The Hardest Doctrine to Believe: “The Resurrection of the Body”
I Corinthians 15
June 27, 2004
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Thirteen years ago I traveled to Russia with John and Helen Sergey. For 17 days we traveled from Leningrad to Moscow to the Volga River. While we were in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), I met Art DeKruyter, the founding pastor of Christ Church of Oak Brook, a Chicago suburb a few miles west of Oak Park. Art not only founded the church but he stayed as pastor for over 30 years. Under his ministry the church grew to over 3,000 in attendance. He and John Sergey were good friends and so we traveled with him from Leningrad to Moscow. Art and I shared a cabin together on the special presidential train that traveled through the night. For several hours we stayed up talking shop together. When Art asked if we recited the Apostles’ Creed at Calvary, I said we didn’t. He told me that they recited it every Sunday at Christ Church and he thought it would be a good thing if we did the same thing at Calvary. He declared that modern men and women need the mental discipline of saying the Creed every Sunday because it serves as an antidote to the prevailing secular unbelief and the rampant skepticism they face daily. Art said there is one phrase from the creed that our people need to say every Sunday: “I believe … in the resurrection of the body.” That’s the hardest phrase to believe because it goes against everything we are taught and everything we see with our eyes. We have lots of funerals; the last resurrection happened 2,000 years ago. And if you have walked away from the grave of a loved one, you know how the harsh reality of death can erode your faith. We need to say the creed to remind ourselves that we believe that death will not have the final victory. We believe in something absolutely stupendous—the resurrection of the body.
Death is the fundamental human problem. It is our greatest fear, the sum of all other fears. You can see it in the way we treat the dead. An entire industry has grown up to help us deal with death. When a person dies, we do our best to make them look as if they were not dead. Many times I have heard someone stand by a casket and say, “She looks so natural.” Well, no, she looks like she’s dead. But death is so awesome, so final, so forbidding, so shocking to our senses, that we can’t even say the word. We say that someone “passed on” or “departed” or “slipped away.” Somehow that softens the blow a bit. I fully understand the need to use euphemisms when a loved one has died. And I believe the funeral industry plays an important role in bringing comfort to grieving families. But even after we have done our best to mask the reality, death stands as a stark reality, the Grim Reaper that visits every home sooner or later.
And so we come face to face with a question asked by philosophers, theologians and especially by grieving families, a question Job asked thousands of years ago: “If a man dies, shall he live again?” (Job 4:14 ESV). Consider how Paul faces the same question in I Corinthians 15:33, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die’” (ESV). If … If … If … If the dead are not raised, then why not live it up? Why not go for all the gusto? Why bother going to church? Why suffer for Christ if this life is all there is? Why serve the Lord if death ends everything? Down deep in our souls, we want to know the truth. When we die, will we live again? Or does death win in the end? Mark it down, my friend. If we do not have an answer to death, then our religion is useless.
And it is precisely at this point that the Apostles’ Creed provides positive help. As we come to the end of the creed, we find that it ends on a very positive note of Christian hope. The penultimate phrase says, “I believe in … the resurrection of the body.” Note how specific this is. Not “the resurrection of the dead” but “the resurrection of the body.” Older versions of the creed were even more specific when they used the phrase “the resurrection of the flesh.” Christians believe that the body itself will be raised from the dead. Unlike the ancient Greeks and the contemporary Hindus who see the body as merely the “covering” or the “container” for the soul, something to discard when we die so the soul can be set free, Christians believe that our redemption includes the body. We believe that redemption will not be complete until the body itself is resurrected from the death.
Paul wrote extensively about this truth in the resurrection chapter—I Corinthians 15. In order to understand what the resurrection of the body involves, we need to know about three things—the bodies we have, the death we’ll face, and the resurrection we’ll enjoy.
I. The Bodies We Have
Most of us have a love/hate relationship with our bodies. Let me illustrate. If you had the power to change your body, would you use it? Suppose you could instantly change the way you look, would you do it? That may be the dumbest question I’ve ever asked. The question is not—would you use that power, but would it be a simple repair or a complete makeover? Would you say, “Lord, let’s just start all over again.” Would we even recognize you?
Our bodies wear out, they sag, they expand, they wrinkle, the joints get creaky, the arteries harden, gravity pulls everything downward, the heart slows down, the eyes grow dim, the teeth fall out, the back is stooped, the arms grow weary. Our bones break, our muscles weaken. The body bulges in the wrong places. It happens to all of us sooner or later. This week I ran across an article called, “51 Signs You’re Getting Older.” Years ago I wouldn’t have paid any attention to an article like that, but nowadays I find those articles fascinating. It helped that the subtitle said, “Large Print Version.” Here are a few items that caught my attention:
You know you’re getting old when …
1. Everything hurts and what doesn’t hurt doesn’t work.
2. The gleam in your eyes is from the sun hitting your bifocals.
8. You look forward to a dull evening.
9. Your favorite part of the newspaper is “20 Years Ago Today.”
11. You sit in a rocking chair and can’t get it going.
12. Your knees buckle, and your belt won’t.
15. Your back goes out more than you do.
19. You sink your teeth into a steak, and they stay there.
23. You’re asleep, but others worry that you’re dead.
39. You have a dream about prunes.
47. Your ears are hairier than your head.
51. When you bend over, you look for something else to do while you’re down there.
As we age, we pay more attention to things like diet and exercise. The Atkins Diet seems to be all the rage today. Fat and protein are in; carbs are out, way out. So now everyone is coming up with “low-carb” specials. I even saw “low-carb ice cream” the other day. That’s not right. We eat ice cream because we want the carbs. And low-carb Coke. That’s not right either. Marlene and Nick and I went to Taste of Chicago and I saw a sign advertising “low-carb pizza.” There ought to be a law against stuff like that. Food is in. But my question is, why did God make so much food if so much of it is bad for us?
And fitness is in. We’ve got Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig and Curves and we’ve got runners and bikers and marathoners and people who like to lift weights four times a week. And fashion is in also. We’re very concerned about how we cover our bodies—and in most cases we cover up the parts we don’t want anyone else to see because we’re out of shape.
I have a bit of news for you. Your body won’t last forever. You can eat all the low-carb ice cream you want, but your body will still fall apart in the end. Did you know your body disintegrates all the time? You’re falling apart even while you are reading this sermon.
So this is the first point: Your body is a gift from God that won’t last forever.
II. The Death We’ll Face
Most people fear death and don’t want to talk about it. Death remains the “final frontier” that we all must cross sooner or later, and though we all know that death is coming, we prefer to live as if it will never come at all. Suppose you issued an invitation along the following lines to your friends: “I’ve got pizza and Coke—all you can eat. Let’s get together on Friday night and talk about death.” How many people would come? You’d end up spending a quiet Friday night all by yourself. The Greek playwright Sophocles said, “Of all the great wonders, none is greater than man. Only for death can he find no cure.” He’s right about that. The wonders of modern science help us live longer, but for death itself there is no cure.
What does the Bible say about death?
A. Death is certain. “It is appointed for man to die once” (Hebrews 9:27a ESV).
B. Death is not the end. “And after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27b ESV)
C. Christ defeated death. “Christ Jesus … abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (II Timothy 1:10 ESV).
D. Death remains the last enemy. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (I Corinthians 15:26).
The conundrum for Christians lies between #3 and #4. If Christ has abolished death, why do we still die? How can death be both abolished and yet the “last enemy” of the people of God? The answer lies in understanding the basic nature of death. Years ago I heard Dr. Ryrie say that the essence of death is separation. Death is the unnatural separation of the body and the spirit. That thought runs counter to the current popular notion that death is a “natural” part of life. There is nothing “natural” about death. It’s the most “unnatural” event in the universe. According to the Bible, death came into the world because of sin (Romans 5:12). Death exists because sin exists. When sin has been removed once and for all, death will no longer exist. That’s why there will be no death in heaven (Revelation 21:3). In the truest sense, then, death is “unnatural” because sin is “unnatural.” We think the opposite because we can hardly imagine a world where sin no longer exists. But there is such a world, and according to the Bible, that world is the “real” world, and this world that feels so real to us is actually passing away. So until then we live in an “unnatural” state of affairs where death still stalks our trail. But what is will not always be. Christ truly destroyed death when he died and rose again. He abolished death as a ruling power in the universe. Death itself will one day die, and the true state God intended will be restored. Until that day comes, we live in an odd situation best described by Ecclesiastes 12:7 (ESV), which says that when we die “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Most of us have heard the phrase, “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” We come from the dirt and we return to the dirt. From a purely human perspective, that is our destiny. Ecclesiastes 12:7 is true as far as it goes. It accurately describes what happens when we die. But that verse is not the end of the story.
III. The Resurrection We’ll Enjoy
If death is the fundamental human problem (and it is), what is the Christian answer? Listen to Paul’s soaring words in I Corinthians 15:51-55 (ESV).
Behold! I tell you a mystery. 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 will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
Note three things from this passage about our coming resurrection:
A. It will happen instantly. The text says “in a moment” and “in the twinkling of an eye.” One moment the dead will be in the ground; the next moment they will be raised to life. This is no gradual resurrection—if such a thing could be contemplated. The great miracle will happen so fast that if you blink, you will miss it!
B. It will happen when Jesus returns. The “last trumpet” refers to the return of Christ in the air. The trumpet will sound, the dead in Christ will rise, and living believers will be raptured off the earth to meet the Lord in the air (I Thessalonians 4:13-18).
C. It will result in our complete transformation. In that moment our essential being will change from mortal to immortal and from perishable to imperishable. Our individual personalities will remain intact, but all that relates to mortality, death and decay will be removed from us once and for all.
As we think about it, it is natural to want more information. The people in Paul’s day wanted more information also:
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 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 (I Corinthians 15:35-37 ESV).
Go to your garden if you want to understand the resurrection of Christ. Think of the process of growing fruit. You start by taking a seed that looks nothing at all like the fruit that will be harvested later. You plant the seed in the ground, cover it up, water it, fertilize it, and then leave it alone. Through some process that we cannot observe with our eyes, the seed dies and out of its death comes new life that pushes up through the ground. Eventually fruit comes forth and is harvested. If you placed the seed and the fruit side by side, they look nothing alike, but the seed is necessary for the fruit to appear.
Or consider a tiny acorn. Hold it in your hand and study it. Suppose that you had never seen an oak tree, and suppose you had no idea what an acorn would produce. I submit that by studying an acorn by itself, you would never figure out that it would produce an oak tree. If you cut open the acorn, you would not find an oak tree inside—not even a tiny one. There is nothing in the visual inspection that would lead you to suspect that such a tiny thing could produce such a magnificent result. But plant the acorn, let it grow, and then come back in 50 years to see what it has produced. Verily, from that humble beginning has come an amazing tree, with limbs that stretch in every direction and leaves that provide a vast green canopy.
But now let’s work it the other way. Suppose you knew nothing about acorns, and nothing about how oak trees grow. You would be hard pressed to imagine that such a mighty tree could come from such a humble beginning. Place the acorn and the oak tree side by side. You can hardly get them in the same frame together. One is so small and insignificant; the other so mighty and so impressive. But (and this is the whole point) the acorn contained the mighty oak tree all along. It was there all along, waiting for the right time and place to come out. How does it happen? The acorn must be planted in the ground and it must die before the oak tree can appear. But without the humble acorn, there would be no oak tree at all.
This is the essence of Paul’s argument. Today we are humble acorns—just a bunch of nuts! Not much to look at and not very impressive. The day will come when we must die and be planted in the ground. (By the way, when we talk about “planting Uncle Joe” in the ground, that’s not just a joke. That’s good biblical terminology. We “plant” Christians in the ground in the prospect of their coming resurrection from the dead.) But that “planting” is not the end of the story, according to the Bible. As the acorn dies to produce to the mighty oak, even so we die and our death becomes the gateway to our future resurrection. That’s our destiny: Acorns today, oak trees tomorrow. We cannot say what the resurrection body will be like with certainty, but it will be to this life as the oak tree is to the acorn.
The resurrection of the body is necessary to reverse the effects of sin. Old age, cancer, disease, accidents, terrible tragedy. These things are all part of the curse upon the earth because of sin. Redemption will not be complete until our bodies are finally redeemed and changed forever. Redemption touches the body not just the soul. Your salvation will not be complete until your body becomes immortal and imperishable. This clarifies a crucial misunderstanding about the saints who are already in heaven. Sometimes I hear people say things like, “I know he’s up there playing football in heaven.” Well, not without his body. Football is a contact sport. If you don’t have your body with you, you’re not going to play much football. It’s not correct to speak of our loved ones in heaven as already having their glorified bodies. If the body is still in the ground, then it’s not glorified yet. Better to say that their spirit or soul is with the Lord, and that they in heaven (like us on earth) await the day of resurrection.
The body that is raised will be a new body—not just the old one patched up. If a loved one dies of cancer, it won’t do any good to be raised with cancer. Personally, I don’t want a “renovated” body. I want something brand-new that won’t wear out or run down, a body suited for eternity.
And individual personality continues in the resurrection. We believe in resurrection, not reincarnation. If I come back as a Chihuahua, I’m going to bite someone on the ankle. But that’s not going to happen. I won’t come back as someone else or something else. I’ll be raised as Ray Pritchard with all the destructive marks of sin removed from all parts of my being. The parts of me that annoy other people will be gone forever, thank God. What remains will be Ray Pritchard, cleansed and purified and perfected by the grace of God. I will still be me and you will still be you. But we will also be like Jesus because we will see him as he is (I John 3:1-3). We will have new bodies fit for new people who will live in the New Jerusalem. I have heard people speculate that we will all be 33 years old in heaven because that’s approximately the age Jesus was at his crucifixion. The Bible doesn’t say that, and I doubt that earthly markers of age will apply to our resurrection bodies. I heard a man say that just as we have five senses today, we will have 500 in the resurrection. Perhaps that is true. It does fit the acorn-oak tree analogy.
Our only way of understanding the resurrection body is to consider the experience of Jesus. After he rose from the dead, the disciples could still recognize him and he bore on his body the marks of his suffering. He ate and drank with them, yet he also appeared and disappeared from their midst, suggesting that in his glorified state, he transcended time and space.
Your current body is like an old jalopy. It never works very well, it keeps breaking down, and one day it will stop altogether. Your new body will be like a Roll Royce that never needs servicing. This is wonderful news for those who today suffer from cancer, deformities, disabilities, limitations, sicknesses, chronic illness, and broken body parts. A day is coming when they will suffer and weep no more.
When Christ saves you, he saves all of you. Every part of you is saved and every part of you will be delivered from sin. Here is my whole sermon in one sentence: It is not soul salvation that we believe in, but whole salvation. The resurrection of the body is the final step in our salvation:
Step #1: We are saved from the penalty of sin. That happens when we trust Christ.
Step #2: We are saved from the power of sin. That happens day by day through the new life given to us by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Step #3: We are saved from the presence of sin. That will happen in the future when our bodies are raised from the dead and transformed by God’s power.
As a side note, I discovered this week that during the Middle Ages, eminent theologians held extensive discussions about the precise nature of the resurrection body. Here is one question they discussed in detail: Suppose a missionary is eaten by a cannibal, and then the cannibal dies. When his body turns to dust, whose dust is it? The missionary’s or the cannibal’s? To which I reply, whoever asked that question had too much time on his hands. I am reminded of Augustine’s famous reply to the question, “What was God doing before he created the universe?” Answer: He was creating hell for people who ask questions like that. There is a serious side to that frivolous question, however. We know that many people were incinerated on 9/11 when the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed. Their bodies simply vaporized. How will God resurrect the bodies of believers who died that day? Or of believers whose bodies were lost at sea, or in the jungle? The answer in all cases is the same: God can do it. The God who holds every molecule of the universe in his hand can retrieve the right ones when the time of resurrection finally arrives. It’s not a problem for God. Think of it this way: If you can raise the dead, you can raise the dead. The circumstances of death will not delay or deter the Lord on that great day. Everyone who died a believer will be raised immortal. Death will not have the last word.
We are sown in dishonor and raised in glory (I Corinthians 15:43). Dishonor describes our condition at the moment of death because our bodies begin to decay the moment life ebbs away. Glory describes what we shall be when Christ returns and we are raised from the dead. From dishonor to glory—that’s our destiny.
How will God do it? Paul says, “I show you a mystery.” Even he doesn’t know for certain. The best arguments in favor of resurrection are simply analogies. We are like a little baby in the womb who hears voices from the outside and sees light shining into the womb. We know as much about the resurrection body as that little baby knows about life after birth. What we know is wonderful. The reality will go far beyond anything we can imagine.
In all of this, we must not miss the great point Paul wishes to make:
O Grave, where is your victory? It is gone!
O Death, where is your sting? It is gone!
The resurrection of the body means that when God saves us, he saves the whole person—body, soul and spirit. It also means that we will see again our loved ones who died in the Lord. And it transforms how we view death. If we truly believe what God has said, why should we fear dying? Death has been so thoroughly defeated that the moment of death has become the moment of our personal victory through Christ our Lord. It is a mere incident in the ongoing life we share with Christ.
What I have written here is not pie-in-the-sky dreaming, but sober biblical truth. We know it is true because it rests on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Because he rose, we too shall rise. When Benjamin Franklin was 23 years old, he wrote an epitaph for himself. Though it was never actually used when he died many years later, the epitaph reflects deep spiritual truth:
The body of
Benjamin Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn Out
And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies Here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be Lost;
For it will (as he Believ’d) Appear once More
In a New and More Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.
He was right about that. We will one day rise from the dead—revised and corrected by the Author himself—never to die again. Death cannot ultimately touch the person who is joined with Jesus by faith. Take comfort, brothers and sisters, in this affirmation of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”
Lord, there may be people reading these words who are unsure of what will happen when they die. They may want to trust in your salvation through Jesus Christ. Grant them faith to say these words in prayer:
God, I am far from you and I am afraid to die. I believe that Jesus died for me; I believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Here and now I trust in Him as my Savior; come into my heart, Lord Jesus, and save me. Amen.
And grant to all the believing children of God great faith and hope and deep joy as we move toward the great day of our resurrection. Help us to stand strong and to abound in doing good because we know our work is not in vain. And we say with all the saints, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” Amen.