Paul’s teaching about gifts was about the unity of the Spirit, not about the difference between the Twelve apostles and the rest of us. If anything, Paul understood his use of the word “apostles” to mean all who had been called to be ambassadors for Christ. And who were they? Were they a select group of Christians? No! Paul wrote in his Second Letter to the Corinthians that all Christians are called to be ambassadors for Christ.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” — 2 Corinthians 5:17-20
This applies to all Christians, not just the Twelve Apostles. That seems to be what Paul had in mind when he used the word apostles. He was saying that Christ’s appearance to the apostles, to Christians across the board 1 corinthians 15 58 kjv, was a necessary element of the resurrection aspect of the gospel. He was saying that one could not be an ambassador for Christ apart from personally witnessing Christ’s resurrection appearance in bodily form, that being a Christian involved a personal seeing or appearance of the resurrected Christ. Exactly what that means is not as clear as the fact that it is what Paul said.
As you might expect, the Greek is interesting at this point (1 Corinthians 15:5-7). The Greek is translated as “appeared” or “was seen.” I suspect that it was a play on words, that many people would describe as a kind of mysterious vision or insight, a seeing of something mysterious. The KJV translates it as “he was seen.” There is a change in the subject of the sentence in some of the more recent translations. Again, the KJV reads, “After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles,” whereas the ESV reads, “Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:7). In the KJV James does the seeing, and in the ESV the Lord does the appearing.
Then there is the difference between “appeared to” and “was seen of.” There is no corresponding preposition in the Greek. It is assumed or added because of the context. A preposition, of course, suggests a relationship. The word “of” means belonging to or associated with. The contextual assumption is that the seeing or appearance of Jesus belonged to or was associated with the person who saw Him. The seeing, the belonging and the association are correctly understood as being all tied up together. Consequently, it appears that there is more to this seeing of the resurrected Jesus than meets the eye, if you see what I mean. I don’t intend to be cute or witty, that’s not the point. I’m not sure what to make of it.
James saw Him, then all the apostles saw Him ascend into the clouds. And finally, said Paul, “he appeared also to me,” or in the KJV “he was seen of me also” (1 Corinthians 15:8). Paul notes in the same verse that he (Paul) was “one untimely born” (ESV) or “one born out of due time” (KJV). The Greek is one word (ektroma) and literally means miscarriage or abortion. John Gill notes that “several learned interpreters think the apostle refers to a proverbial way of speaking among the common people at Rome, who used to call such supernumerary senators in the times of Augustus Caesar, who got into the senate house by favor or bribery.” Gill goes on to suggest that such senators were generally very unworthy of their office, and that Paul “calls himself by this name, as being in his own opinion a supernumerary (minor) apostle, and very unworthy of that office.” Thus, Paul seems to be suggesting his own unworthiness with regard to this special kind of seeing or vision of the bodily resurrection of Christ, unworthy of his calling to be an ambassador of Christ.
In support of this view Paul goes on to say, “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9). It should be noted here that Paul probably did not consider himself to be in the same category as the Twelve Apostles.
There was symbolic importance to the number twelve because, with God’s apparent abandonment of Judas, the Apostles cast lots or elected a replacement for Judas — Matthias by name (Acts 1:23). Obviously, the Twelve Apostles symbolically corresponded with the Twelve Tribes of the Old Testament. With the loss of Judas there were eleven, and with the election of Matthias the Twelve was restored in order to maintain the symbolism. So, what was Paul? To consider Paul one of the Twelve would require discounting Matthias. But Paul never mentions Matthias, neither does anyone else. So, I don’t think that Paul had any intention of counting himself among the Twelve Apostles. He was denigrating his role, not lifting himself up.
Rather, Paul understood himself to be a model for ordinary Christians to emulate, a model that people would emulate as a mark of faithfulness. Paul was modeling the role of a Christian as a prophet. He was prophesying, explaining what he knew about Scripture, about God, what he knew as a result of his own regeneration. Earlier in this letter Paul had called the Corinthians to “be imitators of me” (1 Corinthians 4:16), of Paul. Paul’s use of the word “apostle” was not intended to set himself up as the thirteenth Apostle. Rather, Paul intended the reference to his being an apostle to be understood in the generic sense of an ambassador for Christ, in the sense that all Christians are called to be ambassadors for Christ in the midst of whatever circumstances God has given them. Paul understood himself, not as a great man, but as an ordinary man who had been called to faith in Christ.