I Corinthians 15 is the great chapter on the resurrection of the body. The apostle Paul bases the resurrection of the body on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But he does so in a strikingly interesting way. He asks us the readers to consider what our situation would be if Christ had not been raised from the dead. After he lays out all the horrible consequences of that unthinkable possibility, he concludes by saying that if Christ had not been raised from the dead, we would of all men be most miserable. We would be most to be pitied. Why is this the stark conclusion to the unthinkable suggestion that Christ had not been raised? What difference, in other words, did the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead make in the lives of God’s people?
The disciples knew what difference it made for them, but they saw the resurrection of Christ only as an immediate difference. That is, they moved from abject sorrow and despair to a bright new hope that suddenly had broken upon them. But their experience was only a small beginning compared to what the Church of the New Testament found to be the earth-shaking difference that the resurrection of Christ meant. One of those differences is discussed by Paul in Romans 4. There he explained the great doctrine of justification by faith. He used the example of Abraham. Abraham was given the promise of descendants who would be as many as the stars. But Abraham was an old man, and his wife Sarah was well beyond child-bearing years. Yet he believed the promise of God? Why? Because he believed that God could raise his old body, and give life through him and Sarah. That faith, says Paul quoting Genesis 15:6, was credited to him as righteousness. He was justified by faith in a God who can give life to such aged bodies as his and Sarah’s.
Then Paul goes on to say that this story of Abraham’s faith was not written just for him or for the people of Israel. We must have the same kind of faith that Abraham had in order for us to be given salvation. The faith that we have is also in a God who can raise from death to life. But in our case, it is the fulfillment of what was only promised to Abraham. For us, our faith is in the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Paul says that we believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.
Why does the resurrection of Christ and our faith in the God who raised Him from the dead give us justification? When the disciples saw Jesus dying on the cross, when they saw His body laid in the tomb, their hopes for salvation were dashed. As the two men from Emmaus expressed it, “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” Clearly there was no thought that Christ’s death was the very means by which God would save His people. But Christ’s death alone did not save and cannot save anyone. The question must be asked, “What did Christ’s death accomplish?” Christ’s death was to take away our sins. But only God can declare that our sins were paid for by Christ on the cross. The resurrection of Christ declared to all the world that God was satisfied with the death of Christ. It is the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead, and not simply that Jesus arose from the dead, that spells security for us. Our salvation is determined by the fact of the resurrection of Christ only because it was God who raised Him from the dead. That is why Paul says that we believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. The emphasis on God’s act in raising Jesus from the dead is absolutely crucial to our salvation.
Abraham believed in a God who raised his old body so that life could come, and Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Now you and I are to place our faith in the same God who raised Jesus from the dead. Our faith will also be credited to us as righteousness. This is why the resurrection of Christ is so important. Indeed, it is the heart of the gospel. Without this great truth, we would be of all men most miserable.
RAISED FOR OUR VICTORY
Why would the unthinkable—that Christ had not been raised from the dead—result in our being of all men most to be pitied? Romans 6 gives the second answer to this question when Paul speaks about the result of Christ’s resurrection in terms of our victory. Paul assures us that the resurrection of Christ means that we are born to new life. We are now able to live as victorious Christians.
Like the argument Paul used in Romans 4, his argument here in Romans 6 is also striking. He answers a common charge that was directed against the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It is that the doctrines of grace will be a license to sin. The argument goes along these lines: if a person believes that he is saved by grace alone, by the merits of Christ alone, what incentive will he have to live a Christian life? All incentives are gone. He will simply go on sinning with impunity because he knows that all his sins are already forgiven. The doctrines of grace are dangerous doctrines. Justification by faith alone apart from any good that we do will simply lead to a license to sin.
What is the answer to this attack on the doctrines of grace? The answer is the resurrection of Jesus Christ! The resurrection of Christ from the dead did something to us as Christians. What it did was very much like what Adam’s fall into sin did to all mankind. When Adam fell, all people became sinners. Adam’s corruption became our corruption. This was the case because Adam was the father of us all. Now Christ came into the world as the second Adam. He took the place of Adam in relationship to the people of God. In the same way that Adam’s act of sin became our act of sin, and his corruption became our corruption, so also Christ’s righteousness became our righteousness. His new life given to Him in the resurrection from the dead, became our new life as well. We who believe in Jesus Christ now have a new life that has been received from the resurrection of Christ. We cannot live the way we once lived because we are new people, a new creation.
The result of this new relationship wlth the resurrected Christ is what Paul says in Romans 6:11, “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” He is simply telling us that we have to believe that what happened to Christ in His resurrection has now happened to us through faith m Christ. His death is our death to sin and His resurrection is our resurrection to new life. It is a matter of faith. We must now live out of that reality, that relationship to Christ. We must be what we are!
But there is more. Not only does the resurrection of Jesus Christ mean that we are given His new life. It also means that we will never have to die. We do not have to be afraid of death or Satan or the grave. For if His resurrection is our resurrection, then His victory over death is our victory over death also. We do not have to be afraid of death and Satan. We are more than conquerors through Jesus Christ. This victorious life is going to be seen in the way that we live before the face of God. We will not be groveling and cowering before death and Satan. Nor will we be living in sin as if we have never been born again. This is why the resurrection of Christ is the most powerful event in the history of the world. This is why we will never be those who are most to be pitied!
THE GUARANTEE OF OUR RESURRECTION
Are we of all men most miserable? Not if “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” This is Paul’s third striking and persuasive argument why the resurrection of Christ has the most profound effect in the lives of God’s people. Not only does the resurrection of Christ affect our salvation and our victorious living, it also affects our future, our hope of the resurrection of our own bodies from the grave.
Paul’s argument in I Corinthians 15 has to do with one of the Old Testament feasts, the Feast of First Fruits. The first fruits idea is a beautiful and compelling symbol of Christ’s resurrection as the guarantee of our own resurrection. In Leviticus 23:10–12 Moses instructed the people regarding the first fruits. On the day after the Sabbath of the Passover week, the people were to bring the first sheaf of harvest to the temple. This sheaf was the first of their harvest. It was to be waved before the Lord, and then given to the Lord as an offering. It was a symbol of the entire harvest. In giving the first fruits God’s people were dedicating the entire harvest to the Lord.
This was done on the Sunday of the Passover week. That this has significance for the resurrection of Christ can be seen by the fact that Jesus arose from the dead on the Sunday of the Passover week. He died on the Friday when the lambs were slain in the temple for the Passover, andHe arose from the dead on the Sunday after the Passover. Certainly this is the fulfillment of the first fruits concept in Leviticus 23.
There was, however, another idea that was found in the first fruits. The believing Israelite brought his sheaf to the temple and dedicated his entire harvest to the Lord. But the first fruits idea was also God’s response to that gift of His people. When the people brought the first fruits to the Lord, He thereby guaranteed to them that the rest of the harvest would follow. There was a promise made by the Lord to His people that if they would bring the first fruits to Him, He would give them an abundant harvest. There is a reference to this in Malachi 3:10 where the Lord says, “Bring the whole tithe into my storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this, says the Lord Almighty, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.”
This emphasis is what Paul makes when he calls Jesus the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. Not only was Jesus the first who was raised from the dead never to die again. But He is also the guarantee that the rest will follow. There were certainly others who were raised from the dead. Jesus raised Lazarus and the son of the widow of Nain. But these people all died again. Jesus is the first fruits of those who will be raised. Christ’s resurrection represents all believers in the same way that the giving of first fruits of the harvest represented the entire harvest. Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee that all believers who have fallen sleep in Christ will also be raised from the dead. This is the blessed hope of believers. It is the reason why we are not of all men most miserable.
THANKS BE TO GOD!
What ought our response be, now that we see that we are not of all men most miserable? Not only does Paul lead us in the arguments to prove that we are not of all men most miserable. He also leads us in the response that we should make to this amazing message of the resurrection of Christ. At the end of the fifteenth chapter of I Corinthians, Paul writes, “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” We are able to give thanks to God along with Paul because, as he says, the sting of death is gone. It is hard to really believe that the sting of death is gone. We feel that sting so keenly when death strikes our home and family. How can we really believe that the sting is gone? The sting of death is sin, Paul tells us. What gives death its sting is sin. When sin is not forgiven, death is a terrible antagonist. It is an awesome enemy to be feared. But after Paul states that the sting of death is sin, he says, “But thanks be to God!” Why? Because the sting of death has been removed when sin has been removed. Death has lost its awesomeness. It is no longer the antagonist that it once was. The reason is our Lord Jesus Christ. He has taken our sin away, and thus removed the sting from death. Now the believer does not need to fear death, nor does he fear the sting of death.
It was the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ that has removed the sting of death. His sinless life, His atoning death, and His resurrection has made death to be the entrance to eternal life for all who believe in Him. That is why Paul can so triumphantly say, “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I wonder if we really believe this. We are so affected by the loss that we feel that it is difficult for us to really see what the Bible holds before us in such a passage as this. But that is what faith is all about. All of the people of God throughout the ages have had to live by faith, not by sight. That means that we live by what the Bible says and not by what we see all around us. When we live by faith in the great promises of God’s Word, we see that what Paul says here is absolutely true. We have the victory! The encouragement of the Word of God for us is, “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
Of all men most miserable? Nothing could be farther from the truth. We are rather of all men most blessed. Jesus Christ has risen from the grave and we are more than conquerors!
This article was written as a short series for The Banner and adapted for publication in this format.
Rev. Henry Vanden Heuvel, brother of Co-editor Thomas Vanden Heuvel, is pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Oak Lawn, IL.