The Gospel Paul preached when he founded the church at Corinth is the same Gospel Paul is still preaching. As Gordon Fee says, this opening paragraph on the resurrection of Jesus establishes a “common ground” of belief (Fee, 1 Corinthians, 793). This is necessary because some in the Corinthian church denied that Jesus literally rose from the dead. In a series of relative clauses, Paul explains the saving power of the Gospel has not changed since they experienced the power of the Gospel.
First, this is the Gospel the believers in Corinth have already received. The verb (παραλαμβάνω) is used for receiving something passed along as a tradition. Second, it is the gospel “in which you have taken a stand.” The tense of the verb is important since it refers to an event in the past with ongoing effects. They “took a stand” when they received the Gospel, and that stand is still in effect when Paul writes. Third, it is the gospel “in which you are being saved.” Again, the tense of the verb is important; Paul chooses a present tense verb to describe the ongoing salvation of the believers in Corinth. They have not fully received salvation since they are not in Heaven yet. Paul therefore sees salvation as a past event, an ongoing reality, and a future hope. All three of these aspects of salvation are important, it is not good to focus on only the past or only the future and ignore the fact the Holy Spirit is working within us now, in the present time to bring us closer to the image of Christ Jesus.
But Paul adds a troubling condition: “If you hold fast…” The verb Paul uses (κατέχω) is used to describe someone who is remaining faithful to a tradition. In 1 Corinthians 11:2, holding to the traditions Paul passed along to them (cf., 1 Thessalonians 5:21, “holding fast to good doctrine”). What are the believers to “hold fast to”? The statement of faith in the following verses. Paul is reminding the readers the resurrection is at the very heart of the Gospel and if they rejected the resurrection, they are in danger of no longer believing the Gospel.
Is it possible to believe in the Gospel “in vain”? Could a person really accept Christ as savior only to find out they were never saved? The ESV sets the phrase off with a dash since it is a conditional phrase rather than a statement of reality. Paul does not say they have believed in vain, in fact, it almost sounds like an unreal condition (you didn’t believe in vain, did you? Of course not!) The adverb translated “in vain” can refer to “without careful thought, without due consideration, in a haphazard manner” (BDAG).
This means the Corinthian church may have accepted the Gospel of Jesus crucified without fully understanding the importance of the resurrection. Perhaps they thought a belief in a real, physical resurrection of Jesus was not necessary.
The core of this gospel is Christ crucified, buried, and raised from the dead (15:3-4). A tradition Paul passed along “of first importance.” While the adjective Paul uses in this verse can refer to something done first in a sequence, it often refers to something of the most significance, such as the “greatest commandment” (Matt 22:38). The word is used to describe the robe given to the Prodigal, the “most important robe” (Luke 15:22). “ἐν πρώτοις, which may indicate priority either in time or in importance—naturally the two may well coincide” (Barrett, 1 Corinthians, 336). Paul says: the “very first thing I chose to tell you about Jesus is that he was crucified, buried and raised from the dead.”
The core of the Gospel story is the crucifixion. Despite the fact most people in the Roman world did not speak of crucifixion in polite company (in the same way most Americans do not discuss lethal injection or electric chairs). The earliest preaching of the Gospel did not try to hide the fact that Christians worship a man executed by the Romans by means of crucifixion.
Jesus’ death is “for our sins.” This is a major difference between Jesus and his followers and Judaism, since from the very earliest preaching of the Apostles, Jesus is the Suffering Servant, whose death provides atonement for the sins of Israel. But this atonement is extended in the Pauline letters to all people who are “in Christ,” they are freed from bondage to sin, not simply the sins they have committed in the past.
Jesus was buried. It may seem strange to include the burial of Jesus as a core element of the Gospel, but since the problem Paul is addressing is the resurrection, his proper burial is an issue. It is possible someone could say Jesus was not buried so that his body could be stolen from a common grave.
Jesus rose to life on the third day. The phrase “on the third day” has some theological importance. In Hosea 6:2, the national revival of Israel is on the “third day.” This passage in Hosea refers to the resurrection of the nation of Israel, but the third day is often a “day of salvation.” On the other hand, there are many examples of important things happening “in the third day” in the Old Testament.
Paul twice adds the phrase, “according to the Scripture” to emphasize the plan of God in passion events. There is probably no single verse Paul has in mind, but the whole theology of the Hebrew Bible is assumed here. The imagery of the Exodus, the Passover Lamb, the Suffering Servant, Psalm 22, and other texts point forward to the suffering of Jesus. It is also important Paul places scripture ahead of the witnesses of the resurrection. Scripture is the first line of evidence; the eyewitnesses of the resurrection are secondary.
Paul presents he death of Jesus was a divinely ordained event which dealt with sin in a final and decisive way. Without the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, Paul will say, the Corinthians are still in their sin.