Rewire: First Importance

Sermon by David Strain on March 11, 2018

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Now if you would please take a Bible in your hands and turn with me to 1 Corinthians chapter 14; chapter 15, I beg your pardon. 1 Corinthians chapter 15; page 961 in the church Bibles. As we continue our journey through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we’re going to be thinking this morning about the opening eleven verses of chapter 15.


When I was a kid in Glasgow, we played a game, I believe you call it "Telephone" here, apparently. In Glasgow, it had the dreadfully, politically incorrect name of "Chinese Whispers." I don't know what the Chinese have to do with it, but that’s what we called it! And you know the idea. So kids all make a line. The longer the line, the funner the game. Someone whispers a message into the ear of the first person and they have to pass it on from ear to ear down the line until the last person in line has to announced aloud what they think they’ve heard. And usually, it’s a garbled message with great hilarity as a result.


The apostle Paul tells us that he has delivered the Gospel to the Corinthians, but as we’re going to see, as the communication of the Gospel has passed from ear to ear and heart to heart, it has gotten rather garbled along the way. Actually, not with hilarious consequences but with disastrous consequences. If you’ll look for a moment at verse 12 – we’re not going to think about verse 12 today but we’ll come back to it, God willing, next week – but if you look at verse 12 you’ll see just how confused their understanding of the Christian Gospel has become. Paul asks them a question. “How can some of you say there is no resurrection from the dead?” Some of them, for whatever reason, were teaching that there is no resurrection. And Paul is going to show them that that must therefore also mean that Jesus hasn’t risen from the dead if there’s no resurrection. Not even Christ has risen from the dead. And if Christ has not risen from the dead, then the Gospel is an empty thing and a sham and we are, of all men, most to be pitied. And so he’s going to – and we’ll see, God willing, next week – in verse 12 through the end of the chapter, he’s going to respond to that mistake the way the Gospel has become distorted and garbled and mangled in the way it has been communicated.


Before he gets there, however, he wants to set the Gospel forth more positively and constructively in these opening verses. He wants to show them what it is before he corrects their mistake regarding the Gospel. And so verses 1 to 11, Paul sets forth for us with remarkable clarity a summary of the Christian Gospel.


I wonder if you’ve come across these ghastly neologisms. Two of my favorites at the moment: Apparently things can now be "truth-y" and "fact-ish." Truthiness is the quality of plausibility, even though the argument advanced or the story repeated is in fact quite untrue. It's truth-y. It's not true; it's truth-y. Something is fact-ish if there's just enough fact woven into it to make it sound persuasive, credible, and still not, in fact, be a fact at all. Paul is going to show us in these opening eleven verses that the Gospel isn't truth-y, it's just true. It's not fact-ish; it is a fact. And you can stake your life and your eternity upon it.


We’re going to ask four questions of these eleven verses, so if you’re taking notes, here’s the outline. Are you ready? Four questions. First of all, in verses 1 to 3, we’re going to ask, “What kind of thing is the Gospel?” “What kind of thing is it?” Then we’re going to ask, verses 3 and 4, “What is the content of the Gospel?” So, “What kind of thing is the Gospel? What is the content of the Gospel?” Then, verses 5 through 8, “Can I really trust this Gospel?” “Can I really trust it?” And then, finally, we’ll look at verses 9 through 11. “Should I really trust this Gospel?” Okay. So that’s the outline. “What kind of thing is the Gospel? What is the content of the Gospel? Can I really trust the Gospel?” and “Should I really trust this Gospel?”


Before we work through those together, however, would you bow your heads with me first of all as we pray? Let’s pray together.


Father, there are, we acknowledge, so many voices that seem to us to offer and promise joy and peace and life and clean consciences and satisfied hearts. And yet, we confess before You, as we seek to drink from those broken cisterns, we discover they hold no water and we are turned away in the end quite empty. We pray now that as Your Word is opened, as we read it together and as it’s preached, You would show us that the Gospel is an inexhaustible fountain from which we may drink to the everlasting satisfaction of our souls. Show us how much we need the Christ who is the sum of this Gospel, and then draw us to Him. Maybe, for some of us, draw us to Him for the first time. But draw all of us, whether we’ve been Christians for years or whether we’re not yet Christians at all, draw us to Jesus to cling to Him and to rest on Him as He is offered in this Gospel. For Jesus’ sake we pray, amen.


1 Corinthians 15 at verse 1. This is God’s holy Word:


“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.”


Amen. And we thank God for His holy Word.

I don't know about you, but having a mind like a sieve as I do, I require constant reminders. You know, so I have my calendar set up to send me reminders to my phone two weeks before an appointment and then two days before an appointment and then thirty minutes before an appointment. And yet with all of that notwithstanding, sometimes I still forget the appointment. If you've been on the receiving end of my forgetfulness, please do forgive me! But sometimes I get distracted. Sometimes I get sidetracked. Sometimes I just forget.


What Kind of Thing is the Gospel?

Paul, verse 1, Paul is writing to remind the Corinthians and to remind us, because as it turns out, it’s really very easy to forget, to lose sight of, to become fuzzy with regard to, to be distracted from the Christian Gospel. And so he wants us to brush off the sharp edges and to make sure that we get it crystal clear. He wants us to get on message and he wants us to stay on message. And so before we think about the content of that Gospel, let's start by asking the question, "What sort of thing is this Gospel?" And look at the first three verses as we seek to answer that question, please. We're going to come back to these verses again a little later on, but notice how Paul speaks about the Gospel. He says it is the Gospel “that I preached to you.” In verse 2, it is “the Word that I preached to you.” So very clearly, the Gospel is a message. We cannot do the Gospel. We cannot live the Gospel and we can’t be the Gospel. We can tell the Gospel, we can share the Gospel, we can preach the Gospel. It is a message; it is a Word.


And notice, Paul says in verse 3, it is this verbal message that he “received and then delivered.” Paul didn’t make it up, in other words. There’s no creativity on Paul’s part regarding the content of his message. He says, “This is a message I received, and what I received I delivered to you as of first importance, precisely that and nothing more.” He’s a herald with a message from the King and the herald is not to intrude himself into that message with his own narrative, his own opinion, his own version of the message. It’s to be the King’s message, not the herald’s message. And so he delivers what he receives. Sometimes you still come across people arguing, “You know, the apostle Paul, he’s the real creator of Christianity today; the original, the primitive Christianity before Paul got his hands on it, was something quite different than the Christianity we know. The Christianity of Jesus, it was a very different animal. And the apostle Paul came along and he took hold of this rather obscure sect of Judaism that thought they had found the Messiah in this person, Jesus, and he repackaged the whole thing. His creative genius is really what stands at the bottom of contemporary Christianity and he presents it for a global audience in a new way.”


Well, that's not Paul's point of view at all. That's not how he understood what he was doing. No, he receives the message then he faithfully delivers the message. And he says – look at this, verse 3 – that this message, this body of truths, this Word that has been given to him for the Corinthians and for us, he says it is “of first importance.” The Gospel is of first importance. He doesn’t mean first in a sequence of things, in descending order of importance; first in a sequence in terms of time, rather. Like the first thing you do when you want to build a new house. The first thing to get right is the foundation. He’s not saying the Gospel is like that foundation. You’ve got to carefully lay the foundation and then you can move on from the foundation and build on that foundation with other things. But the thing of first importance is the foundation. That’s not what he means. It’s not the first in a sequence; it is first in significance. It is of first importance. The Gospel isn’t a foundation you build on and then forget about. The Gospel, rather, is rich, fertile soil into which we are planted down and down and down into which we are to send ever-deeper roots that we might be nourished by the Gospel. The Gospel is not the ABC of the Christian message, is it? The Gospel is the A to Z. It’s not baby truth for new believers. The Gospel is soul nourishment for the most mature and for every one of us, whatever stage in the Christian life we may be.


Perhaps, perhaps, if you struggle with joylessness in your Christian life, it is a result of thinking that the Gospel is elementary and basic rather than life-giving truth your soul, today, still urgently needs. Maybe the fears and the doubts that we wrestle with, the lack of assurance of our salvation that plagues some of us, is a result of looking elsewhere for joy and hope and peace instead of to the thing that is of first importance from which we must never stray, never wander – the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul wants us to understand that the priority that we must all constantly take ahold of and appropriate and apply to our hearts is the Gospel. And that will never cease to be true.


So what sort of thing is the Gospel? The Gospel is a message that you must communicate in words. You know Francis of Assisi's famous dictum, "Go into all the world and preach the Gospel and use words if you have to," is terrible advice! You can't preach the Gospel unless you open your mouth and communicate in words a body of truth. It is a body of truth Paul didn't invent. It's a body of truth, rather, that he received from God, from the risen Christ in fact, by the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is given to us, recorded in holy Scripture, that we may, in turn, give it to others. And it is a message of first importance. It's not merely elementary. It is life to our souls every day, till the day we see our Savior at last, face to face. "What sort of thing is the Gospel?"

What is the Content of the Gospel?

Then, there's another question we need to ask. Given that the Gospel is a message like this, "What is the content of the Gospel?" Look at verses 3 and 4, please. Here's Paul's summary – simple, clear. It has four elements to it. Here's the summary. “That Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he arose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” That’s the Gospel. It has four elements.


A Message about Christ

The first of them is that this is a message about Christ. You can see that clearly, can’t you? Christ died. He was buried. He rose. The Gospel is not my testimony. It’s not my story, although telling your story is a good and helpful thing to do. The Gospel is not the offer of a changed life – that if you believe in Jesus, everything will be different for you. The offer of a changed life isn’t the Gospel, although a changed life is the effect of the Gospel in our hearts. The Gospel is not something to be done – repent and believe. Although, those are the obligations the Gospel presses upon everyone who hears it. “No,” Paul says, “it’s not my story. It’s not even your story. It is Christ’s story. It is a message about Jesus. It’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about Him.”


We have good news for the world – Jesus Christ has come! That’s the good news. “Christ for the world we sing.” The Gospel is not a transaction, is it? If you do this, believe this, act this way, perform this ritual, say these words, sign this card, pray this prayer, then you will be saved. That’s not the Gospel. It is not a transaction. It is a person. The good news is summed up in the person of Jesus Christ. He’s the one into relationship with whom this message Paul preaches brings us. He’s the one your heart needs. Paul wants us to see that of first importance is the centrality of Jesus Christ to every one of our hearts. The Gospel is a message about Christ.


A Message about Sin

Secondly, he says the Gospel is a message about sin. Do you see that? “Christ died for our sins,” verse 3. Let me say this clearly and carefully. Our fundamental problem is not brokenness. Our fundamental problem is sin and they are not the same thing. We sometimes use them almost as synonyms. Instead of talking about sin, we talk about brokenness. I think that’s a dangerous pattern to fall into and let me tell you why. When you talk about brokenness, the focus of our attention is on me, isn’t it? “What’s wrong with me? I need to be fixed?” Now you ask my wife, she will tell you, I am, in fact, a terribly broken man! Full of all kinds of dysfunctions. But that’s not my deepest problem. My deepest problem isn’t ultimately that I need some help sorting myself out. My deepest problem is that I stand before a holy God, guilty. That’s our real issue. Sin isn’t just brokenness, dysfunction. Sin is guilt in the sight of a holy God who stands in reference to us, in relationship to us, as a Judge. And apart from a Savior who can reconcile us to Him, there is only condemnation and judgment for us. There’s no way out from under the sentence. That’s our issue; that’s our problem.


And Paul says this Gospel about Jesus is so important because it is God’s answer to that issue. That’s the issue that it deals with. Not just our brokenness, though marvelously by the grace of God when the Gospel begins to deal with our sin and set us free not only from its guilt but from its pollution, we are enabled to think differently and act differently and master ourselves and we do become whole and happier and less dysfunctional human beings by the grace of God. But the Gospel itself speaks to the issue of sin and guilt and that is why we so badly need Christ. And whether you are still not yet a Christian or you have been a Christian for years and years, don’t you still have a sin problem? Paul says Jesus is the remedy! Why are you looking elsewhere? He is the one that you need and you must take hold of Him. The Gospel is a message about Christ. It’s a message about sin.


A Message about the Cross and the Empty Tomb

Thirdly, it’s a message about the cross and the empty tomb. “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures. And he was buried and he rose again.” It is a message of good news because all the bad news of my sin’s judgment was poured out in Jesus instead of on me. “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us.” He was identified with our wickedness and our rebellion and He embraced the role of sin-bearer in love for us in our waywardness and wickedness. And God poured out all His righteous wrath upon His Son and He died there at” Calvary, utterly quenching the wrath of God that I deserve. It spent itself on Him so that, when God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” He rose in victory over the grave. God declared Him to be righteous indeed. And in Him, trusting in Him, we are counted righteous also, vindicated, forgiven, justified, and accepted. Not because we are righteous, but because He is righteous for us. God’s remedy, do you see, for the deepest need of our heart – our sin and guilt – is His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a message about Jesus. It’s a message about sin. It’s a message about the cross and the empty tomb.



A Message According to the Scriptures

And fourthly, it’s a message that is according to the Scriptures. Paul repeats that for emphasis, doesn’t he? “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures,” verse 3. He was buried and he rose again on the third day, according to the Scriptures,” verse 4. This is not according to tradition. It’s not according to mere reason and rationality. It’s not according to human philosophy. This is not according to our social setting. It’s not group think. It is according to the Scriptures. This is a message shaped and constrained, founded in the Word of God. I suspect that a good deal of my personal evangelism would be far more effective and efficient and clear and useful in the hands of God if it were laced with much less of me and much more of His holy Word in Scripture. Because the Gospel is “according to the Scriptures.” Let’s get people to the Scriptures, get them into the Word. Let’s remember and quote and recite and open the Book for people and say, “Look here! Do you see that verse? Here’s what that means.” Show them the truth from the pages of God’s Word, “according to the Scriptures.”


And as we do that, we are giving testimony to the great authority and reliability of the Scriptures themselves. Throughout all the long ages of the Old Testament history, God has been speaking to His people about a Savior who would come. The seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent. The sacrifice that God Himself would provide in place of Isaac on Mount Moriah. The lamb’s blood on the doorposts and the lentils beneath which God’s people may find refuge and the avenging angel pass over. The work of the priests and the temple and the blood of bulls and goats. The Son of David who would reign from His throne and of His kingdom and of His government there would be no end. The servant of the Lord upon whom the Lord would lay the iniquity of us all and by whose wounds we would be healed. Over and over the Scriptures have been saying, “He’s coming. This is what He will be like. This is what He will do.”


And then you read the gospels and they are punctuated by a refrain – “This He did in order that the Scriptures might be fulfilled.” The Gospel is according to the Scriptures. And when we help people to see that, we are saying to them, “This Book, this Book is a foundation upon which you may build your life. You can trust it absolutely. It is true and sure.” So the Gospel – “What kind of thing is it?” It’s a message, it’s a Word, received and delivered of first importance. It is a message about Jesus, a message about sin. It’s a message about the cross and the empty tomb. And it is a message according to the Scriptures.


Can I Really Trust This Gospel?

And then thirdly, we need to ask, "Can I really trust this Gospel?" If that's what it is, can I trust it for real? How do I know it's true? Look at verses 5 to 8. The Corinthians were saying, "You know this Gospel you're preaching, Paul? I think it needs some tweaking, some reconfiguration to make it a bit more palatable, to make the medicine go down easier. We'll rub off some of the raw edges, Paul. This resurrection stuff, I think, needs to go." Paul wants to show them, "No, no, this Gospel, this pristine, authentic Gospel about Jesus Christ crucified and risen, this Gospel you can really trust." And here's how he does it. Look at verses 5 to 8. He says that "The Jesus that I've been preaching to you appeared" – that is, He was bodily seen – "by Cephas and then the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once. Most of them are still alive; some of them are dead," he admits. "But you can go find them, talk to them. He appeared to the Twelve, He appeared to James, and last of all to me, as though to one untimely born. We've seen Him. I've seen Him with my own eyes. I've met Jesus alive from the grave," he is saying. This is a testable fact. It's not truth-y or fact-ish. It’s true and utterly real and you can take that to the bank, he’s saying. This is sure. Of course you can trust this Gospel. Of course you can.


Should I Trust This Gospel?

Well, only one question remains. "Should I trust this Gospel?" You know the New Testament, everywhere, claims that you can trust this Gospel, that it's fact. The opening verses of Luke's gospel, you remember, Luke writing to Theophilus he says, “In as much as many have undertaken to provide an orderly narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eye witnesses, it seemed good to me also to write an orderly account." That's what Luke's gospel is. It's Luke's arrangement of the data and the information based on eye witness accounts. The apostle John, in his first letter, in the opening verses of 1 John says the same thing. "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands" – this isn't a myth or a fairy tale. This isn't make-believe. It's not the same sort of thing you will hear in the mythology of the Greek pantheon. This is something else. This is history. "That which we have looked upon and touched with our hands concerning the word of life, the life was made manifest. We have seen it and we testify to it, to you."


You really can trust this message about Jesus, but should you? Should you trust it? Well, look at verses 9 through 11, please. Back in verse 2, Paul says when the Corinthians trusted this message is did something amazing in their lives. Do you see it in verse 2? He says, "they are being saved" by this message. And if you want to know what that means, he tells us in his own life in verses 9 through 11. He sets himself forward as an example. In verse 9 he tells us he's really not worthy to be an apostle at all because he was persecuting the church. He hated Jesus. He was, we might say, a religious terrorist. Wasn’t he? He was traveling land and sea to arrest and persecute people who follow Jesus Christ. He’s not someone sliding towards Christianity. No, he is as hostile as it is conceivable to be. And on one of his trips, on the road to Damascus to go and kill and betray and wound and harm Christians, he met the risen Christ. He says, “By the grace of God I am now what I am.” And suddenly, seeing that Jesus is alive from the dead, the persecutor became the greatest preacher of the Gospel he once hated so very much that the world has ever seen.


Here’s what that means for us. It means that if grace, if the message about a risen Savior, if this Gospel can take someone like Paul and turn him around so completely and so radically, don’t you think that Gospel can do the same for you? Don’t you think it can do the same for you? Should you believe this Gospel? Should you trust this Jesus? What’s in it for you? If you will trust Him, you will never, you will never be the same again. Everything will change. You will go from death to life, from darkness to light, from being without God and without hope in the world to becoming a child of God and a member of His kingdom, a citizen of His kingdom. You will go from outside to inside, as it were. You will come to belong. You will have access to the throne of grace. You will have the Spirit of the risen Christ dwelling in your heart. You will see, as it were, for the first time. Should you trust in Jesus? Yes, you should. And I plead with you that you will. Trust in Christ.


Paul says, “This is what I preach. This is what you believed.” That’s what it takes. That’s all it takes. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Some of you are looking to do a thousand other things. You’re trying hard. You’re here every Sunday. You’re a good person. Some of you are trying to dig yourself out of a mess your life has made, seeking somehow perhaps to offset your misdeeds with a few good ones. Maybe in the end it will all come out in the balance, in the wash. It is a futile errand. But the good news is, Jesus is all you need. And if you will merely rest the weight of your life and your hope and your eternity on Him, then you, like the Corinthians, will begin – you will be saved, you will begin to be saved, and you will one day surely be saved at last. Yes, you can trust in Jesus. The question is, “Will you? Will you?”


Let me pray for you.


Our Father, you know every heart in this room and You know some of us have been Christians, truly trusting in Christ for many, many years. And yet, there are whole areas of our life where we’re trusting ourselves and we’re keeping You at arm’s length. There are others here who are not Christians at all. But all of us, all of us need to come back to Christ. And so we pray for grace now to do exactly that. To give up our self-reliance, to give up our delusions and our excuses, and to come bend the knee to Christ. Help us to trust Him who died for us and now ever lives for us – a perfect Savior. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.


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