Commentary: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Part 3
In this testimony, written to the church at Corinth, Paul makes the audacious claim that he, too, is a resurrection witness. Two claims of authority are being made in this text. One is the claim of Paul to apostolic authority, but perhaps more importantly, Paul asserts the resurrection of Christ as the authoritative foundation for a resurrection faith.
Word has reached Paul by letter (7:1) that disputes, rivalries, and practices Paul considers opposed to the life of Christian faith and love are disrupting the Corinthian community. Paul’s own apostolic authority seems to have been called into question (1:12; 3:1-4:5; 9:1-27). The result is a lack of unity in the body of Christ that is not in harmony with the dictates of love that should mark the Christian life (ch. 13). Although Paul gives his views and even his advice on some of the divisive issues at Corinth, his larger concern is to renew the fundamental core of faith that gives proper perspective on all issues. For Paul, this is rooted in the resurrection of Christ and the transformed life of faith lived in the hope of resurrection with Christ (15:12-58).
Our passage (15:1-11) establishes the authority of Christ’s resurrection and Paul’s authority as a resurrection witness. Paul begins by reminding the Corinthians that it was Paul’s preaching of the resurrection to which they had responded in the first place (vv. 1-2). Have they forgotten already? Has the witness of life conquering death ceased to be at the center of the church’s life? Is this loss of the center what has allowed the focus to shift to quarreling over issues at the margin? It is almost as if Paul, tiring of the pastoral role addressing the issues of earlier chapters, finally says, “Enough! Look to the center!”
What follows is one of the earliest recitals of resurrection experiences in the early church. We should remember that this predates the written gospels. Paul boldly asserts the fundamental claim on which the early church was built (especially in Paul’s labors). Jesus Christ—dead—buried—raised again on the third day! Then he names the line of witnesses that provide the basis of this claim: Cephas (another name for Peter, the head of the church in Jerusalem), the twelve, five hundred brothers and sisters, James, and finally, all the apostles (a larger group of followers than the twelve). The church does not rest its claim of a risen Christ on rumors but on reliable eyewitnesses, many, as Paul notes, still living.
Then Paul makes his boldest claim. He names himself as a witness to the resurrection of Christ, the recipient of a resurrection experience. He undoubtedly refers to his own experience on the road to Damascus (see Gal 1:15-16). However, he admits this is an unusual claim; he calls his own experience (and conversion) an “untimely birth” (v. 8). It is perhaps a concession on Paul’s part that, unlike the others, he had not known the earthly Christ. His experience is a beginning, not a culmination of life with Jesus. Perhaps that is why Paul includes himself, because for those to whom he speaks Christ’s resurrection was also a beginning of life with Jesus. Paul’s experience may have come later and separated from that of others, but it makes the risen Christ real for those who did not also know the earthly Jesus. Perhaps that is why the discourse on resurrection that follows in 15:12-58 has resonated so powerfully in the church throughout history. It is the testimony of one transformed by the resurrected One who never knew Jesus in person. It gives every generation the hope of such transformation as well.
In v. 9 Paul makes a further statement that ties his testimony to the call stories of countless great saints who went before him. He declares his unworthiness to be called as an apostle. He had actually persecuted the early Christians, but by the grace of God he has become an instrument of God’s grace to others.
It is no accident that this passage from Paul is coupled in the lectionary for this Sunday with the great call vision of Isaiah (6:1-8) and the call of Peter to become a disciple and a fisher of men (Lk 5:1-11). Like Moses, Gideon, Saul, Jeremiah, Ezekiel they cry out in expression of their own unworthiness to be chosen as the instrument of God’s grace, the servant of God’s word. It is a mark of the genuine recognition of God’s holiness and sovereignty to acknowledge the gulf that lies between God’s perfection and our sin. Nothing rings more hollow in an account of Christian calling than the arrogant claim that anyone is deserving of such a call. It is by God’s grace that we are made worthy and enabled to become the instruments of grace God calls us to be. Paul takes his place alongside the lawgivers, kings, prophets, and disciples who went before him when he recognizes that his experience of the risen Lord and his call to serve as witness is a pure gift of grace. Paul has never been accused of excessive humility in his letters, but here it is clear that he recognizes that he is an apostle only in spite of himself through God’s grace.
He does go on to say that at least he worked harder than any of them (v. 10, presumably referring to the other witnesses). Calling is not an end in itself. Answering God’s call propels us into the work of God’s kingdom. Paul responds to his own sense of unworthiness by hard work, not because he might become worthy of God’s grace. His labor as Christ’s witness is a response to grace already received because “Christ died for our sins” (v. 3). It is in the power of already received grace that he now works to proclaim the good news of Christ’s resurrection. Life in the grace of Christ’s resurrection is available to all, Corinthians and twenty-first century church people alike.
Bruce C. Birch