When the Trumpet Sounds
It is plainly stated in the Word of God that 'flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God' (1 Corinthians 15:50). This might be taken to mean that sinful human nature cannot enter into heaven. More probably, the meaning is that human nature as such, in its earthly state, cannot enter into heaven. Either interpretation would be true. But in the context of Paul's discussion, the probability is that he is stating that human nature in its present earthly (quite apart from its present sinful) condition is incapable of entering into the glory of the upper world. The earthly or 'earthenware' body (Paul uses a picturesque term) in which we live is fitted for earth but completely unfitted for heaven. This would be true of Adam before the Fall and is certainly not less so of mankind in its sinful state now.
This is the foundation upon which Paul now begins to build the Christian doctrine of glorification. We are apt to look at this passage of scripture and say that the doctrine Paul is here setting forth is that of the resurrection. Admittedly, the doctrine of the resurrection is dealt with very fully in this passage. But careful examination shows that Paul's concern in this passage is not with resurrection specifically, but with the future act of glorification, taken as something wider than that.
A Mighty Change
That this must be so is clear from the fact that Paul speaks about more than resurrection. He declares, with language that is truly lyrical: 'we shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet' (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). Those Christians who are still alive on the last day will not be resurrected because they will not need to be. Believers who are still alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will not, of course, require resurrection. However, what both the one and the other will certainly require is the divine act of glorification. Both living and dead will receive that. They 'will be changed'. The act of glorification, then, is what Paul is referring to here.
An Instantaneous Act of God
Paul is emphatic that this glorious act of God will be wrought in an instant of time. It is in that respect similar to the acts of regeneration, justification and effectual calling. These too are done once and done in an instant. Sanctification, on the other hand, is a process which continues from regeneration until death. It is not an 'act' but a 'work’, to use the precise terminology of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
That the act of our Future glorification will be done 'in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye' is food for thought and for wonderment. It would seem to be in this respect almost, but not entirely, without parallel. It is frequently God's way to prepare his people for the momentous changes he brings into their life. Before regeneration, for example, he generally induces restlessness, fear and a sense of sin before deliverance comes. It is this state of alarm which we term 'conviction' and 'compunction'. It leads the sinner to ask what he must do to be saved.
Similarly, God may often prepare his people for death by giving them some intimation of its approach, either through deterioration in their health, or perhaps by a premonition in their mind. Many, however, are called into eternity with no prior warning beyond the general knowledge, common to men, that one day we must all die.
There is reason to believe that when the trumpet sounds and the act of glorification occurs, the elect, both living and dead, will be taken by surprise. No man knows the day or the hour of the end. Even the angels do not know it. If angels do not know, then it is difficult to believe that the spirits of God's people in glory will know.
The act of glorification will evidently come upon the whole number of God's elect (for that number will then be fully made up) as a surprise. It will be for them all, and for the angels, a sublime and an ecstatic surprise. It will represent the consummation of all their hopes and will vindicate them for all their former sufferings. They will then cry out: 'Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation' (Isaiah 25:9).
On the other hand, that day will come upon the unbelieving part of mankind as a 'snare' (Luke 21:35). When men are congratulating themselves that at last a solution to the problem of war has been found (so that they may say, 'Peace and safety') 'then will come sudden destruction upon them as travail upon a woman with child and they will by no means escape' (1 Thessalonians 5:3). The myth will then be exploded that man's problem was merely the mundane one of war and peace. It will then, too late, dawn on the unbelieving world that they had culpably concealed man's real problem, which is his alienation from God, and not international conflict.
In the day when God glorifies his people, there will be a rich fulfilment of scriptural prophecy, which now lies dormant and all but forgotten. Christ's inward and true attitude towards men will then be laid bare for all to read: 'The day of vengeance is in my heart, and the year of my redeemed is come' (Isaiah 63:4). He will then prepare to trample his unbelieving enemies in the winepress of wrath till his garments are all bespattered (Isaiah 63:3), and till the blood of his foes under his stamping feet spurts forth 'even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs' (Revelation 14:20). It will be terrible then for sinners to behold the 'wrath of the Lamb' against themselves. They will desire death but it will 'flee from them' (Revelation 9:6). They will long for the mountains to hide them, but there will be no place found to conceal them (Revelation 6:16-17). They will then require to face those unending torments which must be the portion of all who are to be 'banished from the glory of the Lord and from the glory of his power when he shall come to be glorified in his saints' (2 Thessalonians 1:10) In that day there will be a resurrection of the just and unjust. The latter will 'awake to shame and everlasting contempt' (Daniel 12:2; John 5:24; Acts 24:15). 'Time shall be no longer' (Revelation 10:6) and opportunity for further repentance will be gone.
The Ascension of Believers
On the other hand, the act of glorification, which will witness the beginning of sorrows to the reprobate, will be the commencement of all joys to the Lord's people for evermore. While the wicked 'cry for sorrow of heart and howl for vexation of spirit' (Isaiah 65:14), these shall 'sing for joy of heart'. The Lord Jesus Christ will then come 'leaping upon the mountains and skipping upon the high hills' to be united in indissoluble bonds of marriage with his people (Song of Solomon 2:8). The dead saints will rise in glory and the righteous, who are alive at his second coming, will be transfigured with a brightness which Christ will give them because they are citizens of his kingdom (Philippians 3:20; Matthew 13:43). He will then beautify the meek with the garments of salvation and cause them to ascend into the air according to an order of precedence in which the dead will go first, to meet him publicly (1Thessalonians 4:17) and to be comforted, rewarded, and given the perfect joys of heaven forever. The living will then follow.
In the light of the above evidence, we cannot do other than look upon the act of glorification as the climax of our redemption and as the event for which heaven and earth now 'groan' (Romans 8:23). They and we, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, long for the divinely-promised moment (1 Corinthians 15:52) when the elements shall melt, being subjected to fire, and in which the 'new heavens and new earth' will emerge (Romans 8:21; 2 Peter 3:13).
The Nature of this Change
This change will be the greatest since the days of creation and it will be more momentous in many ways even than creation itself, because it will determine the destinies of immortal beings, while creation simply placed them on probation.
The act of glorification cannot be viewed as entirely simple but must be recognised as complex. The circumstances in which the elect of God will find themselves when it occurs require that this should be so. For one thing, the disintegrated bodies of the saints who died long before will each require to be reassembled and reorganised. Their souls, which have for so long been in the glory of the Intermediate State, will need to be reunited with their bodies. They will then no longer be 'unclothed' but 'clothed upon' (2 Corinthians 5:4). In the case of those believers who died, the act of glorification will involve an operation of God's powers upon an element of dead material and at the same time upon the living soul. The soul will be ever after relocated in its house of clay, now glorified beyond all our powers of imagination in the resurrected body.
It must be a matter of deep comfort to all believers to realise that the death of the saints is precious to God. Our bodies are still united to Christ even in death and will be reconstituted by the act of glorification in a manner wholly beyond our ability to understand in this life. But scripture means us to be fully persuaded of this promise: 'Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead' (Isaiah 26:19). No wonder Christ says, 'I am the resurrection' (John 11:25)!
The act of glorification will change the bodies and souls of living Christians equally, but there will be no necessity in their case to raise the body from the grave.
The Resurrection Body
In 1 Corinthians 15:42-45 Paul details four respects in which the resurrection body of the believer will be in a higher and better state than it is here.
1. A Change from Corruption to Incorruption
Corruption is an aspect of our mortality. As we are presently liable to death, so are we also to decay. At death we shall part company with the body and it will be left in the grave. The worm will feed sweetly upon it and we shall say to corruption, 'Thou art my sister.' 'The worm will be spread under us and the worm will cover us' (Job 17:14; 24:20). Even in this life we are subject to the law of death. We deteriorate and waste away in old age. Our strength is steadily drawn from us by the passing of the years. Our hair blossoms like the almond tree (Ecclesiastes 12:5) and man goes to his 'long home' at last. Our years are three-score and ten. Even if they are four-score it is only added 'labour and sorrow' (Psalm 90:10).
But after this act of glorification, all will be changed. Our body will then be rejuvenated and we shall be beyond the reach of all sickness, pain and death. We shall be clothed with incorruption and with immortality.
2. A Change from Dishonour to Glory
The present state of our body is that of dishonour and shame. This may not be so apparent in youth. But it is almost universally so in old age. The physical power of man loses its beauty. Gradually it loses its natural powers and refuses to function efficiently. In old age the body may become little more than a clod or a misshaped lump of clay with almost nothing to suggest the elegance of early manhood or womanhood. The last age of man is then reached, of which Shakespeare touchingly says:
Such a state of the body is termed by Paul one of 'dishonour', even when it is not so advanced as in the example above.
It is instructive to the Christian to remember that this is the New Testament way of looking at the body in this life. It is 'our present vile body', or 'body of humiliation' (Philippians 3:21). Truly, 'the body is dead because of sin' (Romans 8:10). This may be thought morbid or depressing to some people. It is not really so. It is realism. To shut our eyes to our present mortal state is the height of folly. A Christian should take each day cheerfully as the gift of God and seek to glorify God each day, so that when he comes to die he may have nothing to do but die. Our hope is of a better world. Furthermore, it is possible for a Christian to be filled with comfort each day in the certainty that 'whether we live or die we are the Lord's' (Romans 14:8).
3. A Change from Weakness to Power
This is another aspect of what we have already observed. The body is visibly weak in old age. It needs to be supported by a stick. The old riddle of the sphinx asked: 'What goes on all fours in the morning, on two legs in the afternoon and on three in the evening?' The answer of course is: Man. His body is conspicuous for its feebleness in old age and, let us not forget, is comparatively feeble even when man is in his best state.
This will be entirely changed in the day when the believer is glorified. Body and soul will then be filled with power to live eternally, without such encumbrances as illness, sleep or rest. We shall be fitted for an unending sabbath of worship. We shall have all needed power of will to do what we long to do. The absence of that power now causes us to say with Paul: 'To will is present with me but how to perform ... I find not' (Romans 7:18). In glory we shall will to do the will of God and we shall find strength to match up to the full measure of our desire and of our endeavour, which will then fully comply with the divine demand for perfect holiness.
In the meantime, we must glorify God with as perfect an obedience as we can. But it is at best a very imperfect thing and far below what we can wish, even in our best moods. Hence we are to mourn and lament that we are as yet 'sold under sin' (Romans 7:14). Yet we also rejoice that God will at last give us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ
4. A Change from a Natural to a Spiritual Body
This is such a wonderful and remarkable statement that Paul adds a further comment at this point: 'There is a natural body and there is a spiritual body' (1 Corinthians 15:44). We must not imagine that the glorified Christian is spiritual in entirely the identical sense in which angels are to be 'spirits' in heaven. The angels have no bodies. The Christian in glory will have a body. But the body will be very different from its present state in respect of the powers it will have. In heaven, 'they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are as the angels of God' (Matthew 22:30). We shall have a 'spiritual body'. What that spiritual body will consist of we do not yet know.
Our Present Duty
It is typical of Paul that he does not leave the subject there but goes on to suggest some of the ways in which the theme should affect us here in this life. It ought to lead us to rejoice in God for the way we are to triumph finally and forever over death and the grave: 'O death where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory?' And it ought to fortify us for present service in this world by showing us that we are soon to be rewarded for the good we do here. Consequently, we should be 'steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord; because we know that our labour is not in vain in the Lord' (1 Corinthians 15:58).