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“The Truth of the Resurrection”

Matthew 28:1-15
Bob DeGray
April 20, 2014

Key Sentence

No matter how much men try to hide it, the resurrection is the truth.


I. The Empty Tomb (Matthew 28:1-7)
II. The Risen Lord (Matthew 28:8-10)
III. The Original Cover-up (Matthew 28:11-15)


Have you ever wondered who the contemporary C. S. Lewis or John Stott might be? Many names could be suggested, I suppose, but in recent years I’ve begun to suspect and appreciate the prolific theologian and historian N. T. Wright. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I love the way he says some things, and he’s British to boot. Years ago he began to focus his writing and thinking on the resurrection. His big book, 740 pages, is called “The Resurrection of the Son of God.” On a more accessible level he wrote “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.” In the last ten years he’s been involved in countless popular and academic lectures and debates in which he has defended the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Here’s a brief clip which serves as a great introduction to our message this morning:

“And the early Christian claim was not ‘well, Jesus happened to have risen from the dead and so that was a miracle, but there are lots of miracles, but rather that this is actually the turning point of history. This is the moment when a great door swings open that has been shut from the very beginning, because nobody has ever come back from the grave. The Greeks and Romans talked about people coming back from the grave as a kind of ‘wouldn’t it be exciting if,’ but nobody ever actually said it had happened, and indeed many were quite emphatic that it couldn’t and wouldn’t and didn’t. So when the Christians said not only that it would happen to all people in the future, but it had happened to this one person in the middle of history, they were conscious of making, and we should be conscious that they knew they were making the most extraordinary claim, that something one off has happened, but not as a bizarre freak accident as it were; rather the central, climactic, decisive moment when the God who made the world in the first place launched his new creation.”

This morning we’re celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from Matthew 28:1-15. But we can’t truly celebrate the resurrection until we’re convinced, like Tom Wright, that it’s true. The Son of God was raised in bodily form and appeared and went to heaven, where he reigns until he confers the same bodily resurrection on all who have believed in him. This truth has always been debated, yet the Scriptures give simple and solid assurance that it is truly true.

Back to N. T. Wright, briefly, before we turn to the text. One reviewer summarizes Wright’s case for the resurrection as standing on three legs: (1) the empty tomb; (2) The post-mortem appearances of Jesus to individuals and groups; and (3) the transformation of the early Christian community and its beliefs, which are inexplicable apart from the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

This is a deceptively simple summary: Wright goes into these things deeply. But it turns out, and I’m sure Wright has noticed, that this summary is also, roughly, Matthew’s outline. He starts with the empty tomb, he moves to the risen Christ and then rules out the first attempt to explain the resurrection away. Matthew and Tom Wright are saying the same thing “No matter how much men try to hide it, the resurrection is the truth.” We begin with the empty tomb.

Matthew 28:1-7 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. 2And 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. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then 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.”

We know what goes before. Jesus, by his own choice, drank the cup of crucifixion, sin-bearing and wrath the Father poured outl At the end of chapter 27 Jesus is buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, an act witnessed by an undisclosed number of men and at least two women, ‘Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.’ In Matthew 27:56 ‘the other Mary’ is ‘the mother of James and Joses;’ Some think this is Jesus’ mother, who appears in this context in John, others think each of the Gospels mentions only a few of the several women there. Luke, in fact, mentions the women only as a group. But it is important that these women are the first to see the empty tomb and the risen Lord.

Verse 1 tells us this occurred after the Sabbath, which could be any time after sunset on Saturday. But it was toward the dawn of the first day of the week. This is unambiguous: Jesus rose on Sunday. That’s why we’re here today; before the New Testament period had ended the church had begun to meet on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. It’s tradition, not commandment, but there’s no corresponding evidence that the church ever met on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, except in evangelistic endeavors at synagogues. I think we have freedom in this area. Messianic congregations and others who meet on Saturday have the freedom to do that. But those who try to say we are sinning by meeting on Sunday do not have a strong case and are denying that freedom.

So on this first day Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. N. T. Wright and others find it significant that in all four Gospels the first witnesses to the resurrection are women.

One reviewer summarizes Wright as saying “The story of the women who were the first witnesses to the empty tomb cannot have been invented, because the testimony of women was inadmissible under almost all circumstances at that time. If the story were invented, they would have invented male discoverers of the tomb. Female discovers would have hampered conversion efforts.” It would be like writing an account of a car accident that you wanted to be believed, but all your witnesses are high on LSD. You’ll doubt their ability to report the facts. So if the Gospel authors do have women as witnesses it must be because they really were the witnesses.

Matthew says only that the women were going to see the tomb. Mark and Luke say they were bringing spices to do the final preparation of the body for burial. Right to the end Matthew makes his account more concise than the others. As they approach, verse 2, there is another earthquake. At the same moment an angel of the Lord descends from heaven, and coming to the tomb he rolls back the stone and sits on it. The stone in such a tomb would probably have been a circular disk set into a track with a slight depression in front of the opening. A stone such as this would be easier to put in place than to roll away, and it’s not apparent in any of the Gospels how the women expected to get in. But they didn’t have to; it is opened for them. This angel, who is as bright as lighting in snow white garments is there to reveal the empty tomb. Jesus had already been raised; given the properties of his resurrection body there is no reason to think the stone had to be moved for him to leave. As Don Carson says “There is no implication that the earthquake had anything to do with releasing Jesus: the stone was rolled back, the seal broken, and the soldiers made helpless, not to let the risen Messiah escape, but to let the witnesses in.”

Now when the guard heard and saw these events, they were terrified, so terrified that they first tembled and then ‘became like dead men.’ In English we might say that they ‘fainted dead away.’ As a result, in addition to not seeing the resurrection itself, they did not hear the explanation of the empty tomb.

Verse 5, “But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” Why do we believe in the resurrection? Reason one, N. T. Wright and many others say, is the empty tomb. Given the circumstances, the tomb should not be empty. It was not the wrong tomb — the women had been there on Friday before sundown and watched the body be buried. The body had not been moved by the authorities — why would they place a guard on an empty tomb? The body had not been moved by the disciples. The transformation of the disciples from fear to great faith is psychologically unthinkable if they knew Jesus was dead.

Nor, Wright shows convincingly were they hallucinating. Such hallucinations, though fairly common, are always taken to mean the person is dead, not that he’s been raised to life. Finally, Jesus, if merely human and against-all-odds alive, had not removed himself; the stone was too heavy for one man to move, especially a severely weakened man, one who had been pronounced dead.

So when we think of the truth of the resurrection, we start with the empty tomb. But think also of the angelic announcement. Unless these accounts are totally fabricated — which admittedly some believe - then the fact that an angel came to convey these truths is important. Angels are trustworthy messengers of God, from Genesis to Revelation. And this angel is greeted with the same fear as every angel in Scripture; the first thing he has to say is ‘do not be afraid.’ Then he confirms that he knows why they are there, seeking Jesus who was crucified. He knows this tomb should have a dead body in it, but he goes on without pause to say “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said.”

In many ways this is the climax of the Gospel, the climax of God’s story. If the story ended in the tomb we would have no assurance that anything that went before was true or meaningful. We would have no assurance our sins were covered, we would have no assurance our separation from God was ended, we would have no assurance that eternal life, our resurrected life had begun. We would be shaken by doubts and almost certainly consumed by disbelief. But by rising again Jesus ends all doubt and dispute. He is risen, therefore sin is conquered. He is risen, therefore death is defeated. He is risen, therefore we too will rise, to new life with God and to eternal life that can never be taken away.

All this because Jesus rose and is alive, ‘just as he said.’ I love that phrase. Not only did Jesus rise again, but he predicted it, over and over in the gospels. And if Jesus predicted the resurrection, the most unlikely event in the history of the universe, we should take seriously all else he says, like, ‘whoever believes in me has eternal life’ and ‘I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you,’ and ‘you will see the Son of Man coming in power and great glory.” If you don’t believe in the resurrection, feel free to take everything else Jesus said with a grain of salt. But if you believe in the bodily resurrection, ‘as he said’ then you really have no reason not to take all his promises and his commands seriously. And I think we’re seeing today that the resurrection is the truth. If you still have doubts, seek out others who have said it better than I am.

The angel offers the women the proof of the empty tomb: come and see the place where he lay. It’s really an empty tomb and, as I said, there is really no good reason for it to be empty apart from a resurrection. Did you ever hear of Occam’s razor? Occam was a monk-philosopher of the middle ages.

He formulated a principle which says that when faced with differing explanations for the same set of data, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one. When I was in college we saw that over and over in physics and chemistry, and when I was an engineer it proved very helpful in troubleshooting. And it’s useful here — if all the human explanations of the resurrection are filled with problems and complexities maybe the simplest explanation, the one given by the angel and by the one who would be raised from death is the right one.

The women become the first witnesses of this empty tomb; then the angel says “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.” Jesus had promised, not many days before, “after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Now the angel confirms that promise. Some have said that this contradicts all the other appearances that Jesus makes besides the one in Galilee, but that’s not what he said: they may see him elsewhere but he promises they will see him there. And that’s the important one because it is there he will give them their marching orders for the new age his resurrection has begun.

The first bit of joyful evidence for the truth of the resurrection is the empty tomb, combined by the angel’s testimony. Don Carson says “The empty tomb by itself is capable of several explanations. This explanatory word of revelation narrows the potential interpretations down to one: Jesus has risen from the dead.” But, Carson adds, this is a fact confirmed by personal appearances.

That’s what Matthew next gives us. Verses 8 to 10: So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

With mingled fear and joy, the women run to tell their news to the disciples. Then, suddenly, Jesus meets them. "Greetings" is a normal Greek salutation, as common as our phrases hello or ‘good morning.’ Unlike some resurrection appearances, these women have no trouble recognizing Jesus. In fact one gets the impression from the Gospels that Jesus was recognized when he wanted to be and not when he didn’t. These women not only recognize him, they kneel before him in an attitude of worship. They take hold of his feet in a reverent but emotional bid to assure themselves he is real. In our culture this would have been a hug, but that culture was more aware of reverence for even social superiors, let alone one whom you must now consider ‘Lord and God’. They were, as the ESV translates it, worshipping him, in the full sense of the word.

Verse 10: Like the angel, Jesus has to still the women’s fears with the ever present ‘do not fear.’ Then he gives them nearly the same command: “go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” When Jesus says ‘my brothers’ he is probably referring to more than just the eleven disciples. The term is used in Matthew for the fellowship of those who acknowledge Jesus as Messiah. In Matthew 12:50 Jesus says “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” This makes the passage we’ll study next week really interesting because we can now picture the Great Commission not being given to just eleven, but to a large crowd, maybe the ‘500’ that Paul mentions in 1st Corinthians 15:6.

Which leads us to appearances. The truth of the resurrection is evident not only in the empty tomb but in the appearances of Jesus. Paul’s list may be the earliest: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” In these appearances Jesus did things like eat fish, eat bread, allow his followers to poke their fingers in his hands and side, and things like appearing in a locked room, along a road, on a mountain, and ascending into heaven. He had a physical human body, but transformed into what Paul calls a body fit for heaven. These appearances, numerous and varied, do not strike us as made up, or as hallucinations. Like the empty tomb, the most reasonable explanation is that he really appeared.

N. T. Wright says “the only possible reason why early Christianity began and took the shape it did is that the tomb really was empty and that people really did meet Jesus, alive again, and that, though admitting it involves accepting a challenge at the level of worldview itself, the best historical explanation for all these phenomena is that Jesus was indeed bodily raised from the dead.”

So we’ve seen the empty tomb, the Risen Lord, and now we want to look briefly at what I call the original cover-up. Verses 11-15: While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. 12And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.

For 2000 years people have tried to invent an alternate story that makes sense of the resurrection account: hallucinations; swoon; body stolen; wrong tomb, etc. These alternate theories go back to the beginning. The first was this famous ‘disciples-stole-the-body’ theory, still dragged out and popularized today.

After they woke from their faint, some of the guards reported in, not to Pilate, but to the chief priests; they were likely temple guards, not Roman soldiers. It’s difficult to believe Romans would admit falling asleep: it would be a death sentence. But temple police could more easily be bribed, even though it took "a large sum of money," and also more easily be protected from Pilate's anger.

When Matthew says the guards reported “all that had taken place,” he isn’t suggesting they actually witnessed the Resurrection but the earthquake the angel, and the empty tomb. This report causes the Jewish leaders to meet yet again, and again their instinctive concern is for expedience and the people's reaction, not to the truth. The story they concoct shows how desperate they are for an explanation, for if the guards were asleep, they could not know of the alleged theft; and if awake, why didn’t they prevent it from happening?

But disciples stole the body? Molesting graves was a serious offense in the ancient world, subject at times to the death penalty. Could the timid and fearful disciples have mustered up the courage to open Jesus' tomb and run the risk of a capital indictment? Probably not. Would the Jewish authorities have failed to prosecute the disciples if they had even a scrap of evidence? Certainly not. That the story was widely circulated against the early church, and is still used today shows how weak non-resurrection answers have always been.

A key reason why this and so many other denials of the resurrection fall apart is the behavior of the disciples in the months, years and decades after these events. Before they were timid: betrayers, deserters, deniers, hiding out in an upper room with locked doors. After, they went everywhere, bolding proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and rejoicing to endure persecution for the sake of their Risen Lord and his message and his salvation. Until you can explain the world changing change of these men without an actual resurrection you have not even begun to disprove it. N. T. Wright expands this even further by pointing out that it was not just their lives that changed, but their whole world view. For example, Judaism didn’t have a category for what Jesus did. The Messiah was not supposed to die; he was supposed to live forever without resort to a resurrection. Wright lays out seven of these world view changes that cannot be explained out of historical Judaism, but all of which are explained by the physical bodily reality of the resurrection of Jesus.

We can’t go into all that today, but Wright summarizes: When you think logically about the different bits of the early Christian claim then you discover that they actually fit together but it’s one of those jigsaw puzzles which if you take one bit away, the rest will disintegrate as well. So that if all you have is visions of Jesus for a few days, a few weeks, some people seeing him, but then if his body is still in a tomb somewhere then they would say, as we’ve said before, these are just those hallucinations, those experiences, it was his angel visiting us or whatever, and that proves not that he’s alive but precisely that he’s dead.

Equally, if you just had an empty tomb. If they discovered, even certifiably that it really was Jesus’ tomb but it was empty, well, the ancient world is full of stories of grave robbery, especially when people are rich or famous or well known or leaders. And there’s lots of novels and plays which include that motif in the first century actually, in the Greek world. So by itself an empty tomb doesn’t prove resurrection. By itself sightings of Jesus doesn’t prove resurrection. Put the two together, however, and they tell a totally new story.

Now for that reason I do not believe what some scholars have suggested that first you had empty tomb stories and only later you had appearance stories, or vice-versa. Because actually you wouldn’t get the one without the other as meaning resurrection. By themselves either half would simply mean this is a puzzle, this is a mystery, but he’s clearly dead, and now what are we going to do.

But the now what are we going to do bit is the crucial thing. If they hadn’t had that total picture that he really was alive again, they would not have even begun to do and say and think what clearly, from very, very soon after Jesus’ death they did begin to do and say and think, which was not only to say he’s alive again the world is a very strange place, but actually to say He’s alive again and therefore God’s new creation has begun, God’s kingdom has truly been launched on earth as in heaven. The powers of evil have been defeated, and therefore we are going to go out into the world and tell people that God is God, and that Jesus is Lord. And whatever they do to us we’re going to go on living by that and telling that story.

So what have we said? The resurrection we celebrate today is the truth. Everything hinges on it and it can bear that weight. Therefore we should celebrate, make much of it, rejoice in it and proclaim it. Wright says “Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our worship? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to forty days of fasting and gloom?” The resurrection is the truth to be celebrated.