The Focus in 1 Corinthians
When Paul was writing to the Corinthians, he saw divisions and distractions throughout that church. So God used him to write a letter (1 Corinthians) to bring them back to God’s focus.
What was/is God’s focus?
the gospel…the cross of Christ…the word of the cross…Christ crucified(1 Cor. 1:17-18, 23)
In fact, later he says things like:
- “I decided to KNOW NOTHING among you EXCEPT Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2)
- “The gospel I preached to you…I delivered to you as of FIRST IMPORTANCE.” (1 Cor. 15:1-4)
Notice that the person and work of Christ is so central and important to the mission of God that Paul “decided” to only think and speak on that subject with the Corinthians. He calls it “of first importance.” And there’s only 1 thing that can be of first importance!
The Gospel Spelled Out
And, to be clear, Paul also clearly lays out the gospel in a very concise way in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4:
- Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3)
- He was buried (1 Cor. 15:4a)
- He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:4b)
- you are saved by this “if you hold fast” / “you believed” (1 Cor. 15:2)
A few things to note:
- The Gospel is God’s good news of reconciling sinful people with a holy God.
- It is “in accordance with the Scriptures.” In other words, the Bible’s account of the gospel is THE TRUE account.
- On God’s part: He came in human flesh as perfect, but then was killed, buried, and later resurrected (and ascended) — all for our sins
- On our part: we are saved from God’s wrath by “holding fast” to this gospel through belief
- Note: true biblical faith also assumes repentance (see Repentance is Necessary for Salvation)
Christ and the Gospel = The Theme of the Bible
Now that we’ve seen:
- Paul declares Christ and the gospel as prime and ultimate (1 Cor. 2:2; 1 Cor. 15:1-4)
- What the gospel is (1 Cor. 15:1-4)
It’s important to realize this is not an isolated message for 1 Corinthians.
Instead, this is the theme of the entire Bible. Consider:
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John (“The Gospels”) focus on Christ and the Gospel
- As “Gospels” they, too, relay the good news of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension to reconcile us to God through repentance and faith (in a much more expanded way than 1 Cor. 15:1-4).
- These give the story of Christ and His death, burial, resurrection, ascension.
- They are the center and fulcrum of the Bible story (with the Old Testament before them, and the New Testament after)
- According to Dr. Peter Williams (Warden/Principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge), it takes 9 hours for someone to read through all 4 gospels. Of that 9 hours, roughly 1/2 of that time is dedicated to the final week of Jesus’ earthly life (the part focusing on Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection). Thus, this “fulcrum” of the entire Bible story spends time on 2 things: Christ (His Person and Life) & The Gospel (His work in dying and resurrecting for our sins).
The entire Old Testament points forward to Christ and The Gospel
- Jesus Himself, after He resurrected, was able to show in the full Old Testament (“the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms”) how it foretold Him and the Gospel (Luke 24:44-47)
- In fact, virtually every major event of Jesus’ life (with special attention to his death and resurrection) was laid out in the Old Testament Scriptures. This is why you repeatedly see the gospels say things like, “This was to fulfill what was spoken,” (Matt. 13:35) and then they quote an Old Testament Scripture about a facet of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
- This is why in 1 Cor. 15, when it talks about the gospel (see above), it says these things happened, “in accordance with the Scriptures.” The “Scriptures” Paul is referencing was the Old Testament (since the New Testament was in the process of being written!). This means the Old Testament talks about the gospel. In fact, Heb. 4 says explicitly that the Old Testament people had the gospel preached to them.
- Further, when you read the Old Testament books, you’ll see a clear theme emerge: Judgment, followed by mercy/salvation that points to Jesus. Here are a few examples:
- Genesis: Begins with Adam and Eve judged for sin, and a whole mess of sin that culminates with the dastardly sin of the sons of Jacob selling their brother for pieces of silver. But, in the end, this Joseph who was given up for “dead” ends up being an exalted savior to the Gentiles and Jews! A clear picture of Jesus and the Gospel! (see Joseph & Christ).
- Exodus: Begins with Israel treated cruelly and in bondage to Egypt. Ends with them delivered from this oppression through the blood of the Passover Lamb (again, a clear picture of Jesus’ work in dying for our sins)!
- Isaiah: Remarkably, just as the Bible has 66 books, so Isaiah has 66 chapters. Even more, just as the Old Testament has 39 books (and the New Testament 27), so Isaiah has a focus on judgment in its first 39 chapters, and salvation/redemption in its last 27 chapters! On top of this, when the tone switches from judgment to mercy, we see the most amazing prophecies of Jesus (beginning with a “voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way” for Jesus/God — see Isaiah 40:3 and Mark 1:1-3). After this, we get to Isaiah 53 (often quoted in the New Testament) which spells out that, among other things, “He [Jesus] was pierced for our transgressions,” (Is. 53:5). Again, we see how the Old Testament keeps pointing forward to the startling reality of Jesus and His gospel.
- Daniel: We begin the book with a very low point in Israel’s history: the Babylonian captivity of God’s people (the Jews). But then, 70 years later, after the captivity is finished, we round the end of the book with God showing the exact time when He would send “Messiah the Prince” to, “finish the transgression…put an end to sin…atone for iniquity…” etc. (see Dan. 9). Spoiler alert: This happened exactly as predicted in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Once again, all points toward Jesus and the Gospel!
- Amos: Another example of this pattern is seen in Amos. Israel’s sins were so bad that God has very harsh judgments He is forced to mete out for them. But it culminates in God making “the sun go down at noon” and turning, “your feasts into mourning…like the mourning for an only son…” (Amos 8:9-10). Consider that for a moment. Where else do we see the sun become dark at noon, and a feast turn sad, and the loss of “an only son”? That’s right. This exactly is fulfilled in Jesus’ (God’s only son) crucifixion during the Passover feast.
- Malachi: The last book of the Old Testament. Like the others we looked at, Malachi begins with Israel in a terrible spiritual decline, with lots of sin and judgment. The judgment is so bad that God needs to come to mete out the judgment. How will He do this? “I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…he [God] will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Mal. 3:1-4:6). Note that the messenger prepares the way for God to come with judgment, and brings repentance and restoration before God comes with judgment. Well…These Scriptures are exactly ascribed to John the Baptist as the messenger preparing the way for Jesus/God (Mark 1:2; Luke 1:17; etc.). So then Jesus was the one who suddenly came, and even entered the temple with haste to judge what Israel was doing (on 2 occasions: at the beginning and end of His ministry: Did Jesus Cleanse the Temple Once or Twice?). And his final time of cleansing the temple is what ultimately led the authorities to put Him on the cross. And this brings the ULTIMATE PLOT TWIST…everything Malachi was foretelling of judgment to come, ended up coming just like He said. Only it fell on Jesus instead of us who deserved it, so that we could be redeemed. What an act of mercy and love!
- In all of this (and more that could be added) we see this picture of God continually pointing forward to this ultimate mercy/redemption after judging his people as sinful and deserving of condemnation. And the details of what this mercy/redemption will look like always and precisely matches JESUS AND THE GOSPEL. The Old Testament is a constant pointing forward to these things.
The New Testament Books Consistently Start by Pointing Back to Jesus and the Gospel
Just as the Old Testament pointed forward to Jesus and the Gospel, so the New Testament books consistently begin by pointing back (to remind and reinforce) the work of Jesus and the Gospel.
- Acts: This gives a history of the first 30 years of the church’s activity after Jesus died, resurrected, and ascended. Most of the focus is on all the preaching that takes place and makes it so, “the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily,” (Acts 19:20). What was the focus of all this preaching? I’m sure you guessed by now: Jesus and the Gospel.
- Romans: The book of Romans is the most complete and thorough diagram of what, exactly, the gospel is. This is the BEGINNING of the book (especially Romans 1-8). It takes until Chapter 12 before he gets into what we would call “life application” lessons.
- 1 Corinthians: We began this article showing that 1 Corinthians emphasizes Jesus and the gospel. Further, it is the beginning of the letter. Even before he gets into, “the matters about which you [the Corinthians] wrote,” (1 Cor. 7:1), he saw it important to FIRST start with teaching and bringing people back to Jesus and the Gospel. Then the “application” follows.
- Galatians: The entire letter of Galatians is an appeal to get the Galatian Christians firmly rooted in the true gospel (and counteract false gospels). Paul starts Galatians spelling this out in great detail, and really doesn’t stop pretty much the whole way through (tackling it from different angles). He leaves some “life application” elements at the end of the letter, but not until he has clearly set forth the gospel plainly.
- Ephesians: The first 3 chapters of Ephesians are a focus on Christ and the Gospel. Then he shows how they ought to walk out this gospel in life and conduct. And even this walking it out only happens by the power of the Spirit indwelling, which is the sign of us truly receiving the gospel (see Eph. 1:13).
- Colossians: In many ways this is a “sister” letter to Ephesians, reiterating the same rhythm and message in a slightly more condensed version. As such, the focus is clearly on Christ and the Gospel from the start. And from there you can walk out this faith by “Christ in you,” (Col. 1:27–i.e. the Holy Spirit indwelling), who is the evidence of your faith and the power behind you walking any holiness out.
- 1 Thessalonians: At the very beginning, Paul calls on them to remember that they are loved and chosen by God. Why? “Because our gospel came to you…” (1 Thes. 1:5). In other words, he gets them to consider again the gospel and their origin in the gospel. And everything flows from there.
- 2 Thessalonians: Like 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians begins with them considering their position in God and the ultimate hope they have in the final judgment (2 Thes. 1:10).
- 1 Timothy: In 1 Timothy, Paul begins by reminding them of his own testimony with the gospel: “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost…” (1 Tim. 1:15). He wants to make sure this gospel is well established amidst false doctrine, and that they will go forward with everything based on this gospel.
- 2 Timothy: like 1 Timothy, Paul begins by reminding of the true gospel (amidst false doctrine) and telling them to guard that. He then goes on in 1 Tim. 2 to more fully establish this gospel, and continues to warn them against side arguments that derail from this gospel.
- Hebrews: The whole point of Hebrews is bringing them back to a true and full trusting of the gospel (and not go back to trusting in Jewish works for salvation).
- 1 Peter: In the beginning of this letter, he explains how they have been born again through receiving this gospel and that this should give them a fixed hope that will then lead them into walking out their faith.
- 2 Peter: At the beginning of this letter, he talks about adding to your faith virtue, and knowledge, etc. So, at first glance, it might seem that it’s not establishing the readers in the gospel first, like other N.T. letters. But then we read, “whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having FORGOTTEN that HE WAS CLEANSED from his former sins,” (2 Pet. 1:9). Did you catch that? You must keep remembering the gospel – that you were cleansed from your sins. Only then will you be able to grow. The pattern of beginning by looking to Jesus and His finished gospel work persists.
- 1 John: Likewise, 1 John begins talking about the blood of Jesus cleansing us from all sin (1 John 1:7). And later, in charting out different stages of Christian development, he begins by reminding, “little children” to make sure they know that their “sins are forgiven” (1 John 2:12).
- Jude: Jude begins by saying that he was hoping to talk about their “common salvation,” but instead wants them to “content for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints,” (Jude 1:3). In other words, the point of Jude was originally going to be a shared understanding of the gospel. But now it’s changed to a defense for the true gospel/faith against false teachers. In either case, Jesus and the gospel still get the focus.
- Revelation: And finally, in the final book of the N.T. (and whole Bible), we are given a revelation of Jesus. In fact, the book begins by a vision of Jesus (Rev. 1). And each of the 7 letters begins by calling people back to a portion of this vision of Jesus (Rev. 2-3). And right before the vision occurs, when we first are reading about who this Jesus is, we are told He is the one who “loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood,” (Rev. 1:5). And from his finished gospel work, we have become kings and priests (Rev. 1:6). And He persists as the Lamb who was slain throughout the book of Revelation, constantly bringing our attention back to Jesus and The Gospel.
- Believe it or not, I could have shown more! But I hope you can see that this is truly the crux and foundation of all the Bible. Just as the Old Testament pointed forward to what transpires in the gospel, the New Testament points us back to this work. In either case, God is calling our attention to Jesus and The Gospel / “Him Crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). And much of the rest of the Bible is unpacking the meaning and depth and application of Jesus and the Gospel. All is gain when we keep our vision there. All is loss when we don’t.
Christ and the Gospel = The Only Foundation
As we’ve seen thus far, the Person and Work of Jesus is the focus and aim of all Scripture.
It is not just a thing to check off that you know. It is a thing to focus on and know deeper and wider.
Further, it is Jesus and the Gospel which lays a foundation for us upon which anything else we build must stand. In fact, after Paul declares to the Corinthians that he only wants to know Jesus and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). He tells them:
No one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.1 Cor. 3:11
And, from the whole context of 1 Corinthians, Paul doesn’t just mean Jesus detached from the Gospel. But, in actuality, the foundation is Jesus AND the gospel (1 Cor. 2:2; 15:1-4; etc.).
It is true that a foundation is not the whole house. There is more to build on the house. But every SINGLE thing you build from there will all rest entirely on that foundation. It will all derive from that foundation. And anything that you try to build without first well-establishing that foundation will be on shifting sand.
This is why the Bible tells us things like:
- Only those focused on the forgiveness Jesus gave at the gospel can forgive others (Matt. 18)
- Knowing how much you are forgiven directly impacts your ability to love (Luke 7)
- We can be reconciled with others because we look back at the work of the gospel (Eph. 3)
- We can be generous because we first see that Christ gave up all his wealth to die a sinners death (2 Cor. 8-9)
- We can consider others as worthy of our time and love because Christ did that to sinners like us (Phil. 2)
- We can be zealous for sexual purity because God lives in us (and therefore lays claim on our bodies) as a result of us receiving the gospel (1 Cor. 6-7)
- We can love and respect husbands and wives because we see what Christ did for His church (his bride) in the gospel (Eph. 5)
- We can suffer injustice nobly by looking to how Jesus suffered when He unjustly was crucified (1 Pet. 2)
- We don’t grow in virtue, knowledge, love, etc. because our eyes have left the gospel (2 Pet. 1)
- And on and on and on and on….
I hope you see this. This is why it’s important for Paul to wait 11 chapters before going into how to walk out our faith in Romans 12. It becomes empty and powerless and completely missing the point if it does not derive clearly from the gospel.
TRULY, we must ALL seek (like Paul) to know nothing except “Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
That is: Christ & the Gospel is THE POINT.