Natural and Spiritual Bodies (1 Corinthians 15:45-49)

First Corinthians 15:45-49 continues the argument of the previous paragraph. At verse 35, Paul asked, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” He answered that question in verse 44 by saying that although people are born with a “natural body,” they are raised with a “spiritual body.” Verses 45-49 expand on this answer by means of an analogy between Adam and Christ.

Before we get to the analogy, however, it is important to understand what Paul means by the distinction between “natural” and “spiritual” bodies. In Greek, the word for “natural” is “psychikoi” and the word for “spiritual” is “pneumatikoi.” It would be easy to understand those terms as synonyms for “material” and “immaterial” bodies. We are born with a material, flesh-and-blood body, but we will be raised with an immaterial, indestructible body. That would be the easy way to understand “natural” and “spiritual,” but it would be a misunderstanding of the terms.

Gordon Fee outlines a proper understanding of “psychikoi” and “pneumatikoi”: “These are the same two adjectives used in 2:14 to describe the basic differences between believer and unbeliever. In this case, therefore, as the next analogy (vv. 45-49) will make clear, they do not describe the “stuff” or composition of the body; nor are they value words as in 2:14, describing the essential difference between those who belong to God and those who do not. Rather, they describe the one body in terms of its essential characteristics as earthly, on the one hand, and therefore belong to the life of the present age, and as heavenly, on the other, and therefore belonging to the life of the Spirit in the age to come. It is ‘spiritual,’ not in the sense of ‘immaterial’ but of ‘supernatural,’ as he will explain with the help of Scripture in v. 45, because it will have been recreated by Christ, who himself through his resurrection came to be a ‘life-giving Spirit.’”

And so we come to verse 45: “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.” When God molded Adam from the dust of the earth, Genesis 2:7 tells us, he then breathed his Spirit into him so that he came alive. God’s Spirit goes into the first Adam. God’s Spirit goes out of the second, Adam, however, giving life to everyone else. In other words, while God must pour life into the first Adam, through the second Adam – the resurrected Christ – he pours out life upon all who believe in him.

Our life, in other words, passes through stages from “natural” to “spiritual” by means of the resurrection. When Paul writes, “The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual,” he is merely describing the chronological order of our existence. We are born – like Adam – with a body that is capable of death, but we will be raised – like Christ – with a body capable of immortality. As Paul writes, “just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.”

Behind all this admittedly difficult-to-understand exegesis and hair-splitting definition of terms there lies an extremely important point that we must grasp concerning spirituality. The Corinthians practiced a decidedly immaterial form of spirituality. In other words, they didn’t give a fig about the body. All that mattered was the immaterial spirit. For Paul, however, spirituality encompassed the entire human being – body, mind, and spirit. In Christ, God is redeeming all of it. By denying the resurrection of the body, the Corinthians were limiting the scope of salvation and hence the love of God for his creation.

God wants to redeem you and me in the totality of our humanity. He cares for the body, and so should we.

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