1 Corinthians 15:1-10
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which 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 according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
They say, "The devil is in the details." That is not a theological proverb, but a description of the importance of the little things, the details. Something may look good on a broad overview, but trouble may lie deep in the details of the thing. Building plans work like that - looking pretty good in general, but the little details about material specifications and what-not can make a building a disaster waiting to happen. Computer programming is that way too. You can write a brilliant piece of program to do wonderful things, but those little details that you overlook - and everyone does it - cause malfunctions, computer hang-ups, program failures and other things which go by the generic title of "bugs". That is why a big part of programming is de-bugging the program - finding those overlooked details and fixing them before the program gets out to the public. Many of those program upgrades and patches your computer downloads each time you go on-line are the result of the failure of debugging to catch all of those errant details.
This morning, our Epistle lesson makes a similar point; only it is that the Gospel is in the details. Theologians write books, series of books, large compendiums of books about theology and the Gospel, but they are all writing academic and theoretical sorts of stuff. Don't get me wrong, many of those books are good and useful and even necessary, but the Gospel is so much simpler than all of that. The Gospel - and the Christian faith - is not some unifying theory or complex set of theological principles that require years of study to understand. The Gospel is, quite simply, the details. It is isn't hidden in them or drawn from the distillation of them, or reasoned out from them. The Gospel is the details. And that is our theme this morning - simply, "The Details".
Paul's words at the beginning of this Epistle are that he intends to share in writing the Gospel which he preaches. He clarifies that by saying that it is the very same Gospel which they heard from him, the same Gospel which they believed, and the same Gospel which saves them as long as they hold fast to the message that he has preached to them. He adds the caveat, "unless you believed in vain." That line has double edge to it.
The first edge - the first thought - that one could connect to this idea is from chapter 14, where Paul has assailed a number of faulty doctrines, such as the value of tongues-speaking among Christians and in worship, and women who try to assume the leadership of the church and become its teacher and pastor. He addresses these controversies, and then asserts that truth did not originate with them, and that if they, or anyone, cannot recognize that the teachings he is explaining have come from God, they are not to be recognized as Christians. So, "unless you believed in vain" can certainly be a reference to those who stubbornly hold to false doctrines, and thereby believe something, but not unto salvation.
The other edge of this phrase points to the critics of his teaching, those who espoused another Gospel and asserted that if anyone believed what Paul taught that they were deceived and lost forever. Even yet today, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, who espouse the faulty and false doctrines that the false teachers in Corinth were teaching two millennia ago, still brashly proclaim that anyone who foolishly believes the Gospel Paul teaches is so seriously in error that they forfeit eternal life - which the Mormons believe is almost impossible to do. So, Paul makes an object lesson of their claim, and tosses in "unless you believed in vain" as if to say, unless you think those false apostles are teaching you the truth and what I am teaching you is going to lead you to destruction.
The words were a challenge to the Corinthians -and to us - to make up our minds: is the Gospel what Paul preached, or not? Can we trust his words? Is this the truth of God's grace - or are those works-righteousness people right? What follows is that Gospel. And notice that it is all very precise, reality oriented, and detail laden. These details of history are "of first importance". "that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also."
Did you take note? The Gospel is all in the details. The history, real events in real time, is the saving good news. Christ, with all the truths and doctrines that this honored title carries with it, died for our sins. This is not about philosophy, but about a sacrifice for us. Someone died for what we have done - to rescue us - and that someone was Christ, the Anointed One, God's own Son. We have to fill in from our own learning that God came in the flesh. We must understand that Jesus did no sin so that this sentence of death did not belong to Him, but the confession of the Church is that this One did die, for us and in our place. Paul also says, "according to the Scriptures," which means, "just as the Scriptures of the Old Testament people prophesied that he would." To the time that Paul wrote these words, there were no "Scriptures" of the New Testament to report this. He wasn't saying that it is just as the New Testament says. Paul was saying that all of this Gospel stuff had been clearly prophesied in the Old Testament.
Not only did Christ die, but He was buried, just like any dead person would be, and then He rose from His grave on the third day, just as the Old Testament had promised that the Messiah would. And Paul didn't expect them to simply take him at his word about this resurrection. He adduced witnesses — the Apostles, that is, the original eleven surviving disciples — who had followed Jesus for years and would not be deceived or confused by hoaxer. He identified Cephas - that's "Peter" in Aramaic, transliterated into Greek. Then he spoke of the Twelve. There were only eleven still alive of the original group, but that was their name, as a group, just like the Three Stooges were still the Three Stooges even after Curly had died.
But the list of witnesses was not just a small group that might be persuaded to join in on some sort of deception. There were five hundred of those who had come to believe in Jesus during His ministry who saw Jesus alive after His death and resurrection. Not just 500, but five hundred at one time! Some of them had passes away - fallen asleep - by the time Paul wrote this twenty-five years later, but most of them were still alive to give their testimony - and perhaps some of those five hundred lived in Corinth and were part of the congregation who received this letter first! Five hundred people would make a good sized congregation today, but it was probably the entire Christian Church on earth on the day that they saw Jesus alive from the dead! Each of those 500 could confirm every detail of this Gospel. If it were not so, we would know, after all, you know how hard it is to keep a secret if any large group of people know it, right? Just think of leaks to the press. We don't know anything about this appearance, except these few words written here, but these words confirm the details.
Paul finishes up by reporting how James, the half-brother of Jesus finally saw Jesus - which accounts for how the brother who did not believe and did not understand while Jesus was alive became the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, and one of the early martyrs for the faith. And then He talks about himself. Everyone probably knew the story of the Damascus Road encounter and so He did not repeat it here. He humbly admits his late coming to the Gospel, and his horrible history of the persecution of the Church, but he does so to illustrate the marvelous grace of God. And that wonderful grace is part of the Gospel, too. It is shared here for those who think that they cannot be loved by God or accepted into his grace. Paul embarrasses himself with his own history so that those who think that they cannot come under God's grace can see how great a sinner and enemy of the faith God will re-claim and love. He can love and forgive even such a great sinner as you, or you, or me.
These are the details. It is not profound theology that we are called upon to believe, but that the Son of God took on human nature, and human flesh and blood for us. Then He kept the whole law of God for us, in our place, because we not only could not, but would not. Then He died a death He did not deserve - dying in our stead and paying the penalty for our sins. And we are called on to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and we have the record of a host of witnesses who saw it, and touched Him and talked with Him, who know He was dead, and know that He is alive again! We called on to believe these facts, these details, and just one other thing - that we who believe these details are saved by believing - and that salvation means that we, too shall rise from the dead, from our own graves, and shall live forever with Him.
This is not a course on some theory of atonement. There is no moral code laid out here. There is nothing more than these details, which teach us the love of God for us, and promise us that this death and resurrection and salvation are for us, too. Other "gospels" are no Gospel at all, Galatians 1:7. It is still the simple facts, the details of the case, and the promise of God which are our hope, and make up the Gospel which we believe. It is the simple gift of God. Simple enough for a child - and Jesus once said that he who does not enter the kingdom of heaven like a little child, he shall not enter therein. It is all in the details.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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