What is Paul's central understanding of Jesus in 1 Corinthians?

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In 1 Corinthians, Paul provides an almost lawyerly understanding of Christ's resurrection, drawing on witness testimony. It's as if he's court trying to win a trial. Paul seems to understand Christ's resurrection as a collaborative event. Christ did not rise by himself for his own benefit. His rise coincides with the rise of others who were “dead” or had “fallen asleep.”

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In 1 Corinthians, we find out a lot about how Paul (aka Saint Paul or Paul the Apostle) understands the phenomenon of Jesus Christ.

Speaking about the resurrection of Christ, we might be able to say that Paul seems to understand the occurrence in a lawyerly way. Why lawyerly? Think about how Paul tries to persuade us of the resurrection. He cites witnesses. James, Cephas, and "five hundred brethren at once" all saw Christ’s rise. In court, how does a lawyer typically prove their case? With witnesses.

Paul also seems to understand Christ's resurrection as more than just a resurrection of one individual. He seems to view Christ's resurrection as a sign that other dead people can be resurrected. As Paul asks, "Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?"

We don't think Paul means that the dead are literally coming back to life like in a scary movie. We think Paul means that nonbelievers are becoming believers. Those who turned their back or deviated from the teachings of Christ are returning to his principles.

"For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised," says Paul. "And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins."

In the above, we see the direct connection between the dead rising and Christ's resurrection. The two are linked. Paul seems to be saying that his rise couldn't have happened without people believing in him. If people didn't fundamentally believe in him, Christ wouldn’t have risen, and the people would still be in their "sins."

It's almost as if Paul sees Christ as a collaboration between believers -- perhaps latent believers or, at times, straying believers—and Jesus. After all, Jesus’s rise has extraordinary benefits for humans. "Now is Christ risen from the dead," says Paul, "and become the first fruits of them that slept."

Lastly, you could mention how Paul seems to understand the resurrection of Christ as a precursor to the Second Coming or end times. "Then cometh the end," states Paul.

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Paul's letters often followed a pattern which included the following: salutation, thanksgiving, main body, and a farewell. In all of Paul's letters, with the exception of Galatians, the main theme of the letter is stated in the greeting and thanksgiving portion. In Paul's letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle addresses some issues in the Corinthian church, but in the greeting and thanksgiving section of this letter, Paul states his main purpose for the letter, which is that all believers belong to Christ Jesus:

"To God's church church at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus and called as saints, with all those in every place who call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord—both their Lord and ours." (1st Corinthians 1:2).

All who have called on the name of Jesus and accept him as Lord are "set-apart" and belong to Jesus, accepting his authority. Jesus is head of the church, and ultimately, Lord of all.

Paul often uses the servant/master relationship to describe what it means to belong to Christ. This would have been a familiar paradigm to those in the first century. Paul explains the role of God's servants in chapter 3, verse 5: 

"What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? They are servants through whom you believed, and each has the role the Lord has given. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth." (1st Corinthians 3:5-8).

Paul addresses the issues of immoral church members, lawsuits, discipline within the church, glorifying God in mind, body, and spirit, principles of marriage, and unmarried people and widows. He warns the church about idolatry, the folly of human wisdom, and mistakes of Israel's past, so they do not repeat them. He teaches about spiritual gifts and how each person is given different gifts, but that they are to work together as the body of Christ in the exercise of those gifts. He addresses the issue of order in church meetings, as well. But the thread that runs through all these teachings is the theme of the centrality of Christ. In chapter 15, Paul says, 

"Now, brothers, I want to clarify for you the gospel I proclaimed to you; you received it and have taken your stand on it. You are also saved by it, if you hold to the message I proclaimed to you--unless you believed for no purpose. For I passed onto you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." 

This is the reason believers belong to Christ. He paid the penalty for sin that separated us from a Holy God and made us enemies of God. Through Christ's sacrifice, believers are reconciled to God. 

In chapter 12, verse 27 Paul explains that if anyone is in Christ, "Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members in it."

Further Reading

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Essentially, Paul's first letter to the Corinthians largely addressed problems and divisions in the church.  A few years after establishing the church and then leaving, Paul hears that those left in charge had basically developed some spiritual "arrogance" and as a result, were confusing the basic teachings of Christ.

What is central to Paul's message then is this: Christ came as the one who died, was buried, and raised to new life as the atonement for human sins.  As Adam was the first man to fall, Christ came as the "last Adam," meaning his death and resurrection allowed for humanity to be separated from God no more.  As a result, Jesus' message was one of love and unity.  Jesus came to bring equal forgiveness for all believers and would have his church unified.

Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?  Were you baptized into the name of Paul?  (1 Cor 1: 13)

Additionally, speaking to the arrogance displayed in the church leadership, Paul adds that the church should be relying on the teaching and wisdom of Christ for answers, rather than on each other.  Christ is the representation of God's wisdom:

but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Chrst the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. 1: 24)

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might now rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power. (1 Cor 2: 4-5)

With this key principle established (that it is by God's authority through Jesus and not man), Paul goes on in the rest of the letter to address specific problems the Corinthian church was having.

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