If Christ Is Not Raised…1 Corinthians 15:1-34
The following sermon is in lieu of a recorded message and has been produced from the notes I used to preach at Turners Hill Free Church on 24th of March 2013 on the passage above.
In Chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians Paul turns to the last major topic of the letter, the resurrection of the dead.
In previous chapters Paul began each of the topics that the Corinthians had explicitly raised with him with the words “Now, about…” However, his opening words here, “Now, brothers, I want to remind you”, show us that the topic is not one that the Corinthians have themselves chosen, rather it is something selected by Paul for the benefit of this church, something crucial to solving the problems that have erupted there.
We already saw in Chapter 13 that practically speaking their problems stemmed from a lack of love. However, underneath this failure to live in obedience to Christ was a more subtle problem with their understanding. Although they had placed their faith in the Gospel, their faith in the resurrection had subsequently been undermined.
What we believe affects how we behave. While the Corinthians had accepted the Gospel message, including the resurrection of Christ, they were now acting as if that resurrection had no bearing on their lives. Something had gone wrong with their thinking.
It seems that an influential group or individual in Corinth was attacking the beliefs of the church. They were teaching, or talking about, or gossiping false teaching: either there was no resurrection at all, or that the only resurrection we could expect was in line with the normal Greco-Roman view of a disembodied spiritual existence after death. Either claim denies the Gospel.
Essentially we see in this problem the Church’s first recorded encounter with liberalism, subjecting the wisdom of God to measuring stick of human wisdom. By this method any talk of resurrection was absurd to Greeks and Romans (and plenty of other people): “Why would God raise the dead? Bodies are so yucky! Physical existence is so flawed! We long for an existence apart from the world of touch and taste and smell, an existence of pure intellect and idea.”
Despite the Corinthians’ growing scepticism about the resurrection, Paul does believe in it. For Paul this is more than a philosophical debate . The issue is personal because it defines his life, and it is pastoral because it robs the church that he loves of the rich rewards of following Christ.
In verse 1 to 34 of chapter 15 Paul corrects the Corinthians’ thinking in 3 crucial ways. Firstly, he reminds them of the centrality of resurrection to the Gospel message they believed. Secondly, he outlines the absurdity of the Christian life if there is no resurrection. Thirdly, he explains why the resurrection of the dead is not just a bolt-on belief, but is central to God’s plans for the whole of creation. Having corrected them he challenges them to come to their senses. If you read verses 1 to 34 now you should see his argument unfolding accordingly.
Now the interesting thing is to see how Paul’s words for the Corinthians challenges us. Would Paul see behind our behaviours a need to reassert the reality of the resurrection of the dead? Let us examine his argument.
The Resurrection is Central to the Gospel Which Saves.
In the first 11 verses Paul summarises the gospel, its authority, reliability and the profound effect is has had on his own life. His aim is to remind them that to abandon belief in the resurrection gospel is to undermine their whole faith.
Firstly he uses four verbs to describe their establishment in the Gospel of Christ: preached, received, taken your stand, and will be saved. The Gospel was thrown to them like a life-ring, Paul threw it (preached), they caught it (received), they held on to it for salvation (stood), and they will be rescued if they continue to cling to it (will be saved).
But what did that life ring consist of? That which is of “first importance” (vs. 3), 2 primary things:
Firstly, Christ, died for our sins according to Scripture. That is to say that he died on the cross, as foretold in the Old Testament, as the substitutionary atoning sacrifice of God, and that by his death all our sins are forgiven; Jesus Christ paid the price for everything to set us free from the punishment of sin and death. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done or what has been done to us, no matter how big or small, if we put our faith in Jesus we receive God’s forgiveness.
Secondly, Christ was raised on the third day after his death, according to Scriptures. This truth changes everything; things can never be the same! God reached into our messy, broken universe on a day two thousand years ago and he raised the body of the man Jesus Christ from the dead. He left the tomb empty and demonstrated to the world that this man is the Son of God, the Messiah and Lord, the Judge of all, and that whoever believes on him will be raised from the dead in the same way.
These are the twin anchors on which our hope is fixed. If we fail to hold on to one or the other of these truths we are no holding the life-ring of the Gospel by which we are saved. If we do not trust Christ for both of these things then we are not trusting Christ, we are lost in this life and the next.
Historically, and even today, many Christians do not understand why their own resurrection is important. The pervasive myth that the next life consists solely of a disembodied spiritual existence that is entirely discontinuous with this life would suggest that the problems Paul is addressing in Corinth persist today.
Paul goes on to point out just how fundamental the belief in the resurrection is to the Corinthians own belief. If it hadn’t been for Christ’s resurrection then they would not even be Christians, they would not be a church for Paul to write to. He outlines the chain of authority that was established by the risen Lord’s appearance, firstly to Peter, then the 12, then 500, then James the brother of the Lord who was overseer of the church in Jerusalem, then to the other apostles and lastly to Paul. Everything they believed depended on these people, people they had met, talked to, and received teaching from and so on.
But not only was there a chain of authority, it was the resurrection that was the driving force behind Paul’s own life. His own transformation from persecutor of the church to apostle of the Lord, from zealot to love-filled disciple, was not the result of a vision, or a change of mind or heart. It was not the result of some intellectual epiphany but of encountering the risen Lord himself. And Jesus was so alive! His presence weighed on Paul with eternal majesty, the light of his glory blinded him and in a single moment of realisation, that Jesus Christ was Lord, Paul was born again and changed for ever.
Oh! For a revelation of Jesus like that in our own lives! That God would force us to pay heed to his risen Son! May we cry out to him for that kind of revelation!
Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord was as real as the women in Simon the Pharisee’s house who washed Jesus feet with her hair. Just like her, in encountering Jesus in reality, Paul was forgiven much. And, just as Jesus foretold he would, Paul loved much. It was this that was at the heart of his own drive to pour out his own life in obedience Christ.
The Absurdity of the Christian Life Without The Resurrection
Having established his first point, Paul goes on to point out the absurdity of the Christian life if Christ has not been raised. He points to the lives of the Corinthian Christians and to his own life to make his point:
If Christ is not raised “our preaching” is useless. Paul’s whole life revolved around the proclamation of the Gospel.
If Christ is not raised “your faith” is useless. Christ’s resurrection proves that God justifies those who put their trust in him. Without it, he does not. If Christ was not raised then we cannot pursue his kingdom or righteousness in his pattern, because if Christ who was perfectly obedient is not raised then what hope is there for us who place our trust in him?
If Christ is not raised then Paul and the other apostles are “false witnesses”. They have lied to thousands of people about God. They will surely be judged by him.
If Christ is not raised “you are still in your sins”. What does that mean? That God is against us; that every crime or failure of thought or word or deed is held against us. That it all rest on our shoulders, we can only help ourselves. That we stand condemned under God’s judgement and the whole universe contrives to display his wrath in a whirlwind of meaninglessness and suffering and pain that ends with death and nothingness.
If Christ is not raised then the dead are lost. All those that the Corinthians knew who had died, children and siblings and parents were simply no more. We live we die, worms eat us. That is it.
If Christ is not raised then “we are to be pitied above all men”. Paul’s life illustrated the truth of what he preached, because there was no earthly reward for his labours. He had no power, no treasure, no palace or pension fund at the end of it all. He was killed by a mad Roman emperor. He compares the life of an apostle to that of a “dead man walking”. If Christ is not raised then what a pitiful existence!
God’s Big Plan
Having explained the implications of there being no resurrection from the dead he moves on to show them why God raised Christ, his big plan. Paul outlines three interdependent points of that plan:
1. To give you eternal life.
2. To establish the Lordship of Christ.
3. To defeat death.
1. God’s plan is to give you eternal life
In terms of our own salvation we are all “in” Adam by birth. Because of Adam’s sin, we all sin, which means we will all die. But Christ acts as a second Adam, and when we put our faith in Jesus, when we repent and believe, we become “in” Christ. We have one representative or the other. Christ is the firstfruits of the new humanity, an offering that is both representative and transformative of the whole. By putting our faith in him he changes us and we are guaranteed a share in his resurrection. This share is fulfilled at the second coming, but now we receive a deposit and guarantee, the Holy Spirit. The same power that raised Christ from the dead is at work in us enabling us to grow in our obedience to Christ, to “live” more as eternal life breaks into the present. We experience a living relationship with God, we are led by the Spirit, we are his children and we call him Abba! Father!
2. God’s plan is to establish the lordship of his Son, for his own glory.
But God is not just interested in your personal salvation, it’s not really about us at all, we are just part of a bigger picture. God’s plan is to give glory to himself perfectly so that he is “all in all”. We live in tension now, in a place where it makes sense to pray to God Almighty “your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”. But one day, through Jesus Christ, God’s will will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Everything will be perfect and complete. God is going to wrap up everything into a perfect and everlasting conclusion that puts everything right. If you though the ending of Les Miserables was great, just wait and see what God has in store for his creation!
God will achieve this through Jesus Christ, who by his resurrection was declared to be the Son of God, the Lord who now rules from Heaven. The Lord will reign until all God’s enemies are subjugated. When he returns in glory everything that stands against God will be destroyed. Christ our King, our champion, has defeated them all on the cross where he put them to shame and showed the brutality and destructiveness of everything that is opposed to him. And when he comes again it will be the execution stroke by which all things are put right. Just as David chopped off Goliath’s head, so Christ our champion will finally destroy the enemies of God. Jesus Christ is Lord, not just of us, but of all creation, now and forever more, and his reign will include ruling over every created thing. This is the grand theatre on which our salvation is played out.
3. Christ was raised to defeat death.
At the centre of the whole drama, is the greatest enemy of all, death. Jesus showed us how God feels about death when he wept before the tomb of Lazarus. If it hadn’t been for the resurrection we could only conclude that either death was stronger than God or that God and death were in cahoots. But the defeat of death in the resurrection shows us that death is an enemy of God.
Just as the blood of Abel cried out from the ground against his brother Cain, how much more does the blood of generation after generation cry out? But through the resurrection of Christ God tells us that death is not OK.
It’s not OK that people die. It’s not OK that Pol-Pot killed 3 million, or that Lenin killed 40 million. It’s not OK that we drop bombs on 3rd world villages and kill kids as well as soldiers. It’s not OK that people die from cancer, or road accidents, or that babies are stillborn or that through our greed a child dies every second from a preventable disease. It’s not OK!
But the wonder of it all is that Christ will not just stop death. God won’t just reset everything; he doesn’t just sweep history under the carpet. Death is not simply stopped. Death is defeated!
Christ makes death his footstool. Like a triumphant, conquering King, Christ stands with his boot on the neck of his enemy, death, and orders the plundering of his wealth. Death, the marauder has been defeated and now the land that he conquered is retaken, the treasure that was hoarded is handed back and the slaves that were imprisoned by the cold shackles of mortality are set free.
The fact that death is defeated means that this life is not just some big test. No! God loves life. He loves the things you love! The breath you breathe, the laughter of your children and the affection of your family, the trees and birds and the birds and bright blue skies and the smell of food. He loves it all more than you do! This very fact is absolutely vital for us because if life is just a test then we may as well just die now. Why not blow ourselves up in the name of God and go straight to heaven now? But if this life is not a test then it means that the way we live, the actions we take, have eternal consequences.
It’s on this basis that we store up treasure in heaven by giving to the poor. It is on this basis that we do everything in obedience to Christ. Everything we do in love by faith is seed sown into God’s Kingdom Jesus said in Mark 10:
“no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life”
Everything we do in selfishness will be destroyed. But everything we do in love, in obedience to our Lord, will last forever; we will receive a hundred times more in God’s kingdom.
Oh, if we could just see how good the soil is we would not stop sowing. We would be like people obsessed, waking up early and staying up late to make the most of the abundant harvest that God has set before us. Loving and serving others again and again and again.
All this means that there is eternal weight to all our actions. It is the future that must guide our behaviour; it is the resurrection that gives us the ability to live utterly self-sacrificial lives. Does God reward the righteous or not? Will he look after you if you sell everything you have and give the money to the poor or not? The resurrection guarantees it.
As we truly exercise faith in Christ in this life then we should expect to share in his sufferings. If we are as self-sacrificial in our love as he is then it is inevitable. But at the same time we will experience the joy and peace and love of God in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
How hard are you willing to lean on the faithfulness of God for the sake of loving others? Are you prepared to push yourself and abandon comfort, and other people’s good opinion of you, and convenience, security and wealth so that in the words of John Wesley you can love others such that you:
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can”?
Only by god’s grace can we do it. We must stare our inability in the face, we must admit our failure to do, or even want to do, these things. But as we admit our absolute dependence on God’s grace let us make a declaration of intent. Like the man who sees Everest and says, “one day I will climb it”, let us fix our minds upon loving as Christ loves, because through the resurrection of Christ we can live as the Lord commands.
Or we can just say “let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die”.
Paul finishes with a quote, “bad company corrupts good character.” As we already mentioned, there were some influential people in Corinth bringing in the wrong ideas about resurrection. While we may not have the same thing in our church today, his words are still applicable today because the way you act says more about what you believe than what you say. What would Paul say of us if he was here among us?
As surely as it was the case in Corinth, there are powers at work that wish to convince you that the resurrection of Christ is irrelevant to you. They will not be upfront, they will not try to change the confession of your mouth, that would be too obvious, but they will try to change the faith of your heart. These powers are at work in the world all around us.
The man who spends his fortune on cars, and gadgets and toys. The woman who gets plastic surgery or spends her money on designer clothes. The TV that trains our kids to grow up thinking that fame is the pinnacle of human achievement. The comedian who cultivates cynicism and meanness for his own fame. The politician who redefines marriage. The famers who destroy rainforest to raise cattle. The financial advice that tells you that retirement is what life is all about. The boss who tells you that the bottom-line is what life is all about. The schools that don’t teach God. The football supporter whose weekly emotional highlight is cheering a team of millionaires with all his heart, mind soul and strength and cursing the opposition and referee with the same passion. The 189,931 abortions that were carried out in this country in 2011. And the person that writes the job description for the nurse who has to despose of the foetuses. The scientist who makes TV programs about the beauty of creation but only sees atoms, and maths and random chance. The governments who marginalise the poor, or kill their citizens, or wage wars. The millions of people in the developed world who waste countless hours mesmerised by mindless television or who spend their money on possessions they don’t need and entertainment, not for rest, but because there is nothing else to do, while all the time, all around them, 99% of the world has less money than they do and every second a child dies of preventable disease.
None of these is a person that will walk into our church and try to persuade people “There is no resurrection of the dead”. But every one of them says exactly the same thing. And every time we join in with them in thought and word and deed we add our amen.
That’s not to say we can’t enjoy culture and participate in the world and its blessing. But we cannot be naïve or unconscious participants in the way that the rest of the world lives. We must be aware of the forces that influence our minds. Paul’s words are the same today “Do not be misled.”
The culture that is around us is not neutral; it is warring for your very soul. To make you believe that the annoyingly, miraculously real moment on Easter Sunday 2000 years ago when Christ rose from the dead never happened. To make you believe that everything was always thus and thus it shall ever be. To make you believe that the one fact that changes everything, the resurrection of Christ, is not true.
The plan is to make you as unfruitful for God as possible. To strangle the very life of Christ out of you so that you will not love others as he commands and reap the rewards of eternal life. And if they can gradually loosen your grip upon the life ring that has been thrown to you then at the very least Christ will be of no advantage to you in this life. And at the worst, it might prove that you never took hold of him and the eternal life he offers in the first place.
Paul says “come back to your senses”.
There was an advert on TV recently about excessive drinking. It had a young woman getting ready to go out for a night on the town. She carefully, smeared, her makeup all across her face, vomited down herself, broke the heal of her shoe off and ripped her tights. The catchphrase to the advert was, “You wouldn’t begin your night out like this, why end it like this?”
God says the same to his church today. There are things in your life right now that should not be there, that deny the resurrection of Christ. You wouldn’t have started your life in Christ with those things there, why are they there now? What is making you unfruitful for Christ? Will you heed Paul’s warning; will you part company with that which denies the resurrection in your life?
The challenge comes to us all. Where will you sow the actions of your life? In Adam’s soil, where by the sweat of your brow all you will ever yield is thorns and thistles? Or by faith will you sow your life in the harvest field of the Kingdom, where even the smallest act of love, offered in faith to Christ, will bear fruit for all eternity?
Will you choose to no longer be robbed? Will you take up your cross and follow him? Will you, like Paul, die each day for Christ in the sure and certain hope that the God who raised him from the dead will do the same for you?