"High Stakes, Precious Hope"
Easter Sunday April 8, 2007 1Cor.15:19-26
Stuck on the Downward Slope
I woke Friday morning to a surprise - I had a new vehicle parked in my driveway! Quite a nice big blue automobile, in fact. There was no driver to be seen. But I didn't get to keep it! What had happened I found out a little later. Some of our youth leaders heading to a conference this past weekend had decided to carpool from the road in front of our place. Unfortunately there had been a few inches of snow, and our driveway has just enough slope to make it difficult if conditions are the least bit slippery. So there it sat, abandoned - stuck on a slippery downward slope.
Is your life like that? Does it seem some days you're just spinning your tires and not getting anywhere? Does the road ahead look uncertain at best, or even gloomy? Actually our human condition is much like that. Paul wrote in vv21-22 of our passage, "death came through a man...in Adam all die." We're mortal - and if this life is all there is, the prospects aren't all that bright. Our earliest ancestors, Adam and Eve, flubbed it; they sinned and so "sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin..." (Rom 5:12) The laws of thermodynamics observe that free energy is always increasing in a system, which means everything runs down in nature. Today's shiny new vehicle is an ugly pile of rust in twenty years. Speaking on a strictly natural level, we are captive to corruption.
Easter is exciting news because it announces deliverance and redemption from a sin-infected, downward-sliding order. Jesus is the "firstfruits" of mortals who have succumbed to death. But before we get to that, let's look at the alternative.
This passage has a pretty sobering lead-up: Paul confronts the heresy at Corinth, where they've been saying there is no resurrection, by looking at the logical outworking of that teaching. What if the apostolic teaching were all a lie? This shows a bold maturity, that a faith is willing to look honestly at the possibility of its being in error. Christianity is not fideism: "reliance on faith rather than reason in pursuit of religious truth" - not being willing to even consider the tough examination reason provides. On the contrary, Paul looks very openly at the implications of the gospel about Jesus NOT being true, in vv 13-19.
The stakes are high. If the resurrection isn't true, the whole Christian system falls apart. Henry Morris observed, "The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the crowning proof of Christianity. If the resurrection did not take place, then Christianity is a false religion. If it did take place, then Christ is God and the Christian faith is absolute truth." One or the other - the resurrection is the key piece.
In these verses Paul lists half a dozen implications that would be the case if there were no such thing as a resurrection. People objected to the thought of a bodily resurrection back then as now, but for different reasons. Back then, Greek culture taught the body was a prison in which the soul was incarcerated, and in death the soul that is good is freed. Today, objections to resurrection tend to come from a secular humanist perspective, which insists this life is all there is, matter is ultimate reality. But to rule out the resurrection has grave consequences. (ha!)
First, v13 - if there is no resurrection of the dead (in general), "then not even Christ has been raised." That would also affect what Jesus would accomplish at His return as listed in 24-26 - therefore no destroying evil authority and power, no subjugation of the enemy of death, no final judgment.
Second, vv 14&17 - if Christ hasn't been raised, both Paul's preaching and the Corinthians' faith are useless, futile. The word "useless" literally is "empty, vain, without purpose". The whole church religious project is a waste, a pretense, whistling in the dark.
Third, v15, if they've been testifying about God that He raised Christ from the dead when in fact He didn't, the apostles are false witnesses, NLT "lying". That would put our best Christian saints about on the level of deceitful demons. Except the apostles would be more contemptible than today's church leaders because it was the apostles who had actually been with Jesus, who were the earliest eyewitnesses; future generations might be duped, but they would bear the most guilt for actually lying, misrepresenting the facts.
Fourth, v17, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins." NLT "under condemnation." Some people might not care about being 'in their sins" but being "under condemnation" is worse, there's an element of judgment - the penalty for your behaviour is about to come down on you. Jesus being Saviour was part of the package only if He was perfect and rose from the dead. "The death of Christ has no atoning value if he did not rise from the dead. In that case he was only a man like other men and did not die for our sins." (Robinson) There's no one to help you with your eternal guilt problem. No deliverance from bondage to destructive habits; the erosion of our social environment and structure is bound to continue.
George Orwell, writer of the novel 1984, approved of Europe's rejection of God. This in spite of sensing the negative repercussions of an atheistic approach. In 1940 Orwell wrote: "For two hundred years we had sawed and sawed and sawed at the branch we were sitting on. And in the end, much more suddenly than anyone had foreseen, our efforts were rewarded, and down we came. But unfortunately there had been a little mistake: The thing at the bottom was not a bed of roses after all, it was a cesspool full of barbed wire...It appears that amputation of the soul isn't just a simple surgical job, like having your appendix out. The wound has a tendency to go septic." [Cited in Christianity Today; January 13, 1984, pp. 25--26] If there is no resurrection - no Saviour to deal with our guilt and bent-ness - you are still in your sins. And that's no bed of roses.
Fifth, in v18 Paul notes, "then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost." There's no hope for our loved ones who've died before us, no prospect of seeing them again in heaven: they are permanently lost, and we're stuck in grief forever. A woeful isolation.
Sixth, v19: If there is no resurrection - "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men." If we are duped in believing there's a resurrection from the dead, what fools we are! We're to be pitied - how pathetic! It's like living in a fairy tale, a never-never land along with adherents of the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Functioning as schizophrenics in a way, without a grip on reality. That means scorn for us, and even worse - loss of hope: if we only have hope in Christ for THIS life. People can adapt and last amazingly well when captured and deprived of sleep or food or comfort; but erase their HOPE, and they give up.
Seventh, skip down to v32 for the last implication of there not being a resurrection. "If the dead are not raised, [here Paul quotes a slogan of jaded party animals] 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'" Makes sense, doesn't it? If there is no resurrection, no judgment, no accountability - why not sin merrily and ignore the consequences? This is empty consumerism in its most blatant form. Grab as much as you can, while you can - you may be dead tomorrow, and that's it. Humans are reduced to a bag of sensing neurons. Shame is a sham. Live it up: the options are pleasure or power. If there are no moral constraints, it becomes a DED world: Dog Eat Dog. Get to the top of the heap and lord it over all the rest. Then when you get to the top, wonder if that's really what it's all about, as you survey the wreckage you caused in getting there. Why not live like Conrad Black using the corporate jet to hop to his Florida estate at cost of millions to the shareholders? Why not be like the mom who buckled her child into the car then sent it into the lake? If there's nothing after death, what's to stop you?
Without judgment and accountability, life becomes meaningless, purposeless. Everything is vanity, useless, futile: what's the point? If the tomb is not empty - then life is empty. Tell me - is that the kind of world you want to live in? Who can live with the logical outworkings of rejecting the resurrection, if they really think about it and dwell on it? Does your heart not feel profound sorrow for those without hope in Christ?
But our very soul cries out there MUST be more than this emptiness, this uselessness; there must be a reckoning, our innermost being screams out for cosmic justice. Else our categories of justice, meaning, and honour are an illusion, with no true correspondence to reality. But such categories are only sustainable if we allow for life after death, a righteous Judge, and ultimate accountability.
The father of psychology, Sigmund Freud, was not a Christian, but he recognized how vital religion is in contributing meaning and purpose to life. He wrote [Civilization and Its Discontents], "Only religion is able to answer the question of the purpose of life. One can hardly go wrong in concluding that the idea of a purpose in life stands and falls with the religious system."
To sum up so far, then, if there is no resurrection: then Christ has not been raised; preaching and believing are useless; the apostles are liars; we're lost in our sins; those already dead are lost; we're to be pitied, having hope only for this life; and we might as well live it up, for tomorrow only brings destruction. And forget community - it's 'every man for himself.' Is that the world to which we're doomed?
Not a Scam
Were the apostles liars? Is the resurrection a hoax? My email program flags suspicious incoming messages, "Thunderbird thinks this message might be an email scam." Like the one supposedly from Royal Bank urging me to click on a link to update my account information. I don't happen to be a Royal Bank customer! Or the one titled "Job Offer" I received this past week from "Geoff Starr, CEO, George Weston Foods" in Australia. It promised a 7% commission for basically doing nothing; apparently the company needs "agents to receive payment for our products in their locality and to resend the money to us." Smells like a scam! Press the junk button, quick!
But how could you be sure? What if you wanted to check it out? Who would you ask? You might start with trusted authorities. Others in the industry you can contact independently, who have no interest or benefit to gain; you could ask if they've had dealings with this Weston company. You could maybe check out written-up legal documents in a registry office for actual articles of incorporation. Maybe you might even come across someone who had personally worked with this Mr Starr.
In this chapter Paul offers two classes of authorities to back up the fact of the resurrection. First is Scripture - here we're talking the Old Testament prophets. In vv3-4 he says he passed on to the Corinthians as of first importance what he himself had received, namely that Christ died for our sins "according to the Scriptures", that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day "according to the Scriptures"... Here is written reference predicting the event from hundreds of years earlier. This was all part of God's redemptive plan the prophets had foreseen and written about. The piercing, the innocent suffering, the 3 days, the not being left in the grave - it was all there, in the "registry office" of Scripture. Jesus in retrospect seemed to be the obvious missing piece in the puzzle of Old Testament Messianic prophecies.
Paul introduces a second class of authorities that may be consulted to check out the 'scam' in vv5-8: those eyewitnesses to whom Jesus appeared after He was raised from the dead. There are 6 different groupings or occasions: Peter, the 12, more than 500 at one time, then James, then all the apostles, and last of all Paul himself. Check'em out - take your pick! How willing were they to stand by their story? Note the little aside in v6 about the 500 - "most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep." These weren't just eyewitnesses; many of them would become martyrs, dying for their testimony, refusing to acknowledge Jesus as anything else than risen Lord. Was Paul thinking of James, John's brother, first of the Twelve to be executed by beheading in Acts 12? Or was Paul's conscience aching as he remembered his own supportive role in the stoning of Stephen? Could he ever forget Stephen's face as he looked up and declared he saw the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God - just before the stones started pounding in?
If you're looking for others in the industry who might have knowledge of this character - independent others who have no benefit to gain - Jesus' existence is acknowledged by several non-Christian sources at the time, including the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, and the Jewish historian Josephus. He was a real person. Scripture and the first-hand witnesses vouch for Jesus' resurrection, maintaining their tune to the point of death.
Dr Kenneth Chafin, a Baptist pastor in Kentucky, recalls as a teenager being given a pamphlet in which an agnostic named Luther Burbank argued it wasn't really necessary to believe in Christ's divinity or His resurrection in order to admire Him for His good life and for His teachings. Chafin was living with his Uncle Walter and Aunt Bertie, who lacked formal training but had an excellent knowledge of the Bible and a profound faith in God. He recalls: "I took the pamphlet into the kitchen where she was cooking supper on an old wood-burning stove. She was making gravy in a large cast-iron skillet and was stirring it with a wooden spoon to keep it from sticking. After I read the pamphlet out loud to her, I asked what she thought of the idea. "Without looking up or even interrupting her stirring of the gravy she said, "Jesus was either the Son of God or one big liar. If He didn't rise from the dead the whole thing's a hoax."
She perceived Jesus' credentials and the value of His teaching depended upon His being who He said He was; and by deliberate choice, through repeatedly predicting His sufferings, death, and resurrection, He 'bet the farm' on being raised from the dead. His certificate's hung by a nail, supported by a rolled-away stone. To a man, His followers vouched that this was no hoax - they had seen Jesus alive again after being crucified. It's no scam; it's for real.
John Singleton Copley was one of the great legal minds in British history and 3 times High Chancellor of England. He wrote, "I know pretty well what evidence is, and I tell you, such evidence as that for the resurrection has never broken down yet."
Made Alive if We're His
Earlier we looked at the 7-fold implications IF there is no resurrection, in vv12-19 and 32. Verse 20 begins with a dramatic BUT / INDEED which offsets all those 'ifs'. "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." What means this "firstfruits"? A commentary explains it was "the first sheaf of the harvest given to the Lord as a token that all the harvest belonged to the Lord and would be dedicated to Him through dedicated lives.So Christ, who has been raised, is the guarantee of the resurrection of all of God's redeemed people." Isn't that good news? Because of Adam, the world was infected with sin, and we were all doomed because of our sinful nature as well as our actual evil deeds. But though we died in Adam [original of our human nature], in Christ we are made alive. Jesus' resurrection has opened the way for everyone to have hope.
The firstfruits sheaf signalled that the harvest had come; though the rest of the grain was still in the fields, all of it was a gift from God. Jesus has been raised from the dead; our turn is yet to come. It's a bit like the weather we've been experiencing lately. By early last week, all the snow had disappeared from around our place. Spring had sprung, crocuses and snowdrops were in bloom, robins were getting ready to build their nests. Children bounced on trampolines in their shorts. Then, boom: winter returned with snowsqualls and subzero temperatures, covering the ground with several inches of the white stuff. Arrgh! But we can wait it out - we've had a taste of spring: we know it will return. Just so, Jesus is our foretaste, the firstfruit of eternal life in a glorified body free from this order's corruption - though for a little while longer we cope with Adam's winter.
Vv24-26: "Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death." He who lives is Him who judges: our existence DOES have meaning, hope, purpose, and value after all. Justice will be served: the enemies of Jesus - who encapsulates all God's goodness, love, and truth - will be destroyed. You don't want to be one of those enemies, dominated by the wrong powers.
V23, "But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him." Who? Those who belong to Him - literally, those who "are Christ's", they're His, sold out. Paul says in Galatians 5(24) that those who belong to Christ Jesus "have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (NRSV). On which side of the tomb-stone are you - are you just 'in Adam', or are you 'in Christ'? Are you sold out to Him - do you 'belong to Him' or are you trying to forge your own papers? Jesus said, "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters." (Lu 11:23) Are you with Him or against Him?
Settle it today - tomorrow may be too late. Easter's not a scam; resurrection is the real deal. Commit or re-commit your life to Jesus who alone can save you from a useless life, from DED-ness of amorality and a dog-eat-dog existence. You need Him. Hand over the reins of your life to Jesus who at some future point will hand over the kingdom to God the Father - Jesus who reigns eternally. The stakes are too high to refuse. In Adam we die, but in Christ we're made truly alive! Let's pray.