Paul’s argument here regarding the body of resurrection is analogous — similar, even identical — to his argument about the body of Christ dealt with earlier (1 Corinthians 10-12). The argument stands on or is based upon the reality of the Trinity. The most primary character of reality itself is Trinitarian because all understanding of reality comes through human beings who have been created in the image of God, who is Trinitarian. What Paul said in this section is about what it means to say that reality itself is most fully understood as Trinitarian. He is saying that resurrection is a reality because God is Trinitarian.
The first thing that we need to understand is that the Trinity is axiomatic for the regenerate (who assume it) and nonsensical to the unregenerate (who don’t). To have faith in Jesus Christ is to assume His reality and truth, which are Trinitarian in that Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit are in Trinitarian unity. A Trinitarian perspective is essential for the eyes of faith. This is the essential insight and argument that Paul has been making throughout First Corinthians. Paul preached “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ (is) the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24).
Consequently, Paul does not argue in order to establish the truth and reality of the Trinitarian perspective, rather, arsy varsy, his arguments are based upon the truth and reality of the Trinitarian perspective. He assumes it. But it is more than a mere abstract assumption, for Paul it is a personal testimony. It is the foundation or basis upon which all life and understanding rest.
The question that Paul answers here is, What is a resurrection body? What does “resurrection body” mean? How can we understand it? It is intimately related to the question, What is the body of Christ? What does Scripture mean when it refers to the body of Christ?
Paul’s first response to this question is to note that the question itself issues from foolishness. “You foolish person!” he said. “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies” (1 Corinthians 15:36). It’s a foolish question, a futile question that cannot be answered by Paul, or by anyone, except Jesus Christ through regeneration. The question asks, “How?” It’s a technical question about the mechanics of resurrection and is out of bounds because it is beyond our human ability to comprehend. Only God can answer such a question, and the answer will assume a level of comprehension on a par (equal) with God, which excludes human beings.
Paul wrote to the Philippians that even though Jesus “was in the form of God, (He) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6). Our human ability to understand is not on a par with God’s. Many things are simply beyond us, as individuals and as human beings. We can’t explain everything — nor do we need to! God doesn’t need to explain everything either. Nonetheless, God gives us what we need. God’s explanations are sufficient, but not comprehensive. To insist on a comprehensive explanation is to deny that what God has given is sufficient. To insist on a comprehensive explanation is an act of faithlessness.
Paul tells us that the key to understanding this issue is death. “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies” (1 Corinthians 15:36). Paul makes an analogous argument from nature. A seed becomes a seed only when it has developed an independent, individual existence apart from the plant. Then, the seed does not germinate until it is planted in the ground and dies as a seed. And the resulting germination and maturity of the plant does not in any way resemble the planted seed. In addition, the transformation of the seed appears to be its death and destruction,. And lastly, life in seed form is nothing like life in plant form.
He explains that “what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel” (1 Corinthians15:37). Our current bodies are resurrection bodies in seed form. These bodies must be planted in death in order to germinate in resurrection life. This life in these bodies that we currently experience is nothing like resurrection life in resurrected bodies. They are as different as seed and plant, egg and chicken, caterpillar and butterfly. Though the seed becomes the plant, the egg becomes the chicken and the caterpillar becomes the butterfly, they are each so different from one another as to be completely unrelated, except inasmuch as the reality of their continuity is personally experienced. We could never guess that seed and plant are related unless we witness the planting and the growth — the transformation of one form into another. We could never guess that the egg and the chicken are related unless we witness the laying and hatching. We could never guess that the caterpillar and butterfly are related unless we watch the process of chrysalis and transformation.
The continuity can only be observed and witnessed. Thus, the continuity is a testimony, a personal observation, a personal experience. The continuity is not something that can be explained. It is something that we behold in wonder and awe. We call it a fact that seeds become plants, that eggs become chickens and that caterpillars become butterflies. And scientists provide amazing descriptions and theories about how it all works, about how one phase or stage of the process morphs into another. But the truth is that we have no idea how it works. The truth, explanations about how it works, simply recede into the infinitesimally small elements of which reality is composed. The more we can see of the process, the more amazing it appears.
Paul explains that “God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body” (1 Corinthians 15:38). Why does the seed become the plant? Why does the egg become the chicken? Why does the caterpillar become the butterfly? Because that is the way that God created things. How does this happen? We have no idea other than that God tells us that “each according to its kind” (Genesis 1:11) produces more of its own kind. God does not answer the how question, other than pointing to his own Trinitarian character. The closest we can get to understanding how these things work is to understand the nature and character of the Trinity. The most fundamental and/or essential understanding of the way that the world works (the inquiry of science) requires an understanding of the Trinity. Inasmuch as we know the truth of God, we will know the truth of the world in which we live. And conversely, the more we deny the truth of God the more we block our understanding of the world.
Paul continues with an explanation that God created different kinds of life forms. “For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish” (1 Corinthians 15:39). We note that Paul associated each kind with a different habitat. Starting with the end of Paul’s list we see that the habitat of fish is water, the habitat of birds is air, the habitat of animals is land, and the habitat of human beings is … what? Isn’t that the issue? Isn’t Paul talking about the human habitat?
Paul has been arguing for the reality of resurrection. This is another instance of that argument. We know from Genesis that the earth is the human habitat. But earth is only part of the human habitat. Scripture also tells us that there is a heaven, that heaven is also part of the human habitat, even the essential part because it is eternal. Paul sets out a fundamental contrast between heaven and earth, celestial and terrestrial, but sets the contrast in such a way as to indicate that while they are different, one is a reflection of the other. Which one is the reflection and which the reality? Jesus taught us to pray that God’s will would one day be done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). For us to hope and pray for that day suggests that heaven is the reality, the model, and earth is the reflection of the glory of heaven — in a “mirror dimly” without a doubt, but one day “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Phillip A. Ross has been a pastor for over 25 years. He founded http://www.Pilgrim-Platform.org in 1998, which contains information about historic Christianity. His book on First Corinthians in 2008 demonstrates the Apostle Paul’s fierce opposition to worldly Christianity. Arsy Varsy — Reclaiming the Gospel in First Corinthians shows how Paul turned the world upside down.