Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
As I was thinking and praying about which part of the Bible to preach on at this service, I read a short devotion that said a few words about the phrase “of first importance” that we read in v3. And the whole point of the devotion was that if something is described in Scripture as being of first importance then we better take note and consider what this means for the Christian life. And it seemed to me that the occasion of a New Year’s Eve was the perfect time to do exactly that. There are all sorts of things that we could usefully consider this evening and there are all sorts of good things that will place demands on our attention as 2016 unfolds, but let’s put right at the top of the agenda what the Bible describes “of first importance.”
And we do this under two headings as we simply consider the BIBLE’S story and then the BELIEVER’S story.
So first of all, the Bible’s story.
1. On Christmas Day, I preached here at Dovedale from Luke 2:1-7 and the account of Caesar’s decree about a census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem when the time came for the Lord Jesus to be born. And our theme for that service was HISTORY AND HIS-STORY. We noted the historical accuracy of Luke’s account and indeed the historical accuracy of the whole Bible. But we also noted that the Bible’s chief purpose is not to record history but to proclaim His-Story. Genesis to Revelation is the story of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the purpose of the history we encounter in the Bible is to proclaim His-Story. The Bible wants us to know about Jesus so that we might know and believe in Him as the Saviour we need.
2. And we have a prime example of that in the verses before us today. In ch. 1 of this book, the Apostle Paul mentions a report about the Corinthian congregation that he had received from “Chloe’s people,” and in ch. 7 of this book, Paul begins with the words, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote.” So he had either been told about or he was asked about the doctrine of the resurrection. And if you look down at v12, He asks the Corinthians, “How can some of you say that there is no resurrection from the dead?” So that was the problem that he was addressing in this chapter – the fact that some in Corinth were teaching that there is no resurrection from the dead. And there are many also today who would deny the resurrection also. So Paul wants to refute those who would deny the resurrection.
A. And we note in the first place that he does this with some HISTORY as we see in vv3-4, where He talks about Christ dying, being buried, and rising on the third day and there being over 500 people who saw the resurrected Jesus with their own eyes.
i. Jesus DIED. That is a historical fact. The Bible and secular historians of the time are unanimous in their agreement that there was a man called Jesus who was nailed to a cross on Calvary around AD. 30, just outside Jerusalem. His family saw this and their eyewitness reports are included in the Gospels. At least some of the disciples saw this and their eyewitness reports are included in the Gospels. Roman soldiers saw this. Jewish historians who utterly reject Jesus as the Messiah have written about the death of Jesus. Jesus died on the cross.
ii. But His BURIAL is another historical fact. He wasn’t just left unconscious on the cross and later revived; He was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimithea and the tomb was sealed and guarded by soldiers who were posted there by the orders of Pontius Pilate. Jesus was buried.
iii. And His RESURRECTION is also a historical fact. Well over 500 people saw the risen Jesus with their own eyes. And note what Paul says in relation to these 500 odd in v6, “Most of whom are still alive.” Paul wrote this letter around A.D. 55, just 20 odd years after Jesus rose from the dead. If any of these Corinthians were of a mind, they could have tracked down these brothers to ask them, personally, what they saw. The point here is that 500+ witnesses is as historically convincing as you can get.
a. Every now and then you hear about someone who denies the Jewish holocaust of WWII. Why do you think that is? Why do they deny the Holocaust? Is it because there isn’t enough historical evidence to support the holocaust? Not at all. They choose not to believe because of a religious or political ideology. The evidence is overwhelming, but they refuse to believe.
b. And the same is so with the resurrection of Jesus. The only reason people deny the resurrection of Jesus is their belief that resurrection is impossible. The evidence, however, is overwhelming. Jesus rose from the dead.
B. So that is the history in vv3-6. But now we need to consider HIS-STORY from these verses.
i. And Paul sets it before us in two ways – the first is with a phrase that he repeats twice. Can you spot it? It is “ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES” in vv3 & 4. Jesus’ death and burial and resurrection was necessary because it had been prophesied and promised and pre-figured in the OT. The sacrifices, the tabernacle and temple, the priests, the prophets, the kings, the poetry, the proverbs, the precepts; all of this pointed forward to and required the death and resurrection of Jesus.
a. On the day of Jesus’ resurrection, He appeared to two people on the road to EMMAUS. Do your remember that story? They were depressed because they had seen Jesus die and all their hopes for Him had been dashed. But Jesus, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets … interpreted to them in all the Scriptures (which means the OT) the things concerning Himself.” The Bible is His-story.
ii. But the essence or the purpose of His-Story is made even plainer with THREE SMALL WORDS that Paul uses in these verses. Do you know what they are? What are the three words in vv3-6 that help us see that we are not just talking about history here but His-Story? They are “FOR OUR SINS.”
a. Jesus did not just die and be buried and rise again – others in the Bible have died and risen again. Right boys and girls? The sons of the widows by the hands of Elijah and Elisha, the son of the widow of Nain, Jairus’ daughter, and perhaps the most well-known one of them all, Lazarus. But Jesus “died for our sins,” and Jesus rose to show that He had conquered sin and death. Jesus rose so that mankind would know that death is not the end – after death comes resurrection. And with resurrection comes the twin possibilities of eternal life with Jesus in heaven or eternal misery in hell. And eternal life may be gained by believing in Him for the forgiveness of your sins.
1) A moment ago I told you about Jesus’ meeting with the two people on the Road to Emmaus. Later that same day He also appeared to His DISCIPLES and said similar things about Himself and the OT. But listen also to the next words, “Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
b. The Bible is His-Story! And the Bible’s story is the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins.
c. I am sure that many of you have heard THE JOKE ABOUT THE SUNDAY SCHOOL CLASS where the teacher was trying to use an illustration to make a point. So she said to her young students, What is furry, has claws and whiskers, and makes a meowww sound? But no hands went up. So she asked them again saying that surely they knew what pet animal is furry and likes to sleep all day and hunt birds and has claws and whiskers and makes a meow sound? But still, no hands went up. So she asked Jenny who usually liked to answer what the answer was, and Jenny replied, Miss, it sounds like a cat but I know the answer to every question in Sunday school class is supposed to be Jesus??!! Well, Jenny’s answer is a humorous way of stating the truth we have been considering – the story of the Bible is Jesus who died and was buried and rose again for the forgiveness of our sins.
But what we need to see secondly and lastly is the connection between the BIBLE’S story and the BELIEVER’S story. And here we focus on vv1-3.
1. And the first part of the believer’s story is PREACH THE GOSPEL, as we see from the beginning of v1. If the Bible’s story, the story that is “of first importance,” is the death and burial and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, then it comes as no surprise that that was the gospel that Paul preached to the Corinthians. In 1 COR. 2:2, Paul puts it this way, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” The priority of Christian ministry then has to be the gospel of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.
A. So as 2016 lies ahead of us as Reformed congregations, what must be our priority? What must be heard from our pulpits and in our home visits and in our counseling sessions and as we speak to one another as members, again and again and again? The gospel of the death and burial and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins.
i. It has to be the interpretive key for our sermons.
ii. It has to be the evangelistic message of our sermons.
iii. It has to be the motivation for the call to holy living.
iv. And it has to be the hope that we have set before us again and again and again.
v. We have the forgiveness of sins by the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. By His stripes we — are —- healed!
B. So please pray for the ministers of your congregations, that they may preach what is “of first importance.”
2. So the first part of the believer’s story is preach the gospel. But the second part, as we see in v1, is RECEIVE THE GOSPEL. Paul preached the gospel and the Corinthians received it. And to receive the gospel means to believe that Jesus died and was buried and rose on the third day for the forgiveness of your sins.
A. So, HAVE YOU RECEIVED THE GOSPEL? There is no more important question as 2015 ends and 2016 begins: Have you received the gospel? Do you believe that Jesus died and was buried and rose on the third day for the forgiveness of your sins?
B. This is the second of three sub-points I want to make in connection with the believer’s story. But we could summarize the believer’s story with a statement of the Apostle Paul from PHILIPPIANS 1:21 where he says, “For me to live is Christ.”
i. Is that true of you? Is Jesus Christ your beginning and your end? Is Jesus Christ your hope? Is Jesus Christ your motivation and example? Is Jesus Christ sufficient for you? Does your joy and contentment depend on anything else other than Jesus Christ?
ii. Tell me, are you absolutely convinced that after this sermon we shall sing a song? You should be! But are you equally convinced that if you were to die on the way home tonight, you would see the face of the Lord Jesus welcoming you into heaven?
3. Well, the third and last part of the believer’s story, from v3, is to “STAND IN THE GOSPEL, BY WHICH YOU ARE BEING SAVED, IF YOU HOLD FAST TO THE WORD … PREACHED TO YOU.”
A. Now, Paul ends that sentence by saying, “Unless you believed in vain.” And just in case you are thinking that it sounds like true believers can LOSE FAITH AND FALL AWAY, let me assure you that that is not what Paul is saying here.
i. For a start, that would be INCONSISTENT with what is taught elsewhere in the Bible. In John 5:24, for example, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me HAS eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” Those God has elect unto salvation He brings to faith in Christ and causes to persevere in faith until they attain heaven.
ii. So what is Paul talking about here then? Well, take these CORINTHIANS as examples. Paul had proclaimed to them the death and burial and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. They had professed faith in Christ and been baptized. But now some were teaching that there was no resurrection from the dead. And as Paul spells out, the consequence of believing this is to deny that Jesus rose from the dead. So look at v14, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain,” and v18, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” If these Corinthians persisted in the belief that there was no resurrection, then they had not truly received the gospel. They had believed, outwardly, but in vain.
iii. A true believer, on the other hand, stands in the gospel and is saved by the gospel as he or she holds fast to the gospel allowing it to shape his or her life every day.
a. In MATTHEW 7, Jesus is talking about those who profess faith in God. But He then separates this group into two sub-groups – some of them enter by the narrow gate, others walk the easy way and go through the wide gate that leads to destruction. Some are sheep but others are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Some are healthy trees that produce good fruit but others produce bad fruit despite claiming to be good trees. Some say Lord, Lord, did we not do this and that in your name, but Jesus will say to them that He never knew them. And some build their house on the rock while others build their house on the sand.
b. Here (over on the left) is where the true believer receives the gospel of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus by faith alone and here (on the right) is the true believer being welcomed into heaven by the Lord Jesus. What we read here in 1 Cor. 15 and what we see from Matthew 7 is that there is one, small, narrow path between here and there – it is the path of the gospel; it is the believer’s story.
B. So having heard this, let me ask you again, HAVE YOU TRULY RECEIVED THE GOSPEL?
C. The Bible’s story is that Jesus died and was buried and rose again for the forgiveness of sins. Is that your story? Is your story the believer’s story? Are you “work[ing] out your salvation with fear and trembling”? Are you “by the Spirit putting to death the deeds of the body”?
D. Scripture reaches its goal and fulfillment and climax in Christ Jesus. And if your life is to have any purpose, your life also must have Christ Jesus as its goal and fulfillment and climax. You will not find a more complete answer to the big questions of life than Jesus Christ.
i. For in Him you are called, forgiven, adopted into God’s family, given gifts, given a mission, given an eternal hope, and loved with a love that is so vast you will need all of eternity to even begin to understand it while you enjoy it, endlessly.
My friends, may that be the comfort or the challenge that you take into 2016. Amen.
I am sure that some of you have noted that what we have spoken about as “of first importance” makes up a part of the words of the Apostles’ Creed. So by way of response to God’s Word, let’s demonstrate that we have received the gospel by confessing our faith in public as we recite these words together (p.6)