PMW 2023-013 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
The Centrality of the Resurrection
In 1 Corinthians 15 we have Paul’s lengthy argument for and defense of the bodily resurrection. He opens this lengthy teaching section by tying it all to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (vv. 1–4). He declares Jesus’ bodily resurrection to be one of the gospel matters “of first importance” (v. 3). Then he presents historical evidence for it by citing various appearances of the resurrected Christ to witnesses (vv. 5–8).
Then Paul shows how this matter is “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3) when he powerfully states: “if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied” (vv.16–19).
Thus, for 2000 years Christianity has been rooted in the resurrection of the dead, beginning with Christ as the “first fruits” (v. 20). In fact, the writer of Hebrews speaks of the resurrection of the body as a “foundation” to Christian teaching (Heb. 6:1), as an “elementary principle” of God’s word (Heb. 5:12).
The Defeat of Death
So, having established the centrality of Jesus’ resurrection, Paul then declares that Christ “must reign [present] until [at some future time] He has put all His enemies under His feet” (1 Cor. 15:25). And then he immediately adds: “The last enemy that will be abolished is death” (v. 26). This is obviously not talking of the spiritual defeat of death by Christ, but rather the physical defeat of death by means of the future physical resurrection. Note two reasons supporting this observation:
First, the spiritual defeat of death which believers now enjoy in Christ had already happened before Paul’s ministry. In 2 Timothy 2:10 Paul states: this has “now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” This defeat of death is not waiting for the temple to be destroyed in AD 70, as per hyperpreterist theology. We see this, for instance, in John 5:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.”
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Second, Paul is speaking of this abolition of death as a feature of his argument for the bodily resurrection. Thus, “the future bodily resurrection accomplishes the defeat of death as the “last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26). This is obviously a future reality, for Paul employs future elements in his argument: (1) He states that “the last enemy that will [future] be abolished is death” (v. 26). Thus, this has not yet occurred. (2) “When all things are [finally!] subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will [finally] be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all” (v. 28).
The Physical Resurrection
Despite some widespread confusion over Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15, he forcefully declares the physical nature of the future resurrection. He is responding to the Corinthians’ proto-gnostic understanding of the resurrection, regarding the question of “with what kind of body do they [the dead] come?” (v. 35). His presentation answers this question in several ways.
First, even before the question is raised in the text, he pre-emptivey calls Christ “the first fruits” of the dead (vv. 20, 23). And this is stated after his presenting Christ’s own historically-attested physical resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1–18; cp. Luke 24:39–40; John 20:25, 27). The concept of “first fruits” is derived from the ancient practice of harvesting. The first fruits of a crop are exactly like the final, full harvest of the crop — except that they are first. The first fruit of corn does not produce wheat or barley.
Second, Paul provides three analogies regarding resurrected bodies. (1) An agricultural analogy. He gives the example of grain “perhaps of wheat or of something else” (1 Cor. 15:37). God providentially gives “to each of the seeds a body of its own” (v. 38). And we know a physical seed does not produce an immaterial fruit.
(2) An animal analogy. Paul notes the different kinds of flesh characterizing different animals: “all flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one flesh of men, and another flesh of beasts, and another flesh of birds, and another of fish” (1 Cor. 15: 39). Again, though the flesh of different animals are different from each other, they are not different from themselves: they remain “flesh.”
(3) An astronomical analogy. He mentions “there is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory” (1 Cor. 15:41). He does not state that their glory is something other than light — for they all have light. However, they all have light to greater and lesser degrees.
Then he links these analogies to his argument for our resurrection bodies. The point he is making is: “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power” (1 Cor. 15:42–43). Not one of these analogies contrasts a transformation from physical to spiritual, from matter to spirit.
Thus, our resurrection will involve the very body that is sown; there will be continuity though a greater glory. The body will be sown as perishable, dishonorable, and weak. But that very body is raised imperishable, honorable, and powerful. He does not say that the body is sown as a physical entity and raised as an immaterial one.
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The Spiritual Body
But now we come to the next verse, the verse that confuses so many. Here Paul declares that the body “is sown a natural [psuchikon] body, it is raised a spiritual [pneumatikon] body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44). This sounds like the physical body that dies is transformed into something altogether different: a spiritual body. But that is not the case at all.
A surface, non-contextual reading leaves the impression that Paul is declaring the resurrection body will be ethereal/spiritual rather than material/physical. This results from naively plucking this text from its broader context without understanding what Paul is doing and what he is arguing against.
What Paul is actually saying in these verses is that in the resurrection our bodies will be fully and perfectly controlled by the Holy Spirit. This is contrary to our present control by animal appetites that are necessary for keeping us alive. In fact, even the word translated “natural” (1 Cor. 15:44) is psuchikon which is from psuche that is usually translated “soul” (e.g., Matt. 10:28; 16:26; 26:38; 2 Cor. 1:23; 12:15). In Scripture, physical people in this life can be described as “spiritual.” In fact, even in this very epistle, Paul uses the word “spiritual” to describe people who are clearly physical.
For instance, consider 1 Corinthians 2:14–15. There we read that “a natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God for they are foolishness to him, and he is not able to know them because they are spiritually discerned. But the spiritual one [pneumatikos] discerns all things.” The NIV translates “spiritual one” as “the person with the Spirit,” which is not literal but helpfully shows Paul is speaking of Spirit-controlled human beings in this life. That is, these are physical human beings who are moved by the Holy Spirit so that he calls them “spiritual.”
The same is true in 1 Corinthians 3:1, which reads: “I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual [pneumatikois] men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ.” And in 1 Corinthians 14:37: “If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual [pneumatikos], let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment.” Also see Paul’s use of “spiritual” in Galatians 6:1: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual [pneumatikos], restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.”
How often today do Christians refer to someone as a “spiritual” person! But we do not mean that they are non-material beings. Likewise, when we speak of a Coca-Cola can, we are not saying that the can is made out of Coca-Cola. Rather, we mean that it is filled with Coke — much like the “spiritual body” being filled with the Spirit in a dramatic and glorious way that prevents it from perishing and causes it to be glorious and powerful (1 Cor. 15:42–43).
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The nature of the resurrected body being spirit-controlled can be put in context as follows: If we see the resurrected Christ as a “template” for the future resurrection of believers, the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus given in the Gospels clearly demonstrate that His physical body has been transformed but is still physical. He is able to suddenly appear in places without warning and without making the normal form of entry, but his resurrection body still bears the wounds from His execution on the cross, which could be physically examined. He is still able to eat food (and no doubt enjoy it). He can still walk to places if He so chooses. At the ascension He defies gravity when He rises from the ground and disappears out of sight in the sky. In appearance He can still be recognized for who He was before His death—just to name a few.