By Dr. John H. Niemelä
First Corinthians 15’s definition of the word gospel is important.1 For brevity’s sake, I assume the view that saved in 15:2 refers to sanctification, not regeneration. Lowery writes, “As the former message was an essential element in the Corinthians’ experience of ongoing salvation (the pres. tense of the verb saved focuses on sanctification), so was the latter” (David Lowery, “1 Corinthians” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, p. 542).
My goal is modest: determining where in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul begins defining the term gospel. Most start it in 15:3, but the definition actually begins in 15:2.
All perceive the centrality of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection here, but some make His burial a third point.2 Most incorrectly limit the definition to the verses discussing these two (or three) elements (15:3-8). However, Paul uses the word gospel (euangelion) in 15:1, amplifying upon it in 15:2. Excluding verse 2 from Paul’s definition is indefensible. Although 15:3 begins a new sentence, verse 2 is what explains why the good news is good news. That is, 1 Cor 15:2 applies His death and resurrection to the original readers: by which [gospel] you are saved if you hold fast…Indeed, spiritual health is great news for believers.3
If Jesus’ death and resurrection did not extend benefits to others, would it be good news? Or would it merely be news? Sanctification for believers makes His death and resurrection good news. If Jesus died only for Himself and rose only for Himself, it would not be good news for us.
Paul’s gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 is that believers remain spiritually healthy by holding fast to the truths of Jesus Christ’s death (which Scripture and His burial prove) and resurrection (which Scripture and many eyewitnesses verify).
Paul’s gospel reaches beyond Jesus’ death and resurrection to how these events allow Him to give believers fullness of life. Verse 2 is what makes 15:3-8 good news, not just news. Sanctification (transformation by the renewing of the minds of believers) is one of the reasons why Jesus was crucified and rose. The good news of the cross and resurrection is that believers in Jesus Christ who hold fast to His death and resurrection are spiritually healthy.
John is president of Message of Life Ministries. He and Diane recently moved to rural Knox County, TN, to be near their son, George. John is working diligently on his forthcoming commentary on John’s Gospel.
1 Gospel is not a NT technical term. It does not always refer to the message for unbelievers.
2 Verses 3-8 make two points: death and resurrection, not three. The following clarifies:
I. Jesus died for our sins (15:3)
a. The first proof of His death is that it was according to the Scriptures (15:3)
b. The second proof of His death is that He was buried (15:4a)
II. Jesus rose on the third day (15:4b)
a. The first proof of His resurrection is that it was according to the Scriptures (15:4c)
b. The second proof is that many witnesses saw Him afterwards (15:5-8).
Burial was a second proof of His death, not the second of three points (death, burial, and resurrection). Yes, Isaiah 53:9 predicts His burial, but Paul does not cite Scripture to prove burial. He cites burial as a second proof of death. If Paul had said according to the Scriptures after mentioning burial, he would have made three points: death, burial, and resurrection. He only said according to the Scriptures after death and resurrection; those are his two points.
3 “If you grasp it” means: Believing Paul’s message saves if one grasps his point and believes it. The phrase “unless you believed in vain [eikē]” does not refer to a (hypothetical) non-saving type of faith. Rather, believing vainly refers to the theoretical possibility that Paul’s gospel is devoid of truth. That is, if those who believe Jesus Christ for eternal life do not actually receive eternal life, belief in Him would be in vain. That is Paul’s point, as 15:14 clarifies, “If Christ were not raised, then our preaching is empty [kenos] and your faith is also empty [kenos].” Eikē and kenos are equivalents.