Home > Week of Prayer for Christian Unity > Prayer and Worship: Commentary on the Scriptural Text
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

PRAYER / WORSHIP: Commentary on the Scriptural Text

2012 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

We Will All Be Changed by the Victory of Our Lord Jesus. (1 Corinthians 15:51-58)

Dr. Marion L. Soards
Professor of New Testament Studies
Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Louisville, Kentucky

The fifteenth chapter of Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth is a rich extended reflection on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a pondering of the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus itself but also an explicit statement of the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus for his followers. Paul's meditative remarks begin in verse 1 of chapter 15 and continue through verse 58 (the last verse in chapter 15). Paul covers much theological terrain in these 58 verses, beginning in verses 1-11 by recalling the most basic matters that he (Paul) had taught the Corinthians at an earlier point, probably the outset, of their relationship. In these foundational verses (1-11) Paul recalls the basics of Christian faith as he had taught them to the Corinthians. He remembers Christ's death, his burial, his resurrection, and a series of appearances of the risen Christ to various members of the early church. Paul works here to establish the reality of the resurrection, so that there could be no doubt about the foundation upon which he builds in the rest of the chapter as he teaches the Corinthians again about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and the resurrection of Christians as well.

After verses 12-50 explore a series of angles on the resurrection of the dead and the resurrection of Christ in particular, Paul comes to the crescendo of his teaching in verses 51-58. As a good Greco-Roman rhetorician, he announces his theme in a dramatic opening statement designed to draw the hearers/readers into paying close attention to what he is about to say-"Look! I tell you a mystery." Paul does not use the word "mystery" often or lightly in his letters (here in 1 Corinthians at 2:1, 7; 4:1; 13:2; 14:2; 15:51). Rather, he uses "mystery" to refer to the eternal will and work of God that is utterly inscrutable to humankind. Not so much like a Hellenistic mystagogue as like an Old Testament prophet, however, Paul prepares to tell the Corinthians something of God's eternal purposes that could only be made know to them through a divinely initiated word of revelation. Remarkably, the very way of knowing that the Corinthians experience is itself an indication of the truth of their experience of the resurrection-only by God's grace could they know the reality of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and only by God's grace could they experience God's resurrection power themselves. As Paul tells of the mystery, one learns that the transformation of earthly existence into spiritual reality occurs by God's grace alone.

The first element of the mystery that Paul declares is that not everyone will die (he has Christians in view here, speaking of "we"). Paul uses a euphemism for death that was common in antiquity and that has remained useful until today: he says not all will "sleep." Nevertheless, Paul tells the Corinthians that even though not all will die, all (he seems still to have Christians in mind, not showing an interest here in the fate of non-believers) will be changed. Paul's verb for "to be changed" occurs in his letters at Romans 1:23; 1 Corinthians 15:51,52; and Galatians 4:20. The word could well be translated "to make other," so that in other words, Paul is not merely referring to some small change that will "tweak" those experiencing this act of God; rather, Paul is saying that God will act in relation to believers, so that they ("we") will be dramatically transformed into persons "other than" who they were prior to God's action. The transformation that Paul refers to is a dramatic, thorough alteration of those experiencing this act of divine grace.

Paul further states that God's radical transformation of believers will take place in a flash. His imagery for this sudden change is colorful ("in a moment, the twinkling of an eye") and includes a reference to the sounding of a trumpet. This language, especially with the mention of the trumpet, is terminology from ancient Jewish apocalyptic eschatological literature. Paul uses such language throughout his letters, but especially speaking of the resurrection, for the resurrection is to be understood from Paul's perspective as an ultimate, final act of God's grace in relation to the believer's "this-worldly" experience of life. One can compare 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 5:1-11 for further uses of such language in relation to the great day of final resurrection.

Paul speaks of those who are to be raised and changed as first, dead, and then,perishable and mortal. Yet, those who in turn experience God's transforming grace are (by clear implication) alive and explicitly imperishable and immortal. In telling the Corinthians of such things in verses 51-53, Paul is essentially prophesying about God and the future. All of this teaching, for Paul and all Christians, hangs on the reality of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ that God has already brought to pass. Paul pins the Christian hope for resurrection squarely on the reality of the resurrection of Christ.

Paul's language is striking in these verses. In reference to those dead who are raised, Paul uses words that are translated imperishable and immortality. By contrast, earlier Paul used perishable and mortality for those who were dead or destined to die. The prefix "im-" basically means "not" in English; whereas in Greek Paul's words forimperishable and immortality both begin with an "a-" (the letter "alpha" in Greek), a form know as an "alpha-privative," which essentially means "without," so that Paul says that the new form of resurrection life is without the character of or capacity forperishability and mortality. The resurrected believers are free from perishability andmortality.

Verses 54-55 bring into play a pair of passages from the text of the Old Testament-more specifically, from the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul quotes two texts: Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14. These verses (from the Septuagint) offer a proof-text for the point that Paul wants to make-namely, that the victory over death is God's, through Christ, and that God's victory gives new meaning to Christian hope and life. The degree to which Paul will go to make his point as stated in these verses is seen in his adding the words "in victory" to Isaiah's words, "Death has been swallowed up" so that it now reads, "Death has been swallowed up in victory." Furthermore, as Paul uses the words from Hosea, he again rewords the text so that it fits the context of this letter to the Corinthians. Hosea originally read, "Where is your dikë ("judgment"), but Paul uses nikë ("victory") in Hosea's statement, thereby coupling the passages from the prophets to create a connection and emphasis through the use of the word "victory" (nikë) twice. Thus, as Paul presents lines from Isaiah and Hosea, the two original prophetic passages are made closer to each other through Paul's adaptations of the texts. Paul's point in introducing these changes is that in the Lord Jesus Christ God has defeated death and won a might victory over death and its ally, sin.

In verse 56 Paul offers something of a commentary on the preceding elements of Scripture, so that here we see Paul doing exegesis on the texts he cited. Paul focuses on the last line from Hosea 13:14 (as he presented it), "Death, where is your sting?" (Paul does, however, partially derail his line of thought with his reference to "the law," which is not a real concern in the rest of 1 Corinthians.) Paul's central point here is that the very sting of death, which is sin, is a lethal wound that now has been defeated (made right?) by the victory of God in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Verse 57 is pure doxology, though the language of this particular doxological declaration fits the context well with its reference to the victory given the believers by God in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. Note here how Jesus is assigned two titles,Lord and Christ. The use of "Lord" in early Christianity was most often recognition of Jesus' status as ruler and at times even of his divinity, whereas "Christ" was something of a messianic title that referred to Jesus' work in God's behalf among humanity.

Finally, verse 58 is an ethical exhortation based on all that Paul has written in chapter 15. Now, here at the end of his elaborate remarks, he builds a Christian ethic on the base of the eschatological teaching that he has done through the earlier verses of the chapter, especially verses 51-57. Paul can and does admonish the Corinthians to live faithfully, because they are already experiencing the grace of God that can already be seen in the lives of believers and, above all, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God has won a victory that sets free those who now really know that in the Lord their labor is not in vain.

Dr. Marion "Marty" Soards, is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He joined the Louisville Seminary faculty in 1990 to teach New Testament. He has published more than 60 articles in theological dictionaries and professional journals, he is the author of over 20 books including The Passion According to Luke: The Special Material of Luke 22 (JSOT Press, 1987); The Apostle Paul: An Introduction to His Writings and Teaching (Paulist Press, 1987); the 12-volume set, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Abingdon, 1992-1994), which he co-authored with T. B. Dozeman and K. K. McCabe; The Speeches in Acts: Their Context, Content, and Concerns (Westminster John Knox, 1994); Scripture and Homosexuality: Biblical Authority and the Church Today (Westminster John Knox, 1995); and I Corinthians (Hendrickson Publishers, 1999). He has also been an editor of The New Interpreter's Bible Project,Mercer Library of Biblical Studies, the Journal of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Quarterly.

He has been a Fellow of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Association of Theological Schools in the U.S. and Canada, the Catholic Biblical Association of America, and the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation in Germany. He is active in the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association of America, and the International Society for New Testament Studies, Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas.