Agonizomai: 1Cor 15:3-8 - The Bare Bones Gospel

Sunday, September 07, 2008

1Cor 15:3-8 - The Bare Bones Gospel

3-8 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.

And here are the facts upon which our faith is based:
1) Christ was born without sin, lived a sinless life and died

2) It was for our sins that He died as the Scriptures both promised and pointed out as being necessary

3) It happened exactly as the Scriptures had foretold it would happen

4) He was buried for three days

5) He came back to life on the third day exactly as foretold by Scripture

6) He appeared in His resurrected body to a great number of people at various times and places

7) He appeared to the writer of this letter who is himself an eyewitness
These are the bare bones facts of the good news. A person may believe more than this but he cannot believe less and be a Christian. These facts can be explained, filled out, expanded upon, applied, opened up to deeper teaching - but they can never be discarded or ignored. The riches contained in these simple historical facts are, in fact, an endless source of truth and wonder.

All of the major elements are all there. The constant references to the Scripture (and its authority) affirm that it is Jehovah of the Old Testament - the God of Israel - who is at work in all of this. It is not the Buddha or Zeus or any of the Greek or Roman pantheon. It is precisely the same God, the One True God, Who has been faithfully dealing with Israel for two thousand years, and whose dealings are recorded in the sacred writings of that Nation. That is exclusivity and specificity and historicity.

Not only is Jehovah at work, but Jehovah is the very God who is manifested in the man Jesus. He is the Christ - which is simply the anglicised Greek word for Messiah - the Messiah of Hebrew writings and prophecy; the promised Messiah; the foreordained Messiah; the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world. And it seems obvious to we to whom belief has been given that this Messiah had to be a human being, but could not himself be a sinner. This is why God took on human flesh, because He alone is good. This is how God could die and how He did die. All of this is contained in the simple phrase "Christ died".

But we go on from there. He died for our sins. In these few short words is contained all the theology of the substitutionary atonement of Christ that has come under such subtle and wicked attack in post-modern times - to the extent that the doctrine has been called "cosmic child abuse" by some. But it is plainly stated here. He died for our sins. That is penal substitution. That is atonement. It is no use to call it unfair or unjust
, as some now do, that one person should suffer for the sins of another. Such are the people who know only a God of their own invention and cannot accept what He Himself says about His Own actions. To deny substitutionary atonement one must invent and maintain a low view of God and/or of His word. So where Paul puts substitutionary atonement as one of the foundational aspects of the gospel it must surely follow that to deny it is not to believe the gospel and to be in peril of eternal damnation.

As a confirmation of Christ’s death - to show that it was a real human death in which life left the body in exactly the same way that life leaves every human body upon death - Christ not only died, but was buried for 3 days. No swooning. No magic mushrooms. No whisking away by disciples for a secret recovery. There were guards at the tomb. It was under the scrutiny of the authorities. It was overseen by them and Christ’s death and burial were never denied even by His worst enemies. It is a matter of clear historical public record attested to by disinterested observers who had nothing to gain by an invention of His death.

But then we are told that He rose again on the third day. This was not entirely unheard of in history. There was a small number of people who had already been raised from the dead. The widow of Zarephath’s son {1Ki 17:17-24}; the ruler’s daughter {Lu 8:49-56}; Lazarus, who had been dead four days {Joh 11:38-44}; unspecified numbers at the moment of Christ’s death {Mt 27:52-53} .

So what made His resurrection different from these others? Well, all the others had deserved death because they were sinners - and their resurrection was by grace. Christ, on the other hand, never sinned though He bore the penalty of the sin of all who had or would believe in Him - and His resurrection was by justice. The grave could not hold Him because, in bearing the sins of His people He displayed His grace, His love and His righteousness while upholding His justice. He turned the punishment itself into a virtue.

There is much more here than this alone. Consider the question of Who it was that died. It was infinite, eternal Life Himself. More than a sufficient payment for the sins of the whole world - yet the only sufficient payment for them. Infinite God is infinitely offended by sin and only the infinite can atone once for all eternity. So Paul’s gospel is simple in appearance on this point, but like all things about our great God and Saviour, bears with it riches that yield to patient and maturing study. One need only believe the fact that He rose in order to be saved - but there is so much more that can be learned about it. C.S. Lewis said something along these lines - that it is as if Jesus descended lower and lower, like diving deeper and deeper into the darkness until He was underneath everything and then ascended, carrying all things triumphantly upon His shoulders.

The final piece of the gospel seems a might strange and one cannot easily think of it as part of the good news. Perhaps it isn’t. But Paul is at pains to mention the post-resurrection appearances of Christ to various people, including himself. Do you have to believe that He appeared to the apostles in order to be saved? No. But you must believe what the Apostles say, for they were both charged and inspired to declare and unfold to us the whole revelation of Christ. How then can one make a distinction which denies that He appeared to the Apostles as they say He did, and pretend to follow what they say that He revealed to them?

No - the appearances were for a purpose that is, of itself, good news. They confirm not only the declaration that He is Son of God in power according to the Spirit of Holiness (Romans 1:4) but also the fact that because He lives, we shall live also. The very same power that raised Him will one day raise all who believe in Him. If we don’t believe this - then we don’t believe the gospel because we fail to see that it is not about here and now so much as it is about eternal things. The eyewitnesses witness to us and we witness to the world and it all moves through the means of faith. They have seen and we are (more) blessed because we have not seen, but have believed anyway.


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