This part of the study I like to think of as “Six Authors In Search of an Ending.” They are Paul, Peter, James, Jude, John of Patmos and the writer to the Hebrews. They all have something unique to add to the discussion – and they frequently reinforce each other with Jesus’ words and concepts.
Paul warns Christians in Rome with the urgency of an imminent parousia:
Romans 13:11, 12 – “And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
It doesn’t seem as pressing early on in the letter to Corinth, but it’s still on Paul’s mind:
I Corinthians 1:8 – “He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
When he responds to the idea of some Corinthians that there is no resurrection, the subject gains importance – and urgency. Paul connects the subject directly with the parousia of Jesus:
I Corinthians 15:12-58 – “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he ?has put everything under his feet.? Now when it says that ?everything? has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
“Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? I die every day – I mean that, brothers – just as surely as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’ Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’ Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God – I say this to your shame.
“But someone may ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’ How foolish! 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. All flesh is not the same: Men 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. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.
“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. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 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. The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.
“I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 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. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 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?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
“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 labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
So Paul tantalizes us, describing with beautiful words of poetry the indescribable transformation to an incorruptible body. It is no mere floating, ghostly spirit he describes – but a realness that is, if anything, MORE real and substantial than the bodies we now have. They are so real that they are immortal, incorruptible, imperishable. The essence of us that lives now in these bodies will be “clothed” with new and better ones. Now we occupy the seed; then, the flower. Now we are dirt; then, we’ll be heaven. Now we are tiny points of light; then, we will shine like the sun.
Is Paul describing the same kind of body in which Jesus appeared for forty days after His own resurrection; a body with scars in hands and feet; a body which ate fish?
And the change is instantaneous – in the “twinkling of an eye.”
Darkening the explanation are questions for which we have no clue: Did Paul really fight wild beasts at Ephesus? If the question was hypothetical, why did he specifically mention Ephesus, instead of just saying “in the arena”? Was he describing as beasts the chanting mobs at Ephesus who praised Artemis/Diana and demanded criminal action against the Christians?
What is the meaning of “baptism for the dead”? Did it mean “on behalf of the dead”? Was Paul tacitly approving the practice of being baptized in behalf of someone who had passed away? Or had he already taught that such baptism was unnecessary; that the dead are left to God’s grace and He would judge them righteously and mercifully? In that case, was he citing their desire to perform that baptism as evidence of their belief in the resurrection?
Who blows that last trumpet? And where did the teaching of a last trumpet come from? (John of Patmos picks it up in the Revelation!)
Paul uses the teaching to urge Corinthian Christians to live worthy lives; to watch and not be caught asleep at the wheel – just as Jesus did with His followers.
But maybe the most heartfelt of Paul’s defenses of this doctrine of hope is the simple logic of his saying: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”