1 Corinthians 15
Even causal Christians know the importance of Easter. On Easter we remember Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Most believers readily profess that Christ’s triumph is the foundation of the gospel. Christ’s resurrection is the Good News. Yet when Christians are asked why Christ’s resurrection is Good News, their response is often tentative and unclear. It is surprising that something as central as the resurrection is so often found difficult to explain. Understanding Paul’s discussion of the resurrection in First Corinthians 15 can clarify this central tenet of our faith.
Some of the Corinthians believed that the resurrection was of no consequence to their faith. Paul heard of this and wrote them: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Cor 15:12). As Paul continues, it becomes clear that their oversight is devastating: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Cor 15:13-14). According to Paul, ignoring the resurrection renders our faith useless. We are obviously playing for high stakes in this matter. That is why Paul spends an entire chapter explaining the importance of the resurrection.
Jesus’ Resurrection Is Part of a Larger Plan
Paul does not view Jesus’ resurrection as an end in itself. It is a crucial part of a larger plan of God to eliminate evil from the world. Paul makes this point by calling Jesus “the first fruits of those who have died” (verse 20). The “first fruits” are an agricultural image. First fruits are the first part of the crop to be harvested. Paul uses this image because he seeks to associate Jesus’ resurrection with a reality which is to follow it—a reality which involves us. To make his point more clearly, Paul gives us a time-line of events in which Jesus’ resurrection is only one step: “But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (verse 23). Here it becomes clear that the rest of the harvest will entail our resurrection. The entire harvest will not be complete until all those who belong to Christ share in a similar resurrection with him when he returns.
But the work of God in Christ involves even more than our resurrection. Paul makes this clear as he continues his time-line: “Then comes the end, when he [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (verses 24-26). Paul tells us that God intends not only to save us but to eradicate all evil from the world. The “rulers, authorities, and powers” of which Paul speaks are not political entities. They are the spiritual forces of evil which still dominate our existence. These are the “enemies” which Christ will destroy when he returns. We can offer but a partial list of the enemies Paul has in mind: war, hunger, poverty, hatred, greed, injustice, and prejudice. These and other evils are contrary to God’s will, and God intends to destroy them through Christ. The greatest enemy is saved to the last. Even death will be destroyed.
At this point it has become clear that God has embarked on a final, cosmic project. God’s plan involves not only Jesus’ resurrection but our resurrection and the recreation of the world. In fact, God intends to extend goodness to all that exists, establishing the perfection which was God’s goal at creation. All that is evil is to be destroyed. All that will remain is what God desires. Paul proclaims this truth as he concludes his time-line: When all things are subjected to him [Christ], then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one [God] who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all” (verse 28).
In Paul’s powerful description of the plan of God, it becomes apparent why Jesus’ resurrection is good news for us. Jesus’ resurrection has begun to recreate the world and remove evil from our midst. It was this realization which fueled the early church to proclaim the gospel everywhere, announcing that the definitive destruction of evil had begun. It is this realization which should inform our faith today. We should know and proclaim the Good News that God is opposed to evil of the world and has begun to destroy it. When we say that we believe in Jesus, we express the conviction that this plan of God has been inaugurated. Yet holding to this faith demands that we live in the midst of a tension.
Living in the Middle of the Good News
To live the truth of the resurrection, we must know where we stand in the plan of God. We stand in the middle. The first part of God’s plan has been realized, yet the remaining part must still occur. Jesus has been raised up. His resurrection is definitive. It is our surety that God has irrevocably begun the destruction of all evil. Yet it is obvious to anyone that many evils remain in our world. Violence and greed fill our media. Misunderstanding, hurt, and disease still characterize our lives. We await the complete victory of God in Christ. Our salvation is “already” but “not yet.”
If we relax the tension between what is already and what is not yet, we distort the gospel. On one hand, focusing exclusively on what has been already accomplished can blind us to the pain of the world. Evil continues to oppress humanity and lessen our lives. Proclaiming only that “the victory has been won” can make us oblivious to the many people who continue to suffer and our responsibility to assist them. On the other hand, focusing only on what is yet to come, erodes the confidence which flows from Christ’s resurrection. What makes us unique as Christians is not that we believe that God will save the world, but that God has definitively begun to do so in Christ. Faith looks backwards at the resurrection of Jesus, believing in its truth, understanding its significance. Hope looks forward to what flows from that faith, insisting that what God has begun will invariably be completed.
Therefore, Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ resurrection provides a practical basis for Christian living. We all experience evil in our lives. Whether our lives have been touched by sickness, betrayal, depression, or death, the force of evil is real and personal. Christ’s resurrection assures us that God is opposed to the evil we suffer. Christ’s triumph invites us to join our suffering to the pain of the world which God intends to destroy but has “not yet” eliminated. We can and should remind ourselves that we do not suffer alone. We wait with all creation for the glory which is to come.
Yet as we embrace the “not yet” of salvation, we gain strength from what has already taken place. Christ is risen! Our faith tells us this is true. Since death has been destroyed in him, then the days of death and all other evils are numbered. In our darkest moments, we can rally our hope because we know that the time-line of salvation has started to unfold. Christians should be the most hopeful of all people, because we believe that the triumph of God has not only been promised us, it has already begun.
Christ’s resurrection is not a matter of words but of reality. Although its full promise has not yet been realized, its occurrence is the basis of our hope. As we stand in the middle of God’s plan, we look forward to what is to come, to that day when God will be all in all. But we know already that since Christ has been raised up then God’s will cannot be deterred. What has happened will invariably lead to what is promised. This is why Jesus’ resurrection is the gospel—good news for our lives.