1 Corinthians 15:12-20: The Resurrection is Central
What actually is the central and essential message of the Christian faith? Sometimes I ask people this question, and the replies are almost always about things that we’re supposed to be doing. ‘Love thy neighbour’ is the most common one (people almost always use the old form with the word ‘thy’), along with ‘Love God with your whole heart and love your neighbour as yourself’, ‘Let’s all be kind to one another’, ‘be a good person’, ‘pray’, ‘go to church’, and so on.
Now you’ll notice right away that the thing that all these sayings have in common is that they’re good advice about how to live. But the reason that these statements can’t possibly be the central message of the Christian faith is that the early Christians didn’t go into the world preaching good advice. Rather, they called their message ‘the Gospel’, and the word ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’. It was used in the Roman world to describe the joyful announcement that a new emperor had been crowned; ‘Good news! The divine Tiberius is now our king’ (at least, Tiberius thought it was good news; whether his subjects did or not is an entirely different question!). It was used in the Old Testament to describe the announcement that the people’s captivity in Babylon was over and they were now free to return to their own land: ‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the one who brings good news!’ says Isaiah. So when the early Christians called their message a ‘gospel’, this is what the hearers would have thought of: an announcement that a new king has been crowned, and that captives could go free. The last thing they would have thought of would have been good advice about being a nice person.
So what is this ‘good news’? In the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians Paul connects it to two events: the death and resurrection of Jesus. He says:
‘Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which you stand…For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared…’ (1 Corinthians 15:1, 3-5a).
Paul then goes on to give a long list of the people Jesus appeared to after his resurrection: Peter, the Twelve, a group of five hundred followers at once, James, the rest of the apostles, and finally to Paul himself, some years later, on the Damascus Road.
So Paul focuses on two events: the death and resurrection of Jesus. The burial is confirmation of his death, and the appearances are confirmation of his resurrection. He also gives a theological meaning to the death of Jesus: ‘Christ died for our sins’. Earlier in the letter he had made this story of the Cross the centre of his message; he writes in chapter 2:
‘When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (2:1-2).
So Paul preaches this radically illogical message about ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’. The word ‘Christ’ is not a name, it’s a title; it’s the same as ‘Messiah’ and it means the king God had promised to send to set his people free. The Jewish people assumed that this king would be a descendant of their old king David and that he would be like David: a mighty warrior who would defeat the enemies of Israel in battle and establish a just and righteous government in Jerusalem.
The Messiah was not supposed to be defeated by his enemies; he was supposed to wipe out his enemies in the name of the God of Israel. So to say that ‘Jesus the Messiah was crucified by the Romans’ was a nonsense statement. Crucifixion was a death that the Romans reserved for rebels against their empire. If Jesus had been crucified, it meant that he had failed in his task; Israel was still under the thumb of the Roman Empire, so Jesus could not possibly be the true Messiah.
Paul and the early Christians, however, have reinterpreted the death of Jesus. To them, it isn’t a defeat, but a central plank in God’s plan to bring forgiveness and healing to the world. Paul’s message isn’t just ‘Christ died’, but ‘Christ died for our sins’. Somehow, in a strange and mysterious way, Jesus took the whole load of human sinfulness on his shoulders on Good Friday and died for it. The world did the worst it possibly could to Jesus that day, and Jesus turned around and said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”. The Cross tells us that right at the heart of the gospel is this story of a God who loves his enemies. We had chosen to make ourselves his enemies by throwing his love in his face and declaring independence from him, but the Cross is the story of how God rejected our rejection, and found a way to make us his friends again.
At least, that’s how we understand it today, and it’s how the early Christians understood it. But of course, this was not obvious on Good Friday. On Good Friday, all that was obvious was that Jesus had been cruelly executed and his movement was over. If that had been the end of the story, the apostles would never have gone out and preached the message of Jesus all over the world. On Good Friday, the only message that was obvious to them was that they had wasted the last three years of their lives, because Jesus was not the Messiah. A crucified messiah could not possibly be a true Messiah, or God would not have abandoned him.
And that’s why Paul puts the resurrection front and centre in 1 Corinthians chapter 15. Let me spell it out as clearly as I can: if it were not for the resurrection, the only thing we would be able to say about the death of Jesus would be that it was a noble tragedy, a good man killed by a brutal government, like millions before and after him. But that’s not what Paul says about the death of Jesus; he says ‘Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures’. How does he know that? He knows it because the Cross was not the end of the story: God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead.
And so, a little later in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul has this to say:
‘Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 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. 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 fallen asleep’ (1 Corinthians 15:12-20).
Paul is quite clear here: if Jesus has not been raised from the dead, we’re wasting our time, and we might as well give up now. Why? Because if Jesus has not been raised from the dead, then we have no way of knowing that his message is true. He said that the kingdom of God was at hand, but he was wiped out by the kingdom of the Romans, so where does that leave the kingdom of God? He taught us that love is stronger than hate, but the hate of the political establishment was in fact stronger than his love. If it was not for his resurrection, that would be all that there is to say. Love your neighbour? Nice idea, Jesus, but Moses said it before you did.
That’s what Paul means when he says that if Christ has not been raised, we are still in our sins. The message that Paul has been preaching all over the Roman world is that there is forgiveness for all through the Cross of Jesus, because Christ died for our sins. But we can’t possibly know that to be true unless God has raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus, and it is Jesus’ victory over the worst that hate and fear could do to him. We know that love is stronger than death because of the resurrection of Jesus. If he was not raised, then hate has the last word, and love is just a nice ideal.
So Paul takes this huge risk: he pins the validity of his entire message on whether or not a dead man was miraculously raised to life again. Let’s be clear about what he means here. ‘Resurrection’, to Jewish people, did not mean that after we die, we go to a lovely place called heaven, where we wander in spiritual green fields, free forever from the curse of bodies. That’s a Greek idea, popularized by the philosophy of Plato. No, Judaism was a thoroughly physical religion: Judaism believed that this world of matter is a good place made by a loving Creator. Yes, it has been spoiled by the invasion of evil, but the Creator’s response is not going to be to abandon matter altogether and organize a lifeboat to take us to a non-material heaven. Rather, God is going to heal the world of evil and renew his creation so that we see again the glory it had before it was touched by hate in the first place.
Jewish people before the time of Jesus encouraged each other with this hope, but they were also troubled by the thought that some people might never live to see it come about. What about the righteous dead who died before the new age dawned; had they missed out on their chance? Surely not! And so later on in the Old Testament we get the first hints of the idea that when God finally frees his creation from evil, the righteous dead will be raised to life again; their bodies will be renewed, and they will once again enjoy God’s good creation in all its wonder.
That’s what resurrection meant to a Jewish person at the time of Jesus. They didn’t all believe in it, but they all knew what it meant. And the Christian church took over this belief lock, stock, and barrel, with this one important difference: instead of waiting until the end to raise everyone, God has raised one person first: Jesus the Messiah. That’s what Paul means when he calls Jesus ‘the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’. The ‘first fruits’ is the beginning of the harvest: once the first fruits come, the rest will follow in due course. And that’s the wonder of the resurrection, Paul says: because Jesus has been raised, you can know that one day you will share in his resurrection – which doesn’t mean that you’ll go to ‘a better place when you die’, but that God will make this world into a better place and raise you from the dead so that you can enjoy it forever.
But all this is entirely dependent on the truth of the resurrection message. Paul says,
‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those who have died in Christ have perished’ (vv.17-18).
In other words, if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then we die, and we rot in the grave, and that’s all we can know for sure. But if he has been raised, then death takes on an entirely different meaning for us. Paul calls it ‘falling asleep’, and it’s not hard to see why. Sleep is temporary; the person who is asleep is going to wake up again. And Paul wants us to know that for those who fall asleep in Jesus, death is also temporary: one day Jesus will wake us up again to share in the glory of God’s new creation.
So this is the good news that we Christians announce on this Easter morning. Christ died for our sins, but that’s not the end of the story. On Good Friday Jesus’ enemies defeated him, but on Easter Sunday God turned the tables, defeating the power of hate and violence and vindicating Jesus’ message of love.
And because God raised him from the dead, we can look back on the Cross and see what was happening there in a completely different light. We can remember Jesus words at the last supper: “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27). We can see that far from being the defeat of the Messiah, the cross was actually a central plank in God’s plan to reconcile the world to himself, as Jesus poured out his blood for the sins of the whole world and poured out mercy and forgiveness on all who turn to him.
The resurrection is God’s great victory over the power of hate and death, and it also assures us that through the Cross we can be forgiven and reconciled to God. And lastly, it gives us hope for the future as well. Hate and evil will not have the last word. The new creation is coming, and when it comes, we and our loved ones will not be forgotten in our graves; yes we may sleep for a long time, but not forever. God will raise us up on that resurrection morning; we will have new resurrection bodies as Jesus did on that first Easter Sunday, and we will live with him forever. And so, Paul says,
‘Then when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless’ (1 Corinthians 15:54-58, New Living Translation).