In one of those interesting threads over at New Cool Thang, the Head Thang posed a question to the rest of the Wild Thangs:
Ok, our scriptures clearly say that because Jesus Christ was resurrected we all will be resurrected, too. I honestly have no idea why that is the case. If God can cause us to get new bodies then why did Jesus specifically have to be resurrected to make that possible? If Christ never came couldn’t God have resurrected us all anyway? If so, then what’s the connection? If not, then what is the law that would prevent God from doing so?
The first thing that should be said is that the NT is not unanimous in reporting that Jesus was the first person resurrected.
The NT is unanimous, however, in linking the resurrection to the larger Christ-event. Here’s the First Gospel, recording the events following the death of Christ (Mt 27:51-52):
and behold, the veil of the sanctuary was rent from top to bottom into two
and the earth was shaken
and the rocks were rent
and the tombs were opened
and many bodies of fallen-asleep holy ones were raised
and having come out of the tombs after the raising of him
they entered into the holy city
and were made visible to many
For those who don’t have access to a critical text, this passage is solid so no makin’ up harmonizing emendations!
The interesting point is the question of what the saints were doing between the time they were raised, at the death of Jesus, and the time they came out of the tombs after his resurrection. This leads to the point that although the authors of the Gospels know when the empty tomb was discovered, they don’t know when the resurrection occurred. In this regard, 1 Pt 3:18-22 is no help:
18 For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit. 19 In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison…through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven
Note that the most straightforward reading makes the order of events death, resurrection, preaching, and ascension rather than death, preaching, resurrection, and ascension.
Second, the NT may not be completely unanimous about the idea that we’ll all be resurrected. Paul, for example, never addresses the resurrection of anyone except Christ and “they that are Christ’s at his coming” (1 Cor 15:23), although he may well have believed in a universal resurrection. The author of the Fourth Gospel, however, knows both a “resurrection of life” and a “resurrection of condemnation” (Jn 5:29), which seem to occur at the same time, whereas I think John is the only NT author who knows of two resurrections (Rev 20:4-5).
Back to the Implications of the Resurrection of Christ
Since it is Paul who writes that Jesus is “the firstfruits of them that slept,” consider the opening verses of Romans:
Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised previously through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel about his Son, descended from David according to the flesh, 4 but appointed Son of God in power according to a spirit of holiness from the resurrection of the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Without worrying too much about what it actually means to be “appointed Son of God in power,” it is clear enough that this particular condition was something Jesus entered into as of his resurrection, not something he already had. (A gloss that probably better captures the essence of Paul’s thought is “appointed Son of God with power by a spirit of holiness from his resurrection.” In that light, to be “appointed Son of God in power” is a Semitic form, implying that Jesus was given a mission by God)
Here’s another statement from Paul about the appointment of Jesus (1 Thess 5:8-10):
8 But since we are of the day, let us be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet that is hope for salvation. 9 For God did not destine us for wrath, but to gain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live together with him.
This use of the word “through” is the language of mediation, that is, Jesus is appointed by God as the mediator of our salvation, where salvation is another of Paul’s ten metaphors. This is but one instance of a pretty standard NT scenario: Every good thing comes from God through Jesus. By the time Colossians was written, Jesus was considered the mediator of both creation and redemption, the twin poles of God’s love.
With this in mind, now consider another statement, likewise from Paul and dealing specifically with the resurrection (1 Thess 4:13-18):
We do not want you to be ignorant brothers, about those who are asleep, in order that you might not grieve as the rest do who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so also God will gather through Jesus those who have fallen asleep to be with him.
Once again, we find the language of mediation, this time the divine appointment of Jesus as the mediator of our resurrection. At this point, the sense of the metaphor ought to suggest a certain logic in Jesus as the first to be resurrected. But Paul’s most important treatise on the resurrection is in 1 Cor 15.
Christ as the Life-Giving Spirit
I know you’d all love to sit through about 200 screens on this chapter, but we’ll cut to the chase since I have a dissy to write. And while we’re on the topic of my personal life, I also want you to know that I have twenty-one baby tomatoes on my plants. Now back to Paul, writing in 1 Cor 15: 42-45:
42 So also is the resurrection of the dead.
It is sown corruptible; it is raised incorruptible.
It is sown dishonorable; it is raised glorious.
It is sown weak; it is raised powerful.
It is sown a natural body (psychikos); it is raised a spiritual body (pneumatikos).
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual one. 45 So, too, it is written,
“The first man, Adam, became a living being (psychē),”
the last Adam a life-giving spirit (pneuma zōopoieō).
The word “sown” is probably not a reference to burial, but a metaphor for human origins. The psychikos body we have now is therefore characterized by corruption, dishonor, and weakness. The pneumatikos body we will have is characterized by incorruption, glory, and power. It is not a matter of what these two bodies are actually made of, but of the mode in which they exist: weakness, dishonor, and corruption for the present; power, glory, and incorruptibility in the future.
Paul’s point then, is this: since we got the psychikos body appropriate to this age through the first Adam, we’ll likewise get the pneumatikos body appropriate to the next age through the last Adam, that is, through Christ.
And speaking of “the next age,” what about the new creation?
Paul sees world history divided into three periods: from Adam to Moses, from Moses to Christ, and with the resurrection of Christ the beginning of the eschaton, the last times. As the “last Adam,” Christ is the “Adam” of this final age, the first-born among many brothers who have been predestined to be conformed to his image (Rom 8:29).
This newness of life brought by Christ is really a share in his life and so very much multi-faceted. Some aspects of it such as the Spirit are available now, while other aspects such as the resurrection must wait for the consummation. The phrase “new creation” actually occurs only in Gal 6:15 and 2 Cor 5:17, but the associated imagery of a life lived in union with Christ, free of sin and the wrath of God, is found in many places.
There is also a cosmic dimension to the new creation (Rom 8:22-24):
22 We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; 23 and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved.
Notice here the reference to the “firstfruits of the Spirit,” as something we have now in expectation of something more in the future. I hope to come back to this idea of a new life again, and to trace in more detail the facets we experience now as a function of our enjoyment of the “firstfruits of the Spirit” as we are transformed, but for the moment here’s one more thought from Paul on the resurrection (1 Cor 15:54-57):
And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.