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.
3 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, 5 and 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.
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? 13 If 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. 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.
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.1 Corinthians 15:1-28
What follows is the text of a sermon preached at All Saints’ Lindfield, West Sussex, on March 8th 2020. Scroll to the bottom for an audio recording.
It’s Sunday morning. The sun has yet to rise. Two women are walking in the garden. They are shocked and terrified when an earthquake shakes the ground. They approach the tomb of their friend, the man whom they had called Lord. As they get nearer they see a man. He seems to be shining in the early morning darkness. The women are terrified, but can’t help approaching. They watch as the man, whom they are convinced must be an angel, rolls back the stone sealing the tomb of their Lord, and, having rolled it away, sits upon it. The angel speaks to them. “Do not be afraid!” he says. “I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.”
The women are stunned. Can this be true? Can their Lord, their friend, have risen from the dead? Overcome by emotion they run to tell Jesus’ disciples what they have seen. As they run, they meet Jesus himself, who tells them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”
This is the account of Jesus’ resurrection in Matthew’s Gospel.
But can it be true?
Did Jesus really rise from the dead?
This is what we’ll be considering this morning.
Was Jesus raised from the dead?
Does it matter if Jesus was raised from the dead?
What are the consequences of Jesus being raised from the dead?
Firstly, then, was Jesus raised from the dead?
Paul begins chapter fifteen of his first letter to the Corinthians by reminding the Corinthians of the gospel that he preached to them. He tells them that they received this gospel, and they have stood firm, holding onto all that he has taught them. It is by this gospel that they are saved, he reminds them, if they hold firmly to the word that he has preached to them.
This gospel, this news, that he has taught them is of fundamental importance, since it has the power to save people. People need to be saved. And the news that Paul passed on to the Corinthians means that they can be saved.
What does this gospel save people from?
We can see this in verse three – Christ died for our sins.
Since the time of Adam, all people have sinned. All have fallen short of God’s expectations. Humanity has turned its back on God. We have opted to go our way, not God’s way. To live our lives as we want, not as God would like. We have put ourselves first, and neglected God.
As a consequence of this, we can expect to be judged by God, and found wanting.
We find ourselves in a desperately hopeless position.
But this Gospel that Paul has been sharing means that we can be saved. We can be saved because Christ died for our sins.
He was buried.
But then, on the third day, he was raised according to the scriptures.
Where’s the evidence, though?
How can the Corinthians be expected to hold firmly to his teaching, to take a stand, to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, without evidence?
Paul understands this and provides them with three reasons why they can trust that the resurrection happened.
Firstly, Jesus was raised on the third day – in accordance with the scriptures. That is, in fulfilment of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is full of references to resurrection. Let’s just pick up a few now.
In Isaiah 53 we read about how the suffering servant will suffer, die, and then see the light of life.
In Psalm 16, David prophesies that God would not abandon his faithful one to the realm of the dead or let his body see decay.
Psalm 22:22-31 speaks of life after death.
The resurrection is foreshadowed in Jonah 1:17 where we read that Jonah was “in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Jesus himself referenced Jonah when he said, “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” That’s Matthew 12:40.
So the Old Testament scriptures provide evidence through prophecy that Jesus was raised from the dead. As Paul stated, Jesus was “raised on the third day according to the scriptures.”
Secondly, the Corinthians can trust that the resurrection happened because there were plenty of witnesses to this fact.
We read in verses 5 to 8 that Jesus appeared to Cephas, or Peter, and then to the twelve apostles. After that Jesus appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at the same time – most of whom, Paul says, are still living. Then he appeared to James and to all the apostles.
Paul is keen to point out that this is not a story that he has concocted. This is verifiable truth; there were dozens, hundreds, even, of witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, who could testify that yes, Jesus died, yes, he was buried, and yes, he rose from the dead. If anyone in Corinth was unsure about the truth of the resurrection, who questioned whether Jesus really rose from the dead, all they needed to do was find one of these people. Jump in a boat and head for Galilee. It shouldn’t be too hard to find someone who witnessed Jesus alive and well after seeing him dead on the cross.
Jesus’ resurrection, then, it not a myth. The gospel is not a story. It is rooted in verifiable truth.
Thirdly, the Corinthians could trust that Jesus was raised from the dead because Jesus appeared to Paul personally. Paul is a direct eye witness. If the Corinthians don’t want to accept it from anyone else, then they should accept it from Paul, who was well known to them, who was the one who told them the Gospel in the first place.
Three reasons, then, why the Corinthians could trust that Jesus was raised from the dead.
Three reasons why we can trust that Jesus was raised from the dead.
Paul, then wants to leave his readers in absolutely no doubt that Jesus was raised from the dead.
Does it matter if Jesus was raised from the dead?
After all, there are plenty of people who profess to be Christian, yet dispute the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. Scarcely a year goes by when a senior figure in the Church doesn’t hit the headlines for supposedly denying that the bodily resurrection of Christ took place.
This was evidently the case within the Corinthian Church as well, which is why Paul asks in verse 12, “if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection for the dead. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.”
Paul outlines several consequences of Jesus not being raised from the dead in verses 12 to 19.
Firstly, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, Paul and the apostles have misrepresented God. They are false teachers, since they have been testifying that God raised Christ, which, if there is no resurrection, is not true. This means that Paul and all of the apostles have invented false stories and misled God’s people. As such, they could expect to experience the full wrath of God.
Secondly, if there is no resurrection, then the faith of the Corinthians has been in vain. Indeed, if Jesus was not raised from the dead then our faith is in vain. Our faith is futile. And, most significantly, we are still in our sins.
Christ has not defeated death.
He has not redeemed our sin.
We will still face the full wrath of God when we die.
Thirdly, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, all those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. All those faithful Christians who have followed Jesus over the centuries, have perished. All our Christian friends and family who have died have perished. That’s it. They’re dead and that’s that.
Fourthly, if Jesus was not raised from the dead then we are of all people most to be pitied. If we place our hope in Jesus in this life only, then we are fools, because there is no hope. We too are doomed to an eternal death, with no hope of an eternal life. We might as well, as Paul puts it later in verse 32, join in with everyone who says, “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” We would be better living as if we only live once.
Well of course it is important then, that Christ was raised from the dead. If he has not been raised from the dead, then we are all fools, fools with no hope for the future.
What a bleak prospect that is!
But Paul doesn’t entertain that bleak prospect of no resurrection for long. He hits us in verse 20 with a bold statement – “but in fact Christ HAS been raised from the dead!”
Paul is unequivocal in this. There is no doubt in his mind at all, because of all the evidence he has already presented us with. Christ HAS been raised from the dead! And it matters that Christ HAS been raised from the dead!
So what are the consequences of Jesus being raised from the dead?
The consequences are truly profound.
The first consequence we can glean from Paul here is that Jesus is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
I spend quite a lot of my summer in the north Essex countryside. Next to us there’s an old Second World War mine depot, where explosives were built, tested and stored during the war. What went on there was so secret that to this day no-one really knows the truth. What we do know, though, is that blackberries grow there very well now.
My family love blackberrying. Claire, my wife, takes great delight in finding and devouring the first blackberry of summer. As she eats it, she knows that this is a significant moment because in due course there will be hundreds, thousands, millions of other blackberries all over the mine depot.
It would be rather odd if that first blackberry was the one and only blackberry. If it was the only blackberry not just in north Essex, but across the country.
We would rejoice that that one blackberry had grown so near to us, and that we’d been able to witness it with our own eyes.
But it would feel a little hollow if we weren’t anticipating the growth of many more for our summer puddings, for our crumbles, and for our jam.
So when, in verse 20, Paul describes Jesus as the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, it is clear that he expects Jesus to be the first of many, many millions of people to be raised.
Those who know and love Jesus will be raised. Just as we can sure that Jesus was raised, we can be sure that we, too, will be raised.
Here we see Paul recounting God’s plan for the world. We see in the verses from verse 21 onwards the significance of Jesus’ resurrection, as Paul draws up a direct contrast between Adam and Jesus.
Death came through a man. Adam disobeyed God. He ignored his commandment. Adam sinned. The wages of sin are death. Because of Adam’s sin, death entered creation. As a result of Adam we all die. Death makes its presence felt all around us. We are all edging towards death. It is an inevitability.
Death doesn’t have to be the end, though, because just as death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.
All those who are in Christ will be made alive.
All those who belong to Jesus will be made alive.
Just as a harvest follows the first fruits of summer, so too a rich harvest will follow the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus isn’t the only one who will be raised to life.
And that is amazing news. The greatest news ever!
Paul suggests that there is a prescribed order to this resurrection.
As Paul has already established, Jesus is the first to be raised from the dead.
When Jesus returns, all those who belong to Christ will be raised, those who knew Jesus, who loved Jesus, and who sought to follow him in their lives – they will be raised.
Finally, at the end, Jesus will destroy every rule and every authority and every power, and deliver the kingdom to God the Father. Jesus will reign and all his enemies will be put under his feet. At that point, the last enemy will finally be destroyed – death itself.
Death was never a part of God’s plan. It was introduced as a consequence of human sin. Jesus defeated death when he died on the cross and rose again. And when he returns, he will defeat it once and for all, enabling all those who love him to be raised to life.
So can we say with confidence that on the third day Jesus rose again? Paul firmly believes that we can. He shows us that we can be confident that Christ rose. Scripture proclaims this. The prophets proclaimed this. The apostles proclaimed this. The hundreds of witnesses proclaimed this.
The consequences of Christ’s resurrection are truly profound. As Paul reminded us, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are at the heart of the Gospel. Indeed, he went further than that. The death and resurrection of Jesus ARE the gospel. It is the gospel by which we are saved.
That is of first importance.
Whilst many would say that the cross is the most fundamental element of the Christian gospel, the truth is that without the resurrection, the gospel is lacking.
By rising from the dead, Jesus was able to demonstrate that he has defeated death.
By rising from the dead and appearing to the apostles and to the 500, we have evidence that Jesus defeated death.
By rising from the dead and ascending to heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father, Jesus is able to return to earth to destroy all dominion, authority and power, and to hand over the kingdom to his Father.
By rising from the dead and placing all his enemies under his feet, Jesus is able to destroy the last enemy, death, to ensure that all those who place their trust in him will also be raised from the dead, the full harvest that follows the firstfruits of resurrection.
If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, we are fools to be pitied beyond all others.
But Christ indeed has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
And that is the greatest news the world has ever known.
Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!