Recently, in our apologetics series in Friday night youth group, we went over the importance of the Resurrection. When it comes to apologetics and the resurrection, it’s often a matter of marshaling the textual and historical evidence to support the bodily resurrection of Jesus. As I studied Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 15, however, I was struck, not by any evidence that Paul gives, but by the central place that the Resurrection takes in his preaching. For Paul, the Gospel culminates in Christ’s Resurrection, and that has profound implications for present life, here-and-now. Here’s what I mean:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:1-2 ESV)
Paul promises to sum up the Gospel, the good news in which we are being saved. I think it’s important to pay attention to what he says here, lest we become deceived by all the other “gospels” out there (e.g. prosperity gospel, self-help gospel, etc). Well, let’s see what Paul says:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
(1 Corinthians 15:3-5 ESV)
This message should be familiar to evangelical Christians. Jesus Messiah, the perfect, spotless Lamb of God, died for our sins, taking the punishment of death on our behalf. God, however, did not abandon His Son to death, but raised Him on the third day. For many Christians, it’s easy to be too familiar with this message, to take it for granted. So let’s try to pay more attention to what Paul is saying here.
First, a preliminary remark: I know sometimes I tend to think of the death of Christ as the “main event,” so to speak. I mean, that’s where the action happens, right? That’s where my sins get forgiven so I can go to heaven when I die, right? Thus, the resurrection becomes more of an afterthought. It’s the thing that proved that everything worked out in the end…or something like that.Well, of course, the whole thing – Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection – is the Gospel, and it could be foolish for us to try to divide it up. I do think, however, that my way of thinking of the death as the “main event” may be a little misleading, and here’s why. In chapter 15, Paul wants to draw special attention to the Resurrection, and for good reason. Take a look:
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
(1 Corinthians 15:6-8 ESV)
Paul continues to emphasize that Jesus appeared to people after his death. In other words, Jesus is alive again, and He still lives. Paul goes on to expand upon this theme in verse 12: Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
So to recap, here’s the Gospel: Christ is not just proclaimed as dead, but as raised from from the dead! Now, why is this so important to Paul? Why all the emphasis on Christ’s resurrection and appearance?
A bit of context will help us here. As we can see from verse 12, there were some in the Corinthian church who didn’t believe in a bodily resurrection. Instead, they (likely) thought of the resurrection in quasi-spiritual terms. The “resurrection” (if there is one) is some ghostly, disembodied state. The conclusion that they drew from this was that it didn’t matter what you did with your earthly body, since it would be destroyed anyway. As a result you have people in the Corinthian church indulging in all sorts of immorality (i.e., the kind that you find in the earlier chapters of 1 Corinthians). The way that Paul fixes this is by pointing to the reality of resurrection.
First, Paul lays out the negative side. If it’s true that there is no bodily resurrection, then it’s also true that Christ wasn’t raised from the dead (vs 13). And if that is true, then the game’s up. This whole Christianity thing is one huge mistake. Preaching and faith is in vain (vs 14). We’re lying about God (vs 15). We’re still in our sins (vs 17). In fact, says Paul, if there’s no resurrection, then Christians are of all people most to be pitied!
You might think that last statement is an over-exaggeration by Paul. After all, people are wrong about things all the time. But Paul knows his Old Testament. He knows that, since the Fall, God’s plan and purpose has been to save a fallen world. Now, if there’s no resurrection and if Jesus isn’t raised, that means death isn’t destroyed. If that’s the case, then Jesus isn’t Lord. Death is. Death is the final master, the ultimate reality. In other words, the problem of sin, suffering and death has not been solved. Everything that’s wrong about the world is still wrong. It doesn’t matter what we do to try to fix it, because in the end, we will still die. To quote verse 32, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
Thankfully, it doesn’t end there, for Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead. Paul continues:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
(1 Corinthians 15:20)
What are firstfruits? Quite simply, they are the first of the fruits gathered at the harvest. In other words, Paul is saying that Christ is the first of the new humanity. In fact, he is the first of the New Creation. God’s plan to restore and save the world has come to its fulfillment, and the firstfruits, the forerunner, is the man Jesus Christ. Furthermore, those who belong to Christ will also be raised like him (vs 22-23). That is, in the same way that Christ was raised, we will be raised too. That’s why the resurrection is so important. If Christ didn’t rise from the dead, then neither will we.
Notice that Paul is speaking of a bodily, physical resurrection. As evangelicals, many times what we look forward to after death is “going to heaven,” where by heaven, we mean some disembodied, spiritual existence with God. However, when we look in the Bible, the New Testament writers are consistently looking forward to the bodily Resurrection. The real goal, the real focus is the resurrection – not just a spiritual resurrection, but a resurrection in which we receive glorified and immortal bodies.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road: what we do in this life matters. Because Jesus is alive, because he has conquered death, our lives are going to be radically different. So says Paul, “Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning” (15:34). The life we live now is lived in anticipation of the resurrection. Or even better yet: in the present, here and now, our calling is to learn to live the kind of life that will “characterize God’s new creation” (to quote NT Wright). That’s why we do the things we do as Christians. It’s not just an arbitrary system of rules. Being a Christian is nothing less than getting a head start on the New Life. You don’t have to wait until after death to start living eternal life. Being a Christian means you’ve died with Christ, but you’re also been raised with him. Eternal life starts now.
So again, let us listen to Paul’s exhortation to wake up. Let put away those petty sins that we think will satisfy us. Stop messing around with drunkenness, lust, pride, envy, and malice. Let us put away the things that the world values – status, wealth, comfort – and start pursuing love, justice, mercy. That’s why the fact of the resurrection is so important to us as Christians. It’s not just about getting it right or wrong. If Christ really rose from the dead, then those of us who belong to him get to share in the same resurrected life now. If Jesus didn’t rise, then we’re not just making an intellectual mistake; rather, we’ve lost the basis for the entire Christian life.