Things of First Importance
October 16, 2022 Preacher: Kevin Godin Series: Growing in Grace
Topic: Resurrection Scripture: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
This morning we continue our series Growing in Grace, working our way passage by passage through the book of 1 Corinthians. Today we come to chapter 15. The main theme of chapter 15 is physical resurrection and Paul lays the foundation for the argument in this chapter by bringing us back to the basics. Really, the entire Christian life is one of coming to increasingly understand the implications of the basic teaching of the Gospel.
Some people seem to think the gospel is just for unbelievers, that it is just the starting point of the Christian life. But a life of faith, from start to finish, is fueled by the gospel. In the same way that a football player never gets beyond blocking and tackling, or a baseball player never gets beyond hitting and catching, believers in Jesus never advance from the gospel to something else. We never outgrow the gospel.
The gospel has often been described as a pool in which a toddler can play and yet an elephant can swim. The basic message is simple enough that a child can understand it and yet so profound that even the greatest intellects never exhaust its wonders.
When believers come to understand that our entire relationship with God is based on the infinite, perfect, righteousness of Jesus instead of our own performance it is a powerful realization. The joy and freedom we experience when we first understand this truth is not intended to be a momentary experience that we move on from. We are meant to reflect upon it and rejoice in it every moment of every day.
When believers feel confused, anxious, and overwhelmed or upset, frustrated, or hopeless it is a signal that we need to get back to the basics. When we were kids, it was drilled into our heads that if we ever caught on fire we should stop, drop, and roll. There is a spiritual equivalent to that. When we find ourselves consumed not by fire, but by the cares of the world, we should stop what we are doing, drop to our knees in prayer, and unroll the scroll of God’s word, and immerse ourselves in the good news of what God has done for us in Christ.
Paul is laying the foundation to correct a false teaching that denied resurrection that was circulating in Corinth. We learn a lot from watching how he does this, and he starts by revisiting the basic truths of the gospel and reasoning from them. That is the main point of the message this morning, We are to understand and evaluate all things in light of the gospel.
Whether we are trying to work through a complex theological question or seeking wisdom for everyday decisions, we must account for the gospel. The gospel is a fundamental truth relevant to every ultimate question. Who is God? Who are we? What is truth? What is the nature of reality? What is the nature of good and evil? It is impossible to think clearly about any of these questions apart from the gospel.
The word Gospel simply means “good news” and it is the good news about something God has already accomplished. We can summarize it this way,
The good news is that God has fully accomplished the salvation of His people through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God rescues believers from judgment for sin, brings us into fellowship with Himself, and renews all of creation so we can glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
Every claim, every experience, and every thought of believers must be submitted to this reality.
If you have your Bible, please turn with me to 1 Corinthians 15:1–11. If you are using the blue Bible we provide, it is on page 1198. If you do not own a Bible or need one, please take that one as our gift to you. Paul says,
15 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
Paul goes right to the basics. He calls them to remember the gospel. He reminds them that it is the gospel, accepted by faith by which they stand, and by which they are being saved. Paul is telling them that this message they received in the beginning of their journey is of critical ongoing importance for them now.
Notice, he doesn’t say they did stand firm, or they were saved, but that through the gospel they do stand firm and are being saved. The Bible describes three aspects of salvation and all three flow from our union with Christ by faith in the gospel. Through our union with Jesus, we are freed from the penalty, the power, and the presence of sin.
When we come to faith in Jesus, we are saved in the sense that we are justified in the sight of God. God has declared us righteous and forgiven based on the perfect righteousness of Jesus. Those who have faith in Christ will not be punished for sins because Jesus has already been punished for them in our place. In Christ we are declared innocent before God because we are in Christ, and he is perfect. Jesus frees from the penalty of sin through his sacrifice.
Believers are also being saved in that we are growing in holiness. This is the evidence the Bible gives us that we have been united to Christ in faith. We are being sanctified, or set apart, by the power of God. Having been declared righteous, we are now growing in faith and love and living in repentance for sin. We are being transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit to be like Jesus. Although sin is still present with us, we are no longer slaves to it. In Jesus we are being freed from the power of sin.
Finally, believers will be saved in that there is a day coming when we will be perfected in glory. Our process of transformation, with its ups and downs, will be complete, and we will be like Jesus. There will be no more sin. No more sorrow, or pain, or weakness. We will receive the fullness of our inheritance as adopted children of the Holy One. In Jesus we will be freed from the presence of sin.
All these promises are rooted in the gospel. They are accomplished through the person and work of Jesus. We neither deserve nor can obtain any of this on our own. Christian faith is unique in that our perfection doesn’t come from any effort or education of our own, but from clinging in faith to Christ. That is why we can have hope and peace even in our weakness and sins because our acceptance doesn’t depend upon our goodness, but his. Even the strength to hope and believe is itself a work of grace in us.
In fact, we cannot be saved until we realize that there is nothing in us at all worth saving. It is not until we accept that our best works not only fall short but are offensive to God that we understand the gospel. Our righteousness is like filthy rags before a perfectly holy God. The only hope for sinners’ rests in the promise that God himself will provide acceptable righteousness for us in the finished work of Jesus. God is not like one of us that we can bargain with him. Saving faith requires we despair of ourselves and trust in Jesus alone as our righteousness and salvation. It cannot be earned, but God is pleased to give it freely to all who will accept it.
Paul warns us, however, that this gift is only obtained by those who hold fast to the word and do not believe in vain. To believe in vain means to accept a false gospel that has no power to save. The gospel Paul preached was a gospel of resurrection. To deny the resurrection is to deny the gospel. Without the resurrection, there is no hope, and we are still in our sin. There is only one true gospel, one saving gospel. Paul says,
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:
Paul has accurately preached to them the most important and basic truths of the gospel upon which everything else is built. It is crucial that beginnings are correct because a small difference at the starting point can lead to massive differences in where we end up.
Suppose we were in San Francisco and wanted to walk in a straight line to Washington D.C. If our first step was off by only 1 degree, which would be a little less than ¼” after only 100 yards we would be off by about 5 feet. After a mile we would be off course by around 92 feet. By the time we got to the east coast, we would miss Washington altogether and end up on the other side of Baltimore, 43 miles from our target.
If NASA was off 1 degree on a launch to the moon, they would miss it by over 4,100 miles and the moon is only about 2,000 miles wide. A small error in the beginning leads to massively different outcomes. Similarly, small errors in the foundations of theology result in vastly different outcomes.
The difference between water at 212 degrees and water at 211 degrees is the difference between being able to make tea and powering steamships and locomotives. The difference between the gospel and almost the gospel is the difference between life and death, between heaven and hell.
Paul is recalibrating their theology by reminding them of what is of first importance. He reminds them,
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
Here is the cornerstone. The perfect, holy, anointed, Son of God died for the sins of all who believe. We cannot think of a more jarring disparity. The curse we deserved fell upon him. Every one of us was born with a sinful heart into a sinful world and we prove daily that our hearts are not pure. We were unable to escape the curse, guilty and doomed to judgment, but Jesus wiped the slate clean. It was impossible that we could ever be punished enough for rebelling against an eternal God, but the eternal Son drank up every drop of God’s wrath in our place.
He did what only he could do. As God the Son, he is truly God. The savior was not only our substitute, but he was also the offended one. But he was also truly human and is like us in every way but without sin so he can truly represent us as a righteous man before God.
Jesus did not just die to help sinners; he died in their place. We have rejected God and deserve death, but he died in the place of all who will repent and put our faith in him. He became a man of sorrows so we could have joy. He was forsaken so we may be adopted. He died so we may live.
Paul tells us this happened according to the scriptures. I sometimes hear people making it sound like we need Jesus to convince an unwilling Father to show mercy. But that is not true. The Father was never reluctant to save. It was because of his love that the Father that sent the Son. The death of Jesus shows the greatness of the love of the Father. I like the way pastor Derek Thomas says it,
“The gospel is not ‘God loves us,’ but ‘God loves us at the cost of his Son.”
The Father planned, the Son accomplished, and the Spirit applies our salvation. It was the Triune God that acted in grace and mercy. The gospel is the fulfillment of God’s promise after the fall to provide salvation. By the blood of Jesus not only is our guilt forgiven, but our sins have been washed away. I like the way pastor Mark Dever said it,
“do not live trembling on the verge of hell. Live trembling on the verge of heaven, knowing that there is no longer any charge to be made against you, because Christ has taken it all.”
If, however, Jesus had remained in the tomb, we would still be in our sin.
4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
Paul again points to what Jesus did as the fulfillment of God’s promise. Jesus not only died for us, which is another proof that he was truly human, but his resurrection proves that God has kept his promise. The savior is victorious over sin and death. The devil no longer has any claim over those for whom Jesus died so his resurrection is proof that God will keep his promise that his people will also rise again.
That’s why the puritan preacher Thomas Watson said, “we are more sure to arise out of our graves than our beds.” Jesus is the first installment of God fulfilling his promise to redeem the good creation Satan corrupted. The resurrection of Jesus marks the beginning of a new era and proves that the old is ending. Sin results in the curse of death and death results in the unnatural separation of our body from our spirit. The gospel is the proclamation that in Christ, God will remove the curse and restore his creation.
This is the promise we see in Romans 8:11
11 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.
God is redeeming not only his image bearers, but all creation. Paul says in Romans 8:22,
22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
When Jesus walked out of that tomb it proved that he had the power to deliver on the ancient promise of redemption. The resurrection of Jesus is confirmation that the last age has begun. Later in this chapter Paul explains how resurrection plays into this final chapter when he says,
23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every 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.
First fruits is an agricultural reference. The first harvest of a crop was an indicator of the quality of the harvest that was to follow. The resurrection of Jesus was the first victory over death that points us to the harvest to come. The power of Satan and sin have already been broken and now Jesus is building his kingdom until that final day when death itself will be vanquished and we will be raised in glory with him and like him.
Paul wants to make clear that Jesus was physically dead and physically raised from the dead. He mentions that he was dead for three days. There could be no mistake. Roman soldiers knew how to kill, he was dead. But he is dead no longer. Paul says,
5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
People who knew him well saw him after he walked out of the grave. Of those twelve, 11 would themselves be killed and the twelfth would die in prison over their testimony that Jesus was alive. The martyrs were emboldened to give their lives knowing that since Christ was risen, they too would conquer death.
6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
Jesus lived a perfect life. He died in the place of every sinner who would put their faith in him. He was buried. He was raised from the dead and he was seen alive. The resurrection of Jesus is not a metaphor. Paul says many who saw him were still alive. The story could be checked out. It wasn’t hidden or obscure. The gospel is an amazing claim, but it is one everyone is invited to examine. We are not called to believe in contradictions of vague claims. The New Testament makes definite and falsifiable claims.
Even so, because our hearts are wicked, men persist in denying the truth until God opens our eyes. Even Paul is an example of this,
8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
Even the great apostle Paul came only by grace. He was a murderer and a persecutor of Christ who deserved nothing from God and yet the Lord was pleased to display his grace in Paul making him an apostle. Moses was a murderer. Abraham was a liar; David was an adulterer and murderer. Jacob was a swindler. Jesus alone is worthy of all glory, and he alone is perfect. The greatest saints who have ever lived are sinners saved by grace. There is no such thing as a great man of God, only a great God and weak men and women who have received amazing grace.
There is no darkness in our hearts that the light of Christ cannot overcome. No matter what sins we have committed, if we repent and trust Jesus, he promises he will not turn us away. If even a sinful father will not hesitate to rescue his child no matter how filthy, wounded, and broken the child may be, why do we doubt that a perfect Father would?
The life of faith is not a journey to find God, but a life of gratitude to God who found us. We pursue holiness not to earn his love, but in response to it. Our hearts are so transformed by grace that our greatest desire is to see him receive the glory and honor he alone deserves.
Listen to what Paul says,
10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
Paul’s appreciation for the undeserved grace he has received fueled in him a passion to spread the message of God’s grace. His ministry was an overflow of the joy he knew because of the mercy he was shown. Paul may have been the least of the apostles, but he worked harder than any of them to see God glorified. In fact, even as he is explaining how hard he worked, he stops and clarifies.
He wants it to be clear that all his work is enabled and empowered by the grace of God. His work is not merely a cooperation with God’s work, but it was God working through him. He is merely an instrument, tuned by God to display even more grace in him.
When we hear a musician play an amazing piece of music, we don’t give glory to the guitar or the horn, but to the one who plays it. We don’t focus our attention on Picasso’s paintbrush, Cabrera’s bat, or Einstein’s pencil. We rightly recognize that the glory is not in the tool, but in the one that moves it. God alone deserves the glory for the salvation of sinners.
The believers desire should be to always display the grace of God. We desire holiness so that no sin in our lives brings reproach upon the name of our savior. We want to proclaim the message of the gospel not to draw attention to us but to Jesus. It is good to work hard for Christ, but like Paul, we must recognize that whatever is good in us is by the grace of God.
That is why Paul was concerned more about the message than the messenger. He says in verse 11,
11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
It is not the eloquence of preachers, but the power of the gospel that converts and transforms sinners. The 18th century teacher Count Zinzendorf was right when he said the job of the preacher was to “preach Christ, die and be forgotten”. The important thing is that the gospel is shared.
Studies say most Christians never share the gospel. Some assume that is someone else’s job. Others feel insecure about their ability. If, however, you know these basics that Paul shares you are equipped to witness because the power is not in your presentation, but in the truth of the word of God. If this gospel was sufficient to save you then why do you doubt its power for others? As with most things, the preacher Charles Spurgeon said it better than I can. He said,
“When we preach Christ crucified, we have no reason to stammer, or stutter, or hesitate, or apologize; there is nothing in the gospel of which we have any cause to be ashamed.”
Nearly all of us have people in our own families or circle of friends who need to hear this message. Start there. Practice by encouraging other believers with the gospel, we need to be reminded. Preach it to yourself, you will never outgrow it.
From the start of the Christian life to the end, we need to be sustained with gospel truth. What Paul has shared in these verses are the things of first importance. Maybe you have heard these things thousands of times. Never let them become commonplace in your thinking.
They are profound truths. They are not the only truths we need to know, but every other truth is connected to them and shaped by them. Remember our main point, We are to understand and evaluate all things in light of the gospel.
Throughout this letter Paul has been helping the believers in Corinth understand how to live as believers. He has been helping them learn how to grow in grace and how to think about the world and relate to each other. As we progress in chapter 15, Paul will deal with yet another doctrinal problem. Paul is a very wise man and if we look carefully at the pattern of what he has consistently done throughout this letter we notice something instructive.
Paul has addressed all these issues, as diverse as believers suing each other to speaking in tongues, by applying the gospel to the situation. Both his deepest theology and most practical insights have all flowed from a deep understanding of the gospel. Whatever we think we know, we should seek to know it in light of the gospel. Whatever wisdom we pursue, we should pursue it in light of the gospel.
It is a simple enough message that we teach it to children and yet it is deep enough that the most gifted theologian can never fully comprehend it. It is sufficient to guide our lives and our fellowship together. It is the power of salvation to those who believe.
I want to leave you this morning with the words of Martin Luther reflecting on how important it is to keep these things of first importance ever before us in our walk with Christ. Luther says,
“The highest of all God’s commands is this, that we ever hold up before our eyes the image of his dear Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. He must daily be to our hearts the perfect mirror, in which we behold how much God loves us and how well, in his infinite goodness, as a faithful God, he has grandly cared for us in that he gave his dear Son for us. Do not let this mirror and throne of grace be torn away from before your eyes.”
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