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Know what you believe and why you believe it

What The Gospel Is & Why We Should Believe It, Part 7

Throughout this blog series I have been arguing that Paul clearly identifies the essence of the Christian gospel in 1 Corinthians 15. But his discussion of what the gospel entails is presented in a summary form only and is certainly not exhaustive. For example, though he writes elsewhere about propitiation (Rom 3:25), imputed righteousness (Rom 5:17), or our adoption as sons (Eph 1:5), in this passage Paul simply sums up this gospel by pointing to Christ’s death for our sins and his resurrection from the dead. All that happened to Jesus, he argued, was both “according to the Scriptures” and verified by eyewitnesses.

I have also argued that Paul’s words in verses 3 through 7 appear to be in the structure of an early Christian mnemonic device, or creed. I believe this is what he had received (15:3) from the early Christian community in Jerusalem and was bringing to the remembrance of the Corinthian church.

Some get confused at this point when comparing this passage to Gal 1:12. In that passage, Paul says he received the gospel not from any man but directly “through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” This is totally consistent with the account of his conversion that we discover in Acts 9.

But here in 1 Cor. 15, he is not merely passing on the content of the Christian gospel. Instead, he is passing on a particular construction of it in the form of an early Christian creed that likely dates back to sometime within the first decade after Christ’s crucifixion. In other words, the story of Christ’s death and resurrection was not one that evolved later. This was the confession of the earliest Christians.

So now let’s conclude our reading of this section from 1 Corinthians. Paul, the chief of sinners, the most hostile of the hostile eyewitnesses, goes on to say:

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. 12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that 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 futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

That last line is especially significant when paired with the observation from De Tocqueville that we quoted in the first blog post. He had observed that,

Preachers in America are forever pointing out how religious beliefs favor freedom and public order, and it is often difficult to be sure when listening to them whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this.

Unfortunately what was true in 1840 has only gotten worse in our generation. Visit an average congregation, regardless of the denomination, and you’re likely to hear sermons about life in this world and how Jesus will help you live more abundantly here and now.

I’ve been arguing in these posts that the gospel is not ultimately about us or how we can improve this world or ourselves. Rather, it’s about Christ. And it’s not merely about Christ in general or what he can do for us in the here and now. Rather it is about what he did during a particular time when Tiberius was reigning as Caesar and Pontius Pilate was the procurator of Judea. It’s about Christ’s death for sin and his resurrection on the third day, testified by the prophets before it happened, witnessed by the apostles when it happened, and richly explained by them after it happened. We’re dealing with real time and space events that are first and foremost to be understood as true rather than helpful, useful, or life changing. This gospel may have the effect of changing a person’s life, but that is to be understood as a fruit of the gospel and not the thing itself.

These days we’ve turned things around. We don’t talk about the truth of the gospel anymore, just its therapeutic value, what it can do for our finances, how it can repair our broken relationships, how it solves loneliness, etc. As we go around repeating these kinds of things, many people will respond, “Oh that’s great for you, I’m glad that you found something that works.” Others say, “I’m doing just fine with my finances and relationships, thank you,” or “What worked for me was reading Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard. That book changed my life!”

But a truth claim is something different. If Jesus really rose again from the dead then, like all historical facts, this would be true not merely for me but for everyone. And if it’s true for everyone, we would all do well to pay attention to what Jesus says about himself and the claims he makes about where history is headed, about our true nature, and about our need for redemption.

Finally, we end with the beginning. This gospel is the announcement concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Paul says in the first two verses of 1 Corinthians 15 that it is the gospel “in which you stand and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached…” In other words, this isn’t merely an announcement of a particular set of facts, but is something of eternal significance for us all. We are not made right before a holy God by the things we do. However, we can be saved by attending to these particular words about a particular event that took place some two thousand years ago having to do with a certain Jewish rabbi who got himself crucified and didn’t stay dead.

This is why we put such an important emphasis on preaching and proclamation. The gospel saves, not going to church, or concern for the poor, or spiritual journaling, or the pursuit of social justice, or simply trying to be a nice and decent person in a fallen world. As Paul says in Romans 4:25, “Christ was raised for our justification.” We are declared righteous based on the events of his life, not our own. And if clinging to this gospel is what saves, then preaching this gospel is the main business of Christian ministers in Christian churches throughout the world until he comes.

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What The Gospel Is & Why We Should Believe It, Part 6

Not long ago I watched a television documentary that dismissed the Gospels because “believers with a religious agenda” wrote them.

Is this a good reason to dismiss the Gospel accounts? Both prosecutors and defense attorneys have agendas, and yet we don’t dismiss them on that basis. Rather, we are told to examine the evidence, to evaluate the trustworthiness of the various witnesses, and to make our conclusions after thinking through these issues.

To dismiss either side because they have an agenda is simply lazy thinking. Everyone has an agenda, a worldview, a foundational starting point. The question is whether our current ideas about the world actually fit with the world that is. In other words, are we willing to have our ideas challenged?

If these Gospels are reporting real historical events and not merely the ideas of the early Christian disciples, why would the resurrected Jesus only show himself to his disciples, rather than to unbelievers? This particular objection rests on a false premise that can be easily detected by thinking through the implications of 1 Corinthians 15.

Throughout this blog series, I’ve been arguing that Paul cites an early Christian creed in verses 3 through 7, which he received from the early Christian community in Jerusalem, and that this creed dates to the mid 30s AD. In the final line of this creed we find the phrase, “then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.”

So let’s talk about James for a second. He’s one of the few New Testament characters who also appears in the writings of the first century historian Josephus. Here is the account of his martyrdom in Jerusalem:

With Festus now dead, and Albinus traveling; Ananus the high priest assembled the Sanhedrin, and brought before them James the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, along with some of his companions, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them over to be stoned; …when he found out about this, King Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest (Ant. 20.9.1).

So what made James such a firm believer in the idea that his older brother was in fact the divine messiah? In the gospels we find that he, along with his other brothers, rejected this idea outright:

John 7:5 For not even his brothers believed in him.

In Mark 3:21, the issue is put even more strongly: And when his family heard [what Jesus was saying], they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”

But things have changed by the time we get to Acts chapter 1. Here the disciples were gathered in the upper room and were devoting themselves to prayer, “together with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”

What had happened was that James and his brothers became believers after the resurrection. Though it is true that the authors of the New Testament documents are not writing history for the sake of history, they do have a theological agenda. In other words, they are writing so “that you may believe,” as John admits at the end of his gospel (20:31).

But this in no way invalidates their claims. The question is whether these particular beliefs are justified. Did the resurrection happen, or did it not? Those who said that they witnessed the resurrection ended up taking sides, and tried to convince others, which is what you would expect if it really happened.

What about the claim that Jesus only appeared to his followers? The evidence simply does not support this. James is a great example. If a prophet is not accepted in his hometown, how much worse is the case inside his own family. This is the testimony that we find in the gospels. Even Jesus’ own brothers did not believe him. Later, after the resurrection, after “Jesus appeared himself to them alive by many proofs,” we find these unbelieving brothers meeting with the disciples in the upper room.

Jesus also appeared at other times to believers. The New Testament is filled with accounts of his appearances after the resurrection. Remember Doubting Thomas who would not believe the report of Christ’s resurrection until he put his hands in Jesus’ nail prints and side? Matt 28:17 reads, “And when they saw the risen Jesus they worshiped him, but some doubted.” Or the time when some of the female disciples try to tell the others about the empty tomb, but their report is rejected as “an idle tale” (Luke 24:11).

According to the gospels, Jesus did not show himself to merely believers, but to many different kinds of unbelievers. And the best example of all: that of the Apostle Paul.

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God (1Cor 15:8-9).

By this point in 1 Corinthians 15, the content of the early Christian creed has likely ended. Paul is now adding his own eyewitness testimony and apostolic appointment to what’s already been recited. Verse 9 is a good reminder that Paul was in fact a hostile witness before he saw the risen Lord. Yet, like James before him, we know that something convinced him to do a complete reversal, and this is not in dispute by even skeptical historians. What is disputed is the claim that it was the resurrection of Jesus that changed his disposition.

As we have seen, this isn’t a story that has grown bigger over time. Here we have an early Christian creed in all likelihood dating to around 33 AD, just a few years after the crucifixion. This creed claims that a particular Jewish rabbi has died for our sins, was raised on the third day, was the subject of Old Testament prophecy, and appeared before believers and hostile eyewitnesses alike.

In the seventh and final blog post in this series, I’ll walk through the implications of Paul’s arguments in verses 10 through 19, in which he claims that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is in vain.”

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What The Gospel Is & Why We Should Believe It, Part 5

Now let’s take a closer look at verses 5-6 of 1 Corinthians 15. In particular, pay close attention to the sequence of events listed here. First the text says Jesus appeared to Cephas (which is the Aramaic equivalent of Petros, the form of Peter’s name that we would expect to find in an early Christian creed dating to around 33AD). Later Jesus appears to the twelve and then to a large crowd of over 500 brothers.

Interestingly, this is a different sequence of events from what we find in the Gospels. According to various gospel reports, several women discover the empty tomb first and are confronted by an angel declaring that Christ has risen. They tell Peter, who runs to the tomb with John, and they find it empty, just as the women had reported. When they leave, Mary Magdalene stays behind and sees the risen Jesus, who she at first mistakes for the gardener. The various accounts report different aspects and perspectives of the same event. Sometimes these accounts can be difficult to piece together, which is what typically happens in the case of actual eyewitness testimony of unexpected events.

But we should stop for a moment and ask why Mary Magdalene or any of the other women are not listed in 1 Corinthians 15 as the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection. I believe the answer has to do with the purpose of this early creed.

If this creed was crafted sometime in the early 30s, then it was primarily to be used among Jews rather than Gentiles. As we’ve seen, this creed does not only outline the basic facts of the gospel. It also provides two kinds of witnesses to testify concerning those facts, namely the testimony of the prophets and the Apostles. But there was something else going on as well. In the Jewish culture of the first century, women were not considered reliable witnesses in a court of law. Though Moses never prohibited women’s testimony in a legal proceeding, first century historian Josephus writes the following as he comments on the Law of Moses:

Antiq. 4:219 “…let not a single witness be believed; but two or three at the least, and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex…”

So in light of this 1st century evidence, it makes sense that we would find this early Christian community rooting the gospel of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection in the eyewitness testimony of the Apostles and other male witnesses as part of its public deposition.

We see further evidence of this in verse 6 as the creed goes on to say that Christ appeared to more than 500 brothers at once. Notice it does not say 500 people, but brothers. It was the custom of this period to only count male heads when calculating crowd sizes. When this early creed says that more than 500 brothers were witnesses to Christ’s resurrection, in reality this may have been an audience of up to a thousand or more individuals if we are to assume women and children were present. Another example would be the feeding of the five thousand. The crowd may actually have been up to twice that size since we read in Matt. 14:21 that “those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.” Now, like slavery, you may find this sort of patriarchalism distasteful, but once grasped, it actually helps us understand many New Testament texts, 1 Corinthians 15 in particular.

Now, in terms of the order, it’s interesting to note that the creed does not say that Peter was the first eyewitness. It simply lists him first. He was the first of the Apostles to witness the risen Lord and that’s all that is being claimed here. After this, Jesus was seen by the twelve. Most of the gospel accounts don’t narrate Peter’s exclusive meeting with the risen Christ, but we do find it briefly mentioned to in Luke 24:34. After the two disciples talk with Jesus on the road to Emmaus and return to Jerusalem (which is roughly about a three-hour walk), they finally meet up with the disciples and find them saying, “The Lord has risen indeed and has appeared to Simon.” So sometime during that first Sunday, Jesus had revealed himself to Peter before he appeared to all the disciples at once.

Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once (most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep).

Many scholars here believe that the creed is interrupted by a parenthetical comment by Paul. He writes that “most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” Here, Paul is admitting that a few decades have now passed since these events transpired and that some of the witnesses have died. Most, however, would still be living and would have been available to be questioned about these events.

One question that has perplexed scholars over the years is the exact timing of this large gathering of believers who were witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. Since it is not reported in the gospels, no one is exactly sure.

Some have argued that it may be hinted at in Matthew 28 when Jesus appears to his disciples and instructs them to tell others to leave Jerusalem and go to Galilee where he would appear to them there. The text says that the disciples then go to “the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” Now remember, they don’t have minivans at this period, so this takes a little time to do by foot. Since they were instructed to tell others, by the time they arrived there may have been a significant crowd with them of the type described in 1 Corinthians 15.

But why did Jesus show himself to his followers only? Why didn’t the risen Lord show himself to unbelievers as well? We’ll take up those questions in the next post in this series.

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What The Gospel Is & Why We Should Believe It, Part 4

As we saw in the last post in this series, Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christ’s death and resurrection on the third day is the basic substance of the Christian gospel. Everything that had happened to Jesus was, Paul argued, “in accordance with the scriptures.”

But where in the pages of the Old Testament do we find prophecies of Christ’s resurrection or, more specifically, that Christ would be raised on the third day?

I think the first place to look is Isaiah 53. We don’t know whether this is one of the texts that the framers of this early creed had in mind, but it surely it is one of the best candidates among various options. Starting at verse 9 we read:

Is. 53:9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. 11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.

That last verse is really interesting. “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.” Who is doing the seeing here? There are really only two options: the LORD or the messianic servant. Which of these two is it?

The English text of the ESV translation is rooted in the Masoretic text, which is a collection of Hebrew scrolls that were meticulously copied by Jewish scribes between the 7th and the 10th centuries. When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1948, scholars were able to compare them to an amazingly complete scroll of Isaiah dating back to about 200 BC. Apart from a few spelling updates, it was virtually identical to the Masoretic text. In other words, the Qumran discovery proved the overwhelming reliability of the process of transmission through the centuries.

Apart from the few spelling variations, there was one significant difference. It is found here in verse 11 of Is. 53, which now reads, “out of the anguish of his soul, he shall see light, and be satisfied.” This reading also matches what we find in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which the apostles frequently quoted from in their day. We’re not sure why this particular word “light” dropped out of the Masoretic text. Based on the fact that it appears in the earliest manuscript that we have of Isaiah, and that it matches was we find in the LXX, it is something that I recommend you pencil into the margins of Is 53:11.

So if you accept this new reading, it says, “Out of the anguish of his soul, he shall see light and be satisfied.” In verse 9 we learned that the anguish of the messianic servant resulted in death. Yet here in verse 11, it is this same servant who sees light. I believe this is a prophecy of Christ’s resurrection.

We also see the apostles at various places in the New Testament interacting with Ps. 16 in which God promises not to let his Holy One see corruption. But our text from 1 Corinthians 15 does not merely say that the messiah will die as a substitute for sin and be raised again. It specifically mentions that he will be raised on the third day. Many see here an allusion to the words of the prophet Hosea, who in chapter 6 writes:

“Come let us return to the Lord, for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days, he will revive us, on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him” (6:1-2)

Others here point to the parallel that Jesus frequently made between himself and the prophet Jonah. Just as the annual Yom Kippur sacrifices were pictures of the once-for-all eternal sacrifice of the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, so too the temporal prophets point to the true and ultimate prophet, Christ himself. In this light, the events in the life of Jonah—such as that he was swallowed by a whale and entombed for three days—was a kind of foreshadowing of Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate prophet. His life was swallowed up by his own people but he conquered death by his resurrection on the third day.

So as we’ve seen from 1 Corinthians 15, the gospel that Paul reminds these Christians of is Christ-centered, cross-centered, and rooted in the Old Testament scriptures. But in verses 5-6 we find something more:

He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time.

Here we see that the gospel is not some kind of eternal principle, like the idea that no matter how dark things get in the middle of winter, spring is always just around the corner. No, the gospel is not a principle that is always true, but rather an event attested to by eyewitnesses at a particular point in time. This is why it is called “good news.” Moses taught that only on the basis of two or three witnesses could something be established by law. And here, in this creed, a host of witnesses are brought forth and to testify to the risen Christ.

Many throughout the past few centuries have argued that the first Christians are not describing actual historical events but rather their own internal Easter experiences. In other words, it’s about something going on inside their hearts. Those who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion, the story goes, finally understood the object lesson of his death. They might also argue that the texts that mention his resurrection should never be taken literally but are figuratively presented.

The problem is that this theory does not fit the facts of the case. All the apostles tell the same story. Talk of the resurrection was not a symbol for something that was going on in their hearts. It wasn’t even some kind of a vision or hallucination. Here’s how John and Peter put it:

1 John 1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have felt in our hearts… No, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this we proclaim to you…”

2Pet. 1:16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we ourselves experienced warm feelings when we thought about his teaching.

No. Peter says, “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

So according to 1 Corinthians 15, Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and on the third day rose from the dead.

An old hymn goes, “And if you ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart!” But this is not exactly how Paul puts it, is it? We find that “he rose again on the third day” not according to my heart, but according to the scriptures, and according to Cephas, the twelve, and more than 500 brothers at one time. In other words, there are two kinds of witnesses being cited here. One is the witness testimony of the prophets who wrote of these events before they happened. The other is of the apostles who wrote about those same events after they occurred.

In the next post we’ll take some time to evaluate the claims of the first century apostles along with the significance of those claims.

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What The Gospel Is & Why We Should Believe It, Part 3

Scholars have noticed that the information Paul passes on in 1 Corinthians 15 is presented in a stylized format. Paul appears to be using the form of parallelism, which is often used as an aid to memorization.

1Cor. 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

In fact, the structure is not unlike that of the Apostles Creed. This fact has led many commentators to conclude that Paul is actually reciting an early Christian creed, the form of which he had received from the earliest followers of Jesus. According to N.T. Wright: “We are here in touch with the earliest Christian tradition, with something that was being said two decades or more before Paul wrote this letter.” If Paul wrote this letter around 53 AD, two decades earlier would have been 33 AD, and that is only a few years removed from the crucifixion. This is essentially the same time that liberal scholar John Dominic Crossan said that Paul went to visit Peter (see Part 2 of this series).

Notice also that there is great specificity to the good news that Paul records. The good news is not merely about God in general or how we can have a relationship with him. Instead, it’s about Christ in particular. Christ is not presented as a groovy teacher or one who offers moral clarity. He’s not presented as a helpful guide to get us through life’s difficulties. There’s nothing here about him being “chicken soup for the soul.”

Rather, Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. This is what the gospel is. It’s both Christ-centered and cross-centered. The gospel is the good news associated with an event regarding the person of Christ. That event includes a particular word in the past tense: he died. That is not an esoteric principle or proverb; it’s an historical claim. With that historical claim we find a purpose statement. According to this early Christian creed, Christ died for our sins. Here we discover that the gospel, as defined by the earliest Christians, was not a kind of therapy or plan for social justice. It was not a collection of groovy ideas by a wise sage. Rather this gospel was a particular historical claim related to the death of a particular Jewish Rabbi, wrapped together with the explanation of this event’s incredible significance.

This gospel was not merely Christ-centered and cross-centered, it was also Scripture centered: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” What Scriptures? Perhaps Paul and the authors of this early creed were thinking of a text like Daniel 9:24-27. This text teaches that when messiah comes, he will “atone for iniquity.” Or perhaps the authors were thinking of the great servant song of Isaiah 53, which says that the man of sorrows will “make many to be accounted righteous and shall bear their iniquities, by pouring his soul unto death.” Or perhaps they were thinking of Zechariah 12 in which God himself says, “I will pour on the house of David… a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn….” That text goes on to say that on that day “there shall be a fountain opened up for the house of David… to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.”

The framers of this early creed could also have been be thinking of the shadows of Christ that we find throughout the law of Moses. For example, earlier in this epistle (1 Corinthians 5:7), Paul writes, “Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed.” In other words, the Passover lamb was but a shadow of things to come but the reality was Christ. This is the same type of language that we heard from John the Baptist who, when he saw his cousin Jesus approaching, said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

But this gospel is not only rooted in atonement. It is also rooted in resurrection:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died
for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.

Here this ancient creed argues that throughout the Old Testament not only was Christ’s death foretold but also His resurrection, and that on the third day. The fact that Paul does not cite any scriptures at this point is further evidence that he assumed his audience was familiar with these texts. He is presuming that what he is reciting is part of a memorized formula. In verse 4 we also discover the repetition of the phrase “according to the scriptures,” which is a particular construction not found elsewhere in Paul’s writings. His typical way of interacting with the Old Testament begins with phrases such as “Scripture says,” or “what do the Scriptures say,” along with their citation.

In the next edition of this blog series, we’ll investigate what Old Testament texts Paul and others might have been thinking of when they argued that Christ’s resurrection on the third day was foretold in the Scriptures.

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What The Gospel Is & Why We Should Believe It, Part 2

1 Cor. 15:1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.

In this amazing text, Paul starts out by reminding his disciples in Corinth of the basic components of the Christian gospel. Since he’s reminding them of what they had already received, a good question to ask would be, “When did Paul first preach this message to them?” This letter was written while Paul was in Ephesus sometime between 53-55 AD. Here he is reminding them of the basic gospel message which he probably first delivered to them around 51 AD.

1 Cor. 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received.

I’d like to draw your attention to the particular words “of first importance.” The Bible is the word of God, yet this book contains some things that are more important than others. Jesus himself makes this same point to the Pharisees when he tells them that they have neglected the “weightier matters of the law, such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” Tithing wasn’t unimportant, but it was less important, he argued, than the incredibly significant issues of justice and mercy. Likewise, everything we find in the New Testament is important and inspired. But here Paul is reminding the Corinthians about the issue of first importance. He has already said in verse 1 that he’s reminding them of the gospel. So essentially Paul is saying that the gospel is the most important thing, the thing of first importance that we need to focus on and never lose sight of.

1 Cor. 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received.

Now pay attention to that last word: received. This gospel message is something that he himself received? But from whom? Paul is arguing here that this is not merely something he came up with when he first delivered this message to them in 51 AD. In his letter to the Galatians (written in 48 AD), Paul provides a brief sketch of his own conversion. Paul’s conversion is generally fixed at around 32 AD, two years after the crucifixion. In Galatians 1:18 Paul says that “after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas,” which would mean he visited Peter around 35 AD.

This incredibly early timeline that I am presenting here is not disputed by even the most radical liberal scholars. According to John Dominic Crossan, one of the pioneers of the infamous Jesus Seminar: “Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that ‘I handed on to you as of first importance that which I in turn received.’ The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he ‘went up to Jerusalem to visit Peter” (from his book Excavating Jesus, 2002, p. 298).

It’s interesting to note the actual word Paul uses when he went to visit Peter in Gal 1:18. The word translated in this text as “visit” is actually the word historesai, which is the root of our English word “history.” So the sense is not merely that Paul is going to visit a friend, but rather to inquire of Peter and possibly even to write down his story.

We would do well here to recall that Luke is one of Paul’s companions, as we discover in his letters to Philemon, Timothy, and the Colossians. We’re not sure when Luke began to be associated with Paul, but he certainly outlines this same approach in the beginning of his gospel, saying that he compiled his narrative by interviewing the eyewitnesses.

In the next installment of this blog series, we’ll continue our survey of 1 Corinthians 15 as we start to walk through the substance of Paul’s gospel message.

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What The Gospel Is & Why We Should Believe It, Part 1

There seems to be a lot of confusion today about what the gospel is. There are the obviously crass examples on display at Christian and secular bookstores everywhere, encouraging us all to have our “best life now” or, more recently, to Have a New You by Friday.

But there are also others in our time who point to the ongoing work of social rather than personal transformation. They tell us that we should partner with God in his redemptive mission to change the world through the pursuit of social justice. Now I’m not saying that these aren’t worthy goals. The pursuit of justice either for an individual or for a society is a noble calling, and I would encourage most of the readers of this blog to become better versions of you. But the question is whether these things actually provide a good description of what the gospel is.

Alexis De Tocqueville was a Frenchman who came to America in the early 1800s and was fascinated by differences between America and Europe. He published his observations in a book titled Democracy in America. In that book he focused primarily on politics but also made some fascinating observations about religion in this country. He writes,

Priests in the Middle Ages spoke of nothing but the other life; they hardly took any trouble to prove that a sincere Christian might be happy here below. But preachers in America are continually coming down to earth. Indeed they find it difficult to take their eyes off it. The better to touch their hearers, they are forever pointing out how religious beliefs favor freedom and public order, and it is often difficult to be sure when listening to them whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this.

That emphasis is certainly still with us today. Churches, we are told, need to be relevant, down to earth, practical. They need to meet people where they are. But what if where we are is in a world of consumerism, entertainment, and narcissistic hedonism? In such a time a gospel about me, my prosperity, or my worship experience will always be relevant. But churches that focus on something outside of ourselves, something rooted in an ancient and unfamiliar culture – explained and unpacked with big and unfamiliar words like propitiation, justification, and predestination – will always appear to us as irrelevant if we fail to challenge the world’s way of thinking.

Paul helps us in 1 Corinthians 15 by giving us a very good definition of what the gospel is. But before we dive into that definition, here is a little historical background. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are among the earliest writings of the New Testament, a fact is undisputed in our day even by the most liberal scholars. This is a wonderful concession because it means that historians everywhere must explain how by 53-55 AD (which is the generally accepted date of the Corinthian epistles) we find a monotheistic Jewish Pharisee professing faith in the divinity of one of his fellow Rabbis who had gotten himself crucified just a couple decades earlier. It’s a fascinating historical drama in and of itself, especially when you add the fact that before he became a Christian leader and evangelist, Paul was a fierce opponent of this strange Jewish sect, persecuting other believers even unto death. Of course the way the story is usually told is that Jesus was a nice groovy teacher who preached peace, love, and harmony until he unfortunately got himself crucified . The story continues like a good fish story: tales about this Jesus evolved over time so that by the late first century, when the story was finally written down, this teacher is pictured with a halo, walking on water and performing miracles. In other words, the man was turned into a God over time by the believing community.

But if that’s really what happened, how do we explain Paul’s conversion in the early 30s AD? How do we explain the various documents that he left behind, some written in the late 40s (ie. his epistles to the Galatians and Thessalonians)? It’s one thing to get a Greek or Roman pagan to believe in the divinity of one of his neighbors (you might recall the story of when Paul and Barnabas were mistaken for incarnations of Zeus and Hermes in Lystra). But Jews were different. Pharisees in particular were very strict monotheists. So how do we get a man like this to profess the divinity of one of his fellow rabbis at such an early date? This question is totally ignored by most liberal scholars as well as by a popularizer such as Dan Brown in his book the Da Vinci Code. In that story, the teacher Jesus wasn’t declared to be divine until a decree by Constantine in 325 AD. It made for interesting fiction, but it is far from the complexity of actual historical events.

The great thing about Paul is that we don’t have to speculate. We have his writings and no one disputes the early dates of their composition. So the best way to find out what made Paul tick would be to go back to the original sources. And this text for 1 Corinthians 15 is one of the most important such sources.

In the next installment of this blog series, we’ll start walking through Paul’s arguments from this text in order to get a better understanding of what the gospel is and why we should believe it!

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