Twenty-fifth in a series
1 Corinthians 15:12-58
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being. (1 Corinthians 15:17-21)
I live quite close to people who are very aware of their mortality.
I have several friends with cancer. The word cancer immediately evokes the word death. We don’t always talk about it bluntly in polite society. However, in moments of candor, those friends of mine who are undergoing treatments for cancer share honestly their own inner thoughts about life and death.
One real fact of life is death!
Psychiatrists tell us that a mature person is one who has confronted the eventual reality of his own death. You and I are terminally ill. At this very moment, you are in the process of dying. It’s just a matter of time, unless perhaps Jesus Christ returns before that moment.
We run through life so fast trying to avoid thoughts of death. Death hits. You lose a loved one. You have a brief service in his/her memory. Then you move on, inoculating yourself into a personal invulnerability. We know we’ll die. We just don’t want to think about it. We call those thoughts morbid, gloomy, dismal. Yet each of us must face the reality of our own inevitable death.
Billy Graham once said that the last generation didn’t talk about sex. Ours does. In fact, sex is the major topic of our day. What our generation doesn’t talk about is death. Elisabeth Kübler Ross, in her studies of our culture, notes that many of us live denying the fact of death.
Some people have trouble confronting this reality. Occasionally a teenager fantasizes about death as a possible alternative to facing the explosive difficulties of adolescence. That’s why we’re seeing such an increase in suicide among young people. However, there is a big difference between a whimsical death wish, contemplated in the privacy of one’s own thoughts, or the speculative musings about death philosophized in the classroom, from the direct encounter with the real loss of a parent or a close friend.
Early in my ministry I discovered how shocked we are when a young person dies. I was pastoring in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Never have I observed greater public anguish than at the funeral of 14-year-old Bobby. His motorcycle smashed into the tail end of a truck. He was thrown to the Tulsa, Oklahoma, pavement, his skull split wide open. Rushed to the hospital, he went through hours of brain surgery. Finally, he died.
Over four hundred of his freshly scrubbed friends, dressed in their best clothes, packed the pews and spilled into the aisles of Stanley’s Funeral Home Chapel. Tears streamed down those tensed cheeks. Sobbing, even moaning, filled the air as I tried to talk about Bobby, death, and Jesus Christ to those teenagers, most of whom had never really stopped to give a serious thought to any of the three. I counted sixty-five cars driving bumper to bumper in the twelve-mile procession to the cemetery. Death comes at strange times and in random ways, and it causes us to think, at least momentarily, about the ultimate.
You and I don’t like to talk about this. Few people really prepare for death. You and I live as if we will live forever. We collect material possessions as if we will carry them forever. How strange is this when one of the most certain facts about life is death. We can speed through life never giving it any thought. Momentarily, we may ponder its implications. Then, once again, we move on.
The British political leader, William Gladstone, once confronted a young man who wanted to go into law and government. The prime minister asked him what his dreams were. Bursting with ambition and energy, he replied, “First law. Then government.” Asked Gladstone, “Then what?” “Service to my nation.” “Then what?” queried Gladstone. “Perhaps fame and wealth.” “Then what?” “I guess to retire and to live on what I have made.” “Then what?” “What do you mean? I guess I’ll die.” “Then what?” was the query. There was complete silence. Then Gladstone said, “Young man, you had better go back and think life through.”
Whether it be my friends who are battling cancer, or a homosexual friend who, through contraction of AIDS, has come back to a close personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or a pastor friend who shared with me his own close brush with death, or my own three or four close calls, there are constant reminders of our own vulnerability to death.
The Apostle Paul refuses to back off from this tough topic. 1 Corinthians 15, is as straightforward a confrontation with this theme as you will find in any literature. Last week we observed this straightforward declaration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Now Paul moves on to talk about you and me and what happens to us. Whereas to this point he has declared the resurrection of Jesus Christ, now he declares the resurrection of the dead.
First, Paul states seven facts you and I must confront if there is no resurrection.
Fact #1: Christ has not been raised.
He writes, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. . .” (1 Corinthians 15:13).
Fact #2: Our preaching is in vain.
The other religions of the world are not based on the resurrection of their founder. The other major religions of the world do not claim that their founder is God. Central to the Christian faith is the belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If in fact He did not rise from the dead we have removed the central event of our faith. Christianity is not based upon a set of ethical principles which, if we follow them, will win the favor of God or the gods. Christianity is based on the fact that there is nothing we can do in our effort that will earn us God’s favor. The Bible tells us that all of our righteousness falls short of His righteousness. For this reason, God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ to go to the cross for our sins. Through His life, death and resurrection, He rose triumphant over them, and He offers us the gift of His grace. You remove the resurrection, and you have removed the message of the Gospel. You might as well close the doors of the churches.
Fact #3: Our faith doesn’t do what we thought it would do.
Paul writes: “. . . and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). On another occasion, he referred to “knowing him and the power of his resurrection.” It is through the resurrection of Jesus Christ that we are empowered for change. We turn from darkness to light. If there was no resurrection, there is no change.
Fact #4: We are all liars.
We are in real trouble if Jesus did not rise from the dead. Not only is our faith in vain, but Paul writes, “We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ – whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised” (1 Corinthians 15:15-16).
Fact #5: We are still in our sins.
“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). Jesus is the one who has pardoned all of our iniquities. This is based on His resurrection power. We are kidding ourselves to think that we are forgiven persons. The reality is that somewhere in the Middle East there is a grave with the body of that first-century martyr named Jesus of Nazareth.
Fact #6: Dead believers have perished.
Not only does this have implications for us, it has horrendous significance for all those who have believed in Jesus Christ during the last two thousand years. Paul writes, “Then those also who have died in Christ have perished” (1 Corinthians 15:18). The dead believers are gone. They are finished as we will be someday.
Fact #7: We Christians are pathetic persons.
Paul concludes this part of his argument stating, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Our faith is worth nothing if Christ did not rise from the dead.
These implications are severe. Refute the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the logical conclusion is the Christian faith has lost its foundation. You might be able to extract some ethical principles. But, as we mentioned last week, there are other sources of higher ethics. Jesus himself was either a charlatan, a lunatic or what He claimed to be, the crucified and risen God.
The biblical affirmation is that not only was Jesus raised from the dead, but He is the first fruits for us who also will be raised.
In 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, Paul makes two fascinating allusions. First, he refers to the resurrected Christ as being the “first fruits” of those who have died. There are many biblical applications of this suggestive phrase.
That which comes most readily to mind is the agricultural picture of the farmer who plows the field, plants it, cultivates it, waters it. Then, after a fairly substantial time, when he sees nothing happening, he finally observes the plants beginning to peek above the soil. The plants grow and finally the grain begins to appear. It’s at the moment when the first fruit is gathered that he has the promise of much more fruit to come. The whole agricultural cycle is aborted if the plant does not begin to bear fruit. The resurrected Jesus is the first fruit, One who gives evidence through His resurrection to a resurrection. We, too, shall be raised.
He also alludes to Adam. It was in Adam, the first man, that death entered the world. Jesus is referred to as the Second Adam. Paul writes, “. . .for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:22-23).
What a powerful promise. In Christ’s resurrection we have seen a glimpse of the future.
On another occasion, Paul, writing to the church at Thessalonica, urges them to have hope. Some of the believers had died. He writes, “But we would not have you uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).
There are two kinds of sorrow.
One is a sorrow or grief that has no hope. It is locked in by anxiety, fear, apprehension and grief. You are locked into the fact of life and death without any external assurance that all will be well.
The person who is endeavoring to live his or her life without faith in Jesus Christ is forced to speculate on death. If you are this person, you have several options.
You can refuse to think about death, blinding your eyes to the obvious. You can avoid grief and sorrow by putting thoughts about death out of your mind. Some do this. They reject any thought that is morbid.
Or you can speculate about death, trying to explain what will happen to you after this life. You may come up with a conclusion that there is no life after death. The moment you are declared dead, you cease to exist. Life is over. There is a complete annihilation of everything.
Or you may come to the conclusion that in some mystical, pantheistic way you are absorbed into nature. Never again will you be a conscious being. There is a sense of immortality. You are a passive participant in it. Or you may speculate yourself into the view of reincarnation. This notion holds that you will die and reappear in a new form. Your state of life will be different from what it is now. Perhaps you’ll come back as an animal. Or perhaps you’ll come back as another human being.
All these approaches are directly contrary to the Scriptures. There is no annihilation. You are an everlasting person. You are not just absorbed into nature. There is no reincarnation. This completely defies biblical teaching. You’ll not find any talk about reincarnation in the Bible. That’s pagan, not Christian thought. I am amazed how many Christians have absorbed contemporary thinking about reincarnation. It’s time that we rule this out as a possibility. Your speculations may produce many things. However, they will not produce confidence and hope. In my forty-one-plus years of ordained ministry, I have presided at hundreds of funerals and memorial services.
You can tell the difference between the funeral of a believer in Jesus Christ from one who is not. Sorrow? Yes, in both cases. For the nonbeliever, it’s the sorrow of emptiness. It’s downbeat. Gloom. Questions. The uncertainty takes over.
Some of those along whom I’ve stood at the time of death have been highly intellectual individuals who would rationalize away the biblical concept of life and death. When confronted with the departing of a loved one, their philosophy bred no hope. There is sorrow. It is the sorrow of despair. The future is one big question mark. There was no hope. No joy was present. They sorrowed as those who had no hope.
There is a second kind of sorrow. This sorrow has hope. It understands. It is humbled by the events of life. It is aware of its own human limitations. This sorrow accepts the Christian faith. This person believes in Jesus Christ. He claims His promise. He sees Jesus as the first fruits of all who died. He lives with a great joy, knowing that Jesus Christ offers an immortality of life.
Visit Rome. Walk through those miles of underground tunnels called catacombs. Look at the little meeting rooms in which the early Christians gathered for worship. View the symbols inscribed on the walls. Remember the fact that thousands of these men and women met their death because of their faith in Jesus Christ. Do the catacombs stand today as a symbol of morbid depression? No! They stand as evidence to the fact that you can live and die with hope, even joy, as did those early Christians who were willing to give their lives for Christ. Jesus was their first fruit. Jesus was the Second Adam.
If Jesus was not raised, and we will not be raised, not only are we to be pitied, we are basically wasting our time.
Paul writes, “And why are we putting ourselves in danger every hour? I die every day! That is as certain, brothers and sisters, as my boasting of you – a boast that I make in Christ Jesus our Lord. If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus, what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'” (1 Corinthians 15:30-32).
Ours is not the first generation to doubt the resurrection. At the time of Jesus, there were two very prominent Jewish groups.
One was called the Pharisees. You’ve heard a lot about them. The best that can be said about them is that they were conservative Jews who were endeavoring to be faithful to the Old Testament Scriptures. The worst is that they added to those Scriptures legalistic codes that had a way of making one’s religious experience extremely complex, difficult and discouraging, without bringing the person to a joyful experience of God’s grace. The Pharisees held with great tenacity to the authority of the Scriptures. They believed in the resurrection of the body.
There was another group called the Sadducees. The best that can be said about them was that they lived liberated from some of the negativism that marked the lives of the Pharisees. However, the Sadducees also denied some of the strong teachings of the Old Testament Scriptures. They were todays equivalent of theological liberals who want to hold on to certain spiritual teachings while denying the miraculous. Granted, Old Testament teaching was not nearly as specific as is New Testament teaching about life after death.
It was clear in Jesus’ interaction with the Sadducees and the Pharisees that He held strongly to the resurrection of the body and the life after this life. The believers at Corinth had the influence of those with Sadducee backgrounds, plus the general mindset of the Greeks that divided between the spiritual and the physical. Great questions were being raised about the resurrection of the body. Some believers had died. Jesus had not yet returned. Some were saying these people were gone, never to be seen again. Paul emphatically held that if there was no resurrection of the body, he was wasting his time making all the sacrifices he was to travel and tell people about Jesus. If the dead are not raised, why not just eat, drink and be merry? You are going to die anyway. It’s all going to be over. Why waste one’s time in empty religious activity?
Just what kind of body will we have in the resurrection?
That’s a difficult question. I can’t answer it with precision. In 1 Corinthians 15:35-50, Paul makes fascinating references to our new bodies. He urges us not to be discouraged because we see the physical body die. Again, he makes the reference to agriculture. It is as a piece of grain which appears dead, is buried, that new life comes in a different form. He looks to the animal world and describes the difference between the bodies of an animal, a bird or a fish. He looks to the solar system, noting the celestial bodies and how they differ from terrestrial bodies. The glory of the celestial is of one sort and the glory of the terrestrial is of another. Sun, moon and stars differ. He writes in 1 Corinthians 15:42-45, “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”
Once again, he builds on the parallel with Adam. Adam is natural man. He represents the physical side of life that we know in this earthly dimension. Jesus is the Second Adam. He is spiritual man. He represents the heavenly dimension. Just as our present bodies come from the dust, as did Adam’s, and we bear that earthly image, even so our future bodies will bear the image of the “Man of Heaven,” Jesus Christ the Second Adam. “What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:50).
So what do we specifically know about our future bodies?
Fact #1: We know that those of us who have received Jesus Christ as Savior will be resurrected from the dead.
Fact #2: We know that we will have a resurrected body.
It will be free from blemishes of the present. Does your body have limitations? Perhaps you are gnarled with rheumatoid arthritis. Your joints don’t have that former agility. The day is coming when you as a believer will be given a brand-new body. When you look in the mirror, do you see less than you’d like to see? Or perhaps more than you’d like to see? Some day you will have the most magnificent physique imaginable. The Bible relates how our present bodies are imperishable. We are born in weakness but raised in power. How emphatic are those words in 1 Corinthians 15:51-54. “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.'”
Fact #3: We will be reunited with our loved ones.
We catch a glimpse of what heaven will be like as we stand with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. There were Peter, John and James. Suddenly the countenance of Jesus was altered. His raiment became dazzling white. Two more persons joined them. One was Moses. The other was Elijah. There is a recognizable dimension to our life in heaven with our Lord and our loved ones.
Fact #4: We will experience the immediate presence of Jesus Christ.
I must grant at this point that there is a philosophical conflict among theologians as to what happens the moment you die. Some have developed a theory of soul-sleep. The thought is that when you die you make a transition into perpetual slumber from which you arise only when Jesus Christ returns in the glory of the Second Coming. There is some basis for this viewpoint. It gives greater understanding of what the day of the resurrection of the body will be. However, I am personally convinced that both the Scriptures and the practical experience of believers at the time of death point to an immediacy of entrance into the presence of Jesus. How else can you explain the words of Paul who says that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” He puts a high emphasis on this.
If he felt that he would be entering into a long period of soul slumber, I question whether he would have had this same yearning to die so that he could be with Christ. Paul constantly struggled with the desire to live and serve Christ and to die and be with Him. How else can we explain the conversation Christ had with the repentant thief on the cross. He responded to the heartcry of this one who wanted to be remembered when Christ entered into His kingdom. He said, “‘This day shalt thou be with me in paradise.”‘ Perhaps this could refer to a place of departed spirits that rest until the return of Jesus. It seems more likely to me that Jesus was promising that this very day he would know the fullness of relationship in eternity with his Savior. Either way, the same result would be effected. The next consciousness of the believer who dies is realized in the presence of Jesus Christ.
This is a word for those who are born again by the Holy Spirit. You have something for which to look forward.
Your circumstances are different from those who die without Christ. Even as the Bible makes positive promises to the believer, it directs some thoughts toward the nonbeliever. The wicked are not annihilated. Their eternal death is defined as living in the absence of the presence of God. Those who have not received the free gift of God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ remain alienated from Him for eternity. Jesus says specifically that there is a place called hell. Its implications are awesome. How foolish are those who are literally hell-bent in their destination to live lives independent of the Savior. If you have not come to Him, come now, confess your sins, allow your life to be opened to the Savior’s love, allow Him to forgive you, turning you around, setting you in a whole new direction of life in which you qualify for the promises of life together with Him in heaven.
For those of us who have received Jesus Christ as Savior, we look forward to meeting our Savior. It’s so easy to become preoccupied with the stuff of living here that we forget that we are one breath away from eternity. The prophet Amos was astounded at the way in which the people of Israel were preoccupied with life in the present. They were busy building their own houses, accumulating material possessions, neglecting their time with the Lord and the matters of justice in relationship to each other. Amos urges the people, “‘. . .prepare to meet your God, O Israel!'” (Amos 4:12).
Sin is what stands in the way of a vital, lifegiving flow of relationship with the Savior. Sin is what makes death so awesome. That’s why Paul quotes those words, “‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”‘ He goes on to declare, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). Jesus Christ has removed the sting from death. As a result, those of us who love Jesus have the assurance that we are free to live and we are free to die. The life beyond this life is a better life than the life here. Yet God has put us here for a reason. We are not just accidents. There is intentionality to who we are, in what God wants to do with us here.
One of my dear friends is Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie. Back in the mid 1980s, I had a long talk with him as he was convalescing from a life-threatening accident quite similar to the skiing accident I had in 1981. Lloyd had been studying in Scotland for several weeks. He had completed most of his work and had mailed it back to the States at the end of July. He had a couple of days to spend in reflection as he waited the arrival of his wife Mary Jane who was going to vacation with him. One rainy afternoon, he dressed appropriately for a long walk along the western coast near the town of Mallaig. He told me how the rain came down harder as he walked over fields, climbed over stone fences, and then walked along the ocean shore.
About two to two and a half miles from where he was staying he suddenly slipped and knocked his head on a rock. When he became conscious, he tried to get up only to discover that his left leg was dangling from just below the knee. It was getting colder and darker, and the rain was pouring harder. He dragged himself with every bit of human effort for two and a half hours, crawling on his good side, back over the stone fences and across the fields. He began to wonder if he could survive. Finally, three people, one a doctor, who were also out walking in the rain, heard his cry and came to his side. They found a little farm house from which they called for an ambulance. The ambulance wouldn’t start. So they had to call to Fort Williams, an hour and a half away. Finally, Lloyd ended up in the hospital at Fort Williams. His leg was set. His wife joined him during the time of initial recuperation. Then they flew back to Los Angeles, only to discover that the leg had to be reconstructed, and he had suffered a number of embolisms of a potentially life-threatening nature.
Lloyd and I talked about his future, his priorities, the question about when he could get back into the pulpit, and how he would handle the months of recuperation. We had a lot to share in common.
But the reason I tell this story is to recount to you the faith and the trust of a brother in Christ who said, “It is apparent it was not God’s time to take me.” And I want to share with you the confidence and even expectancy of one who, as many of us have, looked at the spectre of death and seen that the sting has been removed because of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Frankly, I will never in this life understand why some die early and some die late. Why are Lloyd Ogilvie and I still living and ministering when our dear mutual friends, Frank Harrington of Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta and Clayton Bell of Highland Park Presbyterian in Dallas, have been gone from this life for several years. Why has my daughter Suzanne, who died at age twenty-three, been gone for over fifteen years when all four of her grandparents lived well into their nineties. I don’t understand. But I do understand that we can trust God for this life and the next. We can commit ourselves and our loved ones to His care. You and I are equipped with all the saints through the years to say along with the Apostle Paul, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain!”
Paul concludes this magnificent chapter with a “therefore.” Let me simply read it in conclusion. “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
John A. Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.