Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” This cry will rise from many churches this Easter season as we rejoice in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
On the third day, the grave in which they laid his body was empty. His body had not been stolen’the posting of Roman soldiers and the sealing of the tomb prevented that (Matt.27:65-66). No, Jesus had risen, just as he said (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34). That was the message of the angel (Luke 24:6-7), the basis of apostolic preaching in the book of Acts (2:32; 3:15; 4:2, 10, 33; 5:30), and is what separates Christianity from all other religions.
This is the reason why the teaching of the resurrection is also under attack. Satan knows that if he wants to undermine Christianity, knocking over the domino of the resurrection can make all the rest fall as well. At the time of Jesus, the Sadducees said there was no resurrection (Matt. 22:23); the men of Athens who listened to Paul at the Areopagus mocked this teaching (Acts 17:32), and some in the Corinthian congregation were saying there is no resurrection (1 Cor. 15:12). Later, the church found the need to enshrine the doctrine of the resurrection in all three of her ecumenical creeds to combat those who spoke against it, and to this day there are those (even Christians) who question the resurrection of Jesus, of humanity, or both.
As a pastor, I will never forget the first time one of my parishioners said there is no resurrection. “Sure, Jesus rose from the dead,” he said. “But we will not’just our spirits will live forever in heaven.” (He himself is now awaiting the resurrection of his body.) Yikes! I was surprised, but I should not have been. The truth of the resurrection needs to be constantly proclaimed against the spiritual-reincarnational thinking of false religions, those who seek to demythologize the Bible, and the ancient Greek thought affirming that a good soul just needs to be released from the shackles of an evil body. This latter thinking can be seen not only in those who deny the resurrection of the body, but also in those who believe that who they are spiritually is different from what they are bodily (i.e., I am a man trapped in a woman’s body), same-sex marriage (your body doesn’t matter), and even in talk of “soulmates.” Such popular notions undermine the truth in insidious ways.
But is the resurrection of the body that important? Does it really matter that much? Yes. The Apostle Paul devotes the entire fifteenth chapter to it in his letter to the Corinthians. There he states, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14 ESV). In other words, if Christ has not been raised, then go home! Christianity is nothing. It is a false religion with false preaching. If Jesus’ body is still in the grave, then he lost. Death won. Sin won. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), and if Jesus didn’t beat death’if his body is still dead’then he didn’t beat sin either. The same is true for you. If your body doesn’t rise, then sin has won. Your identity as a person consists of both body and spirit; you aren’t one or the other. There are such creatures: animals have bodies but no spirits, and angels have spirits but no bodies’but you are both. We’re “angimals,” as Australian theologian John Kleinig said. Contrary to Mormon teaching, you didn’t preexist as a spirit child who needed a body to live in for a while. The crown of God’s creation are males and females created in his image, body and spirit together. Jesus came to redeem that you’all of you’body and spirit.
A good place to regain a proper understanding of this teaching and its importance is Paul’s great “resurrection chapter,” 1 Corinthians 15. The more time you spend in this chapter, the more jewels you unearth. From start to finish, Paul’s aim is to establish his flock firmly in this teaching once again. He begins, most appropriately, with the Scriptures. For Paul and the Corinthians, this would be the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. Everything that Jesus did and that Paul preaches has its roots and foundation there “in accordance with the Scriptures”‘including the resurrection. Paul does not specify what Scripture he is referring to here (perhaps he expects the people to remember what he taught them before), but some possible examples are helpful. There are the accounts of the bodily translation of Enoch (Gen. 5:24; cf. Heb. 11:5), of both Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:18-37) raising children back to life from the dead, and the famous words of Job (19:25-27 ESV): “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”
These are resurrections of humans, but we have words that speak of the resurrection of the Messiah as well. The psalmist writes, “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption” (Ps. 16:10; cf. Acts 2:27). Jesus himself points to the story of Jonah as a prefiguring of what will happen to him: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt.12:40 ESV). Though the words rise or resurrection are not used here, those who know the story of Jonah know what happened next: he was spit out of his fishy grave to live again, and so would Jesus.
There are also more general prophecies of resurrection, such as in Daniel, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” (12:2 ESV), and in Isaiah, “He will swallow up death forever” (25:8 ESV). We also read in the prophet Hosea: “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him” (6:2 ESV). Some might think this verse is not speaking of Christ since it uses the plural pronoun “us,” despite the attractive reference to the three days. But, in fact, Hosea’s pronoun makes Paul’s case: the resurrection of Christ and those who belong to him are intimately connected. Paul demonstrates this in 1 Corinthians by using the example of “firstfruits” (v. 20). This was the practice of bringing the first of the harvest to the Lord as an acknowledgement that the whole harvest, still to come, belonged to him. In the same way, Christ’s resurrection was just the beginning of the harvest, the beginning of the resurrection to come. Or, as Paul would later write to the Romans, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5 ESV).
Paul also has a word for those who perhaps do not accept this testimony of the Scriptures. Even if you do not accept his teaching, there are other eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection’over five hundred of them! Most were still alive as Paul penned this letter’only “some” had “fallen asleep” (v. 6). Imagine a court of law today where the defense attorney is able to produce five hundred witnesses to a fact he is trying to prove! That is overwhelming evidence. Any defense attorney making such an audacious claim could expect to receive a challenge from the prosecution to produce those witnesses. If they did not actually exist, then Paul is taking quite a risk. His credibility would be ruined, his teaching exposed as false, and his authority destroyed. But if they did exist, as Paul asserts, then there is near irrefutable evidence from these eyewitnesses to Jesus having risen from the dead.
With that, Paul also disproves the argument of those who “say there is no resurrection of the dead” (v. 12 ESV). Logically, an absolute assertion (“there is no resurrection of the dead”) can be refuted by producing just one contrary example, and that example is Jesus. So if Jesus has been raised, then it is not true that there is no resurrection. But does Jesus’ resurrection necessarily lead to ours? To address that question, Paul goes back to the beginning, to Adam (cf. Rom. 5): “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (v. 22 ESV). In other words, Christ came to undo what Adam did. What had Adam done? He brought sin and death into the world, and after nine hundred thirty years, Adam himself died (Gen. 5:5). By adding up the ages of the patriarchs, Luther concluded that Enoch was translated to heaven shortly after Adam’s death as testimony to the resurrection of the dead and to God’s faithfulness. Enoch being taken into heaven was not just for him and his benefit, but for the benefit and comfort of those left behind.
What Enoch’s translation testified to, Jesus has accomplished. As Adam brought sin and death into the world, Jesus brought forgiveness from sin and life from death for all the world. The resurrection was not for Jesus alone, just as Adam’s death did not affect himself alone. Just as Adam died and so we die, so Christ is risen and “then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (v. 23 ESV). With his bodily resurrection, Jesus has reversed the death’the real, bodily death’of Adam and provided for all the world the promise of resurrection as well. For not just some enemies, but all enemies, are subject to him, including death (v. 26).
Not everyone sees death as an enemy, however. In our day and age, death is increasingly seen as a solution, a friend, an answer to our problems, inconveniences, and suffering. This too is the fruit of the thinking that who we are spiritually is divorced from who we are physically, so ending my physical life will set me free spiritually. Yet how quickly such thinking evaporates when standing beside the grave of a loved one we want back. Death is no friend.
Indeed, Paul proclaims that Jesus has come to destroy death, not just defeat it. To this Isaiah testified when he prophesied that the Messiah would “swallow up death” (Isa. 25:8). There is also this comforting picture for us from the book of Revelation: that in the end, not only the beast, the false prophet, and the devil will be thrown into the lake of fire, but so will Death and Hades (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14)! That is truly to destroy death, and that is what Jesus has done for us. Even standing beside the grave of a loved one we want back, we find good news, for we know that this is not the end. In Jesus, we no longer live lives that end in death; the deaths we die end in life!
Even in the face of this good news, Paul knows there will be detractors and scoffers. How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come? We have similar questions today: How old will I be? Will my hair be gray and my skin wrinkled? What about those crushed and never found when the World Trade Center collapsed on them? Their bodies will certainly be different, Paul says. Better. You will be yourself; there will be continuity from this life to the next. Job confessed that it would be his skin and his eyes that would behold his Redeemer (Job 19:26-27). The nail and spear marks could still be seen and felt in Jesus’ body (John 20:20, 27).
Yet there will also be a transformation, a discontinuity. What is “sown a natural body…is raised a spiritual body” (v. 44 ESV). It sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? A “spiritual body” sounds a little like saying a “black whiteness.” Perhaps that jarring effect is exactly what Paul was aiming for here. He is not saying that you are a body now and will be a spirit later, but that your body will be changed’from a natural body to a spiritual body. A natural body is a body infused with sin that will die; but a spiritual body is wholly enlivened, infused with the Spirit of God, that will never die again. Your body will be raised new and improved! “The perishable will put on the imperishable and the mortal will put on immortality” (v. 54). And this is just as true for those buried yesterday or thousands of years ago, those cremated by design or by terrorists, those eaten by wild beasts, or those whose bodies have been destroyed in other ways. Can God raise them? Read Ezekiel 37.
So in Christ, Paul concludes (v. 54) that the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, “Death is swallowed up in victory” (Isa. 25:8). Though it looks strong and menacing now, though sadness and grief grip us every time a loved one is lowered into the freshly dug earth, death will not have the last word’that belongs to Jesus. Like Lazarus (John 11), Jesus will call us forth from our graves, and we will live with him who is the resurrection and the life forever. For Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25 ESV). Jesus didn’t just die for you, and the resurrection was his reward for a job well done’no! His resurrection was for you also’so you would be raised and justified, and the sin and death of Adam would be undone by the forgiveness and life of Jesus. He entered into our death that we might join him in his resurrection.
That is exactly what will happen on the last day when “the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (v. 52 ESV). He who calls you also justifies you, glorifies you (Rom. 8:30), and sanctifies you completely “at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:23). “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57). Those words of Paul end this chapter with the ancient call that reverberates throughout the ages as we shout with our brothers and sisters: “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”