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Message Drift


*1 Corinthians 15:1-2
March 3, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

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The sermon starts at 13:40 in the audio file.


Or, Reminders to Hold Fast to the Gospel


I care about why. The answer to why matters about almost everything. It might be connected to a smaller, personal decision, or it might be related to the generational direction of an entire group. Why am I doing this? Why should we do this, not that?

The why usually connects with a mission. Our church has a mission statement, so does the school. Your business might have one, maybe even your family. The Westminster Catechism answers the mission for every human being: “Man’s chief end is to glory God and to enjoy Him forever.”

But men get busy and forget their mission. Organizations get larger, get distracted, get a new group of employees or volunteers, and drift from their mission. It’s usually not mission rebellion; there’s not a fight, at least at the start. Instead there is mission slippage, which happens when there isn’t a fight to maintain the mission. In order not to drift the mission must be brought back to mind and kept in mind.

In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul is not concerned about mission drift but about message drift. And the message that he’s eager to declare and defend is the primary message of Christianity. He’s not concerned about footnotes, he’s concerned about the faith once for all delivered to the saints. What he addresses is the fact that once delivered doesn’t mean always remembered.

Chapter 15 is a glorious chapter. It is the treasure room of the epistle’s house, near the last on the tour. If Paul had an editor, or mail delivery person, who wanted to limit what he could send to Corinth, I think he could have been happy keeping these 58 verses and cutting the rest. Why did he wait so long to get to his highest point? I don’t know his why behind waiting, but I do know his why behind writing.

The entire chapter reminds the church about the gospel, and the gospel as including, the gospel as requiring the truth of resurrection. Jesus died on Friday and rose again on Sunday, and every believer will be resurrected in Christ and by Christ and for Christ. He is the first-fruits, we will follow. The bodily resurrection of Christ is history, verified by many witnesses. And every believer’s resurrection in Him is as certain as it is still to come. This is the heart of the Christian message, a fundamental without which our faith is vain, and apparently some among the Corinthians were drifting from it.

The resurrection is when we’ll be fully alive, the ultimate state in which we will be men and women as God designed. The resurrection is our final change. God’s highest goal is not good times while we’re here on earth, nor is it intellectual existence in another realm as mere immortal souls, it is bodily resurrection. The resurrection is gospel grammar and gospel rhetoric, the most basic truth that we will adorn for eternity.

We know that some were drifting because Paul says it in verse 12: “some of you say that that there is no resurrection of the dead.” It’s there that Paul begins a serious set of conditional statements that demonstrate resurrection not only as something that Christ experienced, but as a truth that all believers will experience. A defense of the doctrine of resurrection fills the first half of the chapter up to verse 34. At verse 35 Paul drills down to resurrection as an eternal and bodily truth, finishing with an exhortation that your work in the risen Lord is not in vain, so work it.

I’m going to be working through chapter 15 more slowly than some of the previous chapters, and there are a couple reasons for it. The biggest reason is because this chapter is Paul’s biggest burden. The gospel is of first importance, and we need the reminders along with the Corinthians in order to avoid message drift. Another reason for slowing down is that we are in the season for thinking about resurrection in the church calendar. We are less than two months away from Resurrection Sunday, so this is a good time to mediate on Paul’s reminders and reasoning about the resurrections of Christ and our own.

So this morning we’re going to consider four parts of Paul’s reminder to hold fast to the gospel in verses 1-2.

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you [also] received, in which you [also] stand, and by which you [also] are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you–unless you believed in vain.

We know Paul transitions to another subject as he addresses them as brothers again. He is eager to remind them. It’s a word that has a variety of emphases; he wants to “make known” (NASB) to them something that was already made known to them. Reminding one another is a way we build up the body, even if the spiritual gift of Reminder is not an explicit biblical category.

It’s interesting that what he wants to remind the church about is the gospel, the euaggelion, the evangel. Isn’t this the ABCs of truth, the “elementary doctrine of Christ” (Hebrews 6:1)? Do we really need to lay again a foundation of Jesus and cross and repentance and faith? We might not need to lay the foundation, but we do need to keep leaning on it.

The gospel is the “word of the cross” which has the power to save as he said in chapter 1. Paul wrote to the Romans also about the saving power of the gospel (Romans 1:16), and in 1 Corinthians 15:2 our salvation happens through this message. We don’t ever mature past the gospel in one way, even if we are able to study more broadly about all that God is doing in the world.

There are four unmistakable things being said about the gospel in verses 1-2, identified by the repetition of relative pronouns which all refer back to the gospel. In verses 3-5 Paul reminds them of the basic content of the gospel, but before that he reminds the Corinthians of their history with the gospel.

1 Corinthians 15 v1-2 block diagram

The Message Preached (verse 1b)

The first description of the gospel is that this is the gospel Paul gospelized to them at the beginning. The verb and noun are cognates, they share the same root: the (noun) evangelion which he (a form of the verb) evangelizo to them. In English it gets redundant, so we say announce the good news, but that could be the meaning of the verb all by itself. Paul preached.

Maybe this seems obvious. How will they believe unless they hear and how will they hear unless one preaches (see Romans 10:14)? And yet it’s a big deal to Paul.

He says it the same way in verse 2, I preached to you, and in verse 3 he describes it as delivering it to them. At the end of this section in verse 11 he wrote that “we preach and so you believed.” It is the message, the news, the story of God and salvation. It is the great narrative that we wouldn’t have figured out on our own. No idolator, had he lived for eternity, could have invented the true God and this good news. No philosopher, however wise and however close he came, could come up with what the gospel announces. No artificial intelligence algorithm could cobble together such a story.

We should be careful not to drift from the message of the gospel because it is not a message to be crafted or tweaked but to be declared.

The Message Received (verse 1c)

On the part of the Corinthians they received it. The idea is repeated in verse 2 and verse 11 though the word “believed” is used; receiving is believing. In verse 1 Paul describes the reality of their reception. It happened.

The Greek word translated received is worth a little meditation. It’s more than “accepting,” it is “taking into close association” (BAGD). It could be used in relationships such as to gain control over a prisoner (i.e., receive him into custody) or to take control as in receive a kingdom (see Hebrews 12:28). The point is not that we capture the gospel or that we inherit the gospel but that this sort of receiving is no passive or weak thing. It’s connected to holding fast the gospel in verse 2.

In a relay race the first runner passes the baton to the next runner grabs and goes with it.

The Message Identifies/Locates (verse 1d)

Paul reminded them next of the gospel in which you stand.

To stand for something means that you have that conviction, you maintain or uphold a truth. To stand with or by someone means that you are alongside them in the fight. To stand up is to fight against or resist something. To stand firm is to hold one’s ground, to be steadfast. These are just some of the things it means to stand, and of course it means not to sit.

But none of those meanings fit well in 1 Corinthians 15:1. They don’t fit with the prepositional phrase either. The gospel is something that believers stand in. We are identified with whatever it is we stand in.

Jesus talked about standing (or not standing) in truth (John 18:44). Paul told the Romans that by faith believers stand in grace (5:2). With the Corinthians we stand in the gospel. Our condition is a gospeled-condition. We are positioned in the gospel.

The first two reminders were in the aorist tense referring to things as done in the past. This reminder is in the perfect tense, a past reality that isn’t merely past but that has present influence.

The Message Saves (verse 2)

The fourth reminder uses a present tense verb, and while it’s not usual for us to speak about being saved maybe we should use this expression more.

It is the gospel by which you are being saved. The gospel is the power, not only to bring us to new life but to sustain our spiritual lives. God births us by the word and then we grow by the word (see 1 Peter 1:23-2:3).

Of the verbs with the Corinthians as subject, this is the only one in the passive mood, meaning that something that is not us is working on and through us. We don’t deliver ourselves, we are being delivered by the power of that word preached.

This reminder about being saved has more to it than the previous reminders, and this is where we get hints of the drifting. We are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you–unless you believed in vain.

The key need, and the condition of salvation, is that we hold fast. This is to keep it in memory, yes, and to not let our grasp on it go. The gospel is saving us by faith as our faith keeps possessing the gospel. Don’t drift from the message.

Those who believe hold on. This is the perseverance of the saints once and once again for all times holding fast to the gospel. Those who “believe” will know no salvation, no successful deliverance, and no resurrection to life.

Conclusion

Believe the gospel again. Don’t drift from the message.

“While graveyards may remind one of the brevity of life, the resurrection ensures the brevity of death.” (Garland)

Are you hurting, afflicted, roughed up, confused, lonely? Remember the good news, remember your identity in it, remember it’s power through you. Hold tight, hold on, hold fast.


Charge

Remember the gospel that you received. Remember the God who receives You. Remember the gospel in which you stand. Remember the God before whom you stand. Remember the gospel by which you are being saved. Remember the God who is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to Him. Remember the gospel that you hold fast. Remember the God who holds you fast.

Benediction:

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Romans 16:25–27, ESV)