The Historical Gospel
The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity| Rolf D. Preus| August 31, 2014| 1 Corinthians 15:1-10
Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you; unless you believed in vain. 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, 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. For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.
The Holy Scriptures are unique among all religious books. Only the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the written word of God. Some other writings claim to be. Muhammad, the seventh century Arab who invented the Muslim religion, claimed that the angel Gabriel dictated the Koran to him. Muslims claim the Koran is a miracle because Muhammad was supposedly illiterate. In reading through the Koran one quickly recognizes Muhammad’s confused distortions of Christian teaching. Muslims are kept faithful to the Koran by being kept ignorant of the Holy Scriptures.
The nineteenth century American, Joseph Smith, who started the Mormon religion, had a more vivid imagination. He claimed to have found the Book of Mormon inscribed on golden tablets in a previously nonexistent language that he miraculously translated into Elizabethan English by using magical spectacles called Urim and Thummim. The Book of Mormon has been shown to be an elaborate fraud, mostly plagiarized from a novel by a fellow named Solomon Spalding. Every so called witness to the veracity of Smith’s claims about the book’s origin retracted his testimony before he died.
The Holy Scriptures, on the other hand, have withstood the attempts of countless critics both from outside of the church and from within visible Christendom to prove it false. Efforts to show the Bible to be in error fail because the Bible contains no errors. It contains no errors because, unlike any other so called holy book, it was written by God himself. God directed the prophets and apostles to write what they wrote. Speaking of the prophetic Scriptures, St. Peter writes, “Prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21) St. Paul writes, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” (2 Timothy 3:16) Literally, “All Scripture is God-breathed.”
The Bible didn’t drop down from heaven. It was written here on earth. God directed fallible men to write his own infallible word. In our text for today, St. Paul writes:
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.
St. Paul cannot give what he hasn’t first received. He received what he wrote from the Lord Jesus, just as all of the apostles did. Paul was unique among the apostles in that he did not know Jesus during his personal ministry the three years prior to his crucifixion and resurrection. In fact, Paul did not meet Jesus until sometime after Jesus rose from the dead. Paul – whose name had been Saul – had been an enemy of the Church. He had persecuted the church. He sought to have Christians thrown in prison for their preaching and confession. He watched as Stephen was stoned for preaching the gospel. But God chose him who was the church’s enemy to become a great evangelist and theologian. God’s grace changed the church’s fiercest enemy into her greatest champion. It was by the grace of God alone. Paul calls himself the least of the apostles. That was a reference to his personal worthiness. As far as influence is concerned, Paul was the greatest of the apostles.
The gospel he preached wasn’t his. It was God’s. The gospel is not the word of men. It is the word of God. There are two sides to the gospel. The first has to do with facts. The second has to do with faith. Before we can receive the message of the gospel through faith, we must know the facts of the gospel.
The facts of the gospel are that Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose from the dead. These are not religious facts, spiritual facts, transcendent facts, holy facts, or faith facts. They are literal, historical, concrete, verifiable facts. Jesus died. His heart stopped beating. He stopped breathing. His body became cold. The body in which he walked, talked, preached, and did wonderful miracles was crucified on a cross. He suffered a slow death from suffocation as in his weakened condition he lost the strength in his legs to lift up his body to permit air to come into his lungs. The body that Mary bore suffered death on the cross and Mary watched it happen, along with many other witnesses. John witnessed water and blood flow out of the pierced side of his dead body.
This body was put into an unused grave belonging to a wealthy man by the name of Joseph. Jesus was buried before the sun set on Friday. His body remained in the grave all day on Saturday. Then, after sunset on Saturday, but before sunrise on Sunday, the body that was crucified, dead, and buried, rose from the dead. Jesus rose from the dead.
The crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus are historical events. It all happened according to the Scriptures. The Old Testament Scriptures foretold Christ’s death and resurrection. Concerning his death, God said through Isaiah, the prophet,
Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:4-6
Thus, when Jesus died for our sins, St. Paul wrote of it, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.”
Concerning Christ’s resurrection, God said through the Psalmist, David, “For you will not leave me in the grave, nor will you let your holy one see decay.” (Psalm 16:10) The Bible foretold that Jesus would die for our sins and rise again. When it happened, it happened “according to the Scriptures,” that is, as the Scriptures said it would happen.
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are historical events. St. Paul refers to witnesses by name. He says that Jesus was seen alive from the dead by Cephas, which is the Aramaic name of Peter, and the twelve – that is, the other apostles. He was seen by as many as five hundred people at the same time. Christ’s resurrection did not first occur in the faith of the people as a so called “faith event” that didn’t literally happen. On the contrary, none of the apostles believed the women when they reported to them that they had seen the Lord Jesus alive after his death. They were persuaded by the physical evidence and the evidence was the resurrection.
Christianity is not a religious philosophy of timeless truths. It is grounded in the specifics of space/time history. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, preached in Galilee and surrounding areas, was crucified outside of Jerusalem, and rose bodily from the dead on the third day. All of this is documented history. It happened as surely as the sun rose this morning from the east and will set this evening in the west.
Our lives are not lived up in the clouds. Our burdens aren’t mere ideas floating about in philosophical abstractions. We have real problems here and now. We had a quarrel with someone and need to be reconciled. We are facing sickness and need to be encouraged. We’re suffering a loss and need to know that God knows and cares and will meet our needs. Most of all, most serious of all, we are not worthy to come before God. Even as Paul confesses he is not worthy to be called an apostle; even as the tax collector in the temple beats his breast and begs for God’s mercy; we must confess to God that we have sinned against him by what we have done and by what we have failed to do. We need to hear and we need to believe that the truth of the gospel is the truth of God forgiving us our sins and saving us from the punishment we have deserved.
St. Paul writes:
I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you; unless you believed in vain.
The death and resurrection of Jesus are history. But they are more than that. They are salvation. St. Paul says here that we stand in the gospel and are saved by the gospel. The fact of Christ’s death and resurrection from the dead is significant, not just for religious historians, but by everyone who needs a Savior from his sin. Faith isn’t simply an acknowledgement of the historical facts of Christ’s death and resurrection. Faith always adds the words, “for me,” to what Jesus did. He died for my sins. It was my guilt he faced and my death he destroyed. When he rose from the dead, it was to guarantee me eternal life. The gospel tells me that just as Jesus rose from the dead, free from the sins that he bore on the cross, so shall I rise on the last day with a glorified body like his. I join the penitent tax collector in the temple and cry out to God, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” I do so in confidence that God hears my prayer. The time is coming when this dying and sinful body will be changed into an immortal body that is free from all sinful desires. How do I know this? Jesus rose from the dead. That’s the foundation for my hope.
The gospel is grounded in real history. We live in the real world. When Jesus suffered and died for our sins we were set free from them. It only remains for God to bring that event to where we live. That’s what the gospel and the sacraments do. They bring Christ’s death and resurrection to where we are living and apply to us their fruit. St. Paul wrote that we are united by Holy Baptism with Christ’s death and resurrection. When Jesus feeds us with his body and blood at the altar, it is the same body and blood that were given and shed for us. It is the crucified Christ who is risen. From this history our personal histories are directed to eternal joys. From knowing the past we know the future and our future is bright.