Today we continue our study through 1 Corinthians, and we are rounding the final corner, headed towards home. But before Paul concludes his letter written to the troubled church in the ancient Greek city of Corinth, he has a final correction to give, an important correction, in fact, the most important correction.
Paul has been answering questions and problems found within the struggling Corinthians church. In chapter 7 he transitions to addressing specific problems by saying, “now, concerning the matters about which you wrote.” Then he addresses principles for marriage. Then later in chapter 7, “now, concerning the betrothed,” or those who were engaged to be married.
Then in chapter 8, “Now concerning food offered to idols,” and he answers that issue. Chapter 11 then begins, “Now” and he goes on to address head coverings in the gathered worship, and the proper roles for men and women. Chapter 12 then begins, “now concerning spiritual gifts,” and he goes on to correct the Corinthian abuse of certain spiritual gifts.
And here in our text, he transitions with a similar “NOW” and begins to address the final problem, which was that there were some people denying the fact of Christ’s resurrection from the death. And as we will see, this was not a matter of trivial importance. It is the heart of the Christian gospel, the heart of the Christian life, indeed, THE CENTRAL matter of first importance.
Paul has, as it were, saved the best and most important for last. This can’t be classified as an issue that we can ignore, an issue that we can either take it or leave it. This is a non-negotiable. The resurrection of Christ is the heart of the gospel, and to misplace it or disbelieve it, is to lose everything.
Let’s begin by reading in Chapter 15, verses 1-11:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy 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 toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
We’ll work our way through this text under these headings: first, we’ll note the stakes of the resurrection, then the centrality of the resurrection, then the fact of the resurrection, and finally the fruit of the resurrection. The stakes, the centrality, the fact, and the fruit of the resurrection.
Let’s look at verse 1 and see The STAKES of the resurrection. The stakes of the resurrection.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
Paul starts this new chapter by reminding them of the gospel, the good news. And the content of that news he explains in verse three, which we will study next, but that content includes both the death AND the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the simple message of the Christian faith.
It is the sine qui non of salvation, the thing that, if you lose it, you’ve lost the entire faith. If you’ve got it, then you have the message of salvation. That’s what he says, this gospel, verse 1, that I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved.
There is no salvation without it. But let’s not gloss over what is assumed by this message. However elementary it may seem to some of you who have been in the church for a while, the gospel message of salvation assumes that you first needed to be saved. A message of saving is meaningless unless you aren’t first convinced that you need saving.
Perhaps you’re here today and you’re not convinced of this Christianity stuff. Or maybe you’ve heard it all before and you still aren’t convinced. I’d have you to hear what the bible says to us about our condition outside of Christ.
The bible says very plainly that we’re not merely a little off. That we’ve slightly missed the mark. It paints a much more realistic picture of who we are
Even though we all were made in the image of a holy God, each of us has chosen to tarnish that image through sin. You might say, “well, I’ve never killed anybody, I’m not that bad. I’m not a thief, and I work hard, so God will look favorably on me. He will cut me some slack. I’m not as bad as other people around me.”
But the bible would argue otherwise. Scriptures reveal to us that we are actually worse off that we think. We may not have murdered someone with our hands, but we certainly have gotten sinfully angry in our hearts, which is just as much a violation of God’s law Jesus said in the sermon on the mount.
Every sharp word toward our family members, every time we act selfishly and seek our own good, instead of seeking the good of someone else, we’re violating the law that we shouldn’t murder.
Likewise, we may not have stolen anything, but every time we covet what is not given to us by God, we’re sinning against God by saying he hasn’t given us what we deserve.
And every time we have the slightest fleeting thought of lust, or even feel the smallest hint of discontentment with the spouse God has given us, we’re just as condemned before God’s holy law as the worst serial adulterers on the planet.
You see, God’s law is the perfect standard of holiness, and in front of that standard, scripture says we are all condemned. And God’s holiness will not permit any fluctuation in that standard. None of us are excused from the law’s demand of perfect righteousness at every moment.
Have you felt that? I bet you have. When you’re alone in your thoughts and your conscience is tinged with the slightest of guilt over something you’ve done or something that you should have done, that’s the Holy Spirit’s work of pressing the law upon your heart.
We each know we are not what we should be. And the news gets even worse, because the perfection of the law requires satisfaction. God would not remain just if he were to permit sin to remain forever. There must be payment, there must be punishment, there must be justice.
And the just sentence of the law means that apart from Christ, each of us is condemned, consigned to punishment. And that eternal justice will not be satisfied through some good works on our part. Nor will the justice be satisfied by a few years in purgatory, after which we get out for good behavior.
No, the bible teaches eternal, conscious punishment in hell is the destination of every soul who has ever lived. We need to be saved from that. We need salvation.
But it doesn’t have to remain that way. That’s where the good news of the gospel comes in. The good news is that God has provided a savior. He has provided a way of escape. His justice has been satisfied in the death and resurrection of Jesus. He is the sacrificial lamb sent by God to provide atonement for the sins of all that would believe in him.
His righteousness can be counted to you, and his punishment on the cross can be taken as yours, so that you can be free from the sentence of death.
That’s the simple message of the gospel. Every hateful or unkind word or though can be taken care of. Every lustful intention of your heart can be atoned for. You can be saved from All of your worst, darkest, deepest, most shameful motives, because of the gospel.
That’s Paul’s reminder, and it is a reminder to us this morning. Do you believe that message? Do you embrace it as your own? I’m not asking if you simply embrace the message of the gospel as the truth, that fact that Jesus did die and was raised. But have you embraced the message as your own?
Can you say with Paul that Christ died for MY sins? That MY debt was paid on the cross? That I am being saved, even now, through the gospel?
If you haven’t taken hold of that savior, then be warned that you are still in need of saving. That if nothing changes, you are destined for an awful and eternal punishment under the full wrath of a holy God in hell. No amount of atonement from you will suffice to assuage the sentence of punishment to which you are heading.
Trust in this Jesus, in this savior, the savior proclaimed in the scriptures, who indeed is the lamb of God sent to atone for the sins of his bride. Don’t wait one more day, don’t keep your soul in eternal jeopardy. Trust in Christ, and you too can have the security and peace of everlasting fellowship with our holy and righteous father.
That’s what at stake of this message of good news, your soul’s everlasting sentence, either to eternal life or eternal death.
Next, let’s move onto verse 3 and see The Centrality of the Resurrection. The centrality of the resurrection:
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures
Take note in our text of how Paul describes his message: of first importance. An interesting question that we ask prospective members coming into our church is this: what is the gospel? What is the good news?
Perhaps some of you remember what you said when asked that same question. The question is interesting, not because we are looking for one particular answer, but because we do want to see what someone believes as the most important parts of the good news.
Our answer to the question often reveals what is most important to us in our minds about the bible’s message.
And isn’t it interesting how Paul describes the death and resurrection of Jesus: of First importance. There are, in the bible, many truths, many different ethical instructions. But they are not all of the same importance, Paul would say. Otherwise his statement “of first importance,” makes no sense.
His framework assumes there are more important components, and less important. I didn’t say un-important, but less important.
So, for example, Paul addressed the issues related to Christian liberty earlier in his letter. These aren’t unimportant, whether you can exercise this liberty or that liberty, whether you can eat meat sacrificed to idols or not. Those are important questions, but they aren’t THE MOST important.
This discernment of the relative importance of particular doctrines is important for a healthy understanding of the Christian life. Christ’s atoning death and resurrection are the most important. Without them, you’ve lost the faith. You’ve lost the gospel entirely.
But we have many other areas of doctrine that we might disagree with people on, without coming to the conclusion that they have lost the faith. We agree with our Presbyterian brothers on the heart of the gospel, but we disagree with them on how baptism should be done, and who should receive it. That’s important, but it is not of first importance.
Similarly, we might disagree with someone on exactly what the bible teaches concerning the return of Jesus and the timeline of events, but that doesn’t mean that either of us has lost the centrality of the message, that Jesus died for sin and was raised.
To lose that, is to lose it all.
So, what does Paul’s understanding of the relative importance of certain truths mean for us as a church?
It means there should be a level of discernment within our body of the relative importance of certain doctrines, as it relates to fellowship. If one of you comes up to me and believes that the book of Revelation ought to be read in a certain way that I don’t agree with, I’m not going to seek your excommunication, and I hope you don’t seek the same for me.
We can disagree, trusting that we have the central part of the message the same.
However, if you come up to me and try to convince me that Jesus hasn’t been raised, then that’s a different conversation. You’ve compromised the heart of the faith that I’m no longer convinced you’re saved. You’ve abandoned the heart of the gospel message, abandoned what it means to be a believer.
So, this doctrinal discernment, being able to understand the relative importance of truths, is important for us as a congregation, to maintain our unity by maintaining the matters of first importance.
But it is also relevant to us individually as well. Let me apply it by asking you a question. Parents, what would your children say about what you believe is the most important part of the bible’s message?
This one might humble us a little bit. If we examined the last 100 times that you instructed your children in biblical truth, how many of those instructional moments included the gospel that Jesus died for sin and rose for our life?
You see, it is entirely possible for us to affirm the relative importance of the gracious message of Christ’s death and resurrection, while practically denying it in how we speak.
If I talk to my children 100 times, and 99 of those talks are about obedience and holiness and necessity of how they behave, and only 1 of those 100 times do I explicitly apply the centrality of Christ’s death and resurrection, what does that ratio imply about my understanding of the message? About how I rank the matters that are the most important?
It shows that I probably have things out of balance. Everything I said might have been true, but the balance of the instruction is so weighted toward law and so neglecting the gospel that my children might be given the impression that the bible’s central message is to act right in order to be loved. I’ve unintentionally implied to my children that God will love you as long as you behave.
And the danger there is that is actually the opposite of the gospel. Preachers even do this all the time. They so pound the law and the need for holiness and living rightly, and so neglect the explicit teaching that Jesus died and was raised so that you might be saved, that congregations are trained to emphasize law-keeping instead of grace.
Reflect for a moment on yourself. How central is the substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus to your life? To your marriage? To your parenting?
Paul would correct us by reminding us the message I explained in the first point. That Jesus died in your place. That your failing to act right, your failing to parent right, that your failings toward your spouse, those are all atoned for.
Don’t unintentionally fall back into law-keeping as the center of your message. We’re all bent toward law-keeping, toward thinking that our good works are the basis of our standing before God. Of thinking that we are pretty good, we haven’t murdered anyone, haven’t stolen, haven’t been unfaithful, and so God must be pleased with us.
But to the extent that I believe God is pleased with me because of my good behavior, that is the extent to which I haven’t fully embraced the message of the gospel.
Don’t lose the centrality of the messaged: that you needed saving, and that Christ alone has done the saving, through his death and resurrection, all done in accordance with the scriptures. That’s the centrality of the message, and if we’re not careful, we can easily lose it by becoming imbalanced and emphasizing what is not of prime importance.
Third, let’s move onto verse 5 and see the fact of the resurrection. The Fact of the Resurrection.
that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
The centrality of the gospel, the death and especially the resurrection of Jesus, is the point at which most people reject the gospel. Many pagans will affirm certain teachings of the bible. They may even endorse some of Jesus’s own teachings: “Well, I like the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and I perhaps even admire his instruction to turn the other cheek.” Many unbelievers will affirm the virtue found in statements.
But when you start talking about previously dead people coming back to life, they change their tune. To consider that 2000 years ago in the middle east, a Jewish corpse was laying in the grave, possessing a cold, un-beating heart, and then three days after death that heart began to beat, and warm blood began to circulate through the body, that’s all just myth and fairytale.
Dead people don’t come back to life. Scientifically it doesn’t make sense. It’s unheard of, and I’ve never seen anything like that, so I won’t believe that. I’ll take the parts of the bible I like, and reject the other parts as either mystical well-wishing, or a fabrication made up by Jesus’s disciples after their leader failed to produce the movement they were looking for.
You hear that kind of message all the time from atheists and people writing for the New York Times.
Paul instead corrects such logic by reminding the Corinthian believers and the resurrection-deniers of the Fact of the resurrection. Jesus not only rose from the grave, but then confirmed that resurrection by appearing to many people. First Peter and the rest of the disciples, then to 500 other people, many of whom were still alive at the time, Paul says.
It’s like Paul’s saying, go talk to these people and find out for yourselves. This isn’t just one or two crack pots who thought they say a ghost. Hundreds of people saw this. It’s not like the bigfoot videos you see where there was a shadowy figure’s leg, and only one person was there to see it. Hundreds of people witnessed Jesus’s resurrected body.
This is not some hoax. Paul then goes on to say that he himself was a witness. Jesus appeared to Paul, verse 8. Jesus’s appearing to Paul is the only explanation of his own testimony. Paul describes himself as the least of the apostles, and unworthy of being called one, because he persecuted the church of God.
Paul was involved in the hunting down, incarceration, and extermination of early Christians. He was an enemy of gospel message, and a zealous one at that. But all that changed for Paul. How could Paul swing so wildly from being a persecutor of Christians to perhaps the most effective apostolic proponent of the Christian church? Because of the resurrection.
He was an eye-witness. That radical transformation was only possible because Jesus as raised from the dead. That’s the only explanation. That’s the only way for an anti-Christian zealot to become someone willing to give up everything for the Church.
And that ought to give hope to you: if you have been someone opposed to the gospel, someone hardened in your rejection of the message of Christ, then know that you are not too far gone for salvation. Christ came into the world to save sinners, of which Paul believed he was the worst, and if Paul can be transformed by that message, so can you.
Paul was involved in the murder Christians, and you are not too far gone. Come to Jesus, believe in this message, take it as your own, and you can be in the company of saints, right along with Paul and the eye witnesses of the resurrection.
And for those of us who believe, we need to remember that the resurrection ought to instill in us a readiness to proclaim this good news. If Jesus has been raised from the dead, then the worst of sinners is not out of reach of God’s transforming grace.
Jesus walking out of the tomb on Easter morning demonstrates the power of God over death and the curse, and therefore no other sinner, no matter how forgone they may look, none of them are un-savable to the Lord who has conquered death and the grave.
Be bold in your speaking of the resurrection, despising the shame you might feel, ignoring the mocking that comes, knowing that Christ has endured the worst shame in our place, and has promised us the same fruit of atonement: our own resurrection from the grave. Christ’s resurrection means that we will experience the shame, and that makes any shame and suffering for the gospel in this life pale in comparison to what awaits us in the end.
Lastly, we’ve seen the stakes of the resurrection, the centrality of the resurrection, and the fact of the resurrection. Now let’s look at the fruit of the resurrection. The Fruit of the Resurrection.
10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
I’ve talked about this fruit in Paul’s life a bit already, but in these verses we see Paul make explicit one of the fruits of the resurrection: belief. Belief.
Verse 11: Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
Whether it was Paul preaching the message of the ressurection, or someone else preaching, somebody preached, and they believed the message. Salvation came to the Corinthians through the proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection.
That’s the beginning and the end of the Christian life. If you have believed, it is because someone told you a message. If you’ve trusted, it is because Christ has been raised.
It can be easy for us to forget that fact, that we believe ONLY because of the resurrection, and the proclamation of it. It’s not because you were so clever, not because you were a pretty good guy, not because you’re pretty smart.
If you have faith, it is because Christ has defeated death and earned that faith for you. He took the initiative to come down and be born under the law, fulfilling all righteousness in your place, bearing the punishment that you had earned, going to death and the grave, and conquering over death itself, the very image of the curse, thereby making way for you to be made right with God.
You are a fruit of his resurrection. We will talk a lot more about the theological significance of the resurrection as we continue to work through this chapter, but for today, I challenge you to think deeply about his sacrifice, and about his victory. Let his sacrifice humble you, and let his resurrection exalt you.