Safe to say that in our American culture, we do not like to deal with the topic of death. We are really into our materialism and pursuit of pleasure. Distractions are a big part of our lives especially our phones nowadays. Being bombarded with advertising our entire lives that tell us we will be complete with a certain new gadget, that we will have a hole in our lives until we have another possession or that we will have members of the opposite sex around us if we drink a certain beer.
Fumbling around for purpose and meaning in our society, we put oﬀ thinking about the inevitable. Dr. Lawrence Samuel, in an article entitled ‘Death, American Style’, published by Psychology Today writes: ‘Americans’ fear and loathing of death poses major consequences for the future; the fact that our life spans have been dramatically extended over the last century does not make the impending arrival of death any easier. In fact, many if not most of us are dreading the day this most unwelcome guest will knock on our doors, as our youth-oriented society casts death as a threatening foe or adversary. With the biggest generation in history already in or rapidly hurtling toward its sixties, America is on the brink of becoming a death-oriented society, I contend, something that we are not at all prepared for. Baby boomers are especially unready for this day; their individual and collective deaths may become one of the most important chapters in American history. Already a topic few people like to talk about, death is especially alien to a generation priding themselves on thinking and acting young regardless of their age.’ But really any generation in our culture has this fear. Our worship of youth self-evident.”
You are all probably not morbid like me but have you ever thought about how many diﬀerent ways you can die in a day? A car accident. Hit by a bus. A disturbing diagnosis from a doctor.
It’s amazing that in American society, we spend so much eﬀort diﬀerentiating ourselves from others. We have our class system- rich, poor and middle class in which we make judgments about people’s character or morality. Look at the person next to you. Maybe this is someone you know very well: a spouse, a good friend, a child or maybe it is an acquaintance or someone that you don’t know very well. And when you look at this person, if you know them at least a little bit, consider all the ways they are diﬀerent from you. Their diﬀerent personality, maybe they are a person of a diﬀerent race or gender, maybe they have completely diﬀerent hobbies.
In spite of all these diﬀerences, these diﬀerent lives we lead and the diﬀerent things that we are into, we all have this in common. The grave. The grave is waiting for us all. An enemy that will defeat us all in the end. No wonder as we approach Halloween that one of our pop culture characters is the grim reaper. A foe that will not be beat that stalks us. One day, we will be overtaken.
Do you remember your ﬁrst experience with death? I was 7 years old. My dad had called us from Oklahoma where he had gone down because his dad- my grandpa (Art Lester)- was sick with lung cancer. Dad called to say that grandpa had passed away and that he was moving grandma up to Kent where we lived. I didn’t know my grandpa super well being all of 7 but obviously diﬃcult as a kid to realize that someone would not be there anymore.
A year later, I would get an even deeper introduction. My grandma on my mom’s side was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Being 8 years old, this was explained to me as a terrible disease that would cause grandma to forget everything and eventually for her brain to forget vital functions.
Fast forward about 3 years, I’m 11 or 12 and we get a phone call at our house in Kent. Grandpa had called extremely upset because he could not get grandma to go to bed. She was sitting in a recliner in their living room and kept declaring him to be a stranger. This was 10pm at night and mom decided she wanted to go out there and was going to go alone but I declared, ‘I’m going to come with you.” So we drove out to the Yelm area, way far south of Seattle and arrived to this scene. Sure enough. Grandma was still seated in the living room recliner. Grandpa was beside himself. Mom ordered me to go to bed rather quickly as it was late and also, I don’t know if they wanted me to hear the ensuing conversation. I did anyway as it was a short hallway down to the guest bedroom from the living room.
The conversation revolved around having to put my grandma in a home and selling their home that he had largely built himself. My grandpa wept. I had never heard him cry before. He was a truck driver, a member of Teamsters and a guy who taught me the love of the outdoors. I remember as a kid wishing I could take this pain away but obviously I could not. Death was coming for people I loved. It had already showed up in a way through this disease robbing my grandma of the memories of their own story, the romance, the raising 5 kids together. All of it was gone. My grandpa was a stranger to her.
Being 11 or 12 years old, one’s thinking is obviously not too sophisticated yet but I still think about these memories and what happened. Years later I saw a movie that struck me. Now, this movie is nothing like my grandparents story but the theme I connected with in what Alzheimer’s did to my grandparents. The movie is ‘About Schmidt’ and maybe some of you have seen it. Jack Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt who is about to retire from an insurance job. A young guy is already going to be taking his place. So he retires and soon his long time wife dies but then he discovers his wife was having an aﬀair with one of his good friends. To top it all oﬀ, his daughter is engaged to be married to this furniture salesmen whom he hates. His entire life has unraveled creating an existential crisis in this man’s life. He has a monologue toward the end of the movie, one of my favorites of all time:
Death is approaching for Warren Schmidt but we are not just talking anymore about physical death are we? We are talking about a spiritual death. One devoid of meaning, purpose or hope. Schmidt’s soul is dead. Sometimes, it may take someone a long time to realize that truth. Death is a constant in this fallen world. 7 billion people exist on planet earth today. Did you know there are more people who exist today then who have existed in all of human history (say up to the year 1900)? Of all the diﬀerent cultures, languages, races and everything else that made all these people unique, they all faced he grave and were overcome by it.
Except for this one time with this one Guy…
Background: In the Old Testament was there a conception of resurrection? From Genesis to Malachi, discussion on resurrection or an afterlife seems severely limited to non-existent. However, there are scholars that argue that Judaism did have a belief in resurrection generally. Jon Levenson is one of those scholars. He wrote a book called ‘Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel’ where he sets out to argue that resurrection had been a common and general belief of Israel’s since the very beginning not just in Daniel chapter 12 which appears to be talking about the apocalypse and resurrection at the end of that time.
Fast forward to Jesus time and a lot of us are familiar with the diﬀerent Jewish groups around Israel under the Roman occupation. The Pharisees believed in resurrection at the end of time after the apocalypse. The Sadduccees, asked on their gospel conversations with Christ denied the resurrection or any resurrection. The Essenes (who many believe authored and copied the Dead Sea scrolls) believed in the immortality of the soul and that they would receive their souls back after death. The Zealots were a more radical political branch of the Pharisees who, of course, wanted to throw the Romans out of the Holy Land by force. They most likely would have shared the Pharisees views of resurrection.
Now, being that we are in Corinth and remember that Corinth was a shipping port so lots and lots of diﬀerent kinds of people would be coming in and out. A diverse crop of people all the time. So the Corinth church had Jewish people who had become Christians or maybe were somewhere along the spectrum of becoming Christians.
The city and therefore the church also had a lot of Greeks. Greeks had been highly inﬂuenced at that time by platonic dualism. Plato taught that the physical body was an imperfect copy of an ideal form that existed spiritually. Plato’s philosophy taught that our soul or spirits existed prior to our life on earth. Our physical bodies were mortal. Therefore, at death, people would be freed from there physical bodies which the Greeks at Corinth thought would be a good thing. Now we know why the Corinth church had a tough time accepting the bodily and physical resurrection of Jesus.
One of the main points Paul is making here is the centrality of the resurrection to the gospel and a key component of that is a historic and bodily resurrection.
Let’s dive into what Paul has to say and his apologetic.
15:1- “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand,”
Paul says he makes known the gospel and by this he is not saying he is unveiling the good news for the ﬁrst time. He reminds the Corinthians they have already received Jesus as Lord and Savior. The language with “received” indicates that it was a decisive act. The overall verse actually strongly implies a gentle rebuke as the Corinthians had received the gospel but were not appreciating it. Paul describes them as standing in the gospel so they had a fundamental grasp of Jesus’ love and sacriﬁce for them even without maybe a complete understanding.
15:2- “and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”
The people of Corinth are described as saved in verse 2 if they hold fast to the word which Paul had preached to them. ‘Saved’ is present continuous. This is describing their status before God having salvation but this is also a continuing act of redemption that God is working on in their lives. The ‘if’ here is tricky. This is a conditional statement that seems to suggest that someone is saved if they continue to hold to that gospel that was preached. All of this bound to ignite the age old Calvinist and Arminian debate. Can someone lose their salvation? This is not the only place Paul uses the word ‘if’ in relation to salvation. Colossians 1:22-23 is another place and this is the same author as Romans. Rather than rehashing this old debate, let’s have a truce. Let’s bring everyone together. Here is the thing. If you are a Calvinist or you favor Jacobus Arminius, in regard to eternal security, both perspectives agree on the end game. Calvinists would say that a person was never really saved and therefore is lost and needs the gospel. An Arminian will say that a person has lost their salvation and is lost and needs the gospel. So, both scenarios…the person in question needs the gospel. Let’s have a truce.
15:3- “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,”
Paul was the missionary who delivered the gospel to the Corinth Church. Acts 18 has information about Paul’s work in Corinth on his missionary journey. The apostle emphasizes this is not his message. It is not something he made up but something that he is passing on that is of extreme importance. He proclaims: Christ died for our sins. What is implied in this verse is an atoning sacriﬁce. For the wrongs we have committed against God, Jesus being sinless took those wrongs upon Himself so that we could be reconciled to a Holy God and be forgiven. People say that God’s love and God’s justice meet at the cross. There are people today who are critics of Christ dying for sins. Some thinkers even go so far as to declare this to be divine child abuse. This perspective fundamentally misunderstands the historic Christian position of Jesus being God. God chose incarnation by His own choice. Also, the doctrine of the Trinity illuminates our understanding more of Jesus being a member of the godhead and His relationship to the other persons. Can an innocent, sinless man take upon sins he did not commit? This is a tougher question but ultimately God makes the rules. A big part of how we see God working in the Scriptures is that he interacts with different human cultures and ideas. The idea of an animal without blemish being offered as a sacrifice for sins was the Old Testament sacrificial system. For sins that are committed, there must be justice. We all want justice when someone is wronged. Christ’s death was Him taking justice for us. Paul also writes in Romans 5:8, ‘God demonstrated His own love for us while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ This was literally a huge demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all of us. ‘According to the Scriptures’ Paul is beginning his apologetic. He does not reference any Old Testament Scriptures specifically but he is arguing that Christ’s death was foretold. Obviously, this gives his teaching a huge weight as he is stating that what he is teaching about Jesus had its origins in inspired Scripture. Many commentators think that he could have been thinking about Isaiah 53.
15:4- “that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,”
Paul emphasizes that Christ was buried so he is saying Christ was really dead. They took him off the cross and sealed him in a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimethea. He was buried in this tomb for 3 days and then He was risen. He conquered death. Commentator Simon Kistemaker writes about the Greek in this verse: ‘The Greek uses the past tense to describe a single action in the past for Jesus’ death and burial. But for the verb to be raised the Greek has the perfect tense to indicate an action that occurred in the past but has lasting relevance for the present. That is, Jesus was raised from the dead and continues his life in the resurrected state.’ Paul again says this was according to the Scriptures. Like the previous verse, he adds the weight of Scripture backing up these truths. He is declaring in this way how vitally important both of the previous verses are. He again does not reference an Old Testament verse that specifically talks about Christ’s resurrection. Given the disciples stunned reactions to the death of Christ, it would be hard to imagine that they anticipated this. There are references to the ‘third day’ in Hosea 6:2 with God raising Israel on the third day. There is also Jonah in the belly of the whale for three days. Isaiah also prophesies a resurrection in Isaiah 53:10-12. Notice the similarities in verse 3-4 and both verses ending in ‘according to the Scriptures’. This was likely a very early Christian creed that establishes to foundational ideas and claims of Christianity we hold to today: the death of Christ for sins and the resurrection.
15:5- ‘and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.’
In verse 5, Paul moves into his apologetic. He describes the appearances of Christ to others including Cephas (Paul’s name for Peter/ Cephas is Peter in Aramaic). Then he mentions that Christ appeared to the 12 disciples in the upper room. Jesus, of course, appeared first to the women going to the tomb: Mary Magdalene, Mary, Salome and the two men on the road to Emmaus.
15:6- ‘Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.’
Paul continues the apologetic. He says that Christ appeared to over 500 brothers post resurrection. There is actually nothing in the gospels or Acts to collaborate this figure. The closest is the meeting of 120 people in Acts 1:15 who gathered to appoint a successor to Judah’s Iscariot. The main point is: Paul is declaring this to potential skeptics or those curious to find out that they at believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection. This verse is Paul stating that some of these witnesses are alive and someone could go and talk with them or correspond with them. These are those who remain. The ones who have fallen asleep are those who have died. The phrase is a euphemism for someone passing away.
15:7- ‘Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.’
James is probably the half brother of Jesus who was a recognized leader in the church so Paul is maybe name dropping here to bolster his apologetics case for the resurrection. The Corinth church would have heard about James and maybe many had met him. Christ then appeared to all the apostles. Could be another reference to the Twelve as the definition of apostle is a person who was appointed by Jesus himself and witnessed Jesus’ resurrection.
15:8- ‘Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.’
According to Paul, Jesus made his last post resurrection appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus. This was a unique revelation from the Lord which changed Paul’s life as he was a killer of Christians- a zealous Jew who was rounding believers in Christ up. This was an incredibly dramatic change. ‘As one untimely born’ is an unusual phrase in Greek and in a negative connotation it could mean an untimely stillbirth or an aborted fetus. Paul is probably just contrasting himself against the other apostles as he was not an original member of the Twelve.
15:9- ‘For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.’
Paul feels unworthy and gives a little bit of his background and testimony. Relentlessly, he persecuted the church of God. Consider the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 as to which Paul was present and endorsing the act.
15:10- ‘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.’
Seeing his life as being a testimony of the grace of God, Paul declares that ‘I am what I am’ and God’s grace had not been in vain. Indeed, Paul wrote most of the inspired New Testament and his missionary journeys reached thousands for Christ and established churches in the Middle East, Asia Minor and going up into the southern part of Europe. Indeed, he did a lot of laboring on behalf of the gospel.
15:11- ‘Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.’
Paul or other apostle proclaimed the gospel and the believers in the church (in this case Corinth) believed.
Let’s recap the flow of Paul’s argument here. He declares that the church in Corinth had the gospel but perhaps we’re missing a complete understanding. The incomplete understanding was apparently confusion surrounding the resurrection. Greek philosophy may have led many of the Corinthians to think that Jesus had risen as a spirit or a ghost. Paul rigorously defends a bodily resurrection of Jesus. The apostle makes the case for a re-animated corpse that happened in real time and history. The death of Christ for sins and His resurrection are listed in what may again very well be an early creed which lists these things as central to the gospel and thereby key to life transformation. A key element in beating sin and death (both physical and spiritual).
Thesis: Christ’s resurrection is not merely inspirational but is an empowering force of the gospel that helps us to see and act as redemptive agents with Jesus.
Once you see, you cannot unsee. Sure, people can try to ignore what they have seen or bury it or try and run from it but if you have seen the conquering force of the resurrected Christ in your life, this is the engine of the gospel that brings significant life change.
Look at Paul. A killer of Christians. He bragged in Philippians 3 that he was circumcised on the 8th day of the nation of Israel of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the law, a Pharisee as to zeal a persecutor of the church as to righteousness found in he law, blameless. This was the most religious guy you could ever meet in your life.
And something happens on that road to Damascus. A resurrected Savior speaks to him via a light from heaven in Acts 9 that flashed all around him. ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ An encounter with the resurrected Christ changed Paul because of what he saw on the road to Damascus.
Once you see, you can’t unsee.
The disciples had witnessed the crucifixion and death of Christ and were hiding out in the upper room. Scared for their lives, these tax collectors and fishermen and other common guys, expected Romans to bust in at any moment and arrest them. What happened to them? They went from scared to proclaiming Jesus to some of the very men who crucified Christ in Acts 2. Seeing the risen Savior completely changed the game.
Once you see, you can’t unsee.
Author Philip Yancey explains the significance of the resurrection and how that impacted the mentality of the apostles:
‘There are two ways to look at human history, I have concluded. One way is to focus on the wars and violence, the squalor, the pain and tragedy and death. From such a point of view, Easter seems like a fairy tale exception, a stunning contradiction in the name of God. That gives some solace, although I confess that when my friends died, grief was so overpowering that any hope in an afterlife seemed somehow thin and insubstantial. There is another way to look at the world. If I take Easter as the starting point, the one incontrovertible fact about how God treats those whom He loves, then human history becomes the contradiction and Easter a preview of ultimate reality. Hope then flows like lava beneath the crust of life. This, perhaps, describes the change in he disciples perspective as they sat in locked rooms discussing the incomprehensible events of Easter Sunday. In one sense nothing had changed: Rome still occupied Palestine, religious authorities still had a bounty on their heads, death and evil still reigned outside. Gradually, however, the shock of recognition gave way to a long slow undertow of joy. If God could do that…’
Seeing the resurrection and thereby seeing things upside down from the rest of the world causes a significant change of thought in the life of the disciple and their community.
Yet it is not just about seeing. The resurrection itself is not just a worldview and it is not just inspirational. The resurrection of Christ is an empowering of the individual and the church. Christ rising from the dead is the engine of the gospel. That is why Paul is aggressively defending this historical event to the Corinth church and why he insists on sharing the truth that this was a bodily resurrection, a reanimated corpse. This was the piece that the Corinth church was missing in receiving the gospel from Paul.
The resurrection empowers us within the kingdom of God when we have made Jesus our Lord and Savior. We start to see and act differently.
-We become concerned about the poor, downtrodden, widows, orphans because these are the kingdom values that Jesus taught.
-We begin to see all races and both men and women as children of God. The resurrection has us look forward to the day when believers in Jesus from all nations and races will be together in God’s kingdom.
-We begin to see that God through the resurrection is redeeming everything. Not just people but creation as well.
-We are confronted by the sin in our souls: addictions, hatred and we repent. Jesus’s resurrection put the sin curse in Genesis 3 in reverse. Everything is being reconciled back to him. Sin and death, our enemies- the very things that kept us from God and from righteousness have been defeated.
Even this being the case, the world is still enshrouded in darkness. The resurrection, as we can see did, did not end sin and death in the world but now there is this light shining in a vast abyss of darkness and Christ has empowered us to join His kingdom to help shine the light in this world with the event of his resurrection.
There are some who say in this world that I can be my own light. A recognition that the world is dark but a thought that by someone’s individual spirituality they can be a light. Let me comment on this point of view. If you are a part of the darkness, you cannot be a light if we have participated in expanding the darkness. We need somebody from outside the system to be the light and then we join with them as they help us to expand the light and bring the light into this world. Jesus is that person who came.
If you have received Jesus as Lord and Savior, do not let the resurrection become something that is dry and stale. A dusty old doctrine like Calvinism or Arminianism. The resurrection is everything. Christ’s work here gives us the foundation to have hope and meaning in this chaotic world.
Some of you here may have never believed or taken Jesus as your Lord and Savior. I urge you to do so and believe in God raising him from the dead.