Paul’s Understanding of Resurrection (ii)

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 the second section of what I said:

5. Cosmic fulfilment

1 Cor 15.42–58

In the last part of this chapter, Paul moves from the content (logos) and credibility (ethos) to the emotional and pastoral appeal (pathos) of his teaching. He does so by drawing a series of contrasts between life in this age and the resurrection life in the age to come—but it is important to note that his contrast between the ‘natural’ and the ‘spiritual’ or between the ‘earthly’ and the ‘heavenly’ is always between two different kinds of bodies. At no point does Paul follow Greek philosophical ideas that death or resurrection involve the escape of the spirit from the body to join God ‘in heaven’.

The reason for the contrast between our present bodies and the bodies we shall be ‘clothed with’ in the resurrection is rooted in the contrast between (the first) Adam and Jesus, the second ‘Adam’—each the progenitor of a kind of humanity. Adam was created to be in the image of God and to live in relationship with God, a destiny destroyed by his disobedience and sin. (It is worth noting here that Paul sees Adam and Jesus as kinds of human, not (male) men; English translations add the noun ‘man’ where Paul simply has adjectives ‘earthly’ and ‘heavenly’.) Without the redemption that is in Jesus, we live in the image of Adam and experience the same frailty and mortality because of our sin, and so will perish. By contrast Jesus, the image of the invisible God (Col 1.15), was obedient to the point of death (Phil 2.8) thereby defeating the power of both sin and death. When we are ‘in Christ’, bearing his image, we live his risen life by the power of his life-giving Spirit, poured out at Pentecost—this is what Paul means whenever he talks of the ‘spiritual’.

We therefore no longer live under the condemnation of law, since we ‘walk by the Spirit’ (Gal 5.16); sin has lost its power over us, and death has lost its terror. When Jesus returns and this age finally passes away, the dead will be raised and whoever of us are alive at the time will also be transformed. The victory won in the cross and resurrection will finally be fulfilled, ushering in the promised new age of God’s reign (Is 25.8). What an inspiring hope to live by!

6. Raised to the Life of the Spirit

Romans 1.1–4; Romans 4.23–5.2

As we have seen Paul do elsewhere, he here includes the resurrection of Jesus as a central part of his short summary of his gospel. This is particularly significant in this letter, Paul’s most systematic and developed presentation of what he believes, offered (alone amongst his letters) to a community that he himself did not help establish. As he has done at the start of 1 Cor 15, he locates the good news about Jesus within the longer history of God’s dealings with his people in the Scriptures: this is the goal to which that story was always heading. Paul is clear that Jesus was fully human, and lived an ‘earthly life’, but he says some striking things here about the importance of the resurrection.

The first is that Jesus’ resurrection was not simply the experience of him as an individual—he does not rise from his own death but ‘from the dead’, that is, from the realm of death and decay of this age which is passing away. It signals the beginning of a new age. Secondly, it doesn’t just change the world, it changes Jesus too. This is the only time in his writing that Paul uses the word translated ‘appointed’, and at first it might seem odd. Surely Jesus was already ‘Son of God’, and the resurrection just revealed what he already was? No, says Paul; his resurrection brought about a decisive change, so that he is now the Son of God ‘in power’, attaining the fulness of relationship with the Father, as a result of which he received the ‘name which is above every name’ (Phil 2.9), sharing with the Father his title of ‘Lord’. Thirdly, Paul associates the Holy Spirit with Jesus’ resurrection life; though he seems reluctant to claim that the Spirit raised Jesus, this new life is life in the Spirit—hence his use of ‘spiritual’ in 1 Cor 15.

Saving faith, then, is faith in the God who has done all this (4.24), in succession to the faith of Abraham and his descendants. Paul does not separate Jesus’ death and resurrection, but sees them as a single act encompassing both forgiveness of sins and restoration to new life in fellowship with God. This is a life rooted in hope, but also one in which ‘the love of God is poured into our hearts by his Spirit’ (Rom 5.5).

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

7. Reflection: rooted in resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus was clearly a central plank of belief in Jesus for Paul. Where Jesus’ own proclamation centred on ‘the kingdom of God’ (see Mark 1:16), it appears that Paul’s proclamation centred on ‘Jesus and his resurrection’. This was the case even where such a message would have been a very strange idea indeed. In Acts 17:18 his listeners think he is talking about two new gods, one male and one female, ‘Jesus’ and ‘Anastasis’, the word for ‘resurrection’ in Greek which is feminine. This illustrates both their puzzlement and Paul’s commitment! But it leaves me with a question: is the resurrection as central in my faith and understanding as it was in Paul’s? And is it as central in my conversation with others as it was for Paul?

This leads to another question of personal significance. Paul is clear that Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates decisively that death has been defeated and that we have a good reason to hope—not with a general sense of optimism, but with robust confidence in God in the face of our mortality. We are right to grieve when we lose those close to us, or see tragic or untimely deaths—but we do not grieve as those without hope. So am I ready to face the reality of my own death, my own mortality, and yet to see that in the context of the hope that comes because of Jesus’ resurrection promise?

But Paul is also clear this is not just a personal question. The resurrection signifies the breaking in of the new age, the age to come which we will only see fully revealed at Jesus’ coming. According to Paul, this present age is passing away, and will be finally wrapped up at the end. So the resurrection equips us to live in a distinctive way, and means that our communities of faith are to be modelling a new way of living—people living the life of the future in the present. Am I living such a distinctive life, marching to a different drumbeat from the world around me? And am I encouraging my faith community to be doing the same? In what ways is the resurrection of Jesus leading us to model a new way of living and relating?

8. Under New Command 

Romans 6.1–14

The NT teaching about sin and forgiveness has often caused Christians problems—sometimes in quite different directions. In some traditions, sin is seen to be so serious (after all, it cost Jesus his life) that the Christian life is one long exercise in remorse and contrition. In others, sin is seen as relatively unimportant—after all, are we not now free from its penalty? And if God loved us while we were sinners, surely he loves us still more even if we keep on sinning? We don’t ‘earn’ our salvation by being holy.

Paul cuts through these dilemmas by making a radical identification of Jesus’ death and resurrection with the sacrament of baptism. Baptism had its origins in Jewish rites of purification, which were particularly associated with preparation for entry into the Temple for offering sacrifice. Entering the water signified the desire to be cleansed of sin, and emerging (usually up separate steps) signified purity in preparation for worship. John the Baptist adapted this into a sign once-for-all change, in readiness to follow the coming Messiah, and it then became the sign of initiation into Christian discipleship and a life of following Jesus.

Paul relates the two actions of baptism—submersion into the water and emerging from the water—with the paired actions of Jesus in his death and resurrection. Just as Jesus put an end to sin by his death, we renounce our life of sin as we ‘die’ in the water—the old life has now gone. And just as Jesus lived a new kind of life in his resurrection, we too begin a new life once we emerge from the water. (The connection between water, the Spirit and new life is also found in John 3.5.) Changing the metaphor, it is like moving from one dominion (under the authority of the ruler of this age, John 12.31, or the rule of sin) to another (under the rule or kingdom of God). Resurrection is our hope for the future, but it also signifies the pattern of new life we live now in Christ. Just as Jesus’ resurrection was a decisive turning point for the world, so our baptism into his death and resurrection becomes a decisive and unrepeatable turning point for our lives—there is no going back to the life of sin.

9. The transition from death to life in the Spirit 

Romans 7.4–6; Romans 8 .9–11; Romans 10.9

In these three key passages in Romans we see Paul making vital connections between resurrection, law and the Spirit in Christian living. Paul is clear that the law given by God is a good thing (Rom 7.12, 1 Tim 1.8) in that it sets out a healthy pattern of living that honours God. But for sinful humanity that merely succeeds in highlighting our sinfulness; it sets a standard and in doing so shows how we fail to live up to it, and so becomes a ‘law of sin and death’ (Rom 8.2) since we cannot fulfil its demands. It explains holiness but cannot create holiness in us. By baptism we are now incorporated into Jesus, and into his death and resurrection, so that this old way of living has died in the waters of baptism and we are now living the resurrection life—the life of the age to come, life animated by the Spirit of God whose outpouring is the sign of the new age (Joel 2.28, Acts 2.17). The pattern of holy living set out in the law has not been abandoned, but our way of attaining it has. Instead of trying to be holy by obeying written commandments, we start to live a holy life animated by the Spirit of God himself.

For Paul, this means we can now live the fruitful lives God intends for us. He has already contrasted the unfruitfulness of living without God in Romans 1 with the fruitfulness of Abraham and Sarah as they trust God in chapter 4. Here he links such fruitfulness to living the resurrection life in the power of the Spirit, something we could not do previously. However, this resurrection life is, for now, just the foretaste. Our mortal bodies are still subject to death, living as we do in a fallen world, but our experience of the live-giving power of the Spirit assures us that we will experience the fulness of life promised to those who trust in him. Salvation is offered to all those for whom Jesus is Lord, the saving presence amongst us of the God of Israel (Paul changes ‘Yahweh’ in Joel 2.32 to the ‘Lord’ Jesus in Rom 10.13). We trust in his resurrection not simply as a slogan, but as a lived reality.

(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.

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

  1. Once again, thank you for all this. It leads to thankful worship.

    It’s amazing, but not surprising, that comments on this remain quiet, but not elsewhere on your blog. We certainly live in the now, but not yet and from our present place with Christ in our union with Him (Ephesians) having died in Him, hence judged in Him, and raised in Him and a new humanity in Him. We are to live backwards from our present and future position in Him in glory, his righteousness ours. And we are to be wary that we don’t base our justification on our (self?) sanctification. But this is not a call for passivity.

    From a different tradition (of which I’m not part) thave you come across “The Whole Christ” by Sinclair Ferguson which brings up to date the “Marrow Controversy” (of which I was completely ignorant) the resolution of which continues to be relevant today, has brought it to life with a series of short talks on the Renewal of Mind site.

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