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  • Writer's picturePaul Coulter

First things first: Easter reflections on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

The saying ‘first things first’ captures two senses of the word ‘first’. It can refer to the most important thing or the initial thing to happen. Something can be first either in order of precedence or order of time. This three-word saying brings the two ideas together, wisely encouraging us to do the most important thing before anything else.

I Corinthians 15:3, the apostle Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth of things that he said he delivered to them. He uses the word ‘first’ to describe this. English versions translate his words in two main ways, as the following examples illustrate:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received (NKJV)

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received (ESV)

The words in bold translate two Greek words: en prōtois. A literal translation from the Greek would be ‘in first’. The NKJV takes it to mean the first things Paul taught the Corinthians. By contrast, the ESV, along with every major modern translation, sees it as a reference to the things Paul believed to be most important.

Of course, we do not need to choose between these two options. It is clear from the way Paul writes that he is not simply identifying these things as the first things of many equally important things he told them. There can be no doubt that these are the things Paul saw as absolutely central to Christian faith. He is reminding them of both the first things he passed on to them and the most important things for them to grasp. It was because they were the truths of greatest significance that Paul made sure to tell them these things first. Paul put first things first.

But what were these ‘first things’? Paul includes four things that happened to “Christ”. His use of the title without the personal name Jesus reminds us that Paul, the Jew, was speaking of the Jewish Messiah who had become the Saviour and Lord of the Gentiles in Corinth to whom he was writing. The most important thing for Paul was a person. His message centred on Christ.

The four things that happened to Christ are that he died, was buried, was raised and appeared. These are not, however, four equally important events. Paul qualifies only two – Christ’s death and resurrection – as being “in accordance with the Scriptures”. The death and resurrection of Christ are the central events of the Christian faith. They are how God in Christ has saved us. Their saving significance is clear throughout Paul’s writings and here in 1 Corinthians 15. He says Christ died “for our sins”. Forgiveness and cleansing of sins are only possible through the death of Christ in our place. Later in this chapter Paul explains the significance of Christ’s resurrection, calling him, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (v20). In other words, because Christ rose we will rise as a great harvest of saved people to share in his inheritance.

The other two events – the burial and appearances – are not what saves us but the evidence of the saving events. We know Christ died because he was buried. We know he rose again because he was seen. The list of witnesses to the resurrection Paul provides in what is the earliest written testimony we have to the resurrection of Jesus (it was written before any of the Gospels) is impressive, including Cephas (Pater), the others among ‘the twelve’ (those Jesus selected as his closest followers, now reduced to 11 after the death of Judas Iscariot), over 500 believers at once, James the half-brother of Jesus, all the apostles, and lastly to Paul himself.

It is worth noting that this passage aligns with Paul’s consistent overall teaching of Paul on the nature of apostleship. An apostle of Christ (the word 'apostle' is occasionally used in the New Testament in another sense to describe messengers from churches) was one who had seen and been commissioned by the risen Jesus. The apostles had authority to lay the foundational teaching of the Church because they had received the gospel directly from Christ. Paul calls himself the last and least of the apostles. There can be no apostles of Christ after the death of this first generation.

Another pattern appears in Paul’s account of these four ‘Christ events’. The first and fourth events are things Christ himself did. He was the agent of his death. His life was not taken from him, rather he voluntarily laid it down for his people as he said he would (John 10:18). On the cross, he chose the moment of His death, declaring that he was committing his spirit to his Father (Luke 23:46). Jesus was also the agent of his post-resurrection appearances, revealing himself at various times in specific places to those he chose to appear to. No one stumbled upon him by accident or through their own search.

By contrast, the second and third events in Paul’s list are things that were done to Christ. The difference is indicated by the little word “was” before “buried” and “raised”, which is not found before “died” or “appeared”. He did not bury himself. That was done by Joseph of Arimathea, one of only a handful of people to be named in all four Gospels (Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43; Like 23:50; John 19:38). And Christ did not raise himself from the dead either. That was done by his Father God (Acts 2:24; Galatians 1:1).

The things of first importance, then, are that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised as the firstfruits from the dead, then appeared, and that these things are known to and understood by us in accordance with the Scriptures.

What, then, are we to take from the fact that Paul calls these things most important?

Firstly, there is no Christian faith without these historical events and no salvation for those who believe in Jesus without his death and resurrection. These are core, foundational truths that all Christians do and must share belief in. Those who deny the death of Jesus for our sins or the bodily resurrection of Jesus and coming resurrection of those who believe in him are not Christian.

Secondly, the gospel message, is God's way of saving people. Paul says he is reminding the Corinthians of his gospel (v1), which he claims was agreed upon by all the apostles (v11), and it is clear that Paul claims it is the way through which God saves people (he is explict about this in Romans 1:16). As the gospel is preached and people believe, they are saved. Paul explains this in his second New Testament letter to this church in 2 Corinthians 4:1-6 - in the gospel, Christ is presented to people and as they come to see God's glory in him they are saved. The Corinthians stand in it and must hold fast to it (1 Corinthians 15:1-2). This has implications for the mission of the Church. Since these are the most important truths, the most important thing we can do is to share them. The Church can and must do good works for the benefit of others and it must form Christians into churches, but it primary task in the world is to make disciples of Jesus by preaching the gospel and encouraging believers to stand firm in it, living their lives consistently in accordance with it.

Thirdly, these are not all that matters. Whilst Paul identifies the death and resurrection of Christ as the most important events in history and the most foundational truths of the Christian faith, he is not saying that nothing else matters. To think that way could lead to an easy-believism - trust in Christ and live as you like. The apostles Jesus appointed teach us other things in their New Testament letters, and these are not optional extras. The way of life the apostles call us to flows from the things of first importance. Their call is to turn from the sins Christ came to save us from and to live in all things under his Lordship. To accept the gospel is to accept the authority of the apostolic teaching. Indeed, the core events of the faith are only intelligible to us because they happened, “in accordance with the Scriptures”. To be authentically Christian, we must receive the whole counsel of God and make Scripture our authority in faith and life.

Fourthly, nothing else must be placed on a par with these things. It is possible that someone could hold to the central truths of Christ’s death and resurrection, and so be a genuine Christian, but allow other things to come alongside them as priorities. Such a person may be a sincere believer in Jesus, but if they elevate other things to be on a par with the core of the gospel, they are presenting a false gospel. This could also be true of a church (congregation or denomination) or tradition. We must make a distinction between what it is to be Christian and what it means to be gospel people.

If we take the apostles’ teaching seriously, we must watch out for false gospels. False gospels depart from the truth in one of four ways:

a)     Placing someone else above or alongside Christ as the primary revelation of God and central figure of trust and devotion. This could be Mary, as in Roman Catholicism, or Mohammad, as in Islam. The only people who can be placed on a par with Jesus are the Father and the Holy Spirit. The three are one, but it was the Son who died for our sins and was raised again. As fully God and fully man, he is the focus of our faith. He is our Lord and Saviour. The Father and the Spirit glorify Christ, pointing our attention to him. We preach Christ.

b)     Placing something else above or alongside Christ’s death as the means of the forgiveness of sins. This could be circumcision and other aspects of the Law of Moses, as for some early Christians, or the sacraments of the Church and penance of the faithful, as in Roman Catholicism. Many Protestants drift away from the implications of their doctrinal convictions, which teach that salvation is a gift of God’s grace, to a mentality of trying to earn God’s favour through effort or activism. The gospel calls us to rest in the fact of what Christ has done and to serve God in response to his unmerited favour, not to live in fearful bondage to our own attempts to be good or impressive. Another way to diminish the central importance of the cross is to act and teach as if something can be placed above or alongside sins as the core human problem. This is a real challenge for Christians today who are conditioned by the influence of pop psychology to think that our greatest problem is woundedness or brokenness rather than sinfulness. We preach Christ crucified.

c)     Placing something else above or alongside Christ’s resurrection as the ultimate solution to our weakness and our world’s weariness. This error creeps into the Church periodically in various guises, for example when Christians come to think that they can transform this world to be like God’s kingdom or achieve sinless perfection without the return of Christ. Even churches that claim to believe in the things of first importance can creep into presenting themselves as the hope of the world rather than Christ. We must not be boastful about our programmes, strategies and visions. We are weak people holding firm to a mighty Saviour and testifying to his present power to save and his future power to restore all things. We can and must live fruitfully now in God’s service by the indwelling Spirit of Christ, but we cannot experience the fullness of God’s kingdom until God remakes our world and our bodies. We preach Christ crucified and risen.

d)     Placing something else above or alongside Scripture as the authoritative guide to the significance of Christ and his death and resurrection. This could be one of three things: tradition, reason or experience. Readers may be familiar with the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which describes Scripture, tradition, reason and experience as ways to know truth about God. It is helpful to recognise the contribution of these four sources to our thinking, but the apostle Paul, along with Christ himself, resolutely calls us to subject tradition, reason and experience to Scripture. Roman Catholicism elevates tradition, enshrined in the teachings of the magisterium of the Church to be on a par with the Bible. Some Protestants also do this when they put a theological system or the values of a denomination first. Liberalism subjects Scripture to reason, accepting only those things that can be accommodated by modern sceptical minds. And many Christians who claim to trust the Bible are shaped more in their beliefs about God and his purposes by their personal or collective experience than by the words of the Bible. Our experiences, traditions and reasoning must be subjected to Scripture. We must allow the Spirit of God who inspired it to transform our thinking as we read, meditate upon and study it. We preach Christ crucified and risen from the Scriptures.

I could, and may at a future date, link these principles to the founding maxims of the Reformation (the ‘five solas’) or the common features of Evangelicalism as identified by scholars such as David Bebbington, but those formulations are not definitive. These four principles drawn from Paul’s words to the Corinthians define what it means to be consistently Christian or what we might call ‘gospel people’. I prefer keeping the word ‘gospel’ rather than talking about ‘good news people’ because the New Testament word translated ‘gospel’ carries more meaning than its etymological root meaning ‘good news’ connotes to our minds. It does not merely mean positive news, but an announcement of life changing significance that must be embraced.

Another word to describe ‘gospel people’ may be ‘evangelicals’. That word derives from the Greek word euangelion, translated ‘gospel’ in the New Testament. I have, and continue, to identify with that label, although at times I am not sure about its continued usefulness. It is linked in the minds of some with political causes, most obviously in the religious Right in the USA, that I do not adhere to and that are not of ‘first importance’. Even more concerningly, some stretch it to include Christians who would not adhere to the principles I have drawn out from 1 Corinthians 15. A prime example is when people use the contradictory term ‘Evangelical Catholics’ of Roman Catholics who have a personal faith in Christ and are committed to evangelisation but who still adhere to official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church that contract the apostolic gospel. I want to be crystal clear here. I am not denying that a practising Roman Catholic can be a genuine Christian or have a living faith in Christ. Nor am I saying that all Roman Catholics place other things on a par with the first things of 1 Corinthians 15. But the Roman Catholic Church does place other things on that level. As such, it teaches a different gospel that is incompatible with being 'evangelical'.

If the term ‘evangelical’ is to mean anything, it must include more than a personal experience of faith in Christ and a commitment to evangelism. Those are vitally important to evangelicals and shared by many Christians within other traditions, but ‘evangelical’ must surely mean holding to the things of first importance above all else and refusing to place anyone or anything on a par with Christ. That is why every organisation uniting evangelicals has been defined by a basis of faith that members must agree upon. If ‘evangelical’ cannot clearly mean people who put first things first, then it truly has become a useless word.

Whatever we call ourselves, we must guard against the four directions of deviation from the apostolic gospel I identify above. We must be stubbornly Christ-centred, Bible based, proclaiming Christ crucified and risen as Saviour and Lord and calling people to salvation through faith in him alone. We must maintain a determined focus on the things of first importance received by the apostles from Christ, delivered by them to the first Christians and passed on through the centuries to us.

Easter is a wonderful reminder of these core truths. It calls us to be gospel people, who receive and submit to the testimony of Scripture about Christ, whose lives are centred on loving devotion to Christ, whose faith is in Christ’s death for our salvation from sins, and whose hope is in our future share in Christ’s bodily resurrection. This Easter, let first things be first.

For another approach to the same passage which aims to help towards a definition of what it is to be Evangelical, see my article  ‘What is an Evangelical’ on the Theology page of my website.

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