The issue which prompted the Apostle Paul to pen this tremendous chapter appears in v12. Paul writes:
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?
Some at Corinth were saying that there is no resurrection of the dead.
Now today in the UK there are some who say that when we die that is it. So, v32, many of them say, "Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die." Others have fallen for reincarnation. Some, including some in the church, believe that our future hope is all in this life - here is heaven or hell. Other church leaders believe in a spiritual resurrection only. Many more, as evidenced by the recent parish visiting, simply do not know. They either live denying death or fearing death. Most people in this country then are living with no certain future hope and most of them do not know where they are going.
In January 2000, leaders of the town of Charlotte, North Carolina, invited their favourite son, Billy Graham, to a lunch. Billy initially hesitated to accept the invitation because he struggles with Parkinson's disease. But in the end he agreed.
After lunch, Graham stepped to the rostrum, looked at the crowd, and said,
"I'm reminded today of Albert Einstein, the great physicist who this month has been honoured by Time magazine as the Man of the Century. Einstein was once travelling from Princeton on a train when the conductor came down the aisle, punching the tickets of each passenger. When he came to Einstein, Einstein reached in his vest pocket. He couldn't find his ticket, so he reached in his other pocket. It wasn't there, so he looked in his briefcase but couldn't find it. Then he looked in the seat by him. He couldn't find it. The conductor said, 'Dr. Einstein, I know who you are. We all know who you are. I'm sure you bought a ticket. Don't worry about it.' Einstein nodded appreciatively. The conductor continued down the aisle punching tickets. As he was ready to move to the next car, he turned around and saw the great physicist down on his hands and knees looking under his seat for his ticket. The conductor rushed back and said, 'Dr. Einstein, Dr. Einstein, don't worry. I know who you are. No problem. You don't need a ticket. I'm sure you bought one.' Einstein looked at him and said, 'Young man, I too know who I am. What I don't know is where I'm going.'"
Billy Graham continued,
"See the suit I'm wearing? It's a brand new suit. My wife, my children, and my grandchildren are telling me I've got a little slovenly in my old age. I used to be a bit more fastidious. So I went out and bought a new suit for this luncheon and one more occasion. You know what that occasion is? This is the suit in which I'll be buried. But when you hear I'm dead, I don't want you to immediately remember the suit I'm wearing. I want you to remember this: I not only know who I am, I also know where I'm going."
Billy Graham knows he is going to be with Jesus in heaven. He knows that if he dies before Jesus returns he will be raised from the dead when Jesus comes again and given a new body. Not because of what he has done but because of Christ's death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. He has been saved by grace through faith in Christ. Jesus has won the victory over sin and death. The basis of our resurrection on the last day is the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus. If God raised Jesus from the dead, He will also raise all those in Jesus. There is a sure and certain hope for those who are in Christ. Who needs to hear and believe that this morning and put your faith in Jesus?
It's not surprising that those who don't believe in the truth of the historical bodily resurrection of Jesus don't believe in the resurrection of the dead. But the Corinthian situation was different. They had believed in Christ's resurrection (v1,11) but were now denying the resurrection of the dead! To Paul the issue at Corinth was clear: "Given that you believed in the resurrection of Christ, how is it that some of you are denying the future bodily resurrection of believers?" It seems from 1 Corinthians that there were some members of the church at Corinth who assumed that they were already sharing in the full resurrection life of Jesus. So much so in fact that for them there was nothing more to anticipate than the final ridding of the body itself. Whereas the Bible tells us that this life in the Spirit is but a foretaste of more to come (2 Cor 5:5). However they were convinced that they already had all there was to have (1 Cor 4:8). For them the gifts of the Spirit, and especially the gift of tongues, were a sign of their present angelic existence (1 Cor 13:1). They would have agreed with Hymenaeus and Philetus that 'the resurrection has already taken place' (2 Tim 2:18). A false theology had developed at Corinth which denied the value of the body and which was expressed in what theologians call an 'over realized eschatology'. Everything was now - they had no sense of the 'not yet'. So to tackle this issue Paul first goes back to basics.
So first, THE FACTS OF THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS (v1-11)
Paul is concerned that this issue will cause them to drift from the true gospel. Look at v1,2,11. The Corinthians had received, believed and taken a stand on the true gospel, which Paul had preached to them. In the original Paul uses a tense to convey the fact that their past stance is still their present stance. Now he wants to remind them of the gospel they had believed so that they will hold firmly to it and not put their existence as believers at stake (v2). You see, salvation is a present process with roots in the past, and one that will be completed only in the future. So Paul uses the present tense here in v2: 'By this gospel you are being saved.' But they must continue to 'hold firmly to the word… preached.' 'Otherwise you have believed in vain.' We too need to continue to hold firmly to the word preached, to v3-5. We must never lose our grip on the Christ crucified and risen. To throw away such beliefs is to throw away our very future. Also on the basis of the beliefs that Paul and the Corinthians have in common he will go on to argue for the resurrection of the dead.
So in v3-8 he reminds them of the facts, of the objective reality of both the death and bodily resurrection of Christ. Christ's resurrection was no spiritual resurrection. Look at v3-8. First Paul stresses the heart of the gospel and its objective reality. This is the gospel he preached to them. He passed on to them what he had received as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (Christ died in our place on the cross to bring us to God), that he was buried (which was confirmation that he had really died) and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (eg Ps 110), again emphasising the bodily resurrection of the dead Jesus. Without the resurrection of Jesus the death of Jesus would have no meaning and the cross would be devoid of its power.
Then in v5-7 with the list of resurrection appearances Paul again emphasises the objective reality of Christ's resurrection. Peter, then the Twelve, then 500 at the same time, then James and then the apostles all saw the resurrected Christ and lastly Paul himself saw him. Some have argued that these people were hallucinating when they saw the risen Jesus. But how could 500 all hallucinate about the same person at the same time? Paul wanted the Corinthians to know that the resurrection of Jesus, which they believed, was really objectively true, Jesus' resurrection was a bodily resurrection. He wasn't just telling them so from only his own experience. Perhaps some of you here this morning are not sure what you believe about the resurrection of Christ. The evidence for the bodily resurrection is great and compelling - so many eye-witnesses saw Jesus walking, talking and eating after he had died and risen.
Someone once wrote to the well-known American Christian, J Vernon McGee: "Our preacher said that on Easter Jesus just swooned on the cross and that the disciples nursed him back to health. What do you think?" McGee replied, "Dear Sister, beat your preacher with a leather whip for thirty-nine heavy strokes. Nail him to a cross. Hang him in the sun for six hours. Run a spear through his side. Embalm him. Put him in an airless tomb for three days. Then see what happens."
It's worth commenting at this point that in today's church some claim to be believers who deny what for Paul was the same as denying the faith itself. Such a denial meant to believe in vain. It was the resurrection after all that made it possible for them to say, "Christ died for our sins." And it was the resurrection, as Paul will go on to argue in v20-28, which guarantees our own future as the people of God. To deny the objective reality of Christ's resurrection is to have a faith considerably different from Paul's and therefore considerably different from the Bible.
We who are believers are called to proclaim the resurrection of Christ with conviction that it is true and significant. Jesus is alive and in knowing this we'll be excited to tell others the good news that through Christ's death and resurrection we can be forgiven, have a relationship with God and a sure hope for the future. The basis of our resurrection on the last day is the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus. As I said earlier, if God raised Jesus from the dead, He will also raise all those in Jesus. Do you have faith in the crucified and resurrected Jesus? Do you believe that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day? Do you believe that Jesus is alive and that because he's alive sin and death have been dealt with forever? Paul says (v2),
By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain.
Secondly, THE CENTRALITY OF THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS (v12-19)
Paul now answers the main issue at Corinth by showing how illogical their position was. Look at v12-19. Some at Corinth were saying that there is no resurrection of the dead - that there is no bodily resurrection.
So Paul shows them the logical conclusions of what they were saying. Follow Paul's argument with me in v13-19. If there's no resurrection of the dead then Christ himself has not been raised, v13. And if Christ has not been raised then our preaching is useless [I might as well stop now], v14; our faith is useless [we might as well go home now], v14; we are false witnesses about God, v15; our faith is futile, v17; we are still in our sins, v17, and therefore still carry the guilt and condemnation of sin and are going to hell; those who have died in Christ are lost, v18; and we are to be pitied who only for this life hope in Christ and put up with persecution and hardship for His sake, v19. If there is no resurrection of the dead then Christ was not raised and so we cease to exist as believers altogether and therefore there is no future hope of eternal life and no resurrection of believers. That's how central the resurrection of Jesus is. The cross without the resurrection achieved nothing. If we today deny the bodily resurrection of the dead and so the bodily resurrection of Christ then we are saying there is no Christianity.
So is there a sure and certain hope of heaven? Is there a present and future hope? Is there any point in worshipping and serving the Lord here this morning? No! Not if Christ has not been raised. BUT, exclaims Paul - using one of the most important buts in the Bible, v20
Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
BUT Christ has been raised. So yes there is forgiveness and eternal life, hope now and in the future. Those who die in the faith will be raised to eternal life in glory. Those who are in Christ will be transformed and live with God forever in heaven. The resurrection of Jesus is the only hope for mortal men and women. So let's now look at the consequences of Christ's resurrection for us in more detail, which is my third point:
Thirdly, THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS (v20-34)
Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Christ, who has been raised, is the guarantee of the resurrection of all of God's people. If we are in Christ then our resurrection is certain and our loved ones who have died in Christ have a sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life. Look at v21-23 The resurrection of the dead comes through Christ, the second Adam, who was raised. All who are in Adam, ie human, suffer death - even Christians die- but all who are in Christ will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ the first fruits and then all whose faith is in Christ will be raised at the second coming. Again Jesus' resurrection is the pledge that ours will follow. Jesus said in John 11:25-26:
I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.
Do you believe this?
So since Christ has been raised from the dead then God has set in motion the resurrection of all who are in Christ (v20-23) and thus the final destruction of death itself (v24-28). Look at those verses. This destruction of death will happen at the end of the events of his second coming after Christ has destroyed all the dominion, authority and power of his enemies, when death and Hades will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev.19,20). Then Christ will hand over the kingdom to God the Father. We will be raised. Death will finally be destroyed. What tremendous news! Are you in Christ? Are you willing to trust Christ with your death?
And if you are in Christ surely this truth about the resurrection of Christ and our resurrection should impact our lives and the way we live now. You see, the resurrection of Christ has determined our existence for all time and eternity. We don't merely live out our length of days and then have the hope of resurrection as an addendum. Rather Christ's resurrection has set in motion a chain of events that determine our present and future. Christ is the first fruits of those who are his, who will be raised at his coming. That ought to change the way we live for him now.
But, as Paul argues in v29-34, if there is no resurrection - if we don't believe in the bodily resurrection of believers and therefore of Jesus - why should we live for Christ and suffer persecution? Why, if there is no resurrection at all, do the Corinthians bother to baptise for the dead (v29)? Whatever this means Paul is saying surely there is no point. It may be that some were being baptised on behalf of those who had died believing but before they had been baptised. If so Paul is not agreeing with that practice, he is simply saying why do they bother? What we do with our bodies will have no bearing on our future if there's no resurrection. We might as well simply eat and drink for tomorrow we die.
And of course there is a link between what people believe about the future and how they behave in the present. In the church false teaching about this central point of Christian theology is often accompanied by a lax attitude to Christian ethics. For if there's no resurrection, there will be no Day of Judgement. Christ has been raised bodily, so stop sinning Paul says, use your bodies today for the glory of God and live in the light of your glorious future and inheritance.
Do you remember what Paul said to the Corinthians back in chapter 6? He said this:
Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body.
As Paul prays in Philippians 3, let's pray that we may know Christ's resurrection power and the power of his Spirit to do just that.