What happens when we die? I guess we don’t think much about that. But right now maybe people are thinking about it more. And in a recent survey, 46% of people in the UK said they did believe in life after death, 46% said they didn’t, and 8% said they didn’t know. So nearly every other person around you believes in life after death. Whereas the media mainly gives time to those who don’t. Like Stephen Hawking, who said in a Guardian interview:
"I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. And there is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark." (The Guardian, 15 May 2011)
So he was saying, ‘You can’t believe in life after death – not in the modern world of science. It’s ridiculous.’
And something like that was going on in the church in Corinth, which the apostle Paul wrote to in 1 Corinthians. Because in 1 Corinthians 15.12, Paul wrote:
"some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead"
And some of the people saying that probably meant, ‘I can’t believe in any life after death at all.’ But others probably meant, ‘I can’t believe in the resurrection of the body. I can believe your soul lives on – but not that you’ll have a body again.’ And in fact, no-one back then, apart from Christians, believed in life after death with bodies again. Everyone thought that was ridiculous. And so the Christians in Corinth were beginning to wobble in their belief. And some were maybe saying, ‘Let’s just ‘tweak’ the bits of the gospel our culture can’t believe.’
But Paul wrote to say, ‘No. If you ‘tweak’ the gospel, you lose the gospel. Because it’s all about Jesus’ death and bodily resurrection and what that’s won for us. And if you ‘tweak’ out bodily resurrection you’re left with nothing.’
So these next Sunday mornings we’re going to look at 1 Corinthians 15, which is all about why we can believe in life after death, what it’ll be like, and what difference it makes to living today.
So before we go further, let’s pray:
Father, through this part of your Word, please give us a confidence about life after death that we can live by and die by. In Jesus name. Amen.
So this morning we’re looking at verses 1 to 11. Which say first of all…
1. Hold On to the Gospel and Reject All ‘Tweaks’ (verses 1-2)
Listen to verses 1 and 2. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
"Now I would remind you, brothers [and 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."
So did you get the emphasis? "I [want to] remind you… of the gospel I preached to you… [I want you to] hold fast to the word I preached to you." Because already other people were bringing very different versions of Christianity to this church. Including the version that ‘tweaked’ out belief in life after death with bodies again.
And today there’s just the same pressure to ‘tweak’ the gospel, leave things out, tone things down, to make it easier for people to believe. But the trouble is what you’re left with isn’t the gospel any more, and so it can’t save people from living without God and heading for his judgement. And Paul was worried, end of verse 2, that the Corinthians might have
"believed in vain"
by shifting to a tweaked gospel that sounded the same – but couldn’t save them back into relationship with God.
It’s like computer passwords. Thanks to lockdown I’ve set up a new work laptop and now have yet more passwords I can’t remember. And the thing is: if you tweak a capital here or a number there, they won’t let you into your device. And it’s like that with the gospel. If we tweak it to make it easier to believe, we’re left with something that won’t get them or us into relationship with God. So Paul says: hold on to the gospel and reject all ‘tweaks’.
And next he reminds us that…
2. The Key Gospel Facts are that Jesus Died for Our Sins and Rose Bodily from the Dead (verses 3-8)
Here are verses 3 to 5. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
"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, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve."
So in verse 3, Paul says:
"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received"
Because he wasn’t one of the original twelve apostles who lived with Jesus for the three years up to his death and resurrection. Instead, Paul became an apostle after that, when the risen Lord Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Paul was on his way there to persecute Christians. But instead, he arrived as a new Christian, and was helped by the Christians he’d come to hurt. And he must have said to them, ‘Tell me more about the Lord Jesus whom I’ve just met. I mean, I now know he really is alive and really is God. But tell me more – especially, why he ended up on the cross.’
And what Paul wrote in verses 3 to 5 is what they told him. And it reads like a ‘mini-creed’, which probably goes back to just a few years after Jesus. So verse 3 again:
"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures"
So key fact number one is that Jesus died on Good Friday. And straight away, we’re given the explanation of that fact. Because the unexplained facts won’t help us.
So before I came to faith in Jesus, I went to hundreds of compulsory chapel services at my school, and either said or mimed the Creed – including that line, ‘He suffered under Pontius Pilate.’ But what that had to do with me I had no idea.
And verse 3 says: what it had to do with me and you was that:
"Christ died for our sins"
So imagine the light up there stands for God. And this hand stands for you or me. And we were meant to live in relationship with God, looking up to him to tell us how to live. But consciously or subconsciously, we’ve all turned away from him and said, ‘I don’t want you to be God in my life.’
So now imagine this book stands for the record of that wrong attitude, and of everything we do wrong as a result – everything God should hold against us at the end of our lives. And that’s why we feel distant from God, and why deep down we know we’re in trouble with him. And the heart of the gospel is what he’s done to get us out of trouble.
So now imagine this other hand stands for Jesus – God's Son who became human and who never did this, and who never deserved this. But who on the cross took the judgement our sins deserve, so that on the one hand, justice was done on our sins, but on the other hand, we can be forgiven our sins. That’s what it means that,
"Christ died for our sins"
And I wonder if you’ve seen that and trusted that, yet?
And the end of verse 3 says that was in accordance with the Scriptures. In other words, it’s what the Old Testament led us to expect. Because Old Testament sacrifices couldn’t actually pay for forgiveness, but pointed forward to one that would. And Isaiah 53 said that sacrifice would be of a sinless, suffering servant who’d die and rise again to forgive many.
Then key fact number two is, verse 4:
"that [Jesus] was buried"
Later on Good Friday, Joseph of Arimathea asked Ponitus Pilate, the Roman Governor, for Jesus’ body – to give him decent burial. And Pilate would only have released the body once he was absolutely sure Jesus was dead.
So fact number two backs up fact number one – Jesus really died. And it tees up fact number three. Because Joseph quickly wrapped Jesus’ body in burial cloths, laid it in a new tomb cut out of rock, and shut it securely with a rock door. And next day the tomb was guarded to stop anyone moving the body. But that didn’t stop God moving it.
So key fact number three is:
"that [Jesus] was raised on the third day"
So by Good Friday evening, Jesus’ body was in the tomb. But on Easter Sunday morning, the first witnesses found the tomb open – and empty, except for the burial cloths. So imagine you had a balloon the size and shape of a body, and you wrapped it in burial cloths, and then popped it with a pin so the cloths just fell flat where they were. That’s what they found in the tomb – burial cloths looking like the body had just passed through them.
But they didn’t instantly think, ‘He’s risen from the dead.’ They naturally thought, ‘Someone’s moved the body.’ And only as events unfolded did they realise God had moved it,
"that [Jesus] was raised [by God] on the third day [and once again] in accordance with the Scriptures"
Because the Old Testament had promised that one day a man in the line of David would rule everything forever. And Jesus rose from the dead and returned to his Father in heaven to be that man.
Then key fact number four is that Jesus appeared bodily risen from the dead. Verse 5:
"and [the next key fact you need to know is…] that he appeared to Cephas [that’s the apostle Peter], then to the twelve [the original twelve apostles – minus Judas]. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive [so you can quiz them as eyewitnesses], though some have fallen asleep [i.e, died]. Then he appeared to James [Jesus’ brother, who never believed in Jesus during his lifetime] then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me [on the road to Damascus]."
Now people say, ‘But this could have been all in their minds – hallucinations, or wish-fulfilling visions.’ But hallucinations don’t happen to groups of people. And two of these people – James and Paul – had no wish to see Jesus: they didn’t believe in him until these resurrection appearances changed them.
And fact number four backs up fact number three. Because by itself a tomb missing a dead body doesn’t say that God raised it. But a tomb missing a dead body which then starts appearing to people risen, does.
So now remember the problem in this church. Some people were saying, ‘We can’t believe in life after death with a body again. It’s ridiculous. It’s impossible.’ And Paul’s answer is, ‘But life after death with a body again has been witnessed. It’s a fact. And you need to let the fact change what you believe.’
In 1848, Johannes Rebmann became the first European to see Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, which is snow-covered all year. And Rebmann went to the Royal Geographical Society in London and told them he’d seen snow on the equator only for them to say, ‘There can’t be.’ One of them even said he needed his eyes testing. Which is exactly the same problem – of saying, ‘I can’t believe something’, instead of letting eye-witness evidence challenge what you currently believe.
Now if you’re just looking into all this, I wouldn’t expect you simply to believe what I’ve just said.
It takes time to process and question and make up your own mind. But if you’d like to do that with other people, we’re about to run our Christianity Explored course online, and you can find out how to join in either in the notices after this service, or on our website.
But the gospel isn’t just a set of facts. Because the facts are about a person who wants us back in relationship with him. So last quick thing:
3. The Gospel is that Jesus Wants to Show Us Grace (verses 9-11)
So Paul’s just said.
"Last of all, as to one untimely born, [the risen Jesus] appeared also to me."
And Paul could never get over how undeserved and amazing that was. Because look at verse 9:
"For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God."
He’d hated Jesus with a passion – and he had the blood of Christians on his hands. Verse 10:
"But by the grace [the undeserved and amazing love] of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed."
And God chose Paul precisely because Paul was so against him, and so against Christians, and had got his whole life so horribly wrong that he was the ideal showcase for grace. He was the ideal way for God to say, ‘If I can forgive him and have him back in relationship with me, don’t you think I can do that for anyone – including you?’
And that’s what the facts of the gospel add up to. They add up to a person who died for us and rose for us and who’s now saying to us, ‘I’ll have you back whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, however long you’ve been holding me at arm’s length.’
And the question is: will we have him?