Matthew – Part 8 – (Chapter 28)

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Jesus rises from the dead

Matthew chapter 28, verses 1-10
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Commentary

Jesus left the tomb in much the same way he would enter the locked room where his disciples were gathered later on that same evening (see John chapter 20, verse 19). His glorified resurrection body was no longer bound by time and space. He simply went where he wanted to go. The walls of the tomb could not contain him, just as a clear pane of glass cannot stop the rays of the sun from passing through. The reason the angel came down from heaven to roll the stone away was to show the women, and the world, that Jesus had already left the tomb.

The earthquake that accompanied the angel’s descent recalls the prophecy of Haggai chapter 2, verses 6-9. “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the LORD Almighty.” It seems significant that an earthquake marked both Jesus’ death and his resurrection. These quakes were obviously more than coincidences of nature; both quakes signaled that great and mighty acts of God were taking place. It is as though God the Father was tying the crucifixion and the resurrection of his Son together with a seismic knot. Since the women had also been at the cross, they may have made the connection.

The guards were terrified, and the angel did nothing to alleviate their fear. He ignored them and addressed his words to the women, “Do not be afraid.” This was the same greeting Gabriel gave to Zechariah (Luke chapter 1, verse 13) and to Mary (verse 30). When the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream (see Matthew chapter 1, verse 20) and when the angel appeared to the shepherds (see Luke chapter 2, verse 10), the greeting was the same: “Do not be afraid.” That is the gospel in a nutshell. That is the message of Easter. King David has taught us to pray it and to take it to heart: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” (Psalm 23, verse 4).

At first the angel’s words sounded too good to be true: “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.” It was a gentle way of saying, “I told you so! You should not be surprised. You should have known he would not be here anymore.”

What could they say? Matthew does not record a single word that the women said in response to this good news, and Mark 16:8 tells us, “They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

If the angel had not told them what to do next, they very likely would have stood there for some time in amazement. So the angel told them to inform the disciples that Jesus was alive and to tell them to go to Galilee, for they would see him there.

Matthew makes no mention of how the disciples reacted when they heard the report of the women. But Luke chapter 24, verse 11 tells us, “They did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.” Not only did the disciples fail to believe that Jesus was alive, they did not head straight for Galilee either. Instead, they came to the tomb to see for themselves that it was indeed empty. And they were still in Jerusalem, gathered behind locked doors, when Jesus came and appeared to ten of them on Easter evening.

Before the women made their way to where the disciples were gathered, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings.” Immediately they recognized him and fell down and worshiped him. Jesus repeated the message they had just heard from the angel. So as they ran off to find the disciples, they had more than the word of an angel; they could say that they had seen Jesus! His invitation to meet in Galilee was a repetition of what he had said to the disciples on Maundy Thursday evening (see Matthew chapter 26, verse 32).

It is noteworthy that Jesus calls his disciples “my brothers.” He knew they were going to feel guilty about the way they had all forsaken him and fled in Gethsemane. But he wanted them to know that he had forgiven them. He was anxious to see them. They did not have to be afraid of what he would think of them when they saw each other again.

There may be further significance in the fact that Jesus calls them “my brothers” rather than “my disciples.” He seems to be inviting them to think of themselves as his colleagues, much as ministers today refer to each other as “the brethren.” Their seminary training was just about over. Soon they would be preaching the same gospel Jesus had been preaching for the last three and a half years while they watched and learned.

After this, Jesus appeared to many others, but Matthew does not mention all of these appearances. Jesus appeared to Peter (Luke chapter 24, verse 34), to Cleopas and his friend on the way to Emmaus (verses 13-31), to ten of the Eleven (John chapter 20, verses 19-23), and then a week later to all of them (verses 26-31). The apostle Paul provides a list that includes some of these same appearances and a number of others in 1st Corinthians chapter 15, verses 5-8. There is abundant eyewitness testimony to the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus Christ, my sure defense
And my Savior, now is living!
Knowing this, my confidence
Rests upon the hope he’s giving,
Though the night of death be fraught
Still with many an anxious thought.

Jesus, my Redeemer, lives;
I, too, unto life shall waken.
Endless joy my Savior gives;
Shall my courage, then, be shaken?
Shall I fear, or could the head
Rise and leave his members dead?

No, too closely am I bound
Unto him by hope forever;
Faith’s strong hand the rock has found,
Grasped it, and will leave it never.
Even death now cannot part
From its Lord the trusting heart.

I am flesh and must return
Unto dust, whence I am taken;
But by faith I now discern
That from death I shall awaken
With my Savior to abide
In his glory, at his side.

Glorified, I shall anew
With this flesh then be enshrouded;
In this body I shall view
God, my Lord, with eyes unclouded;
In this flesh I then shall see
Jesus Christ eternally.
(Christian Worship Hymn 167, stanzas 1-5)

The chief priests and the elders bribe the guards

Matthew chapter 28, verses 11-15
While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

Commentary

Matthew is the only one who documents how the guards were bribed by the leaders of the Jews. Since this story was still being widely circulated at the time when Matthew wrote his gospel, he wanted to set the record straight. When the guards reported “everything that had happened,” we presume they must have told the unvarnished truth. “The tomb is empty. There was another earthquake. An angel came down, rolled the stone away from the tomb, and said that Jesus had risen. All we can say for sure is that the disciples did not steal his body while we were on duty.”

The chief priests do not even bother to try to dispute the facts with the guards. They accept their report as accurate and true. After all, the report is not coming from the disciples or some other interested party. So the first thing the chief priests do is consult with the elders of the people. They had worked together to accuse Jesus before Pilate (chapter 27, verse 12); now they worked together to try to cover up the truth. In so doing they hardened their hearts against God. Matthew does not say where the money came from to pay off the guards. Maybe it came out of the same account from which they had gotten the 30 pieces of silver for Judas Iscariot.

Jesus gives the Great Commission to the Eleven

Matthew chapter 28, verses 16-20
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Commentary

We do not know for sure how much time passed between Jesus’ appearance to the women on Easter Sunday and his appearance to the Eleven in Galilee. We do know that Jesus appeared to various people in various places over a period of 40 days before he ascended into heaven (see Acts chapter 1, verse 3). It may well be that this incident took place near the end of those 40 days.

The reaction of the Eleven is the same as the reaction of the women on Easter Sunday; they worshiped Jesus. Here, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, the Eleven are doing the same thing the Magi did at the beginning of the story (chapter 2, verse 11). We do well to consider the fact that worship is one thing we do here on earth that we will also do in heaven. “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Revelation chapter 5, verse 12).

What does it mean that some of them doubted? How could they worship and doubt at the same time? When we take Luke chapter 24, verses 36-49 and John chapter 20, verses 19-29 into consideration, it hardly seems possible that they doubted the resurrection. Perhaps it was more a matter of confusion over what to make of it all. Jesus kept appearing and disappearing without any warning. They never knew for sure when or if they would see him again. Nor did they feel confident that they knew what Jesus wanted them to do now. Where did they fit into Jesus’ plans for the future?

The Great Commission is Jesus’ answer to their doubts. One reason Jesus told them to meet him in Galilee may have been so they could get away from the crowds and the distractions in Jerusalem. He would soon be ascending to the right hand of his Father, so he wanted to take full advantage of the few opportunities that remained for instructing them.

So Jesus met the Eleven on a mountain in Galilee. Perhaps this happened shortly after the miraculous catch of fish and Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter, which took place on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (see John chapter 21, verses 1-22). This mountain in Galilee was not the hill from which Jesus actually ascended, for Luke tells us that he ascended from the Mount of Olives, just outside Jerusalem (see Luke chapter 24, verses 50-53; Acts chapter 1, verses 9-12).

Matthew does not give us any indication that anyone besides the Eleven was present, nor does his account rule out the possibility that other believers may have been present. Regardless of who was present, the account makes it clear that the Great Commission applies to others besides the Eleven (“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”). Just as Jesus’ commands concerning the ministry of the keys (chapter 16, verse 19; chapter 18, verses 15-20; John chapter 20, verses 22 and 23) and the Lord’s Supper (1st Corinthians chapter 11, verses 23-26) apply to all Christians and not just to the apostles, so Jesus’ Great Commission applies to all believers of all time.

For Jesus to issue such a great commission, he must have a correspondingly great authority. Jesus makes it clear that his authority is unlimited; he claims all authority in heaven and on earth. Only God can say that. But he also says all this authority “has been given to me.” With these words Jesus claims to be the Son of Man who was given all authority by the Ancient of Days (see Daniel chapter 7, verses 13 and 14). The authority that has been delegated to him by the Father he now delegates to his disciples. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John chapter 20, verse 21). He gives them the authority and responsibility to make disciples of all nations by baptizing them in the name of the triune God and by teaching them to obey everything he has commanded. As Christ’s church proclaims the apostolic gospel and administers Christ’s sacraments, the church has Christ’s promise always to be with his followers, working through his Word and sacraments to make and keep people as his disciples, his believers.

The liturgical use of the Great Commission is significant. Christ here institutes the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. The trinitarian baptismal formula (“. . . in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”) is also used in the invocation and in the absolution, and the Gloria Patri is clearly based on this text. Both the Morning Prayer and the Evening Prayer, which Martin Luther included in his Small Catechism, begin with the words, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And it is most often to these words that we turn to establish our doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

The command that Jesus gives to the Eleven is not primarily “Go!” but “make disciples.” Jesus’ assumption, however, is that what he tells them to do will not happen unless they go to people. As we apply these words to ourselves, we certainly will want to include supporting mission work at home and abroad. At the same time, let us not overlook how this work begins at home in our families. The responsibility God gives to parents is to bring up their children in the fear of the Lord. We do this by bringing them to church to be baptized and by teaching them. If every household took this responsibility seriously, the inreach evangelistic work of the church would be largely done.

Matthew wants us to hear an echo of Isaiah chapter 9, verses 1 and 2, the prophecy that he quoted back in chapter 4 when Jesus was beginning his public ministry. The reference there to “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matthew chapter 4, verse 15) corresponds to “all nations” in the Great Commission. Both in Hebrew and in Greek, “the nations” are the Gentiles. When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he used the word Heiden, which means “the heathen.” Although the Eleven were all Jews, they were to preach the gospel to Jew and Gentile alike. This was in keeping with God’s ancient promise to Abram: “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis chapter 12, verse 3). It is significant that Jesus chose to utter these words in Galilee, where Jews and Gentiles had been in frequent contact with one another for centuries. (That is why Isaiah called it “Galilee of the Gentiles.”)

John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus by “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark chapter 1, verse 4). Jesus began his public ministry by coming to John to be baptized. Jesus told Nicodemus, “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John chapter 3, verse 5). And Jesus’ own disciples also administered Baptism to those who wanted to become Jesus’ disciples (see John chapter 4, verse 1 and 2). So now, when Jesus commissions them to make disciples of the Gentiles by baptizing, this is not entirely new to them. But what is new is that Baptism has been transformed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is explained in greater detail by the apostle Paul in Romans chapter 6, verses 1-5.

Jesus tells us to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” This means we are to preach the entire message of Jesus without embarrassment and without compromise. We are neither to add to it nor to subtract from it (see Revelation chapter 22, verses 18 and 19).

Matthew places these words at the close of his gospel, and it seems that he wants to imply that one good way to “observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (as in the King James Version) is to go back and reread this gospel. No one can exhaust this book the first time through. Now that we have made it to the end, we can go back and see new things in the opening chapters that did not dawn on us the first time. And as we do so, we have Jesus’ precious promise, “Surely I am with you always.” Do you hear an echo of chapter 1? Immanuel is talking to you!