“Then, he was seen by over five-hundred brethren at one time, of whom, many still remain even now, yet some have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:6)
The Apostle John begins to bring his gospel to a close with the statement that Jesus did many other things that were not recorded in his book (John 20:30); here we have Paul relating one of those things to us. At the time of Pentecost, there were 120 who had gathered together in fellowship and devoted themselves to prayer. Of course, after Pentecost, the church exploded in its size rapidly. Thus, the instance that Paul is referring to had to have taken place some time after the time of Pentecost (for there were not yet 500 brethren), but the specific details are uncertain.
The fact is, though, that Jesus did appear to this group of more than 500 believers—note that the word Paul uses here is a˙delfoi/ß (adelphois), which literally means “brothers,” but when used in this context, Paul consistently uses this term to refer to the fellowship of believers—though we also do not know the exact reason why Jesus chose to make this appearance. Regardless, the emphasis that Paul is making here is once again on the reliability of Jesus’ resurrection. Paul is saying, don’t take my word for it, look, he appeared to Peter and the twelve and he has appeared to more than 500 people—most of whom are still alive. Go ask them!
One thing that amazes me about our culture is its amazing demand for proof when it comes to matters of the Christian religion. Thousands will flock to shrines where supposedly some tribal deity made its appearance, and do so only on the testimony of one or two people (usually who were under the influence of hallucinatory drugs at the time). Millions of Muslims flock to Mecca each year to kiss a rock that was supposedly sent by Allah. Millions of Roman Catholics will flock to various churches where one or two people supposedly witnessed a statue cry blood or to touch something that is supposed to be the finger bone of one of the saints. Yet, these same people, when confronted with the Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection, will reserve judgment. Paul was reminding the Corinthians of all of the proof that was out there.
If we look back through church history, it would seem that two of the earliest heresies of the church were heresies surrounding the denial of Jesus’ return (see 2 Peter 3:4) and the denial of Jesus’ death and resurrection (see 1 John 4:2). How quickly people fall into those age-old traps over and over again. If a lawyer were to bring 500 reliable witnesses through a courtroom today, the judge would have no choice but to admit that their testimony was true and reliable—why is it that so many people are so quick to discredit the many witnesses to the truth? Loved ones, stand upon the truth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—it is a fact, and you can have complete confidence in it. And then, by the way you live, proclaim to those around you that Jesus Christ is alive and at work in the lives of his people.
“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.