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 Cephas, and then to the Twelve. (verses 3-5)
This is a crucial passage. Paul reminds the Corinthians of the very essence of the gospel message – “this is what we preach, and this is what you believed” (verse 11). Contained in these verses are four brief statements that encapsulate what Paul calls “the word I preached to you” (verse 2). Scholars tell us these statements are one of the earliest “Creeds” of the church. We are about to enter holy ground.
But first, notice that Paul describes it as “what I received.” He didn’t make it up. No. It was given to him. Sometimes people seem to assume that Paul, as one of the earliest theologians of the church, took the stories and teachings of Jesus and shaped them into his own new message, giving us what we now know as Christian doctrine. But Paul tells us that’s not the case. Elsewhere he states it clearly: “the gospel is not something that man made up … (rather) I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12). The gospel is rooted in Jesus himself. Although the words Paul uses in this passage seem to have been established in the earliest tradition of the broader church, their content comes directly from Jesus.
Indeed, Jesus himself is the message. Four statements from the weekend of his Passion encapsulate the gospel. Here they are:
(1) “Christ died for our sins.” What an essential affirmation. The backstory, of course, is the “incarnation,” that Christ became a human being, entering our world and experience, taking on flesh and blood. Therefore, his death was real. But more, it was a purposeful substitution. He died in our place. He bore our sins in his body on the cross. He took our penalty upon himself. He is the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, his shed blood (like that Passover lamb centuries before) bringing us salvation. Good Friday deserves its name.
(2) “He was buried.” His death was no sham. The spear in his side brought forth a flow of blood and water, clear sign that life was ended. His burial seals that reality. He went to the grave. He was wrapped in grave clothes. He lay as a corpse in the sealed tomb. He experienced the finality of death for us.
(3) “He was raised on the third day.” Death couldn’t hold him. It didn’t have the final word. The Father raised Jesus to life, breaking death’s power, birthing glorious resurrection life, leading to our own hope of life eternal. That upward sweep of Christ’s resurrection leads, of course, to the heavenly realms where he is seated at the Father’s right hand, above all rule and authority, having been given the name that is above all names. Jesus is Lord! Hallelujah.
(4) “He appeared.” The resurrection did not happen in some dark corner, unobserved. Nor was it only a “spiritual” rising, an ethereal event, disconnected from tangible reality. No. The resurrection impacts the real world, for the resurrected Jesus was seen by human eyes. Firstly, by Cephas (Peter) and the other disciples, those who were commissioned to bear witness to the truth of the gospel message. Then, also, to others (verses 6-8), Paul himself included as “one abnormally born,” privileged with those others to be an eyewitness of the risen Lord.
These historical markers, one by one, anchor the essence of the Gospel. Christ died … was buried … was raised … appeared. His story is crammed full of vitality for us. Our story begins from his. Praise his name.
Lord Jesus, praise you for your death and resurrection. It was for us you died. It was for me. You were buried, but then raised to life on the third day. You were seen, and the message has been shared by your eyewitnesses. I have heard. I believe. I receive. Praise your name.
Give thanks: Reflect on the events of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Reflect on how his story impacts your own. Died … buried … raised … appeared. Give thanks.