1 Corinthians 15 Commentary
1 Cor 15:1-11
I) The Proclamation of the Gospel (1-2)
A) Audience received the gospel and stands on it
B) Audience was saved by the gospel
1) Salvation to those who truly believed it (who stand firm)
2) No salvation for those who believed in vain
II) The Earliest Christian Creed (3-9)
A) Christ died for sins according to the Scriptures
B) Christ was buried according to the Scriptures
C) Christ was raised on the 3rd day according to the Scriptures
D) Christ’s appearances to various people/groups
1) To Cephas
2) To the Twelve
3) To the 500
4) To James
5) To all the apostles
6) To Paul
(a) One untimely born
(b) Least of all apostles because he persecuted Christ’s church
III) God’s Grace Given to the Worst of Sinners (10-11)
A) Salvation proven through laboring for the gospel
B) Bears fruit for Christ
Five Evidences for Christ’s Resurrection
- Testimony of the Church (1-2)
- Testimony of Scripture (3-4)
- Testimony of Witnesses (5-7)
- Testimony of a Special Witness (8-10)
- Testimony of a Common Message (11)
15:1 Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.
After spending a good 14 chapters correcting the Corinthians for their bad behavior, Paul now begins to teach some basic doctrine to the church. He is clearly speaking to Christians, for he calls them “brethren,” but it’s interesting to note the way he “makes known” to them the gospel message. He doesn’t speak of this in the past tense, for the tense of the verb is present tense. He was the one who started the church by initially preaching the gospel to the people of Corinth, and it was through that proclamation that they came to know Christ. Now he’s sharing the same message again; he is “making it known.” This is the message that he is preaching to them now, but it’s also the message that they “received” (past tense). They received the message of Christ, the gospel, and they “stand” in it. The verb tense for “stand” is a perfect tense which has the idea of something that happened in the past but has current and future ramifications. What they received was the foundation in which they could stand. Of course the foundation of Jesus Christ is the firm foundation laid by the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20).
In v. 2 it is the gospel message of Christ crucified “by which also you are saved.” So Paul makes the gospel known, the Corinthians received it, stand in it, and are saved by it. It’s about a preacher, a message, an audience, and the gift of salvation that comes out of the whole mix as a miracle of God. But this salvation only comes to those who “hold fast the word.” Does this imply a loss of salvation if someone does not hold fast the word preached to them? Absolutely not. Paul is actually saying something along the lines of, “… if you cling to the message I preached to you, unless you have somehow practiced an empty and false faith that has no lasting effect.” The fact that the Corinthians did hold fast to their faith is proof that their faith was in fact real faith. In spite of their many shortcomings, they had a genuine faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. They just needed some guidance. There are many, however, who do not hold fast the word of God because they actually believed in vain. This doesn’t mean that they were actual Christians and lost their salvation; it means they never really had it to begin with. Salvation is a gift from God given to those He chooses to grant it to. Those who have that gift are held by God primarily, and this is evidenced by their holding on to Him throughout their lives. Jesus Christ spoke on many occasions about false “believers” – those who on the outside appeared to be Christians but who on the inside were full of deceit. There is the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-23) where some seeds spring up quickly but eventually deteriorate. In the parable of the wheat and the tares – the believers and the non-believers respectively, (Matt. 13:24-30; 34-43) the tares resemble the wheat. In Matt. 13:47-50 Jesus spoke of fish being caught in the same net with some fish being thrown back while others were kept (believers and unbelievers). In Matt. 7:24-27 he spoke of some houses having foundations while others don’t. And in Matt. 25:1-30 he spoke of one particular servant who was “cast out” because his deeds exposed his fruitless life.
Some preachers believe that they should only present the hard facts of the Bible and leave the application ideas to the hearers who posses the Holy Spirit. But the letter to the Corinthians proves otherwise. They clearly had the Holy Spirit, but they desperately needed a preacher to direct their paths, to correct their ways, and set them straight again.
Verses 1-2 present the first of five evidences that Jesus Christ did indeed come out from the grave from which he was lain following his death. The evidence is found in the Corinthians lives and how they had received the gospel message and were miraculously changed as a result.
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
The Apostle Paul had a message to preach, and he preached it. What he preaches was the very thing that he himself had received. The word for “delivered” is literally “to give.” Paul didn’t hoard what was given to him; he received it and gave it back. The gift he received, namely the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ, was a gift he was able to give back over and over, and this was his quest until the day he died.
This message of the gospel of Jesus Christ was, in Paul’s mind, “of first importance” – it was the “priority.” And given the message he preached that Jesus Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was subsequently resurrected, this is the first and foremost important message that anyone who has received it should proclaim. Amidst all of the problems the Corinthians were having in their church Paul rebuked them and then brought a reminder of the basics of the faith. When life gets difficult we get back to the basics, and that gives us new and energizing perspective. When Paul uses the phrase, “according to the Scriptures,” although he could be referring to individual passages (i.e., Gen. 22:8, 14; Deut. 18:15; Ps. 2:7; 16:8-11; 22; 110:1; 118; Isaiah 53:8; Hosea 6:2) he is likely referring to many OT scriptures – to the larger whole of the Old Testament. It was in the OT Scriptures that God had provided a spotless lamb to die on behalf of Israel so as to bring them out of Egyptian captivity (the Passover in Exodus). That event became part of the sacrificial system in Israel where animals actually bore the sins of the people as in the Day of Atonement in Leviticus (so that they themselves would not have to die immediately for their sins). Then there was the passage in Isaiah 53 that describes the one who was “led as a lamb to slaughter” – who took away the sins of the people. Jesus berated the two men in Luke 24:25 for not knowing that the OT prophets had predicted his death and resurrection. So it is clear that the gospel message of Jesus Christ was clearly given long before the actual events of the cross transpired. The whole message was presenting in the OT Scriptures. Those who believe the OT has no bearing on Christians today are deceived. As Romans 15:4 says, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by faithfulness and encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”
4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
In the same way that in the OT sacrificial system where animals died for the sins of the people, Jesus Christ also died for the sins of the people. In the OT sacrificial system animals were killed daily on the people’s behalf, but when Christ died he was the perfect sacrifice – a lamb without spot or blemish who was able to qualify as the perfect sacrifice. There was no longer any need for the old system to function after Christ’s death. Christ died “once for all” (Rom. 6:10; Heb. 7:27; 9:12; 10:10; 1 Peter 3:18). This was the reason the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was later destroyed (AD 70) and Judaism along with it. Now after Christ died, v. 4 says he was “buried.” His burial verifies the fact that he was dead. Dr. G. Fee says, “…a dead corpse was laid in the grave, so that the resurrection that follows will be recognized as an objective reality, not merely a ‘spiritual’ phenomenon.” Pontius Pilate, who handed Jesus over to be crucified, actually verified that Jesus was in fact dead (Mark 15:43-45).
Many people die for a cause they believe in, and many even die on behalf of others so that they might live. But Jesus was different. He not only died and was buried, the biblical record says that after three days he came back to life and appeared to over 500 people over a 40-day period of time. He was “raised on the third day according to the scriptures.” The previous two verbs, “He died” and “He was buried” are both aorist verbs in the Greek text (an event that happened in the past). “He died” is an active verb which means that he died of his own accord (the active voice means that the subject performs the action of the verb). It was his choice, and he followed through with God’s plan for him. “He was buried” is also aorist in tense, but voice is passive which means that the subject is not performing the action of the verb. Christ “was buried” by others, namely by Joseph. So in v. 4 when the text says that Christ “was raised” it is interesting to note the change in verb tense. Whereas the previous verbs have aorist tenses, this verb is a perfect tense verb implying that Christ was both raised and continues to live. The voice here is also passive which means that someone performed the raising of Christ from the dead, not Christ himself. Of course we know that it was God who raised him from the dead. Paul uses this verb tense to stress the permanence of the resurrection of Christ, for he is still alive today!
When Paul says “according to the scriptures” in this passage he is likely pointing to Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel when Christ pointed to “as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, so too will the son of man in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (Matt. 12:38–41). Warren Wiesrbe says, “Paul also compared Christ’s resurrection to the ‘firstfruits,’ and the firstfruits were presented to God on the day following the Sabbath after Passover (Lev. 23:9–14; 1 Cor. 15:23). Since the Sabbath must always be the seventh day, the day after Sabbath must be the first day of the week, or Sunday, the day of our Lord’s resurrection. This covers three days on the Jewish calendar. Apart from the Feast of Firstfruits, there were other prophecies of Messiah’s resurrection in the Old Testament: Psalm 16:8–11 (see Acts 2:25–28); Psalm 22:22ff (see Heb. 2:12); Isaiah 53:10–12; and Psalm 2:7 (see Acts 13:32–33).”
The first evidence of Christ’s resurrection from the dead is the Corinthian Christians. Their conversion is evidence of its truth. And the second evidence for Christ’s resurrection, from vv. 3-4, are the Old Testament scriptures which attested to Christ’s death and resurrection long before it actually happened.
5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep;
Beginning in v. 3 Christ died for sins, was buried, was subsequently resurrected on the third day, and then, beginning in v. 5, “he appeared to Cephas.” Cephas is the Aramaic equivalent of the Greek “Petros” – that is “Peter.” It means “rock.” So, after Christ came out of the grave on the third day following his death and burial he appeared to Peter. The reason Jesus would appear to Peter first (following his appearance to the women at the tomb who are not mentioned in Paul’s discourse) can only be conjectured. First, just prior to Jesus’ death Peter denied even knowing Christ and had wept bitterly over this event. Jesus knew this, and he likely wanted to encourage him first and foremost. Second, Peter was the implied leader of the Twelve, and as the leader, and one of three in Christ’s inner circle (James and John the other two), it makes sense that he would be the first to see the risen Christ so as to go and encourage the other apostles. Peter became the Lord’s spokesman at Pentecost in Acts 2, and the fact that he had seen the risen Lord not only qualified him as an apostle (Acts 1:22) but he was used greatly of the Lord in the expansion of the Church of Jesus Christ in later years. His kinship and close relationship with Jesus made Peter’s testimony powerful, but the fact that Christ appeared to Peter first after his resurrection put a clear exclamation point on Peter’s witness for Christ during the early church age.
But Christ didn’t just appear to Peter after his resurrection. He also appeared to “the Twelve.” This title for Christ’s 12 apostles was not a title Paul ever used except here. Paul is likely quoting an early Christian creed, and this is why he uses the term. Now the term clearly refers to the 12 disciples, but it’s clear that Judas the traitor was already dead following his suicide. Therefore, the “Twelve” is a designation for those followers even though the term wasn’t fully accurate in reference to the 11 disciples who were left. The point here is that the early church didn’t just have to rely upon the words of Peter whom Christ had first appeared to. He also appeared to the other disciples which gave Peter’s experience much more clout. But lest one think for a moment that the testimony of the “Twelve” was biased and/or counterfeited so as to rebel against what the Jews had done to their Lord, Jesus also, in v. 6, “appeared to more than 500 brethren at one time…” Now whatever event Paul is referring to is not recorded in scripture, but when over 500 people can attest to having seen the resurrected Lord in the flesh then the message gains a great deal of credibility. Christ’s post-resurrection appearances aren’t obscure; they are founded on fact. Any lawyer worth his salt would convict or exonerate a man on far less evidence in a court of law.
Then Paul adds an interesting phrase about the 500+ who saw the risen Lord: “most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep.” In other words, the testimony Paul speaks of could be verified in that day by interviewing the many who were still alive who saw Jesus after his resurrection. Though some had “fallen asleep,” a euphemism for death, most of them could explain exactly what they saw. This is a huge problem for skeptics today. There is nothing in history about the Jews and/or Romans of that day who actually refuted the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ. As Josh McDowell has said, “The silence of the Jews speaks louder than the voices of the Christians.” It’s as if the enemies of Christianity didn’t know what to say because whatever lies they might conjure up would be far too obvious. All they had to do was produce the corpse of Jesus. All they had to do was go to the tomb and bring out the body, and Christianity would have died right then and there. But they couldn’t because the tomb was empty. And if the disciples actually stole the body, as the Jews did attempt to explain to people (Matt. 28:11-15) then how can the behavior of the disciples be explained? They went out, all but John, and died martyr’s deaths for their risen Savior. Now if they fabricated that resurrection by stealing his body from the tomb, why would they die for that belief that they knew was a lie? Their actions prove beyond a reasonable doubt that their Lord, who was once dead but now alive, was in fact resurrected from the dead.
7 then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; 8 and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
One of the last appearances of Jesus came to “James.” Now there were two men named James who were disciples of Jesus (James the son of Zebedee and James the son of Alphaeus), but they were part of the “Twelve.” The James that Paul speaks of here was James the half-brother of Jesus (Matt. 13:55; Gal. 1:19). This James, along with Jesus’ other brothers, was not a believer in Jesus prior to the resurrection (John 7:5). When Christ appeared to him is unknown, but what is known is how James’ life was transformed. He became an apostle and joined Christ’s disciples (Acts 1:14), then he became the leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:13). Soon after Paul’s own conversion to Christ, he himself met with James while in Jerusalem. This is the same James who wrote the book of the Bible that bears his name. His name is mentioned here by Paul because he was initially an unbeliever who obviously knew Jesus first hand given that they shared the same mother (Mary), and because he ascended to such a high position in the early church. Though not one of the “Twelve” James was most certainly an apostle because he not only saw the risen Lord, believed in him, but he also died for believing in Christ as the Messiah.
The final person Paul lists that Jesus appeared to was himself. Paul refers to himself as “one untimely born… the least of the apostles… not fit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church of God.” Christ’s appearance to Paul was different from all the others. All the other apostles saw the risen Lord Jesus over the 40-day time period after his resurrection and just prior to his ascension into heaven (Acts 1:9). Paul, on the other hand, was unique in that he saw Jesus after his ascension. Also, unlike the other apostles, Paul hated the church. Just before Jesus appeared to him in Acts 9:1-9 Paul was on his way to Damascus “breathing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” and seeking permission from the high priest to persecute anyone he found who worshipped Jesus Christ. He had already taken part in the murder of Stephen (Acts 7:58), the first Christian martyr, and he was prepared to involve himself in many more before Christ appeared to him.
He was “one untimely born” (a term used for abortions, miscarriages, and premature births) in the sense that his life was completely hopeless before Jesus intervened. Even his conversion to Christ came long after the other apostles. Paul never walked with Jesus, and he never took part in the wonderful ministries of Jesus while he was on the earth. Even his rebirth (being born again) was untimely in that he missed so much in comparison to what his Christian brothers experienced. But Jesus did uniquely appear to him, and Paul’s subsequent conversion stands today as one of the sure-fire evidences that Jesus Christ did in fact rise from the dead.
10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.
Paul’s conversion to Christ has been a testimony for 2000 years now as to what God’s grace can do to even those who would go so far as to murder innocent people. Paul was a murderer, and he even called himself “the foremost of all sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Now given that scripture is inspired by God, if Paul was the greatest of sinners and he was saved by God’s grace and mercy, then there is no one in history who has out-sinned the Apostle Paul. And God saved him. Paul was continually reminded of how little he deserved from God but how much he received. This is why he says, “by the grace of God I am what I am.” Furthermore, God’s grace given to Paul “did not prove vain” – it did not prove worthless. In other words, the grace that God poured into Paul’s life did not seep through hole at the bottom, so to speak. Paul put it to good use in that he took his salvation, didn’t dwell on his sinful past, and took the gospel message to the world around him. This is evidence of true salvation in a person. Those who take God’s gift and hide it away prove that they don’t belong to our Lord. They cannot say what Paul says, namely, that “God’s grace did not prove vain.”
The great apostle adds that he “labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” In what way did Paul labor more than all of the other apostles? He appears to have traveled far more than any of them in his quest to spread the gospel, he suffered more opposition in the towns where he traveled, he wrote more letters to various churches and people (as evidenced by the NT epistles with his name attached to them), and he started more churches than any other apostle. Paul’s own account of his ministry is given in detail in 2 Cor. 11:16-12:13 in his own words, but his travels and his actions are greatly detailed in the Book of Acts. Yet Paul knew, and he preached the message of the cross with the full realization that everything he did was done not from his own power and learning but from God’s power alone which was the very power producing all of his fruits.
11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
The apostle concludes the discourse and the proof of Christ’s resurrection in v. 11. It didn’t matter if it was Paul or Peter or James or any one of the 500 people who saw the resurrected Christ, the message was preached, and they believed. The verb tense for “we preach” is present tense with a continual nuance. The verb tense of “you believed,” however, is past tense. The literal rendering is, “So we continue to preach and you believed.” Preaching the cross of Christ is an ongoing task until the day Christ returns to the earth, but believing Christ’s message is a one time belief. We preach it continually, but we believe it once.