Chapter 15 is a long chapter and a separate argument in its entirety. Scholars now divide the chapter into the various parts of a single piece of rhetoric organized in the customary Greco-Roman way. We will break it up into parts, but not because the chapter is not a cohesive whole. Clearly Paul is here dealing with aberrant views concerning the resurrection that were held by some in the Corinthian church. And so he begins in vv. 1-11 to draw on the common conviction and teaching of the Christian church: what would have been preached by Paul in Corinth when the church was founded and what would have been believed by all who came to be Christians there.
v.2 Paul says straightaway that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead after his crucifixion lies at the bedrock of the Christian faith and gospel. They cannot exist without that historical fact. And presently he is going to argue that the implications of Christ’s resurrection for the meaning and nature of salvation lie also in the bedrock of the Christian faith.
v.3a With these words Paul emphasizes that what he taught the Corinthians he did not dream up himself; it is what all Christians believe.
Notice the “for our sins.” You can’t get away from this in the Bible. Our problem is sin and Christ is our Savior because and only because, by his death in our place, he delivers us from our sins, both their guilt and their power.
v.4 The twice repeated “according to the Scriptures” means that the events of Christ’s passion and resurrection were the fulfillment of the divine plan as revealed in the Scriptures. These events did not “overtake” the Lord Jesus, so to speak. They were the purpose of his coming into the world and had been predicted long before.
“That he was buried” indicates the reality of Christ’s death and so prepares for the reality of Christ’s resurrection; that is, there was a real body in a real tomb Friday afternoon and the same tomb was really empty on Sunday morning. He was raised, and now Paul goes on to say that he was also seen, and not by one or two people only, but by many.
The appearance to Peter on Easter Sunday is mentioned briefly only in Luke’s account (24:34). It is wonderful to think of the Lord seeking Peter out singly to reassure him of his love after Peter’s cowardly betrayal of the Lord a few nights before.
v.6 The obvious point of mentioning the fact that many of the eyewitnesses of the Lord’s resurrection are still alive is that there were plenty of people at that time who could confirm the truth of what Paul was saying and what Christians believe. The New Testament makes a great deal, as you may know, of the fact that its report of the stupendous events that make up the message of the gospel was backed-up by many eyewitnesses.
v.7 This later mention of an appearance to “the apostles” probably refers to the ascension.
v.8 Interestingly, he does not mention the Lord’s appearances to women on the day of his resurrection which figure prominently in the Gospel accounts. This list given here is apparently the more “official” list of witnesses to the resurrection.
It has sometimes been asked why the risen Christ appeared only to a selected few and only to his disciples. So far as we know he appeared to no unbeliever. First, the Lord told the unbelievers who rejected him, in Matt. 23:38-39, that he would not appear to them again until he came in judgment. That they did not see the risen Lord was punishment for their unbelief. Second, the Lord, you remember, had said that even if someone came back from the dead that generation would not believe in him. The issue of faith is never decided by the evidence but by the condition of a man or woman’s heart. Third, his appearing only to his disciples also leaves room for the role of human witnesses, by which he had determined that the gospel would spread. Fourth, we might also add that if the resurrection were a pious fiction, we would expect precisely that: post-resurrection appearances to Pilate and the Sanhedrin and, perhaps Caesar himself, just the sort of appearances that are described in the apocryphal gospels that were concocted much later. Myths tend always to be written the same way. This is no myth and it is not written like any myth. It has the marks of actual history all over it and not least in those features we would never expect if someone in that day and time were concocting a story.
The term the NIV translates “abnormally born” literally refers to any kind of premature birth: stillborn, abortion, or miscarriage. Figuratively the word then came to refer to something freakish, horrible in appearance. The fact that Paul then goes on to say that he is the least of the apostles has led many to think that Paul is here addressing the view of him entertained by at least some in Corinth. In their minds, as we learned earlier in the letter, Paul compared unfavorably with the more impressive figures of Peter and Apollos. “Paulus” literally means “little one” and there is a tradition that Paul was small. Perhaps there were some who spoke dismissively of him as the dwarf. Paul will admit that he is, in certain ways, the least of the apostles, but, then goes on to say that this has meant that God’s grace has worked still more powerfully on his behalf.
Note that Paul clearly regards his experience on the Damascus road as an appearance of the Lord, just as he appeared to the others. It was not a vision, it was an encounter.
v.10 We do not expect Paul to say that he worked harder than the other apostles. But remember the polemical context and, in all likelihood, this is something that everyone knew and would have admitted. Paul strikes us as an indefatigable worker.
In any case, though he may have got started later than the others, by the grace of God he has made up for lost time.
Now for those who have ever heard Bill Moyers interview Joseph Campbell on PBS, for those who ever read contemporary mainstream European or North American “theology,” for those who breathe the air of our modern scientism, and that includes everyone of us, every now and then we need to hear once again the Bible tell us that the great events of our salvation were actual historical events. The supernatural happenings recorded in Holy Scripture occurred in precisely the same space and time, were events of human history in precisely the same sense in which the election of President Bush, the attacks of 9/11, or the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan were historical events. Of course, there are many senses in which the incarnation, the virgin birth, the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ transcended all other events in history, are what may be called meta-history as well as history. But as to their space-time historicity there is no question whatsoever in the Bible.
The story of salvation is not a myth in the ordinary sense of the word. It is not simply a grand narrative meant to teach religious truth. It does teach that truth, but teaches it precisely because it is the record of what actually happened.
Take note of Paul’s confident appeal here to first-hand, eyewitness testimony. The writers of the New Testament knew very well how difficult it would be for people to believe the story they told. They knew as well as we know today what was easy to believe and what was difficult. Time and again they appealed to first-hand testimony to confirm the truth of the amazing story they were proclaiming to the world. Over and again in the New Testament we hear their confident assertion: “We are witnesses of these things…” And, of course, they had to make their case in a decidedly hostile atmosphere. They were surrounded by people who had a stake in proving them wrong. The disciples could not afford to risk inaccuracies that would be at once exposed by their enemies. And so again and again we find them appealing to the knowledge of their hearers: “We are witnesses of these things,” they say, “as you yourselves know.” (Acts 2:22) [F.F. Bruce, The NT Documents, 33]
The entire viewpoint of the NT is summed up by Peter in 2 Peter 1:16: “We have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Everywhere there is almost a going-out-of the-way to assert the full facticity and historicity of the gospel events. John says that the disciples of the Lord heard, saw with their eyes, and handled with their hands the Word of life. John ends his gospel with the incident of Thomas brought to surprised and happy affirmation of the deity of Jesus Christ by encountering him risen from the dead. Luke begins his narrative of the history of Jesus in the world by indicating that it rests on the accounts of eyewitnesses. And Paul, here in 1 Corinthians 15, takes precisely the same ground. We are speaking, he says, about things that happened in the world.
But, I am not sure that we always fully appreciate how much, how profoundly Christianity is an historical religion and how completely it rests its message on events that happened in space and time.
In a way utterly unlike the other religions of the world and the other philosophies of human life, the Bible roots its message in space-time history, in marvelous events that took place in specific places, at specific times, and that were witnessed by specific people. Islam, for example, is not this way. It does not expose itself to historical testing as Christianity does. As Muslims dogmatically assert, the Koran was Mohammed’s only miracle. And that miracle, as they further assert, can only be understood and appreciated, is accessible only to sophisticates who can read the Koran in Arabic. Christianity, however, invites everyone to consider its assertion that certain events occurred in human history upon which the salvation of the world depends and challenges everyone to show where the evidence does not fully demonstrate the Christian claims.
It is no accident that actual history, the written record of events, begins in the Middle East and is known to us there and there only for the ancient times in which the biblical history takes place. In other parts of the world there is nothing like what we have as a record of the history of say the 3000 years before Christ in the Middle East. There is no such written record of that period in South or North America, in Europe or sub-Saharan Africa. But, the events that unfold in the biblical history are related in terms of the rise and fall of civilizations, of the reigns of specific kings, of wars and earthquakes that are mentioned both in the Bible and in the other records of the time. There is absolutely no question that the Bible intends us to understand that the central events of salvation it records happened in the ordinary sense of the term, however wonderful those events may have been. They happened on a day like this day, in a place and a time about which we can know certain things. In other words, in the Bible religious truth is the same sort of truth with which people operate in their everyday lives. [Francis Schaeffer, Works, v, 391]
Think of Abraham. We know where he lived and where he traveled. Some of the spots where he settled can be identified today. We know the name of some of the kings who ruled when he was alive. And so it is throughout the OT. We are given the names of people and places. We are told on what date a certain thing happened. Or, think of something like this.
In 1880 a small Arab boy in Jerusalem was playing with his friend at the pool of Siloam (the very same pool, by the way, where Jesus required the blind man to wash his eyes that he might see according to John 9). According to the OT, this pool was known by the same name centuries before, in the time of the kings of Israel. The boy stumbled upon a small opening about two feet wide and five feet high. On examination it turned out to be a tunnel reaching back into the rock. When fully excavated it was discovered to be the very tunnel dug during the reign of Hezekiah mentioned in 2 Kings 20:20. Twenty feet from the Siloam Pool end of the tunnel, on one wall, was found this inscription:
“The boring through is completed. And this is the story: while yet they wielded their picks, each man toward his fellow [that is, in a great engineering feat they cut through solid rock from both ends at the same time and met accurately in the middle of a tunnel 1,777 feet long], and while there were still three cubits to be cut through, there was heard the voice of a man calling to his fellow… And when the tunnel was driven through, the quarrymen hewed the rock, each man toward his fellow, pick against pick, and the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir [that is the Pool of Siloam] for 1,200 cubits and the height of the rock above the heads of the quarrymen was 100 cubits.” [Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past, i, 191]
The same thing happened, you may remember, when the two crews excavating the Chunnel, the tunnel under the English channel, met in the middle some years ago.
But, in the midst of that very real, ordinary history God delivered Hezekiah and Jerusalem from Sennacherib the Assyrian invader. The angel of the Lord struck down 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp and the invading army withdrew. It is very interesting, by the way, that we have Sennacherib’s own account of that invasion with its characteristic exaggeration of his exploits and conquests. The chronicle mentions explicitly his laying siege to Jerusalem, even to shutting up Hezekiah himself in Jerusalem like a caged bird, but, then, surprisingly it does not mention the capture of Jerusalem as it surely would have had it occurred. No mention is made in the chronicle of Sennacherib’s having to withdraw because of the devastation of his army – probably by plague; the Bible doesn’t say how the Lord brought those deaths to pass in the Assyrian army – but, then, the chronicles never mention a king’s defeats.
You see, the history recorded in the Bible is real human history. It intersects at point after point with the record of that history given us in extra-biblical sources. And so it continues into the NT. The two great foci of salvation history are the birth of Jesus Christ and his passion and resurrection. Both of them are very carefully situated by the biblical narrative in the history of the world. We know who the emperor was when Jesus was born, who the Judean king was, who the Roman governor was. It was a Roman census that resulted in Mary and Joseph’s trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We know the names of a number of people who figure in the history of Christ’s birth. Then we know in what year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great was tetrarch of Galilee when John the Baptist began his ministry. No governor of Syria is named but in dating John’s ministry we know from the Roman historian Tacitus that Tiberius kept the designated governor of Syria, Aelius Lamia, in Rome out of mistrust.
And the same is true when we come to the Lord’s passion. We know who the Roman governor was and who the emperor was. We know its time of year by the Jewish reckoning. The history is recounted in terms entirely faithful to the political circumstances as we know them to have existed in Judea in those days. And, of course, we know the names and something of the lives of a good many people who were eyewitnesses of both the Lord’s crucifixion and his resurrection.
So, when we come to Paul here in 1 Corinthians 15 and hear him telling us that, astonishing as it may be, there are any number of people who can attest to having seen the risen Lord Jesus with their own eyes, we are on familiar ground. From the beginning to the end we are taught in the Bible that the story of the salvation of mankind is the story of real human history, events that happened in the real world, in real space, in real time, at such and such a place, in such and such a year, when such and such other things were happening in the world. As Paul once put it to a skeptic, “these things were not done in a corner, you can confirm my account for yourself if you wish.”
The Scripture is fully aware that many people find the Christian claims unbelievable. It never underestimates the extraordinary demands it places on the rational faculties of human beings. But, it is precisely because it acknowledges this, it makes so confidently its historical claims. The Son of God really did come into the world and we really did see his glory. Angels really did announce his coming on one particular night outside of the Judean village of Bethlehem. Wise men really did come from the East, Herod, predictably, really did try to kill the Christ child, his parents really did have to flee to Egypt and so on. These things happened in just that way in which it happened that we came to church this morning.
There are many, of course, even many within the church who nowadays are unwilling to confess this. We hear all the time from clerics who assure us that nothing is lost to Christianity if Jesus was not born of a virgin mother or if he did not rise bodily from the tomb on the third day. Or they will tell us that Jesus rose from the dead but not in the sense that had a TV news crew been present in the garden that Easter morning they would have caught anything on film. PBS assures us that the substance of the Christian message is substantially the same as that of any number of other primal myths that have narrated for long lost generations the meaning of human existence.
But that was most definitely not the viewpoint of the Apostle Paul nor of any other author of Holy Scripture. The Christian message, we are taught from beginning to end in Holy Scripture, rests on verifiable history. People like you and me walked Sunday morning into the tomb where Jesus had been buried the previous Friday and saw the grave clothes lying where the body had been. Those same people later saw and spoke with the risen Christ. That is what the resurrection is in the Bible and in Christianity: an event, an occurrence in the real world! Paul is even willing to say, later in this same 15th chapter, that if the resurrection did not occur Christianity is finished. It has nothing to say to the world and no hope to give to human beings.
The way was opened, the Bible teaches us, the way was opened for men to return to God and to the life for which they were made, by things that God did in the world 2000 years ago now. God the Son came into the world as a true man, lived in this world among men as a man, suffered and died in our place for our sins, and triumphed over sin and death on our behalf by rising from the grave. To that great sequence of events the ancient Scripture looked forward and in that historical sequence the New Testament finds it center and core. Those events in space and time are the reason and the only reason there is such a thing as Christianity. Suppose all the ideas that we find in the Bible were somehow located in other religions. Distill all of those ideas, one would still not have Christianity, because Christianity is not a set of ideas but the account of events in history. Without that history there is no salvation, there is no truth that sets men and women free, there is no Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.
What changes people’s lives today, what sets men and women free from sin and guilt, what delivers them from the falsehoods that otherwise capture and oppress the human mind and heart, is not an idea, but a person, a person who was born, who lived, who died, who rose again, who ascended to heaven before the very eyes of his enemies and his friends and followers. We do not ask people to believe an idea, but to confess and trust and love a person, a person whose deeds are recorded in history.
At this time of year it is essential that we remember this, that we appreciate this. Whether Christmas or Easter the argument is the same. Paul might just as well have made his argument about the birth of Christ as about his death and resurrection. These are things that really happened. That is why we must believe, that is why, believing, this history has the power to transform our hearts and lift our lives from earth to heaven.
These are extraordinary things that happened. They are miraculous in every sense of the term. None of us has ever seen anything like them to be sure. But when a man or woman embraces the gospel history, the factuality of the incarnation and the death and the resurrection of the Son of God, he or she does not need to suspend his reason to do that! The arguments presented for belief in the historical narrative of the gospel, as Paul’s arguments here, are sober, serious, fully cognizant of the remarkable things that one is being asked to believe, and, yet, fully confident that reasonable men will understand the weight of the evidence. But when a person embraces that history as the amazing truth the Bible presents it as being, he does not any longer wonder at the supernatural events that have occurred.
The truly penitent man glories in the supernatural, because he knows full well that nothing merely natural, nothing that he himself has ever experienced of human history, could or would ever meet his need. No wonder, then, that God should have entered history to do such great things by which alone men and women can be saved. Christmas is a fact! Easter is a fact! Upon these facts rests the salvation of the world, and, upon them rests your salvation and mine.