In I Corinthians 15 Paul testifies to the victory of Easter. Beginning in verses 1-2, he reminds his readers of the gospel he has preached in which they stand and are being saved. He then turns to the theme of Christianity and Easter, the resurrection. In verses 3-11, we find him supporting his claim of belief in the resurrection with reason, tradition, scripture, and experience. Reason we find laced throughout this passage in his discussion of the other three. He shares what has been handed down to him, found in scripture and corroborated through personal experience.
First, Paul describes the process of tradition in verse 3: “For I handed on to you as of first importance that what I in turn had received.” The word for “handed on” has multiple meanings. In this passage the word is understood to refer to tradition or something given to Paul. He is referring to the gospel being passed down to him. However, in Matthew 10:4 the word can mean “handed over” or betrayal. Here and in other scriptures, Jesus is said to have been handed over to his persecutors for trial and ultimate death. Sometimes there can be a fine line between handing down the tradition and denying the faith. Of course what is shared in tradition could be either good or bad. Paul does warn them in verse two that they must hold on to their faith or their belief is in vain.
We live in a world of competing traditions between Protestant and Catholic, Christian and Muslim. Traditions shape our understanding of the gospel, including the meaning of Easter and in some instances when and how we celebrate Easter. In March 1736, John Wesley arrived in Savannah, Georgia, by boat from England. Three weeks later he celebrated Easter on March 21 with 15 communicants. However, if Wesley had been a Catholic he would have celebrated Easter on April 1 because at that time these Christian traditions followed two different calendars. Later in the century, Great Britain stopped seeing the Gregorian calendar as a Popish plot and adopted it, hence bringing unity to the date when Easter would be celebrated. Paul lays out how tradition shapes us. We share what has been handed down to us. We can only hand over what we have received. Easter is always a good time to think about those who have nurtured us into the faith. Take time to thank them. We should also consider who we might mentor. Is it a family member? Is it a co-worker? This has been an especially good year for our family as we have a new grandson. Grandma and I take every opportunity to share Jesus with him. Thankfully he likes to climb into Grandma’s lap with a good book. Moreover, finding myself in a classroom with students forty years younger provides opportunity to explain the historical context of the tradition handed down to them.
Paul states the message of the Easter tradition briefly as “Christ died for our sins….he was buried….he was raised on the third day….he appeared to Cephas.” Actually he probably quotes from an early creed or confession of faith and illustrates one way tradition is shared from one generation to the next. Christians are taught to affirm as true certain facts about Jesus. In some religious traditions historical accuracy is not as significant as the message itself. The Lotus Sutra of Buddhism shares the principle of “skillful means.” In Buddhist parables like the “Burning House” or “The Phantom City” the message takes priority over the truth or historical fact of something. Historical fact is not as significant as the meaning it is conveying. For example, while Buddhists may believe the Buddha actually did live the facts of his existence are not as important as his teaching about life and liberation. For Christians, the truth of the message of salvation depends upon the historical facts of Christ. The resurrection is only good news if it actually occurred. As I Corinthians 15:7 says “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” The testimony of the resurrection of Christ being true is the basis for our hope of a future existence.
A second source for the teaching of the resurrection and a primary authority for its validation is found in Paul’s declaration that the facts are “in accordance with the scripture.” All Christians point to the authority of the scripture text. The recent celebration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his theses on the church door of Wittenberg reminds us that Scripture has been particularly central for Protestants but to be fair it has also been a key aspect of Catholicism as well. For Protestants Scripture became the stated authority for faith and practice. However, not all viewed the Scripture the same. Luther considered ideas accepted if scripture did not contradict them. Huldrych Zwingli believed that a doctrine or practice had to be mandated in scripture to be accepted which explains why an accomplished musician like Zwingli would lessen the role of music in his church if he could not find explicit scriptural references to support its usage. The priority of scripture had many implications. One related to worship. While Protestants continued the practice of Eucharist, preaching scripture became central. Protestants often placed the pulpit in a more prominent place than the altar. Luther believed worship only took place if the word was preached. Making scripture the basic authority made translation of scripture and liturgy into the language of the average person necessary because everyone needed to understand it. Since the laity, both men and women, needed to read it for themselves, Protestants like John Calvin pushed for universal education by founding his academy in Geneva. This also provided the rationale for clergy as well. While Protestants viewed laypeople and clergy as equal in holiness, clergy could devote themselves to more informed and critical study of scripture even learning the original languages so that proper theological teaching would come to the laity.
In verses 5-11 Paul discusses the appearances of Christ or how the church experienced the risen Christ for themselves. Paul testifies that Christ appeared to Peter and the disciples along with at least one group of 500 brothers and sisters. He ends by referencing how Christ appeared to him as well even though he had persecuted the faith. When Paul writes this passage one can almost read between the lines when he notes that some of the 500 are still living. “Since Christ appeared to these people you can go and talk with those who are still alive.” Personal testimony validates the resurrection. Can we be witnesses? Have we experienced the resurrected Christ? Paul does not merely share the facts that Christ died, was buried and rose again. He includes something beyond the information one finds in a creedal statement or theological text. He speaks of those who have personal knowledge of the validity of the resurrection. In the early Church of the Nazarene one can often find this distinction made between intellectual and experiential knowledge. For these Nazarenes what makes a doctrine binding is that it would have to be essential for religious experience. When one sought to become a member, pastors did not merely want someone to understand what it meant to be a Christian or agree with each cardinal doctrine like entire sanctification. The Church wanted people to be actual Christians and to have experienced conversion and entire sanctification. Without devaluing intellectual understanding, the church called for living knowledge of Christ. In possession of such personal knowledge one can testify authoritatively to the Easter message of the resurrection of Christ. When Paul mentions the 500 he may also be pointing out that some of the witnesses have died and have benefited from Christ’s resurrection. The Easter resurrection of Jesus means those who died with personal knowledge of the resurrection have eternal life with Christ. Christ’s resurrection is the basis for our salvation.
The passage ends “Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.” Paul affirms that faith results from proclamation or preaching. However, the proclamation should come from someone who stands in the tradition with living knowledge of the faith. Our belief is more than agreement to the facts of the story. Our testimony should be founded upon personal experience. We find the experience backed up by scripture. We pass along the tradition of the Easter message as we explain scripture and share the reality of the resurrected Christ by the way we live.
Professor, Olivet Nazarene University