“Putting on Immortality” (1 Cor.15:54)
In this part of the series we shall get down to the nitty-gritty of what it means to receive our new resurrection bodies, and I think it may cause a few eye-brows to be raised, simply because some do not know how to handle, or unravel figurative language, of which the Bible is replete with examples.
Our heading, “Putting on Immortality” is a case in point. Paul speaks about it as we might speak about “Putting on our best suit”. The “clothing” analogy is actually used quite extensively in the N.T., and warrants our closest attention. We shall look at the figure in two parts.
The first part relates to our spiritual new-birth, and how we grow to spiritual manhood. This will enable us to understand the second part, to do with resurrection, with greater clarity. “Born-again Christians” have received new life, spiritual life, and once this has happened a battle begins between “the flesh” and “the spirit”. Paul refers to these as “the old man” and “the new man in Christ.” He then goes on to encourage believers to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” (Rom.13:14) This is just the beginning of his use of the “clothing” analogy. Pursuing this figure, he tells the Ephesians to “put off as regards your former conduct the old man, which is corrupt,” (4:22) and to “put on the new man, created in holiness, righteousness, and truth.” (4:24)
As to what this means in practice, Paul explains in a variety of places things like, “put off lying, and speak truth, every one with his neighbour,” (Eph.425) and “put off all these, anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, and abuse out of your mouth,” (Col.3:8) and “let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light,” (Rom.13:12) and Peter echoes this by saying, “put off all malice, guile, and hypocrisies.” (1 Peter 2:1)
On the positive side, we are enjoined to “put on, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, forbearing and forgiving one another . . . as Christ forgave you.” (Col.3:12) And in respect of our warfare against spiritual powers of darkness, we are warned to “put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the Devil,” (Eph 6:11) and to “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet, the hope of salvation.” (1 Thess.5:8)
Sometimes Paul dispenses with the figure, and speaks more plainly, as in Romans 12:2. “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good, acceptable, and perfect will of God.”
To sum up, we can say that once we are born again, we have a daily task and duty to embrace all those qualities that speak of righteousness, holiness, truth, and love, (reflecting the very character of God Himself), and put to death all the works of the flesh, the old nature that was our inheritance from Adam.
This is possible because of the spirit that dwells within us. Of ourselves we would be totally incapable of such a transformation of character, but “if through the spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you shall live.” (Romans 8:13) Furthermore, this is not the job of a few days, months, or even years, but a lifelong daily quest of obedience to the Lord.
In part 1 we had occasion to speak about the Overcomers, and the promises made to them. “He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments.” (Rev.3:5) The Bride, the Lamb’s wife, is granted that “she should be clothed in fine linen, clean and bright.” (Rev.19:8) But then John unlocks the figure by saying that “the fine linen is (represents) the righteous deeds of the saints.”
Should we expect to see a company of people in resurrection all dressed in flowing white robes, reminiscent of pictures of our Lord when He was on earth? Should we not rather expect to see people dressed in all manner of different outfits, but at the same time know that they all possess those inner qualities of which the figure plainly speaks . Should we envisage masses of people suddenly rising up into the sky, all dressed in white robes, as seen in some pictures depicting the “rapture”? It may be suitable as a figurative depiction of the rapture, but it certainly won’t be an actual happening. This may offend some, but surely we must live in realities, not figures of speech.
And now we come to the second part of this exposition, where the same “clothing figure” is used. Having seen how it is applied in the first part, we shall the more easily be able to unravel the meaning of Paul’s words in First Corinthians.
Paul says something that we all feel, especially as we get older! “In this (body) we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our house from heaven.” He is referring to the resurrection body, and again uses the “clothing” figure. But he goes on to say that “we do not wish to be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality may be swallowed up by life.” (2 Cor.5:2-4) This “being unclothed” refers to dying, whereby the spirit is deprived of a “house” until the resurrection. But when resurrection comes to those who are still living, (which Paul calls “the change”) then our mortality is “swallowed up” by life. Here then is a new figure, by which a death process is eaten up by a life process.
Let me give a very personal example of this as it has transpired in my own life. A few years ago I was diagnosed as having cancer on my ear. The surgeon told me that I needed to have a portion of the ear cut away, which idea I didn’t like at all. However, I learned that a substance known as laetrile, or Vitamin B17, (found to be strongly present in apricot kernels) has the property of seeking out and eating away cancerous growth. I started taking 10 kernels each day with breakfast, and after a couple of months the cancer was gone, never to return. The surgeon had to admit that “it worked”, but had little else to say when he discharged me.
The B17 was a “life giving” substance, and the cancer was an agent of death. The B17 had “swallowed up” the death process, leaving me free of cancer. This example, although relating to ordinary human existence, clearly indicates the nature of the new resurrection body, which has the power to “eat up”, destroy, eliminate everything pertaining to our present mortal state.
Paul says, “This corruptible state must put on incorruption, and this mortal state must put on immortality.” (1 Cor.15:53) Our “new coats” are ready and waiting for us, kept safe in heaven until the Lord gives the word. When this happens, “death is swallowed up in victory.” (Verse 54)
Now comes the test. Can we unlock the figure to see exactly what will happen when “the change” occurs? It is commonly thought and imagined that when we are changed we shall suddenly be transformed into a bright shining body, as in an instant of time. One is constantly regaled these days with the specious propaganda of the “Left behind” movement, which envisages “little piles of clothes” where a moment before there were human beings, who are now flying away to meet the Lord. In this setting, the authors propose that all manner of destruction will occur as a result of these sudden disappearances. But they have totally missed the point.
Here, for example, is the pilot of a Jumbo Jet, a man of sterling faith, who daily looks to the Lord, and (like Paul) “loves His appearing”. The day comes when the Lord “throws the switch” and he is changed into his new body. Instead of disappearing, he is clothed upon with that life-giving force that begins the process of “eating up” his mortal state. It is a process that has a beginning, and the change will be gradual until it is completed. The pilot is even more in charge of his aircraft now than ever he was before. And that is just the beginning of a glorious new life, as he is changed “from glory into glory”.
How do we know it will happen in this way? Simply by observing what happened when our Lord rose from the dead. How did He appear to His disciples? Did He not ask them to look at the nail prints? Didn’t they recognise Him? Was He not very much like He was just a few days before? Even so it will be with us when we are changed. The actual change will occur in a moment of time, in the “wink of an eye”, but from then on there will be the gradual “eating away” of what is left of the mortal state until there is nothing left, and all is new. Paul said, “If we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection.”(Rom.6:5) If it happened that way to the Lord, it will undoubtedly happen in like manner to us.
But when John saw the Lord in heaven, what a transformation had taken place. “His head, and His hair, were like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes were a flame of fire, and His feet were like burnished bronze as if fired in a furnace, and His voice like the sound of many waters.” (Rev.1:14-15)
To conclude this aspect of our study, I should like to quote from The Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch, a writing from shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, by a Jewish author. There is no trace of Christian influence of any kind, but clearly the author was steeped in the knowledge of his Bible, and says that he received direct revelation from the Lord. It is not necessary to argue the point about “authority”. We are not trying to place this writing on a level with Holy Writ, but what he has to say is of great value and interest to the theme as presented in this study.
In chapter 49, Baruch asks the Lord “in what form will those live who live in Thy day, and what will they look like afterwards?” The Lord answers him as follows. “The earth will certainly restore the dead it now receives so as to preserve them. It will make no change in their form, but as it has received them, so also will it raise them. For those who are then alive must be shown that the dead have come to life again.” (Chapter 50)
In the next chapter, the Lord gives details of what will then take place, once they have received their resurrection bodies. “They shall see marvels in their time, for they shall behold the world that is now invisible to them, and realms now hidden from them, and time shall no longer age them. For in the heights of that world they shall dwell, and they shall be made like the angels, and be made equal to the stars, and they shall be changed into whatever form they desire, from beauty into loveliness, and from light into the splendour of glory.”