Simon Bowkett's Podcast

2. Facts for our Era of Anxiety - 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

January 15, 2022 Simon Bowkett
Simon Bowkett's Podcast
2. Facts for our Era of Anxiety - 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Show Notes Transcript

•        Introduction

I sat in a lecture given by a now departed but then very eminent Regius Professor of History in the Examination Schools building on High Street in Oxford listening to his very popular lectures on Edward Gibbon’s famous multi-volume history: ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’.

The lecturer was (I think it’s fair to say) a pretty eccentric old sort, turning up to the lecture on this occasion in a red bow tie with purple polka dots.

That was just about all that made his lectures entertaining but there was an exam on it at the end of the term, so I went.

On this occasion as the lecture rolled on in almost terminally tedious monotony, the learned Professor stopped in full flow, peered over the top of his glasses and said: ‘Gentlemen …’ (the university has been taking in ladies for decades but the old chap hadn’t kept up) ‘I wish you to know that the best attested fact in the ancient world is that Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead’.

And then he carried on immediately where he’d left off.

He was attesting the resurrection as a fact, but whilst that is crucially important, our concern in our current series on hope for our anxious age is much more to do with the relevance and significance of this fact.

But for there to be any relevance or significance there must BE that fact.

It must BE a fact.

So … IS it?

Here’s what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:1-10:

“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

 

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

 

9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.”

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Scripture teaches us that it matters crucially for any sort of Christian hope that this should be true.

So our big question for today will be: is it?

Let’s look at that.

         •        Christianity - A Historical Faith

Now, of course, you’d expect a historian like the old Regius Professor I mentioned to get wrapped up in the historical aspect of Christianity, just as you’d expect a scientist to get wrapped up in the scientific ones and so on.

But it is of the essence of Christianity that it is a historical faith because Christianity isn’t based on an idea or an ethos (although ideas and values follow, of course) but it is based on a historical person Who lived a human life, then died a particular sort of death at a particular point and time in human history … and then rose from the dead in a way that is historically unique … in order to tackle the biggest and most fundamental issue that has characterised the whole of human history.

Death.

Christianity is a historical faith that has historical consequences in the present, and that are being laid down in human lives in a way that shapes the history of our times.

It is a historical faith not a philosophy.

        •          The three central, hopeful features of this Biblical faith are, arguably, three-fold:

           •          The empty tomb

           •          The resurrection appearances

·       The Changed lives of the followers of the resurrected Jesus

But first let’s take a moment to look at …


            •          The weight of the historical testimony

Peter J. Williams in his book ‘Can we Trust the Gospels’ lists all those occasions that the post-resurrection Jesus is recorded as appearing.

I counted at least thirty-eight attested sightings in his list.

There are named eye-witnesses there cited, who were people living at the time the written records were in circulation … and often the appearances were to crowds of people not just one person at a time.

He appeared to people 

·       in Judea,

·       in Galilee, 

·       in town and 

·       countryside,

·       indoors and 

·       outdoors, both 

·       by and without prior appointment, 

·       close-up and 

·       at a distance, 

·       sitting, 

·       standing,

·       eating, 

·       walking and 

·       ALWAYS talking.

Peter J. Williams … who I have met a few times and even had breakfast with once (it was at a conference!) … seems to have a brain the size of a bus and he arrives at this conclusion of the matter:

“It is hard to imagine the pattern of appearances … in the Gospels and early Christian letters without there having been multiple individuals who claimed to have seen Jesus risen from the dead.”

(Can we Trust the Gospels’, pp.134-135)

This all adds up to a whole lot of reasons that the historicity of the resurrection stands the test of time.

And it HAS been tested over time!

Famously a journalist called Frank Morris set out to write a book debunking it, and found himself almost compelled into faith … leaving him writing in the end a book called: ‘Who Moved the Stone?’

We’re saying Christianity is a historical faith, and it is also a reasonable faith …

         •        Christianity - A reasonable faith

What I’m trying to illustrate here is that, although by far the majority of us human beings have a tendency to be social and oral learners (rather than book-ish types committed to logic-chopping), the Christian faith is for all of us a reasonable faith, requiring us all to be willing (each in our own way) to think it through.

It’s got thinking, and it’s got sound thinking going on in it.

Now that is not to say that it has not been rationally questioned, but that it stands up well to rational questioning … and standing up well to that is what make it reasonable.

Firstly, then, it has been …


            •          A rationally questioned faith

The implication of a convincing resurrection would be that we need to change our lives around a bit in response to the One Who taught us the things it demonstrates.

Jesus actually said that about it from the outset of His ministry in Mark’s Gospel … but we’ll come back to that by the end.

The fact that it calls for action and for change means that people who don’t like the sound of that action or change will challenge it! 

So, in establishing that what Christians believe about the resurrection and the hope it brings to our Age of Anxiety, let’s just notice first that this resurrection-based Christianity has been questioned.

There have been a number of very similar strands in that questioning …


            •           ‘It is a much later legend’

There’s been this idea going around during the last part of the last century that the resurrection was a much later legend either cooked up or shipped in from some other culture or belief system.

Our text in 1 Corinthians today bears clear witness against this view.

Here’s why.

Verses 3-7 are considered by most New Testament scholars as being Paul citing an early Christian summary of the faith used all around the Mediterranean by the early church … already in widespread use when Paul wrote.

1 Corinthians was written only 15-20 years or so after Jesus’s crucifixion, which leads the New Testament scholar Jimmy Dunn to conclude we can be entirely confident this summary in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 “was formulated … within months of Jesus’s death.”

Almost instantly thousands of people were worshipping the newly risen Jesus as Lord and God (and Acts 2:41 describes people doing just that).

It wasn’t a much later legend.


            •           Only a ‘spiritual’ resurrection

In our verses Paul also says that people saw this Jesus physically raised ‘on the Third day’ which rules out a second theory which propounds that the followers of Jesus did not see the resurrected Jesus with their eyes but only experienced His continued presence with them ‘in their hearts’.

In vv. 3-4 Jesus’s resurrection is given a point of historical reference ‘according to the Scriptures’ (which prophesied this bodily resurrection) and a time reference ‘the third day’ … an actual physical event with an actual ‘time stamp’ on it.


            •           ‘It was a hoax’

Well, this doesn’t stack up either because there are literally hundreds of witnesses referred to in vv. 5-8 … none of whom came forward as resurrection-denying whistle-blowers across the decades that followed and many of whom actually gave their lives rather than deny it.

As Josh Mc. Dowell puts it, ‘why would they die for a lie?’

Hundreds of people bearing corroborating testimony, referred to in publicly circulating documents within the life-time of people being cited as eye-witnesses of Christ’s physical resurrection (walking, talking, touching, eating fish together) then ultimately laying down their lives because they were convinced of Christ’s physical resurrection and not willing to deny it … it’s a bit of an ask to expect us to believe this was all a hoax.

This next common objection isn’t very politically correct …


            •           Ancient people were gullible

It’s the objection that says in some form or another ‘Ah yes, but ancient people were just naturally gullible’.

Credulous.

Superstitious.

Well up for myths, and stuff.

Now I have to say, that’s an odd one.

In our passage of Scripture Paul is writing to provide evidence, as if his readers would be reluctant to believe in the resurrection without good evidence.

In fact what Paul does is argue strongly that they should believe this with the evidence of many named and referred to eye-witnesses of the resurrection and then saying persuasively: “After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living”

Why did he say that?

He wouldn’t need to do THAT if his readers were so gullible!

He is inviting his readers to seek those folks out and check their eye-witness testimony, which presupposes they aren’t going to believe it just because Paul is asking them to!

Paul KNOWS that they won’t believe this easily, so he is making the case here most persuasively. 

That’s the point.

He is not calling for a leap in the dark, he is rationally supporting Christ’s hope-giving historical and physical … bodily … resurrection.

And he’s doing that because they’re persuadable, but not gullible.

We could go on like this showing that this Christian faith in Christ’s bodily resurrection has been researched and examined pretty well over the years and come out of it convincingly, but let’s finally wind this point up by looking at this last one … the contention that the disciples believed in the resurrection because they - quite simply - WANTED it to be true.

 


            •           It was wish-fulfilment

It’s been argued that believing this was simply wish-fulfilment.

The thing is, the first-hand accounts seem to be describing the first eye-witnesses of the resurrection being slow to believe the things they were seeing, and being SHOCKED to see that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

They weren’t expecting this to happen at all.

Tom Wright in his ‘The Resurrection of the Son of God’ sets out lengthily that both Graeco-Roman culture and first century Judaism had strong assumptions that would make the idea of bodily resurrection hard to accept.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day (who believed there WOULD be a resurrection at the end of the age) believed in the principle of an end-time general resurrection, but the idea of an individual resurrection BEFORE the end of history … whilst evil, sin, suffering and death continued as before … was really not compatible with what’s called ‘Second Temple Judaism’ … the ideas of Jews in the time of the Lord Jesus.

You can read about that in N. T. Wright’s ‘The Resurrection and the Son of God’ (Fortress Press 2003) vol. 3 pp. 81-84.

So what WAS Paul’s argument supporting Christ’s resurrection?


            •          A historically reasoned faith - The Bible makes the case

You can see the resurrection has been a rationally questioned article of Christian faith.

But it has been and still is also an historically well-reasoned article of faith.

And that’s been Paul’s habit throughout his ministry … TO ‘WELL-REASON’ THE FAITH AS HE PRESENTS IT to his hearers, whether full-on pagans or Christians in local churches.

Let’s just take two examples to demonstrate …


            •           Paul amongst Kings

When his life was on the line, Paul made the proclamation of the resurrection his priority.

So, in Acts 26 Paul was under interrogation by King Agrippa and this guy Porcius Festus.

Porcius Festus was the procurator of Palestine who succeeded Felix; neither the beginning nor the end of his rule (at his death) can be determined with certainty, although he appears to have died in office after about two years. 

The Emperor Nero recalled Felix in A.D. 57 or 58, and Festus was appointed to his vacant office in A.D. 57, 58, or 59. 

According to the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus (Ant. 20.8.9-10 [20.182-188]; J. W. 2.14.1 [2.271-272]), his administration was better than that of his predecessor Felix or his successor Albinus, but Luke in Acts portrays him in a less favourable light: He was willing to sacrifice Paul to court Jewish favour by taking him to Jerusalem for trial (see 25:9), regardless of Paul’s guilt or innocence. 

The one characteristic for which Festus was noted is that he dealt harshly with those who disturbed the peace.

King Agrippa was Herod Agrippa II (A.D. 27-92/93), the son of Herod Agrippa I (see Acts 12:1). 

He ruled over parts of Palestine from A.D. 53 until his death. 

His sister Bernice was widowed when her second husband, Herod King of Chalcis, died in A.D. 48. 

From then she lived with her brother.

It was an irregular situation.

In an attempt to quiet rumours of an incestuous relationship between them, bernice resolved to marry Polemo of Cilicia, but she soon left him and returned to Herod Agrippa II. 

Their incestuous relationship became the gossip of Rome, according to Josephus (Ant. 20.7.3 [20.145-147]).

Now, the visit of Agrippa and Bernice gave Festus the opportunity to get some internal Jewish advice. 

But they were not really very upstanding people.

And it says a lot that as far as Porcius Festus was concerned, Herod Agrippa II was a trusted adviser because he was known to be very loyal to Rome.

What I am trying to show you is that Paul was in very ruthless and sin-darkened hands with this lot, but that for Paul, proclaiming the resurrection was worth risking your life for … it was more important than life to him, possibly of course because it was life to him.

So while he was there in front of these dead serious and very heavy guys Paul goes straight from his formal introduction to his address in his own defence to say:

“And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today. 7 This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. King Agrippa, it is because of this hope that these Jews are accusing me. 8 Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?”

(Acts 26:6-8)

It is SO outstanding Paul does this that halfway through his address Festus bursts out at him (Acts 26:24):

““You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”

Now, Paul’s defence against that is very significant:

Firstly he defends his assertions:

““I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. 26 The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.”

 

Paul defends the truth and the reasonableness of his preaching Christ’s bodily resurrection and the idea that Jesus should then be alive to approach and commission Paul personally for his ministry (he describes what happened to him on the Damascus Road).

True.

Reasonable.

And then Paul brings in Herod Agrippa.

Herod was the ruler of Palestine and therefore knew all too well the facts surrounding the resurrection because he’d had to deal with it all, and Paul takes the message right TO the heart of the other guy listening in the room who he has reason to believe may be more open to the message … ‘King Agrippa’:

“The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”

 

Well no, of course it wasn’t done in a corner, Agrippa well knew that Gethsemane’s tomb was open for viewing!

Paul is NOT afraid to share this gospel directly with the powerful, arrogant and deeply lost …

 

28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

Do you notice who it is that raised THAT possibility?

Agrippa’s comment reveals that no doubt he was feeling the heat of the implication of what Paul was saying, and that this was very much in Agrippa’s mind!

29 Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”

Paul is asserting the truth of the resurrection and its reasonableness as an explanation from the observable phenomena.

And Paul works that through more fully - showing as it were his ‘rough work’ in 1 Corinthians 15.


            •           Paul amongst Corinthians

Now, Paul does in a logical form in our text in 1 Corinthians 15 exactly what he does in story form in his interaction with Festus and Agrippa.

He has there and here two main arguments for the resurrection:

-        Firstly that the tomb was empty and 

-        Secondly that a very great number of people testified that they had seen the risen Jesus (and like Paul, bore living witness to the impact that meeting the risen Jesus had made on them).

-        Incidentally, the third main point about the resurrection changing lives is implicit in Acts 26 with those notorious sinners but explicit towards the end of what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15

 The key points that Paul makes are these …

 


            •           The tomb was empty

First off the bat, in our passage and throughout his ministry, Paul insists on the historical, physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

No ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’.

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures …”

Firstly, there is a statement of the PRIORITY of this truth amongst all Christian truths.

It is ‘of first importance’.

Grk “among (the) first things.”

You can’t shilly-shally about this, says Paul … primary importance attaches to this.

There’s no wriggle room.

Secondly, there is a clear statement that this is precisely as prophesied … it was according to the Scriptures.

Peter emphasises this in the first sermon in the Church on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:27, quoting Psalm 16:8-11, and that same quote turns up again in Acts 13:35 as a major plank in Paul’s sermon in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch.

Christ died and was dead.

Thirdly there’s an unequivocal statement that He was buried.

In those days once people were convinced a person was dead they were interred.

Notice who was certifying death for the Lord at the Cross.

It was a centurion from a legion that had seen active service, present at the crucifixion, well-acquainted with the practice of that gruesome execution and answerable with his own life ifs he didn’t carry the sentence on the condemned man through to its intended conclusion.

The Lord’s death was confirmed by piercing his chest cavity with a spear and His sentence was not only carried out but expertly verified by people whose lives were at stake if they got it wrong.

It’s pretty safe to conclude they had done the job diligently before handing the body over to Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who committed the Lord’s body to the garden tomb.

And then Jesus was dead in the tomb for three days … after which it was thought that there could be absolutely no coming back from there.

Fourthly, on a stated day Paul makes plain Jesus did the unexpected and unprecedented fundamental thing nobody was expecting.

He didn’t rise in the general resurrection at the End of the Age which some Jews were anticipating, but He defeated sin and death and hell ‘on the third day’.

That is, bringing death-defeating resurrection to the here and now.

This is, therefore, understandably described as being of first importance … because the last enemy of mankind was NOW defeated.

But it didn’t stop there … this wasn’t just the theft of a body because from that point folks started to meet Jesus again.


            •           He appeared to US

“and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

Here’s the great mass of human testimony to the resurrection Paul appeals to as the rational and reasonable foundation for believing the resurrection was factual … all referred to in a public document circulating within the lifetime of eyewitnesses and not successfully refuted by the sceptics of the time.

But please notice this.

It isn’t an empty tomb that’s being witnessed, so much as serial public meetings with the Risen Lord Himself.

That was the key to it.

The resurrection was evidenced by widespread fellowship in all sorts of walks and experiences in life with the Risen Lord HIMSELF.

The resurrection is NOT about a tomb.

The Resurrection’s about the life-giving Lord.

If we had only the empty tomb, people might be able to sustain the argument that the resurrection was actually a hoax, that the body had been stolen (or whatever).

And if we had only the testimonies then we might possibly have been able to try and argue it was all a fantasy … some psychological wish-fulfilment or something.

Keller: “Together, however, they give evidence that something extraordinary happened.”

The burden of proof moves to the other side of the argument … which must now prove ITS case … given that the tomb was verifiably empty and hundreds of living souls with radically changed lives and values testified to having their lives revolutionised by meeting the living Lord Jesus.

 

Now, crucially, here’s the third thing that gets emphasised about the resurrection - this central feature of the Christian hope in Paul and across the face of Scripture …


            •           He CHANGED us

He, says Paul, radically changed me:

“I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.”

Three times in Acts, when on trial for his life, Paul testifies to his meeting with the risen Jesus and the changes it made in him - in Acts 9, Acts 22 and Acts 26 - and so also here:

“… I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”

(1 Corinthians 15:9-10)

So (in conclusion, then) here’s the thing …

         •        Christianity: A faith that works - A perennially life-changing fact

The resurrection changes people.

Inwardly.

And then outwardly.

From the inside out.

Now, to meet somebody famous can be a life-changing event.

A really special occasion.

But to meet the risen Lord initiates an everyday fellowship and close walk with the living God and that experience is totally life changing day by day.

And the key to it is the shift from being your natural, default-setting Pharisee (a rules-based order and attitude to life) to living daily in the love and grace of your God.

And as Paul says - here’s the norm: 

“… his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me …”

It is receiving His love and mercy – His grace – not learning His Laws and trying harder that makes the change in us.

But more than that.

It’s knowing and walking with the Risen Lord Who is all grace to us, and who draws us after Him on into eternal Glory.

That is the life of the Christian, and it brings to us the hope of the Christian … the hope and assurance of eternal life in our paradise restored.

But please notice these initiate in Paul and everyone else a truly changed life.

Meeting that risen Lord brings the dawn of grace in the soul and that dawn brings about a life of loving service in the Kingdom of God … the intuitive response of saved souls to such love from their God.

The consequence of the resurrection is that Christ’s ministry is supremely attested so Mark 1:15 must now apply … the Kingdom of God which restores all things ruined in Eden has been inaugurated on earth, the King is here and we fall in behind to follow Him forward towards where He has gone ahead, and the outcome is a life of fellowship with the Risen Jesus on the Way that leads onwards into Glory.

BECAUSE … please note because … He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

And there’s the historical, reasonable questioned but substantiated hope held out in the Christian faith to our Age of Anxiety.

It is absolutely crucial if we want to bring Christian hope to our world to insist on the historical, reasonable, substantiated physical resurrection of Christ from the dead.

It’s not only the absolute truth.

It is a thoroughly life-changing truth.

So let’s be sure not only to hold it, but also to walk in it.