There have been more than a few situations in my life involving organizations that I have been a part of as either a member or leader where I’ve found myself swimming in a sea of details while realizing that the big picture had been either forgotten or disregarded. In sports, conflicts arise about who gets the most playing time, while simultaneously it seemed to be forgotten that the goal was to win, not just compete. Likewise in politics, it drove me crazy that the party spent so much time on internal posturing and authority structures, that strategizing to advance the philosophical agenda by electoral success could not find sufficient focus to make this possible. And yes, things like this can happen in churches – where squabbles about lesser matters can become a vortex into which energies and passions would flow, rather than the advancement of the gospel.
By the time we now get to the 15th chapter and near to the end of Paul’s first letter, I believe he is feeling like I’ve written just above. Whereas matters like preferred teachers, spiritual gifts, marriage, holy living, and roles within the church body are not without significance, there was something of greater magnitude to emphasize. Paul calls this focal point – the gospel message – “as of first importance.” He’s saying to them, “Let me remind you to not lose emphasis upon that which is of the greatest significance, that being the message of Jesus and what he has done.”
This 11-verse introduction leads into the best discussion in the Scriptures about the importance and centrality of not just the substitutionary death of Christ, but equally so of the resurrection. We are lost without either. The gospel is incomplete without both. The death is the payment; the resurrection is the receipt that provides proof and validation.
And beyond this theme introduction of these 11 verses we read today, we see in verse 12 the reference to Corinth that there were some there who were apparently preaching that Christ had not literally and physically raised from the dead. This fatal error had to be addressed. Again, these two elements are the big idea, the core of the middle of the center of it all.
The eyewitness list of those who could affirm that Jesus was seen alive after the burial (the proof he had died) is very impressive indeed. If it was just Peter and “the Twelve” (that’s a title for the disciples, actually 11 since Judas was now gone), one could speculate that they made up the story. But there were many more, even 500 who saw him at the same time (presumably in Galilee). There were many others, many of whom were yet alive years later.
As well, though Paul does not take the time to give quotations, he references that all of this is not merely the stuff of experience … something totally unexpected and beyond explanation. No, this complete work of Christ was anticipated by various Scriptural passages (Isaiah 53, Psalm 16, etc.). This was God’s plan.
Again, we also see here of Paul’s profound gratitude and amazement at the magnanimous grace for which he had been a recipient. He wasn’t looking for Christ, but Christ found him and brought him into faith and truth and service. After making the list of all those who knew the gospel before he himself encountered Christ on the road to Damascus, it was humbling to think that he had not only been included but had also been charged with the great work of apostleship. He was, indeed, the last person who would be expected to have this great blessing and honor.
In any event, he concludes, it is all of God – be it he or others who hold to the gospel; and that content is the main idea that should never be forgotten. Even the opportunity to work hard, such as Paul had, was a gift from God. It is all from God.
1 Corinthians 15:1 – Now, brothers and sisters, 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.
15:3 – For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
15:9 – For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve 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 to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.