After that, he was seen of James.
I Corinthians 15:8
In the first part of this chapter Paul reminds the Corinthian saints of the gospel that he had proclaimed to them. He had proclaimed not only the death of Jesus Christ but also His resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus had been verified by many witnesses: “He was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time” (I Cor. 15:5-8).
Paul emphasized these appearances because there were those in Corinth who denied the resurrection of the body. They thought that when we die our bodies are lost to the grave forever. Paul countered that by pointing to the resurrection of Christ. His argument is that if the dead rise not, then Christ is not risen. If Christ is not risen, then Paul had preached falsely and their faith is vain. But now is Christ risen and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
We call special attention to the Lord’s appearance to James. Jesus appeared ten different times to various individuals after His resurrection and before His ascension. The purpose of these appearances was twofold. They served to verify the fact of the resurrection. And they served to teach something about the nature of the resurrection.
This was true also of Jesus’ appearance to James. Interestingly, we do not know the details of this appearance. This is the only reference to it in God’s Word. Yet on the basis of Scripture, we can determine the purpose and significance of this appearance. To this we turn our attention.
The New Testament speaks of three James.
First, there was James, the son of Zebedee and Salome, and the elder brother of John. This James appears first in the gospel accounts as a fisherman. He and his brother John were partners with Simon Peter (Luke 5:10). Peter, James, and John were the closest of Jesus’ disciples. James also became one of the twelve apostles. He suffered martyrdom at the hand of Herod in A.D. 44 (Acts 12:2).
Secondly, there was James the Less. He was the son of Alphaeus (also known as Cleophas) and Mary. He was also one of the twelve disciples who later became apostles. He was called James the Less either because he was younger than James the son of Zebedee or on account of his short stature (Mark 15:40).
Finally, there was James, the brother of the Lord. Contrary to Roman Catholic teaching, Mary had other children besides Jesus. Mark 6:3 makes mention of James, Joses, Juda, Simon and “his sisters.” These were fathered by Joseph so that they were Jesus’ half brothers and sisters. This James arose to a place of prominence in the early Christian church. He became the leading elder of the church at Jerusalem. He was a leading figure in the Jerusalem council that struggled with what to require of the Gentile converts (Acts 15:13). At the conclusion of his third missionary journey Paul and company reported to James and the elders that were present with him (Acts 21:18). He was inspired to write one of the New Testament books, which appears under the title of his name.
It was this James, the brother of Jesus, that is referred to by Paul. Paul gives a listing of those who saw the Lord after His resurrection in order to verify the fact of the resurrection. This is not an exhaustive list. Mention is not made of the women or of Cleopas. Perhaps they were dead by this time, as were some of the 500 to whom Jesus appeared in Galilee. Mention is made only of those who were living, were prominent in the church, and who could verify the fact of the resurrection by their recollection of Jesus’ appearances to them. This points us to James, the brother of the Lord. James the brother of John was dead. James the Less had seen the Lord with the twelve, and there was no reason why the Lord should appear to him separately. This leaves James the brother of the Lord. He was not only alive at the time that Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, but he also held a place of prominence in the churches. He along with the others mentioned by Paul could verify the fact of Jesus’ resurrection.
Concerning Jesus’ appearance to James we have absolutely no details as to time and place. It would appear that Paul’s listing is in chronological order so that Jesus’ appearance to James was one of the last of Jesus’ appearances. But we have no detail as to location or what was said.
Nevertheless, we can surmise from Scripture the purpose.
To find the purpose of Jesus’ appearance to James we remember that neither James nor his siblings initially believed in Jesus. This is evident from John 7:5, “For neither did his brethren believe in him.” From the context (vv. 2-4) we learn that it was the Feast of the Tabernacles. Jesus hesitated to go to Jerusalem for the feast because His enemies were lying in wait to kill Him. Evidently His siblings thought He was using His miraculous power for self-promotion. And so they sarcastically suggested that He go to Jerusalem so that His disciples could see His works. Then we have a note of explanation in verse 5: “For neither did his brethren believe in him.” That is, they did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah nor did they support Him in His work.
This is rather striking. James and his siblings were brought up in a covenant home. Their parents, Joseph and Mary, were outstanding covenant parents who instructed them in all the ways of the covenant. Their eldest brother, Jesus, is the Son of God come into our flesh to be the Mediator of the covenant. He set before them the supreme and perfect example of godliness. No doubt Joseph and Mary instructed their children in all the revelation they had received concerning Jesus. Yet neither James nor his siblings believed in Jesus. This is surprising. Certainly, this is not the norm in a covenant home.
The purpose of Jesus’ appearance to James was evidently to convert James and his siblings. This is suggested by several things.
First, John 7:5, which speaks of the fact that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in Him, places us only months before Jesus’ crucifixion.
Secondly, we do not find Jesus’ siblings at the cross as we find Mary and others of Jesus’ disciples. Even then they did not believe in Jesus.
But soon after Jesus’ exaltation into heaven, we find Jesus’ brothers (and sisters) with the small group of believers assembled in Jerusalem (Acts 1:13, 14).
All this indicates that Jesus appeared to His unbelieving brother James exactly to convert him and bring him to faith. In this regard Jesus’ appearance to James served the same purpose as His appearance later on to Saul (Paul) on the Damascus road. What Jesus said to James is unknown. But in the power of His resurrection Jesus evidently converted James, so that not only did James believe in Jesus but also His siblings were brought to believe in Him.
This also points us to the significance of the resurrection of Jesus.
It is the power of a spiritual resurrection in our hearts.
We are by nature dead in sin so that we cannot believe in Jesus Christ. This is true even though we are born into a covenant home. This would be true even if Jesus were physically present to teach us directly, to show us miracles, and give us the supreme example. Being dead in sin, we can not and will not believe.
The only way we can believe in Jesus Christ unto salvation is for a spiritual resurrection to take place in our hearts, a wonder work of God that Scripture also describes as a new creation and a new birth. This spiritual resurrection is the work of the risen Lord. It is based on the perfect sacrifice of His cross. It is performed in the power of His resurrection. This is made plain in Ephesians 2:4, 5, “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us [made us alive] together with Christ.” Colossians 3:1 speaks of the saints being risen with Christ. Jesus works this spiritual resurrection in the hearts and lives of all those whom the Father has given Him.
The spiritual resurrection takes place through the power of Jesus’ word. With James and Paul it took place by the power of the word of the risen Jesus, who appeared directly to them. However, the day of personal appearances is gone. Yet the words of Jesus are heard in the preaching of the gospel. Jesus makes His people alive from the dead and brings them to saving faith in Him through the lively preaching of the Word.
The church, therefore, must be faithful in proclaiming this Word of Jesus Christ. It must do that on the Lord’s day, in the catechism room, and on the mission field.
And we with our children must seek and embrace this preaching.
It is the power of the risen Lord to raise the dead to life and bring them to saving faith in Him.