51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 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. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
–1 Corinthians 15.51-58 (NIV)
Paul has finished telling us about the fate of those who have died in the Lord and the nature of our promised resurrected bodies (see yesterday’s post). Today he focuses on what happens to those living when the dimensions of heaven (God’s space) and earth (human’s space) are fused together in a spectacular and universal act of re-creation when Jesus reappears in great power and glory to finish the work he started as God’s Messiah. It is a wonderful and heart-warming picture Paul paints for us and we would do well to pay attention to what he says.
Because the new creation will be the culminating event of human history, it means that there will be folks alive at the time Jesus reappears in great power and glory to consummate God’s promised new creation. None of us knows when this will happen even though from what he writes here, Paul apparently thought it would happen in his lifetime. Like their dead brothers and sisters in Christ, those who are still alive will also have their bodies transformed into new ones and it will happen instantaneously. As we saw yesterday, and as Paul reminds us here, this is necessary because our mortal bodies are not compatible to live in an environment where there is no mortality. They must be transformed and equipped to live in the new creation. Only then will death be swallowed up forever because only until the dead are raised will death have been conquered. For you see, even those who die in the Lord are still dead because they have not yet received new bodies. That is the whole point of the resurrection. Yes, those who have died in the Lord are safe and their spirits are alive with him in heaven (God’s space). But that is not the end game and hence death cannot be fully defeated until the new creation comes and with it we are reunited with our resurrection bodies (see yesterday’s reflection). Had Jesus’ body not been raised from the dead, there is no way Paul and the other NT writers could have claimed that Jesus had defeated death. Dead bodies are, well, dead; and they will remain that way until God raises them and reanimates them with his Spirit. After all, our bodies are what God has determined will house us!
As Paul reminds us here, this is all God’s gift to us in Christ. Had God not become human and died for us on the cross, none of us would ever have this hope because on our own we cannot hope to be reconciled to God. Our sin and rebellion is simply too ingrained in us for that to happen. So as you think about the hope and promise of new creation, always remember that it is God’s gift to you because he created you for life and in his image so that you can reflect his glory in the manner he desires.
This brings us to our last point. Paul ends his treatise on resurrection and new creation in a curious manner. Having spilled a lot of ink talking about our hope and promise to which Jesus’ resurrection points us, we would expect Paul to conclude by saying something like, “Isn’t this all just wonderful? Hold onto that hope until the final day because you’ve got a great thing in store for you.” But Paul doesn’t say that. Instead, he says, “Stand firm in your faith and give yourself fully to working for the Lord because your work in Jesus’ name is not in vain.”
What’s that all about?
Well, Paul is reminding us once again about the implications of new creation. As we saw yesterday, the promise of new creation means that creation matters to God and so it had better matter to us. This means that we have work to do right now, work in the power of the Spirit to be God’s heart and hands and eyes and ears so that we can bring God’s healing love in Jesus to bear on others. There are millions of ways that can be done. We can feed the hungry and minister to the sick. We can reach out to the lonely and offer forgiveness to our enemies (who may or may not accept our offer). It means we might be called to become active in the political, social, and/or economic arenas. It means we might be called to remind folks why developing Christian character is a good idea for the living of our days and in our respective arenas of life. It means we might offer a compassionate ear to our disgruntled colleagues or patiently put up with the foibles of fellow believers with whom we deal on a regular basis. It might mean becoming a teacher in any number of venues. It might mean speaking a word of encouragement to those who are discouraged. It certainly means that we will be an active part of Christ’s body, the Church, because we are called to worship and do God’s work together.
Whatever the Lord’s work is we are called to do, we do so not to save the world. Jesus has already done that! No, we are called to be his agents of new creation to bring his healing love to bear on others in countless ways and that will take a lifetime to accomplish because we still live in a world where evil, while having been decisively defeated on the cross, still needs to be reminded of that victory and we do so by our actions.
And as everyone of us who labors for the Lord knows, sometimes it gets to be a bit much. We work hard to feed the hungry but hunger still persists. We speak out continually against injustice but injustice still persists, and on it goes. That’s why we need to hear Paul’s final word to us here. He is telling us that no matter how futile our actions might appear to be, they are most certainly not because apparently any good work done in the Lord’s name is carried on into the new creation. Not only that, we will have the added benefit of finding a corresponding reward awaiting us.
Can you say a recipe for hopelessness and despair? Sure you can because Paul just did!
Here, then, is our resurrection hope. As Paul also reminds us, do not let anyone or anything rob you of that hope. Be militant about it, even as you are humble and gentle as lamb. Remember you have not earned the right to this hope and without it you are still dead in your sins. Rather, remember it is God’s free gift to you. But as any gracious receiver of gifts knows, it is foolish to reject the gift given. And so, hold onto the resurrection hope with all your might and in the power of the Spirit. And if you cannot yet fully articulate your resurrection hope, get busy and search the Scriptures with others and ask God to give you the knowledge and wisdom you need to appropriate it. It is the best thing you can do to guard against pessimism, hopelessness, and despair that can take any of us down at any time.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!