Paul’s Understanding of Resurrection (iii)

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. Here is the third and final instalment of what I wrote:

10. Resurrection lives are cross-shaped 2 Cor 4.7—5.5

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (of the ones that have survived, though actually the fourth he wrote) has quite a different feel from 1 Corinthians, and offers some of the most profound reflections in Paul on Christian discipleship and ministry. In it, he makes some fascinating new connections between the resurrection, suffering, and Christian living.

In Eph 1.19–20, Paul talks of the ‘incomparably great power for us who believe’ which is the ‘same mighty strength’ by which God raised Jesus from the dead (compare 1 Cor 6.14), and he is clear that the Christian life is to be one of power (1 Cor 4.20, 2 Tim 1.7). We might expect, then, that Paul’s language about Christian ministry will be all about the power, success and victory of the Christian life—but here we find the opposite! For Paul, ministry is about frustration, weakness and brokenness—so how can this be the foretaste of the resurrection life that we anticipate? The answer is that, paradoxically, the resurrection-shaped (‘anastiform’) life is actually the cross-shaped (‘cruciform’) life, because it is the life of Jesus.

Our natural human tendency is towards self-preservation and self-protection—and this is nowhere greater than when we face the prospect of our own death. Luther described human sin as cor curvum se, the ‘heart turned in on itself’, a phrase which captures this tendency perfectly. But once we cross from death to life, from this human way of living into the resurrection life of Jesus, we no longer fear death or feel the need to preserve ourselves. Instead of turning into ourselves, we are able to turn out to others; instead of trying to preserve our life, we are free to give it away. This is what Jesus taught and this what Jesus did: in confidence that his Father would raise him, he was able to give his life away.

Paul is therefore not afraid of losing his life in ministry to others—in fact, this is the only sensible thing to do. Changing his analogy from ‘bodies’ to ‘dwellings’, he has happy for this earthly dwelling of his bodily life to be worn out and used up for others, since it bears no comparison to the ‘dwelling’ God will provide in the resurrection.

11. United with Christ—in service and glory Phil 2.1–13

Philippians is one of Paul’s later letters; most believe it was written in the early 60s during one of Paul’s final periods of imprisonment. In it, he continues to develop the theme we explored in 2 Cor, that living resurrection life frees us to give ourselves up for others. In this passage, the resurrection itself it not mentioned explicitly, but it forms the central hinge point of the great sweep of Jesus life and ministry. In a statement reminiscent of the later poetry of the first chapter of John’s gospel, Paul is clear that Jesus shared the very nature of God prior to his incarnation—but that he gave up any sense of self-preservation in order to take human form. Paul sees the life and death of Jesus as a single movement of self-giving in obedience to the call of the Father, refusing to separate his incarnation, ministry, and sacrificial death.

Because of Jesus’ perfect faithfulness, ‘therefore’ the Father was faithful to him. Paul sums up the whole movement of resurrection, ascension and being seated at the right hand of the Father in the phrase ‘exalted to the highest place’. We see this enacted spatially in the Book of Revelation: there is One on the throne, but the lamb, too, is on the very same throne, and they act in consort together as one. The ‘name above every name’ is the name of Israel’s God (Is 42.8), and ‘every knee will bow and every tongue confess’ to God alone, and no other (Is 45.23)—Jesus is restored to sharing the nature and glory of God that he was ready to let go of.

So, says Paul, being ‘united with Christ’ (Phil 2.1) means that we too can rest in this hope of God’s faithfulness—and it makes an immediate difference to how we relate to one another. ‘Considering others better’ is not about low self-esteem or being a doormat; it is about being ready to love and serve others, attending to their concerns without the need to protect our own position. It is as we live faithfully to this pattern of graciousness and generosity that we see in Jesus, we can rest in the faithfulness of God. ‘Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time’ (1 Peter 5.6).


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


12. Called to resurrection reality Phil 3.7–4.1

What we have read in Phil 2 and earlier in 2 Cor 4 now enables us to make sense of Paul’s dramatic language here. If resurrection life is about trusting God, and so being released to forsake self-protection and give ourselves away in love to others, then all the things that Paul was proud of prior to his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road come to nothing. Worse than that—inasmuch as they tempt Paul to rely on what he has achieved, they are less than worthless, a dangerous distraction from the reality of life in Christ. Many translations blush at Paul’s words, and suggest he calls them ‘garbage’, or ‘refuse’; the term he uses is actually much stronger than that! If we think any of our own achievements or credentials compare with the gift of life in Christ, they stink to high heaven and are only worth flushing away!

As he has done elsewhere, Paul holds together the strange paradox of the power of the resurrection with the suffering of the crucified one. He isn’t suggesting that he is contributing to the atoning work of Christ, but that he is, as Jesus did, carrying his cross day by day (Mark 8.34). This does not mean (as commonly supposed) putting a brave face on the general trials of life; it means constantly ‘dying to self’, letting go of my own concerns and being shaped and directed by the Spirit of God. It is this, and not the accumulation of religious merit badges, which is the path to resurrection by the faithfulness of God.

And Paul’s description of this way of living is held in tension between the first resurrection and the last. God has demonstrated his power over life and death in the resurrection of Jesus, and it is by this that ‘God has taken hold of me’. God’s decisive intervention has begun to change everything—but that change will not be completed until Jesus comes again, and the whole world is renewed. When Paul talks about being ‘called heavenward’ or being a ‘citizen of heaven’, he is not referring to escapism, but on living under God’s rule—so that his name will be honoured and his will done ‘as in heaven, so on earth.’

13. Hope from beginning to end 1 Tim 3.14—4.5; 2 Tim 2.8–13

In his ‘pastoral’ letters to Timothy, Paul is writing with an awareness that his ministry is drawing to a close as he nears the end of his life. Timothy has been Paul’s companion for much of his ministry, and is named as co-author of six of his letters (2 Cor, Phil, Col, 1 and 2 Thess, Philemon); Paul has ‘no-one like him’; he has been ‘as a son with his father he has served with me’ (Phil 2.19, 22). The style of Paul’s writing here is at times close to his style in Ephesians, which is not surprising since Timothy was from Anatolia (central modern-day Turkey) and tradition records him as becoming bishop of Ephesus.

In Paul’s summaries of his teaching, written to encourage and equip Timothy as the baton of apostolic ministry passes to him, familiar themes emerge. The first, in 1 Tim 3.16, seems brief to the point of abruptness, but it has the familiar shape of the movement downwards and then upwards we saw in Phil 2.5f. ‘Appearing’ translates a semi-technical term for God’s self-revelation, from which we get our word ‘epiphany’; God came to us and revealed himself in the bodily, human life of Jesus. His ‘vindication by the Spirit’ is the closest that Paul comes to suggesting that it was the Spirit of God who was at work in Jesus’ resurrection, and it is clear that the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost was the sign that the promise of God to his people was fulfilled—an event of cosmic significance for angelic powers as well as for humanity. The ascension completes his journey back to glory. Living in this pattern of incarnation-resurrection-glorification does not mean ascetic denial of this life, but redemption of it, so that we can receive all good gifts from God.

Even in Paul’s final letter, the resurrection is just as central as it was in his earliest. The gospel for which he is chained holds the twin focuses of Jesus’ humanity (‘descended from David’) and his vindication by God as his ‘Christ’, the anointed one who brings God’s kingdom life to us. Our identification with his death in the waters of baptism lead to life in him, beginning now but completed when he comes to reign. As ever in Paul, this remains a partnership between the irrevocable grace of God (‘he remains faithful’) and our willing response (‘if we endure’).

14. Empower to live the cruciform life: final reflection

Some church communities are very conscious of their own fragility and humanity, and aware that they do not have all the answers. This can often make them accessible places, particularly for those who struggle with life. But they raise a question: God might understand my problems and challenges, but does he do anything to address them? Other churches are very conscious of the victory that God has won for us in Jesus’ cross and resurrection, and have experienced God’s presence helping them overcome their challenges, even to the point where they might claim ‘all our problems melt away.’ They are good at offering a sense of hope and change—but can seem inaccessible to many, because it looks like church is for people who succeed in life.

Paul’s understanding of resurrection that we have explored challenges both of these positions. The resurrection really does make a difference: it signals the end of the old way of life, the breaking in of the age to come, and lifts us from death to life. It is striking how often Paul uses the language of ‘power’ in relation to the resurrection—the demonstration of God’s power in Jesus, but also the mighty working of that power in our lives. This does bring transformation both for us, but also for those around us as we minister to one another by the power of the Spirit.

But for Paul the main thing that power brings is the power to forget ourselves, to ‘take up our cross’ and to follow Jesus. As we are released from sin and death, we live cruciform lives after the pattern of Jesus. The cross of Jesus does not just do something for us, in releasing God’s forgiveness and putting sin to death—it offers a pattern for us, the life of compassion and self-giving that we see in the Jesus of the gospels. We should certainly know the victory that the resurrection brings into our lives, but that victory and power allows us to face up to our own brokenness and wounds, and enables us to stand with the broken and the wounded, comforting them with the comfort that we ourselves have received (2 Cor 1.3–7).


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 (iii)

  1. Great series.

    In light of this, what do you think about Romans 8:3 and ‘he condemned sin in the flesh’? Many people, including Tom Wright, take this as ‘he punished sin in the flesh of Jesus’, but to me it reads better in its context as ‘he declared judgement on sinful flesh’ through the death of his Son as a sin offering and as the means by which the ‘body of sin’ which enslaves us can be destroyed (cf. Romans 6:6).

    It gets cited as a proof text for the most penal versions of PSA (God literally punished Jesus as a literal transfer of the punishment (and anger) which would otherwise have to have been directed to us). But this seems to me a misunderstanding of what Paul means.

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