Matthew 28:1-10 (ESV)
1 Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” 8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”
The fallen human mind will go to any lengths to arrange the facts in such a way that it seems impossible to believe that Jesus Christ really rose from the dead. Such people have developed theories, such as the swoon theory, which says the Jesus was simply almost dead when he was placed in the tomb. But the tomb, carved out of a rock, was just the right temperature to resuscitate him back to health, and it only took two good night’s sleep to bring him back from the brink after what he just endured. Such theories are baseless and rely on enormous presumptions.
Roman soldiers were not like contemporary American soldiers, where the army, especially, is like a little world of its own and has all sorts of missions, from defense to goodwill to infrastructure. Roman soldiers were not exactly peace-keepers. They were professional killers. They were the arm of the emperor that swooped in to your homeland, said that by the power of the emperor that you were now a Roman, and any dissenters were publicly made an example. That’s why Scripture makes it clear that Jesus was pierced through the heart. Jesus was already dead. That’s why Scripture says that the soldiers didn’t need to break Jesus’ legs, which usually ended the crucified’s life almost immediately. Jesus was already dead. Roman soldiers were anything but bumbling idiots when it came to killing someone.
Joseph and Nicodemus were in possession of Jesus’ body for hours and started the burial process, which would have to be finished later because of the time of day it was. They were the ones responsible for placing Jesus in a tomb. Not only do we have two witnesses to seeing Jesus dead up close, but we also have the soldiers who took his dead body off of the cross. Their livelihood depended on doing their job, which on that day meant killing this man. If anyone made sure he was dead, it was these soldiers. If anyone saw the dead body up close, it was Joseph and Nicodemus.
Pilate had a giant stone rolled in front of the tomb and had it stamped with the Roman seal, which was a threat to anyone thinking about moving the stone. A guard was placed there, as well. If you broke the seal, that tomb might as well have your name engraved on it. There was no getting in or out of the tomb without a lot of people being involved. And as we all know, a lot of people can’t keep secrets.
This perfectly explains the surprise the women found when they arrived at the tomb. No reasonable person who was actually present the day of Christ’s crucifixion had any notion that Jesus was anything but dead.
It’s early Sunday morning, light is just starting to shine, and the women are on their way to finish the burial process that Joseph and Nicodemus started three days earlier. Their only hope is that the guards will move the stone for them out of mercy. It’s a long shot, but they might as well take that chance.
Now Christ’s resurrection is not the only one taking place right now. But it is the promised one. Just a few verses before this, we’re told that after his resurrection, many tombs were opened and people walked out. Matthew 27:51-53 says, “And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”
An earthquake opened their tombs, but Christ’s tomb is different. An angel descends and opens the tomb himself. Pilot’s rock and signature seal only mean something for those in a lesser place of authority. But for the Son of God, those things are meaningless. His authority extends to every place and every person. Pilate and the soldiers are firmly under his authority. Man makes his plans, and the foolish don’t consider the things of God. These guards have every reason to be afraid.
It doesn’t seem as though there were only two or three, but maybe many more soldiers guarding the tomb. The group is just called a “guard,” and Pilate orders them to “make it as secure as you can.” No one, maybe especially Pilate, is going to let the body go anywhere.
It’s almost humorous that the ones assigned to guard the tomb “became like dead men.” They have no idea that the body they are guarding has already left the tomb. No amount of security is going to keep the living Lord inside a tomb meant for a dead man. If these were the same men who took Christ off of the cross, then they’re already a little shaken. The centurion and those who were with him at the crucifixion said, “Truly, this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54). They knew that what was going on around them proved Jesus to be more than a normal revolutionary, the kind of person Rome put to death regularly.
Various gospels mention different numbers of angels present, but Matthew simply mentions the angel who moved the stone. So the angel now speaks to the women. The angel did not come to let Jesus out but to let the women in. The guards had every reason to be afraid, but not Christ’s disciples. The angel tells the women, “Do not be afraid.” Angels always have to calm down the people they’re speaking to. But it’s not just the angelic visual that has them scared. Later on, Jesus will also tell the women to not be afraid.
Only God’s enemies should afraid of the empty tomb. Only those who believe or wish Christ was still in the tomb should be fearful. The disciple of Christ has no fear of death. We should not fear that Christ is not in his tomb, because he is on his throne, "For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25).
He tells the women that their intentions were noble, but don’t bother. He told you that he would rise, but all conditions point to the contrary. God commands the eyes of faith, but he also allows us to hear from the eyewitnesses who saw the empty tomb. Christ teaches about his death and resurrection at least three times in the book of Matthew. The women, as well as all the disciples, should have known better. But staring death in the face has a way of stripping us of all our faith.
The angel tells the women that Jesus “who was crucified” is no longer there. This leaves no room to doubt that Jesus was truly dead when he was placed in the tomb. Jesus was not drowsy; he was dead. But that same Jesus “is not here, for he has risen, as he said.” And then the women are told, “Come, see the place where he lay.” His resurrection is as real and as certain as his physical death. The women are not simply told to believe what the angel says, but in God’s mercy they are permitted to see inside the tomb as evidence of his absence. We are not told to take the resurrection on blind faith. But like how the women were told to take a peek inside the tomb, we are given four gospels, “the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).
Modern theologians have tried to say that the resurrection of Jesus was simply a spiritual resurrection in the hearts of the apostles. It’s a way to undermine the resurrection as false, not supernatural, but easily explainable. The apostles were apparently willing to die, many as martyrs, all because Jesus lived in their hearts, but not in the heavens.
But the angel gives Mary a command, which is to “go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead.” He was not just alive in their hearts but alive at the right hand of the Father. He is “risen from the dead.” He rules and reigns even now, until all of his enemies are his footstool.
Just like in his death and resurrection, the angel tells the women that Jesus goes ahead of them into Galilee. In life and death, Jesus Christ is our shepherd and leads us where we are to go. He sends his sheep nowhere that he has not been himself. We go to our graves in peace because Jesus has already been there. We fall asleep on this earth and wake up in God’s presence, because Jesus is already there. We go through the valley of the shadow of death, we go to green pastures, and everywhere in between, not on our own, but following our great shepherd.
There is no debate about the fact of the resurrection. If his resurrection was simply spiritual, then “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Our resurrection is completely based on whether or not Christ was resurrected. Our faith is pitiable if Christ is not ruling and reigning in his body in the heavens. What hope do we have for the future if he’s still dead?
Jesus was no ghost. He tells his disciples, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). His resurrected body was recognizable but noticeably different from the body he had before. The point is that he was truly living again and was not simply living a spiritual existence. The resurrection is no metaphor.
The women were obedient to the word they had received, and “they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” Fear and joy mark the Christian life. This is not a feeling of terror at an evil, vengeful god, but of coming face-to-face with the supernatural reality of the defeat of an enemy. We can’t help but feel a little fear when we realize that we are coming up to the scene of a great military victory over sin and death.
But the companion of biblical fear is joy. We may be awestruck at the resurrection, but it should also cause us to see that Christ’s victory over sin and death has inaugurated his kingdom on the earth.
Not only do the women get to see and hear from an angel of the Lord, but Christ himself appears to them, as well. “And behold, Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.’”
Jesus says, “chairō,” which is literally, “hello.” It’s the familiar greeting for a friend. As those who are in union with him, he is pleased to call us brothers and friends. There is no more hostility between those who are born again and God the Father, all because of the work of Christ.
He is our friend, but we worship him. The women fall and grab at his feet. This is an act of worship. We may be friends, but he’s the one who paid the debt; he’s the first one who has been raised to new life by the Father. That’s the only appropriate response to coming in touch with the resurrected Christ. Fall at his feet in worship.
Jesus even calls the disciples “his brothers”. These are the same men who scattered when the threat of death became all too real. This is the same Peter who denied ever knowing him three times in a single evening. But no longer are these men enemies, traitors, or cowards. They are brothers to the risen Lord. Gethsemane was the end of their old relationship, and Galilee will be the beginning of their new relationship.
And if you know Christ as the risen Savior, you are his friend and his brother. You could have denied ever knowing him before, you could have been a traitor, you could have sold him for money, you could have pierced his side. That is Gethsemane. But now, we are told to meet him in Galilee. There we will see him. We will see him as the firstborn of the new creation, calling us to leave behind our sinful ways, take up our own crosses, and follow him.
Why are they sent to Galilee? Why are they not sent to Jerusalem, the home of the temple, God’s special presence among his people? For one, we’re never told that God filled the second temple with his presence as he explicitly did in the first temple. And besides, Jesus said that he would rebuild the temple in three days. The new temple surpasses the old by every standard. Wherever Jesus goes, there’s the temple. Wherever Jesus goes, there is the special presence of God among his people. And when Jesus says that he is with us always, even to the end of the age, he is not making some sentimental gesture. He’s assuring us that wherever he sends us, he is there, the very presence of God. He sends the Spirit to not just live among us, but inside us. We no longer go to the temple. Everywhere we go, because the presence of the risen Christ is there, there is the temple of God. He didn’t tell his disciples to meet him at the tomb. He goes ahead of us and tells us to follow him.
People will go to any lengths to cast doubt on the resurrection. The only story that makes sense of the facts is that Christ is risen, just as he said. The only response that makes sense is to fall at his feet and worship him.
There is a great benefit from having four gospels, the four accounts of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The benefit comes surprisingly in their differences. Matthew includes an enormous amount of description about the actual process of Christ’s crucifixion and the women at the tomb on the third day. Mark doesn’t describe much about the crucifixion itself but more about what took place around Jerusalem when he died. Mark ends his gospel by saying that Jesus was resurrected and that the women were frightened. John probably gives the most information about the crucifixion, and he spends a chapter and a half describing some of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances.
Luke's gospel, however, fits pretty much in the middle. If you’re new to Christianity, it’s a great place to start. It is simple and to the point. Luke describes the crucifixion in a single sentence: “There they crucified him” (23:33). And Luke tells us about more how much mockery Jesus faced as he died on the cross. And as Jesus pays the price for our sins, he says some incredibly important, deeply theological truths.
This is where much of the antagonism toward Christianity comes from. Why did Jesus have to die? Was the crucifixion at the hands of evil men, or did God kill Jesus? If Jesus dying was the plan all along, how is that not just as evil as the evil we see and hear about every day?
But a right understanding of the crucifixion does not pit justice against mercy. Instead of pouring out justice on those who deserve it, Scripture tells us that God bore the brunt of justice upon himself. If we make too much separation between Father, Son, and Spirit, we end up saying horribly wrong things like “God died on the cross”, or God the Father killed God the Son. You might hear that from popular preachers, or on the History channel after midnight, or on a National Geographic or Time Magazine special Easter edition, but that’s an ancient heresy called “patrapassianism”, which says that God the Father shared in the crucifixion and therefore suffers. It sounds powerful, but it says the opposite of what we read in Scripture.
Jesus died at the hands of evil men, Jesus died by the foreordained will of God, and Jesus was not a victim. All of those things must be upheld with conviction. And the two words that Jesus speaks from the cross recorded in the gospel of Luke clarifies much of this for us.
Jesus saved us by not saving himself.
The life, death, and resurrection of Christ is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. If we don’t know how we are saved, how can we know if we’re saved? What are we saved from?
Just a day before Jesus is crucified, he’s eating the final Passover and the first Lord’s Supper with his disciples. This leads to a dispute between the disciples about which one of them will the greatest leader be in God’s kingdom. Jesus puts an end to that, and takes them out to the Mount of Olives to pray. While he’s praying, Judas brings the angry mob that arrests Jesus and takes him to the Jewish court for a sham trial, charging Jesus with blasphemy. The Jews can’t kill Jesus, so they pawn the dirty work off on the Romans. Jesus is taken before Pilate and Herod, but no one has a charge that will stick. So if you squint and hold your tongue just right, you can charge Jesus with being an insurrectionist. To appease the crowds, Pilate permits Jesus to be crucified.
While he’s carrying his cross to outside the city gates, Jesus sees that some people, especially some women, are mourning what’s happening to him. He says to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!” Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (23:29-30).
The crucifixion of Jesus is going to inaugurate the end of the Jewish system. That will not be the end of the Jewish people, just the system that they used to glorify themselves. And that will be made evident beyond dispute when the temple is destroyed within a generation. Rome will not go easy on the Jewish people. In fact, they’ll be scattered across the world shortly after the crucifixion. God will judge the people who perform the most evil act of human history: killing the God-Man Jesus Christ.
That doesn’t stop the people from mocking him as he hangs on the cross. As he is is placed on the cross, there are two other people, two criminals, who are being crucified, as well. Their exact crime is not described, but their punishment is. Only insurrectionists and rebels were crucified. They were considered something like enemies of the state. It was a statement about Roman authority. You did not even pretend to go against Rome’s commands, or crucifixion was your immediate punishment. Most likely, these criminals weren’t just thieves but dangerous, violent men.
Crucifixions were public so make sure the maximum number of people, the most foot traffic, would pass by on the way in and out of the city. Most were crucified nude, so along with the worst pain imaginable, you also have all sense of dignity stripped away, as well. Unless this was how you wanted to die, it was the best deterrent against opposing the Roman monster. But no Roman citizen could be crucified, so it was always a punishment for those under foreign rule.
The first words of Jesus on the cross are, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (23:34). Imagine that you have just been nailed to a cross because of fearful religious leaders and wicked Roman government power, and the first thing you do is ask for divine forgiveness for them. Why can the church say that Jesus was not a victim? Because for Jesus, this humiliation and physical torture in no way jeopardized his place in the Godhead or his relationship to the Father.
Jesus gladly came to do the work of redemption. The book of Hebrews tells us that it was “for the joy that was set before him [that he] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus’s ministry has been about showing and telling the people about the redemptive love of God, and that is why he taught often about forgiving our enemies. You were once an enemy of God, and he has forgiven you.
Earlier Jesus said to his disciples, “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). Instead of demanding justice from those who have hurt you, turn justice back on yourself and pay what they owe you. Why? Because how else can you describe what God has done through Christ?
Jesus Christ is God, the second person of the Trinity. Instead of demanding that you and I do anything for our redemption, God himself turned justice back on himself and demanded nothing from you but faith in what has been accomplished. So when you are hurt, taken advantage of, ignored, or suffering injustice, do not think for a moment that God turns a blind eye to injustice. God cares deeply about injustice; but instead of making demands of others, absorb that injustice. Pay it yourself. You are never more like Christ then when you pay the debt of another.
To keep the humiliation going, not only is Jesus stripped of his clothes, but the Roman soldiers in charge of him cast lots for his clothes. It was normal for soldiers to share whatever people who would be crucified brought with them to their arrest. Psalm 22 prophecies about this very moment, saying, “They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (v.18).
It’s an absolutely careless procedure. There’s no will, no executor, no probate, just blind luck about who gets what. The final affects are of so little value that at best it’s a little bit of fabric. But by fulfilling a prophecy that’s several hundreds of years old, it simply highlights that every detail of what is going on is in no way anything less than a component of the covenant of redemption, the agreement between the Father, Son, and Spirit to redeem fallen mankind. Not a moment of this surprises God nor goes against his divine purpose. By having nothing to leave behind besides what he was wearing underscores the humiliation of the crucifixion, but it also highlights the extreme measure of divine foresight into that day.
Psalm 22 plays a major role in understanding how much of the crucifixion was revealed beforehand. In the same passage that says people will cast lots for his clothes, it also foretells of the mockery Jesus faced. Verses 7-8 say, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ’He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’”
“Mock” and “scoff” are the same Greek word, and it’s the kind of word you’d use to describe something less than human. It’d be like calling someone a dog or a worm. It’s disgusting, or something you want to get away from. It’s essentially a “curse” word.
The people are literally quoting Scripture as they’re mocking the one to whom the Scriptures say will be mocked by the people. They are rehashing every Messianic role: he saved others, he is the Christ, he is God, he is the Chosen One. And still, they can’t see what their words say. When we say that sin blinds us, this is what we mean. In chapter 18, Jesus tells his disciples that the Son of Man will delivered over to the Gentiles, mocked, treated shamefully, spat upon, flogged, and killed (vv.32-33). And here it is, before their very eyes.
The soldiers offer him sour wine, which would have been a common drink for the soldiers. It might have a small numbing effect to help ease the pain, but Luke’s main point is that it’s a part of the mockery Jesus is facing. Not only is the crowd mocking him, but the soldiers are, too. “The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Luke 23:36-37). The kind of drink he’s offered just compounds the humiliation of his death. But it also proves another element of the divine plan. Psalm 69 is a prayer for God to save this suffering man, and says, “for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink” (v.21).
The irony is thick. Their mockery of Jesus just emphasizes that they don’t understand how he’s in control. The soldiers tell Jesus to save himself, but Jesus saved us by not saving himself. “If you are who you say you are, prove yourself.” But that’s just the way that Satan thinks. At Jesus’ temptation, Satan said to Jesus, “If you are who you say are, turn this stone to bread. If you are who you say you are, jump off this temple and let the angels save you.” He was who he said he was—the suffering servant, the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world by dying for the world, who does not give in to the demands of evil men.
The people have mocked Jesus, the soldiers have mocked Jesus, and now one of the criminals mocks Jesus. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (23:39). This criminal makes the same mistake that so many make today. Many are willing to say that there is something special about Jesus, that he might be a great man who faced an unjust death. But he doesn’t care whether Jesus was innocent or not. There’s no fear of God. It’s not about redemption; it’s about safety, or prosperity, or health. It’s about anything other than what Jesus really is. The first criminal doesn’t say, “It’s so sad that you’re innocent but here with us!” He doesn’t say, “Don’t worry, you’ll be vindicated when this is all over!”
No, he has the same misguided approach to Jesus that so many today do: they want what Jesus can give them without having Jesus as Lord. He wants off the cross and thinks Jesus can help. Why do so many seem to be true seekers? Because every sensible person wants what Jesus can offer, but few want it with Jesus. God is the only true seeker. He finds us, saves us, and keeps us.
But the second criminal is different from the first. He calls out the insincerity of the first by saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (23:40-41). There is no explanation for the second criminal’s perspective apart from divine mercy. This man at least understands that what he’s enduring is the natural consequence of what he’s done. Like it or not, he’s here because of his own doing.
The first criminal sees Jesus as a ticket punch, a get-out-of-jail-free card, a quick solution to his pain. But the second criminal sees himself as a sinner and Jesus as a Savior. There is no sinner’s prayer, no invitation, no discipleship class, no baptism, and no vote by the deacon board; all there is is a petition for mercy. Go to Christ with nothing but your sin and he will come to you with nothing but mercy.
The second criminal simply says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42). He recognizes that Jesus’s suffering and death is not a contradiction but his only hope. Jesus does in fact have a kingdom; he is the king who stands in the place of his people. He represents us before God. He represented this reprehensible violent murderer before the Father. And if your faith is in him, then Jesus Christ also represents you before the Father.
This is the moment that Christ’s reign began. Otherwise, what comes next makes little sense. In response to this criminal’s request, Jesus replies, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (23:43). Christ is entering into his kingdom, and this criminal will be a citizen.
“Paradise” is God’s garden, the same word used for the garden of Eden of the beginning and the garden of the new creation yet to come. It is better than this, but it is not our great hope. Like Titus 2:13 tells us, our great hope, our blessed hope, is that Christ would return to this earth and bring his kingdom with him. It is better to be with the Lord than to be in this body, but if you can imagine it, even better than that is the paradise of the new creation, where righteousness reigns, temptation, sin, and death are defeated, Christ is our temple and our light, and God dwells among his people forever.
Jesus saved us by not saving himself. And he saved us from enduring what he did on the cross. He did not only go through the physical suffering, which the gospels barely mention at all, but instead they focus on the mockery from the people and the fact that he endured the absence of the Father’s presence, total separation from God’s grace, which is the very definition of hell. He did not just save us from pain, but he saved us from eternity apart from God.
The two criminals represent two responses to the crucifixion. One way is to want the nice things that we hope God can give us, all while having this misguided view of who God is and what happened at the crucifixion. The other way is to do nothing but receive divine pardon, make no case for your own worthiness, and trust that what Christ did on our behalf is sufficient reason to enter into his kingdom.