As I consider Paul’s words I feel a tension, and I know why. He is talking about life after death, and I want him to talk about life before death. More accurately, I want him to talk about Life while living. Our passage seems to say we really don’t start living until the worms start eating. I don’t believe this is what Paul is saying. This will be a good place to employ our Bible Study 101 skills and ask, “Who is speaking and why?” A complete reading of 1st and 2nd Corinthians reveals that Corinth not only had theological problems: they also had morality problems.
Lies from pagan culture still had traction in the young church. Between bad theology and bad morality, there wasn’t much left to distinguish the Corinthian saints from the Corinthian pagans. This was deeply troubling to Paul—their spiritual father. His plan was to wade right into the middle of it, “determined to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” Fully committed to winning them, the great apostle starts with a question:
Now, let me ask you something profound yet troubling. If you became believers because you trusted the proclamation that Christ is alive, risen from the dead, how can you let people say that there is no such thing as a resurrection? (I Corinthians 15:12 The Message)
They were letting people say there was no such thing as a resurrection because various lies remained operative within their community. As Paul preached “nothing but Christ and Him crucified,” he was facing off with the principalities of Corinthian culture, which had reigned unchallenged for hundreds of years.
Paul was no stranger to these demons. At Mars Hill, most of the philosophers mocked him when he spoke of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Due to their philosophical strongholds, it was inconceivable to them a person’s earthly body could come back to life after it had died. The Epicurean philosophers were materialists, believing there was no existence beyond death. The Stoic philosophers taught that, at death, the soul was merged with Deity, precluding the need of a body. The Platonist philosophers taught the soul was immortal, but they denied the idea of a bodily resurrection.
The Greek word for resurrection is anastasis, which literally means, “to stand up again.” Resurrection means that a person will “stand up again” after he dies—that he will come back to life in a new body. This was the sword Paul drew. Sound doctrine was his primary weapon in combating the doctrines of demons. While he was correcting the specific errors of the Corinthians, he did not see the need to share the things about the resurrection, which he had shared with the Romans.
Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)
While he did not teach this to the Corinthians directly in our passage, he had certainly implied it when he told them they were new creatures in Christ (II Corinthians 5:17). In God’s kingdom, which has come and is coming, Life is not just reserved as a post trumpet blast, when-the-dead-shall-rise experience. We have been raised up already. Christ is now our Life!
While it will not be the ultimate expression of resurrection life, Paul is keen that Jesus’ life be manifest in the lives of believers while still in their mortal bodies. He envisions the inner man standing up and expressing something eternal while still residing in the temporal. This happens as God is permitted to become the King of our hearts. As God succeeds as Lord in our innermost being, his kingdom expands.
Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
If Paul were preaching his straightforward Christ-and-Him-crucified message to the western evangelical church, he would get push back from another set of principalities who hold that the real, substantive resurrection life begins only after we die. Due to this philosophical stronghold it is inconceivable to many Christians that Jesus will make much of a stand in his Church: “How much resurrection life is realistic, restricted as it is by fallen human nature?” Overlooking the new nature, in Christ, this church-based stronghold breeds passivity and a tread-water-until-then outlook. Where this doctrine persists, the troops remain in the barracks, awaiting reveille, praying they will not be left behind.
Right now, in Christ, we are raised from the dead (in our spirits) and we will be raised from the dead (in our bodies) at the appointed time. Resurrection life is planted like a seed in our hearts. By God’s grace, it takes root. That seed is Christ himself. There is no life other than his. This must be why Paul is so determined to preach exclusively about the resurrection. This message is the one that sets the stage for the believer to personally discover that Jesus Christ is literally all they have and all they need. He is, himself, our sufficiency. For our good and the Kingdom’s, he intends to become our all-in-all.
Father, thank you that in Christ our toil is not in vain. Manifest your resurrection life within us. Give this unbelieving world something fresh to chew on. Let them see newness of life in your family. Transform us, as you have always intended, not just in that ultimate twinkling of an eye, rather, over time, as we walk with you in the Spirit. Let this world see the perishable putting on some imperishable, and mortality putting on some immortality. Let them puzzle as they see our liberty in the Spirit, asking themselves, “Where is the sting of death in these people?” Take your stand, Lord. Amen.