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St Thomas Aquinas on the Epistle

(1 Cor. 15:1-11)

from his

Commentary on The First Epistle to the Corinthians

translated by Fabian Larcher, O.P.

Thanks to the Aquinas Centre for Theological Renewal

Ava Maria University

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

1 Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, 2 by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was 187
not I, but the grace of God which is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.


888. – After instructing the Corinthians about the sacrament and about the reality contained and signified in the sacraments, namely, grace and its effects, the Apostle now instructs them about a reality not contained but signified in the sacraments, namely, the glory of the resurrection, which is not contained in a sacrament, since the one who receives the sacrament does not obtain it at once, but the glory of the resurrection is signified in them, inasmuch as the grace is conferred in them by which beatitude is reached.

In regard to the first he does two things: first, he prefaces a tract on the resurrection; secondly, with this he proves the general resurrection of all men (v. 12). In regard to the first he does two things: first, he commends the gospel’s doctrine; secondly, he declares what should be known about the resurrection of Christ (v. 3).

889. – He commends the eminence of the gospel’s doctrine as to four things: first, as to the authority of the preachers, because they are apostles. And this is what he says: Brethren, connecting himself to what went before, I would remind you in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which is the same as good news, which begins with Christ. Hence, whatever pertains to Christ or concerns Christ is called a gospel. In what terms I preached to you; as if to say: What I have preached to you about Christ I make known to you, i.e., I recall it to memory, as though the things I write are not new: “To write the same things to you is not irksome to me” (Phil 3:1). And in this appears the authority of this doctrine, because it is from Christ, from Paul and from the other apostles: “It was declared at first by the Lord and was attested to us” (Heb 2:3).

890. – Secondly, as to the common faith of all people; therefore, he says: which you received, all of you. But Augustine says that this pertains to the evidence of this faith, using this argument: For believing things of faith, miracles are either performed or not. But if miracles are performed, I have my point, that they are most worthy and most certain. If none is performed, this is the greatest of all miracles, that by a certain few an infinite multitude of men were converted to the faith, rich men by poor men preaching poverty; by men of one language preaching things that surpass reason, wise men and philosophers have been converted: “Their voice goes out through all the earth” (Ps 19:4).

But if it is objected that even the law of Mohammed has been received by many, the answer is that the cases are not alike, because he subjugated them by oppressing them and by force of arms, but the apostles by dying brought others to the faith, and by working signs and prodigies. For he proposed things which pertain to pleasure and lasciviousness, but Christ and the apostles contempt for earthly things: “When you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you received it…as the word of God” (1 Th 2:13).

891. – Thirdly, as to its strength, because it confirms and elevates to heavenly things. Therefore, he says: in which you stand, namely, elevated to heavenly things. For he is said to stand who is erect and this the law of Christ alone does: “Justified by faith, we have access to that grace in which we stand” (Rom 5:1). For the Old Law made one stand, but it curved one to earthly things: “The eye of Jacob in a land of grain and wine” (Dt 33:28).

892. – Fourthly, as to usefulness, because the New Law alone leads to the end of salvation, but not the Old Law: “The law brought no one to perfection” (Heb 7:19). And therefore he says: by which you are saved. Here already from the certitude of hope through the beginning, which is our faith, you are saved and in the future in the truth of the reality: “Receive with meekness the implanted word which can save your souls” (Jas 1:21); “But these things are written that you may believe and that believing you may have life” (Jn. 20:31).

Here he lays down two conditions, the first is when he says: If you hold it fast. A Gloss explains it this way: If you hold to the reason why I preached that gospel to you, i.e., the resurrection of the dead, by that reason by which I confirmed it to you, i.e., by the resurrection of Christ. In other words: you will be saved provided you hold, i.e., preserve the reason why I preached the gospel of Christ to you.

He presents the second condition when he says: Unless you believed in vain. As if to say: You will be saved through faith, if you have not believed in vain, i.e., if good works are added to faith, because “faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:26). For that is said to be in vain which exists for an end which it does not attain. But the end of faith is the vision of God. Hence, if you are not saved, you have believed in vain, not absolutely but inasmuch as it does not attain the end. In other words: if you hold it fast. As if to say: You should hold it fast, unless you would believe in vain.

893. – For I delivered to you. Here he clarifies his proposition. In regard to this he does three things: first, he shows the origin of the doctrine about the resurrection of Christ; secondly, he shows what things are contained in such a doctrine (v. 3b); thirdly, the agreement of preachers on this doctrine (v. 11).

894. – First, therefore, he says: You should hold fast to that, i.e., keep in your memory what I delivered to you as of first importance, and still deliver. Hence what I delivered to you as of first importance, namely, about the Incarnation, I delivered it not from me or on my authority, but what I received from Christ or from the Holy Spirit: “Paul, an apostle” (Gal 1:1); “For I received from the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 11:23); “What I have heard from the Lord of hosts (Is 21:20).

895. – The things he received and delivered are four, namely, the death, burial resurrection and appearance of Christ. Therefore, he says: I have delivered to you, first of all, the death of Christ; hence he says, that Christ died. In these words he removes two suspicions, which can arise about the death of Christ. The first is that he died for His own actual sins, or original sin. This he excludes when he says: for our sins, not His: “He was stricken for the transgressions of my people” (Is 53:8); “Christ died once and for all for our sins, the just for the unjust” (1 Pt 3:18).

The other suspicion is that the death of Christ was by chance or by the violence of the Jews. This he excludes when he says: according to the Scriptures: “Like a lamb he was led away to the slaughter” (Is 53:7); “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter” (Jer 11:19); “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests” (Matt 20:18).

896. – I delivered to you, secondly, the burial of Christ; therefore he says: that he was buried. But is the burial a special article of faith, because he makes special mention of it? The answer is that according to those who number the articles according to the things to be believed, it is not a special article of faith but is included in the article of the passion and death of Christ. The reason for this is that faith is concerned with things that are above reason. Hence, an article of faith begins where reason falls short. But the first is that the Lord was conceived and, therefore, the conception is an article of faith; the second is that God was born of a virgin and, therefore, this is another. The third is that God, incapable of suffering, suffers and dies, and this is another, and along with this is also understood the burial. Hence, it is not a special article.

But the Apostle mentions the burial for three reasons: first, to show the truth of Christ’s death. For the evident sign of one’s death is burial. Secondly, to show the truth of the resurrection, because if He had not been buried, guards would not have been placed at the grave on these days, nor could they say that the disciples had stolen His body. Thirdly, because the Apostle wants to induce them to believe in the resurrection, and this seems more difficult, that a buried person should arise: “And his tomb shall be glorious” (Is 11:10); “They made his grave with the wicked” (Is 53:9).

897. – I also delivered to you the resurrection, that he rose on the third day: “After two days he will revive us” (Hos 6:2). He says, on the third day, not because they were three full days, but two nights and one day, by synechdoche. And the reason for this, as Augustine says, was that God by His simple, which is signified by one day, i.e., by the evil of punishment, destroyed our double, i.e., punishment and guilt, which is signified by the two nights.

898. – I delivered to you, fourthly, the appearance of Christ, because he appeared to Cephas. And he presents first the appearance made to others; secondly, those make to himself alone (v. 8).
899. – In should be noted, however, in regard to the first, that the appearances of Christ were not made to all in common, but to certain special persons: “God raised him up on the third day and make him manifest not to all the people” (Ac 11:40). The reason for this was to preserve order in the Church in that through certain special persons belief in the resurrection should reach others.
It should also be noted that not all of Christ’s appearances are mentioned, nor those that were made to the women. But some not mentioned in the gospel are mentioned here. The reason for this was that the Apostle wants to refute unbelievers by reason; and therefore he wanted to present only authentic testimonies. Consequently, he kept silence about the appearances to the women and mentioned some which are not found, to show that He also appeared to many others. But he mentions Peter and James, because they were as pillars, as it says in Gal (2:9).

900. – He says, therefore: I delivered to you that he appeared to Cephas, i.e., Peter: “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon” (Lk 24:34). And it is believed that among the men He appeared first to Peter, because he was in extreme sadness. Hence, even the angel said: “Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee (Mk 16:17). Then, i.e., at another time he appeared to the twelve. 

Once he appeared to ten only, when Thomas was absent; after eight days to eleven, when Thomas was present. Augustine says that he should say twelve, but it was changed by a copyist’s error, and he says that it makes no difference that Judas had already died and Mathias not yet chosen, because it is a custom, when the greater part of a group does something, to say that the whole group did it. Hence, because the Lord has chosen twelve, it can be said that He appeared to the twelve, i.e., to the entire group of apostles, but it is not a fault whether it says twelve or eleven.

901. – Then again he appeared to more than five hundred. But nothing is mentioned in the Scripture about this, except here. Yet it can be said that this appearance was the one about which Denis speaks in The Divine Names III, when all the disciples assembled to see the body, which they considered the prince of life.

But against this seems to be the fact that this was before the ascension, namely, when Christ appeared to James. But the assembly of disciples to see the Blessed Virgin, about which Denis seems to speak, was much later.

Therefore, it seems better to say that He appeared to five hundred brethren all at once before His ascension: and it is not important that there were said to be 120 disciples, because although the ones in Jerusalem were 120, nevertheless in Galilee there were many disciples and perhaps all were assembled at one time, when He appeared.

To make his testimony more certain he says that most of them are still alive, but some of them have fallen asleep, i.e., died, in the hope of the resurrection. They call the death of the saints “sleep,” because they die with corruptible flesh and rise with incorruptible. “We know that Christ being raised from the head, will never die again” (Rom 6:9).

902. – Then, i.e., after this, he was seen by James, i.e., of Alphaeus. The reason for this can be assigned because, as it is read, James vowed that he would not take food, until he saw the Lord. But according to this the order of appearances is not observed, because if after all those listed an appearance was made to James, he would have been too long without food and this is difficult.
Therefore, it must be said that Christ made a special appearance to James, because James had a special devotion to Christ, and furthermore nothing is found in the gospel about that appearance. Then, namely, after this, He was seen by all the apostles in the ascension, as it says in Matt (218:16) and in Ac (1:3 ff.).

903. – Last of all. Here the Apostle recalls the appearance made to him alone. In regard to this he does two things: first, he shows the order of the appearances; secondly, he assigns its reason (v. 9).

904. – He says, therefore: I have said that Christ was manifested to all, but last of all, i.e., finally and after the resurrection he appeared to me as to one untimely born, and therefore as the latest.
He says, as one untimely born for three reasons. One, untimely born refers to a fetus, because it is born outside the proper time or because it is brought forth with violence or because it is not born with due quantity; and because the Apostle saw these three things in himself, he says: as one untimely born. For, first of all, all he was reborn outside the time of the other apostles. For the other apostles were reborn in Christ before the coming of the Holy Spirit, but Paul after.

Secondly, because the other apostles were converted to Christ spontaneously, but Paul by coercion: “He fell to the ground and heard a voice” (Ac 9:4). And this is of great value against heretics, who say that no one should be forced to the faith, because Paul was forced. And as Augustine says: Paul made more progress in the faith, although he was forcibly converted, than many who came spontaneously.

Thirdly, because he regards himself as less than the others and that he had not arrived to the virtue of the other apostles.

905. – And therefore, as though assigning a reason he says: I am the least of the apostles. In regard to this he does two things: first, he shows his smallness; secondly, he explains the reason for this (v. 9b).

906. – He explains his smallness, first, in comparison to the apostles, when he says: for I am the least of the apostles: “The least one shall become a clan, and the smallest one a mighty nation” (Is 60:22); “The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself” (Sir 3:18).

And although he is the least in relation to the apostles, yet it could be said that he is great in comparison to others; and therefore, secondly, he shows his smallness in comparison to others, when he says: unfit not only to be but to be called an apostle, although I should be called: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor 3:5).

907. – But it could be said: O Apostle, for the sake of humility no one say anything false: therefore, since you are great, why do you call yourself the least? Therefore, when he says: because I persecuted the church of God, he shows how he is the least and how he is not the least. He calls himself the least, when he considers his past deeds. And he says: I am not worthy Why? Because I persecuted the church of God, which the other apostles did not do: “I persecuted the church of God violently” (Gal 1:13); “Though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him” (1 Tim 1:13). And although of myself I am the least, yet from the grace of God I am not the least; and therefore he says: by the grace of God I am what I am. In regard to this he does two things: first, he commends his condition as to its state; secondly, as to the execution of his state (v. 10b).

908. – Therefore he says first: of myself I am nothing, but what I am, I am by the grace of God, i.e., from God, not from me: “Of this gospel I was made a minister” (Eph 3:7). And he says, what I am, because without grace a man is nothing: “If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries” (1 Cor 13:2). But how he used and executed his state he shows, saying: and his grace.

909. – Here he shows, first, how he used that grace, namely, for good; therefore he says: toward me was not in vain, i.e., idle, because he used it for that for which it was given to him: “Lest somehow I should be running in vain” (Gal 2:2).

Secondly, he manifests how he exceeded others; therefore he adds: on the contrary I worked harder than any of them, i.e., than any of the apostles singly, by preaching, because no one preached in so many places and announced Christ. Hence he says: “So that from Jerusalem to Illyricum I fully preached” (Rom 15:19) and even as far as Spain – by working, because although he, as the other apostles, could require expenses necessary for them, yet he particularly wished to seek his expenses from the labor of his hands, as he says in 2 Th (3:8): “Night and day we have worked with our hands – by enduring tribulation”; for none of the apostles endured such persecutions and tribulations as he mentions in 2 Cor (11:23): “With far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings.

Thirdly, he shows the efficacy of use, because this was not from himself alone but from the instinct and help of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, he says: though it was not I alone acting but the grace of God, which is with me, which moves the will to this: “Thou has wrought for us all our works” (Is 26:12): “God is at work in you both to will and to work” (Phil 2:13). For God not only infuses but He also moves us to use the graces infused well, and this is called cooperating grace.

910. – Whether then it was I or they, so we preach. Here he shows the agreement of the preachers; and this can be read in two ways: first, as confirming what has been said. As if one were to say: You preach thus, but we do not believe you alone, because you are the least of the Apostles. Therefore, the Apostle says in reply: Indeed you should believe me, because I do not preach other things; whether it was I or the other apostles you saw, they preached that Christ rose and was seen, and you also believed, just as I and those who preached, namely, that Christ rose and was seen: “Since we have the same spirit of faith” (2 Cor 4:13).

Secondly, it can be read so that the efficacy of preaching comes to the apostles from one source, i.e., from the grace of God. As if to say: whether I preach or they, i.e., the apostles, as we preach, we have done this by the help and strength of God’s grace; and so even you have believed, namely, inspired by the Holy Spirit and grace of God without which we can do nothing: “Without me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5).