Learning it: Module 1 - Studies 1 and 2
Study 1: Unique relationship
At the time of Jesus, religion was a very formal affair. The relationship between God and man was, basically, one that was covered by hundreds of rules. There was a High Priest, other priests, servants of the synagogues and ordinary people. Each had a role to play and each person's role was covered by rules. God, the Bible tells us, instituted such a system because, apart from anything else, He wanted to show man that we are not willing to obey God's rules. He wanted to show us this in order to prepare us to accept the Saviour that He was to send - His One and Only Son Jesus.
These rules were collectively known as The Law, and there were people whose job it was to teach The Law - and Jesus had many debates and arguments with the Teachers of The Law. But in Galatians 3:25 it says, "Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of The Law." The Law, having achieved its purpose, is now set aside in favour of a personal and individual relationship with God.
This personal relationship, rather than one based on rules, was always what God intended. We see that in His dealings with Adam and Eve, where face-to-face fellowship with God was His intention. We can see it in Hosea 6:6, where God says, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings." And in Isaiah 29:13 God actually complains, "These people come near to Me with their mouth and honour Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is made up only of rules taught by men."
This idea of a personal relationship, one from the heart rather than merely external rituals, is one that is continued throughout the New Testament. And this idea carries with it the freedom for each person to be themselves, and to enter into a relationship with God that is unique to them - because each one of us is a unique person. We can see that in some ways in a family. There may be several children in a family and each will be equally loved by the parents; but the relationship that each child has, at any given time, with the parents will be different from each of his or her brothers and sisters. These different relationships will be caused by things like the gender of the child, the age of the child, the interests of the child, the personality of the child. The love is unaffected, and is equal; but the relationship is different, unique, and developing.
In Galatians 5: it says, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free" and one of the greatest freedoms that Jesus allows us is the freedom to just be ourselves. We are all different - far more different than the children in the illustration I gave earlier. We can understand the different relationships each of them would enjoy with their parents. Let us each enjoy our unique relationship with God, our Father; and let us encourage each other in each other's unique relationship with God. We are not governed by rules; we are not all the same - let's celebrate and be confident in our uniqueness and in our unique relationship with God.
Study 2: “As of first importance…”
Sunday after Sunday, Bible study group after Bible study group, countless Christians hear messages preached and taught throughout the year, year after year. It would be easy to get the impression, with this apparent need to receive endless teaching and instruction, that the Gospel of Christ is quite complicated. And in reality, there is a myriad of peripheral issues that Christians can debate indefinitely, and upon which they have a Biblically given freedom to hold their own viewpoint. Is infant baptism valid or not? Is it right to have women priests? When a person dies, does he go straight to heaven or fall asleep until Christ returns? Is it right for a divorced person to seek re-marriage in a church? Is there ever a case for abortion? Doctrinal issues and day-to-day issues eat away at the unity of the Church. People leave a church in search of another. Some leave and drop out of fellowship all together. New groups are formed. Confusion and disunity abound. The outside world looks on at a Church unable to love itself, let alone outsiders.
The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, outlines the things which are “of first importance” to the Christian, as individuals and as a Church. It is upon the issues which Paul covers in this passage in 1 Corinthians that there is no room for personal opinion. There is a need to hold to clear Biblical revelation and, as a Church, to unite around that revelation. It is upon the issues revealed in this passage that Christians should know what they believe and why they believe those things. The issues that Paul labels in 1 Corinthians 15 as being “…of first importance” are the very basics of the Christian faith. If the Church will only take hold of them, preach them and teach them, then far greater unity will be the result, a greater ability to evangelise will result, and Sunday morning services can concentrate on exalting the God who gave Himself for mankind, rather than on the perennial search for a new angle on a 2,000 year old, very simple story.
“…as of first importance...”
In the passage 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 there are six doctrinal issues which Paul raises. They are:
1. “…according to the Scriptures...” (verses 3 and 4) - doctrine must rest on Biblical revelation;
2. “...Christ died for our sins...” (verse 3) - Forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death;
3. “...raised on the third day...” (verse 4) - Christian justification;
4. “...He appeared to...” (verse 5) - the assurance of faith;
5. “...I...do not even deserve...” (verse 9) - undeserved grace;
6. “...His grace...was not without effect...” (verse 10) - empowering grace.
So, as an overview: Paul considers that of first importance for the Christian is the truth that all doctrine must rest on a Biblical base. Forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death is the basis of a Christian’s relationship with God and another foundational truth of the Christian faith. Christian justification is, Biblically, based upon the resurrection of Christ and this is a third foundational truth of Christianity. It is so right that Paul highlights the Word of God, the cross and the empty tomb as the first three foundations of Christianity. Based upon these Paul then highlights Christ’s many post-resurrection appearances as a way by which Christians may have an assurance of what they believe. Paul then declares, as a foundational truth, that the grace extended by God to man is entirely undeserved, but goes on to point out, as the last foundational truth of Christianity, that receiving grace is the way to empowerment within the life of a Christian.
1. “...according to the Scriptures...”
If something is repeated in Scripture it is a generally accepted principle that it is because it is considered, by God, to be of particular significance. The phrase “…according to the Scriptures...” is repeated in this passage and, therefore, it can be accepted that God considers this a point of particular significance. It is important for Christians to understand that Christ’s life, death and resurrection were all in fulfilment of Scripture. God’s plan for the salvation of mankind, through His Son, is outlined in Scripture from Genesis 3 onwards. In Luke 24:27, when the post-resurrection Jesus was on the Emmaus road with two disciples, He explained to them all the events that had just occurred, involving Himself, in Jerusalem “…beginning with Moses and all the Prophets.”
The early disciples certainly knew the importance of a faith that rested on Biblical revelation, rather than only on experience or someone else’s teaching. In Acts 17 is the account of the Apostle Paul in Thessalonica. He went to the synagogue and, with the Jews there, he (verses 2-3), “...reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead.” Another example of this Scriptural foundation for faith is in Acts 8:34-35 when Philip explains the Good News about Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch. In Acts 18:28 it tells of Apollos, an early convert who, “...vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.” Jesus repeatedly told His disciples and others that His life, death and resurrection were to be in accordance with Scripture (Matthew 26:54. Mark 14:49, John 5:39 and others).
It should be the desire of every Christian to so understand Scripture that when faced with the false teaching that is so prevalent today, that challenges the basics of the Christian faith - the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the assurance of salvation and many other fundamental issues - the Christian will be able, as Apollos, to vigorously refute the false teaching, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ. A better understanding of the Scriptural revelation of salvation will strengthen each Christian’s understanding of how salvation is entirely a work of God for man and, thus, clear up much of the confusion that exists today about man’s role in his salvation. The need for such Scriptural knowledge is a foundational truth of the Christian faith.
2. “…Christ died for our sins...”
This is the second foundational truth of the Christian faith which Paul lists as being “of first importance.” Two thousand years after Christ’s death and resurrection there is a great deal of confusion within the Christian Church about how and when a Christian’s sins are dealt with. This confusion adversely affects the day-to-day relationship which many Christians have with God. Within the Church today there are those who are expecting to be judged when they meet with God at the end of their time on earth. There are Christians who have an underlying nervousness, even fear, at the thought of that encounter with God. The Catholic Church has come up with the doctrine of purgatory which specifically lays the punishment for some of their sins upon the Catholic individual. Some born again Christians believe that God is less pleased with them, less close to them, less likely to bless them after they have sinned. Some Christians believe that their sins are dealt with by God as and when they occur and as and when forgiveness is requested. Yet the Scriptures say, “Christ died for our sins.”
Isaiah 53 makes it quite clear that Christ bore the sins of every person into Himself and, also, bore the punishment for those sins. This truth is the very basis of the Good News but it has become obscured by wrong teaching and, in Paul’s day as now, there is a need to clearly proclaim the Good News that “Christ died for our sins.” When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he declared, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn 1:29). Jesus Christ has taken away the sin of not only the Christian, but of everyone in the world (1 John 2:2). The only issue outstanding between God and mankind is acceptance or rejection of His Son (John 3:18 and others). Yet so many are still taught that their sin is an issue between them and God. Bible teachers get their listeners to go through such antics as writing their “sins” on a piece of paper and then putting them into a bin as though this symbolised getting rid of the sin; another role-play is to write the troublesome “sin” on a balloon and then release the balloon into the air - again symbolising the going away of that sin. This dangerous form of teaching, which is quite widespread in its various forms, is in error in three major areas; firstly, it suggests that sin is still an issue between God and man - contrary to the revelation of Scripture; secondly, sin has still to be dealt with as it occurs - again, contrary to Scripture and, thirdly, it suggests that man himself plays some part in getting rid of his sin, which is also contrary to Scripture. It may seem a harmless exercise to go through such a role-play, but it is undermining the most basic truth of the Christian faith, that “…Christ died for our sins.”
The Good News of the Gospel is that Christ died for our sins while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). God did not wait for man to make every effort against sin before He made man acceptable to Himself through Christ. Equally, now the Christian has been made acceptable, God makes no demand that the Christian make every effort against sin, and so take on a heavy burden (see: Matthew 11:30), because He Himself has dealt with man’s sins. Romans 6:10 confirms that Jesus, when He died for our sins, “…died to sin once for all...” Jesus died once and He died for all. Let the Christian rejoice at the Good News, that “Christ died for our sins” and in so doing dealt with sin for all time for all people. Let every Christian be assured that forgiveness of sins comes through the death of Christ and the death of Christ alone. It cannot be added to, or taken away from. The Christian stands forgiven because, “Christ died for our sins.”
3. “...raised on the third day...”
Paul goes on to write, in the passage being examined, that Jesus, “...was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures...” In Romans 4:25 it says of Jesus that, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” The death of Christ, taking away all sin from the Christian, lays the foundation for a new relationship with God. The resurrection of Christ, assuring the Christian’s justification, maintains an on-going relationship with God. Justification moves the Christian into the position of being as though he had never sinned. Once again Paul makes the point that this happened according to the Scriptures. Psalm 16:10, amongst others, contains a prophecy that Christ would rise from the dead. Paul quotes that particular Scripture in Pisidian Antioch, in Acts 13:35, and Peter refers to it in his address at Pentecost in Acts 2:25. The very exciting and Good News about the resurrection, apart from the fact that it means justification for the Christian, is that - as this is the means of Christian justification - it puts the responsibility for Christian justification squarely onto God. The Bible says, in Romans 1:4, that Jesus was raised from the dead by the Spirit of Holiness.
So far in this passage Paul has revealed, through foundational truths of the Christian faith, that doing away with sin is entirely God’s responsibility and justification of the Christian is, also, entirely God’s responsibility. This is the very Good News of the Gospel. It allows no room for the doubts and fears that assail so many Christians through lack of knowledge of the basics of their faith. Romans 5:18 again points the Christian to Christ as his means of justification. It says, “...the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.” The Scriptures speak repeatedly (Romans 3:24, 3:26, 5:1, 5:18, 1 Corinthians 6:11, Galatians 3:24, Titus 3:7 amongst others) of how the Christian is justified by grace, through faith. Sending Jesus to bear the punishment due for sin was God’s act of grace to man. The Christian’s God-given faith in Christ’s resurrection provides for his justification. This means the day to day position of the Christian before God is entirely unaffected by the daily living of that Christian - and that’s Good News!
4. “...He appeared to...”
Christianity is not a religion of blind faith. In Acts 1:3 it says that after His resurrection Jesus appeared to His followers “…and gave many convincing proofs that He was alive.” Amongst the convincing proofs are His appearances, as listed in 1 Corinthians 15, to Peter, then the twelve Apostles, then to a gathering of more than five hundred of His followers, then to James, then to all the Apostles and, finally, to Paul. These appearances, excluding that to Paul, took place over a period of forty days. They occurred in different places and involved hundreds of different people. During the appearances, Jesus gave other proofs that He was alive. In Luke 24:39 Jesus invites the frightened disciples, who think they are seeing a ghost, to touch Him and to feel His flesh and bone. He invites them to look at the wounds He carries from the crucifixion. He then ate some food with them to further prove that He was alive and not an apparition. When Jesus appeared to the disciples on another occasion (John 20:27) He invited Thomas to touch the nail marks in His hand and to put his hand into the spear wound in Jesus’ side.
Christianity is a religion that rests very much upon firm evidence. Many people have set out, through the years, to disprove Christianity; but, as an American lawyer (Josh McDowell) discovered when he tried to disprove Christianity, there is enough evidence to prove in any fair court of law that Jesus Christ is exactly who He claimed to be. Christians are not supposed to live with doubts about the basics of their faith. In Hebrews 10:22 it encourages Christians to “...draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of our faith.” Full assurance! Any Christian having doubts should confront the doubts, following the example of Scripture. Many times people came to Jesus with their doubts: Satan said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God...”; a leper came to Him and said, “If you are willing...”; Peter said to Jesus, when He was walking on water, “If it is You...” it is not wrong to have doubts, but it is foolish to live with those doubts rather than confront them. Christians are encouraged to live, knowing the many convincing proofs that Jesus gave to His followers - and still gives today to His followers, in full assurance of their faith. This is not a side issue, it should be remembered that it is one of the truths which is of first importance. A Christian with doubts is a far less effective witness than the Christian who does have that full assurance of faith
5. “...I...do not even deserve...”
Paul recognised, and freely confessed, that he did not deserve to be called an Apostle. He was one of the main persecutors of the fledgling Christian church. He calls himself, “the least of the Apostles.” Paul, though, does not stop with this confession of unworthiness. He goes on to say, “But by the grace of God I am what I am.” This is the same attitude shown by the Prodigal Son, in Luke 15, when he returns home and is offered the undeserved love of the father he has wronged. In verse 21 of that chapter the son says, “Father I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” Having recognised, and confessed, his unworthiness the son then goes on to receive the gifts of love, and the restoration to the position of sonship, which the father freely offers him. Both Paul and the Prodigal Son are demonstrating an important principle of grace, which is that it is extended to those who are undeserving and that to receive it is a positive choice made by the recipient.
This is the situation in which every human being finds him or herself. No-one is worthy of the gracious gift of Jesus and all that flows through Him. Every Christian, though, needs to adopt the same position as Paul and to be saying, “I do not even deserve...but...” For example, “I do not even deserve to be called a child of God, but by the grace of God I am what I am.” The recognition of the fact that no-one deserves grace then allows the Christian to choose to receive that grace - and that is what ensures that it remains grace. It will stop the Christian falling into the trap of striving to, in some way, be worthy of the mighty gift of Jesus and all the grace that flows through Him. Grace is extended by God to mankind without regard to conditions or response. Paul understood that, received grace and went on to serve the Gospel in a mighty way. This truth, of undeserved grace, is very rightly included in those that Paul considers to be of first importance.
Two great problems weaken the Christian Church today, and both are covered by Paul’s listing of the truths of first importance. The first great weakness from which the modern Church suffers is that the majority of Christians do not really know the Scriptures. They may be read, listened to and even learned; but there is a great lack of study and understanding - hence, superficial, traditional and even incorrect interpretations are accepted. The second great weakness of the Christian church today is its inability to accept God’s freely offered grace. Bible teacher after Bible teacher, preacher after preacher, will encourage Christians to hold back from embracing grace in all its fullness, for fear that it may lead to licence. Yet, in the verse under discussion, Paul declares that it is the grace he has received which makes him the person he is; and it is the receiving of grace that makes every Christian become the person they can be in Christ. Christians are called in the Bible children of God, brothers of Jesus, Ambassadors of Christ and many other glorious names - none of them are deserved. All are positions freely offered.
6. “...His grace...was not without effect.”
Paul received grace which, although he didn’t deserve it, was freely offered to him - as it is to every Christian and, indeed, every human being. Paul goes on in this passage to write that in the receiving of grace he was empowered to work harder than any of the others in the church. Paul is teaching here a truth “as of first importance” that is, sadly, not understood by most Christians today and, indeed, is mistaught by the majority of Christian leaders, speakers, preachers and teachers. The truth is that, far from being an easy option or an alternative to obedience, grace is the very source of empowerment, service and obedience within the life of a Christian. It was not himself, declares Paul, but grace within him that produced all the hard work. What a great day for the Church when Christians stop trying to do so much for God and allow God, “…who works in you to will and act according to His good purpose” (Php 2:13), to freely have His way. Colossians 1:6 tells what will happen in such an event. “All over the world this Gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.” Gospel growth and fruit bearing is assured - once the Christian understands grace. This is because that Christian will then be in the position of Paul and will allow grace to produce hard work for the Gospel - rather than striving to produce such work in human strength.
Receiving grace also empowers personal growth. Romans 5:17 says, “...how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of His gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” Receiving grace will empower the Christian to the point where he or she will reign in life - that is the Word of God. Grace is only ever taught in the Bible in the context of being a source of empowerment. How far these truths are from the fearful modern teaching that links abundant grace with descent into licence. Those who teach that Christians should beware of abusing grace, or should hold back from embracing grace “too much,” demonstrate by such teaching their lack of understanding of the Bible’s teaching on the matter. Let every Christian embrace grace wholeheartedly and let such Christians know the empowerment that grace brings. Let every Christian declare to Christian and non-Christian alike, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”
When the Apostle Paul preached the Gospel, he did so, according to his testimony in 1 Corinthians 1:17, “...not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” Paul did this because, as he said earlier in the same verse, that is what Jesus sent him to do. Christians have been blessed with a Gospel that is not only Good News, but is also very simple to understand. There may be a myriad of peripheral issues, but at the heart of the Gospel there are just six foundational truths which every Christian should know and live by.
The truths of the Christian Gospel which the Bible declares to be “of first importance” are:
1. That all that is revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ happened according to the Scriptures;
2. That sin has been dealt with, once for all, because Christ died for our sins that He might “give repentance and forgiveness of sins” to the Christian (Acts 5:31);
3. That Christ rose again on the third day and, by that, the Christian is forever justified;
4. That Jesus “...gave many convincing proofs that He was alive” (Acts 1:3) and that, therefore, the Christian may have “full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:22);
5. That grace is never deserved and that to receive it, or not, is a choice made by each person;
6. That grace is the source of power in a Christian’s life - not an alternative to obedience.
This is the Gospel of Christ. This is the Good News!