I have argued in a couple of posts recently (see below) that the “gospel” in the New Testament is not the personal message that Jesus died for your sins but the public proclamation, in the particular historical setting of the crisis of first century Israel, that God has raised his unjustly executed Son from the dead and has given him authority to judge and rule, first over Israel, then over the nations. But John Shakespeare asks about 1 Corinthians 15:1-5:
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. 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. (1 Cor. 15:1–5)
For the sake of completeness and in hope of putting the topic to bed for a while, here is how a I think this needs to be understood.
1. When Paul says that Christ died for “our sins” in accordance with the scripture, he speaks as a Jew, on behalf of Israel: Christ died for the sins of God’s people. He refers in the same way to “our fathers” all being under the cloud and passing through the sea (1 Cor. 10:1). If, as seems likely, Paul has in mind the suffering of Isaiah’s servant, who “bears our sins”, who was given over “because of their sins” (Is. 53:4, 6, 11, 12 LXX), etc., then “according to the scriptures” means that this was a death for Israel. Similarly, Jesus’ resurrection “on the third day according to the scriptures” recalls the narrative of Israel’s punishment and restoration in Hosea 6:1-2:
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.
2. The gospel that Paul passed on to the Corinthians is the whole narrative: Jesus died, was buried, was raised, and appeared to many people. That is the “good news” which Paul had originally preached in Corinth. But the emphasis widely in the chapter is on the resurrection and its implications for the future—those in Christ will also be raised, every enemy will be defeated, the kingdom will be given back to God the Father.
Moreover, Paul states that “Christ is proclaimed (kērussetai) as raised from the dead”, and warns the Corinthians that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins”, those who have fallen asleep have perished (15:12, 17-18). They will be saved if they hold fast to their belief that God raised Jesus from the dead and that the entailed apocalyptic narrative about the kingdom will, in due course, come to pass. If Jesus’ death for the sins of Israel is part of the gospel, it is not the most important part.
3. According to Luke’s account of Paul’s time in Corinth, he “was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus”, and when they opposed him, he declared, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent” (Acts 18:5-6). Paul is not interested in persuading the Jews that Jesus died for their sins. His argument rather is that “it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (Acts 17:3). Robert Wall notes the echo of Ezekiel 33:4 and the parallel with the quotation from Habakkuk at the end of Paul’s address to the Jews in Antioch in Pisidia (13:46).1 But it is not simply the “loss of eternal life” that is in view. Ezekiel is the watchman who warns Israel that YHWH is bringing a sword against the land. If they do not heed the warning, then their blood will be upon their heads. They, not the prophet, will be responsible for their deaths. This underlines the political character of Paul’s teaching. It is the historical future of God’s people that is at stake.
4. The “cross of Christ” is relevant further in 1 Corinthians as the necessary condition for proclaiming and living this story about Jesus effectively:
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Cor. 1:17)
The cross, here, is not the content of the gospel. Rather, Paul proclaims the gospel on the basis of his identification with the death of Jesus; the church bears testimony about the risen Lord Jesus, who will come to vindicate them, from a position of weakness, foolishness, vulnerability. This is what it means to be “in Christ Jesus” (1:26-30).
5. A passage to be considered in conjunction with 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 is this one, where we also have reference to Jesus’ death “for our sins” (huper tōn hamartiōn hēmōn), presumably as part of the gospel which Paul fears the Galatians are at risk of abandoning:
Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead…. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age…. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…. (Gal. 1:1, 3-4, 6)
It seems likely that the gospel Paul delivered to the Galatians consisted of the same narrative as that delivered to the Corinthians: Jesus gave himself for the sins of God’s people, he was buried, he was raised from the dead, and appeared to many, including Paul, who was commissioned to preach the risen the Lord among the Gentiles. Significantly, Jesus was revealed to Paul as the exalted “Son” (Gal. 1:16)—that is, as the one to whom authority had been given to judge and rule.
So I suggest that the basic point stands: the good news proclaimed by the early church was that although Jesus had been unjustly executed, God had raised him from the dead and had given him authority to rule as Lord at his right hand—a “political” move on God’s part that would have profound implications both for Israel and for the nations. Because Jesus’ death could also be seen as having an atoning function for God’s people, like the death of Isaiah’s servant, it comes as no surprise that this detail was included in the “tradition” passed on to the churches. But this should not detract from the political force of the announcement, and it certainly does not warrant the sort of reinterpretation of “gospel” as the offer of personal salvation that we find in much evangelical teaching.
- 1. R. Wall, Acts (New Interpreter’s Bible), 254.