Note: At the request of a parishioner, I will now post my sermon manuscripts on Saturday nights.
People of God, good music tells good stories. Bad music tells bad stories. The Bible is good music, therefore it tells good stories. That is simple enough. Paul’s resurrection theology moves from stanza to stanza beautifully in chapter 15. Paul knows that he needs a bold storyline with a pastoral sensitivity to the false interpretations of the Corinthians. Paul sings his music like an opera. An opera is an extended dramatic composition. Paul uses dramatic speech. He calls them “fools” for not listening to his apostolic teaching, but he is also patient enough to explain Jesus’ resurrection and our future bodily resurrection. In this opera, Paul is filled with theological drama. And—like some operas—sometimes we will be left wondering: “Where is this leading?” Paul recognizes that his distinctions, analogies, boldness have gotten a bit thicker in the last 49 verses, so he is going to summarize his entire argument one last time. And he is going to emphasize the absolute necessity of the transformation of our bodies.
Theol. Point: God is the author of our salvation. God is sovereign over our hearts and minds. He elects us. He pours his affection upon us with an irresistible grace. But not only does he do that, but at the end of history—those in Christ—will also be transformed by God. There is only one way to inherit the kingdom of God for all eternity, and that is by allowing the Creator to dress you with an imperishable body. God is the author of our faith, meaning He makes us a new creation, but He is also the finisher of our faith, meaning He gives us new glorified bodies at the end of history. The sovereignty of God in salvation is not just about our lives here and now, but also our lives in eternity.
He begins in verse 50: “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”
This is what we call a parallelism: the first line is repeated on the second line in different words. This method is not common to Paul, but he is so fascinated by this transformation of the physical body to the supernatural, Spirit-indwelt body at the Resurrection that he makes this point twice in the same sentence. He is emphasizing something important.
When he speaks of “flesh and blood” he is referring to the “ordinary, corruptible, decaying human existence.” This present body cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Why? Because our bodies need to be transformed before it can enjoy eternity. The perishable needs to be made imperishable. It needs to be dressed in a new flesh.
But Paul continues: “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.”
To Paul, the mystery was once hidden but now has been revealed through Christ. The revelation of this mystery is now made known to us. Of course, we do not know how this transformation will occur, but we do know that a transformation will occur; that our bodies will be made fit for a kingdom inheritance.
And part of this mystery is that the transformation of the body needs to be applied to everyone. Not only to those who are “asleep,” which is Paul’s way of referring to those who have died before the Resurrection, but also of those who will be alive at the end of history. If you are alive—and our generation will not be—at the end of history, you will not lose your bodies, but “have them changed from their present state to the one required for God’s future.” Paul is saying that not everyone is going to be dead at the end of history. In fact, there will be great multitudes of Christians. The world population is approximately seven billion people. At the end of history, we may have 70 or more billion people living. This resurrection business is cosmic entailing, involving not just the dead (which number in the billions of billions), but also those who are alive. But beyond that, Paul says, all of our bodies—an innumerable number—will be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
“No one should underestimate the power of God to bring salvation by transfiguring everything in a flash.” In an instant our bodies— alive or dead at the end of history—will be made new. God will dress us with new bodies and introduce us to a feast that will last forever. “When the transformation occurs and our flawed bodies are clothed in immortality at the resurrection, that will be the fulfillment of God’s long-promised triumph over the powers of sin and death.
Paul also says this will happen at the last trumpet. The trumpet is used throughout the Bible for heralding, signaling the End of something. In this case, this is the end of history as we know it. I am not convinced that this is metaphorical. We may actually hear a trumpet sound that echoes from every part of the world at the last day of human history. The trumpet sound indicates that God is finally joined to his beautiful Bride, and they will live forever, happily ever after.
The Bible is—as we have said before—a marriage story. It is a story of how God showers his bride with love when she is polluted by sin, how he pursues her when she is chasing after other gods, and how ultimately, he will conquer her heart, and love her forever.
Paul offers an impeccable and flawless series of punches to the Corinthian pride and misunderstanding. Again, he summarizes his point:
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?”
This is Paul’s resurrection poem. Paul is being very Hebrew. He is taking a cue from Isaiah 25 (which we read this morning), which envisions God’s ultimate destruction of the power of death. And this is really the culmination of this great operatic piece, because this is poetry, poetry put into music. Paul is declaring that death is weak and frail, and that the resurrection has made death look pathetic. As Richard Hays puts it: “Death’s victory has been overcome by Christ’s victory; and death’s deadly sting has been detoxicated—indeed, the stinger itself has been plucked—through Christ’s resurrection.” Death is no longer a tyrant. The serpent can no longer whisper defeat to the bride. Man will never be kicked out of planet earth as Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden. The world is God’s and he has given it to man as steward and keeper. And when we receive a new body, God’s world—transformed—will be our home again forever.
This is why Paul can taunt and mock death incessantly, because he knows that the resurrection of Jesus on the third day has already taken away the stinging power of death.
Paul ends with these words:
“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The sting of death occurred first in the garden. The fall was a result of the deadly sting of the serpent, which came as a virus infecting the entire human race, but the resurrection of Jesus made the sting of death ineffective.
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. Why? Because the law reveals and increases our guilt. But thanks be to God that victory is here. That sin no longer controls us, and that law is no longer an enemy, but a friend. Through Christ we can obey. Through Christ we can declare victory over sin through repentance and faith. Through Christ the threats of death are empty. Through Christ our bodies will be made incorruptible, and death will be nothing more than a miserable and defeated enemy.
How Now Shall We Then Live?
Francis Shaeffer observes that “what we are in our thought world determines how we act.” This is the point Paul is making. Underneath all the dismaying problems in Corinth there was one massive theological fallacy: they denied the resurrection of the dead. By doing so they denied the “importance of the world that God created.” And when you deny creation’s importance, when you deny the future of it, morality is also denied a central place in our lives. We are not moralists, but we are moral. We are called to be moral, to be ethical, and these things imply a proper understanding of our bodies and its behavior. We do not preach the resurrection of Jesus so you may find your human potential or enlightened self-understanding. We preach the resurrection of Jesus so you may live resurrected lives now, avoiding the deeds of the flesh and submitting to Christ as Lord of everything.
On the other hand, we do not preach the resurrection so you may daydream about going to heaven and drinking the pietists’ champagne. The resurrection is not declared so you can spend more time in meditation and introspection. The resurrection is declared so you may strive for righteousness and find joy and delight in serving our Lord.
The resurrection calls for a change of imagination. The resurrection is not just a proposition, it is a story told in dramatic fashion filled with moments of tension and conviction.
Children, when you think of the resurrection, think about reading or watching the Chronicles of Narnia, and imagine you are Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. Imagine that you have seen the beauty of Narnia with all her enemies destroyed, the White Witch out of the picture, evil abolished. And then imagine someone writing a book about your story, your journey, your victory. And then imagine reading your own story in a book. Imagine, but know that it is true. The resurrection is your story and your destiny.
People of God, when you read Paul’s chapter know that you are the main characters in these descriptions. But though Narnia is beautiful, know that there is a true and Real Narnia ahead. C.S. Lewis closes The Final Battle with these memorable words:
And as Aslan spoke he no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page; now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
In The Name of God the Father, and God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.