Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain: for I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the scriptures.--1 CORINTHIANS xv. 1-4.
This is St. Paul's account of the gospel; the good news which he preached to the sinful and profligate Corinthians, when they were sunk lower than the beasts which perish. And because they believed this good news, he said, they were saved then and there, and would be safe only as long as they believed that good news, and kept it in their memories. Now, from what did this good news save them? From their sins. There was something in St. Paul's good news which made them hate their sins, and repent of them, and throw them away, and rise up to be new men and women, living new lives in godliness and purity and justice, such as they had never lived before. Now mind, it was not bad news which made the Corinthians repent of their sins; it was good news. It was not that St. Paul told them that God was going to cast them into endless torment for their sins, and that therefore they were terrified and afraid, and so repented. Doubtless St. Paul told them, as he told other heathens, that the wrath of God was revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness; that tribulation and anguish was laid up in store for every soul of man who worketh evil. But still, St. Paul says plainly here, that what saved the Corinthians was not that or any other fearful and terrifying news, but a gospel--good news. And he says that this good news did not merely, as some would wish it to do, make them comfortable in their minds while they went on in their old wicked ways. No. He says that it made them stand. That is, made them upright, strong-minded, righteous, self-restraining people; and that they were saved by it from those sins which had been dragging them down, and keeping them diseased in soul, weak, miserable, the slaves of their own passions and foul pleasures.
What wonderful good news was this, then, which could work so strange a change in these poor heathens, and how could it change them?
Let us see, first, what it was.
"That Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the scriptures; and that He was seen of Peter, then of the twelve; after that He was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remained unto this day, but some are fallen asleep. After that He was seen of James, then of all the Apostles. And last of all He was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time."
You see here, that St. Paul, for some good reason, says much more about the Lord's rising again than even about His most precious death and passion on the cross, while about His ascending into heaven he says nothing. And you will find in the New Testament that the Apostles often did the same. They spoke of the Lord rising again as if that was the great wonder, the great glory, the great good news; and as if His most precious death was not perfect without that. They said that the especial office for which the Lord had ordained them, was to be witnesses of His resurrection. They said that the Lord rose again for our justification. They said: "If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thy heart that God has raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." Here again, just as in the text, believing in the Lord's resurrection is made the great article of faith. Why is this? Because that last verse which I quoted may tell us, if we consider it carefully.
What does confessing the Lord Jesus with our mouth mean? It means what we ought to mean when we say, in the Apostles' Creed, I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. Not merely, I believe that there is an only Son of God: but I believe in a certain man, with a certain character, who is that only Son of God.
And what, you will ask, does that mean?
To know that, I fear, we must go back many many hundred years, to the times when the old martyrs confessed the Lord Jesus Christ before the heathen. Those were times in which it was not enough to say the Apostles' Creed in church. Men, ay, and tender women, and little children, had to stand by it through terror and shame, and to die in torments unspeakable, because they chose to say: "I believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord." Now, what was it which made the heathen hate and persecute and torture, and murder them for saying that? What was there in those plain words of the Apostles' Creed which made the great heathen emperors of Rome, and their officers and judges hunt the Christians down like wild beasts for 300 years, and declare that they were not fit to live? I will tell you. When the Christians were brought before the emperor's judges for being Christians, they did not merely say: "I believe that Jesus Christ's blood will save my soul after death." They said that: but they said a great deal more than that. If that had been all that the Christians said, the judge would have answered: "What care I for your souls, or for your notions about what will happen to them when you are dead? Go your way. You may be of what religion you like, and talk and think about your own souls as much as you like, provided you do not trouble the Roman emperor's power." But the heathen judge did not make that answer; because he knew well enough that what the Christians believed was not a mere religion about what would happen to their souls after death; but something which, if it gained ground, would utterly destroy the Roman emperor's power. He used generally to say to the Christians only this: "Will you burn those few grains of incense in honour of the emperor of Rome?" And he knew, and the Christians knew well enough, that those words meant: "Will you confess with your mouth the emperor of Rome? Will you confess that he is the only lord and king of this whole earth, and of your bodies and souls, and that there is no power or authority but of him, for the gods have delivered all things into his hands?" And then came out what confessing the Lord Jesus really means. For the Christians used to answer: "No. The emperor of Rome is the lord and master of our bodies, and we will obey his laws so far as we can without doing wrong: but we cannot obey them when they are contrary to the laws of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ. For the Lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified and rose again the third day, He, and not the emperor of Rome at all, is the Lord and King of the whole earth, and of our bodies and souls; and we must obey Him before we obey anyone else. Power and authority come not from the emperor of Rome, but from the Lord Jesus Christ; and the emperor is only His servant and steward, and must obey Him just as much as we, or the Lord will punish him as surely and easily as He will the meanest slave. For God has delivered all things, and the emperor of Rome among the rest, into the hand of His Son Jesus Christ, who sits a King over all, God blessed for ever." That was confessing Christ.
And to that the heathen judges used to make but one answer--for there was but one to make. Those heathen judges' guilty consciences, as well as their worldly cunning, told them plainly enough exactly what St. Paul told the Christians; that those Christians, by confessing Christ, were not fighting against flesh and blood, and setting up their selfish interests against other people's selfish interests: but that the battle they were fighting was a much deeper and more terrible one; that by saying that One who had walked the earth as a poor man, and yet a perfectly righteous and loving man, doing nothing but good, and sacrificing Himself utterly for poor fallen creatures, they were fighting against the whole state of things all over the world; against the government, and principles, and religion of that whole unjust and tyrannical Roman empire, and all its rulers, and generals, and judges; against principalities, against powers, against the world-rulers of the darkness of those times; against spiritual wickedness in heavenly things. For if Jesus Christ's life was the right life, those rulers must be utterly wrong; for it was exactly opposite to His.
If Jesus Christ was really the Governor of the earth, there was no hope for them; for their way of governing was exactly opposite to His. So as I say, they made but one answer; because there was but one to make: "You say that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords. I say the emperor of Rome is. You say you must obey Christ first, and the emperor of Rome afterwards. I say that you must obey the emperor first, and Christ afterwards. At all events, if you do not, you have no right on this earth of the emperor's; either the emperor's power must fall, or your notion about Jesus Christ's power must. And we will see whether your heavenly King of whom you talk can deliver you out of the emperor's hand." And then came the scourge, and the red-hot iron, and the wild beasts, and the cross, and all devilish tortures which man's evil will could invent, brought to bear without shame or mercy upon aged men, and tender girls, and even little children, just to make them say that the earth belonged to the emperor, and not to Jesus Christ. Those who died bravely under those tortures without denying Christ were called martyrs, which means witnesses--people who bore witness before God and man that Jesus Christ was King and Lord. Those who did not die under the tortures, but escaped after all, were called confessors--people who had confessed with their mouths that Jesus Christ was King and Lord, in spite of their terror and agony. . . . That was what confessing Jesus Christ meant in the old times. And that was what it ought to mean now, even though there is no persecution or torture for Christians in these happier times.
And now, we may see perhaps why St. Paul spoke so much of our Lord's rising again as the most important part of the gospel.
Because he wanted Christians to believe, not merely in a Christ who once died, but in Him who died and is alive for evermore; in a Christ who rose again, body, soul, and spirit, and sat at God's right hand, praying for poor creatures when they were tempted, and persecuted, and tormented for righteousness' sake. St. Paul knew well that such fearful times as those of which I have been speaking were coming on the people to whom he wrote. And he knew equally well that the only thought which could save them, when the heathen judges commanded them to deny the Lord Jesus, was the thought that He was really risen. The only thought which could make them bold enough to face all the horrors of death, was the thought that the Lord Jesus had not merely tasted death, but conquered it, and risen again from it. And therefore it is that St. Paul speaks so often of Christ's resurrection, and that in the text he takes so much pains to prove that Christ had really risen, by telling them how many persons, well known to him who wrote to them, had seen the Lord Jesus Christ after He rose, and talked with Him, and were sure that He was the very same person still, with the same countenance, and body, and soul, and spirit, as He had when He was nailed to the cross, and laid in the sepulchre.
What a thought for a poor creature in the last agony of fear and shame, expecting presently to be torn in pieces, or burnt alive: "Death, this horrible death, cannot conquer me, weak and fearful as I am; for my Lord and Master, for whom I am going to suffer, has conquered death, and He will not let it conquer me. He is stronger than death and hell, and He will not suffer me at my last hour for any pains of death to fall from Him. He is King of heaven and earth, and He will take care of His own!" What a comfortable thought to be able to say: "Ay, I am torn from wife and child, and all which I love on earth. But not for ever, not for ever. For Christ rose from the dead. And I who belong to Christ, shall rise as He did. This poor flesh of mine may be burnt in flames, devoured by ravenous beasts. What matter? Christ the King of men, has risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept. That same Spirit of His, which brought back His body from the grave and hell, will bring our bodies also from the grave and hell, to a nobler, happier life with Him in glory unspeakable. Christ is risen, and I shall rise with Him at the last day. Christ sits at God's right hand, watching me, pitying me, and blessing me, holding out to me a crown of glory which shall never fade away!" That was the thought which gave Stephen courage to confess the Lord Jesus Christ, amid to die in peace and the murderous blows of the Jews. For by faith he saw, as he said, the heavens opened, and Jesus sitting at the right hand of God. He knew that his Lord was risen, and that He would hear his dying cry: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
And so with us, my friends; we have no martyrdom to go through, thank God; but it is just as true of us as it was of the blessed martyrs and confessors, that there is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved but the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Saved; not only from hell, but from sin, from giving way to temptation, from denying Christ. Oh, pray for faith. Pray for faith. Pray to be able really to confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus. Pray to believe with your hearts that God has raised Him from the dead. Then when you are tempted to do wrong, you, like Stephen, will see, not with your bodily eyes, but by faith, the Lord Jesus sitting at God's right hand, and be able to say to Him: "Lord Jesus, who hast conquered all temptation, help me to conquer this. Thine eye is on me; how can I do this great wickedness and sin against Thee?" When you are in terror, and trouble, and affliction, and know not where to turn, that same blessed thought--"Christ is risen from the dead"--will be a shield and a strength to you which no other thought can give. "My Lord is risen; He is here still--a man, with His man's body, and His man's spirit--His man's love and tenderness; He has taken them all up to heaven with Him. He is a man still, though He is very God of very God. He rose from the dead as a man, and therefore He can understand me, and feel for me still, now, here in England in this very year, 1852, just as much as He could when He was walking upon earth in Judaea of old."
Ay, and in the black jaws of death, when this world is vanishing from our eyes, and we are going we know not whither, leaving behind us all we know, and love, and understand; then that thought of all thoughts-- "Christ is risen from the dead"--is the only one which will save us from dark sad thoughts, from fear and despair, or from stupid carelessness, and the death of a brute beast, such as too many die. "Christ is risen and I shall rise. Christ has conquered death for Himself, and He will conquer it for me. Christ took His man's body and soul with Him from the tomb to God's right hand, and He will raise my man's body and soul at the last day, that I may be with Him for ever, and see Him where He is." In life and in death this is the only thing which shall save us from sin, from terror, and from the dread of death; the same good news which St. Paul preached to the Corinthians; the same good news which made St. Stephen, and the martyrs and confessors of old brave to endure all misery for the sake of the good and blessed news, that God had raised His Son Jesus from the dead.