This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Hope of Holy Week". See series.
Nearly everyone believes in the crucifixion of the body. Even historians who deny the deity of Jesus Christ nevertheless accept the fact that he was put to death on a hill outside Jerusalem—crucified by the Romans. The crucifixion of Christ was the genuine execution of a real human being. Metal nails were pounded into rough wood, tearing at human flesh. And the blood that flowed from Jesus' hands and side was real blood, coursing with platelets and red blood cells. Anyone who believes in Jesus at all believes in his bodily crucifixion.
What people have trouble accepting is his bodily resurrection. I once attended a Bible study for ministers the week before Easter. It was an ecumenical gathering, with clergy coming from a wide spectrum of churches in Center City Philadelphia. As we discussed the upcoming round of special services, it was obvious that most of the ministers were dreading Easter Sunday. Although no one put it quite so bluntly, the reason was that they were tired of "faking it." They believed in holding special Easter services. They believed that springtime is a season of rebirth and renewal. What they could not quite bring themselves to believe was the resurrection of the body. I suspect their sermons that week were like most movie versions of the life of Christ, in which the final scene is full of light and sound, but somehow the risen Christ is missing. If he appears at all he is insubstantial, immaterial.
Christ is risen!
The fact is, however, that there is a resurrection of the body, both for Christ and for the Christian. This is the argument that the apostle Paul develops in 1 Corinthians 15. He starts by stating the basic facts of the gospel, including the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ: "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). This is the good news that brings salvation to everyone who believes: Jesus died for sinners and Jesus rose again.
Make no mistake—the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a bodily resurrection. It was a real body that they laid in the tomb, and it was a real body that rose up from the grave. It was a glorious body—a supernatural body with miraculous powers—but it was a body nonetheless. So when Jesus wanted to prove the reality of his resurrection, he had a body of evidence to confirm his case. He said to Thomas, who doubted whether it was possible for anyone to rise from the dead, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe" (John 20:27).
Christ's bodily resurrection is absolutely essential to the Christian gospel. If there was no resurrection of the body, then there is no salvation. Either Jesus was raised from the dead, or there is no eternal life; it's as simple as that. Paul put it like this: "If Christ has not been raised," Paul argues, "our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (1 Corinthians 15:14). Or again, "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins" (1 Corinthians 15:17). These verses explain why so much preaching does so little good, even on Easter Sunday. It lacks the power of the resurrection, without which there is nothing left worth believing, and without which no one can be saved.
One writer who has tried to explain the necessity of the bodily resurrection is John Updike. In a poem called "Seven Stanzas at Easter," Updike wrote:
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as his body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the
the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that—pierced, dies, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of His Father's might
new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted
in the faked credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
Like him we rise
Updike is right: if Christ is risen at all, he is risen bodily. This is important for many reasons. It is the guarantee that our sins have been paid for. Jesus died on the cross in order to atone for sin. But how do we know that his sacrifice was accepted? Only by the resurrection. When God the Father raised God the Son by the power of God the Holy Spirit, it proved that the price for sin had been paid in full. The resurrection also proves that Jesus is Lord. Once Jesus had finished paying for sin, God raised him up in a glorious new body and made him the Supreme Lord of heaven and earth. So the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ was significant for several reasons. But what Paul emphasizes in 1 Corinthians 15 is what it means for the final resurrection of the Christian. What it means, very simply, is that at the final judgment the Christian will be raised the same way that Christ was.
Apparently, in Paul's day, the resurrection of the body had come under attack. Some of the Corinthians denied that the dead would be raised. Hence Paul's question: "How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?" (1 Corinthians 15:12b). By way of answer, he points to Jesus Christ and to the events of the first Easter Sunday. What God did in raising Jesus from the dead he will also do for everyone who trusts in Jesus. As we learned in the previous chapter, "Christ has indeed been raised from the dead … in Christ all will be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15:20a), 22b. As it was for Christ, so it is for the Christian. Those who die in Christ will be raised bodily.
But all of this raises a question, the question Paul asks in verse 35: "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?" It is the kind of question a skeptic would ask. How can someone who is dead and buried, and whose body has disintegrated into dust, possibly come back to life in any material way? The Bible explains that the resurrection body, although it is a body, is a new kind of body altogether. It will be the body of the very same person, yet it will have a completely new splendor: "The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 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" (1 Corinthians 15:42-43).
Then the Bible goes on to do something that it rarely does, which is to give more details. It describes specifically what will happen on the Day of Judgment: "Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality" (1 Corinthians 15:51-53).
Whenever the Bible describes something as a "mystery," it is not talking about something we don't know and are still trying to figure out, but something we already know because God himself has revealed it. In biblical terms, a mystery is an open secret. Leon Morris writes:
It does not signify a puzzle which man finds difficult to solve. It signifies a secret which man is wholly unable to penetrate. But it is a secret which God has now revealed. At one and the same time the word points to the impossibility of man's knowing God's secret, and to the love of God which makes that secret known to man.
The final resurrection is that kind of secret. The only way we could ever know anything about how the dead will be raised is if God revealed it to us. And that is precisely what he has done, first of all in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and secondly through the teaching of his Word. The Bible discloses what people have always wanted to know: the mysteries of eternity.
The trumpet shall sound
Here is what will happen at the final judgment. First, a trumpet will sound. Many Bible passages promise that Jesus Christ will come back to earth to judge the living and the dead. Here we learn that his coming will be signaled by the sounding of a trumpet. Probably the reason it will be a trumpet—rather than a tuba, say, or even a trombone, although that is how this passage has sometimes been translated—is that trumpets are always used to announce a king coming in triumph. Thus the trumpet is the appropriate instrument to herald Christ's royal return.
How could the apostle Paul possibly know that a trumpet will signal the Second Coming? The answer is that it is a mystery—a secret only God knows, but that he has revealed for our encouragement as we wait for the return of Christ.
A trumpet blast is always a summons. At various times in the history of salvation, trumpets were used to gather God's people. There was a trumpet blast at Mount Sinai when God gave his people the covenant of the law (Exodus 19:16). The prophet Isaiah promised that a trumpet would gather the nations to worship on God's holy mountain. Others prophesied a trumpet that would announce God's coming in judgment. Joel said, "Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming" (Joel 2:1). And in the Book of Zechariah, a trumpet is associated with the coming of the Lord as King (Zechariah 9:14).
The New Testament mentions one more trumpet that still has to be played. We are now waiting for that final trumpet to sound. Jesus said, "They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other" (Matthew 24:30b-31). In 1 Thessalonians we read that "the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first" (1 Thessalonians 4:16). And here in 1 Corinthians 15 God reveals that the resurrection trumpet will be the last trumpet ever.
Alive in Christ
What will happen at the sound of the last trumpet? These verses explain what will happen to two different groups of people. Actually there is a third group as well—the wicked, who will rise to their own condemnation. But here Paul limits his remarks to the righteous, both the living and the dead.
The living—that is to say, those who are living for Christ, who believe the gospel and are destined to receive eternal life—will be changed. "We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed" (1 Corinthians 15:51). Sleep here simply means death. The reason the Bible is able to refer to death in this way is because of the certainty of the resurrection. From God's perspective, the years or even centuries during which the dead rest in their graves are merely a short nap before awaking to eternity. But not all of us will sleep, and therefore many Christians will still be alive at the Second Coming. So the question naturally arises: What will happen to them? Will they somehow miss out on the resurrection? For if they are not dead, how can they be raised from the dead? The answer is that all of us—both the living and the dead—will be changed.
In his letter to the Thessalonians, the apostle Paul asked the opposite question. The Thessalonians were worried that believers who had already died were the ones who would miss the Second Coming. Paul's answer there was that God would make sure that those who were dead in Christ would be raised first. He said:
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep (1 Thessalonians 5:13-15).
Here in 1 Corinthians, he explains that those who are alive won't miss out, either. Even though they will not be dead yet, and thus could not be raised from the dead, nevertheless they will receive glorious resurrection bodies. We will all be changed.
We all have to be changed because our bodies are mortal. As Paul has already explained, "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable" (1 Corinthians 15:50). Therefore, in order to enjoy the glories of heaven, our bodies must become immortal and imperishable. Such a change is a prerequisite for our entrance to glory. That transformation will take place at the last trumpet, when the corruptible will put on incorruption.
This miraculous transformation will be instantaneous. It will happen "in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye." This, too, is a mystery, something we could not possibly know unless God revealed it. At present it is hard for us to be patient. We struggle with what sometimes seems to be the slow advance of the gospel, and we lament our own slow spiritual progress. But at the last trumpet we will get what we want right away, all at once. In the smallest possible moment—the Greek word here is the one from which we get the word "atom"(atomo)—we will be changed into the glory of the risen Christ.
This is one of the reasons it is so important to get right with God right now. At present there is still time to repent of sin and believe in Jesus Christ. But by the time the last trumpet sounds, it will be too late, because it will happen in a flash. This is something that Jesus himself often emphasized. He said the Day of Judgment would come unexpectedly, like Noah's flood (Matthew 24:36-39). He said it would come like a thief in the night (Luke 12:39-40), or like a master who comes home before his servants are ready for his return (Luke 12:46). No one knows exactly when Christ will come again. It will be soon and it will be sudden; more than that, no one can say. But when that day finally does come, it will be too late to do anything about it. The only way to be certain of being changed, of entering heaven's glory, is to come to Christ while there is still time.
The dead will be raised
Those who are living for Christ are not the only ones who will be changed. Those who die in Christ will also be changed, for the last trumpet will be loud enough to wake the dead. The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised; that is to say, their bodies will be raised—a bodily resurrection.
Naturally, we want to know what kind of bodies we will have. That was the question, remember, that got Paul started back in verse 35: "With what kind of body will they come?" Although the Bible does not give a complete answer, one thing we know is what our bodies will not be like. They will not be corruptible. They will not be subject to death or decay. There will be no aging in heaven—no wrinkling or hair loss. There will be no bones to set, no wounds to heal. There will be no diseases or cancers, no disabilities or infirmities. There will certainly not be any funeral parlors. On the contrary, "the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality" (1 Corinthians 15:53).
Another thing we know is that in some sense the body that is raised will be the same body. Not exactly the same, of course, because we will be changed. Nevertheless, it really will be our own bodies that are raised. Notice carefully Paul's description in verses 42 and 43: "The body that is sown is perishable, it (in other words, the very same body) is raised imperishable." Or again, the body that is "sown in dishonor" is "raised in glory." The word "sown" should remind us what happens to a seed. First it is put into the ground, and, in a way, it dies. When it comes up from the ground, it looks completely different, although in fact it is still the same plant. So it is with the resurrection, in which what "is sown a natural body" is "raised a spiritual body." The resurrection of the body means that there is something eternal about the personal identity of every believer. The self will survive, gloriously transformed.
This is a great comfort to anyone who has ever lost a loved one in Christ. Christianity teaches not only the immortality of the soul, but also the resurrection of the body. Those who have gone to be with the Lord are waiting for the same thing we are. Together we are waiting for the last trumpet, when they will be raised and we will all be changed.
Gregory Nazianzen, who was one of the early church fathers, grieved the loss of his beloved brother Caesarius. It was Gregory's privilege to preach at his brother's funeral, during which he offered the following personal testimony:
I shall await the voice of the archangel, the last trumpet, the transformation of heaven, the change of earth, the freedom of the elements, the renewal of the universe. Then I shall see my brother Casesarius himself, no longer in exile, no longer being buried, no longer mourned, no longer pitied, but splendid, glorious, sublime….dearest and most loving of brothers.
The same is true for all those who have died in Christ. We will never see them sick, or suffering, or in the grave ever again. The next time we see them they will be glorious beyond anything we can imagine, and it will all happen in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
Blow, trumpet, blow!
A beautiful angel stands atop one corner of the University of Oxford's Clarendon Building. The angel can be seen, more or less at eye level, from the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian Library. During my theological studies I often gazed longingly at that angel, especially on sunny days, when the honey-colored seraph was golden against the blue sky. The angel holds a trumpet to his lips, and although I never heard him sound a note, he always seemed ready to blow the last trumpet, to raise the signal that will change us all.
Perhaps even now there is an angel like that somewhere in heaven. Whether or not he is ready to blow his trumpet, we have one ear tuned to hear the music of heaven. We are waiting—waiting and listening for the last trumpet, one blast of which will wake the dead and gather all the living to Christ. James Weldon Johnson imagined it like this:
Early one of these mornings,
God's a-going to call for Gabriel,
That tall, bright angel, Gabriel;
And God's a-going to say to him: Gabriel,
Blow your silver trumpet,
And wake the living nations ….
then God's a-going to say to him: Gabriel,
Once more blow your silver trumpet,
And wake the nations underground.
And Gabriel's going to ask him: Lord
How loud must I blow it?
And God's a-going to tell him: Gabriel,
Like seven peals of thunder.
Then the tall, bright angel, Gabriel,
Will put one foot on the battlements of heaven
And the other on the steps of hell,
And blow that silver trumpet
Till he shakes old hell's foundations ….
Weldon closes with the question a preacher would ask:
Sinner, oh, sinner,
Where will you stand
In that great day?
Where will you stand in that great day? Where will you stand at the last trumpet? Where a person stands then depends on where a person stands right now. Only those who stand with Christ will be saved. Only those who stand under the cross and outside the empty tomb will be raised with the risen Christ.
Philip Ryken is president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.