Donald M. Poundstone
On April 24, Christians will gather, as we do each Lord's Day, to celebrate the victory of Jesus Christ, a victory that is ours as well. Our living hope is based on the fact of Christ's resurrection. It's the foundation and pillar of Christian faith. This is commonplace among Christians. We regularly confess, in the words of the Apostles' Creed, that on "the third day he rose again from the dead." We also confess our belief in "the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting."
It may surprise you that this wasn't always the case in Christian congregations. In ancient Corinth, there were some church members who denied the resurrectionif not of Jesus, then certainly of believers. The apostle Paul realized that this was a totally inconsistent view: "Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?" (1 Cor. 15:12). Why they denied the resurrection remains something of a mystery. Perhaps they were influenced by Greek philosophy and the idea that the human body is a prison holding man's immortal soul. Or maybe they thought they had already experienced the resurrection: The Holy Spirit has come! Believers now possess a new life in Christ, and they enjoy victory over sin, sickness, suffering, and Satan. The resurrection has already occurred!
Such "triumphalism" finds expression today in various types of "prosperity Christianity." False teachers declare that God wants you to be rich and healthy, that you should have a comfortable life without struggle or suffering. What a cruel hoax on the majority of this world's Christians, who live in poverty and under oppression!
So Paul returns to the basics of the faith. He reminds these believers of what they should know because he himself had preached the good news to them. He told them facts of primary importance: Christ died and was buried. He was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples. All this happened "in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:1-7). That is, the Old Testament predicted these things, and the people of Israel expected them. The Messiah suffered death as a sacrifice of atonement for sins, he was buried to confirm the reality of his death, his body was raised from the grave, and he appeared to the disciples as testimony of his victory. What a marvelous bundle of good news! It all hangs together as a package. Jesus' death on the cross was necessary for the taking away of sins. His resurrection was the necessary sign of God's approval and the assurance of life beyond this world.
We may call this "the gospel of the resurrection" because some people in Corinth denied the full truth of this fundamental doctrine. Make no mistake: the gospel of the resurrection is basic to our very existence as Christians in the past, in the present, and also in the future.
First, this is the gospel we previously heard and received. In the past, the Corinthians and we received Christ and believed the truth about him. The gospel message had to be received in order to do us any good. A Messiah without followers, a Jesus without disciples who love and accept him, would be a lonely, frustrated, and defeated figure. Even more, apart from faith, without our acceptance of Christ, we get no help from the gospel. Its benefits don't come automatically. Some things do. The rain and sunshine benefit your lawn and garden regardless of your faith or gratitude to God. Lawns turn green and plants grow with or without a proper attitude from us. Not so with the gospel; it must be received with faith and love to do us any good.
Paul is a perfect example of this. He received the gospel from Jesus, but he wasn't always a disciple. Years later he remained conscious of his unworthiness to even be a Christian because he had previously persecuted the church. He once sought to destroy the followers of Jesus, he chased them from town to town, he put them in prison, and he delighted in their death. Then one day, on the road to Damascus, Jesus Christ met Paul and made himself known. Paul was converted, turned from a rejecter to an accepter. He believed Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, and committed himself to the Lord and his service.
We have done this if we are Christians. We've experienced a real change of heart and mind. There's great value to being raised in a Christian home, one where Jesus is worshiped and loved. I thank God that I grew up in such a home. But it wasn't sufficient for me to have devout parents. I had to believe the gospel for myself. God made me willing; he opened my eyes and changed my heart. By the grace of God, I believed in Christ and embraced the truth about him. This is true of every believer, even if you can't nail down the exact time it happened.
The gospel of the resurrection is good news only to those who personally and sincerely receive it. The Corinthians had done this, although now some doubted. Have you believed this gospel? You can be happy and enter the church's Easter celebration only if you have received Jesus Christ and the great truth about his death and resurrection on the third day. This is the gospel that we have received.
Second, this is the gospel in which we now stand firm. It's our present lifestyle. The gospel involves more than ancient history; it's more than a recital of something that happened long ago, and more than our past decision. It's a present reality that affects our daily living now. Paul says that we "stand" in it (1 Cor. 15:1).
It's sad to see people trying to live in the past, to live off an old experience of Christ. They have no ongoing relationship with God, but merely recall something they think happened years ago. They knelt at the altar, or walked down an aisle, or raised their hand in a meeting. That was it. Now they try to survive on the memory of past experience. It's as though they received a sum of money years ago and hid it under their mattress, where it didn't grow. They spent a little of it regularly until at last it shrank to nothing. Their religion is like a cut flower, fresh and beautiful at the beginning, but it slowly fades, dries out, and withers away.
The gospel can't be treated like that. It's God's truth for today. I live today with the assurance of forgiven sins because of the cross. God now accepts me in his Son. The resurrection of Christ is the basis of new birth, life, and hope. Being a Christian doesn't exempt us from trouble here. We're still human and we live in a world under the curse of sin. The gospel may create or increase our problems. You may need to take an unpopular stand against the habits of your family or the practices of society.
The gospel gives us a firm foothold for life every day. The cross of Christ and the empty tomb are the great realities that give meaning, direction, and significance to our lives. Life for the Christian is not a senseless round of eating and sleeping, working and playing, week after week. The gospel gives us a place to stand, motivation, perspective, stability, and joy. We received this gospel, and now we are standing in it.
Finally, this is the gospel by which we are "being saved" (15:2). It has to do, not just with the past and the present, but also with the future. The resurrection of Christ gives us hope for our future. As the tense of the verb implies, we are now being saved; that is, we are in the way that leads to complete salvation. Already we have the first installment, but our full inheritance of eternal life is yet to come.
When we come to the end of this life and die, we pass into the glorious presence of God. And when Jesus Christ returns, even our bodies will be raised, just as his body was, to share in the glory of the new world that will be revealed.
We must pay attention to the complete message of God. "You are being saved, if you hold fast to the word" that Paul and the other apostles preached (15:2). It's essential that you hang on to the gospel and persevere in the faith of Christ. If your grip on the gospel is so shaky that you're not really trusting Christ, that's not a faith that saves. Therefore, we all need to constantly remember and reinforce the heart of the gospel: Christ was crucified for our sins and is now risen from the dead. Are you committed to this truth?
The good news of the Bible is all about the resurrection of Christ and his ability to save sinners. There's nothing more important than for us to believe in him and give ourselves to him. Christianity isn't concerned with mere survival in this world or even immortality, but with resurrection. False religions teach the transmigration of souls and the idea of reincarnation. Movie stars babble on about previous lives and future embodiments. This isn't the gospel, but a counterfeit spirituality. Only the gospel of the resurrection is able to save us completely and forever. As you once received the gospel from God, hold on to it firmly today and every day.
The author, a retired pastor, serves on the Committee on Home Missions and as stated clerk of the Presbytery of the Northwest. New Horizons, April 2011.