I Corinthians 15:1-20
The Gospel brings salvation. And that salvation depends on having Christ as our Saviour. For this reason, Christianity cannot be a theological free-for-all. There are some matters on which we may legitimately disagree (Romans 14:1), but there are others which are absolutely fundamental: if we reject them, we are placing our eternal destiny in jeopardy (verse 2).
This very early creed (possibly taught to Paul by Ananias shortly after his conversion) lists those things so fundamentally basic to the Christian faith that they cannot be altered or dispensed with (verses 3-5). Our faith rests on attested historical facts: that a certain Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, was buried in a sealed tomb – and three days later rose from the dead. We do not just believe a set of doctrines and follow a particular moral code; rather, we believe that certain events in the past have changed history and therefore have implications for our lives in the present. If these events did not actually happen, then the apostles are false witnesses, our faith is completely without foundation, and we have no good news to preach (verse 14)!
But Christian belief is more than just a string of historical facts; it is a particular interpretation of the significance of those facts. “Christ died” is history; “Christ died for our sins” is doctrine. This is why the Jewish Scriptures are so important; they provide the necessary context that enables us to interpret the facts correctly. In the life and death of Jesus, the whole story told by the Old Testament came to its climax and fulfilment. His death was no accident, but part of God’s purpose: it was the sacrifice that makes atonement for our sins. His burial was the proof of His death; the empty tomb testifies to the objective reality of His resurrection.
The Greeks, though comfortable with the concept of an immortal soul, believed that a physical resurrection was impossible. Having grown up within this worldview, some of the Corinthians found it difficult to shed their presuppositions. And this obliged them to ‘spiritualise’ Christ’s resurrection – with profound implications. For the Christian faith is centred and grounded on Jesus’ bodily resurrection. He appeared to His disciples not in visions, but in a body – a body that could not only be seen, but touched (Luke 24:37-43).
Why does this matter? The Resurrection is like a receipt, confirming that Jesus’ sin-bearing death has been effective for our forgiveness; His defeat of death is the proof that He has also defeated sin once and for all. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” (verse 17) If Jesus stayed dead, then either He was not the sinless person that everyone thought Him to be (and so His death was no different from anyone else’s) or His attempt to atone for the sins of the world was a failure. If He was nothing more than a revered teacher, whose corpse lies even now in its grave, then there is nothing for us to believe in; Christianity is reduced to mere moralism, unable either to deal with our past or to offer us any hope for the future.
“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (verse 20) This is how believers can be certain of having eternal life. Christ’s resurrection and ours are inseparable; they are part of the same process. And so for us, death is not the end of everything but the gateway to the life to come…