Exposition of I Corinthians 15
Adapted from a lesson given at the 2nd Annual Carlsbad Eschatology Conference
I Cor. 15 is among the chief eschatological passages – any discussion of Christ’s second coming sooner or later will end up here. Not surprisingly, there is a fair amount of disagreement about its meaning among Preterists. This aritlce will attempt to help clear things up.
I Cor. 15 is divided into three parts: vv. 1-34 deal with the fact of the resurrection and consequences of its denial. Verses. 35-50 deal with the nature of the resurrection body – natural and corruptible vs. spiritual and incorruptible. Verses 50-57 deal with the “mystery” of the eschatological change. Let’s look briefly at each of these.
Fact of the Resurrection
I Cor. 15:1, 2 - Moreover brethren I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand, by which also ye are saved.
We think of I Cor. 15 as being predominantly eschatological, but we see here that soteriology and eschatology are inexorably bound together up. Last things grow out of first things, and first things are completed in last things. The gospel that begins with the birth of the savior, culminates in his resurrection from the dead. This resurrection – its authenticity, its historicity, its gospel verity – is the message by which God has chosen to save man.
Rom. 1:16 – For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.
God chose the “foolishness” of preaching, the silliness, the absurdity of a message scorned by proud and worldly-minded men, to save those that believe. Faith is tied to man’s moral faculty. It is not as if men cannot believe, as if the evidence were wanting, were weak, or insubstantial; it is not that men cannot believe, but that they will not believe! Unregenerate man does not like the reality of God; the pride of the human heart rebels against God’s lordship over his life; man wants to be self-determinative, to choose what to do, when to do it, and if to do it. Unregenerate man despises his “creature-liness.” He rages against God; God is a reality he is unprepared to live with or submit to, and so thrusts the very knowledge and consciousness of God from his heart.
Rom. 1:19-21 - For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed [it] unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, [even] his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:
And so God has chosen the moral faculty of faith as the measure by which to sift the hearts of men. Those that receive a love of the truth – who own to their creatureliness, who own to their sinfulness, who own to their utter helplessness in the face and inevitability of death – will find salvation in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But those that are contentious and do not obey the truth, indignation and wrath upon every soul of man that doeth evil – to the Jew first and also the Greek.
The point for purposes of Paul’s argument is that man’s salvation culminates in and is realized by his resurrection. What would the forgiveness of sins mean if there was no resurrection? What advantage, what profit, what point in Christ dying at all if it was only so that man could molder in his grave…forgiven? Resurrection is the essence of our salvation - the very thing that sustains us through our trials, our temptations, the long and weary days of our vain existence beneath the sun. And since it is the very essence of our faith, we must define the nature of this resurrection, for in understanding the nature of this resurrection we see and understand our salvation.
Definition of the Resurrection
I Cor. 15:19 – If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
This verse is central to our purpose. In fact, I wonder if the whole exposition of the chapter does not turn upon this one verse: If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. Resurrection is the hope and assurance of the next life – the life that awaits man in heaven. We do not receive, we do not experience, we do not partake of that resurrection here, but here after. As we will see, this is the major weakness of that view, which holds that the resurrection is justification and restored fellowship with God; which places the resurrection on the wrong side of eternity, making it something men enjoy in this life, rather than the next as taught by Paul and Christ. Jesus is very plain that resurrection belongs to the next world, not this world:
Lk. 20:35, 36 – They which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage: neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection.
Matt. 22:30 adds the variation that those who attain to that world will be “as as the angels of God in heaven.”
Thus, we plainly see that the promise of resurrection is the promise of eternal life in heaven. This world is set over against that world; this life against that life. Unless and until we attain unto that world, we have not attained unto the resurrection from the dead. It is really just that simple.
Where and what is “that world?” Matthew says “in heaven” – children of the resurrection are as angels of God in heaven. Resurrection now therefore means heaven now. The notion that believers are in “heaven now” was circulating a few years ago. This is the basis of that error: if you believe we have resurrection now, you must affirm we are in heaven now, for the children of the resurrection are as angels in heaven. Therefore to be raised is to be in heaven; but if we are not in heaven, we have not yet been raised. This pretty much disposes of the “corporate body” view; it simply cannot get over the hurdle that Paul and Christ place the resurrection in the next life in heaven, not here on earth. This is why we say that v. 19 may be the most important verse in the passage, to wit: because it sets this earthly life over against the resurrection life in heaven. I Cor. 15:19 – If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
Heb. 11:15, 16 - And truly, if they had been mindful of that [country] from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better [country], that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.
If this is correct, if the resurrection Paul is here proclaiming is realized in the next life, then the resurrection he is discussing is chiefly Hadean. Jesus said “I have the keys of Hades and of death” – the gates of Hades shall not prevail against my church! (Matt. 16:18) Paul even states as much in v. 55, saying “O Hades, where is thy victory?”
As I look at redemptive history, I see Hades as standing last in line of enemies to be destroyed. In Revelation, the harlot, dragon, beast, and false prophet all suffer defeat before the resurrection of the last day. In that resurrection we have the souls of the deceased coming forth from death and Hades.
Rev. 20:13, 14 – And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hades delivered up the dead which were in them…and death and hades were cast into the last of fire.
Here is the resurrection of the last day; the resurrection of the accumulated souls from Abel onward who had waited long millennia in Hades for salvation. Clearly Hades is the last named enemy. All the enemies in Revelation find their fate in the lake of fire. And the last to be cast in is Hades, or Hadean death; hence Hades is the last enemy.
I Cor. 15:19 - “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.”
Based upon this one statement of Paul, I think we have to say that the resurrection he has in view is not received in this life. Otherwise this statement has no meaning; for the whole of his argument turns upon a hinge that resurrection belongs to the next life.
Nature of the Resurrection Body
What we have said is confirmed by Paul’s discussion of the nature of the resurrection body. The whole discussion moves between the body suited to this life, versus the sort of body suited to that life.
I Cor. 15:35 – But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?
You would not think that this section was as difficult as it is for some. The dominate view among the Jews was that the resurrection would be physical. The hypothetical question propounded by the Sadducees about the woman who had seven husbands posits the resurrection of the flesh. The Greeks and Romans believed in reincarnation, not resurrection. They believed that souls were born again into earthly life after a 1000 yrs in Hades. To speak to them of resurrection must therefore also have conveyed the idea of physical bodies. Certainly, this was what had happened in the case of Jesus. Was not he the pattern for us all? Much of Christendom has traditionally thought, and even today thinks, in terms of the resurrection of physical bodies. Many graveyards are laid out so the bodies have their heads to the west, so that when they stand up on resurrection morning they are facing east, supposing this is the direction the Lord would descend from.
Numerous creeds affirm the resurrection of the flesh and of the self-same body the deceased had in life. The interrogatory Creed of Hippolytus (circa 215 A.D.) asks, “Do you believe…in the resurrection of the body?” Similarly, the Creed of Marcellus (340 A.D.) declares: “I believe in…the resurrection of the body.” The Creed of Rufinus (circa 404 A.D.) is more explicit and declares “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” The Apostles’ Creed proclaims belief in the resurrection of the body, but the Nicene Creed states only a belief in the resurrection of the “dead.” Other creeds and confessions holding to the resurrection of the flesh include the Athanasian Creed and the second London Confession of 1689 (Baptist) which affirms that the “selfsame” body would be raised. Another example is the Westminster Confession:
1. The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. [stop] And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.
2. At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the self-same bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls for ever.
This is about as confused a statement about the state of the dead and the resurrection as you could hope to find. First, it affirms that the dead go to heaven, having been made perfect in holiness, where they behold the face of God, but are later forced to return to the earthly bodies. But if they are in perfect holiness in heaven, what conceivable purpose could there be for returning to their earthly bodies? Having begun in the spirit are they to be made perfect in the flesh? Second, it affirms that the dead are raised with the “self-same” bodies they had in earthly life! But Paul disallows this completely, expressly affirming instead: “the body that thou sowest, thou sowest NOT the body that shall be.” (v. 37 ) Could it be more plain? If you wanted to tell men that it was not the self-same body that was to be raised, what language would you use if not this? “The body that thou sowest, thou sowest NOT the body that shall be.” Paul likens the resurrection to sowing a seed.
I Cor. 15:36-38 - Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die: And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain: But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body.
I was a city kid and grew up outside of Chicago; I knew nothing about wheat. But we lived for some years in Kansas, and they know a lot about wheat. And the seed you sow is not the body that is raised. You sow a dry, hard, grain of wheat, and a living green plant springs forth, having no likeness at all to what you planted. Paul declares that this is how it is in the resurrection; he analogizes the cycle of seed/plant to the human body and spirit. As the seed holds the germ of something greater, so the human body holds the germ of something greater. The hull of the seed is left behind and new life emerges from the old. Or as Shakespeare has Hamlet say, we “shuffle off this mortal coil,” leaving behind the tokens of earthly life, like a snake shedding its skin.
I Cor. 15:42-45 - So also [is] the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam [was made] a quickening spirit.
Here the case is plainly stated: natural bodies are tangible, material, visible, and corruptible: the spiritual body is intangible, immaterial, invisible, and incorruptible. Adam was made a living being with a physical body peculiarly suited to earthly life; but in his glorified state Jesus, the second Adam, became a quickening spirit. What is a spirit? Jesus said “a spirit hath not flesh and bones” (Lk. 24:39 ).
I Cor. 15:46-50 - Howbeit that [was] not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man [is] of the earth, earthy: the second man [is] the Lord from heaven. As [is] the earthy, such [are] they also that are earthy: and as [is] the heavenly, such [are] they also that are heavenly. As [is] the earthy, such [are] they also that are earthy: and as [is] the heavenly, such [are] they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.
The word “inherit” is very important here. Inherit points to the ultimate object of man’s salvation. A testament determines a man’s inheritance. A testament is a legal instrument or device; the inheritance is the actual thing bequeathed or bestowed.
I Pet. 1:3, 4 - Blessed [be] the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you.
God has giving living men a lively and living hope of an inheritance incorruptible, in heaven. Notice that word ‘incorruptible’ – an incorruptible inheritance requires an incorruptible body. So, when Paul says flesh and blood – the tangible, corporeal, material, visible, and corruptible body of this earthly existence - cannot inherit the spiritual realm above, he speaks to man’s ultimate home in heaven. Material bodies, by definition, are bounded by time and space; but spirit is not bound this way. Therefore, in order to even enter the realms above, man must shed his mortal body. This is the resurrection promised believers and the one discussed in I Corinthians 15. It is the resurrection that occurred in A.D. 70; the whole transaction took place on the other side of eternity, unseen by eye of man. As our article last month showed, as believers on this side of the eschaton die they are “caught up together” with saints that have gone before where they meet the Lord in the air and so are ever with the Lord.
I Cor. 15:51-55 – Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting: O Hades where is thy victory?
We have already seen the Westminster Confession’s approach: physical bodies raised; physical bodies of living changed. But if they are not physical bodies that are raised, then might we suggest it is not the physical bodies of the living that were to be changed? The resurrection of souls from Hades is fairly apparent and requires no elaboration, and is to our view the eschatological resurrection. It is the "last-trumpet-change" that requires attention.
In the past, we took the view that the change mentioned by Paul in these verses was "legal and covenantal," that the change spoke to Christ's consummation of the marriage covenant with the bride, the church. The marriage was, after all, eschatological; its symbolism occurs in several second coming passages (Matt. 22:8; 25; 10; Eph. 5:22-32; Rev. 19:7). Yet, in the Old Testament, the symbolism of marriage portrayed God's covenant with Israel and was not eschatological (cf. Jer. 2:1; Ezk. 16:8). But as in the New Testament the marriage is eschatological, it seems as if the benefit of the gospel was in some form or manner held in abeyance until Christ's second coming, and that it is to this that the "eschatological change" looked. We were prompted to this view by the fact that Paul seems to indicate that the change would be experienced simultaneous to the trumpet that would mark the resurrection of the dead from Hades. However, we no longer believe that to be the case, and now see the "change" as speaking to the one-by-one gathering up of the saints at the time of death to inherit eternal life in heaven. It is now our view that there is a "last trumpet" for each of us, that calls us home to eternity. Although lost to our translations, this is borne out by the Greek:
"Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all fall asleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For a trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed."
The almost universal assumption here is that the "last trumpet" and the trumpet that would mark the resurrection of the dead are the same trumpet. Hence, our English translations substitute the indefinite article ("a trumpet") with the definite article ("the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised, etc"). This is interpretational, not translational; the Greek says that our change, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, will occur at the last trumpet. The Greek does not identify the last trumpet with the trumpet that would mark the resurrection of the dead. The translators assume they are the same and so change the text. But the Greek distinguishes them by the difference in the definite versus indefinite article. We feel the translators' alteration of the Greek is mistaken and the source of confusion and error.
If anything is clear, Daniel placed the resurrection of the dead at the destruction of the Jewish state (Dan. 12:2, 7). Jesus quotes Daniel in John's gospel, and indicates that the time for fulfillment of that prophecy was near (Jn. 5:25-29). John also ties the resurrection to the fall of Jerusalem in Rev. 11:2, 15-18). You and I obviously were not alive then. Does that mean we will not be changed in a moment in a twinkling of an eye? Not at all. II Cor. 4:16-5:10 makes plain that when our outer man, this physical body dies, we receive a new body, a house from heaven, suitable for inhabiting eternity with Christ above. Thus, the "change" occurs as we die. But if the change occurs when we die, and there is to be a last trumpet heralding our change, then the last trumpet necessarily occurs for each of us at the time of physical death.
Moreover, we note that, although the dead are shown being raised in Revelation (Rev. 20:11-15), there is no wondrous rapture of the living saints to heaven. In fact, John repudiates the notion that the saints living at Christ's return would "never die." Jesus had said John would live until he returned; hence the saying went abroad that John would not die; viz., it was assumed he would experience translation to heaven with the rest of the living saints like Enoch and Elijah. However, John rejects this idea entirely (Jn. 21:22, 23). Jesus said some of his disciples would not taste of death until his coming; he did not say they would not die at all (Matt. 16:27, 28). Rather, they would live to see his return, and then die. The saying that John would not die therefore reflected the same misunderstanding prevalent today, that the change would occur simultaneously with the resurrection, and that those alive when Christ came would thus be translated to heaven. But as John dispelled this error in his day, we ought not perpetuate it in our own. A trumpet would sound, marking the resurrection of the dead (Rev. 11:15, 18). But there is a last trumpet for each of us, marking the time when God calls us from this life and we receive our "house from heaven, not made with hands" (II Cor. 5:1-4); or so at least this seems to us to be Paul's meaning.
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