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The Message of First Importance

August 6, 2023

Teacher: Daniel Baker
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 15:1–11

The Message of First Importance
1 Cor 15:1–11 – Being God’s People: 1 Corinthians – Daniel J. Baker – Aug 5, 2023


“If you’re able, please stand...” Reading of 1 Corinthians 15:1–11. “....Thanks be to God.”

The late Billy Graham spent his adult life talking to millions of people on almost every continent in this world. The late Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, based in London, spoke weekly to thousands of people. He preached hundreds of sermons that still pierce your heart. John Wesley rode tens of thousands of miles by horseback to preach to churches and crowds that would listen. And every year, Christians face death and hardship so that people might hear.

Why? Because they believed and we believe the words found in our passage this morning: The truth that “Christ died for our sins” is the most important message there is. It’s this message you must believe in order to be saved.

If I told you, I’m going to share with you the most important message there is, you would have a lot of reasons to ignore me. “You’re not very old and not very smart—in the grand scheme of things.”

But these words come with the authority of God himself and with the authority of 20 centuries of Christians who have lived and died—and live even now—“standing in” the truth of this message. Such witnesses deserve to be heard.

The series: Being God’s People. It means being Gospel People.

The passage comes near the end of the body of Paul’s letter. It’s a book-end that matches 1 Corinthians 2:2, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

The sermon: The Gospel Ministry, The Gospel Message, The Gospel Eyewitnesses.


I. The Gospel Ministry (15:1–2)

“Now I would remind you...of the gospel I preached to you” (v. 1).

The word “gospel” is from a word that means “good news.” It’s something ANNOUNCED. And it’s GOOD. We live in a day of FAKE NEWS. Of DISINFORMATION.

And where NEWS is packaged in ways that generate clicks and sales and ads. So many people are working to get your ATTENTION. And convince you that what you’re looking at is IMPORTANT. They’re doing this whether or not the thing is TRUE or GOOD or HELPFUL. What they’re after is your ATTENTION.

God here isn’t after your ATTENTION—15 seconds of focus before you click on another page, another app, another notification. He’s after your TRANSFORMATION.

What he calls “GOOD NEWS” is truly and really “GOOD NEWS.”

Paul is saying that when I was with you in Corinth, I preached to you this GOOD NEWS.

“Which you received...” (v. 1) – And the Corinthians RECEIVED it. This GOOD NEWS can’t help you unless you RECEIVE it. It’s like a GIFT I buy for you. I hold it out to you. But as long as it’s in my hands, you can’t benefit from it. You have to RECEIVE it.

“In which you stand...” (v. 1) – When you RECEIVE the gospel you STAND IN IT. You can picture Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. God tells Ezekiel to preach to the bones. The bones are assembled. Then skin and muscles cover the bones. But they don’t have any breath in them. Then the Spirit fills those bodies with life. Suddenly they’re a mighty army ready to fight for the Lord.

That’s what the gospel does. It takes us who are dead in our sins. And it gives us life and energy. And we can STAND.

But it does require a response—a response of faith. Paul describes it as “HOLDING FAST TO THE WORD I PREACHED.” Don’t lose your grip on it!

Being gospel people means having a gospel ministry.

II. The Gospel Message (15:3–5)

Read 1 Corinthians 15:3–5.

“I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received” (v. 3)

  • Why would he say this? Because it’s true.
  • He’s not saying the gospel message is the ONLY thing of importance. We don’t want to fall into that trap.
  • But he is saying that this message is the matter of “FIRST IMPORTANCE.”

The message of “first importance” is simple, chiselled, word about Jesus Christ and what he did to save sinners. That’s the message of “first importance”!

Paul presents it in 4 statements.

First, “THAT Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (v. 3)

The message of first importance starts with the crucifixion of the Messiah. Christ is the Greek form of the Hebrew for “Anointed One” or Messiah. God’s Messiah was crucified.

No one saw this coming. They assumed that when the Messiah came, the era of Israel’s dominance over all nations would begin. The Romans would be crushed and the Jews would rise up. A Messiah who would save his people by suffering and dying on a cross wasn’t at all their expectation or plan.

But that’s because they didn’t get how much of a problem their sin was. The Messiah died “for our sins.” This expression “for our sins” or “for us” with this preposition (huper, ὑπὲρ) gets used a lot in the New Testament. It’s part of the message of the New Testament to explain Christ’s death:

“This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22:19)
“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24); “At the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6)
“While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8)
“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom 8:32)
"Christ also suffered for you” (1 Peter 2:21).

Theologian Richard Gaffin explains that this expression “for us” and “for our sins” means Christ died as our substitute. He died in our place. Christ in his death and resurrection did something we couldn’t do for ourselves. Without his death “for our sins” we would face eternally God’s judgment and God’s wrath against sin. We would have no escape. “Sin” is our “plight,” and Christ’s cross and resurrection is the “solution.” That is Paul’s “theology of the cross.”[1]

Many people reject that a message about “our sins” could be the message of “first importance.” They want the central message to be “God is love.” Or that all people will be saved. And so, for them the cross isn’t really about our sins but it’s Jesus showing us how to respond to evil. And for them, sin in the end isn’t really a big deal.[2]

But “Paul’s theology of the cross” and the rest of the New Testament continue like a sledge hammer, destroying such ideas. “Christ died for our sins.”

Christ died for our sins, because our sins were that big of a deal. Christ died for our sins, because there was no other remedy for the disaster of human sin. The death of the incarnate Son of God was required for us to be delivered from our sins.

But this message of what the cross accomplished wasn’t new with the apostle Paul. He says Christ died for our sins “in accordance with the Scriptures.”

One of those Scriptures prophesied his death and the reason for it over 700 years before it happened. This is from Isaiah 53:

5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 6 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. (Isa 53:5-6)

Do you see that? It’s not just a prophecy that Christ would die. And it certainly doesn’t tell us he died only to show us how to respond to evil. It tells us that he had to die because of “our transgressions,” “our iniquities,” “the iniquity of of us all.” These were “laid on him.That’s why died! That’s why “he was crushed” by the Father.

The most important gospel message also includes the truth “THAT he was buried” (v. 4)

It’s fitting that since Jesus died he would then experience what is common for us, a burial. This is a statement that he was truly dead. But it’s more.

Here he’s experiencing the full punishment that sin demands. Like God told Adam, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). Though Jesus wouldn’t experience any decay, his burial is sharing in this divine punishment.

And his burial is a final act of humiliation. Where the Son of God should receive trumpets and parades fit for a triumphant King, he should receive the worship of all nations—instead he receives a modest burial in a Jerusalem hillside.

Everyone thought that was the end of the story. They thought this Jesus would fade into history like others who claimed to be the Messiah.

But here’s the thing, he didn’t stay dead!

He rose! The good news is good news because “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (v 4).

He truly died on Good Friday. But then on Easter Sunday he rose from the dead. That was the third day.

His cross and his resurrection are inseparable. Without the resurrection, we are still in our sins (1 Cor 15:17). And the new life promised with the resurrection can’t be ours unless we also receive his death for our sins. We take the cross and resurrection together.

As we’ll see in the rest of 1 Corinthians 15, his resurrection is the first step in undoing the “sting” of “death” (15:55). His resurrection is “the death of death” (John Owen). One day all the dead in Christ will rise up out of their graves—because of the resurrection of Jesus.

And this happened “in accordance with the Scriptures”:

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. (Ps 16:10)

We’ll say more about that in the next weeks.

In Paul’s summary of the gospel here he does something unexpected. He invites a whole parade of eyewitnesses to join the party.

The first ones are the most important.

The fourth part of the good news he presents is the truth “THAT he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (v. 5).

Cephas is another name for the apostle Peter, chief among “the twelve.” These twelve are unique because they were with Jesus for his entire earthly ministry, beginning with his baptism. They were there for his teachings and miracles in those years of ministry. They were at the cross when he died. And then they were part of the early eyewitnesses to his resurrection. Paul uses vivid and concrete language: “He appeared to Cephas. Not, “Peter said he saw him.” “He appeared!”

Peter and the Twelve weren’t the first ones—the women at the tomb were the first ones.

They had touched him, eaten with him, spent weeks being taught by him, and then watched him ascend to heaven. After the Spirit is given at Pentecost these twelve gave their lives preaching of this resurrected Christ, a resurrected Christ they had seen personally. They hadn’t just heard a message and believed it; they were eyewitnesses to the resurrection and told their stories to anyone who would listen.

That’s the divinely inspired summary of the gospel. It’s the news “of first importance.” This is the message the first apostles preached and they called all people to believe. And this is the good news you need to believe to be saved.

This is God’s remedy for the great problem of “our sins” (v. 3).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

I find salvation not in my life story, but only in the story of Jesus Christ. Only those who allow themselves to be found in Jesus Christ—in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection—are with God and God with them.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together[3]

Being gospel people means holding fast to the gospel message. We don’t change it. We don’t compromise it. We don’t minimize it. We don’t add to it. We are simply to be faithful to receive it—and then pass it along to others. It is this story and no other story that offers to us salvation.

III. The Gospel Eyewitnesses (15:6–11)

Read 1 Corinthians 15:6–11.

In these verses we get a parade of eyewitnesses. Not one or two. Not just Peter alone saying, “I saw him. Trust me.” But hundreds.

“then HE APPEARED to more than five hundred brothers at one time” (v. 6)

  • Most still alive but some asleep (v. 6)

Paul’s saying that there are literally HUNDREDS of people you can talk to to confirm that Jesus rose from the dead. Some are dead. But hundreds are still alive.

And that’s what you do to confirm a HISTORICAL EVENT. To confirm a scientific claim, you re-create it. But for a HISTORICAL EVENT, you talk to witnesses. You look at archaeological data. It’s true now, and it was true then.

“THEN HE APPEARED to James, then to all the apostles” (v. 7).

This James isn’t one of the original twelve. This is James the brother of Jesus. And any time your brother begins to proclaim that you rose from the dead and are the promised Messiah, that’s saying something! In fact, two of Jesus’ brothers would go on to write letters in the New Testament, James and Jude.

“Last of all, as to one untimely born, HE APPEARED also to me” (v. 8).

Paul believing in the resurrected Christ is an event in itself. Because of the unusual way in which Christ revealed himself to him. But also, because of his passionate opposition to Christians saying that Jesus was the Messiah.

Paul isn’t joking or speaking hyperbole here when he says he was a persecutor of the church. Remember what Luke says of his friend he would later serve with:

And Saul approved of [Stephen’s] execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles....But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. (Acts 8:1, 3)

But this is the man who encountered the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. This is the man who then gave his life—even unto death—proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus as crucified, buried, risen, and RETURNING!

J. Warner Wallace is a Chicago homicide detective who lived as skeptic for decades. Finally he decided to investigate the claims of Christianity. He did so putting his detective skills to work. Captured in his book, Cold-Case Christianity. In one part of the book he looks at the resurrection and the claims by skeptics. Then he responds to each of them. It’s a strong section:

  1. “The disciples were wrong.” They thought he was dead, but he wasn't. Wallace’s response: There is confirmation by secular sources that Jesus was crucified. The radical truth is not that he died, as even these sources speak of Jesus being crucified. John’s comment about blood and water from his side fits what is known of dead bodies. And secular sources confirm the crucifixion. And remember, he would be alive after receiving a horrible amount of suffering, so he wouldn't be walking around casually as if he had merely sprained his ankle. Last, if Jesus was alive and not actually killed, this would be recorded somewhere by someone. It isn't (44–45).
  2. “The disciples lied/stole the body.” His response: “I am hesitant to embrace any theory that requires the conspiratorial effort of a large number of people, over a significant period of time, when there is personally little or nothing to gain by their effort” (46).
  3. “The disciples were delusional.” His response: There’s no record of such a thing ever happening when it’s groups or many individuals having the same hallucination (46–47).
  4. “The disciples were fooled by an imposter.” His response: It’s not reasonable that anyone could fit the bill in this situation. Disciples knew Jesus too well. Jesus too different (47–48).
  5. “The disciples were influenced by limited spiritual sightings. Only one person saw the vision and then persuaded the others.” His response: Again, cost-benefit of this makes it unreasonable. All cost and no gain.
  6. “The disciples’ observations were distorted later.” His response: The record of testimony goes all the way back to the disciples. Nothing like such a distortion is evident (50–51).

His conclusion, in the end, the most likely explanation is that the disciples were accurately reporting the resurrection of Jesus (51).

  • Paul “the least of the apostles” (v. 9).
  • “Unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (v. 9).
  • But GRACE! “By the grace of God I am what I am” (v. 10).
  • “His grace toward me was not in vain.”
  • “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (v. 10).

Andrew Wilson calls this a “famously paradoxical statement” (168). Then he says, “To use technical language for a moment, this is not synergism (we work alongside God), or even monergism (God does all the work, and we don’t), but what theologian John Barclay calls energism (God works within us by transforming our agency). Or, in simpler terms, grace works” (168).

Being gospel people means listening to the gospel eyewitnesses.


The passage calls for a response.

The divine summary of the good news is here in this passage:

3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Cor 15:3-5)

The first thing to do with this is to make sure you understand it. Not total comprehension. As Christians we’ll spend our lives trying to understand it and still not fully understand. But the fact you can’t understand it FULLY doesn’t mean you can’t understand it TRULY.

And then saving faith requires you to say, “It’s true. I believe it’s true. I believe what the Bible says about Jesus is true. It all really happened. I may not understand it all, but I believe it all really happened.”

And then saving faith requires you to say, “And I trust in Christ as my Savior. He not only lived and died and rose from the dead like the Bible said, but I will follow him as my Lord. I place all my trust and confidence in him.”

I understand the message – I believe the Bible – I trust in Christ. That’s saving faith.

And we’ll see in the next weeks what our future holds as those who believe God’s good news.

Next steps: Join the fellowship of the church. Participate in the life and activities of a church.

For us who are Christians: Consider, is there someone in your life right now who needs to hear the good news about Christ? This September we’re doing a series on evangelism from Colossians 4. As part of that series we’ll have a church-wide prayer meeting to pray for the lost. The goal of that series is being challenged. But also being equipped.


[1] Richard Gaffin, “Atonement in the Pauline Corpus: ‘The Scandal of the Cross,’” The Glory of the Atonement (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 140–161.

[2] E.g., recently the writings of Steve Chalke, Rob Bell. But every generation has its opposition to the doctrines of God’s wrath, human depravity, and God’s unique remedy for it in the crucifixion.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 62.

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