Use your memory - 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
When I was a student, I remember having tea with a professor of the university to discuss Christianity with him. He was a confessed atheist and I was keen to know how he could hold such views. And after a while I asked him what he thought happened after death, and he replied 'When I die I will rot.' I thought that was a depressing point of view to hold so I asked him if he had any hope. He said, 'I will enjoy my life to the full and then I will die. No hope.' It was a very honest thing to say, but it was also very sad. He had no hope beyond the grave.
And I think my professor is representative of what many people think. Live for the present, enjoy yourself. That's the current ethos. But it's interesting just how many people are concerned about the future. How many of our friends, for instance, consult horoscopes in order to find out what the future holds? Our culture, for all its fast and furious changing, is desperate to find out what the future holds, to have some security, to have something to hold on to. Brian Johnston, who was a cricket commentator on Radio 4 said in his autobiography shortly before he died: 'I find the after life an impossible place to imagine or believe in, though I persuade myself that there must be some light at the end of the tunnel. But I do not find it easy to conceive what it might be.' Belief in reincarnation is on the increase, even though there is not the slightest bit of evidence to back it up, and we do everything we can to stop death happening. That's why cosmetic companies are booming as people try and stave off old age, and it's why people want cures at any cost, because death is not an option! And yet for countless millions, all this searching ends in despair.
But what is perhaps sadder is the number of Christians who are also confused about what the future may hold after death. Every week we say that we believe in Jesus Christ who was raised to life on the third day. But when it comes to the crunch, we wonder what difference the resurrection makes to us. Maybe life just finishes and our souls float up to heaven and we end up sitting on some cloud playing a harp for eternity. Just what does happen? Well in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul is at pains to explain what happens after death. Like many Christians today, these Corinthian Christians were confused about the after life. In fact, some had given up belief in it altogether, as Paul says in verse 12: 'How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead.' They saw themselves to be so super spiritual that they believed they had everything now. But Paul is writing to tell them that whilst being a Christian now is great, yet there is much more to come. In fact, the best is yet to come. And it is all based on Jesus' resurrection. Since Jesus has been raised, so we too will be raised up at the last day and will receive new physical bodies fit for heaven. And the whole of 1 Corinthians 15 is written to help us think properly about what happens after death. And in a world where hope is hard to come by, this chapter is a great anchor. And it is this chapter that we will be studying over these next few weeks, appropriately in the weeks following Easter. And in this passage, verses 1-11, Paul is going over the facts of Jesus' resurrection, not to prove it, because the first Christians knew it was true, but to show us that Jesus' resurrection is the basis for any hope we might have. And it is this hope that we are to stand firm in. So let's turn to verses 1-11, and we'll learn three things from this passage this morning:
1) The Truth at Stake (Vv 1-4)
2) The Evidence at Hand (Vv 5-11)
3) The Challenge at Heart (V 2)
1) The Truth at Stake (Vv 1-4)
So first, then, let's look at the truth at stake. And Paul begins in verse 1 by telling the Corinthians that he wants to remind them of the gospel he preached to them, which they had received and on which they had taken their stand. And he reminds them first of the facts of the gospel message. Verse 3: 'For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: That Christ died for sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.' Those are the bare facts of the Easter story. Jesus died for sins. No-one could deny that Jesus died on a Roman cross, but Paul adds that it was 'for our sins'. Jesus was dying for a reason, that is, in our place where we should have been, bearing the full brunt of the Father's anger against human rebellion, as a willing sacrifice. He died for our sins. He was buried too. He was really dead. He did not swoon or faint on the cross. He really was dead, and it really was Jesus who was buried. But this was not the end of the story. Rather he was raised on the third day. That is the stubborn fact of history that will not go away, and as Paul will show us there is a lot of evidence to back up the claim. But those are the bare facts- Jesus died for sins, he was buried and he was raised.
But it is the implication of those facts which are so mind blowing and which Paul tells the Corinthians in verse 2. 'By this gospel you are saved.' Jesus' death and resurrection means that people like the Corinthians and you and me can be saved. We need no longer have to face the perfect, holy God as sinful rebels. Rather God himself, in the person of Jesus, has paid the price. We can be forgiven and set free. And death need not defeat us, as Jesus has defeated death. That is the incredible implication of these Easter facts. They are not things of mild interest to Jewish historians. They are life giving truths which mean that you and I can know God personally and have the prospect of being with him for ever, living life as it was meant to be lived. So if the resurrection did happen, it means that Jesus can offer us life, real life beyond the grave and all his claims to be God in the flesh and to offer us forgiveness and a fresh start are true. All his claims to be the meaning of life and the very way to life suddenly show themselves to be true.
The 18th June 1815 is one of the most significant dates in English history, the day on which Wellington faced Napoleon at Waterloo. The future of the nation was at stake. Everyone up and down the land was hoping that Wellington had won. One of the main lookout posts was Winchester Cathedral from where the channel could just be seen. But on that day it was very foggy. However the fog lifted for a moment and the message from the channel could be seen: 'Wellington defeated.' The worst had happened and the depressing news began to be signalled from beacon to beacon up and down the land. But then a few hours later the fog cleared and the message was seen more clearly: 'Wellington defeated the French.' Well Good Friday was only half the story, because Jesus' resurrection shows that the victory is won. Jesus is the Son of God and is well able to defeat even death itself. And his victory become ours. That is the implication- there is hope, and as Paul puts it, we can be saved, saved from a life of guilt and futility, rescued to live a life that God meant us to live in relationship to him.
But what happens if none of this happened, if the facts as we have them are not true, if there never was any resurrection and Jesus is just another dead hero? Well then there is no hope. As Paul will say later on: 'If Christ has not been raised then your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.' There is no life beyond the grave, there is no forgiveness of sins, there is no possibility of knowing God. We just go back to all the other man made ways of trying to reach God. We do our best, we try and enjoy things as best we can. But there is no hope. We may as well eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. And if there is no God who has revealed himself, then all hope is lost. Humans are just random collections of atoms fit only for propagating their own race. Listen to what Richard Dawkins says in his book The Selfish Gene. 'We are all survival machines for DNA,' he says. ' A monkey is a machine which preserves genes up trees. A fish is a machine which preserves genes in water; there is even a small worm which preserves genes in German beer matsWe are machines for propagating DNA. It is every living objects' sole reason for living.' Well, how meaningful does that makes you feel? Is that what will sustain you in life, on Monday morning? 'I must get through today so as to propagate my DNA!' The Christian claim though is something altogether more hopeful, that there is a God who has made you and I for his purposes and that he has come to earth as a man to bring us back into friendship with him. And that is what the Easter story is all about. And that is the truth which is at stake. It is the truth which saves. And without it we are lost in a world without hope.
2) The Evidence at Hand (Vv 5-11)
So if that is the truth at stake, then what evidence is there? Well Paul explains the evidence at hand in verses 5-11. And first there is the evidence of the scriptures. Paul says in verse 3 that Christ died according to the scriptures, and in verse 4 that Christ was raised according to the Scriptures. So what scriptures did Paul have in mind? One was undoubtedly Isaiah 53. There Isaiah prophecies about someone who will be punished for the people's sins. 'He was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.' And Jesus saw himself as this suffering servant. He saw that his death was something planned by God centuries before. But not only does Isaiah prophecy the sufferings and death of the servant but also his coming back to life: 'After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and will be satisfied.' And Isaiah is just one example of an Old Testament prophet speaking in advance of Jesus' death and resurrection hundreds of years before it happened. In fact, it's been estimated that Jesus fulfilled over 200 direct or indirect prophecies from the OT. Now there is no way that one man could deliberately set out to fulfil all those prophecies, for, among other things, they talk about his birth and death, something over which a man has no control. And nor were they things his disciples could ever have dreamt up or done to Jesus. Some were prophecies were small and seemingly incidental. But that was how God had planned it. It was something no human being could have made up. The Old Testament is an excellent piece of evidence for the truth of the Easter events, because it shows it was all planned by God and prophesied to the last detail. And it gives us great confidence in the truth of the gospel.
But there is a second piece of evidence that Paul presents to us and that is the evidence of the witnesses. And there is an impressive list of witnesses in verses 5-7: 'Jesus appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also.' There is a whole collection of witnesses here who saw Jesus at different times and in different places. And there are some appearances that we only know from this letter and not from the gospels. For instance, there is the witness of James, the brother of Jesus, who was very anti Jesus in John 7, but became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Why the change? Jesus' appearance to him must have been revolutionary. Paul also speaks of Jesus appearing before a crowd of five hundred people. Interestingly Paul says that some of these are still alive, and the implication is that the Corinthians could ask them if they wanted to. 'Do you doubt that Jesus rose again?' asks Paul. Well, go and interview the witnesses. That's what we would do isn't it. If this happened today, there would be a film crew knocking on the door before you could say 'he is risen!'. The technology may have changed but the principle remains the same. Good witnesses are very important. And nor could 500 have all had the same hallucination or seen a ghost. No, Paul is very clear. This resurrection was a real physical event. Jesus was not alive in his followers' thoughts, as some would have us believe today, or the subject of wishful thinking, like besotted Elvis fans claiming Elvis is in Paraguay running a coffee plantation. No this was a real physical resurrection from the dead. Jesus was dead, but was raised to life and was seen by witnesses.
But maybe memories began to play tricks on the brains and people just believed what they wanted to believe? Well this letter that Paul was writing to the Corinthians was written about 20 years after Jesus died and rose again, so it is one of the earliest documents we have. Now 20 years is actually not long ago. For instance, 20 years ago this week, April 1982, the Argentineans invaded the Falkland Islands. Now most of us here can remember that event as clear as daylight. I can remember all the names of the battles- Goose Green, Tumbledown, Port Stanley. I can remember key events like the sinking of the Sheffield by an Exocet missile, I can remember where I was sitting when I heard about the sinking of the General Belgrano, I can remember the Task Force leaving for the South Atlantic and I wasn't even there. But just think how easy it is for those who were involved. Those events are forever embedded on their memories. You don't forget such events like a war. And nor would you forget such events as a man being raised from the dead. Twenty years is not a long time. These witnesses were very sure of what they saw. And it happened time and again for about a month before Jesus was taken into heaven.
But there is one final piece of evidence at hand which Paul tells us about. And that is the evidence of a changed life. This is Paul's life. See what he says about himself in verse 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.' Paul was a cold hearted murderer, who was so opposed to this new cult of Christianity that he actively sought out Christians. He would break up church meetings and have the Christians brought to justice. That was Paul's life. But then something happened. Something so radical that he changed from being a devoted persecutor to a devoted follower. And Paul explains in verse 8. 'Last of all Jesus appeared to me as to one abnormally born.' The phrase 'abnormally born' probably refers to the fact that Paul saw Jesus last a good while after all the other appearances. Jesus gave Paul special sanction because he had a special job for him to do, to be the apostle to the gentiles. But the point is that someone that is so opposed to the message does not suddenly turn around like this. Something must have happened to make Paul stand up just a few weeks later in the middle of a town and proclaim that Jesus was alive and was God in the flesh. And the only thing that explains it is the resurrection. And that is one of the most powerful pieces of evidence- the evidence of a changed life. That, says Paul to the Corinthians, is the evidence at hand. It is clear for all to see. These events are rooted in history. They did happen. And the evidence points only to one conclusion. Jesus is alive.
3) The Challenge at Heart (V 2)
So Paul has shown us the truth at stake and the evidence at hand. But there is one final point which Paul has to make, and that is the challenge at heart. Because this resurrection of Jesus from the dead is no idle curiosity as we have seen. It is the truth and without it, we are lost in the vain futility of existence. We may as well eat, drink and be merry. But because it did happen and there is evidence to back up the claim, then there are serious consequences for us. And those consequences come in verse 2: ' By this gospel, the gospel about Jesus who died and rose again, you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain.' Paul says that this gospel is something the Corinthians, and so all Christians, must hold on to firmly. If the gospel is true then it is life changing and it is something worth living for. If Jesus rose from the dead, then it proves there is a God who loves us and wants us to live his way. We have a purpose, we have a goal and we have a mission. It is something to battle for and even die for, as many down the ages have discovered and done so willingly.
And yet to many who claim to be Christians, the resurrection makes not the slightest bit of difference. Many would say the creed each week in churches up and down the land, 'I believe in the resurrection', and yet during the week that truth would have no impact on their lives at all. There would be no desire to seek to live with Christ as Lord, no conscious surrender to him in every aspect of life, no willingness to tell others of that staggering truth that Jesus is alive and he is the Lord and Saviour. But that must not be. You cannot say one thing and do another. If you really believe that Jesus is alive, then you will be willing to do your all for him. Yes we do struggle, yes we do fail, but there will be the inward yearning to go his way and do what pleases him, for he is the risen Lord who has defeated death and given us life. Hold firmly says Paul, or as he'll say at the end of the chapter, always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. Why not? Because there is hope beyond the grave! And if we do not hold on firmly, then says Paul your belief is in vain. There's no point believing something if it makes no impact on your life. Believe it and act on it.
You may well have seen the programme Son of God in recent weeks, in which Jeremy Bowen takes a fresh look at the evidence for Jesus. The programme is in many ways very good, and Jesus is given a fair hearing. And when it comes to the resurrection, again Jeremy Bowen makes it clear that the evidence points in one direction. To the fact that Jesus rose again. And yet what does he says at the end of the programme? He's not convinced, having just said the evidence is very strong. And I think the reason is he is aware of the implications. If Jesus rose from the dead, then we must bow the knee and surrender everything to him. The consequences of doing that are huge. But the consequences of not are far greater- we'll have to meet God alone and stand before him as confessed rebels, a fate far worse than death! That's why this message that Paul preached is so important. Because it's about life and death, eternal life and death. So if you do believe it, show it by your life. Hold firmly, says Paul, to the gospel I preached to you. Otherwise, you're believing in vain. Your lack of action really shows up your lack of belief. That's the challenge at heart.
So is there life after death? Yes, there is, and we can be sure because of Jesus' own resurrection from the dead. We've seen the truth at stake, that without it there is little hope; we've seen the evidence at hand, that Paul shows us plenty of evidence from trusting that Jesus is alive; and we've seen the challenge at heart to live out what we believe and to hold firmly to the message. And next week we'll see that are even more implications for us who believe that Jesus really did rise again.
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