1 Corinthians 15:12-20
March 24, 2008
What difference does Easter make? It’s a well known fact that from the beginning there were those who doubted. On Easter Sunday when the chief priests heard that the tomb was empty, they called the men who had been guarding the tomb and offered them money to say that the disciples of Jesus had stolen his body during the night (Matthew 28:11-15). We can call it the original Easter conspiracy. It was the first but not the last.
The years pass, decades and generations and centuries came and went, and every time across the centuries, the ultimate point of attack has always right here, at the empty tomb, the resurrection, the truth behind Easter Sunday. Good Friday doesn’t pose this sort of problem because the world understands death. Read the newspaper, turn on the TV. Death is forever with us. The funeral homes never go out of business because we are a death-sentenced generation. Read the obituaries. They change every day because people keep dying—mostly older, but sometimes younger, and sometimes the very young. No one can claim an exemption. The world does not struggle with the notion that 2000 years ago, in a remote province at the edge of the Roman Empire, a man named Jesus died. Death happens to all of us eventually. That Jesus died is no problem for most people. But the world has enormous problems with Easter because the world knows nothing about resurrection. We have a category for death. If we see a hearse with cars following behind it, we know what that’s all about. We have no category for rising from the dead.
Let me ask the question again. What difference does Easter make? Suppose we switch the question around and ask it this way. What difference would it make if Jesus had not risen from the dead? What would be different in our world today if we found out conclusively that Jesus was still dead? Or how about this? What if someone conclusively proved they had discovered the bones of Jesus? (Some people made that claim last year with the so-called “lost tomb of Jesus.” Thomas Madden reviews the evidence and explains why it was just a “sensationalist fantasy.”) What difference would that make? The question may sound shocking and even blasphemous, but I still want to ask it. What if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead?
That’s not a new question. The question “What if” has been asked for nearly 2,000 years. It’s a biblical question, one that you can find in 1 Corinthians 15:12-20. Seven times in these verses Paul uses the little word “if.” He is raising the question of contrary assumption in order to show us how much hangs on the bodily resurrection of our Lord. To borrow from the vernacular, this is the whole ballgame right here. Paul plays devil’s advocate in order to teach us what matters most. He is not playing a parlor game or trying to waste our time debating trivial matters. We need to be reminded that an astounding miracle lies at the heart of our faith. We believe something absolutely incredible–that a man who was dead came back to life on the third day. We believe that God raised him from the dead. That’s a stupendous thing to say. Sometimes we Christians forget how amazing this sounds. After all, if you go to the cemetery and stay there waiting for a resurrection, you’ll wait a long time. There are lots of people going in and no one coming out. You will see plenty of funerals and no resurrections. What are the chances that a man who had been tortured and then crucified and then buried in a tomb would be raised from the dead? The odds would seem to be against it. You can’t start with what your eyes see or what you can figure out. And you can’t trust your feelings in something like this because your emotions can play tricks on you.
So when we come to this passage we need to be calm and clearheaded as we read it. It’s as if, just for a moment, Paul says, “Let me leave the church and let me stand on the outside looking in and let me as ask the question ’What if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead?’” What if? What if Easter isn’t really true? One man called this “the world’s blackest assumption,” and indeed it is.
What if … What if … What if … Paul answers that question by showing us four disastrous consequences if Christ did not rise from the dead. Each one deserves our careful attention because these things are true if the resurrection is false. (In laying out these consequences, I am using an outline by Rick Lance that I read in a church newsletter many years ago.)
I. If there is no resurrection, our preaching is without purpose.
“And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 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” (1 Corinthians 15:14-15). Focus on just one word—”useless.” Some translations say “vain.” The word means “without content.” It means that all that we have learned has come to nothing. As I thought about it, it came to me like this. After I graduated from college, I spent four years in seminary. There I labored to learn Greek and Hebrew. Late at night I did my best to decipher some meaning from the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. I was always better at Greek because the language is closer to English. I remember taking a course on Biblical Chronology and writing a paper on the ministry of Jesus in the region of Perea. I probably still have it 30+ years later, buried somewhere in my files. I wrote long exegetical papers on Ephesians and 1 Corinthians and later on Hebrews and Revelation. I particularly remember one very challenging exegetical paper on Psalm 56 that taxed me because in those days—long before personal computers—you had to write the Hebrew by hand, and besides having bad handwriting, I was never sure I was getting the Hebrew letters right. Then I took systematic theology, which I ended up making my major. I don’t know how it is now, but back then there weren’t many sys theo majors so most of my classes were small. I took church history and enjoyed it and Christian education and missions and preaching courses. Later I sweated out my senior project by reading and cataloguing over 400 articles from the Harvard Divinity Review. Then I graduated and within weeks was pastoring a small church in suburban Los Angeles. There were more courses and another degree in the years to come. All of that plus a few dollars will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. I mention it only because that’s what came to my mind. No amount of education can compensate if at the heart of what you believe there is a gigantic falsehood. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then all the education in the world can’t overcome that one fact. And all the Christian scholars and all the Christian colleges and seminaries and all the books of all the learned Christians across all the years, it all amounts to nothing.
That’s what Paul means. String all the degrees you want after your name. Write all the books you want. Preach until you pass out. Build the biggest church in the world. Fill huge stadiums with great throngs. Put your name in lights. If the tomb is not empty, you are wasting your time.
II. If there is no resurrection, our faith is without forgiveness.
“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). The word for “futile” is different from the word for “useless.” The word “futile” means that which produces no results.
It’s a promise with no fulfillment.
It’s a trip with no destination.
It’s a story with no end.
It’s a seed that produces no crop.
It’s a dream that never comes true.
It’s a game with no winners.
It’s a company with no product.
Think of it this way. We like to say that Christ died for our sins. But how do we know that his death actually accomplished anything? If Christ had remained in the tomb, we could never be sure that God had accepted his sacrifice. This is the greatest misery of all—not to know if our sins have been forgiven. During that long weekend in Jerusalem, no one in all the world could be certain that the death of Christ had truly been sufficient. As long as he was in the tomb, it looked as if the devil had won and Jesus had lost the great battle. Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). What was finished? If he doesn’t rise from the dead, then Jesus is finished, the story is over, and we are still in our sins.
That’s why the resurrection is all-important. Easter is God’s great “Amen!” to Good Friday.
Jesus cried out, “It is finished.”God said, “Amen!” when he raised his Son from the dead. And because he is alive forevermore, we can know our sins are forgiven forever.
That’s the great issue in Paul’s mind. Are we truly forgiven or not? If Christ has been raised, the answer is yes.If Christ is still in the tomb, the answer is no.
III. If there is no resurrection, our death is without deliverance.
“Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost” (1 Corinthians 15:18). Paul says that Christians who have died have “fallen asleep in Christ.” The Greek word for fallen asleep is the word koimao from which we get another Greek word koimeteria from which we get the English word cemetery. In the beginning “cemetery” was a distinctively Christian word. It means the “sleeping place.” That’s where the Christians buried their dead—in the “sleeping place.” Why did they say that? Because when you go to sleep, you expect to wake up eventually. Even so, Christians have always believed that one day those who have died in Christ will wake up in the coming great day of resurrection.
I have thought about this in a personal way because two women who had great impact on my life have died in the last several weeks. First there was Irma Csakai and then there was Ellen Hale. I met Irma when we moved to Oak Park in 1989. She was a godly woman, a great prayer warrior, and she loved to invite people to come to church. Anytime, anywhere, with anyone she met, she would strike up a conversation and invite them to come to church. Everyone listened and some of them ended up on Sunday morning. She loved our three boys and prayed for them and after they moved away from home, she would always ask how they were doing. I met Ellen when we moved to Downey, California in 1978. It would be no exaggeration to say that she was the heart and soul of the church in those days. She welcomed us, helped us feel at home, and helped us find our way. Back then Marlene and I didn’t have children yet, and I had just graduated from seminary. To say that I was inexperienced would be putting it mildly. Two months earlier I had been trying to finish my coursework. Now I was preaching three times a week and trying to figure out how to lead a church. Most of what I needed to know, I couldn’t find in my textbooks. And Ellen helped by explaining the history of the church and what it was like in the early days. We got to know Carl and Ellen very well and all their children, especially Rick and his wife Joanne who remain close friends to this day. As I write about Irma and Ellen, I am smiling because I can see their smiling faces before me. They never knew each other, but each had a deep impact for good on our family. And in the last several weeks they both died. One is buried in Illinois; the other in California.
What shall we say about their future? Is this the end? Will we ever see them again? Paul’s answer is very clear. If Christ has not been raised, death wins. If he is still in the tomb, there is no hope for anyone, this life is all there is, and all who are dead will stay dead forever.
IV. If there is no resurrection, our service is without significance.
“If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15:19). For Paul this is the ultimate argument because he means that if Christ is not raised, we are just fooling ourselves. If Christ is still in the tomb, then Richard Dawkins is right, Christopher Hitchens is right, and all the rest of the skeptics are right. If there is no foundation to our faith, then we are nothing but self-deluded fools.
If Christ is not raised, then we have no message to preach.
If Christ is not raised, there is no God to hear our prayers.
If Christ is not raised, we are not saved.
If Christ is not raised, then let’s bring the missionaries home.
If Christ is not raised, let’s close every church and sell the property.
If Christ is not raised, then every Christian for 2000 years has been wrong.
That’s what Paul means. Sometimes I hear well-meaning Christians say something like, “Even if it’s not true, it’s still better to be a Christian. Think of all the things you gain by being a Christian. You have Jesus in your heart.” No, you don’t!
If he is still in the tomb, you don’t have him in your heart.
If he is still in the tomb, you are just playing religious games.
If he is still in the tomb, it’s not better to be a Christian.
I have put it in stark terms because that’s how Paul puts it. He doesn’t want to play games, and neither do I. I don’t want to come to the end of my life and discover that I’ve preached something that isn’t true. And I don’t want to mislead others into thinking that something is true when it’s not. If Christ is still dead, then we deserve the pity of thoughtful men and women because we have believed a lie.
And so we come to the end of Paul’s “if”s. If Christ has not been raised …
Our preaching is without purpose,
Our faith is without forgiveness,
Our death is without deliverance,
Our service is without significance.
If … If … If … Is there any answer, any hope, any reason to believe in the resurrection of the dead?
Here is Paul’s answer, clear as a bell, bright as the sun, truth with no mixture of doubt: “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20 NKJV). Consider how much hangs on those two little words—”But now.” The resurrection of Jesus, our coming resurrection, and the resurrection of all those who those died in faith, all of it depends on those two little words.
Up from the grave he arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er his foes.
He arose a victor o’er the dark domain,
And he lives forever, with his saints to reign!
He arose! He arose!
Hallelujah! Christ arose!
The term “firstfruits” refers to the first part of any harvest. For the Israelites, it meant the first part of the barley harvest that was offered to the Lord. It was a happy day when you offered the firstfruits because it meant that there was a bigger harvest to come. Even so, the resurrection of Jesus 2000 years ago is God’s way of saying, “One day all my children will rise from the dead.” Not one of them will be left in the grave. Every single one will be raised
Free from sickness,
Delivered from death,
With sin gone forever,
Human frailty disappeared,
Made like Jesus,
All the defects finally gone,
All that is under construction finally completed,
With healthy bodies,
With clear minds,
With undivided hearts,
In company with all the saints of all the ages,
In a multitude that no man can number,
We will gather round the throne,
We will rejoice and laugh and sing,
We will know each other more deeply,
We will love more completely,
We will think more clearly,
We will still be who we are,
We will be more than we have ever been,
We will become what we always wanted,
We will finally see our loved ones who died in the Lord,
We will meet those who went before us,
We will see the saints of old,
We will get to know Abraham, Esther, Luther and Spurgeon,
We will see our grandparents and our grandchildren,
We will marvel at the grace of God forever,
We will see Jesus and bow down before him.
And we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
This is our hope, our faith, our confidence, this is the faith of our ancestors who believed then what we believe now. This is what the earliest Christians believed, and this is what Christians around the world believe. It is no small thing to say that a person now dead will someday rise and live again. As I said at the beginning, all that we see with our eyes seems to argue against it. But it does not depend on what we see with our eyes because our eyes only see is. They cannot see what will be.
We see the present.
God sees the future.
Two thousand years ago Jesus came back from the dead never to die again. He was taken up to heaven where he now sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. One day soon he will return to the earth as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And in that great day, the dead in Christ will rise first.
Let the doubters doubt if they will. We gladly join with Christians everywhere in declaring that Jesus Christ is alive forevermore. We join hands with the saints who have gone before in proclaiming our faith in the risen Lord. Because he rose, we too shall rise. Death will not have the last word. The grave will not win in the end. Though we do not yet see it, one day the cemetery will become resurrection territory. Therefore,
Our preaching has purpose,
Our faith has forgiveness,
Our death has deliverance,
Our service has significance.
In that “great getting-up morning,” we will all rejoice together, with our tears gone forever and death a distant memory. What a happy day that will be.
Let’s start the party now and dance and sing for our Lord has conquered the grave.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.