“If Christ Has Not Been Raised” (1 Corinthians 15:1-26)
Alleluia! Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed! Alleluia!)
Yes, he is risen indeed! Risen from the dead! Risen bodily. And everything depends on this. Your faith, your forgiveness, your future. Your eternal future. The future of your loved ones who have died in the Lord. Everything hinges on this great and glorious fact: that Christ has indeed risen from the dead.
But what if Christ has not risen from the dead? What then? What would be the consequences? You know, not everyone believes that Christ has risen from the dead. And for us who do believe, what if our faith is misplaced? What if it never really happened? What if this is all a big made-up story? Or what if we’re just misunderstanding the idea of Christ “rising from the dead”? Maybe it just means that he kind of rose spiritually, but not bodily? Like, his memory lives on, the great moral example that he set, the nice teachings that he set forth about loving one another, and so on. But not that he rose bodily from the dead! Surely that is too much! Let’s not go that far! You know, that is what a lot of people think about Jesus. Good moral teacher, fine example, died unjustly, but that was it. His body must be somewhere. His followers must have taken it and hidden it and made up this story about Jesus rising from the dead. For surely there is no such thing as a real, physical resurrection of the dead!
But then this is nothing new, this way of thinking. It was around also way back in the first century. This idea had even infiltrated the early Christian church, that there’s no such thing as a bodily resurrection of the dead. It apparently was the thinking of some people in the church in Corinth, because the apostle Paul takes on this notion and contemplates the consequences of it, if that were the case. That’s what’s going on in our Epistle reading for today from 1 Corinthians 15. So let’s ponder that prospect now for a few moments, under the theme, “If Christ Has Not Been Raised.”
“If Christ has not been raised”: It’s a hypothetical that Paul is setting forth, for the truth of the matter is quite the opposite. But Paul wants the Corinthians–and us–to consider just what would follow if it were true that Christ has not been raised from the dead.
And actually he starts from the other way around. What if there were no resurrection of the dead in store for the Christians who have died? Well, if that’s the case, that there is no such thing as a bodily resurrection, then it follows that Christ himself has not risen, and if that in turn is true, then everything falls apart. The whole Christian message becomes meaningless and false, if Christ has not been raised.
Let’s track this along with Paul. He says, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” You see, Paul had proclaimed very clearly that Christ Jesus has been raised bodily. And he reminds the Corinthians of his previous preaching to them: “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 so on, recounting the various resurrection appearances that the risen Lord made to many witnesses.
Paul is saying that the physical death and the physical resurrection of Christ is of the first importance to the Christian gospel. It is indispensable and essential, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, absolutely central to everything we believe and hope for. It is the cornerstone of our salvation.
So if this is what Paul had preached to the Corinthians, how can some of them now say that there is no such thing as the resurrection of the dead? Now they may not have been saying this about Christ himself. But they were saying it about the Christians from their church who died. They thought they would not be raised bodily, that a physical resurrection was impossible. But if you believe that, Paul is saying, then you are subverting the very gospel I preached to you. Because, to be consistent, you then also have to say that Christ himself was not raised, and if you do that, then you are undermining the entire Christian message. Follow?
You see, these two things hang together. The bodily resurrection of Christians, which will happen on the day when Christ returns, and the bodily resurrection of Christ himself, which happened on the first Easter Day. The two go together and are inseparably linked.
Here’s how Paul puts it: “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.”
“If Christ has not been raised”: What else follows from that? Paul tells us: “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.”
If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is in vain. It’s empty, it’s futile. What’s the point? For in that case, not only would there be no hope for you after death, you would not even have forgiveness for your sins right now. It would mean that Jesus was just a man who died unfairly, but that’s all. Nothing for you. It would mean that God did not accept his death as the sacrifice for sin, for your sins. Because sin produces death, and if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then sin has not been dealt with. And thus you are still stuck in your sins, and God is against you. The whole gospel falls apart.
And if Christ has not been raised, then those Christians who have died–there’s nothing for them, either. They have perished, died eternally. End of story. Pretty hopeless.
And what a joke, what fools, we Christians are shown to be! We above all men are most to be pitied. Why are we putting up with all the deprivation and even the persecution that Christians have to endure, if all we are doing is having a faith that doesn’t last, that is not powerful enough to overcome the grave? What a weak serving of thin gruel we have been fed! This life is full of sorrow and tears, and if a resurrectionless Christianity is all we have, what a pitiful bunch we are! If all you’re having is your best life now–a life that, no matter how successful and prosperous you are, is still full of tears and loss and ends in death–if all you have is your best life now, well, there’s not much to look forward to then, is there?
But the good news is, we are not having our best life now! Our best life is still to come! Why? Because Christ has indeed been raised from the dead! And here is where Paul makes the shift into high gear: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” But Christ has been raised from the dead! It’s a fact, Jack! And it means that this life is not all there is! The best is yet to come! Christ is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” That Christ is the “firstfruits” means that there are more to follow. His resurrection guarantees the resurrection of those who trust in him. And “those who have fallen asleep” means those Christians who have already died, trusting in their Lord. Christ’s resurrection is just the firstfruits. There are lots more who will be raised, bodily, when Christ comes again. “Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”
Dear friends, here is hope for you! Here is hope you can have for your friends and loved ones who have died in the Lord. You will be raised, they will be raised, imperishable, at Christ’s return. The trumpet will sound, and we will be changed, in the twinkling of an eye. Christ will call forth our dead bodies from the grave, just like he called forth Lazarus–just like Christ himself rose from the dead. As Paul says in Philippians, Christ “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself.”
What a prospect that will be! No more sorrow, no more sickness, no more death! Only life and gladness stretching out before us! The whole company of the saints, all who have trusted in God’s promise of salvation through all the centuries–all of us gathered together around our Savior, to enjoy life as it was meant to be, at peace with God and in fellowship with one another. That will be our best life, and it will last forever! Take hope in this, dear friends! Take your stand on this, for it is the rock-solid foundation of our faith. Rejoice in the promise of the resurrection, your resurrection, tied inseparably to the resurrection of Christ your Savior.
“If Christ has not been raised. . . .” But wait! “In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
Alleluia! Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed! Alleluia!)