Lesson 2: The Earliest Passage on Resurrection

Any biblical understanding of resurrection should start with a careful reading of I Corinthians 15. This long and detailed chapter is our earliest attempt to explain what happened after Jesus’ execution and burial. We usually read it in light of the accounts in the four gospels, but I am inclined to think a more honest reading takes Paul’s work just as it is written. It might well be the foundation on which the Gospel accounts were built.

For instance, Paul begins with what appears to be an official list of people to whom Jesus appeared after he was executed. He only describes his own experience which was a voice speaking from the midst of a bright light. This leaves us wondering what form the other appearances took, especially the one to 500 people at once.
Paul’s list mentions two groups. The four Gospels only include how he appeared to those on the first one, Peter and the 12. These appearances centered a lot on the Last Supper. The second group was associated with Jesus’ brother James who had not participated in the Supper. You have to think their experiences would be different.

Paul takes great care in describing the appearances as evidence that “God raised Jesus from death.” He is not talking about having his former life restored or extended but rather of his being raised into a new form of life. This event sets in motion the events of salvation much as the Prophet John describes in Revelation 5.

Again Paul carefully only uses the word resurrection in “The Resurrection of the Dead” which refers to a very specific time in the future when all will be made right. He describes it as restoring the principalities and powers of this world to their rightful places. All will be prioritized as God intended in the creation. Salvation will be complete as all the rest of us will be “raised from death”. He writes we shall be made alive in Christ, meaning all will bear the image of God that defines true humanity in the creation. In “The Resurrection of the Dead” life will be as God intended when he created it.

It’s clear that Paul sees this as a development that evolves. Throughout his letters, he repeatedly describes the Christian life as dying and being raised with Jesus. Believers have already begun to live the good life, at least in part. In “The Resurrection of the Dead” even those who have already died will be raised to participate in the completed Beloved Community. It certainly sounds like “The Resurrection of the Dead” is Paul’s way of talking about the Kingdom of God.

The metaphors fly as Paul attempts to explain what is going on. Jesus is described as the first fruits that guarantees our subsequent being raised from death. We shall be in a deep sleep until we are raised at “The Resurrection from the Dead”. Our physical bodies will be like seeds that sprout into imperishable spiritual bodies.

When all is said and done, Paul uses resurrection as a promise that God is saving his creation no matter how we humans try to prevent him. That’s a message we need to hear in these troubled times.

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