I am a preacher—and I think often about how disheartening it all seems (whether you are giving a sermon or getting one!) It really does seem like preaching is past its time—we have more efficient means of communication in a modern world. Maybe preaching really has become obsolete since there are many ways to get basic information about the truths of Christ without forcing people to get up and go to some place – like a church – and listen to someone drone on about how great it is to be a Christian.
Even so, Paul’s point in First Corinthians chapter fifteen, is weightier than musing about the need of preaching. In this verse, Paul uses a wonderful grammatical tool called a “conditional contrary to fact” that is meant to shock his congregation into reality. It is no different than using a cattle prod to sting the beasts into their proper stall. Paul is never meek nor mild when he gives the gospel. A “conditional” is a sentence with an “if…then” format. This sort claims that whenever the first “if-thing” is true, then the second “then-conclusion” necessarily follows: if the weatherman is right, it will snow tomorrow. But at this point Paul applies his cattle prod—the shock—that makes the first conditional into a great, big falsehood: “If Christ has not been raised…” if Jesus is still lying in the tomb with the stone over the opening and his death bandages still wrapped on him, if he is nothing but dry bones by now, if all we have nearby Golgotha is an empty tomb with no raised body, if the debt of the world’s sins is covered apart from the real resurrection of Christ, then our preaching is in vain. Christ has been raised from the dead and to preach otherwise is the ultimate lie.
No need for a word from the living God any more! In similar style, modern Christians try to tell themselves that if they just believe in the “cross” of Jesus, that is enough.
The fact that so many people want this falsehood to be true at first seems astonishing. Why do so many—especially Christians like those in Corinth—want Jesus to be un-raised? Who would ever want a dead God? Well, it turns out a lot of people want Jesus never to come out of his tomb, starting with Peter and Judas. Those two wanted Jesus dead in the worst way. Jesus out of the tomb—to “have been raised”—in the past tense, is their horror. Jesus knows every single bit of the betrayals of him, in detail. It is as if he has a journal with notes about every single thing said – or not said – that led to handing Christ over to his enemies to be cursed on the tree. Once you have a curse on the tree, you do not want him coming back. Even the ones who had less obvious betrayals did not want Jesus raised—like Thomas who finally had to wiggle his finger in the resurrected Jesus’ side, or Paul himself. Paul didn’t want the resurrected Christ either; in fact, his whole calling in life was to enter synagogues and ensure his fellow Jews discredited the rumors of Christ’s resurrection.
Some flee from the bodily resurrection while still trying to squeeze some meaning out of Christ. These we call gnostics and they crop up all over the place throughout all of time. They think that preaching is meant to hand over “secret” thoughts about how to become united with God. Gnostics ditch bodies – including Christ's risen body – with their desire to become immortal by having sudden, immediate visions of beauty, goodness and truth. No need for a word from the living God any more! In similar style, modern Christians try to tell themselves that if they just believe in the “cross” of Jesus, that is enough. If Christ’s cross is simply a payment for the debt of my sin to either his Father or the law itself, isn’t that enough? Why do I have to bother listening to a preacher tell me that on the third day Christ rose from the dead? But this tidy theorizing leaves out the essential fact that if Christ is not raised, he has fulfilled nothing and overcome nothing. If he has not been raised, there is no power against sin and no atonement between the sinner and God.
In fact, the resurrection of Christ was impossible to believe.
Paul knew that in any church and in any true preaching there were three words that make up the Gospel. These three are promises (of first importance):
1. that Christ died for our sins in accordance with Scripture
2. that he was buried because he was dead as a doornail
3. and that he was raised on the third day according to Scripture (1 Cor. 15:3-4).
Paul also knew that the hardest one to believe is not the 1) cross and not 2) the tomb—but 3) the resurrection. In fact, the resurrection of Christ was impossible to believe. That goes directly against the only things that make what we call “facts”: reason and feeling. It is actually not too hard to believe Jesus died on the cross (even though it is harder to think he did it for your sins). That addition gets personal and feels uncomfortable, but it is still do-able. It is also hard to think about Christ in his tomb because that means God himself died, which is a tricky thing to believe! It is even possible to believe that Christ descended into hell and was stomped on by Satan just like any old sinner—although that is also frightening to dwell upon.
Yet, what neither reason nor feeling allows at all is that the Father reached into his Son’s tomb and pulled him out. Why is it impossible to believe? Because we can use reason and feeling to grasp a death on the cross or even burial in a tomb, but we have never seen or felt an actual, real, complete resurrection from the dead. We have seen many deaths and many burials and they seem permanent. So our minds supply little illustrations that take the place of resurrection—like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. We can even imagine a man overcoming drunkenness and becoming sober, or a woman committing her life to God. What we can’t believe—because we have never seen it or felt it—is that on the third day, the Father raised him just by saying, “Come out my Son!”
Jesus Christ’s death – with your sins upon him and his burial in the tomb – are no help to you at all unless Jesus actually, really, factually, personally rose from the dead and came to say something to you.
At least at this point we could agree with Paul that if Christ were not raised – that is, in my own little theoretical, ideal, dream world (though in reality he was raised) – then preaching of any sort would truly be in vain. I prefer that old English word here: preaching would not only be “useless” but “vain”; like Solomon in his wisdom musing about the meaning of life: vanity, vanity, all is vanity! Especially preaching is vanity! Why listen to that junk over and over? Well let me tell you why preaching like that is not in vain: empty, useless, pointless, meaningless. It is because Jesus Christ’s death – with your sins upon him and his burial in the tomb – are no help to you at all unless Jesus actually, really, factually, personally rose from the dead and came to say something to you. A dead God can deliver nothing to you. No life, no salvation, no atonement can be yours unless the living God delivers them to you. He sent your preacher to you, in order to say to you what must be a direct, personal, in time-and-space, here-and-now word delivered to you and you alone: “I forgive you.” Without that word, you have no belief; you have no faith. In fact, there is no “you” except for a devastated prisoner left in a jail run by the devil (who plays lies all day long on a speaker system, or if you are lucky, on a video feed).
Thus, if Christ has not been raised – and only then – our preaching forgiveness to you is vain. That would make your forgiveness smoke and mirrors. It would then be a dream, which is the same as to say it would be a lie. If Christ has not been raised, you are forced to live in a fake world with fake faith in fake dreams. But! You will be happy to learn that Christ has, in fact, been raised from the dead! Wherever Jesus’ resurrection is preached, you will no longer live in fake-land. For the first time in your so-called “life,” you will be rushed into reality, and where there is reality, you will also be saved. Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation—which is a real, true, eternal life in which there is not one little speck of death.