What is the Gospel?: Jesus as Lord in 1 Corinthians

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Over these last few weeks I have been re-posting a series of old blogs exploring what the New Testament writers say about “the gospel,” testing the hypothesis that fundamentally the NT gospel is the proclamation the Jesus really is Israel’s Messiah and therefore the world’s true Lord.  Initially I argued (here) that in Greco-Roman parlance euangelion/euangelizomai-language typically referred to the accession of a ruler, and so we should expect it to do so in the NT as well.  I have further argued that that expectation is borne out in extraordinary ways both by looking at the gospel preached by Jesus within the Gospels (here) and by reading the Gospels themselves as articulations of the gospel (here).  Last week I tried to outline Paul’s gospel-logic in his letter to the Galatians (here).  This week we turn to 1 Corinthians.

5.  The apostolic gospel is fundamentally a claim about the identity of Israel’s Messiah.

Paul letting Peter have it.

In my last post in this series I suggested that Paul’s problem with the Galatians was not so much their gospel-memory but rather their gospel-logic.  They knew full well what the apostolic gospel was, but they had failed to  work out what that gospel meant for their lives.  Interestingly, Paul had the same problem with the Apostle Peter.  According to Paul, he, Peter, James and John fundamentally agreed on what the gospel was (Gal 2:7-9), but, as he tells us later in the chapter, he and Peter clashed in Antioch over just what the gospel implies for the Christian community–namely over the question of whether Jewish Christians may segregate themselves from Gentile Christians (2:11-14).  In allowing the Jewish Christians to separate themselves from their Gentile brethren, Peter’s conduct, says Paul, “was not in step with the truth of the gospel”–i.e., the gospel upon which they were in basic agreement.

But what was this apostolic gospel upon which Peter and Paul agreed?  What was the baseline message that the apostles preached?  Paul gives us what is probably one of the clearest, concisest, and most straightforward summaries of the apostolic gospel found anywhere in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 15:3b-5.  Here Paul is reminding the Corinthians “of the good news that I proclaimed to you (to euangelion ho euangelisamen humin), which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you (tini logo euangelisamen humin ei katachete)….” (15:1-2) .  The language of “receiving” and “handing on” here is typical of well-defined oral traditions which were to be passed on from one generation to another (cf. 11:23), and what follows is a cadenced primative creedal formula which Paul, too, had apparently “received” (15:3a).

Received from whom?  Most biblical scholars think that Paul received this primitive creed from the leaders of the Jerusalem church themselves, and so we have here what is perhaps the earliest extant Christian statement of faith.  We might be tempted to call it “The Apostles’ Creed” were it not for the inevitable confusion that labeling it thus would cause. But more to the point, Paul identifies this creedal statement with to euangelion, “the gospel”–the apostolic gospel which he preached to Gentiles and presumably the apostolic gospel which Peter preached to Jews.  The creed reads as follows:

That Christ died for our sins 
in accordance with the scriptures, 
And that he was buried, 
and that he was raised on the third day 
in accordance with the scriptures, 
and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.

Such creeds are designed to stick in the mind and roll off the tongue, to be easily memorized and regularly recited so as spread their message quickly and with minimal distortion.

pantokrator3Perhaps the most obvious and important thing to note is that the creed makes a series of straightforward declarations about the Messiah, the Christ, the God of Israel’s anointed.  It does not outline a soteriological calculus.  It does not unpack the vanity of efforts to “earn” one’s salvation through “works of the law.”  It does not narrate the grand drama of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration.  It does not begin by informing you that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”  It does not ask you whether, if you were to die today, God would let you into His heaven.  It simply tells us what Israel’s long-awaited King, the Christos, has done,  and has had done to Him and for Him.  In short, by succinctly narrating  His death and resurrection, the creed identifies Jesus, the crucified and risen one, as the Messiah.

This shouldn’t surprise us.  As we have seen, given the usual usage of euangelion/euangelizomai language in the first century, we should expect the apostles’ “gospel” to be a pronouncement about who their King is and what He has done.  In the Greek-speaking world of the first century, “gospels” tell you who is King, who is Lord, who is in charge.  And that is precisely what 1 Corinthian 15:3b-5 tells us: The Messiah, the King, is the one who died and whom God raised from the dead (i.e., Jesus).  “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord (Kyrion ‘Iesoun) and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved,” Paul says to the Romans (10:9).   Earlier in the letter we’re looking at, Paul tells the Corinthians that no one can (sincerely?) make this most basic Christian confession of Kyrios ‘Iesous, “Jesus is Lord,” apart from the work of Holy Spirit (12:3).  The primary goal of Paul’s mission was to bring people to the point of making this confession in good faith and living their lives accordingly.  Or, as he tells the Romans, he aims “to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of [Jesus’] name among all the nations.”

Of course, the notion that the man vindicated as God’s Messiah was not victorious in battle but rather had been lynched by the powers that be was one with which people needed to sit for a while.  It was a scandal to Jews and a big joke to Gentiles.  But it is a non-negotiable feature of Jesus’ kingship and so Paul felt it necessary to repeatedly rub his Corinthian audience’s noses in it: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ [i.e., Jesus the Messiah, Israel’s King] and Him crucified.” (2:2)  Jesus is King.  Jesus was crucified.  Jesus is King.  Jesus was crucified….  This seems to have been the heartbeat of Paul’s preaching and teaching ministry to the Corinthians during his years spent with them and the heartbeat of the apostolic gospel generally.  Is this our heartbeat too?  I hope so.

Next week, Romans…

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