Study Notes for I Corinthians 15:1-11
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Paul transitions from discussing and explaining spiritual gifts into discussing the resurrection. He moves from discussing how a human spirit will behave when it is regenerated by the Holy Spirit into showing how the Holy Spirit will also regenerate our physical bodies in the same way Jesus' body was transformed at his resurrection. Paul makes this transition from the discussion of the spiritual into a discussion of the physical by restating the Gospel.
The Gospel is the center of reality. Without it, dualism between the spiritual and the physical is almost inevitable. Without the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus we would be unforgiven. Without Jesus' destroying the power of sin and saving us, the rip in reality caused by sin would permeate us without relief. We would continue to be fractured inside, driven by divisive forces that keep our spirits continuously restless and our minds fixated on physical relief.
The love of Jesus, however, heals our spirits and mends the split between our spiritual and physical parts. Only in Jesus can we become integrated, embracing both our spiritual and our promised physical redemption.
Paul reminds the Corinthians of the gospel he preached to them, "which you received and on which you have taken your stand." This gospel is the astonishing news that Jesus-God-died for our sins, was buried, and rose from the dead to destroy sin and to save us. This gospel is also the mystery hidden for generations: Jews and Gentiles are now one. (Romans 1:16) Salvation includes all people; God's people are now all those who believe in him and accept him. This gospel also embodies the truth that God gave his grace to mankind in Christ Jesus BEFORE time began. This grace given in Christ has destroyed the power of death and has brought us life and immortality. This gospel also includes the miracle that Jesus, descended from David as prophecy foretold, rose from the dead.
"By this gospel you are saved," Paul says, "if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain."
Paul is not trying to warn the Corinthians that they might lose their salvation if they aren't vigilant enough. What he's saying here is much like Jesus' parable of the farmer sowing seeds. (Matthew 13:3-9) Some of his seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and ate them. Some fell on rocky places where they germinated quickly and sprouted leaves in record time. But when the day grew hot, the fast-growing plant withered and died from lack of water and grounding in deep, good soil. Still other seeds fell among weeds and thorns, and those thorns choked the plant struggling to grow among the greedy weeds.
Other seeds, however, fell on good soil. Those seeds sprouted plants which grew strong, nurtured by rich soil and adequate rain, able to withstand the heat of the life-giving sun.
This parable illustrates what Paul is teaching in this passage. If a person does not cling to the gospel and grow and deepen in grace, that shallow experience demonstrates that the person did not have a saving faith to begin with. If a person receives the gospel and does not allow it to penetrate deeply into his/her heart, it grows a superficial response that wilts as soon as temptation and trouble come upon it.
In this passage Paul is not saying, "Hold on tightly; if you let go, your salvation will go!" Rather he's saying, "Do not resist the joy of the gospel. Let it convict you of your sin and neediness. Let it fall deeply into your heart, and don't resist it. Hearing the gospel and giving a mental assent to it is not the same as accepting Jesus to transform your heart. You have to be vulnerable to Him. You have to let Him change you. Don't treat it trivially. Let Jesus change your heart."
Paul emphasizes that Jesus died, was buried, and rose from the dead "according to the Scriptures." Paul's scriptures were the Old Testament, and the fact that Jesus lived, died, and rose in the way Scriptures had predicted he would proves his Messiahship.
The facts of Jesus' burial are the evidence that he really died. Had his burial not been recorded, we could easily doubt his death. Because we know details surrounding that event, including the frightened priests who wanted the tomb guarded and the details of the embalming, we have evidence of his death.
Jesus' death was the act that justified God's forgiveness of us. His death satisfied the demands of God's law. But Jesus' death alone was not the whole story of salvation. Had Jesus died but not risen, his death would still have paid our penalty for sin. But if he had remained dead, we would not have inherited eternal life. Further, we would not have had the reality of the Holy Spirit activating our sinful flesh with Jesus' resurrection power. (Romans 8:11) Jesus' resurrection is the part of the gospel that makes it possible for his life-giving power to give us receptive hearts, seeing eyes, and changed lives.
James and Paul
Paul includes a general list of the groups and individuals whom Jesus specifically visited after his resurrection. These people are important for the church, because these were the eyewitnesses of his resurrection. These witnesses were people who had known him before his death and saw him in his resurrected body. These witnesses were the ones who testified that Jesus had truly risen from the dead and thus confirmed that he was the Messiah.
One person in this list whom Paul mentions particularly is James. James was the half-brother of Jesus (Matt. 13:55), and he did not believe Jesus to be the Messiah. (John 7:5) He had grown up with Jesus sitting at the same table with him at mealtimes; he had experienced all the intimate irritations with Jesus that siblings experience. But James had also experienced Jesus as a brother in whom was no sin. It's quite possible Jesus' spiritual "aliveness" and authority and love irritated and annoyed James. It was only after Jesus visited James after Jesus' resurrection that James became a believer.
Once the veil fell from James' heart, he became active in the early church. He even became the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:17) and wrote what later became the earliest book of the New Testament, the book of James.
The book of James was a letter to the earliest scattered Jewish believers. After Pentecost when thousands of orthodox Jews heard the gospel and returned to their homelands as believing Christ-followers, those first converts were isolated and uninformed about how to live as Christians. There were too few of them to have sizable groups in which to fellowship and study, and since the New Testament did not exist, they had to rely on the Holy Spirit to enlighten them as they studied the Old Testament.
In 45 A.D. James realized these isolated Christians needed encouragement and instruction. His letter to them was a practical reminder to live by the royal law of scripture-to love the Lord with all their hearts and their neighbors as themselves. It also instructed them in the need to guard their tongues, to honor each other, and not to forsake praying for wisdom and healing.
Paul includes himself last in his list of eyewitnesses of the risen Christ and refers to himself as "one abnormally born." Paul was not a close associate of Jesus when he was on earth. We don't know how much he knew of Jesus or if he knew him, but we do know that he had dedicated his life to killing Christians and to attempting to destroy this powerful and disruptive new "movement". When Jesus accosted Paul on the Damascus road, Paul became the unlikeliest convert.
Paul had been born a Roman citizen and had been educated by the famous Jewish rabbi Gamaliel. He was also educated in Greek culture and understood Greek philosophy. He had been a Pharisee and probably a member of the Sanhedrin. When he encountered Jesus and experienced a new birth, his life could not have changed more radically. He did not merely move from being doubting and skeptical to being a believer. He changed from being arrogant and openly hostile and aggressive to Christ and his followers to being humble and willing to walk away from everything in his life.
After Ananias obeyed God and went to Paul, placed his hands on him, and prayed for him to receive the Holy Spirit, Paul began at once "to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God." The Christians feared and disbelieved him; the Jews undoubtedly perceived him as a traitor and a dangerous enemy.
But God called Paul to a specific and surprising work: to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. This highly educated, sophisticated Jew became the humble servant of the Jewish outcast, Jesus. Paul's life became transformed, and he not only took the gospel to the communities of the Gentiles so they could become part of the kingdom of heaven, but he also wrote some of our most important and insightful explanations of New Covenant theology and of living life as a Christian.
In this short passage of 1 Corinthians, Paul restates and illustrates the power of the gospel. It is the only things that brings hope, offers forgiveness, and transforms spiritually dead people into people alive with the power of God. Paul is clear in this passage (as he is in others) that living the transformed life brings hardships and persecution. It is also clear that when God touches us and the Holy Spirit brings us new birth, we then become accountable to give to God all of our life's dreams and goals.
Jesus' brother James was undoubtedly well-known and articulate. When Jesus appeared to him in his resurrection power, James was never the same again. All of his talents became the servants of his brother and master, Jesus.
Paul was brilliant and energetic. He was purposeful and knew what his goal was: to eliminate the early Christians. He spent all of his intelligence and energy on his charge against the Jewish defectors, Christ's followers. When Jesus appeared to him, Paul became unrecognizable. Neither his Jewish colleagues nor the Christian who had been his prey believed or trusted him. He gave up everything he knew and valued to obey the call of his master, Jesus.
God calls us to act on his convicting of our hearts. When he miraculously touches us with his grace and gives us a living spirit, we are able for the first time to respond to his love by acting in believing faith and by repenting and confessing our lives of arrogance and sin.
Paul said, "By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you."
"Holding firmly" entails choosing to let the Holy Spirit show us what attitudes and fears and habits we must acknowledge and submit to God. Without being born again, such submitting is impossible. But once we are born again, growth in Christ becomes limited and stagnant if we do not submit when the Holy Spirit brings things to our attention. We must give up everything we are-including our areas of pride, arrogance and defensiveness-if our new birth is to change us. We cannot rationalize holding back any part of ourselves or of our attitudes or self-identity. We must trust our Savior with everything about us.
God calls us to a life of integration. He wants us to live victoriously and joyfully. He wants us to experience the Gospel as the center of our existence. He wants us to experience Him as the core of our identity.
Jesus gave up everything he had to take on humanity. God humbled himself to become one of us. He asks that we humble ourselves to become part of Him.
Before his arrest Jesus prayed, "Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them." (John 17:25,26)
Jesus calls us to be one with him. He calls us to let him work the miracle of integrating our new, living spirits with our lives of physical reality. He calls us to embrace all of our gifts as physical humans transformed by his Spirit.
He calls us to live lives that are not natural to us. He calls us to submit our dreams and our goals to him and to allow him to redefine us and our work. He calls us to love.
He calls us to himself.
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised October 7, 2000.