For what I received, I passed on to you as of first importance…”1 Corinthians 15:3

As Christians we don’t often think about the gospel as a ‘tradition’ – indeed that word may make us feel quite uncomfortable when it comes to talking about Christianity. We are accustomed to using the word ‘tradition’ with reference to man-made religion and to speak about the gospel in terms of ‘relationship’ rather than religion or tradition. And at one level of course this discomfort about the word tradition is quite understandable. For did not Jesus Himself rebuke the religious elite of His day because they held onto their religious traditions and so doing set aside the Word of God (see Mark 7:6-8)?

What Jesus had in mind was of course religious rules that were man-made and which had become more important than what God had said. Properly understood however there is a sense in which the gospel itself not only can but must be thought about as a tradition. And it is this that Paul has in mind when he described the gospel as something which he had received and which he had in turn passed on to them. If we think about it carefully we realise that this language (receiving and passing on) is language describing tradition, gospel tradition – a tradition which Paul considered to be of the first importance not only for the Christians in Corinth but for all Christians everywhere.

First and foremost, Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand that the gospel was thus not something which he had made up. Rather it was something which he received. Paul was a gospel preacher, but he was certainly not a gospel inventor. This is the point that Paul is driving home when he uses the phrase “according to the Scriptures” in verses 3-4 of 1 Corinthians 15. The gospel that he preached and which the Corinthians believed was a gospel that began with God and His Old Testament promises, promises which would be fulfilled in the Christ who would die for our sins and rise again on the third day. In other words, the gospel has its own content, a content which is determined by God, not by us. And this means of course that no-one, not even the apostle Paul, has the right to change the content of the gospel. And this is a matter of great importance for us to remember in an age in which the content of the gospel is so unpopular.

Second, Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand that the gospel had to be received as it is, not as they would like it to be. The gospel which they received from Paul (verse 1) was the gospel that Paul had received (verse 3). Paul had preached it to them just as it had come to him and they were to receive it in full just as he had preached it to them. And so it is for us. We may not pick and choose which bits of the gospel we will receive or which we will reject. People may not like to think about themselves as sinners or to talk about sin, but the gospel tells us that we are and that Christ died for our sins. People may be sceptical about the idea of the resurrection of Jesus but the gospel declares that He rose again on the third day. Indeed for Paul, this is a matter of first importance, for he tells the Corinthians that it is this gospel alone which has the power to save and that it is this gospel to which they must hold firm (verse 2). According to Paul, to believe a gospel which is different from the traditional gospel, the gospel that was received and passed on is to believe in vain (verse 2)!

Third, and this is something of the very greatest importance for us to understand, the way in which this gospel about the death and resurrection of Jesus is powerful to save in every generation is by it being received and preached so that it might be received and preached. The gospel we have today is the same “according to the scriptures” gospel that Paul received. It is this gospel and no other which still saves people today. It is this gospel which has saved us if we have indeed received it, believed it and taken our stand upon it. But this gospel which we have received must in turn be preached by us so that it may be received by others. When Christ died for sins and rose again, he did it not just for one generation of sinners but for all, Paul, the Corinthians, for us and for the generations that are yet to come. Every new generation is the guardian of this same gospel which we have received. And the best way to guard the gospel in our own day it is to proclaim it so that others might hear and believe and proclaim.

Written by Mervyn Eloff. Originally posted here.