1 Corinthians 15:1–10
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 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.
Dear Fellow Redeemed:
This is from the last part of a long letter St. Paul has written to the Christians in Corinth (there is a second letter as well, of course). It hasn’t been an entirely happy message. In fact, Paul has been taking the Corinthian believers to task for a number of sinful practices he’s heard they’ve been engaging in. They have been divided as to which spiritual leader they should follow (as if Paul and Apollos and Peter aren’t all working toward the same purpose; and as if they aren’t merely messengers of Christ, who is truly important). There has been at least one case of shocking sexual immorality among them, and the others in the congregation hesitant to say or do anything about it (making themselves guilty in it as well). There is a lawsuit between members in the congregation (as if fellow believers can’t work things out among themselves without bringing the secular courts into it, and giving the Christian Church that black eye). There has been a lack of love in dealing with a certain matter that troubles the conscience of some, but not others. There is dishonor of God’s things and a loveless spirit that has taken place in their conducting of the Lord’s Supper (so much so, that Paul has said to them: When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat.)
Toward the end of all of this, Paul writes the words from our text. He wants to remind them of something very important. He has preached a message to them. It isn’t just any message; it’s a message by which they’re being saved. Paul must know that that means something to them as a concept - that saving is something they think they need.
We wonder sometimes if that means anything to the people we’re sharing this message with today, right? Is there really, in people’s minds anymore, anything to be saved from? So often, today, God is whatever anyone wants Him to be. There is sort of a prevailing spirit in our times, that the only truly unjust and unrighteous thing is if someone is denied the ability to be whatever he or she wants to be. There is a preference to doubt that there will really be any punishment for sins, and whether there even is anything is truly sinful.
But God has revealed to us what things are of Him, and what are to be divided out as the corruption of His things. And He takes this corruption, and the transgression of His Law very seriously. When Paul tells his readers to hold fast to the Word he has preached to them, he includes God’s revelation to them of what is righteousness, and of their inability to attain that righteousness. He includes the Bible’s consistent message that God’s kingdom is perfect, that sin can’t exist within it, and that sinners must be made righteous by Him in order to be with Him in His kingdom. God has revealed the Law that reflects His righteousness and shows us our sins. Christians fundamentally believe that they must be saved from the real threat of hell’s punishment for their sins. If Paul’s audience has begun to loosen its grip on this message upon which they have stood in the past, then they have believed in vain in what would have saved them.
Loosening their grip on this message in which they’ve stood in the past- It’s easier to do than we might sometimes think. Don’t we live in a world that opposes this message, and opposes us who believe it? The thought of people being punished in hell is a very unpleasant thought. It’s not surprising that people would decide they just don’t fell like believing that. Nobody likes to be told their doing something wrong. It’s not surprising that people would decide they’re just not going to believe there’s anything that’s truly wrong, and that whatever they think is right is right. And if that’s the case, there really isn’t anything to be saved from, is there? And then, Paul is wrong about this message saving people. And the thing is, you and I don’t like the thought of hell, or of being told we’re doing something wrong any more the next guy. The thought of doing away with all that has appealed to us too, hasn’t it? Maybe it has appealed to us so much at times, that our thinking has been more like that of unbelievers than believers.
Paul goes back over the message, then, - the portion of it that he says is of first importance: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve [Cephas is St. Peter, who we talked about last week]. Christ died for our sins. He died because there really is sin, and we really are guilty of it, and hell really is the end of someone’s determination to live in deliberate, unrepentant sin. In accordance with the Scriptures - that means the Scriptures had said in advance that God’s Son would die for this reason. Isaiah’s prophecy foretold many of the details of it, including of Jesus’ unremarkable form, or beauty, or majesty, including of His being despised and rejected by men, including of the Father’s forsaking of Him to be pierced and crushed and chastised and wounded by sinners so that He would quietly carry our burden and pay our price - die our death (Is. 53). God’s perfect Son was able to take our place. He lived perfectly; His death made payment for the fact that we couldn’t.
And He was raised on the third day. Death is part of the corruption we’re talking about. There wasn’t any before people started sinning. Death is what must happen to us in this world. None of us can escape it. It holds us in its power because we are guilty sinners. But death doesn’t hold God’s Son. It doesn’t hold Jesus. He was raised from death just as He had said He would be. So the reason this message Paul has preached to them is of first importance, is that, as those connected to Him through faith, death can no longer hold them either. This is the message that truly saves those who cling to it, who stand upon it, who hold fast to it. In doing so, we haven’t believed in vain.
St. Paul goes on to talk about the grace of God. He felt this very personally - the fact that God loved him even though he didn’t deserve it. We talked about his story a number of weeks ago now. He had been Saul, whose great purpose in life had been to end the Christian Church. He believed it to be a myth that was an attack upon Judaism. He would be the one to root it out - to erase it from the world. We know he had been present at, and approving Stephen’s execution. Without a doubt he had been responsible for bringing about many other Christian’s deaths. When he calls himself the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle he reflects upon this horrible error into which the devil had led him in that time. What else could explain his preaching of this message to them now, but the grace of God! God had chosen him to work even harder to spread the message than he had to destroy it. He had shown him the truth, and had equipped him with profound abilities. Part of God’s grace toward Paul was accompanying him throughout much suffering that was necessary in order for him to proclaim this message. His grace was even in telling Paul, one time, that it was God’s will that He continue to suffer. Through the suffering in the midst of many successes he would see God’s power at work in him, rather than coming to an inflated sense of his own glory (2 Cor. 12).
You are here this morning to be reminded of the same message which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to [it]. You hold fast to the Christ, who died for [your] sins in accordance with the Scriptures, [Who] was buried, raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, [Who] appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. You cling to the One in Whose blood you are cleansed from all unrighteousness, the One who invites you to His Table this morning to nourish you with food that is earthly having been joined to that which unearthly - His true body and blood for the remission of your sins. He is the One Who never chose falsehood, though the way of the truth was much more difficult and painful. He never chose ways of unrighteousness that would have saved His own life. He did for you what you couldn’t do for yourself. His righteous death has made payment for your sins. You are forgiven in Him. Believing this, you have not believed in vain. Amen.