Christ’s Holy Passion: The Tomb | Matthew 28
Brian Hedges | April 1, 2018
The resurrection is the essential historical event in the Christian faith, and if the story of Jesus ended with the crucifixion, there would be no Christianity. If the gospel records ended, say, in Matthew’s gospel, in Matthew chapter 27, we wouldn’t be reading it, we wouldn’t be thinking about it. Maybe some person would be reading some of these records the way someone reads Plato or Aristotle; maybe they would be considering something about this figure of Jesus, but there would be nothing like the movement of Christianity that we have known for 2,000 years. As the apostle Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”
John Updike, the Pulitzer prize-winning American author, put it this way in his poem “Seven Stanzas of Easter”:
“Make no mistake:
If the cells dissolution did not reverse,
The molecules reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.”
Now, we’re here this morning, most of us at least, because we believe the resurrection, because we want to celebrate the resurrection, or perhaps a few are here this morning because someone invited you to come on an Easter Sunday and investigate the claims of Christianity, to think about the resurrection of Christ. Now, I am a Christian this morning because I believe in the resurrection. If I became convinced, for historical or other reasons, that Jesus of Nazareth did not actually come out of the tomb on Sunday morning, I’d quit my job, I’d find another career, I’d forget Christianity, because the whole thing would be of no use. It all rises or falls on this. The resurrection is the linchpin in the Christian faith.
Now, I’ll just say, it’s not necessarily an easy thing to believe. I’ve seen death. I’ve done a lot of funerals, I’ve been at a lot of bedsides of dying people, and I’ve never seen someone get up off of a funeral casket, I’ve never seen someone come out of a casket and walk again. I’ve never seen it myself; it’s not an easy thing to believe that someone who was dead could come back to life. But if it’s true it changes everything.
So this morning I want us to just think about one of the original historical records of the resurrection of Christ. This was written by one of the eyewitnesses, a man named Matthew, also known in the gospels as Levi, and we’re looking at the gospel according to Matthew. Now, if you’ve been here for the last few weeks, we’ve actually been marching through Matthew chapters 26 through 28, looking at Christ’s holy passion. We’ve been looking at the extended passion narrative, beginning with the supper, the Last Supper that Jesus ate with his disciples the night of his betrayal, then Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, then the trials of Jesus before Caiaphas the high priest and then Pontius Pilate the Roman governor, and then Friday night we looked together at the cross, the crucifixion itself; this morning we come to the tomb in Matthew chapter 28.
So what I want to do is read the text, Matthew 28, then we’ll read the whole chapter, verses 1 through 20, and then I want us to see three things about the resurrection. Let’s read it; Matthew chapter 28, beginning in verse 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. 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. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 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.’ So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.’ While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘Tell people, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘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.’”
This is God’s word.
So what I want you to see this morning is that the resurrection demands something from us, it promises everything to us, and it calls us to live for something greater than ourselves. Okay? So, three things about the resurrection.
I. The Resurrection Demands Something from Us
First of all, the resurrection demands something from us. You cannot be confronted with the resurrection without giving some kind of decision about it.
(1) The resurrection, the story of the resurrection, demands something, and it demands, first of all, an explanation. You see this right from the start. You see this in the passage. The body was missing, the tomb was empty, and it demanded some kind of explanation. You can see this in the cover-up plot that is hatched by the chief priests and elders in collusion with the soldiers guarding the tomb. We just read it, verses 11 through 15, that the chief priests basically go to the soldiers who were guarding the tomb and pay them off; they bribe them to tell a lie, the lie that the disciples had come and stolen away the body. And this is a story that had been circulating, then, for a number of years by the time that Matthew wrote this gospel.
Now, on one level, this cover-up itself is something of a smoking gun. We know that when there’s a cover-up there’s a story, right, and there was a story. There was something going on that demanded some kind of explanation. But I want you to get this: the very fact that this is included in the gospel records, the gospel narratives, written by the first Christians; the fact that this is included is, in itself, an evidence that something had happened, something that the early disciples and Matthew as the writer of the gospel felt very sure was the real resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Now, this is something that the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright talks about in this book. I just want to show you this book. This book is called The Resurrection of the Son of God. That’s a very thick book, okay? Now, the only reason I’m showing you this; this is 800 pages, I think I’ve read every page. The only reason I’m showing you this is not to impress you with my reading (I read this a long time ago), but, if you’re not a Christian, I just want to say to you, do not be cavalier in dismissing the evidence. This is a book written by a historian and by a scholar who is an expert in all of the ancient near eastern literature, he looks at the way Jewish people, Roman people, Greek people, the way all these people thought about death and resurrection and life after death, trying to understand, how did these claims of the resurrection come about, and what do we do with them? His conclusion as a historian is that Jesus really did rise from the dead. Now, if you’re not sure of that, I invite you to look at the evidence; don’t just write it off without study.
Here’s just one quote from N.T. Wright. He says,
“It is implausible to suppose that the whole story would have been invented in the first place, let alone told and finally written down, unless there was already a rumour going around that the disciples had indeed stolen the body...the telling of the story indicates well enough that the early Christians knew that the charge of stealing the body was one they were always likely to face - and that it was preferable to tell the story of how the accusation had arisen, even at the risk of putting ideas into people’s heads, rather than leave the accusation unanswered...this sort of story could only have any point at all in a community where the empty tomb was an absolute and unquestioned datum.”
In other words, if the stolen body accusations had not risen, Matthew wouldn’t have invented it. But if there was any lingering doubt in his mind or in the mind of the early Christians that this is actually what had happened, he wouldn’t have included it! The fact that he included it and gives an explanation for it shows that there is real evidence for the resurrection.
(2) So the resurrection demands this explanation, and it demands that we take an honest look at the evidence. I’ve already pointed out one line of evidence, and that’s the cover-up plot; here are just two other pieces of evidence that you see in Matthew’s record. First of all, you have an eyewitness account. What’s interesting is that the eyewitnesses, the very first eyewitnesses to the resurrection, are women. Alright, do you see that? It’s women, in verse 1, who first see Jesus in that first paragraph of the story.
The reason that’s significant is because, in both Roman and in Jewish jurisprudence, women were not allowed to give testimony. So, to include the women as the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection, they wouldn’t have invented that, they wouldn’t have included that, unless that’s actually what happened. If they were inventing a story of eyewitnesses, they would have chosen male eyewitnesses for the first ones, not women.
In fact, the first known critique of Christianity, written in AD 175, the first, at least, written record that we still have extant, was written by a guy named Celsus, and he attempted to discredit the whole story of resurrection as being witnessed by a “hysterical female.” Now ladies, I didn’t say that; that’s what Celsus said. He was not a Christian. “Hysterical females,” he said, “invented this story.” So he tries to discredit it on that basis.
Now, today, of course, that wouldn’t discredit the story at all; it actually would be valued. But the fact that it’s included in the gospel record shows that it must have been just what took place.
And then here’s one more piece of evidence, and it’s the birth of the church itself. So, here’s an interesting thing; when you read this record of the resurrection, you have Jewish disciples, right, you have Jewish disciples who are monotheists. That means they worshipped one God, the God of Israel, the God of their Fathers, Yahweh; this was the strict tenet of their faith. But by the end of Matthew chapter 28, they’re worshipping Jesus Christ.
Now, Jewish monotheists don’t worship mere men; they just don’t do it. The fact that a whole group of them started worshipping Jesus Christ, started treating him as if he were God, indicates that they really believed that he was God, that he was the Son of God, and that he had risen from the dead. And then the fact that they were willing to suffer for this, most of them dying a martyr’s death; that they were willing to suffer for this shows how deeply convinced they were.
Again, 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 the people really did meet Jesus alive again.”
(3) The resurrection demands an explanation, it demands an honest look at the evidence, and listen; it demands a decision. It demands a decision. You cannot be confronted with the record, with the facts as we have them, with the stories of the resurrection; you cannot be confronted with this and not make a decision. Mark my words: you will decide! Even if you decide not to investigate, even if you decide to take a pass on the evidence, even if you decide that you don’t believe, that’s a decision. But you cannot remain neutral about Jesus Christ. He either rose or he did not. If he did, then he is the Lord of the world, and he should be believed and followed and obeyed.
II. The Resurrection Promises Everything to Us
So, the resurrection demands something from us, but secondly, the resurrection promises everything to us. It promises everything to us. Here’s what I mean by that.
(1) Everything that we could possibly need or want is promised to us in the resurrection; first of all, the free forgiveness of all of our sins. Alright? It all hangs on the resurrection. Now, it hangs on the cross of Christ as well, but without the resurrection the cross has no effect. Without the resurrection, no one would think that Jesus did anything on the cross that would have anything to do with our sins. But, if Jesus rose from the dead, then the resurrection was, as one theologian put it, “the Father’s ‘amen’ to Jesus’ cry, ‘It is finished.’” It was God’s way of vindicating Jesus and showing that what he did on the cross actually worked.
Paul says that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead we’re still in our sins. That means we would not be forgiven. But if he did rise from the dead, then our sins are forgiven, we are saved, we are no longer in our sins. Again, when you just think about these early disciples, these eyewitnesses, and you think about how significant the resurrection must have been to them personally… Just think for a minute about just one of these eyewitnesses, Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene was a woman who followed Jesus, and we learn from one of the other gospel writers (this is from the gospel of Luke, Luke chapter 8) that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her. So, here’s a woman who had lived a very tormented life. I mean, here’s someone who had been haunted by evil and by darkness, she was a scandalous woman, she was a sinful woman, she was a woman who had all these problems, and Jesus touched her. Jesus did something for her. Jesus healed her, Jesus forgave her, Jesus restored her.
Here’s a woman that, if she lived today, she probably would have been institutionalized, alright; she probably would be in a mental ward somewhere. She’s certainly someone who had no social capital in her own day, and yet Jesus had touched her. He had valued her, and she’s a follower of Jesus, and she’s there at the tomb on that Sunday morning to tend to the body of Jesus, and she’s one of the very first ones to see Jesus alive.
Can you think about how much that would have meant to her? Just imagine the thoughts going through her mind from Friday, when she sees Jesus crucified, and then all day long on that silent Saturday. She must have been thinking, “Was all of this for nothing? Are those demons going to come back? Are my sins really forgiven? Is my life just going to go back to the way it was before?” I mean, how hopeless she would have felt.
But the fact that Jesus was alive and that she saw him and she touched him, she heard this announcement from the angel, “He is not here, but he is risen,” and then she actually sees and embraces the risen Christ; it was proof to her that her sins really were forgiven, that she really was healed, that God freely had forgiven her of all of her sins.
We sing this in so many of our hymns; here’s one of the old ones, from John Wilbur Chapman:
“One day the grave could conceal him no longer,
One day the stone rolled away from the door.
Then he arose; over death he had conquered,
Now is ascended, my Lord evermore.
Living he loved me, dying he saved me,
Buried he carried my sins far away,
Rising he justified freely forever;
One day he’s coming, oh glorious day!”
He’s almost quoting the apostle Paul, who says that Jesus was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. What that means is simply this: that if Jesus really did rise from the dead, then every single person who trusts in him has all of their sins completely forgiven, freely wiped away, a completely clean slate, because the sins are buried with Jesus in the tomb.
(2) But not only does the resurrection promise free forgiveness of all our sins, the resurrection promises life after death. After all, here’s a man who died and then came back to life. In the resurrection, Jesus defeated death itself.
The apostle Peter, on the day of Pentecost, said these words: “God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was not possible for death to keep its hold on him.”
It’s like Peter is saying that death just lost its grip on Jesus. Death couldn’t hold him. Death couldn’t keep him in the tomb. Jesus defeated death, he shows that there’s life beyond the grave, but he did that not just for himself, he did that for us as well, because the Bible speaks about Jesus’ resurrection as being the first of its kind. The first of its kind, the firstfruits, like the first sheaf of the harvest. In other words, more resurrection is to follow, and the Scriptures hold out the hope that all who believe in Christ - in fact, all people will be raised from the dead at the end, and all who believe in Christ will be raised to glorious life.
Perhaps nobody’s put this more powerfully than the agnostic professor who became a Christian, C.S. Lewis, in his 1947 book Miracles. Lewis said, “The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event o f its kind in the whole history of the universe. He is the ‘first fruits,’ the ‘pioneer of life.’ He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so. This is the beginning of the New Creation: a new chapter in cosmic history has been opened.”
If Jesus rose from the dead, it means that death is defeated; it means that there is life after death, it means that this world is not all there is, it means that you, if you trust in Christ, will someday also be raised from the dead.
Now, I’ll tell you, when I was young man - I became a Christian as a teenager, but as a young man I almost never thought about death, and when I did it was in kind of romantic kinds of ways. I would read these stories of Christian martyrs like Jim Elliott. I remember walking down a road in front of my house, a dirt road in front of this farmhouse in West Texas as I was growing up; I’d walk down that road late at night praying, and there were telephone poles in the shapes of crosses, and I would think about the martyrs of the first century who were crucified, and I would just wonder, “Is it possible that God would ever call me to die a martyr’s death?”
Now, you know, I was 18 years old. It was pretty easy to think about death in those terms. I tell you, when you get to middle age, you start thinking a little bit differently about death. You start to age, you start to feel different things in your body, you start to see death up close and personal, you have parents decline in health, you start losing grandparents, you start seeing friends who are losing children or losing spouses or losing their parents, and all of a sudden death is real! It’s real! This is coming. It’s coming fast. You are going to be in a coffin, some of you, maybe, before the end of this year.
You say, “That’s a really encouraging thought, Pastor Brian.” No, it’s just reality, folks. This is just reality.
And I want an answer to the problem of death, and if Jesus rose from the dead we have the answer. If he did not rise from the dead, I don’t know what hope there is.
(3) So, the resurrection promises for us life after death; it also promises the end of all sorrows. If he rose from the dead, it means that all of our pain, all of our suffering, all of our losses and sorrows, the deepest aches of our broken hearts, all of those will someday be mended. It means that every tear will be wiped away.
Now, that’s a lot of tears. If you’ve buried a spouse, if you’ve watched the decline of an aging parent into dementia, as I have, if you have children who struggle with disease, if you’ve buried a child, there are a lot of tears. But the resurrection says every tear wiped away, every “agony turned into a glory,” to quote C.S. Lewis once again. It means that all of the pain that you face, all of the suffering that you face, through Jesus can be redeemed, and can actually work good for you. It means that the future is bright with hope, because death is not the end! All sorrows wiped away.
(4) And then, fourthly, the resurrection promises a renewed and restored material world. You see, there are cosmic implications to the resurrection of the cross. If Jesus rose from the dead, it’s the first even in a new creation, a new creation.
The early Christians, they believed this, and they believed this so strongly that they talked about waiting for a new heavens and a new earth. You see that in 2 Peter. They waited for the new heavens and the new earth. Their vision for the end (you see this in the book of Revelation) isn’t really Christians being caught up into the sky and then living forever in this ethereal heaven. That’s not really the idea. In Revelation 21 and 22 it’s heaven coming down to earth; it’s the city of God, it’s God making his kingdom with men. It’s the whole cosmic order restored and renewed. “He comes to make his blessings flow / Far as the curse is found,” Isaac Watts said. That’s the idea.
They believe this so strongly that the early Christians poured themselves into ministry to the sick, to the dying, to the poor. They didn’t hold onto their material possessions, because they knew they had something better waiting for them. They didn’t worry about their health; they would stay in these plague-infested cities when everybody else would leave, because they knew that even if they died Jesus was going to raise them from the dead. I mean, that’s how strongly they believed this.
They would go to hard places to talk about Jesus, even if it meant they might be stoned, as the apostle Paul was, and survived it. They would risk and hazard everything in order to love people into the kingdom of God, in both word and deed, sharing the gospel and showing the love of Christ; and they did that because of this confidence. This isn’t the end; there’s a new creation, and it’s right around the corner.
So, do you see why I say that the resurrection promises everything? Because if all of this is true, if all of your sins could be forgiven, a completely clean slate, and even though you die, you’re going to rise from the dead, and all the sad things in your life are going to become untrue; that is, all of your sorrows are going to be healed, all of your tears are going to be wiped away, and you’re going to live forever in a world that’s better than this world, that’s everything good this world has to offer and more, it’s better than this world… I mean, what else is there? I mean, that’s everything! It promises everything you could possibly need or want.
So, if nothing else, I hope you want this to be true. Even in your convinced, I hope you want this to be true, because it is the best news in the world.
III. The Resurrection Calls Us to Live for Something Greater than Ourselves
So, the resurrection demands something from us, it promises everything to us, and then thirdly, finally, the resurrection calls us to live for something greater than ourselves. The resurrection calls us to live for something greater than ourselves.
I think every human heart secretly hungers for this. We want our lives to count, we want our lives to have meaning; we want to live for something greater than ourselves, and here is a cause worth living and dying for. You have the essence of it in the last few verses of this chapter, verses 18 through 20, as Jesus gives to his disciples what’s called the Great Commission.
Just look at it again. “Jesus said to them, ‘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. Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”
The resurrection gives us news to share: everything that Jesus taught, the gospel of Christ and all of the implications of the gospel for our lives. It gives us a task to accomplish, to go and make disciples. That means to go and make followers of Jesus, tell people about Jesus, and invite them to follow Jesus with you.
It also gives us authority and power to accomplish this task, because Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me; now go…”
Best of all, it gives us the promise of the risen Christ’s promise with us. He says, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” You ask, “Well, how is it that the risen Christ is with us? After all, he ascended bodily into heaven. He’s at the right hand of God. How is the risen Christ with us?”
I think the clear answer of Scripture is he’s with us because he sent his Spirit into our hearts. He’s with us in the ministry of the Holy Spirit. You can see that in John chapter 20, Luke chapter 24, and Romans chapter 8, where Paul says, “If anyone has not the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to him.”
But we have the Spirit of Christ, we trust Christ, we believe in Christ; we have a Spirit living within us to equip us for this task, for this mission, this reason to live that is so much greater than ourselves.
So, the resurrection, which demands a decision from us and promises everything to us, calls us into a new kind of life. It calls us into a life of reckless abandon for Jesus Christ, giving ourselves to him and to others for his sake.
Let me just close in this way this morning. Let me ask you, what do you believe about the resurrection of Christ? Now, you’ve only heard a piece of the evidence, alright; you’ve only heard a little bit of it this morning. Maybe you’ve heard more. Again, I’d invite you to spend 40 bucks and about 80 hours to read a book like this [The Resurrection of the Son of God] if you have questions. Find out for yourself, what does the historical record show? What do you believe about Jesus Christ? What will you decide?
You say, “Well, I’ve been a Christian for many years; this is not news for me.” Then the question for you, then, is this: What are you living for? Is your life matching this profession of faith, that Jesus is the risen one? Are you living for him? Are you giving yourself to a cause greater than yourself?
Let me close with these words from the apostle Paul. These are words that I think are applicable to every person here this morning. It’s words of invitation, it’s a word of command, it’s a word of great comfort and hope. Paul says in Romans chapter 10, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” Won’t you believe this morning?
Our gracious God, we thank you for the eyewitness accounts we’ve read about this morning. We thank you for this record. We thank you for the gospel, the good news that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures, and was buried, and was raised on the third day. It is the centerpiece of our hope, of our faith. It’s what we’re building our lives upon. This is the great answer to the problems of the world, to the problems of sin and suffering, sorrow, and death itself. We thank you for it, we give you praise for it, and we commit our lives to the service of the risen Jesus once again this morning.
For any who have not believed in the risen Christ, I pray this morning would be the day of salvation. I pray this morning that they would see and be convinced, compelled, by the evidence and would trust in Christ with all of the newfound joy of a child, with all of the newfound joy of someone who knows that their sins are forgiven, that their future is secure, that there is an answer for every question, every problem, that has haunted them. So may today be a day of salvation, we pray.
And Lord, as we come to the table this morning, we come, once again, to remember, in a very visible and participatory way, what Christ has done for us. We come to take the bread, to take the juice, remembering that Jesus died and also that Jesus rose and that he is coming again. So we eat this meal together in hope. We pray that you would be with us through your Spirit. We pray it in Jesus’ name, Amen.