Letters to the Corinthians: Spiritual Bodies

Now that Paul has clarified some points about the resurrection, he continues by looking at a related issue in 1 Corinthians 15:35-58 …

But someone will 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. Not all flesh is the same: People 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.

Apparently a popular belief in the ancient world was that material objects were inferior to the immaterial, the physical was inferior to the spiritual. The believers could get on board with a number of teachings that referred to the spiritual side of things like speaking in tongues, but they weren’t sure what the resurrection meant for them. After all, they believed that their earthly bodies were flawed. They couldn’t imagine walking into heaven with their earthly bodies. So Paul speaks to that idea by pointing out that all bodies are different.

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.

It seems that Paul uses a similar metaphor to the one Plato used in Symposium. He doesn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining what he means here – so he just goes on to explain more about spiritual bodies.

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 is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.

Some Bible passages don’t really get preached all that often. The last reference I saw to this verse was to prove that: “Adam = humanity, therefore men have authority over women.” If we really paid attention to these verses – the inherent ‘first Adam’ in all of us is on borrowed time and the ‘last Adam’ will give us life. I know that there’s a lot of ‘already and not yet’ involved in being a Christian. I see a lot of that in this passage – being already spiritual but not yet integrated with spiritual bodies.

I declare to you, brothers and sisters, 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.”

Having been brought up in a world that’s heavily influenced by the concept of the rapture and the tribulation – I’d recognize this verse anywhere. But it begs the question: What did Paul mean apart from the rapture? Is Paul reassuring believers that death isn’t the necessary ingredient to obtaining a spiritual body? Is he letting them know that they do have something to live for? That living believers will undergo a change that integrates them with the spiritual body under a particular set of circumstances? He ends this section with a quote from Isaiah 25:8 and begins the next with one from Hosea 13:14 …

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

I’ve been reading about Left Behind and it’s central tenant: “Jesus coming back to get us before we die.” So much has been made of this, that we’ve lost sight of the fact that in the interim, people die daily. It’s in our DNA to fight off death, but the specter of death was constantly haunting the whole world. People didn’t live to be old – not like we do today. Infants didn’t live to be toddlers and toddlers didn’t live to be children all the time. Christianity supported it’s widows in a world that wouldn’t have blinked an eye if there was one less widow wandering about. Is Paul’s central point that one day we’ll all be raptured and we don’t have to die? I don’t think it is. Paul’s telling the believers that death doesn’t have the last laugh or the final say.

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.

Paul has been building up to this – his whole theology has been summed up as: “Christ and him crucified” through this, we have victory. Death’s sting (sin) can’t harm us. Sin’s power (the law) has no power over us.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, 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.

And an encouragement … to work? Okay, My church tradition has always been one to emphasize that there’s no need for works. But Paul has just gone there after talking about everything Jesus has done. I used to think that I could never do enough works to earn my place in heaven – and I still think that’s pretty much the case. This is not about earning a ticket to heaven though – Paul’s reminding the Corinthians that there’s nothing we could do that’s useless. Looking at what the Bible says, it’s not about working ourselves into heaven – but it’s about backing up our faith with action to prove that it’s solid. Look at the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 – it’s the ones that feed, visit, give, etc. that get it right. The ones that didn’t? They missed the heart of the message. I think Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that being saved and then waiting around to die so that we all get resurrected into spiritual bodies isn’t all there is to being a follower of Christ.

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