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"First Things "

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts          May 2, 2004

Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church

Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts

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Scripture Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:1-8

1 Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand,  2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you-unless you have come to believe in vain. 3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,  4 and that he was buried, and 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 and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  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.

Passing on the Tradition

My grandmother grew up in Hollywood, California, in a large home on the corner of Franklin and Berendo. Hollywood was so different back then: just a few very elegant homes and lots of open space. My grandmother loved roaming the hills with her friends, and she never once worried about her safety.

My grandmother lived with her parents, Cassius and Martha, her brother Marion, and her three sisters, Muriel, Virginia, and C.C. They had a spacious yard with a full-sized tennis court. Under the packed dirt surface of the court lived several trap door spiders, who would peek out when the coast was clear, but slam shut their trap doors whenever my grandmother would come to investigate.

One time while my grandmother's mother was working in the kitchen, an unexpected deep voice called from the screen door. "Hello. Is anybody home?" The voice scared my great-grandmother half to death. When she turned to see who was there, it was a hobo. He wanted to do odd jobs in exchange for food. So my great-grandmother gave him lunch and then he did some chores around the yard. She always liked to help out the hobos, who were always so polite back then.

I could go on and on with stories like these, but I'll stop now. How do I know about my grandmother's life on the corner of Franklin and Berendo? Because she told me about it, again and again and again. In fact much of what I've just told you is verbatim what my grandmother told me. By using the same words over and over again to tell the same stories over and over again, she pressed these words and these events into my psyche, where they'll remain forever. Of course now it's my job to pass all of this along to my children, so they can tell their children, so they can tell their children, and so forth.

Oral Tradition in Early Christianity and 1 Corinthians 15

What I've been describing here is the process of tradition in an oral culture, the intentional passing down of stories and sayings from one generation to another. For millennia human beings have passed on through oral tradition that which they consider to be most important in life.

This was certainly true in the earliest days of Christianity. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, bears testimony to this very practice. "Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received . . . .  For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received . . ." (15:3). Paul is reminding the Corinthians of the process of oral tradition in which they participated together. First, Paul "received" the "good news." Then he "handed on" that news to the Corinthians, who "received" it themselves.

The "good news" passed down through Paul wasn't some amorphous notion, but a very specific, formulaic statement in precise language. This we find in verses 3-5. "For I handed on to you . . . :"

         that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he was buried,
and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he appeared . . . .

The structure, repetition, and cadence of these lines make them easy to memorize and pass along. And that's exactly what Paul did with the Corinthians. He passed on the core of Christian belief, the stuff of "first importance." These are Christian "first things," if you will.

The Point of Christ's Death

The first component of the first things concerns the death of Christ and the point of that death: "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures" (15:3). Notice that this begins with historical fact: Christ died. The core of the Christian message is rooted in history, in God's work on this earth.

But this fact is given a theological interpretation: "Christ died for our sins." There's the point of Jesus' death, from an early Christian perspective. Yes, Jesus was crucified because he offended some Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. And, yes, Jesus was crucified because Pontius Pilate considered him to be a threat to orderly Roman rule in Judea. But beyond these historical reasons there lies a much deeper theological rationale. Christ died for our sins. His death wasn't a terrible accident. It was divinely-planned, God-ordained event with an extraordinary purpose.

How do we know that this is true? Check the statement in verse 3 once again: "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures." The scriptures - by which Paul and the earliest Christians meant the Old Testament - show us the reason for Christ's death.

The first Christians didn't make up this idea, of course. They got it from Jesus himself. During his earthly ministry he connected his death with the suffering Servant in Isaiah. There, as you may recall, the Servant "was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities" (Isa 53:5). Indeed, the Servant of God "bore the sin of many" as he "poured out himself to death" (53:12).

Yet what Jesus said about his death prior to Good Friday was cryptic at best. That's why none of his followers got it. After Easter, however, Jesus himself explained to his disciples how the Old Testament foretold the necessity of his death (Luke 24:26). No doubt Isaiah 53 figured prominently in Jesus' explanation, but it included far more, even "Moses and all the prophets" (24:27). So, following Jesus' own example, the earliest Christians looked to the Old Testament for a way of understanding his death. And there they discovered, time and again, that Jesus died "for our sins."

Sin: A Tough Sell

What was the point of Christ's death? The New Testament answers this question simply: He died "for our sins in accordance with the scriptures." He died so that our sins might be forgiven, so that we might no longer be caught in the deathtrap of rebellion against God, so that we might be set free to enjoy the fullness of life, so that we might be reconciled to God both in this life and in the life to come.

The simple statement that "Christ died for our sins" is not an easy sell today. Many people in our world do not believe that sin is such a terrible problem that it deserves death. What would happen if you were to say something like the following to the average non-Christian person today: "You have sinned and fallen short of God's glory. And the result of sin is death. Therefore you will die - deservedly - because of your sin"? I suggest that most people would disagree with you. "Sure, I'm not perfect," they would say, "but I'm not such a bad person. I'm not nearly so bad as Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden or, say, Martha Stewart. Sure, I've made a few mistakes. But, all in all, I'm a decent person." In other words, though I have sinned, surely the wages of my sin isn't death! Maybe a bit of divine displeasure. Maybe a short visit to Purgatory. But surely not death!" Of course some folks would try to blame others for their sin. "Yes, I've done some bad things, but it's all because my parents messed me up, or because I'm a victim of societal ills, or I felt pressured by others." From this point of view, you can't hold people responsible for their sins. They deserve to be let off easy because they're just a bunch of victims.Unfortunately, that's not how God sees sin. The Bible is very clear that sin - the choice not to submit to God and to act contrary to God's will - is a terrible problem. We who sin - and that's all of us - cannot be in fellowship with a perfect, pure, sinless God, and therefore we deserve and receive eternal death. You may not like. You may not want to believe it. But that's what God's Word says, again and again and again.

And, you see, that's why God went to such extraordinary lengths to set us free from sin. That's why God came in Jesus, the Son of God, to take the penalty for human sin upon himself. God knew that he couldn't merely wink at sin. Yet his love for us meant that he couldn't abandon us to our just desserts either. So God entered human life as Jesus, who was fully God and fully human, so that he might ultimately die on the cross "for our sins."

I've Got Some Good News and Some Bad News

When we share with others our faith in Christ, we might very well preface our remarks by saying, "Well, I've got some good news . . . and some bad news." In the end the good news far outweighs the bad. But along the way we must deliver the bad news, even if people don't want to hear it. The bad news, of course, is what I've already paraphrased above. This time I'll quote directly from Paul's letter to the Romans:

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23).
For the wages of sin is death . . . (Romans 6:23).

Until you grasp and accept this bad news, you're really not ready for the good news.

I've shared with some of you before the story of my grandmother - same one who grew up in idyllic Hollywood. When she was about eighty, she was diagnosed with serious cancer in one of her kidneys. Left untreated, this cancer would grow and soon take her life. The good news was that the cancer was contained and could be eliminated if my grandmother had an operation to have her kidney removed. We were all pleased with this good news - all except my grandmother, who didn't feel that sick and didn't want to believe she had serious cancer. My grandmother's denial was so powerful that she almost refused to have the operation. Finally we prevailed upon her. She had the required surgery and her cancer didn't return. But, to her dying day, I think my grandmother never really believed that she had to have that surgery. The good news "You can be cured" never struck home because she never thought she was sick in the first place.

So it is with the good news of Jesus Christ. We don't experience it as good news until we confront the bad news of our sin. There's no way around it.

What Helps One to Receive the Bad News?

Now, you may be wondering, what will get people in our time of history to admit that they're sinners in need of God's grace? In fact, there are some of you here today who aren't yet convinced that you need divine forgiveness through the death of Christ. So what can we do for others, or even for ourselves?

Let me suggest a couple of things. First, our job as Christians is to pass along the tradition, so to speak. We're to tell others what Jesus did on the cross and what the point was. As we pass on the good news, we must also deliver the bad news of sin. We can't bypass sin no matter how uncomfortable it might be to speak of it. Our job, to put it bluntly, is to tell the truth.

But what if, in the classic phrase of Norman Jessup, someone "can't handle the truth"? What if people don't believe that their sin is bad enough to require a Savior? Here's a good rule of thumb: don't try to convince people that they're really that bad. Don't list out their sins in a noble effort to get them to desire salvation. Don't do it. Wouldn't be prudent! If you've told the truth and somebody can't receive it, your next job is to pray. Ask the Lord to convict someone's heart. According to Jesus, this is the job of the Holy Spirit (John 17:7-9). So let the Lord do the convincing. You to the truth-telling.

Another thing you can do, however, is invite someone to a place where the Holy Spirit is known to be active. Hundreds of millions of Christians throughout history have come to faith, not as they sat alone thinking about their sin, but in the context of corporate worship and preaching. So you might invite a unbelieving friend to church, or to the men's retreat, or to the Harvest Crusade, or to the Billy Graham Crusade in Pasadena this summer.

I want to close with a word for those of you who haven't accepted Jesus as your Savior because, quite frankly, you're not sure you need a Savior. You've heard me pass on today what Christians have passed on for two millennia: the bad news with the good. From a biblical point of view, your sin has separated you from God both now and for eternity. You need a Savior, and Jesus is the One. He died for your sins, so that you might be forgiven. You may not be ready to believe this and to accept Jesus. I respect that. But at least I've told you the truth.

Yet, even if you don't think you're ready to receive salvation from your sin through Christ today, I'd urge you to pray a simple prayer. Even if you're not sure there's a God to hear you, what have you got to lose? Nothing. What have you got to gain? Everything! The prayer is this: "God, I honestly don't believe that my sin is bad enough to need a Savior. But if it is, I'd like to know this. Please convince me of this through your Spirit. Amen." If you pray this prayer honestly, both today and in the days to come, God will answer in his time because he yearns for you to be saved. That's why he sent his Son, after all.

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