READ : 1 Corinthians 15:51-58
As you grow older, and your body begins to wear out and your strength begins to fail, do you have anything to look forward to?
I was driving in the city when a sign on the bumper of a late-model luxury car caught my eye. I just had time to read its arresting message as I wheeled past. The sign said, “Eat right, stay fit, die anyway.”
There is a point worth remembering. Modern western culture worships youth, health, beauty, and fitness with a fervor that borders on fanaticism, but no matter how committed people are, this is a religion that betrays them in the end. The fight for these things is always a losing battle. Do what we will, we all die anyway.
This is one of those hard truths that no amount of human effort or ingenuity can change. Realizing it sometimes makes people a little desperate. Dr. Timothy Leary was a one-time guru of the counterculture. He tried mind-altering drugs. He tried Eastern religions, but it seems he did not find them totally satisfying. Several years before he contracted the cancer that eventually killed him, a news story reported that he had paid $35,000 to have his head cut off and frozen after his death in the hope that one day medical science would be able to bring it back to life again. When asked about it Leary replied, “I know it’s a long shot, but the only alternative is to let the worms get you.”
Are those really the only alternatives? Is it either escape into fantasy and denial or the comfortless realization that death is the end of everything? Must we either cling to absurdities or be left with nothing but bleak despair? Christians say no. There is another alternative: Easter hope.
Listen to a Secret
In 1 Corinthians 15 the apostle Paul has been talking about Jesus’ resurrection and its consequences for those who believe in him. Everything depends on the fact that Jesus who died is now risen from the dead. Our hope is based on Jesus’ resurrection and nothing else: not on wishful thinking about the future evolution of the human race, not on a general conviction about the immortality of the human soul, not on the expectation that medical science will someday conquer death. We only have hope because Jesus died but is now alive forever and has promised to make us live too. Christian hope is Easter hope.
The hope we have for the future is grounded in a definite event in the past (Jesus’ resurrection), but it will be realized in another event that is still to come (Jesus’ return). We look forward to Christ’s second coming at the end of time to usher in the life of the world to come. This last great act of human history will bring about unimaginable changes and will trigger a series of final events which will culminate in the recreation of the whole universe. In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle focuses on just one of those events, the translation of Christians into Jesus’ resurrection life.
“Listen, I will tell you a mystery,” Paul begins. In the New Testament sense, a mystery is not a puzzle that we try to solve but a secret that God chooses to reveal to us. In this case the secret is about our own future, what will happen to us. The answer is that “we will not all die but we will all be changed.” When Christ returns in triumph, those Christians who are living at that moment will be transformed, translated from life in this world to the new kind of life that belongs to the kingdom of God. At the same time, the bodies of all Christians who have died, every believer of every time and place, will be raised from death and given the same new life.
The Nature of Our Hope
We learn in this passage several important things about our Easter hope of transformation at the return of Christ. First, it is necessary. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” writes Paul, “nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (v. 50). We must be changed before we can enjoy the life of perfect union with God. Like boxes of summer fruit, our mortal bodies have “perishable” stamped upon them. They wear out. They run down. Left to themselves, their only future is decay. We cannot hope to glorify and enjoy God forever until our mortal bodies put on immortality, which will happen when Christ returns.
Second, our transformation will be instantaneous. It will all happen “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (v. 52). Jesus said that the hour would come when all who are in their graves would hear his voice and would be raised again to life (see John 5:25-29). What a moment that will be; just try to imagine it! The trumpet call will ring out. The voice of the Lord will thunder to the dead to rise. Those awesome sounds will penetrate to the oldest tomb, to the deepest ocean, and all, all must obey that command. Bodies long since sunk into corruption, organs which for centuries have been senseless dust, will hear, obey, come to life, rise again, all in an instant of time.
Third, our future transformation will be glorious. Our perishable natures will be changed to imperishable, our mortal bodies will put on immortality (v. 53). Bodies that are now weak and subject to decay will then be made over in a way that will enable them to live forever, gloriously perfect. Resurrection will mean both change and continuity. They will still be our bodies, our own selves, but changed unimaginably.
How can this be? How can all those millions of bodies long since dissolved and returned to the elements be somehow restored and raised to life again? If you try to think about how it could happen, it will make your head spin. But the fact that we cannot imagine it does not make the resurrection impossible. This practical question, in fact, is not a modern one. Paul addresses it in 1 Corinthians 15: “But someone will ask, ‘how are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’” (v. 35). This is a mystery God’s Word does not reveal. But it does point to the analogy of the seed and plant. A seed is buried in the ground. It disappears but somehow new life springs from it. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. We bury bodies that are imperfect, broken, worn out, dead, and decaying. God raises them to new, glorious life. We do not know how, we do not know when, but we do know that it will happen.
Our life will be restored, our bodies will be given back to us, new, strong, whole, and beautiful: no more braces, wheelchairs, hearing aids, eyeglasses. We will be raised as the glorious creatures God intended us to be when he first created us. The way we work on our bodies makes me think of a child’s homework assignment full of mistakes, erasures, and corrections. We spend all our lives sweating and straining and spending, trying to improve, or at least maintain, our bodies. We diet and we exercise, we take medicine, we use therapy and surgery. We cut out diseased tissue and transplant organs. We splice arteries and replace broken-down joints, but in the end we always lose. Every single body is marked with an “F” for failure and buried away. But some day God will find each one again and restore it, perfect and magnificent.
The American statesman and scientist Ben Franklin was not an especially devout Christian but at least he understood this. These are the words of the epitaph he wrote for himself:
The body of
Benjamin Franklin, printer,
(Like the cover of an old book,
Its contents worn out,
And stript of its lettering and gilding)
Lies here, food for worms!
Yet the work itself shall not be lost,
For it will, as he believed, appear once more
In a new
And more beautiful edition,
Corrected and amended
By its Author!
Finally, our transformation in the last day will be victorious. I think the worst thing about death is that it seems to spell the end of everything good and beautiful. Life is sweet and death is bitter, and the bitterest thing about it is that it means we lose all that we love in the end. The fact that every person, however good or strong or beautiful or gifted, must die at last seems to say that evil wins out over good, ugliness over beauty, death over life. But resurrection changes all that. “Then the saying that is written will be fulfilled, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’” (v. 54).
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me. . .
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
(John Donne, Holy Sonnet X)
Therefore . . .
Paul follows his magnificent description of our Easter hope of resurrection with a brief word of application. “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord.” Because we have a real hope for the future, we live differently in the present. Paul’s exhortation to us is never to give in, give up, or give out.
Don’t give in to discouragement and despair. Our lives are not in vain. They are not empty, without meaning or purpose. On the contrary, who we are and what we do has infinite meaning because we have eternal life.
Don’t give up hope. Early maps used to have large blank spaces on which the map makers wrote the words, “Terra incognita” (“unknown lands”). Death is like that. It is, said Shakespeare, “the undiscovered country” from whose shore no traveler has ever returned . . . except that one has! Since Jesus died and rose again, death is no longer terra incognita, at least not for those who belong to him.
And don’t give out in your daily service for the Lord Jesus. We should not become listless or dispirited in working for Christ because we know that everything we do for him will endure forever. Someone was telling me about a friend of his who had switched his course of study at the university from engineering to preparation for the Christian ministry. Ever since he was young, this man had wanted to be an engineer so that he could build bridges. He was fascinated by massive structures that could withstand the elements and endure for centuries. But when this young man became a Christian, he decided to be a pastor instead. When he was asked why, he replied, “I wanted to do work that would last.” He was right! Everything else in the world, even things that seem so permanent, will eventually crumble into nothingness. But every word we speak, every deed we do, every life we touch for Jesus Christ will last forever.
Don’t give in to discouragement. Don’t give up hope. Don’t give out in doing the work of the Lord. And always remember: for those who know Jesus Christ, the best is yet to come!