Well if you would take your Bibles in hand once again and turn back with me this time to the New Testament scriptures and to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians; 1 Corinthians chapter 15. This is, of course, one of the great passages that deals with the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ in the New Testament and it speaks strong words of rich encouragement to us as we celebrate the victory of Christ over the grave this Easter. In a moment, we’re going to read from the beginning of the chapter through verse 28, although our attention is going to focus on verses 12 through 28. And if you’d look there with me, verses 12 through 28, very briefly, I want you to see Paul’s argument falls into two major sections, two big chunks. Verses 12 through 19 first of all, deals with a “What if?” The Corinthians were asking, “What if the dead are not raised? Would it really make that much of a difference to us?” So Paul teases out the disastrous consequences of rejecting the doctrine of resurrection. And then in verses 20 through 28, he deals with an “In fact.” So, “What if?” -12 through 19; 20 through 28, “In fact.” In fact, Christ has been raised, and so he goes on to tease out for us the implications of that glorious fact.
And that structure, if you think about it, is enormously helpful. It ought to be, as we wrestle today with all sorts of “What if” questions. “What if the pandemic continues for many more weeks? What if we cannot find an effective treatment? What if I get sick? What if someone I love gets sick? What if the economy doesn’t recover quickly? What if? What if?” And we can torture ourselves with “What ifs?” can’t we? In our text, Paul responds to “What ifs?” with “In fact.” He responds by preaching Gospel certainties. He responds by reminding us the tomb is empty, Christ is risen, and hope cannot be defeated by “What if.”
Well, before we take a look at the text, let’s pause first of all and pray once again and ask for God to help us understand His holy Word. Let us pray.
O God, we want to hear Your voice, so open our ears, open our hearts. Illuminate our understanding. Give light, O Lord, by Your Holy Spirit now, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
1 Corinthians 15 at verse 1. This is the Word of God:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about 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, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 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. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every 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. For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when it says, ‘all things are put in subjection,’ it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.
What does Easter have to do with life under the coronavirus crisis? Or let me pose the question perhaps a little more provocatively. If Jesus had never risen from the dead, would it make any difference to the way you handle life during the pandemic? That’s my question as we turn to 1 Corinthians 15 this morning. Does the empty tomb have any bearing on how we process the fact of this empty church today? If Jesus is alive, what should that do to our hearts as we watch this virus spread?
Now in verse 12, Paul responds to some people in the church at Corinth who were asking a, “What if?” question about the resurrection. Look at verse 12. “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” So understand what’s going on. There were people at Corinth who were saying, “You know, I don’t love the concept of bodily resurrection. I’m really not sure I’m buying it. And anyway, will this idea make much of a difference to our lives if we were to take it out of the structure of our Christian faith? Do we really need it? Maybe we can do without the doctrine of a bodily resurrection.” They were living in a culture that viewed the body typically in wholly negative terms. You may remember in Acts 17:32 the apostle Paul was preaching in Athens and Luke says of Paul’s audience, “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked.” The body, in their minds, was a prison from which we all seek escape. And so the concept of a bodily resurrection, that the body might live forever somehow, was to them absurd. That was common in Greek culture. And then add to that the dynamics of church life in Corinth in particular and you may begin to understand why they were asking questions, doubting the resurrection.
You may remember the Corinthians were immensely proud of their spiritual gifts and their perceived spiritual prowess. Perhaps they had begun to rethink the idea of resurrection because they thought they’d already received the fullness of Christian blessing and there was nothing more to come. They had experienced, as it were, spiritual resurrection. “Why do we need a bodily resurrection?” But whatever the reasons behind their doubts, they had come to reject the doctrine of a resurrection from the dead. And so in verses 13 through 19, Paul takes on their objection and asks his own, “What ifs?” to tease out the implications.
Do you see that in verses 13 through 19? “Okay guys,” he’s saying, “let’s play this out all the way to the end and see what difference the rejection of the idea of resurrection really does make.” And notice carefully, everything else he’s going to say to them, every other consequence he will unpack for them, flows from this one fundamental point, this one conclusion. If we reject the idea of a resurrection of the dead in general, then logically we must also reject the idea of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead in particular. You see how he puts it there in verse 13? “If there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised.” And now what difference does that make? If Jesus stays dead, Paul says essentially there are two groups of consequences. In 13 through 15, there are consequences for Gospel communication and then in 16 through 19 there are consequences for personal salvation.
Consequences for Gospel Communication
Think about the consequences for Gospel communication first. Look at verse 14. “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” The Gospel message that Paul preached, that he summarizes in verses 1 through 11, proclaimed the cross and the empty tomb. “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, was crucified and buried, and on the third day, according to the Scriptures, he rose again from the dead.” The death of Jesus, Paul is saying, could make no difference, it could provide no atonement for sin, no pardon for guilty sinners, no hope of rescue from death and judgment if the death of Jesus was not also followed by the resurrection of Jesus, if Jesus was not vindicated as the righteous one by triumphing over the grave. If Christ did not rise, the message that Paul preached and the faith in the Corinthians hearts that responded to that message, he says, is vain and foolish and empty. If Jesus’ desiccated old bones lie moldering some place in a tomb in Israel right now, well then I may as well close my Bible and leave the pulpit right now and never return. If Jesus is dead, Paul is saying, Christianity is a sham.
And for preachers, that doesn’t simply mean that we have been wasting our time proclaiming the risen Savior. It’s much worse than that. Look at verse 15. “We are even found to be misrepresenting God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise if it is true, the dead are not raised.” The verb translated “found to be” is sometimes called a divine passive. Paul is saying, “If the dead are not raised, and I’m preaching a risen Christ, God will find me bearing false witness against Him.” The finding there implies a judicial finding. Paul is shuddering at the thought of standing before God in the last judgment having been found misrepresenting Him, telling lies about Him. And so look; here’s the point. Do you see it? It’s not difficult. If Christ did not rise, the entire enterprise of church life and Christian ministry is a fool’s errand that can do nothing but expose those who devote their lives to the work of Gospel communication to the judgment of God. That’s Paul’s startling message.
Consequences for Personal Salvation
And it’s not just preachers that it affects. Is it? There are consequences for more than Gospel communication. There are consequences too for personal salvation, far more urgently. First, if Christ did not rise from the grave, he says, then our sin and our guilt remains. Verses 16 and 17, “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” You see, the Bible, everywhere, teaches that sin requires atonement by sacrifice in order to be pardoned. Hebrews 9:22, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” And the only sacrifice that God will accept is the death of a sinless, perfect substitute in our place. Jesus proclaimed Himself to be that substitute. Matthew 20:28, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many.” John 10:11, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”
But if after all that Jesus was not in fact a sinless substitute, if He had been lying and deceiving Himself and us all along, well then when He hung on the cross He would have hung there Himself a sinner, justly dying under the wrath of God, not in our place, not for our sin, but the wrath of God due His own sin. Death would have bound Him forever and there never would have been any possibility of that first Easter Sunday morning when the stone was rolled away. You see, the resurrection of Jesus was the Father’s justification of His Son. It was Christ’s vindication, the public declaration that Jesus’ sacrifice was perfect, acceptable to God, and atoning for our sin completely. But if He is still dead, well then you see, He has not been vindicated. He is condemned, in fact. He is lost Himself, and we are lost right along with Him.
Our whole salvation, Paul is teaching us, hangs on the answer to this question – “Did Jesus Christ, in the same body in which He was crucified, dead and buried, rise from the dead, alive forevermore on the third day?” If He did not, our sin remains and we are lost. Without Easter, you see, there is only defeat for Jesus and hell for us. That’s the implication, isn’t it, of verse 18 when he speaks about the fate of those who have fallen asleep in Christ? He’s talking about people who believed in the risen Jesus. If Jesus has not risen in fact, then those who have fallen asleep in Christ, he says, have perished. They’ve perished, under the wrath of God still. Without Easter, there’s only defeat for Jesus and hell for us.
And so verse 19 is an understatement. Do you see verse 19? “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” What a pathetic bunch we are if Jesus is still dead. Right? We have nothing to say to suffering millions confronted with bodily weakness, with economic peril, with the reality of our own mortality as this dreadful disease continues to roll on. We have no hope for eternity to lend courage in time for these difficult days. Frankly, we are wasting our breath spending another moment talking about Jesus if His bones lie in a tomb in Israel some place. So the stakes are pretty high, aren’t they?
This isn’t a game of Jenga. This is what the Corinthians were missing. You know the game Jenga? The little wooden blocks, all set at different angles, and there’s a tower and you wiggle a block and if you’re careful you can tease one out and remove it from the tower and the whole thing will still stand. But Paul is saying, “Look, the resurrection isn’t like one of those Jenga blocks. If you remove the resurrection, the tower, the edifice of your Christian faith comes crashing down. Everything depends on the empty tomb.” So the stakes are high.
But having run with the Corinthians’ doubts, their “What if?” about the resurrection, all the way to the terrible logical conclusions, notice now in verses 20 through 28 that he responds with an “In fact.” A glorious “In fact.” Verse 20, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.” Now back in verses 1 through 11, Paul rehearsed for us the facts of Christ’s death and resurrection along with his various post-resurrection appearances. First to Cephas, that’s Peter, then the twelve disciples as a group, then more than five hundred others, most of whom Paul says at the time of the writing of this letter to the Corinthians were still alive; you could go and talk to them and confirm for yourself. They were eyewitnesses. Then He appeared to James and the other apostles and then lastly He appeared to the apostle Paul himself. What is Paul’s point? Why is he telling the Corinthians that? He’s simply saying, “Look, the resurrection of Jesus is not a myth. It’s not wish fulfillment. It’s not even mass delusion. It is history. It is fact. In fact, Christ has been raised from the dead.” It belongs to the world of facts. And because it’s a fact, it changes everything forever. Paul says, Jesus, in fact, has been raised “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Instead of those who have fallen asleep back in verse 18 perishing, because Jesus rose, the first fruits of a greater harvest to come. He is the advance sample of the full harvest guaranteeing the destiny of all who believe in Him.
What happened to Him – here’s the point – what happened to Him will happen to you. Isn’t that amazing? It will happen to you, believer in Jesus. History, no doubt, will show one of the great, if not the great tragic fact of our time is the COVID-19 virus that so suddenly arose to take its place amongst deadly pathogens, against which right now we still have no effective defense. More than 20,000 U.S. deaths, 109,000 globally since the pandemic began. That’s a grim fact with which we’ve all had to come to terms. Our lives, our businesses, our communities, they’ve been turned upside-down and inside-out by it. Haven’t they? Nothing remains untouched by that fact. But you see here, Paul is reminding us of another fact that is far more significant still with even greater implications. COVID-19 kills. Jesus Christ rose again so that there is no part of our lives, no aspect of our daily routines that is not transformed by this one great fact – Jesus gives life!
And if you look down at verses 22 through 29, Paul even spells out how all of that works for us. First of all, he wants to talk to us about the mechanism of resurrection, the theological mechanism in verses 21 and 22. He’s asking us to look back, actually in 22 through 29, he asks us to look in three directions. First, look back to Adam and see the parallel between Adam and Christ. That’s the mechanism by which this whole thing works theologically. Then he’s going to say look forward in 23 and 24 to the manner of our resurrection, how it will be when Christ comes. And then in 25 to the end, look up and see Christ’s present reign, how He sits upon the throne in mastery. So method, manner and mastery if you like; alliterated points.
Look Back: The Theological Method of Resurrection
Think about the theological method. How does this all work? Twenty-one and 22, “As by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Look back to Adam and see the parallel, Paul is saying, between Adam and Christ. Jesus, if you like, is the second and last Adam. The first, by his sin, brought death into the world, as we know all too well right now. But the second, by His obedience, even unto death, through His resurrection brought life. Just as death is the universal experience of all of Adam’s natural descendants, life is the experience of all who are in Christ by faith. You’re in Adam naturally, and you die, and you get into Christ by grace through faith, and you live. It’s like having your plumbing connected to the wrong pipeline. Death flows through one, and if you’re connected to it, death will flow to you. But if you’re connected to the other, if you’re connected by faith to Jesus Christ, life flows from Him to you.
And so the question really is, “To whom are you connected today? With whom are you living today in union? Are you in Adam or are you in Christ?” How could you, why would you face the coronavirus pandemic in Adam, joined to Adam, connected to the pipeline of death when there is life available freely in the Lord Jesus Christ? You know, when you trust in Jesus you begin to taste resurrection life erupting into your heart right here and now, changing you inside and out. And more than that, you are guaranteed the fullness of resurrection life hereafter. Death is not defeat to you, but victory. And one day, death itself will be undone. If you want to understand how Jesus’ resurrection makes a difference to you, Paul says look back to Adam, see the parallel between Adam and Christ. You're either in Adam or you’re in Christ. One leads to death; the other to life. Which is true of you? Which is true of you? Are you in Adam or are you in Christ? Look back.
Look Forward: The Manner of Our Resurrection
Then, Paul says look forward – 23 and 24. By Christ has come the resurrection of the dead, “but each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.” Look back, you see the theological mechanism by which Christ’s resurrection leads to our resurrection. Now we need to look forward to see the manner by which we will be swept up into the resurrection life that is to come. Paul says that Christ, on that first Easter Sunday, when He walked alive again from the tomb, was the first fruits, the guarantee of the full harvest that is yet to come. And He is coming back. He will split the skies. A vast company of the redeemed will come with Him. The angelic choir that sang praises that night over Bethlehem when Jesus was born into the world will return with a trumpet blast and heaven will erupt in adoration as the great King Himself comes back to take His possession.
And every eye will see Him and every knee will bow before Him and believers, Paul says, will be raised with bodies that reflect the glory of Christ’s exalted humanity. And then the final judgment will begin. New creation will come. All things will be made new and death will be swallowed up in victory. And then at last, Christ, the triumphant second Adam, God’s true King, His vicegerent who has filled the earth and subdued it, will hand the kingdom to God having destroyed every rule and every authority and power. All that opposes righteousness, every stronghold of wickedness, everything that militates against the goodness of God and the rightness of His rule – from satanic power to viral pandemics to wicked people living in rebellion against Him – all will be overthrown and the dominion of grace and glory will be complete. What a day it will be when our Savior comes.
You see, it is not only for this life that we have hope, is it? Because Jesus rose again, we’re looking beyond this life, beyond suffering here, beyond thorns and thistles and the sweat of our brows, beyond the curse, beyond death. We know because Jesus lives and He is the first fruits, a new world is coming. That’s our hope, and that hope fuels courage in the face of pandemics and personal pain. Hope like that makes us live for more than right now and helps us value more than present comfort. Our gaze is fixed beyond the horizon line on the world to come. Here, we have no continuing city. We are looking for that city which is to come, whose architect and builder is God. Turn on your TV screen and all you see is COVID-19 24/7. In such days don’t we need reminding? I need reminding to lift my eyes to the glory that waits and to remember this world is not our home. Because Jesus lives, there is a new world to come.
Look Up: Christ Sits on the Throne in Mastery
Look back and see the mechanism that connects us to Jesus’ resurrection. Then look forward and see the manner of our resurrection that is to come. And then finally, 25 through 28, look up and be reminded that right now Christ has mastery. Verse 25, “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet.’ But when it says, ‘all things are put in subjection,’ it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.” Paul is reflecting on Psalm 110 verse 1 which speaks about Christ and says, “The LORD said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” And 1 Corinthians 15:25 is telling us that’s what’s happening right now. Christ is risen. He reigns at the right hand of God and He will continue to reign until Psalm 110 verse 1 is perfectly fulfilled and God has put all His enemies under Christ’s feet. Of course the last enemy to be destroyed will be death, verse 26. One day, death will be made to work in reverse in the glorious resurrection of the dead. Until then, Jesus sits the throne, right now, reigning at the right hand.
We’ve got to get a grip on that today, don’t we? It could not be easier to doubt it after all. We’re afraid. We’re uncertain. But Christians can have peace and a quiet confidence through all of this because we know none of this is outside the plan of the One who reigns. None of this has toppled Jesus from His position at the Father’s right hand. Indeed, we know even this must work together for the good of those who love Him and have been called according to His purpose. Because He died and rose again, Jesus Christ, today, is sitting on the throne King of kings and Lord of lords. I love the shorter catechism’s definition of Christ’s kingly office. In question 26 it asks, “How does Christ execute the office of a king?” And it answers, “Christ executes the office of a king in subduing us to Himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all His and our enemies.” Isn’t that magnificent? What a great summary of Biblical teaching.
Maybe you’ve found yourself wondering, “What is Jesus up to right now in these strange, hard days? What is He doing?” This is what He is doing. He is subduing us to Himself through the Gospel, ruling and defending us by His Word and Spirit, and restraining and conquering all His and our enemies in His mighty, sovereign providence.” Now to be sure, verses 27 and 28 remind us one day the work will be complete, Christ will surrender the kingdom to God and Himself submit as Messianic king that God might be all in all. But that work is not yet done. So here is truth to rest in, do you see it, on this strange Easter Sunday – perhaps the strangest of our lives. Here’s truth to rest in, never more important to rest in than today – Jesus Christ is alive and He reigns as King over all and He will reign until all things are in subjection to Him. And until that day dawns, He is at work to conquer all His and our enemies from the demonic to the pandemic. And none of it, not the worst of it can thwart His perfect design.
Here’s a refuge for the world-weary soul. Christ has triumphed over the grave. Do you believe that? His resurrection guarantees yours. And until then, He never sleeps, He never steps away from the throne, and He never takes His eye from the progress of His kingdom in the world. He reigns. There’s a safe harbor for every troubled heart in these stormy days. May God bless you and yours. May you come to find shelter under the wings of the Almighty. May you come to find comfort in the fact of the empty tomb. May you come and bow before the throne of the exalted Christ having been subdued to Himself by the Gospel. May the Lord richly bless you indeed this Easter. Let us pray.
Father, thank You for the good news about Jesus. Make it life and health and peace in our hearts. May the reign of King Jesus cause us true joy. We pray that we may yet see His kingly scepter extended in our days to the end of this pandemic that we may be reunited in worship together. Until then, help us to find shelter in the storm under the shadow of His wings. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.