1 Corinthians 15:3–8
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Paul “stresses the continuity of tradition” in 1 Cor. 15:3. The essentials of Christian faith did not begin with Paul and did not end with the Christians in Roman Corinth — or with us! Note with greatest care the matters “of first importance” (verses 3–8):
“that Christ died for our sins” (v. 3)
“that he was buried” (v. 4)
“that he was raised on the third day” (v. 4)
“that he appeared [to many] . . . .” (vs. 5–8)
David Garland explains the first point by saying: “Christ’s atoning death is a central tenet of the faith (Rom. 5:6, 8; 8:32; 1 Cor. 8:11; 2 Cor. 5:14–15; Eph. 5:2; Titus 2:14; cf. Gal. 1:4). This death was not a sad misadventure but something God destined for him because of (or ‘with reference to,’ ‘concerning’ . . .) the sins of humankind.” The Romans presented the death of Jesus as that of a rebel, a man guilty of treason — though Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, knew better. The leaders of the Jews saw the death of Jesus as the necessary elimination of a dangerous threat. What Paul gives us is God’s viewpoint on the reason Christ died, the view which will stand. If this were a murder mystery showing on PBS, the final scene would show the reason Christ died to be: us — each of us individually and all of us together. Our sins had doomed us, apart from the death of Christ on our behalf.
The second point, Jesus’ burial (1 Cor. 15:4a), relates to his death. Garland says, “Death and burial are interconnected in Scripture. This detail verifies the reality and finality of Christ’s death.” An empty tomb can mean many things, but burial quite simply tells us that death has occurred.
The third point will prove crucial in chapter 15, because it describes the resurrection of Christ. In 1 Cor. 15:4b, Paul probably makes a deliberate choice to use the Greek perfect tense to say “he was raised” (NIV). Since the entire chapter is about the implications of Christ’s resurrection, Paul used the perfect tense here “to emphasize the results or present state produced by a past action.” As a result, Gordon Fee concludes that Paul is “implying that he [Jesus] was both raised and still lives.” Oh yes he does!
The tradition Paul is reciting also provides the extra details that Jesus was raised “on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4b).This resurrection on the third day was exactly what Jesus told his disciples would happen (Matt. 16:21; Luke 9:22). One vital lesson for us is that God is totally faithful to his promises. We will see later in chapter 15 that the resurrection of Jesus was the precursor of our own future resurrection as believers in Jesus Christ. God will prove equally faithful to raise us!
Cephas is the Aramaic name for Peter (John 1:42). The tradition Paul is recounting includes appearances by the resurrected Christ to individuals and groups (1 Cor. 15:5–8). Paul notes that many eyewitnesses to the resurrection are still alive — making verification possible — but “some have fallen asleep” (verse 6), the encouraging Christian term for dying. Thiselton says, “Paul did not think of the resurrection ‘as some sort of [indescribable] truth beyond history; rather, it was an event . . . for which historical eyewitness testimony was readily available.’” Even more encouraging, Thiselton adds, “The metaphor of falling asleep . . . to denote the death of Christian believers carried with it the grammar of being awakened at the resurrection.”
The fact that Jesus appeared to “James” (1 Cor. 15:7) is interesting. Fee reminds us that “This James is the Lord’s brother, who, along with his other brothers, ‘did not believe in him’ during Jesus’ earthly ministry (John 7:2–9) but who appear with the disciples after the resurrection.” The resurrection of Jesus transformed people in his own time and still does today.
One final phrase requiring explanation is Paul’s reference to himself “as to one abnormally born” (1 Cor. 15:8). Thiselton accepts “the meaning ‘a prematurely born dead fetus’ which figuratively reflects a use found in the [Greek Old Testament] to denote dire human wretchedness.” Paul looks back on his life at the moment Jesus appeared to him and considers his condition. Even though he had been highly educated in the Law of Moses, Paul not only failed to identify Jesus as the Messiah but also actively persecuted those who had committed themselves to Jesus, his assembly of believers that we call “the church” (1 Cor. 15:9). Viewing the gravity of this failure, Paul compares himself metaphorically to a “prematurely born dead fetus,” a figure of dire spiritual wretchedness. But the appearance to Paul by the resurrected Christ brought life-giving grace to the dead. Paul was never the same again.
Copyright © 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 David Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 683.
 Garland, 1 Corinthians, 684.
 Garland, 1 Corinthians, 686.
 Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 574.
 Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 726.
 Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 1205, quoting R.B. Hays.
 Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1206–7.
 Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 731.
 Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1209, quoting J. Munck.