Monday, April 17, 2017

Always Springtime and Never Easter (1 Corinthians 15:12-26)


In C. S. Lewis’ beloved story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we learn early on about the curse of the White Witch. She is said to have “all Narnia under her thumb. It’s she that makes it always winter. Always winter and never Christmas!” At the sound of these words, the young girl Lucy can only say, “How awful!” Imagine it! Christmas, we might say, makes winter all the more bearable. But what if, instead of always winter and never Christmas, our world were cursed with the condition of being always springtime and never Easter? Oh, there would be plenty of mild weather and bright flowers to enjoy just the same. But a world without Easter? I suggest to you that many people live in just such a world. I suppose that they have the cultural trappings of it all, you know, the eggs and the bunnies and the baskets and the bonnets. But these things are not Easter. They really have nothing to do with Easter! Easter is the celebration of our Lord Jesus’ victory over sin and death by His triumphant resurrection from the dead!

Many have not heard that good news. Many have heard it and do not believe it. Many even profess to believe it, but it makes no evident impact on their lives. They live as though it is always springtime, but never Easter. And yet Easter represents the most important event in the history of the world! The only way it can be unimportant or irrelevant to any of us is if the story of Jesus conquering sin and death by His resurrection is not true. If that event did not happen, then all this season represents to any of us is that the flowers are in bloom, and there is something going on that has to do with egg-laying bunnies. This is just another mundane day of our mundane week in our mundane year. Hit the snooze button, roll back over in the bed, get up later and have brunch and smell the flowers in bloom, because nothing else of any significance is going on.

I want to invite us to consider a world in which it is always Springtime and never Easter – the world in which so many people live because of their ignorance of the story of Easter, their unbelief in it, or their practical indifference to it. In the 15th Chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul spends a lot of time and attention discussing what it would mean for us if Christ had not risen from the dead. So, these are the characteristics of a world in which it is always springtime and never Easter.

If Christ has not been raised …

I. Our Preaching is Vain.

This is what Paul says in verse 14. The word “vain” means “empty” or “hollow.” Paul is saying that if Christ is not risen from the dead, then nothing he has ever preached, nothing that any of the other apostles of Christ preached, and nothing any Christian preacher of the last two millennia has preached has any form or substance to it whatsoever. Every Christian sermon ever preached in every church all over the world has all been an enormous pile of lies. As verse 15 says, “We are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised.” If Christ has not been raised, then all Christian preaching has just been a tremendous waste of time and words.

Consider that the Church of Jesus Christ was born under the preaching of the Word of God. Acts 2 records the birth of the Church on the day of Pentecost as the first Christians were filled with the Spirit of God and began proclaiming “the mighty deeds of God.” Before that time, all of the committed followers of Christ were able to be gathered into one room. Acts 1:15 says there were about 120 of them. But on the day of Pentecost, as an innumerable multitude of people from all over the world were gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast, Peter began to preach under the power of the Holy Spirit. And the focus of His message on that day was the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Peter says in Acts 2:22-24,

Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know – this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.

Then Peter turned the attention of the people to Psalm 16 and recited the words of David, and demonstrated that David could not have been speaking of himself as he said, “You will not abandon My soul to Hades, nor allow Your Holy One to undergo decay” (Ac 2:27; Psa 16:10). Peter said, “Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day” (2:19). But Peter said David was looking ahead and speaking of the resurrection of Christ, and he said, “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.” And he concluded by saying, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ – this Jesus whom you crucified” (2:36).

Notice that the weight of his entire sermon on that day rested on the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. It is the resurrection of Christ that brings about the fulfillment of Scripture and establishes the claim that Jesus is both Lord and Christ. And when that crowd heard these words, “they were pierced to the heart,” and they began to ask, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter’s response was, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (2:37-38). It is the resurrection that is the basis of our faith in Christ, and the resurrection is what promises us the hope of being forgiven of our sins. Three thousand people put their faith in Jesus that day on the basis of this proclamation of the risen Lord Jesus, and the Church of Jesus Christ was born.

Now, if you live in a world in which it is always Springtime and never Easter, you have to imagine what the world would be like if it had not been for the birth of the Church. I know that today it is fashionable to point out all the flaws and embarrassments of the Christian Church, and to blame the world’s ills on the Church, but consider how the Church of Jesus Christ has impacted the world for good over the last 2,000 years. A vast majority of the world’s most important scientific discoveries were made by Christians. Many of the world’s most beloved works of art were produced by Christians and depict images of Christian religious significance. Everywhere in the world that the church has spread, it has established schools for children and adults alike, and in most cases, they were the first to establish schools in those places. Societies have been established on law and order that is rooted in the Christian understanding of right and wrong, justice and mercy. It was the Christian Church which transformed how the world viewed women, children, the poor and the disabled. It was the Christian Church which was, and still is, the world’s most outspoken voice against the evils of slavery. It has historically been Christians who have established the most far reaching efforts of charity in the world. In many places, there would be no health care at all if it were not for Christian Churches sending doctors and nurses and establishing clinics and hospitals. None of these accomplishments and advancements would exist in the world apart from the Christian Church, and the Christian Church would not exist apart from the preaching of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It has been the preaching of that message through the centuries that has called sinful men and women to repent and invited them to be transformed by God’s grace. And those transformed individuals have gone out into the world as ambassadors of heaven, catalyzing change for the good of the world everywhere the church has gone. This is instructive for those of us who do believe this message. If we have come to believe in the proclaimed message that Jesus has conquered death, what good are we doing in the world? If we are not, then the preaching of the resurrected Christ may as well be in vain, because it is having no impact on the world! And we are also cautioned by this statement about what we give our attentive ears to hear. Any preaching, any sermon, that would still be true if Jesus Christ has not risen from the dead has absolutely no place in a Christian pulpit. Take it to the synagogue or to city hall or wherever else, but when a man stands in this pulpit to preach, you need to expect, demand, and insist that the words he speaks are grounded in the victory of Jesus over sin and death by His resurrection. Otherwise, he is wasting time and words with vain preaching.

Now, related to this is the second characteristic of a world in which it is always Springtime and never Easter.

II. Your faith is vain.

Christian faith and Christian preaching are inseparably connected to one another. All true preaching calls for a response of faith, and all true faith arises under the proclamation of God’s Word, and particularly the Word concerning the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 10:17 says that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. In the very first verses of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul began by saying that the Gospel message (the good news) is grounded in the historical facts that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (15:3-4). He says that this is the gospel “which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast to the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain” (15:1-2).

So, see what Paul is saying here – the gospel that I preached to you will save you if you believe it – unless you believe in vain. That is, unless your faith is artificial and meaningless. And there are many people who have this kind of hollow faith. Christianity, to them, is not so much a personal abiding trust in the person of Jesus as it is a set of rules or rituals – an outward demonstration that is not tethered to any genuine internal reality in their soul. It is like playing a game of dress-up. Paul says if you believed the gospel with that kind of faith, your faith is meaningless. But moreover, notice that he is saying here in verse 14 that if Jesus has not risen from the dead, then ALL faith is meaningless! If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is in vain because we have no gospel to announce which can save, and therefore anything you put your faith in as a response to vain preaching is vain faith.

Now, you might say, “Well, there are still faiths that exist apart from Jesus.” In a sense, that is true. But when we proclaim Jesus as risen from the dead, we are not merely setting out an alternative to a variety of equally valid faiths. If we want to talk about putting your faith in the teachings and moral example of someone who lived and died a long time ago, I suppose we could produce a number of commendable historical figures as being somewhat equal to one another. But when we proclaim Jesus and call people to put their faith and trust in Him, we are proclaiming an exclusive and superior kind of faith – faith, not in a person who lived and died, but in a person who said of Himself, “I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore” (Rev 1:18). There is not another person in the history of humanity that can make that claim. In fact, it is so absurd, no one would even dare to make that claim. He speaks of death as something He experienced in the past tense, and something that He is now eternally immune to! The resurrection, if true, puts Jesus in an altogether different category of beings! Christianity becomes, not just one alternative in a catalog of competing belief systems, but a lighthouse beckoning to safety all who are lost and adrift in a turbulent sea of myths, fairy tales and lies!

A few years ago when we were in Dubai, we took part in a dialogue with some Islamic leaders. They were very hospitable and kind and focused our conversation on the things which Christians and Muslims hold in common – and there are a number of things on which we can agree. But the dialogue broke down when the Islamic scholar said, “So, you see, the difference between us is merely like that of an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 5s.” My pastor friend who was with us retorted, “Well, no actually, the differences between us are more like that of an iPhone 5s, and two tin cans tied together with a string!” Choosing Jesus over an alternative faith claim is not like choosing between chicken or fish for dinner. It is like choosing whether or not you will eat and be filled! For if this Jesus has risen from the dead, then nothing or no one can compare to Him. And if He hasn’t risen from the dead, then He is just one more dead corpse occupying a piece of yet undiscovered real estate somewhere in the world today. And if He isn’t risen, and you’ve put your faith in Him, well, your faith is vain. It is empty and meaningless.

Think of the consequences of that. Paul says in verse 17, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” If He is not risen, then He did not die for your sins. Oh, He died sure enough, but not for your sins. He can only die for your sins because He has no sins of His own for which to die. But if He is not risen, then He is most certainly a sinner – a deceptive charlatan who lured people into errors by lies. He said repeatedly during His earthly life things like this: “The Son of Man (which is how Jesus most frequently spoke of Himself) is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later” (Mk 9:31). He said that kind of thing all the time. And if it didn’t happen, then let’s forget about speaking of Jesus as a good man or a good teacher. He’s a deranged, egomaniacal liar. He got what He deserved on the cross; good riddance; rot away in the tomb and be feasted on by worms! And isn’t it amazing that no one – no one anywhere in the world – dares to speak of Jesus in such a way. He did not die for His own sin. He died for yours, that He might bear the penalty that you deserve and that I deserve, so that our sins could be fully punished under the wrath of God in Him as our substitute. And dying for our sins, He has defeated our sin and its fatal penalty by His resurrection. We can be forgiven of all that we have done if we trust in Him because of His victory over sin and death. But if He did not rise, then we have no hope of forgiveness. If we have no hope, then the best advice we can give to someone who is plagued by a guilty conscience is, “Good luck with that!” Because offering them faith in Christ is complete vanity unless He is risen from the dead.

In a world where it is always Springtime and never Easter, our preaching is vain, and your faith is vain, but thirdly …

III. There is no hope for humanity

Death is the great equalizer. No matter how rich or poor, how loved or despised, how intelligent or ignorant, how successful or unsuccessful a person is, death puts every human being on level ground. Well, we might say, “under level ground.” The fear of death has given rise to all sorts of myths and rituals the world over. We think of the Pharaohs of Egypt who were buried with treasures that they would take with them into the afterlife. And their tombs were sealed and protected by a curse on anyone who may enter, lest someone go in and find that all that stuff was still there! Indeed, almost every religious or philosophical system of thought tries to business at some point with the reality of death and the fear it produces. Christianity, however, is different from all the rest. Christianity, like many other belief systems, claims that death is not the end of existence, but there is life beyond death. Unlike every one of those other systems, however, Christianity claims to have proof of this. The proof is found in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Because Jesus died and rose again, we believe that He will bring with Him those who die having faith in Him. His life after death is the evidence of His promise to grant that everlasting life to His followers. But, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then we have no hope to offer anyone in the face of death.

Verse 18 of our text says that if Christ has not been raised, “then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” Paul has a fondness for using this metaphor of sleep as a reference to death. It speaks of death as something temporary, followed by an awakening on the other side. But if Jesus is not risen, then all of the believers in Jesus who have died, or “fallen asleep in Christ,” have nothing to look forward to beyond this life at all. At best, death will mean the extinguishing of life altogether into state of non-existence. At worst, it means that death will mark the entry into a place of eternal judgment for the sins we have committed in this life. Those who have lived believing that Christ will carry them through the valley of the shadow of death to the other side have nothing to look forward to except disappointment. If Christ is not risen, then there simply is no remedy for the fear of death.

Now, if those who have died in Christ have perished, then this means that the promises we have cherished throughout our lives are lies. John 3:16 is probably the most beloved passage of Scripture in the world. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Paul says here that if Jesus is not alive after His death, then this is a lie. God, if He exists at all, doesn’t really love you all that much, and is seemingly content to let you rot in the grave at best, and perish eternally in hell at worst. Don’t ask me to preach your preach your funeral, because if Christ is not risen, then I have nothing to say except, “I’m sorry for your loss, and I hope you can get over it soon.”

Here is where critics of the Christian faith will make light of our beliefs and say, “Oh, you poor Christians! You lost your pie in the sky by and by!” Well, as C. S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “either there is pie in the sky or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric. If there is, then this truth, like any other, must be faced.” But I suggest to you that more is at stake here than our slice of pie in the sky. If death is the end of existence, and there is no hope of heaven, we give up far more than just the idea of eternal happiness. That would be bad enough by itself, but there is more that gets jettisoned with it. If those who have died in Christ have perished, then that means that there is no hope of justice to come. It is our faith in the risen Christ that assures us that there is coming a day when all wrongs will be made right. All of the injustices of the world will be inverted by God’s perfect justice. In the words of Tolkien, “everything sad is going to come untrue.” Notice how Paul connects the dots of this coming judgment to the resurrection of Christ in Acts 17:31, saying that God “has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” But if there is no resurrection of Christ, then there is no judgment to come, no justice to be found, no redemption from the evils of this world, no victory to be had, no glory to experience. When this hard and cruel life comes to an end, all there will be is perishing. If Christ is not risen, then there is no hope for humanity.

Finally, we see one more characteristic of a world in which it is always Springtime and never Easter.

IV. Christians are to be pitied.

Some years ago, a very popular gospel singer released a song that said, “But if heaven was never promised to me, neither God’s promise to live eternally, it’s been worth just having the Lord in my life.” That’s sweet, isn’t it? Well, compare that to what Paul says in verse 19 of our text: “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” This notion that walking with Christ has been worth it even if there is no heaven to gain from it is nonsense to the Apostle. This world is filled with troubles and trials. Our own bodies are at war with us, and dangers lurk around every corner of this planet! Every nanosecond of our lives are lived within a single heartbeat of death! And if this is all there is, then frankly, it is pretty awful! We walk by faith in Christ because we believe that there is something better beyond this world and this life. We believe that there is a world and a level of existence that has been promised to us in Jesus Christ, where God Himself will “wipe every tear from their eyes; and there will be no longer any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Rev 21:4). And we are not interested in any consolation prizes of having some kind of happier perspective on this sin-wrecked globe. We hold this conviction by faith with confidence because we have the assurance of it through the resurrection of Christ from the dead. But if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then the whole world should feel sorry for us more than for any other class of people.

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul speaks of being whipped five times, beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked, robbed, going hungry and thirsty and exposed to all sorts of dangerous and deadly conditions because of his faith in Christ and service to Him. The writer of Hebrews speaks in Chapter 11 of those who were tortured, mocked and scourged, enchained and imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, and put to death by the sword (Heb 11:35-37). Historians record for us the persecutions of the maniacal Caesar Nero, who eventually ordered the execution of Paul and Peter and untold multitudes of other Christians. Tacitus tells of how they were sown into the hides of wild beasts and thrown to dogs to be attacked and killed by them. He tells of those who were crucified and those who were impaled and set on fire to be used as lanterns in Nero’s gardens as he raced his chariot around in the dark. And history is replete with countless other examples of those who embraced the persecutions and punishments thrown at them by the world for their faith in Christ. It is estimated that some 70 million Christians died as martyrs over the last 2,000 years. And some 45 million of those, well over half, were martyred between 1990 and 2000. Last Sunday, as Christians gathered to worship on Palm Sunday in Egypt, ISIS suicide bombers caused explosions in two churches, killing over 40 and injuring over 120 Christians.

Why do I rattle off these statistics? Because this long and gory trail of blood that has marked the spread of the church through the world since the Day of Pentecost testifies to the unshakable faith of Christians in a life beyond death that has been promised to us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we could ask the millions of martyred Christians if they thought it’s been worth it to just have the Lord in their lives even if there was no heaven promised or a promise to live eternally, they would likely laugh at the mere suggestion. But if Christ is not risen from the dead, then the world should laugh at them with condescending pity. What a silly, stupid, suicidal lot of fools to embrace death on the promise of everlasting life beyond, if Jesus is not risen! What an absolute waste of life and death! This world is as close to heaven as the believer in Christ would ever experience, and as close to hell as the unredeemed of the world would ever experience. Paul will say in later verses in this chapter that it is our belief in the resurrection that drives us to embrace risk, to live for Christ in the face of persecution and peril. If Christ is not raised, he says we may as well eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. Nothing else matters. That is what it would be like to live in a world where it is always Springtime and never Easter.

Ah, but, thanks be to God, this is not the world in which we live. As Paul says in verse 20, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” Because He has risen, we who belong to Him by faith will rise as well. Sin has been dealt with in His death, and death itself has been vanquished by His resurrection. Jesus really has risen from the dead, then nothing in our lives or in the world can ever be the same! Death has had a hole kicked into it, and a conquering King stands on the other side of it inviting all who trust in Him to follow Him through it to life everlasting!

All around us people are living in a world where it is always Springtime and never Easter. But the Christ of Easter sends us into that world as His ambassadors, beckoning those imprisoned souls to be set free and to come into the power and glory of His Kingdom, to become citizens of an everlasting Kingdom in which every day is Easter. Every day is a celebration that our King has conquered all of His enemies and laid them in subjection under His feet, including death, which He has defeated on our behalf.

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