It occurred to me during the week as I was thinking about 1 Corinthians that this letter is a reminder to believers that the Lord is sovereign and he’s able to bring good out of evil. What do I mean? Well, in this letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul was addressing all these different problems in the church. And there were lots of problems, weren’t there? In chapters 1 to 4 we read about the divisions in the church and how they were quarrelling with one another. And so Paul appealed to them to agree with one another so that there would be no divisions among them. And then in chapter 5 we read about the man in the church who was sleeping with his step mother. It was scandalous; not even the pagans did something like that. And what made it worse in the eyes of Paul was the fact that the church was tolerating this sin; they weren’t doing anything about it and they weren’t exercising any form of church discipline against the offender.
In chapter 6 we read about how they were taking one another to court; and from what Paul says about it, it seems they were cheating and wronging one another. Also in chapter 6, he had to write to them about sexual immorality, because it seems that some of them believed they could do what they wanted with their bodies. And in chapter 7 he wrote about marriage, because it seems others were going to the opposite extreme and they believed that the marriage union was no longer important, now that they were believers.
In chapters 8 to 10 he wrote about food sacrificed to idols, because they were divided over the issue of whether believers should eat such food and it seems that some of them thought it was fine for believers to take part in idol worship.
And then, in chapters 11 to 14, Paul addressed various issues relating to public worship, because it seems that some of them had turned the Lord’s Supper into a drunken party; and others were putting too much emphasis on speaking in tongues and those with the gift were despising those who did not possess that particular gift; and those who do not possess that gift were envious of those who did. And they were treating one another so badly that Paul needed to spend the whole of chapter 13 writing to them about love and making the point that without love, everything they might have done in the name of the Lord was worthless.
This was a church riddled with problems. And today’s passage was also written in response to a problem in the church, because it seems that some of them were saying there’s no such thing as the resurrection of the dead. Some of them were saying that the dead don’t rise. And so, Paul wrote to address that problem too. This church was riddled with problems.
And yet, it’s a reminder to us that the Lord is sovereign and that he’s able to bring good out of evil, because he was able to use the problems in the church in Corinth to produce this letter for us. And this letter — Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians — is a magnificent letter which teaches us so much about the Lord and his will for us. So, without the divisions in the church, we wouldn’t have Paul’s teaching on the power of the Holy Spirit to use the gospel to change lives. Without that man’s immorality, we wouldn’t have Paul’s teaching about the importance of church discipline. Without their habit of taking one another to court, we wouldn’t have Paul’s teaching about how the members of the church should be able to judge these cases ourselves. Without their errors in regard to sexual morality and marriage, we wouldn’t have Paul’s teaching about how married couples should live together. Without their confusion over food sacrificed to idols, we wouldn’t have Paul’s teaching about idolatry. Without their abuses in worship, we wouldn’t have Paul’s teaching about public worship.
And without their confusion over the resurrection, we wouldn’t have this magnificent chapter on the resurrection of our Lord and the great hope he gives to all who believe in him of our resurrection from the dead. This church was riddled with problems. It seemed to be almost completely rotten. The elders of the church in Corinth must have been pulling their hair out because of the sins and abuses and errors of the people. And yet, the Lord is sovereign; he rules over all; and he was able to bring something good out of this terrible evil, because the result of all their sins was this wonderful letter which has helped believers and churches in every age since it was written.
And so, it’s a reminder to us as well that when things seem to be going wrong in the world and in the church, when we face troubles and trials, when people wrong us and hurt us, when we wrong and hurt others, nevertheless the Lord is sovereign; and he’s able to bring good out of evil; he’s able to work all things together for good; and he’s able to overrule in the world and in the church to turn disasters into victories so that the future will be better than the past and all to the praise of his power and grace, because he’s the one who overturns our shortcomings and failures and sins and uses them for his glory. And so, whatever happens in the world and in the church, we need not be afraid, because we believe that the Lord our God sits on his throne; he’s able to work all things together for good; and no one can thwart his plans for us.
And so, if it were not for their confusion over the resurrection, we wouldn’t have chapter 15 which is a magnificent chapter and one of my favourite chapters in the Bible.
What you hear this evening might seem familiar to you. If so, it’s because I preached on 1 Corinthians 15 on Easter Sunday in 2017. Also, I often preach on part of this chapter at funerals, because it’s so appropriate at a funeral to remind ourselves of the great hope which God gives to his people that death is not the end, and death will not always have the victory over us, because Christ our Saviour died and was raised and all who believe in him will likewise be raised on the last day; and will live with him in body and soul for ever and for ever.
The chapter can be divided into four main parts. Firstly, in verses 1 to 11, Paul reminds his readers of the gospel message which he preached to them and which they received from him. Secondly, in verses 12 to 19 he explains what the consequences are for denying the resurrection of the dead. Thirdly, in verses 20 to 34 he proclaims the resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of Christ’s people. And fourthly, in verses 35 to the end, he writes about the nature of the resurrection body and about the kind of body we will possess when we’re raised from the dead. We won’t manage to get through it all today, but will stop at verse 28.
And before getting into the text, let me summarise what we believe about life after death. We believe that when a believer dies, the believers’s body returns to dust, but the soul of the believer is immediately made perfect in holiness and returns to the Lord. But we call this the intermediate state, because it’s not the final state. The final state occurs when the Lord Jesus returns to earth, because when he comes he will raise our bodies from the grave to be reunited with our souls; and we will be transformed so that our bodies will be perfectly suited for everlasting life in the presence of the Lord. The bodies of unbelievers will also be raised, but they will be raised to suffer eternal punishment away from the presence of the Lord; that is their final state. But the final state of believers is to be with the Lord in body and in soul for ever.
And so, we need to be clear that in this chapter, the Apostle is writing about the final state of believers and about the resurrection of our bodies from the grave.
Verses 1 to 11
So, let’s turn now to verses 1 to 11. Paul says in verse 1 that he wants to remind his readers of the gospel which he preached to them and which they received and on which they now stand. So, in Acts 18 we read how Paul arrived in Corinth and he preached to them the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And while many in Corinth did not believe — because the message of the cross of Christ seemed like foolishness to the Gentiles and it seemed weak to the Jews — nevertheless others received this message. In other words, they believed it. More than that, they took their stand on it, which means the message they received became the foundation or the basis of their hope for the future. Their hope for the future and of everlasting life in the presence of the Lord was based on the message of the gospel which Paul preached to them.
And look what Paul adds in verse 2:
By this gospel you are saved….
The message of the cross might seem foolish and weak to many, but it is in fact a powerful message, because God works through this message of the cross to save sinners from the penalty they deserve for their sins. Whoever believes the good news of Jesus Christ will be saved. But then he adds that they need to hold firmly to the word he preached to them. They need to keep believing what he had taught them. And that’s the problem. That’s the problem, because some of them were being persuaded to give up part of what he had taught them.
Well, what had he taught them? That’s what verses 3 to 11 are about, where Paul summarises the gospel message which he himself received from the Lord and which he passed on to them as of first importance. What is the gospel message? Very simply: 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 people saw him after his resurrection.
So, when Christ died, he didn’t die for his own sins, because he had none. No, he died for our sins, to pay the penalty for what we have done wrong. He took our place and suffered on our behalf so that we might have peace with God. Then, after his death, he was buried in the tomb. So, he really was dead and he remained under the power of death for a time. However, on the third day he was raised from the dead.
Notice that Paul says that he died and was raised ‘according to the Scriptures’. Paul means that his death and resurrection was foretold in the pages of the Old Testament. For instance, Isaiah 53 foretells how he was pierced for our transgressions and how he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him and by his wounds we are healed; we all like sheep have gone astray, but the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. His death for sinners was foretold in the Scriptures. And Psalm 16, for instance, foretells his resurrection and how God would not abandon him to the grave and would not let him see decay. So, in the pages of the Old Testament Scriptures God announced that his Son would die for our sins and would rise again afterwards.
And then, after his resurrection, people saw him alive. So, he appeared to Peter. Then he appeared to the Twelve Disciples — although there were only eleven of them after Judas killed himself. After that he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers. And Paul adds that most of them were still alive when he wrote this letter. And the point he’s making is that his readers can go and ask them what they saw. They were eye-witnesses of the resurrection; and so, if any of the people in Corinth doubted the resurrection, they could go and ask someone who saw it with their own eyes. Paul then tells his readers that the Lord appeared to James and then he appeared again to the Apostles. And last of all — after the Lord’s ascension to heaven — he appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. Once Paul did not believe; and he persecuted the church of Jesus Christ. But then the Lord appeared to him and graciously changed him so that instead of being Saul the Persecutor he became Paul the Preacher.
And Paul concludes this part of the chapter by reminding them once again that this is what we preach. This is what all the apostles preach: they preach the message of Jesus Christ who died for our sins and who was buried and who was raised and people saw him. The resurrection of the Lord Jesus from the grave is an integral part of the gospel message which they received and believed.
Verses 12 to 19
Now, if that’s the case — if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead — then how can some of them now say that there is no resurrection of the dead? That’s the question Paul asks in verse 12.
Now, we don’t know for sure who these people were who denied the resurrection of the dead. In the gospels and the book of Acts we read about the Sadducees who didn’t believe in the resurrection. So, perhaps there was a group of Sadducees in Corinth. Or we read in Acts 17 how some of the people in Athens who heard Paul preach began to sneer whenever he mentioned the resurrection of the dead. Perhaps there were others like them in Corinth. Whoever it was, it’s the same today, isn’t it? Many people today will say that when we die, that’s the end of our life. Our bodies are buried in the ground and they decay and that’s the end of us. We are no more. We don’t have a spirit that goes on living after our body expires. And our dead bodies will never be raised. There’s only this life and this world and there’s nothing to come after our death. That’s what many people believe today.
And that’s what some people were saying in Corinth. And so, how does Paul respond? Well, he makes this point that if there’s no resurrection of the dead, if the dead don’t rise as some of them were saying, then not even Christ has been raised. If there’s no such thing as the resurrection, then Christ can’t have risen. And if Christ didn’t rise, there are enormous consequences for what we believe. What are they? Well, Paul mentions them one by one.
Firstly, according to verse 14, if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is useless and so is your faith. In other words, we’re wasting our time preaching about Christ and you’re wasting your time believing in Christ if Christ did not rise. If Christ did not rise, if his body is lying in a tomb near Jerusalem, he can’t help you. There’s no point believing in a dead Saviour, because a dead Saviour can’t help you. If he didn’t rise, we’re wasting our time and there’s no good news to proclaim or to believe.
Secondly, according to verse 15, the apostles could be rightfully accused of being false witnesses about God. They’re telling lies about God, because they’re saying that God raised the Lord Jesus from the grave. That’s what they were telling people. But that can’t be true if the dead don’t rise. We’re lying about God.
Thirdly, according to verse 17, if Christ has not been raised, you’re still in your sins. Well, to explain what Paul meant here I usually use the illustration of the criminal who is found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison. And so, for ten years he’s locked up to pay for his crime. However, whenever the ten years are over, he’s released from the prison; and he can be released because he’s paid for his crime in full. Well, the Lord Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross to pay for our sins. He took the blame for us and suffered the punishment we deserve. But then, afterwards, on the third day, the Lord Jesus was released from the grave and he was raised from the prison of death. And he was allowed to be released and raised, because he has paid for the sins of his people in full. And so, his resurrection is an announcement to all who believe that our sins have been paid for in full; God’s justice has been completely satisfied; God will never, ever demand any further payment from us for what we have done wrong. Christ’s resurrection is an announcement that our sins have been paid for and we have peace with God for ever. But none of that is true if Christ was not raised. If Christ has not been raised, then our sins have not yet been paid for and we face the prospect of having to pay for them ourselves whenever we stand before the judgment throne of God on the last day. To deny the resurrection is to deny the Lord’s resurrection; and if he has not been raised, then we’re still in our sins and we will be condemned for them.
Fourthly, according to verse 18, those believers who have already died — or fallen asleep as Paul puts it here — are lost. They have perished in their sins without a living Saviour to save them and to give them eternal life.
And fifthly, according to verse 19, the apostles ought to be pitied for preaching about the hope we have in Christ, because there is no hope at all if Christ did not rise from the dead.
Verses 20 to 28
So, Paul has been saying that if you say the dead don’t rise, then Christ can’t have been raised. But if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then certain disastrous consequences follow and the whole of the gospel is undermined.
But, says Paul in verse 20 — and this is one of those marvellous ‘buts’ which we find from time to time in the Bible, which lift us from darkness and despair into the light and joy of the gospel — but Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. That’s what Paul preached and that’s what they received and believed. Christ who died for our sins and who was buried was raised on the third day and seen by many people afterwards. Christ has indeed been raised.
And more than that, his resurrection was the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. I’ve said before that the firstfruits of the harvest is the first part of the harvest; and it’s the pledge and guarantee that there will be more to follow. And so, by saying that Christ was the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, Paul means that Christ was the first to rise from the dead, but he will not be the last, because there will be more to follow. His resurrection from the dead is the pledge and guarantee that all who are united with him through faith will one day rise to live with him in body and soul for ever and for ever. Paul refers to believers who have died as ‘those who have fallen asleep’, because it’s as if they’re only sleeping now; and the day will come when Christ will awaken them from their graves and tell them that it’s time to get up now.
And Paul goes on to explain that death came into the world through one man. And he’s referring to Adam, who ate the forbidden fruit even though the Lord warned that whenever you eat of it you will surely die. And because Adam was the head of the human race, what happened to him, happens to us. So, just as he was condemned to die, so too we are condemned to die. As Paul says in verse 22, in Adam all die. But the resurrection of the dead and everlasting life in God’s presence also comes through a man, but it’s the man, Jesus Christ, who, unlike Adam, was perfectly obedient to his Father in heaven; and who shares his perfect righteousness with all who trust in him so that we are not condemned, but receive from him the free gift of eternal life. And so, as Paul also says in verse 22, in Christ all — all who trust in him — will be made alive. Whoever is united with Christ through faith — and who therefore comes under his rule and authority and dominion — will live with him for ever and for ever.
But there’s a certain order to all of this. It doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in two stages, because first the Lord Jesus was raised from the dead; that’s the first stage; and it happened 2,000 years ago. And then — and this is the second stage and we don’t know when it will be — but when he comes again, those who belong to him will be raised from their graves to live with him for ever and ever.
So, right now, it seems that death still has the victory over us, because every day death claims more and more victims; and it takes away more and more of our loved ones and friends; and one day it will take us away. Right now, it seems that death always wins. But the good news is that Christ our Saviour has conquered death; and when he comes again he will raise our bodies from the grave and we will live with him for ever.
And when he comes, he will come as a conquering king, to destroy all dominion and authority and power which stands against him. Do you see that in verse 24? He will destroy them all; and all his enemies — including death — will be subdued under his feet. And when he has conquered every enemy and raised his people from the dead, he will hand his kingdom over to his Father in heaven, because he will have done everything his Father asked of him and he will have completed the work his Father gave him to do to redeem a people for himself who will live with him in glory. And having done all that his Father commanded, he will hand over his finished work to his Father in heaven, as if to say: There you are. I’ve done it all. And since the Son has done all that he was asked to do, God will be all in all, ruling over all, without anyone to challenge his authority.
I was listening last week to Desert Island Discs. If you don’t know it, it’s a radio programme in which a guest is invited to choose the eight records he or she would take to a desert island. The guests are also given the Bible and the works of Shakespeare and they’re invited to take another book to read on the island. Last week the guest was a comedian, who spoke a lot about death. He also said that he was an atheist and was absolutely convinced that there’s no such thing as God. And when it came to choosing the books, he said he didn’t want the Bible. Here was a man who thought about and talked about death. But if only he took the Bible and read it and believed it, then he would discover the great good news that the God who made all things has conquered death and he is willing to give everlasting life to all who give up their unbelief and rebellion and trust in his Son.
Death is terrible. It is the great enemy and it robs us of the people we love and it fills our lives with sorrow and sadness and unbearable heartache. It robs us of the people we love and it will one day rob us of our own life. But the good news is that our Saviour — who loved us and who gave up his life for us — has conquered death. Though he died and was buried and remained under the power of death for a time, he was raised on the third day. And his bodily resurrection from the dead is the guarantee and pledge that we too will be raised if we trust in him.
And when we’re raised, we’ll live with him in the new heaven and earth, where they will be no more sorrow or sadness or death, but only everlasting peace and rest. And while we wait for that day, we can rejoice in the knowledge that Christ has paid for our sins in full; and we have peace with God; and that Christ our King is reigning now; and we can look to him for the help and strength and protection we need while we go on living on this earth.