Updated: Aug 4, 2020
It may sound a bit morbid reflecting on death but it happens quite a lot. Being in a community that faces the death of daughters and sons regularly through Rett Syndrome I think about it fairly regularly. The good news of Christianity says that one day, death itself will be destroyed. I was asked to preach in my church from a chapter in the bible that emphasises this hope and why we can trust it. If you have 40 minutes to listen I go through the passage and share why it is such good news. I don't think I was as clear as I could have been but it comes from the heart.
The script of the talk is below if you prefer to read.
We are at the penultimate point of our series, Church as God intended, going through 1 Corinthians. This morning we are going through chapter 15 if you’d like to turn there. It is a long chapter and you’ll notice that as we go through it this morning I will skip over some verses. I hope you understand that I do think they are valuable but this morning there is a focus that I believe God would have for us. On top of that we do need to be out of the screen by 12 and I’m not sure I could promise that if I expanded on all the theological points that Paul makes in this chapter!
Paul is writing to a church that is struggling to live and operate in a way that honours God. It is a church that has pulled in all sorts of cultural ideas and norms and it is in a bit of a mess. Throughout this chapter we see Paul referencing the Old Testament, but he also pulls information in from the Corinthian culture. One example of this is verse 29 - Paul seems to be referencing a Corinthian practice that seeks to help the dead in the resurrected state in the afterlife. He is pointing to local, non-christian practice, to help build the case that all humans hope for a life after death.
Our own society has similar rituals though probably seen as less ‘spiritual’. There are organisations that promise to freeze your body when you die for a significant fee so that when the technology becomes available, they can bring you back to life. There are various movies, series and documentaries on the concept that technology and science will allow us to live forever.
All of humanity’s fears can be summarised by 5 primal fears. The fear of extinction, the fear of being mutilated or loss of limb or invasion of body space by creepy crawlies fit in this category, the fear of loss of autonomy, the fear of separation or loss of identity within a group and the fear of the death of ego – humiliation. Our main fear is that we fear ceasing to exist – we fear death. These fears are the same now as they were in Paul’s day.
In a society with all sorts of ideas of happiness and the seeking of immortality, Paul clarifies the basics of the Christian message. The gospel he first preached, the resurrection and its importance and the hope beyond death. In our society full of various ideas around death, Paul’s letter is just as relevant today.
'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 that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy 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. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. ' 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
You can tell that Paul is wrapping up his letter because he has now come back to where he started in chapter 1. In chapter one Paul writes:
'For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God... but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, ' 1 Corinthians 1:18,23
For those new to this, Christ means ‘annointed one of God’. It is another name for Jesus because it recognised that he was the one that the Old Testament points to as the deliverer of the Jewish nation. The Jews were waiting for someone they called the Messiah, Christ is based on the Greek translation of Messiah.
Jesus crucified is what Paul preaches and it is this truth that holds up the entirety of the letter. It is only through Jesus death that the Corinthians will be humble, wise, holy, rich, pure, disciplined, united, compassionate, sacrificial, generous, orderly in worship, gifted spiritually and ultimately loving. It literally bookends, props up, the whole of the book.
Paul emphasises that you can see Jesus in scripture. It is important to note that this letter would have pre-dated the gospels – the first four books of the New Testament - so when Paul talks about scriptures, he is talking about the Jewish scriptures that he was trained in to read and interpret. These scriptures are our Old Testament and potentially some of the known teachings of the other apostles that had spread up to this point. Paul is pointing out that all Jewish history points to Jesus life, death and resurrection. For the Jews in Corinth, this is important, they see that scripture is an authority that they can trust. But Paul doesn’t stop there…
Not only can we look at scripture and see that Jesus died, was buried and rose again but the Corinthians can find people who are alive at the time of this letter. People who walked with Jesus and saw Jesus alive. He points to Cephas who is Jesus’ disciple Peter. He then points to the remaining disciples, many of whom were also still alive and preaching. He then points to over 500 people who were alive when Jesus died and rose again. Paul then reaches his own story which you can read about in Acts and in his other letters. Paul, a former persecutor of the church, saw Jesus and shared the good news through large portions of the known world. Not only that, Paul was a Jewish scholar and had the means and the knowledge to share the good news through the written word to the churches he had planted.
The writer of Hebrews uses a similar structure in chapter 12 - they call this history of the church, the great cloud of witnesses. The writer also uses this alongside Jesus’ death and resurrection to be the motivation for the Christian life –
'Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. ' Hebrews 12:1-3
The cloud of witnesses isn’t an ethereal idea that we reflect on but the history of the gospel message through God’s people - the church. This gospel has been the unifier and qualifier for all denominations for centuries and is the one main constant since Jesus’ disciples first became bold enough to preach the message (see Acts 2).
The church and her history is the best witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Know that many have gone before you who are witnesses of the gospel and shared its message. Many of whom died for the gospel. Many could come to know the gospel through you.
When you share this message, keep to that which is most important.
Jesus rose to life.
You can see it in the scriptures, and you can know it is true by the cloud of witnesses that have gone before you. You can become a part of the cloud of witnesses.
Why is the resurrection so important?
'Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 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. 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.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.
Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptised on their behalf? Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame. ' 1 Corinthians 15:12-34
Since Paul has left Corinth, people have started to debate and question the resurrection of the dead. The resurrection is still just as debated now as it was then. While Paul points to those who were alive when Jesus was, Paul couldn’t point to the New Testament because it wasn’t written yet.
When we discuss the resurrection, we can point to historic documents in the bible and outside the bible as well as the history of the church – which isn’t always a positive! God works through humanity despite, as we see in this letter, humans often getting it wrong. Unfortunately we can’t point to people still alive but it is why the cloud of witnesses, the church is so important!
Corinth was a cross-cultural trading point and so for many, the teaching of the resurrection of the dead may well have been a foreign idea. For the Jews, it may be that they were debating their own scriptures, but it is understood that there are major pointers to the resurrection in the Old Testament. Daniel 12:2:
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
And Isaiah 26:19:
But your dead will live, Lord; their bodies will rise—
let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy—
your dew is like the dew of the morning;
the earth will give birth to her dead.
Christianity didn’t just come out of nowhere. It is vital that we understand that Jesus is the fulfilment of everything that the Jewish nation hoped for and their scriptures point to. For those debating the resurrection, Paul points out the senselessness of his, and his fellow apostles, preaching if there is no resurrection.
If the dead are not raised (vs12-18):
Christ has not been raised
Preaching and faith is useless
We are liars
We are still sinners
Everyone dead is lost
We are to be pitied
If the dead are not raised (vs29-33):
You pointlessly seek immortality
Paul risks his life for no reason
No point boasting about other’s faith
go and have a drink
Tomorrow, death wins.
The logical conclusion of there being no resurrection is that Jesus was not God, he could not save himself let alone anyone else. If sin and death have separated us from God, then Jesus wasn’t the one who could change that. Church history is false and scriptures can go out the window. We might as well live as though death wins. You only live once – or as the cool kids say – YOLO.
But, Christ has indeed been raised!
We can have hope because of the good news of the resurrection! We have multiple historic documents that testify to the fact that Jesus died, was crucified under a Roman governor named Pontius Pilate and that shortly after he died a group claiming his resurrection and empty tomb grew so big as to warrant specific persecution by the Roman emperors. There is a stack of evidence that Jesus lived and died and rose again in Jerusalem and we can explore that together if you’re interested.
If what I have said so far has set off multiple questions get in touch and explore why this message is not only relevant and good news but also true! You don’t have to turn your brain off to follow Jesus!
By being human we have inherited death. Paul talks about Adam and you can find this link in Genesis chapter 3. Death came in through the human nature to try and be our own gods and follow our own will. The relationship between God and humanity is broken and this is what we call sin.
But Paul highlights both in verse 3 and in verse 26 that Jesus died for our sins and destroyed death by his resurrection. By being in Jesus, we inherit life.
And so we go to last section of this chapter…
'But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 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. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 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.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.' 1 Corinthians 15:35-58
Paul uses nature to give us a symbol of resurrection that we can understand. A seed dies but the plant lives and in many ways is greater than the seed. Though we can’t stretch the imagery beyond what Paul was suggesting, we can learn from it two things:
That our current body doesn’t dictate what our future body will be, but the future body will be greater. This cut across all of Greek and Jewish thinking where any life after death isn’t better than what we have now. But just because the seed dies doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter what we do with our current bodies. Remember what Paul wrote in chapter 6 of 1 Corinthians. Jesus death doesn’t mean we just have hope in the next life but in this life He helps us and lives in us even in these bodies that will die.
That our worth and value isn’t found in whatever our current body does or doesn’t do. Our worth and value is found in that Christ died for us and lives in us and we are children of God and we can look forward to a day when we are given bodies that sin and death no longer has hold over.
We are mortal and perishable but after we die, those who are in Christ will be raised in an imperishable and immortal body. We have a glimpse as to what the body looks like through Paul writing to the Philippians.
“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
I love this. Jesus body was broken on the cross but after he rose, he had a new imperishable and immortal body. Jesus was able to interact physically but also appear in rooms. He was recognisable but different and it took Mary time with him to realise who He was. We see in Luke 24 that after startling the disciples by seemingly to just appear amongst them, He can be touched and recognised to have a physical body.
Paul points us to an amazing promise that on the other side of death is an amazing living hope. That through Jesus, death has lost its sting. We will be changed, we will have new bodies and it will be amazing.
These verses have become a lifeline for me over the last two years. A year ago, my daughter Rosalie was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition called Rett Syndrome just after her second birthday. This rare genetic condition means that a specific gene doesn’t create the right protein for development and so Rosalie can’t control her body in the way that we take for granted. It means that my daughter can’t walk or talk and currently there is no cure.
We, and those who also face Rett Syndrome daily have some hope in technology that allows Rosalie to talk through her eyes via a computer. We also hope in research that means genetic therapy might relieve or even reverse the symptoms in the near future. We are very blessed that so far Rosalie’s health has been good as many children have regular seizures and hospital trips from various symptoms that can turn serious quickly. We regularly see through the community that we have found through Facebook that good health isn’t to be taken for granted. The sting of death for many families is very real and it is a kick in the gut each time that we come across another family whose child has lost their battle with the syndrome. Rosalie’s giggle and character shows joy even in suffering.
We hope that science can reverse Rosalie’s symptoms. We hope technology can help her communicate. We hope that medication can control everything else. But these verses say we can have an even greater hope for Rosalie. One day, she will have an amazing imperishable and immortal body! Even if science and medical technology fails, Rosalie is a child of God, loved by him and saved by him and will be made new through Jesus death and resurrection.
We feel the sting in this life, Jesus knew this more than anyone. Though we have hope we still grieve those who die. Jesus says that those who mourn will be comforted. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians that suffering and comfort are inexplicably bound through the suffering and comfort of Jesus.
Paul wasn’t blind to the pain of suffering we feel now but he wants us to understand that the hope we have is a great comfort!
We can sing that there is no sting even with tears in our eyes. We can do this because we have this amazing promise that death will be swallowed up in victory!
There is more good news! In Isaiah 25 where this phrase comes from, we see that The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. Not only will there be no more pain there will be no more shame and guilt!
The promise goes through to the end of the bible in Revelation 21:
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
This is the hope we have when we believe in Jesus death, burial and resurrection and its power to save us from sin and death. This isn’t harp strings on a cloud, wishy washy hope, but a hope that everything will be made new in the way it was supposed to be in the beginning. God will dwell with humanity. Just like the garden in Genesis 1, we have the tree of life in the city of God in Revelation 22 and we can assume like Adam in the garden of Eden, we will have perfect and holy work to do and also have perfect and holy relationships with all. It won’t be boring at all. This is where theology, the study of the bible, gives us a better hope than anything else this world has to offer.
Our greatest fear as humans is death. This morning know this:
Do not fear death in this life but fear God who has the power to destroy completely in the next (Matt 10:28) – our fear of death will diminish when we fear God – the Greek and Hebrew words for fear have far more facets than our English word and by fearing God it is a more positive reverence and awe. We do not have to be afraid of him but know that what we are afraid of has no power because of the awesome power of our God who has victory over death.
Jesus has defeated death (verses 54-57) – It has no victory and the sting is only momentary.
His resurrection gives us eternal life (verses 20-22) – We can look forward to eternity with our creator and that eternity is with a new body, no sin and death in the new creation.
The new creation will have no death or pain (Revelation 21:3-4) – all things will be made new.
This is the gospel!
This is good news!
Through the gospel and the resurrection gives us a hope that goes beyond death!
How will you respond?
Trust in Jesus: You can believe in Jesus, that through his death and resurrection that he can forgive sins and give you life in all its fullness. I will share some words you can pray to make this step in a moment. You can sing a new song this morning! You can know joy even in suffering by believing in the resurrected king.
We want to see glimpses of the imperishable, death being defeated, healings, salvations here and now and we are taught to pray "your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven".
Not all will be healed in this life. Even Lazarus who was resurrected by Jesus eventually died again. But it is through death that we gain life, like a seed that dies to give way to a tree, our perishable body that is still in sin will give way to an imperishable body that is pure and able to dwell with God.
Share the Gospel. Share the gospel like death is defeated.
As Paul finishes so will I:
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.
Christ died, Christ was buried, Christ rose and Christ will come again. Let that be your inspiration and motivation to live in the way that Christ has called you to.
For those who want to make a commitment for the first time, you can pray this:
God I want to know you. I want to follow Jesus, trusting in his death, burial and resurrection. Forgive me of my sin. Please help me live in a way that honours you.