For many of us, “gospel” means the four Gospels. Our word “gospel” is derived from the Old English word “God spel,” which means “good news.” Paul used the word “gospel,” as he does in today’s second reading (1 Cor 15:1-11), before the four “Gospels” were written.
Rather than teach us through the accounts of what Jesus did and said, as the Evangelists would do, Paul gives us the heart of the “good news”: Jesus’ death and resurrection and what they mean for believers.
The First Letter to the Corinthians was written between 55 and 57, at least thirteen years before the earliest Gospel, which was Mark, written around 70. In today’s passage, we have the earliest testimonies to the resurrection of Christ.
Paul asserts: “Through it, you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you … for I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received… that Christ died for our sins … was buried … that He was raised on the third day” (1 Cor. 15:2 -4).
We are being saved by holding onto our faith in Jesus’ death and Resurrection. Furthermore, Jesus’ death was an offering of love to the Father on our behalf. Jesus’ love for His Father cleanses us of our sins: “Justified by faith, we have access to that grace in which we stand” (Rom 5:1).
Paul believes that the good news is so powerful that if his listeners hold onto it, they will “stand firm.” Does this still apply to us almost two millennia later? The Resurrection causes us to “stand firm” because it demonstrates that God has power even over death and thus our lives and our deaths are in God’s hands.
Thomas Aquinas understands Paul to mean, “You should hold fast to that, i.e., keep in your memory what I delivered to you as of first importance …” How, here and now, do we “hold fast” to the message that Jesus has died and is risen?
According to Paul, his “Gospel” is not his own opinion, “For I received from the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 11:23): “I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received” (1Cor 15:3).
Thomas Aquinas reminds us of those things that Paul received: “The things he received and delivered are four, namely, the death, burial, resurrection and appearance of Christ.”
Since most people have heard of Jesus’ death and resurrection for many years, we can’t imagine how startling it must have been when the apostles first announced these events. Thomas Aquinas considers that was the effect of the apostles’ preaching was their greatest miracle:
…the greatest of all miracles, that by a certain few an infinite multitude of men were converted to the faith, rich men by poor men preaching poverty; by men of one language preaching things that surpass reason, wise men and philosophers have been converted: ‘Their voice goes out through all the earth’ (Ps 19:4)… the apostles by dying brought others to the faith… (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 890).
Paul relates Jesus’ death to our sins: “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3). The First Letter of Peter also relates Jesus’ death to our sins: “Christ died once and for all for our sins, the just for the unjust” (1 Pt 3:18).
Thomas points out that Jesus’ death wasn’t by chance or primarily due to the violence of others but indications among the prophets incline us to believe that His death was intended by God. The “suffering servant,” found in Isaiah affirmed that an innocent death would atone for human guilt: “He was stricken for the transgressions of my people” (Is 53:8). Isaiah predicted, “Like a lamb he was led away to the slaughter” (Is 53:7). In a similar way, Jeremiah asserted: “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter” (Jer 11:19).
Although there were human agents who killed Him, the fact that Jesus approached His death freely, is seen in each of the Gosples: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests” (Matt 20:18).
Why does Paul not only remind us of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but also includes His burial (1 Cor 15:3-4)? Biblical scholars explain that Paul refers to the burial as an indication that Jesus was really dead.
Thomas likewise thinks that the mention of the burial was, “to show the truth of Christ’s death. For the evident sign of one’s death is burial, secondly, to show the truth of the resurrection… to induce them to believe in the resurrection, and this seems more difficult, that a buried person should arise…” (Commentary on First Corinthians, 896).
Jesus’ appearances to some of His disciples verified that He was risen. Paul names some of those to whom Jesus appeared. Thomas explains, “…the appearances of Christ were not made to all in common, but to certain special persons: ‘God raised Him up on the third day and make Him manifest not to all the people’ (Ac 11:40). The reason for this was to preserve order in the Church in that through certain special persons belief in the resurrection should reach others” (Commentary on First Corinthians, 899).
Paul includes himself among those to whom the risen Christ appeared, even though the appearance was not immediately after the Resurrection but three years later.
Paul admits that he is “the least of the apostles because I persecuted the Church of God” (1 Cor 15:9). Paul’s honesty about himself reminds Thomas of the words of Sirach: “The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself so you will find favor with God” (Sir 3:18). Paul affirms his reliance on God, “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor 3:5).
Paul considers that he is “not fit to be called an apostle” (1 Cor 15:9). In a similar way, in the Letter to the Galatians, Paul confesses, “I persecuted the church of God violently” (Gal 1:13). The First Letter to Timothy likewise admits “I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted Him” (1 Tim 1:13).
However, Paul attributes his transformation to God’s grace: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me has not been ineffective” (1 Cor 15:10). The Letter to the Ephesians attributes to God what Paul has become: “Of this gospel I was made a minister” (Eph 3:7).
Paul strove to cooperate with this grace he was given, “Lest somehow I should be running in vain” (Gal 2:2). In the Letter to the Romans, Paul attributes to the Holy Spirit his effectiveness as a proclaimer of the Gospel, “… by the power of the Holy Spirit from Jerusalem to Illyricum [part of the Balkan region] I have fully preached the Gospel of Christ” (Rom 15:19).
We know not only from Paul’s own letters but also from the Acts of the Apostles, that Paul received some criticism even from some in the Christian community. Nevertheless, Paul asserts: “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me” (1 Cor 15:10). Paul realizes that he had experienced greater difficulties than others: “With far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings” (2 Cor 11:23).
Thomas points out that Paul realizes “this was not from himself alone but from the instinct and help of the Holy Spirit” Paul credits God’s grace: “… not I, however, but the grace of God that is within me” (1 Cor 15:10).
With regard to the power of grace, Thomas recalls the words of Isaiah, “You have wrought for us all our works” (Is 26:12). Paul himself encourages the Philippians to have the same confidence in God’s power: “God is at work in you both to will and to work” (Phil 2:13). Thomas explains that God not only gives us grace but He enables us to use the graces well, “God not only infuses but He also moves us to use the graces infused well, and this is called cooperating grace” (Commentary on First Corinthians, 909).
Paul recognizes that he is not the only preacher of Christ, “Whether it be I or they, so we preached and so you believed” (1 Cor 15:11). The consistency of belief in the early church was an argument for its truth. We take for granted that the parts of the New Testament are in overall agreement with each other, complementing each other. We may forget that they had different authors, arose from different churches and locations, and were written over a period of years. Paul affirmed, “We have the same spirit of faith” (2 Cor 4:13).
Thomas points out: “… the efficacy of preaching comes to the apostles from one source, i.e., from the grace of God. As if to say: whether I preach or they, i.e., the apostles, as we preach, we have done this by the help and strength of God’s grace; and so even you have believed, namely, inspired by the Holy Spirit and grace of God without which we can do nothing: ‘Without me you can do nothing’ (Jn. 15:5)” (Commentary on First Corinthians, 910).
Paul’s reflections upon himself illustrate his message. The power of God raised Jesus from the dead. The power of God, grace, transformed Paul from being a violent persecutor to a firm believer in Jesus and preacher: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me has not been ineffective” (1 Cor 15:10). In a similar way, God can act in our lives no matter what our mistakes have been in the past if we hold fast to the power of Jesus’ death and Resurrection.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
The quotations from St. Thomas’ Commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians are taken from the website: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/