This week I want to look at one of the earliest Christian creeds or confessions of faith. It appears in 1 Cor 15.3-5:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what in turn I had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [an Aramaic version of Peter], then to the Twelve.
Although 1 Corinthians is generally dated around AD54, the creed is much earlier and may well have formed part of Paul’s baptismal instruction after he had met the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Bearing in mind that Paul was converted no more than three or four years after the death of Jesus, this ‘tradition’ almost certainly comes from the first year or so of the Christian era. A sign of its early origin is that it was originally formulated in Aramaic, a form of ‘dog-Hebrew’ which was the language used by the ordinary people at the time of Jesus. Hence the apostle Peter is called Cephas – the name that Jesus gave him at Caesarea Philippi after he had declared Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16.16). It was on that confession of faith that Jesus said he would build his church (Matt 16.18).
Another indication of the creed’s early nature is that Paul writes that it was something that had been “handed on” to him. As the REB puts it: “I handed on to you the tradition I had received”. Paul is here describing the transmission and reception of what is termed ‘oral tradition’. We find the same form of words in 1 Cor 11.23, where Paul introduces his account of the Last Supper with the words: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed, took bread”.
The faith which Paul was taught came not through reading a textbook, for there were no textbooks at that time. Rather, when Paul was prepared for baptism he had to memorize this summary of Christian basics.
Over the years I have been fascinated by the form of this creed and how it focusses on the death and resurrection of Jesus: viz. “Christ died for our sins” and “was raised to life on the third day“. Each of these two propositions is then elaborated upon.
As for the first proposition, the creed states that Christ died “for our sins”. Note, Paul does not say ‘Christ died on a cross’. The uniqueness of Jesus’ death does not lie in the fact that he was crucified: indeed when he was put to death, two others were crucified at the same time. Its uniqueness lies in its purpose. “Christ died for our sins”. He died that we might be forgiven for our sins. Furthermore, the death of Jesus was part of God’s overall plan. As the creed states, it was “in accordance with the Scriptures”. In the words of Isaiah:
He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53.5-6)
To ensure that there is no doubt about the death of Jesus, the creed states “he was buried”. There may be times when there is uncertainty as to whether somebody really died, but once they are buried there is no room for doubt.
The second proposition focusses on the resurrection of Jesus. Christ “was raised”. Or rather, “he was raised to life” and is still alive. This is the implication of the underlying Greek verb which makes clear that the resurrection of Jesus has consequences for the here and how. Jesus not only rose from the dead – but he is still alive. Like the death of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus is “in accordance with the Scriptures”. It was all part of God’s plan. Isaiah 53 doesn’t specifically mention resurrection, but the idea of vindication is certainly present: “He shall see his offspring and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper” (Isaiah 53.10). What is more, “he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve”. These appearances underline that Jesus did return from the dead; they were not the product of wishful thinking. Jesus really is alive.
Yes, when it comes to Christian believing, there are issues of faith which belong to the sphere of question and debate. Christian faith can never be totally systematized, for we are dealing with a God who is beyond all systematization. Precisely because God’s ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts, there will always be areas of uncertainty. There will be times when we just don’t know. However, two things are certain. Christ died for our sins and he is alive for evermore.
These basics of Christian believing need to be at the forefront of the church’s teaching today. True, people also need to learn how to pray, how to forgive, how to share their faith with others. But even more important is understanding the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Years ago, the Conservative Party had as their slogan ‘Back to Basics’. Churches too need to teach the basics!