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Romans 8:11 and the Resurrection Body
Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
This study is divided into three parts: (I) translating Romans 8:11; (II) the meaning of ZWOPOIEW; and (III) the exegesis of Romans 8:11.
I. TRANSLATING ROMANS 8:11
I begin by quoting Romans 8:11 in the NASB:
“But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” (NASB)
Other modern translations use practically identical wording to translate the verse. Before discussing the interpretation of the verse, we ought to note and comment on certain seemingly minor but possibly significant variations in the wording of the text.
Some versions render the opening word DE “but” (NASB, NKJV) while others have “and” (NIV) and others leave it untranslated (ESV, NRSV). Oddly, the NWT renders it with “now”: “If, now, the spirit of him….” The conjunction DE is a fairly colorless conjunction and often does little more than mark the beginning of a new sentence. Verse 11 is the fifth sentence in a row that begins with DE (in its usual postpositive place, i.e., as the second word of the sentence). The NWT renders DE in these five sentences “So” (v. 8), “However” (v. 9a), “But” (v. 9b), “But” (v. 10), and “now” (v. 11). Some variation in rendering DE is normal, but I am unclear as to the reason for rendering it “now” in this verse. In any case we should not put any weight on the conjunction; the relation between verses 10 and 11 will have to be determined from context and not from the conjunction itself.
Some versions have simply “Christ” (NIV, NKJV, NRSV) rather than “Christ Jesus” (NASB, ESV, NWT) in the second half of the verse. The manuscript evidence is almost evenly divided between CRISTON EK NEKRWN and EK NEKRWN CRISTON ’IHSOUN. The latter is likely to be correct, but it may not matter much for our purposes. I will assume the reading favored by both the NASB and the NWT.
The NRSV has “that dwells in you” instead of “who dwells in you” at the end of the verse, reflecting the judgment that Paul is not speaking of the Spirit as personal here. Similarly, the NWT has “that resides in you.” This is an important but separate question for our purposes. The NIV has “is living in you” instead of “dwells in you,” while the NWT, as noted, has “resides in you.” These variations don’t seem to have any significance.
The NRSV puts “also” after “mortal bodies” instead of after “will”; this is apparently nothing more than a stylistic choice and does not affect the meaning. The word “also” (KAI) actually occurs immediately after the verb: “will make alive also your mortal bodies,” which is not stylistically good English, thus accounting for the differing placements of “and” in the translations.
In all other respects the wording of the NIV, NASB, NRSV, and NKJV are identical.
The word translated “will give life” is ZWOPOIHSEI. In English most translations render this “will give life” and follow the verb with the preposition “to,” treating the noun phrase “mortal bodies” as the indirect object. This is good English and unobjectionable as to properly expressing the meaning of the text. In Greek ZWOPOIHSEI is followed by the noun phrase TA QNHTA SWMATA hUMWN (“your mortal bodies”), which is accusative and therefore grammatically functions as the direct object. The KJV uses the older verb “quicken” and thus treats “your mortal bodies” as the direct object. Today, to be more literal one might translate “will make alive your mortal bodies.” The NWT essentially takes this approach, rendering it as “will make your mortal bodies alive.”
It is probably already apparent how Paul’s statement expresses the idea that in the resurrection of both Jesus and believers the mortal body itself is resurrected. But to show that this is certainly Paul’s meaning we will take a close look at the text.
II. THE MEANING OF _ZWOPOIEW_ (“MAKE ALIVE”/“GIVE LIFE TO”)
The crux here is what Paul means by “will give life also to your mortal bodies.” The natural and by far most common understanding is that Paul is referring to the future resurrection of believers. If this is correct, as we shall argue that it is, then this sentence affirms explicitly the resurrection of the mortal bodies of believers and also indicates that Jesus’ resurrection involved the giving of life to his mortal body that had died. These conclusions can be disputed only by denying that ZWOPOIHSEI here refers to resurrection.
A. ZWOPOIEW in the LXX
Not surprisingly, the word ZWOPOIEW, “to make alive,” can and is used in contexts other than resurrection from the dead. Most of the eight occurrences of the word in the LXX seem not to be related contextually to resurrection (Judg. 21:14; 2 Kings 5:7; Job 36:6; Ezra 9:8, 9; Neh. 9:6; Eccl. 7:12). Only once in the LXX does the verb suggest resurrection:
“You who have shown me many troubles and distresses
Will revive [Greek, EZWOPOIHSAS] me again,
And will bring me up again from the depths of the earth” (Ps. 71:20 NASB [70:20 LXX]).
Here the Psalmist speaks hyperbolically of himself as dying and having to be “made alive again.” Contextually this is hyperbole because the Psalmist has not literally died; he is expressing confidence that God will deliver him from deadly trouble as he has done on other occasions. But the text shows that the word could be used with reference to literal resurrection as well.
B. Undisputed Texts (John 5:21; 1 Cor. 15:22, 36, 45)
In contrast to the LXX, most if not all of the 13 NT occurrences of ZWOPOIEW are related to resurrection. This is indisputably and transparently the case in the following texts:
“For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life [ZWOPOIH], even so the Son also gives life [ZWOPOIH] to whom he wishes” (John 5:21).
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive [ZWOPOIHQHSONTAI]” (1 Cor. 15:22).
“That which you sow does not come to life [ZWOPOIEITAI] unless it dies…. So also it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living soul.’ The last Adam became a life-giving [ZWOPOIOUN] spirit” (1 Cor. 15:36, 45).
In John 5:21, the context of resurrection is explicit in Jesus’ reference to the Father raising the dead. The occurrences in 1 Corinthians 15 are all embedded in Paul’s extended comments on the resurrection of believers in Christ. They “will be made alive” (v. 22) when they are resurrected before the end (vv. 21, 23). Thus, the description of a seed being sown and then coming to life (v. 36) is a metaphor for the resurrection. The “life-giving” work that Christ does (v. 45) is in this context the giving of life in the resurrection (see especially vv. 42-49).
The word ZWOPOIEW has reference to resurrection life in other NT occurrences. We will consider each occurrence of the word in turn.
C. John 6:63
“It is the Spirit who gives life [ZWOPOIOUN]; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (John 6:63 NASB).
Jesus has just used this word in the previous chapter (5:21) with reference to resurrection. In chapter 6 the subject is again the resurrection life that Jesus gives through his death on our behalf:
“This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day…. No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day…. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:39-40, 44, 54 NASB)
To those who believe in Jesus and come to him, they begin already to possess “eternal life,” and yet its consummation awaits the future resurrection “on the last day.” The life-giving work of the Spirit to which Jesus refers, then, begins now when we believe and is fully realized in the resurrection.
D. Romans 4:17
Paul uses ZWOPOIEW in one other place in Romans, and there the context is also resurrection. Paul says that God “gives life [ZWOPOIOUNTOS] to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17 NRSV). Abraham believed God for such life in a rudimentary way when he believed God’s promise that he would bring into existence from his “good as dead” body the new life of the “seed” of many nations (vv. 16-22). This promise, which began to be fulfilled with the birth of Isaac, is in a new stage of fulfillment that began when God “raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (v. 24).
E. Second Corinthians 3:6
In 2 Corinthians, Paul uses the word once:
“…who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life [ZWOPOIEI]” (2 Cor. 3:6).
Here Paul uses almost the same wording (TO PNEUMA ZWOPOIEI, “THE Spirit gives life”) that Jesus used in John 6:63 (TO PNEUMA ESTIN TO ZWOPOIOUN, “the Spirit is the life-giving one”). The resurrection context may not be as obvious in this text, but it is definitely there. After elaborating on the comparatively greater glory of the new covenant (3:7-16), Paul states that we who are in Christ “are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). Such transformation, under way now, will be completed in the resurrection (cf. Phil. 3:21; Rom. 8:29). Even now, the glory of Christ’s transforming life is in us as “treasures in earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7), living humbly now “so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (v. 10). Paul and other Christians like him lived with death constantly near “for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (v. 11). Paul is confident that the end result will be “that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you” (v. 14). In the resurrection “that which is mortal will be swallowed up by life” (5:4). Of this resurrection life, Paul then says, God “gave to us the Spirit as a pledge” (5:5). We see, then, that the Spirit “gives life” to us now as the “pledge” or earnest (down payment) of the resurrection life that we will receive when God will raise us just as he raised Jesus.
F. Ephesians 2:5 and Colossians 2:13
A similar point is made in both Ephesians 2:5 and Colossians 2:13, parallel texts and the only places in the NT where ZWOPOIEW has a prefix (SUN) attached to it. In Ephesians Paul says that God, “when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with [SUNEZWOPOIHSEN] Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:5-6 NASB). In Colossians, Paul writes about believers: “having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with [SUNEZWOPOIHSEN] Him…” (Col. 2:12-13 NASB).
The idea in both of these texts is that when God raised Christ from the dead, he accounted or considered that resurrection as the guarantee or beginning of our own resurrection life. That is, the historical events of Christ’s own death, burial, resurrection, and exaltation are accounted ours, resulting in our forgiveness of sins and the beginning of a new life in Christ now, with the promise of our own literal resurrection and exaltation to come. Paul elaborates on the same idea later in Colossians:
“Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4 NASB).
This is the same idea that Paul states in Romans when he writes:
“Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection” (Rom. 6:4-5 NASB).
In Ephesians 2:6 and Colossians 2:13, then, SUNEZWOPOIHSEN is referring not simply to an imparting of a spiritual life within believers, but to their prospective association with Christ in his resurrection, an association that is anticipated in our present life in the Spirit but will eventually be realized in its fullness in the resurrection. The word in these two occurrences, then, also connotes resurrection.
G. Galatians 3:21 (Possible Exception)
The only text in Paul’s writings where ZWOPOIEW is used in a context where it does not refer clearly to resurrection life is Galatians 3:21, where Paul says that “if a law had been given that could make alive [ZWOPOIHSAI], then righteousness would indeed come through the law” (NRSV). The context does not indicate that resurrection is or is not in view; there simply is not enough in the context to draw any definite conclusion. Paul’s focus is on our present life in Christ (Gal. 2:19-20; 3:11-12; 5:25), but he also looks forward to the “eternal life” that we will “reap from the Spirit” (6:8-9). We should probably conclude that Paul’s use of ZWOPOIEW here is consistent with a connotation of the giving of new life that culminates in the resurrection, but this is not spelled out explicitly in this epistle.
H. First Peter 3:18
There is one other use of the word in the NT, outside of Paul’s writings, and it is something of an interpretive quagmire. Moreover, it is one of the JWs’ two main prooftexts for their doctrine that Jesus was not resurrected in his physical body. In 1 Peter 3:18, the apostle Peter writes: “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive [ZWOPOIHQEIS] in the spirit” (NASB). JWs understand the last clause, “made alive in the spirit,” to refer to Christ’s resurrection as a spirit (i.e., as a nonphysical, nonhuman spirit). Evangelical theologians have understood this clause in at least two different ways. Some favor the translation just given (so also the ESV; NRSV) and take the view that Peter is referring here not to Christ’s resurrection but to his entrance into the realm of spirit upon death. Others translate the clause “made alive by the Spirit” (KJV, NIV, NKJV) and conclude that Peter is attributing Christ’s resurrection to the agency of the Spirit. A third, mediating view is suggested in the NLT, which paraphrases the clause “raised to life in the Spirit.” On this view Peter is referring to Christ’s resurrection, not as having been performed by the Spirit, but as identifying Christ as united with the Spirit.
JWs and many (probably most) evangelicals agree, then, that ZWOPOIHQEIS in 1 Peter 3:18 is referring to Christ’s resurrection. A minority interpretation among evangelicals (which is quite respectable) suggests that it does not. At the very least, the word occurs here in the context of resurrection (so explicitly in 1 Peter 3:21-22), and even on the minority evangelical view his “having been made alive in the spirit” was a kind of first stage toward that resurrection.
I. Conclusion on the Usage of ZWOPOIEW
Let us review our findings to this point. The verb ZWOPOIEW occurs eight times in the LXX, once in reference to resurrection (albeit hyperbolically). However, all or at least nearly all of its 13 occurrences in the NT do occur in the context of resurrection. This is in all but one occurrence (Gal. 3:21) either explicit in the very sentence in which the word appears or is explicit in the surrounding context (John 5:21 [2x]; 6:63; 1 Cor. 15:22, 36, 45; Rom. 4:17; 8:11 [our text; see below]; 2 Cor. 3:6; Eph. 2:6; Col. 2:12; 1 Pet. 3:18).
A fair conclusion, then, is that where ZWOPOIEW occurs in the context of resurrection, it must refer to resurrection unless the text explicitly indicates otherwise.
III. THE EXEGESIS OF ROMANS 8:11
With that conclusion in mind, let us return to Romans 8:11:
But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,
He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead
will also give life [ZWOPOIHSEI] to your mortal bodies
through His Spirit who dwells in you.
EI DE TO PNEUMA TOU EGEIRANTOS TON ’IHSOUN EK NEKRWN OIKEI EN hUMIN,
hO EGEIRAS EK NEKRWN CRISTON ’IHSOUN
ZWOPOIHSEI KAI TA QNHTA SWMATA hUMWN
DIA TOU ENOIKOUNTOS AUTOU PNEUMATOS EN hUMIN.
That the first two lines refer explicitly to resurrection—specifically, the resurrection of Jesus—is beyond dispute. That the third line also refers to resurrection must therefore be considered a proven fact. This is made essentially explicit by the conjunction KAI (“also”) in the third line: Having raised Jesus from the dead, Paul says, God will “also” make your mortal bodies alive. In this context KAI can only be plausibly construed to mean “also” or “as well.” The making alive of the third line, then, is a resurrection.
The symmetry of the four lines of this sentence confirms the above analysis. The first and fourth lines both speak of God’s Spirit as dwelling or residing “in you,” in believers. The second line refers to Christ’s resurrection from “the dead,” while the third line refers to the believers’ bodies as “mortal.” The sentence thus forms a short chiasm, and the two middle lines are for that reason as well to be seen as thematically related.
Another consideration supporting the conclusion that Paul is speaking about our future resurrection is the fact that Paul frequently does just this: predicating our future resurrection on the resurrection of Jesus (Rom. 6:4-9; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:12-23, 48-49; 2 Cor. 4:14; Phil. 3:10-11, 20-21; Col. 1:18; 2:12-13; 3:3-4; 1 Thess. 4:14).
But now we must take notice of just what it is that Paul says. In our future resurrection, God will make alive our “mortal bodies.” This is what Paul means by resurrection: the mortal body is made alive. Of course, in the eschatological resurrection this “making alive” is not merely resuscitation back to mortal life; it is more than that, the raising of the dead to immortal, eternal life. But this “making alive” will happen to our “mortal bodies.” Our present bodies are not simply left dead forever, to be replaced by nonhuman, spirit beings in a nonphysical form of existence. Rather, our present mortal bodies will be made alive.
Finally, notice that the way Paul states this expectation necessarily implies that this is also what he understands to have happened to Jesus. When God “raised (Christ) Jesus from the dead,” what this meant was that Jesus, who had died, returned to life—and that this included the “making alive” of the “mortal body” in which Jesus had died. The logic of Paul’s sentence makes no other interpretation plausible. “If God did X for Jesus, then God will also do Y for you,” where ‘X’ and ‘Y’ are normally synonymous expressions, must be taken to mean that God did ‘Y’ for Jesus. Since Jesus had a mortal body, died, and was raised from the dead, it is quite evident that Paul means that his mortal body was made alive and so will ours.
To my knowledge, the publications of the JWs have never addressed the interpretation of this verse in any substantial way. I did find one comment on the text that interpreted it (without explanation or consideration of any other view) to be speaking of the “aliveness” that JWs show in their ministry activities (_Holy Spirit_ , 162). The exegetical considerations adduced here render such an interpretation extremely dubious. The one hint of an exegetical reason for this interpretation is a cross-reference given in the Reference Edition of the NWT, which cross-references Romans 8:11 with Ephesians 2:5 (which says that God “made us alive” with Christ). However, the verb refers to the union of Christians with Christ in his resurrection, and so does not support the JWs’ interpretation.
I agree with Moo:
“Since reference to resurrection is so plain in the first part of the sentence, ‘will make alive’ must also refer to future bodily transformation—through resurrection for dead believers—rather than, for instance, to spiritual vivification in justification, or to the ‘mortification’ of sin in the Christian life…. The cause-and-effect relationship between Christ’s resurrection and the believer’s, made so plain in Rom. 6:5 (cf. 8:17), lies behind Paul’s affirmation that God will give life to ‘our mortal bodies’ just as he raised Christ from the dead.” (Douglas Moo, _The Epistle to the Romans_, NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], 493.)
I conclude that Romans 8:11 is a strong prooftext for the following doctrinal conclusions:
1. Christ’s mortal body was made alive in his resurrection.
2. The mortal bodies of Christians will be made alive in their resurrection.
One other concluding observation: The above findings are inconsistent with the JW teaching that Romans 8 is referring specifically to a subset of Christians that will live forever as nonhuman spirits in heaven. The Christians of whom Paul speaks will have their mortal bodies resurrected to immortal life.