Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Mark's thoughts: What is the resurrection body going to be like?

Beginning at the Vigil of Easter and now during the rest of the week we have been celebrating the resurrection of our Lord. In His resurrection our Lord defeated death and began the resurrection of the dead.  The stunning claim of the New Testament is that the resurrection of the Last Day has already started in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This means that Jesus’ resurrection is about more than proving that He had completed His mission and showing that the saving work of the cross had been accepted by the Father for our forgiveness and salvation.  Instead, Jesus is the second Adam who brings the full restoration of human life, just as the first Adam brought death.   Paul told the Corinthians, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).

Jesus Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection. He is the first part that guarantees the rest of us will follow.  The apostle Paul tells us that Jesus is the model and pattern for our resurrection.  He writes, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20-21).  In other words, if we want to get a sense of what our resurrection body will be like, we need to look at the texts in Scripture that describe the resurrection of Jesus. 

What we find is that there is continuity and discontinuity – it’s the same, but different.  There is a profound continuity in that it is still a physical and material existence.   Luke tells us that Jesus went to great lengths to demonstrate to the disciples that He was the same physical Jesus they had known before the resurrection.  We read:  “As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you!’ But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them” (Luke 24:36-43). Naturally the same emphasis is found when Jesus tells Thomas to put his finger in the nail marks and his hand into Jesus’ side (John 20:26-29).

Not only is there continuity in what the body is made of, but there is also continuity in form.  The disciples are able to recognize Jesus because his body appears the same as it did before the resurrection – he doesn’t have three heads or four arms. The biblical witness supports the expectation that the form of the resurrection body will be like it is now.  Genesis tells us, “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature”(2:7). The text describes God as being directly involved in forming the body of Adam.  The human body was created directly by God.  Sin has brought weakness and death (Romans 5:12-14) and we now live a life impacted by the curse (Genesis 3:16-19).  Yet even though lust currently inhibits our ability to perceive accurately the beauty of the nude body, we are still able to recognize the inherent aesthetic value and beauty provided by its form.

Jesus Christ is described as the “second Adam” (Rom 5:12-17; 1 Corinthians 15:20-23).  He reverses all that Adam corrupted by his sin.  Yet for Jesus to play the role of the second Adam he must correspond to the first Adam.  The disciples are able to recognize the risen Lord as being Jesus because he has the body of the Jesus who was crucified.  He is the same Jesus – his body has the same form.  Given how the first Adam received the form of his body directly from God it seems reasonable to believe that this form continues on in the resurrection body of the second Adam, and so also for and those conformed to his resurrection (Philippians 3:21).

A unique aspect of this continuity in Jesus’ body before and after the resurrection is that Jesus’ resurrected body bears the marks of His crucifixion.  On the surface this may seem to raise questions about whether our own resurrected bodies will bear marks relating to the experiences of our life.  Although the God’s Word doesn’t speak directly to this issue, the manner in which this fact is introduced strongly suggests that the marks on Jesus’ body are unique to His role as the crucified and risen One.  They demonstrate beyond a doubt (see Thomas in John 20:24-28) that the Jesus who died on the cross has risen from the dead.

There will certainly be continuity. And at the same time, Paul makes clear that there will be discontinuity.  He writes: “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell 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 trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:50-52).  Our bodies, which because of sin are mortal and perishable, will be changed to be like our Lord’s resurrection body. 

As we have seen, this does not mean that our bodies will cease to be physical.  This is a common misunderstanding derived from Paul’s statement, “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44).  However the Greek adjective used in the phrase “spiritual body” (σῶμα πνευματικόν) does not involve the denial of a physical or material body.  Instead, as scholars have amply demonstrated, it describes a body transformed for end-time life directed by the Holy Spirit.[1]

Paul’s discussion of discontinuity in 1 Corinthians 15 contains two sets of opposites. In 15:42-43 he mentions: corruption/incorruption (15:42), dishonor/glory (15:43) and weakness/power (15:43). They describe the body in the present as flawed.  Then in a second set he lists: perishable/imperishable and mortal/immortal (15:50-54).  The first set appears to point forward to the second set, with the emphasis falling on the second set since Paul places it in the conclusion of his discussion.  Thus it seems that the primary change/transformation (1 Cor 15:51 ἀλλαγησόμεθα ; Phil 3:21 μετασχηματίσει) has to do with the fact that the body in its fallen state is inherently flawed so that it wears out, breaks down and dies. When the resurrection takes place, we will receive bodies that no longer experience this.  They will not perish and they will not die.  Not only will it be a body that shares in eternal life, but will also be a body that is perfectly tuned to the Spirit’s guiding (a “spiritual body”).

Paul’s reference to glory and power (15:43) prompts us to consider one other possibility.  In the accounts about the resurrected Lord, it is impossible to miss the fact that he does things he did not do before the resurrection such as appear in the midst of locked rooms (John 20:19-20, 26; cf. Luke 24:36).  His bodily existence is not limited by physical barriers. Will this also be true for resurrected Christians?  No sure answer can be given.  While it can’t be ruled out, Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians does not present it as an obvious outcome.  In addition we cannot lose sight of the fact that in his resurrected body Jesus Christ continues to be something that the believer will never be: true God.  As true God he was already able to do things before his resurrection that transcend the physics of this world such as walk on water.  Likewise as the risen Lord who is still true God and true man he continues to work the miracle of the Sacrament of the Altar.  It may be that these actions after his resurrection narrated in the gospels reflect his continuing powers as the Son of God and are not something specific to the resurrection body itself. 

There are indeed other questions that we ponder.  We wonder about things like what “age” will our body be in the resurrection?  For this and similar questions, there are no answers. Scriptures enables us to understand the broad contours of the continuity and discontinuity.  For answers that go beyond this, we must wait until the Last Day.   

In many ways, the discussion of the resurrection body takes up back to the first day for Adam.  God created Adam as a unity of body and soul.  Adam’s sin brought death (Genesis 3:19; Romans 5:12-14).  But God did not leave things there.  Instead in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the second Adam, He brings about the restoration of His created intention for human existence.  For us it is simply a matter of timing.  In Jesus Christ the resurrection of the body has already begun. We are looking towards the Last Day when Christ returns and gives us a share in it as well.

While we wait, Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar demonstrate the importance of the body and point forward to the resurrection.  Both sacraments are bodily, physical actions.  Water is poured on our body, and bread and wine are received in our mouth. They show that God saves the whole person – body and soul. And both sacraments point forward to the resurrection of the body. They guarantee that our bodies too will share in Christ’s resurrection.  Paul told the Romans about baptism, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).  Our Lord has promised us, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54).

[1] N.T. Wright comments: “They will have a soma pneumatikon, a body animated by, enlivened by, the Spirit of the true God, exactly as Paul has said more extensively in several other passages.  This helps to provide a satisfactory explanation for why he has homed in on this unique phrase at this point in the chapter.  It is the most elegant way he can find of saying both that the new body is the result of the Spirit’s work (answering ‘how does it come to be?’) and that is the appropriate vessel for the Spirit’s life (answering ‘what sort of a thing is it?’) (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, vol. 3 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 354; emphasis his).  Fee (Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1987], 786) and Witherington  (Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1994], 308) arrive at similar conclusions.  See the perceptive discussion in Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 312-361 and in Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 1275-1280.

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