Exposition of 1 Corinthians 15:35–44a Far-reaching transformation

1 Corinthians 15:35–44a

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39 Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

Starting in verse 35, Paul deals with basic issues blocking the Corinthians from accepting and even embracing the resurrection. Rather than confronting them directly about their flawed ideas, Paul uses the rhetorical tactic of imagining that “Someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’” (1 Cor. 15:35). In this way the issue of the body arises for the first time in relation to the resurrection. Even at this early stage, Paul plainly assumes that bodily resurrection is the only way it happens; we do not live with God as disembodied spirits of some sort.

Gordon Fee gives us an understanding of where the Corinthian thinking about resurrection began: “The real concern behind their denial of the resurrection of the dead was an implicit understanding that that meant the reanimation of dead bodies, the resuscitation of corpses.”[1] Apparently, the idea of returning to life as some sort of zombie did not play any better in Roman Corinth than it does with us today.

NIV is taking of the edge by translating Paul’s response as “How foolish!” (1 Cor. 15:36). NET Bible has “Fool!”, ESV has “You foolish person!”, and Anthony Thiselton offers “You nonsense person!”[2] David Garland helpfully points out that the idea of a “fool” has deep biblical roots.[3] A fool says in their heart, “There is no God” (Psalms 14:1). By not taking the creative power of God into account in relation to resurrection, the Corinthians are showing themselves to be fools.

Paul begins his demonstration of their deficiency by using a metaphor from farming: they plant wheat knowing that the seed must die in order to produce a crop and that the crop will look nothing at all like the seed (verses 36–37). Garland says, “He intends only to underscore the change between the naked seed sown in the ground and what will be harvested.”[4] Thiselton adds the idea that, in order to be transformed, we must go through a discontinuity — death — and be reanimated in a different mode of existence.[5]

The key to the transformation the seed undergoes in the ground is that “God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each seed he gives its own body” (verse 38). Thiselton brings out a vital point when he says, “The key phrase remains God gives it a body just as he purposed, but the second principle is that of contrast, differentiation, and variety which simultaneously promotes a continuity of identity.”[6] According to God’s creative purpose, we are not resurrected as clones but with our own distinct identity, just as we had our own individual identity in death. (Parenthetically, did you ever wonder why angels have names? It is because they are different individuals.)

Before we reach two more metaphors in verses 39–40, it is important to note another likely Corinthian belief that stood in the way of their understanding bodily resurrection. Garland explains, “The problem that must be resolved to the Corinthians’ satisfaction is how the polarity between the earthly sphere and the heavenly sphere is to be bridged.”[7] Philosophers in that day taught that it was impossible for an earthly body to ascend to the celestial realm. Spoiler alert: God will do the impossible just as he did in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ! Thiselton says, “What Paul aims to set before his readers is the conceivability, on the basis of a theology of God as creator of diverse orders of beings, of a ‘sort of body . . . entirely outside our present experience.’”[8]

Paul shifts metaphors in 1 Cor. 15:39 by contrasting the different types of flesh: people, animals, birds, fish. This proves the principle “Not all flesh is the same.” God’s creative power is such as to provide what is needed to make each type different. Hold this idea until Paul draws them all together in verse 42. Verse 39 is one of the rare cases where the Greek noun sarx (“flesh”) actually means “the material that covers the bones of a human or animal body.”[9]

Another metaphor shift brings heavenly bodies into view in verses 40–41. This enables him to introduce the Greek noun doxa (“splendor” or “glory”) by way of saying that the splendor of sun, moon and stars differ according to the order God has established. They differ, and each has its own measure of splendor.

As we enter verse 42, Thiselton lists the various elements Paul has established and will now use to make his case:

a. the discontinuity between the old body which is “sown” (v. 37) and the new body which is “raised” (v. 42);

b. the sovereign power of God to enact far-reaching transformation of his own devising, however unimaginable this may be to human mortals now (v. 38);

c. the variety of modes of existence that lie within the sovereign capacity of God to create; and

d. the continuity of identity suggested by such terms as each . . . its own body (v. 38).[10]

 Paul now sets forth (vs. 42–44) four ways to contrast the body we possess in this earthly existence, the old creation, and the body we will receive after resurrection in the fullness of the new creation:

Sown in decay — raised in decay’s reversal

Sown in humiliation — raised in splendor

Sown in weakness — raised in power

Sown an ordinary human body — raised a body constituted by the Spirit.[11]

It is important to say that Paul “affirms the biblical tradition of a positive attitude toward physicality as a condition for experiencing life in its fullness.”[12] After all, it was God who gave us bodies in the first place. The new body that Christians will receive at the resurrection will not have any of the weakness and vulnerability associated with the old body.

Copyright © 2014 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Us



[1] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 776.

[2] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 1263.

[3] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 727.

[4] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 728.

[5] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1263–4.

[6] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1265.

[7] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 730.

[8] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1268.

[9] BDAG-3, sarx, “flesh,” q.v.

[10] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1271.

[11] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1258, 1276–81.

[12] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1279.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!