In 2008 JJ Abrams, creator of the TV show Lost, described his storytelling technique in terms of a central mystery that held the whole plot together. This was a notion inspired by a cardboard box bought for him by his grandfather. It had two large question marks on its front and back and, importantly, had never been opened by Abrams. And he never intended on opening it. To him, its magic lay in the mystery rather than the contents, and to open the box would be to rob it of its power. Similarly, to ever resolve the central problem of Lost would ruin a good plot.
For Christians, the Bible’s teaching on Jesus’ resurrection is often a bit like a mystery box. It’s central to our faith, but in our minds its value often depends on its mystery. We reduce the miracle of the risen Christ to just that: a miracle that proves the divinity of Jesus and consolidates his victory on the cross. And it is that, but in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul wants the reader to see that the resurrection is also much more. He urges us to move beyond the surface, open the box and delight in its truths.
First Christ, then us
1 Corinthians 15 begins with these words: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand”. Paul follows this with a summary of the gospel that tends to leave both historians and apologists drooling for its rich disclosures—but for Paul and the Corinthians it’s old hat. He simply wants to remind the Corinthians of the uncontroversial cornerstones of their faith. This was stuff in their long-term memory, memorized by heart. Paul is writing to remind them of what
they have believed so that he can challenge them about something they haven’t. He wants to be crystal clear about what they affirm so he can point out the absurdity of what they deny.
It’s there in verse 12: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”
The problem is familiar. As Christians, we have this bizarre habit of disconnecting what happened to Jesus from what will happen to us. We believe Jesus was raised from the dead, but somehow when we die our souls will just float up to heaven. Paul says that makes no sense in the light of verses 1-11. And he goes on from verse 13 to show why it makes no sense: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised”. In a series of rapid-fire verses, Paul challenges this inconsistency and summarizes in verse 19: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied”.
If there is no resurrection from the dead, then Christians are gullible, hopeless, unforgiven and to be pitied above every other kind of person. The stakes are massive, and in verses 20-29 Paul turns to the positive to consider why the resurrection of the dead is essential to the Christian hope.
As a rule, we’re much sharper on what the cross achieved than what the resurrection achieved, because Scripture gives us vivid explanations of it: it’s like a sacrifice in the temple, the cost to release a slave, a ransom paid, or an exchange in a marketplace. Our minds can grab onto those pictures and understand them. In verse 20, Paul gives the reader a picture of the resurrection every bit as vivid and concrete as any image of the cross: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep”.
Imagine a farmer looking out over his orchard. The resurrection of Jesus is like the first fruits of the season. If we dwell on that image for a moment, we can see it means at least that Jesus is the best and the first.
Rather than scrounging up the final miserable remains of a crop to sacrifice, a Jewish farmer would give his first fruits to God, because they were considered the best. In the same way Jesus’ resurrection is the best. He is the last Adam, the new man, the best of the crop to come. He is God’s new humanity par excellence, faithfully bearing God’s image. He is humanity with all the sin and death and brokenness removed.
He is the best, but he is also the beginning. He is the first fruits of the harvest to come; what God has done raising Jesus, he will do for us. Look at Jesus and you see our future. The absurdity of the Corinthians’ position is that they look at the orchard, they see the peach, and then say: “A peach. Great! I wonder what the rest of the fruit on that tree will be?” Paul replies: “You idiots, they’ll be peaches! It’s a peach tree!” When we see the resurrection of Jesus and say, “A resurrection. Great! Now, I wonder what God will do with us?”, Paul says “You idiots, he’s going to do with you the same thing he did with Jesus!”
The resurrection body
When Paul says the resurrection of Christ means there is a general resurrection on the way, there will be some who find the idea wholly unfamiliar. Others may find it a thrilling relief. But for many, when faced with this doctrine, there is only one possible response: unbelief.
Hearing that the Christian hope is for the resurrection of the dead, one may wonder how any rational person could possibly believe it. Are we saying God is going to drag bodies out of their graves? What about bodies in various states of decomposition, or bodies that have been cremated? What about the fact that our bodies consist of atoms and cells that have previously belonged to other things? That doesn’t sound like a new creation, it sounds like a zombie film. Fortunately, this is exactly the issue that Paul addresses in verse 35:
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?”
There are two questions here. There is a how question: how will this resurrection happen? By what power? By what agency? And there is a what question: what sorts of bodies will these be exactly? As he has done before, Paul gives us a picture to help us get our heads around the idea.
You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. (vv. 36-37)
Paul wants to help us think about the relationship between our current body and the resurrection body. To what extent are they the same thing? How are they different? And Paul’s answer is: the relationship between this body and that body will be like the relationship between a seed and a plant.
If you knew nothing about seeds and plants you could be forgiven for thinking they had no relationship to each other. They initially seem so dissimilar. Paul emphasizes the difference. “How foolish” he says, “as if the resurrection of the dead will be God pulling our bodies out of their graves in various states of decomposition. No one is expecting you to believe that!” God is not in the business of dusting us off and resuming play as normal. As NT Wright says, “A seed does not come to life by being dug up, brushed down and restored to its pristine seediness”.1
So the seed and the plant are unlike each other, but we also know that the seed and the plant are closely connected. Everything that the plant becomes was already in the seed. When a seed becomes a plant, it becomes its telos, its end, its goal. The plant is not the rejection of the seed. When a seed becomes a plant, it is a fulfillment of everything the seed was meant to be. So it is with the resurrection of our bodies.
In verses 38-41 Paul is riffing on the first chapter of Genesis. He thinks about the creation in terms of its ‘bodies’: “But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body” (v. 38). Paul takes the reader on a trip through the creation; human beings have one kind of body, birds have another, fish yet another. There are bodies in the heavens and there are bodies on the earth. Each kind of body has its own splendour. Fish have one kind of magnificence, the moon another, and all things glorify God by being most properly the thing that they are. As Wright says, “It is no shame to a dog that it does not shine, or to a star that it does not bark”.2
In Genesis, the realms of creation are made and then populated with their appropriate bodies. Each thing has a nature and purpose appropriate to it, and a context in which it can flourish. Paul says, “So is it with the resurrection of the dead” (v. 42). God is making a new world, a new context for a new humanity. At present, our bodies are made for this world, not that world. Our bodies are perishable, dishonored, weak, and natural. But they will be raised imperishable, glorious, powerful, and spiritual. So compare the two great bodies of humanity, the body of Adam and the raised body of Jesus. The one, Adam, the first man, was natural, and the second, the last man, Jesus, was spiritual.
We who bear the image of the earthly man will, at the resurrection, bear the image of the heavenly man. We who were once like Adam will then be like the risen Jesus.
Death, then life
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. These words are repeated time and again in Ecclesiastes. ‘Vanity’ translates as ‘mist’ or ‘vapour’, and it is the main observation of Ecclesiastes that life is like that. Life is misty, vaporous, it goes quickly. It is hard to hold onto, impossible to build on. While dignity can be found in a life that accepts grace and receives rather than grasps, in the end death swallows up everything.
Back in 1 Corinthians, Paul repeats what most people say in the face of life’s vaporous nature in 15:32: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”. This lifestyle of a world without hope often looks like fun, whether it’s audacious partying with chemically-enhanced moods or the more respectable life of diligently building a killer superannuation. But inside hides a dark and dirty secret: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”. Why do you have to party hard now? Why do you have to grab that sex, that promotion, that money, that opportunity now? Because death is in charge, always reminding us, “If you don’t grab it now, you never will”.
That is the pattern of a world without hope. It is joyful on the outside, but despairing at its core. But in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, Paul proclaims:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
Death tried to swallow Jesus, and it got swallowed in the process. The sting of death is that we die as sinners and then go to meet the one who cannot tolerate sin. But now the death of Jesus has taken away our sin, so we will feel death but like the bite of a spider without venom—no sting. All that is left is the victory of Jesus.
Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of the dead brings a new lifestyle with a new pattern. Life to death is replaced with death to life. It’s in verses 30-32; danger every hour, death every day, fighting beasts! Compared to the pagan world, Paul’s life looks like death. It looks like denial and sacrifice and risk and hardship, like labour and toil and frustration. Not stepping on people, but being stepped on. Paul lives this way because he knows what’s in the box. The first fruits have appeared, and a world that looks like it’s dying is about to spring into radical new life. Christianity can look prickly on the outside, while paganism looks so happy. But on the inside of paganism is an unremitting despair, and at the heart of the Christian faith is an unbelievable and unstoppable joy, because Christ is risen.
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain. (v. 58)
Paul thinks what flows from the gospel’s teaching of the resurrection of the dead is a steadfast immovability, both in hope and in practice. In hope, Paul wants to bridge this great disconnect in their minds between Jesus’ resurrection and ours. We already know from verses 1-11 that they are steadfast in their belief in the resurrection of Jesus, but he wants to increase the territory captured by that thought.
As the whole world submits to the terms and conditions set by life then death, for Paul steadfastness in practice means letting nothing move you from that great resurrection lifecycle of death then life.
When do we conform to that old pattern of life then death? Perhaps in your working life you are aware of situations where you are grabbing and grasping, stepping over people to get what you want. And, honestly, on reflection, it’s because you have fallen into thinking that if it is not yours now, it will never be. Maybe in your personal life there are points where you are tempted or are actually grabbing the sex that you can have now, rather than waiting in faithfulness. Maybe you can see it in your approach to food, in the way you binge on DVDs, in the way you do the dishes—aggressively, resentfully, compulsively. Maybe there are patterns of accumulation and consumption that are clearly being played out in a life then death mentality.
The gospel says more than just “don’t do that”; it actually liberates you to live differently. You get to break that pattern, because in Christ you have been included in that great rebellion against death. Now you can say to death, and the lifestyle it dictates, “I don’t buy it, I’m dancing to a different tune”.
Abounding in the work of the Lord
Paul says the Corinthians are to remain steadfast, but secondly, they are to abound in the work of the Lord. Between overplaying and underplaying what verse 58 actually refers to (paid Christian ministry on the one hand, any labour at all on the other), it seems to me that Paul here is talking about the work we do that is specifically, in the sense of the gospel, for the Lord. If you are a Christian, you can point to that type of work in your life. It is the work of faithfully sharing the news of Jesus with work friends. It is the work of singing and teaching and encouraging in the body of Christ, of service in Sunday school or a Bible study. Paul is saying to take that and, in the light of the resurrection of Jesus and our future hope, give yourself fully to it. That is, passionately, with your whole heart, with single-minded devotion. With everything you’ve got.
And why give yourself over so fully to the work of the Lord? Verse 58 continues, “knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain”.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul names something that bucks the trend. He names something in this creation, in our experience, that cannot be described as vanity or meaningless, as ultimately intangible: our labour in the Lord. Because, I think, our labour in the Lord is an investment in the new creation. The work that we do to see others won to Christ and established in Christ is a work sowing seeds to be harvested in the new creation.
Back in verse 36, Paul says “what you sow does not come to life unless it dies”. Jesus’ path to life was through death; our path to new life will be through the door of death. That is not only the macro story of our lives; it is the micro story of Christian service. A man gives up a Friday night of relaxation to lead a group of young people in teaching the gospel. A woman goes to serve God in Jordan, and in doing so dies to all the things she might reasonably expect in Australia: security, a husband, a career path. In all these things, the Christ-pattern is there: death, then life. In all these things we are burying worldly ambitions in order to see life in others—because, as the parable tells us, we have found a treasure of great price.
Mystery box redux
Back to where we began: Abrams’s mystery box is an image of what living without the resurrection looks like. In the end, those big questions and challenges which make that life interesting are exposed as having only one answer: tomorrow we die. Without the resurrection, all the mystery box of life holds is death.
But Christ is risen: the orchard that looks dead in the cold of winter is about to spring to life. The great resurrection hope means the box works in reverse. We endure death, throwing ourselves fully into the work of the Lord, with the promise of life in the new creation. And the work is hard—but it has the inestimable advantage of being eternal. Work that is sown in frustration, but will one day be raised in glory.