Many first-century Corinthian church members had come to deny that there would be a future bodily resurrection of the dead, and Paul set out to correct them. He begins by first setting out what he and the Corinthians held in common—namely, the essential facts of the gospel. We find these truths given in today’s passage, which is one of the most important texts in all of Scripture for defining the gospel message.
The Apostle speaks of these facts as something that he “received” and that he has “delivered” to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:3). Commentators recognize this as a technical way of speaking of the Apostolic tradition, which is the established body of content that Jesus gave to the Apostles and that they conveyed to the world through their preaching before it was put into writing as the New Testament. The core of this tradition, that which is “of first importance,” is the death of Christ for our sins, His burial, His resurrection, and His postresurrection appearances to many witnesses (vv. 3–8). In these events we have the outline of the gospel: Christ’s atoning death, His vindication as Savior and Lord as the firstfruits of God’s resurrected people, and the historical confirmation of these events by eyewitnesses who trusted in what they saw and heard before passing it on to others.
Significantly, Paul says that the death and resurrection of Christ happened “according to the Scriptures” (vv. 3–4). These events do not explain themselves; rather, they are predicted and given meaning by the Old Testament, which is then further explained by the New Testament. The entire scope of the Old Testament points to the necessity of Christ’s life, atoning death, and rising again from the dead. Key passages such as Isaiah 52:13–53:12 and Psalm 16 look forward to the Messiah’s death and resurrection in specific detail, but our Lord’s person and work are also unfolded in the types and shadows of the old covenant sacrificial system and monarchy as well as the patriarchal history, the songs of Israel, the census lists and genealogies, and so forth. All the Old Testament, in some way either directly or indirectly, points us to the Messiah, and the New Testament helps us understand how the old covenant Scriptures do so.
Finally, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are historical facts. Actual people, including Cephas (Peter), James, the Twelve, five hundred men and women known to the first-century church, and many others saw Jesus after He rose from the dead (1 Cor. 15:3–8).