1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-20


Note the frequency with which forms of the verb  "to raise"  and the noun  "resurrection" occur in this chapter. The use of the perfect passive of the verb is limited to Jesus and occurs in verses 4, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17 and 20. Scripture states that Christ was raised. He is preached as the resurrected Christ. If His resurrection be denied then there is no resurrection. Preaching and faith are empty and vain, if He be not raised. But, most emphatically, CHRIST HAS BEEN RAISED.

God raised Jesus, verse 15 (twice). Five times the chapter speaks about the dead being raised, verses 15, 16, 29, 32 and 35. The manner of raising is mentioned four times, verses 42, 43 and 44. The phrase  "resurrection of the dead" is used four times, verses 12, 13, 21 and 42. No less than twenty times this chapter speaks about the resurrection of the dead.

For the Egyptians and for the Sadducees religion was only of the dead. The Greeks denied the resurrection of the body. And, finally, anyone who rejects Christ Crucified but not Resurrected has no more hope than that which Paul mentions in verse 19:  "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied."

Life can be grim, dreary and difficult. But the guarantee of the resurrection of the body and life everlasting in Christ Jesus cheers the Christian, the one who lives his life by the faith in the Son of God who loved him and gave His life for him.

The Sermon on the Mount is admittedly the greatest extant sermon of Jesus. Nine time, at the beginning of this sermon, Jesus calls Christians  "blessed."  His first description of them is that they are  "poor in spirit."  They repent of their sins and believe in Him. In His eighth description of them He says that they are those who are  "persecuted for righteousness' sake."  They suffer because of what they believe and do. In both cases we are told:  "theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."  Everlasting life is promised to the believer now already. And if that is so then there must be a resurrection from the dead.

Read 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 before studying the text for this Sunday. Paul begins by saying that he has preached the Gospel to them. They have received this Gospel, were saved by it and were standing in it. Paul has received this Gospel by revelation. Galatians 1:12. No human being has taught him. His Gospel, the death and resurrection of Christ, is according to the Scriptures. Verses 3-4. The risen Christ has appeared to Peter, to the twelve, to more than five hundred brethren, to James, to the Apostles and, finally, also to Paul. In verse 11 Paul says that all the Apostles preach a Christ who died and rose again and Who is gracious and merciful to unbelievers. The latter is implied in verses 9 and 10. All of this is important for a proper understanding of verse 12 in our text.

1 Corinthians 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?

Here we have a fact condition with a question. Fact conditions must be understood contextually. The fact is given precise meaning by what surrounds it. Here the meaning is:  "Now if, as has been proved by argument after argument, Christ is preached etc."  Paul had proved by arguments of revelation, inspiration, witness and proclamation that Christ has been raised. He does not say that the message is preached. He says that Christ is being preached. The agent is the Apostles and others. There were others, like Stephen and Philip in Acts 7 and 8.

"From the dead"  is used in the New Testament only of Christ and believers. Of all the English versions, only TEV gets it exactly right:  "Now, since our message is that Christ has been raised from death etc. "  It denotes a raising from a state, not from a group of people.

Paul and the others were constantly preaching the resurrection, and some Corinthians were constantly saying the dead do not rise.

Grosheide: There was at Corinth a group which denied the resurrection of the body. That is all the information which is available. The fact of Christ's resurrection was not denied, only that of the resurrection of others. We must conclude from the context that there were some at Corinth who denied the resurrection of the BODY without denying that the soul continued to exist.
Robertson-Plummer: It is possible that these teachers did not deny that Christ has risen. They may have declared that His case was unique, and proving nothing as to the rest of mankind.
Lenski: Paul is nipping this error in the bud. Human reason always finds objection to this wonderful doctrine. The resurrection in general cannot be denied without ultimately advancing to a denial also of Christ's resurrection. Both stand and fall together. What the denial of the latter implies is no less than the abolition of the Gospel in all its parts.
Grosheide: He demonstrates at great length that faith in the resurrection of Christ actually includes faith in the resurrection of the body. it is that absurd situation, of an acceptance of the one and a rejection of the other, which exists at Corinth.
1 Corinthians 15:13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 1 Corinthians 15:14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 1 Corinthians 15:15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.

These verses are not included in the reading appointed for this day. Very likely the reason is that verses 16-18 repeat and enlarge on the ideas in verses 13-15. Verse 16 corresponds to verse 13. Verse 17 corresponds to verse 14. And, verse 18 corresponds to verse 15.

1 Corinthians 15:16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.

As mentioned above, the fact conditions must be understood contextually. For the correct understanding of verses 13 and 16 add  "as they say" and  "if."

Morris: The repetition drives his point. These men must be made to see the logical consequences of the position they have taken up.

Paul's statements clearly imply that the Corinthians correctly believed that Jesus had become a human being. By the way, these two verses, 13 and 16, are a strong argument against docetism, the false doctrine which maintains that Jesus only appeared to be a human being.

1 Corinthians 15:17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.

Note the similarity between verses 14 and 17. If, in keeping with this logic, Paul says, then the argument is absurd and false. In verse 14 Paul says:  We might as well quit preaching and you might as well quit believing." In verse 17 he says:  "Your faith is useless. You are still pagans."

Morris: To 'be in one's sins' is not a common expression. Paul elsewhere speaks of being 'dead in sins' (Ephesians 2:1,5; Colossians 2:13), and we are reminded of our Lord's words about dying in sins (John 8:21,24). Paul has already pointed out that 'Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures' (verse 3). But if men are still in their sins this death has availed nothing.
Lenski: If there is not resurrection, there also is no redemption, no reconciliation with God, no justification, no life and salvation. Christ's resurrection is the positive proof that his sacrifice was indeed sufficient and fully accepted by God. Therefore, Christ was raised for our justification. Romans 4:25.
Grosheide: If the Corinthians' faith, here taken of the act of faith, is without result, then they are yet in their sins (John 8:12; Ephesians 2:1). For faith alone makes one enter into communion with Christ, the only One who delivers from sin (Acts 4:12). Yet Christ can only deliver from sin if, after He died, He also rose from the dead (Romans 4:24; 5:1ff; 8:11 etc., also 2 Corinthians 15:3-4) All those passages imply that Christ's death is only of value if He also conquered death and as the Living One applies the benefits of His death to sinners.

Note three important points.

  1.   In verses 14 and 17 the word  "faith" means  "the doctrine which one believes", and not "saving" faith;

  2.   A fruitless faith can certainly not have forgiveness of sins;

  3.   The death and resurrection of Christ stand and fall together, remove one and the Gospel is gone.

Look at Romans 4:25. There it is clearly stated that Christ's death and resurrection are a unit. And, forgiveness and justification are merely two sides of the same coin. In his explanation of  "The Sacrament of the Altar"  Luther makes the simple but significant statement:  "For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation."  To have the forgiveness of sins means to have all. To lack the forgiveness of sins amounts to lacking all.

1 Corinthians 15:18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.

Now we have a third deduction. Something like  "in that case."

Lenski: To fall asleep in Christ is the beautiful Scriptural expression to designate the Christian's death; his body sinks into peaceful slumber, to be awakened presently by the risen Lord to a new and glorious life in his presence. But, according to the Corinthians, when these believers closed their eyes in death, then at that moment they perished completely and forever with body and soul.
Morris: For pagans death was the end of all things. For Christians it was no more than sleep. Christ had drawn the sting from it, verse 55. Paul could speak of death as gain, Philippians 1:21, and of his desire to 'depart, and to be with Christ,' Philippians 1:23. Thus when believers died they were not mourned as those irretrievably lost. They were with Christ. But only, Paul insists, if there is a resurrection.
"In Christ" means believing in Christ, and in communion with Him.

Among the pagans,  "falling asleep" was used euphemistically. Among Christians it was not euphemistic. For them the word implied that the one who was asleep would awaken again. Thus, as verse 18 stands, it contains an utter logical contradiction.

1 Corinthians 15:19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

Verse 15 drew a conclusion to verses 12-14. In that case it was that, if some of the Corinthians were correct in their observation, both the Apostles and God Himself have proved to be liars, a dreadful thing to say. Verse 19 draws a conclusion to verses 16-18. In verse 15 we did not have a fact condition, a condition of reality. Here we do.

Robertson-Plummer: The first and last words 'in this life' and 'only,' are emphatic; nevertheless, they should not be taken together: 'in this life only.' Better, 'If we are having only hope in Christ in this life'; or, 'If in this life we are hopers in Christ and have nothing beyond'; i.e., If all that Christians have got is hope in Christ, without possibility of life with Him hereafter, what can be more pathetic?

Beck gets the true sense:  "We should be pitied more than any other people."  The point is delusion.

Morris: If there is not resurrection they are pitiably deluded men.
Lenski: Their death reveals that this their hope was an illusion. The perfect participle conveys the idea that at one time they embraced this hope, and then they clung to it until they died. Paul's logic is as sound and as inevitable as the negative syllogisms of Jesus in John 8:39-40.

Paul shows, in both verses 18 and 19, how the false teaching of some in Corinth clashes with inspired truth.

1 Corinthians 15:20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Robertson-Plummer: These words begin a joyous outburst in contrast to the dreary pictures which Paul has been drawing.
Lenski: All of the deductions which Paul has knit so tightly he now unravels with one motion. All of them are false because the original proposition is false.

Paul emphatically asserts again what was asserted in verse 4.

Franzmann: Christ is the beginning and the guarantee of the full harvest of the resurrection of the dead.

Note that the perfect passive is used of Christ's resurrection and in this chapter is limited to Christ. He continues permanently in His exalted state, never to die again. He is the firstfruits of those who are asleep in the sense that though we have two cases of resurrection in the Old Testament and though Jesus raised at least three in the New Testament, they died again. But Jesus is the first and only person in history to be raised never to die again.

Morris: Firstfruits comprised the first sheaf of the harvest, which was brought to the temple and offered, see Leviticus 23:10ff. In a sense it consecrated the whole harvest. Moreover, firstfruits implies later fruits. Both thoughts are to the point here. 'Them that sleep' is a perfect participle denoting the continuing state of the faithful departed.
Lenski: Firstfruits has no article, since the term is general. The figure is current in the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 16:15; Romans 11:16; 16:5; James 1:18; Revelation 14:4. Its connotation is that of certainty: as certainly as Christ was raised, so certainly shall we be raised. For as the first sheaf cannot be harvested and offered unless the entire harvest is ripe and ready, so Christ cannot be raised unless all of us believers are ready to be raised also.

Beck renders this verse:  "But now Christ did rise from the dead, the first in the harvest of those who are sleeping in their graves."


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series C Epistle Texts, Festival Season Sundays, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1985, pp. 48-52. Used with permission.

Return to top

Return to Buls' Notes Index