12But 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? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More 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. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
20But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. (1 Cor 15)
1 – Personal Journey in Understanding the Resurrection and the Age to Come
When I was growing up I would read the story of Jesus and the New Testament and would wonder at many things. One of the things that made me ponder was Jesus continual references to this age, the end of this age and the age to come. What did that mean? Was the world as I knew it somehow going to come to an end, and what would the new world look like?
I was also confused by the continual references to “the Resurrection” in the New Testament. I understood (at least in part) that Jesus had been put to death on a Roman implement of execution called the cross. He died for our sins, and then was raised to life on the third day; this was for me “the resurrection” – Jesus rising from the dead. Yet I could not help but ponder all the verses that referred to the resurrection, which didn’t really seem to be in the context of Jesus rising from the dead, this seemed to be a big point of contention between the Jewish sects of the Pharisees and the Sadducees; what was that all about? Nobody really taught about the resurrection in the churches that I went to; if it was taught on it was placed in the context of life after death. When someone died they would be resurrected somehow, but this answer didn’t seem to be quite right, the people who I knew that died didn’t come back to life like Jesus had, they didn’t have bodies. I guessed there must be a spiritual meaning that I couldn’t quite understand. But I did know it was important, after all Paul devoted a long chapter at the end of Corinthians to this very subject.
My confusion of these matters was only deepened as I grew in large part due to the general lack of interest and focus on these teachings of Jesus by the church at large. In terms of “eschatology” (the study of end times) the understanding that I received was muddled. The fact that Jesus was coming back was definitely part of my emerging theology; that part was easy to figure out. There was a vague thought picked up from some books and music from the US which led me to believe that Jesus could come at any moment, and I better be ready if I didn’t want to come home one day and find that my parents had been secretly “raptured”, while I had been “left behind”. I guess I knew there was “an age to come” but didn’t really know much about it.
The things that I learnt about the life of Jesus and the way to walk righteously were all excellent. The ministry of the Holy Spirit and the development of a prayer life and a worshipful heart were all good and needed. I knew if someone was to find eternal life they must be born again, and so we needed to obey the Great Commission of Jesus. Yet I always tried and still try to reconcile what I do in following Jesus with the intent of what Jesus meant when he asks us to follow him. If I am a true follower of Jesus, then I express my love by obedience to his teaching. If I deliberately don’t do what he asks how can I sing songs of love? And for me to know what he asks I need to devote my life to hearing his voice. This could be through prophecy or dreams and visions, but I would contend the main way is through his revealed word – everything else must be weighed against these scriptures.
So what does understanding some obscure verses about the end times and this thing called the resurrection have to do with following Jesus today? Is it needed? Well, actually no it is not, but you can be saved as if by fire and not understand lots of things, but it does mean that you will be at best a babe in the Kingdom. If you are a soldier in the battle do you really have to know the point of the war? Not really, your commander can just tell you, to shoot your gun when he commands – but it’s not really the best strategy. It would be much better for you to have some understanding of why you are fighting. In following Jesus it is much better that you have a little understanding of his plans and where he is going.
2 – What is the Resurrection?
Which brings us to the question what is the resurrection and the age to come. First let me lay out some common notions regarding life after death, which are built more on Greek philosophy than biblical thought and beliefs that the church in recent centuries has not been very helpful in disabusing us of. A common picture of evangelism (telling people about the Gospel of Jesus) in recent centuries has seen the eager preacher asking his audience if they know where they are going when they die, do they know their eternal destiny – Heaven or Hell? If a person says the sinner’s prayer they are headed to live forever in heaven and have their fire insurance, if a person does not then they are going to the “other place”. This becomes a particularly hard thought at the funerals of those who have not said the prayer. There is definitely some truth to this picture, but it is confused as we shall see. It is especially confused, because it is based on some common Greek philosophical assumptions that the physical body we have now is evil and the release to a spiritual body will be so much better.This has led many to think that the resurrection actually is the acquisition of a spiritual body (which after all what Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 15) in heaven, which will be better by far.
This view however would not have been a common assumption to the Jewish community of Jesus day. The very common view amongst that community was a belief that at the end of history everyone who had died would be raised to life, with new “resurrected” bodies. This was the event known as “the resurrection”. The age to come would be the age where everyone was resurrected. Since the time of Adam the corruption of the flesh was plain for all to see, and the death of the body was the ultimate fulfillment of the curse, death was and is the ultimate enemy. But what happens then? The belief that the flesh would die and disintegrate to dust, while the spirit of a man would remain intact, was and is a common and biblical belief – from “dust to dust” (see Gen 3:19 and also the Prayer Book) Yet this is generally viewed as a bad thing, for a human soul and spirit to be unclothed. There was a belief of a temporary holding area for spirits of the deceased called Sheol. The distinction between a good and a bad area – Paradise and Hades comes a little later, nevertheless it is a temporary residence for our unclothed spirits. Our ultimate destination is with a resurrected body which means that the message of the resurrection is NOT talking about heaven and the immortality of the Spirit, these are both true and part of our journey, but that is not what resurrection is about, the resurrection did not speak of life after death, the resurrection spoke of as NT Wright has coined the term “life after life after death.” This is the reason today on the Mt of Olives you will see lots of Jews buried, because they want to be near the temple when the resurrection happens. This was the reason Job spoke with confidence
Resurrection is not just limited to the righteous however, both the wicked will also be raised to life for their ultimate judgment to be thrown into the Lake of Fire for eternal conscious torment. This is a fairly strange view? It is not what is preached in many pulpits, yet it is completely biblical. Just two portions from the Hebrew Scriptures indicate a common understanding.
“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever”. (Dan 12:2-4)
It was such a common belief by the time of Jesus that even uneducated women such as Martha knew about this theology. Regarding her brother Lazarus she told Jesus
24Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” (John 11:24)
Evidences for belief in the event called “the resurrection” are numerous throughout the New Testament. It is the very thing that the Pharisees and the Sadducees argued about (the Pharisees believing in it and the Sadducees not) It was a belief which the other nations around Israel ridiculed the Jews for believing – Why? Because it was seen as so preposterous by the Greeks and the Romans (Acts 17 and other Greek writers, and yet this event called the Resurrection was and is the hope of the Jewish nation and also the hope of the Christian Gospel.
3 – What about Jesus’ Resurrection?
So what about Jesus? I have studiously avoided the fact that Jesus was resurrected up to this point. But the fact is that Jesus was resurrected from the dead and now lives with a resurrected body – seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven. (Yes, this means Jesus has a real body made of flesh, with scars to prove it and is not in some ethereal spirit state.) Makes me ask why? Well, let me start by saying that Jesus is the only person in history that has been resurrected and is now living with a resurrected body (the only possible exception to this could be the other people who were raised to life when Jesus was). This is different to instances of revivification and resuscitation that had been seen throughout Israel’s history and in Jesus ministry as well. Lazarus and Jairus’s daughter are just two examples of people who were revived from death, but who would die again. I have personally met a number of men who have been brought back from death, yet only one man has been resurrected and he was resurrected long before the “event” of the resurrection.
Let me begin by saying that the Resurrection of Jesus is central to our belief in Jesus and salvation through him. If he had not been raised to life on the third day then we are as Paul says to “be pitied more than all men” for at the heart of what we believe is the death of the Christ Man being sacrificially given up for our sins, justifying our Spirits before God AND his rising to life, so that all those who live in him would be raised to newness of life through him thereafter – we now live IN CHRIST, because of his resurrection. The fact of the resurrection is the very thing that turned timid disciples into a glorious church and the reason for 2 billion people on the face of the earth who at least say that they are Christians.
However the fact that Jesus was resurrected IS also proof that resurrection happens, and as Paul said so well, He is the “first fruits” of the resurrection and when he comes again in an event in the Bible known as “The Day of the Lord”, then as he comes in the clouds we will be resurrected.
What does this look like? Well, the events of the day of the Lord ie the return of Jesus a many and we could spend a long time explaining them, however as it relates to the resurrection we are told in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 -17
“The Lord himself will descend from heaven (that is the return of Jesus) with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the sound of the trumpet of God (which means it will probably be quite a loud and conspicuous event – keeping in mind Paul is writing to people who think it has already happened and Paul is making the point – You aren’t going to miss this!). Now here is the part about the resurrection – And the dead in Christ will rise first (so a whole bunch of decomposed bodies/molecules reform to make bodies and join up with their disembodied spirits meeting Christ in the air) Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord. Which means that those alive on the earth at the time will join those who have been resurrected.
Paul talks about it this way in 1 Cor 15: 51-53
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead shall be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.
John adds this detail in 1 John 3:2 “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is”
This has many amazing implications – I highlight a few
1 – On that day our Salvation will be complete. Our Spirits were made right before God the day we repented and accepted his sacrifice for our sins – we were truly justified before God then. We were saved. However through faith we continue to work out our salvation, it is abundantly clear to many of us that we are not yet perfect and for that reason we are being saved daily through sanctification. Yet our salvation will only truly be complete when we have glorified bodies. Another name for the resurrection is the glorification.
2 – Our bodies will be like Jesus – Paul talks about different glories, and yet just like we were created in the image of Adam, so the new creation of the body is in the image of Jesus. This means there are differences – we cannot walk through walls presently, yet there will be continuity and we will be recognizable. Paul takes some time to outline what the resurrected body is like.
3 – Our bodies will be fitted for the age to come. Many would ask why do we even need bodies? Many have not given much thought to the return of Jesus and if they think a little more about it would conclude that he is coming simply to whisk us away to heaven, yet this is not what the scriptures state. The sciptures paint a picture of the Parousia of a Sovereign outside a city waiting for the welcoming committee to escort him back in. Which means once we acquire our newly resurrected bodies we are accompanying Jesus back down to earth where he will ultimately rule and reign from the city of Jerusalem. It was his purpose from ages past to bring heaven and earth together (Eph 1:….). That is why we need bodies – And this is what the age to come is all about – the fulfillment of the Messianic hopes that Israel has always had.This is the hope of Israel and the hope of all those who are grafted into the Olive Tree of Israel by the blood of Jesus.
4 – Why has the resurrection been a contentious issue and why has it been de-emphasized in modern times?
If the resurrection is the hope which the early church spoke of, it is helpful to understand why it seems so strange to modern ears and why it has been deemphasized.
Well, the de-emphasis is not a new phenomenon, St Augustine in the fourth century said “No doctrine of the Christian Faith is so vehemently and so obstinately opposed as the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh” The reason for this is that all religions which were part of the Greco-Roman thought pattern saw the flesh as corrupt and the spirit as pure. Which led to things like the suicide of Socrates being seen as a good thing as he escaped the confines of his mortal body by drinking the hemlock. This Greek thinking infected both our worldly culture and indeed the culture of the church. One of the first heresies the church had to deal with was called Gnosticism and it was so permeated with this kind of thinking that they even believed Jesus only “seemed” to appear in the flesh. For him to be born of a woman was bad and for us to get our bodies back was even worse. For this reason the resurrection of the flesh and the millennial reign of Jesus upon the earth was in the second century the touchstone of orthodoxy.
And yet as time progressed and Constantine adopted Christianity, more and more Greek thought invaded Christianity, so that in the end it is seen that death is a time when your spirit ascends straight to heaven and that is your ultimate destiny.
Yet Jesus himself agreed with the Prophets of old
John 5:28-29 (New International Version)
28“Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.
And this is an amazing future or a horrific future – for there are two resurrections, not just for the righteous but also for those who will be condemned – to suffer forever in a place called the Lake of Fire. And this is why ultimately there are two destinations that everyone that you meet will find him or herself in.
5 – Is the Resurrection Your Hope?
So this brings us to our conclusion to ask the question of ourselves – is the resurrection your hope? The resurrection can only be your hope if you have entered into Christ through his blood shed for us. You have accepted his sacrifice in your place, you have risen to new life with him by the Power of the Holy Spirit and as part of his new covenant community live empowered by the same Holy Spirit – developing the fruit and operating in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. If this is true of you listen to Jesus words concerning you.
John 6:39-40 (New International Version)
39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
If it is not true I pray that you start on this journey. That the Hope in Jesus and in the final Resurrection of the Dead may be your hope is my prayer.