1 Corinthians 15:1-10
Of First Importance

Sermon Discussion Questions:

  1. What was most helpful to you from the sermon?
  2. If someone were to be tell you that they didn't need religion to live a meaningful life, what would you tell them? What would Tolstoy tell them?
  3. Which historical argument stood out to you the most?
  4. What does the resurrection have to do with our sins being forgiven? See 1 Cor 15:17
  5. How does the resurrection give us "strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow"?

Easter Sunday is a day in which we celebrate the central event of the Christian faith: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is Christianity’s answer to the problem of death. All of the world’s religions, all of the great thinkers, authors, philosophers, all of the worldviews must wrestle with this problem. Regardless of what time you are born in, what culture you inhabit, and what you believe, the grave comes for us all. And while everyone must deal with this problem, and every great thinker across human history has contemplated it, it is surprisingly easy for many of us to ignore it.
One of those great authors who has wrestled with this issue is Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy was a Russian author, and is still to this day widely regarded as one of—if not the—greatest authors of all time. In 1867 he wrote War and Peace, and then in 1877 he wrote Anna Karenina, two books that stand as fountainheads and pillars of the entire Western corpus of literature. Yet, at the height of Tolstoy’s fame, when he was heralded as a star of the literary world, he suffered a total existential collapse. What happened? Tolstoy had abandoned his Christian faith by the time he was 18 and lived as an ambivalent, comfortable atheist most of his life. But he got to a point where the reality of death suddenly dawned on him. In his short book, A Confession, he explains what unnerves him: “Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn’t be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?...Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist…” This left him with the certainty that life was ultimately meaningless. In the oceans of dead time that will lap over our universe long after we are gone, what difference will it make whether we were famous, kind, mediocre, or cruel? So, Tolstoy argues, “How can man fail to see this? And how go on living? That is what is surprising! One can only live while one is intoxicated with life; as soon as one is sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere fraud and a stupid fraud! That is precisely what it is: there is nothing either amusing or witty about it, it is simply cruel and stupid.” 
How do we live knowing that death is coming? Well, it feels relatively easy for most people. Life is hard, certainly, but we have so much to do: we get married, have families, explore the world, pursue careers, advance in our field, grow in knowledge. There is always so much before us. But, Tolstoy says, there won’t always be. You’re just drunk on life, but in time sobriety will come.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 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, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 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,” (1 Cor 15:1-10).
Here we see that the good news of Christianity is history that requires a response, and grace which transforms and saves.
History that Requires a Response
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received.
What is the gospel? It literally means “good news.” The gospel is the good news of what Jesus Christ accomplished 2,000 years ago, but the Greek word (euangellion) was used elsewhere to describe other historical, secular events—usually used to describe the proclamation of a king conquering an enemy in battle. But it is an interesting word for authors of the New Testament to use to describe their writings—it is the description of an event, not merely an experience.
Many times, religion can be thought of primarily as an experience or a set of moral principles or hope that gives life meaning—it is pragmatic. You can have all of those things without a historical event occurring. For example, if we were to find out that Buddha never existed, but it was just a legend that was created, that he never sat under the bodhi tree, then Buddhism would still work. If we found out that Epictetus was never actually a Roman slave but had just made the story up or if Marcus Aurelius never existed, then Stoicism would still work. Because those systems do not depend on historical events, they rely on subjective experiences and on providing you a code of ethics to live by. And sometimes, people view Christianity that way—whether these events actually took place or were just embellishments by later followers, it doesn’t matter. We learn how to live and can find something that gives us a subjective experience. It doesn’t matter if it is True, so long as it is true for me.
But Christianity doesn’t allow us that option. Christianity, taken on its own terms, claims to be centered on the history of Christ, culminating in the event of the resurrection. 
Arguments for the Historicity of the Resurrection:

1.     The details are too strange to be made up

The last people on the planet you would ever imagine worshipping another human being as God in the flesh, would be the Jews—yet, all of the first Christians were Jews who worshipped Jesus as God in the flesh. 

The Jews conception of the resurrection was an event that only took place at the end of history, at the end of the world—yet here they claim that Jesus has resurrected. 

The popular Jewish conception of the Messiah was a conquering war hero, not a crucified Messiah, which was why the Jewish authorities thought that by crucifying Jesus they proved he wasn’t the Messiah—yet, all of the Jewish Christians said: Jesus is the Messiah. 

The first eyewitnesses to the resurrection were women, and in the 1st century women’s testimony wasn’t admissible in court. Celsus, an early Roman critic of Christianity, wrote off the Christian religion as ridiculous for many reasons, one of them being that they relied on the testimony of women to report that Jesus rose from the dead—yet, the gospels all have women as being the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection.

There is much more I could say, but here is the point: if you were trying to make up a religion, you wouldn’t fly in the face of so many common sense ideas of the day. The only reason you would have these details included was if they actually happened.

2.     This is written too soon to be made up

1 Corinthians is written within 20 years of the events described. If these events were wholesale fabrications, the Christian movement would have never gotten off the ground. The claims of the resurrection are the most extraordinary claims possible, and the events described are sensational beyond belief. If this was a hoax, no one would have bought it because they could have said: I was alive then, that didn’t happen. 

Look, Paul just a few verses later is going to say that if Jesus never rose from the dead, the entire Christian faith is false (1 Cor 15:12-19). If the authorities who killed Jesus wanted to stop the Christian movement, they could have just produced the body of Jesus, and the lynchpin of the Jesus movement would have failed. And since Paul is writing this while most of the people who lived during these events were still alive, were he just making it up, they would have been able to falsify his claim and Christianity would have never spread and taken over the known world as it did within a few centuries. 

Why does Paul include this list of appearances in verses 5-8? Notice that little statement after he talks about how Jesus appeared to the 500, “most of whom are still alive.” What is Paul doing? Far from trying to evade cross-examination, he is citing his sources, he is saying, “Look, you can go talk to these people, I’m not making this up.” We get this in the gospels as well where we are told individual’s names who have nothing to do with the story. For instance, we are told the name of the servant whose right ear is cut off by Peter (Malchus) and subsequently healed by Jesus (John 18:10), or how the sons of Simon the Cyrene, the man who helps Jesus bear his cross, are named Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21). Richard Bauckham, a New Testament scholar from Aberdeen, writes in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that this was a way for the authors of the gospel to say: You can go find these individuals and ask them yourselves.
3.     This is written like credible history

Maybe the authors were just making this up to trick people. But all of the apostles, and a large majority of the earliest Christians, all died horrible deaths because of their faith. Peter was crucified upside down. Would you submit to a death like that for something you knew to be false?

Okay, you may say, maybe the authors of the gospels were just writing a myth with the appearance of truth to make it sound more realistic and future generations confused it for history. There is a way that was common to write legend and myth at the time of Jesus, you can go look many of them up and read them today. But you’ll notice that the Iliad does not read like the gospel of Luke.

We are used to the idea of piece of fiction including realistic details in their story to make it seem more believable, but up till 150 years ago, there was no such thing as our modern conception of realistic narrative. The gospel accounts are concerned with reporting events and facts; myths are concerned more with providing fanciful stories that explain phenomena—where fire or the Milky Way or lightning come from—or teach ethical principles about virtue, wisdom, etc. Luke, on the other hand, opens his gospel with a preamble that explains his research methods to create an “orderly account” so that the reader may be certain about the truthfulness of the events recorded (Luke 1:1-4).

C.S. Lewis, an Oxford professor of medieval and ancient literature writes: “I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of this text, there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage...or else, some unknown writer...without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative.... The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned how to read," (Lewis, Christian Reflections, p. 155)

4.     The conversion of James and Paul

In the list of appearances, two individuals stand out: James and Paul. James is the half-brother of Jesus, who didn’t believe He was the Messiah while He was alive, but who did believe after the resurrection. What would have to take place for you to worship your brother as God? Something fairly remarkable. Even more stunning, however, is Paul. Prior to his conversion, Paul was an enemy of the Christians. He writes himself in verse 9 that he was a “persecutor of the church.” It is one thing for a group of committed followers who believed Jesus was the Messiah to come to believe in His resurrection. But it is another thing entirely for someone who is so convinced that Jesus is a false Messiah that he is killing Christians to change their mind. What happened? Paul just says, “he appeared also to me.” Paul saw the resurrected Christ.
The claim of the gospel is a claim of history. This is what Paul preached, and it is what the Corinthians received. News, most of the time, doesn’t require anything of you. But the gospel is not merely that. It is a proclamation that requires acceptance; the gospel is preached and must be received. You may hear news of a wealthy philanthropist is looking for his long-lost heir, but if he comes to you and says that you are that heir, that is wonderful news—but will you accept it? Do you agree? The gospel doesn’t only insert itself into the realm of history, but presses upon us a response. What will we say? 
If you want to continue exploring these things, then let me encourage you to continue attending. For the next six weeks we will be looking at the fundamental truths of Christianity on Sunday morning, and then on Wednesday nights from 6-7:30 we will be examining what Christianity offers in contrast with other worldviews.
Grace that Transforms and Saves 
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved,” (1 Cor 15:1-2a). And what happens when we do receive this news, when we become personally involved with our decision to receive it for ourselves? It becomes something we stand in and something that saves us, or to put it like the great hymn, “strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow.”
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,” (1 Cor 15:3-4).
Christ died “for our sins.” On Good Friday we reflect on the substitutionary death of Christ. Jesus’ death was intentional—for our sins. The offer of the gospel is an offer aimed at sinners. 
A few years after Tolstoy wrote his Confession, he wrote a short story called The Death of Ivan Ilyich that illustrated everything he wrote of before. Ivan is typical worldly man who has lived a socially respectable life. He pursues money, career, pleasure; he marries the right kind of woman, has children, rises in his position and status in society, yet is continually dogged by unhappiness. But when the time of his death arrives his misery becomes unbearable. He realizes that his whole life has been meaningless, and now he is about to die and feels like an invisible hand is shoving him into a black sack where there is no return. But what galls him most, what makes it all unsufferable is his continual insistences that he had lived a good life, that he had always done what was right, that he didn’t deserve this. “That very justification of his life…caused him most torment of all.”
So he spends the last three days of his life screaming, howling, fighting the invisible hand to the bitter end. It was as long as Ivan sought to justify himself that facing death was unbearable. If you feel like your life has been good all along, then you’ll feel like you are owed something, and nothing will feel more unjust than death. 
But on the third day, a sudden revelation comes: he senses that he has now fell into the black sack of death, but to his surprise, at the bottom there is light. And he confesses: “Yes, I’ve been wrong all along…At that very moment Ivan Ilyich fell through and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that…his life had not been what it should have been…"Forgive me."
Jesus came for sinners to die for them. To take their place. Jesus’ death on the cross was His picking up the sentence that our crimes against God had earned. We had a ticket punched for Hell, but Jesus left His seat in Heaven, to take ours in Hell, and offer us His own.
What does the resurrection have to do with that? When someone serves a prison sentence, what happens when the sentence is filled? They walk out free. Three days after Christ’s death, He walks out free. This is why later, Paul explains: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins,” (1 Cor 15:17). If Christ never rose from the dead, then that would mean the judgment of our sins hadn’t been satisfied, that the grave would still have a claim on us. But He has! The wages of sin is death, but Jesus paid it in full.
Paul says this has massive implications for us: strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. 
For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 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,” (1 Cor 15:9-10)
This is grace in which you stand. Paul was a serious sinner with serious regrets, yet it was "by the grace of God" that he found an identity to stand in, that he found relief and forgiveness for his sins. Paul knew who he was, and knew it had nothing to do with his sins or his good deeds, but it had to do with sheer grace.
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Cor 15:51-57).
This is grace in which you are being saved. We will not always languish in perishable bodies. We need not live in constant fear of death. Death has been defeated by our Savior, whose resurrection serves as "firstfruits" of the rest of our resurrection bodies (1 Cor 15:20).
Ivan Ilyich is dying:
“And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides. “How good and how simple!” he thought. “And death . . . where is it?” He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death. In place of death there was light. “So that's what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!” …. “It is finished!” said someone near him. He heard these words and repeated them in his soul. “Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more!” He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.”

You can die in your Lord.