Isaiah 53:10-12; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4
10 Though the LORD desired to crush him and make him ill, once restitution is made, he will see descendants and enjoy long life, and the LORD’s purpose will be accomplished through him. 11 Having suffered, he will reflect on his work, he will be satisfied when he understands what he has done. “My servant will acquit many, for he carried their sins. 12 So I will assign him a portion with the multitudes, he will divide the spoils of victory with the powerful, because he willingly submitted to death and was numbered with the rebels, when he lifted up the sin of many and intervened on behalf of the rebels.”
1 Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you — unless you believed in vain. 3 For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received — that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures.
At Easter, we focus on some historical events that took place over two thousand years ago. None of us lived during that time. Like other events in history, we only know about them because someone teaches us about them, and explains their significance. From today’s text, we learn what those events are from the apostle Paul. They are “that Christ died for our sins …and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day.”
These three events that Paul mentions are the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. From verse 1 Corinthians 15:1 we learn that Paul is making clear to the Corinthians what the gospel is — the gospel that he preached to them. From verse 3 we learn that these three historical events are “of first importance” to that gospel message.
Note also in verses 3-4 the phrase “according to the scriptures” — which appears twice. Paul is emphasizing not only that these things happened, but that they had been predicted in the Old Testament. I have added a passage from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah to today’s lesson. I didn’t have to go to Isaiah. I could have picked any number of Old Testament texts. The Old Testament predicts the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus in many places. That’s why Paul said that Jesus died, was buried, and was raised from the dead “according to the scriptures.”
I want you to note also that Paul admits he did make up this gospel message that he preached. Not only did he say that the events had been predicted in the Old Testament scriptures, but he also said that he had received them (verse 3). That is, someone had revealed them to him. Paul was not present at the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. He did not observe any of these events personally. The first time Paul met Jesus, it was on the road to Damascus, where he was blinded, and only heard the voice of Jesus. Jesus not only revealed to Paul who he is, but he also apparently explained the significance of his death, burial, and resurrection.
From that time on, Paul had a career change. He had been focused on destroying the church and silencing the gospel. But now he set his sights on building the church and preaching the gospel. One of the places where Paul had preached the gospel was Corinth. In today’s text, Paul said that he had already “passed on” this information to them (verse 3). But he writes to them now to make it clear to them (verse 1). The Corinthians had already received the gospel as Paul did. Paul calls it “the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand” (verse 1).
So, Paul’s purpose in explaining the gospel to the Corinthians was not to evangelize them. But he felt it important to go back over the facts of the gospel once again. One of the reasons this is true is that it was possible even for some of the Corinthians who had already received and believed to still wind up rejecting the gospel and not be saved by it. Notice how Paul puts this in verse 2: “you are being saved if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you — unless you believed in vain.”
Now, if Paul thought it necessary to go over the gospel one more time with the Corinthians — just to be sure that they believed it — then I don’t apologize for sharing the gospel with you today. I’m not going to say “stop me if you’ve heard this” because I’m pretty sure you have. But especially during the Easter season, it is a healthy thing for us to remind ourselves of the basic elements of the gospel that we have received, and on which we stand.
The first element of the gospel Paul preached is … Christ willingly died for our sins (Isaiah 53:12; 1 Corinthians 15:3).
Isaiah predicted a coming Messiah who would willingly submit to death. Isaiah said ironically that this Messiah would “be elevated, lifted high, and greatly exalted” (52:13). But then he goes on to explain what he means by that. He said “he was so disfigured he no longer looked like a man; his form was so marred he no longer looked human — so now he will startle many nations. Kings will be shocked by his exaltation, for they will witness something unannounced to them, and they will understand something they had not heard about” (52:14b-15). What Isaiah is talking about is the cross.
Jesus knew that the cross was in God’s plan for him. God’s wonderful plan for his life included getting beaten half to death, the nailed to a cross to die. Isaiah says that Jesus willingly submitted to that plan.
Jesus himself said that “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). He said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).
There’s a chorus that goes “Lift Jesus Higher, Lift Jesus Higher, Lift Him up for the world to see — he said if I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men unto me.” I used to sing that chorus, but I don’t anymore. It takes John 12:32 out of context. John 12:33 says “(Now he said this to indicate clearly what kind of death he was going to die.)” The people who lifted Jesus on that cross were not believers, and they were not worshipping him. They were his executioners.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus willingly submitted to this death. He did it because God was offering him as the sacrifice “for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Isaiah says “he lifted up the sin of many and intervened on behalf of the rebels” (53:12). This is the language of sacrifice. Under the Old Testament sacrificial system, a sacrifice of atonement required the lifting up of an unblemished animal, and the death of that animal to represent the destruction of the sin he represented.
When Jesus volunteered to willingly die on the cross, he knew that he was going to serve as a substitute for our sins.
The second element of the gospel Paul preached is …Christ accomplished the purpose of God by his death (Isaiah 53:10; 1 Corinthians 15:2-3).
Isaiah said “the LORD’s purpose will be accomplished through him (53:10). He was talking about the eternal plan of the LORD to redeem humankind from the bondage to sin, decay, and death. God had a purpose, and only Christ as the Son of God could fulfill that purpose.
Jesus did the hard part. He died for our sins according to the scriptures. But Paul reminded the Corinthians that they had a part to play in this divine purpose as well. They had the responsibility to receive this message by faith and hold firmly to it by faith.
The simple fact that Jesus died does not save anyone. The simple fact that Jesus rose from the dead does not save anyone. We celebrate Easter not because Jesus did everything but because he did for us what we could not do. Even if we got ourselves nailed to a cross and died, that death would not pay for the sins of the world. It would not even pay for our own sins. It would be a catch 22. Only a sinless sacrifice will do, and all of us are sinners. We needed Jesus, not to serve as our example, but to be our Savior.
Paul told the elders from Ephesus that he did not hold back from announcing to them the whole purpose of God (Acts 20:27). I need to do the same thing. It was God’s purpose for Jesus to die on the cross. It is God’s purpose for you and me to believe it.
It is also God’s purpose for you and me to hold firmly to it — to not believe in vain. The Greek word for “in vain” is εἰκῇ. Godet mentions a classical expression that contains that word. The saying is εἰκῇ βάλλειν — to shoot an arrow that does not hit. 1
We need to believe what Jesus did because God wants us to apply what he did to our own lives. We cannot afford for Christ’s death to be merely a theological truth we affirm. It has to be for God’s purpose of cleansing us from sin. We have to respond to the cross by repentance and faith in the gospel.
The third element of the gospel Paul preached is … Christ demonstrated his victory by being raised from the dead (Isaiah 53:12; 1 Corinthians 15:4).
Isaiah says that the Messiah will divide the spoils of victory which means that he will be victorious. He will not only accomplish God’s purpose, but he will overcome in battle. That means that the Messiah’s death will not be the last phase of the battle; it will be the first.
Paul says that Jesus “was raised on the third day according to the scriptures.” Paul says that Jesus “was given over because of our transgressions and was raised for the sake of our justification” (Romans 4:25). He died to pay the price for our sins. He was raised to demonstrate that we are now justified in God’s sight.
Now friends, if you believe that Jesus died, that’s good. But that is not enough. If you believe that Jesus died for your sins, that is good because that is true. But that also is not enough. Paul told the Romans that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). The Christ of the Bible is no longer on the cross. The Christ of the Bible walked away from an empty tomb. The Christ of the Bible is victorious. The gospel of the Bible is not a gospel of defeat, but a gospel of victory.
We need the message of Good Friday, but we cannot stay there. The message of Easter Sunday is necessary. Without it, there is no victory, and without victory, we do not have the whole purpose of God. Without victory, we are preaching another gospel.
The ultimate victory Jesus experienced for himself was that he conquered death and was raised immortal, ascended to heaven, and returned to his Father. The immediate victory he experienced for us on the cross was the forgiveness of sins. But there is an ultimate victory that Jesus accomplished for us as well. He said “because I live, you will live too” (John 14:19).
Easter is the sneak preview of our permanent destiny. Each will be raised in order. Christ — the first fruits — was raised on Easter Sunday. We — the remainder of the harvest — will be raised by him when he returns. That’s the whole gospel that Paul preached, and it is the gospel that we preach too!
1 Godet, Frederic Louis, and A. Cusin. Commentary on St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. v. 2. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1889. p. 328.