In the mid 1950s, British minister W. E. Sangster noticed some uneasiness in his throat and a dragging in his leg. When he went to the doctor, he found that he had an incurable disease that caused progressive muscular atrophy. His muscles would gradually waste away, his voice would fail, his throat would soon become unable to swallow.
Sangster threw himself into his work in British home missions, figuring he could still write, and he would have even more time for prayer. “Let me stay in the struggle Lord,” he pleaded. “I don’t mind if I can no longer be a general but give me just a regiment to lead.” He wrote articles and books and helped organize prayer groups throughout England. “I’m only in the kindergarten of suffering,” he told people who pitied him.
Gradually, Sangster’s legs became useless. His voice went completely. But he could still hold a pen, shakily. On Easter morning, just a few weeks before he died, he wrote a letter to his daughter. In it, he said, “It is terrible to wake up on Easter morning and have no voice to shout, ‘He is risen!’—but it would be still more terrible to have a voice and not want to shout.”
In our passage for today from 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Paul gives us three reasons to shout, three reasons to anticipate a great future. Listen for God’s word to you…
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve 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 to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
The first reason Paul gives us to anticipate a great future is because Christ died for our sins.
What exactly does this mean? People have held various theories about this over the past two thousand years. As you might imagine, I like what C. S. Lewis had to say about this. He writes…
Now before I became a Christian I was under the impression that the first thing Christians had to believe was one particular theory as to what the point of this dying was. According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem to me quite so immoral and so silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make. What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor any other is Christianity.
The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work. I will tell you what I think it is like. All sensible people know that if you are tired and hungry a meal will do you good. But the modern theory of nourishment—all about the vitamins and proteins—is a different thing. People ate their dinners and felt better long before the theory of vitamins was ever heard of: and if the theory of vitamins is ome day abandoned they will go on eating their dinners just the same. Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important these theories are…
You may ask what good will it be to us we do not understand it. But that is easily answered. A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.
We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself.
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. In other words, the Hebrew Scriptures foretold Christ’s sacrifice. Perhaps Paul was thinking of such Scriptures as Isaiah 53:5 where we read, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”
Why does Christ dying for our sin give us a reason to anticipate a great future? It does so because if Jesus died for our sins, then we can be set free from the burden and guilt of those sins.
One of my favorite movies of all time is The Mission with Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro. Jeremy Irons plays a Jesuit priest sent to the jungle of South America many years ago. Robert DeNiro plays a slave trader who is at odds with Irons. Through a series of events, DeNiro has a conversion experience, and he decides he wants to join Irons as a missionary. Before DeNiro can serve on the mission field, Irons makes him undergo a very unusual form of penance. Irons has DeNiro climb the mountain up to the mission base with a huge ball of junk, representing the trappings of DeNiro’s old life, tied to his body. After DeNiro has struggled part way up the mountain he falls down for the umpteenth time in total defeat. Jeremy Irons walks back to where DeNiro has fallen, takes out a knife, and cuts the rope which is tying the ball of junk to DeNiro’s waist, then the ball of junk goes falling over the cliff.
When I saw that scene in The Mission for the first time I thought, “What a picture of what Christ did for us on the cross!” Christ cut us free from the huge weight of sin and guilt that holds us back from becoming all he created us to be. Christ’s death on the cross frees us from the penalty of sin. The Holy Spirit living in us daily frees us from the power of sin. And one day, God the Father will free us from the very presence of sin. That is a wonderful reason to anticipate a great future. But there is more…
Paul tells us that a second reason for anticipating a great future is because Christ has been raised from the dead.
Paul notes that Jesus was truly buried. This is important because some people down through history have tried to say that Jesus merely swooned on the cross. They try to maintain that Jesus did not really die and therefore, rather than rising from the dead, what he did was merely wake up from sleep in the tomb and then appear to his disciples. But that is not what any of the accounts of Jesus’ life tell us. If Jesus merely swooned and woke up in that stone cold tomb, how did he roll aside the stone? And how did Jesus, in a body weakened by the torture of the cross, impress anyone with the idea that he had conquered death? No. Paul and the Gospels are quite clear. Jesus really died.
But Paul tells us that Jesus did not remain dead in the tomb. He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. Furthermore, Paul brings forward numerous witnesses to the truth of this story. Paul says that Jesus appeared to Cephas, that is Peter, then to the twelve. And Jesus appeared to more than five hundred people at one time, many of whom were still alive at the time of Paul’s writing 1 Corinthians in the mid 50s of the first century. That is just 20 to 25 years after Jesus’ death on the cross. Paul says that Jesus then appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all, Jesus appeared to Paul himself on the road to Damascus.
Over the past 2000 years, different people have tried to explain the resurrection in various ways. Some people say that Jesus did not really rise bodily from the grave, but that he rose spiritually. They say that the subjective experience of the disciples’ faith was transformed over time into biblical narratives that describe a more objective reality.
One of the main problems with this view is that this is simply not what Paul presents in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul clearly presents a physical resurrection of Christ. The Greek verb translated as “appeared” more naturally refers to a physical appearance. If Paul wanted to speak of a spiritual vision, there was another word he could have used.
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15 to remind the Corinthian Christians of the bodily resurrection of Christ that he had preached to them. Apparently, some in Corinth were in danger of denying the bodily resurrection and slipping back into the simpler Greek belief in the immortality of the soul. In fact, what Paul was preaching was so radical, so different than this Greek belief in the immortality of the soul that when he preached in Athens, people thought Paul was introducing two new gods: Jesus and “anastasis”—resurrection.
A second way that people have tried to explain away the resurrection is to say that the accounts in the New Testament are legends that developed over time. The problem with this view is that there was no time for any legend to develop. Paul says, “what I received I passed on to you.” These are technical words for receiving and handing on an authoritative tradition. 1 Corinthians was written around AD 54. Jesus was executed sometime between AD 29 and 34. Galatians 1:8 and 2:1 help us to date Paul’s conversion to around AD 33 or 35. That means that by AD 33 or 35 the Gospel Paul received had already become an authoritative tradition. These verses in 1 Corinthians 15 have been called “the oldest document of the Christian church” because Paul’s account of the resurrection of Jesus pre-dates any of the Gospels.
A third way people have tried to explain away the resurrection of Jesus has been to say that all the witnesses were deceived. They thought they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, but they had not. Josh McDowell, in his book, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, says,
The hallucination theory is not plausible because it contradicts certain laws and principles which psychiatrists say visions must conform to… Generally, only particular kinds of people have hallucinations.
But according to Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians 15, many different types of people all had this same hallucination.
McDowell continues, “Hallucinations are usually restricted as to when and where they occur.” However, the disciples saw the resurrected Jesus at many different times and in many different places.
McDowell says, “Hallucinations require of people an anticipating spirit of hopeful expectancy which causes their wish to become father of the thought.” But the disciples were not in a psychological mood favorable to belief in a resurrection. Check out the Gospels for yourself and see. All the disciples were dejected, hiding out in fear of the Romans and the Jewish leaders, not expecting Jesus to rise from the dead.
Finally, McDowell points out that, “Hallucinations usually tend to recur over a long period of time with noticeable regularity.” However, as C. S. Lewis points out in his book, Miracles,
All the accounts suggest that the appearances of the Risen Body came to an end; some describe an abrupt end six weeks after the death… If it were a vision then it was the most systematically deceptive and lying vision on record.
A fourth way of explaining away the resurrection of Jesus is to say that all of Paul’s witnesses, including Paul himself, were simply lying. The problem with this view is that I do not know of anyone who would die for something they knew was a lie. Many of Jesus’ first disciples, Paul included, gave up their lives because of their belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Why would they do that if they knew that the resurrection was a fabrication?
I don’t know about you, but none of these ways of explaining away the resurrection of Jesus make sense to me. Therefore, I conclude that what Paul and the other New Testament writers claim is true. Jesus really did rise again from the dead on the third day.
“But” you may ask, “why is Jesus’ resurrection a reason to anticipate a great future?” The answer is that if Christ has been raised, and if we put our trust in him, then we also will live forever and one day God will give us new bodies like that of Jesus, bodies that will never get sick again, never grow old, and never die.
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)
The story is told of a woman who was diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been given three months to live. As she was getting her affairs in order she contacted her pastor and asked him to come to her home to discuss some of her final arrangements.
The woman told her pastor which songs she wanted sung at her funeral, what Scriptures she wanted read, what outfit she wanted to be buried in and she requested that she be buried with her favorite Bible.
As the pastor prepared to leave, the woman suddenly remembered something else. “There’s one more thing,” she said excitedly.
“What’s that?” asked the pastor.
The woman replied, “I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.”
The pastor was dumbfounded and sheepishly asked, “Why?”
The woman replied, “Well, in all my years of attending church socials and potluck dinners, when the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, ‘Keep your fork.’ It was my favorite part of the meal because I knew something better was coming—like velvety chocolate cake or deep-dish apple pie. So, when people see me in that casket with a fork in my hand and they ask, ‘What’s with the fork?’ I want you to tell them: ‘Keep your fork. The best is yet to come!’”
This leads to a third reason for anticipating a great future—namely because God’s grace can change our lives.
Paul says he was the least of the apostles, unfit to even be called an apostle because he persecuted the church. But, he says, by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been in vain.
I like Anne Lamott’s definition: “Grace means you’re in a different universe from where you had been stuck, when you had absolutely no way to get there on your own.”
Paul puts it this way in Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”
God’s grace changes the lives of everyone it touches. It changed Peter’s life. It changed James’ life. It changed Paul.
A lot of people ask, “But what must I do to have God’s grace change me, so I can anticipate a great future?”
This little story gives us a picture. Reader’s Digest wrote of the late Harvey Penick:
For 90-year-old golf pro Harvey Penick, success has come late. His first golf book, Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, has sold more than a million copies, which his publisher believes makes it one of the biggest things in the history of sports books…
In the 1920s Penick bought a red spiral notebook and began jotting down observations about golf. He never showed the book to anyone except his son until 1991, when he shared it with a local writer and asked if he thought it was worth publishing. The man read it and told him yes. He left word with Penick’s wife the next evening that Simon & Schuster had agreed to an advance of $90,000.
When the writer saw Penick later, the old man seemed troubled. Finally, Penick came clean. With all his medical bills, he said, there was no way he could advance Simon & Schuster that much money. The writer had to explain that Penick would be the one to receive the $90,000.
People often have Penick’s reaction to the fabulous gift of salvation offered in Jesus. People ask, “What must I do?”
God answers, “Believe and receive.” In John 1:12 we read: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
God wants us to believe in and receive his grace today. He wants us to believe in and receive forgiveness purchased by Christ’s death on the cross. He wants us to believe in and receive power to live a new life made possible by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.