The transformation of Jesus is nowadays (2008) a bone of contention. Why?
First, it needs to be recognized that the worldview of many Christians is governed by the views of Augustine, not the Bible. As a consequence of this they believe that sin is the only problem affecting man. Thus, since Jesus was sinless, they assume that he did not need transformation, that he is still flesh in heaven and will return to earth as such! (See further my articles: Is Jesus Coming Back to Earth?, A Summary of Reasons Against the Return of Christ to Earth, Geisler on the Redemption of Creation)
Jesus, however, tells us that all must be born again because they are (corruptible) flesh (John 3:1-8). (Sin is neither mentioned nor implied in this passage. The traditional Augustinian interpretation of it is plainly false. See my Was Jesus Born Again?) Since he himself was flesh (incarnate), it follows necessarily that he too as man had to be born again, that is, of the Spirit. This clearly occurred at his baptism (Mt. 3:13-17, etc.) when, having kept the law to perfection, he attained to the righteousness which was the divinely imposed condition of life for man (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.). Thus, he was acknowledged as the spiritual (regenerate, cf. Heb. 2:11) and not merely the physical Son of God (Luke 3:38; Heb. 5:10). In contrast with Adam who sinned, he confirmed his ontology (who he was) by function (what he did). Denial of this reflects denial of the incarnation and acceptance of Docetism.
Paul tells us that since the corruptible (flesh) cannot inherit the incorruptible (kingdom of God), we shall all, both the dead and the living, be changed (1 Cor. 15:51f.; cf. 1 Thes. 4:13-17). Since Jesus, as we have just seen, was flesh, and flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, clearly he also had to be changed. So the question is: When was he changed?
The Resurrection of Jesus
In my younger days I took it for granted that Jesus was raised physically from the grave. In other words, I believed that he rose in exactly the same fleshly body in which he died. Earlier, he had predicted that he would raise up the life (psyche) he laid down (John 2:19f.; 10:17f.). Thus when he rose from the dead the unavoidable conclusion would seem to be that he was still flesh, as he himself affirmed (Luke 24:39, etc.). This view of the matter is supported by NT stress on the fact that Jesus, in contrast with David, did not experience decay. The only reasonable inference we can draw from this is that he remained corruptible flesh. And there is a basic theological reason why this must be true. If Jesus as man had gained life by keeping the law, he was not like Adam liable to death (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). However, since he freely laid down his life (psyche) for his sheep, death had no permanent claim on him. Peter states this quite unequivocally (Acts 2:23f.,32; 3:15). I therefore conclude that what would not normally have been taken away from Jesus, that is his flesh, was restored to him (contrast Adam in Gen. 3:19). It should further be noted that all resurrections (e.g. Lazarus) alluded to in both Testaments, since they occur in this world, involve restoration. So Jesus was restored like Jairus’ daughter whom he raised from the dead in Luke 8:40-56. Just as her spirit returned to her dead but uncorrupted body (Luke 8:55), Jesus’ own spirit (pneuma), which he had committed to his Father when he died, returned to his uncorrupted body at his resurrection.
However, though it has a long history, in more recent times the idea that Jesus was transformed when he rose from the dead seems to have received extra emphasis. The arguments for this are to say the least somewhat specious and not only run counter to the biblical evidence but appear to involve contradiction. So what is involved?
The “History” of Jesus
First, we need to note that Jesus as God was in the first place eternal spirit (John 1:1f.; 4:24) not temporal flesh (cf. Rom. 1:23). His flesh derived through his mother ultimately from the earth, which is by nature temporal (Gen. 1:1) and doomed to decay (destruction, Mt. 24:35; Heb. 1:10-12; 12:27; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12). Thus at his incarnation or birth of the Virgin Mary, like all men and women Jesus was both mortal (he died in the flesh) and corruptible (he daily grew older, John 8:57) in clear contrast with his heavenly Father (Ps. 102:24,27). His human nature (flesh) was consequently prone to decay (2 Cor. 4:16, cf. Gal. 6:8) and ultimate disappearance (Heb. 8:13). In light of this it is not at all surprising that the author of Hebrews tells us that he was incarnate (flesh) only “for a little while” (Heb. 2:7,9).
Second, in support of this conclusion, John, tells us that he only “tabernacled” among us (1:14). In the OT the tabernacle was a movable tent which preceded the localized temple in Jerusalem (though in the event even this proved destructible, Mk 14:58). In the NT, though our fleshly bodies are regarded as the temples of the Holy Spirit, they are nonetheless still considered as tents (cf. 1 Pet. 1:14) which are subject to destruction and replacement by a permanent house in the heavens (2 Cor. 5:1f.).
Third, as noted above Jesus did not experience corruption after death. In view of this, it may be argued that at his ascension he went to heaven in the flesh. Paul, however, categorically dismisses this notion (1 Cor. 15:50ff.), and with good reason. First, it would contradict his assertion that the physical creation of which Jesus as flesh was a part is subject to corruption (Rom. 8:18-25). Next, he was convinced that all one could hope to reap from the (corruptible) flesh was decay or corruption like the material creation from which it derived (Gal. 6:8; Rom. 8:13, cf. Mt. 6:19-21; Heb. 1:10-12, etc.). Third, the apostle was all too well aware that the flesh is temporal and if Jesus was to sit forever on the throne of David (Luke 1:32f.) and enjoy his eternal blessings (Isa. 55:3, cf. Ps. 132:15), he would have to have an eternal nature himself. If the eternal God is both immortal and incorruptible (1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16), then clearly Jesus who sat at his right hand would have to be the same. To argue, as many seem to do nowadays, that Jesus’ flesh was transformed at his resurrection is not only to contradict the express word of Scripture (Luke 24:39) but to fly in the face of Paul’s assertion that the corruptible cannot inherit the incorruptible (1 Cor. 15:50). To put the issue simply and bluntly, the flesh cannot be eternalized as Jesus, not to mention Paul, implied in his conversation with Nicodemus. In any case, Jesus himself taught in John 17:5,24 that he would regain the glory that he had with his Father before the world began and therefore obviously before his incarnation. We are thus forced to infer that like the saints at the end of history Jesus was transformed from corruptible, first Adamic flesh (dust, cf. 1 Cor. 15:47-49) at his ascension (1 Cor. 15:50-52) as Adam would have been if he had not sinned. (It might be said that just as Jesus was transformed (became incarnate) when he came into the world, he was retransformed when he went out of it, John 3:13; 6:62, etc. Again, unless we believe that Jesus invited cannibalism, 6:51ff., we must infer that his flesh was transformed on entry into heaven, cf. John 6:27. Clearly he is the spiritual bread of life! See further my Biblical Dualism.)
The author of Hebrews with his stress on the abiding (eternal) has a strong sense of the corruptibility of creation (Heb. 1:10-12; 6:7f.; 12:27,29, etc.). He teaches that Jesus passed through (4:14) and was exalted above the (material) heavens (7:26, cf. Ps. 113:4,6). Clearly this was impossible for physical flesh! Earth cannot go to heaven! What is “made by hand” (cf. Job 10:8; 31:15; Ps. 119:73) cannot inherit what is “not made by hand” (Heb. 9:11f.,24). Jesus’ exaltation, glorification and heavenly session at the Father’s right hand cannot occur in the flesh. So, again we are forced to infer that Jesus was changed at his ascension and this provides the paradigm of the transformation of the saints who neither die nor experience physical resurrection at the end of history (1 Cor. 15:51f.). (In case my point is missed, it needs to be recognized that for Jesus death and resurrection were abnormal; they involved a deviation, digression or aberration from the “natural” process of his ascension or return to his Father (John 6:62; 16:28; Eph. 4:10, etc.). Strictly speaking, they should not have occurred to one who had remained sinless and had not earned the wages of death. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that he died and rose for us!)
The NT Witness
If we maintain with many writers that Jesus was transformed at his resurrection from the dead, we are compelled to compromise the evidence. First, we deny his explicit assertion (Luke 24:39) and the testimony of others like Thomas that he was he was still flesh (John 20). Second, we deny the import of the stress on the fact that Jesus did not undergo corruption, which, in view of the references to David, is to underscore Jesus’ continued physicality. Third and worse, to assume Jesus’ transformation is in effect to deny his resurrection. In this world a transformation (mutation?) is not a resurrection. In any case, his assumed transformation makes all references to his non-corruption pointless since at best they merely state the obvious.
The Visibility of Jesus
There is another problem: the visibility, tangibility and audibility of Jesus is strongly stressed in John 20 and elsewhere (e.g. 1 John 1:1ff.). If as Paul maintains the permanent is invisible (2 Cor. 4:18), then it follows that Jesus, who was visible, was not in his permanent transformed or glorified state. The fact that God kept Jesus hidden from unbelievers (Acts 10:40f.) certainly does not suggest that he was only periodically manifested from heaven (cf. Harris). Rather it suggests that God always intended the gospel to be based on testimony of chosen eyewitnesses like Thomas (cf. John 17:20; 20:29; Acts 1:8,22) and that the majority should be justified by faith not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7, cf. 1 Pet. 1:8). (See further my Faith and Invisibility – Seeing the Invisible.)
But there is yet another problem: if we insist that Jesus’ resurrection was really a spiritual transformation, we are not only implicitly denying his physical resurrection but we are also rendering his ascension redundant. The latter like the former is in effect reduced to a deceitful charade. This is not the picture painted by the apostles. (1* Since writing this I have read Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham’s Surprised by Hope. He has a different view of Jesus’ resurrection body and for him the ascension is important. See A Brief Critique of ‘Surprised by Hope’ by Tom Wright)
The Resurrection of David
It may be replied, however, like the rest of us who die before the second advent and experience decay, that David is nonetheless regarded as participating in resurrection (1 Thes. 4:13-17, cf. John 5:21,25; 11:25f.). Here, however, we must recognize and give due weight to the distinction the apostles themselves make. Though David and the majority like him unlike Jesus die and suffer physical decay (Acts 2:29; 13:36), their spiritual resurrection is a transformation only made possible by the resurrection of Jesus who overcame death and brought life and incorruptibility (Gk.) to light (2 Tim. 1:10). And this highlights the fact that in the NT the term resurrection is often used comprehensively and refers to the whole process of glorification. (Cf. Murray Harris, p.93, G to G, p.182. James Dunn, for example, stresses the process of salvation in ch. 6.) Thus all who believe have eternal life. They all become children of the resurrection and are immortal and incorruptible like God himself whose glory and nature (2 Pet. 1:4) they share as his children (Luke 20:34-36).
So I conclude that as a true son of Adam, Jesus, the representative of all his followers, fulfilled the original promise made to Adam (Gen. 2:17). Having freely laid down his life for his sheep (John 10), he first rose again physically from the dead. He was then transformed at his ascension (cf. John 20:17) in order to take his seat at the side of his immortal (1 Tim. 6:16) and incorruptible (1 Tim. 1:17) Father (Heb. 1:3; Rev. 3:21, etc.). Just as he was never again to die (Rom. 6:9; Heb. 9:28; Rev. 1:18), so he was never again to return to (fleshly) corruption (Acts 13:34). However, as a true human being and our elder brother (Heb. 2:12, cf. Luke 15:31) he has a glorified or spiritual body which, if the NT witness means anything at all, is certainly not physical flesh (Phil. 3:21).
Question: If Jesus was still flesh when he went to heaven, how did he dwell with consuming fire (Isa. 33:14, cf. James 5:3)? Clearly he was transformed and when he returns he will himself be a consuming fire (2 Thes. 1:7f., cf. 2:8; Heb. 12:28f.; Heb. 12:29Rev. 1:14-16; 2:19; 19:12).
To argue that Jesus was transformed at his resurrection rather than his ascension gives rise to a different worldview. The Augustinian worldview which is dominated by sin contradicts the basic teaching of Scripture that the visible material world is by nature temporal and hence temporary (Gen. 1:1; 2 Cor. 4:18; Heb. 1:10-12, etc.). As Paul insists, it is precisely on account of its futility and natural corruption that God has given us an invisible and hence an eternal hope (Rom. 8:20,24f., cf. Heb. 9:15; 11:1). The fundamental fact that the fleshly body of the sinless Jesus which derived from the ground (cf. Eph. 4:9) was temporal, visible, ‘made by hand’, born of woman, mortal and obsolescent is incontrovertible. Clearly he was transformed at his ascension thereby regaining his former divine glory (John 17:5,24) and thus becoming the paradigm of the saints at the end of history who will neither die nor experience physical as opposed to corporeal resurrection (1 Cor. 15:50-54; Phil. 3:21). The worldview of Professor John Wyatt propounded in John Stott’s Issues Facing Christians Today (4th ed. 2006, pp.436f. See also Wyatt’s essay in Real Scientists Real Faith, pp.198-210) like that of Chris Wright in his The Mission of God and Tom Wright in his Surprised by Hope is a strange mixture (or marriage) of old covenant restorationism and new covenant replacement which implicitly denies the distinction between old and new covenants. In other words, it has the effect of denying the destruction of the flesh and the material creation from which it stems on the one hand (1 Cor. 15:50) while attempting to affirm the reality of our glorification on the other. Alternatively, it fails to appreciate that the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells (i.e. heaven, Mt. 6:10,33, etc.) means the end of the death, mourning, crying and pain that characterize this world (Rev. 21:4). The present age (Luke 20:34-36; Rom. 8:18-25; 1 Cor. 7:31; 2 Cor. 4:16-18; Gal. 1:4; 1 John 2:17) differs radically from the age to come which already exists and has existed eternally.
John Stott on the Resurrection of Jesus
John Stott, like Murray Harris, takes a strong line on the transformation of Jesus at his resurrection from the grave in his The Contemporary Christian (pp. 76-78) and elsewhere (e.g. The Incomparable Christ, p.224). In doing so, he betrays his theological inconsistency. In his exegesis of 1 John 1:1-4 he first stresses the visibility of Jesus (p.60, cf. Dunn quoted in my Faith and Invisibility – Seeing the Invisible, Why the Biblical Stress on Invisibility?), then his “material manifestation … to men’s ears, eyes and hands” (p.61). From this Stott draws what is surely the correct conclusion that the latter occurred after his resurrection (p.60). The point that needs to be made here is that this ‘material manifestation’ of 1 John 1:1-4 matches that of Hebrews 12:18-21 which clearly relates to the old covenant and stands in strong contrast with the living (invisible) God, the heavenly Jerusalem and the transformed saints (12:22f.). (See further my Covenant Continuity and Discontinuity.) The inescapable inference from this must be that the Jesus who could be physically seen, heard and touched was not transformed at his resurrection but at his ascension. Immediately after he had risen, he was manifestly in his first Adamic (incarnated, born of woman) body (cf. Luke 24:39) which contrasts strongly with his glorified, heavenly body (1 Cor. 15:45-49; Phil. 3:21; Col. 1:19; 2:9). This being so, his resurrection from the grave has no bearing on the redemption of creation, yet on the basis of it Stott like many others seems to think that it has. In his exposition of Romans, Stott even goes so far as to suggest that “nature will be brought out of bondage into freedom, out of decay into glory; that is out of corruption into incorruption. Indeed, God’s creation will share in the glory of God’s children, which is itself the glory of Christ (see 17-18)” (p.240). (See further my Romans 8:18-25.) Apart from the intrinsic absurdity of inanimate nature sharing the glory of God’s children, the problem here is that Paul lays it down in unmistakable terms in 1 Corinthians 15:50 that corruption can no more inherit incorruption than the visible can inherit permanence (2 Cor. 4:18). In fact he tells his Roman readers explicitly that their hope is an invisible one (8:20,24f., cf. Heb. 11;1). In light of this we are compelled to conclude that the temporal, visible, corruptible material creation which has both a beginning (Gen. 1:1) and an end (Gen. 8:22; Mt. 24:35, etc.) cannot by its very nature be redeemed and glorified.
So far as the animate creation is concerned, Stott recognizes both the continuity and discontinuity between man and animal (The Contemporary Christian, pp.36f.). But if the ‘radical discontinuity’ to which he refers means anything at all, it means that the animal or fleshly component in man cannot be redeemed since it is by nature temporal and corruptible like the earth from which it stems. It lives by bread alone as it does in all animals, and even though this is provided by God it nonetheless fails to overcome death (Ps. 104: 21,27,29; Mt. 4:4; John 6:22-63). It is the spirit of man made in the image of God that is saved, not his flesh (1 Cor. 15:50).
Of course, Stott’s basic problem is his false Augustinian worldview. (See further my The Biblical Worldview, Worldview, Augustine: Asset or Liability?.) He is so conditioned by the creation-fall-redemption schema (see also his comments on Romans 5:12-21, pp.148-158) where sin is predominant that he is forced into drawing manifestly false inferences regarding the natural world. His apparently false covenant theology guarantees his failure to see that it is the temporal old covenant which relates to the material world including the flesh (Heb. 12:18-21) while the eternal new covenant relates to the spiritual world (Heb. 12:22-24). Of course, we need to recognize that in this world we inhabit the same fleshly body after our spiritual rebirth as we did before it. And that is why there is a war between flesh and spirit in genuine Christians (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 5:16f.; Col. 3:1-5; James 4:1-4) just as there was in Jesus (Mt. 4:1-11, etc., pace Art. 9 of the C of E). In this world there is an undeniable overlap, but not in the world to come where our flesh is shed before we gain a replacement spiritual body (Luke 20:34-36; Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 15:45-50; 1 Pet. 1:3-9). Just as creation grows older by nature and is about to disappear (Heb. 1:11), so Jesus as flesh grew older (Luke 2:12; 3:23, etc.) and was about to disappear (John 14:19; 20:17,29; Acts 1:9, cf. Heb. 2:7,9; 8:13). In other words, it was just as necessary for him to be changed and glorified at his ascension (cf. John 20:17) as it will be for the end-time saints who neither die nor are resurrected to be changed (1 Cor. 15:50-54).
The plain truth is that the idea that we can infer the restoration of creation from the resurrection of Jesus is based on fundamental theological misapprehension stemming from fallacies like original perfection, “Fall” and cosmic curse. (See my What Fall?) There is not and cannot be any connection between Jesus’ resurrection and the redemption of creation. Jesus was physically raised because he died on behalf of his people and since he was personally innocent, death had no permanent hold over him (Acts 2:22-24). His fleshly restoration (as opposed to his putative transformation) proved his victory over the grave. And since he remained corruptible, it also proved the necessity of his transformation ascension (cf. John 20:17. Note also the ‘dei’ of John 3:7 and 1 Cor. 15:53).
When he returned to the eternal heaven (John 3:13:13:3; Eph. 4:9f., etc.), Jesus did so as our pioneer (Heb. 6:20; 12:2; Rev. 3:21, etc.) regaining the glory he shared with his Father before the world began and in which we shall share (John 17:5,24; Rom. 5:2) both spiritually and corporeally. In other words, it was as body not material flesh that he was transformed and glorified (Phil. 3:21; 1 Cor. 15:45-49). So far as we who recapitulate the corruption experience of David (Acts 2,13) are concerned, it is our bodies not our flesh which will be redeemed (Rom. 8:23). And when that occurs we shall see Jesus as he is (1 John 3:2) in all his glory (John 17:5,24) and be with him forever (John 14:19; 1 Thes. 4:17).
It perhaps needs to be added here that Stott quite astonishingly dismisses the spiritual as opposed to the natural or physical as ethereal (CC, p.85, The Incomparable Christ, p.224) and hence apparently lacking substance. Does not he believe in God who is spirit? Others like Bruce (p.13), Lane (pp.330f.) and de Silva (p.387) regard it as the ultimately real (cf. Heb. 8:2). The movement of Scripture after the beginning of the physical creation is ever towards its end or goal in the eternal spiritual world. As believers we move from flesh to spirit, from earth to heaven (Col. 3:1-5; 1 Pet. 1:3f.), and our way is pioneered by Jesus himself (John 13:3;16:28; 17:5,24; Heb. 12:1f., etc.)
F.F.Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John, Grand Rapids, 1983.
David A. deSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude, 2000.
J.G.D.Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, London/New York, 2003 ed.
N.Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection, updated ed., Nashville, !992.
M.J.Harris, From Grave to Glory, Grand Rapids, 1990.
M.J.Harris, Raised Immortal, Basingstoke, 1983.
G.E.Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection, repr. London, 1984.
W.L.Lane, Hebrews 9-13, Dallas, 1991.
J.R.W.Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 4th ed. Grand Rapids, 2006.
J.R.W.Stott, The Contemporary Christian, Leicester, 1992.
J.R.W.Stott, The Incomparable Christ, Leicester, 2001.
J.R.W.Stott, The Message of Romans, Leicester, 1994.
J.R.W.Stott, The Epistles of John, London, 1964.
C.J.H.Wright, The Mission of God, Nottingham, 2006.
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, London, 2007.