1 Corinthians 15:1-4
The gospel (euanggelion = eu [glad/good] + anggelion [tiding/announcement/news]) is the foundation by which the church rises and falls. Then, what is the gospel? In today’s text, the apostle Paul first talks about three elementary truths about the gospel (vv. 1-2), and, then, he offers the core content of the gospel (vv. 3-4).
- The gospel must be verbally preached (v. 1a).
There is so-called “lifestyle evangelism,” which is, instead of directly telling people about the message of the gospel, Christians ought to live their lives righteously as God’s children so that people will see Christ in us. This is not a bad idea because it is entirely biblical (Matt 5:13-16; Phil 2:15; 1 Thess 2:11-12), and sometimes actions speak louder than words. Sadly, however, some Christians use this argument as an excuse not to verbally talk about the gospel to anybody at all. Though it is essential to live out the gospel truths to draw people to Christ, the means by which God converts souls is the verbally preached message of the gospel.
- The gospel is the means by which believers are saved and the foundation on which they stand (vv. 1b-2).
N. T. Wright, prolific and popular New Testament scholar, says, “I must stress that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel.’ It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But ‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved. It is, as we saw in an earlier chapter, the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ” (What Saint Paul Really Said, 158).
No matter how hard scholars, including N. T Wright, try to redefine the gospel, according to “What Saint Paul Really Said,” the gospel is the means by which people get saved: “by which [the gospel] you are saved” (v. 2a). It is true that the gospel is the message of the lordship of Jesus Christ. But what does this message do? It saves those who “receive” it through faith from the bondage of sin and places them under the lordship of Jesus Christ.
The gospel is not only the means by which believers get saved, but also the foundation on which they stand: “Wherein [in the gospel] you stand” (v. 1b; cf. 2 Cor 1:24). It means that any deviation from the gospel which “saves” believers and “in which they stand” puts them in danger of “believing in vain.”
- The gospel was not invented by Paul (v. 3a).
There are some who say that Paul was responsible for the Christianity that we see today and call him “the founder of Christian theology” (e.g., Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, vol. 1, 187). Paul, however, clearly indicates that he was not the inventor of the Christian faith. He says, “I delivered unto you first of all that which [the gospel] I also received.” No single human created the message of the gospel but God (Rom 1:1-4). Thus, the apostle sees it as “of the first importance.” Even Paul had to “receive” this message before passing it on to others. The message of the gospel is what Paul and his fellow-workers preached and the Corinthians believed (v. 11).
- Finally, then, what is the core content of the gospel? The gospel consists of three historical events in the life of Jesus: his death, burial and resurrection (vv. 3-4)
Death. Who died on the cross? It was “Christ,” who was anointed or chosen by God to be the Savior and Lord of the world. His death was for the forgiveness of “our” sins (“for our sins”). He did not die just to become an exemplary martyr, but he died to accomplish a specific goal—offering Himself as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of believers. In other words, Jesus died on behalf of us to satisfy the penalty of our sins and overcome the alienation between God and us because of our sins. This amazing work of the cross has freed us from the bondage of sin and made us slaves of Jesus Christ (Rom 6:1-11). His death was “according to the Scriptures.” The phrase, “according to Scriptures,” probably does not point to a single passage or an extended section of the OT but to the metanarrative or grand storyline of the OT (e.g., the Passover lamb slaughtered at the night before the Exodus, the sacrificial system in which the high priest slaughtered animals and they bore Israel’s sins on the Day of Atonement, the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, who “was bruised for our iniquities” [v. 5] like “a lamb brought to the slaughter” [v. 7], etc.).
Burial. Jesus’ burial implies the reality of his physical death and resurrection. He was neither resuscitated (or regained his conscience) after a short period of a swoon nor was spiritually raised after death. His heart stopped beating after his last breath (Matt 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:45; John 19:30), and his corpse became as cold as the stone bed on which he was laid. Then, the third day came and then he was physically raised from the dead.
Resurrection. The perfect passive in the verb “rose again” (in Greek, “has been raised”) implies that Jesus was both raised by the Father and lives now. The resurrection appointed Him as the powerful Son of God (Rom 1:4) to whom all authority in heaven and on earth is rightfully given (Matt 28:18), conquered death (Rom 6:9), accomplished our justification (Rom 4:25), and gave us “a lively hope” that our bodies will be also resurrected like His was (1 Pet 1:3; 1 Cor 15:21-22). Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s absolute triumph over death and evil spiritual forces is powerfully demonstrated. Again, the Messiah’s resurrection, like His death, was not a new idea but it took place “according to the Scriptures.” The Jews traditionally believed that corruption set in on a corpse on the third day and Jesus’ body did not suffer “corruption” according to Psalm 16:10 (“… neither will thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption”). Jonah was in the belly of the fish for “three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17), and Jesus Himself compared His death to the same historical account (Matt 12:40). Moreover, the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 would continue and enjoy His life even after His vicarious death for the iniquities of God’s people (vv. 10-12). Paul also backs up the certainty of Jesus’ resurrection by mentioning the eyewitnesses of His resurrection (1 Cor 15:5-8).
This is the gospel: As the Old Testament foretold, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, physically died on the place of sinners for the forgiveness of their sins and the freedom from the bondage of sin. And His corpse was buried in the tomb for three days. This proves that he was physically dead. Then, on the third day, according to the predictions in the Old Testament, God made Him alive to live forever as the rightful King of the universe. Have you been saved through receiving this gospel with faith? Have you submitted yourself to this King who deserves your allegiance?
- Explain what the gospel is in your own terms to your partner(s). When and where did you first hear it, and how did you respond to it?
- What does the gospel accomplish? (1 Cor 15:1-2) The text does not mention from what the gospel saved us from. From what are you saved? (Read Rom 6:1-11) How is this truth related to the lordship of Jesus Christ?
- Who invented the gospel? (1 Cor 15:2; see also Rom 1:1-4) Why is this truth so important in the context of our society filled with false religions, including the groups that use the name of Christianity, that promote different ways to salvation?
- What are the three elements of the core content of the gospel? (1 Cor 15:3-4) The second element of the gospel has been somewhat neglected among believers. Why is this element important in the gospel message?
- What assurance does the message of the gospel give you? How does it impact your heart? (Read John 3:16; 2 Cor 5:14-15)