What if I told you that Jesus had been raised from the dead, but that his body was still in the tomb?
Of course, you would cry out, ‘Heresy!’ And rightly so.
But I think that, for many Christians, it would make no difference. Let me explain.
Last time I invited you to imagine that Jesus’ body was still in the tomb, but that he had not yet been raised. This time it’s different. Imagine that Jesus’ old body was still in the tomb, but that he had still been raised on the third day, with a brand new replacement body. Something like this…
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, and when they entered, they found the body of the Lord Jesus. But then they turned round and saw Jesus standing there, though they did not realise that it was Jesus.
He said to them, ‘It’s me, Jesus. That’s my old body there. But now I have a brand new body. Remember that discontinuity between the present creation and the new creation? Well, here it is. In the brand new creation you will have brand new bodies too. And those new bodies will be like your current bodies, but more glorious. Now go and tell my brothers that I have risen!’
What’s wrong with that?
For a start, it’s not what happened. Jesus didn’t receive a brand new body on Easter Day. The tomb was empty. It was his old body that was raised from the dead, was glorified, and was then taken up into heaven on Ascension Day. But what difference does it make?
I think many people would struggle to answer. Won’t this present creation be burned up? Won’t God replace it with a brand new creation? And in that brand new creation, won’t we have brand new bodies? So why should it matter if Jesus received a brand new body on Easter Day, and if his old body were still in the tomb?
I think it matters for two reasons (at least).
First, it matters in the same way that it matters that Jesus took upon himself our flesh and blood. Jesus didn’t simply appear to be human (a heresy known as Docetism), but he really did become human. And it is only as someone who is both divine and human that Jesus can enable humanity to share in the divine life. As Ben Quash put it in a recent feature in Church Times,
The key problem with the Arian outlook had been that only God saves; a Christ who is less than God cannot raise us to God. The problem with the Docetic outlook was that, unless God is bound to us (rather than looking at us across the fence), then we cannot be elevated to God either.
So if Jesus had retained our humanity only until his burial, and had been given a ‘replacement’ humanity in his resurrection, then at his ascension, it would only have been the appearance of our humanity that was exalted into heaven. It wouldn’t have been our flesh and blood, but a different flesh and blood that was seated in God’s presence. And that means that Jesus wouldn’t have been the saviour of humanity, but simply the pioneer of ‘humanity 2.0’, the brand new replacement version of this tired old humanity that we all endure.
But that’s not what happened. It is our flesh and blood that now sits in God’s presence. And this means that we can begin to enjoy the fullness of the divine life, even in our current bodies. With our flesh and blood at God’s right hand, our flesh and blood has become a suitable dwelling place for the Holy Spirit, who was poured out on the church on the Day of Pentecost.
Second, it matters that Jesus’ old body was raised, and not replaced, because it transforms our attitude to the present created order.
I once had an old pair of leather shoes with worn out heels. Rather than throw them away, I thought I’d take them to be repaired. So I took them to a cobbler, and asked him what he could do. ‘Don’t bother trying,’ he said. ‘They’re completely worn out. And if someone else says he’ll fix them, don’t believe him. You’ll have to throw them away and get a new pair.’
As you look at the world around you, I wonder what you think of it? It looks a bit worn out, doesn’t it? Not worth bothering with. Throw it away and start again!
In the resurrection of Jesus, God tells us what he thinks of that suggestion. Jesus’ resurrection is God’s decisive ‘Yes!’ to this old, worn out creation, and his decisive ‘No!’ to the idea of simply throwing it away and starting again. Jesus’ body is the first part of this old, worn out creation to be made new. And, as the firstfruits of the harvest, Jesus’ risen body is the guarantee that the whole of this old, worn out creation will be made new.
And just as it was with Jesus’ body, so it will be with our bodies. Those who die as Christians are described in the New Testament not as those who have ‘gone to be with the Lord’, but as those who have ‘fallen asleep’. This is why Christian burial grounds came to be known as ‘cemeteries’, from a word meaning ‘dormitory’. The body that is laid in the grave is the very same body that will be woken up to life again, and glorified, when Jesus once again appears on the earth. Whether that body was laid in the ground five minutes before Jesus returns, or whether the body has returned to dust and ashes, it is the same body that will be raised to life. (God can work out the details!)
So it matters how I treat my body now. The Corinthian Christians had the idea that their bodies didn’t matter, so they could do whatever they liked with them. Some of them were indulging in sexual immorality as a consequence. To them, what mattered was the soul or the spirit; the body was immaterial (so to speak). But this is how Paul responded:
The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also (1 Cor 6:13b-14).
This body that I have now will be raised from the dead, and it will be a part of the renewed creation. So it matters, and I mustn’t mistreat it. God raised the Lord Jesus from the dead, and he will raise us also. It matters what we do with our bodies.
And then, more broadly, Jesus’ old body being raised means that this world matters. Whatever we are doing in life, in this world, it matters to God. Nothing is destined for the scrap heap. If we are working to make the world a better place, on a small scale, or on a large scale, that is worth doing. It’s not going to be a waste of time. This world matters to God.
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 labour in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).
Earlier in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul makes a comparison between Jesus and Adam. Adam was created to exercise dominion over this world, but that all went horribly wrong. So now God has sent his Son as the new Adam, to rule over this world. God is creating a renewed humanity in Christ. Those who are still in Adam belong to the old humanity. But those who are in Christ belong to the renewed humanity. In Adam, all die, but in Christ, all will be made alive. So, in Christ, and filled with his Spirit, we are labouring with him for the renewal of this creation, as we look forward to the day when the dead in Christ will be raised and glorified, when the whole of this creation will be renewed and glorified, and when God will be all in all.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!