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Part II: An overview of Paul’s resurrection theology

  1. The longest single continuous treatment of the Resurrection in Paul is 1 Corinthians 15. There, in verse 20 (d. 23), he affirms that Christ in his resurrection is the first-fruits of those who are fallen asleep. We begin our survey here because this declaration expresses a key thought, one that governs not only much of the argument from verse 12 to the end of the chapter but, in large measure, Paul’s teaching as a whole on resurrection.

    This description of the resurrected Christ as first-fruits is more than an indication of bare temporal priority or even pre-eminence. Rather, commensurate with its OT cultic background (e.g., Ex. 23:19; Lev. 23:9ff.), the metaphor conveys the idea of organic connection or unity; the first-fruits is the initial quantity brought into view only as it is a part of and so inseparable from the whole; in that sense it represents the whole.

    The resurrection of Christ and of believers cannot be separated, then, because to extend the metaphor as Paul surely intends, Christ is the first-fruits of the resurrection-harvest that includes believers (note, as 15:23 shows, that this harvest is an entirely soteriological reality; the resurrection of unbelievers, taught by Paul elsewhere, e.g. in Acts 24:15, is outside his purview here). Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee of the future bodily resurrection of believers not simply as a bare sign but as ‘the actual beginning of the general epochal event’. 3 The two resurrections, though separated in time, are not so much separate events as two episodes of the same event, the beginning and end of the one and same harvest.

    This unbreakable unity between the two resurrections is a controlling presupposition in the hypothetical argumentation of the immediately preceding section (vv. 12-19), so much so that a denial of the future resurrection of the believer entails a denial of Christ’s resurrection (vv. 13, 15, 16). Essentially the same idea of solidarity in resurrection is also expressed elsewhere in the description of Christ as the firstborn from among the dead (Col. 1:18).

    In view, further, is Christ’s resurrection as an innately eschatological event. In fact, as much as any, it is the key inaugurating event of eschatology, the dawn of the new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15), the arrival of the age to come (Rom. 12:2; Gal. 1:4). It is not an isolated event in the past, but, in having occurred in the past, it belongs to the future consummation and from that future has entered history. In Christ’s resurrection the resurrection-harvest at the end of history is already visible. Pressed, if present, say, at a modern-day prophecy conference, as to when the event of bodily resurrection for believers will take place, the first thing the apostle would probably want to say is, it has already begun!

  2. The emphasis on Christ as the first-fruits of resurrection points out that, for Paul, the primary significance of Christ’s resurrection lies in what he and believers have in common, not in the profound difference between them; the accent falls not on his true deity but on his genuine humanity. The Resurrection, as we will presently note in more detail, is not so much an especially evident display or powerful proof of Christ’s divine nature as it is the powerful transformation of his human nature.

    This emphasis is confirmed in an implicit but pervasive fashion by Paul’s numerous references, without elaboration, to the simple fact of the Resurrection 4. These undeveloped statements display a consistent, unmistakable pattern: 1) God in his specific identity as the Father raises Jesus from the dead (Gal. 1:1, 2) Jesus is passive in his resurrection. This viewpoint is held without exception, so far as I can see. Nowhere does Paul teach that Christ was active in or contributed to his resurrection, much less that he raised himself; Jesus did not rise, but was raised from the dead. The stress everywhere is on the creative power and action of the Father, of which Christ is the recipient.

    To see a conflict here with statements such as that of Jesus in John 10:18 (’I have authority to lay [my life] down and authority to take it up again’, NIV) is both superficial and unnecessary. The Chalcedon formulation proves helpful here: The two natures co-exist hypostatically (in one person), without either confusion or separation; Jesus expresses what is true of his person in terms of his deity, Paul expresses what is no less true in terms of his humanity.

  3. To fill out this basic sketch, one other element needs to be noted. The passages so far considered express the bond between Christ’s resurrection and the future, bodily resurrection of believers. But Paul also speaks of the Christian’s resurrection in the past tense; believers have already been raised with Christ (e.g., Eph. 2:5-6; Col. 2:12-13; 3:1). This past resurrection, it needs to be recognised, is so, not only in the sense that Christ represented the church in his resurrection. Rather, it is an experience in the actual life-history of each believer. That is apparent from Ephesians 2, where the Resurrection in view terminates on being dead in your transgressions and sins (vv. 1, 5), and effects a radical, 180-degree reversal in walk or actual conduct - from walking in the deadness of sin (v. 1) to walking in the good works of new-creation existence in Christ (v. 10). It bears emphasising that to speak of this experiential transformation as resurrection is not merely metaphorical; Paul intends such language no less realistically or literally (and, we might add, no less irrevocably) than what he says about the hope of bodily resurrection.

  4. To sum up this overview of Paul’s resurrection theology: An unbreakable bond or unity exists between Christ and Christians in the experience of resurrection. That bond is such that the latter (the resurrection of Christians) has two components - one that has already taken place, at the inception of Christian life when the sinner is united to Christ by faith; and one that is still future, at Christ’s return. From this it will be readily apparent how Paul’s teaching on the fundamental event of resurrection reflects the overall already/not-yet structure of eschatological fulfilment in the period between Christ’s resurrection and his return.

    If we raise the question of distinguishing the two episodes of the believer’s resurrection, various proposals suggest themselves: secret/open; non-bodily/bodily; internal/external. 5 Paul himself offers the distinction between the outer man and the inner man (2 Cor. 4: 16), which we should understand not as two discrete entities but as two aspects of the whole person. So far as believers are ‘outer man’, that is, in terms of the body, they are yet to be raised. So far as they are ‘inner man’, they are already raised and, he adds, the subject of daily renewal.