1 Corinthians 15:12–20
Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. 15 Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; 17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. 20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.
This passage of Scripture describes five sad consequences if Christ is not risen from the dead and is not alive today as the only Lord of the universe with all authority in heaven and on earth. What I would like to do this morning is show you these five consequences, and then take just one of them and use it to unfold a very powerful and often-neglected incentive for us to believe in Jesus Christ as the living Lord and the greatest treasure of your life – beyond the grave and forever.
My hope and prayer is that many of you – for your everlasting good – will be won over by him this morning. Not me, but him, because he is alive and here and able to persuade you that he is true and the greatest treasure in the universe.
The text begins in verse 12 by pointing out that in the community in Corinth, some were saying, "There is no resurrection of the dead." Period. Nobody rises from the dead. So in verse 13 Paul points out the obvious: "If there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised." And then he begins the list of five consequences if this is true – if Christ is not raised from the dead.
Now let's be sure before we see these, that we know what Paul really believes. Verse 20: "But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep." In other words, this apostle of Jesus is persuaded that Jesus did rise from the dead, and that his resurrection is the guarantee of our resurrection – that's what "first fruits from the dead" means. The first fruits were the first pickings of the harvest which showed that there is a harvest – this resurrection signifies the certainty of our resurrection. The way Paul put it in Romans 8:11 is: "If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you." If Christ is raised, then those who belong to Christ will be raised with him in everlasting life and ever-increasing joy.
So when Paul says in verse 13, "If there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised," he also means – and we won't be either. That doesn't seem to bother some of these folks in Corinth. So Paul spells out five consequences if Christ is not raised from the dead – in the hopes of wakening them to the misery and the mistake of what they are saying.
Consequence #1: Our Preaching Is in Vain & Our Witness Is False
Verse 14a: "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain." That is, it is empty. Or as verse 15 says, "Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ." In other words, if Christ has not been raised, then Paul's preaching is both empty and a false witness against God.
Of course that's no skin off their nose. They don't really care about that. But for Paul and for other preachers like me, and for people who love the preaching of the gospel, that would be tragic. It would be the end of my vocation and my life as now I know it. I would quit this job of preaching if I did not believe that Christ was raised from the dead. That's consequence #1: Paul's preaching and mine are empty and false to God, if Christ is not raised.
Consequence #2: Your Faith Is Worthless & in Vain
Verse 14b: "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain." Or, as it says in verse 17a: "Your faith is worthless." Your faith is empty and useless, if Christ is not raised. It's not going to do you any good.
One wonders, What did they have faith in – what was their faith – if they didn't believe Jesus was raised from the dead? Well, he doesn't tell us. But these were savvy, philosophical, cosmopolitan folks who didn't like the idea of believing anything as literal and physical as the actual resurrection of Jesus' body from the dead and, later, the resurrection of our bodies with him.
Perhaps they were like many more liberal "Christians" today. Perhaps their faith was that Jesus was a great teacher, or that he was a good example of the way of love and that the stories of his resurrection are simply symbols pointing to the triumph of the human spirit, or that his influence lives on after him. In other words these folks in Corinth had not said: this resurrection business is all a myth so we reject it. They had said: this resurrection business is all a myth and so we reinterpret it. It's just a symbol of God's love and the indomitable power of the human spirit, or, perhaps, the divine world-force.
Paul's response to this was to say, If Christ has not been raised, your faith is empty. That kind of faith has no substance. It's worthless in the end. It profits nothing.
Consequence #3: You Are Still in Your Sins
Verse 17: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins." Now this is getting increasingly serious. He is pointing out here an utterly crucial connection between the death of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus. And he is saying, If Christ is not raised, then his death accomplished nothing for the forgiveness of our sins. And if Christ accomplished nothing to remove the guilt and condemnation of our sins, then we are still in our sins and under the wrath of God – for sin is what alienates us from God.
We have to get very clear here that the death of Christ, the Son of God, was the basis of our forgiveness and justification before God. Romans 5:8-9 says, "God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him." So it is the death – the blood – of Christ that that pays the debt we owe to God and frees us from our sins – justifies us, gives us a right standing with God.
But Paul says in verse 17, "If Christ has not been raised . . . you are still in your sins." In other words, If Christ didn't rise from the dead, the death of Christ did not rescue us from our sins. This is what Paul was getting at I think in Romans 4:25 when he said, "[Christ] was delivered over [to death] because of our [sins], and was raised [from the dead] because of our justification." In other words, the resurrection of Jesus is the proof that his death was sufficient to cover all our transgressions.
So he concludes here in verse 17, If he wasn't raised, then his death is useless as the basis of forgiveness. and we are still in the guilt and condemnation and bondage of our sins. And that leads to consequence #4.
Consequence #4: Those Who Have Fallen Asleep Have Perished
Verse 18: If Christ is not raised from the dead, "Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ [that is, those believers who have died] have perished." And Paul refers to something more than physical death when he uses the word "perish." In fact what he says is, If Christ is not raised from the dead then believers don't just die, they perish. That is they come under the wrath of God after they die. They face judgment when they die.
Consequence #5: We Are to Be Pitied Above All Men
Verse 19: "If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied." What Paul is saying here is that the life Paul has chosen to live, based on his deep and confident hope for his own resurrection, would be a pitiable, foolish life, if in fact there is no resurrection.
Now this final consequence (of all five) is the one I want to unpack for a moment here to show why it is a powerful and often-neglected incentive to embrace Jesus as the risen Lord of your life and with him the hope of your own resurrection into everlasting joy.
Sacrificial Love, not Selfish Indulgence
The incentive goes like this: I believe that deep down most of you, at your best and highest moments, dream of spending your lives in sacrificial love, not selfish indulgence. We dream of a life that's cutting edge and radical and risk-taking and different from the cautious, prudent, secure, self-enhancing life of middle-class America.
I know that there is another side to us and that we have other dreams that we are not very proud of. We dream of all the physical pleasures, all the material comforts, all the earthly securities, all the family delights, all the human esteem or fame that is possible to get in this life. And if that's all you dream about, then my point in this message is probably going to go in one ear and out the other.
But I think most of you have had those higher moments when you dream of spending your life in the service of some great cause that helps other people in spite of tremendous cost to you – a life of sacrificial love, not selfish indulgence.
The Life of the Apostle Paul
Now the apostle Paul lived a life like that. He poured out his life to bring the good news of Jesus to perishing people so that they might have eternal life. The risks he took and the suffering he endured were incredible. He says in verse 30 that he was "in peril every hour." In another place he explains that:
[I am] often in danger of death. Five times I received . . . thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked . . . in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen . . . dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
And in this same chapter he asks, "Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do! (2 Corinthians 11:11).
In other words, here is a life of radical, risk-taking, perilous, sacrificial love. Where did it come from? Where would yours come from? Well, look again at our text, verse 19: "If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied." Now we see what "this life" means to Paul – risk, peril, danger, suffering – all in the service of love. And we stand in awe – and there rises up a longing in our hearts to be like that. It is written by God, I believe, on your heart that this is beautiful. This is right. This is true. This, in the end, would be the best life.
If the Dead Are not Raised, I Am a Pitiable Fool
And Paul says: If the dead are not raised – if this life of risk and sacrifice is my only life – I am a fool. A pitiable fool. Which means that a deep abiding confidence in the resurrection is what kept Paul going in this life of radical risk-taking love. And my point is: this same confidence in the resurrection can be the key that opens a new life for you.
Or to put it another way: the great obstacle to a life of sacrificial, risk-taking love for other people is found in 1 Corinthians 15:32b: "If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die." In other words, without a hope for resurrection and everlasting joy with Christ we all tend to treat this life as a place where we have to squeeze out as much pleasure as we can and take as few risks as we can. Because there is nothing else.
If Christ Is Raised, This Life Is a Prelude to Eternal Life and Joy
But if Christ is raised, and if trusting him means that I will be raised with him, then this life is just a brief prelude to eternal life with Christ and ever-increasing joy with him. And if that is true, then Paul is no fool. His life of radical, risk-taking, sacrificial love is not to be pitied. Pity not them that rise with Christ.
Let me give you one small illustration of how this works from the teachings of Jesus in Luke 14:13-14. Jesus says, "When you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." Do you see the effect of believing in the resurrection – really believing, not just saying you believe it? Without the resurrection we tend to want our pleasures here and now, and so we avoid risk and danger and difficulty and pain and discomfort and frustration; and so our love is tame and bland and weak and cautious and timid.
But, Jesus says, if you believe that your joy in the resurrection will make up for a thousand losses and self-denials and sacrifices and dangers and risks here for the sake of love, then you will love people without a view to what you can get out of it here. It will be sustained by the joy set before you (see Hebrews 12:2). And that will be the kind of love that we all dream about from time to time.
We were made for it. Christ died and rose again to make it possible. Come to him. Trust him. The Bible says, "If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9). Saved from sin. Saved from judgment. Saved from a life of mere self-serving indulgence.
"If in this life only we have hoped in Christ we are of all men most to be pitied." But since Christ has been raised, and since by trusting in him we will be raised with him, then this life of radical, sacrificial love is not to be pitied. Pity not them who rise with Christ.