“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4 ESV).
Those who communicate the Word full-time—pastors, missionaries, and others in ministry—learn quickly in handling the Word that if everything is “gospel,” nothing is.
Though our age is one of hyper-reductionism, sometimes minimalism is the godly approach. And here in these short verses, the apostle reduces the glorious, cosmic gospel into just a few weighty stanzas.
Yes, the gospel is so big that it encompasses the progressive subjugation of the entire universe to the risen Lord Jesus Christ, culminating in a new creation (1 Corinthians 15:25-28). Yet this gospel of the kingdom in full bloom starts with the mustard seed of Christ and him crucified (2:2). The good news is both macro and micro, announcing the reign of Jesus over the universe and transforming individual sinners like you and me. But it all begins with the cross and empty grace, and ministers must not miss this foolish elegance simplicity at the literal crux of the gospel.
Unfortunately, there is a tidal wave of good intentions pressuring pastors and missionaries to lean more on tools like soaring rhetoric and social theory than on the Word and the Spirit. Here, the apostle’s words are particularly instructive for us. In 1 Corinthians 15, we are given not only a tweetable summary of the faith, but three small insights into the shape of gospel-centered missionary labor.
1. THE GOSPEL IS DELIVERED
“For I delivered to you…” (1 Corinthians 15:3).
Language is everything, and the euphemisms we use for evangelism reveal what we truly believe about it. In the evangelical vernacular, we talk about “sharing the gospel,” or “living out the gospel,” “having gospel conversations,” or even “being missional.” These turns of phrase, which all perhaps have their merits, are conspicuously missing from the biblical lexicon. Instead, in New Testament, the gospel is “delivered”—proclaimed, announced, preached, declared.
These verbs remind us of what the gospel is: news. It is not an opinion, philosophy, or account of lived experiences. Rather, it starts with the historical reality of Christ’s person and work and demands a response.
A postal worker is entrusted deliver messages without any tampering whatsoever. Mail fraud is a crime. Likewise, the faithful minister must convey the gospel in its most unadulterated form. Contextualization, done appropriately, is simply about ensuring direct delivery. The assignment given to the pastor or missionary is to deliver God’s message, not to craft one’s own.
2. THE GOSPEL IS PREEMINENT
“…as of first importance…” (v. 3)
The centerpiece of the minister’s life’s work is the gospel as expressed in the apostolic summary: “Christ died for our sins… was buried… was raised…” (vv. 3-4). This simple message must be preeminent. But isn’t this obvious?
Let us consider what it means that the gospel is to be handled as of first importance. The announcement of Christ’s redemptive work is not always first chronologically; in fact, wise missionaries focus on unfolding the entire history of redemption from Genesis to Revelation. This establishes the goodness and holiness of God, the fall into sin, and the biblical promise of a Savior to solve the problem. Or, put in other terms, the law establishes the need for grace.
At the same time, we must note that Jesus did not merely commission his people to go into all the world and establish the plausibility structure for the gospel. Rather, he has called the church to more than that. And the Word-worker’s mission is not complete until Christ has been held up as a top priority, of first importance. Laying a foundation through spiritual conversations is helpful, but until Christ is preached, our job is incomplete.
3. THE GOSPEL IS RECEIVED
“…that which I also received…” (v. 3)
I recently had a conversation with a godly friend who is an author and a pastor. We discussed the tensions of balancing pastoral job responsibilities with writing ventures and determining where the lines are between “work” and personal projects (if any lines exist at all). We also discussed the issue of intellectual property—Whose intellectual property is the pastor’s book? What if he self-publishes on his own dime, but the material was compiled from sermons preached on “church time”? What belongs to him, and what belongs to his employer?
I say all this only to make one point: in view of eternity, absolutely nothing the minister or missionary says or writes is “his.” Originality in ministry is dangerous. We are all to be plagiarists of the divine Author, by his command: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1). This is why theological novums are virtually always wrong. The gospel message does not originate in our own creativity; it simply comes to us.
But—and this is important—that doesn’t mean the gospel isn’t mine. The message does not originate with the minister, but he must possess it.
We cannot give grace unless we have received it. We cannot afford to have Christ on our lips without Christ in our hearts. Far too many pastors and missionaries in the history of the church have started out like John Wesley pre-conversion—calling people to receive forgiveness and grace while themselves being devoid of it, driven by a desperate desire to please, conform, and painstakingly earn approval from God. Unless one has truly received the gospel—as deeply as one can receive it, in the heart and in the bones—then one is not fit to make it known.
And perhaps that illustrious prize we all desire—“effectiveness” in ministry—would be more likely to come to us if we first applied ourselves to receive and believe the good news we proffer to others.
Nothing matters more than the relationship between the missionary and his gospel. May we deliver as of first importance that which we have received.