April 30, 2010

Our Helper, Keeper, and Preserver: Psalm 121

1 I will lift up my eyes to the hills—
From whence comes my help?
2 My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not allow your foot to be moved;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
4 Behold, He who keeps Israel
Shall neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The LORD is your keeper;
The LORD is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
7 The LORD shall preserve you from all evil;
He shall preserve your soul.
8 The LORD shall preserve your going out and your coming in
From this time forth, and even forevermore.

Psalm 121 is the second of 15 “Psalms of Ascent” (Psalms 120-134). These psalms were sung by Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem one the three feasts in Jerusalem: (1) Unleavened Bread, (2) Pentecost, and (3) Tabernacles.

These feasts, or “holy days,” were of vital importance to the people of Israel. The Feast of Unleavened Bread signified purification from sin and was observed for seven days (all deemed to be Sabbaths) immediately following Passover. Pentecost was celebrated 50 days after Passover and featured the presentation of first fruits at the Temple. Tabernacles (or “Booths” in some translations) memorializes the wilderness years, when God led the people of Israel out of Egypt and to the Promised Land.

Psalm 121 acknowledges God’s character in preserving and protecting His people:

God is our helper (1-2)

1 I will lift up my eyes to the hills—
From whence comes my help?
2 My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.

As the pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate a feast, they traveled uphill for several miles. Jerusalem is 2,700 feet above sea level, higher than most other hills in the land. The summits of various hills in the land were the supposed dwelling places of the pagan gods. In the opening verses of this psalm, the psalmist notes the contrast between the God of Israel and all the supposed deities worshiped by the pagan peoples in the land. In contrast to the many false deities that the pagans worshiped and relied on for help and protection, the psalmist here affirms that the God is the source of unseen power in times of trouble or insecurity.

The psalmist is saying: “Where is my security?” or “On Whom do I rely for assistance?” The answer comes in verse 2: “My help comes from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth.” The psalmist refers to God as “Adonai,” the name of God which means “Supreme Lord,” thus stressing the contrast between the true God and His power and the false pagan gods who are regarded as having power, but who do not.

The reference to God as “the Lord, Who made heaven and earth” is a a common reference to God by the Israelites. The pagans in the land liked to point to their carved idols and point out to the Israelites that they had no visible God. The response from the psalmist is that Adonai (“the supreme Lord”) made heaven and earth. Consequently, all of the universe is testimony of the one and only true God and Creator, as contrasted with the man-made idols of the pagans. The whole universe is the testimony of the true God’s existence and His constant presence. There could be no adequate response from pagans to this truth.

Paul uses this argument in Romans 1 to point out that there is no excuse for unbelief and idolatry:

20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.
—Romans 1:20-23

It is thought that the structure of this psalm may be responsive. The people recite or sing verses 1 and 2, and a priest or worship leader recites or sings verses 3-8. (Note the use of “my” in the first two verses and the shift to “your” in verses 3-8.)

God is our protector (keeper) (3-6)

3 He will not allow your foot to be moved;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
4 Behold, He who keeps Israel
Shall neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The LORD is your keeper;
The LORD is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
Nor the moon by night.

The psalmist points out that God will not permit or grant anyone or anything to dislodge the child of God, which reminds the people of God’s characteristic of personal, minute-to-minute attention and care, both physical care and spiritual. He never sleeps nor takes His attention off of His people (the emphasis is vigilant care; all the time, day and night, never stopping His care for us). This word (“keep”) literally means to have charge of and protect, like a shepherd cares for his sheep.

The Psalms use this idea of God as their shepherd frequently, the most familiar being in Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” The Israelites recognized God's personal care for them as individuals, as well as His care for Israel as a nation. Unlike the secular culture of the U.S., the Israelites knew Him as their God with Whom the could have a personal relationship and as their God Who led and preserved the nation Israel.

Verse 4 emphasizes His vigilance, and verses 5-6 emphasize His specific role as protector. This was an important assurance and expression of faith for the for the Israelites. It also is an appropriate affirmation as they walk the many miles to Jerusalem, because they were not only at the mercy of the elements, but also in danger of highwaymen while traveling. The references to heat of the day and and the danger at night also can be seen as metaphors for His protection and preservation of His people facing any personal danger or calamity.

He is our preserver (7-8)

7 The LORD shall preserve you from all evil;
He shall preserve your soul.
8 The LORD shall preserve your going out and your coming in
From this time forth, and even forevermore.

The Hebrew word translated “keep” in verse 4 is translated “preserve” in verses 7-8 (some English translations render it “guard”). One word in the original language can have several different shades of meaning in translation as it is used in various contexts. In this case, “keep” can denote keep, guard, preserve, have charge of, protect, or watch over.

The idea of the relationship of the shepherd to the sheep applies here in verses 7 and 8, too. The shepherd's role is not just to take charge over the flock, but also to defend and protect the sheep from predators. The term “watchman” (the night watchmen or guards watching from the city walls for any approaching enemy) is from the same term (see Psalm 127:1: “Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it; Unless the LORD guards the city, The watchman stays awake in vain.”)

So protecting and preserving us is one of God’s character qualities, just as the shepherd lives with his sheep, watches for danger and steers the flock away from danger, guides them, protects them from predators, and in doing all of this preserves the flock.

God protects (“keeps”) us from evil—that is, from the influence of evil as well as the acts of evildoers. The idea here also is protection from harm, which may apply to physical, material, or spiritual harm. He protects and preserves (“keeps”) our souls; the context is that we will not be overcome by or separated from Him by evil because of His preserving influence. He guards (“keeps”) our going out and our coming in (a common Hebrew expression to mean the whole of life, our every moment and every activity). Verse 8 affirms that His protection and preservation of us are constant, minute by minute, forever.

April 10, 2010

Which God?: Judges 8:22-35

In our study of the book of Judges so far, we encountered Gideon in chapters 7 and 8. We found Gideon, the man whom God called “mighty man of valor,” hiding in his winepress to thresh the wheat harvest. The people of Israel were dominated by the Midianites, who would swoop into the land during times of planting and harvest and destroy the crops. Remember, the Israelites possessed very few weapons and had only farm implements with which to defend themselves against the swords, spears, and chariots of the Midianites. Hiding in the winepress doesn't exactly tell us Gideon was a "mighty man of valor," but God knew Gideon's potential, just as He knows ours.

Who were the Midianites? They also are called Ishmaelites, a more general reference that includes many nomadic peoples, including the people of Midian. They are the ancestors of the Arab peoples today. The Midianites were nomadic shepherds and would travel from pasture to pasture and oasis to oasis during most of the year for their sheep and goats to graze. They would gather together in large groups during spring when lambs were born, when they would trade, find brides, and conduct other community affairs.

The Midianites lived in tents made of cloth of woven goat hair. Both the men and the women wore loose tunics, and the women wore veils. The Midianites ranged widely throughout the Middle East. Midianite pottery has been found in Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Southern Israel (the Negev Desert), and the Sinai Peninsula.

We have encountered the Midianites before as we have studied the Old Testament. Joseph’s brothers sold him to Midianites (Genesis 37:28); Moses spent 40 years in Midian after murdering the Egyptian (Exodus 2:11-15); and Moses married Zipporah the daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian (Exodus 2:21). The Midianites in Gideon’s day worshiped many gods, including Ba’al and Ashtoreth, both commonly worshiped by many peoples of the Middle East.

As our passage opens today, the battle which Gideon led against the Midianites is over, the Israelites were victorious, and now the people ask Gideon to be their king:

22 Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, both you and your son, and your grandson also; for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian.” 23 But Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you.”

24 Then Gideon said to them, “I would like to make a request of you, that each of you would give me the earrings from his plunder.” For they had golden earrings, because they were Ishmaelites. 25 So they answered, “We will gladly give them.” And they spread out a garment, and each man threw into it the earrings from his plunder. 26 Now the weight of the gold earrings that he requested was one thousand seven hundred shekels of gold, besides the crescent ornaments, pendants, and purple robes which were on the kings of Midian, and besides the chains that were around their camels’ necks.

27 Then Gideon made it into an ephod and set it up in his city, Ophrah. And all Israel played the harlot with it there. It became a snare to Gideon and to his house. 28 Thus Midian was subdued before the children of Israel, so that they lifted their heads no more. And the country was quiet for forty years in the days of Gideon.

29 Then Jerubbaal the son of Joash went and dwelt in his own house. 30 Gideon had seventy sons who were his own offspring, for he had many wives. 31 And his concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, whose name he called Abimelech. 32 Now Gideon the son of Joash died at a good old age, and was buried in the tomb of Joash his father, in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.

33 So it was, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the children of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made Baal-Berith their god. 34 Thus the children of Israel did not remember the LORD their God, who had delivered them from the hands of all their enemies on every side; 35 nor did they show kindness to the house of Jerubbaal (Gideon) in accordance with the good he had done for Israel.
Judges 8:22-35
(Gideon is referred to in verse 35 as "Jerubbaal," which means "contended with Ba'al." Gideon had destroyed the altar to Ba'al in Ophrah, his hometown.)

The call for a king (22-23)

“Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, ‘Rule over us, both you and your son, and your grandson also; for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian’” (verse 22).

The Israelites wanted one of their own to rule over them and offered the kingship to Gideon. The people recognized his spiritual qualifications and leadership abilities. He had led them in a miraculous victory to deliver them from the enemy The Lord obviously was with him and even spoke to him, as He spoke to the prophets. Under the Lord’s guidance, Gideon reduced the army from thousands to 300, an impossibly small army for any victory other than with God’s miraculous help. And now they wanted to have a king, like all the other peoples around them, and they felt Gideon would be the perfect, godly choice to rule over them.

But Gideon refused, saying, “I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you.” Gideon corrected their error, reminding the people that the Lord was their king.

The same request would be made again two or three centuries later, with different results. We read about it in 1 Samuel 10:17-25, where the desire for a king is called the rejection of the Lord:

17 Then Samuel called the people together to the LORD at Mizpah, 18 and said to the children of Israel, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all kingdoms and from those who oppressed you.’ 19 But you have today rejected your God, who Himself saved you from all your adversities and your tribulations; and you have said to Him, ‘No, set a king over us!’ Now therefore, present yourselves before the Lord by your tribes and by your clans.”

20 And when Samuel had caused all the tribes of Israel to come near, the tribe of Benjamin was chosen. 21 When he had caused the tribe of Benjamin to come near by their families, the family of Matri was chosen. And Saul the son of Kish was chosen. But when they sought him, he could not be found. 22 Therefore they inquired of the Lord further, “Has the man come here yet?” And the LORD answered, “There he is, hidden among the equipment.” 23 So they ran and brought him from there; and when he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward. 24 And Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see him whom the Lord has chosen, that there is no one like him among all the people?” So all the people shouted and said, “Long live the king!”

25 Then Samuel explained to the people the behavior of royalty, and wrote it in a book and laid it up before the LORD. And Samuel sent all the people away, every man to his house.
1 Samuel 10:17-25

The Lord allowed Saul to be king only because His people had rejected Him. God always intended that the nation of Israel to be a theocracy, ruled by God Himself, their king and redeemer. But the people rejected God's will for their nation, wanting to be more like the cultures around them.

Gideon asks for gold (24-26)

The desert nomads wore gold jewelry. The men wore gold earrings, and the spoils of victory consisted of the Ishmaelites’ gold jewelry, including the earrings worn by the men.

Gideon asked for the earrings plundered from the defeated enemy. The men gladly gave the earrings to Gideon—it was the least they could do for the one who had led them to so decisive a victory. A garment was spread out on the ground, and each man tossed in the earring or earrings he had taken from the defeated enemy, with the total weight being 1,700 shekels (42 pounds), about $800,000 in today’s value. Gideon’s plunder also included gold ornaments, pendants, gold chains that were on the Midianites’ camels, and the purple royal robes of the Midianite kings.

Many condemn Gideon for asking for the gold from the men, but this may have been the cultural practice for the leader of the victorious army.

But what Gideon did with the gold led the Israelites into idolatry once more.

Gideon’s ephod (27)

Gideon used the gold to make an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his hometown. The chief priest wore an ephod during some ceremonies. The ephod signified spiritual wisdom and knowledge. The chief priest also wore a breastplate over the ephod, and the breastplate held the urim and thumim, probably in a pocket. The urim and thummim are not described in any detail in the Old Testament, other than they were two objects used to by the high priest when making an inquiry of the Lord to discern His will, probably through a series of yes/no questions.

In the books of Exodus and Leviticus an ephod is described as being created for the Kohen Gadol (Jewish high priest) to wear as part of his religious vestments (see Exodus 28:4, 29:5, 29:2; Leviticus 8:7). In the Books of Samuel, David is described as wearing an ephod when dancing in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:14), and an ephod is described as standing in the sanctuary at Nob, with a sword behind it (1 Samuel 21:9).

A precise description of the ephod is not available. It is thought typically to be made of linen, trimmed with gold threads, but Gideon may have cast or hammered a solid gold ephod or made one using smaller gold pieces that were interlinked to form a type of apron or garment that hung on straps from the shoulders. While ephods were intended only for the high priest, we know from this chapter of Judges, as well as Judges 17:5, that ephods were also converted to use in worship of the false gods of the Canaanites.

The ephod continues to influence Christian worship to this day. In the early Christian church, vestments for the pastor and bishops evolved from the Jewish practice of using the ephod by the chief priest. Vestments are still used today in the catholic church and many protestant churches.

Gideon placed the golden ephod in his hometown, where, a short time before, he had destroyed the altar to Ba'al and replaced it with an altar to the Lord. His ephod may have started out as a memorial to the Lord’s role in the defeat of the Midianites. It also is possible that Gideon may have wanted people to remember that he led the Israelites in the battle. However, sometime during the next 40 years of peace in the land, the ephod itself became an idol, an object of worship.

The cycle of sin continues (27-35)

The text tells us that there was peace in the land for 40 years. But during that 40-year period, the ephod, which was likely displayed close to the altar Gideon had built at Ophrah, became an object of worship, and the ephod (v. 27) “became a snare to Gideon and his house.”

This was an unintended consequence. Instead of worshiping the Lord, the people gradually began worshiping the ephod itself, which was symbolic of the victory the Lord had given them. And after Gideon’s death, the people of Israel took the next step: they turned away from the Lord completely to the worship of Ba’al, a Canaanite false god. It was not that they forgot their Lord, who had delivered them from their enemies (verse 24), but they purposely rejected Him in favor of a false god of the culture around them.

And when they turned away from their Lord, “nor did they show kindness to the house of Gideon.” In rejecting their Lord, the Israelites also turned away from honoring Gideon, through whom the Lord had rescued them from their enemy. It could be that the people forgot what Gideon had done, or that they simply did not feel that Gideon deserved recognition for his part in leading them to defeat the Midianites, or that the worship of the false god Ba'al-Berith trumped any association with their Lord.

So the Israelites turned to the false god Ba’al-Berith. Ba’al-Berith means “Ba’al of the Covenant” or “Covenant Ba’al.” Ba’al-Berith was represented by an idol carved to look like a fly. Jewish tradition tells us that the Israelites were so addicted to this idol that they always would carry a small carved image of the fly with them and would take it out from time to time to kiss it. The name “Ba'al-Berith” may signify that the Israelites had made a covenant of devotion with this false god (Hebrew berit means “covenant”) and Ba'al's covenant to them as their god and caregiver. Whatever the precise meaning, the Israelites were unwilling to part with the idol for a single moment.

Personal applications

The Lord had seen Gideon as a “mighty warrior” when Gideon was hiding from the Midianites in his winepress. Over time, chapters 7 and 8 show us that Gideon’s faith increased, from a wavering faith that demanded confirmations to a mature faith that motivated him to act without question as he obeyed the Lord.

He is the same Lord today. He sees us for what we can become as His child, as our faith grows and we trust Him more and more. And we face challenges just as Gideon did. Maybe we are not tempted by the idols and false gods that are still worshipped throughout the world, but we do face temptations of other kinds that vie to become our false gods: wealth, all the material “stuff” that we want, lust, self-centeredness—anything that replaces our Lord as the objects of our attention, our love, and our desires.

But as maturing Christians, we can easily see the snare, the entrapment. The temptations that appear in front of us fade as we, like Gideon, grow in our faith and focus on our Lord, learn to know Him more intimately, and trust Him more and more each day.

April 4, 2010

The Resurrection: 1 Corinthians 15:1-28

A Sermon for Easter 2010

1 Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. 8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.

9 For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy 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; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. 11 Therefore, whether it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

12 Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. 14 And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. 15 Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up, if in fact the dead do not rise. 16 For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. 17 And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! 18 Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.
20 But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. 23 But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. 24 Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. 27 For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. 28 Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.
—1 Corinthians 15:1-28

Throughout the church age, there have been a few in every generation who have speculated that Jesus did not really rise from the dead. This speculation grew especially beginning in the 18th century, when some influential scholars began questioning the source of the scripture and subjecting its claims to scientific validation.

Their theories to account for the gospels’ accounts of his crucifixion, death, and resurrection go to great lengths to support their position as skeptics. Some postulated that Jesus merely fainted on the cross, rather than dying. Others say the disciples took His body from the grave and His appearances after that were spiritual, not physical. One of the most far out theories is that His crucifixion and death were merely shared hallucinations.

The doubts about His resurrection were planted in the very beginning, according to the gospel of Matthew, when on the morning of the resurrection the chief priests and elders bribed the guards and told them to say that Jesus’ disciples came during the night and stole His body:

Now while they were going, behold, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all the things that had happened. When they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, “Tell them, ‘His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will appease him and make you secure.” So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.
—Matthew 28:11-15

In our passage for today (1 Corinthians 15:1-28), Paul explains the truth about the resurrection of Jesus. He addressed this subject in this letter because, among all of the other problems in the Corinthian church, the Corinthian Christians were arguing about whether or not there was a resurrection from the dead.

Paul makes three primary points in verses 1-28:

Christ rose from the dead (verse 4)

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the very substance of the gospel, which Paul preached in all his missionary travels and in his epistles. Here in verses 3 and 4, Paul makes it clear what the Gospel is: “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: 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.”

That is the gospel: that Jesus was crucified and buried and then rose from the dead, just as the Scriptures reveal. Jesus’ rising from the dead often is the most difficult part for people to accept. After all, rising from the dead is not something within our experiences. So Paul makes it clear to the Corinthians that hundreds of people witnessed the risen Christ. And, suspecting that there would have been some skeptics who might say, “Yeah, right, Paul,” he noted that most of these eyewitnesses are still living at the time of his writing, which was about 25 years after the resurrection (verse 6). Paul was telling them, “if anyone has any questions, go and talk to these people who saw the risen Christ with their own eyes.”

Paul goes on to say in verse 8, “and last of all he appeared to me also, as one born out of due time” (some translations, “one abnormally born”). Jesus appeared to Paul within the first couple of years after the crucifixion and resurrection. We remember that Paul, then called Saul, was on his way to Damascus to find and arrest Christians, when Jesus appeared to him. That encounter enabled Paul to become an apostle even though he was not an original eyewitness of the resurrection, as were all the other apostles. So Paul refers to himself as “one born out of due time” (or “one abnormally born”), compared to the other apostles. He, too, had seen and talked to the resurrected Savior, just as the other apostles but at a later time.

Paul’s second point is:

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen (verse 13)

Paul was puzzled by some of the thinking in Corinth, because the resurrection was already established as fact and part of the experience of hundreds of Christians still living and worshiping in the early church. Since Christ rose from the dead, then the resurrection exists; but if the resurrection did not exist, then Christ could not have risen from the dead.

In verse 12, Paul asks his readers how they could preach that Jesus rose from the dead, while at the same time some of the people in that church argued that there is no resurrection from the dead. Paul saw an essential link between Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of other believers. To deny one, he is telling them, is to deny both. To say that one could not happen, is to imply that the other could not happen. The conclusion of his logic is that if one believes that believers in Christ who have died will not be resurrected, then that implies that Jesus could not have risen from the dead. He then goes on to declare what the impact of that would be. Look at the points Paul makes that would necessarily stem from a belief that Christ is not raised:

Our preaching would be empty (meaning "useless"): it makes no sense at all to go out and tell others about Jesus if he is still dead (verse 14)

Our faith would be empty (useless, verse 14)

The apostles would be false witnesses (that is, they had to be lying if there is no resurrection, verse 15)

Our faith would be futile (verse 17)

We would still be in our sins rather than forgiven (verse 17); that is, His death did not redeem us

Those Christians who have already died were still lost (verse 18)

We of all people are to be pitied: because we have a false hope (verse 19; in other words, we would have no reason to believe any of the promises Jesus made, if He did not make good on his promise to rise from the dead).

Paul's third point is:

Christ is the first of those risen from the dead (verse 20)

Paul firmly tells them that Jesus indeed rose from the dead. He is “firstfruits” of those who have fallen asleep. “Firstfruits”refers to the first of the harvest, which Christians dedicated to God by giving it to the church. In Jewish history, the firstfruits of the harvest was given at the Temple. This was an important tradition. The Christians brought their tithes and offerings to the church in the form of the firstfruits of the harvest. This is thought to be the major source of income for the 1st century church.

When Paul refers to “those who have fallen asleep,” He is using the 1st century euphemism for those who have died. The resurrection, he reasons, makes our death something temporary, so in a sense our bodies are sleeping in the grave, waiting to be awakened by the Lord at the resurrection.

In verses 21 and 22 he notes that Jesus is the source of resurrection and life, just as Adam was the source of sin and death. In verse 23, he repeats that Jesus’ resurrection is the firstfruits. Jesus’ resurrection is the demonstration of the promise that those who trust in Him will be resurrected as well.

But, he points out, this will not happen until the end of the age. Look at verses 24-26: “Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.”

Paul is making a strong doctrinal point, but also offering assurance of the resurrection to the Corinthian Christian s. The resurrection of Jesus, he reasons, is the solid evidence of the conquest of death and our assurance that death has been totally defeated for us, a fact we will experience when Christ returns and our resurrection occurs. Jesus’ resurrection marked the end of the reign of sin and death.

Some personal applicatons

Because of the resurrection of Christ we do not need to fear death

As Christians we know that there is much to look forward to in death: we will be in heaven with our Lord, and we will be changed, with no more sin, no more pain, and no more sorrow. At His return, we will be raised to be with Him, unlike those who are without Christ, who have no hope: “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

The reason we have that hope and can face death with courage, knowing that we will be raised, is the resurrection of Jesus.

Because of the resurrection of Christ we have confidence in the power of God

Raising Jesus from the dead is the ultimate evidence of God’s mighty power:

Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.
—Ephesians 1:15-20

Because of the resurrection, we can see our lives in context

Finally, the resurrection of Christ and what it means for us gives us knowledge of the true context of our existence.

For example, the car we drive or the home we own are not so important as how we treat people around us. That is the true context that helps give meaning to life in the eternal prospective in which we live. The size of our bank account is of no importance, compared to our willingness to share what we have with others in need. Our successes—academic achievements, building a large business, our accomplishments as athletes, etc.—are unimportant compared to our faithful service to the Lord and to His church.

Because the resurrection is a reality, the most important goal we can have is that one day, when this life is over, the Lord will say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”