The Present Tenses in 1 Corinthians 15:
Gnomic Or True Present Tenses? #1
Paul uses the present passive indicative and the present active indicative Greek tenses in 1 Corinthians 15 to speak of the resurrection. He uses the present passive and present indicatives no less than eleven times. The power and challenge of this reality is incredible. Was Paul, by using the present active and present passive Greek tenses actually saying that the resurrection was already underway when he wrote Corinthians??? Patently, in the traditional view of resurrection, that it only occurs at the end of time, when every person who has ever lived, died and decayed comes out of the dirt, out of the oceans, and is bodily restored to human life– this was not happening!
In order to avoid this linguistic and grammatical challenge, futurists have started arguing, repeatedly, that Paul was simply using the present and present passives in a gnomic, i.e. a timeless sense. What they mean by that is that Paul was simply saying that God raises the dead, with no indication of timing attached. As we will see, that is untenable and inconsistent.
Daniel Wallace, renowned Greek Grammarian defines the Gnomic present:
The gnomic present is distinct from the customary present in that the customary present refers to a regularly occurring action while the gnomic present refers to a general, timeless fact. It is distinct from the stative present (a sub category of the customary) in that the stative present involves temporal restriction while the gnomic present is generally atemporal. (Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1996 ), 523).
Now, as an initial thought, ask yourself, is resurrection a timeless event, with no temporal connections? Clearly not. Thus, on that fact alone the gnomic definition can be called into question. Furthermore, out of the 11-12 different uses of the present tense, commentators, in their desperation to avoid the resurrection as happening when Paul wrote, appeal to what can rightly be called the rarest form of the present tense– the gnomic! Does that not smack, just a tad, of desperation?
The list here is taken from a post by my friend Jim Hopkins, of DaleVille, Alabama:
1Corinthians 15:12 – Now if Christ is (Present Indicative) preached that He has been (perfect indicative) raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection (Present Indicative) of the dead?
1Corinthians 15:15 Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have (Aorist Indicative) testified of God that He raised up (Aorist Active Indicative) Christ, whom He did not raise up (Aorist Active Indicative) —if in fact the dead do not rise (are not being raised).
1Corinthians 15:16- For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen (Aorist Active Indicative).
1Corinthians 15:26 The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.
1Corinthians 15:29 Otherwise, what will they do who are (present participle) baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized (present indicative) for the dead?
1Co 15:32 If, in the manner of men, I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantage is it to me? If the dead do not rise, “LET US EAT AND DRINK, FOR TOMORROW WE DIE!”
1Corinthians 15:35 But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?”
1Corinthians 15:36 Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies.
1Corinthians 15:42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.
1Corinthians 15:43 It is being sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.
1Corinthians 15:44 It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.
Now, one has the right to ask, based on Paul’s extensive use of the present passives and present indicatives, why he used those tenses so frequently if he did not mean to indicate that what those tenses normally communicate was objectively true? And what is so amazing is that the commentators never, literally never, suggest that Paul uses the present tenses in the gnomic sense in all of the other verses in 1 Corinthians! It is only when a recognition of the present active and present passive would nullify and negate the futurist view of resurrection do the commentators all of a sudden claim that 11 of the present tenses are gnomic, with no temporal significance. To say this is a bit inconsistent – perhaps revealing of theological bias- is an understatement.
Now, in the words of former preterist Sam Frost: “Paul surely knows his verbs.” (Samuel Frost, Exegetical Essays on the Resurrection, (JaDon Management Inc., Ardmore, Ok; 2010), 43). Amen and Amen! Yes, Paul did indeed know his Greek tenses, and he did not use them carelessly or “coincidentally.” There was a reason he used the present tenses. That reason is found, as we shall see, in his allusion to and reliance on the Jewish Festal Calendar.
This use of the present tenses in 1 Corinthians 15 has and continues to perplex the commentators
Among several commentators who could be cited, note Gordon Fee, cited by Sam Frost, in his book Essays on the Resurrection: (This book is available from my websites, Amazon, Kindle and other retailers).
Fee puzzles over the use of the present passive indicative (‘the death is being destroyed’) in verse 26. ‘The grammar of this sentence is somewhat puzzling….The difficulty lies with the present tense and the passive voice of the verb, plus the fact that no conjunction or particle joins it to what preceded.’ The translation is, ‘for he must continue to reign until all the enemies of him be placed underneath his feet. [The] last enemy being destroyed is the death.’
Frost astutely comments on Fee’s “puzzlement.”
The reason it is puzzling is because Fee, and others like him, fail to see the time Paul was living in: the last days, the end of the age, the time of redemption and resurrection for the dead of Israel and the gathering up of all things to himself. This culminated in the destruction of the nation of Israel ‘according to the flesh’ and concomitant resurrection of Israel ‘according to the Spirit’ in AD 70. It is the failure to properly identify the ‘end’ that Paul speaks of here that creates the confusion. It is not ‘puzzling’ whatsoever that Paul uses present passives to describe both the ‘resurrection of the dead’ and the destruction of ‘the death’ of the Old Covenant principalities and powers that characterized ‘this present evil age’ from which they would be ‘set free’ (Ga 1.4). (Samuel Frost, Exegetical Essays on the Resurrection, (JaDon Management Inc., Ardmore, Ok; 2010), 55).
Based on those present passives and present indicatives utilized by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, Frost wrote, when still a preterist honoring the Greek tenses:
There is an ‘already/not yet’ aspect concerning the resurrection of Israel at work in Paul’s thought. It was because of Israel that Messiah had come, in ‘order to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs’ (Ro 15.8). To deny that they were participating in those promises was to deny to them historical priority. If Israel’s dead were not being raised, then obviously there is no longer any obligation to Israel in any way, shape or form. Everything is permissible (I Co 10.23; 8.9; 6.12). However, if Israel is participating in the ‘body of Christ’ and ‘being raised’ as a result, then the resurrection life enjoyed by those who ‘received’ the gospel message (15.1-5) is dependent upon, and a result of Israel’s resurrection to glory, which makes it impossible to argue ‘everything is permissible to me’ when it comes to how to accommodate the Jews coming into their congregation. (2010, 44, n. 82).
Frost calls attention to the inconsistency of the commentators in regard to the present passives and present indicatives in 1 Corinthians 15:
In a strange bit of self contradiction, many who deny the force of the present active indicatives and present passive indicatives in Corinthians will, at the same time, affirm that Christ is indeed, currently giving Christians victory! In other words, they honor the present active indicative of this text all the while insisting that we deny the present tenses about the resurrection. But if the victory is salvation, as the text says, then to affirm the present bestowal of salvation is to affirm the present reality of resurrection! (2010, 77, n. 82).
As you can see, when Frost wrote these excellent comments, he properly assessed that the commentators’ difficulty with the present tenses in 1 Corinthians 15 was due to their theological bias. This comment could be buttressed by an examination of the present tenses in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, (“you are being saved”; “he must continue to reign”- present infinitive, v.25 ) which no one- so far as I am aware – has ever claimed are mere gnomic presents. The reality is that the only reason anyone would claim that the gnomic present tense is being used in 1 Corinthians 15, or similar texts, is because it destroys their concept of the nature of the resurrection. You cannot affirm that Paul is discussing biological body resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 and allow him to be saying that the dead “are being raised” – 2000 years ago!
Preterists often appeal to these present tense verbs to show that the resurrection that Paul discussed was already something “in progress.” 1 Corinthians 15 is simply an expanded discussion of John 5:24-29 where – again, as most commentators agree– we have the “already but not yet” of resurrection. Jesus said “the hour is coming and now is when the dead shall hear the voice of the son of Man and live”- this is resurrection already. And then he said “the hour is coming in which all that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the Son of Man and come forth.” This is the “not yet” of resurrection, just as in 1 Corinthians 15 used the present and present passives to speak of the resurrection, and also spoke of the not yet of resurrection. These are not two different resurrections. As Frost properly noted:
Paul says nothing different in Corinthians from what Jesus did in John 5. Jesus spoke of the present reality of the resurrection “the hour is coming and now is…”, and the consummation of that process, “the hour is coming…”. Likewise, Paul uses the present passive and present indicatives to speak of the resurrection: “the dead are being raised” and “then comes the end.” So, in both passages, we find the present tense process of resurrection awaiting the consummation. The parallels between John 5 and Corinthians confirm the temporality of the present indicatives in Corinthians. (2010, 60, n. 66).
In response, futurists have resorted to claiming that while it is true that Paul uses the present tenses, that he is using them in the gnomic sense. If Paul was using those present passives and present tenses gnomically, “timelessly,” they do not refer to temporal present realities, but to the timeless fact that the dead are raised– whenever that might be. This was Bill Lockwood’s argument (Michigan, 2020), and Bruce Reeves’ (July, 2020) argument in their formal public debate with Holger Neubauer. Reeves also claimed that the present tenses utilized by Paul in Colossians 2:17, where he said that the, “New Moons, feast days and Sabbaths are a shadow of good things about to come” while in the present tense, it was gnomic. Paul was speaking as if he were still living under the Law when the feast days were still shadows. He was not, per Reeves, saying that the festivals were still, when he wrote, still actively shadows of the good things to come. Reeves knows that if the festivals were still shadows, still unfulfilled, when Paul wrote, that his eschatology falls to the ground. His view that the Law of Moses passed away at the cross falls to the ground. Thus, he, and anyone else making the gnomic argument must be able to prove, exegetically and contextually, that Paul was using the present tenses in a timeless sense. What will follow will demonstrate that this cannot be done.
Can it be effectively shown that the present tenses in 1 Corinthians 15 and Colossians are not some “timeless” (gnomic) present tenses? Can it be proven that those present active and present passive tenses must be honored as indicating that the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 truly was a work “in progress”? I think that can be proven very effectively by examining closer Paul’s language and references. Consider a bit more carefully Colossians 2:17 and Paul’s reference to the Jewish Festivals of, “the New Moons, feast days and Sabbaths.”
Let me say this, and I can assure you that unless Lockwood and Reeves are major exceptions to the rule, as members of the churches of Christ (amillennialists), neither man has given a lot of thought to the significance of the Jewish festival calendar. I mean no disrespect to either man. I know and like Bill Lockwood. Bruce Reeves seems like a genuinely nice man. However, as a fifth generation member of the churches of Christ and intimately familiar with the attitudes toward the Old Testament, I can say that in my entire life as an active member and minister in that group, I never heard, never read a single c of C minister or commentary discuss, or even comment to any degree the importance of the Jewish Feast Days! NEVER! After all, the foundational view in the churches of Christ is that the Law of Moses, inclusive of the Feast Days, was, “nailed to the Cross,” per the dominant view on Colossians 2:14ff. (This is an unsupported view of Colossians 2, but it is my discussion here is focused on Paul’s references to the feast days).
I noted above how the present tenses in 1 Corinthians 15 can be established as temporal by an examination of Israel’s festal calendar. Let me show that, by taking a short, but extremely important journey that will take us to 1 Corinthians 15.
Colossians 2:17 – Notice that Paul refers to “the New Moons, the feast days and the Sabbaths.” This was a direct reference to the feast known as Rosh Ha Shanah. The New Moon feast was called the Feast of Trumpets, or Rosh Ha Shanah. The Feast of Trumpets foreshadowed the coming Judgment day! In fact, there is a direct connection between Rosh Ha Shanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
A veritable encyclopedia of citations could be given, but, for space and time, I will give only a few here: “Rosh Ha Shanah, as the Mishnah teaches, is the day when all human beings are judged.” (Reuven Hammer, Entering the High Holy Days, (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1998), 67).
Theodore Gaster says that on the New Years celebration, God opened three books, one for the righteous, one of the reprobate and one for the “betwixt and betweens.” The opening of the books was not to “seal” the fate of those in the books but rather a chance for those included therein to examine themselves and make the appropriate decisions for the upcoming New Year. Those in the books, “are given a chance to determine their fates, for the record is not sealed until twilight on Yom Kippur.” (Theodor Gastor, Festivals of the Jewish Year, New York, William Sloane Associates Publishers, 1953), 124 – 125). One sees here the direct connection between Rosh Ha Shanah- the Judgment, and the Day of Atonement.
Mitch and Zhava Glaser, tell us: “The holy one, Blessed be He, will sound the shofar at the time of the ingathering of the exiles of Israel to their place (Isaiah 27:13) (citing Eliyahu Zuta 2). (Mitch and Zhava Glaser, The Fall Feasts of Israel, (Chicago, Moody Press, 1987)22, 23). They add: “Feast of Trumpets beckoned the people with a message like any other; a message of Sabbath rest, a holy convocation” (1987, 23). They tell us that on Rosh Ha Shanah / Yom Kippur: “According to the Rabbis there were three books opened on Rosh Ha Shanah, one for the righteous, one for the wicked, one for the “in-between.” (1987, 33).
Notice the direct connection between Rosh Ha Shanah, (Day of Judgement), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and the Sabbath Rest of salvation. This is significant since Paul ties Rosh Ha Shanah with the Sabbaths in Colossians 2. The reality is that there is an unbreakable connection between the feast days and the Sabbath motif since virtually every festival was considered a Sabbath, a cessation from labor (Leviticus 23).
Hebrews 9:24-28 – Before examining verses 24-28 I want to note that in verses 6-10 we find this:
Now when these things had been thus prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing. It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience— concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation.
Here the writer refers to the yearly praxis of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. A great deal could be said of this, but suffice it to say that this lays the groundwork for his discussion of Christ’s atoning work. And notice how the writer refers to the, “foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances.” These were fundamentally part of the typological feast days! We cannot ignore the fact that he said those actions of the High Priest and the temple cultus are symbolic “for the present time.” Now, of course, they had always been shadows, always been types, but, his point is that those typological feast days, the eating of meats, washings, etc., pointed to his then “present time.” He uses the present active! When he wrote Hebrews, just as in Colossians, the feast days were a shadow of what was taking place “at this present time”– his present time.
Note now that after describing the Priest’s Day of Atonement actions, in Hebrews 9:24f he describes Jesus’ sacrificial work. He had appeared to put away sin by his sacrifice (9:26). He had entered the MHP (9:24), and he would come again apart from sin, for salvation to those who eagerly awaited him (9:28). This is undeniably a discussion of the typological actions of the High Priest on that Day of Atonement. Of course, the writer then goes ahead to say that Christ’s coming coming was to be in, “a very, very little while, and without delay” (10:37).
Hebrews 10:1 gives the reason why Christ was to come again and this is highly significant. He was not to come again to show that the foreshadowing Atonement praxis had been fulfilled, but, he had to come again, “for (Greek, gar) the law, having (present) a shadow of good things about to come.” Notice that “for” in 10:1. It is giving the reason why he had to come again. It was because his second appearing was to fulfill the shadows of the Day of Atonement. He had already fulfilled the sacrificial element. He had already entered into the MHP. But he had to come again, to fulfill Yom Kippur completely! The law of Yom Kippur was awaiting fulfillment.
Now, back to 1 Corinthians 15 – where Paul said that Jesus was “the first fruit” of the resurrection harvest (v. 20). This is a direct referent to the harvest, and that means it is a direct referent to Succot, the last of the three fall feast days. Here is what this means:
Christ was the first fruit of the resurrection harvest (1 Corinthians 15:19f).
The resurrection harvest was foreshadowed by Succot, The Feast of Harvest.
Therefore, the resurrection harvest, of which Christ was the first fruit, would be – or will be (if the resurrection is not fulfilled) – the fulfillment of Succot, the Feast of Harvest (also known as the Feast of Booths).
Thus, we have in three key eschatological texts, direct allusion, direct reference, to the last three of Israel’s foreshadowing feast days, Rosh Ha Shanah (Feast of Trumps for the Judgment), the coming of Christ the Second time to consummate Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), and the direct reference to the time of harvest, the Feast of Succot / Gathering / Harvest– which typified the resurrection of 1 Corinthians 15.
So, Colossians 2 speaks of the then present typological nature of Rosh Ha Shanah (this feast was distinctively the “New Moon” feast. Thus, there is no question to what Paul was referring). Likewise, he refers to the “foreshadowing” nature of the Sabbaths. It cannot be overlooked or ignored that the Sabbaths – all of them – foreshadowed the final rest of salvation and the resurrection. (I will not discuss Hebrews 4:10f here, except to note that for the writer of Hebrews, “there remains (present indicative middle or passive) therefore a Sabbath for the people of God” (4:10). Thus, the Sabbaths of Colossians 2 had not been fulfilled! The typological Sabbaths of “the Law,” inseparably bound up with Israel’s festival calendar, (Leviticus 23), were still shadows of the coming Sabbath rest of salvation and resurrection life. This fully corroborates the points we are making, especially since virtually all futurists posit the Sabbath Rest of Hebrews 4 as yet future! Well, if that Sabbath Rest is yet future, then the so called “ceremonial law” of Torah is still valid and binding).
In Hebrews 9-10 Christ had to come the second time because the Law was a shadow of the coming good things (i.e. the salvation to be brought at his parousia). The Atonement typology had to be fulfilled at the Second Coming.
And in 1 Corinthians 15, the final eschatological feast day had to be fulfilled at Christ’s coming for the harvest (which would be at the end of the age, Matthew 13).
Thus, to reiterate, in these three texts, we have the anticipation of the fulfillment– the imminent fulfillment– of the types and shadows of Israel’s festal calendar. Very clearly, the Law of Moses, with its abundance of “jots and tittles” concerning the feast days, had not passed!
Of course, this is where the rub comes in for Lockwood, Reeves – and all futurists. I will examine that in part two, so stay tuned. In the meantime, get a copy of my book, The End of the Law: Torah To Telos (vol. 1).