First Things First

What are we celebrating today? A version of rejoicing in spring in the budding of trees, the blooming of flowers, and the renewal of the season? In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 Paul takes you to the heart of the gospel he preached and gives you real reason to celebrate.

Paul takes up one last problem of the Corinthians. Apparently some were denying the resurrection of the body in general and Christ’s resurrection in particular. In dealing with the problem, Paul shows how central the resurrection is to your entire life as a Christian. The Scriptures cannot talk about the death of Christ without also having in view the resurrection–and his death is in view when the resurrection is mentioned.

Paul passed on what he had first received. Likely this was an early confessional formulation in the church, and Paul quotes it here as it makes the point he needs to make with the Corinthians.

Hold firmly to this good news! “Don’t stop holding firmly” is the force of “unless you have believed in vain.” Christ’s death and resurrection mean your salvation. “Saved” here is removal from God’s just anger to a position of his favor. All depends on what Christ has done in your place.

The denial of the resurrection today may arise from an attitude that resurrection is scientifically impossible. The spirituality of our post-modern culture may focus on renewal, but is as uncomfortable with a bodily resurrection as were the Greek philosophers of Paul’s day. But Paul is speaking of real events in a real world.

Christ died according to the Scriptures as Psalm 22:1ff., Isaiah 53:6-8, and the whole sacrificial system, with the death of the substitute, pointed out. Galatians 1:4 refers to Christ giving himself for our sins (thus linking with 1 Corinthians 15:3), to rescue us from the present evil age.

Christ’s death was specifically for the sins of his people. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 is a summary passage, as is Galatians 1:4. In both sin is expressly set forth as the reason for the death and resurrection of Christ. Sin is included here in its totality: guilt, corruption, and enslaving power. Notice also the next reference to sin: 1 Corinthians 15:17. Do you see how serious it is when you “spiritualize” away the bodily death, burial, and resurrection of Christ?

We might puzzle over burial. It is there, not only to show that Christ truly died, but is also connected with his breaking the enslaving power of sin. We are buried with Christ in our baptism, Romans 6:4.

Although it may not be explicit in vv. 3-4, the idea of union with Christ is crucial to the passage as a whole. It is because of your union with Christ that the idea of his non-resurrection is so devastating, 1 Corinthians 15:17-19, and his resurrection so vital for you, v. 20. As Richard Gaffin points out, “In Christ’s resurrection the end-time resurrection-harvest becomes visible, a visible reality.” And“In Paul there is no more important conclusion about the Christian life, nothing about its structure that is more basic than this: the Christian life in its entirety is to be subsumed under the category of resurrection. Pointedly, the Christian life is resurrection-life.” (By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, p. 60 and p. 68).

Christ was raised for you. He was raised as the Second Adam. As the Father raised Christ by the power of the Spirit, he has also raised you, if you believe in him. All that happens to you in your Christian life is an aspect of or an outgrowth from your union with your risen Lord. Not only your salvation from sin in the narrow sense, but the fullness of a renewed life working for the Lord, v. 59, flows out of that union with Christ.

The heart of the gospel, the good news that you have to hold onto by faith to avoid being dead in your sins, is Jesus Christ himself. It is Jesus, as he died, was buried, and was raised, according to the Scriptures, for your sins. Trust in him–and live.

[In preparation for a message on March 31, 2013]

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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