Death is scary because life after death is a mystery to us. Of course, many today confidently teach that death is the end — there is no life after death. Many others are content to believe we just can’t know until we die.
But, there are two ways to find what’s on the other side of death:
- Die. By then, of course, it’s too late. One would hope there’s a better option.
- Listen to someone who knows and can tell us what comes after death.
God has done exactly that. The Bible tells us it has been “God-breathed” — spoken by God Himself. It claims that God moved men to write down exactly what He wanted them to write. This is, of course, a matter of faith, but it is an undeniable fact that the Bible is very different than any book ever written. It is an undeniable fact that the Bible has changed the world since it was written. It is an undeniable fact that the Bible has been the best-selling, most respected spiritual text of all time. It is an undeniable fact that the Bible speaks with great authority about the most important subjects that have ever occupied the thoughts of mankind—including death.
If God has truly spoken to us in the Bible, then we can know about death before death. The fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians contains some of the most remarkable teaching in the Bible or anywhere else about what happens after death.
“Hold Fast” (1 Corinthians 15)
(1 Corinthians 15:1-2) Paul started this new section with some basic, but extremely important, review. And it’s simple and clear up until the first “if” of v.2. Paul had “preached” the gospel to the Corinthians — the gospel which he himself had “received” (v.3; cf., Galatians 1:12). The Corinthians had “received” this same gospel message (v.1) which Paul seems to equate with “believed” — this matches with other passages that the gospel is a gift to be “received” by faith — it is to be “believed”. Paul confidently stated that the Corinthians were “standing” in the gospel (v.1) and they were “saved” by it (v.2). But then he said “if”.
This indicates another problem in the Corinthian church. Why did he say “if you hold fast”? What does “unless you believed in vain” suggest? This is a difficult verse. Some take it to mean that one might lose his salvation if he doesn’t “hold fast”. But, this would contradict numerous passages that indicate salvation is a gift of God’s grace and not the result of our own works (e.g., Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:8-9). There are a couple other possibilities that make better sense:
- The Corinthians never actually believed the message Paul preached (see NLT footnote). But, in the Greek, the ‘if’ is a first class condition which assumes that what is stated is true — more like “since you hold fast”. Paul assumes and believes they do possess the message by personal faith.
- Paul is playing devil’s advocate. So, “unless you believed in vain” is the first instance of this, but he continued in vs. 15 and 17. In other words, the Corinthians are not “saved” if Christ has not been raised, which is not possible because Christ has been raised.
- Some believe that “saved” refers to sanctification, not justification in this passage (which it does in other passages) because it is in the present tense (i.e., “are being saved”). So, the point is that our growth and maturity depend on whether we believe in the resurrection — this is the point of the rest of the chapter.
If the second or third are accurate, then Paul does believe the Corinthians are truly saved, but need help in understanding the implications of a core part of the gospel message: The Resurrection.
(1 Corinthians 15:3-11) After reminding the Corinthians of their response to the gospel, he laid out a brief explanation of it in verses 3-11. Notice four key verbs:
- Christ “died” (v.3)
- Christ “was buried” (v.4)
- Christ “was raised” (v.4)
- Christ “appeared” (v.5)
Two of these were “according to the Scriptures”: Died and raised. In other words, the Old Testament predicted that the Christ would die and rise. Isaiah 53 is a good example of an Old Testament passage that predicted Christ would die. Psalm 16:10 — quoted by Peter in Acts 2 and Paul in Acts 13 — predicted He would rise from the grave.
So, according to these verses, the good news of Jesus Christ can be summarized in ten words: Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead. When you add the other two verbs, we have a strong defense of this gospel: Christ was “buried,” which proves that He really died. And, Christ “appeared” to more than 500 eyewitnesses afterwards which proves that He really did rise from the dead.
A fuller explanation of the gospel includes the Old Testament message that Christ is coming, a more thorough understanding of who Christ is, the significance of what He has done and His promises to come again. But, these ten words serve as a simple summary of the good news of the gospel.
(1 Corinthians 15:12-19) So, why was Paul reminded the Corinthians of what he had — no doubt — already spent a great deal of time telling them? Apparently, some were preaching that the dead would not experience resurrection. The false teachers in Corinth were probably teaching that Christ rose from the dead, but that Christians would not rise from the dead after they die — that death was the very end. It is not unusual for people to scoff at this idea (cf., Acts 17:32).
So, Paul explained the implications of this. Like he was saying, “Think this through, Corinthians. If the dead are not raised . . .
- Christ was not raised (13,16)
- My (Paul’s) preaching was in vain (v.14; “useless” NLT)
- Your (the Corinthians’) faith is vain or worthless (v.14,17)
- Our (Paul and the other Apostles) were false witnesses of the Resurrection (v.15)
- We (Paul, the Corinthians and all Christians) are still dead in sin (v.17)
- Our loved ones who’ve died are gone forever (v.18)
- And we Christians should be pitied! (v.19)!”
No big deal, right Corinthians?” Obviously, there are some very serious implications of this false teaching that there is no resurrection from the dead. Thank God, Paul didn’t stop there.
(1 Corinthians 15:20-28) In vs. 12-19 Paul addressed what was false. Here, in vs. 20-28 he will explain what is true! This is the historical and theological basis of everything he teaches in this chapter.
- Jesus has been raised (v.20). Along with the death of Christ, the resurrection of Christ is a central, indispensable truth of the gospel.
- Jesus is the “firstfruits of those who are asleep” (i.e., dead). Jesus was the “first” to be raised permanently. Jesus’ resurrection guarantees our resurrection like the firstfruits of the harvest guaranteed the full harvest. The harvest came much later than firstfruits, so in v.23, Paul is making the point that we can’t know how long or exactly when, but Christ’s resurrection guarantees ours someday.
- “In Adam all die”. This is the basic problem of man: he’s “dead” (vs.21-22). Adam’s sin brought death into the world, so all of his children and grandchildren are dead in sin.
- “In Christ all will be made alive”. The curse of spiritual and physical death was overcome through Christ. Notice “in Christ”. This is not teaching universalism — the idea that all will be saved. Universalism would contradict what Jesus (Mark 9:43; Luke 16:19-31), the other Apostles (James 2:13; Jude 4-13; Revelation 20:10-15) and Paul himself taught (e.g., Romans 2; 2 Thessalonians 1:9) — even what Paul taught specifically in 1 Corinthians (e.g., 1:30-31; 6:9-11; 11:32): Only those who are “in Christ” are made alive.
He then delivered some amazing and wonderful promises:
“. . . Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, ‘All things are put in subjection,’ it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15:24–28, NASB95)
Christ will restore all things to their pre-sin condition. All of history is leading up to this fantastic climax and the resurrection of those who are “in Christ” will be a key part because “the last enemy . . . death” will be abolished.
(1 Corinthians 15:29-34) Apparently, some in Corinth were being “baptized for the dead”. This has been done in other places at other times as well. In our own time, the followers of Joseph Smith, the Mormons, practice baptism for the dead. This is only because v.29 has been stripped from its context and made to mean something Paul never meant. David Lowery is helpful here:
“Up to 200 explanations have been given of this verse! Most of these interpretations are inane, prompted by a desire to conform this verse to an orthodox doctrine of baptism. It is clear from the context, however, that Paul distinguished his own practice and teaching from that described here. He merely held up the teaching of being baptized for the dead as a practice of some who denied the Resurrection . . . Given the Corinthian propensity for distortion in matters of church practice (11:2-14:40), it was likely that some in Corinth were propounding a false view of baptism which Paul took up and used as an argument against those who denied the Resurrection . . . Also it is noteworthy that Paul referred to those (not “we”) who are “baptized for the dead.” (Bible Knowledge Commentary, Walvoord and Zuck, entry on 1 Corinthians 15:29).
In other words, Paul knew some were practising this kind of baptism, so he used it to show the inconsistency in their teaching. Why be baptized for the dead if there is no resurrection? Everyone is just worm food if God does not raise us from the dead, so what’s the point of being baptized for worm food? Paul did not endorse this practice — he used it against false teachers. This verse must be read in context, which includes more provocative questions:
“Why are we also in danger every hour? I affirm, brethren, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. If from human motives I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:30–32, NASB95)
His point is that it doesn’t make sense to follow Christ if there is no resurrection! Why am I bothering to “die daily . . . fight wild beasts”? Let’s just party! There is no promise of wealth, health, fun, comfort or pleasure in this life by following Christ. But, it does make sense to follow Christ if there is a resurrection — life after death! To “die daily . . . fight wild beasts” only makes sense if something will make it worth it in the end. That something is resurrection to eternal life with God.
And this brings us to a clear and important implication of the gospel: Morality! “Good morals . . . sober-mindedness” (i.e., holy living) are a direct implication of the promise of resurrection. If there is no tomorrow, no life after death when we will be held accountable to God, there is no point in living honestly, responsibly and in purity. There’s no reason to “stop sinning”. The “bad company” of false teachers will eventually lead to this kind of thinking — it did in ancient Corinth and it will in our time as well. But, the resurrection is true, so holy living is worth it. We need to be “sober-minded” because some (i.e., false teachers) have “no knowledge (agnosia; lit. ignorance) of God”. Lots of people are preaching, teaching and writing who are ignorant of God and the Scriptures.
(1 Corinthians 15:35-49) The two questions in v.35 define what follows. These are perhaps two specific questions raised by the false teachers in Corinth. These are certainly questions that have been raised over time about the promise of resurrection. Perhaps you know someone (maybe yourself) who might ask, “Do you really expect God to reassemble the bodies of everyone who has died throughout history?” Or, “Do you really believe we’ll have heavenly bodies?”
Paul answered the first question with an illustration in vs. 36-38: The illustration of sowing seeds. A seed dies in the ground, then comes up looking completely different, yet it is somehow the same thing you started with (i.e., wheat seed produces wheat).
Paul answered the second question from v.35 in vs. 39-49. He reminds us that as we look around at creation, there are different kinds of bodies. Our heavenly bodies will be more glorious than them all — “imperishable” (as opposed to perishable), “glorious” (as opposed to dishonor), “powerful” (as opposed to weak), “spiritual” (as opposed to natural; 39-44). Verses 45-49 are part of Paul’s answer to the second question of v.35 as well. Our heavenly bodies will be like Jesus’ resurrection body — the “image of the heavenly”. Jesus did some amazing things in His post-resurrection body — appeared and reappeared, walked through closed doors, flying up in the clouds — even as He proved He was risen in physical flesh. He ate and drank, He sat and talked, He was recognizable. We aren’t promised anything specific, but we can expect great things from our “heavenly bodies” based on the post-resurrection appearances of Christ.
(1 Corinthians 15:50-58) The truth of this wonderful chapter should change us. Knowing our future should transform our today. Like Jesus, we must undergo a transformation in order to receive heavenly bodies. In order to “inherit the kingdom of God” some things must change. We must change from “flesh and blood . . . perishable” to “imperishable”. For most of us, that change will take place at death.
Just as Jesus died (the seed was planted in the ground, v.36), so we must die before we can put on our imperishable heavenly bodies. According to vs. 51-52, there are exceptions to this rule.
“Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51–52, NASB95)
Not everyone will “sleep” (i.e., die). Many believe this is a reference to the teaching of “the rapture” (Latin for “caught up” in 1 Thessalonians 4:17). This is a “mystery” — something not previously known but now revealed. Death was certainly no mystery, but the idea that “we will not all sleep” (die) was definitely a mystery. How can that possibly happen that some will receive resurrection bodies without dying? Again, many believe the answer is the Rapture. But, this is not Paul’s main point here. His main point is that “we will all be changed”. One way or the other, we will be changed from mortal to immortal, from perishable to imperishable. Enoch and Elijah must have experienced a similar “change” (Genesis 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11) since they apparently did not die, but were taken up alive.
Connected to this “change” is one of the sweetest promises — and one of the greatest changes in human history since the fall of mankind: The end of death itself.
“But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:54–57, NASB95)
Quoting from Isaiah (v.54) and Hosea (v.55), Paul wrote that death will be “swallowed up”. “Sin” resulted in death and “law” reveals our sinfulness (Romans 4:15), but “victory” is “through our Lord Jesus Christ”. The full realization of Jesus’ victory on the cross will take place when death is done away with (see Revelation 20:14; 21:4) and will plague mankind no more.
As always, great truth requires great response. Paul did not teach all this so that we could just debate or — worse — sit and wait for the Rapture. He summarized our expected response in the final verse of the chapter:
“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 15:58, NASB95)
“Steadfast” and “immovable” are the same basic idea. The literal idea is “seated,” which pictures a person being fixed morally. Like a wrestler who is braced for his attacker. It’s very similar to “hold fast” at the beginning of the chapter (v.2; cf., Colossians 1:23). Paul explained further that because we have these great promises from God, we should be “always abounding in the work of the Lord.” The knowledge taught in this chapter will help his readers (us) to never give up: “Knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” Notice two important words: “Work” and “toil”. Yes, serving God is work. Yes, it can be toil. But, it will all be worth it in the end. It is not in vain if it is “in the Lord”.
“In Love” (1 Corinthians 16)
The final chapter of 1 Corinthians is often neglected. It has been called the “P.S.” of this letter. But, if Paul would have written only this chapter and the Corinthian church would have applied it well, the rest of the book might have been unnecessary.
(1 Corinthians 16:1-4) Paul gave these same instructions about a “collection for the saints” to “the churches in Galatia” (v.1), so these instructions were not just for the Corinthians (cf., Acts 24:17; Romans 15:25-27; 2 Corinthians 8-9). It was a monumental and important collection. Gentiles were serving the Jewish believers where the church had begun. This not only helped them financially, but communicated that these churches were not in any way rivals. There were no divisions here. All the churches were part of the same movement of God throughout the Roman Empire. They needed to be unified, not just within local congregations, but as the larger Body of Christ.
That is the biggest lesson we should derive from these verses, but there are also several important principles here about giving:
- “Every week” means all Christians and entire churches should all be giving regularly.
- “As he may prosper” means our giving should be proportional to how God has blessed us. It tells us we should be giving a percentage of what we have, which means giving thoughtfully.
- “Gift to Jerusalem” means the local church should be giving to the global church. Each local congregation of believers should be connected in various ways with brothers and sisters in Christ outside the local church setting in order to support and encourage those who are going through persecution or serving in difficult areas.
- “Whomever you may approve . . . if it is fitting” tells us we should have accountable accountants. Paul offered to let the Corinthians pick their own messengers to physically deliver their gift. He modeled here that those who handle offerings should go out of their way to ensure trust.
(1 Corinthians 16:5-9) Paul’s ministry was itinerant and global in nature. He traveled thousands of miles planting new churches. He did not stay in one local church — he worked in and through many local churches. Local church leadership development should be done with both a local and a global mindset — asking God to raise up both kinds of leaders. Also, the radical autonomy of the local church so common in our time is not Biblical. Clearly, Paul was overseeing a network of churches. He and his team led church plants until local leadership could be commended to continue the shepherding of a new church. So, these globally-minded leaders like Paul remained involved as long as necessary to help get the churches established, but then they left and encouraged and helped resolve problems from a distance as they continued to work on expanding the network.
“Wide open door” means Paul’s work was Spirit-led. This was not a literal door, of course, but one Paul believed God had opened (cf., 2 Corinthians 2:12 and Colossians 4:3). This is an example of the expansion of the Holy Spirit. It seemed spontaneous to humans. We don’t always know what the Spirit is doing, but looking back we can see His hand in the expansion taking place. Paul didn’t explain what he meant by this “wide open door” or how he knew it existed. Paul, of course, had received visions and direct revelation (16:9), but that was not always the case. Perhaps he could tell the people were receptive, or he had freedom to speak and work (cf., 16:6). But, a “wide open door for effective service” is not always free of adversity. Paul added that there were “many adversaries” — this was not a contradiction to Paul. We too should not assume that adversity or a lack of peace means God is not using us or that we should give up and move on.
(1 Corinthians 16:10-12) “Adversaries” should never be within the church, though. The church should be characterized by “peace.” Those who are “doing the Lord’s work” should expect cooperation and respect. Also, the relationship between Apollos and Paul — rather than being rivals (1:12) — was one of mutual respect and encouragement.
(1 Corinthians 16:13-24) Sandwiched between notes about Paul’s co-workers is a list.
“Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” (1 Corinthians 16:13–14, NASB95)
Don’t skip over it just because it’s in the “P.S.” of this letter. If this list was obeyed, it would solve all the division troubles in the church at Corinth.
- “Be on the alert”. “Alert” literally means “wake” or “awake”. Ten times, Paul asked the Corinthians, “Do you not know . . . ?” To “be alert” is to know the truth that God has revealed — that we are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (3:16), that “the saints will judge the world” (6:2), or that those who run in a race “all run, but only one receives the prize” (9:24). To “be alert” is to know what is good, right and best as well as the things which contradict (i.e., “the wisdom of man”; 2:5). According to 1 Peter 5:8, when we are not alert, we get devoured! “Devoured” is probably a good description of the Corinthians: Divisions, confused by the “wisdom of the world,” lawsuits, gross sexual sin, wrecked marriages, destructive use of freedom, chaotic and selfish worship, distortion of the gospel, apathy, indifference, etc.
- “Stand firm in the faith”. Again, “be steadfast, immovable” (15:58). There will be people or circumstances that will try to knock us out of our position “in the faith”. They will try to move us out of “the faith” (i.e., the teaching of Christ and His Apostles in the New Testament). This is why the entire New Testament is calling us to know our Bibles, to pray, to spend time with and be encouraged by other believers, to submit to and follow the example of church leadership, to abide in Christ, etc. We’re in a fight and we’ve got to get ready and stand firm like a boxer ready to take punches.
- “Act like men”. If you watch too much TV these days, it must be said that this does not mean be a complete idiot and drink a lot of beer. The command includes everyone and it is simple: Grow up! But, don’t be too quick to widen the focus. There is specific application for the men here. The Greek is one word that means “be men”. When Christian men “act like men” many of the problems in a church go away. At least one section of the book was about the importance of male leadership (11:1-16) and the assumption is that the men will be mature — alert, standing firm in the faith — and leading in a Christ-like manner. But again, the bigger idea is maturity — be courageous, sober-minded, self-controlled, etc. (cf., 3:1-3).
- “Be strong”. Be spiritually strong. The opposite, of course is weakness — what the Corinthians were. Full of divisions instead of unity, selfishness instead of love, short-sightedness instead of looking up and forward to the resurrection, ignorant and uninformed instead of knowledgeable about the teachings. But Paul’s command is positive, just like the example of Paul and his coworkers.
- “Let all that you do be done in love”. Obviously, love is a key theme of this book. If the Corinthians had been living out the principles found in chapter 13, many — if not all — of their problems would have been non-existent. But again, Paul’s command was positive so he provided some very positive examples of love:
- The “household of Stephanas . . . devoted themselves for ministry to the saints” (as an aside, “they were the first fruits” — the first converts in Achaia so someone loved them by sharing the gospel with them). He urged them to be “in subjection” to leaders (v.16) which requires love.
- “Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus . . . supplied what was lacking on your part . . . refreshed my spirit and yours.” A beautiful, loving example like that should be “acknowledged”.
- “Aquila and Prisca” hosted a church “in their house” — a loving, familial gesture.
In the midst of his closing greetings, Paul made a strong statement in v.22. He was not saying “accursed” as in “go to hell,” but in the sense of judgment for those who refuse to respond to the teaching of this letter. Let those false teachers who are causing divisions and leading people astray be warned that they are in danger of being judged by God (cf., 11:29-30). Anyone who messes with God’s church — the Bride of Christ — is putting themselves in harm’s way.
“Maranatha” (v.22) is an Aramaic word that means “O Lord, come!” William Barclay explains that,
“It is strange to meet with an Aramaic phrase in a Greek letter to a Greek Church. The explanation is that that phrase had become a watchword and a password. It summed up the vital hope of the early Church, and Christians whispered it to each other, identified each other by it, in a language which the heathen could not understand.” (Quoted by Thomas Constable (2003) in Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible, p. 188).
Paul concluded the letter where he began:
“The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.” (1 Corinthians 16:23–24, NASB95)
Despite having to be very frank in this letter, he closed with a clear expression of “grace” and “love”. In fact, it was grace and love that motivated the clear and tough admonishment Paul gave them. If he didn’t care about them, he wouldn’t have bothered to confront their sin. Leaders of every age can learn a great deal from Paul’s example. Compare these final words of grace and love to his greeting at the beginning of the letter:
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:3, NASB95)
Perhaps he excluded “peace” at the end of this letter because it was now up to the Corinthians. Peace is a choice. As Christians choose God’s way — the “still more excellent way” of love, grace, truth, maturity and selflessness — we create peace in our churches, in our homes and in our own personal lives.
The end of this letter does not mark the end of Paul’s interactions with the church at Corinth. Many believe he actually wrote four letters, but only two have been preserved by the Holy Spirit for us. We encourage you to go on now and read 2 Corinthians.