Hope beyond death

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.

The Gospel

'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 lived.

Jesus died.

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?

The Resurrection

'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 h