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.