Read the passage here.
Our passage today continues chapter 15 which we began last week. And last week, we identified the specific issue governing the chapter at v. 12b: “…how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” And we also identified the likely contributing factor to the Corinthians’ faulty theology – that is, their proto-Gnostic leanings, or the proto-Gnostic influences of the larger culture.
In other words, the Corinthians do not believe in a bodily resurrection because they believe that the body – or the things of the physical world – are evil or corrupted. Salvation for them (at least in some respects) involves leaving the physical world behind. Therefore, how could salvation in Christ involve a physical resurrection.
And to this, Paul’s response is that Christ rose from the dead, therefore how could they not believe in a physical resurrection. Indeed, the very hope that they have in Christ is that all things will be renewed – including the physical body. And this is indicated and assured in Christ’s resurrection.
And that brings us to our passage today. And in short, Paul continues this line of argumentation, basically emphasizing that Christ’s resurrection points to new life.
For this part of chapter 15, the verse that helps us situate it is likely v. 35: “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’” The rest of the passage, then, probably constitutes Paul’s response to this supposed (or actual) question.
Now there’s some debate as to what question is actually being asked. Is the emphasis on the “how” (i.e. “how is it that…” or “in what way…”)? Is it on “the dead” (i.e. “how are the dead, of all things, raised?”)? Is the question about the result, that is the dead being raised (How are the dead raised? They’re dead!)? Is “With what kind of body…” a re-statement of the first clause (“How are the dead raised?”), or does it follow it?
Now given my understanding (assumptions) of the Corinthians’ position, and based on how Paul responds, I’m inclined to think that the question is something like, “how is it that the dead body is raised since it’s dead and since it’s a (physical) body?” “What kind of spiritual life can we look forward to if what we’re looking forward to is material (and the material is bad)?”
In other words, I think that what Paul is focusing on here is regeneration and restoration. That is, I think that Paul is addressing the Corinthians’ concerns by saying that the physical is not bad per se, but that it is fallen in its current state. But that through Jesus Christ, it will (as will all things) be restored.
However, I am likely over-simplifying. And at the same time, we don’t want to fall into the trap of trying to definitively determine that which we ultimately cannot know.
So having said all that, let’s focus instead on how Paul responds.
At first glance, some parts of this passage may give the impression that Paul is in fact affirming a Gnostic perspective here, contrary to what we’ve been saying.
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.1 Corinthians 15: 50
And what I want to say here, in short, is that Paul seems to be saying that flesh and blood – as it currently stands – cannot inherit the kingdom of God. So this verse actually serves to sum up Paul’s argument previously to this. And my point in addressing this now – when v. 50 is towards the end of our passage – is to pre-empt the question that may arise regarding a perceived Gnosticism. But let’s take a quick look at the basic flow of Paul’s argument through the entire passage.
Again, this section is introduced by Paul’s rhetorical question, “35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” The rest of the first paragraph, vv. 35-41, have Paul arguing for different kinds of bodies. And his main point, stated in v. 40, is that there are earthly bodies and there are heavenly bodies. And you can’t get from the one without the other “dying” – as he says in vv. 36-37. In other words, you can’t get to the heavenly bodies without the earthly bodies dying.
VV. 42-44(a), then, put this in the context of resurrection. With the passing of the current physical body, a new body arises – an imperishable one, or a “heavenly” one in the language of the previous paragraph. Here, Paul also uses the language, “a spiritual body” (v. 44). We should understand all these to mean the same thing.
VV. 44b-49 give us, essentially, Paul’s reasoning (that is, the theological basis for what he believes, or what he has presented). And again, we might read this almost as an endorsement of a Gnostic position. That is, it may sound like Paul is saying that there is an earthly or physical state of being and, in contrast, a spiritual or non-physical state of being. But without parsing it too closely, we should instead probably read this as something like the difference between a fallen, sinful state (that is the “natural” man) and a regenerated, restored being (the “spiritual” man).
So what we might understand is that Paul is not merely presenting his beliefs. Rather, he is setting his argument (of his beliefs) in the context of the Corinthians’ (Gnostic) assumptions. To put it another way, Paul is using the Corinthians’ categories (specifically of what it means to be “spiritual”) and using their terminology to correct their understanding. Specifically, for Paul, to be “spiritual” is not a matter of escaping the physical realm, of leaving behind our earthly bodies, but of being regenerated or restored through the blood and body of Jesus Christ.
This leads us to the next part of this passage (vv. 50-58). This regeneration is ultimately an eschatological promise. In other words, it is a post-death prospect. The fullness of Christ’s work is not completed in this time, but at the last day. Then,
52 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. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 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.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?1 Corinthians 15: 52-55
Where, O death, is your sting?”
Now what this does, besides correcting a basic misunderstanding of theology, is (probably – I’m making some assumptions here) admonish those Corinthians who believe that they have already become spiritual. As we have discussed, there are those who believe that they have already achieved completeness (or at least are much farther along the path). And apart from just being wrong, this is causing conflict and disorder in the congregation.
This mistaken belief is also leading to some ignoring the reality of sin and holiness. They think that because the body doesn’t matter, certain kinds of sinful behaviour don’t matter. And Paul is likely concerned that this arises out of a mistaken understanding of what it is that Christ is doing. Jesus isn’t doing away with the body, He is redeeming it. Therefore, holiness is not a matter of ignoring the body, but of living as those who are anticipating redemption.
So to review, chapter 15 as a whole deals with the issue of some in the Corinthian church denying the resurrection of the body. In the first part of the chapter, which we looked at last week, Paul discusses the centrality of this doctrine to the Christian faith, underscored by the fact that Christ example is the first who resurrected – signaling and inaugurating a new age. That is, in the old order, the inescapability of sin leads to death. In the new order, Jesus through His death and resurrection makes the way for life. This is the “gospel by which you are saved,” that Paul refers to at the beginning of the chapter (15:2) – the substance of which is that in Christ we have new life.
In our passage today, Paul deals with the question (which naturally follows), if we are resurrected, what kind of bodies will we have? Or more precisely, the question from the Gnostic Christians might be, “how will we have resurrected bodies (how will our bodies be resurrected) when bodies are bad?” And Paul responds in vv. 35-41 by saying it will be a different kind of body. And this makes sense if Christ has inaugurated a new age. That is, a new age requires a new body.
In vv. 42-44a, Paul specifies that this will be a “spiritual” body, picking up the language of the Corinthians, but using it in a different way. What Paul means by “spiritual” here is different, it’s more than what the Corinthians have in mind. And in 44b-49, he says that this spiritual body is a regenerated body. That is, though he doesn’t address this specifically, Paul may have in mind that the Corinthians are in some respect correct to point out the fallenness of the physical body (or if they are not correct, they are kind of on the right track). But again, Christ inaugurates a new reality, and thus we will have new bodies.
And in vv. 50-58, Paul points to the eschatological nature of all this. This seems to me to be Paul’s “Not that I have already obtained all this” argument (Phil. 3:12).
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.Philippians 3: 12
And again, I suspect that Paul might be pointing this out specifically to counter those Corinthians who think that they have already obtained all this.
Now while I am loathe to suggest that, because I like what Paul is saying in Philippians, he must be saying the same thing here, I am going to point to Philippians 3 to help us understand 1 Corinthians 15. That is, I think that in pointing to the future promise, the eschatological resurrection, in light of what seems to be going on in Corinth, Paul wants to encourage the Corinthians (and therefore us) to a like position:
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.Philippians 3: 12-14
In short, Paul might be saying something like, “don’t think that we have already obtained all this (and in the Corinthians’ case, that others have not), but press on toward the goal.”
And all this is predicated on Paul’s conviction of the centrality of the Resurrection of Christ. Because Christ’s resurrection points to and guarantees our own. Our resurrection is the eschatological promise – the promise of what is ultimately to come. We will one day fully take hold of the new life in Christ. And the eschatological promise guaranteed to us by Christ speaks into our present reality. It reaches back through time and informs how we live, how we are called to be Christ’s people today.
And so, Paul’s words at the end of the chapter take on remarkable significance. Paul says that our future is guaranteed in Christ. Death has been defeated and we will have new life.
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.1 Corinthians 15: 58
So for Paul, how we make our way in this world, how we live in the in-between time, how we work out our mission and our calling, is predicated on the promise that we are guaranteed in Christ.
Over the past while I’ve been thinking a lot about hope. And how difficult it is to navigate life without hope.
We can put up with almost anything if we can hold onto hope. We can put up with almost anything if we know that one day the hardship will end, that a better day will come.
Conversely, if we have no hope, the smallest things can be overwhelming. Without hope, the difficulties of life accumulate, the weight of life grows each day until suddenly you are crushed beneath them.
I wonder how those who have no hope navigate life without ultimately falling into nihilism or despair. Because surely one’s hope or lack thereof shapes how we experience and navigate life. How could it not? But we do not live as those who have no hope. We do not look to the end as those who have no hope. We have the ultimate hope, the only hope, in Christ Jesus. And this isn’t wishful thinking. We’re not saying, “I hope things will get better,” as an exercise in unfounded optimism. Rather, our hope is assured. Our hope is certain. Our hope is guaranteed not by what we have done, not by what we might earn, but because of the person and work of Jesus Christ. And as He has already come, we know that He is coming again. And until then, the grace of the Lord Jesus be with His people.