Does it really matter whether death is the end or not? It is clear from this letter that some of Paul’s readers and hearers in Corinth believed that it didn’t really matter. They were viewing a belief in a future physical bodily resurrection as a hangover from Paul’s Jewish background. The standard Greek view which is recorded with consistency in many surviving Greek works makes it very plain that they held a different viewpoint. The historian Heroditus and the playwrights Sophocles and Aeschylus testify to a denial of a bodily resurrection. Aeschylus, in his play Eumenides has the character Apollo say: ‘When the earth has drunk up a man’s blood, once he is dead there is no resurrection.’ The Greek philosophers were convinced that the body was corrupt and sinful and as a result it is better to be rid of it when you die. The clearly taught the immortality of the soul, but separated it from the body. This view was a clear contradiction of the Jewish religious view taught in the Old Testament in verses such as Daniel 12:2-3: Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. Over the centuries there have been many people who have denied this clear biblical conviction. However, Christians can point to an empty tomb in Jerusalem and express a very different point of view! Unlike other faiths that that point to the tombs or relics of their founders, the Bible –believing Christian can point to God’s Word and declare that what was prophesied hundreds of years before Jesus was born at Bethlehem came true.
1. It is an indisputable fact (I Corinthians 15:1-11)
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. The Gospel message is not negotiable or changeable. There are many things in life that change. Our age and appearance constantly change. No seeing someone for a few weeks can make a difference. Our health can be good or not so good; our educational or work circumstances can be very different from one year to the next. The list is endless, but our anchor is Jesus Christ, of whom Hebrews 13;8 reminds us: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. This is the greatest good news of all to be able to rely on Him.
(a)A few things in life really matter (I Corinthians 15:3-4) 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, What is top of Paul’s list of gospel truths? He states it here in verses three and four of I Corinthians 15. So much in life is about opinions. What are your favourite clothes that you like to wear when you go for a night out? What is the best football team in this city? What is the best popular singer or music group you have heard? There are so many things that are just opinions and don’t really matter. However, Paul is making it very clear that this is 100% crucial for Christianity. If the Easter events did not happen as the Bible said then Christianity is dead. It is based on the bedrock of the historical accuracy of the extraordinary events that took place in Jerusalem approximately 2,000 years ago. What are the crucial facts here?
(i) Christ died for our
sins according to the Scriptures The Roman records of the day, if they
had survived would have recorded that a prisoner Jesus of Nazareth,
acknowledged as the King of the Jews by His followers, was sentenced to die by
crucifixion on the orders of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. These secular
records would not provide the information Paul has written here. In early April 2019 I had the privilege of
being in Israel and I visited the Roman Fortress in which Pilate lived in
Jerusalem and stood in the approximate place where Jesus was tried –although
the building’s appearance has changed over the centuries. I have looked at the
Place of the Skull, the place of execution in the vicinity of an old stone
quarry, in sight of the old main road that went one way to Jericho and the
other to Joppa (now Tel Aviv) and Caesarea. I have had the honour of looking
into an empty tomb and sharing in a worship service with bread and wine, just
twenty-five to thirty yards away. Now I can report what I saw but I wasn’t
there two thousand years ago. Even an observer in the crowd then who could tell
you how Jesus died could not be certain as to why this event happened as it
did. So where can we turn to for
authoritative guidance as to why Jesus died?
Paul is abundantly clear here: according to the
Scriptures. Where in the Bible do we have an explanation of the purpose of the
death of the Messiah? It is in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 that the answers are given. A
few verses from that section of the book of Isaiah explain
it for us. Isaiah 53:5 states: But He was pierced for our
transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities: the punishment that brought us peace
was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed. The last two verses Isaiah 53:11-12
reinforce this message: After He has suffered, He will see the light of
life and be satisfied; by His knowledgeMy righteous servant will
justify many, and
He will bear their iniquities. 12Therefore
I will give Him a portion among the great, and He will divide the spoils with
the strong, because
He poured out His life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors.
For He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. How does Paul express it in I Corinthians15:3? that Christ died for our sins… There are many words used in the Bible to express breaking God’s law, missing the mark or violating His holy standards for us. Isaiah uses three in these verses – transgressions, iniquities and sins. This, then, is why Jesus died according to the Bible to pay the penalty for our sins so instead through His right standing before God the Father we can have direct access into God’s presence through faith in Him.
(ii) that He was buried Mark 15:46 records what Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish ruling council did after it was confirmed Jesus was dead. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Matthew’s account adds some crucial details in Matthew 27:57-61: 57 As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. 58 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. 59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb. Joseph is a wealthy man who owns a site almost certainly adjacent to his home, outside the city walls, where he had arranged for the building of a burial chamber carved out of the rock for the use of him and his family. He is accompanied by other followers of Jesus some of whom assisted him in preparing Jesus’ body for burial. There can be no mistake about the site as it is close to the place of execution. What is more the ladies who will be the first witnesses of the resurrection on Easter Sunday morning are there earlier sitting near the sealed tomb. It was a respectful burial according to Jewish customs, albeit a little rushed as time was short that day.
(iii) that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures This is the game changer that was completely unexpected by the first followers of Jesus. It seems it is only the Jewish religious leaders that feared something unusual might happen over the next three days (see Matthew 27:62-66). They went to the Roman Governor and asked for maximum security conditions be imposed on the now dead prisoner. Matthew 27:65-66 states: ‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’ 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard. It was a most extraordinary spectacle, a detachment of soldiers guarding a tomb to prevent the escape of the man who had died or the removal of His body by persons unknown. Was this event predictable? Yes. Jesus repeatedly in Mark eight, nine and ten referred to His death and resurrection. For example, Mark 8:31: He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and after three days rise again. In Mark 9 there is the extraordinary Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Hermon, the only really high mountain in the area, after the conclusion of this event Mark records this conversation involving Jesus and His disciples. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what ‘rising from the dead’ meant (Mark 9:9-10). The conversation continued that same week and the words Jesus spoke in Mark 8:31 are effectively repeated in Mark 9:31 and followed by similar ones in Mark 10:33-34. The Early Church saw a fulfilment of prophecy from Psalm 16:10: You will not abandon Me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful One see decay. In the very first Christian sermon Peter on the Day of Pentecost declared in Acts 2:31-32 this reference to David’s words in Psalm 16:21-22: Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that He was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did His body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. When it happened these first followers of Jesus could know it had been predicted in their Bible, one thousand years earlier! How amazing is that?! However, there is another crucial point this event was not only predicted in the Bible, but also witnessed first-hand.
(b) First-hand witnesses are crucial (I Corinthians 15:5-11) 5and 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. 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. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed. In a court of law witnesses of an event testify what they saw and heard. In a criminal case often there are only one or two or a few witnesses of a crime being committed who can point to who was the perpetrator of the act and who was a victim of the wrong behaviour. The bodily resurrection from the dead of Jesus is the most extraordinary event in human history and it was essential that there were witnesses who could testify that Jesus who had died and was buried in a tomb was now alive again. When Paul wrote I Corinthians in 55AD approximately twenty-two years after this miraculous event took place he could remind his readers and hearers that nearly 500 of the witnesses were still alive. Most of these men and women are unnamed, but the first disciples especially Simon Peter, Jesus’ step-brother James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and last but not least Paul himself, met with Jesus while travelling on the road to Damascus in Syria. The majority of people who come to faith in Jesus can identify a person or a small number of people who shared with them about Jesus. When was the last time you spoke to someone about Jesus? The Easter season is a wonderful time to share the extraordinary events that took place in Jerusalem that changed the world.
2. It is an unanswerable argument (I Corinthians 15:12-19)
(a)The problem to face (I Corinthians 15:12) 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? What was the problem in Corinth? Greek philosophers had taught consistently the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. They saw the body as sinful and corrupt and viewed death as liberation from something you can well do without – your physical body! Therefore, when Christian preachers or individuals sharing their faith testimony say that Jesus who died on the cross was raised to life again on the first Easter Sunday and raised with a physical body that can eat food and can be touched and handled, there is a big problem! Either this foundational teaching of Greek philosophy is wrong or the followers of Jesus were mistaken. When the first Christians in Greece were starting to tell others about Jesus it was likely people said how can the majority be wrong? However, it is not decided by numbers. The majority of people can be wrong and a minority can sometimes be right about something. What is most important, says Paul, is that there are primary witnesses who were there. These men and women knew Jesus had died and was buried in a tomb, but they saw Him alive in the weeks after His bodily resurrection. Witnesses who can confirm an event took place have priority over the opinions of people who were not there. The evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus is very strong. Alternative opinions are just that says Paul. However, just for a moment, he says, if Jesus had not come back to life again as He said He would, what are the implications for our faith and practice as Christians?
(b) No resurrection No future! (I Corinthians 15:13-15) 13If 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. 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. (i) Our preaching is useless The Christian gospel is centred on the death and resurrection of Jesus. The very first Christian sermon given was by Peter on the Day of Pentecost. His message to the assembled crowd included these words in Acts 2:31-32: Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that He was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did His body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Peter is quoting Psalm 16, a Psalm of David from a thousand years earlier, prophesying that the Messiah would die, but that death was not the final word because He would experience a physical bodily resurrection. The person in question was not named in the Psalm, but Peter says we can now tell you who it is David spoke about. We witnessed the bodily resurrection of Jesus in this city. This fact was foundational to the launch of the Christian Church. If Jesus had not risen from the dead then the Christian Church would never have started and by definition would not exist today. However, because He was raised from the dead this extraordinary good news spread across the known world until it eventually reached you and me. The death and resurrection is central to the gospel personally for us as individuals and for the Christian Church as a whole.
A person who professes their faith in Jesus does so confessing their belief in these events. One of the earliest forms of Christian confession is cited in Romans 10:9-10: 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. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. The new believer wants to make a public confession of their faith. The way we do that is through baptism. How does Paul describe what happens in Romans 6:3-5: Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? 4 We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.5 For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we will certainly also be united with Him in a resurrection like His. It cannot be clearer what we are declaring when we join the Christian Church.
(ii) Your faith is useless Think about it says Paul, what are the implications for us as Christians of going along with the majority view of Greek philosophers? What guarantees are there for us as believers if God hasn’t done or cannot do what was proclaimed concerning Jesus? What does that do to our hopes for the future of a person who has died? At a funeral for a committed Christian I usually state these words as part of the act of committal before the burial or cremation of their earthly remains: “Seeing that the earthly life of our brother / sister [name] has come to an end, we commit his/ her body to be buried / cremated; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died, was buried, and was raised again for us. To Him be the glory, for ever and ever.” This belief in what happened to Jesus is foundational for what happens for us in the future.If the dead cannot be raised to life again in principle, then we cannot be telling the truth about what happened to Jesus and by implication cannot express this hope for ourselves in the future either.
(c) No resurrection No past! (I Corinthians 15;16-19) 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 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. If there was no resurrection from the dead and Jesus had not risen from the dead, then the Christian faith is emptied of its power to change anyone’s lives. What would this mean for us?
(i) We are still sinners … you are still in your sins (I Corinthians 15:17b) We are saved through Jesus’ substitutionary death in our place on the cross. However, had God not raised Him from the dead we could never have been certain that this was the case. We would have had to assume rightly or wrongly that we could not be certain God had forgiven us and wiped out our past record of wrong thoughts, words and actions. A message proclaimed of hopes and aspirations but no certainty would be far from the gospel as we know it. Many people hear schemes of ‘good news’ that turn out to be bogus – how many pyramid schemes of financial scams have there been in a number of countries in the world in recent years? Human greed leads to their success, because participants do not want to accept it is too good to be true and the idea that ‘no-one’ loses is nonsense.
(ii) Dead Christians are lost ‘in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life’ –these words are only comforting if they are true. If they are false then they are just hot air coming out of someone’s mouth. One of the greatest assurances and blessings we have as Christians is in knowing that believers who have died before us are already with Jesus; that we will meet them again. What we believe about Jesus’ resurrection affects our future too!
(iii) Our spiritual investments are useless (I Corinthians 15:19) If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. Why does this matter? In many countries in the world people face discrimination or physical violence, imprisonment or even martyrdom for following Jesus. In some cultural settings people risk losing their family ties when they become Christians; it really does matter what we invest our lives in. It has to be true in order to be worth it.
3. It is an incontestable reality (I Corinthians 15;20)
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
The case Paul has made to these people in Corinth is clear and convincing. The Greek philosophers are wrong in their conviction that the body is intrinsically something we want to get rid of at the earliest opportunity. God created us as whole persons created in His image. We are a whole person, body soul and spirit. Remember Paul’s words in I Thessalonians 5:23b: May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. What does Paul mean here by this reference to first-fruits? Remember in I Corinthians 5:7 he referred to Jesus death in this way: For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. The death of Jesus took place at the time of the Jewish Passover Festival in Jerusalem and His substitutionary death took the place of the sacrificial lambs killed for that festival. We note that this letter to the Church at Corinth was written before the Jewish Festival of Pentecost that year (I Corinthians 16:7b-8: I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. 8 But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost.) The Jewish Festival of First-fruits of the harvest of crops came soon after Passover and seven weeks before Pentecost (See Leviticus 23 for the list of all the Jewish festivals). The coming of the Holy Spirit at the Festival of Pentecost launched the ingathering of the spiritual fruit that followed Jesus’ death in our place and will continue until He comes again as King of Kings and Lords. Death now has no fear for Christians because Jesus Christ had conquered it. His death and bodily resurrection, prophesied in the Old Testament and witnessed in the New confirms God’s intention for us as well. Let us praise Him and celebrate the wonderful news – Christ has died – Christ has risen- Christ is coming again- Hallelujah Amen.