The New Testament is not bashful about basing the Christian hope squarely on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Jesus is central to the gospel. So it should come as no surprise that Paul began his epic teaching on the certainty and the implications of the resurrection with a review of the content of the gospel.
For the Corinthian believers, the gospel was a message that they had decisively received and continued to stand upon, even though they may not have fully understood it. When I was six years old I gave all I knew of me to all I knew of Christ. Frankly, I knew very little about either one! But I can still recall the time and place where I made the decision to commit my life to following Jesus Christ. Paul wanted his readers to be clear on the fact that the message of Jesus is the gospel that saves. It had saved them and continued to transform them. Paul handed forward this message to them, but it was not his own. As he had received it, he passed it forward. In verses 15:1-7, Paul presents the content of the gospel as based upon two historical events, each which possessed its own evidence.
Event #1: “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scripture” (15:3).
Jesus death was sacrificial and on our behalf. Paul uses atonement language (think Old Testament sacrifices) to help us understand that Jesus, though thoroughly innocent, became the perfect sacrifice for sin. He not only was the perfect sacrifice, he was the perfect substitute.
Evidence #1: “He was buried” (15:4).
Much of the apostolic preaching of the early church included the burial of Jesus Christ. It was also included in the early church creeds, such as the Apostles Creed. Why? Burial is verification and evidence of death. That’s why the graveside is such a challenging part of the funeral process. Nothing presents the reality of death more clearly than the burial of the body. Paul’s point is this: Jesus really died a physical death on the cross. He did not swoon or enter into some kind of soul sleep. He literally and physically died and was physically and literally buried. Paul was not using a metaphor or an analogy; he was being woodenly literal.
Event #2: “Christ rose from the dead on the third day, according to the Scriptures” (15:4).
The Greek here uses the passive perfect, which simply means is that Jesus was raised by the Father and that he remains raised. During his ministry on Earth, Jesus raised three people from the dead. Each of them was raised to die again. But Jesus was raised forevermore, claiming victory over sin and death. Just as Jesus physically died and was buried, he was raised again to life.
Evidence #2: “He was seen by…” (15:5-7).
As burial certifies death, the eyewitness reports certified the resurrection. Paul gave an extensive list, but it is not an exhaustive list. For example, the women who first saw Jesus were not included.
This is the foundation of the gospel: Jesus’ physically died as evidenced by his burial, was experienced bodily resurrection from the dead as attested by a number exceeding 500 people. That is the seed of our Christian hope.
Tomorrow I’ll continue in 1 Corinthians 15 and address the first implication of the resurrection: it is the power to change your life!