15 Mar The Gospel is of first importance
1 Corinthians 15:1-10
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
What is the most important message of Christianity? What is the belief that makes Christianity, Christianity? That without it, Christianity ceased to be Christianity. Don’t answer too quickly. I know you guys are smart and most of you knew the answer already. If you are clueless, the answer starts with the letter g. But I want you to keep it to yourself for now. I want you to ponder on it for the next 50 minutes. Because I think what happens a lot of times is that our mind knows the right answer, but our life fails to show the right answer. There is a disintegration between our belief and our life and we know that it should not be this way. We know what we need to do and yet we did not do it. Why? Because there is something else that is more fundamental to us than our belief; it is our heart.
Let me give you an example. How many gym-junkies we have in the house? Raise your hand high and proud. It’s time to show off your triceps. Let me ask you, why do you hit the gym consistently? Working-out is a painful process. Can we agree on that? If you work out and does not feel any pain, you are not working out; you are checking out the equipment or the guys and the girls in the gym. So, for those who spend hours weekly working out, let me ask you a question. Why did you do that? Why do you inflict pain on yourself regularly? Is it simply because you believe that working out is good for you? I know first-hand that working out is not easy. Especially when you haven’t worked out for years and you start working out again. It is painful. Despite all the pain that I felt, why did I keep returning? Is it simply because I believe working is out is good for my health? No. I have always believed that working out is good but there were years that I can’t be bothered to do it. So why did I go to the gym consistently now? Let me tell you why. It is because I love to wear suit. Some of my suit did not fit me anymore and I need to lose weight. But let me take it one step deeper. Why did I love to wear suit? And I am going to be very honest. I love to wear a suit because I want to look good wearing a suit in front of you as a public speaker. As a public speaker, appearance also play a significant role. People are more likely to pay more attention if the speaker is candy on the eye. Imagine if you see me wearing a suit that looks like its button could pop out and hit you anytime. It’s not a pleasant sight. The point is that it is not simply my belief that drives my behaviour. My motivation or my lack of motivation of going to the gym is determined not just by my belief but also by my heart, by what I love. Get this right. We are not simply what we believe but we are what we love. It is our heart that drives everything we do.
Let me ask you again, what is the most important message of Christianity? Today is RSI Mission Sunday. It is the Sunday where I get to share RSI’s heartbeat with all of you. RSI’s heartbeat is summed up in this one sentence: “Growing deep in the gospel, reaching wide with the gospel.” There are two aspects of this sentence. Deep and wide. Let me talk about the deep part first. What I mean by growing deep in the gospel is that I desire for everyone in RSI to grow as a disciple of Christ. With another word, I don’t want any of us to be a stagnant Christian. I want us to be able to look back at our life a year from now and see that we are not the same person anymore. I want us to be able to say that we are more in love with Jesus then than we are right now. That we are more in-tune with the Spirit. That we are more obedient to the Father. That we think, act and speak more like Jesus. That is what it means to grow deep in the gospel. But we not only want to grow deep, but we also want to reach wide with the gospel. It means that we are not just growing as a disciple of Christ, but we also want to go and make disciple of Christ. We want to see those who are far from Christ brought near to Christ. We want to see our neighbours come to church. We want to see our co-workers love Jesus. We want to see our families believe in Christ. We don’t want simply to grow as disciples of Christ, but we also want to see other people grow as disciples of Christ through our life. And there are two main ways we do that. One, we invite people to come to church, and two, we go and be a church to the unbelievers. Our win is not only when the unbelievers come to church but when the church goes to the unbelievers. We want to be disciples who make disciples in the world. We want to grow deep and reach wide. How many of you want that? Awesome. Let me ask another question. How many of you agree with everything I said and yet failed to do it consistently? I raised my hand high. Why? Because it is not enough for us to believe the right thing. For many years I thought that if we believe the right thing then we will automatically do the right thing. But I was wrong. Trying to grow as disciples and make disciples on self-effort is like trying to drive a car with an empty fuel. What happens? The car won’t start. You won’t get anywhere. You fail miserably. What you need is fuel. And the fuel is what is often missing from Christianity. Paul calls it the first importance.
What Paul means by first importance is that this is the most important part of Christianity. And just for the record, Paul is the man who writes 2/3 of the New Testament. God uses him to be the primary voice of his will. But above everything he is written, there is one thing that Paul wants us to not get wrong. Of everything he writes and talks about, of every wonderful teaching he unpacks for us, he wants us to know of the one first importance. If we get this right, then there is a high chance that we may get everything else right. But if we mess this up, everything else won’t work. And that message is the message of the gospel. 1 Cor 15:1-2 – Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. Here is what Paul says in a nutshell. The gospel is not only the introduction to Christianity. The gospel is not just the ABC but the A to Z of Christianity. A lot of Christian often think that the gospel is what saves non-Christians, and then Christians mature by leaving the gospel behind to another deeper teachings. But Paul shows us that it is wrong to think that way. The gospel affects our past, present and future. Paul says that the gospel is not only something we received, that’s past; but it is something we stand on, that’s present; and it is the means by which we are being saved, that’s future. The gospel is the means by which we became disciple, we grow as disciple and we make disciple. Why the gospel? Because the gospel is the only message that speaks to our hearts. It is the means by which God transforms our heart. Therefore, it is essential for us to know what the gospel is in order for us to grow as disciples and make disciples. For the Christians, it is important for you to know the gospel because it is your heart that drives everything you do. It is also important for you to know what the gospel is so that you can share it with people around you. And for the non-Christians, you need to know what the gospel is because a lot of time what you think of Christianity is not Christianity at all.
My goal tonight is to captivate your heart with the gospel. So what is the gospel? There are five parts of the gospel according to this text.
The gospel is about Christ
1 Cor 15:3 – For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.
Let’s talk. How many of you grew up in church? Keep your hands up. Okay, next question. How many of you never really heard and understood the gospel until you came here? A lot of you. This is a problem. Please hear me out on this. I’ve been in church long enough to know that lot of times it is so easy for the church to get tangled up in the secondary matters and lose sight of the first importance. If we are not careful, it’s very easy for the church to major in minor and neglect what is major in the first place. I pray that we will never be a church who major in the minor. I’ve been in a lot of church debate where it’s just silly. People like to argue about the style of music the church should have. Some prefer hymn and some prefer Hillsong. People argue about what sort of cloth we should wear to church. Some question whether we should drink or abstain from alcohol? It’s funny how I nearly never have that conversation in Sydney. I guess you guys love alcohol too much to question whether we should drink or not. Another topic that used often sparked debate is about the gifts of the Spirit. Does the gifts of the Spirit still continue? What about speaking in tongue? What about God’s sovereignty and human’s free will? All these topics have their place. It’s important to talk about them at one point or the other. But it is not the primary message of Christianity! Are you hearing me? They are important but they are not first importance! The moment we elevate the secondary issue to primary issue, we have lost sight of what makes Christianity, Christianity. Paul cannot be clearer on this matter. Christianity is not built on those secondary matters. And I believe if we get the primary message right, then somehow the rest will be less important. In light of the first importance, the secondary issue becomes trivial.
What is the message of first importance? The gospel is about Christ. The word gospel means good news. So Christianity is first and foremost good news about Christ. This is extremely crucial for us to understand because this is what separates Christianity from every other religion. All other religion teaches the teaching of their founders. The founders are teachers who teach the way of salvation. But Christianity is different. The heartbeat of Christianity is not instruction but good news. Christianity is not first and foremost a set of lists of what you must do but it is a declaration of what has been done. It is a good news of what Christ has done. Drill this into your mind. Jesus is not first and foremost a teacher; he is a savior! Jesus does not primarily come to tell us what to do but to do what we cannot do. Just look at the descriptions of the gospel from verse 3 to verse 11. There is nothing in here about what we must do. Now, don’t get me wrong. It does not mean there is nothing we should do. Paul says in verse 1 that we are to receive the gospel and stand on the gospel. But we must differentiate between the gospel and a response to the gospel. The gospel itself contains nothing we should do. The gospel says that nothing we have done, nothing we can do and nothing we will do that can be the basis of our acceptance with God. The gospel is not about us but it is about Christ and what he has done.
Here is why we need to get this right. I have talked to many people who reject the version of Christianity that is not Christianity at all. They say things like, “I am not good enough to be Christian. Christian has too many rules that I can’t follow.” I also talked to some Christians who said, “I know I am not good enough, but I am trying my best to be a Christian.” This is wrong. I know it sounds very humble, but this is a lie of the devil. This is a denial of the gospel. The gospel is not about us but it is about Christ. We will never be good enough but the gospel is that Christ is good enough and that we are found in him. Do not mistake the response of the gospel with the gospel itself. The gospel is about Christ.
The gospel is about substitution
1 Cor 15:3 – For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.
The word “for” comes from the Greek word huper which means on behalf of. Paul is saying that Christ died on behalf of our sins, or as a substitute. This is extremely important for us to understand. John Stott says that the gospel can be explained with one word: substitution. Everyone, without exception, is born in sin. I know sin is not a popular subject but unless you understand what sin is, you will never understand the beauty of what Christ has done. Sin is wanting the gifts of God at the cost of God. It is when you elevate the good gifts of God and make them god instead of the one true God.
Now let’s talk about one of the most common sins in young people’s life – sexual sins. My friends, why are you addicted to sexual sins? Let me tell you why. Because you have elevated the good gift of God and make it an ultimate pursue in your life. Now listen, sex is good. God is the one who invented sex. Sex is a good gift of God for man and woman to enjoy. God created you with sexual desire. Puberty doesn’t create sexual desire in you. God has wired it in all of us from the beginning. He wants you to enjoy the gifts of sex. But listen. The gifts of God are given to glorify God. He wants you to use sex and your sexual desire to bring glory to him. And God knows exactly how sex and your sexual desire is best used. It is only to be used in the context of marriage between one male and one female. God’s commandment not to pursue our sexual desire before its time is founded in God’s desire for our fullness of joy. He has no intention to limit your joy; it is God’s intention to maximize your joy. Because when you experience the fullness of joy in sex, you bring glory to his name. But what did we do with that gift? We tell God that he does not know what he is doing and that he is withholding what is good from us. So we say to God, “Enough of you trying to control my life. I’ll do things my way. I’ll pursue what makes me happy now.” In other words, we are trying to be our own God. Instead of trusting and delighting in God’s gifts for us, we abuse it. We make sex our ultimate goal and that’s why we commit sexual sins. This is what sin does. Sin is elevating the gift of God to a position of God. We reject God and we settle with his gifts.
What is God respond to this? Eternal punishment. My friend, hell is not an empty myth. Hell is a real place. Hell is a place for everyone who mocked God will suffer forever and ever without end. They will be burned in eternal flame and there will not be a drop of goodness in hell. Hell is the absence of everything that is good. And hell is real. It is reserved for those who belittle God; those who choose to delight in God’s gift over God. But that’s not where the story end. Hell is real but Jesus is real. For those who trusted in Jesus, Jesus died as our substitute. Translation: Jesus took the hell we deserved for our sin at the cross and he died for it! Jesus absorbed every single drop of punishment that belongs to us until there is not a single hint of the wrath of God toward us. Jesus took what we deserved so that we receive what he deserved. In Jesus, we stand before God completely clean and pure. If we want to understand the gospel, we have to understand substitution. Sin is us substituting self for God. We put our self in the place of God. The gospel is God substituting himself for us. Christ put himself in our place. Christ died as our substitute for our sins. How amazing is that?
The gospel is about the resurrection
1 Cor 15:4 – 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
Christ not only died for our sins, but he is also resurrected. You cannot separate the death and resurrection of Christ. Because if Christ only died for our sins but never resurrected, then we have no certainty that our sins have been forgiven! How do we know that God accepted Christ’s sacrifice for our sins? How do we know that Christ’s mission is accomplished? How do we know that the gospel is true? Because God resurrected Jesus from the death! You cannot separate the two events. If Jesus is not raised from the dead, our faith is futile and we are still in our sins. The death of Jesus Christ means nothing without the resurrection of Christ!
Let me give you an example. One of our beloved brother just went back to Indonesia for good. And because he loved me, he wanted to give me one of my favourite game, Final Fantasy VII remake. The thing is, the release date for the game is postpone till next month and he won’t be here for it. So what did he do? He pre-ordered and paid for the game and sent me the receipt for me to pick up the game at JB Hi-Fi Chatswood when it is out. So I can bring the receipt to show that the price for the game has been paid. However, that alone is not enough. Because the receipt is under his name. The people at JB Hi-Fi will not let me take the game with me because I am not him. But this is what he did. On the receipt, he put my name down as the person who can pick up the game. That means when I go to JB Hi-Fi, I don’t have to worry about them not letting me take the game home. The game has been paid in full and my name is written down in the receipt.
How do we know that we have been forgiven of our sins? Because Christ’s resurrection is our receipt! The fact that Jesus was resurrected tells us that his mission was accomplished. The debt has been paid in full. That’s why Jesus yells out “It is finished” with his last breath so that today if we trust in Christ, we do not have to worry whether God is angry at us or not. Our name is written down in the receipt. In Christ, there is now therefore no condemnation! You can stand righteous before God not because you do good but because you believe in the only one who is good. Your rightful standing before God is not found in whether you sing the right song or wear the right dress or drink the right drink. Your rightful standing before God is found in the one who loves you and gave himself for you. If you trust in Jesus, your name is on the receipt. God sees you as perfect and spotless. You stand holy before God not because of your deeds but by grace alone. This is the gospel.
The gospel is about a historical event
1 Cor 15:5-7 – 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
Get this right. Christianity is not a blind leap of faith. Taking the blind leap of faith seems to suggest that the root belief of Christianity is incompatible with reason and faith in Christ requires you to believe and accept without reason. I’m sorry to say but that’s a lazy faith. True faith is not without reason. True faith requires you to use your reason to come to faith. The heartbeat of Christianity is not blind faith; it is an event – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This is what Paul is trying to convey. He is trying to tell us that the first important message of Christianity is not founded on ancient myth; it is founded on historical facts. What historical facts? That Jesus lived, died and resurrected! Today, it is widely accepted by historical scholars that Jesus was an actual Jewish man who lived in Israel 2000 years ago. No well-educated and trained scholars can deny the existence of Jesus. Evidence after evidence discovered that support the Biblical narrative of Jesus. However, even though they can’t deny the existence of Jesus, most of them deny the resurrection of Jesus. Why? Because if Jesus really was resurrected from the death, then he must be who he said he is – GOD in flesh. This is crucial. The question is not whether you agree or disagree with what Jesus said but whether or not he rose from the dead. Because if Jesus was not resurrected then we can ignore everything he said. But if Jesus is truly resurrected, then we must accept everything he said.
Paul tells us that not only Jesus was resurrected from death, but he also appeared to many people. His resurrection is not built on a secret wish. He appeared! And his appearance changes everything. First, he appeared to Cephas. Cephas is another name for Peter. Now, if you are not familiar with Peter, he is the most prominent of Jesus’ disciple. This is the man that publicly declare his love for Jesus. On the night before crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples that they would all betrayed him. But Peter said that he will never ever do that. Even if everyone else would betray Jesus, he would not. Jesus replied, “Yeah, Peter you’re so cute. But you still will deny me three times.” So, few hours later, it happened. Peter denied Jesus three times to a slave girl! This guy was a coward! Yet, he ended up being the leader of the early church. And not only that, the historical record shows that Peter was crucified upside down because he refused to deny Christ. Talk about 180 degrees change. From a coward to a martyr. What happened? Peter saw the resurrected Christ. He saw him!
Second, he appeared to the twelve disciples. Again, you will find the story of Peter in all of them. When Jesus was arrested, they were scattered and hide in fear. They hide in houses and afraid to show themselves in public. Yet history records that all of them ended up being persecuted and killed for the name of Christ. What happened? They saw him! This is amazing. Just think about it. If Jesus was not resurrected, if all this resurrection is simply a lie that the disciples created, would they die for a lie? Would any of you die for a lie that you created? Let me put it this way. If I turned out to be a fraud and I was a terrorist disguised as a pastor and you knew it, and I hid in your house and the FBI pointed a gun at you to tell them where I am, would you die for me? Raise your hand if you would. None. Wow. Very encouraging. But I made my point. But if the resurrection really happened, then the disciples’ transformation from cowards to martyrs made sense. They saw their master who they abandoned to die on the cross, alive and well. And it changed their lives forever.
Third, he appeared to more than 500 men. Now, this is massive. Jesus appearance was not exclusive to a small group of people. If it was, there might be a possibility that it was a fabricated story. That’s what you do when you fabricate a story. You keep the group small. The bigger the group the harder it is to maintain consistency of a fabricated story. Paul said that 500 other men saw the resurrected Jesus! And he is saying that at the time he wrote 1 Corinthians, many of them were still alive. I love the way Richard Bauckham describes it. He said that these people are the footnotes of the gospel. You know what footnotes are right? When you write an academic paper, you must use lots of footnotes. Footnotes are a way for us to communicate that “What I write is true and the footnote is the source from which you can find out that what I say is true.” These 500 men are the footnotes of the gospel. With another word, Paul said that if you question what I write about the resurrection of Jesus, all you have to do is talk to one of those 500. And they will tell you that they saw him!
Fourth, and possibly my favourite, he appeared to James, the half-brother of Jesus. If you didn’t know, Joseph and Mary have few other children which makes them the half brothers and sisters of Jesus. And they were not believers during Jesus’s life. Luke tells us that they did not believe in Jesus and they thought that he was crazy. James was one of them. Yet the same James ended up becoming one of the pillars of the early church. What happened? I mean seriously, how many of you have a brother? What would it take to convince you that he is God? How about the resurrection from death? This is exactly what happened to James. James saw the resurrected Jesus!
The resurrection of Jesus was not built on empty myth. There were lots and lots of witnesses to his resurrection. If that’s not compelling enough, all you have to do is look at how they died. Most if not all of them were persecuted to death. And no one would ever give up their life for a fabricated story. Yet they died miserable deaths and they endured persecution to the end. Why? Because they saw him! The gospel is about a historical event.
The gospel is about transforming grace
1 Cor 15:8-10 – 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
These three verses are pretty much the biography of Paul’s life. If you are not familiar with Paul, he wasn’t always the holy man whom God used to write most of the New Testament. Paul said that he was the least of all the apostle, unworthy to be called an apostle because Paul was not only a non-believer; he was a persecutor of the early believers. What happened to him was not normal. Anyone here hates Vegemite? I hate Vegemite. I hate the taste and the smell of Vegemite. For us vegemite haters, what would it take for us to love vegemite? I think it would take Jesus’ second coming for me to like Vegemite. Where Jesus will make all things new and he will renew vegemite and make it taste like Nutella. The only time I managed to tolerate the smell of vegemite is when it concerns my life. Back in my middle-high school camps, we went on a 2 days bush walk and we stayed overnight in a tent in a national park. My teacher told us that there might be extremely dangerous animals who will come at night and attack our tents. This animal is very sneaky and clever, so we have to be careful when we sleep. The only thing that this animal hate is the smell of vegemite. So, if we want to be safe, it’s better to put a lot of vegemite on our face and body. So, what did I do? I did exactly that. I scrub vegemite all over my face and neck and part of my body. It was horrible. I wasn’t able to sleep the whole night because of the smell. And in the morning, I found out that all of it was a lie. That’s the only time I tolerate Vegemite. And because of that night, I hated Vegemite even more. What would it take for you to love something that you passionately hate?
Paul not only disapprove of Christianity, he passionately hated Christianity. He persecuted the church not because he had too but because he loved too. In his religious devotion, he sent Christians to jail to be tortured. And one day on his journey to persecute Christians, Christ showed himself to Paul. On the road to Damascus, Paul was blinded by a bright light and there his life was changed forever. Paul experienced God’s grace and he became one of the apostles and the man who wrote most of our Christian doctrines today. And this is what Paul said about the grace of God given to him. The grace of God is not in vain. Because of God’s grace, Paul worked harder than any other apostles. Now this is massive. Paul’s passion was turned 180 degrees. Paul was a passionate persecutor of Christ who became a passionate pursuer of Christ. God’s grace not only forgiven Paul, it radically transforms Paul’s life.
Now hear me out and hear me out clearly. It is impossible to experience the grace of God and remains the same! The grace of God is not only a forgiving grace; It is a transforming grace. If the grace of God does not transform you then you either have not experience the grace of God or you have not thought clearly on the implication of receiving the grace of God. Let me illustrate it for you. One of the joys of being a pastor is sometimes I would go into a restaurant, order the food that I want, enjoy it, and when I ask the waitress for the bill, he would tell me that someone has paid my bill. And my mind goes, “Wow, I should have ordered more.” Anyway, more often than not, I did not find out who it was who paid for my bill. But let’s say that one day I received a phone call from an unknown number. I pick it up and he says, “You might not know me but I was the one who paid for your meal last week at the restaurant.” And I reply, “Thank you for doing that. I am grateful.” Then he says, “It is no big deal but I have a favour to ask from you. I and my wife are planning to go overseas for two weeks and we need someone to watch over our kids. We live in Perth. So can you fly to Perth to watch over my kids for me? After all, I paid for your meal.” How do you think I will respond? Yes, I am grateful that he paid for my lunch but I am not going to fly to Perth to babysit his kids. I might send him a Lestari voucher as a token of gratitude but I am not getting on a plane for a paid lunch. But if he paid off my mortgage, even if he lives in Alaska, I would get in a plane to babysit his kids. Are you with me?
Here is my point. What if the man paid a debt we could never pay? What if he brought us from death to life? What if he freed us from the slavery of sin? What if he took on the wrath of God so that we might experience the kindness of God forever? Christ did not only pay our debts. He became our debt so that we might receive his kindness. And we did nothing to deserve this. We received it freely because Christ has paid the expensive price. This is costly grace. If we only say thank you for grace, we have not truly experienced grace. The grace of God that radically transform our lives. This is the gospel.
One last thing and I am back to my seat. If the gospel is true, how can we not share this good news with others? How can we not tell people that they can be made right with God not by their own doing but by what Christ has done for them? How can we not tell people that they are sinners who deserved hell but there is God who loves them so much that he took hell as their substitute? How can we not tell people this good news that filled our heart with awe and joy? And how can we ever neglect such life-transforming news? RSI lets make it our obsession to grow deep in the gospel and reach wide with the gospel.
- Have you ever experienced moments where what you believe and what you do contradict each other? What do you think is the reason behind that? Share you story.
- Why is it important for us to know the gospel and how does the gospel shapes all of our Christian life?
- What happen when the gospel is no longer of first importance in the life of the church? Share your experience.
- John Stott says that gospel can be summarized with one word: substitution. Do you agree? Explain.
- Why is it important for Jesus not only to die for our sin but also for him to be resurrected?
- What is the reason behind all the names that Paul listed as the witness of resurrection? What do you think about Jesus resurrection?
- Explain the relationship between the gospel, grace and a transformed life.