God’s message to all mankind climaxes in the Gospel and its implications.
As the Apostle Paul states the essence of the Gospel it is this: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared … (1 Corinthians 15:3,4).
He appeared! As the living Christ, he appeared to real and living people who bore witness to his resurrection.
He appeared to Simon Peter. This appearing is not described by any one of the four gospel narrators. Still, we know that he did so appear, because Luke says that a group of believers who had gathered privately in Jerusalem during the evening of resurrection Sunday reported with joy that the risen Lord had appeared to Simon (Luke 24:34).
He appeared to the twelve disciples. John reports that on the evening of the same Resurrection Sunday “when the disciples were together with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ (John 20:19).
He appeared to more than 500 of the brothers at the same time. St. Matthew gives us this account, and it coincides with the promise Jesus made to his disciples on the eve of his passion: “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee” (Matthew 26:32).
In 1 Corinthians 15:6, later Paul writes that though some of the 500 had since died, many, perhaps several hundred, were still alive to bear testimony to what they had seen. Perhaps this is his invitation to any who were still skeptical, suggesting they seek out one or more of the plentiful eyewitnesses.
If Christ’s resurrection and subsequent appearances had not been real there would surely have been some among the “more than 500” still living who would readily have announced as a fraud the claim that he had arisen and appeared to many witnesses.
He appeared to James, the brother of Jesus. We have met Jesus’ brother James before. Mark tells us of an incident early in Jesus’ ministry, before James was a believer. He had come along with his family to take Jesus home and away from the crowds. That’s because, according to Mark 3:22 and 31, When his family heard about this [his unusual ministry including bold teachings and miracles], they went to take charge of him, for they said, “he is out of his mind.”
But by the time of Jesus’ resurrection James is a believer. Tradition, a secondary source of evidence, says he was met by Jesus at the open tomb and converted through the miraculous reality of what he saw there. Paul later writes of him calling him “James, the brother of our Lord.” (Galatians 1:19)
To all the above Paul adds his own name. Last of all Jesus appeared to me also as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:7) This refers to Jesus’ separate appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, many years after the crucifixion and resurrection when as “Saul, the persecutor” he was on the way to take Christians captive to punish them. (Acts 9:1 –19). Paul becomes one of the apostles due to this late personal and specific introduction to the living Jesus, and the direct assignment from the Lord.
If Christ’s Resurrection, and by extension the promise of our own, were just a notion aimed at any who face the reality of death that would at least be a source of comfort. If it were only a “story” to be enacted in passion plays around the world, that would at least be entertaining. On the other hand, if it were a hoax to deceive the gullible, that would be shameful.
The resurrection of Jesus is none of these. It is history with many witnesses. The New Testament, with many copies and fragments of copies in existence from antiquity even when cities of those times lie in ruins, sets the facts forth simply but compellingly. The recognition and joy of followers who saw the resurrected Christ are authentic. The most skillful of minds have been unable to disprove claims convincingly and instead many have pronounced the accounts of the life of Christ to be the writings of trustworthy men and of reliable history.
So we are summoned to listen to the witness of many who were there, and to the witness of the lives of many more down through the centuries, and to the witness of the living Spirit of Christ, who impresses on our spirits the reality of the resurrection dissolving fear of the judgment for believers.
We are summoned to respond when we hear the living Christ announce: I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and he who lives and believes will never die. (John 11: 25, 26).