When we examine 1 Corinthians 15, we can readily
see why it has come to be regarded as a masterpiece of sacred literature.
It declares that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the paramount,
the climactic, the indispensable act of God.
From Paul's viewpoint, the gospel was more than a picture to be admired. It was a tool to be used. The gospel was that by which men are saved and wherein they stand.
To the zoologist, one thing that distinguishes man from the rest of the animal kingdom is his ability to stand erect. To Paul, the man of God is distinguished from the man of the world by his ability to stand against the devil's wiles.
He said just that in the letter to the Ephesians, describing the Christian soldier, who stands his ground against seemingly hopeless odds. Such a description is reminiscent of the handful of brave Greeks who stood at Thermopylae and held that pass against a horde of invading Persians. Their heroism made possible "the glory that was Greece." It reminds us of Concord Bridge, where "once the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world."
Ours is a similar situation. Satan has set out to invade the domain of God. He storms the citadels of our hearts and day after day lays seige to our souls. We must stand firm. To do so, we must have something on which to stand. Paul says we can plant our feet firmly on the solid rock of the empty tomb. The resurrection is God's assurance that the battle must eventually be His and ours! Victory is certain. God turned the tide at the empty tomb! It is only a matter of time until that victory is secured. In that interim, we must hold the fort, guard the pass, stand our ground.
It is not enough to stand against something. We must also stand for something. Wise is the old adage, "He who does not stand for something is apt to fall for anything." Our militant posture must be more than defensive. One thinks at once of Martin Luther, pleading for freedom of conscience, "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me." That unswerving stand altered forever the course of human history. J.R. Lowell wrote of it:
What! Shall one monk scarce known beyond his cell
Front Rome's far-reaching bolts and scorn her frown?
Brave Luther answered yes; that thunder's swell
Rocked Europe, and discharmed the triple crown.
We, too, must have principles we will not compromise at any cost. We must have values we will never surrender. Someone has remarked that in our day no one seems wholly and irrevocably committed to anything. Such commitment seems unreasonable, fanatic, foolish. The theme song of the church is no longer, "Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross." Now it seems to be, "For he s a jolly good fellow," or "Hail, hail, the gang's all here." Let us sing again, "The fight is on," and mean it!
To remember the resurrection is to be reminded of the faithfulness of God. What a contrast it is to man's faithlessness, and how it inspires him to greater loyalty! To remember the resurrection is to be reminded of God's power. How weak is man without Him; how strong if He is near!
To remember His resurrection is to recall our own, when in baptism we were buried with Him. We participated in the likeness of His resurrection that we might walk in newness of life. Is our life really new? Are the old sins still there? Do we still walk in the old ways? Are we like the alien who has come to live in a new land, but will not learn its language nor live by its customs?
Our commemoration of the resurrection reminds us that the old man is crucified and buried, and that he must not be disinterred. It re-emphasizes that from that grave God raised up a new man, who is truly after His own image.
More than this, the resurrection is the key to Christian living because it assures us that we serve a living Lord. He is by our side. He sees us falter. He hears our uncomely speech. He knows our un-Christian thoughts. Surely the good news that Christ lives will motivate us to higher and holier lives. Surely the mighty act of God in raising up Jesus will also lift us up and let us stand "by faith on Heaven's tableland." It is a living Christ who plants our feet on higher ground.
In a symphony, every note on the keyboard may at times be used; but the harmony will be determined by a single combination that sets the tone and determines the harmonic arrangment of the whole. In the chapter before us, Paul declares that three facts constitute the dominant chord of the gospel; and by devoting fifty-four of the chapter's fifty-eight verses to the third fact, he leaves no doubt that it is the keynote.
These essential facts are that Christ died, that He was buried, and that He rose again. It is not correct to say that they are the gospel, for they alone do not exhaust the gospel. Paul only contends that they are indispensable to the gospel; that without them there can be no gospel.
There is a note of sacrifice. Christ died. What could possibly be good about news like that? What sort of man could sing joyfully of the death of another, could say, "In the cross of Christ I glory?"
What is so glorious about death? Christ's death finds its glory in the fact that He died "for our sins." His death, then, was something more than heroic, something more than innocent and undeserved, something more even than vicarious.
Only Christ could have gone to the cross with the innocence of a child and with the self-determination of a man. Only He stood in full command of His powers, yet innocent of any sin. There had been before, and have been since, innocent deaths and willing deaths. But never before such a combination of the two!
His death for our sins was "according to the Scriptures." The shadow of the cross hangs unmistakably over the Old Testament. While only glimpsed in Genesis, its outline is clearly visible in the psalms of David and in the prophecies of Zechariah, Isaiah, and Daniel. Every minute detail of these predictions was fulfilled, from the manner of death to the place of burial. Thus seen, the crucifixion becomes more than the mad scheme of heartless men. It becomes the premeditated plan of a loving God, and the determined purpose of a compassionate Christ.
There is a note of satisfaction. As has already been intimated, the dominant one of these three notes is the final one, the resurrection. But that event rests squarely upon the other two. Pointing to an empty tomb means nothing, unless you can establish that a man, once dead, was buried there.
Paul does not bother to prove that "Christ was buried." He assumes that the assertion will go undisputed, as it did until recent times. After all, what else could you do with a body in the hot climate of Palestine? Without the embalming skill of Egypt, or the refrigeration of modern times, what alternatives existed? Why, then, does Paul even mention it, let alone place it between the cardinal events of death and resurrection? He does so to satisfy our minds regarding Christ's death.
Suppose that He did not really die. Suppose that He experienced a coma on the cross. While this theory is hardly a credit to the discernment of His executioners, it recurs from time to time. Let us suppose it to be correct. Would then the embalmers not have discovered it? Would not the tomb have stifled Him? Would not the soldiers on guard have prevented His escape? The fact that he was buried is important because it reaches in two directions to validate both His death and His resurrection.
The empty tomb, then, has become the world's most eloquent witness to the resurrection. Its mute testimony remains to this day unanswered and unanswerable. "He is not here." Try every possible explanation. Only one is reasonable. His friends would not have stolen the body, for they did not expect a resurrection. His enemies would not have taken it, for they placed a guard to keep it. He could not have merely swooned at Golgotha; for then the soldiers would have finished on Sunday morning the work they did not complete on Friday.
How significant is that seal the Romans placed upon the tomb! While it did not keep the door shut, the fact that it was placed there seals forever, with even higher authority, the doorway of doubt and makes the resurrection the only possible explanation for His reappearance.
There is a note of certainty. Paul takes great pains to prove the resurrection. To him, the justification of the saint, the judgment of the sinner, and the hope of immortality all rest upon it. Said he, "If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." At Athens, he said that God "hath appointed a day, in which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead."
From the sepulchral bench in Joseph's tomb, Jesus goes to the judicial bench in eternity's courtroom. Only those who have confessed Him here will He confess there.
How important become those words, "I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God." While that confession is brief and general, the faith that lies behind it must be detailed and specific. Paul could not have accepted the contention that to acknowledge Jesus as Lord was all that mattered. To him, belief in the resurrection, a specific event, was vital, central, irreplaceable - so much so that it gave assurance of both salvation and judgment!
To give certainty to the claim, Paul calls forth his witnesses. The number of them is "above five hundred." For him and for us, there need be no note of uncertainty in the playing of this symphony. We need not soft-pedal its claims, lest they be found false. We can mark it fortissimo and sound the diapason of deliverance with complete assurance. "Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!"
A stone arch is a wonder to behold. What holds the stones in place, with nothing but the thin air beneath? The answer is the keystone. Of a different size and shape, and placed in its strategic position at the top of the arch, it holds all of the other stones together.
If we think of Christianity as the Arch of Triumph through which the conquering Christ triumphantly marches, then the resurrection of Christ is the keystone in that arch. Without it, all the assembled facts and hopes of our religion crumble and lie shattered at our feet.
To make certain that this stone will remain in place and do well its work, Paul held it up to three tests. He made a prophetic test, an empirical test, and a philosophical test. In 1 Corinthians 15, he declares that the resurrection is made valid by Scripture, by the five senses, and by common sense.
He makes use of the prophetic test by repeating again and again the same refrain, "according to the Scriptures." Old Testament references to the resurrection are few, but they are powerful. Jesus predictions of His resurrection are even stronger and more specific.
Paul next applies the empirical test: "He was seen." Here is an appeal to the highest order of evidence known to man. All American jurisprudence rests upon it. It is the testimony of witnesses.
Were they competent witnesses, these people to whom Paul referred? They had been with Jesus night and day throughout His ministry. For more than three years, ever since His baptism by John in Jordan, they had walked with Him, talked with Him, eaten with Him, lived with Him. They would have recognized an imposter at once. Their competence is amply demonstrated in the growth of the Christian religion and in the books that they composed.
But competency is not the only test of a witness. Were they honest? Had they anything to gain by making the claims they did? No. They had everything to lose! As one of them put it, "We have forsaken all." These men staked their lives upon this gospel and died for their faith in this Christ.
Were they themselves deceived? Was their conviction of Jesus having risen perhaps some hallucination, some trick of the mind, triggered by wishful thinking, something conjured up by an overworked imagination?
Hardly. Even a brief consideration of the array of witnesses summoned in this chapter quickly evaporates such an objection. The risen Lord appeard to believers and unbelievers, to individuals and to groups large and small, by night and by day, indoors and out of doors, in the city and in the country, in Judea and Galilee.
His visitation extended over a period of forty days. During this time He walked, talked, and ate in their presence. Of the five senses, at least three tested the contention that He was alive. They saw Him, they heard Him, they touched Him. In every way, He conducted himself no differently from the way He had before. The empirical test says with certainty, "He lives!"
Perhaps the most dramatic part of 1 Corinthians 15 is that in which Paul applies the philosophical test. "If Christ be not raised .. ." he begins. With that conjecture as a launching pad, he transports us into a bleak and forbidding universe where there is no help and no hope for mankind. Appealing to common sense, he shows the strategic and indispensable position the resurrection plays in the Christian system. He is saying, in effect, that if the finest flower of the human race withered and died never to bloom again, what possible hope can there be for the rest of mankind? All our hope, says he, is hinged upon those few dramatic hours between the Sabbath's sunset and sunrise on the first day of the week.
Paul adds that on this dread condition, "your faith is vain." All that man has ever held dear, all that he has cherished about God and self, all his faith, was nothing more than idle speculation. There is no God of omnipotent power, no Christ of unmatched love, no eternity of unending bliss! Faith? It is merely a word to conjure with, a crutch for the weak, a talisman for the foolish. All our goals and ideals are gone. The cupboard of our souls is bare. We must turn for solace, strength, and happiness to the meager reserves of a material world that measures the worth of all things by the yardstick of dollars and cents. Greed must now be our god and materialism our master, and life be forever bound up in the transient pleasures and tinseled possessions of this present world. "If in this life only we have hope. . . ." Who can bear to finish the sentence?
Paul adds to this a still more powerful argument. "If Christ be not raised .. . ye are yet in your sins!" What man is so insensible that he cannot feel the burden of his sins, so ignorant he cannot read the tally of his own soul's exhausted inventory? The stains of sin are deep, and the awful weight of a single life's wrongdoing is more than man can bear.
Are we now to believe that these stains can never be erased, this burden never lifted, the books of the soul never balanced? Consider what life would be like to live with our guilt day after day, and then to die with its load still lying heavily on our hearts! Under such conditions, who would really want to live forever, here or anywhere?
But if we deny the resurrection, this is the situation we must face and accept - a situation made more poignant when Paul points out that "they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished." Never again shall we see the smiling face, hear the familiar voice, be reunited with those we "have loved long since and lost a while."
If the resurrection is not fact - if it is only fancy, fable, or parable - then the road to the grave is a one-way street, and life is a hopeless riddle. With nothing to believe in, nothing to hope for, and nothing to live for, we would be indeed "of all men most miserable." Thank God, it is not in this life only that we have hope in Christ. Thank God this life is, in the words of Paul Scherer "open at both ends, and the winds of eternity blow through it."
Having painted this dark and somber picture of a Christ-less, lifeless, loveless world, Paul races to assure us that this is not the way things really are at all. In verse 20, he presents an emphatic affirmation that Christ is indeed risen and alive forevermore. Like the sun in our solar system, He has come to take His rightful place as the Son in the spiritual "soular" system of the heart. "But now is Christ risen!" This is no question. It is a positive declaration that removes all the question marks of life and replaces them with exclamation points. "Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory!"
That victory must find its expression not only in
the hereafter, but in the here and now. Paul's conclusion is dramatic
and pointed, "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable,
always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your
labor is not in vain in the Lord."