Acorns to Oak Trees: How Are the Dead Raised?

1 Corinthians 15:35-58

No question is more fundamental to the human race than this: What happens when we die? Since death comes to all of us sooner or later, we are all forced to face this question and to come up with some kind of answer. There are a number of opinions in current circulation: Some say that nothing happens when we die. We live, we die, and then it’s over. There is no “life after death” because there is nothing in us that survives our death. Others believe we are continually “recycled” in a long series of reincarnations and are eventually absorbed into the universe. The members of the “Heaven’s Gate” cult believed that after their mass suicide they would become extra-terrestrials living somewhere behind the Hale-Bopp comet. And Christians believe in the resurrection of the dead. Who is right? How can we be sure?

This is an all-important issue since death knocks on every door sooner or later. The beautiful words of Thomas Gray in “Elegy written in a Country Churchyard” speak the solemn truth:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

But what then? If all our worldly achievements end up in a coffin six feet underground, what gives life meaning and purpose? Is there nothing more? “If a man dies, will he live again?” (Job 14:14) A few days ago I happened to watch a self-identified medium on the Paula Zahn show on the Fox News Network. He claimed the ability to contact the spirits “on the other side” and to deliver messages from the dead to the living. The phone lines were jammed with people wanting to know about dead parents, children, relatives and friends. Two things struck me as I watched the medium perform on national TV. First, he was very good and very clever at what he did. Some of his “information” possibly comes from demonic sources. Second, the number of phone calls testifies to the deep need we all feel to know about the state of our loved ones who have “crossed over.” Are they all right? Do they know what we are doing? Will we ever see them again? As I watched the medium at work, it struck me that all his news was basically good. Sometimes he said he couldn’t contact the deceased person directly. Evidently they weren’t “available” at that moment. But when he did have news, it was always positive. They were safe on “the other side” and usually surrounded by other family members and friends and they wanted the living not to worry because they were okay. Never did the medium deliver a message like, “I just saw Uncle Julius and he is screaming in pain because he is in hell. He said to make sure you don’t make the same mistake he made.” Nothing like that. The psychics would soon go out of business if they delivered the kind of bad news that Jesus gave in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).

As I have pointed out already in this series, the enormous popularity of Shirley MacLaine, Deepak Chopra, the book Soul Stories, and anything to do with the New Age movement testifies both to the spiritual hunger of this generation and the enormous spiritual confusion all around us. We want the truth about life after death, or we think we do, but we don’t know where to find it

Gary Olson and Walter Payton

There is good news and bad news at this point. The good news is that God has revealed the truth in the Bible. The bad news is that the good news requires a personal response. That’s not really “bad news” to those who believe but to everyone else it stands as a reminder that merely knowing the truth is not enough. As Jesus said to Pilate, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37d). Truth demands a decision, a personal verdict. Truth isn’t merely “out there” somewhere floating around, like a fairy tale you can believe or not. The truth about life after death has been revealed by God and it demands that each person decide, “Will I believe this or not?”

Nowhere is that sort of personal decision more important than when we consider what the Bible says about the resurrection of the dead. This is a doctrine that by definition is hard to believe. Heaven is easy by comparison because we all understand that heaven is another dimension of reality in the sense that heaven isn’t located 12 miles east of Denver or 50 million miles west of the Milky Way. That’s why when a loved one dies most of our thinking focuses on the Father’s house with “many mansions” that Jesus talked about in John 14:1-3. Or we think about the wonderful description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22. I often hear Christians talking about the deceased as if they were already enjoying all the fruits of what the Bible calls “heaven.” When my friend Gary Olson (longtime football coach at Oak Park-River Forest High School) died last November someone said that he and Walter Payton were probably up in heaven diagramming football plays. It was a reasonable comment, I suppose, since Gary and Walter died within a few days of each other. However, there are several problems with that suggestion, although I wouldn’t include among them that they don’t play football in heaven. We know so little about our eternal occupations that I don’t think football can be ruled in or out. I myself would tend to include it, but then that’s just the thinking of someone who loves to watch football on fall weekends. And there’s no real problem with the notion that Gary and Walter are both in heaven or that they somehow are talking with each other. The real problem is that the statement assumes that Gary Olson and Walter Payton (and all the other saints who have died) have already entered into their full heavenly reward. From a biblical standpoint that simply isn’t true.

What exactly is the state of those who have died but have not yet received their resurrection bodies? The New Testament uses very general language when it tells us that the believing dead are “with the Lord” and “with Christ” and in “paradise.” They are certainly conscious of where they are and who they are. But they either are disembodied spirits (a common phrase but one that is incredibly difficult to explain since we simply can’t imagine existing outside our earthly bodies) or they are given some sort of temporary heavenly bodies. (Some people think that 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 implies some sort of “body” that we will have between death and the resurrection. I think the Bible isn’t entirely clear on this point, perhaps because the truth is beyond our current comprehension.)

What I Learned in Leningrad

I am laboring over this point because it seems very important to me personally. I say that because for many years I didn’t think much about the resurrection of the dead. I took it by faith and didn’t ponder what it meant. And I tended to adopt the prevailing view that the current state of the believing dead is more or less equal to Revelation 21-22 and that the resurrection was a kind of “added benefit” we get. But everything about that view is sub-biblical. The great hope of the Christian gospel is that one day death will be defeated and we will be raised bodily from the dead. Until that happens our redemption is not complete. Therefore, as long as our saved loved ones are still in the grave their eternal bliss (which is very real) is less than what they will experience in the future.

This point came home to me with great force about ten years ago during a missionary trip to Russia. For a few days in Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg) I spent time with Dr. Art DeKruyter who for over 30 years pastored Christ Church in Oak Book, a Chicago suburb a few miles west of Oak Park. As the founding pastor he led the church to become a great force for God. During our conversations in Russia Dr. DeKruyter mentioned that his congregation recited the Apostles Creed every Sunday morning. I responded (as conservative evangelicals often do) by wondering if the weekly recitation would become “old.” The answer of course is that the Apostles Creed is already old! It’s almost 2000 years old and is the oldest of the generally recognized creeds. Each Sunday it is recited in Catholic, Orthodox, and mainline Protestant churches. Dr. DeKruyter pointed out that reciting the creed is a simple way of reaffirming the central truths of the Christian faith. Then he pointed out one particular phrase in the creed, the one that says, “I believe…in the resurrection of the body.” “Ray, have you ever considered how difficult it is for modern, well-educated men and women to say something like that?” he asked. No, I had never thought about it at all. But he’s right. The doctrine of the resurrection of the dead runs against the whole tenor of contemporary thinking. It asks us to believe that bodies now resting in the grave will one day come back to life. If you ponder that thought, it is truly hard to believe

Trouble in Corinth

But it’s not simply a modern problem. Paul wrote an entire chapter of the New Testament dealing with this issue. 1 Corinthians 15 provides the clearest exposition of why the bodily resurrection of believers matters and how it will happen. Evidently, some of the first-century Christians taught that at death the body is discarded and the soul goes to heaven. Certainly that’s what the Greeks in general believed. To them the body was the “husk” that contained the soul. At death you burn the “husk” and let the soul go free. (That’s one reason why some pagans practiced cremation and why Christians generally have opposed the practice. Cremation itself is not a sin since the body ends up as dust no matter how you treat it after death, but burial was thought to be a statement of faith in the coming resurrection of the body.)

The real problem at Corinth was not philosophical but practical. Experience seems to argue against the resurrection. There are far more funerals than resurrections. As a pastor I am often asked to officiate at a funeral. No one has ever asked me to officiate at a resurrection. And if you judge by the visual evidence, it’s hard to believe that the dead will ever be raised. You can go out to the cemetery with a loaf of bread and a jug of tea and wait for someone to rise from the dead. We haven’t had any verified resurrections in 2000 years. Funerals we have aplenty. Where are the resurrections?

Death is everywhere. In the last 48 hours two families in our church were bereaved by the deaths of young children. A few days ago two young boys were gunned down in Cicero by some gang members. One of those boys, a 13-year-old, had attended Calvary a few times. He was here for Sunday School just a couple of weeks ago. Death stalks our trail and even when we feel safe, we aren’t. No wonder Paul called death “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

Firstfruits and Secondfruits

And that’s why he insisted on the resurrection of Christ as the foundation of the gospel message (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). If Christ has not been raised, then we will not be raised, and if we are not raised, our preaching is useless, our faith is fruitless, and we have believed in vain and are of all men most to be pitied (verses 12-20). Then come the glorious words of 1 Corinthians 15:20, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” The term “firstfruits” means the first in a long series. If there are “firstfruits,” there must be “secondfruits” and “thirdfruits” and so on. His resurrection is the “down payment” that guarantees that all who follow him by faith will one day be raised as well.

I love the words of the Puritan author Thomas Watson: “We are more sure to arise out of our graves than out of our beds. Oh! how precious is the dust of a believer!”

But what exactly will those resurrected bodies be like? How will it happen? After all, people die in so many ways and none of them are very beautiful. What about those whose bodies waste away through disease or those who die at sea or whose bodies have been vaporized or who die in a fiery crash? Listen to Paul’s answer: “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” (1 Corinthians 15:35-37). His answer is by way of analogy. Our earthly bodies are like seeds you plant in the ground. The seed doesn’t look like the fruit it will produce but you can’t get the fruit without the seed. If you want pumpkins, you don’t plant pumpkins; you plant pumpkin seeds. Ditto for oak trees. If you want oak trees, you plant an acorn and an oak tree comes up. You could look at an acorn all day long and it will never look like an oak tree yet it contains a forest of oak trees within its humble shell.

Paul uses the analogy of the seed to correct two common errors:

1) That the resurrection body will be identical to the one that was buried.

2) That the resurrection body will be completely unrelated to the original.

A Brand-New Me

Both ideas are wrong. When I die, my body will be “planted” in the ground. It becomes like the seed that must die in order to give life. And when I am resurrected, it will be Ray Pritchard who comes up out of the grave. It won’t be the Ray Pritchard I am today but it won’t be someone else either. It’s not like I’m going to be raised as “Wilbur Jones” or “Samantha Thompson.” If it’s not me, then I’m not really raised at all. No, it will be me but a whole new me, vastly improved by God. I am to my resurrection body as the acorn is to the oak tree. That’s what John meant when he said, “What we will be has not yet been made known” (1 John 3:2). Today I’m just an acorn, tomorrow I will be a mighty oak tree. You can’t tell by looking at me what I will be (and I can’t even imagine it myself) but there are enormous powers resident in me that are placed there by the power of God. Today those powers are mostly latent but one day they will be fully displayed. Today I’m a nut, tomorrow I’m an oak tree. (I said that on purpose because it made me smile to think of it but it’s just as true of you as it is of me.)

And this revolutionizes our view of death. I know from sad experience how difficult it is to stand by the casket of a dear friend or family member and feel the overwhelming power of death staring you in the face. It’s as if death is alive and is laughing at us and saying, “You fool! You believed all that Jesus stuff and you thought you would live forever. But I have the last laugh. Your friend is dead and you’ll never see him again. And what’s more, you’ll be dead soon and all your hope will be gone.” I have felt it and almost heard that voice in my ears. But then I consider what Paul is saying. Death is like planting the seed in the ground. If you never plant the seed, you never reap the harvest. Write it down in big letters. If you want to be raised from the dead, you have to die first. No one will ever be resurrected who wasn’t already dead. Which means that death (which seems so fearful to us) is actually the necessary first step to the resurrection. And that’s why death has lost its sting and the grave has been robbed of its victory. Through Jesus Christ death now becomes the doorway to immortal glory. The passage may seem dark but there is light shining on the other side.

The Human Genome Project

There is much more we could consider on this topic. Recently we’ve heard a great deal about the Human Genome Project and the mapping of the DNA molecule. Scientists believe that this will one day lead to the virtual eradication of cancer and dreaded diseases such as muscular dystrophy. Right now we have a rough “map” of the human DNA but there will be amazing developments in the future. Dr. Gerhard Dirks is considered by many to be the father of the computer. After World War II he designed the mechanism that we now call computer memory. Besides being fantastically brilliant he was also a fervent Christian. He once remarked that it would one day be possible to reduce a human being to a precise mathematical equation, bounce the formula off the moon, and then reassemble the person again. My only comment is, if man can do that, think of what God can do. Resurrection is no problem for him.

As the seed is to the harvest, so are we to what we shall be. Resurrection is not mere reconstruction. If a cancer victim was raised with cancer, what’s the point in being raised at all? If you died in a bomb blast, why would you want to come back in 500 separate pieces? We will be raised immortal, with all earthly defects removed forever. And we will have powers beyond our current imagination. One Bible teacher suggests that in the resurrection we will have 500 senses compared to our current five. We can’t prove that today but it is consistent with the image of the seed and the harvest.

Ben Franklin’s Epitaph

I love the epitaph that Benjamin Franklin wrote for himself while still a young man. It wonderfully catches the spirit of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15.

The body of

B. Franklin, printer,

(like the cover of an old book,

its contents torn out and

stripped of its lettering and gilding)

lies here, food for worms.

But the work shall not be lost;

for it will (as he believed)

appear once more,

in a new and more elegant edition,

revised and corrected

by the Author.

Paul uses a comparison in 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 to help us understand what our new bodies will be like: “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.” Today our bodies are perishable, dishonorable, weak, and natural. If you want proof, just consider the five Bs of middle age: Baldness, Bifocals, Bridges, Bulges, and Bunions. Nothing works right. Our bodies wear out, slow down, decay, sag, groan, and even begin to smell bad. We brag about our strength but a tiny microbe can kill us. Sooner or later we grow old and our bodies begin to break down. Eventually they stop working altogether. No amount of Vitamin C or Siberian Ginseng can change that fact. At best, we can only slow down the aging process; we cannot delay it forever.

“I expect to outlive the stars.”

By contrast our new bodies will be imperishable (indestructible), glorious (beautiful beyond all imagining), powerful (with abilities beyond our wildest dreams), and spiritual (made for intimate relationship with God). We will be raised with a body that is suitable for our new life. It will last forever with no decay, no wear and tear, no limitations, and no failures or defects of any kind. There will be no physical or mental or emotional handicaps. We will have bodies that are eternally alive. One writer says, “I expect to outlive the stars.” So do I!

The end of the story comes in verses 51-53 and verse 58. “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…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.”

There is so much good news in these verses. Consider this simple outline regarding the transformation of the saints:

1. The Number: “We will all be changed”

2. The Result: “We will all be changed”

3. The Time: “At the last trump”

4. The Speed: “In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye”

5. The Chronology:

A. Trumpet sounds

B. Dead raised

C. Living transformed

Verse 58 tells us what this truth should mean on a daily basis. We should stand firm. Keep on believing what you have always believed. Don’t let death steal your faith. Keep on encouraging each other. Keep on serving the Lord. And keep your eye on the prize.

Five Summary Statements

Here are five statements that summarize the teaching of 1 Corinthians 15.

1) The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the foundational truth of Christianity. Everything else we believe stands or falls on that great truth. We must never compromise this doctrine. It is entirely non-negotiable.

2) Our resurrection depends entirely on his. If he was raised, then we will be raised too. The fact that 2000 years have passed means nothing since God dwells in eternity.

3) Our resurrection bodies will be radically different from our present bodies yet intimately related to them. As the mighty oak rests in the acorn, even so our resurrection bodies will be much different in every respect, yet related to who we are in this present life. I can promise you this: You’ll never regret being resurrected and you’ll never ask for your old body back.

4) When Christ returns, both living and dead Christians will receive their resurrection bodies and death will finally be defeated. Between now and then death may seem to win many temporary victories, but our ultimate victory was assured on Easter Sunday morning 2000 years ago.

5) These truths ought to encourage us to stand firm and serve God joyfully, knowing that our labor is not in vain in the Lord.

Victory on the Last Battlefield

While studying for this sermon I ran across a wonderful phrase from the Pulpit Commentary. It lifts my heart every time I read it. There will be “victory on the last battlefield.” Life is a series of battles for all of us and we all “take it on the chin” sooner or later. But in the last battle, the struggle with death, there is victory for the children of God. My mind goes back to a few of the saints who have left us in death during the 11 years I have pastored this church. The list includes Bob Bruce, Sr., Ruth Hall, Len Hoppe, Gus Hemwall, Byron Powell, Oceile Poage, Sara Spurny, Marion Jenkins, Fred Hartman, Mr. and Mrs. Longinow, Gary Olson, and Stan Utigard. These dear brothers and sisters now rest in the arms of Jesus. Death has taken them from us but death cannot keep them forever. A better day is coming. A few years ago Philip Yancey wrote a column for Christianity Today called “The Day I’ll Get My Friends Back.” Here is part of what he said:

I believe in the Resurrection primarily because I have gotten to know God. I know that God is love, and I also know that we human beings want to keep alive those whom we love. I do not let my friends die; they live on in my memory and my heart long after I have stopped seeing them. For whatever reason-again, I imagine, human freedom lies at the core-God allows a planet where a man in the prime of life dies scuba diving and a woman is killed in a fiery crash on the way to a missions conference. But I believe that God is not satisfied with such a blighted planet. If I did not believe this, I would not believe in a loving God. Divine love will find a way to overcome. “Death, be not proud,” wrote John Dunne: God will not let death win.

God’s Acre

He’s right. God will not let death win. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow expressed the same truth in his poem “God’s Acre.” Here are the first and last stanzas:

I like that ancient Saxon phrase, which calls

The burial-ground God’s-Acre! It is just;

It consecrates each grave within its walls,

And breathes a benison o’er the sleeping dust.

With thy rude ploughshare, Death, turn up the sod,

And spread the furrow for the seed we sow;

This is the field and Acre of our God,

This is the place where human harvests grow.

What an image that is: “the place where human harvests grow.” Go to any graveyard where Christians are buried and there you will find “God’s acre.” Take off your shoes. It is holy ground. Human harvests are growing there. I close with the words of Thomas Watson: “We are more sure to arise out of our graves than out of our beds. Oh! how precious is the dust of a believer!” Amen.

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