v.35 Paul’s answer to that question is going to be that the dead will rise with a body with some elements of continuity and some of discontinuity with the body they had in this world. Now resurrection was simply inconceivable to the Greco-Roman culture, its prevailing philosophies were all against it, and so Paul uses illustrations from common life to illustrate his doctrine.
v.37 Now, much has been made of the fact that, biologically speaking, the seed doesn’t really die. But Paul is speaking phenomenlogically. The seed is buried like the body. It disappears from sight. It dies in that sense. And, then, it rises again and not simply as a seed but as something larger and better, the plant with its fruit.
v.44 Taking all from v. 38 together, the points Paul makes are that the resurrection body will be of a genuinely human type not the body of some different order of being, but that it will be a body different in wonderful ways from the body human beings have in this world. It will be different precisely in that the weaknesses and limitation of our human bodies will be no more. The new body will be immortal, glorious, powerful, and spiritual, by which seems to be meant that it will be a body animated and empowered by the Holy Spirit, that is, it will be a supernatural body. To put “spiritual” together with “body” in Corinth in those days must have had shock value. For the Greeks spirit and body were two utterly different and contrary realms of reality.
v.46 It is likely that in v. 46 Paul is taking on views held by some of the Corinthian Christians. They, perhaps, were claiming that they had already entered into their spiritual existence and Paul is reminding them that they must, while they are in this world, live in the natural realm; they do not come into the spiritual, certainly not in its fullness, until the Second Coming.
v.49 Paul, remember, has already introduced the analogy between Adam and Christ, the two representative men, in vv. 21-22. Here he uses the same analogy to make his point about the superiority of the resurrection body. The two kinds of bodies are already represented in the two archetypal men. By the way, we are taught here that salvation in Christ, in its consummation, does not simply restore mankind to the situation that existed in Eden before the Fall. It carries us on to still higher and more wonderful life.
v.50 Now begins Paul’s great conclusion and summing up. He begins by making the point again that the bodies we have now are not adequate for the life of heaven.
v.51 There will be a generation, of course, that will not experience physical death, that generation alive in the world when the Lord returns.
v.57 Paul reminds his readers that death came upon mankind because of sin and, therefore, the conquest of sin became the conquest of death. We get eternal life because and only because Jesus Christ took away our sins.
v.58 In v. 2, at the beginning of his argument, Paul urged them to hold firmly to the gospel lest they will have believed in vain. Here he finishes by encouraging them that, Christ’s victory over sin and death being sure and certain, if they hold fast to him their work in this world will not be in vain. We must wait for the resurrection, but because we know it is coming we may live and work in confidence and hope.
The Duke of Wellington, the great English general, often said that “there was but one thing worse than a victory, and that was a defeat.” Read military history and you know precisely what he meant. To achieve a great victory is grand, of course. It is what you do battle for. But in this world victories are usually won at great cost. You have defeated the enemy, but many of your soldiers died in the effort, many of your friends are no more, perhaps many others are seriously wounded. You see exultation in victory only on those very rare occasions when they have been cheaply won. Usually the victors look virtually as exhausted and as desolate and as dispirited as the vanquished.
But it is the Christian message, it is central to the Christian message, that at the end of time, at the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, the victory will be utterly complete, not one soldier among the hosts of the Lord will fail to answer to his name when the roll is called. It does not appear to be the case now, believers and unbelievers die alike. But on that day it will be so, the day when the dead rise and the entire immense company of the saints is gathered together and begins its eternal life in the presence of the Lord Christ. Only then will anyone be able fully to measure the victory of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, to be sure, there are many in our day that hold this hope and expectation to be more than faintly ridiculous. It is unscientific, we are told. It is sentimental, pie in the sky by and by. (To which a professor of mine tartly replied, well, its better than no pie at all!) But Christians are little troubled by these sentiments. First, knowing as they do the astonishing thing that a human being is, knowing as they do that only God could create such a man or woman, it is no difficulty for them to believe that having done it once, he can do it again! Every survey indicates that most people do not think evolution is an adequate explanation for human existence. They are more right than they know. But many do not face the implications of that knowledge. If God is the creator of human beings, if God is our Maker, it is only right to ask what he will do with us his creation? What is more, Christians are sure that there has already been such a resurrection in the world, the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Admit that and it is no longer difficult to believe, as he taught and his apostles after him, that his followers would rise from the dead as he did precisely because that was the entire purpose of his dying and rising again. That was Paul’s point, as we saw, earlier in this same chapter.
What is more, there is an answer to this doctrine, this hope, this expectation in every human heart. We know, whether we suppress this truth or not, we know that we were made to live not die. We know also that our bodies are as surely ourselves as our minds and spirits. Christianity, unlike some other religions and philosophies, does not propose that human life in the future will be something utterly different from what it is here in this world. It builds salvation on creation. It promises the restoration and the perfection of that extraordinary thing that is human life in the first place. We can see much of what God intends human beings to be just looking at ourselves among ourselves. As soon as people stop taking for granted their own lives, their own consciousness, their own extraordinary powers as human beings, powers that cannot begin to be explained naturally, just that soon the Christian doctrine of the resurrection becomes the inevitable fulfillment and conclusion of human life. It is a simple thing to demonstrate that the vast majority of people who do believe in life after death do not envisage it in terms utterly different from what they know human life to be.
It is very interesting and certainly important that while the Bible does teach that the believing soul, apart from the body, is present with the Lord immediately after death, and that this state is, in Paul’s words, “better by far” than his or her condition in this world, this is never regarded as the true hope or fulfillment of a believer in Jesus Christ. In fact, it is somewhat surprising how little the Bible says about that condition of existence that bridges the time between a Christian’s death and the resurrection of the dead. Indeed, Paul is even willing to say, in 2 Cor. 5, that there is something unnatural about that intermediate state, wonderful as it is to be present with the Lord, precisely because it is a disembodied existence. We were created to be psycho-physical beings and we will not be that perfectly and completely, that is, we will not come into our own, into our full rights as human beings, until our entire selves, body and soul together, have been made perfect at the resurrection of the dead.
In other words, it is always to the resurrection that the Bible is pointing us as the fulfillment and the completion of our salvation and the eternal life that we have in Christ. The Corinthians, or at least some of them, thought either that they already had what they were going to get from Christ or that what they would get later would be all spirit and no body. Greek civilization thought only of soul survival. It had no future for the body. They thought the body unworthy of eternal life. Only the realm of the spirit could be eternal.
Paul responded to this teaching and to this attack on the Christian doctrine of resurrection both by clarifying the doctrine and reasserting it. He maintains that, as in the case of the Lord Jesus, it will be the self-same body that will rise to eternal life, but he also makes clear that it will rise in a far more glorious form and condition than it had in this world.
To make that point he uses three homely metaphors or illustrations. The first is drawn from agriculture. One must bury the seed before one can finally enjoy a plant with its fruit. It will be one life, the seed will be in that plant, but how much more glorious the plant than the single seed by itself. What is more, God has created many forms of life and existence in this cosmos, each suitable to its sphere and its purpose. Well, then, so with the body of a man or woman who dies in the faith of Jesus Christ. God will give it a new form, suitable to its heavenly and perfect sphere. It will be sown an earthly body, which we know all about, but it will be raised immortal, powerful, spiritual.
Paul’s second metaphor or illustration is that of sleep. We have that in v. 51. The Bible, as you know, uses this language elsewhere for the state of those who have died: they are asleep. The dead body is thought of as sleeping, awaiting the morning when it will rise refreshed and renewed. Those who have died must sleep for a time until they are roused by the trumpet call of God. Now, of course, the Bible doesn’t mean that the body is actually sleeping; it knows full well the difference between death and sleep. It is a metaphor, but one full of meaning and, more to the point, full of hope. What is significant about sleep is precisely that sooner or later one wakes up!
I once came across this epitaph. Many of the women in this congregation may find that it gives expression to their own feelings.
Here lies a poor woman who always was tired,
She lived in a house where no help was hired.
The last words she said were ‘Dear friends, I am going,
Where washing ain’t wanted, nor mending, nor sewing;
Where all things is done just exact to my wishes,
For where folks don’t eat there’s no washing of dishes.
In heaven loud anthems for ever are ringing,
But having no voice, I’ll keep clear of the singing.
Don’t mourn for me now, don’t mourn for me never;
I’m going to do nothing for ever and ever.
But that was a poorly taught Christian woman. That kind of rest, that kind of inactivity is not found in heaven, but in the grave, in the sleep of death while the body awaits its resurrection. If this woman was a Christian, she’ll have the long rest she wanted, but she will awake, utterly refreshed, ready to live and work for Christ forever!
The third of Paul’s metaphors or illustrations is that of the resurrection as something like the putting on of a new garment. You have that in vv. 53-54.
Think of the person as taking off one set of clothes and putting on another, exchanging an old suit for a new tuxedo; or, even think of the body itself changing its clothes – taking off the old garments of this life (weakness, sinful desires, decay) – and putting on the new set of clothes (power, purity, and immortality and the perpetual filling of the Holy Spirit).
Picking up this metaphor of Paul, the epitaph of one Dr. Mather, a New England physician and friend of Jonathan Edwards, reads this way.
Corruption earth and worms
Shall but refine this flesh
Till my triumphant spirit comes
To put it on afresh.
Now, once again, all of these are metaphors or illustrations. The human body is not really a seed, nor does it sleep in the biological sense, nor does it change its clothes, but each of these metaphors helps us to see both that in the resurrection it will be our very own body that rises to eternal life and that it will rise not the same body as before, but transformed, made perfectly suited for its new sphere.
And here, once again, the Bible is asserting a fundamental piece of the Christian world view. Against the Greek notion, which has been reproduced in many religions and many philosophies, including many in the world today, that disparages the physical nature of men and women, Paul asserts that salvation in Christ, the Son of God, embraces man in his totality, in his divinely created nature as a psycho-physical being. It is not only the soul that is made sinless and perfect, but the body as well. And it is not only as souls that men and women who have trusted in Christ in this world will live and love and serve the Lord forever in heaven, but as fully authentic human beings. In fact it is surely striking that Paul says nothing about the soul after death and before the resurrection; not here. For him the great day is not our death but the resurrection of the body.
The Apostles’ Creed, the earliest short summary of Christian teaching that has come down to us, has the same emphasis. In that creed we confess our faith in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and, then, the holy catholic church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. But, actually, the language of the creed is more emphatic than that in respect to our point. It does not say in its Greek original “resurrection of the body,” but, rather, “resurrection of the flesh.” Now, flesh was a word, in those days, that served in Christian usage to contradict this anti-body, anti-material philosophy that was so common in the world of that day. The resurrection of flesh and bones was Paul’s meaning and he wanted no one to misunderstand him.
And, following Paul, our catechism takes the same viewpoint: “What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?” And the answer comes: “The souls of the believers are at their death made perfect in holiness and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.”
Now that is Paul’s point and emphasis and it is consistent with the emphasis of the entire Bible. This is Christianity. You are a body and your body is you. And if Christ saves you, then he saves your body; if he transforms you and perfects you, he transforms and perfects your body. To be sure, no one knows precisely what this means in detail. How like our appearance here will be our appearance there? How old will we be? Questions such as those are never addressed in the Bible. But there is no mistaking its teaching that our bodies will rise to eternal life and be transformed at the coming again of the Son of God.
That is why, my friends, there is no cremation in the Bible, not for God’s people, even though Israel and the church after Pentecost rubbed shoulders with cultures that practiced cremation as a matter of course. This is why the Christian church has not cremated its dead for these 2000 years and why it is such a capital mistake for the church to begin to embrace this practice now. The Christian practice of burial and entombment has always been a confession of faith in the resurrection of the body, the self-same body. The Church knows, of course, that bodies rot away to nothing over time. They never thought that somehow the body had to be preserved for it to be raised at the last day. God created the body in the first place, he can recreate it and will. Some of their martyrs were burned to nothing, and they never doubted their resurrection. “The sea will give up its dead,” we read at the end of Rev. 20 and how much can be left of a body that died at sea thousands of years ago?
But the body is God’s special creation and the object of his love because it is the person. Over and again in the Bible personal pronouns are used to refer to the dead in their graves. The dead body of a human being is a “he” or “she”; not an “it”. It is not ours to destroy what remains of a person. And that body will live again. Take Paul’s metaphors seriously here in 1 Corinthians 15 – the body as a seed that will flower one day; as a person asleep soon to awake; as one ready to change his clothes and you will see why the church never thought it proper to destroy the human body by fire. No, they confessed their faith and hope in the resurrection by the tender treatment of the dead and their burial. And that doctrine and that practice has left its imprint on the world and needs to leave it once again. Our world, bereft of real hope as it is, does not need to see less of the Christian’s hope, but more of it.
Benjamin Franklin wrote this epitaph for his own gravestone:
The body of
Benjamin Franklin, printer
Like the cover of an old book,
Its contents worn out,
Stript of its lettering and gilding,
Lies here – food for worms:
Yet the work shall not be lost,
For it shall (as he believed) appear once more,
In a new and beautiful edition,
Corrected and revised
By the author.
Now, from what I know of Franklin’s religion and theology, I fear that he may have had false hopes. He had no living faith in Jesus Christ the Savior of sinners. All the dead will rise, but not all will rise to eternal life, to that life worthy to be called life. But, don’t you see, here was a man whose entire understanding of the future was shaped by the influence of the Christian culture in which he lived. His belief, even as a Christian unbeliever, converged with his instincts as a man made in the image of the eternal God, to give him the expectation of a bodily future. How much better it would be, how much nearer the truth men and women in our day would be, if they were encouraged, as they should be, to give rein to those divinely created intuitions that rest in their minds and hearts.
Then we can have conversations about truly serious things with many folk. We can say to them, “Yes the dead will rise, but how do we know that you will rise to live?” Where does victory over death come from? How does it happen? Who will raise us to new life? When will that occur? What will follow after?
Very few people really believe or really ever face the implications of the denial of life after death.
Is this the whole sad story of creation,
Told by its toiling millions o’er and o’er,
One glimpse of day, then black annihilation,
A sunlit journey to a sunless shore?
But, very few people also think long or hard about life after death. It is our calling as Christians to encourage them to do so, to search out what their own consciences tell them and to listen to the one message about the future of human beings that is clear, consistent, and founded upon real history. And if we do that for others, we will do it also for ourselves and live more and more in the hope of that great day when we shall rise to life again and feel, gloriously feel eternity and perfect holiness coursing through our bodies. Two of my loved ones sleep in a cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri. It is wonderful beyond words to think they will awake again to a new and far better life!
And soon enough I shall fall asleep too. And before I do, I will tell myself that, however long I may rest in my grave,
God my Redeemer lives,
And often from the skies
Looks down and watches all my dust
Till he shall bid it rise.