1 Corinthians 15:5-11
March 17, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 17:52 in the audio file.
Or, Reminders of the Many Resurrection Witnesses
The death and resurrection of Christ is the center of God’s work, and the resurrection in particular puts everything that happens to us now into perspective. Without the resurrection we are hoping in vain and working in vain; preaching (and listening to preaching) is certainly pointless. In light of the resurrection we have all confidence to spend and be spent for Christ’s sake.
Resurrection dominates 1 Corinthians 15. “Some,” whoever exactly they are, had begun to question the resurrection. Paul addresses them and begins to make arguments to them in verse 12. In the first 11 verses he is reminding the church of the gospel, he’s reminding them of their common ground. He wasn’t telling them a new story, nor a make-believe story. He delivered to them as of first importance the gospel message.
I explained last week that I think the message involves two main points (verses 3-5): Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures and Christ was raised from the dead on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. There are two additional actions, He was buried and He appeared. I think both of these corroborate a respective event. He died, and was so dead that they buried Him. He rose again, and was so alive that many witnesses could testify to having seen Him alive.
This is where we left off in verse 5. There are six different witnesses to whom Christ appeared in verses 5-8, at which point Paul talks a little more about himself and his place in this list in verses 9-10, before returning to tie a bow on the reminders of the message in verse 11. The verb appeared appears four times in four consecutive verses, with two instances assumed.
I’m not planning to take us back to the Scriptural records of each of these appearances, mostly because Paul himself doesn’t do that, and also because there isn’t a Scriptural record for some of these except than in this passage. But as we are reminded about the many witnesses I do want to comment on why Paul chose these witnesses to corroborate the resurrection.
Most significantly missing from this list are the women, such as the two Mary’s, and it was some of the women who were actually first to see the risen Lord according to the Gospel accounts. That means Paul wasn’t being exhaustive, he wasn’t listing every single individual or episode of Jesus’ appearances. So there must be something important for the ones he does mention.
There is more about Jesus predicting that Peter would deny Him before Jesus’ crucifixion than there is about Jesus appearing to him after His resurrection. Peter saw Jesus later in the day of resurrection with the other apostles who were gathered together (John 20:19-23), though Peter had run to see the empty tomb earlier in the day (John 20:3-10). It may be that Christ appeared to Peter before that evening (Luke 24:34). We also know about an extended conversation that Jesus had with Peter about feeding the sheep (John 21:15-19).
Paul regularly calls Simon Cephas (1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:22; 9;5), meaning “rock,” the Aramaic name that is translated as “Peter” in Greek. Jesus called Simon “Cephas” (John 1:42). Peter was the outspoken leader of the disciples. Had Peter not seen Jesus, Peter would have been upset, and he would have raised a stink much more than Thomas did. Paul considered Peter as the apostle “entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised” (Galatians 2:7), and no list of witnesses would be complete without him.
Closely connected to Peter were the original Twelve. We know that actually only eleven (see Mark 16:14) of the Twelve could have seen the resurrected Christ because Judas hanged himself on the day Christ was crucified (Matthew 27:5). But “the Twelve” was a nickname, a monicker given to this original group of Jesus’ followers (see Matthew 26:14, 20; Mark 3:14, and more).
Paul will refer to “all the apostles” in verse 7, so there is something unique about these Twelve disciples whom Jesus named apostles (Luke 6:13). They had lived with Jesus for three years, traveling with Him and being with Him, and were commissioned to ministry by Him. Other than Jesus’ own mother and brothers, no other men could have been more able to corroborate that it was Christ Himself risen from the dead.
The resurrection wasn’t corroborated by only a small group but by a large one. If the Twelve would have conspired to lie together about a false resurrection, it would be much harder to convince them and some five hundred brothers at one time. This is the only mention of such an appearance in the New Testament, but the way Paul mentions it (and qualifies it) he seems to think the Corinthians already knew about it. The word translated “at one time” could mean a couple different things, but the point appears to be that Jesus didn’t just show Himself to five hundred individuals who then found each other to tell their version of MeToo, but that Jesus appeared before 500 men who were together. They had the same story because they saw the same thing, not because they all had the same hallucination.
And Paul says most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. In other words, if the Corinthians were having doubts about the message of resurrection, then there were plenty of witnesses to cross examine.
Paul doesn’t say which James, but there’s good reason to think that this is the James who was the half-brother of Jesus, the one who was one of the pillars of the church in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9). Now we’ve got Jesus’ closest disciple, His most intimate circle of disciples, a broad crowd of disciples, and even one from His own family.
The definition of apostles is important, and the Bible itself tells us the qualifications. There were more than Twelve identified, including Matthias who was chosen to replace Judas, along with Paul, and a few others such as Barnabas (Acts 14:14), James (Galatians 1:19), and perhaps Silvanus and Timothy (1 Thessalonians 2:6). One of the requirements to be an apostle was to see the risen Lord (Acts 1:22). It’s almost circular to say that He appeared to all the apostles; a man couldn’t be an apostle otherwise.
He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3)
The last in the list is Paul himself, who is also the last witness to have seen the risen Lord. Paul provides more background for his witness than he did for any of the others.
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. The final use of the verb appeared occurs in verse 8, but it is the same as all the rest. Paul doesn’t rehearse any specifics of his testimony about the Damascus Road, though it’s a good story. What he does say is that he was the last , and that he was untimely born (ESV, NAS) or “abnormally born” (NIV). Sometimes this word refers to an aborted fetus, sometimes to a miscarried child. If that is the emphasis than Paul is saying that he was in the worst possible condition when Christ came to him. Jesus, risen from the dead, had to raise Paul from the dead.
It could mean, as the ESV suggests, that he was late to the group. The evidence is that all the other witnesses to whom Christ appeared were already believers in Christ before His death. Paul had been a hater all along; he hadn’t been looking for a resurrection. When the eleven chose a replacement for Judas, in addition to having been a witness to Christ’s resurrection, the new member had to have “accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21-22). Paul did not meet the qualifications.
Instead he had been looking to destroy those who believed in Christ. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. He defines what he means by least (ἐλάχιστος, a superlative form, so the “leastest”): he wasn’t a witness to Christ he murdered those who were witnesses to Christ. An enemy makes a bad ambassador. Paul hated the church of God, he tried to tear it apart rather than build it up. He persecuted believers rather than preaching.
If it had been his decision he wouldn’t have been an apostle, but it wasn’t his destiny. It was God’s sovereign grace. But by the grace of God I am what I am. This is the third “I am” statement in a row. “I am the least,” “I am not worthy,” and now doubled: “I am what I am.” This is his identity, and it is not deserved. In other places he gives a resume, but this isn’t a defense of his apostolic credentials, it is a celebration of God’s saving him to be a witness of (and participant) in Christ’s resurrection.
God’s grace knocked him to the ground. When grace picked him up and opened his eyes, grace started working through him. His grace toward me was not in vain, it wasn’t “without effect” (NIV), a word that Paul uses again in verse 14 (twice) and again in verse 58. The opposite of grace being useless is that grace made him do stuff. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, more than the other apostles. The same grace that saved Peter saved Paul. The same grace that worked in James worked in Paul. And by the testimony of the second half of Acts, and in Romans, Paul was off!
Grace and works are always in the equation, what matters is where they go in the equation. Salvation doesn’t equal grace plus works. Grace plus nothing gets to salvation and works. Paul exerted himself to weariness, strenuously striving and struggling (ἐκοπίασα). He wore himself out.
“The emphasis on labor [in 1 Corinthians 15:10] reminds us that difficulty and cost in Christian work, far from suggesting an absence of God’s grace, presupposes the gift of such grace to prosecute the work through all obstacles.” (Thiselton)
Paul clarifies again, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. It was him, and it wasn’t him. It was grace, but grace could be seen with him. Salvation is not a synergistic effort; the human spirit is dead. But when God makes alive, His grace works to make us work (see also Philippians 2:12-13).
The Corinthians owed their existence as believers and as a church to the grace of God through Paul. They didn’t need Paul, they needed grace, but how they got grace was through Paul’s preaching.
Which brings us back to the end of the paragraph in verse 11, reminding us of the common ground. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. He’s ready to build on his foundation.
Not one of us has seen the risen Christ with our eyes, but we do believe that He is risen by faith. Those witnesses that Paul referred to established the historical fact, that in time and space, God in flesh died, was buried, rose again, and appeared to many. Remember, there were many witnesses. Either they are liars, or the good news is truly good.
We have believed the same word, the gospel of life, and God’s grace has sovereignly worked in us. We are what we are by grace, and we see that grace at work in forgiveness and joy and in hard work.
The charge today has two stages. Stage one: work hard by grace and work to grow in grace for your working. You are not apostles, but you do believe the apostolic witness, so grow in grace. Stage two, which can be pursued as a parallel project: by grace do something that helps your spiritual brother grow in grace.
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2 Peter 3:18)