I Corinthians 15
Foci: 12–19; 50–58
Eternal Hope in Christ
Laura Miguélez Quay
April 16, 2017
On this morning when we have an opportunity to celebrate Easter Sunday—Resurrection Sunday—it is worth noting that it is impossible to profess belief in Jesus Christ if we don’t believe he rose from the dead; it is impossible to profess belief in Jesus Christ if we don’t believe in the resurrection. This is something that years ago one of my professors from Boston University pointed out to me in correcting something I had written. In writing about Jesus, I had referred to him as “Christ” and this professor told me that I needed to change “Christ” to “Jesus.” “To speak of Jesus,” he said, “is to acknowledge that such a man historically existed. But to say Jesus is ‘Christ’” he went to add, “is to make a profession of faith.” And he was absolutely right. I think it is easy to believe in Jesus but it’s not so easy to believe he is Christ. It is easy to believe in Jesus but it’s not so easy to believe he was actually the Messiah—which is what “Christ” means—who had been promised throughout the Old Testament. It is easy to believe in Jesus but it’s not so easy to believe he was actually God who had come in the flesh to deliver humanity from all evil and sin.
True Christian belief isn’t simply about believing in the fact that the man Jesus lived. Rather true Christian belief is about believing in the fact that Jesus was and is the Christ. And if we do believe Jesus is the Christ, this belief should completely transform how we understand and live out the entirety of our lives. For at the end of the day to believe in Jesus Christ is to believe that all of the Old Testament Scriptures point to him, just as he said. Therefore it is to believe that all of the Old Testament teaching, as well as Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the New Testament Gospels, as well as the rest of the New Testament teachings are not merely words of men but, at one and the same time, they are words of God—which is to say they are words from God to us. As Peter, one of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples states, “prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
And if we had to isolate a single teaching professed by Christians but probably not professed by anyone else regarding Jesus, it’s that:
Not only did a man named Jesus live on earth—even atheists might acknowledge this;
Not only was Jesus’ death by means of crucifixion—this historical fact about his life isn’t in dispute.
But—and here’s the belief that separates a Christian’s understanding of Jesus from everyone else—Jesus was the Christ who on the third day after being put to death rose from the dead; which is to say, not only was Jesus fully man, but he was also fully God who rose from the dead never to die again. And this conquering of death—something no one has ever done—means that Jesus Christ is the only way God has provided for us to conquer death for he took on our death that we might receive his life. But I’m getting ahead of myself….
As we’ve been working through Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church—to believers in Jesus Christ—these past three months, we have seen time and again that though they had a basic knowledge of who Jesus Christ was, their understanding had remained woefully inadequate. Therefore, in Paul’s words, he had to feed them intellectually and spiritually with teaching that was “milk, not solid food, for [they] were not yet ready for it.” Their lack of readiness for more solid food—for more solid teaching about Jesus Christ—was evident in their behavior: their divisiveness—and sexual immorality—and pride over who was a better Christian, their posturing one against another over which one of them was more “spiritual” that the rest. And this lack of readiness for more solid teaching is evidenced again in chapter 15 of Paul’s letter in that some of these believers in Christ were even saying, “there is no resurrection of the dead” (12). In other words, they were denying the most basic tenet of Christian belief. So let’s consider how Paul addresses this problem that we ourselves might come to a better understanding of why this particular Christian belief, which we celebrate on Easter and always, is so very important.
Paul begins the chapter by rehearsing the heart of the Christian message—what he has received and passed on as being of first importance—namely, verse 3, “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” As we’ve noted throughout this letter—and throughout Holy Week—everything, but everything that took place in Jesus’ life was “according to the Scriptures,” that is, according to what God foretold by the prophets in the Old Testament. And the most important thing God foretold was that his Messiah, which, again, is but another way of saying his “Christ,” would one day come to die for humanity’s sin—and that he would be buried—and, most important of all, that he would rise from the dead on the third day.
And as a further indication that the man Jesus was the promised Messiah, that the man Jesus was in fact, Jesus Christ, Paul provides a representative list of some of those to whom Jesus Christ appeared after he was crucified; after he had died; after he was buried; and, again, most important of all, after he had risen from the dead. Among those who saw the risen Christ throughout the days following his death were:
Cephas—which is another name for the apostle Peter;
And then the Twelve disciples (5);
Then Christ appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom were still living (6);
Then Christ appeared to James;
Then to all the apostles;
And last of all the risen Christ appeared to Paul during a time in which he had been actively persecuting—imprisoning and putting to death—those who professed faith in the very Christ who chose to appear to Paul (8–9).
So after this brief introduction, in verse 12 Paul asks the believers in this church a very basic question—this is catechism 101: “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” Apparently what some in this church had been teaching was only partially correct. On the one hand, they did appear to be proclaiming Christ’s resurrection; they did appear to be preaching that Christ had been raised from the dead. But what they hadn’t understood was that an important consequence of Christ having been raised from the dead was that the resurrection of the dead for those who believed in Christ was thereby true—again, it was true not only for Christ but for all who believed in him. Paul is trying to make clear to these believers that you can’t have one without the other. Either resurrection from the dead is possible—or it isn’t. So in verse 13 Paul dives right in and challenges the fallacy of their belief by stating: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.” Again, either resurrection from the dead is true or it isn’t true. Either Christ has been raised—and therefore resurrection of the dead is available for all who believe in him—or Christ himself hasn’t been raised. So we begin to appreciate the importance of Paul having begun by listing some of those to whom the risen Christ had actually appeared—people of integrity, most of whom were still living who could testify to having seen and spoken with the risen Christ—the very Christ who three days prior to his resurrection had been crucified, nailed to the cross, and had died.
Paul explores the implications of what follows if he were to grant the Corinthians their premise:
If there isn’t resurrection of the dead (verse 12)
Then not even Christ has been raised (verse 13)
And if Christ has not been raised, then three things follow:
First, our preaching is useless (14)
Second, your faith is useless (14)
Third, we are found to be false witnesses about God. They are false witnesses about God because what they “testified about God” was “that he [had] raised Christ from the dead.” But, again, this cannot be the case “if in fact the dead are not raised” (15).
So the premise that Paul is testing—and disputing—and refuting—is the allegation on the part of some of the believers in this church that though Christ has been raised, with this one exception, there is no resurrection of the dead. So, Paul returns to this in verse 16 and reiterates “if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.” It’s a package deal. Either resurrection is possible or it isn’t. But it’s a package deal with dire consequences if proved to be false. In verse 17 Paul states for the second time, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” Your faith is incapable of producing any useful result. Your faith is pointless. Why? Because if Christ has not been raised “you are still in your sins.” You are still in your sins because Christ died—and rose—to pay the penalty of our sins. On the cross he took our place; on the cross he took our punishment. But if he was merely a man who died, we are still in our sins, “Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ”—in other words those who have died believing in Christ— “are lost,” verse 18. They are lost because their lives were earthly, not eternal. Their belief in Christ counted only for this life, because there is no next life, no life beyond. So if those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost, then our hope is only for this life—for our earthly lives. In which case, Paul notes, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (19). And make no mistake, even today there are people who do pity those of us who believe in Christ.
“Oh, those poor Christians, believing the Bible is God’s Word to us.”
“Oh, those poor Christians, believing that Jesus is the only way for someone to have a relationship with God whom they call ‘Father.’”
“Oh, those poor Christians, believing there’s such a thing as sin that will lead to death unless they confess and feel contrition over and turn away from it.”
“Oh, those poor Christians, believing there is anything awaiting us beyond death in the grave.”
“Oh, those poor Christians, believing that one day they will see and know Jesus Christ not only by faith, as they do now, but also by sight.”
“Oh, those poor Christians, believing that one day they will see other Christian believers and be rejoined with them in heaven.”
Oh, those poor Christians. So misled. So mistaken. So deserving of pity from a world that thinks it knows better than God’s Word to us in the Bible what life—and death—are really about.
But speaking as a Christian, I confess that I stand with Paul. I agree with Paul. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then what I do here each Sunday, preaching and proclaiming the Bible as God’s Word to us, is useless.
I agree with Paul. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then not only is the preaching I do here each week, but the foundation of Christian faith—belief that Jesus was and is God’s Christ who died and rose for us—is useless as well.
This past Good Friday we saw how the whole reason for God coming to earth in human form, the whole reason for the life and death of Jesus Christ, was to take upon himself the penalty for our sin—for our blindness due to our lack of belief in—and subsequent lack of obedience—to God; for our indifference due to our lack of belief in what God’s prophets proclaimed in the Old Testament—and what God’s apostles proclaimed in the New Testament—and what Jesus Christ himself proclaimed about our need to turn from our self-destructive ways and instead turn to God—turn to him—that we might know and follow his ways and so find the true meaning of our lives.
But had Christ—had God who came in the person of Jesus died for us and not also risen for us, he would have been just a man. A well-intentioned man, yes; a good man, certainly; an inspirational man, absolutely. But in the end, he would have been just a man who died, not God’s Messiah whom he ever claimed to be. If Jesus did not rise from death, then he would have simply died—delusional; mistaken; maybe a liar; maybe even mad—because while he was alive, he taught that after he died, he would rise. And if he didn’t rise, his entire life was a lie because the meaning of his entire life and teaching hinged upon his rising from the dead after dying in humanity’s place, taking on the penalty of humanity’s sin. Listen to some of the things he believed, taught, and did while yet alive:
Jesus Christ understood himself as coming to earth from heaven, from God his Father. He understood himself as being sent from God his Father.
He claimed to have existed before father Abraham who had lived thousands of years before Christ came to earth.
He claimed that all of the Old Testament Scriptures—that’s 39 books—pointed to him;
he forgave sins—something only God can do;
he regularly performed miracles—he healed the lame, gave sight to the blind, and fed the multitudes with but a few loaves of bread and fish;
he had power over nature—he walked on water, he stilled the wind and the waves with but a word;
he had power over the spiritual realm—he cast out demons;
and he had power over death—that of others and his own. In point of fact the most important thing Jesus Christ taught—and the most important thing Jesus Christ did—was to rise from the dead. Apart from this rising from death, never to die again, he could not give us his life—his eternal life, this free gift he offers to any and all who acknowledge that he was—and is—and ever will be the God who made us in his image and seeks to redeem us by his love—by his blood—by his death—and by his resurrection.
This is why Paul says in verse 19, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Again, if he didn’t rise, his entire life was a lie. But Christ has risen. And this is what we are celebrating this morning. That is what Christians have celebrated for over two thousand years. That is what Christians will continue to celebrate until Christ, our Savior, Lord, and King, returns to complete his Kingdom which will take place, as Paul states in verses 24–26, when the end comes when Christ will hand over “the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 [And] The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” In the person of Jesus Christ death has been conquered. In the person of Jesus Christ death will one day be destroyed, once and for all.
As we jump ahead to verse 50, Paul confidently declares that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” Flesh and blood—that would be you, me, and everyone who has ever lived or will live—cannot inherit God’s kingdom apart from Christ and his work. This is why God determined that the entry price into his kingdom would be through his Son, Jesus Christ, who as one who is fully human took on our perishability; but as one who is fully God has chosen to give his imperishability to any and all who acknowledge him as Savior—as Messiah—as God—as Lord. It is by receiving his imperishability that we are united with Jesus Christ not only now but with a union that not even our earthly death can dissolve for we are his and he will never let go of those who are his—not now; not ever.
To those who do accept Jesus as Christ, Jesus as God, Paul says in verse 51: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed.” Because of Christ’s death and triumph over death that first Easter Sunday, that first Resurrection Sunday, those who accept him as Savior and Lord will never be separated from him even when they physically die. And though earthly death won’t be our final end, something more glorious lies ahead for when God in Christ returns to complete the Kingdom he established when he first came to earth, our own bodies will be glorified; they’ll be transformed; they’ll become what God always intended for them before the Fall and the sin that resulted marred them with the effects of suffering and evil.
So, Paul goes on, when God in Christ, when Christ who is King over heaven and earth returns to complete the Kingdom he first established during his Incarnation, during his taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus, we—both those who have already died and those still living—“will all be changed” verses 52–53, “52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.” When God in Christ returns to finish establishing his Kingdom, our sanctification—our being made like he is—will be complete for we will be imperishable and immortal even as he, whose rising from the dead we are celebrating this morning, has promised to all who acknowledge him as Jesus Christ their Savior and Lord.
Scripture is nothing if not realistic. God knew the dread death holds for us. God knew how we fear it. God knew how we avoid thinking about it. God knew how we recoil at the thought of it. And so he overcame death in himself, in Jesus Christ, by allowing himself to experience death and take on the penalty of our sin—whose wage is death, whose reward is death, whose result is death. And he did this so that you and I—so that no one— would ever have to undergo that penalty and agony themselves.
And all who have given their earthly lives over to following Christ testify to this. Listen to what Paul says in verses 54 and 55: “54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ 55 ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’” As the writers of Scripture always do, Paul is grounding his teaching in what God had previously disclosed in his Word, in our Old Testament, as he quotes two prophets of God, Isaiah and Hosea, who had lived 700 years earlier.  In fulfillment of God’s Word, by his resurrection from the dead Jesus Christ has already removed, in a preliminary way, the sting of death. For Jesus Christ didn’t simply return from death to life only to die again at a later date. His return to life wasn’t akin to merely resuscitating someone who has died via CPR whose life is thereby extended for a time before eventually dying again. No, Jesus didn’t resuscitate from death, he rose from death never to die again. And in doing so his conquering of death began so that all who believe in him are joined to him and thereby never need succumb to death’s devastating hold and terror.
And when God in Christ finally returns to complete the conquering he began while yet living on earth, death’s defeat will be final for Christ’s victory will be final and no one will ever experience death’s victory again. No one will ever experience death’s sting again. As Paul states in verses 56 and 57: “56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Christ’s resurrection from death has met the demand of God’s law by paying the penalty for humanity’s sin once and for all for those who believe in and follow him. Christ’s resurrection from death means death’s sting has been removed for those who believe in and follow him. And so in following him, in obeying his Word by the help of his Holy Spirit and one another, we can stand not pitied, but firm, as Paul exhorts us:
“58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” Because Christ has conquered death—because Christ has indeed risen from death—our earthly lives matter. Our proclaiming the truth of God’s Word matters. Our faith matters. Our true witness of God in Christ matters.
And so let us proclaim yet again:
Christ is risen—he is risen indeed!
Christ is risen—he is risen indeed!
Christ is risen—he is risen indeed!
Let us pray.
 John 5:39: You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me,… See also the account of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, Luke 24:25–27: 25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
 I Peter 1:21.
 I Corinthians 3:2.
 Isaiah 25:8. Hosea 13:14.