Paul traveled to Jerusalem knowing full well that he would be arrested. He correctly suspected that this arrest would eventually lead to His execution, though the Holy Spirit assured him that he would reach Rome before his death. During his introductory trial in Jerusalem, he explained the reason that the Jews demanded his execution:
But perceiving that one group were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!” ~~Acts 23:6 (NASB95)
In our still comfortable American culture, very few people would seriously consider putting Christians to death simply because we proclaim Christ’s resurrection. Sure, they might question our sanity, or ask us not to bother them with our “religious nonsense,” but generally they treat us with a condescending tolerance while they celebrate the holiday with mythical bunnies and colored eggs. The idea of Paul risking his life rather than renounce his belief in Christ’s resurrection seems a bit foreign to us.
It shouldn’t. Many of us already suffer mild persecution for speaking against popular forms of sin. Those of you who stay home to homeschool your children know the pressure exerted by feminists who assume you’re wasting your lives and allowing your husbands to coerce you into submission. Those of you who oppose abortion and/or the LBGTQ agenda have been called terrible names. Even now, when persecution is relatively mild, standing for Christ carries a cost.
Despite the high cost that Paul knowingly faced, he couldn’t consider the mere thought of ignoring Christ’s resurrection. Just as His death is essential to the salvation of all who believe in Him, so is his resurrection the bedrock of our faith. The whole chapter of 1 Corinthians 15 lays out a case for its historicity and then continues with an application. Paul tells us that Christ’s resurrection makes sense of Christianity as a whole.
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, not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. 15 Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; 17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. ~~1 Corinthians 15:12-19 (NASB95)
I could write several posts working through this passage, which beautifully argues against the heresy that there’s no life after death, but I would prefer to concentrate on verse 19. This verse demonstrates that. unless our relationship with Christ results in eternal reward, people ought to pity us for risking so much to defend our belief in Him.
Some commentators suggest that Paul means the apostles are “people most to be pitied” because of the particularly high level of suffering they endured for the sake of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 4:9-13). And no one disagrees that they suffered in greater degree than most other Christians. Yet Paul willingly gave his life because he was absolutely convinced that the Lord would more than make up for everything he endured for the sake of the Gospel.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. ~~Romans 8:18 (NASB95)
Paul’s conviction on the hope offered in the resurrection of Jesus Christ must be the conviction of every Christian. Jesus taught that believers should expect persecution for the Gospel, as seen in Scriptures such as Matthew 24:9 and John 16:1-4. But without faith that we will receive a reward in eternity, we lack any motivation for undergoing that level of persecution and self-denial. Therefore all Christians should be pitied for putting ourselves in hard circumstances if we won’t derive any benefit.
Paul’s words don’t necessarily mean that the Christian life is joyless. Rather, he here wants to emphasize that we make sacrifices that unbelievers find incomprehensible precisely because of our faith that we will follow Christ in resurrection. If, however, there is no resurrection, we’ve placed our hope in an illusion. People should pity us as fools!
Maybe none of us will have to face actual death because of our faith in Christ, but some of us very well might. America is changing rapidly, with political leaders who vehemently oppose anything that God’s Word teaches. In time, Christians will be commanded to renounce Christ, and we will not be tolerated if we cling to His resurrection. But that resurrection will give us all the strength we need to suffer, and perhaps even die — for Him.