by Shane Scott
In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul responds to those at Corinth who claimed that there would be no bodily resurrection. The text doesn’t explain exactly why some denied the resurrection, but based on what we know about the world of the first century, it’s pretty easy to diagnose part of the problem. Most of the Corinthians had been pagan, and with that religion came a much different view of the world than the one revealed by the God of Abraham. In the mind of pagans, the world was inherently corrupt, and flesh and blood bodies were like a prison from which we needed to escape. But Genesis says that God’s creation is good, that God made human beings in his image, and that this is not a bad world to escape but a good world to redeem. And included in that redemption will be our bodies.
In the minds of pagans, though, the notion of a resurrection of the body was absurd, a giant step backward. It was inconceivable that God would have an embodied existence in store for us (cf Acts 17:32). That seems to be the basis of the objection on the lips of the Corinthians, according to v. 35-
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?”
Since our culture is much more like the pagan world than the biblical worldview, maybe some of us have the same question. How is it possible that a lifeless body will live again, much less be suited for heaven?
But Paul has no sympathy for these questions. His response in v. 36 is “You foolish person!” Have you ever heard a teacher say, there are no stupid questions? Well, Paul not only thinks there are foolish questions, he thinks there are foolish questioners! Why such a harsh rebuke? Because in the Scriptures, a “fool” is not someone who’s dumb. It’s a person who doesn’t take God into account. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1).
And the only reason a person would doubt that the dead can be raised, or that they can be transformed for glory, is by making the same mistake the Sadducees did in a similar dispute with Jesus. Remember what the Lord said their mistake was? “You are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29).
The How of the Resurrection
So here is what Paul says to the skeptical Corinthians about HOW the resurrection will take place.
What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body (15:36b-30).
You know that previously in this book Paul said that he planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the increase. The law of sowing and reaping is God’s providence in action. And in that simple process we see something buried, a seed, but then something rise, a plant. And if you assumed that you could tell what a plant would look like based simply on the appearance of the seed, you’d be grossly mistaken, because God transforms that seed to become something much greater, a stalk of grain, or a delicious apple, or a beautiful rose.
Now, if God transforms one sort of life into another, vastly greater kind of life, all as part of his ordinary sustenance of the world, why would we think he couldn’t do the same with our bodily existence? Especially because, as Paul goes on to point out, we know that God is capable of creating all sorts of bodies, each suited for its environment (15:39-40). God originally created life where there was none, life in a dazzling diversity of glory, tailored to its habitat throughout the heavens and the earth. Why, then, would we deny God’s power to renew life where there had once been life, and transform it for new heavens and earth? Of course God can do this. So that’s HOW the resurrection will happen – by God’s power.
The What of the Resurrection
But WHAT will the resurrection body be like? These bodies are perishable – like perishable food, they have an expiration date, which Paul sensed was at hand in 2 Timothy. They are subject to dishonor, through shameful ill-treatment like Paul experienced in his travels. They are weakened by illness and deformity, such as Paul’s thorn in the flesh. That’s what the body is like in its natural state. But that’s not what it will be like in its resurrection state. Paul says:
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body (15:42-44).
A rose excels the seed of a rose bush so vibrantly that’s it is almost hard to imagine the one comes from the other – but it does, by God’s power. And the resurrection body will so exceed this body it will be astonishing that the one comes from the other – but it will, by God’s power. The resurrection body won’t be like this natural body, it will be “spiritual.”
What does that mean? The contrast here is not between something material and tangible versus something immaterial and ethereal (like Casper the Ghost). Instead, it’s like the difference between a gas engine and an electric engine – the difference is not so much what it’s made of, but what the source of its power is. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul says that the Israelites in the wilderness ate “spiritual” food and drank “spiritual” water. That food and water were tangible, but they weren’t natural, but supernatural, provided by the Spirit. Likewise, when Paul says that the resurrection body is not natural but spiritual, he means that it will be supernaturally powered by the Spirit.
Through Adam we all receive our earthly bodies as a part of the cycle of nature, made for this creation – that’s our first body. But through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, the “man of heaven,” we shall be transformed to receive our second bodies, fit for the new creation (15:45-48). It is then that Christlikeness is completed (15:49).
That’s WHAT the resurrection will be like – imperishable, glorious, powerful, Spirit-powered life like Christ’s.
The When of the Resurrection
What an exciting prospect, so exciting we want to know WHEN will this happen?
I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality (15:50-53).
There will be a last trumpet blast, a last manifestation of the presence of God, and when that time comes, this glorious transformation will happen when a split second opens up into eternity. In that twinkling of an eye, Paul says that all of the great promises of the OT will finally be fulfilled, like this one from Isaiah – “Death is swallowed up in victory” (15:54b, quoting Isaiah 25:8). Even the judgments of the OT will be transformed into the judgment on death itself, like this taunt from Hosea – “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (15:55, quoting Hosea 13:14).
Jesus has taken all the venomous sin of the scorpion’s sting and destroyed it. And he has also broken the power of death itself, and in his resurrection provided the promise that someday all of us will be raised to glorious new life.
“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:57).
That future victory is so certain, Paul speaks of it as happening in the present, not that God “will give us the victory,” but “gives us the victory.” Part of that victory is ours now as we embrace the Savior’s antidote to sin. But part of it is yet to come. And in the meantime, emboldened by the triumph of Christ, here’s what we are to do:
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 (15:58).
Earlier in the chapter, Paul said that if Christ wasn’t raised, his preaching was vain and their faith was vain. But because Christ has been raised, no one’s labor is in vain in the Lord. The message of the resurrection is that what we do here, in this body, will make an eternal difference through Christ.