What Happens When We Die?
Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.
Paul’s Three Preferences About Living and Dying
1. To Be Alive When Christ Returns
His first preference was not to die at all but to be alive when Jesus returns and instead of having to experience the separation of soul and body, that he would experience the transformation of his mortal body into an immortal one that would live with Christ forever in the kingdom.
He says this in 2 Corinthians 5:4, “While we are in this tent [this temporary, mortal body], we groan, being burdened, because we don’t want to be unclothed [i.e., bodiless], but to be clothed upon, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” He does not want to be “unclothed” in the sense of being stripped of his body. He wants his body to be swallowed up into the new spiritual, immortal body at the last trumpet when Christ descends from heaven to establish his kingdom and bring this age to a close. That’s Paul’s first preference.
2. To Die and Be with Christ
He knows he cannot know, let alone control, when Christ is coming. So he is not sure if that first preference will come true. So he expresses his second preference, namely, to die and be with Christ. In 2 Corinthians 5:8 he says, “We are of good courage and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” Rather than groan here and bear the struggles and sicknesses and sin of this life, he would rather die and be with the Lord.
In Philippians 1:21 he says, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He struggles with the need to stay here for the sake of ministry against the longing to be done with the struggle and enjoy the immediate presence of Jesus. He says in verse 23, “I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better.” So his second preference is this: if God wills for Christ to be delayed, then Paul would rather go to be with him—if Christ does not yet come to be with us—even if he must be stripped (even painfully stripped) of his body.
3. To Go On Walking by Faith Not by Sight
The third preference is that, if God wills, and if it is better for the people of the Lord and the glory of Christ, Paul is willing to remain on the earth and to walk by faith and not by sight. He is willing to postpone the deeper, more immediate intimacy of seeing and being with Jesus if that’s God’s will. In 2 Corinthians 5:6–7 he says, “We are always of good courage and know that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord, for we walk by faith and not by sight.” He said to the Philippians that he would remain and continue with them all for the advancement and joy of their faith (1:25). So his third preference is to press on with the ministry and use his time on the earth to advance faith and joy in others as far as he can.
Are We Out of Step with These Priorities?
Now we need to ask if we are out of step with these three priorities. Do we set our minds on things that are above (Colossians 3:2)? Do we live like our citizenship is in heaven and wait eagerly for the Savior to return (Philippians 3:20)? Do we feel like death would be more gain than loss (Philippians 1:21)? Are we so entangled with this world that leaving it is the worst thing we can think of?
When I pray for revival at Bethlehem and in the American Church, this is mainly what I have in mind: Lord pour out your Spirit in such a way that your people desire Christ more than they desire other things and other people. Revival is the inflaming of love to Christ. Revival is not first miracles like healing or prophetic utterances or speaking in tongues—as precious as those things are (and I do mean precious!). It is possible to have the gift of healing, and yet love health more than we love going to be with Christ. It is possible to have the gift of prophecy, and yet crave pornography more than you crave the second coming of Jesus. It is possible to speak in tongues and love your gold rings and $1,200 suits and $40,000 cars more than you believe that death is gain.
Which is why when I pray for revival, I pray first for the most radical thing: the utter devotion and allegiance of your hearts to Christ. That you would love him so deeply and long for him so passionately that his coming would be your great hope, and death would be gain, and life would be for Christ and his kingdom.
To that end I want to focus here on the resurrection of our bodies as those who are in Christ. I am talking to believers and I am praying that unbelievers who hear me will turn from the dead-end street of self-reliance and believe. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved”—you will be forgiven and after you die you will be raised to live with Christ forever.
Refocusing on Our Final Hope: Bodily Resurrection
It seems to me that the hope of resurrection does not have the same place of power and centrality for us today that it had for the early Christians. And I think one of the reasons for that is that we have a wrong view of the age to come. When we talk about the future and the eternal state, we tend to talk about heaven, and heaven tends to imply a place far away characterized by non-material, ethereal, disembodied spirits.
In other words, we tend to assume that the condition that the departed saints are in NOW without their bodies is the way it will always be. And we have encouraged ourselves so much with how good it is for them now, we tend to forget that it is an imperfect state and not the way it will be, nor the way Paul wanted it to be for himself. Yes to die is gain, and yes, to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord, but NO this is not our ultimate hope. This is not the final state of our joy. This is not our final or main comfort when we have lost loved ones who believe.
The Comfort Paul Offered to the Thessalonians
For example, when the church in Thessalonica lost believing loved ones, the main comfort that Paul offered was not that they were with Christ (as true and wonderful as that is), but that they would be raised bodily from the dead in time to participate physically in the coming of Christ. He said (in 1 Thessalonians 4:15), “We who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.” “Precede”? What does he mean by that? Precede in what sense?
Precede in What Sense?
The next verse answers the question: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first.” “First!” Ah, there’s the key. We will not precede them, for they will rise first. You see how different that is from the way we tend to comfort each other today. We would say, “We won’t precede them, because they are already with the Lord.” We would be thinking merely in terms of going to heaven. They got there first by leaving their bodies behind.
But that is not what Paul says. As true as it is, that is not the main hope or the main comfort for us Christians. What Paul does say is this: We will not precede them because they will be raised first. Not because they go to heaven first, which is true, but because they will be raised first.
In other words, Paul is not thinking mainly of heaven far away but of the glory of what happens here: their bodies will not be left in the grave while we have the joy of physically meeting the Lord in the air and welcoming him to his kingdom. They won’t stay in the grave while we are changed in the twinkling of an eye and clothed with immortality. No, verse 17 says, “The dead in Christ will rise first. Then [and only then] we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them [not before them] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord.”
“With the Lord”
And when he says, “with the Lord,” he means with the one whom (because of the resurrection) we can see and hear and touch with our bodies—with eyes and ears and hands something like what we have now. That is our hope—to be with the risen Christ with a body like his glorious body. To know him in a form like his. Our final destiny and our eternal state is not an ethereal, disembodied state in a distant heaven. It is to reign with Christ here on the renewed earth. This hope was so vibrant for the early Christians that they comforted each other not mainly with the joys of the disembodied state after death, but with the hope of resurrection bodies (cf. Philippians 3:21).
One of the Greatest Descriptions of the Resurrection
Now look at today’s text for one of the greatest descriptions of that event.
“Flesh and Blood Cannot Inherit the Kingdom of God”
Verse 50: “Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” What does that mean? Is it a wholesale denial of the bodily resurrection? No. “Flesh and blood” simply means “human nature as we know it”—mortal, perishable, sin-stained, decaying. Something so fragile and temporary as the body we now have will not be the stuff of the eternal, durable, unshakable, indestructible kingdom of God. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be bodies.
It means that our bodies will be greater. They will be our bodies, but they will be different and more wonderful. Verse 52: “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” When he says “the dead will be raised” he means we—the dead—will be raised. If God meant to start all over with no continuity between the body I have now and the one I will have, why would Paul say, “The dead will be raised”? Why would he not say, “The dead will not be raised” since they are decomposed and their molecules are scattered into plants and animals for a thousand miles and so God will start from scratch since there are no bodies to raise, and he will make totally new bodies that have no connection with the old ones? He did not say that, because it is not true.
The Dead Will Be Raised and They Will Be Changed
He said two things; the dead will be raised (that teaches continuity); and he said they will be changed—they will be made imperishable and immortal. The old body will become a new body. But it will be your body. God is able to do what we cannot imagine. The resurrection is not described in terms of a totally new creation but in terms of a change of the old creation. “We shall all be changed” (v. 51b).
An Analogy to Seeds and Plants
Look back now at verses 37–38. Paul compares the resurrection to what happens to a seed when it goes into the ground. “That which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body just as he wished, and to each of the seeds a body of its own.” The point is that there is connection and continuity between the simple seed and the beautiful plant. When you plant a wheat seed, you don’t get a barley plant. But on the other hand there is difference. A plant is more beautiful than a seed.
Verses 42–44 apply the analogy to the resurrection body: “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; 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.”
Why Does It Matter?
I can hear someone say, “Why bother!” Let it go. Who needs it? All that matters is the spiritual realities of love and joy and peace and righteousness and goodness and truth. Why the big fuss over arms and legs and hands and feet and hair and eyes and ears and tongues? It seems so earthly.
The Physical Universe Exists to Glorify God
We will see more of the answer in two weeks when we talk about the new earth. But let me close with part of the answer today by pointing you to 1 Corinthians 6:19–20. God did not create the physical universe willy-nilly. He had a reason, namely, to add to the ways his glory is externalized and made manifest. “The skies are telling the glory of God.” That’s why he made them.
Your body fits into that same category of physical things that God created for this reason. He is not going to back out on his plan to glorify himself through human beings and human bodies. So 1 Corinthians 6:19–20 says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.”
Honoring the Work of Jesus
Why does God go to all the trouble to dirty his hands to reestablish your body and clothe it with immortality? Because his Son paid the price of his life so that God could be glorified in your body forever and ever. “You were bought with a price, therefore glorify God with your bodies.” God will not dishonor the work of his Son. That’s why he will raise your body.
The sting of death is sin (15:56), but Christ bore the curse of sin. The power of sin is the law (15:56), but Christ satisfied the demands of the law. Therefore Paul cries out, “Thanks be to God who gives the victory through Jesus Christ.” When Christ died, he forgave sin and fulfilled the law and defeated death and obtained not just our souls but also our bodies.
Therefore God will honor the work of his Son by raising your body from the dead, and you will use your body to glorify him forever and ever. That is why you have a body now. And that is why it will be raised imperishable.
By John Piper. © Desiring God. Website: http://www.desiringgod.org/.