Easter Sunday: The Original Gospel
What can you remember from 20 years ago?
That takes us back to 1997, the year Tony Blair was elected. Cool Britainia, things can only get better, Oasis' Be Here Now, Radiohead's OK Computer, the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys, Puff Daddy and Teletubbies.
Come August it'll be 20 years since Princess Di died. Can you remember where you were when you heard about the crash? Can you remember the photos of the crumpled car, the lines of people at the gates of Buckingham palace, the flowers, the tributes, the song Elton John re-released for her?
It doesn't seem that long ago does it?
What about 25 years ago? 1992 Bill Clinton was elected President of the United States, Rodney King was beaten by LA police sparking race riots. The Olympics were held in Barcelona and Lindford Christie won the 100m for GB, while Kieran Perkins won the 1500m Freestyle for Australia. GB would end with 4 gold medals (3 places behind Australia on the medal tally with 7).
Shakespeare's sister had the biggest selling song of the year with 'Stay', Charles and Eddie weren't far behind with 'Would I lie to you Baby?' and SNAP! sang 'Rhythm is a Dancer', Boys to Men came to 'the end of the road' and Billy Ray Cyrus suffered from an 'Achy Breaky Heart'… and the Premier League started with it's first season, won by – who else? – Man United, while Newcastle won the first division under Kevin Keegan, and the entertainers were born. Meanwhile Ant and Dec were still known as PJ and Duncan and stared in Byker Grove.
That was 25 years ago. It's surprising how quickly time flies isn't it…
Perhaps you could continue this reminiscing over tea and coffee afterwards – perhaps with a guitar or youtube – but that's enough to make the point I think… 20-25 years, that's well within our capacity to remember striking events and even retain details and song lyrics – and just talking about them takes you right back doesn't it?
Why is that important? Well tonight we look at the beginning of 1 Cor 15. Paul wrote this letter in AD 55, some 20-25 years after Jesus' death (Jesus died AD 30 or 33) well within the memories of the people he was writing to… and he wrote to remind them of the things he had taught them when he came in AD 49-52, things that were in turn passed on to him from the first.
So what we're looking at this evening is one of the earliest parts of the New Testament written, probably only 1 &2 Thessalonians earlier. So we have possibly the earliest written record of Christian belief, belief that goes right back to the start of the Christian church, right back to the earliest disciples. It's not a product of Chinese whispers and the accretion of years and years of exaggeration and additions, but right within the lifetimes of the hearers, the eyewitnesses were still around to confirm or deny, to correct or inform…
So what we're looking at this evening is an authentic, contemporary testimony of what Christians believed right at the beginning.
And what do we see in these verses? Paul teaches that Christians believed in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead right from the beginning. In fact this was one of two pillars at the very heart of the faith – along with Jesus' death on the cross.
So we're going to break this passage down into three points this evening –
First, This is the original Gospel
Second, Christians believe that Christ died according to the scriptures
Third, Christians believe that Christ rose according to the scriptures.
Point One This is the Original Gospel
"Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance…"
We can see here that Paul is reminding them of what they heard and believed, this is nothing new, just what he preached to them at the beginning (AD 49 or 50 – just 16-20 years after Jesus' death in AD 30 or 33). Notice he's not convincing them of new things, he's reminding them of the things they heard from him at the first, the thing's they've already heard and believed – these are the things they received from Paul as gospel, and they've based their lives on them since then, living as Christians.
So this is the original gospel, the one Paul preached from the beginning, the one they believed. And not only that, but this is the only gospel that saves – and there is only one gospel that saves, to believe this is to be saved, but to believe otherwise is to be believe in vain!
Do you see what he's saying – this is the message that's at the heart of Christian faith, there may be other things that Christians believe, other things that are important; but this, what Paul is about to remind us of, this is the central thing, the key point, the essential, beating heart of the Christian faith.
But the start of verse three takes us even further back to the time of Jesus – Paul says that the message that he preached didn't start with him, he received it – that is he learned it from others, it was passed on to him from those who knew it at the beginning. Paul could be referring back to Jesus, who appeared to him on the Damascus road and preached the gospel to him in the beginning, or he could be talking about the disciples who schooled him in the earliest stories of Jesus life and death. Either way this expression 'I received' is a short hand for solemn tradition, the set of teaching that was passed down from teacher to student, just as Paul received it from his teachers and passed it on to his students. You can see him using the same expression at the start of chapter 11 and again in 11.23 when he tells them the story of the Passover and what Jesus did and said that night.
Now remember, the gospels hadn't been written at this point; today we can cross reference 1 Corinthians 11 against Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but Paul couldn't and nor could the Corinthians, because they weren't written yet. But all the same, Paul still knew the stories of what Jesus said and did – he quotes Jesus in 1 Cor 7 as well. Paul knew the stories – and so did the Corinthians – there'd be no point Paul quoting these things to them if they didn't recognise them as things Jesus said.
What this tells us is that there was a body of teaching about Jesus and what he said and did that was circulating around the early church even at this really early stage. The things Jesus said and did were known and passed on even before the gospels were written. And Paul gives us access to these earliest accounts. What we have here is access to the very earliest gospel preaching. So what follows in verse 3-7 is probably a very early creed, a very early summary of what is essential for Christian belief.
So we're looking back even before AD 50 to the very earliest summary of the gospel. And we see so clearly that from the very beginning Christians were preaching and teaching that Jesus died and rose from the dead. The resurrection wasn't a story that developed over centuries, it wasn't a late addition to the story of Jesus, it was The Story that the apostles told and that took hold of the ancient world and produced churches and believers all over the world. And the story went around well and truly in the life time of those who were there, within the memory span of the people who were there – like us talking about the events surrounding Princess Di's death, or Tony Blair's election.
See I could try tonight to tell you that Australia won twenty gold medals at 1992 Olympics, and our greatest sprinter Matt Shirvington took the 100m sprint gold medal. Or I could insist that Newcastle United won the premier league, but I wouldn't get very far with that sort of thing, because there are plenty of people in this room who remember what really happened. People will remember the details of the season, who were the strikers, who scored the most goals, who was relegated, who was promoted… it's not that long ago, we can still sing the songs even if we haven't heard them since…
One thing this is pushing us to is to realise that this is reliable. It was remembered clearly by those who were there, what we read in the New Testament isn't legends added years and years after the event (like the life of Budda perhaps), and it's not Chinese whispers subtly changing over the years, but events clearly remembered by those who were there, written down not too long afterwards and passed on reliably to others. What they said is unbelievable – but it wasn't made up long after the event, it was the contemporary report from those who were there and saw it. You may find them hard to believe, but we can't pretend that the story comes from bad reporting years after the event. This is how it was reported at the time.
So Paul passes on to us an ancient creed that summarises the essentials of the gospel. And it consists of two sets of facts, both predicted in the bible and both supported by corroborating evidence. Together they form the indissoluble core at the heart of Christian belief, to call yourself a Christian you must hold at least these two things to be true. We'll look at them one at a time as points two and three.
Point Two – Christ Died for Sins According to the Scriptures
"For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried,"
The first of these key, central facts of the gospel is this – that Christ died for sins. Notice there are two things being said here – that he died, and why he died.
That Christ died isn't much of a problem for us, but this was a big issue – a complete stumbling block, completely unbelievable – for first Century Jews, just as it is for Muslims today. It was completely inconceivable that God's Christ (or Messiah – it's the same word, Messiah = Hebrew, Christ = Greek) would die. In fact that's the whole point – he was supposed to conquer and rule forever. Remember how the disciples responded after Jesus died? Luke 24:19 Jesus meets two disciples on the road to Emmaus – and they tell him how they had given up hope that Jesus could be the one to redeem Israel (that is, the Messiah) because he was killed. Likewise when he was hung on the cross the people sneered at him – let him save himself if he is the Christ, the chosen one (Luke 23.35).
The Christ was supposed to conquer the nations and rule, not die on a cross… but the Jesus died. How then could he be the Christ? But we are being told here that his death was meaningful, purposeful, that it was in-fact the means by which he established his rule and rescued his people. The Christ died for sins we're told – not for his own sins, but for ours. This takes us back to Isaiah 53:4-6
"Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all."
The scriptures were clear that one would come who would die for sins, a servant, and that by his death for sins his people would be saved. Before Jesus no one ever associated this servant with the Messiah, but Jesus uniquely claimed that he would be the Christ by being the servant – that by dying for sins, by giving his life as a ransom for sins as he said in Mark 10.45 – he would come into the rule of the Messiah and rescue his people.
So Paul says that the Christ died according to the scriptures. Because it was just as it was written, reading through Isaiah 52:13- 53:12 it's uncanny how neatly it fits with Jesus death, how it pre-empts the details of his execution even though written 700 years before it. This is one of the evidences that Jesus really was the one chosen by God – because no one could mould events to a prediction like that. The facts fit so nicely that for years sceptics claimed Isaiah was written afterwards, then we found a copy of Isaiah in the Dead Sea Scrolls (more precisely the Nag Hamadi scrolls) that was written out before Jesus, and we could show that it was in fact a prediction.
Lastly Paul reminds us of a piece of supporting evidence – Christ died, according to the scriptures, and he was buried. Chris was buried – this isn't just incidental, it establishes that he really was dead – they wrapped him in clothes and laid him in the tomb (sounds like Mary and the manger doesn't it, both ends of life he was wrapped and laid… and Mary was there for both!) … this is short hand for all the details of the death – he really, really was dead, and you can talk to the people who buried him, you can still go and see the tomb if you'd like.
What we have here is the Distilled essence of Christianity – the 100 proof reduced down absolute essentials, the heart of it. And at heart of the gospel we have a cross where Jesus died, and a tomb where he lay, and the scriptures which spoke of it all in advance. Strip away all the cultural accretions we're familiar with, strip it back to the first century, strip it right back to the earliest preaching and we still have Jesus dying for sins, taking the place of sinners as a substitute, giving his life as a sacrifice for sins. Christian faith is inescapably cross shaped, cross interpreted as substitution, his life for ours, and sacrifice, a death for sins. This earliest gospel preaching gives the facts – Jesus died; and it gives the interpretation of the facts – he died as the Christ, and he died for sins, as a substitute, a sacrifice, in the place of sinners.
So his death isn't accidental or incidental; it doesn't disprove his claims to be the Messiah, but in fact it establishes that he is the Messiah who dies for sins, who rescues his people by taking on himself the punishment that we deserve.
These things weren't theologies that grew up afterwards from Paul or someone else, disconnected from Jesus, this is what Jesus taught his disciples from the beginning.
But it's not enough to believe just that Jesus as the Christ died for sins, that's just half the creed, that's only one of the central pillars. It's time we turned to look at the other. So let's move on to point three.
Point Three – Christ Really Rose from the Dead
Here we pick it up again from verse 4, but lets read from verse 3:
"For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born."
So the other central truth of the gospel is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This is the gospel that was preached from the beginning, what Paul received and what he passed on to them as the gospel.
From the very first it was reported that Jesus rose from the dead. Just as in Acts Peter stood up and preached the very same at the festival of Pentecost, five weeks after Easter – Acts 2:23-24:
"This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him."
Peter there quoted from Psalm 16:8-11, one of the famous Psalms of the Messiah where David says 'you will not abandon me to the grave, you will not let your holy one see decay.'
Clearly the resurrection of the Messiah was also part of the scriptures. Even the resurrection on the third day gets a mention in Hosea 6, ask me about that one after.
Now we can't believe in a resurrection – and as hard as it was for the Jews to accept a crucified Messiah it was harder for them to accept a resurrection. We can see that right here in these verses, because look at the supporting evidence Paul includes here – it's far more weighty than the simple mention of the tomb isn't it?
It's weighty because we wouldn't believe it otherwise – the disciples themselves refused to believe without repeated evidence (as we saw in our Matthew 28 reading). So look at the supporting evidence. After his death Jesus appeared to many – to Peter, the leader of the disciples; and to the whole body of the disciples, the 12, and to a large group of more than 500 brothers all at once. And Paul adds – and most of these are still living – as if to say you can check this out for yourself, these people are well known in the early church, you know their stories and you can check with them yourselves. We can't talk to them today, but we have their experiences recorded for us in the gospel and we know that when they met Jesus it wasn't as some sort of force or happy feeling or sense that he was somehow alive and his work would go forward. No, he appeared in his body, he talked to the disciples, he walked with them, they touched him and held him, he ate with them – and they saw and felt the wounds from his crucifixion.
In short he was in his body, it was changed, but it was bodily resurrection – and this not a late belief, this was what they believed from the beginning. And of course Paul is himself one of the witnesses – he used to be a persecutor, he arrested tried to kill people for their belief in the resurrection, but he came to believe it himself – when Jesus appeared to him alive and glorified in heaven. There's no way Paul was going to believe, and yet he did come to believe, because he couldn't deny it any longer when he met Jesus.
Now you might complain that everyone who's listed as a witness was a believer – and Paul illustrates for us the problem – because when people see the truth of the resurrection they become Christians, so it's hard to find witnesses who knew Jesus rose from the dead and weren't Christians! Paul was an independent witness from the others, as he reminds us he was born last, differently than the rest, his is an independent testimony. He was their enemy, on a crusade to destroy the faith. But when the evidence of the resurrection confronted him – when the risen Jesus confronted him – he couldn't continue an enemy of Jesus any longer, and he switched sides from persecutor to missionary.
All this happened just a few years before Paul wrote this letter. A man was crucified outside Jerusalem and appeared alive to his friends and even one of his enemies, and those people came to understand that the scriptures predicted it all, and they spread the news across the whole ancient world and people checked out the evidence for themselves, and thousands came to believe. And we stand in their place today.
And the message of this passage is that we need to believe all this, to receive it and to take our stand on it – not enough to pay lip service to this information, but need to receive it, to believe it, and to take our stand on it – like getting married, not enough to think she loves you and you love her, you need to take decisive action and pop the question and get married and then live it out for the rest of your life.
So if you're wondering this evening what is the message of Christianity, well it's this – the announcement of the news that Jesus is the Christ – he died for sins, for our sins; and he rose from the dead on the third day, just as God said that he would. He was seen and touched and heard – because he was alive. And now we can have life in him, because he's alive our sin can be forgiven This is what saves – accepting the truth of Jesus death and resurrection for us, and to take our stand on it and never to leave, but to hold fast to it forever.
Conclusion – are you standing on this Gospel, by this Gospel you'll be saved!