The work of Christ 3 / First-fruits
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.
In our first study we found ourselves thinking about the ‘Church Militant’. The counterpart is the ‘Church Triumphant’ - the saints who have finished their earthly pilgrimage, who have fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith (II Tim.4:7). They have closed their eyes in death. But what then? There have been few areas of Christian thinking more plagued by uncertainty and confusion than the question of what happens after we die. Over the years all sorts of strange and wonderful ideas have shaped the worship and thinking of the Church… prayers are said for the departed (occasionally to them), candles are lit, masses recited. All Saints Day (1st Nov), All Souls Day (2nd Nov) - not to mention Hallowe’en (31st Oct) are often overlaid with rituals and superstitions, ignorance and confusion. People talk about heaven and hell, limbo, purgatory, soul sleep, or simply about going to a better place. Popular folk-religion wonders if the dead have even really ‘left us’, or whether they aren’t watching over us, perhaps having become a guardian angel of some sort… These are not merely academic questions. Death has come close to us all.
It may seem oddly reassuring that confusion has always been a part of the Church’s thinking about what happens after death. The Apostles regularly had to teach and correct the thinking of the saints. Paul warns Timothy that there were some teaching that the resurrection had already taken place (II Tim.2:18); he tells the Thessalonians that he doesn’t want them to be uninformed (I Thess.4:13-5:11); and he is exasperated that there are some at Corinth who aren’t even sure that Jesus was raised from the dead (I Cor.15:12). And before the Apostles, Jesus dealt with people who weren’t clear on the OT’s teaching (the Sadducees - Mk.12:18-27, as opposed to Pharisees, who did believe in resurrection, Acts 23:6). Christians who have taken the Bible seriously throughout the ages have always believed in the resurrection (Is.26:19; Ps.16:10; Ps.71:20; Job 19:26 etc.). Paul was clear that the Old Testament teaches about the resurrection. That of Jesus at any rate: ‘He was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures’ (I Cor.15:4, a view shared by the other Apostles, Acts 2:25-32; and Jesus, Lk.24:44-46, though see also His rebuke of the Sadducees in Mk.12:24, where he explains that they are wrong about resurrection because they do not know the Scriptures). And this is where we start. With the resurrection of Jesus. All sophisticated theories and speculations pale into insignificance compared to the revelation of God in the Scriptures and the actual, historical resurrection of Jesus. All debate and discussion is over. We know what happens.
In brief - there is no limbo, there is no purgatory, there is no soul sleep (meaning the idea that when we die we remain in an unconscious state until Christ’s return). When the Bible does talk about the dead in terms of ‘sleep’ it is in a much more positive and euphemistic sense. For Christians, lying down to die is as fearless an experience as lying down to sleep. We are confident that we will ‘be with the Lord’ (see Phil.1:21-24 for a classical Christian ambivalence in the face of death). Christ’s triumphing over death has meant that even our experience of dying has been redeemed. There is no terror, no sting (I Cor.15:55-57). Far from stripping us from all that we have loved and lived for, we know that ‘death’ is our servant. It does not separate us from Christ (Rom.8:38-39), rather death carries us to Him. We pass through death, and find that on that very day we will be with Him in paradise (Lk.23:43). In this disembodied state we wait, conscious and in the presence of Christ, for the return of Christ (II Cor.5:1-10, Rev.6:9-11, etc.). With Him, we will return; and at His return (and with it the renewal of all things, Matt.19:28), we will be re-clothed with our resurrection bodies (I Cor.15:23), and step into a very physical New Creation on this ‘resurrected’ earth (Is.65:17; Ii Pet.3:13; Rev.21:1-4).
Paul links our resurrection directly with Christ (I Cor.15:20-23, where firstfruits are representative of and sanctify the total harvest, Dt.26:1f). It is because Christ has been raised that we will be raised. Indeed, as we shall see in a later study, because Christ is raised, there is a sense in which we are already raised. It is that certain. Our hope is that secure. His resurrection is the actual beginning of ours.
Do you agree with the post-mortem scheme outlined above? Why / why not? How does it make you feel to think you can know what happens after you die?
Read Matthew 27:51-53. What do you think is happening here? More to the point? Why is it happening? What does it mean?
Do you think we can contact the dead? Or that they can contact us?
Do you think the OT teaches about the resurrection of the dead? How would you justify your answer?
Read I Cor.15:35-58
How would you respond to someone who said they couldn’t believe in the resurrection because they didn’t understand what it would be like (v.35)?
Do you think that Paul is suggesting that people’s experience of resurrection will be different (vv.39-42)? Will we have different ‘kinds of splendour’?
If you think, ‘yes’, then on what basis will such differentiation occur? If you think ‘No’, what point do you think Paul is making in these verses?
What do you think your resurrection body will be like?
How does Paul anticipate that meditating on your experience of resurrection will shape your approach to life here and now? Does it work?
What do you feel about dying? What are you scared of? What are you looking forward to? How does the prospect of resurrection affect you anticipation of death? … your grieving the death of others?
What do you think the Day of Christ’s return will be like?
You might want to include I Thess.4:13-5:11 in your considerations of these last couple of questions
‘Lord,’ Martha said to Jesus, ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ she replied, ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.’
For further reflection:
The Resurrection of Jesus is many things. It is His victory and His vindication, the Father overturning humanity’s rejection, condemnation and denial of all Jesus had been and taught. It is His forging a road through death’s dark vale; His piercing the shroud, shattering the curse, becoming the inauguration of the New Creation, and a life no longer overshadowed by the spectre of sin’s wages.
It is also the endorsement of the ‘physical’, an asserting of its dignity and worth. So many visions of life after death are non-physical: shades, spirits, echoes of people in a dreary, featureless wasteland. This all resonates with the ancient pagan idea (so beloved of the Greek philosophers) that physical matter was somehow inferior, a hindrance. The real person was the psycho-spiritual aspect of our being, and death was seen as its liberation. The Bible knowns nothing of such superficial thinking. In creation, the Lord fashioned our physical bodies not with words alone, but intimately formed our bodies before breathing in life (Gen.2:7) and declared it good (1:31). That same Lord takes on that flesh Himself (Jn.1:14). As in our origins, so in our destiny. The ‘real’ me is not some disembodied pseudo-human, destined to drift ethereally through a vague, barren afterlife. I am embodied, physical. Christ did not leave His body behind (Lk.24:39, Acts 10:41). Neither will I. I long to be clothed with my resurrection body, which will be continuous with the body I have before death (II Cor.5:1-10). Only then will I be the fully human being God redeemed me to be. Life in the New Creation is not impoverished, but enriched; more physical and real, not less.