T. Nathan Trice
New Horizons: April 2023
Also in this issue
by S. M. Baugh
by Andrew J. Miller
Matthew’s account of the resurrection of Jesus is surely a study in brevity. The events of the “holy week” prior have been related in painstaking detail, over seven chapters, with special attention given to our Lord’s arrest, trial, sentencing, mocking, flogging, crucifixion, final words, death, and burial.
But when it comes to the event of Christ’s resurrection, it is almost as if Matthew has run out of ink! He gives testimony to the resurrection itself in only ten verses (Matt. 28:1–10). What explains this curious economy of words about the historical event that alone makes the story of Jesus worth telling? (See 1 Cor. 15:17–19.)
That is the question that confronted me years ago at the end of a sermon series on Matthew’s gospel. This article is about the answer that eventually dawned on me: the resurrection of Jesus demands a response, and Matthew’s intentional brevity accentuates that demand. It is as if he is saying: “This Jesus, whose remarkable birth and life and death I’ve recorded for you, is alive again! So what will you do with that fact?”
Yet Matthew does more than demand a response to the resurrection. He also, as he details the events that occur shortly after our Lord’s resurrection, points to the proper response.
In the first place, as the angel’s testimony makes clear, the resurrection calls for faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Matthew’s account of the resurrection focuses on the words and deeds of the angel of the Lord who visited our Lord’s tomb that Easter morning. We are told that his appearance was spectacular, with a brightness like lightning, and that his descent from heaven was accompanied by a great earthquake. We are told that the guards posted at the tomb were rendered incapacitated with fright. And we are told that, after heaving aside the great stone that sealed the tomb, the angel took his seat upon that stone to await the arrival of visitors.
The first of these visitors to the tomb were the women among Jesus’s disciples, and Matthew specifies two of them in particular: “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.” They go with the intention merely of “seeing the tomb.” But their encounter with the waiting angel has provided a world of instruction and edification to Christians ever since. I will focus on just one element of the angel’s words here: “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said.”
Do you hear a gentle word of reproof in these words? I do. These women, along with all the disciples, had no expectation of our Lord’s resurrection. Whatever they might have thought of his repeated predictions of his death and resurrection, it would seem that the sheer trauma of the one had rid them of any hope of the other. But we should also hear in the angel’s words a note of triumphant praise, as if to say, “He did it! He told you he was going to rise from the dead, and he did!” The angel is pointing out to the women that Jesus’s resurrection from the dead vindicated his claim to be the Messiah of God and made him worthy of their trust for salvation. His resurrection demanded their renewed faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah.
Likewise for us, the resurrection demands a believing embrace of all that Christ said about who he is. Jesus, after all, made some staggering claims about himself, as Matthew has faithfully recorded in his gospel. And when he died like a criminal at the hands of the Romans, all his claims seemed to be empty talk. Yet when he was raised from the dead, in fulfillment of his own words, suddenly all that he said must now be reckoned with. His resurrection demands nothing less. He is who he said he was. He is worthy of our faith.
In the second place, as the women’s example makes clear, the resurrection calls for the worship of Jesus as God. The angel had not only good news for the women, but also a great assignment: “Go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead.” Matthew tells us that these fearful-yet-joyful women wasted no time in doing exactly that; they “departed quickly from the tomb” and “ran to tell his disciples.” Yet the very next word of the story depicts these women being stopped in their tracks as they encounter the risen Christ himself. We’re told, “and behold, Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’” What a moment of further fear and joy that must have been for these first witnesses of the resurrection!
Many in the church have noted with appreciation that our Lord appeared first to the women among his disciples, and I think the most obvious explanation for this is that Jesus recognized that they were the ones most devoted to him. Details given by Matthew in his account certainly seem to bear this out. They, in all their grief, were the last to leave our Lord on that Friday of his burial (Matt. 27:61), and they were the first to return to the tomb after the Sabbath was over. But their devotion to Christ takes a new turn when they encounter him risen from the dead. Matthew tells us, “And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.” That statement should not fall lightly on us. These faithful daughters of Zion knew well the law of God that his people may not bow down to any likeness of anything in heaven above or earth beneath. Yet here they are throwing themselves to the ground, clasping the feet of this man, and worshiping him.
Perhaps neither woman could have expressed in that moment all that went into this impulsive act, any more than the disciple Thomas could have articulated all the Trinitarian theology behind his later confession to Christ: “My Lord, and my God!” (John 20:28). Yet their response was precisely what the resurrection demanded. Jesus was more than a man who had returned from the dead; after all, others had been raised from the dead before him. He was the one whose claim to have “come down from heaven” (John 6:38) and to be one with the Father (John 10:30) had been vindicated by his resurrection. So he was worthy to be worshiped as God.
It is profitable to remember this as we gather as Christians each Sunday to worship a Jewish man named Jesus. To the ancient heretics of the church, along with Jews and Muslims to this day, this is idolatry: God alone is to be worshiped! But we are right to follow the example of the two Marys and, in light of the resurrection, to worship our Messiah as divine, for he “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). Apart from the empty tomb, the conclusion would be inescapable: he was but an ordinary man. But the place where he lay was empty that Easter morning; thus, we too bow before him as God in the flesh.
In the third place, as our Lord’s Great Commission makes clear, the resurrection calls for service to Christ as King. In Matthew’s account, Jesus has very few words for his disciples after his resurrection. We know from other Gospels that Jesus says and does many things in the days between his resurrection and ascension, yet Matthew is seemingly uninterested in them. What he does record for us, however, is the most famous of all our Lord’s final words: the Great Commission. And it is with these words that the Gospel comes to a climactic finale:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt. 28:18–20)
As familiar as these words have become, I think they should still take our breath away. The claim that this man on a mountaintop makes is staggering: that of divine authority over the entire cosmos. And the summons that he gives his followers is equally amazing: that of bringing the whole world into subjection to that authority by means of water and words (baptizing and teaching).
But what has happened to warrant our Lord’s staking of this claim now? It was his resurrection, of course. That is the event that lies behind both his claim and his summons. Indeed, by passing almost directly from the resurrection account to the Great Commission, Matthew draws our attention to precisely this connection. Jesus’s resurrection demands a response in the lives of his disciples: one of radical devotion to his lordship over all of life, and in all of the earth.
So in our celebrations of Easter, let’s not forget the summons that comes with it. Having returned from the great work he accomplished as their Savior, Jesus gathers his disciples to give them a great work to accomplish for him, their King. And this is what Matthew’s gospel, so famous for its emphasis on the kingdom of God, has been driving toward from the beginning. The resurrection of Jesus Christ has provided irrefutable proof of his identity as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and this calls for radical devotion to advancing his kingdom in the earth. The event that we celebrate at Easter did more than secure our salvation; it secured our service.
Perhaps the ending of Matthew’s gospel is not as abrupt, then, as it might seem. Or perhaps, rather, the abruptness is the point! The resurrection of Jesus should in fact bring us up short. If this wondrous event has happened, then I must decide: Will I believe in Jesus as my Savior? Will I worship him as my God? Will I serve him as my King?
The author is pastor of Resurrection Presbyterian in Matthews, North Carolina. New Horizons, April 2023.
New Horizons: April 2023
Also in this issue
by S. M. Baugh
by Andrew J. Miller
© 2023 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church