1 Corinthians 15:20
But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept.
1. Our common ideas and fears of death are more Pagan than Christian. Death to many men is the blank wall around life beyond which they look or plan for nothing. But physical death does not hold the first place in the economy of redemption. The Bible assigns it a subordinate place. Sin, indeed, entailed the certainty of death for man; but Adam was not commanded by the Lord to live every day a slave bound under the fear of death. Man is to work out his time here, and to pass through death, as born under the higher law of the Spirit, and with the possibility of eternal life always before him. And in the New Testament the chief use made of the fact of death is as a metaphor. Sin is death; the maid whom the people, thought dead Christ said "sleepeth." The importance of natural death falls into the background, and the new birth of the Spirit comes into the foreground.
2. The Christian doctrine of the Resurrection is a stumbling-block to faith because of this exaggerated estimate of death. We speak as though death were the ultimate law of life, and thus we have to smuggle in our hope of the resurrection as a miraculous exception. Exactly the opposite is true. Life is the law of nature, and death a natural means to more life and better. The resurrection of Jesus was not the great exception to natural law; it is an exemplification of the higher, universal law of life. In the opinion of the apostle the resurrection of Jesus was no more out of the Divine order of things than the first-fruits of the summer are exceptions to the general law which in the autumn shall show its universal power in every harvest-field.
3. The resurrection of Jesus is the great miracle of history, the corner-stone of the evidences of supernatural religion. But the miracle was not the fact itself, but in that He was raised before the last great day, and that He should be seen by men in His intermediate state between earth and heaven. And the God of the living had His own sufficient reason for making this one exception. It was partly for our sakes, that the world might believe. Was it not due also to the person of Jesus that He should not wait with all the saints for the day of final redemption? The miraculous thus in Jesus' resurrection pertains to the manner and time of it rather than to the essential fact of it. It was an exceptional fruit appearing before the harvest, which is the end of the world. If you should see a tree blossom, and the next morning find the fruit already ripe, you would say, That is extraordinary! It is not indeed contrary to the nature of the tree that fruit should ripen, yet contrary to all our experience of growth that the fruit should ripen in a day. And it would not be impossible to conceive a quickening of nature's forces which might cause a plant to break into fruitfulness contrary to our experience of its usual times and seasons. Somewhat so is Jesus' resurrection a first-fruit of the tree of life; not in itself contrary to the law of life, but in its manner and time out of the common order.
I. THERE IS NO LITTLE SCRIPTURAL EVIDENCE FOR THE BELIEF THAT THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS, ALTHOUGH EXCEPTIONAL IN TIME AND MANNER, IS AN INSTANCE OF A GENERAL LAW OF RESURRECTION.
1. This was Jesus' teaching,. He answered the Sadducees by asserting that the dead shall be raised, but He placed the fact of the Resurrection upon the fundamental principle that life, not death, is God's first law. The highest law of human nature according to Christ is that it should "live unto God"; if there is to be eternal death, that death must come in as the exception, as the falling back of a soul from the kind of life for which it was created to the lower powers of corruption. It is born for freedom and life in constant relation to the living God; if it is to perish it can only be by making itself, through some inner falsehood, subject to corruption.
2. The Lord's own resurrection is set forth as an event which could not possibly have failed to occur (Acts 2:24, 27). How can holiness see corruption? how can life itself be given over to death? Impossible! It would have been a miracle had not Jesus risen from the dead — a miracle without reason, a miracle against the living God, had He not risen from the dead — the first-fruits of this power and order of Divine life in the creation.
3. The same truth comes out grandly in the apostolic gospel of the Resurrection. What is this wonderful chapter but a setting forth of the glorious law of the resurrection? First the historical fact that Jesus was seen after His death is solemnly attested; then Jesus' resurrection is declared to be the first-fruits of the whole harvest of life which is to follow; and then this process of the resurrection is shown to be in the largest and profoundest sense natural. It is a spiritual outgrowth from this body of death.
(1) The nature of the resurrection is in accordance with law. If there is a natural body there is also a spiritual body — the latter is just as much in the Divine order of things as is the former — the creation is made and constituted for the higher spiritual body as much as for the lower natural body.
(2) Its method is in accordance with law. First the God-given seed, then its quickening in the earth, then its springing up out of its earthliness into its own element, and its being clothed upon with its own proper form and texture, as God gives "to each seed a body of its own."(3) Its whole process is in accordance with law (vers. 46, 47). The apostle was not standing dazed before a miracle. He has caught a glimpse into the first principles of life which go deeper than death. He has learned that the resurrection is the promised fulfilment of the laws of life which have been with God from before the foundation of the world. The stars which differ in glory are no more miracles in the sky than is the resurrection of the dead to the apostle who had seen the risen Lord. The sun and the moon are no more exceptions to the ancient order of the heavens than the souls of men raised from the dead, and clothed upon with the shining glory of the celestial, are out of the Divine order and harmony to the eye of the apostle who has seen the risen Lord.
II. THE BIBLICAL TEACHING OF THE RESURRECTION IS THAT IT IS IN ACCORDANCE WITH LAW. WHY SHOULD IT SEEM OTHERWISE TO US?
1. Why should we regard it as a thing incredible that God should raise the dead? Is there anything which we have seen upon this earth which contradicts the spiritual law of our full redemption? Apparent con.tradictions to this gospel there are, but not one which is real. On the other hand, there are positive facts arranging themselves now in lengthening lines, over which we look straight out into the unseen and the eternal. As I cannot think of a star except as I think of it as in the sky, so I cannot think of this visible sphere of things or nature except as existing in some invisible realm and larger presence. And particularly in confirmation of this Scriptural faith in the Divine orderliness of the resurrection and eternal life, let me now merely suggest these considerations.
(1) We do know this, that death is not the only law of nature; there is also the law of life.
(2) It is a fact that of the two laws life, not death, is the higher and prevailing power so far as we can see. The earth was dead, so they tell us, ages ago. Now how this earth lives!
(3) Even here, where death reigns, life has been growing higher, more complex, more capable of larger correspondences with things. Between the lowest living thing and the brain of man there is a difference of life wide as the distance between the earth and the heavens. Plainly, then, without any doubt, life is something stronger thus far upon this earth than death. Notwithstanding death, life grows to be more and richer.
2. But this is not all. What is death, so far as we can see? Here is a minute living thing in a glass of water. You turn the water out. That living particle is now mere dust upon the glass. Dead — that is, it is no longer moving in an element corresponding to its capacity of vital movements. Death, then, is simply some wrong or imperfect adjustment of life to external conditions. But death may be partial, then, not entire. A part of the body may be dead. A man may be dead in some relations, and still live in others. There is a sense in which we die daily. Life is the principle, the force, the law; death the limitation, the accident, the partial negation of God's great affirmation of life in things. Now see where this thought leads.
(1) Death is the sundering of certain relations of life towards outward things.
(2) Therefore, when the body finally is wholly dead and buried, when all these physical relations are wholly broken off, so much of life is certainly gone, but nothing else in a man, if there is anything more of him, is dead. "You may catch me if you can find me," said Socrates, as he let his body go. And the Scripture says, "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living."
3. This view of the partial and negative power and function of death opens up a further rational possibility of life. We have only to suppose a living soul in perfect adjustment to God, and all God's laws of things, to conceive of a being possessing eternal life. "This is life eternal that they might know Thee," etc. In such perfect adjustment of being to God and His laws the finite spirit would exist in its final spiritual embodiment. Eternal life would be the perfect harmony of the inward and outward conditions — the final union of the spirit of the just made perfect with God and His universe. Conclusion: If these things be so it follows that our true life consists in our coming at once into the right correspondence with that which is the real and eternal element of life — with God and His righteousness. We are made to live in perfect harmony with all good, beautiful, and true things, or in communion with God. The only thing to be feared is spiritual death. That is non-adjustment of our hearts to God. There is one thing which I cannot but fear, and that is the loss of one's own soul. And I am afraid of the death which I see already going beyond the physical man, benumbing the conscience, and chilling the very souls of men. He that hath the Son hath life; he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.
(Newman Smyth, D.D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.