By Chris Wright
Here we are one week after Easter Day — still rejoicing in the tremendous fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, our hearts surging with all it means for ourselves, for the world, for human history, and destiny.
And yet, at the same time, we are stunned by the terrible fact that close to 1,000 people a day have been dying in the past week or more, here in the U.K., and many more than that around the world, in this global Coronavirus pandemic.
And our hearts go out to doctors, nurses, hospital and care-home staff — having to deal with death daily, on a scale rarely seen except in war zones.
So, yes, we live with the tension between the most glorious fact of our Christian faith, and the most ghastly fact of our human experience — our own mortality.
Already, Christ is risen, ascended and reigning as Lord.
Yet still, the reign of death pervades our fallen world until Christ returns to put an end to death forever.
- Already death is defeated.
- Not yet is death destroyed.
Well, those are the issues that the Apostle Paul is dealing with in writing to the small group of Christian believers in Corinth — in that chapter that was read to us — 1 Cor. 15.
Now Corinth was a city in Greece, with a dominant Greek culture, worldview, and assumptions. And one of those assumptions was emphatically that “there is no resurrection from the dead.”
Indeed, almost exactly 500 years before Paul wrote this letter, the Greek poet Aeschylus wrote a play, The Eumenides (probably still being performed in Corinth, just like Shakespeare is still being performed in London), and in that play the god Apollo declares,
“Once a man dies and the dust has soaked up his blood, there is no resurrection.”
So it seems that some of the Christians in Corinth had indeed heard and believed Paul’s preaching about the resurrection of Christ — but then they were interpreting it to fit in with their Greek culture and assumptions.
Maybe they were saying something like this: “Paul says that we’ve been raised already with Christ — so hey! The resurrection has already happened for us too! This life is as good as it gets. We are already ‘raised’ — there is no future resurrection ahead, because (as we all know) ‘there is no resurrection of the dead.’”
Or maybe they were saying something like this: “Look, all this talk about resurrection is like one of our old myths. It is a beautiful, symbolic way of talking. It’s a kind of metaphor for what our philosophers have always said, that Our souls will go on living beyond death, somehow, somewhere…. but there will be no return to real, bodily, human life on this earth. For (as we all know) ‘there is no resurrection of the dead’”!
And that is what Paul confronts head on in verses 12-13.
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? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised (1 Cor 15:12-13).
And in response, Paul does two things. First, a kind of “What if?”
What if ‘Chris has not been raised’? (v. 14). — That is, What would be the consequences if God had not raised Jesus from the dead?
And then a kind of “So what?” So What, that ‘Christ has indeed been raised’? (v. 20).
That is, What are the consequences that God did raise Jesus from the dead?
Let’s look at the first.
I. What if “Christ Has Not Been Raised” (V. 14)?
Paul is so horrified by the thought that any Christian could even imagine such a thing that he fires off five immediate consequences in quick succession.
Any one of them would be awful on its own.
Taken together, they would be utterly catastrophic for the whole Christian faith.
So can I say, if you are ever tempted to think of the resurrection as — well, just a nice Christian myth, like the Easter bunny or Father Christmas — or to dismiss it as not really important — then please think again.
Just look with me at what Paul says in verses 14-19.
If Christ has not been raised, then:
1. The gospel is nonsense (v. 14a) — “our preaching is useless,” says Paul.
Empty, meaningless. All that Paul had proclaimed in verses 1-3 — that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures, was buried, and raised again on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures, and appeared — all rubbish! There is no good news at all. The so-called gospel is nonsense.
2. Personal faith is useless too (v. 14b) — “and so is your faith.” Paul goes on. Your faith is empty, hollow, as useless as a chocolate teapot, as they say in Newcastle. You might as well not have believed at all — it was all a waste of time.
3. We’ve been telling lies about God (vs. 15-16). And this would be a very serious offense indeed. It’s bad enough to bear false witness about other people in a human court. So how much worse is it to falsify the truth about God? But that’s what it would mean, says Paul.
More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.
All Christian witness, outreach, preaching, teaching, writing, books, broadcasts, podcasts — all that we’ve claimed to be gospel — it’s not good news, it’s fake news. All lies — if Christ has not been raised.
4. We have not been freed from our sin (v. 17). “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”
The great promise of the gospel is that by faith in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, we have forgiveness of our sins. But if Christ is not raised, then sin and death have won! And we’re eternally stuffed. As one commentator puts it,
“With a vain faith in a dead Christ, you continue in your sins, and death retains its victory” [C.K. Barrett].
5. Believers who have died are lost (v. 18). And perhaps this is the worst of all, for any Christians in Corinth whose loved ones had recently died. For, says Paul, “Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.”
They may have “fallen asleep,” but they ain’t never going to wake up! Why not? Well, if they’re asleep in a dead Christ, they are just as dead as he is! If Christ is not raised, then neither will they be. It’s goodbye forever.
So Paul puts all five of those awful, terrifying, consequences in place: This is what would be true if Christ had not been raised
- The gospel is nonsense
- Our faith is useless
- We’ve been telling lies about God (for 2,000 years)
- We are still in our sins
- Believers who have died are gone forever
And so Paul draws his conclusion — brutal, but inescapable —
If that’s what we believe
If that’s the limit of our hope (this life only),
Then that’s pitiful, or rather — we are pitiful.
“If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (v. 19).
Why? Well, because we pinned all our hopes for this life and the next on a corpse. We’ve spent our whole lives trusting in a dead hero, when we could have been having fun like the rest of the people who are a bit more realistic — as they say in verse 32:
If the dead are not raised,
“Let us eat and drink,
for tomorrow we die.”
Last week I heard someone on the radio, trying to give an encouraging Christian message, I suppose, and they said, “What’s important is not what happened to a body 2,000 years ago but that we should be ‘Easter people’ today.” And I wanted to shout — No, no no! What happened to that body 2,000 years ago is the most important thing in human history. For if God did not raise Jesus bodily from the tomb, then there would be no Easter at all, and certainly no Easter people. There would be no gospel, no faith, no forgiveness, no future.
Thank God — that is not the truth. That is not the end of the story.
II. So What, That ‘Christ Has Indeed Been Raised’ (v. 20)?
“But now in fact,” Paul bursts out, in one of his wonderful contrast statements,
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20).
That is, as the guarantee that those who have died in faith will also be raised as he was.
But so what? What does it mean for you and me in times like these that Christ is risen from the dead and is alive today?
Here are three wonderful truths.
1. The cause of death has been dealt with — that is, sin (vv. 21-22).
That’s what Paul is getting at in verses 21-22, when we unpack them a bit.
“For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:21-22).
Now Paul doesn’t always say everything in one place, and he explains what he means a bit more in Romans 5. Listen to these few verses from that chapter:
Rom. 5:12: Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned [and Paul means Adam, of course — he’s referring to the story of human sin and rebellion in Genesis 3. It was sin that brought death into the world — in the sense of spiritual death and separation from God]
Rom. 5:19: For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man [meaning the obedience of Jesus to death on the cross] the many will be made righteous.
Rom. 5:21: So that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Now we still live in a world of sin and death, don’t we? We who are Christians are not “self-isolated” from all the sufferings of this world. Like anybody else, we too fall victim to accidents, diseases, and viruses, … and death. Those are bound up with the fallen world we live in.
But here’s the thing. Here’s the point Paul is making. The reign of sin and death — their tyranny, their kingdom — has been invaded and defeated by the reign of grace and life — or, in other words, by the kingdom of God through the death and resurrection of God’s Son. And so, when we put ourselves under the reign of God through faith in Christ, then we are no longer under the reign of sin and death. Rather, the cause of death — our sin — is dealt with, and we receive forgiveness of sin and eternal life.
And that leads us to the next thing.
Because Christ has been raised from death, we’ve seen first of all that the cause of death has been dealt with.
2. The fear of death has been broken.
Paul doesn’t put it quite like that here, but The writer to the Hebrews puts it very clearly indeed. Here’s what he has to say in Heb. 2:14-15:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15).
Now, when he says the devil “holds the power of death,” it doesn’t mean that the devil can just put to death whoever he wants. No, only God has the power of life and death. But the devil can certainly exploit the power of the fear of death — which is a pretty natural and very understandable thing for all human beings.
Of course, some courageous people overcome their fear of death in order to save or help others — some of them doing it right now as part of their job in this Coronavirus crisis — doctors, nurses, carers — and also people like firefighters, mountain rescue teams, and so on. But the author of Hebrews isn’t talking just about facing death with courage; he’s talking about being completely liberated from the fear of it. The fear of death, he says, is like a kind of slavery, like being in a prison with no key.
But the death and resurrection of Christ have broken open the doors of that prison, for he has been through death and been raised victorious, on our behalf.
Death then no longer holds its terror. It is still horrible, hard to think about, full of grief.
not at all something to be welcomed,
but because of Jesus, not at all something to be feared.
Jesus the prisoner’s fetters breaks,
And bruises Satan’s head.
Power into strengthless souls he speaks,
And life into the dead.
John Stott was the Rector of All Souls for many years, and died in 2011, aged 90. Here is something he wrote in what he considered his greatest book, The Cross of Christ:
What, then, should be the Christian’s attitude to death? It is still an enemy, unnatural, unpleasant, undignified — in fact ‘the last enemy to be destroyed’. Yet it is a defeated enemy. Because Christ has taken away our sins, death has lost its power to harm and therefore to terrify. Jesus summed it up in one of his greatest affirmations: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.’ … That is, Jesus is the resurrection of believers who die, and the life of believers who live. His promise to [believers who die] is ‘you will live’, meaning not just that you will survive, but that you will be resurrected. And his promise to [believers who are still alive] is ‘you will never die’, meaning not that you will escape death, but that death will prove to be a trivial episode, a transition to fullness of life…
This is the victory of Christ, into which he allows us to enter.
[Cross of Christ, pp. 283-286]
So again, I want to ask — Have you entered into that victory? — that victory over the fear of death that God promises and gives, when you put your faith in Jesus Christ — who died for you, and rose again, and is alive today?
And that brings us to our final point.
Because Christ has indeed been raised from the dead:
- The cause of death is dealt with
- The fear of death is broken,
3. The death of death is guaranteed (vs. 25 — 26).
That’s what Paul highlights in verses 25-26.
“For [Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:25-26).
“The last enemy,” says Paul, “is death.” And he was right, of course. It is still an enemy, and the last one we’ll face in this life.
But here’s the thing — as John Stott said, death is a defeated enemy already, and a doomed enemy ultimately. Death has no “enduring power of attorney” over those who are in Christ. Jesus defeated death in his own death on the cross (by bearing its cause), and God announced that cosmic victory of the cross to the whole creation by raising Christ from the dead. Death has no more dominion over him, and no more dominion over those in him either.
And death shall have no dominion. That’s a rather famous poem by Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet of the early 20th century. He declaims that line at the beginning and ending of every stanza. “And death shall have no dominion.” And in its sheer repetition, he evokes the indomitable human spirit, as people face up to death and carry on. Even death cannot quite take away all that is good about human life — faith, courage, togetherness.
But of course, Dylan Thomas took that line from the Apostle Paul, who wrote it not about human resilience in the face of mortality, but about Christ himself. Listen to it — this is where it comes, in Romans 6:
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery [or dominion] over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God (Rom. 6:8-10).
And that, says Paul, is our future also, if we are in Christ. Death has no more dominion over us, any more than it did or does over Christ.
He defeated death for us. He reversed it, destroyed its power, dissolved its terror, and declared its ultimate destruction.
For death itself will die, when Christ returns.
Here’s another John — not John Stott, but John Donne, just a few lines from one of his most powerful sonnets:
Death be not proud; though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death thou shalt die. (John Donne: 1633).
But we have to give the last word to very nearly the last words of the Bible itself. For here is it’s great closing vision:
Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Rev. 21:1-4).
That is where the Bible’s great story of life, the universe and everything is headed.
Is that where your story is headed?
That is the future for all who trust in Christ and share in his resurrection life, both now and in the new creation.
Is that your future?
Let me conclude:
In times of terrible stress, crisis, suffering and fear, such as this pandemic has created, Christians tend to comfort one another with the words, “God is in charge. God is sovereign. However hard life is, and even when we can’t understand — God is there and God is in control.”
And I believe that. but, it can easily slide down into either a kind of impersonal fatalism — you know — just “God is in control; get over it. There’s nothing we can do” or into a hollow, rather comfortless platitude, a kind of spiritual Ibuprofen — “Don’t worry, God’s in charge, it’ll all be OK.”
Paul’s words today warn us never to separate our faith in the sovereignty of God from the cross and resurrection of Christ.
Because that is where the sovereignty of God was most in action and in evidence. That is where the sovereignty of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit led. And that is where they demonstrated the cost and the achievement of their sovereignty, before all heaven and earth.
My colleague, Rico Tice, often says, in times of suffering or bereavement, “If God was in control on Good Friday, then he’s still in control now, even in this.”
And I would just add,
“Yes, and because God was in control on Good Friday — and proved it on Easter Sunday by raising from the dead his Son who was crucified for us, then God’s sovereignty will take us who trust in him through death, to resurrection and into eternal life.
- That is the promise of God
- That is the truth of the resurrection
- That is the gospel of Christ.
The Rev. Dr. Chris Wright is interational director of the Langham Partnerships.