‘Not in vain’: Paul on the Resurrection


Recently, I took a course on the backgrounds and exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s faPaulmous chapter on the resurrection. Part of this course was the task to produce a short paper on the exegesis or hermeneutics of 1 Corinthians 15. Though I usually don’t write on this blog on exegetical matters, I take the opportunity to let you share in my findings on one particular strand of thought in this chapter. At the same time, it will be a preparation of my Easter sermon. While studying the structure of 1 Corinthians 15, I was struck by the repeated expression ‘not in vain’. In this paper I will take a closer look on Paul’s use of this expression.

‘In vain’: the Greek terminology

To start with, let’s ask at which places Paul uses the expression ‘in vain’ in 1 Corinthians 15 and which Greek words he applies in these cases. Unfortunately, it seems not possible to produce Greek characters in my text, so instead I will transcribe them. In quotations form 1 Corinthians 15 I will use the Revised Standard Version, 2nd edition (1971).

  • ‘…unless you believed in vain‘ (‘eikei’ – 15,2)
  • ‘…his grace toward me was not in vain‘ (‘kenè’ – 15,10)
  • ‘if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is in vain…’ (‘kenon’ – 15,14)
  • ‘… and your faith is in vain‘ (‘kenè’ – 15,14)
  • ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.‘ (‘mataia’ – 15,17)
  • ‘…knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ (‘kenos’ – 15,58)

It seems then, that Paul uses these three different Greek words as equivalents. But that assumption, of course, needs to be tested. So, we will take a closer look on the Greek words: ‘eikei’, ‘kenos’, and ‘mataios’.

  • eikei – this word appears six times in the New Testament (Mat.5,22 v.l.; Rom.13:4; 1 Cor.15,2; Gal.3,4; 4,11; Col.2,18). Its meaning, according to the Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (WNT – Bauer-Aland) ranges from ‘groundless’ to ‘futile’, to ‘pointless’ (‘without purpose’). The Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (EDNT – Balz-Schneider) doesn’t offer an entry on ‘eikei’. However, the older Theologische Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (TWNT – Kittel) does, although it’s very short. Friedrich Büchsel explains that ‘eikei’, always being used adverbial, fundamentally means ‘arbitrary’, ‘random’. In the New Testament, Büchsel says, it usually means ‘futile’ of ‘in vain’.
  • kenos – the use of ‘kenos’ in the NT is more frequent (Mk.12,3; Lk.1,53; 20,10; Acts 4,25; 1Cor.3,18 v.l.; 15,10;14(2x);58; 2Cor.6,1; Gal.2,2; Eph.5,6; Phil.2,16(2x); Col.2,8; 1 Th.2,1; 3,15; Jas4,5). As this listing shows, the word is used most frequently in Paul’s letters. There is another interesting feature to be noticed. M.Lattke (EDNT) writes: “LXX language in more or less word-for-word citations dictates the use of ‘kenos’ in a majority of the NT occurrences”. In the Magnificat (Lk.1,53) we find an example. ‘Kenos’ here means ’empty’ or ‘without content’. In Paul’s use of the word, we find a particular concern of his, that his missionary work would not be ‘in vain’ (‘eis kenon’; 1 Thess.3,5). ‘Kenos’ bears in passages like this the connotation of ‘without fruit’. Yet another trait of Paul’s (or Pauline) usage of ‘kenos’ appears in Col.2,8 & Eph.5,6, where he warns against the misleading deception of ’empty words’.  In this case, ‘kenos’ means ‘unconnected with the truth (= Christ)’.
  • mataios – this word is quite rare in the NT (Acts 14,15; 1 Cor.3,20; 15,17; Tit.3,9; Jas.1,26; 1 Pet.1,18), just as the related substantive and verb. H.Balz remarks in EDNT: “While in the related adj. ‘kenos’ the meaning ’empty/meaningless’ stands in the foreground, ‘mataios’ also has (as already in the Greek linguistic realm), esp. from its biblical tradition, the meaning vain/futile/deceitful and refers to a senseless understanding of reality in contrast to the only valid reality of God or to skeptical resignation in the face of God’s distance from this world (…).” It’s worth mentioning that ‘mataios’ is the word the LXX uses in Ecclesiastes to translate the Hebrew ‘chabel’ (Ecc.1,2; etc.).

We may conclude that the meaning of these words converge to a large extent, while showing differences in nuance, ‘eikei’ being the most ‘flat’ in its meaning, ‘mataia’ the most pronounced, stemming from its traditional use in the OT (LXX).

Paul’s use of ‘in vain’ in 1 Corinthians 15

The question then is whether these differences in nuance show up in Paul’s discourse. It might be so, if we consider the following line of thought. Paul links the verb ‘pisteuoo’ or the substantive ‘pistis’ in this chapter with the three different words ‘eikei’ (15,2), ‘kenè’ (15,14), and ‘mataia’ (15,17). It is clear that he wants to stress the same point: without resurrection, your faith is ‘futile’, ‘in vain’.

However, it seems that he doesn’t choose his words deliberately. ‘Eikei’, being the most general expression, is used in the introduction (15,2) of his argument. Without resurrection, their faith is pointless. It makes no sense. In 15,14 Paul uses ‘kenos’ two times. The first time it refers to his preaching, the second time to the faith of the Corinthians. We find here Paul’s concern for the fruit of his missionary work and preaching. In the following verse, he remarks: “We are even found to be misrepresenting God…”, while continuing with a line of argument structured by ‘if … then …’. No wonder in this light, he uses ‘mataia’ in 15,17, while ‘mataia’, as we saw, “refers to a senseless understanding of reality in contrast to the only valid reality of God or to skeptical resignation in the face of God’s distance from this world” (EDNT). It is telling in this regard that Paul in 1 Cor.3,20 ‘mataia’ connected, quoting Ps.94,11, with the thoughts of the wise and the wisdom of the world.

Codex Sinaïticus 1 Cor.15,58; see: http://www.codexsinaiticus.org

Codex Sinaïticus 1 Cor.15,58; see: http://www.codexsinaiticus.org

In short, I’m inclined to believe that Paul chose his words carefully. That intuition is confirmed, when we take a brief look at the remaining occurences of ‘in vain’ in 1 Corinthians 15. In 15,10 Paul says that Christ’s grace to him was not in vain (kenè), immediately continued by the remark that ‘worked (ekopiasa) harder than any of them (i.e. the other apostles). His final remark in 15,58 says that ‘in the Lord your labor (kopos) is not in vain’. Though it is disputed what Paul exactly means with the ‘work of the Lord’ in this passage, it is quite probable that he does not restrict it to the daily working routine, but that he has (also) in mind more specifically the ministry of the gospel. He assures the Corinthians that their efforts in the service of Christ’s gospel will bear fruit.

The structure of 1 Corinthians 15

Paul’s terminology in 1 Corinthians 15 appears to be quite coherent indeed. But if that is the case, it makes sense to ask how our findings with regard to the use of ‘in vain’ fit into the whole structure of chapter 15. A standard division of 1 Corinthians 15, looks like this:

  • 1-11 – The tradition of Christ’s resurrection
  • 12-19 – The argument: if Christ is not raised
  • 20-28 – The answer: but Christ is raised!
  • 29-34 – Ad hominem: don’t be deceived!
  • 35-44 – Analogies to the resurrected body
  • 45-49 – Analogy of Adam and Christ
  • 50-57 – The mystery of the final resurrection
  • 58 – The conclusion: not ‘in vain’

As a first glance on this division makes clear, Paul speaks of ‘in vain’ in the first two parts of the chapter and in the last, concluding verse. More precisely, in the light of the structure of 1 Corinthians 15, we can see that for Paul ‘in vain’ is connected with two fundamental themes. First, it is connected with Christ’s resurrection as a fundamental fact. Without Christ’s resurrection our faith would be ‘in vain’, in the sense of being groundless. Second, it is connected with the fruit of the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection. That would have been futile as well. Without resurrection the gospel wouldn’t have borne fruit, neither in Paul’s own life, nor in that of the Corinthians. In that case, both his own labor, as well as theirs, would have been wasted.

The hermeneutical harvest

By way of conclusion I want to explore the hermeneutical relevance of our exploration of Paul’s use of ‘in vain’ in 1 Corinthians 15.
1. In the first place, we have seen that for Paul it is essential that the resurrection of Christ has occurred. Otherwise, our faith would have been ‘groundless’. Faith, for Paul, is grounded faith. The structure of 1 Corinthians 15 is underlining this assumption. Before Paul mentions the reason for his writing on the subject (15,12), he starts with displaying the witnesses of the resurrection (15,1-7), including himself (15,8-11). In short, the resurrection is well-attested. That means that, in the light of Paul’s argument, we can’t evaporate the resurrection event to a mere visionary experience. It even qualifies Paul’s own encounter with the risen Lord.  On the basis of his use of the expression ‘in vain’, we may conclude that for Paul this encounter can’t be accounted for in terms of a mere subjective experience.

2. Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 15 gives us reason to view the contemporary situation of the church in a different light. Without resurrection, says Paul, our proclamation would have been futile. Put in more general terms, without Christ’s resurrection is the emergence of a church hardly conceivable. Few people would be prepared to take this line of thought as a proof of Christ’s resurrection. However, it is undeniable, that Christianity worldwide is still growing. In Europe, things look different. Many churches in the Netherlands are shrinking. Some are closed or getting a different destination. But Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15 can open our eyes for another dynamics: the dynamics of evangelism. The resurrection of Christ is an invitation to the ministry of mission, knowing that in the Lord our labor will not be in vain.

3. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (Ecc.1:2). In Ecclesiastes we encounter a sense of life, that is deeply sceptical. The whole of our life is futile. All things occur as they must occur. Life is deterministic. Lots of people in our days believe, consciously or unconsciously, according to these assumptions. Paul’s proclamation in 1 Corinthians 15 is a different story. Life is not in vain, because of the very fact of Christ’s resurrection. It has purpose, God’s purpose about which Paul is writing in the second half of this chapter. Therefore, 1 Corinthians 15 is the proclamation of life that can be renewed and recreated. In that life, the life of Christ, we may participate. “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation.” (2 Cor.5,17a).


Robert Bruce and the Mystery of the Lord’s Supper

Recently, I bought and read The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper from Robert Bruce (1554-1631). I had two reasons for buying this book. My first, and main, reason was the introduction of Thomas Torrance. He translated and edited the book in 1957. And because I’m fond of Torrance, I wanted to read his Introduction in the first place. However, my second reason was my expectation of the book itself. So far I didn’t read anything from Bruce, nor did I know who the man was (Torrance’s Introduction however is most helpful in this respect), but the fact that he was a contemporary of John Craig made me look on expectantly. And indeed, these sermons of Robert Bruce are fantastic! Here we find a concise reformed eucharistic theology. For the moment I’ll postpone the exploration of his theology and limit myself to three impressions:

1. I’m fairly acquainted with Calvin’s sermons and his preaching style. The sermons of Robert Bruce are about three or four decades younger than Calvin’s, but the difference in style is enormous. It surprised me that Thomas Torrance, who happened to be an expert on Calvin’s theology, didn’t mention the difference in his Introduction. It would be unfair to characterize the style of Bruce as ‘scholastic’, but there is undeniably a scholastic touch in these sermons. Calvin’s sermons are much more exegetical, moving from passage to passage. He sometimes makes use of distinctions as well, but not to the sophisticated degree Bruce does. It seems however, that these sermons are intended somewhat more generally than Calvin’s Genevan sermons. Anyway, Robert Bruce was an outstanding theologian, so much is sure. Let me give an example. It’s a passage in which Bruce discusses an objection of his opponents, ‘that God by His omnipotence can make the Body of Christ be both in heaven and in the bread at the same time’. Bruce says that the question at stake is not whether God can do a thing or not, but whether He will do it or not or whether He may will it or not:

“These things are of two kinds: First, He may not will those things which are contrary to His nature, such as to be changeable, to decay, and so on (…); Secondly, God may not will some things, because He has already decreed the contrary. This is the kind of thing we are now discussing (…).” (p.129,130).

2. There is another point in his sermons that striked me. It was something I hoped for. Let me call it the ‘Scottish flavour’ in the theology of the Lord’s Supper. I wrote about this some time ago, in relation to the Catechism of John Craig [link]. With ‘Scottish flavour’ I mean an emphasis on at least two things: on the empirical reality of Christ’s body and on the resurrection of Christ. Again a quote, by way of illustration:

“I prove my proposition (about the visibility and palpability of Christ’s body [AT]) by Christ’s own words, taken from Luke 24;24,39. In order to persuade the apostles of the reality of His Body, and to prove clearly that it was not a phantom, he uses the argument taken from these two qualities (…), as if He would say, ‘If I am visible and palpable, you may cease to doubt that I have a true body’. For as the poet says, whom Tertullian cites also for this same purpose: “Tangere enim et tani, nisi corpus, nulla potest res” (For nothing can touch or be touched exepct a body).” (p.125)

3. There is another remarkable feature in these sermons. Torrance points to it in his Introduction: ‘the doctrine of union with Christ and of our participation in his saving and sanctifying humanity‘ (p.23). Those familiar with the work of Thomas Torrance himself, will immediately recognize this theme, which was so important to him. Here we see a part of the roots of this theme of Torrance (the other part being the patristic tradition). Torrance claims this trait as distinctive for both John Calvin and the early Scottish Reformation. A quote once again:

“Christ Jesus, the Son of God, in the time appointed took true Flesh from the womb of the virgin, and united Himself with our nature, in a personal union, to the end that our nature, which fell altogether from its integrity in the first Adam, might recover the same in the second Adam – yes, not only the same, but much greater, as much as our second Adam in every way excels the first.” (p.123)

So, these sermons prove to be a treasure of reformed eucharistic theology. Or, to use the words of Thomas Torrance: “[T]he very marrow of our sacramental tradition in the Church of Scotland.”

Torrance, Craig’s Catechism, and the Lord’s Supper

Sometimes things nicely come together. Thanks to a little discussion about Thomas Torrance and (federal or evangelical) Calvinism, I took Torrance’s The School of Faith from the shelf. It’s one of his less well known books and it comprises an edition of all the Catechisms that were ‘officially authorised and employed by the Church of Scotland since the Reformation’ (1). It’s was first published in 1959. Torrance offers an excellent introduction to these writings in about 125 pages. These pages are in fact a very concise introduction to Torrance’s own theology, especially his thoughts about revelation and natural theology, incarnation and atonement, and his doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the church and the sacraments. It were these topics on which he lectured in the fifties at New College. These strands in his thinking have been attracting less attention then what he said and wrote about the incarnation and atonement and about science and theology.

In the meantime I’m preparing a lecture about the Lord’s Supper and our mortality. How does the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection enables us to live, while facing death, in us and around us? While turning over the pages in Torrance’s The School of Faith I stumbled upon Craig’s Catechism from 1581. I read it before and at that time it was completely unknown to me. But it struck me because of his very forceful style, with short questions and answers, but also because of its concreteness. There is quite a lot emphasis on our senses and our body, especially in the (large) section about the sacraments. Like the other Catechisms from the Reformation period, it stresses the fact that the elements, like water, bread, wine, don’t have an intrinsic power or efficacy. However, unlike these other Catechisms, Craig’s Catechism maintains very convincing that the bodily language of the sacraments do have an intrinsic worth. This worth is twofold: first of all epistemological. Consider for example these questions and answers (p.155):

Q. How does He (Christ) offer His body and blood?

A. By the Word and Sacraments.

Q. How do we receive His body and blood?

A. By our own lively faith alone.

Q. What follows upon this receiving by faith?

A. That Christ dwells in us, and we in Him.

Q. Is not this done by the Word and Baptism?

A. Yes, but our union with Christ is more evident and manifest here.

Q. Why is it more evident?

A. Because it is expressed by meat and drink joined with us inwardly in our bodies.

That’s the first point: the Supper makes the Union with Christ more evident, that is: evident inwardly in our bodies! No Platonic thinking here! No separation between soul and body! We are both body and soul and that’s why God gave us the sacraments! But there is another point to maken (p.157):

Q. Should we seek the food of our souls in the elements of bread and wine?

A. No, for they were not given to that end.

Q. To what end then were they given?

A. To lead us directly to Christ, who only is the food of our souls.

 Q. What profit should our bodies have by this Sacrament?

A. It is a pledge of our resurrection by Christ.

Q. How is that?

A. Because our bodies are partakers of the sign of life.

This is a very remarkable passage! The imagery of a ‘pledge’ is very common in Calvinistic theology. The Lord´s Supper is called a pledge of our salvation, a means to be sure of it. But, to the best of my knowledge, Calvin nowhere says that the Lord´s Supper is a pledge of our bodily resurrection. No wonder then, that Craig let his pupils ask: “How is that?” And his supreme answer: “Because our bodies are partakers of the sign of life”. Before this, Craig has explained that the giving of the bread and wine means a spiritual feeding of our souls with Christ’s body and blood (p.156). The ‘close conjunction’ with meat and drink means ‘the spiritual union which we have in Jesus Christ’. But there is also a bodily conjunction, so to speak. And that conjunction means participation in Christ’s bodily resurrection. We share in the sign of life!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer about Easter

Dietrich BonhoefferA tribute to Dietrich Bonhoeffer at April 9th, 64 years after his death. In one of his letters from prison, dated March 27th 1944, he writes about the meaning of Easter. In these words you will find a clue to the secret of his life, but also of his death. He died with the confession that life would now begin. He lived out what he wrote in these words: being ‘victorious over death’, because of Christ’s resurrection.

Speaking of Easter, do we not attach more importance nowadays to the act of dying than to death itself? We are much more concerned with getting over the act of dying than with being victorious over death. Socrates mastered the art of dying; Christ overcame death as the eschatos echtheos (the last enemy; 1 Corinthians 15.27). There is a real difference between the two things. The one is within human capacity, the other implies resurrection.

We need not an art of dying, but the resurrection of Christ to invigorate and cleanse the world today. Here is the answer to dos moi pou stoo kai kinesoo ten gen, give me where I stand and I will move the earth. What a tremendous difference it would make if a fewpeople really believed and acted upon that. To live in the light of the resurrection that is the meaning of Easter. Do you not also find that so few people seem to know what light it is they live by? This perturbatio animorum is exceedingly common. It is an unconscious waiting for the word of deliverance, though the time is hardly ripe yet for it to be heard. But the time will come, and perhaps this Easter is one of the last chances we shall have to prepare ourselves for our future task. I hope you will be able to enjoy it despite all the hardships you are having to bear. Goodbye, I must close now.