Some things are hard to believe. But that doesn’t make them unbelievable.
For example, there are two mountains in Africa, near the equator, with snow on them all year round: Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro. And when the first European explorer to see Kilimanjaro came back to London, and told the Royal Geographical Society that there was snow on the equator, they said, “That’s unbelievable. We cannot believe there is snow in equatorial Africa.” But the fact that something is hard to believe doesn’t make it unbelievable.
And in 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul was originally writing to a church in Corinth who were finding it hard to believe what he’d taught about life after death. We looked at the first half of chapter 15 two weeks ago. This morning we’re looking at the second half. So let me remind you of the context. In 1 Corinthians 15.12, Paul puts his finger on the problem:
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
‘Some’ of the Corinthians were saying, “There is no resurrection of the dead, like Paul talks about.” Probably some said that because they had a really crude idea of corpses coming back to life, like in the Hammer House of Horror films. But probably some also felt the pressure of non-Christians mocking the whole idea of bodily life after death. Whatever the reason, v12, some said, “There is no resurrection of the dead.”
So in the first half of chapter 15, Paul argues with them from the historical fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. In verses 1-11 he reminds them that Jesus rose bodily and that they’d believed that. And he argues that if Jesus rose bodily, it follows that we, too, can and will rise bodily from the dead - if we put our trust in him. But Paul knows that they’re in this illogical position not because they’ve suddenly begun to doubt the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, but because they’ve got intellectual difficulties about what life after death would be like. They find it hard to believe, hard to conceive of, hard to imagine. But, as I’ve said, the fact that something is hard to believe doesn’t make it unbelievable. And in the second half of chapter 15 Paul sets out to help them - and us - to get our minds around the Biblical view of life after death. And he says,
First, THE RESURRECTION OF OUR BODIES IS NOT UNBELIEVABLE (v35-49)
But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” (v35)
And it’s important to understand the ‘tone’ of that question. It’s mocking. It’s sceptical. It’s saying, “So God’s really going to collect together all the molecules from each individual body and stick them together again, is he?! What if you were an organ donor? Who gets the heart or the kidney at the resurrection?!” Verse 36:
How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.
Paul’s answer there is a rebuke: “How foolish!” (literally, it’s even more blunt. Literally, it’s “You fool!”). And the word ‘fool’ in the Bible doesn’t mean ‘stupid’, ‘lacking intelligence’. It means the person who’s left God out of his or her thinking, as in Psalm 14:
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God”… (Psalm 14.1)
The fool leaves God out of his thinking. Paul’s talking about the rationalistic, sceptical, mocking person who can only think inside the narrow little box of the humanly possible, the humanly imaginable, what they’ve experienced. And to them the resurrection of the body is unbelievable. To which Paul says, “No. It may be hard to believe; we can’t get our minds fully around it, but it’s not unbelievable.” And in vv35-49 Paul is out to help us believe it. To start with, he says:
a) Illustrations from the present world help us conceive of the resurrection of the body (v36-44):
While the fool says, “There is no God”, the right thinking person says, “There is a Creator God.” So here come two illustrations from the present, created world. Illustration number 1 is in vv36-38:
36How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.
So Paul is saying that in the present, created world, God the Creator uses a kind of death-and-resurrection process with seeds. Eg, the acorn isn’t the oak tree, but sow an acorn in the ground (where the acorn ‘dies’) and it’s ‘raised up’ as an oak tree. There’s a process, a transformation, involving continuity and yet massive discontinuity – and it’s not easy to get your head around. But it’s true. It happens. Then illustration number 2 is in vv39-41:
39All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendour of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendour of the earthly bodies is another. 41The sun has one kind of splendour, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendour.
So Paul is saying that in the present created world, the Lord has designed a whole lot of bodies each adapted to a different environment – eg, us and fish - we have different bodies for different environments. If I dived into the Tyne and talked to a passing salmon, the salmon would not easily get its head around the idea that human beings live on land, breathe air, experience gravity outside of water, and walk and run and jump and play football. The salmon would not find it easy to get its mind around that kind of existence. But it’s true. It happens.
So now Paul applies his illustrations from the present created world to life after death, v42:
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. (v42a)
Ie, ‘As it is in these examples from the present created world, so will it be with our resurrection from the dead. It’ll be a process of transformation, involving continuity and yet massive discontinuity; a body belonging in the sinful, fallen world will become a body adapted to life in a perfect life beyond Jesus’ second coming:
42So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
The ‘body that is sown’ means the body we have in this world, and which dies because it’s ‘perishable’ – ie, under judgement for sin and therefore mortal, running down, wearing out. But ‘it is raised imperishable’ – no longer mortal or running down or wearing out. Just think of it. No more pain, no more glasses, no more being long-term off sick, no more transplants, no more medication, no more wheelchairs and walking sticks, no looking back to when you used to be young and fit. The body is, v43, ‘sown in dishonour’, ie in this life it’s sinful and spoiled; but ‘it is raised in glory’, ie, sin-free, perfectly reflecting the character and behaviour of God himself. It is ‘sown in weakness’, ie, in this life we’re unable to be what we ought to be; but in the next ‘it is raised in power’ – we will be able to be what we were made and meant to be. ‘It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.’
The story is told of two caterpillars feeding on a leaf. There’s a sudden rush of wind and a beautiful butterfly lands on the leaf beside them. And the caterpillars look at it in all its gleaming glory, until it takes off again. And after a thoughtful silence, one of the caterpillars says wistfully to the other, “You know, I’d love to go up in one of those one day.” And of course the irony is: if only he knew it, he will – by that dramatic process of bodily transformation called metamorphosis. And like those caterpillars we find ourselves wistfully saying things like this: “I’d love to be free of pain. I’d love to have a young, fit body again – or even, for the first time. I’d love to be free of sin and the struggle against sin.” Well, we will - by the even more dramatic process of bodily transformation called resurrection, when we die.
Now I know that ‘spiritual body’ sounds like a contradiction in terms, like ‘dry water’ or ‘Newcastle summer’. It sounds like ‘spirit’ is the opposite of ‘body’. But by ‘spiritual body’ Paul means a body transformed by the Holy Spirit, fit for life in the kingdom of God - life after this life. And if we find it hard to get our heads round that, the place to go is: the resurrection of Jesus himself. Look back to vv3-5 of this chapter:
3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
So, did the resurrected Jesus have a body? Yes. Was it physical in some way? Yes: he invited one of the apostles, Thomas (who doubted that Jesus had risen), to touch him (John 20.24-28). Was it the same body as the one they’d known him in before his death on the cross? No: he appeared in rooms with the doors locked; he was no longer limited by the conditions of space and time in the way that we are. So what does that all add up to? Well, that he wasn’t just resuscitated back onto this side of death in the kind of body he used to have and which we have. Rather, he was resurrected beyond death into a body transformed for life the other side. He had a new body, which belonged to the kingdom of God, rather than to the here-and-now. And in those appearances, he was coming back to where he no longer belonged, as evidence for us that he really had beaten death. And that’s the kind of body we’ll have if we’re trusting in Jesus. That’s the ‘prototype’, if you like. We won’t be disembodied spirits, we’ll have resurrection bodies. So we’ll still be individuals – you still recognisable as you, me still recognisable as me. Which is very unlike the idea of the eastern religions that we’re all like individual drops of water now, and when we die we’ll merge into one great ‘ocean’ of consciousness, and lose our individuality completely.
So, says Paul, illustrations from the present world help us conceive of the resurrection of the body. But he then goes on to say that:
b) The bodily resurrection of Jesus is ultimately why we believe in the resurrection of our own bodies (v45-49):
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. (v44)
Why does he ultimately believe that? The answer is in vv45-49:
So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. (v45)
The ‘first man, Adam’, was created then rebelled against God and dragged the whole human race into the same rebellion and under the judgement of mortality. The ‘last Adam’, Jesus, went to the cross for our sins, to take the judgement we deserve on himself. And then he was raised out from under that judgment to show he’d paid it off. And from where he is now, back in heaven, by his Spirit he puts spiritual life into us, and forgives us and brings us back into relationship with God. Now read on:
46The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. 48As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven. (vv46-49)
Paul is saying that if we trust in Jesus, we have, as it were, a foot in both Adam and Jesus. I used to work in Cambridge and one of my favourite sights was of a tourist about to go punting on the river – standing with one foot on the bank of the river and one foot in the punt (the boat), with the punt slowly drifting away from the bank. And the gap between punt and bank would widen, and the tourist’s eyes would widen and finally he would disappear with a satisfying splash as his legs reached maximum stretching capacity.
Well, we have a foot in Adam. We are linked with Adam and share his sinfulness and therefore his mortality. But if we’re believers, we also have a foot in Christ. We are linked with Jesus and share, or will share, his sinless glory. Which means there’s a ‘now and not yet’ side to being a Christian.
As far as the ‘now’ goes: if we’re going to be bodily like Jesus in heaven – gloriously sin-free – then we should be ‘practising’ for that sin-free existence now. We should be aiming to be like Jesus now because that’s our ultimate future. And being like Jesus now is a bodily thing. The Corinthians had funny ideas about what it meant to be ‘spiritual’ – they thought it was all about praying and experiencing God in meetings and had little to do with everyday, material life. But ‘being spiritual’ is very down to earth, very concrete, very material. It’s about what we say with our tongues, what we look at with our eyes (and how we look), what we listen to with our ears, how we handle things – like money, cars, TV’s, how we use our bodies sexually, how we eat, drink, share, give. Being ‘spiritual’ is about the godly use of my body in this physical world. It’s not ‘airy fairy’.
But there is the ‘not yet’. Sometimes you hear people say things like this: “If the same Spirit that lived in Jesus lives in us, surely we can be completely like Jesus now.” But that’s not true. They’ve forgotten our ‘link’ to Adam - we are still sinful, fallen people – but indwelt by the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit only begins to change us in this life; we’ll only be completely like Jesus beyond this life.
Secondly, Paul says, THE RESURRECTION OF OUR BODIES IS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY (v50-58)
Resurrection, complete transformation, re-creation is absolutely necessary if we are to enter the kingdom of God:
I declare to you, brothers [and sisters], that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. (v50)
The kingdom of God is where everyone willingly and perfectly submits to God as King of their lives. That situation was last seen in the Garden of Eden before the fall. It will only be seen again beyond the second coming of Jesus. And if any of us were to go there as we are, we’d instantly ruin it, since we’d bring sin into it and it would cease to be the kingdom of God. So, our resurrection – that final transforming work of the Spirit at the end of our lives on earth - is absolutely necessary.
Now as I’ve said, the Corinthians had some funny ideas. They thought that since they’d become Christians and received God’s Spirit to live in them, they were now completely OK. They thought all they needed was to be set free from their bodies. They had this idea that a human being is like a peanut. You know how whole peanuts are two separate halves sort of stuck together. Well, the Corinthians thought that a human being was two separate halves stuck together – a ‘body half’ and a ‘spirit half’. And they thought that their ‘spirit half’ was now completely fine and that their big problem was still having the ‘body half’. But Paul says that ‘peanut’ way of looking at ourselves is all wrong. We’re not a ‘body half’ and a ‘spirit half’. We’re a spirit-body unity. And our problem is not our bodies. Our problem is in our spirits, in our hearts, in the very centre of our personalities. So, eg, it’s not my tongue that’s the problem when I tell a lie or say something harsh; the problem is with me, the one who ‘uses’ my tongue. Or, eg, it’s not my eye that’s the problem when I look at something I shouldn’t, or look in the wrong way. The problem is with me, the one who ‘uses’ my eye. It’s me that needs changing. I’m not a good person trapped in a bad body (as if the body is the problem half). No, I’m a whole, sinful person who needs to be complete changed. So Paul goes on, v51:
51Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed - 52in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. (vv51-53)
By ‘sleep’ in v51, Paul means ‘die’. Most Christians will have to die - before Jesus’ second coming. But not all. Some will be alive when Jesus comes again. But either way, Paul says, ‘we will all be changed’. God will fully and finally get sinfulness out of us. So we’ll go from being ‘perishable’ (ie, mortal - because there’s still sin in me and sin is under judgement) to being ‘imperishable’ (ie, without sin and therefore free from the judgement of mortality). Read on, v54:
54When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." 55"Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" 56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (vv54-57)
In the year I spent teaching in Kenya I was stung by a scorpion. If it had been a bigger, better scorpion I might not be here today. Certainly if I’d been bitten by some of the snakes that appeared in and around my house, I would not be here. We had puff adders around, and if their venom enters your system, you have 12 hours to live. That’s it. Death is inevitable. And in Paul’s picture in vv54-57, the venom or poison in our spiritual systems is ‘sin’ – ie, the tendency to sin that we do in fact follow into sinful practice. And death is inevitable – physical death and then the penalty of separation from God that should follow it.
But Jesus’ death has saved us from that penalty for sin. So when we who trust in him die physically, we’ll be welcomed, rather than turned away. But Jesus has not yet saved us from the presence of sin. Sin is still in our spiritual systems, we still sin,0 and therefore we still lie under the blanket judgement of mortality. So, like everyone else, we still have to pass through physical death. But for those who trust in Christ it’s a death which has had its sting drawn – a bit like a bee that’s stung once, lost its sting and can’t actually do you any harm.
It’s like when you were a child and you were being chased by a bee and you ran to one of your parents and they gathered you in their arms to protect you, and got stung themselves. And having got stung they said to you, “It’s OK now. It can’t sting you.” In the same way, Jesus was ‘stung’ for us when he died on the cross, which means that although we who trust in him still face physical death, for us it is a ‘stingless’ death. For Jesus, it wasn’t – it was the full, awful sting of God-forsaken hell – so that for us, it might be the ‘stingless’ passage to heaven.
So, if our trust is in Jesus, let’s have confidence in the face of death. Let’s not fear it for what lies beyond it. Verse 51 says the Lord wants us to think of death like ‘sleep’. And that’s why the word ‘cemetery’ was first applied by Christians to burial grounds. ‘Cemetery’ is simply the Latin word for ‘dormitory’ – so Christians raided that word to re-define burial grounds as communal sleeping places. And just as sleep, and the new day and new energy beyond it, is something to look forward to, so (says Paul) is death. It’ll be waking up into a new world with a new body and a new ability, finally, to be the people we were made and meant to be. Verse 58:
Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.
So, if we’re trusting in Jesus – let’s not be moved from the gospel -either by others’ scepticism, or by our own doubts. There is evidence for our resurrection, in the resurrection of Jesus. It’s not just wishful thinking. It’s anchored in that great event 2000 years ago that really happened. And although the whole idea of resurrection may be hard to believe, hard to get our minds around - that’s not to say it’s unbelievable.
And if we’re trusting Jesus – let’s work for the gospel. Because that kind of labour is not ‘in vain’. In fact, it’s the only kind of labour in this world that’s not ultimately ‘in vain’ The results of all other work are ultimately ‘in vain’. Eg, doing the dusting or the washing – it’ll ultimately get dirty again. The engineer who builds a bridge – it’ll ultimately fall down or be demolished. The medics here – every patient of yours will ultimately die. And so on. Don’t get me wrong: the way we do those things is of ultimate value in God’s sight – the servant heart with which we do the dusting or the washing; the business integrity of the engineer; the patient-care with which we treat people. But the results won’t ultimately last, will they?
The only work whose results are ultimately lasting - everlasting – is God’s work. And God is working through us spreading and teaching the gospel to bring people into his kingdom and to build them up in him. And nothing that goes into that enterprise – evangelism and Bible teaching of every shape and form, prayer, spending money, energy and time - is ‘in vain’.
Verse 58 is a reminder that this is not just an ‘academic’ subject. In fact, there is nothing more relevant. Not just because we’ll all have to die ourselves (unless Jesus returns first), but because nothing will shape our use of this life more than our beliefs about the next:
Only one life - ‘twill soon be past;
Only what’s done for Christ will last.