When I was in high school or college, probably college, I remember walking home from church, and just praying, “God, if there is someone you want me to share the gospel with, let me know.”
I can’t remember what exactly I meant by that prayer. Maybe I was feeling super spiritual that day, and was ready to share my faith with anyone I met. As it turned out, just a few minutes later, I was passing by a bus stop, and a woman tried to hand something out to me: a Watchtower or Awake magazine. For those of you don’t know, those are the main magazines of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I can’t remember what I thought at that moment, but it was probably something like, “God, you can’t be serious. Her?” Anyway, I started talking with her, and one thing I figured out really fast was that I didn’t know nearly enough about my faith as a Christian as I should have. And so over the next several years of my life, I started to study it more, and I had some interesting conversations with Jehovah’s witnesses and Mormons that came to my door as a result. More importantly, I started to truly understand what I believed, why I believed it and it really shaped my life.
Today, we’re looking at I Corinthians 15, and as we do, I want you to think about these two questions: First, “Do I really understand what I believe? In particular, do I really understand what I mean when I say, ‘Jesus died for me and rose again?'” And second, “Why does it matter that I do understand? What practical significance does it have in my everyday life?”
Let’s take a look at First Corinthians 15 starting at verse 1.
Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel I preached to you, which you received, on which you have taken your stand and by which you are being saved, if you hold to the message I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. (1-2)
Here Paul says, “People, I want you to remind you of this gospel that I preached to you. Why? Because this message that you received is what you have taken your stand on as Christans. It’s the very foundation of your life. More importantly, it’s the gospel that saves you if you hold on to it. And then he says, something interesting, “Unless you believed in vain.”
Those words “in vain” are very interesting, and you see it in the Japanese translation. The idea is that the person never carefully considered what the gospel message was from the beginning. They heard it and said, “Yeah, I guess I can believe that. That sounds reasonable.” But they never really thought about what it meant.
Many people who say they are Christians are like that. They say they believe the gospel. But it never seems to make a difference in their lives. It’s one thing to say you believe all these things. It’s another thing entirely to really think them through to the point that it actually changes the way you think and live.
That’s why Paul takes the time to remind the Corinthians and us about this gospel we believe. Take a look at what he says.
For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born at the wrong time, he also appeared to me. (3-8)
Paul says here, “When I gave you the message of the gospel, I didn’t just make this up. I received this from Jesus himself. And the very people who witnessed everything that Jesus did and taught confirmed it.” (Galatians 1:11-12; 2:2-7) What is this gospel?
First, Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures. What does it mean that Jesus died for our sins? What is sin? Sin is essentially rebelling against God. It’s saying to him, “I don’t need you. I’m not going to live your way. I’m going to live mine.” But by living that way, we hurt God, and we hurt the people around us. And if you’re honest with yourself, you can admit you’ve done that. But because we’ve done that, the Bible teaches us that we deserve death. Not just physical death. But eternal death, separated from God forever in hell.
Have you ever really thought that through? I said last month in one of our messages, that some people think God owes them something: a happy life, a happy marriage, etc. And I told you that God doesn’t owe us anything. Actually, that’s not completely true. God owes us hell. That’s what we deserve from him. Whenever you think, “I don’t deserve all the problems I’m going through!” remember, “Actually, I deserve hell. Because I have wounded God countless times, and I’ve wounded the people around me countless times as well.” When you think, “I deserve more from God!” Remember, “Yes, that’s right. I deserve hell.”
Tell me something: In your heart of hearts, do you really believe you deserve hell? Or do you believe that you’re really not that bad? If you think that way, you don’t really understand the gospel. Because the gospel says Jesus died to take the punishment you deserve. But if you don’t believe you deserve hell, then what did Jesus die for? Nothing. But if you understand your sin, you start to truly understand God’s grace in your life: that through the cross, God gives us what we don’t deserve. Eternal life with him. A life with him that actually starts here and now. One in which, if you’ll follow him, no matter what trials or hardships you go through, you’ll find a peace and joy that only he can give. Not because you deserve it. But despite the fact that you deserve nothing but hell from him.
And all this was predicted in the Old Testament years before Jesus was even born. In Isaiah 53, the prophet Isaiah said this,
But he was pierced because of our rebellion,
crushed because of our iniquities;
punishment for our peace was on him,
and we are healed by his wounds.
We all went astray like sheep;
we all have turned to our own way;
and the Lord has punished him
for the iniquity of us all.
…he bore the sin of many
and interceded for the rebels. (Isaiah 53:5-6, 12)
We also see a picture of Jesus in the Old Testament sacrifices. In those sacrifices, we see the picture of a perfect lamb taking the sins of the people on itself before being slaughtered. The Jews even had a special holiday called the Day of Atonement that pointed to what Jesus would do on the cross. That’s why Paul could say that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. Time and again, the Old Testament Scriptures point us to Christ’s work on the cross.
Paul then says that Jesus was buried, and then rose again on the third day. Now, when we say that Jesus rose up from the dead, we don’t mean that he rose as a spirit. Sometimes people think that way, that just his spirit was raised. But Jesus was raised in his body. It was a transformed body, but it was his body that was raised, not just his spirit. And Paul says that was predicted in Scripture as well, hundreds of years before Jesus was born. So for example, David wrote this,
For you will not abandon me to Sheol (the grave); you will not allow your faithful one to see decay. (Psalm 16:10)
Jesus also pointed to the story of Jonah in the Old Testament, and said that Jonah was a picture of the resurrection as well. That just as Jonah was in the belly of a fish for three days, and came out alive , so Jesus would come out from the “belly” of the earth alive, three days after he was buried there.
And Paul says, that Jesus’ resurrection was witnessed by over 500 people, most of whom the Corinthians could still interview if they wished.
So this was the message that Paul and the apostles preached. But have you really thought about what it means to you that Jesus rose from the dead? What significance does that have for your everyday life? Many of the Corinthians had never really thought that through, and because of it, it affected their understanding of the gospel, and it affected the way they lived. Take a look at verse 12.
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say, “There is no resurrection of the dead”?
Now all the people in the Corinthian church would say that Christ was raised from the dead. But despite this, there were those in the church that scoffed at the idea that we will rise from the dead too. From what Paul says later, it seems they had a hard time imagining it. Perhaps they were saying things like, “Oh, come on. We’re going to rise from the dead? What? We’re going to rise up as skeletons? All our skin will have decayed off our bones. And that’s if our bones haven’t already been reduced to dust in the first place.”
But Paul tells them this,
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is in vain, and so is your faith. Moreover, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified wrongly about God that he raised up Christ—whom he did not raise up, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Those, then, who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone. (13-19)
In short, Paul was saying, “People, think this through! Think about what you’re saying. You’re scoffing at the idea that we could possibly be raised from the dead. But if we can’t be raised, that means that Christ couldn’t have been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, this gospel we proclaim is in vain and so is your faith.
The word “vain” here is different from the one that Paul uses in verse 2. This “vain,” means “without essence or substance.” In other words, Paul is saying if Jesus is not raised, our preaching and your faith is totally without substance. It has no meaning at all. Why? Because of what the resurrection proved. What did it prove?
It proved that God had accepted the sacrifice Jesus had made (Romans 4:25). When God raised Jesus from the dead, he was saying, “Though you didn’t deserve it, you took the punishment of all these people’s sins. I accept that sacrifice for them. Now I will restore life to your body so that the whole world will know that I have accepted your sacrifice, and that now they have the hope of eternal life with me.”
That’s why Paul says that if Christ is not raised, we are still in our sins. If Christ is still dead, then it proves that God didn’t really accept his sacrifice, and we are still headed for hell. And all those Christians who have already died are in hell now. Here we are thinking that we’ll all be with God for all eternity, but in reality, we’re all still headed for hell if Christ is still dead. How sad is that.
Paul also told the Corinthians, “Not only that, think about what you’re saying about us, if you deny the resurrection. You’re calling us liars because we have testified to you that God did raise Jesus from the dead.”
Sometimes people in non-Christian universities, and sadly even in so-called Christian universities say exactly that. They say, “Well, Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead. The apostles weren’t really telling the truth about that. But hey, it doesn’t really matter. They meant their lie for good. They wanted to give people hope. They wanted to encourage people to live better lives. It was a “pious lie.” So it’s okay that they lied.
You look at Paul’s words here and you know exactly what he’d say to that. He’d spit on those words. There was no such thing as “pious lies” for Paul and the other apostles. For them lies were lies, and they would not accept their use in any circumstance, particularly when it came to the gospel.
But as it is, Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at his coming, those who belong to Christ. (20-23)
Back in the Old Testament days, there was a festival called the feast of Firstfruits (Leviticus 23:9-14). And in it, the Israelites would present an offering of the very first grain of the harvest for that year to God. They waved it before God as an acknowledgement that it all came from him, and as they did, they looked forward to the rest of the harvest to come.
Now Paul calls Jesus the firstfruits of those who have died and will be raised to eternal life. But here, it is God who presents the risen Christ for all to see to remind us that all life comes from him. Now when we see Jesus, we look forward to the great harvest of all Christians who have died and been sowed into the earth. And on that day, God will give all who have believed in Jesus new life and new bodies. So Paul tells us that just as Adam’s sin led to death for us all, Jesus’ death and resurrection gives life to all who will believe in him. When will this happen? When he returns to this earth.
And he will return. We won’t read it today, but Paul says that at that time, all things will be put under Jesus’ feet. In other words he will reign over all things. He’ll reign over all the people of the earth. And he’ll reign over death itself. Death will be a thing of the past. And then Jesus will subject himself to the Father and God will be over all.
Quick note here, because it is a point of confusion at times. We’ve taught the Trinity here before. That there is one God, and that within the one God there is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father. Yet there are not three gods. The Father, Son, and Spirit, together are the one God. How that works, I don’t know. But all are equally God. And they are all to be honored equally as God. And yet, there is a difference in their roles. And one of those differences that we see is that the Son is subject to the Father.
I talked about Jehovah’s Witnesses before, and one thing they always say is, “Well if Jesus is subject to the Father, he is obviously not God. He must be a lesser god. He’s inferior to God.” But that’s not true. The president of the United States holds a higher position than me. So does the Prime minister of Japan. But there is no way anyone can say they are somehow therefore more human than me. That they are more “man” than me. We are all equally human. And we are all equal in human dignity. Even if sometimes we don’t think so. I gotta say, I really shake my head at my president sometimes.
Anyway, Jesus is fully God as is the Father. But what we see in verse 28 is that he willingly subjects himself to the Father, and he will do so for all eternity. So if you’re ever talking to a Jehovah’s Witness, and they tell you, “Jesus said, ‘The Father is greater than I.’ (John 14:28) How can Jesus be God?” just remember, their roles are different. Jesus willingly subjects himself to the Father, that’s true, but they are still equally God.
But anyway, death is not the end for any of us. Jesus will return, he will raise us from the dead, he will reign, and most importantly, he will judge us all. And that gives the resurrection very important meaning to how we live our lives today.
Paul says, “You know, if the dead are not raised, I’m an idiot. I put my life in danger every day for the gospel. I’ve been thrown in prison, I’ve been whipped, I’ve nearly been killed. For what? If there is no resurrection,
Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. (32)
Isn’t that true? If there is no resurrection, if there is no judgment, then why not just live how we want? And that’s exactly where the Corinthians’ beliefs led them. Paul said,
Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” Come to your senses and stop sinning; for some people are ignorant about God. I say this to your shame. (33-34)
One of the reasons that some of the Corinthian Christians were sinning the way they were was because they ultimately thought it didn’t matter. That they would never be judged for it.
Many people who call themselves Christians live that way today. Oh, they may believe in the resurrection, but they’ve never thought through what it means. What does it mean?
First, it means that Jesus is more than just a king in name. He truly is king because he reigns over everything, even death. Think about Japan and the emperor. How many of you truly think we owe him our total and utter allegiance? Probably none of you. Why? Because he is an emperor only in name.
Many people today treat Jesus just like that, as a king in name only. When it comes to their everyday life, they treat him as anything but a king. That’s why when he gives them commands that they read in the Bible, they can so easily dismiss them.
Do you do that? Is Jesus merely a king in name to you, or is he truly your king? Jesus said that on judgment day there will be many people who will say, “Lord, Lord. Didn’t I do this for you and that for you?” But because to them Jesus was only king in name, Jesus will say to them, “I never knew you.” (Matthew 7:22) What would Jesus say to you if he were to return today?
Second, it means what we do on this earth matters. Because we will be judged. We’ll be judged for if we truly had accepted Jesus as our king. And if we have, we’ll be judged for how we served him. What did we do with the gifts and responsibilities he has given us? Did we use our time well? What were our motives behind the things we did? All these things will be judged. If we did well, Paul tells us in chapter 3 we will be rewarded. If not, we’ll be saved, but all that we ever built in life, all that we treasured, all that we labored for, will be burned to dust. What will happen to your life’s labor when Jesus judges it?
But ultimately, what the resurrection shows us is that God loves us. And that he has awesome plans for us. And above all, the love God has for you should drive all that you do. Not fear that he will be disappointed in you. Not fear that he will punish you. Christ has already taken your punishment. And our resurrection from the dead will be the final proof of that. Remember, we deserve death and hell for our sin.
But Paul now says in verse 54,
Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, death, is your victory?
Where, death, is your sting?
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! (54-57)
When sin came came into the world, death came with it. And death had a terrible sting because we saw where it was taking us. God’s law was good and perfect, but it condemned us all to hell because none of us keep it perfectly. But Jesus lived a perfect life, and then died on the cross for our sin. And by doing all this, he fulfilled all the requirements of the law for us. Now when we put our trust in him, he not only takes away our sin, he gives us his righteousness, and we stand perfect in God’s eyes. That’s the love of Christ. That’s the love of God. And because of that we can rejoice. We can sing, “Death where is your victory? You have no victory over me. I may die here on earth, but I will be raised and live with my Lord forever.” Death has no sting anymore. Death is only the doorway to hope now.
And so Paul concludes,
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the Lord’s work, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (58)
God never promises us an easy life. Sometimes it’s very hard. But when you go through the hardest times, remind yourself: “God loves me. He proved that by sending Jesus to die for me. I am no longer condemned. I know I’m not condemned because God raised Jesus from the dead. And one day God will prove his love for me once and for all, by raising me from the dead, just as he raised Jesus.”
So don’t give up. Keep doing what you’re doing for the Lord, no matter what you’re going through. Because in the end, it will all be worth it. That’s the meaning of the resurrection. That’s the meaning of the gospel. Let’s meditate on that meaning everyday, until it really hits home with us. Because when it does, it will transform your life.
How about you? Do you really know the gospel? Has it really hit home with you?
Small group questions:
- When people go through hard times in life, they often question if God loves them. How does understanding the gospel message help us to see God’s love better? Think about what we deserve and don’t deserve from God.
- When you think about what you deserve and don’t deserve from God, how should it affect the way you treat people who annoy, anger, or hurt you?
- Read Luke 6:46. In your everyday life can you say Jesus really is your king? Or is he just a king in name? Why do you say that?
- For many Christians, their lives are driven by fear that God will be disappointed in them, or that he will punish them. What does the resurrection say about that way of thinking? What should drive your life? What drives your Christian life?