" FIRST OF ALL . . . CHRIST DIED "
"I DELIVERED unto you first of all," says St. Paul in the First Epistle to the Corinthian Church, "that which I also received, that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures." The attentive reader will note from the context (as Dr. Moffatt does most emphatically in his translation) that this is the heart of Paul's message, the centre of his teaching, his one and only gospel. In the translation mentioned, the word gospel is repeated four times in introducing the statement of what the good news really is. Paul says he received it not primarily and only from members of the primitive Church, but by direct revelation (Gal. i. 15-19). That Church, therefore, as well as Paul himself, believed that the first and fundamental truth of Christianity was the death of Christ for our sins; and Paul must have received and taught this truth within seven years—according to other chronologies, within even a shorter period—after the death of Jesus.
The Greek word translated "first of all" can also be rendered "before all," or at the forefront of all truth. The same phrase is used in the Septuagint where Jacob places the two maid-servants and their children in the first rank (Gen. xxxiii. 2) and where David promises a high reward (2 Sam. v. 8) to "whosoever smiteth the Jebusites first."
The death of Christ on the Cross is to Paul of the first importance and the weightiest article of his faith. It is fundamental. It is the keystone of the arch, the cornerstone of the temple of truth. That this is true is evident from the place the death of Christ occupies in the Scriptures, in the apostolic message, in the liturgies of the two sacraments as administered by all branches of the Church, and in the earliest as well as the latest Christian hymnody. The evidence is cumulative and overwhelming. The Cross is not only the universal symbol of Christianity, it is its universal and unmistakable message. It is the very heart of the gospel—the word quick and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword; for nothing convicts of sin like the Cross. There we can see "our secret sins in the light of His countenance" whose eyes are as a flame of fire. Listen to Bishop Lancelot Andrewes as he pours out his heart in private devotion before the Cross:
"Thou who didst deign that Thy glorious head should be wounded:
Forgive thereby whatsoever by the senses of my head I have sinned;
That Thy holy hands should be pierced:
Forgive thereby whatever I have done amiss
By unlawful touch, or unlawful act;
That Thy precious side should be opened:
Forgive thereby whatever I have offended
By lawless thoughts in the ardour of passion;
That Thy blessed feet should be riven:
Forgive thereby whatever I have done
By the means of feet swift to evil;
That Thy whole body should be extended:
Forgive thereby whatever iniquity I have committed
By the help of any of my members.
And I too, O Lord, am wounded in soul;
Behold the multitude, the length, the breadth, the depth of my wounds;
And by Thine heal mine."
The Cross of Christ is the searchlight of God. It reveals God's love and man's sin; God's power and man's helplessness, God's holiness and man's pollution. As the altar and propitiation are "first of all" in the Old Testament, so the Cross and the Atonement are "first of all" in the New. There is a straight line from every point in the circumference of a circle to the centre. So the Old Testament and the New Testament doctrine of salvation in all its wide circumference and with all it includes of a new heart and a new society, and a new heaven and a new earth, leads back in a straight line to the centre of all—The Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world.
Consider the place the story of the Crucifixion occupies in the New Testament. It is mentioned in' every book save in three short epistles, Philemon and the Second and Third of John. The synoptic gospels devote more space proportionately to it than to any other aspect of Christ's life or teaching. Matthew (not to speak of the many passages where Christ's death is foretold) relates the tragedy in two long chapters of one hundred and forty-one verses. Mark gives one hundred and nineteen verses to the story; two chapters and they are the longest out of sixteen. Luke also devotes two long chapters to describe the arrest and crucifixion. Nearly one half of John's Gospel deals with passion week.
In the Book of Acts all the preaching centres in the death and resurrection of our Lord. This is the "Good News." "He showed Himself alive after His passion" (i. 3). The climax of Peter's sermon at Pentecost was Jesus "delivered up by the determinate counsel and the foreknowledge of God," crucified and slain "by the hand of lawless men." "This Jesus whom ye crucified God hath made both Lord and Christ" (ii. 36). Again, in the temple, Peter has the same message: "Ye asked for a murderer . . . and killed the Prince of Life." "All the prophets," Peter claims, "foreshadowed that Christ would suffer," but "God raised up His servant and sent Him to bless you in turning away every one of you from your iniquities" (iii. 18, 26). The next day he came back to the theme, "Jesus of Nazareth whom ye crucified" (iv. 10). In the first ritual prayer of the early Church (iv. 27) there is again reference to the passion and death of "Thy holy servant Jesus." The result of such a message is expressed in words that leave no doubt as to its content: "Ye have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man's blood upon us" (v. 28). But the apostles answered, "Jesus whom ye slew, hanging Him on a tree . . . God exalted to be a Prince and a Saviour." Stephen's defence had for its peroration the death of Jesus; followed by his own swift martyrdom (vii. 51-54). Philip opened his mouth and, from Isaiah liii, he preached the death of Christ to the Ethiopian eunuch as the good tidings (viii. 35). Cornelius received the same message about One "whom they slew, hanging Him on a tree, whom God raised up the third day" (x. 40). Paul at Antioch tells of Jesus "who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried and on the third day rose again from the dead" (Acts xiii. 28, 29). At Thessalonica for three sabbaths Paul reasoned from the Old Testament Scriptures "that it behoved the Christ to suffer" and rise again (xvii. 13). At Athens he preached the death and resurrection of Christ (xvii. 31); at Corinth he "determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified." He uses as synonyms for the gospel, "The word of the Cross" (1 Cor. i. 18) or "the word of Reconciliation" (2 Cor. v. 19). Festus describes Paul's message as being concerned about "one Jesus who was dead and whom Paul affirmed to be alive" (Acts xxv. 19). In his defence before Festus, Paul says that he has no other message, "to small and great, and saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses did say should come, how that the Christ must suffer and how that He first, by the resurrection of the dead, should proclaim light both to the people and to the Gentiles" (xxvi. 22, 23).
In the Epistles of Paul we are embarrassed by the wealth of evidence and the abundance of proof that his one message was the Cross and the Atonement. He had been preaching this good news for fifteen years before any of his New Testament epistles were written. We cannot discover any change of emphasis between the earliest and the latest epistles in this respect. It is the heart of his message to the Romans as to the Thessalonians. To the Galatian Church he mentions in his prologue that "Jesus Christ gave Himself for our sins," and (after a few sentences) he bursts out with indignation: "Though we or an angel from heaven preach a gospel to you contravening the gospel which we preached let him be anathema." That Calvary and not Bethlehem is the focus of Paul's gospel is evident from all his epistles. The incarnation was in order that there might be an atonement. The Cross is supreme and crucial to God, to man, and to the universe. "While we were yet sinners Christ died for us all." "Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died." "We preach Christ crucified . . . because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men." "The Church of God (is) purchased by His blood." All Christians when they drink the Cup are "to proclaim the Lord's death till He come." "Far be it from me to glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world hath been crucified unto me and I unto the world." Christ is "the Beloved in whom we have our redemption through His blood." This is the mystery of the ages, the manifold wisdom of God, and revealed to principalities and powers through the Church. Those who are "the enemies of the Cross of Christ," Paul tells us with tears, glory in their shame and their end is perdition. In all things Christ must have the pre-eminence because He is our redemption and the forgiveness of our sins (Col. i. 18) through the blood of His Cross. The Cross is the centre of the universe and of history. It will yet witness the reconciliation of all things upon the earth or things in the heavens through His blood (Col. i. 20).
In the Epistle to the Hebrews the death of Christ (Himself the priest, the victim and the altar) is so prominent that we need give no references. He is the great high priest "once at the end of the ages manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself." The blood of Jesus is the blood of the covenant. Jesus is the author and the finisher of our faith because He endured the Cross. His blood of sprinkling speaketh better than that of Abel—it is the blood of an eternal covenant, shed by the great shepherd of the sheep.
Peter's epistles echo his earliest preaching and are full of references to the sufferings of Christ "who his own self bare our sins in his body on the tree . . . by whose stripes we were healed" (1 Pet. ii. 24). Finally, in John's epistle and in the Revelation, the Cross is still supreme. Through it Jesus Christ is "the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world." "He laid down His life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." "Unto Him that loved us and loosed us from our sins by his blood . . . be the glory and the dominion for ever and ever, Amen." "Behold He cometh with clouds and every eye shall see Him, and they that pierced Him."
The two sacraments that are accepted by the Eastern and Western Churches both have direct reference to the death of Christ for our sins. This is evident not only from the words of their institution in the New Testament but from the many liturgies used in their administration. Here, again, we may say that "first of all" they teach Christ's atoning death. Baptism is the rite of initiation into the Christian Church. The New Testament nowhere speaks of unbaptized Christians, and these primitive believers knew what Paul meant when he said that all those "who were baptized were baptized into His death." The remission of sins and baptism were closely associated in their minds with the water and the blood that flowed from Christ's riven side. Both sacraments were intended to convey the message of the gospel in unmistakable symbolism. As long as they hold their place in the Church they are, in spite of all that has been added by ritual and superstition, a witness to the saving significance of Christ's death, its vicarious nature, its necessity, and its crucial character. The early Church "continued steadfast in the breaking of the bread" because by it they desired to proclaim Christ's death and the forgiveness of sins through His blood. It is the communion of His body and blood (1 Cor. x. i6), the sharing of His spirit (1 Cor. xiii. 13), the remission of sins (Matt. xxvi. 28), the blotting out of debts (Col. ii. 14.), the cleansing of all stains (Heb. ix. 14). This made the breaking of bread so precious to the early Church and to all the Churches for nineteen centuries.
When we turn from liturgy to hymnology we have the same testimony. In the earliest Latin and Greek hymns, in those of the Coptic and Armenian Churches, as well as in those of the Churches of the Reformation, the Cross is "first of all," and the passion of our Lord the inspiration. It is in the hymns of the Church that we find a unity and a depth of theology that is sometimes absent even in the creeds.
"Worthy is the Lamb that hath been slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing." The Lamb is in the midst of the throne. Every created thing joins in the Hallelujah Chorus.
Little children in many lands and languages sing the very heart of the gospel:—
"Jesus loves me, He who died
Heaven's gate to open wide.
He will wash away my sin,
Let His little child come in."
It is the same message that the great mystic, St. Bernard, put in glorious lines:
"Propter mortem quam tulisti
Quando pro me defecisti
Cordis mei cor dilectum
In te meum fer affectum."
What a large proportion of the hymns of the Church are passion hymns or an interpretation of the atonement made on the Cross! Who can forget the rendering into so many languages of "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden" or the pathos of its melody as sung by German Christians? The Stabat Mater Dolorosa belongs not to the Latin Church but to all true believers who have stood beside Mary at the Cross. "Just as I am without one plea," "When I survey the wondrous Cross," "There is a fountain filled with blood," "Rock of ages cleft for me,"—and many others familiar to us all, make Christ's death the great theme. "Jesus paid it all," "What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus."
"Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy Cross I cling;
Naked come to Thee for dress,
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Saviour, or I die."
If Jesus of Nazareth were merely man and not, as He is, the Son of God and our Saviour, His tragic death would still be the greatest event in human history. The wealth of detail given in the contemporaneous records of His suffering and crucifixion; the dreadful accompaniments in the realm of nature; the seven words from the Cross; the effect on those who saw it and on all ages and all nations,—all these clearly indicate its universal and cosmic import. We must not shift the emphasis. The supreme event in the life of Jesus, and to Jesus Himself, was His death on the Cross for sin. The words of James Denney are none too strong: "If the atonement, quite apart from precise definitions of it, is anything to the mind it is everything. It is the most profound of all truths and the most creative. It determines more than anything else our conception of God, of man, of history, and even of nature. It determines them, for we must bring them all in some way into accord with it. It is the inspiration of all thought, the key in the last resort to all suffering. The Atonement is a reality of such a sort that it can make no compromise. For the modern mind, therefore, as for the ancient, the attraction and the repulsion of Christianity are concentrated in the same point. The Cross of Christ is man's only glory or it is his final stumbling-block."
"The Christian religion is a matter of living, not of mere intellectual knowledge; and 'the just shall live by faith.' Yet it is not without its value to have the truth of the concomitant circumstances demonstrated. One must remember that Christianity did not originate in a lie, and that we can and ought to demonstrate this, as well as believe it. The account which it gives of its own origin is susceptible of being tested on the principles of historical study, and through the progress of discovery the truth of that account can be, and has been, in great part proved. There is, however, more to do. The evidence is there if we look for it." — SIR WILLIAM M. RAMSEY in Recent Discovery and the Trust-worthiness of the New Testament.