Thursday, March 1, 2007

"Things that can never be compromised"

Gospel Basics
Steve Crouch

from a sermon
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
I Corinthians 15:1-8 [ESV]
Just about every local church in the world has problems. Churches have problems because people have problems, and churches are made up of people.
  • Some people have beliefs that aren’t supported by the Bible.
  • Some people live immoral lives, as if they weren’t Christians at all.
  • Some people are still influenced too much by a sinful world.
  • Some people can’t seem to put their old ways behind them and move on to maturity in Christ.
If you’ve read the two letters to the Corinthians, you know that the church in Corinth was that kind of church. Corinth itself was an immoral city, and the Christians found it hard to escape that influence. So chapter by chapter in these two letters, Paul went through each issue – at least the ones he had heard about – and said, “I hear that you have this kind of problem in your church: this kind of immorality, or this kind of heresy.” Mostly it was evil behavior that he had to deal with in that church. But he knew that behavior is determined by belief, whether good or bad. So the problem in Corinth was the same as in many other churches since then: bad theology that produces bad behavior.

Paul had an answer to bad theology, and that’s good theology.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul started out, “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you…” Paul had been to Corinth before, and he had taught these people the Gospel of Jesus Christ – you can read about it in Acts 18. These people had heard the Gospel, had believed it, and were saved. But now Paul found out that some things weren’t going well in the Corinthian church.

So in chapter 15, it’s back to square one, the basics of the Gospel. And you can sum it up in four main words: Christ died, he was buried, he was raised, and he appeared. That is more than four words, but in the original language, each of these verbs, these four things Christ did, is one word.

Not just anybody did these things, Christ did them. By saying “Christ” here, Paul was going back to the only real hope that this world has ever had. Pagan religions didn’t offer any hope or any future – their whole religion was not much more than trying to keep the gods happy so that the crops would keep growing. But the Jewish people had something real in their religion: they had hope for a future that God would give them when the Messiah came.

The Christian faith says that the Messiah did come, and he was Jesus. This was something tangible, a real flesh-and-blood person who people saw and heard. And this real person did things that were important to God. The Christian message is that because Jesus did these things, people can be saved from sin and death and have eternal life. Eternal life begins the minute you believe, and it changes your eternal future.

When you know that your future is settled in Heaven, you can face anything with confidence in God – and that means anything. The problems are still there, but you can handle them in a different way than you did before, because God is doing most of the handling. And because churches are made up of people, church problems are going to be handled differently too.

It all comes back to the basics of the Gospel message, the reality of what Jesus did. Does anybody remember a Gospel tract called The Four Spiritual Laws? Campus Crusade is still publishing that tract, and many Christians are still using it to share the Gospel. The basic Gospel message is summed up in four statements, each supported by Scripture. Here is a summary:
  1. God loves you and has a plan for your life.
  2. Sin separates you from God and his plan.
  3. Jesus died to pay the price for your sin and bring you to God.
  4. You can receive the gift of eternal life that Jesus offers.
Millions of people have heard that message, and millions have become Christians.

1 Corinthians 15 also has four basics of the gospel, and maybe we could call them “The Four Things Jesus Did.” These are teachings that you can’t compromise – you can’t change them, and you can’t ignore them. If you remove these, you don’t have the Christian faith anymore – you have something completely different. This is why in verse 3, Paul said that this is “of first importance.”

Another thing to see here is that these things aren’t just philosophical ideas, or even theological ideas – these are things that God did. The Christian faith is built on what Jesus did. These are historical events, and with one exception, there were eye-witnesses to prove it. So here they are:

First, Christ died. Now of course dying wasn’t the first thing Jesus ever did. But his dying is first in importance – he could never have saved us without dying. And of course saving us was the reason he did it: he died for our sins. The gospel says that he died so that we don’t have to pay the price of eternal death ourselves.

The next thing Christ did (according to the Scriptures) was to be buried – verse 4. All four gospels tell this part of the story – they all describe Jesus being buried in a tomb. The burial is important because Jesus really was dead. A burial is usually the last thing they do when someone dies – usually that’s the end of the story. Paul included the burial in his Gospel because it had to be absolutely certain that Christ really had died. If there is any doubt that he really died, then who is going to believe that he rose from the dead!

But he did rise again, after being dead for three days. That is the next part of the gospel – “raised on the third day,” in verse 4. Jesus established a new pattern of death followed by life, and the Bible promises the same thing for us. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we have promises, and we have hope. Perhaps God could have saved us just by Jesus’ dying, even without the resurrection. But how would anybody ever know about it! How would we ever understand that death is not the end! The proof is in the resurrection.

But again, suppose Jesus rose from the dead, and nobody ever found out about it. So the next part of Paul’s Gospel is that the risen Christ appeared to his followers. Verses 5-8 list several times that Jesus appeared to individuals and to various groups of people, and this list is not by any means complete. There were other times and other people Jesus appeared to, who aren’t mentioned here. Lots of people saw him alive after he was crucified, buried, and raised from the dead – lots of people, including Paul himself.

Now every time you read this Scripture, do you ever wonder why we usually say just “death and resurrection,” and don’t include the burial and the appearances? Well, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with “death and resurrection” as a good, accurate summary of what Jesus did for us. But for Paul’s purpose in writing 1 Corinthians, he wanted to make sure that his readers saw the whole picture.

So Paul’s teaching goes something like this:
  • Skeptic: “The Christians say that Jesus died, but did he really? Wasn’t it all a hoax?”
  • Believer: “Well, no, it wasn’t – he really did die. And the proof is: they buried him. They sealed up the tomb, and they even put soldiers there to guard it.”
  • Skeptic: “Okay, the Christians say that Christ rose from the dead, but how do we really know – there weren’t any eye-witnesses, nobody who actually saw him rise from the dead.”
  • Believer: “Yes, but he appeared to people, not once, not twice, but many times. Some of the people who saw him are still living – you can go and ask them.”
Here we have the essential facts of the Christian Gospel, based on historical events. And we also have details: supporting evidence that help us to believe that it’s all true.

And we do have to believe it’s true. These things really happened, and a real man named Jesus did them. Paul thought it was necessary to remind the Corinthian Christians, because this would help them to trust God better and to obey him better. By being absolutely sure of the facts of the faith, they could find God’s grace to overcome the problems they had in their lives and in their church. But of course it’s more than just “problem solving,” it’s the Kingdom of God, and eternal life.

We need this confidence too. You’ve heard the Gospel before, and you need to hear it again – and again. Remind yourself often what the basics of the Gospel are, the things that can never be compromised: that Jesus did all of this for all of us.

Thank God for helping us through our problems. But it’s more than that. Quite literally, we are staking our very lives and our eternal future on believing that it’s all real, and it’s all true.

Steve Crouch is the pastor of the Bay Area Seventh Day Baptist Church.
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