James and the Apostles (1 Corinthians 15:7)
“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.
Appearances (1 Corinthians 15:5)
“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.