Today the blog continues its examination of St. Paul’s Corinthian correspondence. Previous material on this topic and on Genesis and Mark, can be accessed from my archive. Biblical references can be placed after emmock.com as can particular topics eg. emmock.com John 3:16; or emmock.com obedience. The daily headlines are reminders of the world we live in.
1 Corinthians 15
20 But the fact is that the Messiah has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have died. 21 For since death came through a man, also the resurrection of the dead has come through a man. 22 For just as in connection with Adam all die, so in connection with the Messiah all will be made alive.
23 But each in his own order: the Messiah is the firstfruits; then those who belong to the Messiah, at the time of his coming; 24 then the culmination, when he hands over the Kingdom to God the Father, after having put an end to every rulership, yes, to every authority and power. 25 For he has to rule until he puts all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be done away with will be death, 27 for “He put everything in subjection under his feet.”[a] But when it says that “everything” has been subjected, obviously the word does not include God, who is himself the one subjecting everything to the Messiah. 28 Now when everything has been subjected to the Son, then he will subject himself to God, who subjected everything to him; so that God may be everything in everyone.
29 Were it otherwise, what would the people accomplish who are immersed on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not actually raised, why are people immersed for them? 30 For that matter, we ourselves — why do we keep facing danger hour by hour? 31 Brothers, by the right to be proud which the Messiah Yeshua our Lord gives me, I solemnly tell you that I die every day. 32 If my fighting with “wild beasts” in Ephesus was done merely on a human basis, what do I gain by it? If dead people are not raised, weght as well live by the saying, “Let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!”[b] 33 Don’t be fooled. “Bad company ruins good character.” 34 Come to your senses! Live righteously and stop sinning! There are some people who lack knowledge of God — I say this to your shame.
As a Pharisee, Paul would have believed in resurrection in connection with the life of the ‘world to come’ the new age of God’s Rule over the world. Jesus himself held this belief, dealing briskly with the comic tale of “7 brothers for 1 bride” to insist that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of the living, not the dead. It’s not clear whether Jesus thought of resurrection as a present or future reality. Paul certainly had considered it as future until he came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. He concluded that the ‘turning of the ages’ had arrived, and that soon God’s kingdom would arrive. Jesus’ resurrection was for him like the first fruits of God’s harvest; soon all God’s people would be gathered. Indeed for him the announcement of the Gospel was precisely the way by which God’s harvest was being gathered. There is timetable here:
1. Jesus the Messiah is raised from death
2. In his name ( as the successor of Abraham) God’s blessing is extended to all humanity
3 Jesus will return in power, the powers that oppose God will be defeated, his creation completed, death abolished.
Paul accepted the Genesis account of how death came through Adam, who had snatched at equality with God. Death was interpreted as a temporary means of limiting human evil. Now through Messiah Jesus, who humbled himself and ‘walked the path of obedience all the way to his death on the execution stake’ Adam’s sin is undone and Jesus is raised to life. Although it is still a reality, death is on the way out.
What are we to make of these teachings?
1. It looks as if they are dependent on buying into a Jewish story about creation, Israel and its Messiah.
2. It looks as if Paul’s faith in the imminent return of Jesus was mistaken- which throws doubt on the rest of his timetable.
I think both of these are true. Christain faith cannot bypass the Jewish tradition that nourished Jesus Messiah. It can and should translate that tradition into more ecumenical terms, so that its relevance to all humanity may be seen. Indeed that’s one of the things Paul was doing. But it remains true that people will not understand the story of Jesus unless they understand the stories of Adam and Abraham. Paul was also telling his Jewish brothers and sisters that they could not understand Adam and Abraham without understanding Jesus. We must conclude that the resurrection of Jesus is not an isolated doctrine; it is part of a story about God and human beings.
Secondly, we have to admit that Paul was wrong in expecting an imminent return of Jesus and therefore an imminent arrival of the general resurrection of the dead. The powers that oppose God are still in control of the world, Jesus has not returned, nor do most of his followers expect him to do so. Oh well, we don’t deny that he may do so, but we’ve relegated his return to the end of time, meaning after the billions of years our scientists expect. He will not interrupt the time of the world.
If Paul is mistaken about his timetable, perhaps we are mistaken in our accepatnce of the world as it is. Paul constructed his timetable because he saw the resurrection of Jesus as something that could not be accommodated into the world as it was. It was for him a unique and decisive event that that signalled the imminent victory of God’s goodness in the world. For me, this is crucial. All the other elements of the story of Jesus can be incorporated into my experience of the world. Indeed, the crucifixion of the best of human beings fits my experience of the world only too well. But the resurrection? It contradicts all opinion, questions all certainties, breaks all natural laws, laughs in the face of all arrogance, undemines all monopolies of power and wealth, gives hope to the poor, power to the oppressed and forgiveness to tlhe sinner. It sticks in the craw of time that devours all things.
It’s absurd, and therefore I believe it.
For Paul only the resurrection made sense of his daily privations as a messenger of Jesus. Without that divine absurdity his own life would have been totally absurd. A powerful image of the contradiction of death is the practice Paul mentions of the living receiving baptism for the dead: even people already dead could be plucked from the flux of time by being joined to the risen Jesus Messiah. This practice was rejected by the official church as superstitious, and I can see why, but perhaps something valuable was lost with it.