The Eyewitnesses to the Resurrection

1 Corinthians 15:5-11 gives us even more reasons to believe.

The Resurrection isn’t a side issue or an optional belief for Christians. If you don’t believe in the Resurrection then the Bible is a lie and Christians are participating in the most colossal coverup in history.

Why? Because if there is no resurrection then all of the atheists are right and when you die, they’ll bury you in the ground and that’s the end. Life suddenly becomes pointless and vain.

But, thankfully we know that’s not the truth. The Corinthians also knew it wasn’t the truth yet they still had some mixed up beliefs about the afterlife mainly because of the culture around them.

So, the big problem Paul is addressing isn’t about the Corinthians not believing in Jesus’ resurrection, but about not believing in the resurrection of the dead. They believed Jesus was resurrected but they had mixed up ideas about their own resurrection.

Here’s an overview of the whole chapter: In the first 11 verses Paul establishes what he knows to be true of all Christians. All Christians believe, must believe, in the resurrection of Jesus. Then in verse 12 and following he aims to logically convince us, on the basis what we believe about Jesus, of the truth of our own resurrection.

Last week we saw how one of the greatest evidences for the resurrection is the existence of the church because here we are 2000 years later still believing and trusting. Every Sunday, we see the church continuing to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus around the world, some even doing so at the risk of death. This alone is one of the greatest evidences that the resurrection of Jesus really happened.

But we also saw last week that the Old Testament Scriptures are filled with prophecies of the resurrection of Christ and so it’s not just the testimony of the church but also the testimony of scripture that gives us reason to believe in the Resurrection.

Now, the subject for today is another reason to believe in Jesus’ resurrection (and therefore our own) and that reason comes from the evidence of personal eyewitnesses.

In a court of law, eyewitnesses are the most important kind of evidence. You can have experts testify about the significance of circumstantial evidence or about a person’s character but these kinds of testimony are no substitute for an eyewitness who was personally present at the scene and saw what happened.

In the Old Testament a case could be won against someone with the evidence of just two or three witnesses, but in this case we have hundreds.

Peter and the Twelve

1 Corinthians 15:5 says, “and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”

Peter was the first disciple Jesus appeared to in this passage of Scripture. Why? I think it’s because God wanted to emphasize that He is merciful to those who repent.

Remember, Peter denied Christ three times then wept bitterly indicating that he was sorry for what he’d done. He wasn’t just sad he got caught but filled with grief over his betrayal and God forgave him. That’s good news for the rest of us.

Another reason I think Jesus appeared first to Peter was because he’s the leader of “the twelve.” And, if you’re going to call anyone to the stand to testify, you call the leader because he has the most credibility.

When you’re making a case but you don’t have any credible witnesses, you might not even go to trial. But Peter, along with all the other disciples, are the most credible witnesses you could find.

They saw Jesus in the garden, in the upper room. They were face to face with him. Thomas was so close to Jesus he could have touched him.

These are men who were martyred for what they saw. They were the ones who risked their lives and preached fearlessly about the gospel of the risen Christ and then went on to literally write much of the New Testament.

Now if you’re a lawyer trying to make a case for the Resurrection, you are starting to get excited because winning is a forgone conclusion with all of these credible witnesses. But there’s more.

Five Hundred Brethren

There aren’t just twelve credible witnesses who saw Jesus after he died, but hundreds more. And if there’s anything a lawyer wants to have in addition to a quality witness it’s a huge quantity of witnesses.

1 Corinthians 15:6 says, “After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.”

Where did Jesus appear to them? We don’t know exactly, but Paul would have been very foolish to mention them if his claim couldn’t be verified. The really cool thing is, at the time Paul wrote you could go talk to most of them. You could go check out their stories which I’m sure many people did.

Seeing Jesus by more than 500 people at one time completely destroys the hallucination theory, a belief that people were just hallucinating that Jesus was alive. There’s no way 500 hundred people all had the same hallucination at the exact same time.

So, there’s Peter and the twelve, and five hundred more brethren. Next is...

James and the Other Apostles

The James mentioned in verse 7 is James the brother of Jesus, the one who became an apostle and leader of the church in Jerusalem.

And when it comes to credibility it doesn’t get much better than James because James was an unbeliever before the Resurrection.

John 7:5 says that not even Jesus’ brothers believed in him at first. So, Jesus’ own brother was a skeptic, but he changed after the Resurrection and became a believer.

That’s a great testimony to the power of the Resurrection. James went from being a skeptic to being a believer. Why? Because he saw the risen Lord.

Next, Jesus appeared to all of the other apostles. When?

We read in Acts 1:3...

To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.

Then after the 40 days, the apostles saw Jesus ascend into heaven. They gathered in the upper room and selected Matthias, who had also seen Jesus alive, to take the place of Judas .

Eyewitness evidence doesn’t get much better than this. In fact, Paula Fredriksen, a New Testament scholar, but not a Christian herself, says this about the eyewitnesses...

I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say, and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attest to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know that as a historian that they must have seen something.

Fredriksen can’t accept that they really saw Jesus, because she refuses to believe, but neither can she say they were lying. See, there is no doubt that the apostles, and all the other eyewitness believed they saw Jesus alive.

That all of these people virtually overnight changed how they were living and became willing to die for what they believed just doesn’t make any sense unless they actually believed they did see Jesus. The most logical explanation isn’t that they just saw “something” but that they actually saw their risen Lord. That’s what I believe and I hope you do, too.

Paul

Now, as good as all of these other witnesses are, Paul saves the best, or “worst” for last: himself. In 1 Corinthians 15:8–9 Paul gives the reason he thinks he’s the worst:

And last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

Paul was a persecutor of Christians, a killer. He’s one who approved of Stephen being stoned to death and likely responsible for the deaths of hundreds of others. He’s the one who was rounding up the Christians and putting them in prison and killing them. In fact, that’s what he was heading out to do when Jesus confronted him on the Road to Damascus.

So, Paul describes himself as “one untimely born” which I think means more than just “not born at the right time.” The NIV hints at the Greek meaning with “one abnormally born” because the literal meaning is “miscarriage” or “abortion.”

So, while the phrase can mean that Paul is referring to not being around when the other apostles saw Jesus, I think the words more likely refer to how he thought of himself: as a discarded fetus, as an aborted child.

That’s pretty graphic but it helps to explain what he means when he calls himself the “least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because [he] persecuted the church of God.”

Again, this is good news for us; if God can save Saul, he can save us. There’s no one who is beyond God’s grace and mercy.

In 1 Corinthians 15:10 says,

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.

By grace Paul was saved and so are we. As it says in the hymn Amazing Grace “God saved a wretch like me...I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” Those lines are true of us but also true of Paul.

And the fact Paul was a “wretch” is precisely what makes him the best eyewitness. You see, Paul’s life completely changed as a result of seeing Jesus. Paul didn’t just “accept Jesus into his heart” and then go on with his life; he completely changed direction. God’s grace wasn’t in vain, as verse 10 says.

Why? Because on that Road to Damascus Paul really saw Jesus and by God’s grace he was completely born again. There’s no other way to explain it. Just seeing “something” doesn’t explain Paul’s ability to change. Paul’s dramatic change is a result of God’s grace.

So, Paul, the least of all the Apostles, became Christianity’s greatest champion virtually over night. And that’s what makes his testimony so credible.

Not a Competition

But don’t make the mistake and think that the best testimonies only come from the worst sinners. This isn’t a competition. God get’s the glory because it is His work within us whether it be relatively big or small.

Paul says in verse 11, “Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.”

Paul labored harder than most but that’s nothing to boast about because it was really God doing all of the work. He works through you, and he works through me, all for one single purpose: that Christ is preached and that people will believe.

In other words, testifying to the resurrection of Jesus is what matters, whether I preach it, or someone else preaches it directly or indirectly through the life they live.

And by God’s grace, may we all continue to believe.