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1 Corinthians 15:1-11

As we celebrate Christ’s resurrection and the hope of future resurrection, the church is challenged to embrace resurrection life as a daily reality (all 365 days a year). There are several elements to Paul’s opening argument in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, which help us to better understand how this can be done. Before addressing these, I will briefly set the stage.

The church at Corinth had significant personal, social, and theological issues, which led to substantial division in the Church. Many have seen chapters 1—14 as Paul dealing with these very specific issues from a practical perspective before moving to chapter 15 where he must deal with a significant theological concern from a theological perspective. However, this is to miss the truth that Paul is both practical and theological throughout (indeed, this is the calling and work of a pastor). A different way of viewing this epistle is to recognize how Paul deals with specific “surface” issues in chapters 1—14 by helping the Corinthians to understand the theological truths that undergird why they should be united rather than divided. Then, in chapter 15, Paul addresses the “surface” theological issue of bodily resurrection, which ultimately seeks to help the Corinthians embrace a practical truth, namely, that they are called to die to their sinful, selfish desires in the present so as to embody resurrection life in the here and now. Our short passage begins this argument, which is developed and brought to fruition in the rest of the chapter. When reading through the whole of chapter 15, we see that Paul deals with death as much as he deals with resurrection. These two go hand and hand. In Paul’s understanding, death always precedes resurrection both physically and spiritually. Paul presents Christ death and resurrection and proof of this truth and the Gospel as the ongoing evidence of a new resurrection reality.

Now we can briefly highlight five important elements of Paul’s words in 15:1-11, which help us to embrace resurrection life in the present. First, Paul articulates a process of “receiving” and “extending” the Gospel. We are reminded that the faith journey does not take place in a vacuum. Even this great apostle received assistance from others after his encounter with Christ on the Damascus road—Ananias, Peter, James, and Barnabas, just to name a few. Paul would have depended on others to inform him about the details of Jesus’ earthly ministry and teaching and even about the Gospel message. And what Paul received, he extended to others. While the language Paul utilizes in verses 3 could convey a very static transaction whereby information is passed from one group to another, he understands the Gospel and its proclamation to be much more dynamic. This is evidenced in his use of the verbal form of Gospel in verse 1 (euangelizō). What Paul more literally says is that he “gospel-ed the gospel”; he proclaimed it in word and action!

This leads to the second element of our passage—the importance of faith and works as part of the reception of this Gospel. Genuine faith requires and ever-deepening trust in God; it is a relationship that requires action (compare James 2:14-25). We share the Gospel in word and deed; and arguably, the deeds are more important as they speak volumes to those who witness our actions. Both in verse 1 and verse 10, Paul speaks of the possibility of believing in vain. We are called to “stand” in faith, and we “hold firmly to the message” when we live it out in tangible ways. This is especially true of our relationships with our brothers and sisters in the Lord. Division amongst believers is an indictment on us individually and corporately and does not evidence resurrection life to our world. Rather, it shows that we continue to cling to our own selfish desires.

Closely tied to this point is the third element of our passage—Paul offers his own past and present life as an example of faith in action and the transformation that takes place when we surrender ourselves to God. For Paul, this idea is tied to “calling.” While Paul may have had a specific calling as an apostle, he still believed that all believers shared a general calling. We have been called according to God’s purpose to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-30), called to be saints (1 Corinthians 1:2), called to serve one another in love (Galatians 5:13); called to allow God’s peace to rule in our hearts (Colossians 3:15), called into God’s kingdom and glory in the present (1 Thessalonians 2:12). In other words, we have been called to be resurrection people, and resurrection people both receive and extend the Gospel in word and deed.

A fourth element of our passage is that Paul’s “extending” includes an extension to the Gospel; there is an element of adding to the Gospel story. Paul received the basic kerygma (preaching points) of the Gospel message from others (verses 3b-5, possibly also 6-7). Yet, Paul felt justified in adding his own experience to this account (verses 8-10), and even to include the Corinthians belief as part of this Gospel proclamation. I am not advocating some type of heretical amendment to Scripture. Nevertheless, my fear is that over the centuries the Gospel has lost much of its power because it has been downgraded to an evangelical tool that’s primary purpose is “saving people from hell.” When the Gospel is reduced to simply relaying a story about the crucifixion and resurrection and then speaking about its eternal benefits, the world misses a lot. The Gospel is so much bigger than that! Yes, it is true that it includes the things I have just mentioned, but it also includes the whole story of Scripture, it includes the people of God throughout time, this includes the church, the body of Christ in this world, and it includes the ever-burgeoning Kingdom that is being revealed through your actions and my actions in the world. Resurrection people embody the Gospel and in so doing they are included in its story.

Finally, our passage reminds us that all these things are “but by the grace of God.” We do not (nor can we) do these things in our own power. God’s prevenient, saving, and sanctifying grace goes before us, lives within us, and extends through us to transform us, others, and this world. We are a resurrection people building a resurrection (restoration) Kingdom!