They say “seeing is believing”. While human beings have always sought to understand and explain things that are confusing to them, now, more than ever perhaps, the world is very skeptical of things that don’t make sense. And while there are parts of Christianity that are agreeable to most, the reality is that Christians worship a supernatural God whose actions can’t always be explained or understood in a natural way.
We left off Good Friday in a bit of an awkward place, intentionally ending in silence and reflection with little-to-no resolve, to help build the anticipation for Sunday. What a joy it is that there is only a little discomfort for us as we wait because, unlike Jesus’ friends and family at the time, we know the end of the story. We could leave on Good Friday with anticipation knowing that he did not stay in the grave, but he rose to life again!
And that is what we’re going to talk about today. I know, big surprise, talking about the resurrection on Easter. But where we went through the narrative of the crucifixion from the Gospel of John on Friday, we’re going to go somewhere completely different today. Rather than read through a gospel account of the resurrection, we are going to read and study what Paul had to say about its importance in one of his letters.
Spoiler alert: it’s important!
Since humanity has existed, many people like to be able to understand and have an explanation for things that don’t make sense to them.
Now, some of us are fine remaining in our confusion about certain things. For instance, whenever I think about refrigeration, air conditioning—anything that artificially produces cold with electricity—I’m completely baffled. It doesn’t make sense to me. It might be magic for all I know. But I am totally fine to remain in ignorance and never understand how something powered and hot can make things cold.
But for most of us, we know that feeling of seeing something or hearing about an event and trying to understand and explain it rationally and logically.
Exodus 3:3 tells us that when Moses saw a bush that was on fire but not burning up, he thought to himself: “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” It’s confusing, let’s check it out.
In John 9, one of my favourite stories in the gospels, when Jesus heals a man born blind, we read that some of his neighbours are convinced it must be a different person, and the Pharisees assume he must’ve just been lying. It doesn’t make sense, let’s try to understand it.
I even read an article recently where someone tried to explain away the plagues that happened in Egypt as rare-but-possible natural phenomena, because the idea of a God existing who could cause such events was beyond the realm of their belief system. It can’t be possible, let’s find an alternate explanation.
The problem is that the Bible is full of events and happenings that, by their very nature, can’t be explained by logic, science, or natural means. Our God is a supernatural God.
There is plenty about Christianity that sounds “good” to the world: love your neighbour, be kind, care for the poor . . . But as soon as we start talking about miraculous healings, water-walking, or creation of something from nothing, many in our world today are unable or unwilling to wrap their heads around it.
And when we start talking about a man who was also God who was killed but came back to life and promised that anyone who believes in him will also be resurrected; let’s face it, to most of the world that is just plain weird!
Well not all of us are always comfortable being weirdos, and since we can’t explain it away, sometimes we just try and dodge it by focussing on the easier-to-swallow aspects of Christianity. Let’s focus on gracious, loving, great public speaker Jesus who helped the poor and the oppressed; no one will find that disagreeable! Let’s talk about peace and comfort and unity, and all the benefits that come with being a part of the local church; that sounds fun!
I hope you can see I’m being facetious here. These are all good and important parts of our faith. But as we’re going to see today, the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, as confusing and unbelievable as it may be, is the absolute foundation of our faith, upon which everything else stands. Without it, everything comes tumbling down.
So, let’s embrace the weird today, and read 1 Corinthians 15, starting in verse 1.
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.1 Corinthians 15:1–2 NIV
The first couple verses of chapter 15 serve as a bit of an introduction to the topic at hand. Paul has just finished writing about worship in chapter 14, and he is switching streams of thought. So, he’s writing to the brothers and sisters (believers) and going back to the gospel, the good news that they have heard and believed.
He makes it clear that the message of the gospel leads to salvation “if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.” This is not a suggestion that the Corinthian people are at risk of losing their salvation if they don’t “hold firmly”. Rather it’s to emphasize that salvation requires belief.
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.Romans 1:16
If the gospel doesn’t bring salvation, then believing it is in vain. This is the start of a major theme in this chapter: vanity. Paul actually uses three different words over multiple verses in our passage today to basically say: “if x isn’t true, all of this is worthless.”
We’ve talked in the past about how Biblical authors often use repetition to add emphasis or draw attention to a point. Using multiple different words with very similar definitions in a short span of verses can have a similar effect.
So, with the introduction of this topic out of the way, Paul now transitions into reminding his readers of some of the details of that “gospel” he has just referred to.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,1 Corinthians 15:3–4
Dr. Larry Moyer from EvanTell ministries came here and reminded us over and over, the core of the gospel is ten simple words: “Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead.” Paul says these details are of “first importance”, and emphasizes not just that these events happened, but that they happened “according to the scriptures.” Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection was fulfilment of centuries of prophecy.
5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.1 Corinthians 15:5–7
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of every person that saw Jesus after his resurrection, but to make clear it wasn’t just one or two people who saw him who could be lying or hallucinating. Hundreds of people saw him, many of whom were still alive at the time of Paul’s writing (vv. 6) and could easily be asked about their eyewitness experience.
Now, within the scope of 1 Corinthians as a whole, Paul’s approach here makes a lot of sense. He’s been pretty harsh in calling out the people for their sinfulness throughout the letter. He also addressed the fact that there are people in the church that have attached themselves to the teaching of specific leaders like Peter and Apollos.
It’s almost as if he knows that some of the Corinthians might not be super enthused about listening to what he has to say by this point.
When I was a kid in school, I had a bad habit of speaking out of turn. My brain went quick, and I didn’t have a lot of friends, and so I think subconsciously I was convinced that if I could demonstrate all the things I knew and how smart I was whenever the teacher asked the class something, I would be demonstrating my value. Occasionally, I needed to be put in my place, and the teacher would call out my bad behaviour in front of everyone. Well, the shame of public discipline definitely kept me quiet for a while. But I didn’t feel very compelled to pay attention to anything else the teacher said for a while either.
The content that Paul is discussing here is so crucial that he doesn’t want his readers to miss it even if they’re frustrated with him. So instead, it’s almost as though he points to all these other people, including Peter and the Twelve, and says “Don’t just take my word for it! All these people saw it! Go ask them yourself!”
What’s interesting is we remember that Paul is writing to believers. These are people who, as he himself wrote above, have believed in the gospel: that Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead. So, in listing off all these eyewitnesses, many of whom were still alive and accessible, Paul isn’t necessarily trying to convince skeptical readers that this event really happened. Rather, he’s reminding and emphasizing: What the gospel is; that it’s preached based on eyewitness events; and that Christ’s literal, physical resurrection is essential to that message.
8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.1 Corinthians 5:8
This is a fascinating verse for a couple reasons. First of all, Paul counts his experience on the road to Damascus, with the bright light and voice of Jesus, among the rest of the eyewitness accounts. In fact, he counts it as the last one. His conversion was a result of seeing Jesus. Secondly, the term he uses to refer to himself is interesting. It’s incredibly vivid. In Greek it’s literally “the abortion” or “the one born too early.” This starts off a set of comments that ride the line between humble and self-deprecating.
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.1 Corinthians 15:9–10
As I said before, it’s likely that Paul knew that not everyone receiving this letter in Corinth necessarily liked or respected him. He was the latecomer to the party, so to speak, especially when compared with the Twelve who got to spend time learning from and living with Jesus himself. But rather than try and defend himself, he acknowledges his past (“I persecuted the church”) and embraces his present (“by the grace of God I am what I am”).Moreover, he uses this as an opportunity to point to the power and effect God’s grace can have in a person’s life.
This can seem like a bit of a strange discourse, sort of an unrelated rabbit trail. But if we go back to that theme of “vanity” it fits right in. Here’s a demonstration of how not “in vain” or not “useless” belief in the gospel is. The power of the gospel is not wasted, even on someone as far gone as Paul, the abortion, the persecutor. Think of his words in a later letter to the Corinthians:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.2 Corinthians 12:9
11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.1 Corinthians 15:11
So, whether you heard it from Peter, or Apollos, or one of the twelve, or one of the other apostles, or even little-old me: the message is the same. The gospel that changed my life is the same gospel that was preached to you and the same gospel you believed.
And now, with all the details clarified so it’s absolutely clear that everyone is on the same page, talking about and understanding the same things, Paul moves on to address a problem.
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?1 Corinthians 15:12
Here lies the problem that Paul wants to address. Evidently some in the church at Corinth did not believe in resurrection. Again, these are Christians. So, it’s not that they don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but rather they most likely don’t believe in any sort of resurrection for anyone else. It was common, even amongst pagan Greeks at the time, to believe in some form of an eternal soul, but not the resurrection of a physical body. So, whatever hope these people had was not of a physical resurrection.
Well, this is a problem for a number of reasons, and using logic and a series of hypotheticals, Paul is going to demonstrate why.
13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.1 Corinthians 15:13–14
Using logic and reasoning, Paul explains that these resurrection deniers have a flaw in their belief system. You can’t believe that Christ was resurrected but then say there’s no resurrection. That doesn’t make sense. You can’t have it both ways.
So, let’s assume, Paul suggests, that you’re right and there is no resurrection. Then that must mean that Christ wasn’t resurrected. And if Christ wasn’t resurrected, all of this is useless. There’s that theme again! Different word this time.
If Christ wasn’t raised, then the apostles’ preaching is useless, because there’s no point in preaching a gospel if the events of that gospel didn’t actually happen. That’s not good news! And if that’s the case, the faith that is a result of that preaching is useless, because what are they even believing in? Without resurrection it’s either lies or an incomplete truth, and that also is not good news.
If someone preaches and convinces me that I can fly, it doesn’t matter how much I believe it when I jump off the church steeple, because if it’s untrue, I’m going to die.
Without truth, beliefs are useless.
15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.1 Corinthians 15:15–16
If there is no resurrection, it’s not even just that the apostles’ preaching is useless, or that the people’s faith is useless, but those who have shared that gospel are actively liars. If no one is raised, Jesus wasn’t raised. Well, we preached that God raised Jesus, so if that didn’t happen, we’ve now lied about God. And more than that: you’ve followed us. You are trusting and following a bunch of liars if there is no resurrection. Liars about God! Even if you don’t believe in resurrection you definitely believe in God. Seems like it would be pretty bad to believe a bunch of lies about God.
As he wraps up this grouping of points and prepares for another, Paul restates: if the dead aren’t raised, Christ hasn’t been raised. And in case all of those negative points weren’t enough:
17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.1 Corinthians 15:17–19
If Christ hasn’t been raised, your faith is futile. Same theme again. Different word. This time associated with sins. Without the last five words of that ten-word gospel, the first five don’t mean much. Without “and rose from the dead”, it’s not “Christ died for our sins”, it’s just “Christ died”. How can someone promise salvation from your sins if he’s dead in a grave? It’s the fact that Christ was raised that gives authenticity to the claim that his death was sufficient for the sins of humanity. Without it, he’s just another guy he made big claims and died. Again, not good news.
Hitting rock bottom Paul basically explains: If Christ isn’t raised, there is no hope. We are hopeless. The dead are dead. There is nothing else for them. And nothing else any of us after we die. And if your hope in Christ is only for this earthly life, that’s hardly something worth hoping in. What’s the point of believing in something so temporary, so fleeting? In fact, if that’s the gospel we believe, we’re a sad, sad group and ought to be pitied for how little hope we have.
Seems like a great place to end a joyous Easter sermon, eh?
I think today is the perfect day for this discourse, because as negative as this section of verses are, they are all based on a hypothetical premise: There is no resurrection of the dead. And while we remember and acknowledge Jesus’ resurrection every week, today is the day above all others that we joyously shout and sing: HE IS RISEN!
Because Christ is raised, we have hope in him for this life and the next! We don’t need to be pitied. Because Christ is raised, the dead in Christ are not lost, but will be raised to live eternal. Because Christ is raised, we are freed from the bondage of sin, the price was paid, and our faith is not futile. Because Christ is raised, the apostles are not liars, but true witnesses of the miraculous, preachers of the true gospel that is the power of God unto salvation.
The reason we are here today, the reason we have eternal hope, the reason we have salvation, and freedom, and peace, and comfort, and the church, and the Bible, the very words of God—all of it is built upon the foundation that Christ was raised! He is risen!
Now, if you’re here today listening to this, you are inevitably in one of two positions. Either you believe in the resurrection or you don’t.
I’m going to guess that most people who have made the effort to come out to church or tune into a live stream on Easter Sunday during a pandemic believe that Christ rose, and Paul has some words for us that I’ll get to in a moment.
But if you’re listening today and you don’t believe in the resurrection, I would just ask you to think about what’s holding you back? If you’ve made it this far and you’re still actually paying attention, I’m guessing you’re not completely closed off to the idea, so what’s stopping you from believing today?
In Romans 10:9 Paul writes, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
What is the risk? I know it might sound unbelievable or farfetched or weird, but what is the risk? A few weeks ago, Jim reminded us that there are numerous things in this world we can’t see or understand that we, as humans, believe in. So, I ask again, what’s holding you back?
The majority of us here, however, believe in the resurrection. And unfortunately, it’s easy for us to hear a message like this and just wonder “now what?” Most of what we heard today was either reminding of the resurrection or considering the implications of not believing in the resurrection. Well, I already believe, so now what? What’s the point?
Well, we only covered a portion of this chapter today, and in the verses that follow Paul goes into a few more hypotheticals and I really encourage you to take some time today to read the rest of the chapter. But eventually he gets to his own “now what” statement in verse 58.
58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.1 Corinthians 15:58
So, if you’re listening today and you believe in the resurrection, here’s the call: Stand firm, work hard, and praise God!
Stand firm! Paul has shown how quickly things fall apart when the foundation isn’t solid, how easy it is to be led astray when you aren’t sure what you believe. So, build your faith on the resurrection of Jesus and hold fast to the truth of the gospel: Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead.
Work hard! Our faith isn’t useless, it has value, and the power of the gospel yields results. Serving the Lord is not pointless and focussing on faithfulness is of incredible worth.
Praise God! This one isn’t in this verse directly, but how can we read passages like this and not be stirred up to worship him! The almighty God, who loved us so much he sent his Son to die to pay the cost of our sins. But he did not leave him in the grave, but rose him up victorious over sin and death, and by his grace he has offered us the same!
And if that’s not good news worth celebrating this Easter, I don’t know what is.