It is the phone call we hope we will never receive. It's the doctor and he says: “Please can you come in. The test results from the lump we found are back and I would like to give you them in person, today.” You know immediately that it is not going to be good news. And it is not. In fact, it is worse that you thought. When you go in you discover that you do have cancer, it can't be treated, and you need to prepare for your death.
Death is not an easy subject to talk about. Just yesterday afternoon, I was talking to my neighbour over the garden fence and he told me that he had lost his wife 2 weeks ago. They had been married for 53 years. In typical British understatement, he said, “I'm not having a good time at the moment.”
For some of us tonight, this will be a subject that is very real to us right now. I have been praying that I will not make a hard time even harder for you, but the part of the Bible that we are looking at tonight deals with this subject and it asks each one of us some questions- “What do you think will happen to us when we die? How do we cope when you think about your death?”
Lets look at what God has to say to us through this part of the Bible. You will find it on page 1155. 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. Please keep that page open so we can read it together.
1 Corinthians is a letter written by Paul (one of the early church leaders) to a church that he helped to start in the ancient city of Corinth in Greece around AD 51/52. Paul had to leave them and later when the young church faced some problems in their faith, he wrote this letter in the year 55AD to help them.
For the next 3 weeks we are looking at chapter 15 and tonight we concentrate on the first 11 verses. Before we look at that we need to look at why Paul includes this chapter in his letter. We can see that in verse 12. You can see that he says:-
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?
A big question being discussed in Corinth was “what happens to us when we die? Some in the church in Corinth thought that after death there was no 'resurrection of the dead'. That was completely opposite what Paul had taught them: that if we believe in Jesus, death is not the end, we will be raised again and we will have wonderfully new physical bodies as well as souls.
That is the wonderful hope that Christians have. When we look ahead to death, we may fear the pain that comes with death, we may regret the pain that our death will bring our friends and families, but we do not fear death itself. We know for certain that death is not the end for us.
The Corinthians were confused about this, so Paul writes to help correct their misunderstanding and he does it by going back to first principles. While studying maths A-levels, our teacher always used to say: it is not good enough just to give the answer, you must show how you reached that answer, you must show your working out. Paul does the same here. He doesn't just give the right answer, he shows then how to get there from the beginning.
And that is why he answers the question “what happens to us when we die”, by starting with the question “what happened to Jesus when he died”.
The answer to that is the first point I want to look at tonight: that
First, JESUS DIED FOR OUR SINS AND WAS PHYSICALLY RAISED FROM THE DEAD.
The Corinthians knew this very well – but Paul needed to show them that it was not logical to believe that Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead, and then not to believe that we also are also raised from the dead. So with that as background to help us, let’s look at what he says:-
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. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 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. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
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. 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. Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
Paul reminds them of the Christian message; the gospel. Many of us know this message very well. We may feel we do not need a reminder: but we do. We need to keep coming back to what is of central importance so that we can keep our focus. The gospel is what makes us a Christian at the beginning of our spiritual lives and the gospel is also the thing that we must live by each and every day of our Christian lives. We need to keep remembering it, because we need to hold firmly to it.
And Paul focuses on the central truth of the faith – in v3 he says these things are 'of first importance'.
Notice that there is no difference between Christians on these essential things. Look at verse 11:-
Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
Paul may have been the one who first brought them this message, but it would not have been any different if someone else had brought it - the message would have been identical. There can be, and are many ways, that Christians are different from one another – we are wonderfully diverse and that diversity is good. BUT the central truths of the faith are the same for everyone who is Christian – they are universal.
What is that central message? It is that Jesus died for our sins and was physically raised from the dead.
We see that fact in verses 3 and 4 – that Jesus died, was buried, rose again and appeared to many people. Notice there are 2 events and 2 pieces of evidence. First Jesus died. Then he was buried. Why was that important? It proved that he had actually died. Second, Jesus was raised and he then he appeared to many people – that proved that he had actually risen.
This is not meant to be understood as a metaphor or as a made-up story with a spiritual meaning – NO, these are real historic events. In verse 4 it says Jesus “was raised on the third day” - that is a fact. It happened on a real day – exactly 3 days after he died. It is not that his body died and was buried, but then his soul or his memory or his teaching was raised again. There is no other way to read these verses. Jesus really died for our sins and was physically raised from the dead.
Notice too that both his death and his raising from the dead were 'according to the scriptures'. Both these things God told us would happen many years before they actually did happen in the Bible. The first reading we had from Isaiah 53 is just one example of that.
What does it mean that Christ died for our sins? It means that Jesus died instead of me on the cross. I should have died, as a punishment for the way I have ignored God and for the way I refuse to live my life in the way He wants me to live.
The reality is that when we die we will meet Him and on that judgement day we will face the punishment we deserve for our sin – death.
But, and this is the good news of Christianity - because he loved me, Jesus died on the cross instead of me so that I could be forgiven by God. You could say that we sinned but he died as our substitute.
The resurrection of Jesus shows us that this is all true. That Jesus is the Son of God, that he did die for our sins and that now we do not have to fear death – it is the proof that Jesus did all this.
Many people listen to all of that and think that the Corinthians and other people who lived 2000 years ago were the kind of people to believe in those kind of stories and miracles and that believing these things was easy for them because it did not challenge their way of understanding the world. But, that is not true. It was very different to what they used to believe and very different from what everyone around them believed.
The main idea at the time – held by the Greeks and the Romans - was that the body was bad, but the spirit or soul was good. So a bodily resurrection was unheard of and it was not even thought to be a good thing to have a real body after your death!
The main alternative idea was that held by the Jews – most believed that there would be a time when they would be resurrected, but they believed this would only be at the end of the world. For Jesus to die and be raised again and the world not to have ended was impossible for Jews to believe. It did not fit their world view. So why did they believe?
That brings me to my second point:
Secondly, THE EVIDENCE FOR THE RESURRECTION.
Look at the list of people who saw Jesus appear to them after his death and resurrection, in v 5 to 8:-
…and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 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. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Hundreds and hundreds of people all believed because they saw Jesus alive after he had died. And what they saw was not a ghost. They didn't just see him, they talked with him, some touched him, some ate with him and all of then had their view of the world completely changed overnight!
Now changes like this usually happen slowly, but overnight they all had 100% agreement on the central truth of Christianity – that a man called Jesus was bodily resurrected and that this proved that he was the Son of God. Paul told the Corinthians that most of the people who saw Jesus after his resurrection were still alive and that they could go and see them. Hundreds saw the risen Jesus and believed in him and many of them went on to die for their faith.
Paul is a wonderful example of this himself. He used to persecute the church. His world view definitely did not include a belief that Jesus was the Son of God; that he died for our sins and was physically raised from the dead. But he too met the risen Jesus and his life was changed for ever.
I have just been to Rome for a holiday and while I was there, I went to visit the Coliseum – the Roman arena made famous by film such as The Gladiator. Christians were thrown into that arena with lions – and as they faced death, they were not afraid. In fact some reports say the Christians sang. How were they able to face their fear of death?
They didn't just think “ohh wouldn't it be nice to believe we will be raised after death” No they got there through thinking! They had to think about the fact that Jesus had appeared again after his death. They had to think – was this all a big trick? Were we just dreaming it? Is it really possible for 500 people to all have the same hallucination all at the same time?
Maybe you feel you cannot believe this? Maybe you feel your worldview doesn't accept this. Well their worldview didn't either but the facts challenged that worldview and it can challenge yours too.
You can ask the same questions too. How do you explain the fact that so many people claim to have met Jesus after he had died? How do you explain how so many people's world-views changed in such a dramatic way? How can you explain the birth of the Christian church? Let the facts challenge you. Why not come to a group we run called Christianity Explored. That gives you plenty of time to look more closely at some of this evidence and think about it with others? There is more information in this leaflet that you can find on the welcome desk at the back of speak to anyone here tonight wearing a badge.
If you are unsure about what happens when we die, can i encourage you to make it a priority to sort this out. About 6 years ago, my wife Suzanne left this church and on her way home was involved in a very serious accident. She could so easily have been killed and it always reminds me that we never know how long we have – please do not leave such an important question for some unknown date in future.
Christians are able to face death without fear because Jesus died for our sins and was physically raised from the dead, so we know that we too will be raised to life after we die and that when we face the judgement of God we will be forgiven because Jesus has taken the punishment we deserve.
You may say that you don't believe in anything after death. If that is true, then we have nothing to worry about. As it says in verse 32:-
“If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."
But my question to you is this: how can you be sure? How can you know without any doubts at all that when you die that is the end, How do you know that you will not meet God who will judge you? How do you know? You cannot know for sure and that is why death is so scary.
Finally, I want us to think about THE IMPLICATIONS FOR LIFE NOW.
Why are these things important? Why do we need to be constantly reminded of them as believers in Jesus Christ? They are important because what we believe about death and our future will affect who we are and what we do with our life now.
When I was in my final year at university and I knew that I would be working for JPC rather than in Microbiology which is what I had studied, it was incredibly difficult to concentrate on revising for my exams – because I knew that my future was heading in a very different direction. The future completely effects how we act in the present.
Let me give you an example of how that might look. Since coming back from Rome, I have looked at a book by the historian Rodney Stark - “It is called the “Rise of Christianity”. In it he looks back at the early church and discovers at least 3 major reasons why Christians where very, very different from neighbours and why the church grew so fast.
1. Many people lived in large city centres and those city centres were often affected by disease epidemics. The Christians stayed and looked after the sick, even though some died doing so.
2. When Christians were persecuted for their faith they did not respond with terrorism, but died praying for forgiveness for their enemies.
3. During the Roman Empire, Rome conquered pretty much everyone and so many borders were open, and society was very multi-ethnic. It was a very international society, The Christian church in his opinion was the first to bring people together across ethnic barriers.
Remember our actions are based on our future.
● Why did they stay and look after the sick?
- It was because they had hope – they were not afraid of death.
● How could they pray for their enemies in this way?
- They knew what was going to happen when they died. They knew that God would judge them and the whole world and that justice would be done.
● Why were they able to cross all these cultural barriers?
- It was because they knew that there was one true God and that in heaven there would be Christians from every type of people in the world.
You see the future effected their actions now. How were they so certain about the future? It was because Jesus died for our sins and was physically raised from the dead. And the future should effect our actions now too.
Let me give you an example of this. I was speaking last week to a group of young men and women from Newcastle who are leaving this summer to go a dangerous Middle-eastern country to take the message of Jesus to people who may never hear about him. They are willing give up everything and to leave everything behind – their careers, their homes and families, maybe even their lives – they know they might never return to Newcastle. That kind of action only makes sense if we remember the future.
Are we willing to do that? Listen – imagine if we were all able to tell everyone we knew about Jesus and they believed in him and became Christian. Imagine if they told everyone they knew about Jesus and became Christians too. Imagine if that kept happening till we had no more friends or family left. Would everyone in the world be a Christian? No.
There are huge numbers of people all over the world who we just simply would never have contact with, because there are NO CHRISTIANS who are in their communities or circles of friends. Ever since the beginning of the church, God has needed people willing to go to another cultural group so they can hear about Jesus. Are you willing to do that?
I remember about 15 years ago in a meeting in a Baptist church in Liverpool hearing about how many people in the world have never heard about Jesus. The speaker that evening asked us to think about if we can say to God – i am yours and I will go wherever you ask me to and do whatever you want me to. God may not want all of us to leave our own culture and go abroad, but are we willing to do it, if that is his will for us?
On Wednesday night at the Mission Focus meeting at church we heard about how the Navajeevana Healthcare Centre in Sri Lanka (which we have links with) needs helpers to care for the poor and tell them about Jesus. We also heard how Mercy Ships need people to go and help care for the forgotten poor. There are countless opportunities. Why would we do something like that? Because we know that death is not the end – we do not need to fear death. But countless millions throughout the world need to hear the gospel of Jesus for the first time.
It is so easy to think about someone going as a missionary to another country – it is easy to see how they can make every decision of their life in such a way as to make it possible to care for the poor and tell them about Jesus. But we need to remember that if we believe in Jesus we are all missionaries wherever we are. We all have a natural circle of people that we meet from day to day – from the man we buy the paper from each morning, to our boss, to our next door neighbour. Remember God has put you in that situation.
There are many other examples of how our belief in what is to come will affect the way we live now. Paul knew that and that is why he ends the chapter later with these words:-
Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.
Well, I need to end now. Remember that phone call from the doctor I described at the beginning? As Christians, we do not have to fear death. We can be certain that our sins are forgiven and that there is life after death, because Jesus has died and risen again. We'll learn more over the next 2 weeks about what that life will look like, but our certainty of heaven should effect the way we live now, and part of that will be taking the message of hope to those who do not have any hope – and who face God's judgement when they die.
I'm going to give us all a few minutes to pray on our own now. It may be that for some here, you have just realise for the first time that Jesus is who he said he is and that he did die so you can be forgiven. In a minute, when we pray, why not tell God that. Tell him that you are sorry that you have ignored him. Thank him that he sent Jesus to die for you and ask him to forgive you.
If you are a Christian, then why not take this opportunity to thank God for all he has done for us, to ask the Holy Spirit to help you grow in your confidence about the future as you read these words. It may be a good time to tell Jesus that you are willing to go wherever he wants you to.