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A Reminder

Original Date: 
Sunday, February 17, 2013

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Victory: A Reminder

Kim Peek was the inspiration for the 1988 movie Rain Man. His may have been one of the most remarkable brains to ever exist.

Peek was what doctors call a “mega-savant.” A savant is someone who is said to have extraordinary expertise in 1 to 3 subjects. Peek was an expert in at least 15; including history, sports, geography and math. Even though he couldn’t walk until he was 4, he began reading and memorizing things at the age of 1 and a half.

It was discovered that each of Peek’s eyes could read a separate page simultaneously, absorbing every word. A page which might take you or me 3 minutes to read, Peek could read in 10 seconds and immediately possesses total recall. According to his Wikipedia page, Peek could accurately recall the contents of 12,000 books.

After the success of the movie Rain Man, Peek began to receive appearance requests. He travelled with his father who took care of him and performed many small tasks that Peek found difficult. He loved to meet new people and ask them for the date of their birth. He then immediately told them what day of the week that had been what the news items were on the front of major newspapers on that date.

The story is told of a time Peek went to a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. As the play was winding down Peek suddenly shouted out “Stop! Stop the play!” (As the movie showed, he didn’t necessarily have the best social graces.) As it turned out, one of the actors had skipped over the second to the last verse in a speech he had been reciting. When Peek called his attention to it, the actor said: “You’re right. It’s just that that verse was so similar to a verse earlier in the speech, I didn’t think it would matter.”

To which Peek replied: “It mattered to Shakespeare. It should matter to you.”

It mattered. It was important.

In our text for today, I hear the Apostle Paul saying something similar. In verse 3 of our text, 1 Corinthians 15:3, Paul writes:

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:

Paul says: “Listen up, this is important!” Just because what he has to say might sound familiar, just because you might think you’ve heard it all before, just because you think you know it already, don’t tune out. Don’t skip over it. It matters. It is of first importance. It mattered to Paul. It mattered to God. It should matter to you.

A Crucial Chapter
So what should matter? What is Paul talking about?

Today, we are beginning a new series for the season of Lent. We are 7 weeks away from Easter. In the next 40 days or so we are going to be preparing ourselves for the remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and then our celebration of His new life.

And to do that, I’ve decided to focus on one of the most majestic—and crucial—chapters of the Bible. 1 Corinthians 15. 1 Corinthian 15 is all about resurrection. Not just THE resurrection—not just Jesus walking out of His tomb—but also your resurrection, and mine.

1 Corinthians 15 is about our ultimate hope as Christians. It’s about the conviction that, because of what Jesus did on Easter morning, we can overcome death. This is about our belief that, not only do we go to be with Jesus when we die, but some day we are going to share in His resurrection. Death is an enemy that will be defeated.

That’s why I’m calling this series “Victory!” The title comes from the end of the chapter, some of the most glorious verses in the Bible. I’ll give the ending away now, this is going to be our text on Easter Sunday:

54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ

Resurrection matters. It is the heart of what we believe as Christians. It’s important. So important that we’re going to spend the next month and a half talking about it.

But there’s a problem. It’s the reason Paul is writing this long chapter in the first place. Not everybody believes in resurrection. Verse 12:

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?

The whole book of 1 Corinthians was written to fix problems in the church at Corinth. They had problems with factions, a lack of church discipline, lawsuits in the church, abuse of the Lord’s Supper, confusion about spiritual gifts, and more. So the topics the letter addresses correspond to the issues in the church.

And the biggest and most significant problem was that some people were saying there is no resurrection of the dead.

Now, this is not necessarily a denial of Jesus’ resurrection. It’s more about what happens to you and me. People were saying that we won’t come back from the dead. Dead people stay dead. Maybe your souls continue on in heaven. Maybe your spirit gets set free. But your body stays dead. We’ll talk more about that in the next few weeks.

The important thing today is to see that Paul disagrees! He believes that our hope as Christians is for a physical, bodily resurrection. That a day is coming when those who belong to Jesus will be raised again and death will be defeated. And belief in the resurrection is an undeniable, essential ingredient in what we believe as Christians.

In fact, I’m not sure how many of us realize it, but when we just said the Apostle’s Creed a little bit ago we affirmed our belief that someday we will all walk out of our own graves. It’s the line towards the end, in the third stanza. We say:

I believe in the holy catholic church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting.

Most people probably think that’s talking about Jesus’ resurrection, Easter Sunday. But that’s actually talking about us, and our conviction that we will one day be resurrected.

So, that’s what 1 Corinthians 15 is all about. It’s of first importance. It matters. This is a crucial chapter of the Bible.

Back to Basics
And to convince us of the importance of resurrection, Paul begins with a reminder. He takes us back to the basic message of the gospel. Let’s read the whole text. 1 Corinthians 15:1-11:

Now, brothers, 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. 3For 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 Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

Let’s start with verses 1-3. Paul hears that some of the Corinthians don’t believe in resurrection. He knows that he has to address this issue. So what does he do? He takes them back to basics. He says: “Let me remind you of the message I preached.” He says: “This is what you believed, this is why you are in the church.” He says: “I didn’t make it up, I’m just passing it along, but it’s important…”

What follows is a simple recitation of facts. Most scholars believe that it was a traditional formula--not something that Paul wrote but something that he is repeating, expecting the Corinthians to already be familiar with. Sort of like when we say the Creed. This is foundational, unalterable Christian bedrock.

Many scholars believe this is one of the oldest sayings in Christianity. 1 Corinthians is one of the oldest books in the New Testament, written about 25 years after Jesus. But it seems likely that this creed is even older than that. Paul says he “received” it. It’s probably something Paul was taught shortly after his conversion, possibly by Peter or James themselves (Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, p. 310). If so, verses 3-7 of our text were already in circulation just 3 or 4 years after Jesus.

And what they focus on is Christ’s resurrection. Paul’s point is that if we are going to have a discussion about resurrection then we have to start with Jesus. From the earliest days of its history the church has believed Jesus was raised from the dead. And the point here is there is good reason for us to believe it too.

The formula has four basic lines: Christ died, Christ was buried, Christ was raised, and Christ appeared. We’ll look at each in turn.

For Our Sins
First, Christ died. The second half of verse 3:

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,

There is good historical evidence that Jesus was a real person. Nobody really disputes that. There are too many independent writings about him in the Bible—different sources like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as well as Paul. And there are several references to him in ancient histories such as that of Josephus—a Jewish historian who wrote about 60 years after Jesus—and a Roman historian named Tacitus who wrote about 80 years after Jesus. They both make explicit reference to the fact that he died under the orders of Pontius Pilate.

There are even several ancient writings which make no mention of Jesus—but note a very strange day of darkness around AD 33 that they have a hard time explaining as an eclipse (Stroble, p. 111). Corroboration, it would appear, for the Bible’s claim that the sun went dark on the day Jesus died.

So Jesus really lived. And Jesus really died.

But note that the Bible passage also gives the meaning for His death. From the beginning, Christians have asserted that Christ died “for our sins.” This was no ordinary death. No simple miscarriage of justice. Rather, there was purpose behind Jesus dying.

In fact, Jesus is called the “Christ” here, which is the Greek word for “Messiah.” It’s a reminder that Jesus is the long expected fulfillment of the Jewish expectation that God would deal with sins once and for all. When the passage adds “according to the scriptures” it has in mind passages like Isaiah 53 which forecast Jesus’ death with eerie accuracy, but also conveys the entire sweep of the Biblical narrative.

Jesus was God’s long awaited Messiah who by His death became the answer to our greatest problem

Really, Truly, Fully Dead
Second, Paul’s creed says that Christ was buried. That’s the first phrase in verse 4.

Now, this seems like a rather minor detail to include in a summary statement about Jesus; but the fact that it is here means that it must have been considered important. As the gospel accounts tell us, after Jesus died on the cross His body was taken by a wealthy supporter named Joseph of Arimathea and placed in a new, unused tomb. It was subsequently sealed behind a big stone (Matt. 27:57-60)

Why does that matter? For a couple of reasons. One is to certify that Jesus was really and truly dead.

There’s a scene in the movie The Princess Bride where the main character, Westley, is tortured and dies. Then he’s brought by his friends to a strange old man played by Billy Crystal. The old man looks at Westley and says: “He’s not dead. He’s just mostly dead.”

Some might want to argue that Jesus wasn’t really dead, just mostly dead. But you don’t bury people who are still breathing. If His friends had taken Jesus off the cross and discovered that by some miracle He was still alive, they would not have sealed Him away in cold, dark cave. They would have taken Him to a doctor.

The other reason it is important to note that Jesus was buried is to see that when He was raised there was an empty tomb left behind.

You see, some people want to suggest that Jesus’ resurrection was more of a spiritual than a physical thing. “Sure Jesus was raised,” somebody might say, “He made such a strong impression on His followers that He was resurrected in their hearts.” Some people suggested that then, and some still suggest it today.

But the Bible is very careful to insist that Jesus’ resurrection was a physical, bodily resurrection. He was buried, and then He walked out of His own grave.

Alive Then and Now
Which takes us to the third line: Christ was raised. The rest of verse 4:

That he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,

A couple things for me to point out here. It doesn’t come across so well in English, but in the original language the verb “raised” is in the perfect tense. That is to say, it implies that Jesus was raised at a definite point in the past, but also that the effects of that raising continue on into the present day. So Jesus wasn’t raised only to die again, but He continues to be the risen Lord and Christ even now.

Also, the verb is in the passive voice. “He was raised.” This points to divine action. The resurrection of Jesus is a great act of the creator who raised Jesus from the dead.

And, it all happened in accordance to the Scriptures. This is probably a reference to Hosea 6:2:

After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will restore us,
that we may live in his presence.

The mention of the time lag, as well as the Biblical reference to three days, is another indication that this is referring to a physical, bodily resurrection. As N.T. Wright says:

If by Jesus’ ‘resurrection’ the early church had meant that they believed he had attained a new state of glory with God, a special kind of non-bodily post-mortem existence, it is difficult to see why there should have been any interval at all; why should he have had to wait? (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 322)

It took three days because Jesus was dead and buried from Friday night until Sunday morning. And then, on Sunday morning, He was raised from the dead. Physically, bodily, entirely.

He Was Seen
Which leads to the fourth part of the creed: Christ appeared. It’s not just that His tomb was empty and Jesus’ body was strangely, mysteriously gone. But He was seen by people who recognized Him and could testify to what they had seen. Verses 5-7:

and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,

There were eyewitnesses. Jesus’ resurrection was not just a hallucination or a lie. It was verifiable history.

Now, it is true that no one was there to see that moment when Jesus came alive again. There were no surveillance cameras in the tomb to catch the moment His eyes snapped open. The guards at the tomb were paid off to never speak of what they saw when the stone was rolled away. But just because nobody saw Him come awake doesn’t strictly matter.

As Dr. David Habermas told Lee Strobel for the book The Case for Christ:

Here’s how I look at the evidence for the Resurrection: First, did Jesus die on the cross? And second, did he appear later to people? If you can establish those two things, you’ve made your case, because dead people don’t normally do that. (p. 307)

Eyewitnesses had seen His death, and (more importantly) eyewitnesses had seen Jesus alive again! Paul mentions some of them by name. There’s Peter, who was pretty well known by the time of this letter as the leader of the church. There’s the Twelve—meaning Jesus’ closest followers--to whom He appeared in the upper room.

Then there’s the 500. We don’t know exactly when this appearance took place, it was probably in Galilee just before the Great Commission, as described in Matthew 28. But the important thing to Paul is that most of these people were still living at the time that he wrote this. They’re not available for us to talk to, of course, but they were when Paul wrote. He’s virtually challenging his readers to check up on him. If 500 people had the same facts straight in a court of law in our nation today, the evidence would be overwhelming!

And then there’s James. This would be James, the brother of Jesus, the author of the Bible book by the same name and an early leader in the church. The thing that is interesting about this is that Jesus’ family thought He was crazy. They wanted nothing to do with His ministry and really wanted to lock Him up. How do you explain James suddenly becoming a leader in the Christian movement? It can only be because his Big Brother made an unexpected, personal visit after the cross.

And the last witness Paul mentions is himself. “Last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

All these other resurrection appearances were before Jesus’ ascension into heaven. But Jesus made a special trip to call Paul on the Damascus road!

Paul was not just ambivalent about Jesus. Until he met Him face to face, he thought that Jesus was a BAD THING for Israel. And he was committed to pass out beatings for blessings on Jesus’ followers.

But one day, Paul got knocked off his donkey by the glory of Jesus Christ and was
called to be an apostle of His grace. How do we explain the extraordinary change in Paul aside from what he tells us: that he met Jesus?

The point is: the gospel is factual. It is historical. It is verifiable according to the dictates of historicity. Anyone who says anything different simply doesn’t want to believe it. As Josh McDowell says, this is evidence that demands a verdict.

Is This What You Believed?
So that’s the beginning of Paul’s great chapter on resurrection. It’s important. It matters.

The argument is simple: because Jesus has been raised from the dead, you can be too. Christ’s resurrection is the necessary and facilitating precursor to our own future resurrections.

There’s just one thing to note. Just because Jesus came back from the dead, that doesn’t mean everybody, regardless of affiliation, is promised future victory over death. There is the matter of belief. Verse 11:

Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

This is what you believed. This is the gospel by which you are saved. This is the foundation that the church has handed down from the beginning. These are the facts from the eyewitnesses.

Is this what you believed?

Some of the people at Corinth were wavering. Are you wavering? Some were saying
that there is no resurrection from the dead. Do you believe in the resurrection? Some
were not holding firmly and might have had a flimsy faith in nothing that amounted to nothing.

Is this what you believed? Is this what you believe right now?

Believe it!

This is the good news. Receive it, stand on it, hold firmly to it, trust the eyewitnesses,
be transformed by the grace of God–and be saved.