Over the past few months, we’ve been studying from I Corinthians, and this morning I want to continue in that book, but we’re going to jump ahead to chapter 15 and see what Paul has to say about the resurrection, and then next week, we’ll go back and pick up with chapter 10.
As most of you know, a few months ago, Bob Saget passed away. A few days before he died, Saget was commenting on Betty White’s death and he said with all honesty, “I don’t know what happens when we die.”
There are others who claim they do know. Stephen Hawking was a renowned physicist and an atheist. He once said, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
But while Hawking was a scientist, he didn’t come to that conclusion through anything resembling the scientific method. He didn’t run any experiments to demonstrate that humans have no eternal soul. Nor did he come up with a mathematical equation that somehow eliminated God.
But, of course, the same thing could be said of Christians, couldn’t it? We haven’t come to our conclusions about heaven and the afterlife through the scientific method. We can’t prove that heaven exists by running an experiment. We can’t prove that there is life after death through a mathematical equation.
The truth is, science is simply not able to answer questions like, “What happens after we die?” And so, it might appear that we don’t have any more definitive answer to that question than Bob Saget or Stephen Hawking did.
But there is one thing that does give us a definitive answer, and it’s the thing that millions of people around the world are celebrating today – the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15:12, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”
Paul’s argument is this – if God has the ability to raise one person from the dead, then he has the ability to raise other people from the dead. Which is why the resurrection of Jesus is so very important. There is nothing in this world that gives us hope like the empty tomb does.
Which is why Paul says at the beginning of this chapter that the most important thing he preached about was that “Christ died for our sins…that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” (I Corinthians 15:3-4).
The fact that Jesus died on the cross is important, but it wasn’t just the crucifixion. Over the years, there have been many people who have been crucified. For example, thirty years after Jesus died on a cross, the Romans crucified 3,600 Jews. And there probably would have been more but they ran out of wood for the crosses.
It is not merely the fact that Jesus of Nazareth died on a cross that makes people look to him for salvation. It is the fact that three days later, his tomb was empty. Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
A few days ago, I texted Tom my sermon topic and said I’d be preaching on the resurrection this morning, and Tom’s response was, “No surprise there”. But it was a surprise just over 2000 years ago. Nobody was expecting the resurrection, even though they should have been.
Because during his earthly ministry, Jesus repeatedly said that he was going to be raised from the dead. In Matthew 16, “From that time Jesus began to show to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.” (Matthew 16:21).
Even his enemies told Pilate, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’'” (Matthew 27:63).
Furthermore, Jesus said that his resurrection would be the single greatest sign to mankind about who he truly was. If it had not been for the resurrection, the ministry of Jesus would have ended, his claims would have been ignored, he would have been merely another religious martyr, and he probably would have been forgotten long ago.
So, there’s really no way for us to over-emphasize the importance of the resurrection of Jesus. There are a lot of things that we may disagree about in the church, but the resurrection is not one of them. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is essential to our Christian faith.
In the first part of this chapter, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the resurrection of Jesus wasn’t just a story made up by a handful of people. There were many, many witnesses. In fact, in verse 6, Paul says that Jesus appeared “to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive.” And the implication seems to be, if you’ve got any doubt at all about the resurrection, there are eyewitnesses you can go and interview for yourself.
This letter was written about 20 years after the resurrection of Jesus. Imagine talking to somebody today who says, “I don’t believe that 9-11 really happened. I think it was all just made up and green screened on TV. You might say to them, “If you don’t believe this happened, there are over five hundred witnesses that you can talk to who were there and they can validate that what you’ve seen on TV really did happen.” This was an easy thing for people in the first century to verify.
And then, Paul says, “I was also one of those people who saw Jesus.” Verse 8, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
It seems here that Paul had a bit of regret. If only he had believed sooner, he could have walked with Jesus; he could have talked with Jesus; he could have had that relationship with Jesus that the other apostles had with him here on this earth. But, as a young man, Paul didn’t believe. He didn’t believe until Jesus had already ascended to heaven and then appeared to him on the road to Damascus.
So, I think there’s a sense of regret here, but Paul follows that by saying, “But by the grace of God I am what I am.” By the grace of God, Paul was radically changed and called to be a proclaimer of this message of the gospel. By the grace of God, he was what he was.
I would guess that here this morning, there may be some of you who would say, “If I had the chance to live my life all over again, I’d do things differently.” You look at your past and regret some of the decisions you’ve made. There are some things along the way that make you say, “I wish I knew then what I know now. Things would have been different.”
But the fact of the matter is, your story is your story. There’s no point in regretting the past. What’s important is where you are now. Because of God’s grace, you are what you are and God has radically changed you. And that is your platform from which you proclaim the message of the gospel, that has the power to change the lives of others as well. The message that not only did Jesus come back to life, but he also wants to give us new life.
So, having established the truth of the resurrection of Jesus, that then forms the basis of Paul’s argument throughout the rest of this chapter. And his primary point is this — because Jesus was raised from the dead, that means that we will also be raised from the dead as well.
Now it may seem strange that some of those Christians believed in the resurrection of Jesus, but they weren’t so sure that they were going to be resurrected someday. They were obviously influenced by the philosophers of their day. Because, just like today, people back then had a lot of opinions about what happens to us after death.
There were those like Stephen Hawking who believed in total annihilation. Nothing human, physical or otherwise, survives after death. Death ends it all.
Then there were others who taught reincarnation, where your soul is continually recycled from one form to another – you leave this body and come back in another body.
Then there was the Greek philosophy that believed that everything spiritual is good and everything physical is bad. If you held this view, the idea of a resurrected body was a disgusting idea. For them, the very reason for going to the afterlife was to escape this body.
And so, they believed in the immortality of the soul but they were strongly opposed to the idea of a resurrection of the body. In Acts 17, Paul preached at Athens and “when they heard Paul speak about the resurrection of the dead, some laughed in contempt.” (Acts 17:32, NLT).
And it’s possible that there were even some Jewish Christians in Corinth who doubted the resurrection. Despite the fact that the resurrection is taught in the Old Testament, some of the Jews, such as the Sadducees, didn’t believe in it.
But Jesus was very clear on this matter. In John 6, he said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44)
When Lazarus died, Jesus said to his sister Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” (John 11:25).
The foundation of the teaching of the apostles was that Christ rose from the dead and that all who put their trust in him will also be raised one day. When Peter and John preached in Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders “were provoked that they were teaching the people and proclaiming the resurrection from the dead, using Jesus as the example.” (Acts 4:2, HCSB).
And yet, despite the fact that the resurrection was taught in the Old Testament, and that it was taught by Jesus and his apostles, some of the Christians in Corinth were having their doubts. And that’s why Paul deals with this subject here in this chapter.
Now, as I’ve already pointed out, his first argument is simple and logical: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (I Cor. 15:12). The Corinthians all believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. You have to believe that to be a Christian. So how could they say that it’s impossible for us to be resurrected? If Christ has been raised from the dead, then obviously resurrection is possible.
And to this, the Corinthians would have said, “Yes, we agree that Jesus was raised from the dead; we just don’t think the rest of us will be.” To which Paul said very bluntly, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.” (I Cor. 15:13).
Paul wants them to see the implications of what they’re saying. If it’s impossible for the dead to be raised, then Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead. If you take away God’s power to raise us from the dead, then Jesus is still in the tomb, too.
So, Paul goes on to say, “Let’s just assume for a moment that Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead. Let me explain to you what would that mean for you.” And then he goes on to list six things that would be true if Jesus wasn’t raised.
(1) “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain.” (I Corinthians 15:14)
If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then I’m wasting my time up here. Preaching the gospel would be completely meaningless. Because as Paul has already said, the very heart of the gospel is Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.
If it’s not true that Christ rose from the dead, that means all of the time you’ve spent in church has been wasted time. All the sermons you’ve ever listened to were worthless. The Bible is reduced to nothing but an elaborate lie if Christ has not risen from the dead.
(2) “If Christ has not been raised, then…your faith is in vain.” (I Corinthians 15:14)
If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then you’re wasting your time trying to follow Jesus. Faith in a gospel that doesn’t include the resurrection would be of no value because a dead savior can’t give us life.
If there is no resurrection, the list of the great men and women of faith in Hebrews 11 would instead be a list of foolish people. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahab, David, the prophets, and all the others would have put their faith in God for nothing. They would have been mocked, scourged, imprisoned, stoned, afflicted, and put to death completely in vain.
In fact, all believers throughout all the ages would have believed for nothing, lived for nothing and died for nothing.
(3) “If Christ has not been raised, then we’re liars.” “We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.”
If there’s no such thing as resurrection of the dead, then every person who ever claimed to have witnessed the risen Christ is a liar, and that would include Paul and all the other apostles.
(4) “If Christ is not risen, …you are still in your sins!” (I Corinthians 15:17)
If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then there can be no forgiveness of sin or salvation or reconciliation or eternal life. Everyone here in this room needs forgiveness, and deep down inside, we all want to be forgiven. We want to be accepted by God. We feel the burden of our guilt. Paul says, because Christ rose from the dead, we can have forgiveness of our sins.
But you may wonder, how is the resurrection connected to our forgiveness? Isn’t it the death of Jesus that takes away our sin, because Jesus bore our sins on the cross and he paid the price that we should have paid? Yes.
But the resurrection is a critical part of that process. Romans 4:25 puts it like this – “[Jesus] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Or to put it another way – Jesus died to take away our sins, but he rose from the dead to give us new life.
Let me use baptism as an example. Baptism is a symbol of our death to sin and being raised to walk in newness of life. But suppose we buried someone in water so they could obtain forgiveness of sins, and then we didn’t raise them back up again. Would that be a good thing? Not if you’re the one being baptized! What good is forgiveness of sins if you don’t have new life to go along with it?
The same thing is true in our relationship with God. What good is forgiveness of my sins if there is no life beyond this life? If I go to the grave and that’s where I spend eternity just like everybody else, what difference does it make whether I’m forgiven or not? The resurrection of Jesus gives us the assurance that we’ve been forgiven.
(5) “If Christ is not risen,“then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” (I Corinthians 15:18).
“Fallen asleep” is a euphemism for death. If there is no resurrection from the dead, then every follower of Jesus Christ who has died has forever perished. Paul himself, all of the other apostles, and every Christian who has ever lived will spend an eternity apart from God and without hope, if there is no resurrection.
(6) “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (I Corinthians 15:19).
Sometimes you’ll hear Christians try to convince non-Christians by saying, “Even if all of this stuff isn’t true, you’ll still live a better life as a Christian than you do right now.” No! Paul says without the resurrection, Christianity would be pointless and people ought to pity us. Because without the resurrection, we are living our life under a delusion. We ought be pitied like insane people who live with hallucinations.
If Christ is not raised, then living for him, doing what he says, following his will are all based on a lie. We would have no Savior, no forgiveness, no meaningful faith, no life, and no hope of any of those things. And we have wasted our entire life believing what Stephen Hawking called “a “fairy story”.
But we are not to be pitied. Because of our faith in a resurrected Jesus, our lives have meaning. There is within every human being a longing, a desire that our lives be well spent — that our lives count for something, that they have significance and usefulness, that we don’t come to the end of our days feeling it was all in vain, pointless, insignificant.
Paul knows this. That’s why he ends this chapter with the words: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (I Corinthians 15:58)
That’s what we all want. We don’t want to come to the end of our lives and say, as so many people do, “I’ve wasted my life!” It doesn’t have to be that way. Christ is risen from the dead and everything done in his name — by his strength and for his glory — is not in vain. Rather, it is significant, valuable, eternal.
So, Paul says to the Corinthians, “Don’t even think about suggesting that there is no resurrection of the dead, because if we aren’t going to be resurrected, then Jesus wasn’t resurrected, and as a result, our lives are meaningless.”
And then, in verse 35, Paul anticipates the response of the Corinthians. They’re going to say, “Yeah, but……… Paul, there are some things about the resurrection that just don’t seem to make sense.”
Verse 35, “But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” (I Corinthians 15:35)
And with this question, I think the Corinthians believe they’ve got Paul stumped. You can tell by his response that they’ve put this question out there, ― “Okay Paul, you know how you put these people in the ground? It doesn’t take long for them to decompose. So, what kind of a body are they going to have? Or what if they’ve been eaten by a wild animal or something?”
Whenever we talk about resurrection from the dead, it’s not uncommon for this same question to come up. People will say, “Well, what about people that have been eaten by a shark or what about people that were cremated? What happens to them?” Paul, we’ve got you on that one. You didn’t think about that, did you?” And Paul seems to get a little bit irritated in his response.
Verse 36, “You foolish person! [my loose translation of this is, “what is wrong with you people!”] What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.” (I Corinthians 15:36-38).
Paul makes the obvious point that if your body is going to be resurrected, first it has to die. Then, out of that body comes the new body. That new body is the same but it’s different. It’s connected with the old body, but a new body comes out of it. It’s not like everything gets wiped out and God starts all over with a totally separate body. The new body is resurrected out of the old body.
And the illustration that Paul uses to show how this works is a seed that turns into a plant. And I love this illustration because it makes it so clear. If you put a seed of corn in the ground, after a while, a stalk of corn will come up out of the ground. That cornstalk does not look anything like that seed, but that’s where it came from. That seed was the old body and the cornstalk is the new body. And before that cornstalk can grow, that seed has to die. And then the old body comes up out of the ground a new body.
Paul says it works the same way with us. Our old body has to die, and then God brings forth a new body out of the ground, a body even more glorious than the old.
Then Paul goes on to say, “By the way, there are lots of different kinds of bodies.”
Verse 39, “For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.” (I Corinthians 15:39-41).
Paul says there are all different sorts of bodies. I think he’s making the point that if you believe the creation story in Genesis 1, this “new body” thing is no problem. If you believe that God created the universe by speaking a word, then why would you possibly think that he’s going to struggle in creating a resurrected body? That’s not a problem for God.
And if you’ve been eaten by a shark or cremated or whatever, God’s not going to say, “Now what do I do?” He created the universe –not a problem. Paul is basically saying, “Don’t worry about how God’s going to do it. He’s God. He can deal with it.”
God is fully capable of resurrecting us, and he proved it by raising Jesus from the dead. Jesus came into this world, to a people enslaved by a fear of death (Heb. 2:15). He could have explained to us that death is nothing to fear, but we wouldn’t have believed him. He touched a boy and called him back to life, but his followers were still unconvinced. He brought life into the dead body of a girl, but the people were still cynical. He even let a dead man spend four days in a grave and then called him out. But that still wasn’t enough.
And so, it was necessary for Jesus himself to enter the grave, to submerge himself in the waters of death only to emerge three days later on the other side. Because of that, we can be certain that death has been conquered, that Jesus has “destroyed him who had the power of death.”(Hebrews 2:14).
It is essential that we have confidence in regard to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because without the resurrection, there would be no Christianity. And Stephen Hawking would be right – “There is no heaven or afterlife…that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
But, because Jesus did rise from the dead some 2,000 years ago, we not only have forgiveness, but we have hope for the future. Something better lies ahead for those of us who follow Jesus. If we have been raised with Christ from the waters of baptism, we are confident that we will also be raised with him for all eternity.