OUR RESURRECTION VICTORY
I Corinthians 15:35-58 Key Verse: 55
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
Happy resurrection day! In this Easter conference, we have seen and heard about how Jesus Christ won the victory over sin and death. He died on a cross for our sins. He is the resurrection and the life. Now it’s Easter Sunday, the day that Jesus rose from the tomb. The passage we are studying this morning is our opportunity to think about how Jesus’ resurrection victory becomes our resurrection victory.
Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t take away the fact of suffering and physical death in this world; but it gives us hope that afterwards we will each receive a glorious resurrection body, making us the final victors. But when we consider the glory of the resurrection that we will share, we can be filled with joyful anticipation and overcome every kind of trouble that we face. We can live with confident assurance that final victory is ours in Christ. May God help us to do so.
God gives it a body (35-38)
Let’s first think about the context of this passage in the book of 1 Corinthians. This book is a letter from Paul to the church in the Greek city of Corinth. The letter addresses a number of serious spiritual problems in the church: members were dividing to factions, sexual immorality was tolerated, and people were boasting and judging each other based on spiritual gifts. Paul had many things to say about those problems. But in this chapter, near the end of the letter, Paul addresses the most serious issue of all: there were people in the church who were denying the elements of gospel itself, the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. So Paul defends the gospel as the power of God that saves anyone who stands firm on it, and he demonstrates how Jesus’ death and resurrection were verifiable events with many witnesses that also fulfilled the scriptures (1-11).
Paul spends the most words in this chapter addressing people who denied that there would be a future resurrection. It seems that some of these resurrection-deniers considered themselves Christians. But Paul was very clear in asserting, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (12-20). Then he affirmed that Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, and that in the final days he will return and also raise up everyone who belongs to him, destroying the final enemy, which is death itself (21-28).
As our passage begins, Paul starts to address what we might call scientific objections to the doctrine of resurrection. Look at verse 35. “But someone may ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’” We might also like to know the answer to these questions. But remember that here Paul is mainly addressing the people who did not believe in resurrection at all. Their real motive in posing these questions was to make people doubt the reality of resurrection. By saying, “With what kind of body will they come?”, maybe they were trying to conjure up images in people’s minds of rotting zombies, making it seem impossible to turn a decayed body back into a living being.
Indeed, based on what we experience in this world, the resurrection seems physically impossible. When someone dies, their body decays and no earthly power can restore the life that used to be in it. My wife Missionary Anastasia teaches physics. In physics, the second law of thermodynamics implies that you can never permanently reverse the process of decay. But is this a reason for us not to believe in the resurrection? Given what we know about the almighty power of God, definitely not. Just because we don’t know how God will do something doesn’t mean he can’t do it. I’m sure God can even change the laws of physics at any moment he chooses to. If we believe in God, as Paul says, it would be foolish to put some arbitrary limitation on his power just based on our own understanding.
Moreover, Paul says, nature itself demonstrates resurrection-like processes everywhere we look. Verses 36-38 say, “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, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.” Paul uses an analogy to plant life to show that the principle of resurrection, of death followed by new life, and it is found throughout nature. When a seed falls off of a plant, it seems to die. When we sow seed, we even give it a kind of burial under the soil. But it springs back to life in a new kind of body that we would hardly believe could have been contained in that small seed. It’s totally miraculous, but we take it for granted because we see it every day. And so we trust that God is able to give each of us a new custom-made resurrection body. Actually, many people have been encouraged with resurrection hope when they see the plants coming back to life in Springtime. Springtime has been very slow in coming in the Chicago area this year, but I think finally it is coming. Maybe God wants to teach us to have patient resurrection hope.
Paul’s words, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies” reminds us of Jesus’ own death on the cross and resurrection. In fact, they are both instances of the same principle: that death is the necessary prelude to resurrection. We express this principle in many ways, saying “No cross, no crown”, or “No pain, no gain.” Our earthly nature always resists this truth. We don’t like the idea of losing anything, especially not our life in this world. But Jesus taught us, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mk 8:35) So we should arm ourselves with the attitude to lose our life every day to find new life. This is the expression of resurrection faith. When we trust Jesus, we have the seed of eternal life in us. As a result, our goal is not to maintain the life of the flesh forever, but to sow our life for eternal life by serving courageously and sacrificially. Then, as Jesus rose, God will raise each of us and give us the best resurrection body.
Earthly and Heavenly Bodies (39-49)
Let’s think more about the attributes of the resurrection body God will give us. Verses 39 and 40 say, “Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another.” Just as there are differences between the kinds of earthly bodies, there is a difference between earthly bodies and heavenly bodies.
A key word that Paul repeats in these verses is “splendor”. He says different kinds of bodies have different kinds of splendor. What does the word “splendor” make you think of? The dictionary definition of “splendor” is “Great brightness; brilliant luster; magnificence.” This points to God’s purpose in creation. God’s purpose in each thing he creates is to reveal his glory. When we look at creation, we see God’s glory and wisdom revealed in the splendor of the limitless variety of life. Interestingly, Paul says that our earthly bodies also have splendor. Genesis tells us God created our body for the purpose of bearing his own image. So even our earthly bodies reveal God’s glory as much as they are able to. For example, in Proverbs it says, “Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained by a righteous life.” I’m just hoping to keep my hair long enough for it to turn grey.
Splendor is a characteristic of both earthly and heavenly bodies, but the splendor of heavenly bodies is of a different order. I think it’s significant that here Paul mentions the splendor of the sun, moon, and stars. Though they are a part of this creation, they are an example of a splendor that is much more bright, pure, and permanent than the splendor of things on earth.
So what will the splendor of our heavenly bodies be like? Jesus’ glorified resurrection body is described in several places as shining and glowing. But here, Paul doesn’t describe the splendor of our heavenly bodies in terms of appearance. He states it in terms of more fundamental properties. In verses 42-44 Paul lists four distinctions between the earthly and the heavenly body: “So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised 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.” These words are so beautiful to us because every day we feel the weakness and limitation of our earthly bodies. Our earthly body is perishable; it is subject to many breakdowns and destined to fail permanently one day. But the heavenly body is imperishable; it lasts forever. Our earthly body has several dishonorable aspects, which we don’t talk about in public; our heavenly bodies will be 100% glorious. In our earthly bodies, we always run up against limitations of weakness and lack of energy; the heavenly body will lack no strength to do everything that glorifies God.
The distinction between the earthly and heavenly bodies is summed up in the last item in the list. “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” When some people hear the word “spiritual”, they think of something disembodied, like a ghost. But Paul affirms that there is a spiritual body perfectly suited to eternal spiritual life, which God knows how to create for us.
At this point Paul demonstrates from the Scripture that God intended all along for us to receive a second body. Our two bodies are represented by the two Biblical figures, Adam and Christ. Look at verses 45 and 46. “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual.” Here the words “living being” are related in the original languages to the word “natural.” Adam’s life was a natural life, and so he was given a natural body. This is the kind of life we all started with. That’s God’s order; the natural life comes first. But something more was coming. Jesus is called the “Last Adam” and also the “Second man.” It means he ended what began with Adam and started a new thing. Jesus is the man from heaven. He is the spiritual man who died to give life to the world. When we believe in Jesus, we receive a new kind of life. We receive a spiritual life from the Holy Spirit.
As we first had a natural life, and now we have a spiritual life, we can definitely expect that we will have a spiritual body after our natural body is done with. For now, we experience conflict because we have a spiritual life living in a natural body. It seems there is some limitation to our spiritual life, due to the sinful desires of our flesh. But soon we will live a spiritual life in a spiritual body.
Let’s read verse 49. “And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.” What really makes resurrection life so great is that we will be like Jesus. The image of Jesus Christ is incomparable. Jesus, the man from heaven, lived a heavenly life in his natural body. Then, as the just reward for his righteous life, he inherited a glorified, resurrected body, and sat down at the right hand of God the Father. Now we are becoming humble and courageous and patient in sufferings in our natural body, like Jesus did. For this very reason, we should have great confidence that we will also become like Jesus became, in the imperishable glory of his resurrected body.
The principle of victory (50-58)
Verse 50 says, “I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” It seems like we need many reminders that our current flesh cannot live forever. We should not be like those who have no hope and spend all their time trying to keep their life in the flesh, which is a losing battle anyway. One thing is clear: for us to inherit eternal life, we must be changed. How will God carry out this change?
Verse 51 begins, “Listen, I tell you a mystery:” Do you like mysteries? Paul is revealing the mystery of how God will bring about the resurrection change. Here is the 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.” When time is up, the trumpet will sound and the power of God will instantly raise the dead and simultaneously transform the bodies of those who are still alive. This answers the question that started this passage: “How are the dead raised?” This is how and when God grants eternal life to everyone who loves him and believes in Jesus. The perishable will be clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality. Nothing is too hard for God to do for his beloved people, even to change their bodies into imperishable, immortal bodies so they may live with him forever.
Based on this revelation, we claim victory in every aspect of life. Let’s read verses 54 and 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?’” This quote from Hosea shows us that we can be so confident in our victory that we can even be audacious enough to mock death. “Where, O death is your sting?”
These verses teach us that what really made our lives unhappy is the sting of death. However, I don’t think Paul is only talking here about the fear of physical death. Verse 56 says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” What really makes death sting is the condemnation that comes along with it—the knowledge that we have failed to live up to God’s law, our guilty conscience, and our fear of the judgment that follows. It is sin that gives the sting to death. Sin makes us like death-row inmates, because death-row inmates are not just people who die, but people who die as punishment for their sins. That is the worst state to be in. But the good news is that in Jesus, that is not our condition any more. Why? Because in Jesus, we are forgiven of our sins. Jesus’ death on the cross released us from all condemnation of our sin. Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday showed him as the second man who provides spiritual new life and a heavenly body to everyone who trusts him. “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (57)
This victory that Jesus won for us is meant to be applied in our lives. That was absolutely Paul’s intention for the believers in Corinth. He said, “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.” (58) Reminding ourselves of Jesus’ victory, we consciously exercise faith in it to overcome our fears day by day.
This January, M. Anastasia started her first full-time job. It’s the first time since we’ve been married that we’ve had two full-time jobs. (There were a number of years where we had zero full-time jobs!) It’s been a fairly difficult adjustment. I tried to think about what spiritual lesson I should learn from it. Sometimes I felt so overwhelmed and actually trapped by all my responsibilities. When I was tired and discouraged, I imagined condemnation coming down on my head from many different places if I failed to keep everything running smoothly. Then I could see what the real spiritual danger was. I was letting the sting of death come back into my heart through worry and fear. I need to remember that the sting of condemnation has been taken away, so I can stand firm. I pray to consciously turn my crosses into a victory, by standing firm in Jesus’ victory.
Soon the conference will be over and we are returning home to our mission fields. Don’t think of it as vacation being over but as the beginning of our next opportunity to practice living out Jesus’ victory wherever we are. Nothing we do by faith will end up fruitless. May God bless you to own Jesus’ resurrection victory every day.