A Bible Lesson on Matthew 27:59-28:20

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

We come to Matthew’s brief account of the burial, resurrection, and the ensuing events, including the giving of the great commission. Like all cases of independent authentic accounts drawn from the testimony of eyewitnesses, the Gospel accounts each emphasize different details. That should come as no surprise and cause no consternation. If anything, we would have been left in a far less sure situation if the Gospel accounts sounded as if they all came out of the same cookie cutter. We will stick here primarily to the perspective provided by Matthew, recognizing that the other accounts provide other details.

The resurrection is the cornerstone of the Christian Faith. As Paul says in 1Corinthians 15:3-20, it is absolutely central, of first importance. Without it, we have absolutely nothing.

So let’s look at the Matthew account. Jesus has been crucified, dying at about 3:00 in the afternoon on Friday. There is just enough time to hastily place His body in a borrowed grave and get home before the beginning of the Sabbath at 6:00.

Matthew 27:59 And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud

60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away.

Joseph moved the body. John tells us that Nicodemas was helping. Joseph was a rich man, so it is likely that there were servants to help as well. This was Joseph’s own tomb, newly prepared by him, presumably for himself and his own family. It was a tomb that had never been used.

The pictures of the huge disk-shaped rock in front of the tomb are accurate. These rolled in grooves in front of such tombs, coming to rest in depressions in front of the entryways. It took substantial manpower to roll such a rock. They were meant to make entry difficult for wild animals and grave robbers.

61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

The women are here watching. They know where they are, and will make no mistake regarding location on Sunday morning.

62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate

This is Saturday, the Sabbath.

63 and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’

64 Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.”

65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.”

66 So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.

These details are unique to Matthew, and they are most wonderful. The tomb was secure. There is no funny business here. Without soldiers at the tomb, the “the disciples stole the body” tale is impossible to refute. With a guard there it’s an entirely different matter. Thank God for the soldiers.

Now on Sunday morning early we see the two Mary’s on their way to the tomb. These women had been present at the crucifixion and then at the tomb on Friday. They knew where to go, and were in the right place. There is no mix-up here, they’re at the right tomb, and Jesus is not there.

Matthew 28:1 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.

There “was” a violent earthquake, probably in the sense that there “had been” a violent earthquake. This is not the kind of stuff humans orchestrate (any more than you or I could orchestrate the sun going dark on Friday while Jesus was on the cross!). And now there sits the angel of the Lord (the tense apparently strongly suggests that he’s already sitting when they arrive). The stone has been rolled back, not to let the risen Christ out, but rather to let mortals in to see the empty tomb.

3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.

It seems like verse 4 is meant to tell us what had (earlier) happened to the guards. The intention is probably not that we understand the two Mary’s to have witnessed this.

4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.

This being is from the very presence of God. Tough Roman soldiers have literally “quaked” (like the earth has quaked) and fainted dead away before God’s powerful messenger. And now, this awesome being speaks to these women who have followed Jesus.

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.

Jesus had plainly said that He would rise from the dead. But that must be the furthest thing from the minds of these women and the disciples. At this point, they think that Jesus is dead and gone. They were clearly not expecting anything like this at the tomb. The “do not be afraid” is an emphatic “you do not be afraid!” These women are His loyal friends and followers, not His enemies. The Jewish leaders, the soldiers, they had something to fear. But these are not to fear. Rather, they are to come and see.

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.”

Recall: Matthew 26:32 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”

We know from the other Gospels that Jesus appears to the disciples here in Judea several times over the next weeks. This verse in no way precludes that. It simply reminds the women that He had made an appointment in Galilee that will also be kept.

Once the women see, they are told to go and tell. By Matthew’s account, the first to have the good news to share are these women. By Jewish standards, their testimony would not have counted for anything. But the Christian view is much different. There is dignity for all in Christ, and it is not accidental that these faithful women are first with the good news of the resurrection.

8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

They were afraid, yet filled with joy. Here is an authentic description if there ever was one. These women are at once terrified and yet tremendously relieved and surprised. They had to be flying on their way back into the city.

9 And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.

The greeting Jesus used was a common one of the day. Literally, it could be translated “rejoice.” The women cast themselves at the feet of the Master. They fully recognized Him and now without doubt knew that He is both Messiah and God in the flesh.

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.”

Ryle said regarding this verse: “Let us notice finally, the gracious message which the Lord sent to the disciples after His resurrection. He appeared in person to the women who had come to do honour to His body. Last at the cross and first at the tomb, they were the first privileged to see Him after He rose; and to them He gives commission to carry tidings to His disciples. His first thought is for His little scattered flock: ‘Go, tell my brethren.’

There is something deeply touching in those simple words, ‘My brethren.’ they deserve a thousand thoughts. Weak, frail, erring as the disciples were, Jesus still calls them His ‘brethren.’ He comforts them, as Joseph did his brethren who, had sold him saying, ‘I am your brother Joseph.’ Much as they had come short of their profession, sadly as they had yielded to the fear of man, they are still His ‘brethren.’ Glorious as He was in Himself, –a conqueror over death and hell, and the grave, the Son of God is still ‘meek and lowly of heart.’ He calls His disciples ‘brethren.’

Let us turn from the passage with comfortable thoughts, if we know anything of true religion. Let us see in these words of Christ an encouragement to trust and not be afraid. Our Saviour is one who never forgets His people; He pities their infirmities: He does not despise them. He knows their weakness, and yet does not cast them away. Our great High Priest is also our elder brother.”

Jesus essentially repeats the instructions of the angel, promising to meet the disciples in Galilee. The women obey and Matthew, who is writing so that his fellow Jews can know the truth and believe, takes time out to counter one of the rumors that was circulating as a supposed natural explanation of the empty tomb.

11 While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place.

12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers

13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’

14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”

15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.

The Jewish religious leaders are not concerned with truth, but rather with protecting their position, with what is expedient. Their hearts are so hard that they prefer bribery and a completely unbelievable lie to admitting that they are wrong. There is clear illustration here of the fact that we human beings, (except for the gracious work of God) are pretty much incapable of stopping a downward spiral in our sin and error and saying “no more.” Unaided by God, we essentially never arrest ourselves and say “This is bad, I’ve done wrong, I’m going to stop rather than make it yet worse.” These religious officials had predicted deceit on the part of the disciples, but in their futile attempt to stifle the truth, it is they who stoop to deceit. The notion that Roman soldiers assigned to guard duty would fall asleep, let alone potentially sign their own death warrants by openly admitting that they did so, is completely unbelievable. Besides which, how would they then be able to implicate the disciples, and why would they admit to having been outsmarted by 11 untrained Jews? This is simply not likely at all, especially given that they had been specially assigned to prevent just what they are claiming happened. This is a story you believe only if you set out to not believe the truth.

Notice, however, there is absolutely no dispute that the tomb was empty.

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.

Many Bible scholars speculate that this is the appearance of the risen Christ to over 500 people that Paul refers to in 1Corinthians 15:6.

17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.

The word translated “worshiped” here would apparently be more literally translated something like “prostrated themselves in homage before” (Him). “Some doubted.” It’s not completely clear who and what is meant here. The verb doesn’t carry the meaning of a settled unbelief, but rather an uncertainty and hesitation. And by this time it is presumably not the 11, if the meaning is anything more than a temporary confusion as to whether someone in the distance might be Him. (We are reminded that Thomas had most certainly doubted.) Perhaps it’s initially some of the 500 if this is the incident of Christ’s appearance to the 500. Ultimately, this is really a most reassuring phrase. It reminds us that these people were not gullible oafs without a clue. They weren’t carried along by hysteria. Rather, they were careful people who weighed the evidence and then believed on the basis of many convincing proofs.

Acts 1:3 To them he presented himself alive after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

Our faith rests on the testimony of reliable and careful witnesses.

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

The point is not that Jesus previously didn’t have authority. He certainly did have the full authority of the second person of the Godhead. Rather, the point is that henceforth the authority of God in the entire universe is mediated through the Lord Jesus. Rather than being limited as human being, He is going to reign directly over all that is.

In the genealogies Jesus is shown to be the successor to King David. In the triumphal entry to Jerusalem, He’s hailed as Messiah, and that brings about the mocking display of His title as “King of the Jews” on Golgotha. Here the reality is seen and it’s far more grand and comprehensive than even those titles indicate. He’s not Just King of the Jews, He’s Lord over all that is. And that is true in the bad times as well as the good. Christian people ought never lose heart. Their King is King over all.

Philippians 2:6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,

7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form,

8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,

10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This, of course is perfectly in keeping with Jesus’ place as the fulfiller of Old Testament prophecy regarding the Messiah.

Daniel 7:13 I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.

14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

The sphere of His direct reign as Messiah now includes all. That being the case, the people of Jesus are to go and declare His rule and reign to the whole world. If He is King over all, all should hear of it and be urged to submit to His rule.

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The command here is to go, and having gone, to make disciples. The baptizing and teaching are things that will accompany repentance and conversion as the Gospel is proclaimed. The presumption is that those that those who hear and come to faith will in due course declare their faith in Christ through baptism and exhibit a desire for careful instruction in the faith. Before the crucifixion and resurrection, mighty powerful acts of Jesus were often accompanied by instructions to not spread word of them. Things have now fundamentally changed.   Now it’s time to declare to the whole world the rule and reign of the King.

The Greek for “disciple” means “learner.” A disciple is not one who has simply made a decision or profession of allegiance. He/she is one who continues to learn and grow in faith and allegiance. “in the name of” indicates ownership/lordship. It could as well (and perhaps should) be translated “into” the name of. Notice in passing that the baptism is to be in the one name (singular) of the Father and Son and Spirit. It is one God we worship. Relationship with that one God is being affirmed in the act.

There is to be teaching and the teaching is to have moral consequences. A disciple is to obey everything that Jesus has commanded. And the promise is that in light of universal reign of Christ, the disciples may count on His presence as they go about declaring His rule and reign. The Gospel opened with Jesus, the baby, being announced to Joseph as “Immanuel, God with us.” The Gospel closes with “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Behold/remember/take note/pay attention/look! I (emphatic), no less than I, am with you always … not just forever, but day in and day out, all the time.

Ryle wrote: “Finally, let us observe in these verses, the gracious promise with which Jesus closes His words. He says to His disciples, ‘I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.’

It is impossible to conceive words more comforting, strengthening, cheering, and sanctifying than these. Though left alone, like orphan children in a cold unkind world, the disciples were not to think they were deserted: their Master would be ever ‘with them.’ Though commissioned to do a work as hard as that of Moses when sent to Pharaoh, they were not to be discouraged: their Master would certainly be ‘with them.’ No words could be more suited to the position of those to whom they were first spoken; no words could be imagined more consolatory to believers in every age of the world.

Let all true Christians lay hold on these words and keep them in mind. Christ is ‘with us’ always: Christ is ‘with us’ wherever we go. He came to be ‘Emmanuel, God with us,’ when He first came into the world: He declares that He is ever Emmanuel, ‘with us,’ when He comes to the end of His earthly ministry and is about to leave the world. He is with us daily to pardon and forgive, with us daily to sanctify and strengthen, with us daily to defend and keep, with us daily to lead and to guide: with us in sorrow and with us in joy, with us in sickness and with us in health, with us in life and with us in death, with us in time and with us in eternity.

What stronger consolation could believers desire than this? Whatever happens, they at least are never, completely friendless and alone: Christ is ever with them. They may look into the grave and say with David, ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.’ They may look forward beyond the grave, and say with Paul, ‘We shall ever “be with the Lord.”‘ (Psalm xxiii 4; 1 Thess. iv. 17.) He has said it, and He will stand to it: ‘I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.’ ‘I will never leave you and never forsake you.’ –We could ask nothing more. Let us go on believing, and not be afraid. It is everything to be a real Christian. None have such a King, such a Priest, such a constant Companion, and such an unfailing Friend as the true servants of Christ.”

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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