Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 31, 2024

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Commentary

When I was a teenager, members of our church’s youth group would play a variety of games together. Among them was “Telephone.” In it a group of people sit in a circle as a message is verbally passed from person. Among the most humorous parts of the game is the way that message almost inevitably gets garbled on its way around the circle. The message received often little resembles the one first shared.

This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson contains Paul’s account of a kind of divine game of telephone. In it the apostle at least implies that the message has also gotten somewhat garbled for some of its recipients. What’s arguably more remarkable, however, is that in a day before electronic communications, some of the last Corinthians who have heard the gospel have, in fact, actually heard it right.

At the heart of that gospel is what Paul calls in verse 3 “of first importance [en protois]*.” It’s a phrase that might be translated as “the most foremost.” The Message paraphrases the apostle as calling it “what was so emphatically placed before me.”

What was (and remains!) most important, professes the apostle, is four-fold. “Christ died [apethanen]” (3) on what we call the first Good Friday. Yet he didn’t die of some disease or advanced age. He died like a criminal. But, insists Paul, Jesus died in that way for our sins [hemartion ton hemon]” (3b). In the divine economy, Christ’s death rescued God’s dearly beloved people from our natural, spiritual death.

Yet God didn’t abandon Christ Jesus to an ignominious death and the grave. God also “raised him [egegertai] on the third day [te hemera te trite] (4b). Less than 48 hours after the authorities executed God the Son, God the Father graciously raised him from death to life. Christ Jesus rose again on the day Christians generally call the first Easter.

In an earlier commentary on this passage I noted how Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are like two sides of the same coin. Neither makes sense without the other. Jesus’ followers’ hope for this life and the next rest completely on God’s grace mediated to us through both Christ’s death and resurrection.

After all, Christ’s crucifixion rescued God’s dearly beloved people from a one-way road to eternal separation from God. Because of Christ’s death, God, among other things, forgives our sins against God and each other. Yet without Christ’s resurrection, Jesus’ friends would have no guarantee that any meaningful part of us would survive our death in order to eternally enjoy God’s grace and forgiveness.

It’s clear that Paul considers Christ’s death and resurrection’s consistency with the first (Old) Testament’s account to be very important. Each was, he, after all, notes twice (3, 4), “according to the Scriptures [kata tas graphas].” Preachers want to let the Spirit help us decide how much time to devote to this assertion. However, we may not need to say much more than this: Paul’s “in accordance with the Scriptures” is part of the evidence that he marshals for especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Verses 12-34 make it quite clear that some of the Christians in Corinth were skeptical about Christians’ resurrection from the dead. They also at least imply that some members of the Corinthian church were even skeptical that God raised Christ from the dead. That may be why as Paul addresses those doubts, he offers evidence of Jesus’ resurrection.

In fact, the apostle includes in his “as of first importance” not just Jesus’ death and resurrection, but also his post-resurrection appearances. We may not quickly think of those appearances as as important as his death and resurrection. And, in God’s grand plan of salvation, they aren’t. But the risen Jesus’ appearances were among what most foremost in the Corinthian context.

Four times in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson Paul insists that the resurrected Jesus “appeared [opthe].” He repeatedly insists that God didn’t just raise Jesus from the dead. The risen Jesus also confirmed his resurrection by appearing to a whole bunch of people. Jesus didn’t just somehow walk out of the tomb on his own two feet. He also, as The Message paraphrases this Lesson, “presented himself alive” to large numbers of his contemporaries.

No one actually saw Jesus rise from the dead. But Paul reports that lots of people saw him during the time between his resurrection and ascension to the heavenly realm. Those sightings resemble a series of concentric circles. Like ripples caused by a stone dropped in a pond, the risen Jesus’ appearances spread farther and farther out.

Much of that spread seems relatively predictable. The risen Jesus appears first to those who were closest to him. He initially appeared to “Peter and the Twelve [dodeka]” (5). The risen Jesus next appeared to what verse 6 calls “more than five hundred of the brothers [adelphois] at the same time [ephapax].” The risen Jesus next “appeared to James, then to all the apostles [apostolois pasin]” (7). And, “last of all [eschaton de panton],” Paul writes in verse 8, the risen Jesus appeared to “me also [kamoi].”

Yet there are some “quirks” in this concentric set of rings that make up the risen Jesus’ appearances. Among them is Paul’s reference to Christ’s appearance to Christians, “most of whom are still living [menousin], though some have fallen asleep [ekoimathesan].” That means that Corinthians who have doubts about Jesus’ resurrection can still ask some of the eyewitnesses to his appearances about it.

What’s more, Paul refers to Jesus’ friends who have died not as “dead” (as he does elsewhere in this chapter) but as “fallen asleep.” Because God raised Jesus from the dead, his friends who have died in relationship with him are essentially sleeping as they await Jesus’ return to awaken them to life in the new creation.

Paul offers what may seem to his readers like two more resurrection appearance oddities. Perhaps they appear unusual because they’re so soaked in grace. In verse 5 the apostle reports that the risen Jesus first appeared to what the NIV translates as “Peter.” But, interestingly, Paul actually refers to this disciple of Jesus by his original name, “Cephas.”

In doing so he may be simply referring to Jesus’ friend by the name by which the Corinthians know him. Yet by referring to him as “Cephas,” might Paul also be alluding to Jesus’ disciple’s fall into the temptation and, thus, his need for the risen Jesus’ restoration of him to which John 21 refers? Might “Cephas” allude to his naturally sinful state, and “Peter” (as Paul refers to him in Galatians 2:7-8) to the kind of new name that God graciously gives all God’s adopted children?

That amazing grace is even more evident in Paul’s recounting of the risen Jesus’ appearance to him. It was, of course, perhaps the most unusual of all of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. Jesus graciously appeared to the apostle, after all, after he’d ascended to the heavenly realm.

Jesus, what’s more, appeared while the apostle was not looking for him. We might even say that the risen Jesus graciously appeared to him when the apostle was figuratively looking away from him. Christ appeared to him as he, after all, actively “persecuted [edioxa] the church of God [ekklesian tou Theou]” (9). It’s this sometimes violent opposition to Christ and his Body that likely leads to Paul’s reference to himself in verse 8a as “one abnormally born [ektromati].”

Both Jesus’ resurrection and Paul’s recounting of it are now ancient history. So, directed by the Spirit, preachers might ask what this text says to people who may not see the risen Jesus until we enter God’s glorious presence. We might note that the risen Jesus still does appear to people by his Spirit. What’s more, Christians in whom the Spirit works God’s grace are now the closest things to Jesus’ resurrection’s eyewitnesses that our world will ever know – until for some it’s too late because Jesus has already come again.

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


Mickey Haller is one of the central characters in Michael Connelly’s mystery, Resurrection Walk. He’s a highly successful, if sometimes controversial Los Angeles-area criminal defense attorney. Haller reflects on the pleasure he experiences in hearing not-guilty verdicts, offering good cross examinations and receiving juries’ attentiveness.

But Haller insists that none of it approaches the joy of witnessing what he calls an acquitted person’s “resurrection.” He says, “nothing could beat the resurrection walk — when the manacles come off and the last metal doors slide open like the gates of heaven, and a man or woman declared innocent walks into the waiting arms of family, resurrected in life and the law. There is no better feeling in the world than being with that family.”


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