There are two good reasons for visiting the dentist. The first is obvious. It is to get your teeth seen to. The other is to read old copies of Readers Digest, Hello Magazine and Homes and Gardens. I suppose that most of these magazines are given by grateful patients. But I always have the sneaking suspicion that they are published just for people in waiting rooms! As you hear the drill in the background you can calm your nerves by increasing your word power, and scanning the problem pages of women’s magazines. There you can read about problems real or imaginary. Though you might wonder - did anyone really ever ask such a question? But given the question how would you answer them?
In the NT I always think of Paul as being a sort of first century ‘Agony Aunt’. The Corinthians had written and had asked him a series of questions. And by return of post Paul answered them. The questions begin at 7:1 - ‘Now for the matters you wrote about’- and they conclude in chapter 15. Their questions and Paul’s answers cover some important topics: marriage, being single, eating sacrificial meat, the use of spiritual gifts and the centrality of the resurrection. All practical matters that touch on belief and behaviour. Of course for ourselves, in our search for clear answers about the Christian faith, and for biblical principles for Christian living, we should always look first to the scriptures. For in God’s word there are answers and principles - To establish our faith. To renew our minds. To guide our practice.
First, the basis of preaching
One of the English Reformers referred to the resurrection of Jesus as ‘the ground and foundation of our whole religion .. the very lock and key of all our Christian religion and faith’ (Homily of the Resurrection of our Saviour Jesus Christ). I want to use this key to unlock Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15. Certainly to encourage our belief in the resurrection of Christ, and of the expected resurrection of Christian believers. Here is the basis of our preaching. Here is the foundation of the good news. Here is a useful summary of the core beliefs of the early Christian preachers and believers. The death and the resurrection of Jesus was central to the apostolic proclamation and was at the heart of what Christians believed.
In vv3-5 it is expressed in the form of a simple creed. Christ died according to the scriptures (and then he was buried). Christ rose according to the scriptures (and then he appeared). The apostolic testimony was rooted and grounded in scripture and authenticated by witnesses. What they read in the OT they saw with their eyes. For them biblical fulfilment and personal witness was fundamental. Today these things still remain both vital and complementary. Their significance has not diminished. They are foundational to the Christian faith, and central to the Christian hope. It remains the basis of what we preach, and what we believe as Christians.
a) The good news was preached and by it men and women were saved. Those who heard it made a response and believed. The word of God spoke to their hearts, they were convicted of their sin, and they believed. And what was the result? Their eyes were opened and their lives were transformed. And, incidentally, that remains true today. For your eyes can be opened, and your life can be changed. May I ask you, has that happened to you? And if so, what difference has it made to your life?
b) The good news was preached and was based on the words of scripture and the words of testimony. The one illuminated the other. What they read in scripture they saw with their eyes, and they responded and made it their own. I wonder too how many of us here have truly made these words our own?
c) The good news was preached by the apostles and by Paul himself. Here was no different message - but one that was common to all who preached. The personal testimony of the apostles was vital. The person chosen to replace Judas was expected to have been with Jesus from his baptism to his ascension, and to have been a witness of the resurrection (Acts 1:22). The position of the early apostles was unique. They had no human successors, but their words are found in the pages of the NT. Any succession is in the faithful handing on the teaching, and not in the laying on of hands.
And what was the basis of the good news? The early Christian preaching concerned the cross and the resurrection. It was foundational. It was the basis of their preaching and the lock and key to the Christian faith. It was so then and it remains so today. We therefore need to read, to hear and to obey the words of scripture. To respond and to make them our own. Certainly in such a way as to impact upon both our belief and our behaviour. That is the basis of what we as preachers declare to you. And it remains the basis of what we as Christians believe today.
Second, the content of preaching
In the first chapter of 1 Corinthians we are told that Paul was called to preach the gospel (1:17). This preaching was to become the spearhead of the Christian mission. And by its proclamation men and women would be convicted of their sin, justified by grace (through faith alone) and sanctified by the work of the Holy Spirit. Here was no worldly wisdom, something made up in order to impress, but the cross of Christ was the power of God unto salvation (1:18). And at the heart of this proclamation was the death and resurrection of the LJC. Paul was certain that Jesus had died and that God had raised him from the dead. This conviction was at the heart of Paul’s own testimony and it was also central to his preaching.
But wait a minute! Suppose that there was no resurrection - either of Jesus himself, or of Christian believers? Take away the resurrection, or deny the resurrection and what follows? Quite simply it is this. That the Christian faith has lost its foundation, its credibility, and it falls powerless to the ground. The consequence of such a denial is found in vv14 and 19 - there is no faith (v14) and certainly no hope (v19). If Christ had not been raised then our preaching is a lie. There is no authentic Christian faith, and we remain trapped in our sins. And those who had already died would remain in their graves. To deny the general resurrection of believers brings into question the resurrection of Jesus himself. As a consequence too it would take away the testimony of us preachers and the substance of our preaching. It would be nothing more than a story.
If Christ had not been raised then what follow? We remain dead in our trespasses sins and our profession of faith is futile. We would be objects of pity, blind and deluded. As J. B. Phillips puts it: ‘If our hope in Christ were limited to this life only we should, like all mankind, be the most to be pitted’. But thanks be to God! Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday! And the good news is that Christ has been raised, and that Christian believers will be raised! We have a living faith and a constant hope. Notice too that Paul bases his case on two fundamental principles, both of which come from the OT.
a) The principle of first-fruits (vv 20, 23)
This comes from Lev 23. The first ripe sheaf of the barley harvest was taken to a priest and it was offered to God. The one sheaf anticipated the full harvest to come. The first-fruits were a sign of the future bountiful harvest, a pledge and a proof of a great abundance yet to come. If this is applied to the resurrection then the point is clear. Christ is pictured as the first-fruits. Since he rose from the dead, then on some future occasion all Christian believers will be raised from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is a sign, and pledge, and a proof of the future glorious resurrection of all Christian believers. Quite simply we will be raised because Jesus has been raised. Do you see now why the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of believers is so closely tied together? Take away his resurrection and there is no resurrection for you and me.
b) The principle of solidarity (vv21-22, 45-49)
Here Paul draws on the general principle of the solidarity of the human race. We share a common humanity and mortality. The first man Adam was the father of the nations. We are one with him, and since he sinned we too have sinned. His sin brought disaster upon himself and upon us all. Since he died, one day we too will die. Thomas Goodwin, one of the Puritans made the vivid observation that ‘In God’s sight there are two men - Adam and Jesus Christ, and these two men have all other men hanging by their belts’. In other words death came by one man (Adam) and life comes by one man (Jesus Christ). Jesus came to restore to us, what had been lost in Adam.
In other words Paul makes a simple contrast. Humanity is divided between those who are ‘in Adam’ and those who are ‘in Christ’. There is no other possibility! No other category! So what does this mean? It means that there is a silken cord which runs through your place of work, in the street in which you live and throughout this congregation. It separates the one from the other. It divides the two very distinct humanities. Those who die in Adam and those who live in Christ. One remains unconverted. Content to follow in the footsteps of Adam. Following the broad way that leads to death and destruction. The other is converted and trusts in the risen Christ and follows him as the way, the truth and the life. And what is the consequence? Those who remain ‘in Adam’ will die, those who are ‘in Christ’ will live.
May I ask you a very simple but direct question. Are you ‘in Adam’ or are you ‘in Christ’? Remember that you identify with one or the other. To follow the one leads to death. To follow the other leads to life. How you answer the question is terribly important. For your response effects your eternal destiny.
Third, the response to preaching
In preaching there is a two-fold responsibility. Obviously the preacher is to be faithful in what he says, and it is his responsibility to preach the word. But at the same time his hearers are to hear the word and to respond to it. We are to dialogue with the word and with each other. Our task as preachers is to open up the word of God and to apply it to those who hear. And always a sermon is intended to speak to your head, and to touch your heart, and we preachers fail if we do not make that connection. And always as the word is preached there should be some response. It may be negative or it may be positive. But it should never be take it or leave it. Notice that in 1 Corinthians 15 the response is both negative and positive.
a) The first response is negative.
This is found in v29. This is one of those ‘I wish it wasn’t in the NT’ kind of verses. It is so difficult to interpret that commentators come up with at least 40 or more possible explanations. Clearly it concerns proxy baptism. Some people were being baptised on behalf of their family or friends who had already died. But why do this if there is no resurrection, and no hope in Christ? It is surely nothing other than mere superstition. For if there is no resurrection then why be baptised at all, and certainly why be baptised on behalf of someone else?
Of course, this way of thinking may relate to the later practice of delaying baptism until the moment of death. It was assumed that no sins could be committed between baptism and death. But why wait until you die before you are baptised? Baptism should be our response to Christ’s invitation, and not to be delayed. And we are being disobedient if we remain unbaptised and exclude ourselves from fellowship at the Lord’s table.
Today the practice of proxy baptism is only practised by the Mormons. That is why they are so interested in genealogy. Not to be helpful to those people working on their family trees (as if they were doing a public service), but to ensure that all of their predecessors will be baptised as Mormons!
Now none of us would invent anything as balmy as that, would we? But what of the lame excuses we make concerning the Christian faith, and of our failure not to respond to Jesus? Do we simply regard Christianity as a sort of insurance policy - something helpful for a rainy day? Do we simply make feeble excuses and hold Christ at arms length, and fail to respond to his gracious words of invitation to follow him?
b) The second response is positive
Effective preaching should always end on a high note, and not on a low note. That as we return to our homes we are encouraged and not discouraged, uplifted and not downcast. So what tonight does 1 Corinthians 15 say to you? What do you believe about the resurrection? Do you confidently believe in the resurrection of Jesus (as the first fruits) and then as a consequence the resurrection of Christian all believers?
Today is Palm Sunday and we begin Holy Week and travel with Jesus from the cross to the tomb. From his death to his resurrection. The message of 1 Corinthians 15 is perfectly clear. If Jesus has been raised, then all of us who believe and trust in him will be raised too. In Rom 6 Paul refers both to death and resurrection. Since we have been united with Christ and died with him in baptism; then we shall rise with him and be united with him in his resurrection.
Isn’t this good news? It is certainly a message for each one of us. To believers to be assured of the reality of our faith in Christ and of the Christian hope. To unbelievers to look to Christ as the one who died for you and has been raised for you. Believe in him, trust in him, and commit your life to him for all eternity.