It’s important, every so often, to revisit the basics, to go back to first principles.
These days I’m working on something that has me thinking about how to communicate the gospel, and the basics of the Christian life, to those for whom it is a brand-new concept.
It was a long time ago—about 60 years, in fact—when the gospel was new to me. Over the years I’ve learned a lot about the gospel and about its effects and outcomes. I’ve also had the privilege of teaching Bible and theology in several widely different cultures. Time and experience tend to fill your mind with lots of related and derived concepts, to the point that you need to remind yourself to just go back to the beginning and think about the topic simply, as if for the first time. The first time I heard it, as a five- or six-year-old boy, it was simple enough for me to understand and believe.
Paul defines the gospel for us in 1Corinthians 15.3b-4—
that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures.
A lot of people read this as signifying that the gospel has 3 parts: death, burial, and resurrection. But that’s a misimpression that derives from the place where we stop reading—and where I stopped quoting. There’s more in verse 5—
… and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
As you know, Paul continues in the next verses to name a good many other witnesses of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances.
Death, burial, resurrection, witnesses.
Is the fact that there were eyewitnesses a part of the gospel? Does it have four parts?
Well, you’ve probably noticed that a phrase appears twice in this passage:
according to the scriptures
If you look at the passage closely, you’ll notice that it’s a pair of couplets:
- that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures,
- and that he was buried,
- and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures
- and that he appeared.
What’s the point of his appearances? They demonstrate that he rose.
What’s the point, then, of his burial? It demonstrates that he died.
So what’s the gospel?
- He died for our sins. Certainly.
- He rose from the dead. Certainly.
And a corollary:
- This was predicted. Planned.
That, my friends, is the gospel. God made it simple so that the least of these his brethren could understand it. I was able to understand it as a pre-school child with no previous Christian training. The history of missions tells us that in every culture in the world, in every kingdom, tribe, tongue, and nation, the gospel can be understood and received.
God is not the God of the elite—although the elite are welcome, if they will not count on their elititude.
God is the God of all who will come. And his Good News can be understood and embraced by them all.
So we’ve defined the gospel. But now we face another question:
Why is it good news? What do Christ’s death and resurrection have to do with us?
We’ll survey the biblical data on that in the next post.