By Pastor Glenn Pease
Captain James Saunders of the U. S. Navy taught a graduate class on the principles of agreement. As a demonstration, he would give each member of the class a piece of white paper, and ask them to chew it. The paper had been treated with a chemical called phenylthiocarbimide. Some reported that it tasted bitter; some said it was sweet; others said it had no taste. A vigorous argument would break out as to who was right. Each was arguing from personal experience, and so they were positive they were right, and the others wrong. Then Captain Saunders would explain that this chemical taste different to different people. So they were all right, even though they had opposite answers. Life and reality are paradoxical enough so that both sides of an argument can be equally right. This should be kept in mind in any debate which is based on subjective experience.
On the other hand, when we come to matters of historical fact, it is either so, or not. An event like the resurrection is a fact, or it is fiction. Both views can be held, but only one can be correct. This is true of all of the facts of the Gospel, and, therefore, there can only be one right position when it comes to any revealed fact. If this was not so, all of Paul's arguments in defense of the faith would be futile. We do not often realize it, but much of Paul's writing is argument. He is constantly answering critics, and challenging them, and by skilled logic, refuting their errors.
We can be thankful for the debates of the early church, for without them we would not have much of what we do have in the New Testament. Controversy handled improperly has caused much harm in the church. But when it is conducted in the proper spirit it can be a great blessing. Eliminate debate and open discussion, and you stifle the spirit. Freedom to question and argue keeps the church fresh and alive. If the Corinthians had not been allowed to question the resurrection of the dead, we would never have had this enlightening chapter on the subject, and we would have lost one of the most informative chapters in all the Bible.
Lyman Beecher said, "No great advance has ever been made in science, politics or religion, without controversy." Jesus was in a constant storm of debate, and so were the apostles, and so has every Christian who has been used of God to plow new furrows into the harden ground of man's rebellion. Robert Hall wrote, "However some may affect to dislike controversy, it can never be of ultimate disadvantage to the interests of truth or the happiness of mankind." Of course, this does not mean we do anyone a service by being contentious and starting arguments over every issue. William Penn said, "It were endless
to dispute over everything that is disputable." Paul warns us not to get into foolish disputes which only promote strife and do not edify.
Paul saves his energy to debate issues vital to the Gospel, and that is what we see him doing in this chapter. We seldom think about it, but the resurrection of the body is a major issue. We don't think about it because no one around us challenges it. The lack of controversy on the issue has made it a non-issue for most modern Christians. It was a real issue in the Corinthian church, however, for as Paul says in verse 12, some were saying there was no resurrection of the dead. Some Christians were still hung up on their pagan beliefs about the immortality of the soul.
The Greeks very clearly believed in the immortality of the soul, but the body to them was evil and the source of all sin and weakness. Therefore, they believed when the soul escaped the body at death it was good riddance forever. When Paul preached to the Greeks in Athens about the resurrection of the dead, they mocked him. The idea of the body being raised was folly to the Greeks. Even after some of them became Christians they could not accept the teaching that the body would be raised. They thought they were being far more spiritual in rejecting such a materialistic concept of the resurrection.
Paul is here defending the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. He shows that it is based on the Gospel itself, and to deny it is to tamper with the very foundation of the Gospel. The Christian belief is that the body is not the source of all evil. The body can be the temple of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, in the incarnation, took on a body of flesh, and thereby made the body of eternal and infinite worth and dignity. The body is not contemptible, but is a part of God's highest creation. Man will be, for all eternity, as God originally made him: A creature of body and spirit. Any contempt for the body is a carry over from paganism, and is contrary to the spirit of the New Testament. A denial of the resurrection of the body can easily lead to a rejection of the resurrection of Christ Himself. The Corinthians did not realize the serious implications of their position, and so Paul writes to point these out. Paul does not say excommunicate the heretics who are undermining the foundation of the Gospel, but instead, he takes the cool approach of persuasion.
The way he goes about this is a lesson in Christian love and courtesy in controversy. He said in chapter 13 that if he had the eloquence of an angel, but did not love, he was but sounding brass and a clanging symbol. So he argues in love with a cool calmness rather than in anger and with contempt for his opponents. Paul is not interested in winning a debate, but he is interested in persuading his opponents to return to sound doctrine. Paul knows that effective persuasion depends upon finding a common ground on which to stand with your opponent. Any argument in which common ground is not established is worthless, and only the foolish will pursue such a futile debate. Common ground is essential to gain any value out of controversy. Paul, therefore, does not launch right out into the sea of controversy, but he first builds a solid dock from which he and his opponents can make a common start, and to which they can return if they are tossed by the waves of contention into confusion. Paul doesn't even raise the main issue until verse 12.
First things first says Paul. Let me remind you Corinthians of the fundamental facts on which our faith rests. Paul had preached the Gospel to them, and they responded, and its power had already been demonstrated. Now he is going to put in written words exactly what the essence of the Gospel is. Thanks to Paul we have a concise and clear definition of the Gospel. Words are constantly changing, and unless you have a clear definition of what a word means, you cannot go far in an argument without confusion. Words can expand or shrink with time, and mean more or less than they originally did. For example, the word journey was born in France, and was a word that meant a trip of a single day. Now the word takes in every kind of traveling. It is no longer specific, but general. On the other hand, the word meat began with the Angles Saxons as a broad general word including all that was edible. Now this word has been slimmed down to mean fleshy foods only. Paul made sure that the Gospel would not expand or contract by defining it with three never changing historical events. This would insure that the word would always have a steady and consistent content.
The Gospel which saved the Corinthians, and which is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, is the good news of three historical facts: The death of Christ for our sins; His burial, and His resurrection. Paul says this is the ground on which you stand, and in which you are firmly rooted, and by which you are saved, if you hold it fast. We see Paul's strategy here. He says we begin on the level of the facts which are vital to our salvation. Let us be sure of this, anything that would cause us to doubt or deny one of these vital facts endangers the very foundation of Christianity, and are own salvation. One thing is for sure, on which we all can agree, and that is, there are three facts of the Gospel we must be committed to, and we must hold them fast no matter what. Let them go, or anyone of them, and your belief has been in vain, for Christianity is no longer true. The opponents of Paul, you see, agree with this. The Gospel they have received and believed is what they see eye to eye with Paul. If Paul can go on to show that their view of the resurrection of the dead destroys one of these three foundation facts, then he has forced them to give up their error, or destroy their own foundation. The Gospel, therefore, is the foundation. It is the common ground on which a meaningful debate concerning the resurrection can take place. Depart from these three facts, however, and all such arguments are as futile as beating the wind.
It is of interest to note how often a great subject divides into three categories, as does the Gospel. If we were to study nature, we can divide it into three kingdoms: Animal, mineral, and vegetable. If we want to study matter, we have three forms: Solid, liquid, and gas. If we study man, we have body, mind, and spirit. If we study God, we have Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If we study earth, we have land, air, and water. If we study our government we have three branches: Executive, legislative, and judicial. If we study the names of Jesus, we have Jesus, Christ, and Lord. He fulfills prophecy as Prophet, Priest, and King. Truth in so many areas seems to rest on a Trinitarian tripod. This might explain why the traditional sermon has three points. To preach the Gospel you need three points: The death, burial, and resurrection.
The Gospel is not anything Jesus said, it is all in what He did. The Sermon On The Mt., the parables, and all the other teachings of Christ are precious and priceless, but they are not the Gospel. Christianity can be compared to other religions and philosophies as to its teachings and ethics, but when you come to the Gospel, there is no comparing, for there is no other who died for sin, was buried, and rose again. The Gospel stands alone.
Christ is the Fact of facts, the Bible's theme,
Who stands alone, august, unique, supreme.
I. CHRIST DIED FOR OUR SINS. All that can be said about the cross and atonement are in these words: Christ died for our sins. Paul does not give us any complicated and elaborate theory about the atonement, but he just states it simply-Christ died for our sins. This is the first fact of the good news, and if you don't get this across in witnessing you have not communicated the Gospel. If people have the idea that Jesus died as a great martyr, or as an example of great love and courage, then they do not understand the Gospel. Jesus died for only one reason, and that was, for our sin.
Men must see this in order to recognize that they are involved in the death of Christ. They are the cause of it, do to their sin, and they are beneficiaries of it in salvation. Sins, is in the plural here. Every sin we commit involves us in the death of Christ. If a man has sinned only once in his life, he is partly responsible for the death of the Son of God. All can say with the poet,
'Twas I that shed the sacred blood,
I nailed Him to the tree;
I crucified the Christ of God,
I joined the mockery.
In Justin McCarthy's play, If I Were King, a riff-raff leader of Paris was sentenced to die by hanging. At the gallows such a tumultuous protest was raised by the mob assembled that the king agreed to spare the villains life on one condition. He said, "I shall grant life and liberty to Francois Villon if any one be found willing to take his place on the gallows and die his death, that he may live his life." Can you imagine what good news it would have been for Villon to hear a volunteer step forward to take his place. Villon represents all mankind under sentence of death due to sin, and Jesus Christ represents the volunteer who takes his place. This is good news-Christ died for our sins.
II. HE WAS BURIED. This seems like an insignificant detail of which we seldom hear anything. Yet Paul makes it one of the basic facts of the Gospel. How often do we ever mention the burial of Christ in witnessing? Is it possible that we have missed something? Could it be that we have neglected a vital part of the good news? The record of how His body was taken from the cross, and treated, and wrapped in expensive spices and laid in the tomb, is in the New Testament, but we fail to see how it is relevant in preaching and in witnessing. Nothing could be more relevant to Paul. His whole purpose is to defend the doctrine of the resurrection of the body with the personal identity preserved. His case would be difficult without the fact of the burial of the body of Christ.
The Romans and Greeks both burned the bodies of the dead. Had Joseph of Arimathea not asked for the body of Jesus to give it decent burial, it may have been burned. Christians have traditionally opposed cremation because it shows contempt for the body. James Stalker says it is a hard and shallow philosophy that is indifferent to what happens to the body, and so, has contempt for funeral ceremonies. When I read that, I thought of bull sessions in college with pre-sem students, and how we talked of out witting the undertakers outrageous prices by having our bodies sunk in the ocean, or eaten by wild animals, or some other clever and economical scheme. Possibly without even realizing it we have a streak of paganism in our Christian makeup when it comes to the dignity of the body.
The body of Jesus was given the best of care, and the women were returning on Sunday morning to do even more. The Bible makes it clear that His body saw no corruption. The body of Lazarus was stinking before it was raised, but the body of Jesus saw no corruption. It was preserved and thereby, demonstrated the victory of Jesus over death on the cross. Death could not touch His body and decay it. Jesus died for our sin, and then, in being buried, laid down in the very grip of death, and it could not touch Him. The burial of Christ was predicted by Himself. When the woman broke the jar of costly ointment and poured it over his head, He said in Mark 14:8, "She has anointed my body before hand for burying."Jesus even makes the experience of Jonah symbolize His burial. In Matt. 12:40 He explained that just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so the Son of Man was to be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
Time does not permit us to look at all the implications of Christ's burial, but the three obvious values can be quickly listed. 1. His burial demonstrated the reality of His death. Even His enemies consented to His burial, assured that He was dead. One cannot truly rise from the dead unless one is truly dead, and so the burial stands between His death for sin and His resurrection, as a proof of both. 2. Burial becomes the method by which we symbolize our commitment to Christ in baptism. Paul says for we are buried with Him in baptism unto death. 3. It teaches us to recognize the dignity of the body even after death. When Christianity spread, the funeral flames ceased, and after a few Emperors were baptized as Christians there was not a body burnt in all of the Roman Empire.
III. HE WAS RAISED ON THE THIRD DAY. The perfect tense in the Greek emphasizes that Jesus was raised and is still risen. Lenski, the Greek scholar, says it means, "Christ is now and continues to be in the condition of one who was raised from the dead." In contrast, Lazarus was raised from the dead, but is not now in that state of having been raised. The point is, the resurrection of Jesus was a past event, but one of continuously contemporary significance. The resurrection of Jesus was no mere case of the survival over death, but rather, the reversal of death, and the conquering of death. The very first words that John heard from the lips of Christ when he was caught up into heaven, and fell at his feet were, "Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one, I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades."
The powers of hell have done their worst,
But Christ there legions hath dispersed.
In the first two Gospel facts death seems to be victor: He died and was buried. But then comes the third fact that transforms the other two into victories: He was raised on the third day. Those who suggest that the resurrection of the body of Christians is not necessary are as blind to the facts of the Gospel as men can be. A two legged tripod is worthless, for it will never stand, and neither will the Gospel without all three of its essential facts. To remove the resurrection would be as foolish as removing one third of the foundation of the Empire State Building. There is no stopping at one third, for the whole structure will collapse. The resurrection is what gives meaning to the other two Gospel facts, and is the foundation for Paul's whole argument on the resurrection of all the dead. That is why he goes on to give proof of the resurrection.
Paul calls no witnesses to the stand to testify that they saw Christ die, or be buried, but all his witnesses are asked if they saw the risen Christ. None of the three legs of the Gospel are dispensable, but this third one bares the most weight, and, therefore, calls for the greatest support. There are many thrilling implications that grow out of this Gospel of three facts. The greatest implication is that all of us are obligated to be three point preachers, going everywhere sharing the good news of Christ's death for our sin, of His burial, and of His resurrection.