Paul’s Understanding of Resurrection (i)

Last year, I wrote some reflections for BRF’s Guidelines Bible reading notes, and they have just been published. I contributed my thoughts on texts in Paul’s letters relation to the resurrection. This is what I said:

When I came to faith as a teenager, I was taught that I could know the forgiveness and love of God because of Jesus’ death on the cross for my sins—and that this made all the difference. It did indeed, and the sense of security I found from encountering divine love gradually seeped into and transformed every section of my life. But I remember very clearly one day, as I was walking to church, thinking ‘If Jesus’ death achieves everything, why does the resurrection matter?’ A common answer is that it was the proof that Jesus was who he said he was, and that his death really does mean forgiveness. Debate then follows about the historical evidence for the resurrection, and whether it is ‘objectively’ true.

This is important, but it is only one part of Paul’s perspective on the resurrection. As we engage on this fascinating exploration, we will find two important correctives to my early understanding. The first is that Paul views the cross and resurrection as two inseparable parts of one great movement of grace, in which God deals with human sin and the enmity so reconciles humanity to himself. Paul would never have imagined the possibility of talking about the cross without the resurrection. The second is that Paul always sees this one act of cross-and-resurrection as both objective and subjective. It is about what God has done for us in Jesus—but it also shapes the whole of Christian life. The physical movement of baptism, down into the water and up again, becomes for Paul the shape of Christian living as our old life ‘in the flesh’ dies in the death of Jesus, and our new life ‘in the Spirit’ begins in the resurrection of Jesus. We now begin to live the kingdom life of the age to come, though we do so in the context of this age which is ‘passing away’.

This leads to transformation as, free from fear, we are able to give ourselves in love and service just as Jesus did (‘losing your life’ Matt 10.39). But it also roots us in hope of life beyond death as we anticipate our own resurrection just as Jesus did. As we read through Paul, we see him opening up each of these issues in turn—and see the difference it makes for Paul, his readers, and for us today.

1. Jesus’ resurrection and ours (1 Thess 1.9–10; 1 Thess 4.13–5.11)

This is probably Paul’s earliest letter, written from Corinth in AD 51 or 52, and these verses at the end of chapter 1 offer a fascinating summary of what Paul’s gospel. Luke summarises his preaching as centred around Jesus as the Messiah who had to ‘suffer and rise from the dead’ (Acts 17.3). To accept this involved ‘turning’ (v 9), a synonym for the ‘repentance’ invited by Jesus in his preaching, and for gentiles this meant rejecting their pagan religious past. Paul hints at the importance of Jesus’ resurrection—that it was part of God’s vindication of who he was, along with his ascension to heaven, and that it is the grounds of our hope—of Jesus’ return, and of our security when he comes in judgement.

Paul then expands on these themes in chapters 4 and 5. He uses the metaphor of ‘sleep’ for death (4.13, 15): because of Jesus’ resurrection, death has lost its power over us and should no longer be feared. The pattern of God’s dealing with Jesus, death followed by resurrection, is the pattern for all who are now in Christ, so we face death with a unique sense of hope. At his return, those who have died will themselves experience resurrection. The language of ‘meeting the Lord in the air’ has been widely misunderstood as suggesting that we leave earth to be ‘raptured’ to heaven before a time of ‘tribulation’ comes to those ‘left behind’. But Paul is clear that he is describing not Christians’ departure from earth but Jesus’ arrival—his ‘coming down from heaven’—and the language he uses (parousia, v 15) draws on the description of a king returning to a city he rules after a long absence. Just as the elders come out of the city to greet the king, whose authority they have exercised in his absence, and turn to enter the city with him, so we will turn and come with him ‘as a kingdom and priests to reign on earth’ with him forever (Rev 5.10).

This day will come as a ‘thief in the night’ for those unprepared—a metaphor not for its imminence, as though Paul expected Jesus to return in his lifetime, but for its unexpectedness. But we, who are already living resurrection life, will welcome him instead as a friend in the day.

2. Living in the Resurrection Age (Gal 1.1–4, 2.15–21)

In his other early letter, to Christians in the region of Galatia, Paul mentions resurrection only once, but it underpins his argument in key places. As with 1 Thess 1.9–10, he includes in the opening here a summary of his message. Like other Jews of his time, Paul understands human history to be divided into two ages: the ‘present evil age’ in which sin reigns, God is not acknowledged, and his people are oppressed; and the ‘age to come’ (Eph 1.21) in which evil is defeated, the glory of God is revealed and his people worship in freedom.

A key sign of the end of this age and the coming of the next was to be the resurrection of the dead—which is why Jesus’ resurrection is always central to Paul’s proclamation (see Acts 17.18). When God ‘raised him from the dead’ it was not merely his vindication—it was also the beginning of the promised new age of God’s rule (his kingdom) in which those who are ‘in Christ’ now live. This age has not yet come to an end, but Jesus’ death means that it no longer has power over us—it is no longer our reality—because he has broken the power of sin and death by dying for us and rising again.

Paul is clear that the coming of this new resurrection age means an end to the distinction between those given the law and those outside the covenant people of God. In fact, the law had always been God’s gift to his people, and their obedience was a sign of belonging to the covenant, not a means to impress God. Because Jesus, who ‘knew no sin became sin for us’ (2 Cor 5.21), his death has put to death the power of our sinful human nature, so that we now live the resurrection life of Jesus, made real in us by his Spirit. This is through ‘the faith of Christ’ which can mean our faith in him—or, perhaps better, his faithfulness to us. We trust him for this resurrection life because his resurrection has shown him to be trustworthy, the supreme victor over death whom we can trust with our very selves.

Don’t forget to book your place at the Festival of Theology on Jan 30th!

3. The Foundation of Faith (1 Cor 15.1–19)

We will spend some time in this chapter of Paul’s letters, because it is the most extended and developed reflection by Paul on the resurrection. Having talked, in the preceding chapters, about the true nature of spiritual maturity and how that works out in communal life, he ‘now’ turns to a new subject, and offers a concise summary of his ‘gospel’, one that corresponds with the concerns of the written gospels.

Core to this primary belief are three connected things: first, that Jesus died ‘for our sins’; second, that God raised him from the dead; and third, that this is what the apostles testify to. Paul doesn’t go into details here of what he means by ‘died for our sins’; he explores that in greater depth in Romans, but also summarises it in later correspondence with the Corinthians; our sins have made us enemies with God, but his gracious offer of forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus has allowed us to be ‘reconciled’, transformed from enemies to friends of God (2 Cor 5.18–21; compare Eph 2.14–16). The fact that Jesus was buried shows that he death was real—he was ‘dead and gone’, so resurrection was God’s giving of new life, and a new kind of life, transcending death, and not mere resuscitation. The nature of the apostolic testimony is highlighted by Paul’s classing himself as one ‘abnormally born’: the usual testimony was based on physical encounter with the physically resurrected Jesus, and Paul was unusual in meeting Jesus in a vision following his ascension.

There are two threads that run through this threefold tradition. The first is that it all happened ‘according to the Scriptures’, which for Paul must have meant in fulfilment of the Old Testament—not so much in specific predictions, but in the pattern of God’s dealings with his people, as he turns rejection into redemption and brings new life to his people even in the face of death. The second is that this core gospel isn’t Paul’s personal conviction; he is ‘passing on’ what he ‘received’, and it is what ‘we’, the whole body of the apostles, preach as a trustworthy testimony to what God has done for us in Christ. This double thread runs through the four gospels—Jesus’ death and resurrection, in fulfilment of the Scriptures, is the shared apostolic testimony.

4. Personal Hope (1 Cor 15.20–41)

Having set out the content of his gospel (in terms of Greek rhetoric, the logos), Paul now moves to make a case for its credibility by overcoming objections (establishing its ethos). As in 1 These 4, he uses the metaphor of ‘sleep’ for those who have died, and links the destiny of those who have died in the faith of Jesus with Jesus’ own destiny. This is expressed by the idea of ‘firstfruits’, a term he uses again in Romans 8.23; when a farmer sows his crop, one corner of the field will get perhaps a little more rain, or more sun, than the rest, and will ripen before the remainder of the field. Ready for harvest before the main crop, it becomes a sign of what the whole of the field will become in time. Sinful humanity, ‘in Adam’, can only look forward to experiencing what Adam experienced when he died as a result of turning from God. But redeemed humanity, ‘in Christ’, can now look forward to experiencing resurrection beyond death just as Jesus did. The reliability of the apostolic testimony to Jesus’ resurrection offers the certainty of hope for our own destiny.

Although this hope is future, it casts its light back into the contemporary world, transforming life and making a positive difference in the present. ‘Those baptised for the dead’ is an obscure phrase, but has nothing to do with rituals on behalf of those who have died (as taught by Mormons). It most likely refer to those who have come to faith and been baptised because of the example of friends and family who have faced death with the hope that Jesus’ resurrection offers. Such hope transforms Paul’s own ministry; he is ready to risk life and limb in obedience to God’s call since he knows that death does not have the final word. And it also transforms our ethical approach to life; if eternity involves living bodily in the presence of God, then our lives in our bodies now have eternal significance, and we should turn from things that will perish and instead invest in what is of lasting value.

Perhaps we cannot imagine what this transformed, bodily life will look like. But that should not worry us—after all, the plant that grows from a seed does not look like the seed, even though it is clearly the same organism. Just as the risen Jesus was both hidden and recognisable, our resurrection bodies will have continuity and discontinuity with the bodily life we now live.

(to be continued in future posts)

Do encourage your congregations and friends to engage in regular Bible reading; BRF’s notes are really valuable in encouraging thoughtful reflection and application.

Don’t forget to book your place at the Festival of Theology on Jan 30th!

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1 thought on “Paul’s Understanding of Resurrection (i)”

  1. Thank you, Ian. One small, relatively unrelated story…

    Twenty years ago (wow, is it THAT long ago?!) I was at a bit of a New Years Eve party, back in Australia, where I used to live. Sitting next to me, at one point, was an elderly man. He told me he was 90 years old, and I could tell he was a Christian. I assumed he’d been a Christian for many years, so by way of small talk I asked him how long he’d been a Christian for. He straight away just said, “Oh, about a year now.”

    He told me he’d been married for over 60 years and he was a staunch atheist his whole life, but that his wife was a Christian. He also told me that he used to mock her and laugh at her religion but he observed her way of living and as she came to the end of life he noticed a joy he just didn’t have. She had apparently died about two years before and he just realised, after she was dead, how wonderful the power in her life was, and so he became a Christian himself. He said it had been the most wonderful time of his life and he couldn’t wait to meet Christ (and her again) in glory.

    Not quite a resurrection story, but certainly a new life from death.


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