1 Corinthians 15:12–19 (NKJV)
12 Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. 14 And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. 15 Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. 16 For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. 17 And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! 18 Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.
As readers of Scripture we are often tempted to go into auto-pilot and assume that we know what a text is saying without really paying attention. Consequently, we miss the point of the text.
Take the Scripture before us today. Many read our text and assume that Paul is arguing for the significance of Jesus’ resurrection. “Paul’s point is that Jesus really rose from the dead and that this is what guarantees our forgiveness.” And so we go on auto-pilot and move on to the next paragraph. But this is not Paul’s point. While Jesus’ resurrection is central to Paul’s whole argument, it is not Paul’s point. Jesus' resurrection is not under dispute; Paul has already asserted that Jesus' resurrection is central to the Gospel he preached.
So what is his point? His point is that all other human beings are going to rise from the dead. You see the Corinthians weren’t denying that Jesus had risen from the dead; they were denying that the rest of us would rise from our graves. Listen to Paul again: Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead [generally, at the end of history]? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen.
Notice that Paul is endeavoring to highlight the inconsistency of the Corinthians’ beliefs. If there is no resurrection at the end of history; if the dead will not be raised when Christ returns again in glory, then neither did Jesus rise from the dead. Why? Because Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee that every human being will rise from his tomb and stand before God. Jesus is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. So note Paul’s argument: if we deny the general resurrection then we must, of necessity, deny Jesus’ resurrection. And if we deny Jesus’ resurrection, then we are still in our sins and without hope. But Jesus has risen from the dead, therefore there will be a general resurrection. Paul's point is that the resurrection of the dead on the last day is a central part of the Christian faith; we believe, as the creeds remind us, in the resurrection of the dead.
In the modern American church we stand in dire need of re-reading Paul’s words here in these verses. We have gone on auto-pilot. We imagine that we can teach that Jesus rose from the dead and simultaneously teach that our ultimate destiny as human beings is to go to heaven when we die. But this is not the Gospel; this is not the Christian hope for the future; this is not the meaning of Jesus' resurrection. Our hope is that we shall emerge from our graves just like Jesus. So our confidence is that the bodies of those who have fallen asleep in Christ have not perished but that they do rest in their graves until the resurrection. We are not to be pitied; for we have not only in this life placed our hope in Jesus; there shall be a resurrection of the just and the unjust – Jesus’ resurrection is proof.
What Paul’s words remind us is that sins are not simply wrong actions; sometimes our ideas are sinful as well. We can embrace ideas that are erroneous and sinful. By denying the general resurrection, the Corinthians had embraced an idea that was poisonous to the Gospel. So when God in His grace and mercy shines the light of truth on our error and corrects us, corrects our thinking, what ought we to do? What ought the Corinthians have done? We ought to confess our error, ask God’s forgiveness for our folly, and rely upon the sacrifice of Jesus to make us right with God despite our erroneous ideas. Jesus is the sacrifice for our sinful ideas even as he is the sacrifice for our sinful actions. And praise God this is so.
And so reminded that our ideas are often sinful and dishonoring to our Creator, let us confess our sin to the Lord, seeking His forgiveness through Christ. Let us kneeel as we confess.