“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3).
What is the significance of the phrase “first of all”? Some translate it qualitatively as “of first importance” (NIV), meaning “first in rank”, “the best”, “and “foremost”. The implication is that this is greater than any other doctrine found in the Bible. It is presumed to be “chief” among all doctrine, everything else is deemed insignificant. Some then conclude that the definition of the “Gospel” is to be found exclusively in verses three and four, only, being defined as the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, only.
These conclusions are actually assumptions. They are not based on proper exegesis, and such conclusions result in inevitable absurdities. For instance, this doctrine of “first in rank” implies that the doctrine of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus must be more important than the doctrine of the existence God, or the doctrine of the nature of God. Breaking it down further within the context, it even implies that the doctrine of the death of Christ must be more important or significant than the burial and resurrection of Christ. Who could believe such nonsense?
More related absurdities have freely flowed from the “first in rank” concept. One is that “mercy” is said to be more important than “obedience” (Matt. 12:7). Some are suggesting we need to ignore false doctrine (show mercy) and simply have fellowship with anyone believing in the “pre-eminent” doctrine of 1 Cor. 15:3-4. Feeding off this, some conclude that believing Jesus came in the flesh is really all that matters (2 John 7-9). All other doctrine is considered inconsequential. Absurdity breeds absurdity and the circular reasoning of the “first in rank” doctrine brings us back to our text.
While protos (πρῶτος) may be used to mean “of first importance” it is not used that way in this passage. Certainly believing in the existence of God (“God is” – Heb.11:6) would logically come first in the order of things to be believed, then His nature, etc., which is the subtle point being missed here. Paul is indeed speaking of the order or succession of things. The Greek word “protos” also means: “first in time or place” or “in any succession of things or persons.” In other words, it can be used quantitatively—in a chronological sense—showing order of succession, and that is exactly how Paul uses it here in this context.
Chapter 15 is about Paul’s treatise on the General Resurrection, and this begins with the logical chronological process. Paul’s sequencing naturally begins with: “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). The order of succession is His death, His burial, then His resurrection. This is not rank, but successive order. However, that is not the end of the chronological sense in this first section of the chapter. Paul continues: “and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time” (vv. 5-7).
Again, we can see the continued chronological sense as Paul lists, in order, the sequence of the appearances of Christ. Paul makes clear he was not just the last eyewitness in seeing Christ, but that he was the final or last apostle. Note the use of the word eschaton (ἔσχατος). Although it may be used to mean “least” it also means “last in order or sequence” or “last” chronologically. Here it means “last” chronologically, which is very disturbing to those advocating modern day apostles or the papacy. Paul is making a definite theological claim that he is the last apostle.
In this section, Paul is not teaching that the Gospel is the death, burial, resurrection, only, as some aver, nor is he declaring this to be the most important doctrine to be believed. Rather, Paul is simply discussing the chronology of events as they happened, as they unfolded, sequentially with regards to the Resurrection. This is the emphasis and significance of protos in this context—a context and chapter dealing with chronology and order, rather than rank.
The next section within the chapter, beginning in verse twenty, begins Paul’s theological argument concerning the resurrection, which happens to be chronological in nature. He begins in order with Christ being the “firstfruits” of the dead (v. 20, 22), followed, then, by the rest of mankind. The chronological sense or order is demonstrated by the use of the word “then.” Christ is raised first, then, “those who are Christ’s at His coming” (v. 23), “Then comes the end …” (v. 24). The text continues with the chronological sense: “For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (vv. 25-26).
Furthermore, this chronological nature is repeated in verses 45 and 46, where both protos and eschaton are used together. Paul writes about the “first man Adam” and of the “last Adam”, who is Christ. Note, again, the use of the word “then” (v. 46), which is used in marking out the chronological sequence of that which is “first and last.”
The clear emphasis of chapter 15 is of the resurrection from the dead. It is not necessarily about the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, but how those elements fit chronologically, or sequentially, in leading to Paul’s treatise on the reality of the general resurrection of the dead.
Well, then, just what is the “Gospel”? Paul says: “it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). We note the present tense, continuous action. First, it is and continues being the power of God to salvation. Second, it continues being the power of God to salvation for everyone who “believes,” or continues believing. Now if the gospel is just the death, burial, and resurrection,” then one could believe in that but teach that the mode and purpose of baptism is inconsequential; or that instrumental music in worship is optional; or that women may serve as preachers and elders; or that fellowship with denominations is acceptable to God because, after all, we all believe the “core” facts of the Gospel, and as long as we “continue believing” the death, burial, and resurrection, then, according to Paul, that it is all that is necessary for salvation. That is the necessary result of such a view.
Now if the gospel is just the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, then what about believing in His virgin birth? Some Gnostics denied His fleshly birth and even some today do as well. Well, some will claim that is included, but then they have just expanded their very own definition of “Gospel.” What about all the recorded events of His nature and His life? What about the fact that Jesus actually differentiates Himself from the gospel (Mark 8:35; 10:29)?
Of course, Jesus also said that His Word would be our standard of judgment (John 12:48). The Word of God is also what sanctifies (John 17:17); it gives light or understanding (Psa.119:130); it cleanses (John 15:3); it purifies (1 Pet. 1:22); it begets brings forth (Jas. 1:18); it brings about our spiritual birth (1 Pet. 23; John 3:5); it converts (Psa. 19:7); it gives life (Phil. 2:16; John 6:63); it reconciles (2 Cor. 5:19), and above all it saves (Jas. 1:21; Acts 13:26).
However, if one believes that the facts of the “death, burial, and resurrection” (“Gospel”) save them and, yet at the same time, the Word saves, then which one saves? The gospel or the Word? Do people have a choice? Or is the “death, burial, and resurrection that which initially saves, and then folks must now turn their attention to the Word of God? Now if the death, burial, and resurrection, alone, saves, then is a person saved but still not yet sanctified, lacking in understanding, uncleansed, unpurified, not begotten, without spiritual birth, unconverted, without life, and unreconciled to God by the Word of God, even though they have been believed in the death, burial, and resurrection (“Gospel”) of Christ? This kind of reasoning is akin to Mac Deaver’s teaching that one is a child of God by water baptism, but not yet in the kingdom of God until baptized in the Holy Spirit—an erroneous bifurcated system!
Now the denominational world did, indeed, make a distinction between “Gospel” and “doctrine” or Word. Typically there are two lecterns used in their service, one for the reading of the “Gospels,” which represent the death, burial, and resurrection associated with Christ. The other lectern was for reading the Word of God which contained doctrine. The gospel was seen as “invitational,” while doctrine, the Word which contained doctrine, was simply for instruction for those already saved by the “Gospel.” Is this what the Bible teaches?
We learn Jesus preached the Gospel but we know He preached the Word, which will judge the world (John 12:48). He also said a true disciple is one who continues in His Word (John 8:32). He declared His Word is Truth (John 8:31-32). Now is are Gospel, Word, and Truth three different things? Actually, they are all the same thing.
Peter preached the Truth (1 Pet. 1:22); but he preached the seed (1:23); but he preached the Word (1:23), “And this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you” (1:25). Paul said he preached the Gospel (Gal. 1:6-9) but he also preached the faith (Gal. 1:23). Of course, a multitude of priests became obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7), which certainly was the Gospel (Rom.1:16-17). This is true because all Christians are those who are sons of God, and Paul clearly says: “For you are all sons of God through the faith in Christ Jesus. For as many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:26-27). Just as Jesus said that a true disciple must continue His Word (John 8:31), Paul says that in order for one to continue God’s grace they must continue in the faith (Col. 1:23).
Paul also taught that we are saved by grace through the faith (Eph. 2:8) and that Christ dwells in the heart through the faith (Eph. 3:17). Does Christ dwell in the heart through the Gospel or through “the faith”? Both, because they are the same thing. Paul said we are to contend for the faith of the gospel (Phil. 1:27), meaning contend for the body of teaching of the Gospel, and there is a vast amount of teaching found in the faith of the Gospel we must contend for (Jude 3). Paul speaks of teaching doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3) which he also calls the commandment (1:5), which is law (1:8-9), which he also calls sound doctrine or teaching (1:10) and the glorious Gospel (1:11). Luke records that the Gospel was preached (Acts 14:21) and that the folks were admonished to continue in the faith (14:22).
Paul continued speaking “the word” (14:24). Again, all these expressions are synonymous. Luke records Peter saying that God made no distinction between Jew and Gentile and purified their hearts through the faith (Acts 15:9). Here Peter is referring back to Pentecost where he preached the Gospel, which means he also preached the faith. Interestingly, however, Isaiah said the law of the Lord would go forth out of Zion (Isa. 2:2-4), and this was fulfilled on Pentecost (Acts 1:8, 2:1-47).
Therefore, the Gospel is also the law as we noted previously. Luke goes on to say that the churches that had been established were strengthened in the faith and increased in number by the same the faith (Acts 16:5), but the Spirit prevented the ”word” from being preached in Asia (16:6) but allowed them to preach “the Gospel” in Macedonia (16:10). Paul also taught the New Covenant (2 Cor. 3:6) referred to metonymically as “the Spirit (3:6) or the “ministry of the Spirit” (3:8), all of which was the preaching of the word and truth (4:2) and the Gospel (4:3).
The death, burial, and resurrection are not the entirety of good news (“Gospel”). Rather, they are facts of the Gospel that are to be believed. Associated with these facts are commands needing to be obeyed (Acts 2:38; 1 Pet. 4:17). These facts and commands are essential to the Gospel but they are not the only essential elements of it. There is much more teaching needing to be obeyed that is essential to the Gospel, the faith, which one must continue in (Col. 1:23; cf. 1 John 1:7-9).