[Note from the Editor: This week’s blog posts are adapted from John MacArthur’s newest book The Gospel According to Paul, and also correlate with our current radio series. Click here to order a copy of the book, or here to listen to the radio broadcast.]
The apostle Paul was deadly serious about keeping the message of salvation pure. He had no hesitation to pronounce damnation on anyone who would dare to change or contaminate the gospel.
There are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! (Galatians 1:7–9)
Paul didn’t believe the gospel was the exclusive domain of theological scholars and academia. Implicit in his severe warning was his expectation that everyone who read his epistles should be able to discern between a true and a false gospel. The gospel he preached wasn’t a mystery, nor was it clouded in confusing rhetoric. He stated it clearly and simply:
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you . . . 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. (1 Corinthians 15:1,3–5).
Today, we’ll examine the first two elements of this gospel: Christ’s atonement and his burial.
Paul wanted to highlight not merely the historical fact that Christ died. He is much more specific: “Christ died for our sins.” It is the language of atonement.
Paul’s statement echoes precisely what the apostle John wrote in 1 John 2:2: “[Jesus] Himself is the propitiation for our sins.” That word propitiation speaks of an appeasement. Specifically, it signifies the satisfaction of divine justice. Or to say the same thing differently, a “propitiation” is a sacrifice or offering that placates the wrath of God against sinners.
Many people find such a concept repellent. It certainly challenges the popular notion of a grandfatherly god who is always benign and lenient toward sin. In recent years a handful of well-known writers and teachers on the evangelical fringe have emphatically rejected the biblical claim that the death of God’s own Son on the cross was a propitiation—labeling the idea “cosmic child abuse.”
Indeed, this is practically the whole crux of liberal religion: It stresses the love of God to the exclusion of His righteousness and His wrath against sin. Liberals therefore typically take the position that Christ’s death on the cross was nothing more than a noble act of exemplary martyrdom.
But Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 15:3 is not that Christ died because of our sins. Paul isn’t suggesting that Christ’s death had some vague, mystical, ethereal connection to human fallenness. The point is that Jesus voluntarily “died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (ESV; emphasis is added). He is the fulfillment of everything the Old Testament sacrificial system illustrated. He is the answer to the conundrum of how a truly righteous God can forgive the unrighteousness of ungodly sinners.
“The wages of sin is death,” and “without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Romans 6:23; Hebrews 9:22). This principle was clearly established and vividly illustrated in the daily spectacle of Old Testament sacrifices. In Leviticus 17:11 the Lord told the Israelites, “The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.”
So animal sacrifices graphically illustrated several vital truths: the exceeding sinfulness of sin, the inflexibility of judgment under the law, the incomprehensibly high cost of atonement, and both the justice and the mercy of God.
But it was clear that animal blood had no real or lasting atoning value. “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Blood sacrifices were offered daily (Exodus 29:38–42). Countless Passover lambs were also slaughtered annually each spring. Bulls and goats were sacrificed on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, each fall. Work in the temple was never finished. Levites, musicians, and guards were on duty “day and night” (1 Chronicles 9:33). And priests in the Old Testament literally never got to sit down on the job. There were no chairs among the furnishings of the temple. “Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (Hebrews 10:11; emphasis added).
It was clear that all the sacrifices and ceremony did not provide a full and complete atonement for sin. They were symbolic. How, after all, could mere animal blood placate the divine justice that demands the death of a sinner? There was a reason animals needed to be slaughtered repeatedly, daily—endlessly. It underscored the truth that the blood of a common animal is no real substitute for a guilty human life.
So Old Testament saints were left with a perplexing mystery: If animal sacrifices provided no true and final atonement, what else could possibly make God propitious to sinners? After all, God Himself said, “I will not acquit the guilty,” and anyone who does justify the wicked is an abomination to Him (Exodus 23:7; Proverbs 17:15). So how could God ever justify the ungodly without compromising His own righteousness?
The answer is that Christ willingly died in place of those whom He saves. He is their Substitute—and unlike all those animal sacrifices, He is the perfect propitiation. Finally, here was a sufficient sacrifice. In Peter’s words, “Christ . . . died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Paul agreed: “[God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The point here is that Christ took the place of sinners on the cross. He died as their proxy. He absorbed the wrath of God against sin in their stead. He took the punishment we all deserve. All of that is essential to Paul’s meaning when he says, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” This is the principle of penal substitution, and it is vital to a right understanding of the gospel. Christ bore the penalty of our sins. That’s how “Christ died for our sins.”
You may be surprised to see the burial of Christ in Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 list of gospel essentials. The burial of Christ is a point you won’t necessarily find in more recent evangelical attempts to summarize the essential truths of the gospel. So why does Paul list it here? Very simply, it furnishes undeniable proof that Christ was truly dead. The cross was no pretense. Jesus was not still alive and quietly spirited off to some secret location and nursed back to health. The story of Christ’s crucifixion is not a cunningly devised fable or a mere story with an instructive moral. Christ really died, and all who witnessed His death (friends and foes alike) affirmed that fact. No eyewitness to the crucifixion ever suggested that He survived the ordeal.
The soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross were under the direct command of Pontius Pilate. They had legal possession of Christ’s body as long as He hung on the cross. These were professional executioners. They had every skill necessary to determine with ruthless accuracy whether their victims were absolutely dead. They would not have allowed the body to be removed from the cross or handed over for burial if there had been any question whatsoever about whether they had finished the job they were assigned to do.
Mark 15:34–37 says it was about “the ninth hour” (3:00 in the afternoon) when Jesus “uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last.” Matthew 27:50 says in that very moment, “Jesus . . . yielded up His spirit.” John 19:30 says, “He said, ‘It is finished!’ And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.”
Matthew gives the most complete description of Jesus’ burial:
And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the entrance of the tomb and went away. . . .
Now on the next day, the day after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, and said, “Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I am to rise again.’ Therefore, give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, otherwise His disciples may come and steal Him away and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.”
Pilate said to them, “You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how.” And they went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone. (Matthew 27:59–66)
The “seal” would have been an official marker with Pilate’s own emblem, similar to the wax seal used to close and identify a formal legal document. Such a seal was not to be broken except by the authority of the ruler or administrative body who ordered the seal. The “guard” was a detachment of Roman soldiers answerable to Pilate. These were elite special forces, not army rejects. They were not the type to shirk their duty or sleep on the job. That could cost them their lives.
But they were susceptible to bribery, if the price was right. And when the tomb was found empty on the morning of the resurrection, the guards and Jewish officials were all desperate to cover up what had happened:
When they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” And they took the money and did as they had been instructed. (Matthew 28:12–15)
If there had been the remotest possibility that they might convince the public that Jesus never really died, the priests and soldiers certainly would have used that story instead of telling one that put their own livelihood in jeopardy.
So the burial of Jesus is a vital part of the gospel narrative, mainly because it serves as another reminder that the gospel is rooted in history, not mythology, the human imagination, or allegory. The good news is not a legend subject to interpretation. It’s not an elastic worldview that can be reconciled with Corinthian philosophy, academic skepticism, or postmodern preferences. The sacrifice Christ rendered for sins was a real event, seen by countless eyewitnesses, verified by Roman officials, and sealed by Pilate himself with the burial of our Lord’s body.
But as we’ll see next time, Christ’s burial wasn’t the climax to Paul’s gospel message. It merely set the scene for the proclamation of the glorious resurrection.
(Adapted from The Gospel According to Paul.)