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The fifteenth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians really forms the climax of the apostle’s instructions and corrections, designed to bring sanctification to the church. 1 Cor. 15:1, 2 says,
1 Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.
The “gospel” is from the word euaggenlion, which means “good tidings,” or “good news.” It is by holding fast to this word that we are saved, Paul says. By this introduction, Paul lets us know more precisely what is the word that we are to believe, and in so doing, Paul lays the foundations essential to our faith.
His caveat, “unless you believed in vain” is a sober reminder of the possibility of a vain belief, that is, a belief in something other than this “good news.” As we will see later in verses 14-17, vain or empty faith is a belief in Christ that rejects His resurrection from the dead. Belief in Christ’s death alone is insufficient, for if He had not been raised from the dead, we would be stuck with the bad news of a good man who perished for the sake of truth, rather than the good news of one who overcame death for us all. Speaking of Jesus, Paul says in Rom. 4:25,
25 He who was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.
To put it another way, He died because of our transgressions to pay our debt to the law on account of our sin. However, His death by itself only brought us into a neutral position with the law. He was raised from the dead for our justification, followed by our sanctification, climaxing with our glorification.
In other words, it is Christ’s resurrection that justifies us. So Paul says again in Rom. 5:10, “we shall be saved by His life.”
1 Corinthians 15, then, is Paul’s summary of the good news which he preached. Therefore, it is the standard by which we ought to measure our own adherence to the word, for if we have faith in a lie, our faith is empty, or vain. Hence, Paul focuses upon the resurrection.
The Hebrew word for faith (aman) is also the root of the word for truth (amet). One cannot separate faith from truth without turning faith into vanity. We must believe in His death and resurrection.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3, 4,
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…
This, Paul says, is “of first importance.” It is essential to our faith, for if we do not believe that He died for our sins and was raised from the dead, then our faith is empty and worthless. There are many who claim to honor Jesus as a great man, as a prophet, or as an ascended master, but they deny that He was the divine Sacrifice for sin (“according to the Scriptures”). No doubt such people think that they have faith in Jesus, but if they do not have faith in the efficacy of His blood that was shed to fulfill the animal sacrifices and bring them to a climactic end, then their faith is insufficient in the sight of God. They are not true believers by biblical definition.
The Gnostic cult, founded by Simon Magus in the first century, denied Jesus’ death and resurrection. Gnosticism is very strong even today, for it has competed with the true gospel for two thousand years. Gnostics form a very powerful faction within the Vatican today. They believe that Jesus survived the cross, that he married Mary Magdalene, that they had a few children, and that their son, Jesus, Jr. was the progenitor of the Merovingian bloodline that has now permeated most of the European royal lines. This teaching is the basis of Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, as well as Laurence Gardner’s book, Bloodline of the Holy Grail: The Hidden Lineage of Jesus Revealed.
Essentially, this Gnostic faction within the Vatican seeks to replace Jesus’ mother Mary with Jesus’ supposed wife, Mary Magdalene. Many cathedrals, in fact, which are dedicated to Mary (Notre Dame) were, in fact, dedicated to Mary Magdalene, for most of these cathedrals were built by the Gnostic Templars.
Most Catholics, however, are unaware of the underlying conflict between traditional and Gnostic Catholicism. The conflict remained largely underground and hidden from public view until Dan Brown’s 2003 book was made into a movie in 2006. Since then, the fight for the soul of the Vatican has been an open secret.
Christ appeared to various disciples after His resurrection. This was important, because it created witnesses who could testify lawfully that He had indeed been raised. At least two or three witnesses were needed to prove the fact beyond any doubt. But because God knew that many would later dispute it, claiming that the disciples conspired to set forth a lie, Christ appeared to more than five hundred witnesses.
1 Corinthians 15:5-7 says,
5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain [are still alive] until now, but some have fallen asleep; 7 then He appeared to James, then to all of the apostles.
From John 20:14-16 we know that Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene, but Luke 24:10, 11 tells us that she was not alone. Joanna and Mary the mother of James had accompanied her. These women then ran back to Jerusalem and told the other disciples. Then Peter, whom Paul refers to as Cephas, saw the empty tomb (John 20:6), and John followed him (John 20:8).
Jesus presented Himself to the Father as the first fruits offering at the third hour of the day and then returned to appear to the rest of the people. That afternoon, He appeared to Luke and Cleopas (or Clopas) on the road to Emmaus. (See Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. II, p. 638.) When Jesus disappeared in front of them, they decided to return immediately to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples of their experience.
In their report, they said in Luke 24:34, “The Lord has really risen, and has appeared to Simon,” that is, to Peter, or Cephas. Hence, Luke understood that Jesus had already made a special appearance to Peter, even before their own encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. No doubt Luke later told the story to Paul, and so Paul tells us that “He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”
Later that same evening, Jesus appeared to most of the disciples behind a locked door in a room in Jerusalem, confirming the story that Luke and Cleopas were relating. But Thomas was absent for some reason, so he had to wait another week to see Jesus. That was the week of Unleavened Bread, during which time the disciples remained in Jerusalem. Jesus then made a second appearance to them on the following Sunday, and this time Thomas saw Jesus (John 20:26, 27).
At this point, Jesus had appeared “to the twelve,” as Paul says. Of course, we understand that He had appeared to at least three women on the first day, as well as to Luke and Cleopas, who were not listed among “the twelve.” (They were probably two of “the seventy.”)
Paul then says that Jesus appeared to more than five hundred people. Where and when did this occur? It could not have occurred during the week of Unleavened Bread, for He had not yet appeared to ALL of the disciples. But Matt. 28:8-10 indicates that while the women were running back to Jerusalem on the morning of the resurrection, Jesus appeared to them and told them to “take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they shall see Me.”
We know that the disciples remained in Jerusalem for the next week, though Matthew omits these details. But afterward, we read in Matt. 28:16,
16 But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated.
This appearance did not take place immediately, however, for we then find some of the disciples, including Peter, becoming restless as they waited. When Jesus did not come immediately, Peter and others decided to go fishing. They fished all night and caught nothing. In the early morning, Jesus appeared on the shore and shouted for them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat (John 21:6). Then they caught 153 large fish (John 21:11).
Some time after this incident, Jesus appeared at the designated “mountain” to more than 500 witnesses, as Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:6.
Lastly, Paul says, Jesus appeared to His brother James, who later became the head of the church in Jerusalem. This was not the disciple by the same name, for Jesus had already appeared to the twelve disciples in Jerusalem. No, this was a special appearance to James, one of Jesus’ brothers who did not truly believe in Jesus during His earthly ministry (John 7:5). No doubt this appearance changed his life and solidified his faith as a true believer.
A decade later, when the apostle James was killed (Acts 12:2), Peter and the other disciples were forced to flee from Jerusalem on account of persecution. James, the brother of Jesus, remained in the city and was made the head of the church in Jerusalem.
So Paul does not forget James in his abbreviated list of people to whom Jesus had appeared after His resurrection.
Then Paul lists himself last, saying in 1 Cor. 15:8-11,
8 and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 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. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
Jesus appeared to Saul (Paul) on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:2), when Paul was on a mission to arrest Christians and bring them to Jerusalem to be tried for heresy. Jesus conscripted him, and his life was changed forever (Acts 9:3-6).
So it was that Paul began to preach the gospel. Paul himself was a witness of Jesus’ resurrection, having had personal contact with Jesus a few months after His ascension.
Though Paul knew that he was “not fit to be called an apostle,” because he had persecuted the church, even so, he says, “I am what I am.” This could just as easily read, “I am who I am,” for the Greek word hos can mean what or who.
Such a statement is interesting, because it invokes the character of God Himself, who told Moses in Exodus 3:14, “I AM WHO I AM.” No further explanation is forthcoming. This expression explains the unexplainable.