“For I delivered to you of first importance that which I also received—that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;” (1 Corinthians 15:3)
Paul now is about to lay out for the Corinthians once again the essentials of the faith. Please note, these things that he lays down are what he calls things of “first importance.” As you read through the writings of Paul, you will find other doctrines that are of high importance for a Christian to hold to, but the doctrine of Christ’s death and resurrection is the first and most important of all doctrines. Regardless of what other things you may or may not hold to, if you do not hold to this doctrine you cannot call yourself a Christian. It is of first importance.
Through the history of the church, there have been those who have tried to deny this doctrine. Even in our own day, there are those who would teach that there was no historical Jesus. Friends, these people are heretics and blasphemers and we should never allow ourselves to be swayed by their arguments; rather, we need to call them to repentance.
Why is this doctrine so important? To understand the doctrine’s importance you need to unpackage what Paul is saying. In this verse, Paul lays before us one half of the doctrine; namely, that Christ died for our sins. There are three elements that come out of this statement.
The first element is that Christ died. To die, Christ had to be fully human. Were Christ some kind of legendary Greek god-man or demi-god, being part human and part God, there would have been no real death, for an immortal God cannot die. Christ did die, and that means he had to be fully human by definition. Were Christ not fully human he could not have identified with us, he could not have suffered like we do, and no sacrifice would have been made. For atonement to be made, blood needed to be shed; this is the purpose of all of the Old Testament sacrifices. Jesus offered himself up as the sacrificial lamb, which means his blood needed to be shed for our sins.
The Apostle John would later write that Christ is our propitiation (1 John 2:2). Though sometimes this word is translated as “atonement,” there is a difference between atonement and propitiation. Atonement is the bringing of two parties back into harmony after they have been separated. Christ certainly did just that, becoming a bridge to cross the gap between a sinful mankind and a Holy God. But, propitiation is the act which brings atonement. Jesus’ act of propitiation was his death on the cross, where he took the just punishment for the sins of the elect upon his own head. This required his sacrifice, which required his death, which requires that he be fully human.
Secondly, the sacrifice is for our sins. The only one who had the ability to make a perfect sacrifice for sinful man was God himself. Because of the fall, sin tainted all that we are and all that we do. We are not capable of satisfying God’s righteous judgment. This is why God sent his son, that those who believe in as their Lord and Savior would be saved. That means that Jesus, by definition, was also fully divine. He had to be fully human to make the sacrifice, but he had to be fully divine for that sacrifice to be effective. Oh, the heresies of the church that would have been avoided had people listened to the Apostle Paul’s words!
Thirdly, all this happened in accordance with the scriptures. God had proclaimed in his word the promise of a coming redeemer. He did so as far back as the fall (see Genesis 3:15). And, throughout the scriptures, particularly as you read the prophetic writings, there is a clear hand that is always pointing to Christ. And Christ fulfilled all of the prophesies that point toward him. This is an amazing fact. This means two things for us. First, it means that God is in complete control of all of human history. Were God just influencing things as they went along (making good guesses as the “Open Theists” would say) then some of the prophetic statements would have necessarily fallen through the cracks—none did. The only way that hundreds of statements about Christ could have been fulfilled in Christ was if God had intimately controlled history, and indeed, he wrote the book. Second, it also tells us that the entirety of the Old Testament is about Jesus. Jesus is directly or indirectly the subject of all of scripture! What an amazing statement that is, dear friend.
And these things only represent one half of the doctrine of first importance. Paul is essentially telling the Corinthians that until they get this doctrine right, they will never make any sense of the other doctrines of the church. As I said earlier, this is not the only essential doctrine of the Christian faith, but this is the doctrine that will provide the foundation for the other doctrines clearly taught in scripture. Friends, grasp a hold of this doctrine and cling to it. It is the foundation of your hope. Without Christ’s shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins, and as we will soon see, without his resurrection, there is no hope of life beyond the grave. Be encouraged by all God offers to you in Christ.