‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.’ – 1 Corinthians 15:3-7
Jesus rose from the dead. On this we Christians stake it all. And to prosecute our case, there are few texts more precious that the first verses of 1 Corinthians 15. It’s early, occasional in nature, and from an author who himself was a sceptic turned eyewitness to the risen Jesus. As far as ancient historical sources, it doesn’t get better than this. Much of what we know securely about the ancient world rests on far less.
As far as ancient historical sources, it doesn’t get better than this.
All of this is, however, a happy accident. Paul had no intention of schooling the Corinthians in the historical basis of Jesus’ resurrection. The Corinthians’ knew it already. They believed it. They probably knew these verses off by heart.
For us, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 is a precious historical source-document. For the Corinthians, it was an embarrassing and pointed re-telling of the basics. It would be like going to a prestigious university to hear a lecture from an eminent theologian, only to have them begin with a verbatim recounting of Two Ways to Live, complete with the cartoon drawings.
You see, the problem in Corinth wasn’t what they believed about Jesus; it was what they believed about us. Their issue wasn’t Jesus’ resurrection, but ours. They managed, somehow, to simultaneously affirm the resurrection of Jesus and deny the resurrection of believers. We still have the same problem.
Heaven and Souls
Ask a Christian today what they believe about the resurrection of Jesus and you get pristine, unabashed, industrial-strength orthodoxy. Jesus rose. Check. He left behind an empty tomb. Check. He resumed life in a renewed but recognisable body. Check.
But then ask what will happen to our bodies and that theologically sure-footedness gives way to a series of vague, indeterminate ideas about our souls going to heaven when we die. Or something.
For Paul, that makes no sense. The answer to the question what will happen to us is embedded in what happened to Jesus.
Jesus’ resurrection was not a freak-event, a stand-alone miracle, a here’s-something-to-stuff-in-your-secular-post-enlightenment-pipe-and-smoke-it proof of the supernatural. Nor was it the surprising end-credits scene to the drama of Jesus’ life, the final “tick” to what Jesus achieve in his life and on his cross. The resurrection was not an ending, it was a beginning. It was the first-fruits. First-fruits imply a coming harvest. No farmer looks at a tree in early spring when the first fruit appears and says, “I guess that’s the end, then.” First fruits are not the end, they’re the starter pistol.
Jesus, on the first day of the week, walked out of his tomb. In doing so, he put in motion the resurrection harvest. What happened to him will happen to us. And with us, a whole new world. Aslan is off the stone table. The reign of evil has been dealt its death-blow. The Spirit is being poured out, the nations are turning to Christ, and new life is everywhere the gospel is heard. The Son is claiming the inheritance given to him by his Father, and the forces of evil have as much chance of stopping him as a flea has of holding back the torrent of water from a burst dam. Jesus wins. That’s what the resurrection means.
Death has been defeated, and yet we still die. We will one day be buried, which looks like a win for death.
But is it? Some things we bury for purposes of disposal: rubbish, family pets, garden waste. Other items we bury for sake-keeping—pirates bury treasure, dogs their bones. In the first case, our purpose is that we never see the rubbish again. In the second case, we plan for retrieval. We want the item to be where we left it and in the condition we left it in.
We also bury bodies. Why? A waste-management strategy? For safe keeping until the resurrection? If the former, then we are essentially admitting that what happened to Jesus has nothing to do with what happens to us. Jesus’ body was raised, ours will decompose. If bodies are buried just for safe-keeping, then we also break the connection with Jesus, whose body was not just raised, but transformed. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God…”
But Paul says the burial of our bodies is neither like burying rubbish nor burying treasure: It’s like burying seeds. Seeds are buried neither for disposal, nor for safekeeping. They are buried to be transformed. Seeds are buried in the hope that they rise from their tombs, not as they were, but in the fullness of what they will become.
So it is with the bodies of those who die in Christ. We are buried in the hope that we will be raised. Transformed. Brought into the resurrection fullness of all we were meant to be.
The burial of our bodies is neither like burying rubbish nor burying treasure: It’s like burying seeds. Seeds are buried neither for disposal, nor for safekeeping. They are buried to be transformed
How then shall we live?
For Paul this future hope has powerful this-world effects. Let me point out two.
First, future resurrection is a good reason to stop sinning (1 Corinthians 15:34). Let me explain.
Life apart from resurrection can be summarised as, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:32). Life, then death. Do what you can now, because this is your one shot. Death will bury us all. Death wins. Our graves are waste management systems after all. Grab every opportunity now, even if that means pushing others out of the way. Life now, death then.
Resurrection makes possible another lifestyle: death now, because life then. If death doesn’t win; if our graves are not rubbish dumps but new-creation gardens, then we can die now to live then. We can put aside selfish ambition, we can sacrifice career or reputation, we can make space for others.
Sin is driven by despair, righteousness by joy. Sin is obedience to the logic of death; righteousness is our cheeky and cheerful rejection of death’s reign over our world. Christianity is at heart a rebel’s religion. It is an invitation to give death a rude gesture and live a life that refuses its demands. What’s the worst you can do, death? Bury us? Remember the time you tried that with Jesus—how’d that work out for you? Death has been unwittingly turned into a gardener, gormlessly sowing for the harvest to come. Death has been defeated. The bully has been humiliated. Righteousness is just our way of acting out.
Christianity is at heart a rebel’s religion. It is an invitation to give death a rude gesture and live a life that refuses its demands. What’s the worst you can do, death? Bury us? Remember the time you tried that with Jesus—how’d that work out for you?
Give yourself fully to the work of the Lord.
Second, because of the resurrection hope we can “give ourself fully to the work of the Lord.”
‘So then, dear brothers and sisters: Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain’ – 1 Corinthians 15:58.
At one level, Jesus changes all of our work. Whether creative or mechanical, dignified or debased, secular or sacred, our work takes on a new dignity because it is now, work “in the Lord”.
Jesus brings new dignity to all our work. But he also gives us new work: the work of the Lord. For Paul, “the work of the Lord” is a technical term for the work of promoting the gospel. This was not a work given to Adam and Eve. It is not a work of the old creation, but the new. And this work, tethered as it is to the new creation, has a unique feature: It is never “in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)
All our other work, even though it be work “in the Lord”, is subject to vanity, to absurdity, to being (at least potentially) a Big Fat Waste of Time. The small business launches just before a pandemic hits, the crop is planted before a year of drought, the project that gets scrapped in the new funding model. So much of our work is subject to frustration. Even if you believe, as I do, that the new creation will include art and music and artefacts from this creation, there’s no reason to think that my work will be counted amongst the glory of the nations to be brought into the new Jerusalem. The competition will be stiff.
The work of the Lord is different. The person I lead to Christ will be there. The people for whom I prayed, the money given to mission, the hours spent in discipling a new believer, the time invested in raising children to know the Lord, these are unambiguous investments in the age to come. A direct transfer from this world to the new world.
Unambiguous investments in the age to come. A direct transfer from this world to the new world.
Therefore, says Paul, give yourself fully to this work.
“Fully” doesn’t mean “full-time” (though a life in which “the work of the Lord” becomes your main work is a valid response). “Fully” here means “abundantly”, “whole-heartedly”, “with all you’ve got”. It’s entirely possible to be on a Christian organisation’s payroll and do that work begrudgingly, just as it’s possible to do the Lord’s work on the weekend for free and do it “fully”. In whatever opportunities you’re given to serve in the work of the Lord, do it fully, confident that that work is not in vain.
This article was written in conjunction with the release of our new digital evangelism tool: ‘Jesus: History’s Biggest Hoax?’. Click here to RSVP for the online launch—this Friday, 12th of March, 7.30pm AEDT.