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A-Z of Paul: Victory

Saturday, September 06, 2008
Paul uses the term 'victory' in just one context, at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. This is a long consideration of the resurrection, responding to a number of difficulties the Corinthians were experiencing about it. One was the classic Greek difficulty about any bodily resurrection. Greek thought tended to be dualistic and to be happy with the idea of a 'spiritual' part or aspect continuing after death but not with the suggestion that bodies might be resurrected. It seemed so obvious that the flesh perished, what could restore it except something equivalent to an act of creation (precisely what Abraham and his children in faith believed about God, the One who could bring life out of death). Many people nowadays talk in the same dualistic terms about what happens after death: a 'spiritual' or even 'divine' part continues while the body perishes. Christianity teaches something much more extraordinary.

Paul's response to this difficulty is to appeal to the life he was living and the life they were living as a result of his preaching. If there is no resurrection then neither can Christ have been raised and if Christ has not been raised from the dead then the gospel is false, we are still in our sins and the preachers of the gospel are on a hiding to nothing - 'if our hope in Christ has been for this life only we are the most unfortunate of all people' (1 Corinthians 15:19). It is striking that Paul appeals already to the Church's tradition (as he does earlier, about the Eucharist): 'I taught you what I had been taught myself' (1 Corinthians 15:3; see 1 Corinthians 11:23 where he says he has received it 'from the Lord'). The best 'proof' of the resurrection, then, is the life of the Christian community. Just as the transformation of the disciples after the death of Jesus is most reasonably explained by his resurrection from the dead and his appearances to them, so the transformation of human lives in the community of love established by Christ is the most powerful witness there can be to the fact that Christ is risen and is alive.

The second difficulty troubling the Corinthians is about the nature of the resurrected body. Paul offers some thoughts about this, even though he initially dismisses it as a 'stupid question' (1 Corinthians 15:36). Just as is the case with Jesus, what needs to be kept in mind is the continuity which makes the resurrected body to be the body of this person who has died as well as the discontinuity which makes the resurrected body to be part of a radically transformed order, the perishable made imperishable, the mortal made immortal. And here is where he introduces the term 'victory', for this clothing of the perishable in imperishability and this clothing of the mortal in immortality, is the victory prophesied by Isaiah and Hosea: 'he will destroy Death forever, wipe away all tears, take away his people's shame - this is our God in whom we hoped for salvation' (Isaiah 25:7-9); 'where is your plague, Death? where are your scourges, Sheol?' (Hosea 13:14).

In a final hymn of triumph Paul offers his own interpretation of these prophecies: 'the sting or plague of death is sin, and sin gets its power from the law'. Paul had come to see that salvation from sin is not through observance of the law, which serves only to convict us of sin, but is through the faithfulness of Christ, his death on the cross, his victory. 'So let us thank God for giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ' (1 Corinthians 15:57). Not only is it a victory achieved by God, it is a victory given to us for it is Jesus, the Son of God and our brother, who has won eternal life for us.


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