“Then he was seen by James, next by all of the apostles.” (1 Corinthians 15:7)
There is some discussion amongst scholars as to just who these other “apostles” are, given that Paul has already made mention of “the twelve” (verse 5). It is fairly clear that the James mentioned here is James the half-brother of our Lord (see context in Galatians 1, for example) who wrote the letter that bears his name. But, if the “twelve” have already been mentioned, who are these apostles and is James one of them? Oceans of ink have been spilled debating this subject.
The term ajpo/vstoloß (apostolos), from which we get the term “apostle,” refers to someone who is an emissary or an envoy of another. The apostle is given the authority to speak and act with the authority of the one who sent them. It was a commonly used term in ancient times and is found throughout extra-Biblical as well as Biblical literature.
Yet, Jesus seemed to have appropriated this term in a special way. He called the original twelve disciples to himself and renamed them “apostles” (Mark 3:14). We also know that the office of Apostle was never meant to be a continuing office, given that by the time we reach the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), we see elders and apostles discussing together the issues of the church. Also, much later on, by the time we reach 1 Peter 5:1, Peter refers to himself as a “fellow elder.”
So, what is going on here? I want to suggest two uses of the term “apostle”—one with a capital “A” and one with a lower case “a.” The “Apostles” were the 11 original ones which Jesus called and commissioned (Judas not included), plus Paul. Matthias replaced Judas, but was not called personally by Christ for the task of Apostle. Paul was called by Christ and sent by Christ as well. These Apostles are those who were sent out on the direct authority of Christ to build his church. The “apostles,” then were those commissioned by the Church for her work. They carry the direct authority of the church, not of Christ. Though there are many in modern scholarship who would disagree with this distinction, assuming this is an accurate definition of the term, “apostles,” than Paul is speaking in this passage of those who have been sent specifically by the church.
Either way, what should we learn from this passage? Once again, God is consistent in witnessing his glory to mankind. Jesus appeared to these men to encourage them and to proclaim his resurrection to them. Jesus could have limited his appearance to only the twelve, but Jesus interacted with over 500 people to offer them concrete proof that he was who he said he was—even in appearing before his half-brother who was not a follower of Christ until after his death and resurrection.
Friends, we may not have the benefit of a personal visitation from the risen Lord to anchor our faith, but we do have scripture, which was attested to by those who saw Jesus for themselves. And the testimony we are given in scripture is not limited to the witness of a handful, but it is built on the witness of hundreds. Loved ones, cling to the scriptures, do not compromise them, and study them as you would study any other history book—in fact, study them more than a history book, for they are God’s words spoken through inspired writers—they are truth and life—and those who knew Jesus more clearly than you or I have blessed us with them.