In order to deal with some among the Corinthians who were saying “that there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:12), Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 to reiterate the gospel that he had preached to them. As important as this passage is for our understanding of the gospel, it is vital that we keep the following points in mind about what this passage was not in its original historical context.
1. It was not a first-time revelation of what the gospel was to the Corinthians—Paul had already made the gospel known to them when he had evangelized them while he was with them. The Corinthian church thus did not need this passage to know what the gospel was!
2. It was not an initial revelation of what the gospel was to the apostles; the apostles had received the gospel message directly from Christ some twenty years prior to Paul’s writing this passage and had been preaching it ever since. Peter preached the gospel at Pentecost without any prior instruction from Paul, and he did not need any such instruction at any later point in his life. The same was true for all the other apostles as well (Acts4:33; 5:20-21; 42) and also for Philip (Acts 8:4-40).
3. It was not an instance of either progressive revelation or a progress of doctrine such that it supplemented, corrected, or fine-tuned in any necessary way any supposedly rudimentary or unclear notions that the original apostles may have had of what they were to preach as the gospel.
4. It was not an initial revelation of what the gospel was to the early Church at large. Those who were in the Church prior to Paul’s writing this passage had been saved by hearing the gospel ministered to them by someone who knew what to preach to them. The early Church at large, therefore, already knew definitively what the gospel was before Paul penned this passage because they knew what they had believed to be saved.
5. It was not some vital theological revelation that the early Church was lacking until Paul wrote these words. Proof positive of this statement is seen from the fact that the leaders of the early Church, including Paul, were able to definitively resolve a key doctrinal matter concerning how Gentiles were to be saved (Acts 15; see this post for a full explanation of this crucial point) before Paul had even gone to Corinth to preach the gospel to the Corinthians (Acts 18).
In light of these points, we need to adjust certain theological and practical viewpoints that have resulted from attaching undue importance to 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 at the expense of other equally inspired and relevant revelation from God concerning the gospel that the apostles preached. The changes that we need to make include the following:
1. The lack of explicit mention of the kingdom of God in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 has led some to reason that the gospel “changed” from a preaching of the gospel of the kingdom (e.g., Acts 8:12) to a preaching of the gospel of Christ. A careful examination of a number of passages in Acts (as well as in the Epistles, including even 1 Corinthians 15 itself) shows that this reasoning is fallacious (see my post, Did the Gospel Change from Samaria to Corinth?). We must, therefore, reject such reasoning.
2. Not keeping in mind that these verses are merely a brief summary of what Paul actually preached to the Corinthians, some have resorted to an approach to evangelism that too often more or less only amounts to a quoting of these statements to people. A close comparison of Peter’s preaching of the gospel in Caesarea with this passage brings out key truths that are missed when such an approach is taken.
First, Acts 10 teaches us how an apostle preached Jesus as the Christ to unsaved Gentiles (10:38) before testifying to His crucifixion and resurrection (10:39-41). By communicating to the lost the specific information that Peter did in this statement, we will properly explain to them the meaning of the term Christ and also preach the kingdom of God to them (cf. Matt.12:28)!
Second, it reveals to us a key truth (Acts 10:42) that an apostle proclaimed after testifying to His crucifixion and resurrection (10:39-41) and how he based his subsequent appeal to sinners for salvation (10:43) on the basis of his prior proclamation of that key truth. By evangelizing the lost in the same way, we will inform them of the proper significance of these key events for both God and man, and we will also further preach the kingdom of God to them.
When presenting 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 to the lost, therefore, we should be careful to explain the term Christ properly to them and not take for granted that they will invest it with its right biblical significance upon merely hearing it from us (see this post for an example of the problem of not doing this). We should also properly explain the significance of the key historical events that the Messiah experienced (crucifixion and resurrection) in the manner explained above.
Doing so, we will preach to them the gospel of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 8:12)!