For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:3-6 ESV)
The Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth reaches its climax in chapter 15. The first two verses of the chapter build up to a short confession recounting the story of Jesus (vv 3-6). Scholars believe that this is one of the earliest confessions of the church. Several points are striking about this confession, including:
- The confession refers to Jesus of Nazareth as Christ. Modern critics often assert that titles such as Messiah or Son of God are confessions of the latter church. Here it is immediately confessed by the early church within a couple years of the crucifixion.
- The use of Cephas to refer to Peter hints at the ancient nature of this confession. Cephas is Aramaic; Peter is a Greek translation. Because the entire New Testament (NT) is written in Greek, Aramaic shows up in the NT mostly in quotations where authenticity is important. Paul uses Cephas 8 times; the Apostle John is the only other NT author to use Cephas. John wrote: John brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter). (John 1:42 ESV) By contrast, Peter is used 100 times in the NT.
- Paul uses the word, scripture(s), 14 times in his letters. The NT uses it 51 times. This confession is the only place in his letter to the Corinthians where he uses the word, scripture(s). Apparently, the early church felt that it was important to tie the Jesus story to Old Testament scripture.
- This confession links the cross to forgiveness of sin. This is called the doctrine of the atonement. Some theologians have recently questioned the doctrine of the atonement because the existence of sin implies an absolute moral standard. Yet, the confession makes it clear—Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures (v 3).
- The confession makes it clear that Jesus’ resurrection was witnessed by large numbers of people, not just the disciples. While a small group might have made up a resurrection story (or have been delusional), a large public crowd could not (v 6). Paul’s account accordingly throws cold water on many modern theories disputing the resurrection.
Because Paul’s letter was widely circulated and there were many eye-witnesses to what he wrote about, clearly this confession was a keystone of the early church.
The resurrection was also the key doctrine that Paul taught. He writes: …if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished (vv 17-18). In other words, without the resurrection there is no salvation from sin, no victory over death, and no eternal life. There have been many martyred saints, but only one resurrection. We remember Jesus.
The resurrection speaks of the power of God and the divinity of Jesus Christ. Because Christ is divine, then scripture as understood by the traditional teaching of church provides a reliable rule for life.
Resurrection changes everything. This is why it is called the Good News.