This week I read an essay on Paul’s Gospel that was an exegetical summary of 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. This seems strange to me. Does this section summarize Paul’s Gospel?
Now, if I were to ask Paul to summarize his Gospel he might say something like “the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.” Unfortunately, I don’t have access to Paul, so his letters will do. Paul’s Gospel may present these events as the pinnacle or climax of Paul’s message, even a condensed summary, but a complete representation? What about Jesus’ teachings, his messianic identity, his miracles and exorcisms, his empowerment by the Spirit, his ascension, his present reign and priestly advocacy, and his appearing? Would Paul have thought these things to be secondary or peripheral? I doubt it.
When we read Paul’s letters we cannot forget that these letters are occasional. When he wrote to the Church in Thessaloniki he addressed eschatological concerns. When he wrote to the Church in Galatia he addressed the difference between Covenants Old and New, especially as this relates to the Spirit. When he wrote to Rome he summarized how the Gospel unites Jews and non-Jews under the reign of Christ. When he wrote to Corinth he had to correct some things, including the idea that although Jesus may have resurrected from the dead, there is no future resurrection.
Paul writes, “Now I make known to you, brethren, the Gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believe in vain.” These words may sound like he is about to summarize the Gospel he preached, but that doesn’t seem to be what he does at all. Instead, Paul appears to remind them that he has preached the Gospel, it was received, and it is that which continues to save them, so now, let me remind you of those things that are of “first importance” or those things Paul presented to the Corinthians first of all (ἐν πρώτοις): Jesus died. Jesus was buried. Jesus resurrected.
Paul is saying that he began his proclamation with this message. This was his opening proclamation: Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, he was dead, even buried, but God has resurrected him from the dead. Everything follows from this, but that does not mean that everything else is unimportant.
It was not the chapter I read that alone made me revisit Paul’s words, but my recent post on evangelicalism (A Dialogue between a Catholic and an Evangelical: Why I am an E/evangelical) caused me to revisit the definition of “the Gospel,” since it seems “Evangelicals” might want to take seriously the content of the “Evangel” itself. Similarly, I’ve mentioned Paul many times on this blog and I realize that there remains an misperception among admirers and detractors of Paul that his Gospel was radically divorced from Jesus’. Now, if Paul’s Gospel is “justification by faith” or even the death, burial, and resurrection without the context of Jesus’ person and message then yes, there is a disconnect. I don’t think this is the case though. Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom and Jesus acted as the coming King of that Kingdom. Now, the Father’s plan included allowing the King to die, then vindicating the King by means of an apocalyptic, eschatological resurrection before the anticipated great resurrection, but that doesn’t mean Jesus’ Kingdom message doesn’t matter. Instead, Jesus’ Kingdom message was made unique by the means of God establishing his chosen King. Paul on the other side of the resurrection understood this. Therefore, Paul emphasized it, which is not surprising since the Evangelists do the same thing. All four of our earliest, preserved Gospels give more attention to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection than to the rest of his story. We may not be able to explain how Jesus understood his death (though he appears to have anticipated it), or his resurrection, but we do know that after the resurrection Jesus’ earliest followers reinterpreted all of his words and deeds in light of God’s action on his behalf. If one affirms that the resurrection happened it makes sense to presume that Jesus himself would have come to fully understand his life, mission, and identity more fully than before he had overcome death (if you struggle with accepting that Jesus learned propositionally, then at least we should acknowledge experientially/existentially).