability for Christian service. No one can truly serve God without grace. It means that a servant of Christ does not labor in the power of his own abilities, but is gifted by the Lord. Because Paul fully recognizes the hand of God upon his ministry, he can say without boasting, “I labored more abundantly than they all,” and then makes it very clear, “Yet not I, but the grace of God…” (11). However, most importantly, he knows, it is not the vessel carrying the water of life, but it is the water itself that saves. It is not the preacher, but the message, in which the sinner must trust for salvation (11).

12.  Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
13.  But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen.
14.  And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.
15.  Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up – if in fact the dead do not rise.
16.  For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen.
17.  And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!
18.  Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.
19.  If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.
20. But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Now Paul reasons with us, concerning the issue of the resurrection. Some people are sowing doctrinal tares among the believers in Corinth, against the essential teaching about the resurrection of the dead, in general, and in particular, the resurrection of Christ (12). This cannot be tolerated, not in the early church, and not in the 21st Century church. Those, who maintain that doctrinal issues are not important, had better take notice of the importance given to them by the apostles and Christ throughout the New Testament. I took it very seriously, when I heard a “Christian leader” say to me, “It’s not important if the people do not understand the Bible, as long as they live like Christians.” I ask, “How can they know how Christians are to act, if they don’t learn it from the Bible?” I believe, that leader was sidelined, because of doctrinal carelessness.

The Sadducees did not believe in any kind of resurrection, although they sarcastically questioned Christ concerning it. The aim of the question was to prove their position against the belief that people would rise from the dead. Jesus buried their entire belief system by saying, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Mt.22:29). Could it be someone with a Sadducean background, who is hanging on to their teaching and dispersing it in Corinth?

This line of thinking has made its way into the church, although the resurrection of Christ was a basic tenet of Christianity from the very beginning. In all false doctrine, there is unreasonable confusion and contradiction. “How can this be?” Paul asks (12). We will follow his simple logic: Resurrection is either true or false. If it is false, then Christ is not risen (13). Consequently, if He is not risen and alive, there is no gospel to preach or believe (14). Even the cross, without the resurrection, is null and void. The resurrection gives proof that the work of the cross was effectual: “He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Ac.17:31).

The Holy Spirit knew, even in Paul’s day, that a movement called Jehovah’s Witnesses would arise. These reprobate teachers insist that it is very important that God’s personal name is Jehovah. All right, if that is so, then Paul practically names them in verse 15: False Witnesses of God, or false Jehovah’s Witnesses. One of the reasons, among many others, that they must be considered a false cult is because they deny that Christ rose from the dead in the same body, in which he died. He did not arise literally and physically, they claim, but as a "spirit creature" and that the physical body of Jesus was taken away by God the Father. These are a similar kind of people, with which Paul is dealing in this chapter. Paul preached the resurrection of Christ throughout the book of Acts, and here he confirms the fact. As we continue, we will see the nature of His resurrection and what that infers as to the resurrection in the last day.  

What more could Jesus have done to prove to His disciples and to us that His body was the same one that was put into the tomb and not a “spirit creature”?  “Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Lk.24:39).  John also tells us in His Gospel that Jesus showed His disciples His hands and His side, but Thomas was not present and was not about to believe what others had seen. He said, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” Eight days later the resurrected Christ appeared again with Thomas present: “He said to Thomas, ‘Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side” (Jn.20:20, 24-27).     

If you have doubts about His resurrected body being the same, as the body the disciples knew before, because some didn’t recognize Him afterwards, the Bible tells you that this problem was theirs. It was not a difference in His appearance. Unbelief blinds: “Their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him.” Later on, they were opened: “Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him” (Lk.24:16, 31). Does it bother you that He entered a room with His resurrected body, when the doors were shut? Scientifically impossible! Of course, it is: it was also scientifically impossible for a human body to walk on water, which Jesus did before His death and resurrection. Don’t let unbelief breed doctrines contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture.

Paul states emphatically in verse 15 that God did not raise up Christ, if the dead do not rise. Then he inverts the statement, so that we can look at it from both angles, stating in verse 16: If the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. Apparently, Paul felt that this doctrine was of prime importance, evidenced by the repetition and the force of his claim in verse 17. Here is evidence that there is no salvation for the Jehovah’s Witness or for anyone else who will deny the physical, literal resurrection of Christ. Faith in a non-resurrected “Christ” is futile and such a “Christ” cannot save. The benefits of the gospel are only temporal and those who have died, believing such a doctrine, are forever lost (18). It is not an option; we must believe in the resurrection!

We have to toss the liberal church into the realm of the damned also, because they are not sure of anything supernatural or miraculous. They doubt that Jesus was born of a virgin, doubt that He was God incarnate, and certainly doubt that He rose from the dead. They can only offer their faithful a better, more comfortable life on earth. See how Paris Reidhead characterized them in his great message, Ten Shekels and a Shirt: “The liberals, who accepted the philosophy of humanism and tried to find some relevance by saying ‘We don’t know there’s a heaven; we don’t know there’s a hell. But we do know this – that you’ve got to live for 70 years! We know there’s a great deal of benefit from poetry, from high thoughts and noble aspirations. Therefore it’s important for you to come to church on Sunday, so that we can read some poetry, that we can give you some little adages and axioms and rules to live by. We can’t say anything about what’s going to happen when you die, but we’ll tell you this, if you’ll come every week and pay and help and stay with us, we’ll put springs on your wagon and your trip will be more comfortable. We can’t guarantee anything about what’s going to happen when you die, but we say that if you come along with us, we’ll make you happier while you’re alive.’”

Paul said that that is a most miserable condition, and it is! (19) It is worse than paganism and atheism. It is totally averse to true Christianity. Jesus taught that in this world, the Christian would have tribulation, but He came to give us eternal life and that our bodies would be resurrected in the last day.

We need to consider the word itself, because it is basic to our understanding: resurrection. It begins with the prefix re and at the beginning of any word it simply means again. Resurrection signifies (and I quote from the Greek Bible dictionary) a standing up AGAIN, a REcovery, raised to life AGAIN, rise from the dead. That means that the same body that is put into the grave will live again. Our bodies, though they will die, those same bodies will resurrect. It can mean nothing else and to deny that is to violate the use of plain language.  

Now Paul is going to give us positive instruction about the resurrection of Crist. Here we have his clear affirmation, which we will be happy to receive by faith, no matter the arguments that the unbelieving minds and hearts might say to the contrary: “Now Christ is risen from the dead!” It is a fact, a truth that falls upon us from above; heavenly refreshing for the new creation in Christ, struggling on in a world of unbelief, sin and death.

When Paul refers to firstfruits, he is speaking of the law of offering to God the very first grains to ripen in the field. A plentiful harvest will follow, which are completely the same as the first. If we want to know something about the resurrection of our bodies, we can see the likeness in the body of Christ. Our resurrection will resemble His, because He is the firstfruits (20). The part of our being that falls asleep is our body and that truth can be seen throughout the Bible. This is the common biblical term and it only refers to the body, certainly not the soul or spirit of mankind. It is a comforting term, as well as a term that is absolutely true. A Christian’s body sleeps, because it will wake.


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