Why the Resurrection Matters

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on March 31, 2003

Why the Resurrection Matters
I Corinthians 15

If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to I Corinthians 15. It is appropriate that on this day that we would spend some time considering the biblical teaching about the resurrection and its significance. There is much confusion on this subject in our own day and time. There are many in the secular world who delight in calling into the truth of the resurrection. There are many within the Christian church who are confused about the truth of the resurrection, and some who are laboring hard to sound a trumpet with an uncertain sound about the resurrection. Many are speaking about the resurrection in such a way as to reinterpret it, to call it into question in the minds of Christians. And it is altogether appropriate that we pause and reflect what the biblical teaching is about the resurrection, and especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and its significance. We cannot jump too quickly to the significance of the resurrection before we have embraced the truth of the resurrection, itself. C. S. Lewis reminded us, long ago, that there is a tendency in our age “to believe something because its good, rather than because it is true.” But if it is not true, than ultimately it does not matter if it seems good or not. We must be convinced both of the truth of the resurrection as well as its positive, good, and beneficial significance for us, before we can drink deeply of the draft of blessings which the Lord has prepared for us. So, let’s hear God’s Holy word here in 1 Corinthians, beginning in verse 1:

“Now, I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which 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 according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believe.”

Amen. This is God’s Holy and inspired word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts. Let’s pray.

O Lord, by Your Spirit, make us behold wonderful truths from Your word, and enlighten us to the saving truth of the resurrection, and its great significance for our Christian living. In Jesus’ name, we ask it. Amen.

About this time of year, every year that I can remember in the age of my teenage to adulthood, somebody – somewhere – and usually many people in many places, write articles, release books, do interviews or are interviewed on a television special, that attempt to debunk the historic Christian teaching about the resurrection. It may be a professor at the local university that announces in a startling interview with the newspaper that “Now all intelligent people everywhere know that Jesus did not rise again from the dead on the third day.” Or it may be a famous New Testament scholar, who is hawking books that he is preparing to sell in the market, through writing articles in a newspaper or in a major new magazine, debunking the resurrection. Or, it may be a television special, offered on one of the special cable channels that purports to give you the “real story” behind the resurrection account in the gospel. But it just seems that every year about this time, someone is making what they say is a new and startling revelation about the truth surrounding the death and burial of Jesus Christ. And the plot always has these three components: the church used to believe this – that is, that Jesus was literally raised from the dead on the third day – but through our brilliant insight and our scholarly pursuit, we now know that is not true. But not to worry! We don’t have to abandon Christianity! We just need to reinterpret it. The resurrection isn’t Jesus coming back from the dead – it is the cosmic victory of life over mortality. Whatever that means! And the plot is always the same: the church used to believe this; we are smarter than that now. We don’t believe it anymore, but we can still believe the Easter Story even if the Easter Story didn’t happen.

I want you to appreciate, from the passage that we studied this morning, that that is not the attitude of the early Christians, and it is emphatically not the attitude of the apostle Paul. Paul’s attitude was, in fact, derived from the Lord Jesus, Himself, and the teachings of the other apostles and not a unique teaching of his own. Paul, in this passage, points us both to the proof of the resurrection, and to the significance of the resurrection. And, I’d like to address those two great things today.

I. The Proof of the Resurrection.
First, let’s look at the proof of the resurrection, as Paul sets it forth here in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. Being the Bible scholars that you are, you may be asking yourself the question, “If he’s going to talk about ‘Why the Resurrection Matters,’ and I notice that is the topic today, why isn’t he starting at verse 12 and go to the end of the chapter?” Because it is in chapter 15, verses 12 to the end of the chapter, that Paul talks about the ‘significance’ of the resurrection – the impact of the resurrection on the Christian, the way it brings to bear, its effect on us in our daily living. In verses 1 through 11, however, he is talking about the ‘facts’ of the resurrection, as opposed to the impact of the resurrection. So, the reason that I begin with verses 1 through 11 is because the significance of the resurrection does not matter if it’s not true. And Paul begins with the truth of the resurrection before he addresses the significance of the resurrection, because in Paul’s day, as in ours, there are many who reject the truth.

Think of it. The first time the word ‘resurrection’ is used in the New Testament, it is in the context of Jesus having a discussion with a group of Jewish priests, called Sadducees, who don’t believe in it. So there were Jews who did not believe in the resurrection. In Acts, chapter 17, when Paul was preaching the gospel to the pagans, the Gentiles, the Greeks in Athens, lo and behold, as he is preaching the gospel, guess what they object to? His teaching about the resurrection of Christ. And even within Christianity, in Paul’s day, there were Christians who were struggling with the doctrine of the resurrection. In 2 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy to be on guard for those who deny the resurrection of the body. And here, in this very passage, Paul is warning the Corinthian church about people within their own bounds of fellowship who do not believe in the resurrection of the body. This is Paul’s final great topic in the book of 1 Corinthians, and he addresses it to the people, speaking of Jesus’ resurrection, in order to deal with this general rejection of the doctrine of the resurrection. And so Paul, in his own day and time, had to deal with people who struggled with this doctrine.

Struggling with the doctrine of the resurrection is no new thing. It has been around for a long time. And thank heavens God has given us material, in the New Testament itself, to respond to the various types of objection. I’d like for you to see four things that Paul says here in verses 1 through 11. First of all, Paul identifies the gospel in verses 1-4 which he preached and which the Corinthians received. And he says, “I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which you also received in which you stand, by which you are saved if you hold fast to the word I preached to you.” He’s getting ready to talk to them about the resurrection, but notice he begins by saying, this is the gospel which I have already preached to you. It is the gospel that you’ve already received. It’s the gospel that saves your souls from judgment and penalty and everlasting destruction.

Why does He begin by talking about the gospel when he’s going to talk about the resurrection? Because, the resurrection is an inextricable core component of the good news of salvation. If you talk about the gospel, you have to talk about the resurrection. And, if you talk about the resurrection, you have to talk about the gospel because the one entails the other. And so when we are talking about the resurrection, we are talking about the gospel. And, when we are talking about the gospel, we’re talking about the resurrection. Reject the gospel, and you reject salvation. Reject the resurrection, and you reject the gospel. They are that closely tied together. And so, Paul wants these folk in Corinth to remember the importance of the subject he is addressing. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is part and parcel of the good news that Jesus preached. That’s the first thing Paul wants us to see.

Secondly, Paul indicates three core elements of the gospel in verses 3 and 4: the death, the burial, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And I want you to see several things that he mentions in this passage. First of all, notice that Paul says that he “received” this teaching. In other words, Paul is saying, “I didn’t invent this. I am not the only one saying this. This teaching about the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not unique to me. I received it.” Now, that is very interesting for Paul to say, because in Galatians he goes out of his way to say he didn’t receive this gospel from anyone else but from Jesus Christ – directly. But now he says, if you look at verse 3, “I delivered to you what I also received.”

Why is Paul saying that? Because he wants to stress that he did not invent this gospel. He received it. It was already in place before he was even a Christian. He received this doctrine. The apostles are teaching this doctrine. The Christian church in general, and in common, hold to this doctrine, and this is a vitally important truth.

Paul wrote the cluster of what is the earliest collection of writings in the New Testament. The gospels were written after the letters of Paul. James was probably written before Paul’s first letter, but Paul wrote some of the earliest parts of the New Testament. And while he is writing these letters to the Corinthians he can speak of the resurrection as an already received truth; indeed, a truth which he, himself, had received. And so, he emphasizes that he didn’t invent this doctrine. It was in place before he was ever on the scene.

Secondly, notice that he says, in verse 3, that Christ’s death for sin is at the very heart of the gospel. Christ’s death for sin is substitutionary atonement. It is a core element of the gospel. It cannot be extracted from the gospel. There are many voices in the evangelical church today that would like to remove the substitutionary atonement from the core of the gospel. They would like to say, “Well, the gospel isn’t that Jesus died for our sins; the gospel is that Jesus is Lord, or that Jesus is incarnate.” Those other things are important, but they are not part of the core gospel. Look at what Paul says here: here is my gospel, and part of it is that Jesus died for our sins according to the Scriptures. It is a core and inextricable element of the gospel, the meaning of the death of Christ.

Thirdly, notice that Paul says that all of this is in accordance with the Scripture. All of these teachings – the death, the burial, the resurrection of Jesus Christ – are in accordance with the Scripture. They are predicted in the Scriptures. They are set forth in the Old Testament. They are set forth in the New Testament. All of this is according to Scripture.

And finally, notice that Paul emphasizes that this resurrection is part of the core truth. He was buried and He was raised again on the third day according to the Scriptures. This, Paul says in verse 3, is of the first importance. So Paul, in this passage, identifies for us the core elements of the gospel, and says the resurrection is one of those core elements. Reject the resurrection, and you reject one of the core elements of the gospel. That’s why he will say later on in this passage that if we do not embrace the resurrection, then we are, among all men, to be most pitied. We are most miserable, because it is a core element of the gospel.

Thirdly, if you look at verse 5 through 19, Paul goes on to catalog for us the extensive evidence of, and witness to, the reality of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. He begins with Peter, not with himself, and he moves on to the larger circle of disciples, more than 500, some of whom are still alive when Paul is writing this letter to Corinth. He then speaks of James, and then all of the other apostles, and then finally of himself. Paul gives this extensive witness to remind us of how many people could corroborate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The New Testament gives us 17 or 18 independent witnesses to, and verifications of, the resurrection of Jesus Christ to emphasize to us the certainty of this historical event. The apostle, in this passage, doesn’t list all of them, but he gives you enough to remind you that there would be people out there who could contradict this story if it were not true. Remember, friends, that there were many people in the early church who disagreed with the apostle Paul. They would have loved to have been able to contradict him. He was speaking about a truth that was generally known, and if it were not true it could have been easily contradicted by people alive in his time. And so this is a bold and important witness to the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection.

And then finally, in verse 11, Paul goes on to indicate that this teaching is not his uniquely, but it is the common preaching of the apostles and part of the common faith of the church. Look at verse 11: “Whether, then, it was I or they (whether it was me or the other apostles) so we preach.” All of us preach this message. “And so you believe.” All true Christians embrace this truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Do you see what Paul has done? He has given you four arguments for the truth of the resurrection. He says, I believe the resurrection because it is the essence of the gospel. Argument one. Two, he says, I believe in the resurrection because it is according to Scripture. The Bible teaches me the resurrection. Thirdly, he says, I believe the resurrection because it is corroborated by witnesses everywhere you turn. And fourthly, he says, I believe the resurrection because it is the common teaching of the church, handed down to me. It comes from Jesus Christ, Himself, and when you go back to the gospels themselves, you see that Jesus was teaching the disciples about the resurrection before it ever happened. And for all these reasons, Paul looks at these Corinthians and says, I am not asking you to base your lives on a myth. I’m not asking you to risk your family because of a fable. I am telling you something that is more certain than the clothes you have on, more certain than the pew you’re sitting in. It is absolute, bedrock truth. And because it is true, Paul then says, from verse 12 on, “Let me tell you a little bit about how significant it is.”

II. What is the Significance of the Resurrection?
Now. What does Paul teach us about the significance of the resurrection? There are seveal things that Paul teaches us consecutively in the book of Romans. So if you would, please turn with me to the book of Romans, chapter 1. There isn’t time for an indepth survey of the significance of the resurrection. It is so rich. We could, for instance, point out the fact that the resurrection distinguishes Jesus Christ from all other world religious leaders. Buddha never claimed to be raised from the dead, nor did Mohammed, nor did Confucius. None of the world’s great religions have at their core a resurrected savior. And so the resurrection sets Jesus apart from the rest of the world’s religions. But I want you to focus in on four things that Paul says about the significance of the resurrection beginning in Romans, 1. We will see this in Romans 1, Romans 4, Romans 6 and Romans 8. In Romans 1:4, Paul says that Christ Jesus was declared the Son of God, with power, by the resurrection from the dead. And so, the resurrection is the proof of the atoning character of the death of Christ, and His deity, and His divine exaltation. We know that He is who He said He is, by His resurrection. He is the Son of God. And we say that He was the Son of God by His resurrection. This is a vitally important truth about the resurrection. If you go 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul tells us that Jesus was vindicated in the Spirit. When was He vindicated in the Spirit? He was vindicated when, as 2 Peter reminds us, He was raised, by the Spirit from the dead. God gave an incontrovertible testimony that His Son was the divine, living Son of God by the resurrection. That’s the first and most important thing that the resurrection witnesses to. It gives us proof of his deity.

Secondly, if you will turn forward to Romans 24:25, Paul emphasizes that the resurrection is a testimony to the certainty of our justification. Our redemption rests upon the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. Look at what Paul says in Romans 4:25: “He, who was delivered up for our transgressions…” Jesus was delivered over, betrayed into the hands of His enemies in order that He would suffer in our place, for our transgressions; the first part of the clause. Then Paul goes on to say, “and was raised for our justification”. He was raised for the sake of our justification, for the purpose of our justification. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is that which gets us our justification, by grace. It is that which gets us the forgiveness of sin. It is that which gains, for us, our redemption. And so, our assurance of salvation rests upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection is not an afterthought. It is absolutely essential to our salvation.

Thirdly, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not only something that points us forward to the resurrection at the last day, it is something that helps us, day by day, because, Paul teaches that the resurrection is the source of the new life that we live now, as believers. Look at Romans 6:4, Paul says, in this great verse, “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism, into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead, through the glory of the Father, so we might walk in newness of life.” Now, you know what you are expecting him to say? You are expecting him to say that, “So that as Christ was raised from the dead, through the glory of the Father, we, one day, will be raised from the dead, by the glory of the Father.” And that is true. That is a very true thing, but that is not what Paul says here. As Christ was raised by the glory of the Father, then we, too, may walk in newness of life. What is He saying? He is saying that our union with Christ, by faith in His resurrection, provides us the source, the energy, the power, the grace to live the Christian life right now. It is one of the great distinctive aspects of the New Testament teaching about the Christian life that we do not do it in our own strength; that we do it in the power of the grace of the living God. Where do you get that from? From your union with Christ, in His resurrection. The same power that raised Christ from the dead is at work in you, now. That’s a staggering truth and its really hard to believe. And if you didn’t really believe what Paul has already said about the resurrection of Jesus christ, and if you don’t really believe what the Scripture says about that power, you will find it very hard to take that in. But that is precisely what Paul is saying.

Fourth and last, Paul tells us that the resurrection is the guarantee of our resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the guarantee of our resurrection. In Romans 8:13, here the apostle emphasizes, beginning in verse 11, this glorious truth -“if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies, through His Spirit who indwells you.” If the Spirit of Jesus dwells in you, and He is the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, so also He will raise your mortal bodies from the dead. In all these ways Paul points to the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ for us as believers.

Many people would say this doctrine is “pie in the sky, by and by.” “It’s wishful thinking.” Far from it. Notice that much of what Paul says about the resurrection is about this life that we are living right now. An important part of it, to be sure, is to come. But much of what he says about this resurrection is about ‘right now.’

Secondly, notice that this truth is a truth that Paul already knew to be counterintutive. You see, we can’t think, “Okay we’ve gotten so smart in our post-modern age that we’ve moved beyond the fairy tale belief in the resurrection.” Folks, there were already Greeks and Jews in Paul’s day saying this is a fairy tale. And Paul, one who did not believe in Jesus Christ himself at first, was constrained on the road to Damascus to believe in this truth of the resurrection, not because he was already temperamentally, emotionally, inclined to believe it, but because the reality was forced upon him when Jesus met him personally. You never had to convince Paul of the grounding of the truth of the resurrection in reality. He had met the risen Lord. And though it was against every instinct of his being he came to embrace it, not just because it was good, but because it was true. Its the most true thing that you could ever imagine. And therefore, because of its truth, all of life is changed. May God grant you that change of life through the gospel. Let’s pray:

Our Lord and our God, our profession of the resurrection is not shouting in the dark. It is the announcement in the light of the truth that You have revealed in Your word and confirmed in the world, and one day will display to the glory of Your name. We ask, O Lord, that we would believe it and that our lives would be changed by it. In Jesus’ name, amen

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