1 Corinthians 15:35-41
April 14, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 15:45 in the audio file.
Or, A Consideration of God’s (Re)Creative Flair
I know you know this, but knowing God makes a difference. Knowing what He says about Himself, knowing what He says about His works, knowing more about how He works as we listen to His word and look at His world, really does shape how we answer life and death and afterlife questions. Those who “have no knowledge of God” (1 Corinthians 15:34) will necessarily have a trapped view of what is possible. Idolators don’t have better and broader imaginations, it’s the ones who fear the Lord who made heaven and earth who are truly able to think big.
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15 because there were “some” in the church who said that “there is no resurrection of the dead” (verse 12). After he reminded them about the historical and apostolic witness to the resurrection (verses 1-11) he began to work through the logical consequences denying the resurrection and also God’s promise of the future kingdom of the resurrected (verses 12-34).
In verses 34 through 49 Paul picks up not just on the fact of future resurrection but on the kind of resurrection Christians have coming in Christ. Instead of “some” Paul addresses a “someone” in verse 34 who asks about the “kind of body” that the resurrected will have. There are some fascinating answers which we’ll begin to find this morning and even more to celebrate next week on Resurrection Sunday.
For today in verses 34-41 we’ll see an objection to resurrection and the first two responses.
Whether or not Paul had a particular person in mind, he was familiar with this question. But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?”
These two questions scratch at the same thing; the second question clarifies what’s meant by the first. How means more than what way it will happen, but more what state it will take once it’s happened. The problem is with the body. This is the first time that Paul has used the word body in the chapter, and it is a key word from here to the end (used twelve times from verse 35 to 53).
What kind of body, what sort of body, what form/mold will the risen carcass have? What make and model of moving corpse are we talking about? Are we really hoping for the decomposing dead to wake up and start walking around again? Best case scenario: the body parts broke down in one spot in the ground. But how does resuscitation help those bodies that were broken in pieces or burned? Don’t molecules get reused and make new bonds in other living things? How is that going to work? It’s a rotting mess.
The Greek wise-guys thought resurrection was crazy. When the Greeks in Athens heard Paul preaching resurrection they figured he was talking about some foreign god (Acts 17:18). It’s not that everyone denied that there would be any sort of existence after life on earth, but it was monstrous to consider that a crop of corpses would be revitalized, sort of Holy Spirit zombies. More than that, with such a serious gulf between earthly things and heavenly things, how could the earthly inhabit the heavenly? There is more about that explicitly in verses 42-49.
This debater assumes that there is no good answer. “Because the Corinthians could not fathom how this was possible, they had abandoned any trust that it was possible” (Garland).
Paul’s immediate response to the questions in verse 35 shows that he takes them to be scoffing questions not curiosity questions.
You foolish person! This person is lacking understanding, he is senseless. The Greek word for foolish (ἄφρων) negates the Greek word for “thinking” (φρήν), a word that refers to “the process of careful consideration” (BADG). With his comment about some of them having no knowledge of God (verse 34), he may have had Psalm 14 in mind: “The fool says in his heart, / ‘There is no God.'” It’s not a lack of information it’s a lack of consideration. More than that, it’s a denial of some obvious things about God’s creative work. Turns out there are such things as foolish questions (and foolish teachers who say that there are no foolish questions).
The first answer to the body question points to an analogy from agriculture. What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. Here is a correspondence in God’s patterns: death isn’t (always) the end, death is (often) a doorway to something better and bigger and more glorious and fruitful. Jesus used the same analogy, recorded in John 12, about His death and the death of every disciple. A little careful consideration of how God made things digs up the hard soil of the objection.
The afterlife to which Christians ultimately look forward is not like the experience of a leaf after it has died and fallen from a tree only to rot away, but more like the experience of a seed that germinates and then enters into a flourishing life of color and beauty to which its previous existence is hardly capable of being compared. (Ciampa and Rosner)
There’s more to it. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. It’s not only that the seed’s burial isn’t the end of the seed, it’s that the seed’s burial leads to the seed’s transformation. What the farmer puts in the soil looks nothing like what sprouts out of the ground, let alone what it looks like full grown. He sows a bare kernel, a “naked” seed, not a mini-plant, but yet that seed has everything in it to become what it’s meant to be. If you weren’t a professional botanist (an expert in the study of plants), and you were sorting through a pile mixed with dozens of different seeds, there’s no way you could guess the eventual plants coming from the seeds. And where Paul is taking us, is that we might not know as much as we think about the resurrected body that is to be.
God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. The creation account in Genesis informs this consideration. God wills and God works, God decides definitions and God determines limits and trajectories “as it hath pleased Him” (KJV). He gives every plant, wheat or whatever kind of grain, a size and shape and color and product. And He also gives each kind of seed its own different size and shape and future. It’s similar to how God composed the body (1 Corinthians 12:18). And this is where the fool goes wrong: he fails to think about what God (has and) can do.
Paul hasn’t jumped fields, as if from theology to gardening; he’s sowing in a straight line toward answering the question about what kind of body the resurrected will have. So far we’ve considered that:
So death doesn’t limit what could be, just as the currently observed seed doesn’t limit what could be, and there is actually in God’s creative power and purpose a pattern of death transforming the seed into its intended glory.
And here’s one to noodle on: which is the actual identity, the seed or the plant? Or, when are you the most you?
Before Paul describes some of the final forms of glory that will come in our resurrected bodies, he wants to disperse our attention on all the differing bodies and glories that are currently visible to prepare us for anticipating the differing bodies and glories that are coming.
God creates an array and assigns limits. For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. This is a set up. Paul moves from the fourth day of creation with seeds and their kinds to days six and five, working backwards through the creation order and the different sorts of living creatures. These are types of flesh, not types of plants. They don’t morph from one to another as the theory of evolution proposes, they are differentiated by God and His word. What these fleshes share in common is a “creatureliness and vulnerability” (Thiselton).
But the differences of flesh exist. Why does that matter? It matters because when we are concerned about the body that is to be we can’t forget the One who created all the types of bodies that already are.
Speaking of bodies, There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. Paul moves further back in creation week, comparing not only terrestrial flesh but also celestial forms. The heavenly bodies are listed in the next verse, while the earthly bodies are the ones in the previous verse, that is, the different kinds of flesh. The bodies on land, in water, in the sky, and in the heavens all have glory of some kind. We aren’t given a scorecard to rank the degrees of glory, but each has what it has from God.
Verses 36-38 took an analogy from agriculture, verse 41 takes an analogy from astronomy. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. These all shine, even though we know that the moon reflects light from the sun; from our view they all appear to give light. Some of the stars are bigger than the sun, but they are further away so they seem smaller. Again, the point is that God didn’t make just one sort of heavenly body. These bodies govern seasons and days and years. They are fixed in place to give light on earth, ruling the day and the night. They each have their own glory.
So we move from flesh to bodies to glory. This is not science fiction, this is science non-fiction. God has been revealing things to us from the beginning, including His creative flair. Flair refers to an aptitude or ability for doing something well; it’s style, it’s panache. You don’t need a microscope or a telescope (though those make more micro and more macro observations possible) to consider God’s skills. The range of God’s resources, His artistic vision and competence, are almost unbelievable.
And all of this gets us ready to consider God’s recreative power: “So it is with the resurrection of the dead” (verse 42).
The resurrection of our bodies in Christ and by Christ is not impossible, it’s no problem…for Him.
The God who made these myriads of differences in one and the same universe can be credited with inexhaustible power … he has found a body fit for fish, fowl, cattle and mortal man: why not for … [raised] man? (Robertson and Plummer, quoted in Thiselton)
Don’t limit God to your judgment. That is the way of fools. This is also an argument to spend a little more time paying attention to your garden or looking through your telescope. Good science will only expand your imagination.
We’ll see more in the next paragraph about the nature of the resurrected, glorified bodies we’ll get. Somehow we’ll be fitted for heavenly, spiritual life, and that will be both different from our current body as a seed is different than a plant, and yet also recognizable and identified with it. It’s not just that we’ll be reanimated or recycled (Garland). Lazarus was raised, but not yet with this kind of resurrection. I’m not sure I’ve thought about this enough, or maybe I’ve thought about it too simplistically. The Corinthians didn’t intend to raise a helpful question, but it’s good for us to consider God’s re-creative flair.
God is not mocked. I’ve almost always taken this only as a threat. Don’t expect that you can sow disobedience and selfishness and grudge-holding and reap the fruit of joy. That warning holds. But, God is also not mocked by our lame or exhausted imaginations. Don’t expect that you can sow obedience and love and service and reap the fruit of just knowing you did the right thing but not really experiencing much else. Consider the crazy things God grows from tiny seeds, and think creatively about what His Spirit will grow if you don’t give up.
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:7–9, ESV)