The Glory of the Gospel
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
April 21, 2019
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.
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 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. 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. 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. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. 
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Prayer of Illumination:
God of life, your Spirit raised Jesus from dead. Your Spirit inspired the prophets and writers of Scripture. Your Spirit draws us to Christ and helps us to acknowledge him as Lord. We ask that you will send your Spirit now to give us deeper insight, encouragement, faith, and hope through the proclamation of the Easter gospel. Amen.
Good Friday and Easter Sunday are the two highpoints of the Christian calendar. These are the two days that really matter within the Church. As wonderful as Christmas is, we are Good Friday-Easter people. Culturally, we love Christmas because of gifts. But Good Friday and Easter are the two most important days in Christianity. As one poet puts it, “If Jesus wasn’t executed there’s no celebration” to which the Apostle Paul replies, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain”.
Good Friday and Easter are the seminal moments in our faith. And this morning, we get to celebrate the fact that Jesus has been raised from the dead. We are a skeptical people that live in a skeptical culture. As we examine this passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we’ll see the historicity of the gospel, the essence of the gospel, and the grace in the gospel.
The Historicity of the Gospel
As modern, westerns we struggle with some of the main claims about the gospel, specifically that he rose from the dead. We hear that and we dismiss that as ancient superstition. We think that it was easier for ancient people to believe that someone rose from the dead because they didn’t know what we know today. We think they were an incredibly superstitious; that they all believed that people rose from the dead all the time.
Well, that’s just not true. The gospel was birthed in a culture that was naturally antagonistic to the idea of resurrection. The Jews did believe in resurrection. But they believed in a general resurrection at the end of time. At the end of time, all people would rise from the dead. But for someone to resurrect in the middle of time made no sense to them. Resurrection was supposed to happen at the end of time with all people not in the middle of time with one person. So the Jews would not have been natural predisposed to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Greeks and Romans didn’t believe in resurrection at all. The Greco-Roman religion taught that the physical, material world was bad and that the spiritual, immaterial world was good. They considered the body to be a prison. For them hearing that someone had been raised from the dead made no sense. That person had been freed from the prison of the material world. They were not predisposed to believing that someone would resurrect from the dead.
But the historic facts are Jesus died, he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day. Everyone would have known that Jesus died. They would have known that he was crucified. The Church would have gladly proclaimed that and her enemies would have spread it too. See crucifixion was something that was reserved for criminals. Some of the early opponents to the gospel frequently brought up the fact that Jesus was crucified.
In addition to knowing that Jesus was crucified, they would have known where he was buried. Mark writes in 15:42-47, “And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. 45 And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph. 46 And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.”
People knew where he was buried. Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin. He would have been well known. And they would have known that he used the tomb that he had been preparing for himself. The two Marys saw where Jesus was buried and others probably did too. Pilate even placed a guard in front of the tomb. So where Jesus was buried would have been known to all in Jerusalem.
And then three days later Jesus rose from the dead. The Corinthians, as a mixture of Greeks, Romans, Jews, and other ethnic groups would have had trouble believing that. So Paul proves that Jesus actually rose from the dead by noting that Jesus appeared to various people at various times. Paul wrote First Corinthians about 20 years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. The people that Jesus appeared to would have still been alive.
So if the Corinthians didn’t believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead, Paul is saying that if they didn’t believe what he was saying they could ask people who were there. “You don’t believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead, ask Peter. He was there. You need more proof than that? Ask any of the 500 that he appeared to at once. They saw him.”
The only thing that explains the growth of the Church is that Jesus actually rose from the dead. Within the next 200 years, the Church went from being a small minority to being a major religion in the Roman Empire. By 306, the Emperor was Christian. The culture was not predisposed to believing people just rose from the dead. The only thing that could explain that drastic change is that Jesus actually rose from the dead.
If you’re skeptical about the resurrection, then how do you explain the growth and spread of the Church? How do you explain a religion that says a man died, was buried, but rose from the dead three days later becoming the main religion in a time and place when most weren’t predisposed to believe in a resurrection and those who did thought it would happen only at the end of time? How do you explain that? The only way you can explain that is the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened.
We’re seeing that the gospel is a historic reality. Now let’s see the essence of the gospel.
The Essence of the Gospel
Essence is not a word we use often. It’s an older word that means being. Essence is the very nature of something. We often think that the gospel is entry level and that for us to grow we need to move beyond it to other topics. But the gospel is the very essence of the Christian faith. All doctrines and topics flow out from it. The essence of the gospel is found in the person and work of Jesus the Christ.
Other religions are a set of rules and regulations. The essence of Buddhism is the Eight Fold Path. The essence of Islam is the Five Pillars. Those are rules and regulations.
But the essence of Christianity is the person of Jesus. It is that Jesus is fully God and fully man. And as fully God and fully man, Jesus lived the life we never could. He lived the perfect life. He never sinned. He never broke God’s law. He perfectly fulfilled it.
The essence of Christianity is not just about the person of Jesus, it’s also about his work. Paul writes that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures”. Each and every one of us has sinned. We have rebelled against God and his ways. Instead of honoring God as the sovereign king over all things, we rebel against him and assert our own kingship. We have lied, lusted, cheated, have been inordinately angry for no reason. In sinning, we rebel against God and assert our own lordship.
See, sin is not just a minor slip up like forgetting to turn the thermostat down after leaving the house or forgetting to get milk. Sin is rebellion against God and his lordship. When we lie, we are asserting our lordship by saying we determine what is truth. When we cheat, we are asserting our lordship by saying that we determine what is right. When we lust, we are asserting our lordship by saying that we determine the worth and value of someone.
And we all have sinned. Not one of us in this room is free from the stain of sin and rebellion. Every one of us is guilty of sin. Every one of us has rebelled against God. The rich are not exempt from sinning. The poor are not exempt from sinning. Men are not exempt from rebelling against God. Women are not exempt from rebelling against God. One ethnic group is not free from sinning. Each and every person is guilty of sinning and rebelling against God.
As a result of our rebellion and sin, we deserve death. Paul tells us just that in Romans 6:23. “For the wages of sin is death”. God is holy and righteous and sin cannot stand in his presence.
But the good news is that “Christ died for our sins”. The word “for” is a vague word in English. It can mean a number of things. Luckily, the Greek word is rather specific. The word “for” could be translated as “on behalf of” or “in place of”.
What Paul is saying is that Jesus was our substitute. Jesus died in our place; he died in the place of believers. He bore the consequences of our sin and rebellion so that he could give us his righteousness.
The ancients would have immediately understood that Jesus was a sacrifice. All of those ancient religions practiced sacrifices. They would have immediately understood that a sacrificed died so that the one doing the sacrifice could live. They knew the sacrifice was their substitute. Jesus was our substitute, dying in the place of all who believe past, present, and future.
Jesus as our substitute completely and utterly atones for all of our sins. If you are in Christ, then there is absolutely nothing you need to do. Jesus has paid it all. His death atones for all of the sins that his people have committed or will commit.
Maybe you think, “Well … Jesus’ death paid for all of my past sins, all of my sins before I became a Christian. But I need to make atonement for the sins that have come after accepting Christ.” No. If you are in Christ, his death has completely atoned for the sins you committed before coming to faith and all of the sins you will commit. There is not a single thing you need to do. His death completely and utterly atones for every sin of his people. That is what we call definite atonement.
That’s what makes this good news. That is the difference between Christianity and every other religion. Every other religion says “here are a set of divine rules and regulations. Do them and live.” Christianity says, “You are completely and utterly guilty of sinning and rebelling against God. You deserve death. But God has done something about that. He has died in your place so that you wouldn’t.” That is the essence of the gospel.
We’ve seen the historicity of the gospel and the essence of the gospel. Now we’ll see the grace of the gospel.
The Grace in the Gospel
Once you understand the essence of the gospel, it changes you. It changes how you live. Paul tells us this in verses 8-10. There he writes, “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. 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 considered himself to be unworthy to be an apostle because of what he had done. Before understood the essence of true religion, he persecuted the church. He stood by smiling while Stephen was martyred for the faith. Then he began persecuting Christians. He would arrest Christians and then have them put to death. That’s what he was doing when he was on his way to Damascus. He had papers from the high priest that would allow him to arrest Christians, bring them back to Jerusalem, and to torture them.
While he was on the road, the risen Christ revealed himself to Paul and everything changed. Paul stopped persecuting the Church and became her biggest evangelist. In seeing the risen Christ, Paul understood the essence of the faith that he had grown up with. And understanding that changed him.
Paul saw his sin for what it was, rebellion against God. He saw Christ as his substitute and recognized that he was saved by unconditional, unmerited, irresistible grace. Paul saw the essence of the gospel and that radically changed him. He immediately stopped persecuting the Church, began proclaiming the gospel everywhere he went, and became a grace-filled man.
The same is true of Peter, John, James, and the rest of the disciples. They were a band of bumbling buffoons. If you read the four gospels, you’ll see that the disciples frequently misunderstand Jesus. They frequently wanted to do things their way and not his way.
But after the resurrection, after seeing the essence of the gospel, the disciples are changed men. They proudly and powerfully proclaim the gospel, even when threatened with persecution. Why? The grace found in the gospel changes people.
If you’ve truly experienced the gospel, if you understand the essence of the gospel, you will be a changed person. You will be so much more gracious, kind, forgiving, considerate. You will be more patient and understanding of others. You will be more humble.
You will recognize that you are saved not by anything you’ve done, anything inherent in who you are. You’ll recognize that it is all grace. And grace changes people.
Have you ever met people who say they’re Christians but they’re just as surely, just as mean, just as proud as they were before Christ? Those are people who aren’t really Christians. They might think they are but they’re not. They don’t understand the essence of the gospel and it shows.
If you truly understand the essence of the gospel, that you are a sinner in need of saving and that Jesus died in your place, then you will be changed. You will be transformed by the grace of the gospel. You will conform more to the image and likeness of Jesus Christ.
The grace of the gospel changes people. It transforms us. But that only happens when we understand the essence of the gospel. We are only changed when we recognize that we are sinners and the only way out of our sin and rebellion is Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, which atones for all of our sins. That is the essence of what we believe. And this gospel is not rooted in some pie-in-the-sky hopes; it’s rooted in history. The gospel is rooted in the historic fact that Jesus died, was buried, and one the third day rose from the dead.
 Lecrae, “Boasting” from Rehab (Reach Records, 2010).