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A Coward, a Skeptic, a Zealot and the Resurrection

“He appeared to Cephas…Then he appeared to James…Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).

In one of our earliest sources for the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3-8), Paul claimed that Jesus appeared to Peter (Cephas), James and Paul himself. In the New Testament, we read that each of these men were very different people before the resurrection. Peter talked a big game but often acted in a cowardly manner. James was skeptical of his brother’s claims from the beginning. Paul was zealous in his attacks on the early Christians.

But all three of these men were radically changed after they experienced the risen Jesus. Let’s look at each person before and after the resurrection.

Peter the Coward

Peter was a very ambitious disciple. He did and said several good things, including walking on water and recognizing that Jesus was the Christ and God’s Son (Matt. 16:16). But of course, we know that Peter was far from perfect. When walking on the water, he never made it all the way to Jesus. Instead, he began to focus on the storm around him and began to sink. Jesus caught him just in time and rebuked him:

“O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:22-33).

Jesus later revealed to Peter that he would deny him three times. Peter scoffed at such an accusation. But when Peter was approached by three individuals who recognized him, he denied his relationship with Jesus each time:

“Woman, I do not know him.”

“Man, I am not” [one of Jesus’ followers].

“Man, I do not know what you are talking about.”

When Jesus needed him the most, Peter was too afraid to do anything.

Peter the Bold

When we see Peter again in the book of Acts, he is an entirely different person. Instead of denying Jesus, he is boldly preaching Jesus’ resurrection in the face or persecution (Acts 2:14-40; 3:12-26; 4:5-12; 10:28-47; 11:4-18; 15:7-11). Along with John, Peter even had enough confidence in the living Jesus to heal a crippled man (Acts 3:1-10). Peter became one of the most prominent leaders in the early church, and the resurrection was at the center of Peter’s message:

“This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:23-24, 32).

“You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses” (Acts 3:15).

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:39-41).

James the Skeptic

According to the Gospels, Jesus had multiple siblings. One of those siblings was his brother, James. Even though the Gospels don’t mention Jesus’ siblings very much, they do reveal what they thought about Jesus’ radical claims:

“And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind’” (Mark 3:21).

“For not even his brothers believed in him” (John 7:5).

Needless to say, James was skeptical of his brother’s claims. After all, James grew up with Jesus and knew him very well. James loved his brother, but he also thought that Jesus was out of his mind!

James the Believer

According to the book of Acts, however, James didn’t remain a skeptic. In fact, he played a prominent role in the early church (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; Gal. 1:19; 2:9). In Acts 15, the “big dogs” in the church were debating the relationship of Gentiles and the law. James was the one who stood up and gave his ruling on the matter. The church leaders agreed and proceeded to act on James’ decision.

We also see that James was considered to be an apostle in the early church. When Paul was making sure that he was preaching the Gospel accurately, he says “I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:19). James’ leadership even led Paul to call him one of the “pillars” of the church (Gal. 2:9). According to tradition, James became a bishop of the church in Jerusalem.

James went from thinking his brother was insane to worshipping him as God. What would it take for you to begin worshipping your own brother? For James, it took a resurrection.

Paul the Zealot

In the case of Paul, we have his own words on what his life was like before encountering the risen Jesus:

“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:4-6).

Paul was a zealous follower of Judaism. He spent so much time studying that he was passing his peers in his knowledge of the law (Gal. 1:14). When Paul bumped into this new teaching about Jesus of Nazareth, he began to violently persecute the church in hopes of stamping out its flame. When Stephen was being stoned to death, we are told that Paul was in attendance. Additionally, we read:

“Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2).

Surely Paul would never stop persecuting the church until it was extinct.

Paul the Apostle

In Acts 9, we read of Paul’s dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus. As a result, Paul became an apostle and a Christian missionary who wrote almost half of the New Testament books. Like Peter, Paul became a prominent leader in the church and we have some of his early sermons recorded in Acts (13:16-41; 14:3-7; 17:22-35; 20:17-35; 22:1-21; 23:1-6; 24:10-21; 26:2-23; 28:17-20).

The risen Jesus was also at the center of Paul’s message:

“They took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people” (Acts 13:29-31).

Paul’s testimony is an amazing example of the power of the resurrection to change even the most stubborn of people. Early Christians summed up his story well:

“He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy” (Gal. 1:23).

He is Risen!

According to tradition, all three of these individuals died because of their belief in the resurrected Jesus. The truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection is still changing lives today. I know this because I am one of them.

Jesus made radical claims about Himself and was vindicated by God through His resurrection. Today Jesus leaves us with the most important question of all:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26).

May we echo Martha’s response:

“Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (11:27).

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!


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