“and he was seen by Cephas, then the Twelve.” (1 Corinthians 15:5)
Paul goes on to point out that not only was Jesus raised from the dead, but there are many people who are witnesses to the fact that he rose. What is interesting is the way he organizes and lists the groups of folks who witnessed Jesus. He begins in this verse by speaking of “Cephas” and “the Twelve.” Cephas, of course, is better known by his Greek name, Peter, and the Twelve refer to the close fellowship of Apostles that followed Jesus during his earthly ministry. Yet, we need to look a little more closely to see what is going on in this statement.
It is worth noting two difficulties that people sometimes have with the mention of Peter, here. First, Peter is one of the Twelve, and is not his separate mention being redundant? Second, was it not Mary Magdalene who first saw Jesus risen (John 20:11-18)? Yes, both of these questions are accurate, but they miss the intent of what Paul is doing. Peter, or Cephas, was a prominent leader in the church, and his name would have been familiar to the Corinthians. But more importantly, Peter is the one who had denied Jesus three times (and later been reinstated three times as well).
On the first Easter morning, when the women had gone up to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, they found it empty! And on that morning, two angels appeared to them, one giving them instructions. And the instructions were to go tell “the disciples and Peter” (Mark 16:7). When people are guilty of great misdeeds against those they love, oftentimes they make themselves outcasts from the fellowship that they have failed. Peter was probably at about the lowest point that a human being could be on that Easter morning. The message of the angel was to say, “And make sure that Peter knows what has happened!” Oh, what a day that must have been! There is nothing so sweet as the promise of forgiveness.
Paul brings this out for the purpose of highlighting that Peter was not only reinstated to fellowship, but also to leadership. Throughout this letter, Paul has written some fairly harsh words toward the Corinthian church. They had become divided, were spiritually immature, and were emphasizing flashy gifts (even at the point of faking those gifts) instead of love. Yet, Paul is reminding them that there is redemption in Jesus’ name. Just as Peter turned from his sin and sought forgiveness, so too, the Corinthians can do the same.
The second point of contention is that it was Mary Magdalene who first interacted with the risen Lord. Paul never says that Jesus appeared to Peter before anyone else; rather Paul simply jumps to the point in time where Jesus appears to Peter and the rest of the Twelve. Secondly, a woman’s testimony was not allowed in Roman courts of law (or Jewish). Paul is not degrading women by not including Mary here, but he is making a case to the Corinthians for the reality of Christ’s resurrection, and he does not want to compromise his case before those in Corinth who may yet be questioning the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Because of this, Mary is not mentioned.
Paul is pointing out to the Corinthians that they can place their trust in the doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection because of the faithful witness of others. In the following verses, Paul will go on to say that there are more than 500 who witnessed the resurrected Christ. Friends, how many witnesses do we need? On the word of one or two, we may reserve judgment, but on the word of the witness of 500, if we still reserve judgment, we have moved from being prudent to just being stubborn. Friends, you too are presented with this witness to the resurrection of Christ; will you accept their witness as corroborating evidence that Jesus Christ did rise? Then live with confidence that if you are in him, you, too will rise on the last day.