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First Corinthians

Of First Importance

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

In life it is important to know – and pay attention to – things of first importance. Is there anything that typifies futility and stupidity more than being the person who rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic? So it is in our Christian lives.

(1 Cor 15:1-11 NIV) 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. {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 Peter, and then to the Twelve. {6} After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers 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 was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

First Importance

Paul lays out clearly just what is of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day. We can at least pay some attention to this.

Received and passed on

First please note that this is not something of Paul’s invention. He specifically disclaims any originality in this; He did not make it up. He did not embellish it. He received it; he passed it on.

This carries with it a problem for the ego. If it’s my own brilliant guesswork as to what God really wants, then perhaps I should feel proud of my accomplishment. But if I received it, then it is no credit to me. If I inherit money from a rich uncle I can hardly call myself a self-made millionaire. Perhaps this is what drives our modern critics.

The modern view is simply this: miracles can’t happen. The Resurrection is clearly a miracle; therefore it didn’t happen. Therefore all evidence of it must be explained as myth, no matter how much it stretches absurdity to see it that way. As we shall see, absurdity is indeed stretched in our time.

Paul has the cure for such absurdity. He is an eyewitness, and he cites hundreds of others. The “it must have been” school of thought has great difficulty with that.

Christ died for our sins

In that statement alone there is magnificent power.

· He died according to the Scripture. First, that tells us that this is indeed God’s doing, for no society could construct so elaborate a fraud as the Old Testament merely to lead up to the Crucifixion. It took 1500 years. If this is conspiracy, it is without peer.

· He died according to the Scripture. That also tells us that he was the sinless man – the only acceptable sacrifice.

· The purpose of his death: our sins. It is by his death that we, the unholy, are reconciled to a holy God.

· He was buried. You don’t bury a ghost. Thus he had a body like ours; he was man, just as we are.

The Resurrection

Paul simply cites the facts. Jesus rose from the grave. He was seen, in bodily form. Not just once; not just by one group of people; not just in one place. He was seen many times, by many people in differing places.

This is what we preach

There it is. Simple and pure, this is the preaching of the church. For those who belong to the church – the true, inner church composed of all God’s people no matter what the sign on the door – there is no difference. It is the test of the true Christian. All heresies revolve around the person of Christ or the death, burial and resurrection. Everything else is commentary.

This is what you believed

This, Paul reminds them, is what we believed. It’s the solid rock on which we took our stand. “Just the facts,” as Joe Friday used to say. We need to take the same approach today.

Evidence today

The letter in question is about 1900 years old. What evidence do we have today? In this lesson I can but briefly review the evidence; volumes have been written on it.

The problem resolves itself into the authenticity of the Scriptures, in particular the New Testament. That problem can be broken down into three smaller problems:

· How do I know that I have an accurate translation? This is one I will not consider in this lesson.

· How do I know that this translation was made from an accurate copy? Call it the “Xerox problem.”

· How do I know the accurate copy was made from an original which is authentic, and not something written hundreds of years after the fact?

The original manuscripts

No other ancient document has anything like the documentary evidence of the New Testament. I can but cite a few major areas:

· First, there is the evidence of the physical documents themselves. The myth is that nothing was written down until “four or five hundred years later.” The facts? One complete copy of the Gospel of John is carbon dated to AD 120 – from a monastery in Egypt. Paul’s death, remember is AD 64. Currently under debate is the “Jesus Papyrus” – which has been dated at AD 47. It’s a fragment of the Gospel of Matthew.

· There is the internal evidence as well. Paul died in AD 64. Acts ends with him still alive; Luke was written before that. The archeological evidence confirms Acts at every point. How, then, was it written so much later?

· The documents of the period itself confirm the New Testament – for many Roman writers derided the Christian faith from a very early time. To do so, they quoted from the Gospels quite liberally. There’s plenty of this from the second century.

· There are several other translations of the Gospels which date from the second through fifth centuries. How did they translate what had not been written down? Scholars can clearly tell in many places that these are translations, not originals.

· Other ancient works of Christianity are a testimony too. Iraneus wrote in AD 170; the date is unchallenged. He expounds quite exactly the doctrines we use today.

The Xerox problem

We also hear that there are “thousands of copying errors in the Bible.” How would you know – unless you had an accurate original?

The reason for such a large number is this: if one man makes a mistake, and a hundred others copy it, that becomes a hundred errors. But in fact these errors can be traced, often to the name of the monk who made the error. When you have that good a trail on the mistakes, you should have good confidence in the original.

Indeed, we even know how the mistakes were made. The Scriptorium – the ancient equivalent of a copy shop – checked its work as one would check a handwritten spreadsheet. They counted the letters across; they counted the letters down; if they didn’t match, the page was discarded. Note, please, this is not a case of monks committing pious fraud – but commercial copiers of the Roman Empire. They got paid to do it right.

Why the confusion today?

For 1800 years people understood this quite well. They trusted ancient records because they were the same kind of records they used. Today, however, we are much more sophisticated – and untrusting. Why is it that we can’t see the same thing today?

· Circular reasoning. Miracles can’t happen; therefore any document that says they did must be a myth. This document, the New Testament, says that miracles happened – it must be a myth. There are therefore no documents, other than myths, that say miracles happened. Therefore we can be confident miracles never happen.

· Ignorance. Most of us have no clue what happened in history before 1776. It therefore seems unreasonable to us that anything did.

There is more evidence for the death, burial and resurrection of Christ than there is for the existence of Bigfoot. And we’re more willing to believe in Bigfoot.

Effect on our lives

“On which you have taken your stand.” That’s Paul’s point. This is all a nice historical discussion if the resurrection means nothing in your life. What, then, is the impact of this resurrection in your life? May I suggest (among many others) three things which deserve your attention:

The death of sin

Paul mystically puts it that the life of Christ in us is the death of sin in us. Look at it this way:

· Since we know of his resurrection, we know of his return to judge the world. We will face the judge some day; best to be prepared now.

· By his grace, he will give us all the aid we need in defeating sin in our lives. Indeed, it is his good pleasure to do so.

· But the decision is ours. “Lead me not into temptation – but don’t start just yet” is the prayer of many a sinner.

Forgiven and forgiving

By the sacrifice he made we are forgiven.

· First, let us accept that. Let us no longer go on carrying the burden of guilt and fear for our past sins.

· Instead, let us praise God for what he has done! He indeed is worthy, because of what he has done for us.

· While we’re at it, let us remember that he is worthy – not us. To be forgiven means we had something that needed forgiveness. In our dealings with all others, let us remember that we are indeed sinners.

We must also be forgiving. Remember the parable of the unjust servant? Will our Lord forgive us on that day if we will not forgive now? His sacrifice made our forgiveness possible; would we deny it by failing to forgive others?

Our attitude towards death

If I could make one change in the attitudes of most Christians I know, this would be it. He is Risen – and we shall rise too at the last day. We need to encourage each other in that.

Older generations understood this clearly. Listen to the prince of preachers:

Let us not imagine that the soul sleeps in insensibility. “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise,” is the whisper of Christ to every dying saint. They “sleep in Jesus,” but their souls are before the throne of God, praising him day and night in his temple, singing hallelujahs to him who washed them from their sins in his blood. The body sleeps in its lonely bed of earth, beneath the coverlet of grass. But what is this sleep? The idea connected with sleep is “rest,” and that is the thought which the Spirit of God would convey to us. Sleep makes each night a Sabbath for the day. Sleep shuts fast the door of the soul, and bids all intruders tarry for a while, that the life within may enter its summer garden of ease. The toil-worn believer quietly sleeps, as does the weary child when it slumbers on its mother’s breast. Oh! happy they who die in the Lord; they rest from their labours, and their works do follow them. Their quiet repose shall never be broken until God shall rouse them to give them their full reward. Guarded by angel watchers, curtained by eternal mysteries, they sleep on, the inheritors of glory, till the fulness of time shall bring the fulness of redemption. What an awaking shall be theirs! They were laid in their last resting place, weary and worn, but such they shall not rise. They went to their rest with the furrowed brow, and the wasted features, but they wake up in beauty and glory. The shrivelled seed, so destitute of form and comeliness, rises from the dust a beauteous flower. The winter of the grave gives way to the spring of redemption and the summer of glory. Blessed is death, since it, through the divine power, disrobes us of this work-day garment, to clothe us with the wedding garment of incorruption. Blessed are those who “sleep in Jesus.”

Such encouragement! But there is more. We can face the perils of life much more confidently because we know the answer – we know what life is about. It is the preparation for the return of our Lord.

Indeed, we can face our own deaths with calm and courage for this. I know that my Redeemer lives! May our own deaths be an example to those around us – we know the author of life itself, and rest upon his word.

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