The Foundation of the Gospel
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 15:1–15:11
“THE FOUNDATION OF THE GOSPEL”
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
1Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, 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 at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 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. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy 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. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
It is a question that has plagued humanity since the dawn of time, and one that continues to be asked whenever we are forced to face our own mortality: “If a man dies, shall he live again?” (Job 14:14).
What person among us has not given thought to the inevitability of his or her death? The Bible tells us that it is the common fate of us all (cf. Hebrews 9:27). That being said, we remain uncomfortable in talking about it. We may even try to push it as far from our conversations as we can. It isn’t that death is uncertain...the uncertainty lies with “what’s next?”
It is quite likely that the Apostle Paul anticipated questions of that sort when he neared the conclusion of his letter to the Corinthian church. It was, you recall, a church beset with carnal attitudes and internal conflicts. The writer has labored extensively in calling them back to the essential truths regarding Christian living and worship that he had first taught them when he had planted the church in that city. It was essential that they “get it right.”
In its entirety, 1 Corinthians 15 represents a call to return to the essentials of the Christian faith. Jerry Bridges, who himself just recently passed away and who is now experiencing the truths that he courageously defended for many years, regularly reminded believers to “preach the Gospel to yourself every day.”
“The gospel” is where we must begin...it is where we must remain...and it is where we must end. That is because “the gospel” is the only thing that will sustain us through both life and death. The main subject of this chapter is the resurrection, and it answers for us that age old question. “Yes! If a man dies he will live again.” God’s Word assures us of that. But before we get there, we must first of all understand the foundation for our belief. And that is where “the gospel” comes in. Therefore, that is why Paul begins where he does.
Within these first eleven verses of chapter 15, the apostle wants us to understand three essential facts about “the gospel”: it is theologically sound, it is historically sure, and it is personally significant. We’ll take those one at a time.
In the first place, in verses 1 and 2, we see that...
The “gospel” is theologically sound (verses 1-2).
The transition from chapter 14 is rather abrupt. It has been proposed that Paul, after spending several chapters correcting the practical and theological errors of his readers, is anxious to get to the heart of the epistle, the essence of what he most truly wants to tell them. So he begins by addressing his favorite topic: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel.” Not “a gospel,” but “the gospel,” for there is no other “gospel” other than the one Paul had consistently “preached” to them. All other so-called “gospels” are “contrary” to the one true “gospel” of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Galatians 1:6-9).
The word (“ευαγγελιον”) actually means “good news” or “glad tidings.” It was a fairly common word in that day, but with the advent of Christ—and especially following His resurrection—it became something of a technical term used by Christians. Most of its occurrences in the New Testament are found in the writings of Paul. In fact, in both verses 1 and 2, he uses the verbal form in saying “I preached to you.” Literally it reads, “I preached the good news (or the gospel”) to you.”
In this opening statement, the writer elaborates on “the gospel” through a series of four statements which provide “links in a chain” emphasizing its crucial importance to their lives. Notice them in your Bible:
- • In the first place, as we have already observed, “the gospel...(was) preached” to them and the apostle himself was the one who had brought them the message,
- • Secondly, “the gospel...(was) received” by them. It was accepted by the Corinthians as true and had been firmly believed. Paul’s statement at the end of verse 2—“unless you believed in vain”—is more of a hypothetical construct. He isn’t questioning their “belief,” but is holding up for scrutiny the reality of the “gospel” he had proclaimed.
- • Then third, it was “the gospel...in which...(they had taken their) stand.” The word means “to become established.” The believers in Corinth had committed themselves to it. The reference here could possibly refer to their baptism, which is one’s first public declaration of faith.
- • And finally, it was “the gospel...by which...(they were) being saved.” The use of the present tense here does not suggest a “process” along which they were moving in order to secure their salvation, but the “continuous” efficacy of “the gospel” in their lives.
As Paul will proceed to argue, the theological basis for this “gospel” that had been “preached” and “received,” and which the Corinthians now “stood” and were “being saved,” was the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Believing firmly includes “hold(ing) fast” to the assurance of Jesus being raised from the dead. The truth of the matter is, if you believe anything that denies His resurrection, it is a “vain” belief.
What about you? You may have heard “the gospel” preached many times, but have you “believed” it, and have you “received” it? Have you embraced it and entrusted yourself to its claims? If so, have you taken your public stand for Jesus by being publicly identified with him through baptism and uniting with a local church. If not, there where is the evidence that you have actually experienced salvation as it is being described for us here? You may want to consider those questions as we continue through this chapter together.
In addition to reminding us that itis theologically sound, the apostle also wants us to understand that...
The “gospel” is historically sure (verses 3-9).
One writer has described verses 3 through 9 as “the bare bones of the Gospel that saves.” To express it another way, what we find here is an explanation the “basic content” of “the gospel.” Paul calls it “of first importance.” In other words, these historical facts are critical if the message of “the gospel” is to be clearly understood and communicated.
Countless attempts have been made throughout the centuries to debunk the historicity of Jesus Christ, particularly as it relates to His death and resurrection. That should not surprise us because, as Paul explains, those are the events that provide the very foundation of the “gospel” message. And a disbelieving world will always try to disprove it.
There are four such historical facts that the writer puts forth in demonstrating the content of “the gospel.” Notice that Paul says that he had “received” these truths and now he was passing them along. That is how the spread of “the gospel” takes hold. Salvation must be “taught” before it can be “caught.” “Faith comes from hearing...the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
The first of these substantiated historical facts is that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” The crucifixion is not a myth or a fable; it was a verifiable historical truth. The Babylonian Talmud dates back to the 4th-century and is considered a central text of Rabbinic Judaism. Incredibly, within this ancient Jewish writing we read this account:
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu (the Hebrew name for “Jesus”) was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor let him come forward and plead on his behalf.” But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.
Even though these Jewish writings do not in any way acknowledge Jesus as the “Messiah,” they nevertheless bear early historic testimony to His death.
By mentioning “the Scriptures,” it is believed that Paul is not making reference to a single verse or “proof text,” but rather to the climax of events regarding salvation history as progressively disclosed throughout the Old Testament. The substitutionary (“‘υπερ”) death of the Messiah was foretold by the prophets and was something anticipated by every God-fearing person (cf. Isaiah 53).
The second historical fact is that Christ “was buried.” Simply put, burial confirms the death of an individual. The fact that Jesus was “buried” argues that His death was real. It was a dead body—not merely one that had suffered from asphyxia and had passed out—that was laid in the tomb.
Third, we are told that Christ “was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” Once again, Paul cites “the Scriptures” as bearing witness to the truth that Jesus’ resurrection had been foretold. Perhaps this is what Job had in mind when he said centuries earlier, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25). But again, it is more likely that Paul was drawing upon the entire tenor of the Old Testament writings. It is difficult to say with confidence how much the Old Testament Jew understood about “resurrection.” They certainly believed in an “afterlife,” as well as in a national restoration based on Gods promises. But Paul’s argument here extends much further than that. The apostle is contending with these words that Jesus was raised from the dead corporeally, that is in bodily form. In His resurrection Jesus possessed an actual human body.
The comprehension of that fact is critical to our understanding of the rest of this chapter. In fact, Jesus’ resurrection was a foreshadowing of our own. Paul will go on to demonstrate that had not Christ been “raised,” there would be no “gospel”...plenty of religion, perhaps, but no “gospel.”
The fourth of the historical facts that the apostle puts forth is that Christ “appeared.” The original text says that He “was seen,” and Paul proceeds to bring an entire roster of eyewitnesses to the stand to testify that they had seen with their own eyes the once-dead-now-living Lord. Paul did not mean for this list to be exhaustive. He could have included many others, such as the women at the tomb on the morning when the tomb was found to be empty and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus at the close of that day. But these would suffice.
The apostle did not intend for his list to provide “proofs” of Christ’s resurrection. That is because “proofs” are only valid for those who believe. Nevertheless, they were—as an apologist might argue—“evidence that demands a verdict.” In fact, Luke tells us in Acts 1:3 that Jesus “presented himself alive... after his suffering by many proofs, appearing... during forty days and speaking...about the kingdom of God.”
That being said, the list of witnesses who Paul claims “saw” the risen Christ is quite impressive. Look with me again at verses 5 through 8:
“He appeared to Cephas (that is, Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom (were) still alive (when Paul wrote these words), though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James (the brother of Jesus), then to all the apostles. Last of all (Paul concludes his list), as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
Permit me just a few marginal comments before moving on, because this is such a rich section.
- • In the first place, “the twelve” in verse 5 would have reference to the original group of disciples (excluding Judas) whom Jesus called to Himself and who followed Him throughout His public ministry.
- • Next, the phrase “fallen asleep” is used exclusively in reference to the death of a Christian. Never is it used in speaking of the death of an unbeliever. Paul employs the term (“κοιμαω”) six times in this epistle, four times in this chapter alone. What a beautiful description of the passing from this life of one who is “in Christ.”
- • Then, the reference to “all the apostles” in verse 7 indicates that there were those—in addition to “the twelve”—who were designated as “apostles.” We think of Matthias and Barnabas, and most notably was Paul himself.
- • And that takes us to Paul’s own testimony. He, too, saw the risen Lord, but not in the manner the other “apostles” had. His was as one “untimely born.” A literal reading of that word (“εκτρωμα”) refers to one who has been “ripped from the womb.” It was used of a premature birth, a miscarriage, and—perhaps as Paul intended it—an abortion. What a graphic description of how the Lord “ripped” Saul of Tarsus—the “persecutor” of “the church of God”—out of the world and claimed him as His own, transforming Him through “the gospel” of His saving grace into Paul the preacher. Like all of us, he had been “dead in trespasses in sins” (cf. Ephesians 2:1), but a blinding encounter with the resurrected Jesus gave him life and set him on a course, the impact of which continues to be felt in our generation.
Is it any wonder that Paul felt himself to be “the least of the apostles” and “unworthy to be called an apostle”? That is why his was no “seeker-sensitive gospel” that begins with “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Rather, it was one that emphasized the unassailable truth we are all sinners and in need of the saving work that Jesus Christ came to do on our behalf through His death and resurrection. That Jesus stood in our place, absorbing the wrath of God that we deserved as punishment for our sins, and is something that must be “believed” and “received” if it is to avail for us.
There is no “gospel” apart from the four historical facts that Paul has put forth: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures...he was buried...he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and...he appeared” to many.
Paul could give a first-hand, eyewitness account to the historical certainty of the truth of “the gospel” because he—like others before him—had seen the risen Lord. It is almost certainly true that he had been present on the day that Jesus was nailed to the cross. Perhaps he was one who had “hurled insults at him” (cf. Matthew 27:39). But some years later, when the risen Christ “appeared” to him, his life was radically and forever transformed.
The Lord is still transforming the lives of those who will but turn to Him. Have you experienced His transforming grace? If not, then I urge you to hear Paul’s final point. The apostle was absolutely convinced of the theological soundness and historical certainly of the “gospel,” but he also could attest that...
The “gospel” is personally significant (verses 10-11).
Verses 10 and 11 provide something of a biographical conclusion to this section dealing with the foundational aspects of “the gospel.” Paul adds...
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.”
Paul was “the apostle of grace.” While “the grace of God” is the absolute prerequisite in the salvation for every sinner, he appears to have understood it better than most. He knew that himself-minus-grace equaled nothing. Back in chapter 4(:7), he had rhetorically asked these same Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive?” “The gospel” of “grace” destroys arrogance and all grounds for boasting (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9). Elsewhere, Paul would refer to himself as the “foremost” among sinners (cf. 1 Timothy 1:15). And until we view ourselves in a similar way, we will not clearly hear “the gospel.”
The apostle was quite aware that “grace” is not merely something God gives to us; it is God giving us Himself. We cannot have the gift apart from the Giver, and to be related to the Giver is to be equipped and empowered by His “grace.”. By all justice, Paul should have been excluded from God’s “grace,” as should we all. But we are never so separated from God by our past that we are removed from God’s reach of “grace.” Our histories cannot be changed, but they do not have to be lived in any longer. What ultimately defines us as Christians is our relationship with Jesus Christ, who is brought near to us by “the grace of God.”
Please notice that it was not a matter of “cooperating” with “the grace of God” but entirely “by the grace of God” that Paul could say “I am what I am.” And such “grace” was not bestowed ineffectually, for it brought about the “work of God” through him. It was “grace” that made his labor effective. Think of the joy of a young child who wants to give his father a birthday present, but has to receive money from his father in order to purchase it.
“The gospel” is personally significant for those who “believe” it and “receive” it. And what we must never forget is that “the gospel” is built upon the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. The crucified Christ became the resurrected Christ, apart from which there is no “gospel” and, therefore, no biblical, historical, or personal Christianity. As has been aptly said, “The resurrection is the Father’s ‘amen’ to Jesus’ cry, ‘It is finished.’”
Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founding president of Dallas Seminary, wrote that “Had not Christ arisen...every divine purpose and blessing would have failed; yea, the very universe and throne of God would have dissolved and would have been dismissed forever.”
Another writer has reminded me recently that “Our life in this world matters, in part, because it turns out to be not merely a ‘waiting room’ in which we pass our time until being invited into the rest of the building where we really live. Our life in this world establishes the starting chapters for a story that will continue and flourish in radically new ways” throughout eternity, thanks to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and “the gospel” it has brought.
The Corinthians had every kind of spiritual experience imaginable, as the previous chapters in this epistle have shown. But they had not seen the risen Jesus. And neither have we. Our understanding of “the gospel” comes to us through God’s Word by way of theological, historical, and personal testimony shared with us through verifiable eyewitnesses. That is why it must be “received” by faith. Furthermore, we are not even able to “believe” apart from God giving us “eyes to see.” If you are among those who remain in “passive unbelief” or “active disbelief,” then you need to realize that you are on very precarious and unsafe ground. It is for you, in particular, that I share these thought-provoking words from the modern-day martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
It is not that God’s help and presence must still be proved in our life; rather God’s presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ. It is in fact more important for us to know what God did to Israel (in the Old Testament) and in God’s Son (in the New Testament) than to discover what God intends for us today. The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I will die. And the fact that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, will be raised on the day of judgment. Our salvation is “from outside ourselves.” I find salvation not in my life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ. Only those who allow themselves to be found in Jesus Christ—in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection—are with God and God with them.
End of quote.
So, as we pray together, let me earnestly ask you to consider where that leaves you. Life is uncertain and death is inevitable. Apart from the resurrection, there is no “gospel.´ And apart from “the gospel,” there is no hope beyond the grave.