[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 message of salvation should always build to a climax. And that was certainly the blueprint Paul followed:
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).
When Paul proclaimed the gospel, he presented the fundamental issues (either implicitly or explicitly) of people’s sins against God and Christ’s atoning work on behalf of sinners—a propitiation to appease God’s just wrath. Paul also emphasized the historical fact that Christ’s atonement resulted in His literal physical death. Of course, the story doesn’t end there—those events set the scene for the pinnacle of Paul’s gospel preaching.
The glorious truth that makes the gospel of Jesus Christ such good news is “that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4). In the words of the angel at the empty tomb: “He has risen, just as He said” (Matthew 28:6).
We need to be mindful of the fact that Paul’s primary concern in 1 Corinthians 15 is the doctrine of bodily resurrection. This is by far the longest chapter in the New Testament epistles. Its importance is proportional to its length. Of all the truths Christians affirm, none is more essential to our faith than a belief in literal, bodily resurrection. That starts, of course, with the literal resurrection of Christ’s physical body, and (as Paul argues meticulously in this long chapter) it extends to the literal resurrection of our own bodies. Without that article of faith, Paul says, everything else about Christianity dissolves into irrelevance:
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men the most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:17–19)
What follows immediately is a triumphant confession: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20). The resurrection is God’s seal of approval on the atoning work of Christ. On the cross, just before He bowed His head and yielded up His spirit, Jesus said, “It is finished!” In the resurrection, God the Father added His amen. In Romans 1:4, Paul wrote that Christ was “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness.” Paul likewise told the intellectuals of Athens, “[God] has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). In other words, the resurrection of Christ is the ultimate proof of the truth of the gospel.
Christ’s resurrection is the central point around which all biblical truth revolves. It represents the culmination and triumph of every righteous expectation that preceded it, starting with Job 19:25–27 (“I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God; whom I myself shall behold, and whom my eyes will see and not another”). It is the basis for the apostles’ unshakable faith and the pivotal point in the message they proclaimed. It is the living guarantee of every divine promise from the beginning to the end of Scripture. Every other miracle described in Scripture—including creation—pales in significance by comparison.
Although all four gospels bear witness that Christ had repeatedly foretold His own resurrection (Matthew 20:19; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; John 2:19–21; 10:18), the disciples were not predisposed to believe it. They were clearly surprised—even inclined to skepticism—when they found the empty grave. Thomas was emphatic: “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).
But after His multiple appearances, often in the presence of multiple eyewitnesses, they were so firmly convinced of the truth of the resurrection that no argument, no threat, no form of torture could silence them. All of them ultimately gave their lives rather than deny the resurrection. After all, they had seen Him, touched Him, eaten with Him, and fellowshipped with Him after the resurrection. That explains the amazing boldness and determination with which they carried the gospel to the nations. “We cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
That eyewitness testimony is the fourth and final point of history Paul cites in his outline of gospel facts in 1 Corinthians 15. He underscores the fact that it was not just the inner circle of apostles who saw the risen Christ. There were literally hundreds of eyewitnesses to the resurrection—“more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:6).
It’s as if he is saying, “Don’t take my word for it. Go ask these people.” They were, after all, easy to find, because they had fanned out over the Roman Empire and into all the known parts of the world beyond, proclaiming the message of Christ. In the words of those who despised them, these witnesses to the resurrection had basically “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6, ESV).
The resurrection is nothing like the pseudo-miracles performed by religious charlatans on television nowadays. Ask a televangelist to subject his miracle claims to any kind of careful scrutiny and he will balk or make excuses.
Paul invited scrutiny. So certain was he of the truth that he urged people to investigate the evidence. And to make the point, he stressed the abundance of eyewitnesses and their willingness to testify.
Take just the first of the specific examples Paul cites as a witness: Peter. Throughout 1 Corinthians (and in Galatians 2:9) Paul calls him Cephas. That is the Aramaic equivalent of Peter (which is derived from the Greek word for rock). His given name was Simon, but when Simon first met Jesus, the Lord nicknamed him “Rock,” using the Aramaic version, “Cephas” (John 1:42). That’s how Paul normally refers to him.
Consider the resurrection from Peter’s point of view. It must have seemed amazing (and no doubt somewhat embarrassing) to Peter that Christ appeared to him first of all. When Jesus’ life was on the line, Peter had denied Him angrily, with an oath. Peter was totally broken. He might have seemed the least likely of all the apostles to assert himself as a preacher of the resurrection because he was so ashamed. He was a coward, and a sniveling one at that. He was weeping bitterly the last time he saw Jesus.
And even after the resurrection, Peter had so little confidence that when Jesus told him to go to Galilee and wait for Him to come, Peter made plans to return to the fishing trade because he felt himself so inadequate as an apostle and preacher. He was more keenly aware than anyone that he had proven himself unfaithful many times. He looked like a disaster. Peter wasn’t a likely candidate to be the one who would go out at Pentecost and start bombastically preaching the resurrection.
But Jesus came to him, elicited from him a threefold declaration of his love for Christ, and commissioned him to preach. At Pentecost, Peter was a totally different person. The fact that he could give such bold testimony about the risen Christ is a clear indication that he did, in fact, see the risen Christ.
Peter was not about to invent a phony story about Christ’s resurrection, nor would he be prepared to give his life for a lie he had fabricated. Peter—the same person who once cowered when challenged by a servant girl and denied that he even knew Christ—was ultimately crucified upside down rather than deny the truth of the resurrection. The only thing that could explain such a radical transformation is the resurrection of Christ.
Paul doesn’t necessarily mention the resurrection of Christ explicitly every time he summarizes the gospel. Sometimes his emphasis is on the principle of substitution. Sometimes he stresses the righteousness that is imputed to believers. Sometimes he puts the focus on the price that was paid for our forgiveness. All these elements are essential aspects of the gospel according to Paul.
But we’re not to lose sight of the fact that the gospel is grounded in historic events; and above all, the resurrection is the seal and the linchpin of gospel truth.
Elsewhere Paul says that Christ “was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25). Christ was “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness” (Romans 1:4). Again, the resurrection was God’s seal of approval on the propitiation Christ offered. Without the resurrection, there would be no gospel.
Every element in Paul’s outline is equally significant. It is an ingenious summary of the critical historical events in the gospel story. Throughout his epistles, Paul explains numerous gospel doctrines and stresses their importance. But here his design is to give the most simple, pithy account of gospel history possible—one that comprehends and implicitly affirms all the vital doctrines as well. Each point he lists is indeed a matter of primary importance: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures . . . He was buried . . . He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and . . . He appeared.”
That is the whole gospel. The rest is explanation.
(Adapted from The Gospel According to Paul.)