Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
He Is Risen
by Dr. Ligon Duncan
April 23, 2000
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 28. We have now come to the final chapter in the gospel of Matthew, and now at the end of his scroll, Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, begins to recount for us the resurrection of his crucified Lord. The story itself is gripping, and even surprising in its own way. Last week as we looked at the end of Matthew chapter 27, we said that the overarching theme was God's providence. Even in the death and burial of the Lord Jesus Christ, God was preparing to vindicate Christ in His resurrection. We saw the Lord was preparing the way to show that those who were accusing Jesus of being a deceiver, the Sanhedrin, were in fact themselves the deceivers. We begin to see that worked out this week. But now as we move into Matthew chapter 28, God intensifies this preparation to vindicate His Son. So let's turn to the first few verses of Matthew chapter 28 and hear God's inerrant word.
“Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, marry Magdalene and the other marry came to look at the grave. And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. And his appearance was like lightening, and his garment as white as snow; and the guards shook for fear of Him, and became like dead men. And the angel answered and said to the women, 'Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. And go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going before you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you.' And they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshipped Him. Then Jesus said to them, 'Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they shall see Me.'”
Thus ends this reading of God's holy and inspired word. May He add His blessing to it. Let's pray.
Father, we do thank You for this word and we ask that by the Spirit, You would open our eyes to understand it, and to be receptive hearers and obedient doers of the truth. Speak to our own hearts of this great truth of the resurrection; and enable us to embrace it as we embrace Your promise and Your providence. In Jesus name. Amen.
In this passage, God's attestation to Jesus’ person, His claims, and His work intensifies. God in this passage continues to lay the groundwork for the disciples’ firm and certain belief in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ that is going to be so central to gospel proclamation. I want you notice how Matthew does it again. First, he draws your attention to extraordinary events and circumstances surrounding the resurrection. Notice he doesn't give a detailed account of what happened in the resurrection, but what happens around the resurrection, just as with the cross. There was no long detailed discussion of what it actually meant for Jesus to be nailed to the tree. Matthew almost turns his eyes away from that and points us to things going on around Jesus’ crucifixion.
And once again, here he first points us to the events, these extraordinary occurrences, that were going on around the resurrection. By the time we get to the resurrection it's already occurred. It's an after-the-fact account. Then, he goes on to focus on the message brought by this angel. A message for these loyal and loving female disciples who have come to the tomb for the purpose of continuing to dress Jesus’ body, to treat it with oil and to anoint it with spices. And then finally, Matthew points us to this encounter between the risen Christ, and these female disciples, and the message that He Himself gives to us. So though the event of the resurrection itself is not described by Matthew, in order to testify to it's reality and to explain it, Matthew points us first to the events, then to the angel and his message, and then to the encounter between the Lord Jesus Christ and the women. And so he explains to us the meaning of the resurrection.
This resurrection is at the very center of Christian proclamation of the gospel, and therefore, God attests to it lavishly. And I want you to see in this passage today that Matthew makes it clear that the problem of embracing the truth of the resurrection is not an intellectual problem. Those, Matthew makes it clear, who reject the resurrection have a far greater intellectual task than those who embrace the resurrection. Oh, I'm not saying that even for Palestinian Jews, who believed in a bodily resurrection at the end of the age; I'm not saying it was easy for them to understand the power that enabled something miraculous like the resurrection. That's hard for anybody to comprehend. But the facts of the resurrection are laid before their eyes; everyone's eyes, including Jesus' enemies. But Jesus’ enemies worked very hard intellectually to deny it, whereas, intellectually speaking, it's the easiest thing in the world to be embraced. The barrier to believing the resurrection is a moral barrier. And it is unbelief which rejects the attested realities of the resurrection.
I'd like to walk through the passage with you in three parts today. If you look at verses 1-4, you see the first section of the passage; and then verses 5-7, you see the second section of the passage; and then, finally, verses 8-l0 form the third section of the passage.
I. The message to the women.
In verses 1 through 4 the women, these two faithful, loving female disciples, witness five signs that God has done something extraordinary at the tomb. And we learn something very important here. Throughout this passage what God is doing is not only vindicating His Son, but he is building a sure foundation for the faith of believers. What had happened to the disciples, all of them including these dear women, in the last three days? Their faith had been shaken. They were having a hard time believing that Jesus word would be fulfilled. The very fact that these women are on their way to the tomb to anoint the body indicates that they did not believe what Jesus had said about his being raised from the dead. And so their faith had gone through a crisis. And I want you to watch, systematically through this passage, how God the Father lays the groundwork to strengthen their faith and yours.
The first thing you see here is that God vindicates and exalts His Son with these displays of power. Early on Sunday morning, two of the Marys make their way to the tomb. Mark tells us that they were coming with the purpose of anointing the body. Matthew just tells us that they were coming to see the tomb. That makes perfect sense, by the way, because Matthew is the only gospel writer to tell us that there were guards stationed at the tomb, and the tomb and been sealed. Matthew knows that even if the Lord Jesus had been there in the tomb, there was no way that those women were going to get into anoint the body of Jesus. They would have had to have moved the stone themselves, or as it were, against the opposition of the guards, and removed the seal of the empire. There was no way those women were getting into that tomb. In fact the women themselves, the other gospels tell us, were asking one another as they made their way, “Who's going to move the stone for us?” So Matthew just emphasizes this fact that they were coming to see the tomb or behold the grave.
But what needs to be noted is that although they were devoted to Jesus, they were loving and loyal, these women were the last at the cross, and they were the first at the tomb. Though they showed far more courage and bravery, and, frankly, commitment than Jesus' inner circle of 11 disciples, yet these women were not believing. Though they had heard from Jesus' lips, just like the disciples had, that He was going to be raised again from the dead on the third day, they didn't expect that to happen.
By the way, that's another theme that Matthew wants you to understand, that throughout this passage Jesus’ own disciples are not expecting the resurrection. The Sanhedrin is preparing to try to prevent a story about the resurrection. But Jesus’ own disciples are so demoralized that they are not expecting the resurrection. In fact, in Matthew's account the Sanhedrin gives more credence to Jesus' prediction about the resurrection than His own disciples do. At any rate, these faithful women make their way to the tomb. And as they do they are greeting by five extraordinary events in order that God might grip their attention and strengthen their faith. And I'd like you to look at those things. You will see them in verses 2 – 4.
First of all there's the earthquake. We've already said that in the Old Testament earthquakes were connected with manifestations of the presence of God. At Sinai the earth trembled, the mountain trembled and shook. It was often a sign of the presence of God which would comfort believers. But it was also a sign, in the Old Testament, of God's judgment against His enemies. And maybe we see a little bit of both here at the tomb; God's judgment against His enemies; God's comfort to His people. And so, they approach and this earthquake occurs. That's the first extraordinary event.
The second thing is the appearance of this angel. This angel in God's special messenger, and his presence, his mere presence, absolutely terrifies the guards, and leads to one of the other events which greets the women. But the presence of that angel, and especially the presence of that angel sitting on the stone which sealed the tomb, was a visible symbol of Christ's victory over death and the grave. As that angel sits on the throne, it's a manifestation that God has conquered death, and He's conquered Jesus' enemies.
And then, there's the stone itself in verse 2. That's a third thing which greets the eyes of the women as they approach the tomb. The stone was completely removed from its groove, and it was laid over on its side, and the angel was sitting upon it. And the reason that that stone was removed was not to let Jesus out. Oh no! Matthew makes it clear, and all the other gospel writers do as well. The reason that stone was removed was so that the disciples could look in and see that Jesus was not there. You see what God is doing here? He is laying the groundwork for a sure confidence in the resurrection of His Son. And His concern is not to let His Son free, who cannot be held by the power of the grave, but instead to allow disciples to look in and have their faith strengthened, as they view the empty tomb.
And then, in verse 3 we see a fourth amazing thing. It's the dazzling appearance of this angel. His description is striking. His appearance was like lightening and his clothing white as snow. Doesn't that remind you a little of the description of the angel in Revelation 10:1 where John says, “I saw another strong angel coming down out of heaven clothed with a cloud, and the rainbow was upon his head, and his face was like the sun, and his feet like pillars of fire.” And it's interesting, by the way, that the description of this angel is not unlike some of the descriptions of the Lord Jesus Christ elsewhere in the Old and in the New Testament. In Daniel 7:9, when it talks about the Lord Jesus approaching the ancient of days sounds a lot like this. Matthew, chapter 17, and the transfiguration sounds a lot like the description of Jesus in the transfiguration. Revelation 1:16, sounds like the description of Jesus there. This angel is a visible picture of the glory and the holiness of God.
And then finally, in verse 4 you see a fifth extraordinary event that God greets these women with, these stunned guards lying all over the place: immobilized, petrified, terrified, stunned. The seal, the stone, and now the guards, all the devices that humans had aligned to secure the end of the Jesus people, the end of the Jesus movement, the end of Jesus' claims, the end of Jesus' message, all those pitiful attempts to secure their victory are now left in a rubble. God at the tomb dashes the railings of the nations and fulfills the promise of psalm 2, “He who sits in the heaven laughs” them to scorn at the tomb. And in all these great events, God is laying the groundwork to strengthen the faith of His Son's disciples.
Notice in this passage that the first people to behold these evidences are, in fact, Jesus enemies, the guards who had been placed there. Then the women disciples see it. You see, the soldiers and the women are witness to the same facts, the same reality. The problem of believing Jesus' resurrection is not one of lack of testimony, or lack of intellectual credibility. No. The problem in believing the resurrection derives from another area. And God is preparing to strengthen our faith even as he sets this truth out in the passage.
II. God's comfort to the disciples.
Then if you look with me at verses 5 through 7, here the angel speaks, and he gives a word of comfort. He makes an important announcement. He gives an exhortation to these faithful female disciples. Matthew has just told us that the guards were paralyzed with fear. And so the angel speaks deliberately to comfort the women, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Don't be afraid.” The guards have good reason to be afraid. You, however, “Don't be afraid.” Though these women had not sufficiently trusted Jesus' promise that He would be raised from the dead, yet in their love and their loyalty, they had stuck close to Him and they were manifesting their commitment to Him in the best way that they can. And you know, this is beautiful. There is not a shadow of a harsh rebuke of these women. The angel never gets close to a harsh rebuke. The closest thing that we have is that gentle rebuff that we see in the words, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified.” And then he goes on to say, “He is risen, just as He told you.” That's the closest thing that comes to rebuke in this passage. No. The angel comes to these godly, broken-hearted, brave, caring female disciples, and he tells them 10 things in this short passage. Look at verses 5 through 7.
First of all he says, “Don't be afraid.” Not only are these women in the presence of a great act and manifestation of God, and they are in the presence of an angelic being, and the tendency of every saint in the Scripture, Old Testament and new, when you are in the presence of God is to tremble at the awe of almighty God. And so, these women need to be assured, “Don't be afraid.” But they also had a very difficult task ahead. They were going to have to go convince disciples who really didn't want to be convinced about the resurrection. It would have been a very discouraging thing. And so the first words are, “Don't be afraid.” “Fear not.” The angel says.
And then secondly he says, “I know who you're looking for.” In other words he's saying, “I know precisely why you are here, and I am here precisely because I know why you are here. I know who you are looking for. And the reason that I am here is because I have a message concerning the one that you're looking for. I've got some things that I've got to explain to you.”
And then he begins to explain them, and that's the third thing we see in the passage. “He is not here,” thirdly he says. No attack. No further rebuke is shared. All that's implied in the angel's words is that Jesus isn't here just like He told you He wouldn't be here. But the empty tomb is not all. The empty tomb is a wonderful testimony to the resurrection, but the New Testament never leaves it at the empty tomb. The New Testament goes on to indicate that it is, in fact, the eyewitness visitations of Jesus with His disciples which confirm the reality of the resurrection.
And so he goes onto say fourthly, not only is He not here, but He is resurrected. It's not merely that He is not in the tomb. He's not in the tomb because He is resurrected.
And then fifthly, “Just like He said.” And he takes us right back to the words of the Lord Jesus Christ and says, “Look, He told you so. He told you this would happen. This not something that should surprise you.” It certainly didn't surprise Him. This is exactly what he told you.
And then sixthly, he says, “Take a look. Look inside.” And now we see why the stone is rolled away; for the faith of the disciples that they might see the truth of the resurrection.
And then having looked, he says seventh, “Go quickly and tell His disciples.” The angel commissions the women to spread the word to the disciples. They will become bearers of the good news of the resurrection to the disciples themselves.
Then eighth he says, “He is going ahead of you to Galilee. Tell the disciples to go to Galilee just as He had instructed them.” Do you remember that as Jesus was leaving the upper room on the night in which He was betrayed, and making His way to the garden of Gethsemane, in Matthew chapter 26, verse 32, He explicitly said to His disciples. “When I am raised again, I will meet you at the designated place in Galilee.” Now the angel is saying, “You go to that place. Just like Jesus told you He was going to be raised, so He is going to meet you there in Galilee.
Let me just emphasize something that's clearly on Matthew's heart here. Matthew makes a great deal out of the fact that that Jesus' ministry began in Galilee, Galilee of the Gentiles. Matthew calls Jesus, according to the words of the prophets, a Nazarene; that is, people called Him a Nazarene, someone from Galilee. Someone who would be looked down upon, and Matthew makes a great point about the fact that the Messiah's ministry began in Galilee. He goes right back to Isaiah 9:1-2, to say that Jesus' ministry in Galilee is a fulfillment of all of that prophecy that Isaiah gave to us in that great passage. And Galilee is so important to Matthew because it symbolizes Galilee of the Gentiles. The fact that Jesus is not only going to be the Savior of the ancient people of God, the Jewish people, He's going to be a Savior for the world. The Gentiles too will come to God in Christ. And here Matthew is pointing us right back to Galilee, right where that ministry began. And there, not from Jerusalem but from Galilee, a worldwide proclamation of the resurrection will begin.
And then ninth, the angel says, “You will see Him there.” All the disciples, he says, will be a witness of the resurrection there.
And finally tenth, he concludes with these words, “I have told you so.” That is, I, the glorious messenger of God Almighty, I've told you this. This is true. God can't lie. I can't lie. This is true. I've told you this. And now it's your time to do the telling.
What is God doing throughout the message of the angel? He's strengthening the faith of Hhis people through His word. And I want you to notice something here. God just doesn't do miraculous signs at the resurrection of Christ. He gives an explanation of what was happening in a word of revelation from the angel. And you will see this throughout the Scripture. God doesn't merely speak to His people by divine events. He speaks to them by His word.
There are modern theologians who would like to say that God doesn't communicate by word. He communicates in existential encounters, through great events, through which we just have to do the best we can to figure out what they mean. But that's never the pattern in the Scripture. God always preexplains, does a great act, and then postexplains. Think of the Exodus. God preexplains the Exodus to His people. Then He does the great act of the Exodus, and then He postexplains that to His people. And He does the same with the resurrection. Jesus preexplains and predicts the resurrection. The event occurs with a great manifestation of God's power. And then when it's done, what does God do? He sends another revelatory word to explain what it means. Because He knows we'd make neither head nor tail of it if He didn't explain it with His own word.
And so what is He doing here? God is not only confirming and vindicating His Son and the gospel through the events of the resurrection, but through the word of explanation through the angel, He is strengthening the faith of His people in deed and in word.
Think of how important that is. We have to believe the same way, friends. God expects us to trust Him in His providence and to believe in His word. And that is exactly what He is doing for His people right here. He is leading them to trust in His providence, and believe in His word.
III. The women respond to the angel's message.
And then finally, if you'll look at verses 8 through 10, we see the response of the women to the angel's message, and their subsequent encounter with the risen Lord. And again, we see the grace of God even in the way Jesus encounters these women, and in the word that He gives to them for His disciples. The women, we're told by Matthew, didn't walk. They ran to tell the disciples this good news. Their hearts were filled with fear and joy. And if you notice how often in the Scriptures those two counter-balancing emotions are present when the people of God are in the very presence of God. There's no flippancy when you're in the presence of God. He's the awesome God of heaven and earth. And so the heart trembles with awe. And at the same time there is no place in the world that God's people would rather be than in the presence of Almighty God. And so there is fear and joy mingled in the hearts of these women.
And suddenly and unexpectedly Jesus Himself comes to them. Matthew doesn't even say that the women ran into Jesus. It says, “Jesus met them.” Jesus comes to these women, and immediately and instinctively they fall at His feet and they worship Him. Now I want you to pause and think for a few minutes. Matthew three times explicitly uses the word “worship” in connection with people worshiping Jesus. The first time was in Matthew 2:2, when the wise men came and worshipped the infant Jesus. The second time was when the women, after the resurrection, and before Jesus' meeting with His disciples, worship Jesus. The third time that Matthew mentions it is in Matthew 28:9, when the disciples gather in Galilee and worship the Lord Jesus Christ. Matthew shows us the Gentiles worshiping Jesus first. And then he shows us God's reward to these faithful female disciples who stuck by Christ by giving them the privilege of being the first worshipers of the resurrected Lord. And then, the disciples come along and worship Jesus later on. Jesus then commissions these women to be apostles to the apostles. They are charged with the privilege and the responsibility of carrying an important message to Jesus' faltering and fearful disciples.
And note specifically how Jesus tells these women to address His disciples. The first words from Jesus to His disciples, through the lips of the women are to “My brothers.” Now I ask you, if you were the God of the universe, and you had been resurrected from the dead, and you had been abandoned by your disciples in the hour of your need, what would the first words have been that you spoke to them? “I the exalted God of heaven and earth am raised again from the dead, and where were you in the hour of My need?” And you see the tenderness of the Lord Jesus Christ in emphasizing to the women that the first words that his disciples must hear are these words, “My brothers.” He doesn't even relate to them as the sovereign God. He relates to them as their elder brother, “My brothers.” And so we see the love and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ as He cultivates faith amongst these struggling disciples, and He lays the groundwork here for an understanding of just what the resurrection is.
What I want you to see now is how God is building the faith of the disciples to trust in His word and His providence, and to believe the resurrection. He gives lavish testimony to the reality of the resurrection through these extraordinary events, through the words of the angel, through the witness of the guards, through the witness of the women, and later through the witness of the disciples. What's He doing? He's building a foundation for faith, because saving faith, my friends, the only faith that saves, is based upon the word of God and the promises of God, and is focused solely on the Lord Jesus Christ. Let's pray.
Our heavenly Father, we thank You for the truth of Your word, and we ask that You would help us to embrace it, for Jesus sake.
Ligon Duncan (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary; PhD, University of Edinburgh) is the Chancellor & CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary, the John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, and the President of RTS Jackson. He has authored, co-authored, edited, or contributed to numerous books. You can follow him on Twitter.