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(1 Cor. 15:1-5) 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.
All writers – whether they are writing plays, novels, essays, textbooks, comic books, cookbooks, or the First Epistle to the Corinthians, it doesn’t matter – write with an awareness of what is coming. When the Apostle Paul started this section we know as chapter 15 – but really, when he penned the first words of this long letter to the Corinthians – he knew where he was headed. He knew he was going to write about the resurrection.
It was one of the chief reasons Paul wrote this letter in the first place. There were people in Corinth who were distorting the teaching of the resurrection and misleading church members – quite possibly in the public meetings Paul described in the previous section.
Paul knew that people who get the resurrection wrong will get lots of other things wrong too. If you are working on the most complex differential calculus equation ever and get 2+2 wrong, you will get everything else wrong as well. What basic addition is to mathematics, the resurrection is to faith in Jesus.
Yet it is worth noting that Paul, while taking the Corinthians’ error very seriously, does not condemn people for their wrong thinking. He doesn’t tell them that they will be accursed unless they get the doctrine of the resurrection right. It is not Paul does not use that kind of language; he does, just read Galatians. But he reserves it for people who abandon Jesus, not for people who get their theology wrong.
On the Sunday before Easter, a Sunday School teacher asked her class of four and five-year-olds: “Does anyone know what today is?” A little girl’s hand shot up and she said, “Today is Palm Sunday.”
The teacher said, “That’s right, Kara! That’s very good. Now does anyone know what next Sunday is?” The same hand shot up again. After waiting to see if any of the other children wanted to answer, the teacher said, “Yes, Kara?” And Kara proudly answered, “Next Sunday is Easter.”
“That’s right,” the teacher said. “And does anyone know what happened on Easter?”
Of course it was Kara who answered. “Jesus rose from the grave.”
But before the teacher could congratulate her on yet another right answer, she went on: “and if he sees his shadow, he has to go back in for seven weeks!”
That teacher didn’t kick Kara out of the class for getting the wrong answer and neither did Paul kick the Corinthians out of the church. Wrong answers call for instruction rather than discipline because it is faith in Jesus, not doctrinal correctness, that is necessary to salvation. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best to get our doctrines right, nor does it mean that we, if we get our doctrines wrong, won’t lose out because of it. Errors are costly.
Some of the Corinthians were getting the resurrection wrong, which is why Paul reminds them of the gospel of the resurrected Christ, which the apostles preached, they believed, and on which they had taken their stand (1 Cor. 15:11). But after Paul moved on, some of the Corinthians melded the gospel with popular beliefs in a way that was distorting the gospel.
The melding of ideas from different belief systems is called syncretism. That word is generally used to describe the blending of ideas from different religions. When I was in Senegal, I met people who identified as Muslims but who thought nothing of offering sacrifices to dead ancestors, a practice that has no place in Islam. Haitian Voodoo is the classic example of syncretism, blending elements of African and Caribbean religions with Catholicism.
But just as dangerous (and far more subtle) is the kind of syncretism that threatens us. It blends contemporary cultural beliefs with faith in Jesus – and it is not the cultural beliefs that suffer under that arrangement. Then Christianity becomes a component in a larger belief system. This was characteristic of the post-war United States in which I grew up. Many well-meaning people regarded Christianity as an important part – but a part nonetheless – of “truth, justice, and the American way” – and thought they were giving Christianity a place of special honor by doing so!
But Christianity, if it is truly faith in Jesus, doesn’t work that way. It is the belief system into which everything else either fits or falls away. If the American way can fit into faith in Jesus – wonderful! If not, it is the American way that needs to go.
In recent decades, the American way has included a politics of condemnation, a sexual libertarianism that resists all limits, a knee-bending devotion to the economy, a worship of youth and health, an addiction to distraction, and a rejection of aliens, which, in some cases, calls the baby in her mother’s womb an alien.
To discern what fits and what does not fit into the way of Jesus can be extremely challenging. We should expect that. We were born into a belief system before being born again into the faith of Jesus. We were immersed in that belief system before we were immersed in the waters of baptism. Recognizing contradictions under these circumstances takes time, instruction and, most of all, the illumination of the Holy Spirit. This is not something new. It has been true of Christians in every culture around the world and in every era since Christ walked the earth.
It was certainly true in Corinth, where people lived and moved and had their being in the landscape of Platonic idealism. The friends and family they loved, as well as the celebrities and public figures they looked up to, took the truth of their culturally sanctioned ideas for granted. We’ll see how that affected their understanding of the gospel in a moment. But just keep in mind that we live and move in the landscape of post-modern ideals. People we know and respect – family, friends, as well as celebrities and public figures – take for granted ideas that are contrary to the way of Christ. We, like the Corinthians, need instruction and insight from the Holy Spirit even to recognize it.
First century Greeks scoffed at the idea of resurrection. When Paul spoke about resurrection in Athens (just 50 miles from Corinth), people sneered and called him a babbler. It was crude. It was 300 years out of date. Are there really people who still believe that stuff? Let that sink in: 2,000 years ago, people were thinking, “We’re too advanced to believe that kind of stuff anymore.”
Isn’t it interesting that people today repeat those same lines with the same supercilious arrogance, only now it is faith in God, biblical inspiration, and Christian sexual ethics they mock? I have been ridiculed by readers who have accused me of being ignorant, unsophisticated, and simply irrelevant because of my faith in Jesus.
The Corinthian Christians found themselves in a bind. The gospel they believed and on which they stood declares that Christ was raised from the dead. There is no wiggle room there. Yet their culture regarded a belief in resurrection as primitive and anti-intellectual. So some of the Corinthians compromised. They engaged in syncretism.
They continued to affirm the gospel truth that Jesus the Son of God died and rose from the dead but they also affirmed the culturally accepted view that humans are bound for a bodiless afterlife in a platonic heaven, where they will live a purely spiritual existence, free forever from the bondage of physical matter.
They managed this seeming contradiction by holding that Jesus’s resurrection was a one-off event. Yes, the Son of God rose from the dead but the rest of us don’t rise. Only people stuck in the past, uneducated and naïve, could believe such a thing in today’s world.
The subjects have changed in the last 2,000 years but the attitude hasn’t. People aren’t mocking resurrection these days, but if you believe in a Creator God, practice sexual chastity, and uphold the value of the nuclear family, you’ll draw the same kind of comments. If you can’t stand being called simple or unsophisticated, you are going to have a hard time following Jesus.
With that warning, let’s look at Paul’s argument. He raises the subject of the gospel in verses 1-11 not because the Corinthians didn’t believe these things but because they hadn’t thought through what they believed and what it meant for their daily lives.
This first section’s key verses (in terms of literary construction, not theology) are verses 1 and 11. Verse 1 is: “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.” Verse 11: “Whether, then, it is I or they,” (that is, the other apostles) “this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.”
Do you see what Paul was doing? He had known when he started this letter that he needed to address the issue of resurrection. But before doing so, he wants to remind the Corinthians of two things: (1) that all Christians everywhere hold the resurrection to be an indispensable part of God’s good news; and (2) that the Corinthians themselves believed it and took their stand on it. Paul is not saying, “I want to convince you of something new,” but “I want you to know what it means to believe what you say you believe.”
He places in front of the Corinthians a truth they would not and could not deny: they did believe that Christ rose from the dead. Given that they still believe it, his reasoning goes like this (this is the argument of verses 12-20): If you believe Christ rose from the dead, you must believe that you too will rise. Your resurrection and his are indivisible. If you admit his resurrection, you must expect your own. If you disavow your resurrection, you have disavowed his, as well. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot have Christ’s resurrection without yours. “If (and this is the big if) we have been united with him like this in his death (through faith in Christ), we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection” (Romans 6:5). The two are inseparable.
Throughout this carefully worded argument, Paul never refers to Christ’s resurrection and our resurrection as if they were two different things. Jesus’s resurrection is a part of the resurrection. Or it might be more better to say that the resurrectionflows out of Jesus’s resurrection. The two cannot be isolated from each other any more than a sunbeam can be isolated from the sun. One resurrection, two phases. Paul is adamant: Christ was not merely raised; he was the beginning of the resurrection. As I’ve said before, Jesus was the first stone in an avalanche.
Why is this important? Because resurrection is about more than a spirit being reunited to a body following death, which seems to be what the Corinthians were assuming (and what many contemporary Christians assume as well). That is far too individualistic a way of looking at it. Resurrection is the pivot on which God’s program to “make all things new” turns. It is the key event in God’s plan to bring blessing on creation. Resurrection inaugurates the new age, begins the Great Renewal, and forms the bridgehead by which the kingdom of God breaks into our world. When we say we believe in the resurrection, this is what we mean. This is why resurrection is gospel – good news.
Most of Paul’s fellow Jews already believed something like this about resurrection. What they didn’t realize was that resurrection had already begun … in Jesus. That was the Christians’ stupendously good news. It was not just that people go on living after they die – most of the world believed that then and believe it now! It was that the new age, the age of God’s kingdom and the Renewal of all things, had already kicked off …when Jesus rose from the dead.
Because Christ’s resurrection and ours are inseparable, the Corinthians’ claim that we will not be resurrected was tantamount to saying that God doesn’t reign, doesn’t win, and the good news of the kingdom is a baseless rumor. But the gospel announcement is that Christ “was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” Do we know what that means?
It does not mean – as is often taught – that the spirits of faithful people get to live forever in “future disembodied bliss.” That was Plato’s heaven, not St. Paul’s. Paul would not even have considered such spirits saved, because they would not be saved from death and corruption.
If the resurrection is nothing more than spirits flying off to heaven, then God has given up on earth and on his plan for universal blessing. He has settled instead for shuttling decent people off the planet before it blows. He has given up on creation, on his covenant promises, and on bringing all things together under one head, even Christ. Apparently that was too ambitious a goal. He wasn’t able to pull it off.
But resurrection is much more – and far different – than shuttling disembodied spirits off to heaven. Resurrection means God has begun the rescue of his people. He has neither given up nor has he given over his wayward people to death. Resurrection means he is keeping his promise.
Do you see? God has not abandoned us in life – in this messy life with viruses and cancers and divorces and injustice and doubt. And he will not abandon us in death. “For this God is our God forever and ever; He will be our guide even unto death” (Psalm 48:14). And beyond.
The resurrection means that Jesus and no other is the Son of God, the Messiah. Right at the beginning of Romans, St. Paul lays this out. He claims that Jesus “…through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:4). There is more in that one verse than we can possibly unpack in the time we have, but I’ll mention a couple of things.
The resurrection demonstrated that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God. Son of God was one of the titles Jewish people gave to Israel’s messiah, whom they expected to establish God’s kingdom over all the nations of the earth. Because of this, the resurrection was political dynamite. It’s no wonder the government in Israel was so anxious to squelch talk about Jesus rising from the dead.
But if Jews called the Messiah the Son of God, guess who the Romans (to whom this letter was written) called the Son of God? Nero Claudius CaesarAugustus Germanicus, also known as Our Lord Emperor Son of God. Uh-oh. Jesus Son of God and Nero Son of God, and neither brooks any rivals. From the very beginning, Jesus claimed his follower’s loyalty over all others – even country, even family. Opponents tried to use Christians’ loyalty to Jesus against them, dragging them into court and charging them with treason: “They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17:7).
Caesars and Sadducees then and government leaders now are never happy with people who put loyalty to Jesus before loyalty to them. In ancient Rome, citizens throughout the empire were required to offer an annual sacrifice to Caesar, bow to him, and confess him as “lord.” Things haven’t changed much. Today, the Chinese have a massive loyalty program in place for their people. North Koreans are ranked on their devotion to the Kim dynasty. If people insult the president of Azerbaijan, they can spend up to two years in prison. In Venezuela, it is up to 40 months, Bahrain as much as seven years.
Leaders live in fear of being ousted from power. Our leader does not. The invasion has begun, the great battle won, the turning point in the conflict is past. All nations on earth, all people on earth, will bow their knees – not to Caesar, not to Kim, not to China, not to America but to the powerful Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord.
The resurrection means that his kingdom has been inaugurated. We’ve seen D-Day, and we are waiting, working, and hoping for Victory Day. The resurrected Christ is unstoppable. Because Christ has been raised, we will be raised. Because Christ has been raised, death itself is neither deterrent to our obedience nor threat to our success. Because Christ has been raised, our end will be better than our beginning.
The resurrection does not mean that we get to go on living after we’re gone (though we do). It means that we can start living while we’re here. And it means we have something worth living – and dying – for: the kingdom of God and its king, Jesus Christ our Lord, who “was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
 Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 332
 See Matthew 10:37