In this post-Easter week, we conclude our look at Paul’s discussion of the resurrection, in 1 Corinthians 15.
Fear and hope are two of the great motivators. Fear of what we have to lose, and hope of what we have to gain. We’re used to advertisers and politicians playing on these emotions, but it’s not a new thing. The great Greek and Roman orators (with whose work Paul would have been familiar) saw these as the two primary motivations in play when persuading an audience.
Early in 1 Corinthians 15, we’ve seen Paul build a rational case that if there is no resurrection of the dead, there is no hope. He carefully shows the Corinthians what they stand to lose if they abandon the Christian teaching about a bodily resurrection, and conform to Greek ideas about the soul and body. The first part of the chapter (esp. verses 12-19) was designed to make them (rightly) fear losing the very basis of their faith.
But fear without any corresponding hope is useless, says Aristotle:For it is a necessary incentive for fear that there should be some hope of being saved from the cause of their distress. A sign of this is that fear makes men deliberate, whereas no-one deliberates about things that are hopeless. (Aristotle, Rhetoric 5.14).
So in this last part of the chapter (and before he changes subject in the letter), Paul gives the counterpoint to this: the Christian hope that since Christ was raised, we too will be raised. And since our resurrected bodies will be different and more glorious than our natural bodies (see yesterday‘s text), we will be fit to enter the kingdom of God:1 Corinthians 15:50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.
If we weren’t resurrected with a more glorious, imperishable, powerful body, we wouldn’t be fit for the age to come. But as Paul said in the preceding verses – we will be raised with a spiritual body.
Well, those of us who happened to be dead at the time. But not everyone will be. What happens to them? Short answer: their bodies will be changed, too. In an instant, when Christ returns:1 Corinthians 15:51-52 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in 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.
Thus both the dead in Christ – and those still alive – will be made ready to enter the age to come. Paul describes it like putting on the right clothing for the event, so you won’t look out of place:1 Corinthians 15:53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.
And when this happens, death itself will be dead:1 Corinthians 15:54-55 When 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.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
Here, Paul has stitched two Old Testament phrases together. And the context of the two quotes is interesting, particularly if you’ve been following our previous series this year on Coffee with the King. Both are from texts connected to the return of Israel from exile. The first, from Isaiah, is about the joyful feasting and everlasting “wellness” that was associated with it:Isaiah 25:6-9 On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples,a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken. In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”
The second is from Hosea, and is (probably) a negative in its original context, in which God says he will not rescue his rebellious people:Hosea 13:14 Will I deliver this people from the power of the grave? Will I redeem them from death? Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?
But in 1 Corinthians, the ominous summoning of the power of death is overturned, instead being a victory “taunt” about the death of death – the kind of song people would sing once their enemies had been defeated and couldn’t hurt them anymore.1 Corinthians 15:55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
And what is the “sting” or power of death?1 Corinthians 15:56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
This seems to be a shorthand version of what Paul says in Romans 7:Romans 7:7-11 What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.
But now, Christ has dealt with that through his life, death, and resurrection: fulfilling the law, paying the penalty for sin, and defeating death:1 Corinthians 15:57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(Which is almost exactly what he says at the end of Romans 7, too: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”)
So to reiterate the essence of the chapter: Christ has been raised, so we will be, too. Our bodies will become immortal, because Christ has defeated death!
But Paul doesn’t leave this as some kind of abstract point of theology. Right doctrine always should result in right action:1 Corinthians 15:58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
In other words, don’t be swayed from the truth by those who mock the idea of resurrection – whether it be by condescending Greek philosophers in the town stoa, or by patronising atheists in the media. Instead, put your heart and soul (and body!) into the work of the kingdom, knowing that those who are in Christ stand to gain so much.
To think about
Have you ever begun to give up on the Christian hope of resurrection? If so, what influenced you in that direction? What reasons do you have to resist that drift?
What most excites you about the Christian hope?
This tour through 1 Corinthians 15 has presumed one thing: that the “tradition” Paul cites in verses 3-7 is true – that Jesus did rise from the dead and appear to many people. If you’re not convinced, or haven’t really looked into the evidence, my first suggestion is to read John Dickson’s book The Christ Files, or the four episode TV series on DVD.