The Gospel and Resurrection

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.

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Making Jesus the Main Thing in Ministry

1 Corinthians 15:3

I had the opportunity to teach from Acts 3:1-10 this past Sunday at CCCTO. Throughout the morning, we asked ourselves the question: “do you see the lame beggar“? You can catch the recorded podcast on iTunes, or stream it from our website, where the PowerPoint is also available for download.

Often when we approach the scriptures we instantly make assumptions. For example, Walt Russell in his book “Playing with Fire” describes how we often read the gospels with a bit of a tilted lens:

…the increasing tendency in our reading of the Gospels is to reduce them primarily to sources of insight about ourselves. For example, we read about Jesus calming a storm on the Sea of Galilee, and we think it is about the storms of our lives…However, the Gospels were primarily written to tell us about who Jesus is, what He did, and why He is the only, true object of our faith. If we change this focus, we distort the very essence of the Gospels…In other words, instead of putting ourselves into Jesus’ place and learning how to disciple others as we read the Gospels (a secondary emphasis), we should put ourselves into the disciples’ place by identifying with them in their relationship with Jesus.

Returning the passage in Acts 3, when we ask whether we see the lame beggar, we probably jump to the conclusion that we are like Peter and John and that there is more we need to do to reach out to others. We assume that others are the lame beggar and that we are here to help them (there’s quite a bit more that we covered such as the lame beggar’s progression from sitting outside to not just standing but leaping and jumping – for the rest of that message you’ll need to download the sermon). We emphasize what we should be doing as Christians. Before we realize it, we begin rallying ourselves around a cause to try and do more. And slowly but surely the focus shifts to morality.

While this may ignite a bright flame of active engagement in “doing good”, I’ve found in my own life that that flame burns out quickly. To be clear, I am not advocating that faith is merely an academic pursuit of knowledge. James 2:17 helps us to see that faith and works come as a package. However one leads the other, faith comes first. Just as the wise man built his house upon the rock, we must make sure that the foundation we’re laying for ourselves and the future generation is one that is set upon a solid understanding who God is, our sinful nature, Christ’s death on the cross, and the implications for mankind. The wise man both knew where to build his house and actual did build his house on the rock. Never forget that on the outside both of those houses looked the same. When (not if) the storm came, one stood and the other crumbled.

Unfortunately, this emphasis on “right living” leads us to a place where our so called “faith” is just another thing we “do”.  We spend so much time talking about what we should be doing and how the world needs us to do more that we forget what has been done (by Jesus) and what every person’s true need really is (Jesus). We miss the big picture and see the Bible as a book about “right living” rather than the story of God’s plan of salvation, fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Growing up, I confused “right living” with true faith. I felt that I was “in good standing” because I was inviting others to youth group. I lived a relatively moral life by my own standards (which were in some ways influenced by what I learned in church). I wasn’t getting into too much trouble. By my own standards I was a pretty darn good guy. The world doesn’t need someone to make life better for them by telling them how they should live. Jesus didn’t come to earth to teach us about community service, Jesus came to die for you and I. Remember that He came to rescue us.

The plea is for church leaders, Bible study leaders, Sunday school teachers, parents, and all believers to make Jesus the main thing in ministry.

Let’s consider how we can go from saying “let’s keep the main thing the main thing” to putting it into practice. May we all say as Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

1 Corinthians 15:3-4

Reading Scripture, Remythologizing Love

God is Love

I recently picked up a copy of Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship. As an amateur reader, I’m not qualified to comment at length about his argument (I’m also barely 1/3 of the way through). Vanhoozer’s remythologizing is actually a response against certain strands of liberal theology, which “demythologize” God, debunking the idea that God is some supernatural being “out there.” To quote Rudolf Bultmann: “The question of God and the question of myself are identical.” Thus, liberal theology collapses the God/world distinction. In contrast to the demythologizers, Vanhoozer starts with the fact that God speaks. God is a God who communicates to us and says things about Himself. But Vanhoozer is not only serious about what God says, but also about how God says what He says.

At least, that’s what I’ve gathered so far (my apologies if you stumbled onto this blog expecting a review/critique of Vanhoozer’s work).

Well, all that heavy theologizing got me thinking about the relationship between God’s Word and my main area of service (youth group). In particular, I wonder whether the conscience of our upcoming youth takes its cues from culture or from the sound doctrine of Scripture. There is evidence, I think, that we’ve been lulled into thinking about God on our terms, rather than thinking about ourselves on His terms.

Take, for example, the way we talk about God’s love. As a volunteer in my church’s youth group (myself being a graduate of evangelical youth culture), I have seen how middle-school, high-school, even college age students latch onto the idea of love as the preferred way of thinking about, talking about, and relating to God. God loves us, we say, and we ought to love God back. Love is the catch-all term. No doubt, “God is Love,” as 1 John 4:16 says. Unfortunately, I fear that our concept of love is derived not from Scripture, but from our favorite worship song/band, Christian book, or (even worse) pop culture. Instead of seeking to understand the covenant-keeping love proclaimed in the Word, we content ourselves with speaking of God’s love in romantically-driven, politically-correct, or moralistic terms.

  • Romantically-driven: For example, how many of our favorite worship songs might as well be love songs? It’s a problem when replacing every occurrence of “God” or “Jesus” with your girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s name doesn’t really make a difference in the song.
  • Politically-correct: When we, in the name of love, condone lifestyles (not just homosexuality, mind you, but also, say, premarital sex) that are clearly prohibited in Scripture, we can be sure that our concept of love comes more from culture rather than from Christ.
  • Moralistic: Too often, our practice of Christianity amounts to being “nice” to each other so that we can all be “happy.”

This will not do. To quote Vanhoozer (quoting another author), “Projecting even our best thoughts about love falls short of the divine reality: ‘When we equate God simply with anything that is true, good, or beautiful, then it is those things which define God, rather than God who defines them’ ” (176). We must not make God in our own image, constructing a bigger version – an idol – of ourselves. Romantic love blown up to superhuman proportions is not the love of God. This is to commit the mistake of the Greeks, whose gods were merely humans, super-sized. It is to demythologize God, collapsing the distinction between Creator and creature.

Humans are prone to idolatry. To counteract this tendency, our patterns of thought must always be renewed by Scripture. Vanhoozer puts it well (161-2):

The solution is to focus on the form of Jesus Christ. While human individuals and societies image God inconsistently, the person of Jesus – and this includes his way of relating to others – is the “image of the invisible God” (Cor 1:15). The New Testament fills out with specific content what would otherwise remain abstract, identifying the image that Jesus makes visible with “true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24; cf. Col 3:10-15). Even these notions need to be “earthed,” and we do this by identifying them with the concrete pattern of action, reaction, and interaction that characterizes the life of Jesus. That means attending to the Biblical mythos that renders his identity.

To understand God’s love rightly, we must look at Jesus Christ, and this means paying attention to what God has said in the Bible. Again, this is not the Jesus of pop culture, the buddy Jesus, or anyone other than the Jesus attested to and revealed in Scripture. Vanhoozer takes God’s speaking seriously, and so should we. To speak truly of God, we must allow His way of speaking of Himself to shape our way of speaking of Him.

This is not to say that worship songs or other secondary sources are unhelpful. These should serve a ministerial (pointing us towards God) rather than a magisterial (defining God for us) function. Songs extolling God’s love will lead us into the heart of worship only if our knowledge of His love is constantly being informed and renewed by Scripture. There is no true worship without an understanding of His Word.

So I’ll end this post where Vanhoozer begins his book – with God speaking in the Scriptures. Working through Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing has reminded me of the importance of reading the Bible and reading it well. “All Scripture is God-breathed” and has the power to change the way we live, think, and act. That’s something we all need to hear. May God have mercy on us, for unless He first speaks to us, our best thoughts will still fall short of His glory.