Paul’s last words in 1 Corinthians

I received some good advice many years ago: “On any given Sunday, only one or two people really get it. Don’t be discouraged by the masses, instead focus on the one or two people that will truly get what you’re saying.” Today, I ask you this question: will you be one of the few that get it? Will you apply God’s Word to your life and be changed? We have finally reached the conclusion of the book of 1 Corinthians. We are about to wrap up this multiple month study. My prayer is that as we conclude this book we will all “get it.” In 1 Cor 16:13-24 Paul will suggest that love is the remedy for church ills. In this passage, Paul provides three elements of spiritual maturity.

  1. The Exhortations of Spiritual Maturity(16:13-14). In these opening two verses, Paul unveils five moral exhortations: “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” These five exhortations are all present tense imperatives demanding continuous action. Therefore, we must recognize that God’s commands are not good advice. They are not optional. God’s commands are not like a cafeteria where we can pick or choose what we want. All five commands are incumbent upon the believer. The first four commands employ military metaphors to encourage resoluteness in the faith, while the final command summarizes the previous four.
  • Be on the alert.This command is a warning to watch out for those that seek to bring about division. Paul urges the Corinthians to be watchful regarding danger from inside as well as outside the church. Most of the problems in Corinth, and in most of our churches today, arise from within the congregation, so we must be especially alert. The expression “be on the alert” sometimes occurs with anticipation of the Lord’s coming, so that may have been in Paul’s thinking as well. We should expect the return of the Lord at any time, and our behavior should reflect the Lord’s values and should not be characterized by deeds of darkness.
  • Stand firm in the faith.This is a military image that urges the Corinthians “to hold their ground” and not retreat before an enemy. The command to “stand firm” has already served as the bookends for chapter 15 (15:2, 58). The phrase “the faith” here probably denotes both the body of Christian teachings and our own personal relationship with the Lord. Since there are many temptations out there that can cause us to depart from the faith we need to be vigilant and stand firm. Are you standing firm in the faith or are you like shifting sand?
  • Act like men and be strong. These next two commands should be taken together. The verbs are frequently combined in the Old Testament to exhort God’s people to have courage in the face of danger, especially from one’s enemies. The word Paul uses for “be strong” is in the passive in voice, meaning “be strengthened.” We cannot strengthen ourselves; that is the Lord’s work. Our part is to submit ourselves to Him. General George Patton summed it up well, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”

The fifth and final command is the glue that holds the other four together. In 16:14, Paul exclaims,

  • Let all that you do be done in love. Paul makes his point especially clear by framing this letter’s closing: “Let all that you do be done in love” (16:14), and “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus” (16:24). This love involves both love for the Lord (16:22) and love for one another (16:24). Paul earlier challenged his readers with the fact that “knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies” (8:1). Love is the greatest motivating force for ethical behavior. The old saying is still true that “People need to know how much you care before they care how much you know.”

[What does love look like in the body of Christ? We don’t really have to speculate because Paul paints a picture of it for us in the next six verses.]

  1. The Characteristics of Spiritual Maturity(16:15-20). In these six verses, Paul shares five characteristics of spiritual maturity: service, submission, friendship, hospitality, and affection. All five of these are essential aspects of growing to maturity in the Lord and in our relationships with God’s people. In 16:15-20, Paul writes, “Now I urge you, brethren (you know the household of Stephanas, that they were the first fruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves for ministry to the saints), that you also be in subjection to such men and to everyone who helps in the work and labors. I rejoice over the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have supplied what was lacking on your part. For they have refreshed my spirit and yours. Therefore acknowledge such men. The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house. All the brethren greet you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.” 

Let’s now consider the five characteristics of spiritual maturity.

  • Stephanas and his family were Paul’s first converts (“first fruits”) in Achaia, the province in which Corinth stood (1:16). They had given themselves selflessly to serving the Corinthians. They were probably loyal to Paul and may have been the source from which he received some of his information about conditions in this church. Verse 15 states that the household of Stephanas “devoted themselves for ministry to the saints.” The King James Version translates the verb “devoted” as “addicted.” I like this! They were serving in ministry so consistently, so regularly, that it was like an addiction; they were hooked on ministry. That’s not such a bad addiction, is it? Could anyone accuse you of this?
  • The Corinthians had a problem with submission to authority. They were competitive, stubborn, and even arrogant at times. Many in the church wanted to do their own thing. Verses 16-18 would have encouraged them to appreciate some less flashy servants of the Lord. Submission is not earned by holding an office; it’s earned by godly character and service. There’s no indication that Stephanas was a pastor, or even a church officer. He was apparently just an ordinary Christian with extraordinary love. But he deserves as much respect as pastors and elders. Mutual submission is a key theme of Spirit-filled living. All believers are to submit to each other (Eph 5:21). Service, not status, should be the basis for honor in the church. Are you submitting to the various servant leaders in our church? Do you esteem them above yourself? Do you seek creative ways to honor them?
  • Apparently, when the financial support for Paul’s missionary work dried up, Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus bailed him out. But even more meaningful is the fact that they “refreshed” his spirit. One of the finest compliments that can be paid of another Christian is to say that he or she is refreshing to be around, picks up your spirit, and encourages you to keep going. I know a lot of people in our church who are like that; I always feel better after being with them. They are a blessing to everyone they come in contact with.

Let me ask you: when you enter a room, is there more joy, peace, and love than before you arrived? When you leave, is the atmosphere and attitude better? Do you refresh your fellow-believers or bring them down? And let me ask another question: when you experience refreshment from other believers, how should you respond? Paul says, “Such people deserve recognition.” Thank them. Write them a note. Give them a hug and tell them how much they mean to you.

As a leader in our church, I occasionally have people tell me that they like our worship services but are not making friends in our church. They tend to assume it is the fault of our church. I used to take this personal until I began to notice a trend. Those individuals that approached me with this grievance didn’t want to be involved in a small group, an adult class, or in any type of service. It quickly dawned on me that that problem did not lie with us. It has been well said, “We don’t find friends, we make them.” Mobberly is a wonderful place to cultivate lifelong friendships, but we must invest in the body in order to reap the benefits.

  • Aquila and Priscilla opened up their home and hosted a church. According to the New Testament, this dynamic ministry couple lived in at least three different cities—Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome—and in all three places they had a church in their house. Furthermore, it was at their house that Paul stayed during his very first visit to Corinth, probably for more than a year and a half. There may be no greater tool for ministry than the Christian home. Because the home is a testing ground for the power of love and acceptance, it serves as a living demonstration of God’s love for those seeking to be part of God’s family.

By the way, as we consider these characteristics of spiritual maturity, it is worth noting that the entire household of Stephanas is recognized in 16:15. Parents, children learn love and service in the home, and they learn the lack of love and service there also. They learn hospitality as they see their parents practice it; they also learn to hold on to their stuff tightly as they watch parents who do that. As a parent, are you helping your children learn through observation and practice how to live out these characteristics?

Affection. Paul sees the custom of the holy kiss as a proper corrective to the cliquishness and bickering that characterized the church at Corinth. It could also serve as a remedy to the tremendous personal isolation that so many feel today. Why, then, has this custom of kissing one another on the cheek all but passed from the church? First, it faded because it was liable to abuse. Some people had trouble distinguishing holy kisses from other kinds. Second, it faded because the church became less and less of a fellowship. In the little house churches, where friend met with friend and all were closely bound together, it was the most natural thing in the world; but when the little fellowship turned into a vast congregation, and houses gave way to cathedrals, intimacy was lost and the holy kiss vanished with it. The kiss, of course, is not the important thing; a hug, or a warm two-handed handshake, or an arm around the shoulder can express the same feelings, and in some cultures might be more appropriate. The key is the love and intimacy that the gesture symbolizes. Who needs a hug or a holy kiss from you today? How will you communicate your love to others in the body of Christ? Love is the remedy for church ills.

[We have considered the exhortations and characteristics of spiritual maturity, but now Paul closes this passage and the entire book of 1 Corinthians with…]

  1. The Mark of Spiritual Maturity(16:21-24). Please notice that this third and final point is singular, not plural. In fact, in these four verses, Paul boils down everything that he has said in this passage and in this letter to a single word: LOVE. First, however, he provides a note in 16:21: “The greeting is in my own hand—Paul.” This verse indicates that this letter, like most of Paul’s letters, is written by a scribe. In our day, this is akin to an executive that dictates a letter to a secretary but signs it and adds a brief note at the bottom. The point is this: Paul picks up the quill and signs off this letter with a personal touch.

In 16:22, Paul’s personal touch is a verse with a curse: “If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed. Maranatha.” This verse is rather sobering! The word “accursed” means “devoted to destruction.” The question is: does Paul have in mind temporal or eternal destruction? Most scholars argue for the latter; however, there is no contextual reason to assume that Paul is now all of a sudden discussing unbelievers or false teachers. Rather, it seems that he is still addressing believers. True to form, some of the Corinthians do not love the Lord. Lack of love for the Lord refers to factiousness, self-seeking, strife, and carnality that practically denies one’s love for Christ. In this context it means lack of obedience to Him in such things as exalting human wisdom over the wisdom of the cross, tolerating incest, attending idol feasts, dividing over spiritual gifts, and abusing the Lord’s Supper. Those that fail to love the Lord and other believers will face God’s curse. This probably is exclusion from fellowship in the local church. The opposite of this is “Maranatha,” an Aramaic word that means, “Our Lord, come.” This is similar to John’s final words in Rev 22:20: “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Paul now prepares to close the book of 1 Corinthians. “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.” Paul concludes this strong but loving epistle with a prayerful benediction of God’s grace. This is the very same way that he began his letter: “Grace to you” (1:3). What a wonderful reminder that people need the grace of God, for without it they are hopeless. The most loving act that we can perform is to show people God’s grace. First, we must share God’s grace in salvation. This means informing people that God’s love is not based on our own merit but on Jesus Christ’s merit. We receive salvation the same way that we would receive a Christmas gift. We simply open up our hands, receive it, and then express gratitude. We must also be messengers and dispensers of grace to those who are believers. This means not only do we proclaim God’s grace in salvation, but we exemplify God’s grace in being gracious.

Paul’s parting words are found in 16:24, “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen” The last sentence of the letter, written in Paul’s own hand, reaffirms his love for all the Corinthians—despite their failings, despite their arrogance. Although Paul knew some pretty ornery people in the Corinthian church, and some of them made his life difficult, he sends his love to all of them.

Paul wrote thirteen letters, yet this is the only one that he ends with an affirmation of his love for his readers. It’s amazing when you think of the church to which he expressed it. This was the church that resisted him the most, that was the most fractured in its love life. But he says, “I love you,” not just in himself but because of the relationship with Christ that has transformed his life. Out of that he can express his love for the church, because he knows that’s the only kind of love that lasts, the only kind of love that makes a difference, the only kind of love that’s tough enough to survive in the face of the personal rejection and insult he has experienced from this church.

Who do you need to express love to today? Who do you need to forgive? Who do you need to come alongside of? Who do you need to serve or to reach out to? Our church will advance when we show love for one another. As Jesus said, “All men will know that we are His disciples by the love that we have for one another” (John 13:34-35, paraphrase).

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Giving and going

One of the most familiar plays in basketball is called “give-and-go.” The “give-and-go” is a basic offensive play in which a player simply “gives” the ball to a teammate and “goes” to the basket. The goal is to break free of one’s defender, receive a return pass from a teammate, and score a basket. The great thing about the “give-and-go” is that anyone can run it, regardless of size, strength, or experience.

The “give-and-go” is not only a great basketball play, it is also an excellent play for the church to run. If we are to score for the kingdom of God, we must master a critical “give-and-go” play. Coach Paul is going to the chalkboard to design a “give-and-go” play for the Corinthians to utilize. I would like us to imagine that we are in a locker room while Coach Paul draws up this play. As we listen to his words, may we prepare to execute the “give-and-go” play that he has designed to score points for God’s kingdom? In 1 Cor 16:1-12, Paul will challenge us to “give-and-go till glory.”

 

  1. Give to the Lord’s Work(16:1-4). In these first four verses, Paul shares his practical philosophy of giving to the church. He writes, “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come. When I arrive, whomever you may approve, I will send them with letters to carry your gift to Jerusalem; and if it is fitting for me to go also, they will go with me.” In these four verses, Paul provides six guidelines as to how we should give. But before I share with you these biblical guidelines, you must accept the Bible’s premise: you and I don’t own anything! Our home, cars, possessions, and money all belong to the Lord. We are merely stewards of the resources that God has entrusted to us. If you accept this premise, you will not have any problem with anything that I will say. If you do not, this could be a very long message.

 

Guideline #1: Biblical giving is not optional but mandatory (16:1). The word translated “directed” is a strong word that is frequently translated “command” or “order.” Paul is speaking with apostolic authority and calling for the church in Corinth to do what he has already directed the Galatian churches to do. Generous financial giving is one of the key characteristics of a mature Christian. This ties in rather nicely with the previous verse (15:58), where Paul commands the Corinthians to be “always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” It’s like he’s saying, “Speaking of giving yourselves fully, let’s talk about financial giving…”

 

Guideline #2: Biblical giving starts with meeting the basic needs of believers (16:1, 3). Typically, when a pastor preaches a message on money, it’s in order to generate pledges for the annual budget, buy land, or build a new building. This is to be expected. Such matters concern most congregations at some point in their church history. But that is not where biblical giving begins. It begins with a heart that cares about the basic needs of other Christians for food, shelter, and clothing. That’s what the collection here in 1 Corinthians 16 is all about—sending a gift to Jerusalem so the believers there can survive (16:3). Their financial plight was due to famine, persecution, and economic sanctions against them, making it difficult for new converts to hold anything but the most menial jobs.

 

The above guideline indicates that we who are wealthy (every American, from a world perspective) have an obligation to help the poverty-stricken believers in the inner city as well as the persecuted church in foreign lands. Such support should never be treated as optional. Instead, the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ should be an essential part of our financial giving. When you think about giving to others, think about all God has given you. This ought to compel you to give generously to those who are less fortunate. May you “give-and-go till glory.”

 

Guideline #3: Biblical giving is the believer’s #1 financial priority (16:2). Notice that giving is to be done “on the first day of every week.” This implies that people got paid once a week in the first century, and that’s why they are encouraged to give once a week. If you get paid twice a month I’m sure God will accept your giving twice a month. The important point is that you give on a regular basis.

Tragically, many Christians don’t give at all, and often those who do give do so sporadically. They might give two months in a row, skip three months, give one, and skip two more. Some people don’t give when they are on vacation, sick at home, or snowed in. Some don’t give if they miss the offering plate. Imagine standing before the Lord and explaining why you disobeyed His command to give: “Lord, I could never find a pen before the plate got there.” That’s crazy! We don’t think that way about anything else. If my house payment comes due while I’m on vacation, I don’t say, “Well, that’s no big deal, my mortgage company will understand. I’ll pay my mortgage next month.” No way! Those of us who are wise pay our house note before we go on our vacation. If we are that serious about our house, should we not be equally serious about the God of the universe?

 

Today, you may need to reevaluate your financial giving. God’s Word is clear from cover-to-cover, we are to give to the Lord first, not last. This implies that giving to the Lord’s work should take place before other obligations are met. Every once in a while I hear someone say, “Well, I had to take a pass on giving for a couple of months because we had some unexpected medical expenses, house expenses, etc.” I don’t think Paul would buy that. If we would give the first part of our paycheck, then maybe we wouldn’t get into those tight spots in the first place. That’s the point of the Old Testament prophet, Haggai, who told the poverty-stricken Israelites that God was putting holes in their pockets because their financial priorities were amiss. Giving should come before bill paying, before pursuing hobbies, before eating out, even before repaying debt. Does giving have this priority in your life? If so, I can assure you that God will meet all of your financial needs.

 

Guideline #4: Biblical giving is every believer’s responsibility (16:2). Still in 16:2, we read “each one of you is to put aside and save…” Notice that Paul doesn’t excuse the poor, the slaves, the pastors, or the large family with three kids in college. Giving is every believer’s privilege and responsibility. We are all to be involved in giving regularly, whether we have a lot of money or we’re impoverished, whether we’re children or the most senior adult.

 

I believe that we must help our children learn when they are very small how to give back a portion of what they have to the Lord. We gave our kids an allowance to teach them to tithe, not to just give them money. Our children give at least 10% of the money that they earn. Karen and I committed to this at the beginning of our marriage and we have never thought about giving less than 10%. Furthermore, it is important to communicate the importance of giving to your family. We want our children to understand where our money is going. We also want their input because we value them and want them to have ownership in the giving process. As parents, we bear a huge responsibility in raising our children in the Lord. Since Jesus talked about money more than any other subject, how can we fail to instruct our kids in giving to the Lord? If they learn to give, they will be blessed in every sphere of their lives. More importantly, they will please the heart of God.

Unfortunately, many of us have erroneously assumed that if we don’t have a lot of money or are in debt, we don’t have to give. Nothing could be further from the truth! The greatest examples in Scripture of sacrificial giving come from those who are in the midst of poverty and persecution. God wants and expects us to give in spite of our circumstances or lack of wealth. A while back, a student approached me and said, “I am in a truckload of debt. Should I give to the Lord even though I am in debt?” “Absolutely,” I responded. “The quickest way to get out of debt is by giving to the Lord, not by holding back what is rightfully His.” I then explained to this young man that the Lord will honor even a meager attempt to prioritize giving.

A man once said, “I don’t believe in giving. I can be a good Christian without giving. After all, the dying thief never gave anything.” To which his friend replied, “Well, there is one difference between you and the dying thief: he was a dying thief; you are a living one.” Are you a living thief? If so, don’t continue to rob God. Begin giving to the Lord’s work today. Don’t delay; give today.

Guideline #5: Biblical giving should be proportionate (16:2). Paul says that a believer’s giving should be “as he may prosper” or “in keeping with his income” (NIV). In other words, the more we are blessed, the more we should give. There are two ways one can approach this matter. If you are giving a set percentage of your income, let’s say 10%, as your income rises your giving will automatically rise proportionately. But a more generous approach to proportionate giving is to increase the percentage of your giving as your income increases. In the case of a substantial raise, you will still be left with more than you had before the promotion. The issue is: where does your heart lie?

 

“What do you think of the tithe?” Since I know that there are questions on this subject, let me attempt to answer this debated question. The New Testament does not advocate flat 10% giving. The tithe was an income tax system in the Old Testament. There were three tithes—two tithes per year for two years and on the third year an additional tithe of 10%, making it 30% for that year. The tithes for the third year were for the poor. Tithes are always in the plural, not the singular. In addition to this you are to give “offerings.” Israelites gave both tithes and offerings. All this was done for the national entity of Israel. A national entity needs an income tax system, so that was the purpose of the tithe. The New Testament does not command tithes for the church. The idea for the church is an offering of proportional giving or as God has blessed the believer financially. There is no percentage in this system of giving.

 

With that said, my personal conviction is that 10% of one’s income is a good place to start for most people. Yet, I acknowledge that some people may need to build up gradually before taking a step of faith. That’s fine. Giving is ultimately a matter between the individual believer and God. However, I believe the tithe is one of the greatest misnomers in Christianity today. Many well-meaning Christians assume that if they are giving 10%, they are doing great. I would suggest that the vast majority of American Christians can and should give far more than 10% of their income to the Lord. Sadly though, many Christians are more concerned with their standard of living than their standard of giving. For many of us, prosperity has become a greater test of character than poverty. So the issue is: how has God prospered you? To what degree do you want to express your gratitude to Him for all that He has given you?

One Sunday afternoon, a family was driving home from church. The father was complaining, “That church service was awful. The sermon was too long, the music was too loud, and the building was too hot.” His son in the back seat replied, “I don’t know, Dad, I thought it was a pretty good show for a buck.” This illustration would be far funnier if it wasn’t so true. Often, those who give the least complain the most. There are at least two reasons for this: (1) God will not let stingy Christians experience joy and contentment. (2) Those Christians who give sense great ownership and personal responsibility for the church and their own lives.

Guideline #6: Biblical giving should not be motivated by pressure (16:2). Looking again at 16:2 we see that the apostle is asking that the collection be made each week so that there doesn’t have to be a fund drive when he arrives. He is in Ephesus as he writes this letter, and he has plans to come to visit Corinth in the future. He knows that his credibility and charisma is such that he could generate a huge offering with his personal presence. But he doesn’t want them to give under that kind of pressure. He says in effect, “Do what you’re going to do before I arrive.” Pressure, of course, works. Countless churches and ministries have funded vast building projects through high-pressure fund-raising efforts. But everything that works isn’t necessarily right.

 

In addition to the above six guidelines, there is a concluding principle that has more to do with how offerings are handled than with how they are given.

Biblical givers have a right to expect integrity and accountability from those they give to (16:3-4). Verses 3-4 explain that it is the responsibility of every congregation to entrust its funds into the hands of trustworthy members. Paul doesn’t say, “Give your money to me and I will handle it for you.” Instead he urges the church to choose their own representatives to disburse the gifts.

In light of all that we have considered, I challenge you to either continue or begin giving generously and cheerfully. Not only does gracious giving please the Lord, but there are also legitimate personal blessings as well.

[We have seen that we are called to give to the Lord’s work. Now we will be exhorted to…]

  1. Go to the Lord’s People(16:5-12). In this section, Paul shares his own travel log and that of two of his coworkers. These verses explain how Paul and his ministry partners were willing to go to minister to believers and unbelievers alike. Paul writes, “But I will come to you after I go through Macedonia, for I am going through Macedonia; and perhaps I will stay with you, or even spend the winter, so that you may send me on my way wherever I may go. For I do not wish to see you now just in passing; for I hope to remain with you for some time, if the Lord permits. But I will remain in Ephesus until Pentecost; for a wide door for effective service has opened to me, and there are many adversaries. Now if Timothy comes, see that he is with you without cause to be afraid, for he is doing the Lord’s work, as I also am. So let no one despise him. But send him on his way in peace, so that he may come to me; for I expect him with the brethren. But concerning Apollos our brother, I encouraged him greatly to come to you with the brethren; and it was not at all his desire to come now, but he will come when he has opportunity.” There are at least five observations worth making from these eight verses. First, Paul had plans and goals to share the gospel with unbelievers and build up the church (16:5-9). Even before Day Timers, Palm Pilots, and Blackberries, Paul had a schedule mapped out. He didn’t just trust God and sit on his hands. He took initiative and moved forward with holy ambition. Do you have a plan to share Christ and build up His body? If not, why not? Today, make a holy resolution and write down the names of three unbelievers and three believers. Then develop a game plan to share Christ with these individuals.

 

Second, Paul submitted his plans and goals to Christ. Words and phrases like “perhaps,” “wherever I may go,” and “I hope to remain with you for some time, if the Lord permits” reveal Paul’s sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. Although he had plans and goals that he wanted to accomplish, he was always striving to make sure that he was doing what God wanted him to do. Are you willing to relocate and change jobs if God calls you to? Would you be willing to take on a new ministry? God longs for willing hearts.

Third, God eventually opens a door of ministry for faithful believers. Admittedly, sometimes it takes many years but God has a way of blessing our meager efforts. In 16:9, Paul writes “for a wide door for effective service has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.” This “open door” in Ephesus brought great evangelistic fruit. However, with the fruit there were many adversaries. This is to be expected. Where there is light there are bugs. When God pours out His blessing, Satan sends adversaries to destroy God’s work. If you are a pastor, elder, deacon, or ministry leader, you must learn to expect opposition. It is important then to recognize “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:13).

Fourth, Paul values ministry partners. In this section, he spends three verses talking about Timothy and Apollos (16:10-12). In the passage that follows he will mention five more valuable coworkers. The point is: Paul recognized how important other ministry leaders were to his ministry and to God’s kingdom.

God uses teammates (brothers and sisters) to help us to accomplish His purposes for our lives. More importantly, He uses the purposes He works in us to accomplish His kingdom agenda in the world. Have you expressed gratitude to God for all that He has accomplished in your life? Have you said “thank you” to your Christian teammates?

 

God wants us to work on the “give-and-go” play He has designed for us. Today, will you commit yourself to fulfilling God’s plans for your life? Will you submit yourself to Him in the areas of giving and going? Will you seek to ensure that your life will make an eternal impact?


 

Live with the future in view

Do you like Star Trek? Are you a “Trekkie?” If so, you have probably seen Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. You may recall a conversation between Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) and an aspiring young Starship commander facing a difficult and dangerous test. Kirk uttered these powerful words: “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.” Although no one would accuse Admiral Kirk of being a great theologian, he nailed it on this point! How we deal with the reality of our inevitable death radically affects how we deal with our lives in the present. We could say, “Live in the present with the future in view.”

In 1 Cor 15:50-58, Paul concludes his glorious resurrection chapter. These closing verses are a climactic song of victory, a kind of symphony. (A number of composers down through the ages have set this text to music. Brahms’ Requiem and Handel’s Messiah quote from it.) It’s a symphony in three movements. The first movement celebrates the future transformation of our bodies while the second movement celebrates the future termination of sin. The final movement celebrates the future compensation of our work.

  1. Celebrate the future transformation of your body(15:50-53). In these first four verses, Paul explains that an earth suit, a natural human body consisting of flesh and blood as we know it, is unsuitable for heaven. Hence, those believers still alive when Jesus returns at the rapture will receive their new bodies by transformation rather than by resurrection. Paul introduces this section in 15:50 like this: “Now I say this, brethren [believers], that flesh and blood [one’s physical nature] cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” Paul makes it clear that you and I can’t go to heaven just as we are today. No matter how healthy, strong, and beautiful we may be, we are unfit for heaven. You can’t have a decaying body in a permanent home. You have undoubtedly seen a restaurant sign in the front window that reads something like this: “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” This means that one’s appearance and attire has to meet certain standards, or he or she is not welcome. That is the way heaven is. Heaven is a place where there is no pain, no sorrow, no sickness, or death. These perishable bodies that we possess here on earth are not suited for heaven. The death and burial of our earthly bodies is not an unfortunate circumstance; it is a necessity. In order to go to heaven, we must receive “imperishable” or “ageless” bodies. They must be changed into a glorified state so that we can live in God’s presence before His perfection, holiness, and beauty.

Paul has explained that our earth suits are unsuitable for heaven. That’s the problem! What’s the solution?

In 15:51, Paul grabs the reader’s attention with the word “behold.” It is a dramatic word, for it is like pulling a curtain aside to reveal a new truth. In our contemporary vernacular, we could translate this Greek word “look” or “listen.” Paul continues “…I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed.” This verse “we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed” is often posted as a motto in church nurseries; however, I do not think that Paul has in mind diapers. On the contrary, he has physical bodies in mind. Paul speaks of a “mystery,” however, he does not have in mind a Sherlock Holmes tale. Rather, in the Bible the term “mystery” refers to a truth not revealed until it was disclosed by the apostles. The Old Testament predicted the bodily resurrection and the second coming of the Messiah, so Paul is not referring to either of these events. The “mystery” is what is called the rapture of the church. The rapture is a newly revealed truth. Paul informs us that there will be a generation of Christians that will inherit their glorified bodies without having to “sleep” or die. This is the great hope of the Christian. That all Christians will not die was a new revelation. Whether we as believers die and are resurrected, or whether we are caught up to meet the Lord without dying, we shall all be changed!

 

It was Benjamin Franklin who famously said, “There are two certainties in life—taxes and death.” While taxes are certain, death is not certain for the believer. The last chapter in life for the believer is not the cemetery, the casket, or the grave. No, the last chapter is transformation.

 

A little boy asked his mother what death was like. She said to him, “Do you remember when you fell asleep in the living room? Your father picked you up in his big strong arms and took you to your bedroom. When you woke up, you found yourself in another room. Death for the Christian is like that. You go to sleep in one room and wake up in another.” Thus we do not need to ever fear death, whether we sleep or take part in the rapture. We can have supreme confidence that we will be with Christ.

Paul continues his description of the rapture in 15:52a and explains that the transformation of our bodies will take place “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye at the last trumpet.” This transformation will not be a gradual process but instantaneous. The word translated “moment” is the Greek word atomos, from which we get our English word “atom.” The Greeks believed the atom was the smallest particle of nature, completely indivisible. The “twinkling of an eye” is at least as fast as a blink. It takes only a fraction of a second. So Paul is saying that this change will occur in an indivisible moment of time, as fast as an eye can twinkle, in an atomic second. It will not be an evolutionary process and it will not occur by gradual osmosis. In other words, what happened to The Incredible Hulk on TV is not the pattern for the transformation of raptured saints.

 

The reason that the rapture will take place so quickly is given in 15:52b-53: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable [eternal], and we will be changed. For this perishable [temporal] must put on the imperishable [eternal], and this mortal[temporal] must put on immortality [eternal].” Some (i.e., posttribulationists) equate this “last trumpet” with the seventh or last trumpet of Rev 11:15-18. This does not seem valid. Other trumpets will sound announcing various other events in the future. However, believers living in the church age will not be on the earth, and those trumpets will not affect us. The fact that Paul included himself in the group (“we”) living at the time of the rapture shows he believed the event could take place in his lifetime. If he had believed the tribulation precedes the rapture, it would have been natural for him to mention that here. In these verses, Paul insists that one day we will be given new bodies that will be indestructible. These bodies will never fail us. They will be immortal and fit for the eternal state. In light of this reality, Paul calls us to live in the present with the future in view. One great way of doing this is to expect Christ’s return in your lifetime, but plan as if it is centuries away. This allows us to be expectant for Christ’s return, yet also accomplish His will for us while we still have time.

[Paul has challenged us to celebrate the future transformation of our body. Now he says…]

  1. Celebrate the future termination of sin(15:54-57). The resurrection of dead believers and the transformation of living believers signal the death of death. In 15:54-57, Paul writes, “But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, ‘DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP[Isa 25:8] in victory. ‘O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING [Hos 13:14]?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law, but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” These verses emphasize a sting operation. I don’t know about you, but I love a good “sting.” You may recall the movie The Sting where Robert Redford and Paul Newman conned a con man. Everyone likes to see justice served.

 

The great New England preacher of the 19th century, Henry Ward Beecher, once pulled off a pretty slick sting in the pulpit. He entered Plymouth Church one Sunday and found several letters awaiting him. He opened one and found that it contained a single word in large letters, “FOOL.” In the worship service that morning, quietly and with great dignity, he announced the incident to his congregation with these words: “I have known many an instance of a man writing a letter and forgetting to sign his name, but this is the only instance I have ever known of a man signing his name and forgetting to write the letter.” That was a burn—a royal sting!

 

But the greatest sting in all of history, and I say it reverently, is one pulled off by Jesus Christ. When Jesus died on Calvary’s cross, I’m sure Satan felt he had finally whipped his mortal enemy. All the opposition he had stirred up from the attempt of King Herod to kill Jesus as an infant, to the hatred of the Sadducees and Pharisees, to the kangaroo court He endured in Jerusalem culminated in Jesus’ execution on the cross. Satan had finally won, or so he thought. But in fact, in that very event, His crucifixion, Jesus purchased our salvation, redeeming us from sin and the Law. By His resurrection on the third day, He demonstrated His own power over death. And at His second coming, when He resurrects the dead and transforms the living, His victory will be complete. That will be the ultimate sting in all of human history. Jesus will STING the STINGER. He will REAP the GRIM REAPER. He will turn the tables on death by causing death itself to die.

 

A boy and his father were out for a ride when a queen bee flew in the car window. The little boy, who was allergic to bee stings, was petrified. The father quickly reached out, grabbed the bee, squeezed it in his hand, and then released it. The boy grew frantic as it buzzed by him. Once again the father reached out his hand, but this time he pointed to his palm. There stuck in his skin was the stinger of the bee. “Do you see this?” he asked. “You don’t need to be afraid anymore. I’ve taken the sting for you.” In a similar way, we all suffer under the curse of sin like the little boy from the first sting and the next sting from death would mean our ultimate demise. But we have a Savior that came to our rescue and took the sting for us and we no longer have to fear death. Though death may buzz over us and land on us it can do no harm and one day death itself will die. As Peter Joshua said, “When death stung Jesus Christ, it stung itself to death.”

 

We must always remember that only on this side of the curtain is death our enemy. Just beyond the curtain the monster turns out to be our friend. The label “Death” is still on the bottle, but the contents are “Life Eternal.” Death is our friend because it reminds us that heaven is near. How near? As near as a heartbeat; as near as an auto accident; as near as a stray bullet; as near as a plane crash. If our eyes could see the spirit world, we might find that we are already at its gates. Death is not the end of the road; it is only a bend in the road. The road winds only through the pass through which Christ Himself has gone. This Travel Agent does not expect us to discover the trail for ourselves. Often we say that Christ will meet us on the other side. That is true, of course, but misleading. Let us never forget that He walks with us on this side of the curtain and then guides us through the opening. We will meet Him there, because we have met Him here.

 

This reality ought to cause us to break out in thanksgiving, as Paul does in 15:57. Again, Paul exclaims, “but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The verb “gives” is in the present tense. Literally, God keeps on giving us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. What that means is that every morning when we wake up, it’s Easter morning. It means that we can continually lay hold of the resources of Christ. We can go to Him for forgiveness when we fail. We can trust Him to meet our needs. He is available to us as our risen Lord. He is not a long-gone historical figure who died and then was purported to have been raised from the dead. We celebrate a risen, living, victorious Lord! We have the “victory” through our Lord Jesus Christ! Robert Louis Stevenson once said“The person who has stopped being thankful has fallen asleep in life.” May you and I be filled with gratitude today for all that the Lord Jesus has accomplished for us. Live in the present with the future in view.

[What an appropriate place to end this beautiful resurrection chapter, and indeed, the entire theological portion of this epistle! But Paul is not quite through. He’s never through when he has only provided the doctrinal facts, even such profound and far-reaching facts as these we have seen today. He is never satisfied until he has written, “THEREFORE.” Paul is intent on telling us how these truths relate to our daily lives. And so we come finally to…]

 

  1. Celebrate the future compensation of your work(15:58). Paul concludes his discussion of the resurrection with an exhortation to be faithful in the present. In 15:58, he answers the concerns expressed in 15:1-2 with these motivating words: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” The word “therefore” wraps up this entire passage. The phrase “my beloved brethren” demonstrates Paul’s love for the Corinthians, despite the deficiencies in their theology and their behavior. This ought to compel us to love one another despite our theological differences. Paul was dealing with Christians that were waffling on their own bodily resurrection. This is a fairly significant doctrine, to say the least. Yet, despite their erroneous theology Paul continued to love his people. My prayer is that the Lord continues to give me this type of love for you and vice versa. Together, we are “beloved brethren!” Even when we are misled in our theology, if we have believed in Christ for salvation we will spend eternity together.

 

After affirming his readers, Paul launches into one command (“be steadfast, immovable”) with two participles (“abounding” and “knowing”) used as imperatives. This grammar leads to a simple three point conclusion: what we should be, what we should do, and what we should know.

 

  1. What we should be. Paul commands us to “be steadfast, immovable.” Like the Corinthians we are prone to be impatient, easily discouraged, and lazy. We let the circumstances of life blow us out of the water. We allow financial setbacks or job problems to depress us. Yet, Paul says, “Get a grip on the resurrection and on God’s final plan for believers, and you will not be so readily shaken.” We will be firmly rooted in what we know to be true about life and death because we have confidence in the resurrection. It gives solid footing. We won’t be swayed by every idea that comes along about this life and the afterlife. We can stand firm. We know who we are, why we’re here on earth, and where we’re headed in the future.

 

  1. What we should do. Paul urges us to be “always abounding in the work of the Lord.” The verb “abounding” pictures something flowing over the edges on all sides. No one gets to the Olympics, much less walks away with a medal, who did not give himself or herself fully to their sport. The commitment of those athletes is phenomenal. They give up privileges, educational goals, relationships, sleep, favorite foods, anything, because of the goal that is before them of securing a place on the victor’s stand. So also no one will hear Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” if he does not give himself fully to the work of the Lord.

 

  1. My own heart is blessed when I see individuals in this church giving themselves fully to the work of the Lord. I’m not talking about our pastors; they get paid for being good; I’m talking about people who are good for nothing. Such members serve God out of the love and gratitude of their hearts. I’m literally amazed sometimes when I see men and women who work fifty plus hours a week then devoting hours to working in Kids Blast, kid’s choir, or teaching a children’s small group class. I’m likewise amazed when I see a mother with three or four children keeping house, serving as a taxi driver, holding down a part-time job, and then, on top of all that, volunteering in Women’s Ministries, prayer ministry or serving in other areas. That’s something of what it means to be “always abounding in the work of the Lord.”
  2. What we should know. Someone once said, “I’m learning more and more about less and less. Now I know everything about nothing.” Paul urges us to “know[ing] that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.”The word “toil” used here means “working to the point of exhaustion.” One summer, I worked as an apprentice to a handyman. It was back-breaking work. And the exhaustion actually felt good. I learned a lot that summer and it has not been in vain the rest of my life!

 

  1. That’s the way it is when you’ve exhausted yourself in meaningful work for Christ. Have you ever been worn out because of your work for the Lord? I’m afraid many Christians would have to say they have never been. And too many look forward to retirement as an opportunity to do even less, though in reality it’s a fantastic time to do more ministry than ever before. Reasonable rest is important and necessary, but if we err Paul is saying it should be on the side of doing more work for the Lord, not less.

Have you ever heard of Epaphroditus? Paul mentions him in Philippians 2, calling him a “dear brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier,” but a few verses later Paul adds that he “almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life” (Phil 2:25, 30). Epaphroditus is not the patron saint of many in the church today. Many more voices are calling out, “Pace yourself, take care of your family, abandon the rat race, smell the flowers.” You know, there’s nothing wrong with any of that advice, and every one of us needs balance in our lives, but time has a way of getting away from us and we may one day end up wondering, “What difference did I make?” Of all the work a person can throw himself into, work for the Lord is the one kind that we are assured is not in vain, because the resurrection and the transformation lie ahead for all believers.

 

Because of the certainty of the resurrection, we’re confident that our lives will count. The hope of the resurrection keeps us from despair and feeling useless. We know that the things we invest our time, energy, and resources in, if they’re done for the Lord’s glory, will accomplish something. Nothing will be wasted. That is tremendously motivating.

 

Let me challenge you with this truth: you cannot grow spiritually unless you are serving the Lord and others. It is absolutely impossible. You might say to me, “I attend church, I am reading my Bible, I am praying.” That is all wonderful! But that does not suggest that you are growing spiritually. Spiritual growth takes place when the Bible changes us and we begin to bless others. The Bible teaches that servanthood makes a man or woman more like Jesus. Additionally, the Bible promises us great eternal reward for serving Christ in this life. It has been said, “The highest reward for man’s toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it.”

What will we look like in Heaven?

What gives a widow courage as she stands beside a fresh grave? Why would anyone who is disabled be encouraged when they think of life after death? How can we see past the martyrdom of believers in the persecuted church? Where do the thoughts of young couples go when they lose their baby? What is God’s final answer to pain and suffering in this world?

The answer to each of these questions is the same: the hope of bodily resurrection. We draw strength from this truth almost every day of our lives…more than we realize. It becomes the mental glue that holds our otherwise shattered thoughts together. Impossible though it may be for us to understand the details of how God is going to pull it off, we hang our hopes on the fragile threadlike thought, “Someday, He will make it right, and thank God, all this will change.”

Yet, for many Christians death is disturbing. Maybe you share the sentiments of Woody Allen who states, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Like Allen, if we are honest we would have to acknowledge that death is difficult, at best. However, in 1 Cor 15:35-49, Paul declares, “When we die we have truly begun to live.” In these fifteen verses, we will learn two resurrection realities that will prepare us for our eternal existence.

  1. The bodily resurrection is familiar and unique(15:35-41). Throughout chapter 15 Paul argued strongly for the resurrection of the body, but he knows his teaching will spur two questions: how will God resurrect our bodies and what does a resurrection body look like? He now turns to answer these questions posed in 15:35 by a hypothetical objector: “But someone will say, ‘How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?’” I’m sure you have wondered, as I have, how God will resurrect people out of the dirt. I still haven’t figured out how God will put all those molecules back together again. For example, if someone died at sea and sailors buried him, a fish might eat his body. The atoms and molecules of his body would become part of the fish. If a fisherman caught and ate the fish, its body would become part of the fisherman’s body. If the fisherman died and an undertaker buried him in the ground and someone eventually sowed wheat over his grave, the fisherman’s atoms and molecules would go into the wheat. A third person would eat the wheat and so on. How could the first person’s body ever come together again?

 

The quick response to this dilemma is if God is God, He can easily resurrect the humans He created. If someone can explain to me how God constructed man out of dust in the first place, I will tell you how He will reconstruct us out of it. To put together someone who has disintegrated might be a problem for us, but not for God. Since God created Adam from dirt, He won’t have a problem reassembling the dead from it. The resurrection of our bodies does not depend upon us understanding how God will do it. When we grasp the fact that nothing is impossible with God, resurrection becomes simple. Absolutely nothing, including raising the dead, is too difficult for God (Jer 32:17). God created the universe out of nothing, so resurrecting people out of dust is minor-league for Him (Heb 11:3).

Of course, not everyone will accept this biblical argument. Paul anticipated the objection of someone arguing against the idea of a bodily resurrection. In 15:36, he calls such a person a “fool.” The Bible defines a “fool” as someone who fails to take God into account. Such a person excludes God from consideration.

 

Remember, if God is God bodily resurrection is absolutely no problem! Paul would definitely argue, when we die we have truly begun to live. In his retort, Paul uses an analogy from nature to get his point across. He writes in 15:36-38:“You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies; and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body just as He wished, and to each of the seeds a body of its own.”

 

Paul calls this hypothetical person a “fool” for not recognizing a simple fact of nature that can be observed every day. Basically, Paul is saying, “Somebody bring this guy some wheat seeds and remind him how wheat kernels grow and produce grain. They have to be planted in the ground and die in order for the new life of the grain to grow.” Honestly, choose almost any fruit, vegetable, or grain and you can see the body that grows out of the ground is very different from the “body” that was planted. Compare a pumpkin seed with a pumpkin or an orange seed with an orange. Paul is not talking about the appearance of our resurrection bodies in terms of whether we will be recognizable. His point is the body that is planted in death is not the same body that is resurrected. When a seed is buried in the ground, a plant, not another seed, comes out of the seed. The plant does not look like the seed it came from. Likewise, when we are buried in the ground and resurrected, our bodies will not look identical to the ones we have now.

 

In 15:39-41, Paul expands his argument by describing the unique nature of various “bodies.” He answers the question: how are the earthly sphere and heavenly sphere bridged? In 15:39, he writes, “All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one flesh of men, and another flesh of beasts, and another flesh of birds, and another of fish.” These four different types of “flesh” also appear in the created order in Genesis but in the reverse of how they appear in here: “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth” (Gen. 1:20); “let the land produce living creatures … livestock … and wild animals” (1:24); and “let us make man in our image” (1:26). Such a view is derived from Paul’s view of the Old Testament. In this context, the “flesh” of men is made for walking, that of birds for flying, and that of fish for swimming. God designs bodies to fit the environment they will live in. Our resurrection bodies will be perfect for the environment of heaven. Earthly bodies equip us to live on earth. We breathe the earth’s oxygen, drink its water, and eat its fruit. However, these earthly bodies aren’t suitable for heaven. To get us ready for the next world they must undergo a change. When we die we have truly begun to live.

 

Paul continues his argument in 15:40-41 by stating, “There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.” Earthly bodies will pale in comparison to heavenly bodies. Heavenly bodies are glorious! There is a huge difference in brightness between a twenty-five watt light bulb and a 1000-watt light bulb. In the resurrection, our “lumens” of brightness will be turned up to the fullest. Our resurrection bodies will literally shine with brightness (Dan 12:3; Matt 13:43). This passage could mean that there will be differing degrees of brightness in our glorified bodies. Or perhaps it refers to the difference in glory between our natural and resurrection bodies. I opt for an allusion to the former. In light of the emphasis throughout 1 Corinthians on eternal rewards, it seems that Paul is alluding to differences in the eternal state. One thing is certain: every resurrection body will be without defect and will literally radiate brightness. Death for the Christian is not gloom but glory.

[Paul has just informed us that the bodily resurrection is familiar and unique. Now he will insist…]

  1. The bodily resurrection is new and improved(15:42-49). In these verses, Paul contrasts the two living bodies—the present body and the resurrection body. Your present body was created to last only a few years. Your resurrection body will equip you for a much higher level of existence. Paul contrasted the differences between them in 15:42-44: “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” At the resurrection, our bodies will be transformed from our current “caterpillar” form to our future “butterfly” status. The beauty of a butterfly is far superior to that of a caterpillar, but the butterfly has to go through the transformation process first. Four changes must take place to transform your body from earthly to heavenly.

 

Change #1: Perishable to Imperishable (15:42). Our present bodies are perishable, and they degenerate as we race toward the grave. Just like Adam we are headed back to dust. In the resurrection, however, we will be raised imperishable, never to deteriorate or die again. In heaven no one will comment on your age or notice the years are beginning to take their toll. You will look as young a billion years from now as you will a thousand years from now.

 

Sir Michael Faraday, one of England’s greatest chemists and physicists, reportedly heard a student scoff at the idea of the resurrection. Faraday threw a silver goblet into a jar of acid, which completely dissolved it. He then added other chemicals that caused the silver to settle to the bottom of the jar. The chemists then took the silver to a silversmith, who made it into a goblet more beautiful than the first. Then Faraday held up a goblet and told the student, “If I, an ordinary scientist, can dissolve and remake a silver goblet, why is it hard to believe that God can raise the body from the dead?”

God will transform your perishable body into one that is indestructible. Once you receive it, dying will be impossible. You will live in it throughout eternity. Truly, it can be said, although our body is perishing our spirit can be flourishing. When we die we have truly begun to live.

 

Change #2: Dishonor to Glory (15:43a). All of us come to a point in life when we look in the mirror and say, “Mirror, mirror on the wall—you’ve got to be kidding!” There is a sense in which our bodies are “dishonorable.” But God promises that we will be raised in glory. When a body is transported to a funeral home, it is always covered by a sheet to shield gaping eyes from the dishonor of looking upon the corpse. Every dead body is a reminder of our dishonor, a reminder that we are but frail.

 

I would like you to do something very carefully: look out of the corner of your eye at the person to the right of you. Don’t do it obviouslyJ. Are you aware that the person you are looking at is terminally ill? Now take a quick look at the person to the left of you. That person also is terminally ill. The reality is that the person sitting between the person to the right of you and the left of you is also terminally ill. Some of us who are younger will be gone before some of us who are older. That’s simply the way it is. Yet we live in denial.

Change #3: Weakness to Power (15:43b). Have you ever noticed everyone wants to live long, but no one wants to grow old? It is true. As my dad says, “Growing old is no fun.” If you want proof, just consider the five B’s of middle age: baldness, bifocals, bridges, bulges, and bunions. Nothing works right. Our bodies wear out, slow down, decay, sag, groan, and even begin to smell bad. We brag about our strength but a tiny microbe can kill us. Sooner or later, we grow old and our bodies begin to break down. Eventually, they stop working altogether. No amount of Vitamin C or Siberian Ginseng can change that fact. At best, we can only slow down the aging process; we cannot delay it forever.

 

If you are like me, you probably have one part of your body (or maybe several parts) that you would like to change. Maybe it’s your weight, your height, your hair, or something about your face. To make it worse, our culture bombards us daily with images of beautiful, well-built people. But in heaven, there will be no fad diets, no Weight Watchers, no aerobics, no exercise bikes, no personal trainers, no physical therapists, no stair masters, no weight rooms, no saunas, no jogging tracks, no low-fat foods, no diet drinks, and no plastic surgeons. God will give every one of His children a glorious, unique, diverse, perfect new body at the resurrection that will never fail or disappoint them.

 

Fortunately, our resurrection bodies will be extremely powerful. We will never grow weary or weak. Can you imagine not having to sleep throughout all eternity? Since there will be no need to nap, we will never again have to toss and turn on lumpy mattresses. Wives will not have to listen to their husband snoring anymore. No more insomnia, sleeping pills, or alarm clocks, either. Our way of life will be radically different than our lifestyles here on earth.

 

Change #4: Natural to Spiritual. When Paul states that our resurrection bodies will be spiritual, he does not mean like Casper the friendly ghost. This refers to the type of body we will have. When the disciples saw Jesus after He was resurrected, they thought they had seen a ghost. Jesus assured them, “A spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). Jesus did not become a spirit, but was raised with a spiritual body. In heaven we will not be “spirits,” but we will have spiritual bodies. After Jesus died and rose from the dead, He didn’t have two bodies, one natural and another spiritual. He had one body—a natural body that had been transformed into a virtual body. Jesus showed His disciples the marks of the nails in His hands and feet and the wounds in His side that proved it was the same body. That body had undergone a radical change. Similarly, when you are resurrected your body also will be changed and perfected.

 

If you watch infomercials or read magazines you will see astounding “Before-and-After” photographs. The question is: how did this happen? Obviously, exercise and diet are capable of transforming individuals. Yet, the same person exists in the revolutionized earth suit. Moreover, I like to believe that this indicates our resurrection bodies will be so wonderful and glorious that it will be exactly what we’ve always dreamed of in a body. It will never disappoint us.

In 15:45-49, Paul draws comparisons between Adam and Jesus. In this section, he argues that there is a difference between earthy and spiritual bodies. Verse 45 begins like this: “So also it is written, ‘The first MAN, Adam, BECAME A LIVING SOUL.’ The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” The first Adam was merely “a living human being.” By emphatic contrast, the last Adam is not merely “living,” but “life-giving.” Paul’s point is: Christ gives life through His resurrection. Have you believed this simple truth? If you have not believed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, please do so today.

 

Paul concludes this passage with these words: “However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spiritual. The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven. As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly.” I am so glad that Paul made these last four verses so simple. His argument is: the heavenly is greater than the earthy. But in order to experience the heavenly body, one must first live in the earthy body.

 

A woman was diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been given three months to live. As she was getting her things in order, she contacted her pastor and asked him to come to her house to discuss some of her final wishes. She told him which songs she wanted sung at her funeral service, what Scriptures she would like read, and what outfit she wanted to be buried in. She requested to be buried with her favorite Bible. As the pastor prepared to leave, the woman suddenly remembered something else. “There’s one more thing,” she said excitedly. “What’s that?” said the pastor. “This is important,” the woman said. “I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.” The pastor stood looking at the woman, not knowing quite what to say. The woman explained. “In all my years of attending church socials and potluck dinners, when the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, ‘Keep your fork. The best is yet to come.’ It was my favorite part of the meal because I knew something better was coming like velvety chocolate cake or deep-dish apple pie. So, when people see me in that casket with a fork in my hand and they ask, ‘What’s with the fork?’ I want you to tell them, ‘The best is yet to come!’”

 

This elderly woman got it right! The best is yet to come for when we die we have truly begun to live.

For Heaven’s sake

Have you ever noticed how we speak so casually of heaven? We express surprise by, “Oh my heavens!” or “What in heaven’s name!” or “Heavens to Betsy!” (I still don’t get that one. Who is this Betsy, and what’s she got to do with heaven?) When we are in a jam, we might cry out, “Heaven help us!” When we can’t solve a dilemma with our own wisdom we might say, “Heaven only knows!” We “thank heaven for 7-11!” We even have a flavor of ice cream called “Heavenly Hash” and a perfume named “Heaven-Sent” (which may have given rise to the expression “Stinks to high heaven!”). Admittedly, I am guilty of misusing the term myself on occasion. When I exchange e-mails with one of my preaching friends, I will occasionally encourage him with his preaching with the words, “Give ‘em heaven!”

But what if there is no heaven? Have you ever allowed yourself to think about this? When I was growing up, I used to think about this all the time. What if everything I believed was a fairy tale, or worse yet a malicious lie? I remember listening to John Lennon’s song “Imagine”: “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try/No hell below us/Above us only sky.” I remember thinking to myself: what if Lennon is right? Of course, whenever I would have these thoughts, it would quickly dawn on me that if there is no heaven and the resurrection is a sham, life is an exercise in futility.

That is Paul’s whole point in 1 Cor 15:12-34. If the bodily resurrection is only an empty dream and this life is all there is, Christians are to be pitied. Fortunately, Paul will argue this life is not all there is. We all know the contemporary beer commercial that goes: “You only go around once, so you’d better grab all the gusto you can get.” Once one denies the resurrection of the dead, this slogan seems entirely logical. But since Christ was raised from the dead, and since His kingdom culminates in the defeat of death, we actually “go around twice.” Yes, we go around twice! In this passage, Paul will provide three key results of Christ’s resurrection.

  1. Christ’s resurrection provides hope(15:12-19). In these eight verses, Paul claims that if we have no future we have no past or present as well. That is, we have no forgiveness of our sins in the past, and we have no advantage over unbelievers in the present. Paul begins with an important question that is essential to this entire chapter: “Now if [since] Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” This opening question explains why Paul spilled so much ink on the topic of the resurrection. He did so because the Corinthians argued that there was no future physical resurrection. They were denying that believers will experience resurrection. Paul’s logic is clear in this verse: since Christ has been raised, resurrection obviously is possible. In the course of this chapter Paul will insist that the resurrection is not merely possible, it is absolutely certain and essential to our faith. However, before Paul can drive home this point, he will concede the possibility that Christ has not risen.

In 15:13-19, Paul discloses seven disastrous consequences if there is no resurrection from the dead. First, if there is no resurrection Christ has not been raised from the dead. In 15:13 and 16, Paul writes, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised…For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised.” Paul is saying in essence, “For the sake of argument, let’s grant that there is no resurrection of the dead. Then logically, no one has or ever will rise from the dead, which means that not even Christ has been raised, because He was a human being like you and me.” As noted above, the erroneous Corinthians were not denying the resurrection of Christ per se, only the future resurrection of believers. But as Paul will soon point out, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t believe in the resurrection of Christ and deny the eventual resurrection of believers, for resurrection is a single package. We go around twice.

Second, if there is no resurrection our preaching is vain (15:14). In the late 1990s, there was an interesting fellow in Corvallis, OR, home of the Oregon State University Beavers. The distinguished religion professor at OSU is a man by the name of Marcus Borg. An outstanding teacher, Borg has received all of OSU’s major awards for teaching, including one from the legislature unfortunately, Dr. Borg does not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. In one of his books, he said this of Christ’s resurrection: “As a child, I took it for granted that Easter meant that Jesus literally rose from the dead. I now see Easter very differently. For me, it is irrelevant whether or not the tomb was empty. Whether Easter involves something remarkable happening to the physical body of Jesus is irrelevant.”

Despite his education and giftedness, Dr. Borg is in error. The gospel Paul preached at Corinth proclaimed Christ’s literal resurrection (15:3-5). Paul reminded the Corinthians that they had received this gospel, stood on this gospel, and were being saved by this gospel (15:1-2). Thus, as far as Paul is concerned, if there is no resurrection there is nothing worth preaching! This remains true today: eloquence, persuasion, humor, and passion are all wonderful, but if a sermon does not contain the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it cannot accurately be labeled preaching. Everything stands or falls on the truth of the assertion that God raised Christ from the dead.

Third, if there is no resurrection our faith is vain and worthless (15:14, 17). Regardless of how vibrant the outworking of faith, the core of Christian belief and life is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Christ did not rise from the dead faith is without foundation; it is empty and useless. The gospel is not good news but a hoax that has no real power to change lives or to do anything else except to deceive.

Fourth, if there is no resurrection we are false witnesses of God (15:15). Those who proclaim that Christ rose from the dead speak in God’s name what they know to be untrue. Christianity is not a system of philosophy or a moral code, but the declaration of what God has done in Christ. If the dead are not raised then the whole gospel is a sham and those who preach it are liars.

Fifth, if there is no resurrection we are still in our sins (15:17). In Rom 4:25, Paul asserts that Jesus was raised “for our justification.” In other words, if Jesus failed to rise from the dead we are still dead in our sins.

Sixth, if there is no resurrection those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished (15:18). If Christ has not been raised, then those who “fall asleep in Christ” are no different from unbelievers, who are consigned to ruin (1:18). And who wants to think of their relatives and loved ones who have trusted in Christ rotting?

Seventh, if there is no resurrection we are to be pitied more than all human beings (15:19).Some people will tell you that even if Christianity is not true, the Christian faith is still the best way to live. You have probably heard people say things like this: “Even if it turned out Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead and there was no such place as heaven, I would still have no regrets about living the Christian life.” You might have said that yourself at some point. Yet, the apostle Paul absolutely disagrees with that position. He says in 15:19, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” If Christ has not risen, you folks are the most miserable people in the world.

When the drug companies develop a new product, they run tests with two groups of people. They give one group the new tablets, and they give the other group an identical-looking product that is a dummy. They do this for a simple reason: the mind is powerful, and some people feel that because they have taken a tablet they are better, although the tablet has no substance that could change the body. It’s all in their minds. If Christ has not risen, Christians are like people who say they feel better after taking a dummy tablet. They are confessing some change that has no substantial basis. Like the dummy drug, such faith would not do anything except within the individual minds of these people.

[Paul has completed his speculating and is ready to move on to the next step: the glorious consequences of the fact that Christ has been raised from the dead. Paul now turns from negative (15:12-19) to positive consequences of the resurrection (15:20-28). In the next nine verses, Paul will argue that…]

  1. Christ’s resurrection guarantees victory(15:20-28). Paul next will show that the resurrection of Christ makes the resurrection of believers both necessary and inevitable. Those “in Christ” must arise since Christ arose. Christ’s resurrection set in motion the defeat of all God’s enemies, including death. His resurrection demands our resurrection since otherwise death would remain undefeated. Verses 20-22 affirm the inclusive nature of Christ’s resurrection. We have been folded into that resurrection reality. Verses 23-28 affirm the forceful purpose of Christ’s resurrection. There is a point to it that we can anticipate as ultimate reality.

In 15:20, Paul writes, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.” “But now” are two of the sweetest words in the Bible, for they are often followed by words of comfort and hope. Such is the case here where Paul informs us that Christ has been raised from the dead. Furthermore, He is the “first fruits” of those believers who have died. The imagery of “first fruits” links with the Feast of First Fruits in the Old Testament. On this day, at the beginning of the grain harvest, the Israelites brought the first sheaf harvested and dedicated it to the Lord. This offering assured the Israelites that the rest of the harvest would follow. Christ is the “first fruits” of the resurrection—the first person to be raised from the dead permanently. His resurrection assures us that someday there will be a complete harvest. We go around twice.

In 15:21-22, Paul explains himself further: “For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” The point that Paul is making in these verses is: Adam’s sin brought death (cf. Rom 5:12-21) and Jesus Christ’s resurrection offers life to those who believe. The word “all” is used twelve times in 15:22-28. Consequently, some argue that all people will eventually be saved. This is typically called “universalism.” However, the “all” that will be made alive with Christ refers only to those who have fallen asleep in Christ. Moreover, in this section Paul is only speaking about the Christian dead, not about a general resurrection.

The imagery of “first fruits” implies that Christ’s resurrection sets in motion a series of events that will culminate at His coming. In 15:23-24, Paul writes, “But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power.”

Every Christian is going to receive a brand-new body, but everyone must wait his or her turn! The key word here is “order.” The word translated “order” (tagma) is a military term that refers to rank or order. Paul was describing a military parade passing by, with each corps falling into position at the proper time. (For those who can’t identify with the military, think of the carpool.) Throughout history, different Christians fall into their place in the parade at their appointed times.

Paul concludes this section in 15:25-28 with these powerful words: “For He [Christ] must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. For HE [God] HAS PUT ALL THINGS IN SUBJECTION UNDER HIS FEET. But when He says, ‘All things are put in subjection [God],’ it is evident that He [God] is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him [Christ]. When all things are subjected to Him [Christ], then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One [God] who subjected all things to Him [Christ], so that God may be all in all.” In these verses, Paul quotes Ps 110:121 and Ps 8:6 to support his arguments about the Messiah’s reign. The point that Paul is making is that God empowers Christ to accomplish His purposes. Christ is equal to the Father but chooses of His own accord to submit to His Father so that He might receive glory.

[Paul has touched upon the victory that God and the believer will enjoy on account of the resurrection. Now he moves on to affirm the motivating power of Christ’s resurrection.]

  1. Christ’s resurrection gives purpose(15:29-34). In these final verses, Paul will insist that the resurrection motivates appropriate responses. In 15:29, Paul pens what could be the most confusing verse in the entire New Testament: “Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?” Paul’s words in 15:29 are fraught with difficulty. Some scholars have suggested that there are over 200 proposed interpretations of 15:29; however, this figure is exaggerated. The actual number is closer to forty, which is still a lot. You will be happy to know that I will not bog down in the various interpretations; yet, I will not be able to ignore this difficult verse because it has been the subject of much controversy. Mormons, for example, have baptized millions upon millions of dead people by proxy in Mormon temples so that they might be saved, including Christians, pagans, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and even avowed atheists.

As a result of this belief, the Mormon Church has amassed the greatest collection of genealogical data anywhere in the world, with billions of names in millions of family trees traced back to long before the time of Christ. Hundreds of full-time employees do the research, which is recorded on over a billion pages of documents, the originals of which are all stored in a multi-million dollar underground vault system in a canyon near Salt Lake City. Now the information is available on the internet. After researchers come up with new names, hundreds of volunteers go through baptismal rites, hour after hour, day after day, in some fifty Mormon temples. They don’t hold services in those temples, you know; they are only for secret temple rites, including proxy baptisms. Many of your ancestors have been baptized in absentia in a Mormon temple, without either their consent or yours.

All of this activity is based upon this one verse of Scripture, 1 Cor 15:29. But when one examines the verse, it becomes apparent that it serves as a very shaky foundation for such a practice. And furthermore, it flies directly in the face of Scriptures that teach clearly that after death comes judgment (Heb 9:27), not a second chance if someone happens to be baptized for you. Therefore, I believe this verse deserves careful re-examination.

I take the view that when new believers in Corinth were baptized, they credited their salvation to the gospel message they had heard or received from some of the apostles, many of whom were now dead. They did this because they wanted these deceased apostles to receive greater reward in eternity for the work they had done. This seems to be the best view for four primary reasons. First, this interpretation is based upon a literal understanding of the terms “baptism,” “for,” and “the dead.” Baptism refers to a literal act for new believers; the word “for” means “for the benefit of;” and the phrase “the dead” is identified with physically dead people (cf. 15:6). Second, the Corinthians like to associate themselves with the ministry of certain apostles (1:12-13; 3:4). This would explain why some of them were baptized “on behalf of” some deceased apostles. Third, some of the Corinthians did not believe in a resurrection (15:15-16). In refuting this, Paul refers to their practice of baptizing for the dead. Their practice is contradicting their beliefs. Lastly, Paul had previously mentioned eternal rewards (3:13-15), the Corinthian desire to bring honor to the apostles (1:13-17), and how the Corinthians themselves would be part of Paul’s apostolic reward when he stood before Christ (3:10; 4:14-15). This reward can only be received in the resurrection, and if the Corinthians wanted the dead apostles to receive the reward they were ascribing to them by baptizing new believers for these apostles, resurrection was necessary.

It is important to understand that Paul nowhere denunciates the practice of baptizing for the dead. He would not cite a practice he did not agree with to support his argument for the resurrection. Though Paul does not explicitly state approval for the practice, the fact that he cites it as support for his argument proves that all views which hold some sort of saving grace in baptism are to be rejected.

Paul now gives two incentives for the resurrection: service (15:30-32) and sanctification (15:33-34). In 15:30-32, Paul explains that the reason he served God was because of his personal assurance of the resurrection of his body. He puts it like this: “Why are we also in danger every hour? I affirm, brethren, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. If from human motives I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me? If the dead are not raised, LET US EAT AND DRINK, FOR TOMORROW WE DIE.” Paul went through incredible suffering and pain in the course of his ministry. If there were no resurrection of the dead, he would be foolish risking his life for nothing. Paul’s boast in the Corinthians (15:31) refers to the fruit of his apostolic labor and suffering (9:1-2). Paul is deeply attached to this church. It is interesting to see the expression of Paul’s basic satisfaction with his Corinthian converts despite the many things for which he had to rebuke them.

One case of Paul’s dying daily was fighting with beasts at Ephesus (15:32). It is nearly certain that the “beasts” are not wild animals. As a Roman citizen, Paul would not have fought with wild animals. Furthermore, he would have likely mentioned these beasts in all of his lists about his own personal suffering. Therefore, it seems best to link the phrase “wild beasts” with 1 Cor 16:8, where Paul writes about many who oppose him in Ephesus. They are, metaphorically speaking, “wild beasts.” It would make no sense for Paul to face his opponents head-on and endanger his life if there were no resurrection. Paul says there is no profit in this.

In fact, Paul says if there is no resurrection, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” This is a quote from God’s people who are suffering in the midst of an Assyrian siege (Isa 22:13). They figured they had nothing to lose since they were going to be destroyed. If there is no resurrection then we might as well live for the present. This is unadulterated hedonism—the Hugh Heffner philosophy.

Our passage closes in 15:33-34 with a series of commands: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.’ Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning; for some have no knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame.” Paul commands the Corinthians to stop being deceived. He then quotes a well-known cliché. “Bad company corrupts good morals.” God’s people are susceptible to deception, especially from friends and fellow church members. It is dangerous to keep company with fellow Christians who are not characterized by consistent Christian living. Hanging around with people who claim to know Christ, but who are themselves far from the Lord can be more dangerous than spending time with non-Christians. We are inclined to be vulnerable to inconsistency of thought and action, to let down our guard, if the Christians around us are materialistic, sensual, loose talking, freethinking, irreverent persons. Remember, water flows downhill. Birds of a feather flock together. If we lay down with dogs, then we will get up with fleas. It is inevitable that evil companions warp good morals. This is why we should care about who our children “hang out” with. Similarly, you need to be careful about who influences you.

Paul commands the church to be sober-minded and to stop sinning. Some of the Corinthians had been duped into believing that this life is all there is—you only go around once. Paul says such people have no knowledge of God. They are agnosia (“ignorant”) of God. We get our English word “agnostic” from this Greek word. Paul is saying, “Some Christians can live like functional agnostics.” Beware of such people! The crying shame of the church today is the glaring difference between what we believe and how we behave. There is little correlation between doctrine and deeds or creed and conduct with some Christians. High talk and no walk is a problem. We quote the Bible by the mile and live it by the inch.

What you believe about the resurrection, Paul says, controls how you live your life, how you spend your money and use your time—how you invest yourself. People who think wrongly invariably behave wrongly. Yet, you and I must remember, we go around twice, and we must live accordingly.