Text: 1 Cor. 15:1-11
Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain…
Today marks the first Sunday in Lent, and so I thought I would preach on the resurrection. We’re free in Christ, after all.
I’m only halfway joking. Our church generally does celebrate the church calendar, and we have been singing some somber songs about sin, repentance, and the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. But we’re also working our way through 1 Corinthians, and I thought it best to stay the course and keep preaching through the text rather than taking another break and doing a topical series. Chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians is another dense and challenging chapter, and so it helps to have plenty of time to work through it. But I think you’ll see that it doesn’t skirt the Lenten themes of sin, repentance, and death, but rather emphasizes them quite strongly as it then extols the glory of the resurrection.
This morning we will look at how the resurrection of Jesus Christ relates to the gospel. We will make three points. The first is that the gospel is the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The second point is that the resurrection of Jesus was witnessed publicly by many people. The third point is that the witness of this resurrection transforms those who saw it. Indeed, the witness of the resurrection still transforms us today, as we see the gospel through the preached word.
The Resurrection is the Gospel
The expression “the gospel” is used on a nearly automatic basis in Christian writing. Everything is “about the gospel.” The gospel must be “central.” Every sermon should “preach the gospel.” But what exactly is the gospel? That question can be trickier to answer than you might think.
The literal meaning of the original Greek word is “good news.” It typically had to do with a public announcement of a new king, and it implied that good things were coming: some debts would be forgiven, enemies defeated, and slaved freed. Things were going to be “great again.” Prof. Richard Horsley has demonstrated this meaning through archaeological and literary records from the first century. He has shown where various emperors would send heralds out to proclaim a new soter, one who would free slaves, erase debts, and provide “salvation” through his reign. It’s interesting to consider this meaning for Jesus. It would indicate that the gospel message is “Jesus is Lord.”
But we can’t only do exegesis through etymology. Etymology means the history of the meaning of words. Just because a word has an original or “literal” meaning, that doesn’t mean that it’s the only meaning. After all, words can change meaning. The word “awful” used to mean awesome. Now it means terrible. In fact, the word “terrible,” used to be a good thing, at least a good thing for a king. It meant that he struck terror into the hearts of all his enemies. It meant that he was strong and mighty. Now it just means really bad.
In order to find the fullest meaning of biblical words, and for our word “gospel,” we need to be sure to see the key places where it appears in the New Testament and try to see how it is used in those places. Throughout the gospel books, the term “the gospel” is almost always something that is “preached,” and it tends to include the themes of “kingdom” (Matt. 4:23, 9:35) healing (Luke 7:22, 9:6), and liberation to the poor and to the captives (Luke 4:18). All of this would fit with the “political” understanding of “gospel,” but it seems to add more to it, that this new king will do more than just bring in a new political order. He will heal sickness and even raise the dead (Matt. 11:5, Luke 7:22).
When we get to the writings of Paul, “the gospel” sometimes takes on the additional meaning of salvation to the Gentiles (Gal. 3:8, Eph. 3:6).
But perhaps the most straightforward definition of “the gospel” is what we see in our text here in 1 Cor. 15. Notice how the chapter begins, “Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain” (1 Cor. 15:1-2). The topic is “the gospel,” and Paul is going to declare it to them.
And what does he go on to say? He says, “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Thus, “the gospel” is really a summary of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That action achieved “the good news” which then led to the kingdom of God, to physical and spiritual healing, and, ultimately, to our resurrection.
Now, the death of Christ was not terribly controversial in early Christianity. It was the main symbol, the cross, and most all Christians were agreed that it happened. But it seems, from this chapter in 1 Corinthians, as well as 2 Tim. 2:17-18, that the fact of Christ’s resurrection was called into question by some. Some denied that any resurrection was possible. They may have redefined it to mean something merely spiritual. Whatever their exact position was, Paul is clear, Jesus really died, and He really rose again.
And so our chapter in 1 Corinthians shows us that the doctrine of the resurrection is essential to “the gospel.” It becomes the singular theme on which Paul goes on to write about fifty more verses. He makes it plain that if the resurrection did not happen, then our faith is in vain (1 Cor. 15:14) and the witnesses to it are liars (1 Cor. 15:15). And if that is true, then we cannot believe the gospel. Thus, it is no overstatement to say that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the gospel. You must believe it and hold fast to it.
The Witness of the Resurrection
So the gospel is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the resurrection is the particular climax of this whole movement. Therefore we can justly say, the resurrection is the gospel. That’s why Paul goes on to say so much about the resurrection, and what he immediately goes on to say is very important. He says that this gospel was public and it has witnesses.
He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (1 Cor. 15:4-8)
The role of witnessing the resurrection is central to the gospel. In fact, “witnessing” is often used as a synonym for evangelism and preaching. We must “bear witness” to the gospel (see Acts 23:11). And this means bearing witness of Jesus Christ, what He did, and that He really did rise from the dead.
Christianity has always been a public faith. When Paul spoke before King Agrippa, he said, “this thing was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). Similarly Peter says, “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).
Notice how Paul says that Jesus by the original apostles and then “by over five hundred brethren at once.” Then he goes on to point out, “of whom the greater part remain to the present.” When Paul was writing his epistle, there were hundreds of eye witnesses to the resurrection of Christ still living. What an amazing reality that must have been!
We are so far removed in history that we tend to minimize the real-life eye witness account. We “prove” our religion by biblical arguments and internal feelings, but we need to notice that, in the first century, it was proven just like any other historical or empirical fact. It actually happened, there was evidence that happened, and there were witnesses that it happened. The resurrection is proof that Christianity exists within reality. It happened. It is true.
Paul was an eyewitness too, but a later and different sort. He says he was “born out of due time.” He was not in the original group of disciples, and he probably did not literally see Christ’s resurrection they way that they did. How did Paul see the resurrected Christ? He saw Him on the Damascus Road. “’Who are you, Lord?’ … ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 22:8). In Galatians, Paul puts it this way, “I neither received the gospel from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12).
Jesus Christ revealed Himself to Paul, and this experience transformed Paul. It changed him from a persecutor to a proclaimer, and this vision undergirded Paul’s ministry for the rest of his life. It was a vision of Jesus Christ Himself, and it was a vision of Jesus Christ as resurrected. Therefore it was a vision of the gospel, and it made Paul a true witness of that gospel.
The Effect of the Resurrection
So we have seen that the resurrection is the gospel, and we have seen that this resurrection had many public witnesses. Thirdly then, let us see the effect of this resurrection. It transformed those who saw it, and it gave Paul the grace to carry out his ministry.
For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy 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 was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. Therefore, whether it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (1 Cor. 15:9-11)
Paul tells us the immediate effect of the resurrection on himself. It transformed him from a persecuter of the church into an apostle. And it made him the greatest of the apostles. Listen to how Paul slips it in, “I labored more abundantly than they all.” Paul had the greatest ministry, for Paul took the gospel to the Gentiles, and Paul wrote the majority of the New Testament which we are still reading today.
It’s really quite amazing to consider who this man Paul was. He was a leading Pharisee, which means that he was a leading legalist. He was also a leading persecuter, and Paul was directly responsible in having Stephen killed. Thus, Paul was a murder. Have you ever known someone who was a murderer? I don’t think that I have, actually. What would it be like to know that someone had been a murderer? And then what would it be like if that person was your pastor? It would intimidating. It might be a challenge to submit to them. Yet for Paul, this transformation was further evidence of the power of the resurrection.
The resurrection changes things. It changes the world. It changes people. And the power of the resurrection continued to empower Paul’s ministry as he went throughout the world. Indeed, the results of Paul’s ministry—the people who were saved, the communities which were built—are also described as effects of the resurrection. “The grace of God which was with me” is what brought about the abundant results of Paul’s ministry. And this grace was a fruit of the gospel, a fruit of the resurrection.
As we will see in the coming weeks, some in Corinth doubted the resurrection. And Paul’s answer to them is going to be that if the resurrection didn’t happen, then the witnesses are false witnesses. And if the witnesses are false witnesses, then the effects and graces of the resurrection are also false. They are illusory. Basically, this means that everything about Christianity, it’s preaching and it’s fruitfulness, all depends upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He had to have died, and He had to have risen from the dead and lived again in order for any of it to be true. This is why the resurrection is the gospel. For any of the good news to be true at all, for any of it to work, the resurrection has to have been real.
And so we must proclaim the resurrection. We must preach it. We must defend it. And we must see it as the animating power of our new lives in Jesus Christ.
Indeed, in Romans 6, Paul appeals to the resurrection as to why our Christian lives now must be holy and spiritual. He says that we should be buried in Christ and walk in newness of life. And just in case you don’t get any funny ideas about spiritualizing this and using it as a metaphor. Paul goes on to say this, “if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him” (that’s in the future tense), and so:
Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body… And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. (Rom. 6:8, 11-13)
The resurrection is the reason for our future salvation, and the resurrection is the reason for our present sanctification. Because Christ was raised from the dead, we will be raised from the dead, and because Christ was raised form the dead, we must walk in newness of life now.
One way to proclaim the resurrection is to repent. Mortify your flesh. Do not give in to your sinful desires. And that brings Easter and Lent together, doesn’t it? In order to meditate upon the death of Christ rightly, you must meditate upon the risen Christ. And in order to repent of your sins and die to yourself, you must live more and more unto Christ. You must live the resurrected life.
And this is witnesses bearing. You should certainly still tell people about the gospel, about Jesus’ resurrection. That’s essential. You can’t preach the gospel without doing that, without words. But you can also bear witness through your own witness, through you resurrected life now. This is what Paul did. He appealed to the effects of the resurrection on him. And so you should appeal to the effects of the resurrection on you. But in order to do that, those effects should be discernable. They must be visible. People have to see them and acknowledge them. And that’s why a life that contradicts your message contradicts the gospel. You will know the tree by its fruit, and so we as Christians must bear fruit in keeping with repentance. We must die to sin and live to Christ. This too we do through the resurrection.
And so this morning, let us hold fast to that gospel message which we have believed. Let us stand fast and not believe in vain. Let us believe that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures. Let us know that this was public, that there were many witnesses. And let us know that an abiding witness is the fruit which the resurrection produces. Let us be witnesses by bearing fruit. Let us bear witness to the gospel of the resurrected Christ.
Let us pray.