Almost 2,000 years ago, a Christian named Paul wrote a letter to a group of people in Corinth, a city in Greece. People in that city had at one time been enthusiastic about the Christian faith, but had then begun to have some second thoughts. They had written a letter to Paul to ask something like, "You told us that this man Jesus died and then came back to life. We're pretty sure you don't actually expect us to believe that a man was dead and then alive again. That must have been some kind of a metaphor or a moral, right?"
But Paul doesn't blink. He says, "Yes, that is exactly what I am saying." In this letter to those Christians he affirms again and again that Jesus really and actually died. Paul is concerned that these people in Corinth are faltering in what they believe about the resurrection and he addresses them in an interesting way. He says, "Okay, so you think that dead people simply cannot come back to life. Well why don't we just take a moment to consider that. Let's consider the implications if that is true." He does this in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19.
I find it very interesting that he approaches things in this way. You and I need to think about the implications of what we believe, or what we don't believe, or what we refuse to believe. Sometimes we have these little dangling threads in what we believe and we just haven't considered them properly. What Paul does here is say, "Let's think about what will happen if we say that dead people don't ever come back to life. Let's just ponder that for a few minutes." He begins to tug on that loose thread.
We Worship A Dead Man
"If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised." If there is no resurrection, then Jesus Christ has not risen from the dead. We worship a dead man. Jesus went to the cross, he died, he was buried, and his body decayed to dust just like everyone else's. Christians are followers of a dead man.
The Christian faith is unique in claiming that its great teacher is not only a man but also God; it is unique in claiming that its great teacher not only died but was resurrected. But if there is no resurrection, suddenly the Christian faith is unique only in a few small points, but really, it is pretty much the same as every other faith. We are people who put our hope in a guru, a spiritual leader, who lived and then died. While he lived he taught us some good lessons and helped us see how to live a good and moral life. But then his time was over and he died and is gone. And now we are left trying to be like him, trying to model ourselves after him so we can be good like he was good.
We Preach an Empty Message
The second consequence flows right out of the first. If there is no resurrection, Christ has not been raised. And, says Paul, "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain." If there is no resurrection, Paul has been preaching an empty message. His preaching is useless and a waste of everybody's time. He isn't talking so much about the form of preaching here -- standing in front of a church to explain and apply the Bible -- but the message. If Christ has not been resurrected, then everything he has been preaching to this church is a waste. If you deny the resurrection, you have gutted the Christian faith and the whole Christian message is destroyed.
We Hold An Empty Faith
There is a third consequence that builds on these other two. "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain." If Christ has not risen from the dead, our preaching is in vain. And if our preaching is in vain, anything you've learned from it and any way you live differently because of it is a waste of time. This is a necessary conclusion. You can't have it both ways.
Whatever you have done with the message that has come by way of preaching, however you have applied it to your life, is also just a complete waste. You have built your faith upon nonsense, upon something that is impossible, something that didn't actually happen. This is what the Apostle taught these people he loved. “Go ahead and deny that Jesus rose from the dead, but if you do that, you no longer have a faith worth holding to.”
We Misrepresent God
Here is the fourth consequence of refusing to believe that dead men can return to life. Verse 15: "We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised." If we have been teaching that God resurrected Jesus from the dead, and if that did not actually happen, we are misrepresenting God. We are false witnesses.
Paul reminds these people of the message he proclaimed to them right from the time he first met them. He had told them that a matter of first importance, utmost importance, is that Jesus rose from the dead. If this is not true, if God did not actually resurrect Jesus from the dead, then we are telling lies about him. We are telling lies about the Creator of the universe. If we do this, we are directly violating one of the ten commandments which says, "You shall not bear false witness." We are violating the warning of Proverbs 19:5, that "a false witness will not go unpunished, and he who breathes out lies will not escape."
We Are Lost In Sin
As he explains the fifth consequences, Paul will repeat his main point and then add to it. "For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins." If Christ has not been resurrected, then you and I are still lost in sin.
I can think of two possible reasons why Jesus might have died and stayed that way, why he could have died on the cross but never come back to life.
Maybe Jesus was not actually sinless. Maybe he faced the judgment of God as a sinful man, and God judged him guilty of sin, and his death was that full and final separation from God that he deserved. If this is true he was just like you and me; he was a man who was stained by sin and God was right and just to condemn him and to keep him dead. If he was a sinful person, he would not have been able to pay for his own sin, not to mention for the sin of any other person. Like you and me, he would have been a finite person who had an infinite debt to pay.
There is a second reason Jesus might have died and stayed dead. Maybe he actually was without sin. Maybe he actually did suffer the wrath of God for the sins of other people. But maybe God did not accept his work. Christ offered himself for the sin of other people, but God did not accept that offering. And God displayed that he had rejected what Christ offered by keeping Jesus dead in the grave.
Here is what Paul is saying. If either of these are true, if Jesus was actually sinful and stayed dead or if God rejected his offering and Jesus stayed dead, you and I are still dead in our sin. We still have no Savior who has conquered the death we deserve to die. We are lost. We follow a faith that has no power over sin and death.
We Have No Hope Beyond the Grave
There is another tragic consequence if there is no resurrection. Verse 17 again. "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished." If there is no resurrection, then every person who has died trusting in Christ for their salvation experienced a very different reality. Instead of awaking in the presence of Jesus Christ's glory, they just faded into the black and were gone. Or even worse, they believed they were falling asleep to awake in the presence of Jesus but actually they died and found themselves in the torment of hell.
Either way, for all of Christian history God's people have had confidence that for them death is like falling asleep and waking to a far better reality. They have fallen asleep, confident that they will experience the blessing of God. Confident that it is better to be with Christ. If there is no resurrection they have been dead wrong. We have fooled people into believing a lie and all of those people are our victims.
We Are Pitiful
Paul gives one final consequence for denying that Jesus rose from the dead. Verse 19, "If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied." He ends with a bang. If there is no resurrection, then you and I are not hugely blessed by God, but we are just plain pathetic. We are pitiful. People should pity us for believing something so silly, so hopeless.
I love Paul’s strategy and I love his honesty. And I love his conclusion: If Christ did not rise, we have no business considering ourselves followers of Christ. If he did not rise, the Christian faith is a complete waste.