All in vain?
After noting that the gospel includes the news of Jesus’ resurrection, Paul begins to reason: “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (vv. 12-14).
The apostles are witnesses of the fact that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. It therefore makes no sense for anyone who believes the gospel to teach that there is no resurrection, because they have already accepted a message that proclaims a resurrection. If the message is defective at its core, it is pointless to preach it, and everyone ought to quit and go home.
And if the message is wrong, the apostles are liars: “We are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead” (v. 15).
But the problem becomes even greater than that. Paul points out another logical consequence: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (v. 17). The gospel message proclaims that Jesus died for our sins — but if the gospel message is wrong about his resurrection, then we have no reason to believe the other part of the message, that his death takes care of our sins. The message of resurrection is logically connected to the message of crucifixion. If one is false, the other is as well.
And if people die without any forgiveness, without any hope of living again, then it was pointless for them to accept the gospel: “Those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (vv. 18-19).
In this life, we run the risk of being persecuted for Christ. We give up the temporary treasures and pleasures of this world, but if this life is all we get, why should we give anything up? If we gave it all up for a message that wasn’t even true, we would be rightly ridiculed.
Jesus the first of many
But the gospel says that in Christ we do have hope for a future life, and it hinges on the resurrection of Jesus. Easter commemorates not only the fact that Jesus came back to life — it becomes a promise to us that we will live again, too. If he did not rise again, we have no hope, either in this life or the next. But he did, and therefore we do have hope.
Paul reaffirms the good news: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (v. 20). The word firstfruits is highly significant. In ancient Israel, the first grain to be harvested each year was carefully cut and offered in worship to God. Only then could the rest of the grain be eaten (Lev. 23:10-14). When they offered the firstfruits, they were acknowledging that all their grain was a gift of God; the firstfruits offering represented the entire harvest.
When Paul calls Jesus the firstfruits, he is saying that Jesus is a promise of a much greater harvest yet to come. He is the first to be resurrected, but he represents many more who will also be resurrected. Our future depends on his resurrection. Not only do we follow him in his sufferings, we also follow him into his glory (Rom. 8:17).
Paul does not see us as isolated individuals—he sees us as belonging to a group. But which group? Will we be people who follow Adam, or those who follow Jesus?
Things to think about
- Everyone who saw the resurrected Christ is now dead. Is their eyewitness testimony still good? (vv. 5-8)
- Why would anyone want to preach that there is no resurrection? (v. 12)
- Does the Christian faith have any value for life before death? (v. 19)
Author: Michael Morrison, 2006, 2013