1 Corinthians 15:1-23
Modern people may find church graveyards disturbing. Exploring churches in Charleston, S.C., one finds the yards, sidewalks, porticos, and sometimes the space beneath buildings filled with graves. A drive through the country is likely to reveal a church building with a graveyard situated uncomfortably close, leaving a feeling of awkwardness or morbidity—pr at least the impression of poor planning.
The church graveyard, though, was placed on purpose for church members. The church graveyard has a way of saying, “Each one buried here was one of us, and they all will be one of us on resurrection day.” Life together, death together, resurrection together: The church graveyard is an expression of church membership.
We don’t think this way anymore, because we don’t think about resurrection anymore, perhaps because we don’t think much about death anymore. It wasn’t long ago when life expectancy only reached into the 40s. Coming down with a fever was truly frightening; measles and whooping cough killed children; childbearing killed women. In those days, people thought more about death.
Now, death is a long way off, some time after retirement, the beach house and the BMW. So death—and resurrection—are pushed to the backs of our minds and then to the back of our theology.
However, resurrection is our theology. Resurrection is Christianity’s unique, audacious claim—so unique and audacious that it’s dangerous. Preaching resurrection landed the early church in a lot of hot water. The Jews only believed in a final resurrection on the last day for judgment and could not accept the real-time resurrection of a rabbi from Galilee (a stumbling block for the Jews). The Hellenists didn’t want resurrection at all—they wanted to escape the trap of a physical body altogether (foolishness to the Greeks).
Indeed, we still think much the same way. “Jesus died for my sins, my soul can live without my body, and I’m going to heaven when I die. Good enough.” Except its not, because Paul won’t allow it.
The believers in the Corinthian church had many shortcomings. They were divisive, competitive and given to controversy. They tolerated rank immorality. They were show-offs. Paul spent good chunks of his letter correcting many things, but he wouldn’t let them slide on this one thing. We mustn’t slide on it either, because the resurrection tells us everything we need to know about the gospel. It is the teeth of our faith. Sometimes we see the resurrection as God’s best day at Show-and-Tell, as if it’s the icing on the gospel cake; yet 1 Corinthians 15 reminds us that resurrection is the cake.
The Certainty of Christ’s Resurrection Grounds Our Faith in Reality (vv. 15:1-11)
Paul was emphatic: “I made known to you, brothers, the gospel I preached to you.” This gospel is the very reason for the Christian’s existence. In the past you received it, in the present you stand on it, and you are being saved by it—if you hold fast to it—unless you believed in vain, unless you believed for nothing, unless your belief was thoughtless and without consideration.
How is it possible to believe the gospel in vain? It’s similar to buying an iPhone and never turning it on—receiving something that could be great but never realizing its true benefit. As 1 Corinthians 15 unfolded, Paul emphasized the resurrection precisely for this reason. The Corinthians were tempted to deny the future, physical resurrection of believers in Christ, but in doing so they were denying the faith altogether. Such a future seemed too audacious to be true.
It still does. If you ask people today if they believe Jesus Christ rose from the grave, most still will say yes; but if you ask, “Do you believe a day will come when all believers in Christ will rise from their graves?” the response rate will decrease. We only half-believe in resurrection. We accept it as historical fact but fail to embrace it as future hope.
This is Paul’s point: If you deny the future resurrection of believers in Christ, then why do you affirm the resurrection of Christ at all? If resurrection doesn’t matter, then you’re believing in vain, because resurrection is the reality that gives faith tangibility.
John Hick was a relatively famous 20th century theologian who left the faith in the 1980s and became a pluralist philosopher. He embraced the idea that although they disagree on much, the major religions of the world are, in fact, essentially the same. To make this work, Hick reduced all religious experience to one thing: The essence of religious experience is to be free from selfishness by being grounded in the real—whatever that is.
Paul claimed to have the real. He quoted an early recitation of the bare essentials of the faith to demonstrate that the facts he preached are the same facts common to all Christians—the very facts Christians must believe. It’s pointed and straightforward: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with Scripture, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with Scripture, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the 12…”
Paul pressed the realness of these facts. In a way, John Hick is right: You must be rooted in reality; but that reality is the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. That’s keeping it real.
In verses 12-19, Paul upped the ante and basically said, “If Jesus didn’t rise, then pity us like fools, because we have nothing.” If we have nothing without a resurrection, what do we have with it? This is why it’s hard to preach on Easter. What is the benefit of the resurrection of Jesus? What does the resurrection do?
Beginning in verse 20, Paul drew the pieces together.
The Reality of Future Resurrection Is the Finishing of Our Salvation (vv. 15:20-23)
The key term in verse 20 is firstfruits. Christ’s resurrection was the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep—those who have died in Christ. When I ponder firstfruits, I’m instantly taken back to my childhood—to a hot summer when July 4th was approaching. I was with my grandfather, plodding through vast rows of tomato plants in his garden. He was peering, poring over the vines, and saying, “If I can get one ripe red tomato before the 4th—just one—then I know I got a lot more coming.” Firstfruits implies more fruit of the same kind.
You can’t miss it: If Christ was raised from the dead, then all who are in Him also will rise in like manner. It’s audacious and awesome, but we still must make the connection. How does the resurrection of Jesus bring about the resurrection of all who believe in Him?
First, Paul explained why we die. We die because we’re in Adam. We’re associated with Adam. We’ve joined his rebellion, and the curse announced to him falls on us. “To dust you shall return…For the wages of sin is death.” Rebelling against the One who gave you life can’t mean anything but death.
Some years ago, I was talking with a minister whose wife recently left him and his eighth grade daughter. Subsequently, he lost his job. The situation was bleak. He said, “Every day I suffer because of someone else’s sin, and everyday someone else suffers because of mine.” That’s life in Adam. We sin. We’re sinned against, and consequences rain down: emotional, relational, mental, physical, all of which ends in death. Death is our banner, our symbol, our destiny in Adam. “For as by a man came death…for as in Adam all die.”
Conversely, “by a Man also has come the resurrection of the dead..so also in Christ all shall be made alive.” This is possible only if Jesus replaces Adam. Jesus is what Adam was not—He is faithful and righteous. Jesus did what Adam did not do—the righteous bore the sin of the unrighteous. The just died for the unjust. God made Him who knew no sin to become sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
If Jesus, the Righteous One, was raised from the dead to immortality, then that also must happen to all those to whom His righteousness is applied. Resurrection means the gospel really works. The resurrection of Jesus is not a component of our faith but is the finishing, the destination. It’s why the church graveyard exists.
Lee Eclov writes, “Someone dear to me once gave me a little cross adorned with roses. It bears the inscription, “Hope raises no dust.” I tried my best to penetrate its mystery. I didn’t want to look stupid, so I didn’t say anything, but later I had to get to the bottom of what it meant. It had to mean something! When I typed “Hope raises no dust” in the Google search engine, I learned that the phrase was coined by Paul Eluard—a French poet associated with Dadaism. I also learned Dadaism is a movement that celebrates chaos, vagueness and irrationality. Other famous quotes from the movement include: “elephants are contagious” and “Earth is blue like an orange.” All of this brought me back to “Hope raises no dust.” Everyone believes hope is vital to people, but most folks’ hope is about as vague as Eluard’s quote painted on that little cross.
We don’t say, “Hope raises no dust.” We say, “Hope raises dead people.”
Seventeen years have past since I was the minister of youth at Pellville Baptist Church in Pellville, Kentucky. Out of the roughly 25 young people in that youth group, I’ve already performed three funerals. A tragic auto accident took one at age 16; a murder took another at 18; and seven years ago, aggressive cancer took another. Jennifer was 27 and left behind a precious 4-year-old daughter.
What do we say in these situations? What do we say to the parents whose role-model son was killed in a freak accident? To the little sister of a college student who was raped and murdered? To the tiny 4-year-old who never will hear her mommy’s tender voice? You say this: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep…the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Without the resurrection, we have nothing. With it, we have everything.
Let me challenge you in two ways:
1. To have the benefit of the resurrection, you must believe the gospel. Sin, death and hell make it a matter of extreme urgency. Don’t walk through a springtime ritual, but go all in with a risen Savior. He died your death then conquered your grave. Trust Him. A familiar verse rings so true: "For God so loved that world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Believe.
2. Believing the gospel means embracing the full benefit of resurrection. Don’t half-believe. Don’t settle for the half-truth of “I’m going to heaven when I die,” when God’s promise is that we will be like Him—just like Jesus. Simply acknowledging Christ’s resurrection as historical fact isn’t faith. God did it for Jesus, and He will do so for all who believe in Him: a physical, bodily resurrection to life immortal. Hope raises dead people.
Chuck Fuller is assistant professor of Christian Studies in the College of Christian Studies of Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. He is a teaching elder at Renewal Church in Anderson.