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Jesus, Resurrection, and Authority -- an Easter study of Matthew 28

The resurrection changes everything.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 28

We all know the story, but do we know what it means? To Matthew, Jesus' resurrection was proof of His authority, and Matthew quickly emphasized how Jesus used His authority to give the disciples the Great Commission. Even today, the resurrection is the greatest encouragement and the greatest motivator we could have.

6 He is not here. For he has risen, just as he said.


He is risen!

A Snarky "We've Seen This Before"

Keeping all of these Bible study ideas online has been great. But when we're studying a passage we've studied before, the temptation is there to say "just look at what we did last time". I know that's the same feeling some of you have at Christmas and Easter -- "we studied this last year". What can we do to keep these passages fresh for the people in our Bible study groups?

Well, first, let me offer a simple reminder: the resurrection of Jesus Christ is pretty much the most important, encouraging, and uplifting thing we could ever study, so don't feel like you have to "make it interesting".

Let me summarize my last few Easter posts so you know where to go if you have specific questions:

  1. Is Jesus Dead? Easter 2017 Lesson from Matthew 28 ( -- highlights include a summary of "The Case for Easter", what the Jews believed about resurrection, and how ancient Romans rejected women's testimony

  2. Jesus Is Alive! Easter 2019 (Mark 15:42-16:8) ( -- highlights include famous tombs, the importance of the resurrection, and a focus on Joseph of Arimathea and angels

  3. Raised - Easter 2020, Luke 24:1-12 ( -- a fun section on optical illusions, and a comparison of the Gospel accounts

  4. Resurrected - Easter 2021 from Luke 24:1-12 ( -- a "big news" idea, more harmony of the Gospels, Jewish burial practices, and truths that completely change your perspective on things

This week, we're also covering the Great Commission from Matthew 28, a passage we have studied previously:

  1. Jesus' Commission to Us - a study of Matthew 28:16-20 ( -- highlights include the status of world missions in 2017, access to IMB research on missions, and a big focus on how Baptists have traditionally highlighted the Great Commission

Tips for Studying/Discussing a "Familiar" Passage

  1. Focus on the basics, not the esoterics. My tendency when going through a passage that I think everybody "should know" is to find minor or unfamiliar things and drill down on them. That's rarely a good technique. If anything, we should make sure that people in our groups haven't missed the forest for the trees.

  2. Liven it up with recent personal experiences. A lot has happened in your life since the last time you taught this passage. Let those experiences shape your illustrations and applications, and you can be certain that this will be a unique and timely Bible study.

  3. Lean into biblical or historical theology. If you are convinced that the people in your group have a decent grasp on the biblical data in the passage, then help them connect this data with (1) the larger context of that book of the Bible (in this case a Gospel), or (2) how it fits into the broader theology your church holds.

  4. Never make biblical truth seem humdrum. A terrible thing we can do with a familiar passage is give off the impression that it is boring or mundane. Yikes! We're talking about God's Word of truth for us! Read and study the passage until you have been reminded of its value, then you're ready to share.

  5. Get creative with illustrations. If you don't have to spend as much time learning the biblical truths, take that time to research ideas for illustrating that truth. The internet can be a slog for this, but if you have time to dig, it can be rewarding.

  6. Acknowledge you don't have it all figured out. When someone suggests to me "we've studied this before", I usually respond with "you're following Jesus pretty closely, then?" Every time we study the Bible, we learn something new, and we discover yet another way we can live for Jesus.


Getting Started: Things to Think About

The World Has Lost Its Mind

I saw a recent article (Why People Are Acting So Weird - The Atlantic) (and goodness, note that The Atlantic can be provocative) suggesting that Americans have quantitatively come out of the pandemic worse than when we entered. Much of what the article says can be easily corroborated -- viral videos of people behaving badly in airports, on airplanes, in school board meetings, in hospitals, and everywhere else; violent crime is up, as are property crimes. The author interviewed various "experts" who identified these problems:

  • people behave in rude or uncivil ways because they feel "stressed or overwhelmed"

  • "not only are people encountering more provocations—staffing shortages, mask mandates—but also their mood is worse when provoked"

  • "people have been coping with the pandemic by drinking more and doing more drugs"

  • when people become isolated, "we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public"

  • reduced police forces: “when enforcement goes down, people tend to relax their commitment to the rules”

Summary: “There have been periods where the entire nation is challenged, and you see both things: people who do heroic things, and people who do some very defensive, protective, and oftentimes ridiculous things.”

We've made similar observations over the months, and I think it's good when secular thinkers acknowledge that "There Is a Problem". When you see a Problem, you're more likely to search for a Solution.

Anyway, do you see behavior getting worse? In what way? Indeed, talking with you about your workplaces, many of you have noted that people seem to be "weirder" than usual (that's a kinder term than you actually used).

And here's where I think you should go with this topic:

  • What do the people around us think is the problem? What do they blame?

  • What's really the problem? What's the only true solution?

As we know, the secular world's solution to every problem is to focus on the symptoms. Better gun control. Better police forces. Better medicine. Whatever. Those things are fine to pursue, but they will never solve the Problem.

Our situation isn't all that dissimilar from what Jesus' disciples were experiencing in first-century Jerusalem. They dealt with a Roman occupation. Their religious persecutors had the power of police enforcement. They had someone in their inner circle betray them. They had just been revealed as cowards and skeptics. Those are real problems.

But within a few weeks, those same people started changing the world. And over the next few generations, they did change the world.

What changed? Jesus Christ rose from the dead. That resurrection changed everything. But as we will see, that change wasn't instantaneous -- it took time for the people to realize how their lives were forever changed.


This Week's Big Idea: What Easter Promises

Last week, when we studied 1 Thessalonians 4, we were supposed to be encouraged by Paul's words. So, quiz time:

  • What did Paul say that was supposed to be encouraging?

16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are still alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.

You remember that I said the two primary encouragements from Paul's perspective were (1) that we will always be with Jesus, and (2) that we will also be together with our Christian loved ones. That's encouraging. And all of that is based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Next: bonus quiz time! (We've covered this recently.)

  • How does the resurrection of Jesus Christ tie in with this promise of being with Jesus and being with our Christian loved ones?

These are answers that every Christian should know and be able to explain. (And just to be safe, here's a quick summary of those answers):

  • the resurrection is the proof that Jesus is the Son of God and only Savior of the world (John 2:19)

  • belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is a non-negotiable part of the gospel message (Rom 10:9)

  • Jesus' resurrection shows us what God will do for all believers after our death (Paul called Jesus' resurrection the "firstfruits" -- 1 Cor 15:20), in particular that we will have a flesh-and-bones body (Luke 24:39) like Jesus' (1 Cor 15:48) that will never decay (Acts 2:31).

Because Christ rose, we will also rise. And our eternal body will not be like our current body because it will last forever.

In our study of The Apostles' Creed, Matt Chandler said that "the resurrection of the body and life everlasting is the foundation for ultimate hope". So, somewhere in this week's Bible study, have your group talk about this:

  • how does know that you're going to live forever in a perfect world and body with Jesus and your Christian brethren affect the way you see your life today?

How does it not, right?

And that's the crux of this great video that the Bible Project just released on eternal life. It's short and well worth watching! (Also, it may answer a few of the questions that came up in your discussion last week.)

Realize that the ternal life the Bible talks about has already started for us:

  • For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have [present tense] eternal life (John 3:16)

  • I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance. (John 10:10)

So, when we come out this week's discussion, I hope and pray that all of us have truly experienced the encouragement that Paul wanted for us in last week's passage.


Where We Are in Matthew

Because we haven't been studying Matthew recently, you may have to do a quick refresher. All of the Gospels include the major events of Jesus' life and ministry, with a major emphasis on the events of the final week of Jesus' earthly ministry (pre-resurrection). But Matthew in particular focuses on

  1. Demonstrating that Jesus is the promised Messiah, and

  2. Describing the identity of the people of Jesus' kingdom.

(See my introduction to Matthew if you want more.)

That's why Matthew's account of the resurrection drives resolutely to the Great Commission. Jesus' resurrection demonstrates His authority and provides us with urgency. And as far as Matthew is concerned, Jesus' teaching were intended to turn His followers into a worldwide force for the gospel that could overcome any fear, doubt, or obstacle.

So let's go!


Part 1: Resurrected (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. 2 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. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing was as white as snow. 4 The guards were so shaken by fear of him that they became like dead men.

The things I covered in previous lessons, I'm just going to fly by them here. You already have access to way more information than you could ever use in one short Bible study.

Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience with special emphasis on how Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, so it would be important to him to note that Jesus' followers had properly observed the Sabbath.

Also, the fact that Matthew was writing to a male-centric Jewish culture makes it all the more striking that he highlighted the role of the women, including one who had been demon-possessed! (I talked more about Mary Magdalene when I pointed out that she was not a prostitute or mentioned in Luke 7.) (You'll notice that Paul skips the appearance of the risen Jesus to the women for His appearance to Peter -- 1 Cor 15:5. It could be that Paul wasn't ready to fight the cultural battle the Gospel writers were, or because the Gospels hadn't been published when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, Paul might not have known the whole story.)

Mark 16 mentions that the women were going to the tomb to do some embalming, something they had not had time to do after Jesus' body was put in Joseph's tomb.

And no, nowhere are we told what their plan was for the tomb. Don't judge -- we've all started something without a clear plan on how to complete it. My personal guess is that they would have asked the guards to move the stone for them. Fat lot of good that would have done!

I get the sense that the angel of the Lord caused the earthquake by rolling away the stone (and yes, don't gloss over what this means, that angels have physical power in the world). This earthquake did not have to be widespread.

[Brief aside on the physics of color. For reasons I've never understood, some folks get hung up on the description of the angels as lightning/bright white. This is just basic physics. "Color" doesn't really exist; "color" is just how our eyes are designed to perceive wavelength. Isaac Newton realized that a prism can break "white" sunlight into the good ol' ROYGBIV rainbow.

This led to the realization that colors can be combined or absorbed, which is why designers are plagued with acronyms like RGB and CMYK. Long story short is this -- when you combine colors proportionately, you get light that looks white. Further, if you push the intensity of most combinations of light, you get light that looks white. Really, what we should read in this description is that looking at the angel was like looking at the unfiltered sun (except muted enough that it wouldn't completely blind the women), which is similar to looking at unfiltered lightning.]

Oh, and the effective scientific observations continue! "Shaking" and "like dead men" are perfectly reasonable observations for what likely happened. The guards were so overwhelmed by the angel that they "locked up". Maybe they fainted from the shock. Or maybe they were "incapacitated" (a taser can have this effect).

The leader guide suggests that these were Roman soldiers. I don't think they were. In the verses our lesson skips, we read that the soldiers reported to the chief priests; Roman soldiers wouldn't have done that. Further, these guys seemingly abandon their posts after they wake up. Roman soldiers definitely wouldn't have done that! Rather, this was likely the police force that arrested Jesus in Gethsemane. The Jews would have had to get permission from Pilate for any abnormal police positioning.

Anyway, the point is that nothing could stop Jesus from being reunited with the Father -- not dead, not the grave, and certainly not a stone and some soldiers.


Part 2: Announced (Matthew 28:5-7)

5 The angel told the women, “Don’t be afraid, because I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here. For he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has risen from the dead and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; you will see him there.’ Listen, I have told you.”

"Don't be afraid" seems appropriate, considering what happened to the "big strong men on guard". "He is not here" might be the most important phrase spoken in human history. This is where you would spend time talking about the importance of the fact of Jesus' resurrection.

And catch the "just as He said" -- send group members to the times Matthew recorded Jesus predicted His death and resurrection

  • Matthew 12:40, 16:21, 17:23, 20:19, 26:32

That's a lot! If you're looking for a unique exercise in this week's discussion, have your group read those passages and then put together a description of what would happen to Jesus based solely on what was written. Don't inject your 20/20 hindsight! How accurate/complete a picture did the disciples have?

(Spoiler: it was a pretty complete picture.)

And then Matthew immediately points to Galilee. He's the only Gospel writer who does this (or mentions the appearance in Galilee). And he really emphasizes it. In fact, Matthew skips over all of the dramatic Upper Room encounters because he's so intent on getting to Galilee.

Why? Well, remember the two emphases of Matthew's Gospel I mentioned above: the nature and character of Jesus' followers, and the worldwide extent of Jesus' kingdom.

Galilee was a despised place, considered the backwaters by the cultural elite in Jerusalem. The fact that Jesus used Galilee as His headquarters demonstrates that people of every walk of life are welcome in His kingdom. But even more important is what was about to happen in Galilee -- the Great Commission.

The tense of the verbs used suggests that the disciples were heading back to Galilee. To them, this would have been a despondent retreat in failure. But no! They would go to Galilee because Jesus was waiting for them there -- what a turnaround!

Once you get to this part of the passage, I think you should also "make a beeline" for the final point and the Great Commission. The next section is theologically important, but I think the details can be explained briefly.


Part 3: Encountered (Matthew 28:8-10)

8 So, departing quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, they ran to tell his disciples the news. 9 Just then Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” They came up, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus told them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to leave for Galilee, and they will see me there.”

Okay, it's probably worth it for me to summarize the "harmony of the Gospels" from earlier lessons:





Women at the tomb





Peter and John



Mary Magdalene



The women


The guards


This is my "narrative harmony":

Well before dawn on Sunday, a group of women (including but not limited to everyone named) purchased additional spices they would need to anoint Jesus' body. By the time they had carried the heavy spices to the tomb (which they knew exactly where it was because they had followed Joseph of Arimathea to it), the sun was beginning to appear. At the tomb, they found that the stone had been rolled away and the guards were lying comatose all around (they would eventually revive and run away). They saw an angel on the stone inviting them to look inside and report to good news to the other disciples. I believe that Mary Magdalene rushed off on her own to tell the disciples what she had seen and heard. The other women, somewhat in a daze, heard the same message repeated to them by an angel inside the tomb. They were very confused and afraid, and it took Jesus appearing to them to put them on the task of reporting to the disciples (I believe that Matthew downplayed their fear). In the meantime, Mary Magdalene arrived to tell the disciples. Peter and John outran Mary to the tomb where they found it empty and returned to the others. Mary, because she lingered, saw the angels and then Jesus, eventually reporting this to the others. It's possible that she arrived with her news at about the same time the rest of the women arrived with news of their encounter with Jesus.

Do note that the women took hold of Jesus' feet -- He was physically present (not a ghost). And also that they worshiped Him; there is no dancing around the fact that Jesus is demonstrably God Incarnate.

And then Jesus repeats the order from the angels -- "tell My brothers I will see them in Galilee".

Let's camp out here for a bit. The leader guide hints that "brothers" is a new term of endearment. I don't see it that way. Jesus has always spoken of His followers as "brothers (and sisters)" (remember that the term is generic in the plural), as Matthew's Gospel has been clear about:

  • 12:48-50 -- 48 He replied to the one who was speaking to him, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” 49 Stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

  • 18:15 -- If your brother sins against you, go tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won your brother.

  • 23:8 -- But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ because you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters.

  • 25:40 -- And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Because a few verses later Matthew specifically mentions "the eleven disciples", you might get the impression that Jesus' message to "My brothers" was for "The Eleven", but that's almost certainly not the case. All of His followers were His brothers and sisters, and I believe He was inviting all of them to Galilee.

Here's the important theological conclusion: the Great Commission wasn't a private task given to the Apostles; it was given to all Christians.

[Aside: if this is the case, and many of the Christ-followers in Jerusalem went to Galilee, that could make the Great Commission the "appearance to five hundred" that Paul mentioned in 1 Cor 15:6.]


Part 4: Commissioned (Matthew 28:16-20)

16 The eleven disciples traveled to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped, but some doubted. 18 Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. 19 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, 20 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This passage has been the driving goal of Matthew's Gospel. Everything he has said has led to this. Mathew's focus here is on the Eleven, but I am quite certain that a large group of Jesus' followers came with them from Jerusalem.

This mountain is not identified. Of course, that hasn't stopped people from saying they know which mountain it is! There are no shortage of options, from the stunning Mt. Tabor to Mt. Hazon to Mt. Eremos on the sea (which is also where the Sermon on the Mount is said to have been given). (Note that John's reported episode on the sea makes a lot of people think this event also happened on the sea.) A mountain is a good symbol of Jesus' authority -- firm and unmoving -- and hearkens to the idea of "climbing to meet with God".

"Some doubted" is a confusing phrase. What did they doubt? Note that this would have taken place after the "Doubting Thomas" incident of John 21!

The word for "doubt" (edistasan) more properly means "hesitate" (which isn't any less confusing, if you think about it). I think we're best to see this as lingering confusion hinted at earlier by the angel -- "just as He said". Jesus' followers should have known better. If they didn't believe Jesus even as they watched Him perform miracles, then they would still have had to take slow steps to faith when they saw Him with their own eyes. Here's how D. A. Carson explained this -- "Jesus' resurrection did not instantly transform men of little faith and faltering understanding into spiritual giants" (emphasis added). Jesus' resurrection was "the pebble that started the avalanche", but it took time. The disciples had to grapple with the knowledge that everything Jesus said was true, and they had failed to believe Him.

And then Matthew jumps straight into what we now call "The Great Commission". I covered this in more detail in the post linked above. The key word is "all":

  • all authority, all nations, all things (everything), all time (always)

Note that Jesus already had this authority, but in His resurrection, God the Father made it clear to the world that Jesus had His authority ("gave Him the name that is above every name" Phil 2:9). And with His authority, Jesus commanded His disciples to make disciples (not "go"! -- "make disciples" is the imperative, and "go" "baptizing" and "teaching" are participles describing how to obey the imperative).

All of this ties directly to the resurrection. The resurrection is the proof of Christ's authority. It's also the engine giving this command urgency. If Jesus is risen from the dead -- meaning that everything He said is true -- and He said that the only way to salvation is through Him, then that means there is only one way to salvation.

Salvation is a one-time event for a person. Once you are saved, you are saved. But being a disciple of Jesus is a life-time event. Baptism is a part of that process. Learning what Jesus taught is a part of that process.

Note that baptism is a part of being a disciple. This necessarily means that "baptism of infants" is not the baptism commanded by Christ because one can only be a disciple if one willingly chooses it. This also means that baptism is not optional for a disciple. No, baptism is not necessary for salvation, but it is necessary for being a disciple. If there are people in your group who have not been baptized as a believer in Jesus Christ, do what you can to encourage them to take that step. To Jesus, it is very important.

I find the Trinitarian formula to be very important -- from an early date, the Christian church was identified by its belief in the Three-in-One God. However, I will acknowledge that calling it a "formula" is dangerous, as if there is a certain ritual that makes for a "true" baptism. That's not true, any more than there is a "magical formula" for the Lord's Supper or a wedding or an ordination. What matters the most in any Christian observance is the heart, and the heart cares about the observation. The people who observe your baptism -- will they be brought closer to the truth of God by what you do and say?

Finally, I care a lot about the "all things" command. We all have favorite parts of the Gospels, but we're supposed to teach all of it. And because Jesus did a lot of pointing back to and explaining the Old Testament, and because the rest of the New Testament does a lot of pointing back to and explaining the Gospels, that makes the whole Bible what we are to teach.

You're not going to cover all of this in one sitting. Take the things that you consider "key" and make sure to bring them out as you go through this passage.

I recommend ending in the same place as last week -- where Paul said "Therefore encourage one another with these words". What is so encouraging about Jesus' resurrection? And how can you use that to encourage one another this week?


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