Questioning the Resurrection of the Dead

Continuing the topic of resurrection in chapter 15, Paul voices some of the questions or objections that he has heard to this fantastic notion of the dead being raised. Some have asked how this happens? If in fact it does happen, what sort of body will they have?

Paul uses several mini-parables to answer this, looking at seeds, animals, and celestial bodies. Even with his concise illustrations this can still be a difficult passage. Or maybe I should say, of course it is a difficult passage. Resurrection is not an easy thing to believe in. In a very literal sense, it’s not natural for us. Nature allows for birth and death, but no more. The resurrection is supernatural.

For such an amazing concept, maybe watching a short video will help. Here’s NT Wright on resurrection and its understanding in the first century. It’s not very long (6 min), but it is part of a much longer video, if you’re feeling adventurous.

Build a cathedral, not a new vacation home

In my commentary on 1 Corinthians by NT Wright, he uses a great illustration for the purpose behind these spiritual gifts. Paul desires that they be used for the body, for love, and to build up. Wright then describes two different building projects in his writings on this section.

And the key question, which he highlights in the first verse, is: are you behaving according to the principle of chapter 13? Are you exercising the gifts God gives you in the spirit of love? The underlying contrast here is the same as we saw in chapter 8, verses 1–2: there are some things which can ‘puff you up’, making you proud and self-important, but what builds people up is love. And this chapter is all about making sure that public worship ‘builds everybody up’ rather than simply everybody developing their own spiritual giftedness and displaying it like so many strutting peacocks. When people come together to worship the God revealed in Jesus, they are not building their own private houses. They are building a great cathedral for all to share and enjoy.

Why Does Paul Want Women Covering their Heads in 1 Corinthians 11?

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

Misunderstanding the Traditions

Paul has passed on traditions, or teachings, to the Corinthians, but as is his pattern, he then moves on to other churches. Paul is a missionary and he is persistent in traveling the Mediterranean world, spreading the gospel, and helping to plant churches. He does his best to remain faithful to this calling, but the difficulty is that he always is leaving behind brothers and sisters that he cares for and about whom he is concerned. While he does identify leadership for the new congregations, others travel from city to city and at times teach other gospels and challenge what he has received and taught himself. This is why the tone of his letters is often pushing back against new teachings or misunderstandings of what he left for them.

Already in this letter he has dealt with an issue around a teaching that “all things are lawful for me.” The church had taken this to mean that freedom in Christ could encourage any and all actions. Paul wants to affirm the freedom Christ has purchased for us, but he wants to correct their misunderstandings that led to lawlessness and sin. Yes, we have freedom, but it is freedom to live for God, not return to slavery and bondage to sin.

No male and female?

It is possible that another tradition that he passed on was something like what we find in Galatians 3:25-29:

But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

If the church misunderstood a teaching like this, it may have led to the problem we see in 1 Corinthians 11. Perhaps the women there, affirming the freedom we have in Christ and the new way Christ’s church is structured, no longer favoring the males, took the notion of “there is no male and female” a step further. What is meant as a leveling of the sexes, as well as ethnic and social status, in regards to our standing in Jesus Christ, could have been taken to obscure gender and sex altogether.

Looking back to creation where humans are created male and female, Paul doesn’t want the church to eliminate the distinction between the sexes. They are seen as equals, but we are not to undo the order of creation and elimiminate the sexes, altogether.

That could have been the background to this section and the reason for the women to be uncovering their heads. The practice of their day was for women, in public settings, to cover their hair. If some saw such a practice as unnecessary now that there is “no male and female” they would have done away with it, uncovering their hair or cutting it in a fashion similar to men of that day–short. But as I said, Paul doesn’t want them to think that creation is undone. God’s creation is good, including God’s making us male and female, and in Christ that is not discarded but maintained. Male and female are both valued in the church, and the one does not have to become like the other nor do they both need to be subsumed into a genderless condition. So when Paul instructs the church in reference to its dress, using the cultural norms of that day, he is trying to preserve a distinction. It is not a distinction in roles in worship, for as I said yesterday, women in this chapter are clearly praying and prophesying, but rather a distinction in appearance between men and women.

Cultural Associations and Sensitivities

To make the matter more complex, it is likely that the segment of the female population that did uncover their hair publicly were prostitutes. This, as well, is not something that Paul would then want in the worship of the church. He wouldn’t want women, in seeking to enact their freedom, to be a stumbling block to their own church or be a poor witness to the world (1 Corinthians 10:32). Do they have the freedom to uncover their hair? This is not a question unlike previous chapters asking about eating food that has been offered to idols. But similarly, the question should instead be, “What action is going to build up?” Is the way that the women of the church, in their specific culture, present themselves building up and loving the congregation? This would especially be an important question for the female prophets as they lead in worship.

Whenever we have a chance to stand before a people, speaking for God and about God, the goal should not be to draw attention to ourselves. We don’t want to cause confusion, temptations, or detract in any way from the message. The attention and focus should be on the one who has called us. The way this applies to dress and other aspects of public leading will change depending on the culture and audience. But the goal is to lift up Jesus Christ and his good news, with as little hindrance as possible.

Further Reading

As I said yesterday, there is a great deal written on this chapter, and this only has begun to scratch the surface. I hope that it has furthered your study in some small way. That being said, there are parts I haven’t dealt with today and I’d encourage you to continue to study this passage. There are a multitude of opinions and it is difficult to separate what our current cultural climate may want this passage to say from what God is teaching us through Paul’s words to this church in Corinth.

I’m linking to one article to read if you want a place to start. It is by NT Wright, whose commentary I’ve used for studying 1 Corinthians, and in his paper he includes some of his research from that commentary. But reading it at the link provided gives you a taste of the commentary without having to buy anything. While at first glance it may seem long, compared to what is out there, it isn’t so bad. For an admittedly difficult passage like 1 Corinthians 11, you don’t want people to move too quickly and skim over the tricky parts. It assumes some level of familiarity with the passage and it is written to a British audience, but if you take your time, I think there is much to benefit from it.

On Triggers that Cause Us to Stumble

This morning in a Bible study with some men someone spoke a bit about “triggers.” We’ve all got them, some sort of stimulus that can bring about a memory, an action, a feeling, etc. Sometimes they are good triggers, sometimes they are not. We can see this food that has been offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8 as a sort of trigger. For those still struggling against their old ways and old life in which they worshipped false gods and took part not only in the feasting, but in all the activities of the temple, just seeing that meat may have triggered a whole wave of associations. NT Wright puts it like this in his commentary, “Paul for Everyone”:

They knew what went on there – the dark sense of mystery and fear, the sense that in feasting at the god’s table you were really eating and drinking the god himself, taking his life to be your own life; and then the drink, the sense of casting off moral restraint, the girls and boys waiting round the back to do whatever you wanted in return for a little extra payment to the god … And once you had shared in that dark but powerful world on a regular basis, perhaps for many years, it would be difficult, in your memory and imagination, to separate part of it from the whole thing. Now that you had become a Christian you would feel you had been rescued from the world of darkness and brought out into the light. True worship wasn’t like that; truly human living wasn’t like that. You had escaped. You were free.

Paul wants those who have the knowledge that leads them to be secure in whatever they eat to, in love, think first about their Christian brother or sister. If by eating meat sacrificed to idols or going to those temples to have a meal you cause you fellow believer to conjure up all these past experiences, is it really worth it? Of course not.

It’s important for us to know our own triggers, as well. It isn’t so that we can impose new rules and restrictions, setting up our own laws. It is so that we can protect ourselves and by setting up boundaries prevent falling back into sin. When we know our triggers we can prepare ourselves against temptation. The trigger can be even mundane things like, as I mentioned in this morning’s study, someone cutting you off on your way home from work. Let’s say you notice that when this happens you’re more likely to be rude and impatient to your spouse or roommate when you get home. If you are aware of this trigger and how it makes you anxious and a bit on the grumpy side, that will help you prepare yourself and cause you to say an extra prayer before you walk in the door for the help of the Spirit to give you the strength you need.

And when we are aware of our own triggers we can be much more understanding of others around us. Something that may have no affect on you may have a huge affect on someone else. If our goal is to build one another up that may mean that we forgo our rights and freedoms and instead seek to remove the stumbling blocks from our brother or sister’s path.

NT Wright with Some Helpful Background on the Ancient World in 1 Corinthians 8

Ancient Temple at Corinth Engraving by William Miller

As you read chapter eight of 1 Corinthians, keep this short passage in mind. It is the opening two paragraphs from NT Wright’s commentary, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians. As usual, Wright opens with a short anecdote that relates to the passage, in this case about food that is sacrificed to idols and just how prevalent this practice would have been. It provides background on the ancient world that will be helpful for this week’s Bible reading:

There is a restaurant in Rome which is built around the ruins of an old temple. Two of the pillars are still visible. The restaurant makes a feature of them, and is proud of the ancient origins of the building where they now serve excellent pasta, great local cuisine, and fine Italian wines.

But what people don’t normally realize is that in the ancient world the temples normally were the restaurants. Each town or city had plenty of shrines to local gods and goddesses, to the great divinities like Apollo or Venus, and, in Paul’s day, more and more to the Roman emperor and members of his family. And what people mostly did there was to come with animals for sacrifice. When the animal was killed, it would be cooked, and the family (depending on what sort of ritual it was) might have a meal with the meat as the centrepiece. But there was usually more meat than the worshippers could eat, and so other people would come to the temple and share in the food which had been offered to the god.”

N.T. Wright on the Foolishness of the Cross

What was so foolish about the cross?

“The Christian good news is all about God dying on a rubbish-heap at the wrong end of the Empire. It’s all about God babbling nonsense to a room full of philosophers. It’s all about the true God confronting the world of posturing, power and prestige, and overthrowing it in order to set up his own kingdom, a kingdom in which the weak and the foolish find themselves just as welcome as the strong and the wise, if not more so”.

N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians.

No More Tears in God’s New Heaven and New Earth

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Jan van Eyck, c. 1390-1441

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Jan van Eyck, c. 1390-1441

From NT Wright’s commentary, Revelation for Everyone, he says this about Revelation 21:1-5:

When has there been a moment in your life when you have said to yourself, ‘This is new’? I don’t just mean a car with a few new gadgets, or a meal with a different combination of sauces and seasonings – though these, too, may point in the right direction. I’m thinking more of major life-experiences in which we think to ourselves, ‘Everything is going to be different now. This is quite new. This is a whole new world opening up.’

Such experiences might well include some major life-events: birth, marriage, full recovery from a long and dangerous illness, the experience of someone new coming to live with you. All these, interestingly, feature in the list of images which John uses as he builds up this breathtaking picture of the new heaven and new earth. ‘I will be his God and he shall be my son’ (verse 7): a final new birth. The holy city is like ‘a bride dressed up for her husband’: a wedding. There will be ‘no more death, or mourning or weeping or pain any more’: the great recovery. And, central to this whole picture, and indeed explaining what it all means, is the great promise: ‘God has come to dwell with humans.’ The new, permanent guest.

There may be mystery about God’s new creation, but what we do know is surely good news. What a hope we have in Jesus Christ.

Video Overview of Ephesians with NT Wright

If you wanted to hear an overview of Ephesians before you sat down to read it, or better yet, if having already read it, you wanted to hear someone’s thoughts on the letter and be reminded of what you just read, take a look at this video.

In it NT Wright runs through the entire book of Ephesians in about 15 minutes. Although I’d hesitate to say, as it is titled, that this is a quick tour of Ephesians given that you could probably read the whole book in just about that same amount of time.