Sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 by Johnathan Arnold
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, we read the most comprehensive biblical passage on Jesus' resurrection. To be a Christian, one must believe that Jesus actually, literally, physically rose from the dead, so Paul points to eye-witnesses, most of whom were alive when Paul wrote the letter, to encourage us that there is historical proof to back up our belief. Believing in the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus is not ignorant or anti-science. In fact, we teach things in our history books that are supported with less evidence.
Now, we could spend a lot of time on that fact — and we will look at some of the specific proof that Paul offers to back up the resurrection, because it’s in the passage at hand — but since most of us already believe in the resurrection, I want us to focus on the point that Paul makes in verses 1-3: he says that the resurrection of Jesus is part of the gospel that he preached. It’s not an add-on.
The Message (v.2-4)
In any one given week, you may hear a hundred different messages. People all over want our attention. They want us to listen to their cause. Some messages are worth listening to. Some are even vital, like the pro-life message. Sometimes, we need to give our attention to many messages on a regular basis. But almost always, we end up listening to one message more than another, because we feel it deeply. When we hear and buy-in to a message, it motivates action.
What books will you read? Whom will you follow on Twitter? What videos will you watch? What podcasts will you listen to? What will you make the topic of your most heated conversations? How will you spend your time? What will you do with your money? It all depends which message is most important to you.
In verse 3, Paul writes, “I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received.” The words “first of all” mean “that which is of first importance.” In other words, “I passed on to you the most important message of all — the one that had also been passed on to me.”
The Good News about Jesus is the most important message of all.
Paul is clear that He isn’t peddling the gospel. He wants us to think deeply about the message and be sure this one message is the first message on our lips, in our minds, and in our hearts. If we miss this, we’ve missed everything. It’s the gospel message. The Good News about Jesus is the message of first importance.
Now, verses 3-4 are incredible. Highlight them, make a bookmark — whatever you have to do. These are verses you will want to go back to, because at some point, someone is going to ask you, “What do you believe?”
What will you say to that person? Or, what will you say when you are passing out fliers in the community and telling someone about the church where you attend, and he or she asks, “What does your church believe? What do they teach?”
If you want the perfect answer — if you want to nail it — turn to 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.” It’s short. It’s to the point. It’s powerful. It’s beautiful. We really can’t improve on it. That’s our message! The Son of God is our sin-bearer. He died and was buried, but He is victorious over the grave!
Unpacking the Message
Paul states in verse one that this is the gospel he preached to the Corinthians. And this is the same message that you and I are entrusted to pass on to others. This is the message that God intends for our church to deliver.
Now, how are we going to ensure that our message is heard?
We need to recognize that whenever we say anything, we make certain assumptions. The most basic assumption we make surrounds the words that we use. Someone who has never stepped foot in a church in his or her life may have no idea what “sin” is or why this guy Jesus would need to die 2,000 years ago because of it. Our message is simple, but we need to make sure that our audience understands it in the same way that we do — the same way that the Bible teaches it.
Let’s break down each idea in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 in their logical order. If we do that, we will be able to explain it to others so that their understanding of our message is consistent with what the Bible teaches.
Our message is simple, but we need to make sure that our audience understands it in the same way that the Bible teaches it.
First — “our sins.” Christ (whoever that is — let’s assume we don’t know) died for our sins. So sin must be a pretty big deal.
If I were explaining why sin is such a big deal, I might say something like this: “The Bible teaches that we were created by a loving and perfect God. He created you and me on purpose. He has a plan for us. He gave us the Bible to show us how to live. But we have ignored God. We’ve lived the way that we want to live. We’ve broken his commandments. This is called "sin." God takes this very seriously. God is offended. And just like when we break the laws of the county or country, there is a penalty. Romans 6:23 says that the penalty for sin against God is death. This penalty must be paid.”
People will never understand why Jesus had to die unless they understand that they should have died. And they will never understand that they should have died unless they first understand the seriousness of sin. So when Paul says, “Christ died for our sins,” he knows that his audience is already aware of these truths.
Second — “Christ died.” We’ve established that sin is serious. Sin has a penalty. Now Jesus enters the picture.
If I were going to continue explaining the gospel to someone, I might say something like this: “Although we deserve to face God’s judgment, God is also very loving. He sent His perfect Son, Jesus, to die in our place. Jesus died on the cross, paying our penalty. What should have happened to you and me — that happened to Jesus.”
This is what we call the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ. Those are some big words, but they are fairly simple when you break them down:
Penal — the penalty of the law,
Substitutionary — paid by Christ in our place,
Atonement — getting us back into a right relationship with God by His death.
This is what Paul touches on when he says, “Christ died for our sins.” And at a very, very basic level, we need to share this with others: “We have broken God’s law. We deserve to die. But Jesus died for us. And since the penalty has been paid, there is no longer anything standing in our way of being right with God except for our willingness to turn from our sins and believe in what Jesus has done.”
We often stop with the fact that Jesus died for our sins and invite people to be saved, but this leaves people with an incomplete picture.
At this point, we often stop with the fact that Jesus died for our sins and invite people to be saved. But in Paul’s mind, this leaves people with an incomplete picture. He sees the resurrection of Jesus as a key component to the gospel. And if you are following along in 1 Corinthians 15:2-3, you’ll notice that this is the final part of the message.
We speak much of the death of Jesus and little of the resurrection Jesus, when in fact the resurrection is essential because it is the proof and power that confirms everything else is true. If Jesus had died and stayed dead, he would have been like all of the other prophets. He would be just like Muhammed, and we wouldn’t be able to follow Him as the Son of God and Lord of all. So with that in mind,
Third — “he was buried, and…he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.” Jesus was actually dead when he actually rose from the dead. Now, in case you didn’t know, this defies one of the most basic pieces of information that we all have: dead things stay dead. Dead things don’t come back to life.
We need the Holy Spirit to invigorate our hearts once again to appreciate the wonder that the power of Almighty God raised His Son from the grave. And when we really believe this, we will be like the disciples. Acts 4:33 says that “with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.... And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all.” They knew Jesus was dead. And when they saw Him alive, it changed everything. Let’s not forget this key component to the gospel.
Christ proved that His words were true by performing the most incredible miracle of all—rising from the dead. People can’t ignore a message like that. They have to confront the truth on the page. Either Paul, and all of the disciples, and all of the eye-witnesses were liars and deceivers, or Jesus is Lord!
We speak much of the death of Jesus and little of the resurrection, when in fact the resurrection is the proof and power that confirms our message is true.
People will come to a crossroads where they have to accept Jesus is Lord or reject the truth and walk away. Some will listen and want to know, "What should we do with a message like this? How should we respond?" Paul alludes to the answer in verses 1-2: “I declare unto you the gospel…which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you.”
So, how are we saved? How do I know that the death of Jesus on the cross covers my sins? Paul says: “Receive the Word and hold fast to it. Keep it in memory — in other words, allow it to penetrate your heart so that it becomes your supreme treasure. Don’t believe in vain!”
In other words, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” (Romans 10:9). By sincerely repenting of our sins and clinging in faith to the gospel message, we are born again — we experience a resurrection in our hearts. Through His Spirit, the Living Christ lives in our hearts.
Whenever we share our message — the gospel message — we must walk people from sin and its penalty, to Christ and his death, to the resurrection and its evidence of His Lordship.
The Confirmation (v.5-8)
In verses 5-8, Paul uses what we might refer to as “apologetics” to confirm and drive home these key points of the gospel message, specifically about the resurrection. Let’s walk through them then conclude with Paul’s final thoughts in verses 9-11.
Verse 5: “He was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve.” Cephas is another name for Peter, the disciple who walked on water and denied Jesus three times. And the twelve refers to the other disciples of Jesus as a unit. We should view verse five as the inner circle of Jesus-followers.
After the death of Jesus, this inner circle was thrown into doubt, confusion, and fear. Imagine what it would have been like for them. They didn’t yet understand the words of Jesus that he would die and rise again. They fled and went into hiding. They wondered… "Have we forsaken our families and our fishing business and followed him for these many months in vain?” Of course, we know the rest of the story. These scared, timid fishermen went on to turn the world upside down with their bold preaching. They faced torture and death because they refused to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. What had made the difference? They had seen the Lord. They knew He was risen and nobody would convince them otherwise.
In Acts 3:15, Cephas — Peter — preaches and over 3,000 people are saved. This was his message: “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this” (ESV).
Scared, timid fishermen went on to turn the world upside down with their bold preaching.They had seen the risen Lord and nobody would convince them otherwise.
Now, look at verse 6: Paul goes from the inner circle to a much larger group of eye-witnesses. “He was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.”
Think of that! Jesus appeared to a crowd of around 500 people after his resurrection. If Paul was trying to dupe the Corinthians, he would never have penned these words. Most of these 500 people were still alive; thus, they could easily be contacted! Imagine a court case in 2018 where several hundred eye-witnesses all testified to seeing a murder. Do you think the murderer would have any chance of being set free? No way! The proof is overwhelming.
In the same way, Paul says: “Look — there is no question about whether or not the resurrection really happened. If you have any doubts, go to the hundreds of eyewitnesses who are still living and ask them yourself.”
Paul goes on in verse 7, “He was seen of James; then of all the apostles.” The James that is referred to is likely the brother of Jesus, and the apostles refer to certain church leaders who were credible and well-respected.
Finally, look at verse 8: Paul has been building up to his own testimony of seeing the resurrected Lord. He writes, “And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.”
The resurrected Christ appeared to Paul on Damascus road, and the incredible change that occurred in his life is proof that his testimony is true. He went from persecuting Christ-followers to leading them! Although he was born again later than the other apostles — “out of due time” — his witness adds to the mountain of evidence in favor of the resurrection.
It’s worth noting that Paul’s list of witnesses is not complete. There are the women who were the first ones to see Jesus. There is John, who saw Jesus in a vision and wrote about it in the book of Revelation. And so on. We know He is alive, indeed!
“So We Preach” (v.9-11)
Christ is with us! Christ is in us! Christ is Lord! And we too will be resurrected and live with Him forever. Paul concludes in verses 9-11 that he is unworthy of this incredible message, but because of the grace of God he is an apostle. According to verse 11, whether it is Paul or another apostle or someone at your church who passes on this message, there is only one gospel — the gospel of the resurrection. Mark Taylor puts it this way: “All gospel preaching proclaims the resurrection of Christ as a core component; otherwise, there is no gospel. To believe any other gospel is to ‘believe in vain.’”
We can rejoice with Peter who writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). We can exult with Paul, that “God hath both raised up the Lord, and will also raise up us by his own power” (1 Corinthians 6:14).