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Will Graham

What is the Gospel?

An analysis of the apostolic Gospel.

FRESH BREEZE AUTHOR Will Graham 06 FEBRUARY 2016 14:45 h GMT+1
jesus, garden, passion, cross, christ

If we want our definition of the Gospel to be accurate, we must lay a hold of the primitive church’s apostolic doctrine.

Paul quotes an oral Christian tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 to explain what the biblical Gospel is all about. The creed is divided up into four distinct phrases. Here you have it:

#1: That Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures.

#2: That He was buried.

#3: That He rose again the third day.

#4: That he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve.

If you take a close look at the creed, you will notice that lines 2 and 4 back up what is being said in lines 1 and 3 respectively.

So what we will do today, by the grace of God, is to study the content of the Gospel line by line.

Line #1: That Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures.

To say that Christ died is a historical affirmation. Nevertheless, to say that He died “for our sins” is a doctrinal assertion. Thanks to the illuminating work of the Spirit of God, the early church understood that God had fulfilled His saving purpose through the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, the blessed Son of God.

Christ’s death was much more than a mere example of love. It was an expiatory, vicarious and substitutionary affair. Jesus was doing a whole lot more than simply giving us all an ethical pattern to follow.

The Old Testament Scriptures revealed that the Messiah, the Christ, had to give Himself in sacrifice for the sins of His people. From the days of Abel onwards, God’s servants were always conscious of the need of sacrificing for sin in worship unto the Lord. Just think of the Passover Lamb or the entire sacrificial system as registered in Leviticus or Isaiah 53.

The Old Testament prophesied that the Servant of the Lord would be wounded for our transgressions and rebellions. Paul, then, joined his voice to that of the primitive church in pointing out that the Servant in question was the Lord Jesus.

Line #2: That He was buried.

The second line of the confession acts as a reinforcement of the first one. Christ died. That is true. And due to His death, He was consequently buried. So why did the early church have to underline Jesus’ physical burial? Because it is the proof that Jesus physically died.

Some in Corinth believed that Jesus’ death and resurrection were some kind of spiritual manifestations; however, Christian orthodoxy always held to the belief that Jesus’ death was real, historic and verifiable. After Jesus’ literal death upon the cross, He was literally buried.

Line #3: That He rose again the third day.

Since the second line points out that Jesus was physically buried, then the third line must be understood in a corporal way as well. A real corpse was truly brought back to life.

In fact, throughout the rest of 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul is at pains to clarify that Jesus really did resurrect in a literal fashion. “If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is also in vain” (v. 14).

Now, with regards to the first and second lines of the creed, the third one is a little different in that the first two declarations are registered in the past simple whereas the third is written in the passive perfect i.e. “He has been resurrected”. The implication therefore is that Jesus is still alive. As we look at the rest of the Pauline corpus in the New Testament, we learn that the One who resurrected Jesus from the dead was the Father by the power of the Spirit.

This Christian creed also underscores how the resurrection was prophesied throughout the Old Covenant. Two texts from the Hebrew Scriptures widely quoted by the primitive church were Psalm 16:10 –“For You will not leave my soul in hell; neither will You suffer your Holy One to see corruption”- and Psalm 110:1 –“The Lord said unto my Lord: Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool”.

With regards to the reference about the “third day”, it’s quite likely that the recently born church had Hosea 6:2 in mind –“After two days He will revive us; on the third day, He will raise us up”- or even Jonah 1:17 –“And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights”. Christ Himself alluded to the third day whilst ministering on earth (John 2:19).

#4: That He was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve.

The fourth line of the creed fills us in on a few more details about the third line. Jesus’ resurrection was no sort of spiritual experience that occurred in the disciples’ hearts at an existential or symbolic level. He really resurrected in the full physical and literal sense of the word.

Such authentic real-life appearances convinced the disciples that He who had been crucified by the Romans was now alive. Without the resurrection of the Lord Christ, how could the disciples have known that God had vindicated His Son?

By means of the resurrection, the apostles were encouraged to preach the Good News to the ends of the earth, shedding their own blood in the process. They knew of a certainty that Jesus was undoubtedly alive.


All the aforementioned helps us to highlight the truth that the Gospel is something that happens extra-nos, that, is, outside of us. It is all about what God did in and through His beloved Son.

It is true that there is a subjective element contained in the apostolic proclamation given that Jesus guarantees the forgiveness of our sins and our justification through His death and resurrection, however, the Gospel is what the Lord has done for us.

This should warn us to steer clear of the typical slogan that is thrown about so much today: “You’ve got to live the Gospel!” We cannot live the Gospel because the Gospel is what Jesus did. Only Jesus lived the Gospel.

The moment we forget that the Gospel is all about Jesus and His work, we fall into humanism and convert the Gospel into ethics, which is not the Gospel but a non-Gospel or a no-Gospel.

So: what is the Gospel? Let’s listen to the answer preached by Paul and the primitive church:

#1: That Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures.

#2: That He was buried.

#3: That He rose again the third day.

#4: That he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve.





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