"If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, 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." (1 Corinthians 15v19-20)
We're continuing our series looking at the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and what their significance is for us today. In this post, we'll be looking over 1 Corinthians chapter 15, and drawing out some of the points that the apostle Paul makes regarding the resurrection of Jesus.
1. Jesus rose from the dead
In verses 3-11, Paul focuses our attention on the fact of the resurrection. The first thing to recognise therefore is that Jesus really died! His death was witnessed by many people, and many of those people were still alive at the time Paul was writing. It still remained in the consciousness of communities. So, for example, we find Peter speaking to Jews about the one "whom you crucified" (Acts 4v10), and Stephen proclaims the Christ "whom you have now betrayed and crucified" (Acts 7v52).
The death of Jesus was witnessed, checked (John 19v31-34) and confirmed (Mark 15v42-45). Then his body was taken down from the cross, and placed in a tomb that was then sealed and guarded. He really died.
But on the third day after his death, Jesus really rose! No one anticipated his resurrection - when he first appeared, even his own followers struggled to grasp what had happened! This was a radically new concept for them - there was nothing else like it.
The description of Christ's resurrection in the gospels is not simply a retelling of a myth found in lots of ancient cultures. In his book "The Resurrection of The Son of God", theologian N.T.Wright examines ancient pagan cultures and writings, and reaches this conclusion about their views on death: "The road to the underworld ran only one way."
The resurrection of Jesus was also unlike any the disciples had witnessed. Jesus had raised people from the dead, but those people would eventually die again. But Jesus didn't return to his life before death - he rose to life beyond death. His resurrection body was different - it was "imperishable" (15v42), perfectly suited for heaven (15v49).
With such a new concept, it's no surprise that Paul here emphasises that there were many witnesses (15v5-8). Anyone could see his empty tomb; the witnesses could explain what had happened to his body.
But why did Jesus rise from the dead? What does it mean for us?
2. Jesus rose from the dead to secure an eternal promise
a. Jesus demonstrated authority over death (15v54-57). In Revelation 1v18, we find the Lord stating: "Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades." What does it mean, to have the keys?
As an illustration, my younger kids regularly remind me what it means to have keys. When we're about to go out, and I ask "Who wants the keys to the car?", their hands immediately go in the air! Why? Because keys mean power! They imply you've grown up in some way! So, for example, when you reach a certain age, you get the keys to the house.
And how do you feel when you lose your keys? Helpless! You scrabble around the house trying to find the car keys, because otherwise you won't be able to reach your destination!
Keys mean power. At his resurrection, Jesus proves he has power over death - he has the keys! When he raised others from the dead, he unlocked tombs from the outside. Now, he demonstrated he could unlock tombs from the inside. Jesus has power over death - the power to have eternal life, and the power to give eternal life to others.
b. God gave His approval of Christ's sacrifice. Paul writes that "if Christ has not been raised...you are still in your sins" (15v17). When God raised Jesus from the dead, He was sharing that Christ's sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to pay for our sins.
When writing to the Christians in Rome, Paul states that Jesus "was delivered up for our sins and raised for our justification" (Rom 4v25). Our justification - God's declaration of our innocence - is revealed at the resurrection of Jesus.
When you trust your life to Jesus, you begin to live in him. In a sense, what happens to him happens to you. If he is still buried under your sins, then you are still buried under your sins (5v17). But if he is risen, then you have risen with him (15v22).
3. Jesus rose from the dead to secure an eternal promise of a temporary grave
Paul explores this in verses 20 to 23. He has already expressed this promise: "He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into His presence" (2 Cor 4v14). Paul describes the resurrection of Jesus as the "firstfruits" (15v20, 23). What are firstfruits?
Firstfruits are the first part of a field of crops that are ready to eat. They're a taster of more that is to come. Firstfruits are a bit like the demo of a new game that you haven't yet got.
I remember when we first downloaded the demo of Minecraft. What was the response of my kids? They immediately wanted to get the full version! They'd had a taster - now they wanted to own it!
That's how we should feel about Christ's resurrection - we should want to own it for ourselves! And if I trust Jesus to be my Saviour and my Lord, then I do own it. I can be sure of my resurrection because of his resurrection.
The temporary grave of Jesus is a promise of a temporary grave for all those who trust in him. His resurrection is the firstfruits, the promise of more to come, "for if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his." (Rom 6v5)
So, Jesus rose from the dead to secure an eternal promise of a temporary grave. But how should that affect the way we live today?
a. Trust in the irreversible resurrection of Jesus (15v56-57). We have victory over death through Christ! His resurrection is irreversible - he cannot be locked back in a tomb - he has the keys! I must trust him with my eternal future. My resurrection will not be secured by my future performance, but by his resurrection. Jesus tells us himself: "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live." (John 11v25)
b. Believe your life has significance (15v58). This is Paul's conclusion - "your labour is not in vain", your work is not pointless. If we have an eternal future, then potentially everything we do has an eternal consequence. The smallest act of service for the Lord can have a significance far beyond the horizon we can see. Personal holiness doesn't lose its value because of our eternal safety in Jesus - instead, it becomes more significant than ever!
c. Consider your priorities. If our temporary lives on earth have eternal significance, we should consider how we spend that time. Consider your own priorities - do they express your belief that your lasting home is in heaven? That your lasting treasure is in heaven? That your lasting reward is in heaven? That your eternity will be spent in heaven? Meditate and pray over these things over the next few days.
Next week, we'll reach the end of our series as we consider the ascension of Jesus, and what it means for us to have a Saviour who still lives.