1 Corinthians 15.

A definition of 'mystery'

Our previous study, “the mystery of lawlessness”, was the first of five Pauline usages of ‘musterion’ which refer to events which are still in the future, rather than those, like ‘the mystery of godliness’ and the mystery of the gospel, which have already been fully revealed. On the basis of that study, we can form a definition of ‘mystery’ which will help us in the next four, rather shorter, studies: a mystery is an event which has been foretold and foreshadowed in scripture, but not yet fulfilled.

Jesus seen by Paul
1 Corinthians 9.1, 15.8, Acts 23.11

Our next mystery is the mystery of the resurrection body, and those who know and love Handel’s “Messiah” will be able to supply a musical accompaniment to Paul’s words in their heads as they read, complete with trumpet obbligato: “Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” - a change which Handel dramatises by a striking change of key (1 Cor. 15.51-2, AV, of course!). It is easy to see how this qualifies as a mystery in the more normal sense of the word. In fact, it qualifies three times over: it refers to an event in the future which we have not experienced - none who have experienced it, save one, have lived to tell the tale; it refers to an event beyond time, a world in which there is no ‘change and decay’, a world which our minds cannot conceive of; and it refers not to a physical body but to a spiritual body, a concept which to us seems like a contradiction in terms. But, at first sight, it is more difficult to see how it qualifies as a mystery in the Pauline sense as defined above: how has the resurrection body been ‘foretold and foreshadowed in scripture’? For us, of course, it has been foretold in this very passage by Paul, but how is Paul able to ‘foretell’ all this ? David Prior, in his BST commentary on this passage (p. 275), writes that Paul “suggests strongly that what he is saying has been revealed to him by special revelation”, and speculates that this revelation may have been part of his ‘rapture’ described in 2 Corinthians 12.1-4, where he tells how he “was caught up to paradise”. But Paul continues by saying that he “heard inexpressible things, things that are not permitted to tell”. This does not, of course, absolutely rule out the possibility that he also had revealed to him things that he was permitted to tell, but we do not need this dubious hypothesis to account for Paul’s teaching here on the resurrection body. If we are looking for a supernatural explanation ( as we should be for such a naturally unknowable subject), we need look no further than to the ministry of the holy Spirit promised by Jesus to his disciples: “when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he ill guide you into all truth” (John 16.13) - to which Peter adds the parallel truth that the OT prophets were “borne along by the wind of the Sprit, mortal men speaking the words of God” (2 Peter 1.21). We have already seen, in our lengthy look at Paul’s teaching on the double ‘parousia’ of Christ and the antichrist, the ‘man of lawlessness’ (2 Thess.2, 1-12), how, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he develops his theme on the basis of the teachings of Jesus and the prophecies of the OT scriptures. In the same way, too, the Holy Spirit lit up for Peter at Pentecost, and for the evangelists, particularly Matthew, in their gospels, the Messianic prophecies which had been fulfilled in Christ. So in this passage the Spirit shines his guiding light for Paul partly on the teaching of Jesus and partly on a minor detail of Mosaic ritual to illuminate his own life-changing encounter, on the Damascus road, with the risen Jesus in all the glory of his resurrection body. Twice in this letter Paul claims to have seen Jesus: "Am I not an apostle?" he asks his recalcitrant readers, "have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" (9.1) Then earlier in chapter 15 (verse 8) Paul adds himself "last of all" to the list of those to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection -"he was seen also by me as one abnormally born" (NIV). Jesus also visited Paul in prison in Jerusalem (Acts 23.11), and this, too, seems to have been a bodily visitation, since Luke writes that “the Lord stood by him”, and does not refer to this as a vision (‘horama’), as he does in 16 9-10 and 18.9.

the resurection body inferred
John 14.2-3

The fact of a resurrection body may be inferred from the words of Jesus - though Paul does not specifically refer to them: “I am going to prepare a place for you, so that where I am you too may be” (John 14.2-3). The disciples had all witnessed the appearances of the risen Jesus and his ascension into heaven, evidently freed from the limitations of the physical. It was clear that, if they were to be with him, as he had promised, a physical body, anchored to earth by gravity and confined within the prison of time and space, would not permit such glorious freedom. This, perhaps, leads Paul, guided by the Holy Spirit, to explain in I Corinthians 15 three different ways in which Jesus’ resurrection body foreshadows our own, and gives us some idea of what they might be like, though the ultimate glorious reality remains a mystery, only to be fully revealed when “the trumpet shall sound”.

1 Corinthians 15. 35-41
(a) a parable from nature: the dying seed
John 12.24

What, then, will our resurrection bodies be like? Paul supposes just such a question in 1 Corinthians 15.35 - and is rather hard on the supposed questioner: “You fool!” he replies, as though the answer were obvious - a ‘no-brainer’, as the Greek word for ‘fool’, ‘aphrōn’, could literally be translated. The answer he goes on to give is a ‘parable from nature’, a parable being, as we have seen, essentially a comparison, or a simile. To refer to God’s creation as ‘Mother Nature’ is, perhaps, understandable, but still idolatrous. We should rather reflect that, before a mother can be a mother, she must first be a daughter. So if we see all creation as God’s daughter, it is not surprising to find many ways in which God’s character and God’s truth are reflected in his offspring: if nature is God’s creation, we should expect to find his finger-prints all over it. The seasonal cycle of seedtime and harvest, sowing and reaping, winter and summer, has been seen to symbolise a greater truth by many cultures and various mythologies; but until this symbolism is authenticated by the word of God, and so the mystery of the parable is clearly revealed, it remains paganism. Paul here provides that authentication, echoing the words of Jesus himself, who is the ultimate authority: “What a foolish question! You yourselves know that the seed which you sow cannot be given new life as a plant unless it first dies; you know, too, that the seed which you sow is not the plant it will become, but just a naked grain, whether of wheat or of some other plant: God gives it the body he has chosen for it, to each seed its own particular body” (vv.36-8). There is clearly an echo here of Jesus’ words in John 12.24. A group of Greeks, presumably Jews or proselytes, are in Jerusalem for the Passover, and ask to see Jesus; their request is passed on by Philip and Andrew. Jesus’ reply is oblique, but magnificently memorable: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly I tell you, unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Jesus' parable and Paul's parable
‘kokkos’, 'gumnos'

Is Paul consciously echoing these words of Jesus? He is clearly using the same ‘parable from nature’, but making a rather different point. Jesus is obviously referring to his death on the cross, and the glorious harvest it will achieve; Paul is using the comparison to show that the resurrection body will retain the essential identity of the earthly body, the seed, while gloriously transforming its nature. Nevertheless, there are several verbal echoes which suggest the possibility that Jesus’ words do lie behind Paul’s parable. Firstly, the word translated ‘grain’ is ‘kokkos’. This is used 7 times in the NT; 5 of these uses, all in the synoptic gospels, refer to “a grain of mustard-seed”, an image of minuteness. In this sense, it is used in two different contexts. The first is as a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven, which begins as tiny as a ‘grain’, but grows into a great tree (Matt. 13.31, Mark 4.31, Luke 13.19); the second uses the mustard-seed as a measure of how little faith is needed to move mountains (Matt. 17.20), or to uproot trees (Luke 17.60). Only in John 12.24 and 1 Corinthians 15.37 is it defined as “a grain of wheat” (‘sitos’). The next verbal echo is the phrase “unless it dies” (literally, “if --- not” - there is no single Greek word for ‘unless’); these three Greek words occur in both passages, though in John there are several words separating “unless” and “dies”. Then it is possible that Paul’s description of the seed as “naked” (‘gumnos’ in Greek, the origin of ‘gymnastics’, since Greek men traditionally exercised naked) reflects Jesus’ saying that the seed remains “alone” - or even that Paul remembers that Jesus died naked on the cross. Finally, Jesus says that his death on the cross will lead to the glory of the resurrection; Paul, interpreting his parable, says that “the resurrection of the dead will be just like this: our dead physical bodies are sown into the ground in a state of decay, but raised free of decay for ever; they are buried as objects of pollution, but raised in glory, they are buried in the impotence of death, but raised in miraculous power; in short, our physical bodies are raised as spiritual bodies” (vv.42-4). There are enough coincidences here, it seems to me, to make it an intriguing possibility that Paul somehow had access to these words of Jesus, recorded only in John’s gospel, which, it is generally agreed, was not written until many years later. There are not enough, however, to make this more than speculation.

(b) a promise from scripture
‘aparchē’: [i] in the OT
Lev 23.9-14, Jer 2.2-3

After this ‘parable from nature’, though in fact earlier in the chapter, comes a promise from scripture. This promise is expressed, by implication, by the word ‘aparchē’, used twice by Paul here, in verses 20 and 23, which means ‘first-fruits’. This word is used 9 times in the NT, 7 of them by Paul, and is worth a brief study of its own. To discover its origins, and its significance, we need to go back to the Mosaic rituals of offerings and sacrifices, as prescribed in the Books of the Law. The offering of ‘first-fruits’ is most fully set out in Leviticus 23. 9-14: “When you enter the land I am going to give you, and you reap its harvest, bring to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest. He is to wave the sheaf before the Lord so that it will be accepted on your behalf: the priest is to wave it on the day after the Sabbath” (10-11, NIV). Derek Tibdall, in his BST commentary on Leviticus, helpfully explains the significance of this ritual: “God has a prior claim over all things; the first, the freshest and the best belong to him. --- In offering the first sheaf to be reaped, they were acknowledging that he was the source of all good things, and that the good earth belonged to him and was under his control” (p.275). He goes on to say that, in its uses in the NT, “the image of ‘first-fruits’ stands for a first instalment, and the conviction that more of the same will follow”. In fact, even in the OT the first-fruits are used in this metaphorical sense: Jeremiah says - or rather, God says through Jeremiah: “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me --- Israel was holy to the Lord, the first-fruits of his harvest” (2.2-3). Thus the idea of ‘first-fruits’ becomes another ‘parable from nature’ (an ‘arable parable’, perhaps!), the living harvest being the glorious product of the dying seed. But it is not solely God’s chosen people of Israel who are the harvest; they are just the ‘first-fruits’ of God’s saving work, a sign that, just as God loved Israel, “God so loved the world” (John 3.16).

‘aparchē’ [ii] in the NT

Romans 11.16, 16.5, 1 Corinthians 16.15, 2 Thess 2.13, James 1,18, Revelation 14.4

Of the 9 instances of ‘aparchē’ in the NT, 5 are in this same sense, “a first instalment, with more of the same to follow”. So, in his list of greetings at the end of Romans (16.5), Paul includes “my beloved Epainetos, who is the first-fruits of Asia for Christ”; and, in a parallel passage at the end of 1 Corinthians, he refers to the household of Stephanos as “the first-fruits of Achaea” (16.15). Presumably Epainetos and Stephanos were the first converts of Paul’s ministry in Asia and Achaea respectively, and an encouragement to Paul that a rich harvest would follow where these had led the way. Similarly, he tells the Thessalonians collectively that “God chose you as the first-fruits for salvation” (2 Thess.2.13), and both James and John use the same image in the same sense. James is not quite bold enough to use this metaphor unqualified: “Of his own will, God gave us new birth by the word of his truth, so that we should be a sort of ‘first-fruits’ of his new creation” (1.18). John has no such qualms: describing the great multitude of 144,000 worshipping before God’s throne in Revelation 14, he says they were “purchased from among mankind, the first-fruits for God and for the Lamb” (v.4), implying that there are multitudes more to follow. Perhaps someone should give the Jehovah’s Witnesses a bible-study on ‘aparchē’! The reference to Epainetos as “the first-fruits of Asia”, mentioned above, is, in fact, the third occurrence of ‘aparchē’ in Romans. The second could probably be placed in the same category, though its use poses an interpretative challenge, and comes in a passage (which we shall visit again later) where Paul’s thinking is not easy to follow. In chapter 11 he is concerned for the future of the Jews, his people (our next ‘mystery’ but one). The majority have rejected Jesus, their Messiah, but a faithful remnant (just as there had been in the days of Elijah), had, by God’s grace, put their faith in Christ as their saviour. But the persistent opposition of Jewish communities to the preaching of the gospel by Paul has led him instead to preach to the gentiles, many of whom have believed. Their joy and freedom in Christ, Paul believes, will eventually be the envy of the Jews, who will thus themselves turn to Christ. The Jews may have stumbled, but have not fallen irrevocably out of God’s loving purpose for them (v.11). Paul then uses two analogies to show that his faith in the future of the Jewish nation is reasonable: “If the first-fruits are holy, so will the whole lump of dough be holy; if the root of the tree is holy, so will its branches” (v.16). The first of these analogies could perhaps be paraphrased in secular terms as “if the first mouthful tastes good, the whole pudding will be good”. But we have seen that ‘aparchē’ has a deeply religious significance, and its OT antecedents suggest that a better rendering would be: “If you are baking bread, and dedicate to God the first loaf as a ‘first-fruits’ offering, then this act sanctifies the whole batch”. Paul, then, seems to be arguing that the “remnant” of Israel who have turned to Christ are an ‘aparchē’ which shows that the whole nation still belongs to God and is part of his purpose - just as the 144,000 worshipping before God’s throne in Revelation 14 are an ‘aparchē’ guaranteeing that there are many more to come.

[iii] The ‘aparchē’ of the Holy Spirit
Romans 3.24">
Romans 3.24, 8.23, 1 Corinthians 1.30, Ephesians 1.7, 13-14, 4.30

The first occurrence of ‘aparchē’ in Romans (8.23) is particularly helpful for our understanding of its usage in 1 Corinthians 15. Here, too, Paul is contrasting the fallen physical world in which we now live, enslaved by ‘decay’ (‘phthora’, as in 1 Cor.15.52) and subjected to ‘futility’, with the release and freedom which creation will enjoy when “the trumpet shall sound”, and God will institute a new heaven and a new earth. “For now”, Paul says, “the whole creation groans and agonises together, and not just creation, but we ourselves groan deep within ourselves, for we have the first-fruits of the Holy Spirit and can hardly wait for our liberation from our physical bodies, a freedom of which the Spirit within us is a foretaste” - this last phrase is not Paul’s actual words but my attempt to bring out their implication. The word I have translated ‘liberation’ here is ‘apolutrōsis’, literally, ‘redemption’: a ‘lutron’ is the price paid to ransom, or redeem, a prisoner. For a Christian, there are two key stages in the process of redemption, and ‘apolutrōsis’ is used to refer to each step individually, as well as to ‘redemption’ as a whole. A good example of this latter usage is in 1 Corinthians 1.30: “You are in Christ Jesus, who became for us --- righteousness and holiness and redemption”. The first part of this process is the redemption of our souls, the moment when we first put our faith in Christ and so are ‘justified’: “--- being justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption paid for us by Christ Jesus” (Rom.3.24); this is the moment when our sins are forgiven (v.25). We find the same truth in Ephesians 1.7: “In Jesus we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins”: his blood was the price paid to redeem us. But ‘apolutrōsis’ is also used to refer to the culmination of this process, “the redemption of our bodies”, the day when “the trumpet shall sound, and we shall be changed”. As well as the verse in Romans (8.23) that we started with, ‘apolutrōsis’ is used in this sense a few verses further on in Ephesians 1: “When you came to faith”, Paul tells his readers, “you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance until the time comes when God finally redeems the people he has already purchased” (vv.13-14 - I have translated the noun as a verb here). Later still in Ephesians (4.30), he tells them not to “grieve the Holy Spirit, in whom you were sealed until the day of redemption”.

‘sphragis’, ‘arrabōn’
2 Corinthians 1.22, 5.1-2, 4-5

These verses introduce us to two other words which, like ‘aparchē’, describe the purpose and work of God’s Holy Spirit within us. A ‘seal’ (‘sphragis’, and, in this sense, the verb ‘sphragizō’) is a mark of ownership, an external brand or stamp, in the commercial world attached to an item of goods that is no longer for sale because it has already been bought - “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6.20). For us, the ‘seal of the Spirit’ is not, primarily at least, an external sign, but a deep inner assurance that we do indeed belong to God, that we are his “purchased possession”. But the Holy Spirit’s work in us is not just to give us assurance in the present, but also to give us a ‘sure and certain hope’ for the future. The word Paul uses to symbolize this is ‘arrabōn’, which means a ‘pledge’, or a ‘down-payment’, a ‘deposit’, a promise that the price will be paid in full in the future. Apparently the word is used in Modern Greek to mean an ‘engagement ring’, which makes Paul’s use of this symbol here even richer. He clearly liked this image, for he used it twice more, both in 2 Corinthians (these are its only 3 occurrences in the NT). The first of these is also linked with the ‘seal’: “God has anointed us and sealed us and given us the pledge of the Holy Spirit in our hearts” - both an inner assurance and a future hope (1.22). The second passage links us once again to Romans 8.23 and the longing for a new body, a resurrection body: “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in, our physical body, is destroyed, we have a building from God, our resurrection body, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling. --- For while we are in this tent we groan and are burdened because we wish --- to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose, and has given us the Spirit as a deposit (‘arrabōn’) guaranteeing what is to come” (5.1-2, 4-5, NIV + explanatory interpolations!) In this context, then, ‘arrabōn’ is a virtual synonym for ‘aparchē’: God gives us his Holy Spirit to assure us that our inner assurance of his presence in this life is only a foretaste of the next life, when we will enjoy his unveiled presence for ever.

[iv] Jesus the ‘aparchē’
'nuni de'

The final two occurrences of ‘aparchē’, then, are in 1 Corinthians 15.20 and 23; we will go back a couple of verses: “If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost”. Then comes another of the great bible ‘but’s . The two words used here, ‘nuni de’, are regularly used after an unfulfilled conditional clause: ‘if something had/had not happened, something else would have been the case; but as it is---’. So here, ‘nuni de’ could be translated “but the truth is, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits (‘aparchē’) of those who have fallen asleep. --- For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive, each in his own appointed order: Christ the first-fruits, then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end---” (vv.20, 22-4). Paul at this point is so excited by the idea that Christ has triumphed over all his enemies that he does not actually state what must surely be implied here, that the third category to be raised to resurrection life will be “those who have fallen asleep in Christ”. The verb to ‘fall asleep’, incidentally, is ‘koimōmai’, which gives us the word ‘cemetery’; the Latin for ‘sleep’ is ‘dormio’, so that a cemetery is a ‘dormitory for the dead’. In his NT Greek Lexicon (my invaluable aide and companion in these studies!), Thayer says of the phrase “the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep”: “Here the phrase seems also to signify that by his case the future resurrection of Christians is guaranteed, because the ‘aparchē’ forerun and are, as it were, a pledge and promise of the rest of the harvest”. Here, then, is an interesting reversal. In the OT, as we have seen, many heroes of the faith are ‘types’ or ‘forerunners’ of Christ, foreshadowing some facet of his life and work which is fully revealed in the gospels. In the NT, however, it is Christ himself who provides us with the ‘type’ or ‘model’ of our resurrection bodies; if we want an answer to Paul’s imagined question “with what kind of body are the dead raised?” (v.35), we need look no further than to the risen Jesus.

Gen 4.4, Ex 4.22, 22.29, Hebrews12.22-3, Luke 2.7, Col 1.15, 18, Revelation 1.5, Romans 8.29

We have seen, then, that in the ‘grain of wheat’ Paul gives us a ‘parable’ of the resurrection body, and in ‘aparchē’ a promise or pledge. Before we move on to look at the third image (literally) that he uses, it is worth pausing for a brief study of another synonym for ‘aparchē’, namely, ‘prōtotokos’, the Greek for ‘firstborn’. We find the two words together in the LXX version of Exodus 22.29: “Thou shalt not delay to offer the first of thy ripe fruits (‘aparchē’) --- the firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give unto me” (AV - ‘prōtotokos’ always refers to sons). Both in the vegetable kingdom and in the animal kingdom God is to have the first and the best. The principle of offering the firstborn to God is established as early as Genesis 4.4: “Abel brought of the firstlings (‘prōtotokos’) of his flock --- and the Lord had respect unto Abel and his offering” (AV). We saw earlier that ‘aparchē’ came to be used figuratively even in the OT, when God, through Jeremiah, refers to Israel as “the first-fruits of his harvest” (2.3); in much the same way, God tells Moses to say to Pharaoh: “Israel is my firstborn son” (Ex. 4.22), clearly showing that the whole people of Israel is precious to God. Later on in Exodus, the Passover lamb is sacrificed specifically to save the firstborn son of the household from “the destroyer” (Heb. 11.28), the tenth and most terrible of the plagues of Egypt. But that Passover sacrifice foreshadowed the sacrifice of the “Lamb of God”, a sacrifice which saved all God’s people from the destroyer. This has taken us into the NT, where ‘prōtotokos’ is used 8 times, one of them in the verse just cited, and another in the following chapter, where “Mount Sion, the heavenly Jerusalem, city of the living God” is described as “the church of the firstborn” (12.22-23). All Christians belong to the new Israel of God, so all are his “firstborn sons” - regardless of gender or primogeniture! Furthermore, we are “firstborn” because we are ‘in Christ’, and all the other 6 instances of ‘prōtotokos’ in the NT refer to him. Most obviously, he is described as Mary’s “firstborn son” in Luke 2.7 (and in some MSS of Matt. 1.25), and God’s “firstborn Son” in Hebrews 1.6, referring to the incarnation. Less obviously, Paul in Colossians 1.15 describes him as “the firstborn of all creation”, a phrase which has caused much theological - and Christological - debate. But since the incarnation was part of God’s eternal purpose, and his purpose is more ‘real’ than anything in the created order, it is not hard to see how Paul could describe Jesus as ‘firstborn’, not just as ‘supreme over’ all creation, but actually incarnated before anything else was created. The remaining 3 instances of ‘prōtotokos’ all refer to Jesus’ resurrection, and are the main reason for looking at this word in the context of 1 Corinthians 15. Only three verses after this ‘difficult’ phrase, Paul uses ‘prōtotokos’ again: “Jesus is the Lord of his body, the church; he is the beginning (‘archē’ - most of the way to ‘aparchē’!), the firstborn from the dead, so that in everything he should become the one who is in first place” (v.18). This same phrase (though without the preposition ‘from’) is used at the beginning of Revelation, when John sends greetings to the seven churches from “Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead” (1.5). This phrase is a more-or-less exact equivalent of the phrase in 1 Corinthians 15.20, “the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep”. The final occurrence of ‘prōtotokos’ takes us back to Romans 8, and to the resurrection body - conveniently paving the way for Paul’s third ‘image’: “Those whom God foreknew he also preordained to be transformed into the likeness of his Son, so that he should be the firstborn among many brothers” (v.29). It would be both politically correct and linguistically permissible to translate the last word here “brothers and sisters”; but just as “the church of the firstborn” implies that all Christians have this status in heaven wherever they rank in their earthly families, so this verse implies that all Christians will bear the likeness of God’s Son. Revelation 21.7 makes this even more explicit: “the one who overcomes” (i.e. all true Christians) “will inherit all this” (i.e. the New Jerusalem) “and I will be his God and he will be my son”. This, however, merely restores the gender balance, since only a few verses earlier it is made clear that all Christians collectively as the church are “the bride adorned (or “beautified”) for her husband” (v.2). If men can be brides, women can be sons: heaven will, indeed, be different!

A unisex heaven?
Matthew 22.30

These references seem to suggest that in our resurrection bodies the consciousness of gender which on earth is so central to our sense of identity will be much less, if at all, a distinguishing characteristic, and that gender differences will fade into insignificance in comparison with our oneness in Christ. This inference, derived mostly from apocalyptic imagery, might seem to be merely idle speculation were it not supported by the explicit teaching of Jesus himself. In one of the few insights he allows us into life “in the resurrection”, given in response to a sceptical Sadducee’s question about seven brothers who each in succession married the same wife - whose wife would she be “in the resurrection”? - Jesus tells us: “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (that is, neither men nor women marry), “but are like the angels in heaven” (Matt. 22.30). “In the resurrection”, there will be no need, therefore no urge, to procreate, so that in heaven marriage will not have the central role among the company of the saints as it has in earthly human society. As we will see more fully in the next section, earthly marriage is a ‘mystery’ which foreshadows the marriage of Christ and his church, and that will be the glorious and joyous relationship which will be the central focus of life in heaven.

Leviticus 23: the 8th day
Lev 23.11, 9.11, 16.3, 14.10,

We can see, then, that when Paul refers to Jesus as an ‘aparchē’ and as the ‘prōtotokos’, both words are rich with OT significance. The offering of the first-fruits to God showed that he was the Lord of the whole harvest (Matt. 9.38), and the dedication of the firstborn son to God showed that the whole family belonged to him - and the first offering is a ‘parable’ of the second, since the harvest is a picture of the in-gathering of all God’s people, his family. It is worth exploring this idea a little further before we return to 1 Corinthians 15, and to do so we need to return to Leviticus 23, and the ordinance for the offering of the ‘aparchē’ quoted earlier. The Israelites were to bring the first sheaf they harvested to the priest, who was to “wave the sheaf before the Lord”; significantly, I believe, the priest was to present this 'wave-offering' “on the day after the Sabbath” (v.11). The day after the Sabbath is, of course, the first day of the week, Sunday - resurrection day! This, as far as I can find, is the only offering that is specifically to be made on the first day of the week. How appropriate that Jesus, the “first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep” and “the firstborn from the dead” should arise from the sleep of death on the first day of the week! But the first day of the week is also “the eighth day”, and this phrase recurs regularly in Leviticus: it is the day that symbolizes a new beginning and a new birth. It was on “the eighth day” that Aaron and his sons, after their ordination, entered upon their priestly duties (9.1); it was on the eighth day of their lives that new-born boys were to be circumcised (12.3); and it was “on the eighth day” that lepers who had been cleansed were, after seven days of washing and shaving, allowed to resume their normal lives within the community (14.10). How appropriate, too, that just as his Father rested on the seventh day from the work of creation, Jesus rested on the Sabbath, in the sleep of death, from his work of salvation! And, just as the first day of creation began with the triumphant fiat “Let there be light!”, so on the first day of the week the Light of the World arose from the darkness of the tomb, the “firstborn” of a new creation. I hope it is not too speculative to develop this idea a stage further, prompted once again by Leviticus 23. Just a couple of verses further on (v.15), we read: “From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave-offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off 50 days up to the day after the 7th Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord”. Elsewhere (Deut. 19.9-10, Num. 28.26), this is known as “the feast of weeks”, and marks the conclusion of the harvest of which the ‘first-fruits’ were the beginning. Later, however, the ‘50th day’ became Hellenized into ‘Pentecost’, the Greek for 50th. If, on that “first day of the week” (Matt. 28.1, Mark 16.2, Luke 24.1, John 24.1 - all four evangelists regard this fact as significant) Jesus was the ‘first-fruits’, then the first full harvest was gathered in “when the Day of Pentecost was fully come” (Acts 2.1, AV), when 3,000 souls were added to the number of believers. I have quoted the AV here because the NIV makes no mention of the idea of ‘fullness’ in Luke’s Greek. “Fully come” is an awkward expression; what Luke intends to convey, I think, is: “When the 7 weeks had been fully counted out, and the 50th day had finally arrived” - 49 days of waiting for “the Holy Spirit of promise” (Gal. 3.14, Eph. 1.13), so described both because Jesus had promised him (NIV translates both these references “the promised Holy Spirit”), and because, as we have seen, he himself is the promise of the resurrection body.

[v] ‘aparchē’ and the Passover
Hebrews9.22, 12.23

One final suggestion - and connection. Originally, no fixed day or month was prescribed for the offering of the ‘aparchē’, since the first sheaf would be reaped on different days each year, according to seasonal variations. But it seems that, before long, this event was regularised, and subsumed into the Passover celebrations, so that Pentecost was always on the 50th day after Passover, and so on the first day of the week - an appropriate day for the birthday of the church. This means that during the Passover both the ‘aparchē’, a grain-offering, and the Paschal lamb, a blood-offering, were made to God. We have already seen how, in Genesis 4, Abel offered as a sacrifice to God “the firstborn of his flock”, and how “the Lord looked with favour on his offering”; but his brother Cain “worked the soil”, and offered to God “the fruits of the soil”, which God “did not look on with favour”, since he was offering his own works. Thus a grain-offering, representing one’s own efforts to keep the Law, was never prescribed as an atoning sacrifice: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9.22). Jesus alone, by virtue of his sinless life, could offer to God his own works and ‘find favour’. Jesus offered himself to God not only as a sin-bearer, the firstborn “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1.29), but also as an ‘aparchē’, the grain-offering of his own righteousness, a righteousness conferred by God’s grace on all who are ‘in Christ’ (Paul, passim), so that he is indeed the ‘first-fruits’ of a great harvest, “the church of the firstborn, --- the spirits of righteous men made perfect” (Heb. 12.23).

(3) a picture

Matthew 21.20, Romans 1.23, 1 Corinthians 11.7, 2 Corinthians 4.4, 3.18, Col 1.5, 3.18

We come now, at last, to the third of the three ‘foreshadowings’ of the resurrection body which Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians 15. If the ‘grain of wheat’ analogy is a parable of the resurrection body, and the ‘first-fruits’ are a promise of it, then Jesus’ own resurrection body is a picture of it. The Greek word Paul uses is ‘eikōn’, which slims down into the English ‘icon’, a visible image or representation of something. This word is used 22 times in the NT, but we can quickly slim down that number, too. Three of its occurrences are found in the virtually identical synoptic versions of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”. Asking for a denarius (he himself was apparently penniless!), he said “whose image is this on the coin?” - a visible representation of a distant emperor (Matt. 21.20, Mark 12.16, Luke 20.24). In Revelation, ‘eikōn’ is used 10 times, each referring to the ‘image’ of the beast, an idol which many of the inhabitants of the earth were deceived into worshipping. The writer to the Hebrews says that the Law gives us only a shadow, a dim outline, of the blessings to come, not an ‘eikōn’, a clear picture (10.1). The remaining instances are all Pauline, and so particularly relevant to our purpose. The first of these (Rom. 1.23) does not initially seem relevant, referring to mankind’s idolatry, worshipping the ‘image’ of human beings, birds, animals or reptiles; but he points the antithesis between God and these idols by describing God as ‘imperishable’ (‘aphthartos’), and men and the animals as ‘perishable’ or ‘corruptible’ (physically, he means, ‘subject to decay’), in Greek, ‘phthartos’, the prefix ‘a-’ being the negative in Greek. This is the same antithesis Paul uses twice in 1 Corinthians 15. In verse 42, as we have seen, our physical bodies “are sown (i.e. buried) in corruption, but raised in incorruption”; here the adjectives of Romans 1.23 become abstract nouns, and even more difficult to translate in a way that both makes the contrast apparent and sounds convincing - mine (which is the AV’s) fails on the second count. . A few verses later he makes the same contrast, combining adjective and noun: “For this corruption must put on incorruption” (v.53). This contrast was clearly an important element in Paul’s theology. Paul also uses ‘eikōn’ in his treatment of the vexed question of head-covering in the church at Corinth, saying that the man - the husband - is “the image and glory of God”, while the woman is “the glory of her husband” (1 Cor. 11.7). Here he is clearly echoing the creation account in Genesis 1.26-7, where the LXX uses ‘eikōn’ in the great utterance of the Creator: “Let us make man in our own image”, though “man” here in the Greek is ‘anthropos’, and so not gender-specific. This phrase, “in our own image”, is generally regarded as expressing man’s capacity for moral judgement and spiritual awareness, but since, as we saw earlier, Jesus was already “the firstborn of all created beings” (Col. 1.15), it is possible that the phrase also implies that Adam was created in the visible image of the pre-incarnate Christ. This idea is supported by the plural form of the verb, “Let us make---”: these are the words of the whole Trinitarian Godhead. The first Adam, of course, was a very imperfect ‘image’ of his Creator; to see what Adam could have been, and was meant to be, we only need to look at Jesus. Twice Paul tells us that he is “the image of God”: in 2 Corinthians 4.4 he talks of “the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God” - here, too, as in several of the earlier references, ‘eikōn’ is connected in Paul’s vocabulary, and so in his theology, with ‘doxa’, ‘glory’. More explicit still, in Colossians 1.5 he refers to Jesus as “the image of the invisible God”, or, to make the point more clearly, “the visible likeness of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” or “every creature”. If therefore we are to be what Adam should have been, and so to achieve the full humanity which God intended us to embody “in his image”, we need to reflect the image of Christ; to this end, Paul says a little earlier in 2 Corinthians “we all with unveiled face, reflecting the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, are being transfigured into his image, from glory to greater glory” (3.18). Here the link between ‘eikōn’ and ‘doxa’ is at its most obvious. If in our previous verse ‘eikōn’ referred to Jesus’ outward appearance - God made visible - here it is the godlike holiness of his character that is implied: by turning our eyes upon him we are to become more like him in the holiness of his life, for it is holiness which, in God’s eyes, is true glory. Paul makes the same point in a different way in Colossians 3.10: “We have put off the old Adam with its [sinful] deeds, and put on the new man (‘anthropos’ here) which is being continuously renewed in understanding according to the image if his Creator”. It seems to me to be more likely, because more in tune with Paul’s way of thinking, that he is referring here to Jesus as the new man’s “Creator” rather than to the Father, but we cannot be sure, and it does not really matter anyway. Here again Paul is talking about Christlike character (“do not lie to each other”) rather than Godlike appearance; but in the two remaining instances of ‘eikōn’, which take us back to 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is clearly talking about what we will look like in our resurrection bodies as well as what we will be like. Once again he is contrasting the old Adam with Christ, the new Adam: “The first man, Adam, was formed from the dust of the earth, the second man, Jesus, was from heaven. Just as Adam was a creature of dust, so are all his descendants creatures of dust; and just as Jesus was from heaven, so are all who are in Christ heavenly. Just as in this life we bore the likeness (‘eikōn’) of Adam the man of dust, so also in the next life we shall bear the likeness of Jesus the man from heaven” (47-9). If we want a picture (‘eikōn’) of our resurrection bodies, we need do no more than “turn our eyes upon Jesus”.

Jesus' resurrection body
Luke 24.36ff, John 20.27

In particular, then, we need to turn our eyes to Jesus’ resurrection appearances as recorded in Luke and John if we are to give some sort of answer to Paul’s imagined question with which we began this section: with what sort of body are the dead raised? Luke (24.36ff) records that Jesus appeared suddenly to his disciples in the upper room on the evening of the first Easter Day. Because, as John tells us (20.19), the doors were locked “for fear of the Jews”, and Jesus appeared and disappeared at will, it is easy to get the impression that the ‘spiritual body’ Paul talks about is, in fact, a disembodied spirit. Luke’s account expressly corrects this error. When Jesus appears, the disciples are terrified, for “they thought they were looking at a spirit” (v.37). Jesus convinces them otherwise, firstly by showing them his hands and feet, still freshly scarred from the agony of the crucifixion. Then he invites them not just to see but to touch (as he invites Thomas to do the next Sunday, John 20.27), since seeing was evidently not believing: you can see a ghost but you cannot touch it - “a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have”, Jesus tells them (v.39). When, despite this, they still do not believe (“for joy”, Luke charitably comments!), Jesus resorts to plan C: he eats a portion of fish before their eyes (v.43). If we are to “bear the likeness (‘eikōn’) of the man from heaven”, then the picture of him which Luke and John give us in these resurrection accounts makes it clear that our ‘spiritual bodies’ will be thoroughly physical as well as perfectly spiritual; but it will be a physicality that now is still a mystery to us, freed from the limitations of space and able to move at will from place to place, our bodies, at last, completely under the control of our spirits - and of the Holy Spirit. We do not know whether, like Jesus, our resurrection bodies will bear the scars of our earthly lives; it seems more likely that in this respect Jesus will be unique, his nail-pierced hands and feet an eternal memorial of his sacrifice and mark of his glory. Still less do we know whether, like Jesus, our resurrection bodies will ever eat fish, or anything, since being “not subject to decay” they will not need to be sustained and fuelled by food. These and many other such questions can only be the subjects of idle speculation; we must wait and see - wait until “the trumpet shall sound”, and then see when the mystery is finally revealed.

Next->the mystery of marriage