Wednesday 22 June 2011

Today is a good day to die (1 Corinthians 15:12-34)

This is important

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
1 Corinthians 15:12

Paul is frustrated. What he has to say is important, so important. But it just isn’t getting through. Not because his readers disagree with what he is saying. But precisely because they think they already know he has to say, and that they don’t need reminding.

1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
1 Corinthians 15:1-2

It’s the gospel – the central message of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins. And Paul starts out by saying, “You guys know this. You heard it. You’ve received it. You put your trust in this gospel for your salvation.”

Good. Fine. Brilliant.

But. That’s how verse 12 begins. BUT! How then, can some of you now turn around and say there is no resurrection from the dead?

Wait a minute! I thought we were talking about the gospel. I mean, I believe that Jesus rose from the dead. I believe there was the empty tomb; that he appeared to Peter and the apostles.

But Paul isn’t talking about Jesus’ resurrection. He is talking about yours.


Paul has moved on from talking about Jesus’ death to yours; from his resurrection to your resurrection. What will happen to you when you die? And Paul is saying that your death and your resurrection is intricately linked to Jesus’. You can’t deny one without denying the other.

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.
1 Corinthians 15:13

I think it’s worth clarifying what I mean by that word: resurrection.

I don’t mean you become a ghost or a spirit. You can walk through walls and talk to cats. That’s not what I mean.

By resurrection, I also do not mean reincarnation. Going through cycles life and death, then life and death, over and over again. In my last life I was a grasshopper. In my next life, I hope I’ll be a butterfly. That’s not resurrection.

Also, resurrection isn’t about going to a place in the clouds called heaven, where you’re dressed in a white gown and you meet Saint Peter is standing in front of a huge golden gate holding a clipboard.

Resurrection means you die – your whole body dies – and God raises your whole body to life again from the dead. You find that phrase again and again in today’s passage – Christ has been raised “from the dead”; how can you say there is no resurrection “of the dead” (verse 12; also verses 13, 14, 15, 16, 20 and 21). The point being: as you face your death, where is your hope?

When was the last time you were at a funeral? Funerals can be depressing. Unless you’re Michael Jackson. In which case, thousands of people turn up in a huge stadium to catch a glimpse of your body wheeled in a gold casket. Mariah Carey sings “I’ll be there”. Millions tune in to watch the service on TV.

But even in a funeral like Michael Jackson’s, the most you can is, “This is it”. This is it. You can celebrate a person’s life and accomplishments and remember his contributions. But it all ends at the grave. This is it.

That is not the Christian hope.

The bible says as sure as Jesus was raised from the dead; as sure as he rose to everlasting life never to die again, so shall we.

Otherwise, you are wasting your time with Christianity. Otherwise, there is no point at all being a Christian.

Useless and pointless

14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.
1 Corinthians 15:14-16

In a way Richard Dawkins is right. Atheists like Richard Dawkins write books warning people about Christianity. He doesn’t just say there is no God. He says stay away from a religion that says there is a God because it is a lie and it is harmful to believe in this lie.

Paul says if the resurrection is a lie, then we are liars. “We are false witnesses,” he says, implying that that he has committed a great evil in testifying to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, if in fact, God “did not raise him”.

But it gets worse than that.

17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.
1 Corinthians 15:17-18

You are still in your sins. You are not going to heaven, my friend, if Christ was not raised. Your sins were not forgiven. God is still going to punish you on the last day. And all those who trusted in Christ and died, well, they are lost – which is a polite way of saying they are damned.

How serious the implication is of that saying Christ did not rise from the dead.

But then Paul is not just talking about Jesus’ resurrection. He is talking about yours. Do you believe God will raise you on the last day? If you call yourself a Christian: Paul is talking to you!

He isn’t preaching to Richard Dawkins – Dawkins doesn’t believe Jesus died for our sins. Paul is dealing with Christians who say they are Christians; Christians who come to church every week; Christians who have heard him preach about Jesus week in and week out and say to Paul, “We know this already!” Paul is saying to these Christians, what does the resurrection mean for you? Because verse 19 is striking reminder of the vital importance of the truth and reality of the resurrection.

I pity the fool

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
1 Corinthians 15:19

One of my favourite characters from TV as a kid in back on the BBC: Mr T! And he is hosting a new show called “World’s Craziest Fools”. In it he makes fun of people who pull the most idiotic, foolish, moronic stunts – like drive a car into a swimming pool, or call 911 to ask for a date with a police officer – to make fun of them! The classic Mr T catchphrase I remember as a kid was him saying, “I pity the fool!”

Paul says you don’t have to tune into the BBC to see the world’s craziest fools. He says you might see them right here in church. They are those who trust in Christ but only for this life. He is saying, “I pity the fool!”

Now I know this sounds unkind. But the reality is: this is quite tragic.

If your sum hope in Christ is this life – meaning, this job, this house, this health, this happiness, this degree, this relationship, this body – not bad things to thank God for; not bad things to ask God for. But if that’s the sum of your hope in Christ, then friends, it’s a hope with a short expiry date. You are going to get disappointed; the only issue being whether it’s sooner or later. Because when that job interview goes south, when the exam results don’t turn out quite as expected, when you look in the bathroom mirror one day and see your dad staring back at you – for some people that’s their moment of despair! They lose it. They buy a Ferrari to compensate. They run off with the secretary.

Or when they sit across the doctor who tells them the bad news. Then suddenly all those gadgets seem so inconsequential. What is your hope in? And what are you hoping for?

Christ suffered in his body the punishment for our sins. He took our death so that we might have life. Life to the fullest. Life everlasting which includes this life, which also includes so much more!

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.
1 Corinthians 15:20-21

BUT! I love that word (Everything changes)! But Christ has been raised, indeed! “But” makes all the difference.

So, Paul has so far been drawing the connection between our death and Jesus’ resurrection. But he’s next going to explain this further by drawing a connection between our death in Adam and our life in Jesus. And his point is that there are two strands of humanity: one which leads to the death and one who will be raised from death. More importantly, Paul is going to explain the reasons why we die and why there is hope beyond the grave.

21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
1 Corinthians 15:21-23

Death according to the bible is through Adam and in Adam. It is through Adam in that death is passed down to us, like genes or DNA. If your dad had black hair, and your grand-dad had black hair and his dad had black hair, I’m guessing you have black hair. It is passed down from father to son. And we can trace the source of this death DNA, all the way back to the first man, Adam. The bible is referring to Adam’s sin in rejecting God. God punished Adam for his rejection with death, and since then, this punishment has affected all of Adam’s descendants.

In the same way, Jesus becomes the source of resurrection life. Christians receive the promise of eternal life because of what Jesus did on the cross. So there are two humanities beginning with two men, Adam and Jesus. One is the source of death and one is the source of life. Death came through Adam. The resurrection comes through Jesus.

But what does it mean to be in Adam and in Christ – as it says in verse 22. I can understand “through” – it is talking about the source; the beginning. But what do Christians mean when they say they are “in Christ”?

Verse 24 onwards tells us.

24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
1 Corinthians 15:24-28

It is talking about submission. Notice the phrase “under his feet”, or “under him” occurring five times in verses 25, 27 and 28. Everything will be put in submission, or as verse 27 has it, “he has put everything under his feet”.

Notice also the quotation marks there in verse 27. The translators have put those quotation marks in because Paul is quoting an Old Testament psalm; specifically Psalm 8 verse 5. Now let me ask you a very silly question about this psalm: Who is it talking about? Whose feet will God put everything under?

At this, even the youngest kid in Sunday School will put his hand up and say, “Jesus!”

Ah! But he isn’t talking about Jesus (sorry kids!). When you go back to Psalm 8, you see that it is talking about man; it is talking about the creation of humanity; in fact, it is talking about the creation of the first man, Adam. God created the world and then he created Adam and put everything under his feet, to rule and to care for.

Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.
Genesis 1:28

Adam was given all authority over the earth, under God. At least, that was the plan. Only Adam rejected God. He didn’t mind ruling the earth, he just didn’t want someone ruling over him. This is what the bible means by sin. Sin is rejecting God. Sin isn’t about breaking rules or being bad or chewing gum in church. Sin is saying to God, “Stay out of my life. I will life my own life my own way.”

When we say that to God, we are in Adam. We reject God the same way Adam did, and therefore, we are punished by God with the same punishment Adam received, death. That is what it means to be in Adam. It means rejecting God.

To be in Christ, however, is to be in submission to God.

Those of you who said verse 27 was talking about Jesus earlier on – you are absolutely right! (So good job, Sunday School kids! And sorry again!) God has put everything under Jesus’ feet. Only look at verse 24 and tell me what “everything” means? Is it the birds and fish and animals and plants? Nope. Instead, “everything” according to verse 24 includes “all dominion, authority and power”. Verse 25 calls them his enemies.

That is, God will put everything that is rebelling against him, under Jesus’ feet. Every rival authority, every power that rejects his authority will ultimately be destroyed and placed under Jesus’ authority. And what is the last enemy to be conquered? It’s death (verse 26).

Yet at the same time, we see Jesus submitting his authority under God. He “hands over the kingdom to God” (verse 24). The Son himself “will be made subject to” God, so that “God may be all in all” (verse 28).

This is what we see at the cross: Jesus submitting himself to the will of his Father. He was obedient to God even unto death. And at the resurrection, God raised Jesus from death, as a sign of his victory over death. Jesus conquered death and now sits at the right hand of his Father. God gives all authority in heaven and on earth to Jesus, and Jesus rules over all creation and the new creation, under the supreme authority of his Father.

What does it mean then to be in Christ? It means submission. It means acknowledging God as God in my life, and living for him in submission to his will. It short, it means confessing Jesus as my Lord.

The really cool thing about this is: Paul has just summarised the entire message of the bible in one paragraph! From creation in Genesis to final redemption in Revelation, Paul has just explained creation, grace, sin, fall, death, life, resurrection and exaltation. How cool is that!

Tomorrow we die

Well, that’s all very well, Paul. Nice bit of theology there, very deep. But what does it mean for me? He tells us:

30 And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? 31 I die every day—I mean that, brothers—just as surely as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord. 32 If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
1 Corinthians 15:29-32

A year ago not many had ever heard of a place called Fukushima in Japan. Today it is the site of a massive operation to cool down and clean up a nuclear reactor facing a series of meltdowns. Recently the BBC reported 200 pensioners, all over the age of sixty stepping forward as volunteers offering themselves to help with this dangerous task. They are led by Yasuteru Yamada, a 72-year old retired engineer with decades of experience under his belt. “I probably have 13 to 15 years to live,” said Mr Yamada. Together with his group senior citizens, Mr Yamada believes “they should be facing the dangers of radiation, not the young”.

Some people risk their lives because they have nothing to live for. But some, like Mr Yamada and his band of 200 retirees, are willing to risk their lives, because they see something worth dying for.

Here in the English Congregation, we are all healthy, young, smart, energetic with our whole lives ahead of us, full of promise, prospect and possibilities. We have everything to live for. But I wonder if at 72, would we have found even one thing to die for?

For most of us, verse 32 describes our daily routine. Let us eat; let us drink for tomorrow we die. The biggest decision I was faced with when I got up this morning was: What’s for dinner? Or, What’s on TV?

Now there are two ways of understanding verse 32. One way of seeing it is to say, “I’m going to die anyways, so I should make the most of today! Enjoy life like there is no tomorrow! Party on!”

And for the longest time, that is what I thought it meant. That Paul was condemning a kind of selfish, self-centred way of living. My money’s mine – why not spend it all on me? My life’s mine – why not live like I’m number one?

But as I looked back at the previous verses, I think I might be right in saying that Paul’s emphasis in verse 32 is not “eating” or “drinking”; or even dying. No, I think his emphasis is on the word “tomorrow”. Tomorrow we die. I will do my dying tomorrow.

This mantra is essentially saying: Put it off! I will party today and put off the consequences till tomorrow – I will face them tomorrow.

The quotation comes from Isaiah Chapter 22 where God is calling his people of Jerusalem to repentance. “In that day the Lord God of hosts called for weeping and mourning.” But they ignored God, instead choosing to “eat and drink” today. In the face of judgement and the call to turn back to God, some will choose to ignore God’s clear instruction for repentance. “You say Jesus is going to return as judge? You say my sins will be condemned? Then I will deal with that reality eventually when it happens. Tomorrow.”

Today is a good day to die
(or as they say in Klingon: “Heghlu'meH QaQ jajvam”)

Paul says “I die every day” (verse 31). Verse 30 says, “We endanger ourselves every hour”. And the question is why? For the church; for the Christians in Corinth. “I glory over you in Christ Jesus”, he says. Paul risks life and limb, time and time again, for the sake of the church, that they might stand firm in the gospel.

You see, it is fine and good to say you are living for Christ. But practically speaking, living for Christ results in a life lived for other Christian brothers and sisters. It is a life of sacrificial service.

Ralph Winters a missionary (yeah!) and a Presbyterian (oh yeah!) once said, “You do not evaluate a risk by the probability of success but by the worthiness of the goal.” That’s just so un-Chinese! We Chinese only take “calculated” risks. We like “sure-wins”.

Old Ralphy is saying that risks are not measured by how sure we are of getting our investments back; of how safe that portfolio is; but by how worthwhile the investment itself. Often times, the more worthwhile the goal, the more the risk!

That’s the Christian life – a life full of risks. More so, it is the life full of the hope in the resurrection. Jesus says in John’s gospel:

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

Even though I die, I will live, because Jesus is the resurrection and the life. I trust in him, I live in him, and will never die. That is what Paul is saying here in our passage today.

Bad company

33 Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” 34 Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame.
1 Corinthians 15:33-34

What a strange way to end his argument! Watch out for bad ... company?

But Paul has a reason for concluding this passage with a warning about bad friends, because these are the same friends he has been warning us about since the beginning of the passage. Notice the “some” in verse 34? “Some ... are ignorant of God”? Now look back to verse 12: How can “some” of you say there is no resurrection from the dead?

In other words, “some” of these Corinthians were influencing the rest of the Corinthians Christians in the Corinthian City Christian Church (or CCCC). These “some” were claiming it was nonsense to believe in the resurrection.

But the way these “some” were denying the resurrection was not by going up front every week on Sundays, standing in front of everyone and boldly proclaiming, “There is no resurrection!” They weren’t preaching a gospel that said Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. No, their tactics were much more subtle than that, and we get a clue of this from verse 34 where Paul says, “some... are ignorant about God.”

The word is literally “agnostic” about God.

How did they deny the resurrection? By saying, “Who knows?” Who knows whether we will be raised from the dead; I sure don’t. Who knows for sure that trusting in Jesus will mean that God will grant you forgiveness of sins and everlasting life – that’s just so complicated. Who knows what heaven will be like – why not just concentrate on this life. Paul calls them “agnostic”. They claimed they didn’t know; they claimed nobody really knows – And Paul says, that is shameful!

Because God has made it known through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God has revealed it in the gospel.

And the lesson here, friends, is that it only takes a few – “some” – to sway the entire church of its conviction and certainty in Jesus. “Come back to your senses,” Paul says. In other words, Wake up! Keep you focus on Jesus and your feet firmly grounded on the gospel!

So as important as it is for you to pay attention right now during this sermon; What will you be talking about with your friends on the way back to church? It is good to discuss and debate the hard things the preacher has just said – and we have had some difficult words today on death; on risking our lives for the gospel. But if the preacher has been faithful to the text, and if this is really in the bible, and if this is really God’s word saying what it says, then be careful of making remarks like, “That’s just his opinion.” Or “Who knows whether it’s true or not?” It might sound humble, but it may just be covering up sin. It might sound open-minded, but it may simply be covering up ignorance and foolishness.

When it comes to something as fundamental and as important as the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: Why not make sure that you know? Evaluate the evidence. Read the text. Think through the claims. And make a decision. Is it true? Did Jesus die for my sins and rise for my justification? And will Jesus return one day to put an end to all rebellion and raise those who have put their trust in him to everlasting life?

Now, brothers, 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.
1 Corinthians 15:1-2

I no longer fear the grave
Christ has come
Took the sting of death away
Through His saving blood
Though my body fails and my flesh grows weak
Till my final breath, to this hope I’ll cling

Jesus lives and so shall I
I’ll be raised from the dust with Christ on high
Jesus lives no more to die
And when He returns, with Him I’ll rise
Jesus lives
(“Jesus Lives” by Sovereign Grace Music)

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