The resurrection is unbelievable, but the Bible tells us we can believe it!
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 28:1-15
Jesus rose from the dead just as He told everyone He would. Then and today, people try to deny that it happened, but we have eyewitness testimony that in fact Jesus is alive. As the Risen Savior, Jesus' words are trustworthy, and we can trust Him with our lives and eternal souls.
He is not here! For He has been resurrected, just as He said. Come and see the place where He lay. Matthew 28:6
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Great and Exciting News! -or– BEST NEWS EVER!
If your group isn’t interested in a technical discussions about the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, there’s nothing wrong with the “celebration” approach the leader guide suggests. What are your favorite celebrations and what are you celebrating? Or, what’s the best news you’ve ever heard? MercyMe has a song out called “Best News Ever”—you could use the lyrics of the song to bring this illustration back to Jesus.
“The Case for Christ”
Lee Strobel, journalist and former atheist, has a series of books called “The Case for . . .” On April 7, they were released in movie form. I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve read and really enjoyed the books. As hard as it is to prove or disprove something that happened 2000 years ago, we really care whether or not the resurrection really happened. Jesus Himself said that it would be the proof that He is the Son of God (John 2:19). Paul realized that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, everything He taught would be meaningless and we would all be fools (1 Cor 15:14).
This might seem like the same Sunday School lesson from every Easter . . . Because it is. The resurrection is the most important event in human history and the best news we could ever talk about. With the movie coming out, feel free to play up the “evidence” aspect this year. You might try to find the little book The Case for Easter which I picked up for free a while back in Hobby Lobby. It’s the chapters of The Case for Christ that focused on the resurrection. You can get the Google ebook for less than $2. You can find a lengthy summary of one chapter at faithgateway.com plus the movie trailer. Or you can read a free pdf of one chapter on willowcreek.com. Or just read the next section and I’ll give you the best summary that I can. When I lived in the Midwest, people cared a lot about apologetics and evidence. I haven’t gotten that sense around here, but it’s still good to know the arguments for and against Easter.
The Case for Easter
1. The Medical Evidence: Was Jesus’ death and resurrection a hoax?
Even the Koran promotes the “swoon theory” which says that Jesus wasn’t really dead when He was taken from the cross. But Jesus was treated brutally by the Romans; the exposure and loss of blood was itself known to kill many victims. To be crucified in that condition (for 6 hours) would have been unimaginable. The effusion of water with the blood when His side was punctured (an unexpected detail) proves that He had suffered complete cardiac failure. No one survives that kind of trauma without emergency medical care. And that person does not then crawl out of a tomb with shattered feet, ruined shoulders, and no blood.
2. The Missing Body: Was Jesus’ body really absent from the tomb?
Many people have argued that the women simply went to the wrong tomb, or worse, as a criminal Jesus wasn’t actually buried at all. But early Christians would have had no reason to invent a Jewish character (Joseph of Arimathea) to be caretaker of Jesus’ body—and there are no competing traditions about what happened to it. The empty tomb verses can be traced to within a few years of Jesus’ death, way too quickly for such an outlandish lie to be perpetrated. (And there is no reason to believe that the disciples stole the body because they would not have died for a known lie.) The fact that women, whose testimony would not have been allowed in contemporary court, are declared to be the first to find the tomb empty strongly implies the accuracy of the story. Certainly, all the Jewish leaders had to do to quell the early Christian hysteria was to point out the real tomb of Jesus and show His body.
3. The Appearances: Was Jesus seen alive again after His death?
Skeptics try to say that the resurrection was either a later invention or that it was figurative/spiritual (people saw Jesus’ ghost or an illusion). But the creed of 1 Corinthians 15 demonstrates that the tradition of people seeing the risen Jesus dates back to within years of the resurrection—people who would have still been alive if anyone had wanted to confirm Paul’s claim. (And remember that I said in Acts that Paul probably learned most of the traditions from Peter and James when with them in Jerusalem, just a few years after the resurrection.) And even though no outside historical source corroborates the report of Jesus’ appearance to 500 people at once, think about it—where exactly would that be reported? And the variety of the other encounters, walking, talking, eating, touching, to multiple people in different places implies that one desperate person wasn’t making it all up. There is no other way this evidence could be interpreted except to say that Jesus appeared to these people in a way that was physical.
I have all of these books somewhere on my shelves. If you have not read them, feel free to drop by and I would be happy to loan you one. They are written for a popular audience (you don’t have to be a biblical scholar to understand them!) so don’t be afraid of them. The lesson focuses on the importance of the eyewitness testimony and the early lies, so I think you could work in any or all of these “cases” without straying from the heart of this passage.
The Context of Matthew
Yes, we are taking this passage out of order from the rest of Matthew! But give the Lifeway folks a break; they know that Easter is likely to be a morning when more than a few people show up in class for the first time in a long time, so they will have no idea about context. And it’s not like you’re giving anything away, right? All of our lessons from the past several weeks have included passages in which Jesus has been predicting His resurrection—we’re just getting to the fulfillment a little early. For the rest of the quarter, we will cover the Holy Week events from Wednesday to Saturday.
Part 1: The Grave Opened (Matthew 28:1-4)
After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to view the tomb. Suddenly there was a violent earthquake, because an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and approached the tomb. He rolled back the stone and was sitting on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his robe was as white as snow. The guards were so shaken from fear of him that they became like dead men.
You guys know this story. Note that the details are reported differently in the different Gospels (see below), but they are not contradictory. There was a group of women who went—something every Gospel highlights. This is a very important detail. It clarifies the devotion these women had for Jesus, something that many men of that day would not have cared about. And it reinforces the reliability of the Gospel accounts, considering that women’s testimony was not allowed in court (see below; so why make that up?). Mary Magdalene is a fascinating character; the lack of information about her has led to some bizarre cultic ideas (have you read The Da Vinci Code?). She is specifically mentioned in only 12 verses in the Bible; 11 of them are during Holy Week. We simply know that she was one of many women who followed Jesus and supported the disciples financially (she also had seven demons cast from her, but that doesn’t mean she was a prostitute!). Then we have this great and memorable scene where there’s an earthquake and the an angel and the guards faint. Why don’t the other Gospels mention that? Isn’t that because Matthew just made it all up? Of course not—as we will see in a moment, Matthew is intimately concerned with the Jewish perspective of Jesus, and the Jews would have been aware of the presence of the guards. What would the women have done about the guards? Matthew simply made sure to answer that question, and didn’t give us the juicy details we would love to read. He did use the same word for “descend” that the scoffers had said to Jesus to “come down/descend” from the cross. He did make it clear that the guard of man was no match for the power of God. And he did explain how the stone was moved. Of course, the angel did not roll the stone for Jesus’ sake! He did so for ours. If death could not hold Jesus, neither could a rock. This was confirmation for the women and the world that death had been defeated. And clearly the angel was waiting for the women to arrive (giving me the indication that the earthquake had happened well before their arrival). Notice that the description of the angel is very close to that of Jesus in the Transfiguration. I think the point of that is to explain that God doesn’t have to “do” anything to prove His authority and power; He simply has to reveal a little of His majesty for man to be thwarted.
And of course the irony of the situation is rich. The men stationed to guard the dead man had become like dead men. I like the exercise your leader guide suggests: draw three columns—”the women” “the guards” “the angel” and ask your class to try to describe both their actions and their motives. (Your guide also gives a fourth column “the religious leaders” which you can include if you want to.) What do they show us about the big picture/cosmic battle going on in the background of God’s plan for salvation?
Aside: “Resurrection” in Jewish Thought
This is very interesting. Most Jews (but not Sadducees) believed in a physical resurrection. Job had the statement about seeing God “in his flesh” (Job 19:26). Ezekiel’s valley of bones (Ezek 37) and Daniel’s vision (Dan 12) probably shaped their understanding. They believed that when a person died, he went to a shadowy underworld (Sheol) and there waited for the Messiah to come and raise everyone in bodily form. I get the sense that they believed only good Jews would be raised. (By the way, Sadducees only read the first five books of the Old Testament.) Consequently, the idea of Jesus walking and talking after being dead would not have flummoxed them too much. But for Jesus to be raised from the dead would have to mean that He was the Messiah, and that’s where the problem stood. (This of course is why Matthew included the detail of other people coming out of their tombs and walking around Jerusalem; 27:52.) Paul explained what it all really meant: Jesus was the “firstfruit” of the coming resurrection harvest (1 Cor 15:20). When Jesus returns, that resurrection happens.
Part 2: The Risen King Announced (Matthew 28:5-10)
But the angel told the women, “Don’t be afraid, because I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here! For He has been resurrected, just as He said. Come and see the place where He lay. Then go quickly and tell His disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead. In fact, He is going ahead of you to Galilee; you will see Him there.’ Listen, I have told you.” So, departing quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, they ran to tell His disciples the news. Just then Jesus met them and said, “Good morning!” They came up, took hold of His feet, and worshiped Him. Then Jesus told them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell My brothers to leave for Galilee, and they will see Me there.”
What’s the sort of news you hear that you feel like you have to tell somebody right away? Make sure to tell your class to take “gossip” out of it. Some people feel like they have to share every bit of news as often as possible (except for news that really matters). What is something that you hear or see that you need to tell somebody—a teacher, a parent, a spouse, a boss—immediately? I actually think that’s a pretty long list! So ask your class how they handle life-changing news, the sorts of things they would only hear a few times in their life. With social media, we have the ability to publish anything we want anywhere and everywhere. Now let’s really ratchet it up: what if you learned something incomprehensible like a dead man coming back to life? How would you deal with that? (By the way, that’s news we already have—we shouldn’t be ashamed to share it with anybody.) I think people would react differently. Some would quietly marvel, some would doubt, some would go to close friends, some would hit “send” on everything. That’s the roller coaster these women are dealing with.
Walk your class through the words of the angel. He answers everything they could have wondered about (except for where is Jesus?), plus giving them the encouragement that everything happened according to plan. If they would remember Jesus’ words, they could take great comfort. But the great news of all is that “Jesus is not here”. In English we have to say “He has risen” but is Greek it is actually “He is risen”. It’s not just an event that took place, it’s a state of being now (and always). The angel then tells them to see for themselves; the other Gospels give the details of what they saw in the tomb. But he also doesn’t give them time to dwell—they have a job to do and quickly. “Tell the disciples!” I’ve learned that when I have a clear task, I can handle emotion a lot better. You could pretty easily demonstrate this with an exercise, but it would involve scaring class members or making them emotionally distraught, which I don’t think would be good for Easter Sunday morning, so just let them think of a time that having a job to do helped them get through a tough day emotionally. And then, in this roller coaster of emotions, they meet Jesus! They fell at His feet, and Jesus repeated the command.
But what do we do with Jesus’ statement? In fact, the disciples actually saw Him in Jerusalem long before they saw Him in Galilee. My guess is that it was a test of faith that the disciples failed (again). They were too afraid to leave their upper room, so Jesus went to them a coaxed them out (with a little scolding). To me, this means two things: even after Jesus was raised from the dead, His followers still had doubts, and even no-nonsense Jesus still had patience and compassion on them. Does that give you as much comfort as it does me?
Aside: Women’s Testimony
This becomes white noise after a while, but we have to keep bringing it up. Jesus lived in a very male-centric society. There were serious doubts about the emotional stability and intellectual reliability of women (insert joke here, run away quickly). Most Roman jurists, those who became the foundation for the entire system of Western law, made it clear that women could not testify in court. They believed that women could be deceived and emotionally manipulated. We even see this in the Gospels! In Luke, the disciples didn’t believe what the women told them! (24:11) And even then, in John, Mary Magdalene is distraught and not thinking about a resurrection at all—she asks the “gardener” where Jesus’ body had been moved. It takes Jesus looking her in the eye before she begins to realize what had happened. If someone were going to make up a story about a man rising from the dead, they would not have included these details in this way. And yet, here these details are. Why? Because that’s what happened! The women were the first to go to Jesus’ tomb. Now, this sets up an interesting side question. If they didn’t believe that Jesus was resurrected, why did they go? They knew they weren’t strong enough to roll the stone away, so what was their plan? I actually think that this is where the female stereotype helps us. Their devotion, even a non-intellectual devotion, led them to an impulsive action. They had not had an opportunity to anoint Jesus’ body, and that thought drove them. They would “cross the next bridge” when they came to it. I’ve done that more than once, and I think it gives better credibility to the Gospel account.
Part 3: The Cover-Up (Matthew 28:11-15)
As they were on their way, some of the guards came into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders and agreed on a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money and told them, “Say this, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole Him while we were sleeping.’ If this reaches the governor’s ears, we will deal with him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been spread among Jewish people to this day.
Again, remember Matthew’s primary audience: Jews. They would have cared quite a bit about this detail of the guards, and Matthew’s explanation is simple. I’m guessing that the guards didn’t say anything about Jesus being resurrected; they would only have known that the tomb was empty. The Jewish leaders had already feared this scenario (which is why the guards were there in the first place), so they were ready for it. The solution? Bribes and alternative facts. Have humans changed all that much in 2000 years? In writing to his Jewish audience, Matthew wanted to make it clear to them that their leaders were hypocrites. He very clearly contrasted their greed, corruption, anger, and injustice with God’s plan for His people (which was perfectly displayed in Jesus). Do you really want to be associated with people like that? Of course not! (And as some of you realized last week, that same truth hurts us today when our churches are filled with hypocrites.) I also doubt the sincerity of the Jews’ offer. “Take this money, tell this lie, and we will protect you from your superiors.” I’m guessing the guards ended up dead in short order.
People have been trying to “keep Jesus dead” ever since. Why? Because if He really did rise from the dead, then everything changes. We can ignore a lot, but we can’t ignore that. And that’s why the Gospels are so important. They give us eyewitness testimony that Jesus was alive after He had been dead. If you want to do some law stuff, bring in an article about a trial. What was the role of the eyewitnesses? What did the lawyers on both sides try to do with them and their testimonies? Even having been written long before “scientific journalism” standards, the Gospel writers worked very hard to establish credible witnesses and testimonies so that you and I could believe that Jesus really did rise from the dead! These are the facts as we believe them: (1) the same body that went into the tomb came out of the tomb; (2) that body was dead really became alive physically; (3) all of that happened in real human history. What does that mean to us today? If Jesus really is alive, then everything He promised is true. The power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in us today (Rom 8:11)! And just as good, because Jesus rose from the dead, so will we (1 Cor 15:20), and so will our loved ones who also have trusted in Him! We have a living hope in a risen Savior. Have your class think about any challenges they face that have them really discouraged. How does it help them to know that they will live forever with Jesus, the Risen King? And if they don’t know how it helps, take some time to pray together and let them know what hope really means.
Closing Thoughts: Comparing the Gospels
In Matthew, the women arrive at the tomb during a violent earthquake after which an angel rolls away the stone. In Mark, they arrive at sunrise and the stone is already rolled away. In Luke, they arrive at the open tomb at early dawn. In John, it was still dark.
In Matthew, an angel is sitting on the rock outside the tomb. In Mark, a youth is sitting inside the tomb. In Luke, two men are inside. In John, Mary sees two men inside the tomb after Peter and John have already come and gone.
In Matthew, it is Mary Magdalene and another Mary. In Mark, it is two Marys and Salome. In Luke, it is two Marys, Joanna, and other women. In John, it is Mary Magdalene.
In Matthew, the women rush to tell the disciples and run into Jesus on the way. In Mark, they are afraid and are not telling anyone. In Luke, the women rush to the disciples who do not believe them. In John, Mary rushes to the disciples who come with her to the empty tomb, and it is only after they leave that she sees Jesus (the “gardener”).
Those discrepancies might seem significant today, and the Gospel writers might take flak for this in modern journalism school. But notice that the core facts of the story are identical in each Gospel. What changes are the secondary details. And it is important to note that those details can be harmonized; we simply have to remember that each author had his own emphasis which led him to highlight certain details. Matthew did not write “the women saw exactly one and only one angel”; Luke did not write “the moment the women arrived the sun was exactly one finger over the hill”.
In the other Easter lessons I've commented on, I've put more detail about this harmony. If you want to learn more, check out the other posts noted below!