During Eastertide this year, we will be walking through the biblical accounts of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus. The apostles witnessed and experienced something extraordinary on the Sunday after the Crucifixion and in the weeks that followed. What we have in the Scriptural accounts is their attempts to articulate what occurred. These accounts use different descriptions and idioms of the Risen Christ because the apostles are attempting to put into words that which is beyond words.
The chronologically first written resurrection appearance we have is Paul’s description of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. (The four Gospels were written between 70-100AD, and Paul’s letters were written from about 45-60AD). Please read and meditate on this passage this week.
In this passage, Paul is answering the duel question of whether the Resurrection occurred and, if so, what is the nature of the Resurrected body. Generally, Greek thought (Corinth being a Greek city) saw the soul as pre-existent and eternal but imprisoned in a body. The flesh was evil because it subjected the soul to bodily passions, pain, suffering, and decay. Death was liberation from this imprisonment, and the idea that Christianity taught that the soul would be forever imprisoned in the human body was not Good News.
In response to the inquiries of the Corinthians, Paul readily affirms that the Resurrection of Jesus actually and historically occurred. (see, vv.1-11). Paul first passes on a tradition that he received (either in Damascus or Jerusalem (see, Acts 9)) that Christ was raised on the third day, and that he appeared to Peter, the disciples, more than 500 brethren at once, James, and others – many of whom were still alive and therefore presumably were still available to speak with.
Paul then speaks of his own personal experience of Jesus appearing to him during his persecution of the Church. Acts tells us of Paul’s personal experience with the Risen Jesus on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus. (Acts 9:1-22, 22:6-16, 26:12-18). Paul uses the same word “appeared” throughout this section (v.8) to link his experience as being the same as the others. The Risen Lord appeared to Peter, et.al. in the same way that he appeared to Paul. When we read Acts, Jesus appears to Paul as a blinding light and speaks to Paul directly, although Paul’s companions do not hear a voice. It is this experience that Paul attempts to articulate in the remainder of this chapter.
Paul’s second point is to emphasize the centrality of the Resurrection to his gospel message. “If Christ has not been raised then our preaching is in vain, your faith is in vain, and we have been misrepresenting God” v.14-15a “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins . . . and we of all men are most to be pitied.” v.18-19. The consequence of sin is death, and sin’s power lies in the law. It is only in the Resurrection that Christ obtains victory over these and only in this victory does our salvation lie. v.56-57. Therefore, if there is no Resurrection, death still reigns, sin still has power, and the law still has jurisdiction. Without the Resurrection, everything that Paul has taught fails. Without the Ressurection, we are still subject to the law, to sin, and to death. Paul is telling his audience (and us) that death isn’t liberation, but is an enemy that must be, is being, and will be subdued and destroyed.
Nowhere in Paul’s message is the victory of the Resurrection conditional for us. Paul is clear that Christ’s Resurrection presages the complete and utter destruction of all rulers, powers, and authorities and ultimately death itself. All the enemies of God are being destroyed. Paul’s message is that the victory of the Resurrection is a total, complete, unconditional victory – all have died in Adam and all are made alive in Christ. v.22. (See, also, Rom. 5:18, Phil. 2:10-11). The imagery Paul uses is that of Rome’s victory in the Third Punic War (or in more modern times think of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany). Without the Resurrection, Death still reigns, but in the Resurrection, Death is trampled down and is conquered.
Finally, Paul addresses the other inquiry in Corinth which is “‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’” v.35. Paul crafts his response with a series of allusions to Genesis 1 and 2, with a recitation of the different types of created bodies. The Resurrection is bodily, but it is of a different type of body. Christ’s bodily resurrection, like ours, is not a resuscitation of the passion-driven, decay-ridden body in which he and we are buried and from which the Greeks seek liberation. The Resurrected Body is not something from a zombie movie or “Pet Sematary.” Rather it is a transformed body – not transient or temporary or perishable or dishonorable, but permanent, established, imperishable, and glorious. It is a body that is animated not by physicality but by the Spirit. The body deposited in the tomb or the ground is different than that body that comes out. What Paul describes in the Resurrection, is the transfiguration of the entire universe into a truer reality appropriate to the Spirit – beyond birth and death. Paul observed the body of the Resurrected Christ as a blinding light – like that of a celestial body or an angel. (Not unlike what the disciples saw at the Transfiguration. (Matt. 17)). The Resurrected body of Christ that Paul observed was incorruptible, immortal, and purged of every element of flesh and blood. v.50
I have a difficult time imagining the Resurrected body as described by Paul. Christ’s body was resurrected. Jesus wasn’t a ghost. However, the body transformed and transfigured is not a body made from the clay of the ground as was Adam, but is a body made of the heavens and of the eternal and incorruptible Spirit of God. In his descriptions, Paul, as will the other writers, pushes our understanding beyond our immediate experience to give us a glimpse of the inconceivable and the ineffable grandeur of the Resurrection he observed.
If you want to go deeper into the issue of the nature of the Resurrected body, please read pp 340-361 of N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God and an article by David Bentley Hart’s The Spiritual was More Substantial Than the Material. Wright and Hart are two of my favorite living biblical scholars, and in these excerpts, they disagree on exactly how to understand what Paul is saying.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling — if indeed, when we have taken it off[a] we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. 2 Cor. 5:1-5