THE GOSPEL: JESUS APPEARS
Paul ends his account of what happened in the gospel by pointing out that Jesus appeared. Jesus appeared, and he appeared to many people, as verses 5-8 say.
Some of these appearances we can trace to specific stories in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts. But none of the writers of those books claims to have reported every appearance of Jesus after his resurrection. Paul himself is not necessarily making an exhaustive list of appearances, either. So what is he doing? Why does Paul now break into this list of occasions when someone saw the risen Christ?
First, very simply, Paul is establishing the truthfulness of his message by appealing to eyewitnesses. Note how he says in verse 6 that most of these brothers are still alive. It’s obvious what’s behind that statement: you can go ask them! The book of 1 Corinthians was written approximately 20 years after the resurrection; it hasn’t been that long. So there’s the very basic sense that Paul’s simply listing out witnesses that help substantiate his claim.
But there’s something else going on here as well, and to see that we need to remember the nature of the relationship between Paul and the Corinthian church. This was a church that was impressed—some might say obsessed—with their own supposed wisdom and the wisdom and eloquence of others. This was a church that was seeing division on the basis of which gospel preacher they most identified with. Some would say, “I follow Paul,” others would say “I follow Apollos,” and so on. And this was a church that had a history of difficult, painful interactions with Paul, questioning his authority and the validity of his ministry since he wasn’t one of the eloquent rhetorical superstars so held esteemed in Greek culture.
So in light of all that, Paul’s not simply lining up witnesses randomly. No, he’s cutting the legs out of any possible objection the Corinthians have to his message of resurrection. Just in case they might be tempted to reject the resurrection as a “Pauline invention” or paint Paul as “outside of the mainstream” in his teaching on people getting up from the grave, Paul’s reminding them here that his own eyewitness testimony comes last, not first. Jesus appeared to Cephas (another name for the apostle Peter) and then to the twelve, and then to the five hundred, and then to James, and then to all the apostles. All of the other pillars and foundations of the church saw and testified to a risen Jesus before Paul even came on the scene.
I think that’s what makes sense of what Paul wrote in verses 9-11. He’s saying in these verses, “I, Paul, don’t matter here! You think I’m the least of the apostles? I agree!” Paul’s throwing himself under the bus here for the sake of the resurrection, and for the sake of the Corinthians. “Look,” he says, “you want to reject me? Fine, but you can’t escape the resurrection just by rejecting my authority, because whether it was I or they, we’re all teaching the same thing. Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the third day. So we preached and so you believed.”