The film maker Woody Allen has a witty way with one-liners. He doesn't believe that God is there, or that there is anything beyond death other than nothingness, as far as I'm aware. But for all that, some of his classic lines seem to ache with a sense that cries out for the world to be put right – though Woody Allen has no hope to offer. So, his wit is bleak. There are tears just below the laughter. Having said that, I have to give you some examples. So here goes:
- My one regret in life is that I'm not somebody else.
- The only thing standing between me and greatness is me.
- I'm very proud of my gold pocket watch. My grandfather, on his death bed, sold me this watch.
- You can live to be 100 if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be 100.
- Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering – and it's all over much too soon.
- I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens.
- I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.
In other words, beneath the wit is Woody Allen's awareness that there's something deeply wrong with him – that he's not the man he is meant to be. And that's just as true of other people too. And life itself is somehow twisted out of shape. And there is this deep down longing in us for eternal life, but it would have to be a life transformed, because this one is too painful. The tragedy is that Allen's way of looking at the world gets so close to the teaching of the Bible – God's message to his world – but without the Bible's answer. It is diagnosis without prescription; disease without cure; despair without hope.
What we need is good news. Good news that faces up to the harsh realities of life, but that offers a reliable way through. That's exactly what the Bible, and in particular the section of it that I want us to look at this afternoon/evening, gives us. It's from the First Letter of the Apostle Paul to the Church in Corinth; 1 Corinthians 15.1-11.
The Bible word for good news is gospel. What is the gospel? Well, that's exactly what the apostle Paul explains here. And this gospel message comes in four parts. I want to sum them up in this way. First, we need to be saved from death. Secondly, we are saved by the gospel. Thirdly, the gospel is good news about Jesus. And fourthly, Jesus gives us eternal life when we trust in him. Let me take you through that step by step.
1. We need to be Saved from Death
Look at the opening paragraph here. 1 Corinthians 15.1-2:
"Now I would remind you, brothers [which includes sisters], of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain."
Do you see that little phrase in the middle there? Paul is talking about the gospel:
"…by which you are being saved…"
Now none of what Paul says here will make any sense to us at all unless we first take on board the full significance of that little phrase. God is saying to those citizens of Corinth: you need to be saved. You need to be rescued. But from what? What we need to be rescued from is clear from the rest of what Paul says – and indeed from the rest of the New Testament, and from the teaching of Jesus himself. We need to be saved from death. Of course, we think we're alive and we're threatened by approaching death. But the Bible says something remarkable. The Bible says no – in fact we're already dead, and Jesus offers life.
That makes me think of a film that I won't name in case you haven't seen it and I wouldn't want to spoil it if you do. In this film the central character only realises at the very end that in fact he's been dead all along. And it's subtly done, so as you watch it, you only realise that he's a ghost at the same time he does, at the end. It's quite a shock. But that's what the Bible does – only for real. It's only as we find life through Jesus that we finally realise the truth: we were dead before.
Now when I say that, we no doubt think immediately of physical death. The day will come when we stop breathing. Our hearts are going to stop beating. Our bodies will decay. We would love a way out of that. And God is giving us a way out. But we have to understand first that God sees death differently. From the Bible's point of view, death comes in three stages, and physical death is just the middle stage. Before physical death comes spiritual death. And that's what I meant when I said that we are already dead and we need to realise it. Of course, we're not physically dead. Some of us are more conscious of the process of the physical decay of our bodies than others. But we're all physically alive. But until Jesus comes into our lives, our spirit is dead.
What is your spirit? It's the part of you that relates to God. It's the part of you that loves God and wants nothing more than to know him and serve him and worship him. And the Bible says that without Jesus we're dead in our sins – that is, in our rebellion against God. Our relationship with God is dead. There's nothing there. We don't know him. We don't love him. We don't serve him. We don't worship him. That's death stage one – spiritual death. And God rightly holds us responsible for the death of our relationship with him. He is rightly angry with us. He rightly puts us under sentence of death. And that death sentence is the second and third stages of death.
The middle stage is our physical death. But the Bible is clear that's not the end of it – nor is it the end of us – the day will come when God will hold us to account for wishing him dead. And then the full weight of his just anger will hit us. And we'll get what we asked for – an eternity apart from him, with him as our enemy. That's what Jesus called 'hell'. And that's the third stage of death that awaits us without Jesus: the stage of eternal death.
So, what we need saving from is death in all three stages: spiritual, physical and eternal. What's it going to take to rescue us from that lot? We need a new relationship with our Creator. We need physical resurrection. And something needs to happen to clear our account with God and turn his righteous anger away. We have to realise how serious our situation is. We need to be saved from death. That's the first thing. Then:
2. We are Saved by the Gospel
That's what Paul is saying here, isn't it? 1 Corinthians 15.1-2 again:
"Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain."
Clearly, if this gospel is going to rescue us from spiritual, physical and eternal death, we'd better get to grips with it fast. And the apostle Paul is clear how we have to do that. We have to listen to it. It's a vital message that's preached to us – spoken to us. We have to receive it – in other words, believe it wholeheartedly. We have to stand in it – build our whole lives on it, make it the foundation of our existence. And we have to hold fast to it – be ready to resist whatever attacks are made against it and whatever tempts us to let go of it and go after something else. We have to listen, receive, stand, and hold fast to this gospel. If we do that, it saves us.
But what is it? It is good news about certain events and their significance – that's basically what the word 'gospel' means. It is the message that the apostle Paul preached. Is it arrogant of Paul to make that claim? No. Why? Because God gave him the message. And it is passed from person to person. Do you see that in verse 3?
"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…"
It was passed on to me. I'm passing it on to you so you can be rescued. Then in your turn you can pass it on to others – like a baton in a relay race. So this gospel is a message of good news passing freely from person to person. But what's in the message? What's it about? Well:
3. The Gospel is Good News about Jesus
What good news about Jesus? First, that Jesus is Lord. Look at verse 3 there again, at the start of the second paragraph:
"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died…"
We're talking about Jesus of Nazareth who died on the cross. What does 'Christ' mean? It means King. It means Lord. And not any old King – but the King who has all the authority of God himself to rule over everything – every nation, every life – forever. And that means, of course, that he's your Lord, and my Lord. So how should we relate to him? With obedience, service and worship. Jesus is Lord.
Secondly, Jesus died so that we can be forgiven. This is how verse 3 goes on:
"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried…"
Jesus died. Why? For our sins. Because of our rejection of God, we deserve physical and eternal death. And Jesus who is himself God died to take on himself all of the just anger of God against us. He paid the price of our rebellion. He took the punishment that we deserve. He was cut off from his Father so we don't have to be. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" he cried from the cross as he died. And Paul says all of this was "in accordance with the Scriptures". This was all in God's loving plan to rescue us. Jesus knew what he was doing. God had announced his plan many centuries before. In the words of the prophet Isaiah:
"All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all."
A couple of weeks ago I was in Sheffield and took a taxi to get across the city. The driver was chatty, and we soon got on to the subject of religion. He is a devout Muslim. He goes to prayers every Friday. He drops into the mosque each day, whenever his taxi duties allow, to say his prayers. Recently he went with his parents to Mecca. His five year old daughter is already doing an hour a day after school learning the Koran. I asked him whether he had any confidence that he was going to heaven. His reply was, "You can never do enough." When I gently pressed him, he just kept repeating, "You can never do enough." I said that the great thing is that God has done enough – and more – himself through the death of his Son. Jesus is Lord. Jesus died so that we can be forgiven.
Thirdly, Jesus was raised from the dead. Verse 4:
"that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,"
Jesus knew that this would happen. He'd told his disciples. He would be killed – but then after three days he would rise again. And Paul spells out just part of the historical evidence for that. It's there in verses 5-8:
"…he appeared to Cephas [that's Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me."
Everything that the Bible teaches hangs or falls on the truth of this fact that what Jesus said would happen, did happen. Come back over the next few weeks in the run up to Easter as we look together more closely at the death and resurrection of Jesus. Suffice it to say for now that the evidence points to the fact that it is true. And Jesus is now risen and ruling.
That's the gospel that saves us from death. It's the good news about Jesus. He is Lord. He died so that we might be forgiven. He was raised from death. He destroyed the power of death in our lives. So, where have we got to?
1. We need to be saved from death – spiritual, physical and eternal.
2. We are saved by the gospel.
3. The gospel is the good news about Jesus – who died for sins and was raised from death.
4. Jesus gives us Eternal Life when we Trust in Him
Paul himself is the case study here. Look at the transformation in his life – this is from verses 8-10:
"Last of all, as to one untimely born, [Jesus] appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy 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 towards me was not in vain."
Paul had been a hater of Christians and of Christ. He was a proud, violent persecutor of the church. But then he met the risen Jesus. And he submitted his life to him. He found mercy and forgiveness from Jesus. The Spirit of God was poured into his heart.
He had not realised that he was dead – spiritually dead and headed for hell. But now he discovered that he had come alive to God. He had real peace with God and a new purpose in his life. He knew that physical death was now the prelude to a glorious resurrection which would be the start of a life lived forever, face to face with the God who made him and loved him enough to give his one beloved Son to die for him.
That's the new life that Paul found when he met Jesus. That's the new life he spent the rest of his earthly life persuading others to accept for themselves, even though in the end he was killed by those who didn't want it. That new life is available to each one of us, for the asking, as we trust in Jesus who died for our sins. Please do not leave here this evening without taking a step towards him.
What does it mean to be trusting in Jesus' death? We've heard the answer from God through Paul. We must acknowledge that we need to be saved from death. We must understand that we are saved by the gospel. We must believe the good news about Jesus. We must ask Jesus to give us, in place of the death we deserve, eternal life – life now and life forever.
Paul urges us to listen to the gospel; to receive it; to stand in it; and to hold fast to it. Which of those is the most direct challenge to you this evening?
Do you need maybe for the first time in your life to begin to listen seriously to what the Bible teaches? We can help you do that. Keep coming Sunday by Sunday. Take up that opportunity to join one of those informal Christianity Explored groups, and give it a go.
Are you at the point where you've done your listening, and you know it's time to receive the message for yourself, but you haven't yet done so? Please take one of these 'Why Jesus?' booklets from the back. In it you'll find a simple explanation of one way you can take that step in the privacy of your own home. But if you do that, don't keep it private – tell a friend.
Or perhaps you've already taken that step, but you're realising that you can't be half-hearted, and you need to stand in the gospel, and make Jesus the very centre of your existence? Then talk to him directly, and start today to make living for Jesus your top priority.
Or are you a believer at heart, but you can see that you've drifted from Jesus? You're not holding fast to the gospel. Jesus wants you back by his side. Get back in step with his Spirit. Because being without Jesus is living death. But with him, we have eternal life.