Easter Praise - 1 Corinthians 15:35-58
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Professor Sir Norman Anderson was a distinguished lawyer. He was also a Christian. He made as his specialist study the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. And his was a faith that had been sorely tested for he and his wife Pat lived to see their three adult children die. Their son, Hugh, was a brilliant mathematician at Cambridge. He was 21 years old when he died of cancer. A few days later, Professor Anderson gave the Thought for the Day on Radio 4. After explaining why he was convinced that God raised Jesus from the dead, he said, ‘On this I am prepared to stake my life. In this faith my son died, after saying, “I’m drawing near my Lord.” I am convinced that he was not mistaken.’ And in the passage we are looking at together tonight, the apostle Paul wants us to be convinced that we are not mistaken either in our belief that because of Jesus’ resurrection we can be sure of our resurrection too.
And to help us understand how this is so, Paul first of all draws a graphic picture, vv 35-44. You see, Paul begins by anticipating two questions which people are bound to ask about the resurrection of the dead: ‘How are the dead raised?’ and ‘With what sort of body are they raised?’ -v 35. The first question has in effect already been answered earlier on as he talked about Jesus’ resurrection. So back in v 3 he writes: ‘For 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. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.’ It was the power of God which raised him bodily from the tomb. And so the same power which was at work on the third day in Christ will also be at work on the last day in Christians. That is all we need to know. The second question he considers to be a little on the dim side- ‘How foolish’ he says. Why? Well, for one thing the kind of objector he has in mind is not so much the honest enquirer, but the cynic who considers a bodily resurrection impossible anyway-the tone I guess, would be a disbelieving scoff, a sneering: ‘ Oh yes, with what kind of body then? Are we talking about reanimation of the dead ala Frankenstein, does God somehow use these physical bones of ours as a basis for a new body reassembling them in some celestial body- part factory? If so then what about those who evaporate in a nuclear explosion or have been cremated? There aren’t any parts left to put together in their case’ What do you say to that? Well, Paul shows that with a little thought and imagination it is not so far fetched as it may seem. Just look around you and think, says Paul. Take a plant for example-v37. Supposing you were some visitor from outer space and you had never seen a field of wheat before. You look at the beauty of the golden ears of corn, the complexity of the stem and the leaves, its effective root structure and the like. And then someone shows you a dried shrivelled up seed and says, ‘Did you realise that all of that comes from this?’ ‘Get away’ our extraterrestrial visitor would say in Martianees- ‘impossible’. It would take some believing wouldn't it because what you start off with is SO different to what you end up with. Well, it will be like that with our resurrection.
And there are two points Paul is making here when he says ‘What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, but God gives the body he has determined.’ The first point is that there is both continuity and difference between what dies and what is raised to life. The adult wheat does come from that actual seed and is one with it, but as it grows it becomes transformed and so is different to it. That is what it will be like with our resurrected bodies, says Paul. The individual persons we are now, which at the moment have these particular bodies-some large, some thin, some tall, some short, the same persons we are now are going are going to be re-embodied in the future. Same person, different body, just like it is the same wheat but in two different forms- what you start off with- the seed and what you end up with-the crop.
The second point is that the burying of the seed in the earth is similar to the burying a body in the ground and yet the crop springs up from it-and the resurrection is similar in that respect too.
But then Paul takes the picture further. Look at biological life, he says-v39. Do all creatures have the same kind of body? Hardly. Fish have bodies suited to an aquatic environment; birds bodies suited for an aerial environment, humans have bodies suited to a terrestrial environment and so on. You try and mix them up and you have trouble. It reminds me of a sketch that the comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore once performed. Dudley Moore was a TV interviewer, like Parkinson, and he had as his guest Sir Arthur Grebe-Streebling- played by Peter Cook, who had spent all his life trying to teach ravens to swim under water. For thirty years he had been doing this, he said. And when asked if he had been successful, he replied- No, the poor little things would just flutter off my wrist as I held them under the water and off they went to a watery grave! The bodies of birds with feathers and beaks are made for the air, the bodies of fish with scales and gills are for the sea. Well, these bodies of ours are going to have to be changed if they are going to inhabit a brand new, glorified existence in God’s presence in the new heaven and the new earth. It stands to reason.
The same principle applies when you look at what he calls, ‘heavenly bodies’. He is talking about the stars and the planets. These are not all the same-they differ too in appearance. But here he takes the imagery further by talking about different ‘degrees of splendour’- v 41- you look into a clear winter’s night sky and you will see this- some stars dazzle, others give off but a faint twinkle. Well, just imagine if you can, the splendour of the resurrected body God is going to give you to fit in with the splendour of heaven. Why even Venus will appear dull in comparison with what God has in store for you as a believer.
And so he comes to the purpose of the picture- v 42 ‘So will it be with the resurrection of the dead’. Same person, but different body and how different! Look at the contrasts- sown in corruption (slowed down by old age, all the aches and twinges, and what doesn’t hurt doesn’t move-that is the way it is now going for me )- but- raised imperishable; sown in dishonour (sinful) raised in glory (sinless); sown in weakness ( falling apart) raised in power (going from strength to strength).’ This is the way CS Lewis puts it- and this is your future if you a Christian: ‘This God is going to take the feeblest and the filthiest of us and turn us into dazzling, radiant immortal creatures pulsating with all the energy and joy and wisdom and love that we could possibly imagine. He’s going to turn us into bright stainless mirrors that reflect back his character perfectly.’ That is exactly what Paul is getting at.
But you will have noticed one further contrast which I missed out- v44 ‘It is sown a natural body and it is raised a spiritual body.’ What is that all about? Are we talking about a spiritual resurrection after all, rather than a bodily one- with phantom spirits floating around in some twilight zone? Well, no. And in fact this is something which Paul develops in the next section- a glorious contrast, vv 44b- 50.
The way these verses have been translated is a little misleading. It literally reads, ‘it is sown a soulish body (soma psuchikon) and raised a spiritual body (soma pneumatikon). It is not referring to our composition- spiritual stuff as opposed to material stuff, after all Paul does not talk about a material body but a soulish body. Rather, it refers to our orientation, the soul is our inner life what we live for, what guides our thinking and values which is linked to the type of sphere we inhabit. We inhabit the realm of this world, which is also fallen and corrupted with sin and has self at the centre, - that is why we are soulish people. But then there is going to be a new realm we are going to live in, one which is sinless and where our thoughts and actions will naturally gravitate towards God and his values- that is where we will have spiritual bodies-God orientated bodies. But in both spheres we still have bodies- that is the point. While on earth our bodies are soulish- all to do with living in the here and now, corrupted and selfish, but in the new heaven and new earth our bodies will be spiritual- living for God and the ‘there and then’. Can you imagine waking up in heaven and instead of your mind immediately thinking about what the day has in store for you, thinking instead, what the day has in store with God? How as a matter of course your heart just lovingly goes out towards other human beings around you, pondering their interests and well being? That is what it will be like when we have ‘spiritual bodies’ - God directed bodies-now isn’t that a wonderful prospect?
And this is underscored by the contrast Paul makes between the first man, Adam, who was from the earth, made to inhabit this world, made up of this world’s stuff-dust, who became a life giving being. But Jesus, the second Adam, came from a different sphere, heaven, who took on human flesh when he became incarnate, and by his death and resurrection gives new life, so that, as it says in v49, we shall bear the ‘likeness of the man from heaven’- that is, he who came from heaven, became human, died, was buried, was raised with a transformed body now fit for heaven to which he has returned, and he will also give to those who trust him a body ,which like his, will be fit to inhabit heaven- a ‘spiritual body’- still made out of stuff- molecules- but transformed in such a way, that there is no sin, but made into a person whose entire being is simply out and out full of love for God. Just like Jesus in fact.
And that is why Paul says in v 50 that ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven’- that is ,our sinful, soulish, human nature as it is presently constituted, that which is perishable, has got to undergo a transformation fit for God’s presence. And we already have some idea of what that looks like because of Jesus resurrection. The body which was laid in the tomb was the same body which it came out of the tomb but transformed. The resurrected body of Jesus was a physical body in that he was able to eat fish, but also it was able to pass through locked doors- so transformed, not bound by space and time. And as we look at the vision of the ascended Jesus in the Book of Revelation, we still see Jesus with a body but one so wonderfully glorified that John is almost blinded by it and certainly overawed by it. The 19th century American preacher Jonathan Edwards, tries to describe the change which will happen to us in heaven like this: ‘Heaven-’ the glorified spirits will grow in holiness and happiness in eternity. Heaven-what beautiful and fragrant flowers will there be reflecting all the sweetness of the Son of God. Heaven- Christians love for one another will be such that it will thrill them that Jesus Christ loves other Christians and will fill them with joy to see him showing his love to them. Heaven-is the direct reverse of what it is on earth, for there by length of time things become more and more youthful, more vigorous, active, tender and beautiful.’
Now why is it so important to believe in the resurrection of the body and not just the spirit? Well, it is simply this: if our bodies were not resurrected, our salvation would be incomplete; God would not have ensured a full redemption. Who is Melvin Tinker that Jesus came to save? He is not some disembodied personality. My body is as much me, as my mind and spirit. Who I am, can only be expressed and known through this body. Why else do you think that the second person of the Trinity was born as a human? He became a full human being in order to redeem full human beings. Sure, this body needs changing, like my attitudes and outlook needs changing if am going to live with God for ever, but it does not mean that my body needs abandoning.
However, there is a very important difference between Jesus resurrection and ours. His body did not see full decay. Most of ours will. Jesus resurrection took place in time on the Third day; our resurrection will take place at the end of time on the last day. So we have a certain future vv 51- 57. ‘Listen, 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. 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.’
Paul is saying that when Christ comes at the end of time, those who have ‘fallen asleep’ -a lovely picture of the tranquillity of death for a Christian- will be raised and given new and fantastic bodies. The great Reformer Martin Luther described it like this: ‘ Just as one does not know how it happens that one falls asleep and suddenly morning approaches when one awakes, so we will suddenly be resurrected at the last day, not knowing how we have come into death and through death. We shall sleep until he comes and knocks at the tomb and says ‘Dr Martin, get up!’ Then in one moment I will get up and will rejoice with him in eternity.’ The ‘perishable clothing itself with the imperishable.’
But others will be alive at the time of Jesus second coming and for them they won’t experience death at all, all they will experience is the immediate transformation- the seed instantaneously becoming the wheat, in the twinkling of an eye, so fast there is no time to think about it, only to experience it. Then death will be no more, sin will be no more, the law which shows up our sin because of our failure to keep it will be no more because we will have such perfect bodies and perfect God-orientated hearts that there will be no need for commandments. And all of this comes because of Jesus, his dying and rising for us.
But this will only take place at the end of time, when a new heaven and earth is made, the molecules of this universe dissolved and reconstituted and us with it.
Now you may still be left with the nagging question with which we began in v 35, ‘But how can this be so?’ How can we who live with these bodies be given other bodies and still be the same person? Well think of it like this. Take the message written on a blackboard with a piece of chalk. To clear the board we rub the surface until we are left with a handful of chalk. As far as the board is concerned the message is gone. But of course, if the following day, we who originally wrote the message want to express the same message again we have no difficulty in doing so. It is not necessary for us to use the original chalk or even use chalk at all, we can use ink, or speak the message, or we can embody the message electronically in a computer programme. Now if our human personalities, the real me , is likened to a message and our bodies like the chalk-how that message is expressed- then God who is our Creator has no problem in re-embodying that message, the real me, in another form which he thinks is appropriate. So if God wishes to give us different bodies, made up of different stuff to inhabit a new heaven and earth composed of different stuff, he simply has to say the word and it will be done.
And because we have such a certain future, that means we can live a significant life- v58 ‘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.’
If death is the end, then as Shakespeare put it, ‘Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury’ and little else. Death renders all our accomplishments meaningless. But if there is life after death and eventually a new heaven and earth in which what we do in this world is carried over to the next- then life is very significant indeed. If Christ has been raised from the dead- and he has- and if he is coming again- and he is- then whatever we do for him counts for eternity. That act of kindness, that doing a good job in the school or office or the home that sharing the Gospel so that others too might have eternal life, because we do it for him, none of it is forgotten by God. Life has meaning because life has a direction- heaven.
Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.