Bullet Point Gospel

Read or watch below. The sermon begins at 20:26 and lasts approximately 26 minutes.)

A few weeks ago we started on an exploration of the gospel and we are continuing our adventure today with a journey into First Corinthians. Someone might wonder why we are jumping from the Old Testament directly to the New Testament letters without stopping in the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Surely the Gospels are important. After all, they give us the word “gospel” more than twenty times, most frequently from the mouth of Jesus himself.

Nevertheless, there is good reason to go to 1 Corinthians next. The Gospels are the good news story full-blown. 1 Corinthians 15, on the other hand, is the gospel in brief, a summary that was well-known and oft recited by early Christians. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul bullet points the big story of the Gospels and gives us something we can get our arms around.  

This is not the only gospel summary in the New Testament. You can find others in Romans 1 and 2 Timothy 2, but it is important to remember that these are summaries, not full accounts. They bring to mind the events recorded in the Gospels, like the Cliff Notes on Romeo and Juliet bring to mind the events in Shakespeare’s tragedy. They remind, they do not replace.

Sometimes people say that 1 Corinthians 15 is the gospel, but that is like saying the Cliff Notes are Romeo and Juliet or that the blurb in the TV Guide – American bar owner becomes embroiled in wartime intrigues in Morocco – is Casablanca.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul takes the big story of Jesus, bullet points it, and gives us something we can memorize and repeat. There are four points in this summary but that number could be expanded. That’s the problem with a summary: if you don’t stop somewhere, it ceases to be a summary and becomes a copy. Paul could have added, for example, the day of judgment, which he says in Romans 2:16 is part of the gospel. But he resisted the temptation to give us a longer summary and stuck to four points.

So here they are. (1) Christ died for our sins (a statement so familiar to us we can’t conceive how outrageous and offensive it seemed to a first century Jew). (2) He was buried. (3) He was raised. (4) He was seen by witnesses.

Let’s read the text for ourselves, beginning with Paul’s preface in verse 1.

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.

In the preface to this summary, Paul uses some form of the word “gospel” three times. Verse 1 could be translated literally: “I want to remind you of the gospel (noun form) I gospelled (verb form) to you.” Then verse 2 begins (literally), “Through which you also are saved, if you hold to the word I gospelled (verb form) to you.”

No one could miss that this is about the gospel. When Paul wraps this section up in verse 11, he drives it home by saying: “Whether, then, it is I or they [the other apostles who witnessed the resurrected Christ], this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.” This is gospel.

But wait a minute. Last week we saw that the gospel is all about God’s reign. It is the “gospel of the kingdom,” as Jesus said again and again. But I didn’t hear anything about the kingdom in Paul’s bullet points. If the kingdom is such a big piece of the gospel puzzle, why doesn’t it merit at least one bullet point?

The answer is: the kingdom is not a piece of the puzzle. The kingdom is the picture that emerges as the puzzle is completed. We can get so focused on the pieces of the gospel that we fail to see the picture they form, which is of the kingdom of God. First century believers would not have missed that.

They knew that the good news about Jesus was the good news of the kingdom. This is particularly clear as Luke closes out his story of Paul’s life in Acts 28: “[Paul] preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:31). The early Christians knew you can’t proclaim the kingdom of God without teaching about Jesus and you cannot teach about Jesus without proclaiming the kingdom of God.

Unlike us, the early Christians would have seen the kingdom picture emerging as soon as they read the word “Christ.” We, however, read that word as if it were Jesus’s last name – Mr. and Mrs. Joseph and Mary Christ announce the birth of their baby, Jesus … Christ.

If we happen to think further about it, we usually don’t think far enough. We are content to remember that “Christ” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “Messiah,” but stop short of asking what Messiah means. Both Messiah and Christ mean “the anointed one.”

Why is that important? Because the anointed one is the king. After Israel’s monarchy came crashing down, language about the Christ [the anointed one] referred to the future king God would send. Psalm 2 describes that king as God’s anointed one – in Greek, “God’s Christ” – who brings the kingdom of God to earth. (By the way, Psalm 2 was one of the early Church’s favorite Psalms, quoted five times in the New Testament.)

Let’s take a step back here to get some perspective. When Jesus came to earth, many Israelites were expecting God to send a savior/king to free his people and set up a kingdom on earth. Passages like the one we looked at last week (Isaiah 52) nurtured that expectation. Anticipation was so high that when a Galilean named Judas led a revolt a few years earlier, people thought he might be the Messiah. After Judas came Theudas, Simon of Perea, and Athrongeus, all of whom claimed to be God’s messiah.

Do you remember how people kept asking John the Baptist if he was the Messiah? Why was that? It was because they were expecting God’s savior/king to show up at any moment. In John 7, people in the crowds were whispering about Jesus. Some were saying that he couldn’t be the messiah – he came from Galilee, for crying out loud – but others were insisting that he must be.

The word “Christ” in Paul’s summary of the gospel brought first century readers face to face with the king and the kingdom. What is the Christ? The Christ is the agent through whom God will reign on earth. The king of God’s kingdom. That is the answer to what is the Christ.

A follow up question is: Who is the Christ? Why do we think it was Jesus? Why not Judas the Galilean, or Theudas, or Simon of Perea? Or, for that matter, why not Menachem Schneerson, who died in 1994 and whose disciples venerated him as the Messiah? We’ll try to answer that question as we go along.

First, though, we need to realize that telling people the gospel will include telling them that God cares about humanity and has done something to help. He has sent a rescuer into the world. Many people do not know that God cares and even those who do are sometimes ignorant of the fact that he has already sent help. Sharing the gospel begins where Paul began it: with Christ – the rescuer king, God’s agent.

It begins there, but it must go on to include the fact that Jesus was and is that agent. This fits under the first bullet point in the summary. Jesus – born in Bethlehem in or around 4 B.C.; Jesus, who suffered under Pontius Pilate; Jesus, who was crucified by the Romans at the request of Israel’s leaders; Jesus, who then rose from the dead is the Christ, the rescuer God sent.

I am dividing this first bullet point, that Christ died for our sins, between the identity of the Christ and the death of the Christ. By identity of the Christ, I mean the fact that the real person Jesus was (and is) the Christ. I divide it this way because that is what the Apostles Peter and Paul did in their preaching. When they told people the good news, they began by laying out proof that Jesus is the Messiah.

Consider Paul’s evangelistic sermon in Acts 13:13-39. He follows Peter’s example in Acts 2, 3, and 10 by establishing Jesus’s credentials as a descendent of King David. He then brings in (as does Peter) the testimony of John the Baptist, who directed people to Jesus as the Messiah.

When Peter tells the story, he begins by cataloging Jesus’s good deeds, his healings, and his rescue of people who were under the power of the devil. He is supplying evidence that Jesus was and is God’s agent, the Messiah, the rescuer. This was also St. John’s purpose, who wrote an entire book so that people would (in his words) “believe that Jesus is the Christ” (John 20:31). The apostles in the early church “never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news [the gospel] that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 5:42).

When you think about it, the Gospel writers were following the same path. They begin by presenting evidence that Jesus is the Messiah God promised to send into the world. They establish his royal lineage – Matthew and Luke even offer extended genealogies as proof. Then they give the witness of John the Baptist that Jesus is the Messiah. They document his messianic credentials – the good he does, the people he heals, the victories he wins over evil. In several gospels we even have Jesus asking his disciples who they think he is. Their answer: “You are the Christ [the Messiah], the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).

A few years ago, a BBC documentary on Jesus stated, “The important thing is not what he was or what he wasn’t—the important thing is what people believe him to have been.”[1] Sts. Peter and Paul, and the biblical writers – and for that matter, I – couldn’t disagree more. The important thing is that Jesus was and is the Christ, God’s agent, the rescuer king.

This has practical implications. One of the things we want to do is help our neighbors and friends discover that Jesus was and is the Christ. Jesus is the one who brings God’s kingdom and rules over it. It is not enough to tell people that Christianity is true. We need to go beyond encouraging them to invite Jesus into their hearts. We want to help people believe, in the words of 1 John 5:1, “that Jesus is the Christ.” This is what Paul did when he arrived in Rome. Luke says, “From morning till evening he explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus…” (Acts 28:23).

We want to introduce our friends and family and neighbors to Jesus so they can see who he is. And we will have help in that because Jesus himself wants to meet our friends and family and neighbors, is dying (or I should say “has died”) to meet them, and is already at work in their lives to introduce himself to them.

Many people in our culture think they already know Jesus but are mistaken. They know him (this is from Kevin DeYoung) as: Republican Jesus—who is against tax increases and activist judges, for family values and owning firearms. They know him as Democrat Jesus—who is against Wall Street and Wal-Mart, for reducing our carbon footprint and printing money. More popular is Therapist Jesus—who helps us cope with life’s problems, heals our past, tells us how valuable we are and not to be so hard on ourselves. We recently discovered Open-minded Jesus—who loves everyone all the time no matter what (except for people who are not as open-minded as we are).

These are action figure Jesus’s. We like them because they say what we say and leave us in control of the action. The real Jesus is to Republican Jesus and Democrat Jesus what a real Army special forces staff sergeant is to a GI JOE: stronger, scarier, and far more interesting. Action figure Jesus’s can’t hold our attention and they certainly can’t change our lives. The real Jesus can.

Arthur Burns, who was a leading economist in Washington and a Jew, was once asked to pray at a gathering of evangelical politicians. He surprised them when he prayed: “Lord, I pray that Jews would come to know Jesus Christ. And I pray that Buddhists would come to know Jesus Christ. And I pray that Muslims would come to know Jesus Christ.”

And then, with political correctness in tatters on the floor, he went on to say: “And Lord, I pray that Christians would come to know Jesus Christ.”[2] That’s what we want too: to introduce people to the real Jesus, not one of the action figures available wherever Jesus’s are sold. And Jesus himself will help us with this.

Frederica Mathewes-Greene was a Catholic-turned-agnostic-turned-Hindu when she and her brand-new husband were traveling around Europe. He was an atheist but had been assigned to read one of the gospels for a college class and he just couldn’t get Jesus out of his mind. That scared Frederica. She certainly didn’t want her husband becoming one of those – a Christian!

But he kept talking about Jesus. He was so taken with him. When they were in Ireland, they visited a church and in some secluded corner found a small altar with a white marble statue of Jesus. It showed his heart exposed, with thorns wrapped around it, and flames coming out of the top. As Frederica was looking at this, she suddenly realized that she was on her knees.

She said it was like a radio inside of her had suddenly clicked on. The voice said to her: “I am your life. You thought that your life was your history, your name, your personality. You thought that your life was the fact that your heart beats. But that is not your life. I am your life. I am the foundation of everything else in your life.”[3]

Do you see? Jesus wanted to introduce himself to Frederica before she had any desire to know him. And he wants to introduce himself to your friends, even though they don’t know him and don’t want to know him … yet. But they will.

If you, like Paul, have experienced “the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:8), you can tell your friends about him in a way that will make them interested. If knowing Jesus is not the best thing in your life, you don’t know him well enough yet. He is the most interesting, most extraordinary, brilliant, wise, strong, compassionate, good person you will ever meet.

How can we tell people that Jesus is the Christ, the rescuer king? We can encourage them to read the Gospels. (Remember the impact that had on Frederica’s husband.) Better yet, we can read the Gospels with them. Albert Einstein once said, “I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.” When asked if he accepted the historical existence of Jesus, he answered: “Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”[4]

If they are hesitant to read the Gospels, we can give them a good book about Jesus. There are a couple out right now that I am interested in reading: Too Good to Be False by Tom Gilson and Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly. Our former elder Dave Knapp was in town this week, and he told me that Gentle and Lowly is the best book he’s read this year. Why not read it yourself, then give it to a friend?

And we can just talk about Jesus. Talk about what you are learning about him at church and in the Bible. Don’t go on and on: just a word; create a spark. The people you talk with may be all wet now, and your words won’t start anything. But when they are ready, that spark will catch fire.

We’ll pick this up next week when we look at the second part of this first bullet point. If there were ever two words in the history of language that didn’t go together, they are the ones Paul puts together here and calls gospel: “Christ [the Messiah, the rescuer king, the anointed one] died…”


[1] Alan Wilson, Nyon, Switzerland; source: Alex Webb, “Looking for the Historical Jesus,” BBC News Online,(3-26-01 column)

[2] Mark Buchanan, “Singing in the Chains,” Christianity Today (February 2008), p. 33

[3] “The Dick Staub Interview: Frederica Mathewes-Greene,” ChristianityToday.com, (10-1-02)

[4] Isaacson, Walter (2007). “Einstein and Faith” Time 169 (April 5): 47.

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