The Glory of Resurrection
Given Sunday morning, March 11, 2007
Buena Vista, Virginia, Milton Stanley
We’re coming to the end of 1 Corinthians, and the Apostle Paul has saved the best for last. At the very beginning of this letter he wrote of Jesus Christ crucified. Now he concludes with Christ’s resurrection—and ours. In writing clear of both Christ’s and our resurrection, the Apostle was running counter to the wisdom of his day. Earlier he called the crucifixion of Christ “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” . And if the crucifixion was folly to Gentiles, then resurrection was doubly foolish. But it is the heart of Christians’ faith and hope. At the beginning of the “resurrection section,” Paul goes to some length to explain that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. Here he spends even more time describing when and how Christians will be resurrected. He also shows why the coming resurrection is Christians’ hope not only for the future, but for today.
The questions Paul quotes in v. 35 indicate that some of the Christians doubted a bodily resurrection. Considering what Paul said at the beginning of the letter about worldly wisdom, that kind of doubt is what we would expect from those saturated in Corinthian culture. Let’s remember that Corinth was at the heart of Greek civilization—between Athens and Sparta on major land and sea routes. The Corinthians were saturated with Greek thinking, and resurrection of the dead had no place in Greeks thought. Sure, some religious groups, such as Mithraism and the mysteries, believed in an immortality of the spirit. But immortality of the body was considered ridiculous. Paul’s experiences with the Athenians (Acts 17) gives a good picture of how sophisticated Greeks viewed the idea of resurrection—as silly and supersitious.
So these questions in v. 35 are apparently those raised by some of the worldly-wise Greek Christians. They seem reasonable enough: How are the dead raised, and what kind of body will they have? After all, resurrection of the body is not easy to understand. You may have heard the hypothetical question about a man who drowns at sea . The elements of his body are eaten by fish and become part of the bodies of those fish. Later, fishermen come along and catch the fish, and the elements that once were in the drowned man’s body enter the bodies of many other men. If there’s a resurrection, whose body will get those elements? Haven’t you wondered those kinds of things yourself? I certainly have. But Paul doesn’t have much patience for those kinds of questions: “You fools!” he says. The questioners, it seems, were asking not frp, a desire for knowledge, but from doubt.
People today still doubt the resurrection, even in the church. Like sophisticated Greeks of the first century, many Christians today claim a belief in the resurrection of the body when in fact they believe in the immortality of the soul. But the two beliefs are different, and those differences are important. Immortality of the soul means that our souls or spirits break free from our bodies at death and float up to be with God. That’s pretty much the same as some Greek philosophers taught in New Testament times. But it’s not a Christian picture. How many times have you been at a funeral and heard a preacher say, “Well, the departed is with the Lord now.” That’s an appealing thought for those who’ve just lost a loved one. It would be nice to think my mother has been in the heavenly throne room since 1999. But that’s not the picture we see in God’s Word. Hhere in 1 Corinthians 15 and in 1 Thessalonians 4, we learn that Christians will be taken up to heaven at the end of time. And it won’t just be our souls. We’ll have new bodies.
Paul describes that resurrection in some detail here at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. He compares our earthly and resurrection bodies to a seed and the plant that springs forth from it. The seed has to die for a new growth to spring forth. Unless the Lord returns first, these earthly bodies have to die in order for us to inherit our heavenly bodies. These bodies have a sort of earthly glory, but not the kind suited for heaven. But our heavenly bodies will be glorious indeed.
You notice we still haven’t answered the question: how can rot and decay turn into glory? The simple but complete answer is that God does it! He created the world out of nothing and mankind out of dust. If he wants to, rest assured he can create heavenly bodies out of the dust and decay of this earth . Our bodies will be sown as perishable, subject to decay, but they will be raised as imperishable bodies, immune to rot and wear (v. 42). When we are raised for heaven we’ll have bodies, but heavenly ones. At the end of time we’ll not dissolve into the cosmic mind or evaporate into Nirvana. We will have individual, bodily existence forever. As we see elsewhere in the New Testament, that existence will be in the very presence of God.
As Paul continues with the seed analogy, please notice that our bodies will sown in dishonor but raised in glory (v. 43). This description is important. Why will our bodies be sown in dishonor? Because they will have died! Remember that human beings were not created to die, but that death entered the world when Adam and Eve sinned. As every human being shares in the sin of the first man, so every one of us shares in his death. Every death, therefore, is a testimony of sin and dishonor. But one day we will have bodies untouched by sin but full of glory. Our bodies will be sown in weakness but raised in power (v. 43). These bodies here wear out, grow sick, and die. But our heavenly bodies will never grow weak or decay.
Christians will be sown as natural bodies but raised as spiritual bodies (vv. 44-50). In death all humans identify with Adam, but in resurrection Christians identify with Christ . Christ came to earth in weakness to suffer, die, and be resurrected so that we might be forgiven and saved for the Kingdom of God. He came down to share our weakness so that we may rise up to share in his strength . In our baptism, Christians become one with Christ (1 Cor. 6). And when we are one with him, we have to take the bad with the good. Yes, on the cross Jesus paid the price for our sin, but he invites us to suffer and die, too (Lk. 9:23-24). Some Corinthians seem to have forgotten this fact . They wanted the glory of spiritual wisdom and power. Perhaps because they expected to slough off their bodies one day, they believed they could indulge their appetites today. But Christians are called to identify not only with Christ’s glory, but with his weakness in the body and his dishonor on the cross. And if we’re willing to be one with Christ through thick and thin, then one day we’ll be given bodies fit for heaven.
Paul describes the transformation from one to another as a mystery (vv. 51-53). Here we have a small glimpse of when and how we will receive our new bodies. Not all Christians will die, but all will be changed (v. 51). When? At the end of time, when the last trumped sounds (v. 52). At that point the dead in Christ will rise from the dead, and all Christians, living and dead, will be changed instantly from mortal to immortal bodies—even the Corinthians who thought they’d already arrived . The word Paul uses here for “change” can also mean “exchange” or “trade-up” . What a thought, that we’ll trade in our weak, decayed or decaying bodies for bodies that will never decay or die—bodies specially designed for life in heaven. And when we receive those new bodies, we will be lifted up to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4).
Some Christians are concerned about the time between death and resurrection. It’s hard for some of us not to know where our loved ones who have died are doing. I’ve heard people say they can’t accept, for example, that their dead loved one is in the dark, or in the wet ground. I’ve had people ask me if their loved ones might be frightened in the grave. Whenever someone asks me this type of question, I tell them what the Bible says about the time between death and resurrection—nothing! For reasons that only God knows, he has decided not to tell us what awaits us in that period of time. Apparently we don’t need to know. But let me ask you a question: Don’t you think the one who makes us out of dust can take care of us in the grave? If we trust him for our eternity and for our now, don’t you think we can trust him with our in-between? Whatever may happen to us in the grave, we know that the Resurrection makes our future glorious and our present much better than it would be without that hope.
The resurrection is hope and triumph for Christians, and its glory enlightens our present. Notice how Paul ends this section? “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Notice the emphasis on work? After so many words on what could be called theoretical or future reality, Paul brings it down to the practical work at hand. Knowing the truth about the resurrection enlightens our minds and gives us power to do God’s work with abundance and steadfastness. As someone has said, “False doctrine leads to passivity,” while “true doctrine inspires diligent service” . False doctrine can give us a thousand reasons not to do God’s work, but true teaching from the Word will inspire us abundantly. How?
First of all, when we see clearly what God has in store for his own children, then we lose our fear of death. Do you know what I’m talking about? During my youth I spent years running from God and terrified of death. In the daytime I was able to keep my mind turned away from the emptiness and lostness of my soul with a thousand diversions: television, music, friends, food, family. But every night around 4:40 a.m. I awoke in the silence of the darkness and faced the terror of near death and judgment really were. I sometimes lay in bed till dawn considering the many ways I might die, no matter how far-fetched: rabies, tornado, house fire, plane crash. But a steadfast hope in a risen savior frees us from fear. As the author of Hebrews wrote:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Heb 2:14-15)Christians are no longer slaves to fear of death. Do you know how much energy it takes to run from God and deny our fear of death? Facing up to death with hope of the resurrection frees up huge amounts of energy in our lives. Like Paul, we can confidently say, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting” (vv. 54b-55). Now that’s motivation.
Through the resurrection of Jesus we are also freed from the power of sin. Notice the connection in v. 56: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” Death comes as a result of sin, and sin from violating God’s law. Here on earth we have victory over sin through Jesus Christ, but we still struggle in the flesh to overcome it (re. 1 Cor. 7). But when our earthly bodies are transformed to heavenly bodies, we won’t struggle anymore to overcome sin in the flesh. We’ll be ready for heaven in the presence of God.
The hope of resurrection also frees Christians for purposeful service. The coming resurrection of the dead is a landmark of the Christian walk. If you’ve ever practiced orienteering or land navigation, you know the value of a landmark. If you take a bearing and simply try walking in a straight, it doesn’t take much error to end up far away from your intended target. But if you shoot an azimuth and find a landmark—a tree, a hill, a building—then you can walk confidently in that direction without swerving to the right or left. The landmark keeps you focused. In the same way, the glory of the coming resurrection through Christ Jesus is a landmark for discipleship. Our work is not in vain, no matter how painful or frustrating life on earth may be. That’s because we’re headed for glory.
Steadfast service is a whole lot easier when we know the rewards are not all in the here and now. The Christian walk is a long haul, not a sprint. The burdens of discipleship are far, far easier to bear when we know what’s been done for us (Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected) and what’s still in store (our sharing that resurrection in glory).
So, Christians, be encouraged. Jesus Christ has done the great work of salvation for us. He has joined us in weakness so that we might join him in glory. Like Jesus, we will suffer on this earth. But oh, what glory is in store!
1. Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
2. Constable, Thomas. Notes on 1 Corinthians, 2004 ed. Online commentary at www.soniclight.com. Pp 171-2.
3. Deffinbaugh, Bob. “A Refresher Course in the Resurrection of the Dead (1 Cor. 15).” Online study at www.bible.org.
7. Findlayson, Bryan. “Victory Though Jesus Christ.” Online study at http://www.lectionarystudies.com/sunday8ce.html.
8. Deffinbaugh. See also Danker, Frederick William. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. Chicago: University Press, 2000, p. 46.
(c) Copyright 2007, A. Milton Stanley