How did early Christians define and share the gospel? Is there a biblical summary of the gospel? In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, we find a kind of mini-summary of the gospel of the first Christians. What does this passage teach us about the message the first Christians proclaimed.
Paul introduces these verses by passing on what he himself has received, which indicates a firm confession that was probably memorized and used to summarize the gospel. Exactly how many verses the creed comprises is disputed, but verses 3-5 form the core. This is the confession:
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. (RSV)
Four verbs are crucial: Jesus died and was buried. He was raised and appeared.
The death and resurrection of Jesus are central to the gospel, so Paul devotes the remainder of the chapter to the subject of the resurrection. The death and resurrection of Jesus solved the problem of sin. How exactly Jesus remedied the sin problem is not explained here, it is only mentioned as a fact (v.3: died for our sins). However, the passage gives us a crucial indicator of how we must understand the death and resurrection of Jesus, namely “according to the Scriptures”.
An interpretation of the death of Jesus and his resurrection which does not take into account the history of the Old Testament (OT) is dangerous. The events around the cross must be understood in the light of the OT. “According to Scripture” can be interpreted in two ways:
1. Based on specific parts of the OT.
2. Based on the overall picture of the AT.
If we look for specific passages in the OT that help us understand the death and resurrection of Jesus, we cannot get past Isaiah 53.
Isaiah 53 makes it clear that it was our sin that brought Jesus to the cross (v.5a). And through his suffering, we humans can find freedom (v.5b). Isaiah also makes it clear that it was not God who punished Jesus (v.4b). So it’s not about God pouring his anger on Jesus and punishing him.
How then is it to be understood that Jesus’ death resolved the problem of sin?
Galatians 1:4 uses a phrase similar to 1 Corinthians 15: 3 and helps us better understand the “died for our sins” part:
In order to set us free from this present evil age, Christ gave himself for our sins, in obedience to the will of our God and Father. (GNT)
Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are set free from the present world and the evil that rules it. So it’s about liberation from powers that enslave us. This fits perfectly into the OT overall picture in which Jesus puts his own death. Jesus gave us a meal to understand his death, he gave us the Lord’s Supper. Jesus explained the meaning of his death to his disciples while he celebrated the Passover meal with them. The Passover meal reminded the Israelites of the Exodus from Egypt and how God freed the Israelites from the slavery of the Egyptians. Exodus is the image that Jesus gives us to understand his death. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus brought about a new exodus. He sets us free from the spiritual dark forces that have enslaved us.
With this, he fulfills the first Messiah prophecy that he will crush the head of the serpent from the very beginning of the OT (Gen 3:15). All human beings are slaves of these powers and are thereby prisoners of sin and death. Whoever makes Jesus King of his life will find freedom from these powers and thus also forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Since the children, as he calls them, are people of flesh and blood, Jesus himself became like them and shared their human nature. He did this so that through his death he might destroy the Devil, who has the power over death, 15and in this way set free those who were slaves all their lives because of their fear of death.
Hebrews 2:14-15 (GNT)
God has rescued us from the dark kingdom which had power over us. Now we belong to the kingdom of His beloved Son Jesus. Through Jesus we are no longer slaves, all our failures are forgiven.
Colossians 1:13-14 (translation by the author)
The gospel is not that God, in anger, punished Jesus on the cross for our guilt. No, it was not God’s wrath that brought Jesus to the cross, but our sin (Isaiah 53: 4-5).
The gospel (according to scripture) is that Jesus defeated the dark forces that enslaved us. Through his victory we have freedom from these dark forces, freedom from sin and death will lose its power over us if we accept Jesus as king over our life. Through Jesus alone, we can become free from the kingdom of darkness and enter the wonderful kingdom of God.