Our passage tonight presents the mighty power of God expressed through the gospel. Last week I presented a message on The Grand Old Gospel, using a sermon title and outline of James Montgomery Boice, to whom we were paying tribute. In that sermon we looked at four traits of the gospel. Tonight our passage presents exactly what the gospel entails.
Now 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.
Paul is about to recall the gospel that he preached to the Corinthians. Before he goes on, he impresses upon them the role they play. First, they received the gospel, i.e. when they heard it preached, they believed it. Second, they make their stand on the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ is not a mere matter of belief like also believing Caesar Augustus was a Roman emperor. They stake their way of life on the gospel. They live and die by it. Third, they stake their salvation on it. They believe that it means their salvation. The gospel involves their past (receiving it), their present (making their stand), and their future (salvation). It cannot take a stronger position in their lives.
But then he adds, “if.” They will obtain salvation if they hold fast to the word which Paul preached to them. They are in danger of not holding fast to that word. We’ve seen how they have questioned his teachings and authority, and the bad results – sexual immorality, divisiveness in the church, and disrespect towards one another. But in this chapter Paul touches on a false teaching so bad that it strikes at the heart of the gospel and endangers their very salvation. Their grip on the gospel that he preached to them is starting to slip, and thus their initial reception and belief in the gospel will be in vain.
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:
Two quick notes to make. What Paul is about to convey is of the utmost importance. Second, it is not what he has deduced, but instead is the faithful messenger of both vision (from Christ’s direct teaching) and church teaching. What, then, is this all-important divine message?
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,
Jesus Christ died; he was buried; he was raised from the dead on the third day. Let’s look at these events which make up the gospel.
Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. Paul wrote earlier in the letter that he determined to know nothing (i.e. to teach only) Jesus Christ and him crucified. He explains the significance of Christ’s death – it was for our sins. By dying on the cross, Jesus made a sacrifice to God the Father that did two things. One, it provided forgiveness for our sins. Because of our sin, we stood under the judgment of God. Under his justice we stood condemned. But instead of receiving God’s just punishment, Christ received it in our place.
Consider this Bible passage:
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:5-6).
The punishment that should have been visited on us was instead transferred to Christ as the sacrifice on the cross. This is taken straight from the Jewish sacrificial system. When a person sinned, he could take an animal to the temple and have it sacrificed for his sins. He would lay his hand upon the animal’s head symbolizing that he was transferring his guilt to the animal. This is called the substitutionary atonement. Just as the animal served as a substitute for the sinner, so Christ served as our substitute on the cross.
Look at another passage:
For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:22-26).
All individuals share the same problem no matter who they are. We are all sinners in the sight of God. He cannot simply forgive us, because that would make him an unjust God. Justice demands punishment for breaking the law. We, on the other hand, can neither take the punishment due us and live, nor can we make ourselves innocent. Jesus propitiated God’s just wrath – i.e. he satisfied the requirement that sin be punished. Once that satisfaction was made, forgiveness is provided to all who exercise faith in Jesus.
So, on the cross, Jesus took our punishment and provided forgiveness of our sin. He also gave us what we need to be right with God. He made an exchange with us. We gave him our sin and he gave us his righteousness.
The verses before the passage in Romans 3 above say this:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe (21-22).
Here is the point being made. The law of God, instead of making us righteous, has only served to reveal our sin. It presents what God’s righteousness is like and shows how far we are from achieving it. What then can we do? Thankfully, God in his mercy has given us access to his righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. We are made righteous when we turn to Christ in faith.
2 Corinthians 5:21 says: For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in [Christ] we might become the righteousness of God. Christ took on our sin, so that we might take on God’s righteousness. That is an amazing transaction.
Paul further notes that Christ died “in accordance with the Scriptures.” He means the Old Testament. Isaiah 53, from which I quoted, is one such passage. You may also look at Psalm 22 for a description of Christ’s sufferings on the cross. But Paul would also include the Old Testament Law’s teaching of the sacrificial system, which presented the concept that without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins (see Hebrews 10:22). All of those laws about sacrifices were pointing to the one great sacrifice of the Lamb of God.
The next event of the gospel is “that he was buried.” This element of the gospel receives little attention, but it serves an essential role for both Christ’s death and resurrection. The fact that Christ was buried in a grave, first of all, seals his death. Christ died. He did not faint. His lifeless, physical body was removed and sealed in a tomb. As the Apostles’ Creed says, “He was crucified, dead, and buried.” Christ’s burial is also attested in Old Testament scripture. Isaiah 53:9 says, “And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death.”
Just as Christ’s burial sealed his death, so it authenticated his resurrection. Jesus’ body came out of its grave clothes wrappings and out of a tomb enclosed by a stone. He did not recover from a coma or a fainting spell. His physical body rose from death.
The next event of the gospel is “that he was raised on the third day.” This is the event that Paul will use to address the dangerous false teaching that has gained a foothold in the church. We will get to that teaching next week. For now, let’s keep attentive to what he has to say about the resurrection. It is obviously of great importance because of the amount of space given to it.
First, the resurrection also is “in accordance with the Scriptures.” In the first sermon given by Peter at Pentecost, he preaches:
God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him,
“I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
my flesh also will dwell in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
Or let your Holy One see corruption.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence” (Acts 2:24-28).
Peter is quoting Psalm 16:8-11. He then gives a commentary on the passage to prove that it is a prophecy about Christ’s resurrection.
Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses (29-32).
Why does Paul make it an issue that Christ’s death and resurrection are attested to by Scripture? In this instance, he is about to counteract heretical teaching. By appealing to scripture he enforces what he is about to say and avoids the response that he has been getting from the Corinthians about other matters: “By what authority do you present your teaching?”
They, and we, are to understand that though the gospel events are new in that God has done a new work in Christ Jesus never done before, nevertheless, the gospel is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and of what the Scriptures up to that time had been anticipating. The gospel is not an afterthought.
Paul next presents an eyewitness list of Christ’s resurrection appearances: 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.
First, he mentions Peter (also known as Cephas), which may be strange to us because we don’t read in the gospels a description of Jesus making an appearance just to Peter. But in Luke 24:34 we read of some disciples telling the two who had seen Jesus on the road to Emmaus: “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”
Next, “the twelve” are mentioned. Judas, of course, is not included; perhaps Matthias, the disciple who replaced Judas, is included. Most likely, “the twelve” became the nickname of the disciples who had been selected by Jesus, regardless of the number alive.
He then speaks of an appearance to “more than five hundred brothers at one time.” There is no mention of this in the gospels, but evidently was known to the early church. Then James is mentioned. This is not the James of the original disciples, but one of Jesus’ brothers who became a leader in the Jerusalem church (see Galatians 1:19).
Finally, Paul himself attests to seeing Jesus, whom he first saw on his trip to Damascus.
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.
I think the main reason Paul adds what he does about himself is due to the lower regard that the Corinthian believers were showing for him as an apostle. He admits that he does not fit in with the other apostles and disciples because of his early persecution of the church; nevertheless God’s grace shown to him has made him an effective apostle. Even so, it does not matter what apostle is doing the preaching; they have all preached this gospel of death, burial, and resurrection; and it is that gospel that the Corinthians heard and believed.
Here are three traits of the gospel to consider. The first is the historicity of the gospel. The gospel is about history. It presents the events that took place at a certain time (2,000 years ago) and in a certain place (Palestine). The gospel is not a presentation of ideas about God, but a record of what he has done to redeem us sinners. That is why much of the Apostles’ Creed, which churches continue to profess over the centuries, is taken up with reciting events: “in Jesus Christ, his only Son, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried… the third day he rose again from the dead…” If these events did not occur, there is no gospel; there is no Christianity; there is no salvation. Prove that Jesus did not live, or that he was not crucified or that he did not rise from the dead – prove any of these things, then Christianity crumbles to the ground.
The second trait is the simplicity of the gospel: Jesus died for our sins; he was buried; he was raised from the dead. What Jesus Christ accomplished; how he accomplished it; how it affects all mankind and all creation; what it teaches about God and about man – these things are too profound for us to ever explore and understand fully. But you don’t need to be a scholar to know the gospel; you don’t have to travel to a sacred land or find a holy guru; you don’t even have to be very old to understand that Jesus died for your sins and rose victorious from the grave.
Finally, consider the good news of the gospel. Jesus died for our sins. He died to free us from the guilt of our sins. For us! He is not some admirable hero who lay down his life for a cause. His death won for us victory over our own death. We no longer must fear the punishment that once awaited us on account of our sins. Why? Because Jesus took the punishment on the cross. That is what his death was about. And we know that he was successful. How? Because on the third day he was raised from the dead. By whom? By God the Father, who accepted his Son’s sacrifice and has no raised him to glory and to authority over heaven and earth. And so we know the victory for us is won. We are saved! We are redeemed; set free from bondage; raised from death to life. That is the good news of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.
Have you claimed the good news for yourself? Do you understand that your salvation is not about you getting your act together? It is not about you becoming a better person or smarter or more religious. It is about Jesus dying on the cross for your sins; it is about his death and his resurrection from the dead. He has done the work for you, and here is the work he calls you to do. Listen to him. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). Believe! Believe in Jesus. Believe what he has done. Cast your hope on him alone. Confess your sins to God and call on the name of the Lord Jesus for your salvation. And if Jesus Christ can save a man like Paul who persecuted the church; if God’s grace can change such a man, then there is hope for you.
And I am not speaking only to those who have not believed on Christ, but to believers as well. Don’t forget the cause and foundation of your salvation. The gospel is not limited to getting us into the kingdom and then we have to carry on the work of pleasing God. The gospel is what takes us through our earthly lives until we are glorified. Our sins continue to be forgiven because of the death and resurrection of our Lord. Our favor with God is secured only in the work of Jesus Christ. Never, never forget the gospel that saves and sustains you. Jesus died for our sins; he was buried; and, praise God, on the third day he was raised from the dead.
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