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A Study by Scott Sperling
Matthew 28:1-15 -
The Resurrection of Christ
1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
And so now we come to the resurrection of Jesus Christ: the event that is central to the Christian religion and, without which, there would be no Christian Church nor Christian religion. As Paul teaches: “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (I Cor. 15:14, KJV). Moreover, one could say that the Fall of man, and the Resurrection of Christ are the two most significant events in all of human history. Through the former, sin is brought into the world and man is separated from God. Through the latter, the sins of all mankind are atoned for, and the way is made open for anyone to again establish a relationship with God, being imparted with the righteousness of Christ, through faith in his finished work on the cross. “The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not merely the greatest event of history, it is the hinge on which all history turns” [Pulpit Comm., 621].
The significance of the resurrection as a historical event cannot be overstated. One could possibly imagine a Christian belief system without it, a belief that Jesus did pay the price for our sins on the cross, but without the resurrection, how would we know that God accepted Christ’s sacrifice? And besides, Jesus had predicted that he would be raised from the dead, and so, without the resurrection, how could we believe anything that Jesus said? Without the resurrection, our religion would be empty, and Lord-less. As Paul tells us: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (I Cor. 15:19-20).
In fact, Paul teaches us the significance of the resurrection in many places. We would not be assured of our justification without it: “[Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Through the resurrection, we can have a new life: “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:3-4). Because of the resurrection, we can be assured that Jesus is interceding to the Father on our behalf: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:33-34, ESV). Through belief in the resurrection we are saved: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved” (Rom. 10:9-10). Through the resurrection, we know that we too can be raised from the dead: “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (I Cor. 15:12). The resurrection reverses the effects of the curse of man through Adam: “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (I Cor. 15:21-22). Because of the resurrection, we are inspired to re-prioritize our life, in the service of our Lord: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col. 3:1-3). Through the resurrection, we know that we also will have life after death: “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (I Thess. 4:14).
“It is the resurrection of Jesus that establishes a clear and close connection between this world and the unseen and spiritual world. If he rose from the dead, then the world into which he is gone is real, and his invitation to us to join him there is one we may confidently trust to” [Pulpit Comm.]. “The resurrection of Christ establishes the divine origin of his mission and teachings; it gives God’s sanction to all his claims, and he claimed to be the Messiah, to speak by divine authority, to be one with God. Jesus had publicly periled his reputation as the Christ of God, on the occurrence of this event. When challenged to give some sign in support of his pretensions, it was to his future resurrection from the dead, and to it alone, that he appealed. Often, and that in terms incapable of misconstruction, had our Lord foretold his resurrection. It carried thus along with it a triple proof of the divinity of our Lord’s mission. It was the fulfillment of a prophecy, as well as the working of a miracle; that miracle wrought, and that prophecy fulfilled, in answer to a solemn and confident appeal made beforehand by Christ to this event as the crowning testimony to his Messiah-ship” [Broadus, 589]. “The resurrection not only culminates the passion narrative but also is at the center of redemption itself. Without it one can only pity Jesus as a martyr whose lofty ideals were sadly misunderstood. With it one must stand in awe of the Messiah, the Son of the living God, who gave his life as a ransom for many and who will one day return in glory to judge humanity” [Turner, 682-683]. And so the historical fact of the resurrection is crucial to the Christian religion. Again, without it, our faith is in vain, and we are “of all people most to be pitied.”
Despite being told numerous times by Jesus that he would rise from the dead, the disciples of Christ apparently had no expectation of this coming true. If they did, they would have all been waiting at the tomb for this momentous event to occur. “The disciples, who promised undying loyalty, are still scattered” [Turner, 680]. Instead, just a few of Christ’s followers, all women, came to the tomb on the next morning, the third day: “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb” (vs. 1). And knowing the faith of these women, and their true and demonstrated devotion to Christ, perhaps there was a germ of faith in their minds that Jesus would be risen from the dead, as he promised. Their primary purpose, though, in going was to anoint Jesus’ body with spices (see Mark 16:1).
Their devotion did not go unrewarded. They were the first people, of all people in history, to know of the resurrection of their Lord. “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men” (vss. 2-4). The timing of our Lord’s resurrection, the earthquake, and the rolling away of the stone, with respect to when the women arrived at the tomb is not specified in Matthew’s text. Mark, Luke and John tell us that the stone was already rolled away when the women arrived at the tomb (see Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2, and John 20:1). And being that it was “a violent earthquake”, the women would have felt it wherever they were. Perhaps the earthquake woke up the women and caused them to decide to return to the tomb at that time. To inhabitants of the area, the earthquake would have been considered as an aftershock to the one that occurred the night before. These earthquakes were not only related geologically, but they were both tied to the death and resurrection of our Lord. “The earth shook both at Christ’s passion and at his resurrection; then, to show that it could not bear his suffering; now, to show that it could not hinder his rising” [Trapp, 280].
The appearance of the angel put the guards into some sort of shocked state, a paralyzing terror. And if their mission was to guard the body of Jesus, they did fail, though not because anyone stole the body. No one, no thing, no power could prevent the raising of Christ from the dead. “The detachment of guards and the imperial seal cannot prevent the removal of Jesus’s body because it is not stolen by the disciples but raised by the Father” [Turner, 681].
The women, though afraid (see Luke 24:5), fared better than the Roman guards, and were able to receive and understand the message that the angel told them. “By the same means the Lord can terrify his adversaries, and comfort his people” [Dickson, 349]. The appearance of the angel in physical form, though a rare event with respect to human history, was not so rare with respect to the events surrounding Jesus’ incarnation on earth. “The angels frequently attended our Lord Jesus: at his birth, in his temptation, in his agony, but upon the cross we find no angel attending him. When his Father forsook him, the angels withdrew from him. But now he is resuming the glory he had before the foundation of the world, and now behold the angels of God worship him” [Henry, 252].
The angel had good news to impart to the women, the first communication of the Gospel good news that Jesus rose from the dead: “The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: “He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.” Now I have told you’” (vss. 5-7). Can we even begin to imagine the emotions of the women as they heard this message? They had come there with the depressing task of anointing a dead body with spices; they arrive to learn that there is no dead body: the Lord has risen. “We might have expected that the good news would be given first to Peter or John or some other member of the eleven. But God’s ways are not our ways, and the message was given first to a couple of women” [Morris]. “[The men] had deserted Christ in his hour of need, had not stood by the cross, nor aided in his burial; so they were not to be honored with the vision of angels or the first sight of the risen Lord. This was reserved for the faithful women, who thus received their mission to carry a message to the messengers—a foretaste of the ministry which they should perform in the Church of Christ” [Pulpit Comm., 641]. “The women are sent to tell it them, and so are made as it were the apostles of the apostles. This was an honor put upon them, and a recompense for their constant, affectionate adherence to him, at the cross, and in the grave, and a rebuke to the disciples who forsook him” [Henry, 253].
As stated, the angel was the first to preach the Gospel message, bringing hope and joy to the lost and sorrowful. In essence, his message is one we also could preach, and would do well to repeat anytime and anywhere we can: “Do not be afraid… He has risen, just as he said.” “These words were spoken with a deep meaning. They were meant to cheer the hearts of believers in every age, in the prospect of the resurrection. They were intended to remind us, that true Christians have no cause for alarm, whatever may come on the world” [Ryle, 406]. “The servants of the word should exercise the office of comforting angels, or God’s messengers of consolation, unto the anguished” [Canstein, in Lange’s, pg. 550].
The angel proves the resurrection of Christ by showing the women the empty tomb: “Come and see the place where he lay” (vs. 6). So we see here that the stone was rolled away for our benefit, so that there would be witnesses that, indeed, the body of Christ was no longer in the tomb. “The stone was rolled away from the tomb not so that Christ could emerge; he could pass through doors and walls (Luke 24:36; John 20:19) and did not need the stone removed. The stone was rolled away so that the women and others could see the tomb was empty.” [Osbourne]. “The positive evidence [of the resurrection] is in the appearance of Christ to his disciples; the negative evidence is in the empty tomb. If Jesus had not risen from the dead, men could have pointed to his sealed tomb, could even have torn it open and shown the corpse within… Jesus did not only appear after his death, as ghosts are said to have appeared, startling nervous people in haunted places. His tomb was left vacant. His body had disappeared. This is an important fact in regard to the Resurrection”” [Pulpit Comm., 654].
The women responded with excitement at the good news, setting out to do what the angel asked: “So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (vs. 8). Note, they believed the truth of the resurrection even before they saw the risen Lord, based on the testimony of the angel, and the witness of the empty tomb.
The women were not only the first to receive the news about the risen Lord, but they were also the first to see the risen Lord: “Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him” (vs. 9). In seeing Jesus, the women “clasped his feet.” “Jesus is not a spirit but has been raised bodily — but with new meaning. Before there were resuscitations, but those raised had to die again. Jesus is raised for eternity” [Osbourne].
As they clasped his feet, they “worshiped him.” “In thus taking hold of his feet the women symbolically recognized Jesus’ kingship; indeed, it may indicate that they had come to realize that he was more than mortal” [Morris]. “That belief in the divinity of Christ, which was partly slumbering during His state of humiliation, is awakened in all, as with one blow, through this miraculously imposing view of the risen Savior” [Lange’s, 563]. “Jesus’s initial post-resurrection appearance sets the tone for the proper worshipful response to him for the future. The women are evidently prostrated before Jesus with their faces to the ground and arms outstretched with hands grasping Jesus’s feet.” [Turner, 682].
“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’” (vs. 10). Jesus told the women to remind the disciples that he would meet them in Galilee. Jesus made this promise on the night of his arrest (see Matt. 26:32). “This promise had been originally made in connection with Jesus’s prediction that the disciples would desert him (26:31). The power of the resurrection will transform the deserters back into disciples (28:16)” [Turner, 681].
Significantly, though now he is the risen Lord, proven worthy of our worship, Jesus calls the disciples “brothers.” “The ‘family’ metaphor shows much love and patience, since the disciples have just run away from home, as it were, when they deserted Jesus. But Jesus welcomes the prodigals back” [Turner, 682]. “They had shamefully deserted him in his sufferings; but, to show that he could forgive and forget, and to teach us to do so, he not only continues his purpose to meet them, but calls them brothers” [Henry, 254]. “[‘Brothers’ is] a new designation of the disciples, which declares to them His consoling sympathy, and makes known to them that He, as the Risen One, had not been alienated from them by their flight and treachery, but that rather they are summoned by Him to become partners in His resurrection” [Lange’s, 546]. The writer of the book of Hebrews expands on Jesus’ use of the term “brothers” in referring to his disciples, then and now: “In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:10-11). Jesus, by living as a man, understands our struggles as fallen humans. And so, he is “not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters.”
What the women saw as good news was not-so-good news to others: “While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, ‘You are to say, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble’” (vss. 11-14). “When the women were going to bring that news to the disciples, which would fill their hearts with joy, the soldiers went to bring the same news to the chief priests, which would fill their faces with shame” [Henry, 254]. Rather than accepting the good news of a risen Lord, the good news that Jesus really is the Messiah sent to save them—rather than investigating this extraordinary event, and responding to the truth of the resurrection with awe, wonder and excitement—the chief priests devise an absurd, last-ditch attempt to suppress and smother the truth of the Gospel. In doing so, they are battling against the sovereign God whom they profess they serve. Moreover, the testimony to them by the soldiers that they saw an angel, and that Jesus did rise from the dead, renders the chief priests inexcusable: they cannot claim ignorance of proof that Jesus is the Messiah. “They had said, ‘Let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe on him’ (Matt. 27:42); behold, he has done something still more wonderful, yet they do not believe, no, nor make further inquiry, but simply bribe the witnesses to report a stupid falsehood… The story must have excited great surprise and alarm, but it wrought no repentance” [Broadus, 588]. “Those who were guarding Jesus’s tomb now become evangelists” [Turner, 685].
“Ironically, the same guards who were to be an asset in preventing a resurrection hoax become a liability necessitating a hoax” [Turner, 685]. The hoax is not an improvised, seat-of-the-pants plan; it is devised in a meeting between the chief priests and elders. This is pre-meditated rebellion against God. “Christ’s malicious enemies are of the devil’s nature, they will never cease to oppose him, though they know him to be the Son of God” [Dickson, 352]. “No multiplication of evidence will convince those who are stubbornly resolved not to believe” [Broadus, 589].
The soldiers, who were in a bit of a sticky situation since they failed at their duty to keep Jesus’ body in the tomb, took the bribe and went along with the deception: “So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day” (vs. 15). First, thirty pieces of silver are given to Judas, now “a large sum of money” is given to the guards: the enemies of Christ spare no expense in battling the Gospel truth. “The Jesus whom they had caused to be slain and put into the tomb was now a living reality; all their bribes and lies could do nothing to alter the facts” [Morris].
Of course, the story devised by the chief priests is absurd on many levels: If the guards were asleep, how did they know it was the disciples who took the body? And how in heaven’s name would all of these specially trained soldiers fall asleep at the same time? And why weren’t any of them aroused by the arduous work of rolling the stone away from the tomb’s opening? No. Certainly the truth of what happened is far more believable that this concocted story: Jesus rose from the dead, just as he said he would.
Alternate Views of the Resurrection
Because of the strong historical evidence for the truth of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and the resistance of many to accept that Jesus did rise bodily from the dead, there have been attempts to interpret the evidence in other ways that still take the evidence into account. Grant Osbourne has summarized the main alternative views, and also why each falls short of the most straight-forward explanation of what happened: that Jesus did rise from the dead. Here is Dr. Osbourne’s summary
There are seven different theories propounded through the centuries to explain what may have happened behind the resurrection story; let us consider each one in turn.
The early Jewish apologetic against its truthfulness said the disciples stole the body and made up a story about the resurrection (28:13); yet this is exactly what Matthew’s account intends to refute.
The political theory of Hermann Samuel Reimarus in the eighteenth century stated that the disciples concocted the resurrection story to establish a movement that would bring them fame and power. However, this has never been widely accepted because of the high ethical content of the NT. The disciples could hardly be so base as to make up such a story for personal gain and then create a Christian movement based on selflessness and filled with persecution for them.
The swoon theory of Friedrich Schleiermacher and K. A. Hase asserted that Jesus fainted on the cross and revived in the tomb (also the theory in the Koran, which says Jesus later preached in India and died in Kashmir). The gospels themselves combat this theory by stressing the observers and the reality of Jesus’ wounds. The Romans were expert executioners, and the team that put Christ on the cross would have done so numerous times. There is simply no way they would have mistaken someone who had fainted for a corpse.
The mythical view of David R Strauss and Rudolf Bultmann, which hypothesizes that the stories were created by the early church along the lines of Greco-Roman myth in order to explain the existential (Bultmann) impact of Jesus on the lives of the disciples (i.e., he “still lives” in their hearts). There was insufficient time for this to develop (most accept that the tradition behind 1 Cor 15:3-8 was developed within five years of Jesus’ ascension). The disciples would hardly have been so radically changed by a “myth,” and the vast differences between pagan myths and the subdued resurrection narratives make this theory doubtful indeed.
The subjective vision theory of Ernst Renan and Willi Marxsen, who hold that the disciples (Peter first) had dreams of Jesus and interpreted these from a first-century perspective as being sent by God. But the appearances came to some who were not psychologically prepared (e.g., James and Paul), and it is difficult to explain all the changes merely on psychological grounds. A mass hallucination to “five hundred people at once” (1 Cor 15:6) is hardly a viable alternative, as if they were stoned on sacred mushrooms or something!
The objective vision theory of Eduard Schweizer, Günter Bornkamm, and C. R. D. Moule, who maintain that God sent the disciples visions rather than physical appearances and that these were interpreted along physical lines by the Jewish followers who had no concept of differences between a physical and spiritual body/resurrected form. But this is to force a Greek view of a spiritual body on historical evidence that attests otherwise. It is hard to conceive why God would restrict himself to mere visions of the glorified Jesus. The God who could do the one could also do the other, and there is little reason along these lines to deny the validity of the biblical claims.
The corporeal view of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and most conservative critics fits the evidence as we have it and makes the best sense. Jesus was raised from the dead literally and bodily. Gnilka notes the centrality of verbs for “seeing” in this final section (28:1, 6, 7, 17, plus the six uses of “look” in the chapter) and concludes that Matthew stresses what one can see with the eyes as interpreted through the Word. Matthew clearly believes that Jesus actually appeared and was “seen” by the disciples….
When the data is examined and the question honestly asked, “What really happened?” there are significant reasons for affirming the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.
The disparate [Gospel] accounts are not really contradictory to one another, and it is indeed possible to harmonize them and show they supplement one another.
Little else can explain the incredible change of the disciples from self-centered cowards who would desert Jesus in his moment of greatest need to world-changing moral and spiritual giants.
Anyone making up the stories about the resurrection would never have women (who could not serve as witnesses in a Jewish framework) as the first official witnesses of the resurrection news.
The empty tomb is a historically verifiable fact, and in spite of Jewish claims that the disciples stole the body (Matt 28:13-15), there is no evidence they were able to produce the body of Jesus.
From the start the early church used the resurrection as a historically verifiable event (1 Cor 15:5-8; the sermons of Acts), and to them it actually happened.
Jesus did not appear just to his followers but also to unbelievers, such as his brother James (1 Cor 15:7; for him as an unbeliever see John 7:5).
In conclusion, the resurrection as a historical event makes best sense of the data [Osbourne].
Bibliography and Suggested Reading
Broadus, John. Commentary on Matthew. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886.
Carson, D. A. “Matthew” from The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII, ed. by Frank Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.
Clarke, Adam. The New Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Vol. I. New York: G. Lane & C. B. Tippett, 1846. (Originally published in 1831).
Dickson, David. A Brief Exposition of the Evangel of Jesus Christ According to Matthew. Cornhill, U.K.: Ralph Smith, 1651.
Exell, Joseph S. and Henry Donald Spence-Jones, eds. The Pulpit Commentary. Vols. 33 & 34. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1884.
Henry, Matthew. An Exposition of All the Books of the Old and New Testament. Vol. IV. London: W. Baynes, 1806. (Originally published in 1710).
Lange, John Peter, ed. and Philip Schaff, trans. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical. New York: Charles Scribner & Co., 1865.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1992.
Osbourne, Grant. Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament – Matthew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Ryle, J. C. Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew. New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1857.
Spurgeon, Charles. The Gospel of the Kingdom: A Popular Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew. New York: The Baker and Taylor Co., 1893.
Thomas, David. The Genius of the Gospel: A Homiletical Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew. London: Dickinson & Higham, 1873.
Trapp, John. A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. Vol. V (Matthew to Revelation). Edmonton, Canada: Still Waters Revival Books (www.PuritanDownloads.com). (Originally published c. 1660).
Turner, David L. Matthew. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.
Wilkins, Michael J. “Matthew” from Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
Many of these books (those in the public domain) can be downloaded free of charge from: