We’re in the post-Easter/pre-Pentecost season. During six of those weeks after the resurrection, Jesus continued to appear to the disciples before ascending to heaven (an event celebrated on 10 May this year). Then, 50 days after Easter – on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came in power on the believers; and we celebrate that as the day the Church was born; the 20th May this year.
I was reading 1 Corinthians 15 and realised that the whole chapter talks about resurrection and the importance it has in our faith, and so I thought it might be a useful chapter for us to look at.
Today, therefore, and for the next two Sundays, we’re going to look at 1 Corinthians 15 – breaking it up into three sections, much as it is often presented in our Bibles. You’ll see as we go through the chapter that, whilst the Apostle Paul is teaching about resurrection, it is not limited to the events of Easter Sunday.
Some editions of the Bible insert section headings, and the NIV heads up the three parts of this chapter as:
The resurrection of Jesus; The resurrection of the dead; and The resurrection body.
Whilst these heading do help us when we’re looking for a particular passage, they can sometimes be a little unhelpful in that they don’t point to everything in the section they relate to. And that’s why not all versions of the Bible use the same headings: they’re not actually part of the ‘inspired Word of God’; they’re editor’s notes. The French Semeur Bible, for instance, heads today’s section not ‘La resurrection de Jésus’, but rather ‘La foi qui sauve’. Which is helpful, too, as we’ll see.
In fact, I’d already decided to entitle today’s message “The Gospel and the work of grace”, before I saw what the Semeur had put. Let’s read it before we go any further.
Now, brothers and sisters, 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.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed. (1 Cor 15.1-11)
Paul reminds us what the Good News message is – the gospel. He sums it up as “Christ died for our sins, he was buried, he rose again from the dead, and then he was seen alive again by a whole load of people – most of whom were still alive at the time of writing – and could therefore testify to the truth of it” – my paraphrase! The repeated “according to the Scriptures” phrase doesn’t mean “we know it happened because it says so in the Bible”. It means “as was promised in the prophecies of the Old Testament.” It’s a double whammy: they witnessed the events, so they know they are true, but also the events were already prophesied. That, says Paul, is what he has preached; it’s what the Corinthians received; it’s what they have taken their stand on (and suffered for); and it’s what will save them if they hold firmly to it.
I want us to see the link, here, between this and something Jesus said. Paul is saying that this is the nub of the gospel; this is what saves us; this is what makes us children of God. i.e. that Christ died for our sins, he was buried, he rose again from the dead, and that he is still alive.
What does Jesus say?
My grandfather had a little visual aid that he could show to people. It was the gospel in a nutshell. It literally was the gospel in a nutshell. He had taken a walnut, cut it carefully in half and covered the open face of one of the halves with a piece of paper he stuck onto it. On the paper was written, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3.16”
To be saved from death into eternal life, says Jesus, we need to believe in him. We don’t always spell out what “believe in Jesus” means. It’s a shortcut phrase. But here in 1 Cor 15 Paul does just that. Almost in words of one syllable:
- Christ died for our sins
- he was buried
- he was raised on the third day
- he appeared to Cephas
That’s it! OK, we can unpack that just a little bit more. We don’t, after all, have to fit it into a walnut shell. But it doesn’t need much unpacking.
– Christ died for our sins. ‘Christ’ was not Jesus’ surname; that would have been something like “Bar-Joseph” (Jesus, son of Joseph), or even “Jesus, of Nazareth”. Like we say, “Moray McKay” – the Mc/Mac part of the names in Scotland means ‘son of’; so ‘son of Kay’. We also use where people live or come from: so we’ll refer to Peter Kennedy as Peter from Ireland, or Peter from Montferrer. We also use titles: so Pastor Moray, or Peter the Church Secretary. ‘Christ’ is Jesus’ title: it’s Greek for ‘Messiah’, or Anointed One; and it explains that he is the One sent by God to redeem humanity. Dig deep enough in the Old Testament prophecies, and it’s clear that the Christ was God come into the world in flesh & blood.
– Christ died for our sins. That gives the reason for Jesus’ death. As we read in John 3.16, the reason Jesus came onto the earth was because God loved us and didn’t want us to perish, to suffer everlasting death. But the reason he had to die is even more specific: it was to suffer, as an innocent sacrifice, the death & separation from God that is the result of sin.
We tend to compare Jesus’ sacrifice to the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament. But in fact that’s the wrong way round. Jesus’ sacrifice is the important, pivotal one. The others are shadows of it – they existed only really as symbolic versions of the real sacrifice that was His. They pointed forward to it, just as our communion service points back to it. The forgiveness of sins they imparted came from the power of Jesus’ sacrifice.
– He was raised on the third day. This is the resurrection. Of itself, it doesn’t save us; but it is the proof, the vindication of all that Jesus had said about himself. It is incredibly important to us for another reason, one linked in to the next affirmation:
– He appeared to Cephas (i.e. Peter). The point here is that Peter – and all the others Paul mentions – saw and continued to see the risen Christ right up until the Ascension. And of course there was the promise that He would return and that in the meantime the Holy Spirit would be given to us as a deposit, a down payment, of what is still to come. And what is still to come is our own resurrection and the end of death forever. And we’ll see what Paul has to say about that over the next couple of weeks.
That’s what Paul is talking about in the first half of today’s passage – up to about v 7. He sums it up in v 11
Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
“This is what I and the other apostles have been preaching; this is what you believe if you believe in Jesus.”
The first thing to take away from today is that believing in Jesus is not something a little bit airy-fairy; it’s not open to a kind of cherry-picking “I’ll believe this but not that”. Paul sets out what he and the other apostles have been teaching, and we have only one choice: take it or leave it.
Now let’s look at the second half of our passage
8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (1 Cor 15.8-10)
It’s a bit of a strange phrase, isn’t it: “he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born”?
The French bible puts it, roughly, as “like a child born after the due date”.
Do you know the ‘Scottish play’ – Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’? At one point in the story the main character, Macbeth, is told by a ghostly apparition that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth”. He takes this to mean that no man can harm him. But later, as he confronts MacDuff and boasts that he bears a charmed life, MacDuff reveals that he was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped”. MacDuff’s mother had died in labour, and he was born by what we would call caesarean section – after her death, and so not strictly born of a woman. It’s semantics, of course, used by a trio of witches to fool Macbeth into setting out on a bloodthirsty and murderous, but ultimately doomed, path to power.
Spoiler alert: MacDuff kills Macbeth and order is restored to the land.
Paul uses the term to describe his own experience, which is in complete contrast to that of the fictional Macbeth. Before his conversion to Christ, we could almost describe Paul as a bloodthirsty murderer, in that he travelled the country seeking out Christians to imprison and execute because of their belief in Jesus. When he had his life-changing experience on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) Jesus had already ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit had already been poured out at Pentecost. No-one had seen Jesus since the ascension. But Paul met him. It was more than just a vision or a dream. The risen Jesus came in power and glory and met Paul on the road. As a result, Paul believed in Jesus and was born again. But, as he says, this appearance of Jesus to him was “not of the normal time”.
Now comes the part I want us to think about: Paul says he is the least of the apostles because of his past history. Whilst it’s true that the others may have abandoned Jesus at Calvary, doubted the resurrection until they saw him for themselves, and been fearful and timid until they were filled with the Holy Spirit, Paul had actively persecuted the church. He was a full, card-carrying enemy of Jesus. BUT, God forgave him, accepted him, turned him around and gave him a mission to reach out to the Gentiles; God used him to plant churches throughout Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and, ultimately of course, to encourage Christians everywhere through his letters.
All this, Paul declares, is the result of God’s grace – His undeserved love and favour. Yes, Paul may have worked harder than the others, but even that was God’s grace working through him.
So the second thing to take away from today is that no-one is outside the scope of God’s grace; no-one can say, “I’m too great a sinner for God to use,” or “That person over there is too great a sinner for God to use!” Grace is too big for us to cope with, to get to grips with. Through it God can forgive anyone who turns to him. By it, God can give everyone a job to do in His church.
We just need to listen to his voice to hear what he wants us to do and then work hard with his help to carry it out.
And a third thing to think about?
Damascus. That’s where Saul, as he was called up till then, was headed the day he met Jesus. He was on his way to round up and imprison the Christians there. Probably to have them executed. But Jesus appeared to him and changed his life forever. Saul carried on to Damascus and there received his sight. He’d been blinded by Jesus’ glory – perhaps with the added bonus that, when he met up with the disciple Jesus sent to him, Ananias, they would both be convinced of God’s power coming into Saul’s life and changing him into Paul.
Damascus was and is the capital of Syria. Today, when we hear about Damascus and see it on the TV, we see the capital of a country ruined by civil war, led by a dictator who seems hell-bent on destroying as many of his own people – and others – as necessary so as to hang onto political power: Bashar Al-Assad.
What difference (other than scale) is there between Al-Assad and Saul?
Acts 9.1 describes Saul as “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.”
Ananias and the rest of the church were in mortal fear of Saul. But look what God did!
Can He not do the same with Al-Assad? Can he not turn him around, too? What should we do?
- Pray that Jesus will reveal himself to Bashar Al-Assad as he did to Saul, and that he will give his life over to God and to the proclamation of the Gospel.
- And the same goes to anyone else you think is out of God’s reach. Maybe some of your friends, or even your family?
Do you not believe God is capable? We do in theory. Let’s put it into practice in our prayers.