[March 23, 2008] Wow! The women were completely overtaken by surprise at what happened that morning. They believed Jesus when He said He would rise, but they still came to the tomb with spices to anoint His body. Jesus was buried in a hurry on Friday as the Sabbath began. Now that Sabbath was over, they could take care of His body more properly. The thing is this: no one was prepared for a LITERAL resurrection. In the Old Testament, there were dead who were resuscitated, like in the Elijah and Elisha stories, and Jesus had raised several people besides Lazarus. But the disciples did not seem to expect Jesus to be resuscitated. Herod thought John the Baptist had risen from the dead, but he did not think that meant his tomb would be empty; it was a “spiritual” resurrection. Perhaps one can see a dead person alive in a vision. Many theologians today think that that is what the resurrection of Jesus was. The example they give is Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. Greeks, who certainly believed in the supernatural, thought the idea of resurrection was ridiculous and used to mock Christian preaching (cf. Paul in Athens, Acts 17.)
Probably, the women and disciples were expecting something more like the Second Coming, when Jesus would come in the clouds in heaven. After the crucifixion, then the kingdom would come. Jesus said on the third day. That was easier to believe than what happened. He literally rose from the dead. The tomb was empty! And Jesus eats with His disciples and they touch Him. And in spite of its physicality, in spite of the stigmata (the marks of crucifixion), His broken body was not merely resuscitated. He was alive with a body that had overcome death and could now never die or get sick or old. He was alive not merely with biological life but with the eternal life of God. He was, in fact, recreated as Adam was on the day of creation, and not merely set in motion with life, but—if I can say this—eternally recreated, always fresh with life, with inexhaustible vitality. Yet He was absolutely tangible.
We jump ahead. They had not seen Him yet. After He rose from the dead, an angel came and opened the tomb to show that it was empty. The Scriptures do not say that Jesus walked out of the tomb (maybe He did). It seems that the soldiers did not see Him. No unbelievers saw Him. The open tomb, however, was a sign for everyone that He was no longer there.
The soldiers, however, saw the angel and were terrified. Their fear made them become like dead men. But apart from having a new story to tell, they were unchanged. The chief priests were able to bribe them to lie about what they saw. This kind of fear does not transform or convert anyone.
On the other hand, the women were also filled with fear after the angel spoke to them. But it was fear mixed with “great joy.” This is an utterly different kind of fear. An encounter with God creates fear in us—but it is a good fear. It is not what the soldiers experienced. Rather, it is overwhelming awe with, at the same time, an overwhelming sense of humility. He is so great and we are so small, but He is also so good and we are so undeserving. Along with this there is a kind of amazement that THIS ONE should come to us. So along with the humility is a tremendous sense of thankfulness, like we could never ever be grateful enough. For the One whom we are meeting is not simply a power or force but a Person who loves us and makes us persons who can love back. All this—awe with humility and gratitude—is fear. It is life transforming, and it is full of joy. He who puts this fear into us also says, “Do not be afraid.” I think this is the grace that keeps us from fainting.
The women do not only have the words of the angel to believe. Jesus actually meets them (He comes to them; they do not find Him), and they take hold of Him and worship Him. What happened to Jesus is not just a “belief” about which we are convinced. It is reality. It means more than the bare fact.
The Gospel of Matthew begins with Jesus as the greater David, the Messiah. King David conquered the enemies of Israel. But Israel eventually went into exile. Their return from Babylon was not what the prophets (ultimately) foretold, but only a sign of their deliverance. Since then they had been a subjected people—under the Persians, then the Greeks, and then the Romans. The enemy was really bigger than these worldly powers. The world, it turns out, is a spiritual power, and Satan is the mind behind the world. And Satan holds the world in slavery by sin and the curse of death. By turning against God, our relationship with God has been ruptured and we have been trying to live without God. We live in the ‘flesh,’ which is all we are without God.
But by the obedience which Jesus waged in His human life, by His offering to God the form of repentance that was required of us and pursuing this to the end, to the death on the cross, He overcame our separation from God. Our sins are forgiven. He overcame Satan completely so that Satan can have no ground in His new humanity forever. He crucified the flesh, so we can now have a body for God. He overcame the power of the world, so that from now on its days are limited; it is running on borrowed time and will one day exhaust itself. Christ is the Victor. If we are in Christ, we know this victory and everything He has won will be ours, even the resurrection from the dead. One day, beginning with His Second Coming, all creation will be transformed—transfigured—by His victory. What happened to His body in resurrection will happen to us and to the entire creation.
One day His victory will be manifested. This is perhaps what the disciples were expecting to see. What they did see, in the resurrected Jesus who met them, is the justification of God. God vindicated the obedience of Christ, He approved it or justified it. We know our sins are forgiven because God accepted the offering—the sacrifice—of Christ on the cross, and the proof of this is the resurrected Christ and the empty tomb.
Jesus went to Hades, the place that holds the dead. He announced His victory, and broke out of the prison doors, returning to life as the conqueror of death. Death has no power over Him or those who believe in Him.
Revelation 5 takes place at the time of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. It graphically depicts the victory of the Lamb and His new entitlement to stand—as a man—on the throne of God and to break open the seals of God’s Word. All that God has promised can now be fulfilled.
We see this also in the Gospel according to John. Apart from Matthew 12:48-50 (and parallels), Jesus never referred to the disciples as His brothers before the resurrection. The victory of Jesus on the cross means that we can now be His brothers, not only morally (as in Matthew 12) but “genetically.” We are now the same “kind.” We are in Him, baptized into His name, in the sphere of His blessedness (Matthew 5). Of course, He is what He is originally; we are in Him by grace and participation. He is our Lord, yet we nevertheless really are in Him. We are made genetically brothers, not brothers by adoption.
(As Gentiles we are adopted into Israel. That is different.)
In Matthew 26:32 Jesus said, “After I have been raised, I will go before you into Galilee.” Now in 28:7 the angel repeats this, and in verse 10 Jesus tells the disciples to go to Galilee to see Him, and from verse 16 on He is there. This is the special emphasis of Matthew. In Luke Jesus meets them in Jerusalem, and in John He meets them both in Jerusalem and Galilee. So why is there this emphasis on Galilee in Matthew? Why go back?
The disciples meet Jesus on a mountain, probably the mountain where He first taught them (Matthew 5). In other words, He takes them back to the beginning. Just as the Transfiguration shows us that Jesus already was who He will be in resurrection, now in Resurrection He shows the disciples that He now is who He was in the beginning. He is not someone new. The Jesus who is revealed to us in Resurrection is the same Jesus who gathered and taught them in Galilee. The end of Matthew’s gospel takes us back to the beginning again. We are meant to read the Gospel according to Matthew again from the beginning but now through the eyes of the resurrection. This is the proper way to read a gospel.
What is the Gospel according to Matthew (or any of the gospels) anyway? The early Jewish believers (for whom Matthew wrote) met in the synagogue AND as a Christian community. The synagogue centered round the reading of the Torah scrolls. After they read the Torah, they read the other Old Testament books. Their life centered round “the book.” There is evidence that Matthew’s gospel, about the size of a Biblical book—the full length of a scroll—was written to be read in the course of a year. The order of Matthew corresponds to the order of the Jewish feasts and the readings of the Torah in the synagogue. In other words, Matthew wrote his gospel so that it could be read regularly, on an annual cycle, in the public assembly of Jewish Christians. Luke and Mark duplicated Matthew’s effort for assemblies of Christians in the Gentile world. The gospels were written AS Scripture.
Apparently the early Christian churches maintained the synagogue practice of publicly reading the Scriptures, but for them the Scriptures included the gospels first of all. When Paul writes his letters, he assumes the churches are familiar with the stories in the gospels because he alludes to them. We should maintain this practice. We should read a whole gospel each year publicly.
The resurrected Jesus meets the disciples in Galilee. When we read the gospels, the resurrected Jesus is present to us in our gathering.
Because of His victory on the cross, Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. We see this in Revelation 5. This authority is to carry out God’s will and not our own. In John 17:2 Jesus prays, “You have given [Me] authority over all flesh to give eternal life to all whom You have given [Me].” This means that Jesus has the authority to save us.
It especially means—in the context of Matthew—that Jesus has the authority to save Gentiles (“all nations”), which is the special sign of the Messiah and the Messianic age. The Gospel according to Matthew was written when the mission to the Gentiles was under violent attack. From the beginning, the Gospel according to Matthew is concerned about salvation coming to the Gentiles.
The Great Commission
Notice the word “therefore” in verse 19. Jesus is given “all authority” for our sake so that we can “disciple all nations.” These words are the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel. The whole gospel brings us to them. The gospel is “consummated” in them. These words also take us back to the beginning: “all that I have commanded you.” After converts are baptized, they all must be taught what is in the Gospel according to Matthew (and the other gospels). That is how they are to be “discipled” (disciplined/trained).
The first word, however, is “Go.” All Christians are supposed to be disciples, and all disciples are supposed to “disciple all the nations” (nations = people/ethnic groups = Gentiles). Jesus does not address the eleven as “apostles” but as disciples. We are all meant to “go” and do this.
His Immediate and Eternal Presence
The Gospel according to Luke ends with Jesus’ ascension because it leads us into the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Its ending is historical. Matthew’s ending is theological. Jesus does not ascend (go away), in a sense. He remains here with us. He is with us always. He is the “I AM” (God in-your-face present) with us. In the resurrection Jesus’ new humanity transcends time, it becomes eternal. It also transcends space. He is omnipresent—that is, He is immediately present here and now. His human presence is as real as His divine presence. This is hard to imagine, but it is nevertheless true. He gives us the Lord’s Table to remind us.
This “collapse” of time and space that takes place through the Gospel is important to realize. One implication is that there is no historical distance between us and Jesus, or us and the apostles. We are IN the New Testament. The New Testament is not a historical document for us but a present correspondence. The apostles are OUR apostles, and our church is one of the churches of the New Testament.
So in addition to reading the four gospels, we also read the Acts as if it were news about our apostles (instead of history) and we read the epistles as if they were correspondence written for us (not the possession of scholars).
Jesus said, “I am with you all the days.” His immediate presence—in all that He was and is—is the ultimate meaning of the resurrection.